The strangeness of the three men dressed in billowing black robes and striding briskly along could be rivaled only by three figures who had traversed the same road almost fourteen years before. That autumn night, darker than any other, had been rather somber and hushed. This summer afternoon, however – with the sunlight unable to part the clouds and settling on the quiet neighborhood in an odd ochre white – was not as subdued.
"We should not be here," said one of the men gruffly. He involuntarily quickened his step, reluctantly following the other two men walking ahead of him. He scowled and impatiently shoved his shoulder-length dark hair out of his eyes.
All three men wore angry faces and were arguing heatedly in low voices as they hurried down the street, oblivious to the very Mugglish world around them.
"The boy is here," replied another, just as coldly. He glared at the sign they passed reading Privet Drive. "We were told . . . to collect him."
"He didn't tell us to come."
"If you're so worried about your sorry ass, you are more than welcome to leave."
"You were not so quick to believe my young accomplice a few days ago."
"And you do not seem so apt to believe him now," snapped the second man, scowling as well from beneath his own dark hair, "as you did a few days ago."
"Won't he be surprised," came the bitter but relenting sneer.
"Wands out," said the third man quietly, drawing his own from his robes. He ran a hand through his light hair, ruffling it slightly, and glanced meaningfully at the other two men glaring daggers at each other.
The second man growled and they nearly walked by the house.
All three of them stared darkly up at the moderately sized two-story house shaped oddly like a box. Their eyes trickled disdainfully across the tidy front yard, complete with a prudishly trimmed lawn, pink and yellow flowers nestled in neat window boxes, and carefully carved bushes beneath them. A few garden gnomes with pointed red and blue hats were even fastidiously, and rather strategically, placed here and there upon the grass.
The words "earth," "hell," and "on" – not particularly in that order – formed in their minds at the same time and the three touched the tips of the wands ceremoniously to their throats. They smiled grimly as they hid their wands from sight again, knowing they merely needed to be able to get to them quickly; it was well known no one in this house had enough magical blood running through their veins to hurt one of them, much less all three, but as for brute strength . . .
Even though they one of the most ominous groups to ever step onto Privet Drive, they marched calmly up the path to the doorstep of number Four. Muffled yells and loud clamoring could be heard resonating from within the house. The second dark-haired man and the lighter-haired one took their predetermined places, standing on either side of the doorframe. The first man stood just outside the space between them, folding his arms and cape across his chest, creating and finishing a defensive alcove around the entryway.
The third man raised a slightly scarred hand and the sleeve of his cloak slipped to his elbow, revealing more self-inflicted wounds. His companions didn't seem to notice them, or – more likely – did not care. He knocked on the door three times.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The house went deadly silent and then there was nothing. Then –
An extremely ruffled woman with wavy, graying blond hair threw the door open. Her red face – obviously so from screaming – accentuated her too-soon wrinkles and became instantly pale as her blue-green orbs frightfully took in their set expressions and menacing eyes. The tawny man heard her heart skip a beat and he smiled.
"Petunia Evans," the third man snarled, glowering at her spitefully. "How nice pleasant to see you again."
"Dursley," the woman automatically answered, swallowing nervously.
"You would still be an Evans had you not let that scoundrel of a man," spat the second man in a very low, very knowing, very arctic voice, "take you and force you to have his son. You could have easily rid yourself of him and the bastard child. Quite painlessly, in fact, but your will was never very strong . . . was it?"
Petunia Dursley's widening eyes were a whirlpool of recognition, anger, and confusion. She glanced at his forbidding black cloaks then looked back to his face, trying to see him, and narrowed her eyes. "Do I know you?" she hissed suspiciously.
"Petunia, who the hell are you – " The violet-flushed, overtly large man who had just pushed his wife mostly out of the way stopped dead. His mouth dropped open as the man who had spoken to Petunia pulled out his wand and pointed it at Vernon Dursley's heart. Petunia whimpered as she stared at the three dark wizards, each with their wands drawn now.
"We are here for the boy who no longer lives. We are here . . . for Harry Potter."
Being a teenager and a wizard in the Dursley household, young Harry Potter was quickly beginning to realize, was not an easy task. He was deprived of his schoolwork, dipping headlong into puberty, and failing miserably to recover from the events of the last week of school. The Dursleys, in addition, seemed especially vindictive this summer, dappling in abuse he had not been a victim of since he was ten years old.
