Title: The boy in the cupboard under the stairs
Summary: A one-shot, summer before sixth year, tribute fic to the great authors of Harry Potter fanfiction who have gifted me with the love of a too-small Harry and for gifting this Harry with someone who saw past the hero, past the Gryffindor, to the small boy who never got out of his cupboard and gave him love enough to draw him out. I humbly dedicate this paltry offering to Star Polaris, Bored Beyond Belief, Jelsemium, Dragongirl16, neutral and P.A.R. They will probably never read this but I hope this fic is enough to convey my admiration and respect, for giving hope that each one of us can find someone to love and be loved.
Rating: PG-13 (to be safe)
Harry knew he was not a comely child. At least, that's what Aunt Petunia always insisted after some stranger cooed over him and positively ignored his whale of a cousin. And while Harry did not necessarily agree with everything (or much less anything) his relatives said, he knew he was too thin, his hair was a wild mop that would do a scarecrow proud and that his eyes were an 'unnatural' color. Maybe that's why even though strangers fussed over him when he was younger, none would ever hold him and none ever took him away from this. . . .farce that he called his family.
This feeling of worthlessness pervaded every senses, darkened every corner of his cupboard as the spiders scuttled from the bellowing foghorn that was his uncle. Even when the cupboard was exchanged in favour of the smallest bedroom and the spiders were replaced with a threadbare blanket that made warmth a mockery on cold winter nights and his shelves filled with things that will never belong to him, Harry kept that taint of unworthiness with him. How could he not, when it was the fear of retribution from strangers more powerful than his Muggle uncle that prompted the Dursleys to 'gift' him with this dilapidated room and this worn bed?
Oh, logically, Harry knew that Hermione, Ron and the Weasleys like him. Love him even, as evinced by the bone crushing hugs that Mrs. Weasley was fond of giving him and the loyalty that his two best friends showed him. But he doubted their love and affection. Doubted it in a way that they will never know. Because while they may love him, while they may shower him with assurances that they were there for him, that they would think of him, that they can't wait to see him again, they were never by his side when the nights were nothing but an endless tunnel of despair and bleak thoughts. They were never around to comfort him when the nightmares got so bad, all he could do upon waking up was to cry softly into his pillow, his screams long muffled by guilt and hopelessness.
This summer was a parody. A cruel mockery that Fate gave him because of his fame. It was because of his mother's sacrifice that he had even survived that night 15 years ago. Not because of some stupid prophecy. It was his mother who gave him the protection to survive, to survive so that he could cause even more deaths of other innocent people.
He wondered, morbidly, when he could add Hermione and Ron to that list. Not that he hadn't tried. Merlin knew that if luck had deserted them the night of the fight at the Department of Mysteries, Hermione would really have died from the curse she received. Even Ron, entangled in the tentacles of a brain, of all things.
So Harry bore the weight of these now regular nightmares with a stoicism that would have shamed Godric Gryffindor himself. He spent days and nights locked in his little bedroom, the door's cat flap once again pressed into service. Harry did not utter a word of protest when with a pleased snarl, Vernon shoved him inside the minute they got back from the train station. If Mad-Eye had thought that his threat would have ensured the Dursleys' better treatment of Harry, he was wrong. Vernon had obviously felt that his family had gotten the short end of the stick long enough thanks to him and made it abundantly clear as he once again padlocked the door. Vernon had also received a letter from the Headmaster, detailing the need to respect Harry's mourning period for his recently departed godfather. The godfather he never bothered to inform his relatives of his innocence of such crimes as manslaughter. The letter became the catalyst for the smouldering rage to kindle to life in piggish eyes.
"And you better make sure that you write to those. . .freaks every three days and you will tell them nothing suspicious," Vernon had growled quietly from outside, loud enough to be heard by Harry, sitting at the edge of his bed, green eyes dull and blank.
"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry iterated softly.
"If you think threats are enough to make me cower. . ." his hiss was remarkably snake-like, the hate in it equalling, if not surpassing Voldemort's. "Well you thought wrong boy! Your precious godfather is dead. Thanks to you no doubt." He was not able to see Harry flinch at the accusation and he would have been disappointed had he known. "You kill everyone around you, don't you boy? First your parents, then your godfather." His tone was almost musing, reflective.
"But you're not getting me and my family killed, oh no! So you will stay in your room and you better make damn sure that we only remember you enough to feed you!"
"Yes, Uncle Vernon."
So his summer after that became an almost exact replay of his second year's, when he had his windows barred, his door locked and his food limited to watery soup, stale bread, and a cup of water. He was only vaguely grateful that his still had owl treats leftover for Hedwig. With some manoeuvring, his snowy owl could slip past the bars to hunt for mice, so thin had she become from the continued lack of care. Not lack of care from her master, no. But from the lack of care her master was receiving. A magical pet, she shared a bond with her wizard and this time, her wizard was slowly giving up on life and she joined him as well on that downward spiral.
