Vernon Dursley was the sort of man who could be intimidated, as Mad-Eye Moody had demonstrated when the Order of the Phoenix had cornered Harry's relatives at King's Cross.
On the other hand, Vernon Dursley was also the type of man who held grudges, and did not take kindly to being humiliated.
Harry had sensed all was not well in the first few weeks of summer holidays at the Dursleys', with the way Uncle Vernon kept muttering, "Think they can show up and threaten me, tell me what to do in my own house. Bloody freaks think they can push us around..."
All the same, Uncle Vernon had never been the nicest of characters, and so Harry dealt with his grumblings as he always had, with silence and quietly doing his chores. In any case, Harry had more important things on his mind, namely the fact that he was prophesized to either kill or be killed by Lord Voldemort, the most dangerous dark wizard in history, and the fact that his godfather, Sirius Black had died just a few weeks ago.
Of course, given the choice, Harry would rather have thought about Vernon's griping than either of the two more important things.
But if there was one thing that the past five years had taught him, it was that no matter how hard he wished, the horrible things in his life weren't going to just go away. Sooner or later he'd have to deal with it.
So he owled his friends almost every day, or talked to them on the telephone. Sometimes he didn't have much to say, but hearing him talk seemed to make them feel better, and hearing them made him feel a little better. Hermione always wanted him to talk about his feelings, which was hard, but he managed a little. Usually, he said something like, "Today was a little better," or "last night was kind of bad, but I'm okay," and that satisfied her.
Ron was a little easier to talk to. He'd gone to a football game with Ginny and her boyfriend, their dormitory-mate Dean Thomas, and called Harry delighted over what he'd seen at the Muggle event, and Harry then regaled him with all he knew about other Muggle sports. Ron was very excited about them, and had babbled like a lunatic of all the sports he wanted to see with Dean and the other Muggleborns—until he remembered that Harry had no such privilege and his tact caught up with him.
"Er...maybe after your birthday, eh, mate? I want to see rugby. You think we could make a rugby match before school?"
That had actually made Harry grin into the phone. Ron sounded so contrite. "Yeah, that would be great. I haven't seen a rugby game since I was eight."
The Dursleys had left him with the car, but he'd sat on top of it and watched over the fence, and one of the vendors had thought he was cute and gave him a free popcorn and a coke.
"I'll ask my dad, and get Ginny to talk to Dean. I'll bet we could find a game to go to," Ron had said. Harry had agreed readily enough and rang off.
Uncle Vernon had glared at him from his seat at the kitchen table, reading the evening newspaper, and grumbled under his breath again, with more venom than usual. Harry had glanced at him for a moment before shrugging it off and heading upstairs.
Aunt Petunia was a little more tense than usual as well, which Harry chalked up to her knowing that Voldemort was back and that Harry—and by association her family—was his primary target. She hardly ever left the house, and had sent Dudley off to some boxing camp at Brighton, for which Harry was immensely grateful, though he spared a thought for hoping Dudley would be safe from Death Eaters there. He'd asked Tonks about it on the telephone one evening, and she assured him it would be looked into, which was enough for him.
So Harry did his chores in the garden, worked on his homework, and awaited the arrival of his OWL results. He didn't dare hope what it meant when Professor McGonagall sent him advanced textbooks in a variety of subjects including Transfiguration and Potions, but started on the list of assignments she gave him at once. He also requested a book from the Order about Occlumency, if there was one. The very next day, three little books about Occlumency and Legilimency arrived via OWL, and he read them cover to cover over the space of a week. Each night, he tried to remember to clear his mind (focusing on what the books said, rather than the previous year's failed lessons) and hoped it would keep the nightmares away.
It helped. Most of the time.
That summer wasn't as dry as the previous one, with just enough combined rain and sunshine for everyone's gardens to start growing out of control. Harry wound up outside weeding and trimming and re-potting and spraying for insects and fungus almost every day.
Uncle Vernon also took it into his head to start coming home for lunch, with a bark at Harry to "hurry up and finish so you're not offending the neighbors with your filth!" each time he went up or down the front steps. Harry would look up as he passed, with a vacant expression as though he was listening, then snort under his breath as soon as the door closed.