Uncle Vernon had at first simply dug his nails – talons, really – deep into Harry's shoulders and boxed him once 'round the ears in the car as they left King's Cross that past July first. The punishment had been for spending too much quality time with "those red-headed louts."
Of course, Uncle Vernon was talking about his best friend Ron Weasley's family. Harry had spent at least twenty minutes saying good-bye to them and his other best friend, Hermione Granger, whilst a teary Mrs. Weasley hugged him and a somber Mr. Weasley kept a wary eye on his uncle – standing, obviously very angry, at the entrance to the station – the entire time.
"Be careful, Harry," Mr. Weasley had told him in a quiet voice, tightening his grip on Harry's shoulder in a very protective manner as he shared a glare with Mr. Dursley. "You write me if you need anything."
Harry figured the disciplinary action inflicted on him was payback – revenge for the summer before, when Dudley's tongue had grown at least four feet due to Fred and George Weasley's Ton Tongue Toffees (thus, somewhat deserved). The whole situation had been a fiasco and while hilariously funny to reflect upon, Harry had been secretly very glad he had not been there for the aftermath.
Next to the clawing of his shoulders and arms, and sort of hard smacking, that ensued into the night, Uncle Vernon had told Harry in so many words he was to dispose of Hedwig or he would do it for him. Hedwig was now resting comfortably with the Grangers' – his letter to Hermione simply stating, Dudley's bugging Hedwig, please house her for a while.
Hedwig's food and cage were with Hermione, too. The Dursleys had happily shipped her things to a Muggle address, mainly because it was Muggle and Harry could no longer support her himself. Every trace of Hedwig had been swept away from the house – the familiar feathers, pellets, and rat-tails were all missing from his bedroom floor. Even the impromptu perch he'd fashioned out of sticks from the nearby woods the year before was gone, giving him a very alien feeling every time he looked sadly around his prison cell.
It was probably, thought Harry rather morosely, standing in the Granger kitchen (which, he had been informed, was "nice and airy, and an area Crookshanks never enters because my mother nearly chopped off his tail, thinking it was a rather large and bushy carrot").
Hedwig, ever the bird for comfort and luxury, as she was surely getting in the Granger house, had not come back in well over a fortnight. And she would almost certainly not return until his birthday, that coming Sunday.
Harry forced himself to think it was all for the better, because then nothing would happen to her. But not having communication with his friends – save for their letters, which were few and far between; Ron was helping his dad at the Ministry of Magic, his godfather Sirius was in hiding, Hagrid was away, and Hermione was always busy with work – was more than a little uncomfortable.
Having rid him of this means of escape, more or less cutting him completely off from the wizarding word, the Dursleys were quite content to treat Harry however they pleased – especially Mr. Dursley.
"Well, Mr. Potter," Uncle Vernon had sneered the third night of holidays while they were alone in the living room, sounding eerily like the Potions Master of Hogwarts, a grimy professor by the name Severus Snape. His fat pudgy face had been cast with dark shadows from the firelight and his mustache had looked particularly sinister. "It seems I have you all summer to bend to my will."
Harry always shivered at the memory of that night. That seemingly small threat had many hidden, yet not so concealed (as one might initially think), meanings.
Between the ages of five and ten, Harry's physical contact with his family had been far from distant. Aunt Petunia often pinched him into submission, forcing him to do more housework so she or Dursley wouldn't have to – or slapped him clear across the face or smacked the back of his head to get him to move. Dudley, of course, hit and kicked his favourite cousin as much as possible, and no matter how many times Harry was able to get away, their confrontations were two fold that.
This sort of treatment was easily tolerated, thought, compared to Uncle Vernon's punishments and thrashings. Only verbal punishments – "Stupid boy! Just likely your bloody bastard father!" and a few hard smacks (most of which brought him tumbling to the ground with a surprised "oof!" or cry) – were done in public, though, and weren't so bad. Harry expected it, usually thought he deserved it. Just as he thought – knew – he deserved his little, dusty, spider-infected cupboard under the stairs.
In private, while Aunt Petunia went socializing or shopping, dragging Dudley around like some miniature idol needing to be worshipped, the punishments dealt out to Harry were very different.
At any given moment, whether he was quietly reading a book at the dining room table, staring blankly at a terrible television program, or scrubbing the kitchen floor, Harry could be picked up by the scruff of the neck and thrown halfway across the room. Every moment he was alone in the house with Uncle Vernon, he was fearful of when it would happen.