The summer was well into its fourth week and Harry had been keeping faithfully to the one letter every three days rule. His letters, or notes would be more appropriate, was short and to the point. They ranged from words that basically went something like this;
Anyone who's reading this,
I'm fine. The Dursleys are okay, nothing much to report on that front. I'm not having experiencing any scar pains so no worries. Send my regards to anyone else not receiving this.
The notes were injected with enough light-hearted comments to ensure that none would be the wiser and it seemed to be working. The old Harry would have felt annoyance, anger even that his friends and former professor did not notice anything wrong, failing to even read between the lines. The new Harry was glad that they couldn't. So much the better. Maybe, if this went on long enough, he would actually die from malnutrition or acute depression before term started. Too bad Voldemort hadn't stuck around long enough in his head for Dumbledore to be forced to kill him. Selfish prat. The least the snake could do was grant him that one favour. But of course, Harry was used to Fate screwing him from both ends to Sunday and back.
This night was no different from any others. He had just sent off more platitudes to ease his friends and the Order, using their owls instead of Hedwig. His own lady had been too tired for any journey and frankly, he did not want to be deprived of her company. When a part of him still cared, he had tried to coax Hedwig to leave for Hogwarts at least, where better food was assured for his pet but the snowy owl merely hooted mournfully, rubbing her head against his thin hand. The golden eyes told him plainly that she would not leave him alone, never mind that her master seemed intent to travel the path of no return.
And Harry was grateful.
The said owl was now perched on his headboard, guarding his sleep. Which was once again broken by a nightmare. The nightmare, a repetition of the night before, and the night before that, was not a vision of blood and gore. The dream was merely of him floating in endless black, ringed by silent spectres of his parents, Cedric, Sirius, Hermione, Ron, all of the DA members, the Weasleys, even Snape and all the professors at Hogwarts, and beyond them, faceless people he will never know their names or identities. They symbolised his past failures and his future ones. Of people he had caused their deaths of and will, later in time. It was inevitable.
Lying on his side, in a t-shirt too large, too worn, Harry stared blankly at his hands, half curled. A fitting symbol of his helplessness. He did not stir when footsteps sounded on the stairs, obviously none of the Dursleys for the whole family was away for the night, staying at some swank hotel in London for a bash Grunnings held. Neither alarm nor worry crossed his pale face when the footsteps stopped outside his room, a curse softly uttered and a faint Alohomora reached his ears. The door swung open and the intruder stepped inside, only to curse again when the tray of meagre food, left largely untouched since this morning was knocked aside. Whomever this person was, they knew their way around the Muggle world for instead of lumos, the light switch was flicked on and the bare bulb flickered to life; a sickly white glow that failed to penetrate the shadows lurking in the corners.
Albus Dumbledore was standing in his doorway, blue eyes studying the object he accidentally kicked. The bowl of thin soup and sad vegetables did not escape his notice, nor did the rock-hard bread and cup of water that rolled forlornly on its side, its contents spilled.
But if that indication of the treatment a Hogwarts student was receiving, on top of the padlocked door was not enough, the sight of said student alone caused the old face to pale and for alarm to darken the bright eyes. Harry knew he must be quite a sight yet he felt too heavy to care. Why should he save for the fact that he might actually live through the summer now that his secret was found out.
"Harry." Dumbledore crossed the room in three quick strides, his dark robes brushing the floor and raising small puffs of dust. He knelt by the bed, ignoring the stains to his robes and a gnarled hand was laid tenderly on Harry's forehead. "What. . .why. ." The Headmaster floundering. An amusing sight had he the inclination to laugh.
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" The tone was plaintive, the sadness evident.
Harry did not answer, merely staring at some obscure spot somewhere around Dumbldore's left shoulder. Hedwig too might have been a statue for all the response she gave at the first person to set foot in the room after four weeks.
The Headmaster made a small sound of frustration, mixed with anger. "They'll pay for this," he swore, the normally cheerful face gone dark. "For them to treat their own relation like th—"
"Why are you here?"
Four weeks of not speaking save for the nightly sounds of distress made his voice hoarse and scratchy, like his voicebox had been sandpapered with the roughest grade available and sprinkled through with broken glass. It had the effect of startling the old man out of his tirade of revenge and gladness shone through.
"Harry! Your friends were getting worried. They thought your letters sounded a bit odd and I myself agreed. We decided to check in on you and thank Merlin we did." Dumbledore sighed, looking around the gloomy room, taking in the lack of. . .basically everything, before turning back to the boy who was staring at him with frighteningly blank eyes. "We'll get you out of here, tonight, don't worry. And I'm sure Alastor would like a word or two with your aunt and uncle."