The Dursleys are treating me fine, though Uncle Vernon seems to despise me even more than usual lately. Have you and the twins heard anything at the Order that I don't know about him? He just grumbles and yells a lot more than usual. It's weird, not that I care.
I showed Hermione your last note, and she had a hunch—big surprise there, right? She looked up that Boxing Camp your cousin's going to—well, it's not a boxing camp, and it's not at Brighton Beach! He's in some kind of reform school outside London for failing a lot of his classes at school and beating up some poor bloke in a fight! HA! Bet you anything THAT'S why your Uncle's upset.
Bloody hell, I had no idea! Am I a terrible person for laughing when I read your note? I can't say I'm really surprised. I just hope I'm out of here by the time he gets back. He'll probably as bad as Uncle Vernon.
Two weeks into July, Harry was hacking away at the jungle of weeds that kept trying to take over the front flower beds when Uncle Vernon arrived home for lunch. Harry nodded in response to his usual bark of warning and went on working.
It was hot outside that day, so he slipped inside for a glass of water, and overheard Aunt Petunia sobbing in the living room. He faltered, alarmed, until he heard her wailing, "He's such a GOOD boy, why do those prefects keep picking on him?"
"Bloody incompetents! I told the magistrate he'd no business sending our boy to some ruddy place for criminals—he's too gifted, I told him! I'll have his seat replaced next term, I said!" Vernon was ranting.
Ah. They must have had a letter from Dudley. Biting his lip to hide a grin, Harry slipped into the kitchen, then back out again without them ever knowing what he'd heard. The rest of the clipping and cutting and pulling wouldn't be so bad, with imaginings of what trouble Dudley must have got into at the reform school to entertain him.
At least that was the plan.
He heard the distant CRACK! of a wizard apparating and quickly glanced around, his hand stealing toward the wand hidden in his pocket. It happened a few times a day—at least now he knew why. To his relief, he spotted Mrs. Figg walking by, with one of her cats trailing behind, looking supremely unconcerned. She gave him what to the neighbors would seem a friendly, absent nod, but he saw her wink and dared a little wave in return.
Message received: the Order guards must be changing shifts. He returned to his work.
It was around three o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun was at its hottest, soaking him with sweat, when his hand slipped. The grip of the little knife he'd been using to hack apart some especially hard-to-reach weeds had gotten too slick, and he managed to gash the palm of his hand.
"AAH! BLOODY—" he punched the flower bed in outrage, then opened his fist with a grimace. Bloody was right. He swore furiously, spitting out every swear word he knew for several seconds until the initial shock of the injury passed.
With a sigh, Harry tossed knife onto the little rucksack with the other gardening tools and trudged to the house, trying to stem the blood on his hand with the least-filthy part of his T-shirt.
It was only when he stomped into the house, peeved with himself, the heat, and the garden for his stinging hand, covered in dirt from the flower beds and sweat from the heat, that he realized Uncle Vernon hadn't gone back to work.
"WHAT THE DEVIL DO YOU MEAN, RAISING THAT RACKET WITH THAT LANGUAGE?!" Uncle Vernon bellowed, storming in to cut him off as he headed for the stairs.
Startled, Harry rocked back on his heels. "Sorry," he exclaimed. "Cut myself!"
But he'd inadvertently brushed against the wall, and Aunt Petunia shrieked, "LOOK AT THE MESS YOU'RE MAKING!" seeing the blood on the white paint and the dirt tracked through the door.
"I'm sorry!" Harry protested in exasperation as he tried vainly to blot at his hand. "I'll have it cleaned up in a t—"
"I'M BLOODY SICK AND TIRED OF YOUR FREAKY WAYS!" Uncle Vernon shouted, going purple in the face. "FOISTING YOURSELF ON OUR LIVES, RUINING OUR SON'S LIFE, PUTTING OUR FAMILY IN DANGER, MESSING UP OUR HOUSE AND MAKING US THE TALK OF THE NEIGHBORS—"
"They'll be talking a lot more if you keep yelling!" Harry snapped, trying to slip past Vernon up the stairs to the bathroom.
Vernon got in his way. Or rather, part of Vernon did. Namely, his fist.
All Harry ever saw was a blur of motion before a blow to his face sent him flying backwards, off the bottom of the stairs into foyer closet door, knocking over the coat rack and umbrella stand with a terrific crash.