Oh, it didn't happen very often, of course; Uncle Vernon made it perfectly clear he preferred the filthiest privy in York to his disgusting nephew. But when it did, Harry's hatred of his uncle flared before his eyes like boiling magma and all he could concentrate on was forgetting what was happening to his body – his uncle usually avoided his face – and numbing himself of the pain.
Harry could now account his never truly registering the cuts and bruises and mental scars until they were mere blemishes and yellow-coloured spots to his wizarding powers, which he had come to learn had saved him – sort of – on numerous other occasions, all before he started at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He only knew at the time that he could push it, all of it, away and reflected upon it later as a blurry nightmare that didn't mean anything, or, at least, much.
Something Harry could not suppress, though, was Uncle Vernon watching him in the shower from about eight years old and on. He'd been stepping out of the shower one morning and had pulled a towel from the rack when he looked up. His uncle was sitting in the vanity chair and looking directly at him. Harry had jumped back behind the shower door with a yelp, more surprised than alarmed, and Vernon had simply left after slowly returning the chair to its rightful location. By the time this had happened a few more times over the course of that month, Harry didn't bathe for a week.
Unknowing of his embarrassment, and half-wild thoughts Uncle Vernon was in there because he needed to use the shower (he often did after Harry escaped the confines of the bathroom), Aunt Petunia had threatened seriously to crack his head open with the frying pan if he didn't wash his hair. After that – with a fleeting glance at the frying pan she was brandishing, sizzling with bacon and spitting with grease – Harry had bathed whenever his uncle wasn't in the house or kept a towel with him when he was, and always showered quickly.
It hadn't been until a night earlier in his fourth year, the year just finished, that he had realized what this actually meant. Moaning Myrtle, a sorrowful little ghost who sobbed almost daily in one of the girl's bathrooms at Hogwarts, had admitted something to Harry earlier that year in the prefects' bathroom. He'd been in the pool-like tub, pondering over the Triwizard Tournament's second task when she suddenly appeared. She said she'd been watching him for a while, in secret, and had watched others, including Cedric Diggory – obviously for some sick, personal enjoyment.
He'd nearly vomited later that night when he came to the sudden conclusion – Harry realized he had never let himself believe it – Uncle Vernon had been doing the same thing. He shuddered, sickened, at the comprehension and at the current situation.
Aunt Petunia had taken a job as a secretary two to three days a week at Allen Overy to get out of the house the minute summer holidays started. Harry sympathized with her to some degree – Dudley's Smeltings career and general life had not taught him the proper ways to treat women and was often found kicking her or yelling obscenities at her. Vernon wasn't much different, if not ten times as worse, but also hid what he did behind a bedroom door.
Dudley, on the days she was absent from the house, went to his friends' houses to vegetate in front of the television with reckless abandon, leaving Harry alone. Sort of. In theory. Upon agreeing "reluctantly" to his wife's new job, Vernon had announced he would now be staying home to do work that didn't need to be done at the office – and to keep an eye on him.
He mainly did leave Harry alone, but had the strange knack of appearing at odd times in the kitchen or living room, proudly sharpening his tick yellow nails into wicked points. He would smirk, leering under his black mustache, and Harry would swallow hard, knowing those vulture – because his uncle did rather resemble that damned buzzard – talons specifically for him.
And so they were.
Harry checked every morning afterwards and found imprints of his punishments in his shoulders, arms, sides, chest, and legs. Even his neck and collarbone were impressed with remnants of a battle he never won – and Uncle Vernon had taken to scratching (and some rather repulsive biting) now, as well. It was very obvious to Harry what his uncle was eventually after.
He stared at himself in the mirror each and every morning and wondered why he didn't fight back. He knew he only needed to post a letter to Hermione and he would be out in two days, no questions asked. He was pretty sure his uncle knew this, too, and would not let him near the mailbox, but he could do it. He could probably even break his wand out of the family safe if he wanted, or maybe try something without his wand.
He just didn't.
"Do you like that?" Vernon always asked, hissing in his ear and digging his nails deep into the crook of Harry's elbow, forcing an old wound to bleed forth. His nephew never answered, feeling his uncle scratch his forearm with the other hand as Harry stood beside his study desk, unable to move. "You foolish, dimwitted, foul, stick-waving little brat." His nephew simply let himself bleed, silently agreeing with his uncle.
Harry felt drained – of magic and of life.
Had been by the time he had fallen on his bed the first night back to hell.