"Excuse me?" Dumbledore blinked bemusedly.
"Why bother?" Harry repeated, voice hoarse, dead and dull. "I'll just be here again next summer.
Silence fell between the two of them with Dumbledore looking down on him, dawning realisation and horror both in his eyes.
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" the Headmaster asked again.
Harry did not answer.
"Why didn't you tell anyone?"
Harry finally stirred, moving his head to better see the professor but even that small movement sent the room in a dizzying tumble around him and he was forced to shut his eyes and wait for his vision to settle. When the nausea in his stomach eased, he opened his eyes again to ask, this time, a plea. "I'm just tired. So very tired. Why can't you leave me alone?"
Dumbledore bowed his head quickly, but not fast enough to hide the telltale glimmer in his eyes. Harry felt an unnameable pang in his somewhat numbed heart. Here was one more grief he brought to the world. Will he never stop?
"What have we done to you?" This time, Dumbledore did not try to hide the tears that were openly coursing down his face. He gathered Harry's cold, limp hands in his own warm ones, pleading to Harry with both words and expression. "Let me take you away from here and I promise you, you'll never come back here again, no matter what."
"I don't need your pity. Or your guilt."
Dumbledore was visibly taken aback but before he could protest, Harry went on, his tone taking on a dreamy quality that days of little food and no sleep was causing. "I know you need your hero to save the world but really, I don't think I'm the best choice for it. I seem to be causing more deaths than I am helping anyone. And you don't need to feel upset because of the whole prefect and Kreacher thing. I understand. My fault really. Voldemort should have done a better job that night he killed my parents."
Dumbledore was still silent, which Harry took to mean that the old man was still trying to process his confession and realise the truth behind it. He went on, trying to ensure that the old man got his message and leave him to die in peace. Yes, Harry wanted to die. Nothing more. He was so tired, can't they see that?
"Don't worry about the Dursleys," he patted Dumbledore's hands in a pitiful effort at comfort. "I should be used to this. After all, it's no different than how they treated me before. You don't nee—"
"I'm asking for you to let me save you not because I need someone to stop Voldemort, Harry." The soft words effectively halted Harry's little rambling and his clogged mind tried to adjust to the interrupted monologue.
"Wha. . ?"
"I'm asking," the Headmaster gripped his hands so tightly that it pierced through his numbed, hazed state. "I'm asking, because I'm merely an old man who found a boy who got into his heart. I am asking because I love you Harry, and I cannot lose you. Please," he added brokenly.
Harry stared dumbly at the Headmaster. Love. . .? He wracked his mind frantically, or as frantically as his exhaustion allowed. Had anyone ever said that to him? Told him that they love him?
His mind ran around in circles like a hamster running and running on its little exercise wheel, running crazily to nowhere. No, no one ever did. It was a novel experience. One that made tears fill his eyes involuntarily, slipping down sunken cheeks to stain the flat pillow beneath his head.
"You love me?" he asked, bewildered, even as the tears ran unchecked and unheeded. "You do? I don't think anyone ever said that to me before. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Dumbledore managed a smile through his own tears which he didn't bother to wipe away. "I don't know how myself but you managed to worm your way into this lonely man's heart and I'm afraid you won't be leaving anytime soon."
"Oh." He paused, then tried, "I'm sorry?"
"Don't be!" The Headmaster said fiercely. "I've made too many mistakes with you, Harry. All the while thinking that it's for your own good, that I'm protecting you. But I realise I was wrong. Can you forgive me? Will you let me save you?"
This was the crux of the moment. Harry didn't know how he knew, but he knew. His answer would determine tonight's outcome; whether he'll get his wish to die or whether he would continue on living and maybe, cause even more deaths. That Dumbledore would actually leave him if he wished to he did not doubt. There was that look in the Headmaster's eyes that said whatever his wish, it would be respected. No matter if it wasn't what the old man had hoped for.
But could he truly continue on? Could he really shoulder the burden of carrying the fight, becoming the figurehead for peace and hope for the wizarding world, never mind that people will die for believing in him? Dumbledore's hands were warming his, and his tears splashed softly on Harry's hot skin, cooling him. He had said that he loved him and amazingly, it awakened a hunger in Harry that he never acknowledged. Sirius had never said he loved him. Not really. Not to his face, and never with that much tenderness the Headmaster was showing. Granted, his godfather hardly had the chance to with half the wizarding world howling for his blood but still. . . .
May whatever deity out there listening forgive him for his selfishness and greed.
With marked effort, Harry released his hands from Dumbledore's grip, causing grief to cross the wrinkled face only for it to disappear when Harry, trembling fingers and all, clutched tightly to the front of the Headmaster's robes.
It was enough of an answer for the old man and in the next heartbeat, man and boy disappeared from the smallest bedroom, Number Four, Privet Drive of Little Whinging, Surrey.