Gasping to get his wind back and seeing stars, Harry blinked against the throbbing pain in his left cheek and saw Vernon standing on the stairs, still purple-faced and furious, and heard Aunt Petunia's shrieks, and it dawned on him.
Vernon had hit him!
What was more, Vernon didn't look any less angry. As Harry scrambled to untangle himself from the coat rack and spilled umbrellas, he saw his uncle coming toward him.
A bolt of white light erupted in front of Harry's eyes, making him flinch as it sizzled through the air like an indoor lightning bolt. Aunt Petunia screamed, Vernon bellowed, and Harry heard a crash on the stairs as his uncle fell on them.
Then there was a louder crash as the door burst open in an explosive blast of energy. Harry managed to throw off the coat rack, drawing his wand, and swung around to face the intruder, only to find himself wand-to-wand with Professor Snape.
"Professor! What're you..."
It was difficult to either of them to make sense of what was happening over Aunt Petunia's continuing screams and Vernon's bellowing and thumping about on the stairs. Adding to the chaos, an owl swooped into the room and dropped a letter into Harry's hand.
Snape snatched it before Harry could open it, then looked hard at Harry's face, his black eyes betraying nothing. Then he looked past Harry at Vernon, who was trying to crab-walk backwards up the stairs at the sight of the black-clad wizard in the foyer. Aunt Petunia's screams were dying down to whimpers as she dropped to her knees, apparently trying to hide behind the sofa.
Harry's mind was moving too fast to make sense of it all. "What—my letter—" he fumbled for it.
Snape firmly held it away. "No doubt the Ministry has registered your surge of defensive magic and will be arriving shortly to investigate." Then, to Harry's greater shock, the greasy man caught his chin and tilted his face toward the light. A very strange look crossed the Potion Master's face. "He struck you."
"I...I..." Harry shook his head, which was still fuzzy from the blow and the bright light and the surge of magic, then it all caught up with him. His mouth fell open, and he looked over his shoulder at Vernon. "He hit me!"
"Oh, for the love of..." Snape muttered, and caught his shoulder to get his attention. "Potter, did he harm you any other..." he trailed off, staring at the floor, and Harry realized his hand was still dripping blood.
"Oh, that's just a—hey!" Snape grabbed him by the arm and hauled him bodily toward the door.
"Come! We're leaving immediately."
"Wait, what're you—"
"Damn it, Potter, don't argue with me! I'll send someone by for your belongings shortly," Snape snapped, pulling him into the front garden. Mrs. Figg was standing by the curb, took one look at the ever-darkening bruise just beneath Harry's left eye, and let out a shriek of outrage. "Five minutes, they told me," Snape muttered through his teeth. "Five bloody minutes..."
Harry was mortified to see several of the neighbors coming out of their houses as Mrs. Figg rushed up to him, examining his swelling cheekbone and exclaiming in horror. He tried to pull away, but to make matters worse, Aunt Petunia and Vernon were now scurrying out of the house, babbling apologies and excuses in a vain effort to repair the damage being done to their reputation.
But Mrs. Figg had seen enough to draw her own conclusions. "You INGRATES!" she shrieked, and abandoning her walking stick to the care of one of her cats, she began beating Vernon about the head and shoulders with her red handbag. It reminded Harry vaguely of Neville Longbottom's grandmother. "You DASTARDS! How DARE you strike that child, a boy in your care, how DARE YOU?! BEASTS! SWINE! Abusive monsters!"
Now half the street was coming out of their houses to witness the extraordinary events taking place at Number Four, Privet Drive, and in the face of that and a determined handbag assault by a furious old lady, Aunt Petunia and Vernon both turned tail and fled back into the house. Professor Snape kept a firm hand on Harry's arm the whole time, but aimed with his wand after they'd gone and muttered a charm at the door. "The Ministry will be wanting a word with them."
"Ministry..." Harry's blood ran cold. "I used underage magic..."
"For god's sake, Potter, calm down," Snape said irritably. "It was undeniably self-defense...oh, wonderful," he muttered as three Ministry wizards apparated into view. "This way, gentlemen," he sighed.
The lead wizard marched toward them, "What's all this, then?"