He desperately wished, but never willed (for what will was contained in him?), for the treatment he had so loathed between the ages of ten and eleven. The Dursleys had disconnected him from their eyes, rarely looking at him and never touching him. He equated the almost total disregard and indifference to his being between his first decade and eleventh birthday with his family knowing that birthday was a particularly dangerous one. His magic was soon to come to his knowledge, whether the Dursleys liked it or not, and they desperately feared him for it.
Mr. Dursley especially.
But Harry knew his uncle Vernon didn't regret a thing he had done to Harry in the past; it was quite obvious with the current goings-on. He recognized Harry abhorred magic and reveled in the knowledge, not once worrying he might be answering to his nephew's outlandish powers.
The last magic, in fact, Harry had performed had been hexing Draco Malfoy on the Hogwarts Express and had even sent the sod a rambling, incoherent apology on one of his more hysterical days, while Hedwig was still coming to see him. Vernon had surprised him just before getting in the shower and had nearly beaten Harry to a bloody pulp of nothingness. Why he had done this, Harry still didn't know, didn't care, but was far beyond penning a letter of any sort to anyone in his life who could read between the lines and stop the torture, as he had considered it once, very long ago, in its tracks.
Draco had never replied and Harry was slightly relieved. The lunacy and anger ripping through that letter was beyond stunning, and Malfoy probably thought he was insane – All the better, he thought – or being pressed by headmaster Albus Dumbledore to write. With any luck, the letter had been burned and forgotten.
Harry found early into holidays he had no energy to fight Vernon Dursley and damn him, he knew it all too well. His uncle was thus only too glad to see Harry not work on his resolve and just slip further into quiet despair and silent desperation. Vernon believed gleefully he was breaking Harry – though whether or not that was true (he wasn't sure), Harry let him believe it.
He merely let life go on and begrudgingly followed an oddly passive Aunt Petunia – Harry suspected she was being rocked into her own silent status – through supermarkets and other shops, never noticing the people staring at him.
These people took in the thin wine-coloured scar slashed across his forehead, his dark midnight hair so strangely contrasted with his vibrant but quickly fading emerald eyes, and the perpetual melancholy etched upon his face. Their faces were usually solemn, or held curiosity united with sadness for such a poor looking boy. He only absently tugged at his sleeves, far too long and dark for donning in the heat of such a sweltering summer, and dropped the ham – or whatever the hell it was Aunt Petunia was going to feed them that night – into the basket.
The punishments, usually hidden by these long-sleeves, were often dealt out because of his nightmares. Harry woke up screaming, sometimes crying, always in a cold sweat, several times a week – if not every day. The only times he slept dreamlessly were his afternoon naps he took when Vernon wasn't in the house, which was a thing quickly becoming increasingly infrequent. But those naps only made up a quarter of what he lost at night, reliving anything from his first smack to what he knew of his parents' death to the Cruciatus Curse, splitting and exploding his nerves in a way that was simply . . . unforgivable.
The morning before, Wednesday, back in the present time, had been broken by Harry sitting straight up in bed, screaming and sobbing at the same time. He cursed himself for being so weak. He knew they were all nightmares, told himself so even as they were happening, told himself to let go, let go of the lies.
But he could not.
And dreams, he knew, weren't supposed to hurt, but they did.
The nightmares – whatever they were – always started the same as they had in life, but they showed him options. Choices that he had blindly not seen at the time and although generally admittedly ridiculous – a hot air balloon would not have worked in that situation – seemed to have the best resolution. So, he would take them, take the right choice. In doing so, Harry knew with great satisfaction and happiness that his parents would be alive again, little Ginny Weasley would never be coerced by the young Lord Voldemort, Ron would never have had a slug problem, his godfather Sirius Black would never have gone to Azkaban, Vernon Dursley would never have been able to look his way, Cedric Diggory would never have. . . .
Therefore, they – the dreams, the nightmares, the very wrath of his existence – at first seemed perfect. Things are going exactly right, the way they should have gone had he not botched everything up. Had he read, had he listened, had he seen, had he understood . . . At these thoughts, which never fail to pop into his mind, the fan is brought out and turned on, and hell is unleashed.
He can't even think about it; just begins to thrash and moan in his sleep until his mind and body can't stand it any longer, and he's awake and he's doing whatever he was going in the dream. (Besides bleeding profusely, unless he's torn at his fresh wounds, or having his soul sucked from his very skin, of course.)
The bloodcurdling scream Harry let out that early midweek morning must have unsettled vermin and roused robins three leagues away. The phone immediately rang and as Harry lay gasping for breath, fighting back searing tears of pain, he could hear Uncle Vernon explaining his actions loudly to a concerned and irritated neighbour.