"Defensive magic, triggered when the boy's guardian assaulted him," Snape said tersely, hauling Harry toward them and gesturing at his cheek. "Completely legal. You may question the Muggles in the house while I take Mr. Potter to receive a Healer's attention."
"Blimey, yer hand, lad!" exclaimed one of them, seeing that Harry's palm was still oozing blood.
"But he didn't—" Harry began, but Snape pulled him away.
"Come along, Potter. And you gentlemen had best send for Obliviators for the rest of the Muggles on this street." And then, all Harry could do was look back over his shoulder as Snape and Mrs. Figg ushered him away to the Ministry wizards, now marching determinedly toward the Dursleys' house as others apparated into view and began walking up to the rest of the residents of Privet Drive.
"He didn't cut my hand, that was an accident," Harry said.
"An accident?" Snape asked doubtfully as they made their way to Wisteria Walk.
"In the garden," Harry tried to explain, which was difficult because he was still having trouble figuring out just HOW all this had happened. "I was—I cut myself, and—he just—he hit me..."
Snape growled under his breath. "Five minutes, they said." Harry opened his mouth, but Snape gestured sharply at him, "Save it—" then he stopped. Mrs. Figg gasped in dismay.
Harry stared at them both, then realized what had just happened. When Snape had waved toward his face, he had flinched. "I..." he searched for some way to convince them he wasn't jumping at shadows just because his ruddy uncle had finally gone off his rocker and punched him, but Snape's expression was alarming.
Silently, the Potions Master put a hand on his shoulder and steered him on down the street.
By the time they reached Mrs. Figg's house on Wisteria Walk, where Mrs. Figg bustled around getting a bandage for Harry's hand, and dabbing at his cheek with a piece of ice, it seemed the entire Order of the Phoenix had found out. Harry was in Mrs. Figg's kitchen, washing the dirt and blood off his hands at the sink while Mrs. Figg fussed over him, mumbling apologies for tracking dirt on her floor, which she dismissed as two of her cats sat on the countertop watching him solemnly.
In the sitting room, he could hear Snape talking to someone via Floo, and a few minutes later, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Remus Lupin, and Tonks came running in, all talking at once to each other, to Mrs. Figg, and to Harry.
"You told the Ministry it was self-defense?"
"Yes, there'll be no trouble—"
"Dear god, lad, you've got a shiner!"
"That bloody bastard, how could he..."
"Five minutes, you said, five bloody minutes!"
"I'll kill him. I'll kill him with my bare hands."
"Lupin, pull in your fangs, we need you here!"
"Someone needs to pick up Harry's things before those louts burn them all..."
"I'll take care of it, come on, Tonks!"
Harry blinked and attempted to mumble protests as various hands poked and prodded him, examining his bruised eye and his bandaged hand, then Tonks and Shacklebolt were stalking out the door with Mrs. Figg at their heels, still in her tartan carpet slippers and trailed by two cats. Harry found himself alone with Snape and Remus Lupin, who was still examining his face.
"To hell with orders, Severus, he goes back to them over my dead body," Lupin said quietly, looking into Harry's eyes. His normally pale face had gone dead white when he caught sight of Harry as he entered the room. "I can't believe Albus left him with people who would do this to him."
"It's not that bad," Harry muttered, embarrassed. "He's never done that before."
"This place isn't as well-warded as I would like, and by now word may have reached the Ministry," Snape said, crossing his arms. "The best action would be to remove Potter to Headquarters immediately."
"And yourself, Severus. What will you do if V—"
Snape made a sharp motion with his hand, and Harry looked at him in alarm, realizing what Lupin meant. What if Voldemort found out Snape had helped Harry?
"I'll deal with that if it arises," Snape said curtly, and gestured to the Floo. "Let's go."
And so Harry was ushered into the fireplace, still trying to figure out precisely what was going on.
He tumbled out of the Floo to be met by more chaos, namely Ron, Hermione, and a small army of Weasleys who descended on him with cries of horror and outrage at the sight of his eye, and surrounded him with hugs and much petting.
"I'm okay!" he protested frantically, trying to worm his way out of the mob. "Really, I'm fine!"
"Everyone, stand back now!" called a familiar voice, and the crowd parted to reveal Professor Dumbledore in the parlor doorway. "Give Harry some room. Oh dear," he said softly, seeing Harry's injured eye, and an expression of incredible sorrow crossed his face that made Harry look away. "Harry..."