"Harry is a very sick and twisted boy. Been off his rocker since his parents died, even when he was a 'littlun. Dangerous, gets into all sorts of trouble. Goes to St. Brutus's, you know. . . . Yes, yes. Don't let your daughter or even that dog around the little sod . . . He does it all for attention. . . . Yes, it's very hard to find proper psychiatric care for him. Thank you for ringing us, Marcie, I'm sure you'll help the rest of lovely neighbours to understand our . . . situation."
Harry had groaned and flopped back on the bed. He'd actually been making friends with the little girl next door. The pretty little girl with gold ringlets and rosy cheeks, he reflected; the only innocence left in his life. He'd seen her poking a sky blue eye through a fissure in the fence, giggling, earlier that July and they had spent time together ever since. She brought him flowers sometimes when he stretched out on the bench in the garden, staring blankly into the trees. Never said a word to him and he never asked her to say anything, just enjoyed knowing she was there beyond the fence, peering curiously at him from time to time underneath a circlet of morning glories and poppies. Now she would probably run away from him in terror.
He hadn't gone to breakfast that morning and was able to prove easily to his aunt that he wasn't hungry. Retching the previous night's dinner and a certain amount of lunch for a quarter hour in the bathroom is often good testimony for that sort of thing. His bout with the 'loo even got him a few aspirins out of Petunia before she left for work.
In order to stay cool, Harry had peeled off his sweater, which he'd worn to bed and had been clinging to his skin, soaked with sweat. He laid out on his stomach, not even bothering to get back under the blankets, face buried in his scratchy pillow.
Harry was still half-asleep around thirty minutes past the work hour, straddling the line between harsh reality in which he was a coward and the insensitive dreamland in which he was a pawn of his own devices. He didn't realize Vernon Dursley was in the room until it was quite apparent – by the immense pressure and pain abruptly put on his legs – that his uncle was sitting on him.
Harry gave a muffled cry and tried to rise, but Uncle Vernon seized him by the shoulders – nails cutting, burying in unmercifully. Harry yelped once more and his uncle shoved him back on the bed, holding him in place.
"Trying to get the neighbours to rouse the Bobbies, insolent boy?" Uncle Vernon growled into Harry's ear. Harry was kicking himself for being so stupid as to not remember this was one of Vernon's days home. "Had to smooth over six different family's 'concerns for you.' As if anyone actually has a fucking concern about you." He chuckled coldly. "I'll teach you to stop embarrassing this family – and me."
"Uncle Vernon – " Harry began angrily, trying to rise again. He choked on his words as a sharp pain shot through his body.
Magic? Harry thought vaguely for a moment . . . but no. No magic here. Never any magic here.
Vernon Dursley's sharpened nails – ugly, yellow, thick, and incredibly brutal – wreaked their terror down across his shoulder blades, ravishing the flesh over his kidneys, and ending cruelly at the small of his back. Harry arched his spine involuntarily, gasping for breath. His uncle roughly pushed him back into place and brutalized his backside again, again – and again.
He tried desperately not to scream, especially not to cry out or whimper. Especially not whimper, if that was all he could possibly do. That's what his uncle wanted, Harry knew – to express his unlimited power over him and have his nephew show it to him in the most humiliating of ways. And Harry, feeling almost as if under the Cruciatus Curse, concentrated on tuning out the pain as if it was just a buzzing noise, unable to think of anything else.
Harry buried his face into his pillow again, squeezing his eyes shut and tightening his fists around the edges of the duvet. He felt the sting of blood leaking in and out of his wounds and faintly wondered, rather accurately, if it wasn't just his nails Vernon Dursley was using anymore.
Please stop, Harry begged silently to no one in particular, please stop.
Finally, what seemed like hours later, Uncle Vernon pulled himself up. He happily labeled Harry with very colourful terms while calmly wiping his hands on a coarse cloth, dried in the sun but still sodden with slick motor oil. As an afterthought, he dragged the rag across Harry's abused waist, letting oil and stiff cloth intermingle with his deep scratches and other handiwork.
Harry gasped so loudly it echoed on the walls of his little room and was told, very smugly, "Don't move, you insufferable little sod. I'll be back with more – all that you deserve and seem to want." His uncle's harsh laugh echoed in his ears for hours and he stared blankly at the wall before his eyes. Harry wondered dimly what was going to happen when he got back to Hogwarts in September and Draco Malfoy found out he could no longer even perform a simple levitation charm.