"I'm fine," Harry said gruffly. "Really, it wasn't that bad. It just surprised me."
Mrs. Weasley, her eyes filled with tears, pushed past the others and cupped his face in her hands. "Harry, my love, no one has the right to do such a thing to you. Not even once." He felt his face turning red, but was afraid of pulling away and hurting her feelings.
"And what happened to your hand?" cried Hermione, sounding dangerously close to tears herself.
"That wasn't him!" Harry said quickly, desperate to end all this. "Really, I cut myself in the garden. I was going inside to clean it up and tracked dirt on the floor, that's...when it happened..." he finished weakly, seeing their faces.
Ron was flushed, his fists balled at his sides, and he was actually trembling. "I'll kill 'im," he muttered. "Ruddy bastard, I'll kill 'im..."
Mrs. Weasley shook her head and released Harry. "You'll do no such thing, Ronald Weasley. Let the Aurors handle those...those...creatures." Her face was a little flushed too, though she visibly tried to control her fury. "You boys and Hermione will take Harry upstairs and find him some clean clothes, and soak a cloth in Soothing Solution for his eye. And make sure that cut is clean."
"Yes, ma'am!" Hermione exclaimed, wiping her eyes hurriedly, and she and Ginny each grabbed one of Harry's arms and propelled him out the door as the adults descended on Dumbledore.
Ron was too tall, but some clothes of the twins' fit, and they soon had Harry in better attire than the dirty, sweat-stained rags he'd been gardening in. Hermione and Ginny fussed over him to take a bath and clean his cuts until Ron said, "Better just humor them, mate. Mum'll be the same," and he gave in.
The Soothing Solution did feel very good on his bruised cheek, though Charlie told him it wouldn't take the injury away entirely. "It'll bring the swelling down quite a bit, but you'll have a shiner for a few days."
"Wonderful," Harry sighed. "And everyone knowing how I got it."
That was a mistake. "It's not YOUR fault!" every one of them cried out at once, causing Harry to reel back, but that didn't save him from Hermione and Ginny piling on top of him.
"Don't blame yourself, Harry!"
"Oh, I could KILL them for doing this to you!"
"HEY!" Harry exclaimed, pushing himself free. "Get off! I'm not mental just because my ruddy uncle went raving mad and biffed me one! My cousin's been doing that for years..." he saw their faces and quickly added, "well, until he found out I was a wizard, I mean."
Whatever his friends would have said about that was forestalled by voices shouting downstairs. "That's Professor Lupin," Hermione whispered, and they all scrambled to their feet and hurried back to the parlor.
As they reached the doorway, surreptitiously staying out of sight, they heard Dumbledore saying, "Remus, I promise you, I've no intention of acting rashly on this. I merely want to hear Harry's opinion on—"
Lupin cut him off, in a tone of voice Harry had never heard before. The normally gentle werewolf seemed to be shaking with barely-contained fury. "Harry believes it is normal to be treated as those people have treated him, Albus, and that is why his opinion will make light of this event. He believes it is perfectly acceptable to be neglected, overworked, and abused—"
"Harry did say this is the first time Mr. Dursley has ever struck him—"
"I'M NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT PHYSICAL ABUSE, DAMMIT!" Lupin suddenly roared, and Harry jumped. He wasn't the only one. They could hear their former professor's ragged breathing from the hallway as he went on, his voice still raised, "My GOD, Albus, did you never LISTEN to what Hagrid told us about the conditions he found Harry in that first time? The cupboard under the stairs—the CUPBOARD! There are two bedrooms in that house—don't hand me that pap about the blood magic and the wards again, Albus, so help me!"
Lupin's voice sounded almost threatening, more enraged than anything Harry had ever heard. He wasn't even aware that he was shaking as he listened.
In a calmer, quiet voice, Snape spoke up. "Lupin has a point, Headmaster. Whatever reasons you had for leaving the boy in their care previously, those Muggles have crossed a line. I must question the wisdom of even considering returning him to them."
"We can keep him safe here at Headquarters!" Mrs. Weasley insisted. "This is the second-safest place to Hogwarts! Albus, you keep telling us Harry has a part that can't be avoided in the war—if you're going to force him to fight, you cannot even THINK of returning him to those people! We need him safe and healthy, and not just for this war!" Her voice was shaking.
"Harry's safety is a far more complicated matter—" Dumbledore began.
"BUGGER YOUR COMPLICATIONS!" Everyone froze. This time it was Snape who was shouting. "Damn you, Albus, everything is 'complicated' in your view, most especially when it's some matter you don't know a bloody thing about! Your track record's all too clear on that point; you wouldn't know an abused student if you spied on him in his own home—and Potter's walking proof of that! What the hell were you thinking, leaving him in those conditions for fifteen years? He's our best chance for victory in this war, to say nothing of the minimal treatment to which every child in our world is SUPPOSED to be entitled, and you talk of preserving his safety when he's being used as a house elf! Is that your idea of preserving our side?"
No one spoke for several minutes. At length, Mr. Weasley said quietly, "You always promised us you would never behave as a dictator over the Order of the Phoenix, Albus. Now we are calling that promise. Harry does not go back there." There was a murmur of agreement from the others. "Enough is enough."
"He's been through too much heartbreak already," Mrs. Weasley agreed. "We won't stand for it anymore. Not after S...not after he's lost Sirius too." Harry's stomach lurched, and several hands squeezed his shoulders and rubbed his back. But what Mrs. Weasley said next made his heart do a funny sort of spin in his chest. "Those people have no right to him anymore; from now on he stays where he's loved. He's mine now, Albus. Mine."
Someone took a deep breath, then Lupin added quietly, "And mine."
After another long moment, Dumbledore said quietly, "Very well. You've held me to a promise, and I will not break it. So long as you understand the ramifications of ending the blood protection, for Harry...and for yourselves."
"We're in no more danger than he is," said Mr. Weasley. "I think every one of us accepted that a long time ago."
Ron patted Harry's back, and when Harry turned around, he and his brothers grinned and nodded in silent accord. Harry blushed and looked away, only to be confronted by Ginny and Hermione's watery eyes and happy smiles. He dropped his gaze, feeling heat coming off his face in waves—especially his bruised eye.
Snape sounded amused. "Now that that's settled, perhaps we can return to the little matter of winning the war, without having to worry about whether the boy's guardians are going to do more damage than the Death Eaters."
Someone behind Harry snorted, probably one of the twins. Dumbledore chuckled faintly. "In that case, I trust Remus and the Weasleys can see about getting Harry settled?"
"I told Tonks and Shacklebolt to bring his things here," said Snape.
"Let's be going then."
Harry and the others straightened up quickly, but Snape and Dumbledore came out of the room before they could think of getting away. Dumbledore smiled. "Welcome home, Harry."
The rest Weasley siblings and Hermione exploded into whoops and cheers, which was a good thing because Harry's throat had become too tight to speak. He grinned and nodded instead, which was difficult with Ron's arms around his neck as the red-haired boy jumped up and down.
The Floo roared to life, and everyone crowded back into the parlor to meet Tonks and Kingsley, who had Harry's trunk and other belongings with them. "Got it all right here," said Tonks, emptying the shrunken articles into his hand. "Just run it upstairs with you."
"Here's Hedwig!" exclaimed Ginny as the owl flew through the window.
"What happened?" Snape asked the Aurors.
"Ruddy Muggles 'fessed right up to the Ministry investigators," said Kingsley. "There'll be no sanctions against Potter, and we assured him we were taking him to the Weasleys. They said there'll be a question about changing his guardianship..."
Several people hissed, and Harry turned appealingly to Dumbledore. "I see. I will look into the necessary paperwork. I am sure there will be no trouble persuading the Dursleys to relinquish Harry as their charge."
"A shame, I'd have enjoyed persuading them," muttered someone who sounded a lot like Snape. There were several chuckles of agreement. There were mutterings between Snape and the Aurors, then he and Dumbledore headed out the front door.
Tonks rejoined Harry and his friends and handed him a small bottle. "Try this on your face, Harry. It's a stronger formula than normal. Professor Snape always keeps some on him."
"Oh." Harry stared at the bottle, then glanced at the door. "Er...thanks."
"Oh, Harry, one more thing!" Tonks called after him as he and the Weasleys started upstairs. "Professor Snape says your Occlumency lessons are starting again tomorrow night at seven!"