Red-gold rays of summer sun were skimming the tops of the trees and washing over the uniform rows of tidy, square houses that lined the streets of Privet Drive. It had been a mild summer so far, which suited the local residents just as well as all things completely normal and mundane. A cool, steady breeze was swaying the branches of the trees in the front lawns. With the pleasant weather, many of the inhabitants of Privet Drive could be seen lounging about on their porches enjoying the sunset or out for evening strolls. One of the few people not taking advantage of the beautiful summer evening was a teenage boy at his desk on the second floor of number four, staring halfheartedly at a newspaper.
He was young, fifteen, almost sixteen, but the vivid green eyes behind his black-rimmed glasses were those of someone who had seen things beyond his years. Most of the rest of him was perfectly normal, with unruly black hair and a somewhat skinny frame. His spindly appearance was as much the hallmark of a recent growth spurt as the faded, oversized clothes he wore. Harry Potter was of a mind to leave the neighbors to their constitutionals and keep himself inside. The disapproving looks he received whenever he was out notwithstanding, he was quite content in his solitude. After all, there was perhaps only one soul in a ten-mile radius he would not mind the very presence of, and that was probably being generous.
On the whole, Harry was regarding his stay at Privet Drive as a necessary evil, a mutual inconvenience for both himself and his aunt and uncle. It was all the worse now that they were forced to act kindly towards him, an action so unnatural and unaccustomed that it was performed with the underlying air of one who was chewing metal filings.
As though on cue, plodding footsteps outside his door preceded a sharp knock and a dull voice announcing, "It's time for dinner." His cousin, Dudley, had been sent to fetch him, as usual. Harry had been perfectly content with the prior practice of you know the time, so be down, or don't eat, but the Dursleys had apparently believed that practice to be tempting the boundaries of mistreatment. Suffice to say, his relatives' front of congeniality (which had been more transparent than a pane of glass from day one) was not worth their growing agitation.
Harry had been perusing halfheartedly through the folds of his newspaper, reading an article entitled "Why the Ministry Didn't Tell Us Sooner" with uncomprehending malaise. He folded it up and replaced it on his desk before heading out his door and down the stairs. Dudley was already in the kitchen, seated reticently with his eyes locked on his lap. Thanks to the constant training and exercise of another year spent in the Inter-School Boxing League, his bulk had receded somewhat to be replaced by even more muscle, which might have been imposing if he weren't timid as a mouse when Harry was around. Aunt Petunia was busy ladling thick stew onto four plates with her bony fingers, her eyes darting habitually to the windows as if expecting the neighbors to start performing scandalous acts in plain view at any moment. Lastly, Uncle Vernon strode stiffly into the kitchen. He had the look of a caged animal, his beady, narrowed eyes darting about with nervous energy. Harry took his seat, nearly choking on the thick atmosphere of tension and beef stew.
They ate in silence, apart from the clatter of silverware, until Uncle Vernon finally broke into the evening conversation.
"Got the new contract today," he said in a strained voice, "a thousand new drills for the National Dentists Union. We outbid half a dozen competitors," he proclaimed with a feral sneer.
"That's wonderful, dear," Aunt Petunia said in a high, falsely cheerful voice.
There was a few minutes' further silence, and Harry was losing his appetite as quickly as he could. He had actually tried to get the Dursleys to stop being so "nice" to him, a few weeks after the start of the summer holidays. But they had seemed terrified of the suggestion, acting as though it were some sort of trick to give him an excuse to call down the wrath of a dozen "wild-eyed hooligans" (which Uncle Vernon had recently begun muttering about under his breath, in a manner eerily similar to a certain old house-elf called Kreacher) upon them. Their feigned niceties had only become more pronounced afterwards, and consequently, so had their simmering aggravation. Since then, Harry had resorted to avoiding the Dursleys as much as possible, but that had proved scarcely more help. It seemed his aunt and uncle feared that avoiding them meant he was displeased with them, as he had overheard them whispering about one night a few days earlier.
"Does that mean we can go?" Dudley blurted suddenly, not looking up from his lap.
Harry thought for a moment that he had missed a new topic after drifting off in thought. His aunt and uncle exchanged wide-eyed, frantic looks, which unmistakably darted to him more than once.
"You promised me if you got that contract, we could go," Dudley said, more forcefully, finally risking the briefest of glances at his father.
Uncle Vernon cleared his throat loudly, nervously.
"Er, well, Dud," he stuttered, shooting Harry another wary look. "Maybe this isn't the best time—"
"You promised!" Dudley abruptly shouted, jumping out of his chair and leveling a positively angry stare at his father.
Harry inched his chair out from the table, surreptitiously preparing for a quick escape. He had rarely seen Dudley so riled, especially this summer. The boy looked ready to lay into his own father, a fact that did not escape Vernon Dursley.
"You had best not take that tone with me, young man," Uncle Vernon growled, rising from his own chair. He was of equal heights with Dudley now, and his bulk was not nearly so much muscle. Even so, his reddening face and bristling walrus mustache were imposing in their own right. "We'll discuss this later," he said sternly, with another glance at Harry.
"NO!" Dudley screamed, and Harry jumped when his cousin slammed his fist down, rattling the tableware. "I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!"
Harry felt the sudden urge to run away, but was unable to get out of his seat.
"I can't stand this anymore! I can't believe you're letting him bully us around like this!" Dudley bellowed, pointing a madly shaking finger at Harry.
Despite his now inextricable involvement in the argument, Harry could not bring himself to speak.
"You know we can't do anything about him," Uncle Vernon said to Dudley in a low, barely controlled voice. "You know what his kind are like."
"I DON'T CARE!" Dudley howled. "You promised me before he even came back this summer that if you got the big contract, we would go to the National Boxing Tournament!"
"Please, Diddy-dumpling," Aunt Petunia said nervously, "you know things changed since then…"
"I SAID I DON'T CARE!" wailed Dudley, rounding on his mother. "He can't even do you-know-what over the summer! Lock him in his cupboard and leave him here for his stupid friends to find! You promised!"
"Dud, don't say such things," Uncle Vernon said gratingly, his gaze dashing to Harry with a troubling mixture of nervousness and suppressed desire. His sausage-like fingers were gripping the edge of the table with whitening knuckles.
"What? Are you afraid of them, Dad?" sneered Dudley.
Uncle Vernon's mustache was now twitching dangerously, and Harry could not miss the growing gleam in his uncle's eyes. He had undoubtedly been strenuously subduing his old habits ever since the day in London, an effort that had only further injured his wounded pride. The weight of appearances – namely, weakness – in the face of a threat from a group of people that he held unequivocal disdain for was causing a titanic struggle between his two strongest traits. His egotism was warring with his fear, and the former seemed to have just staged a massive coup d'etat.
Harry's desire to flee up to his room was considerable, but he was still riveted to his chair as though by a Permanent Sticking Charm. His relatives had finally gone 'round the bend, but maybe it wasn't too late. He finally found enough of his voice to speak.
"I wouldn't mind if we went to the tournament, really I wouldn't," said Harry, his eyes darting warily between each of his relatives. "It might even be fun—"
"NOT YOU!" Dudley bellowed louder than ever, whirling on Harry. "Dad promised it would be just me, him, and Mum!"
"I-I-I can s-s-stay here then," Harry stammered, taken aback. He had spent his life being bullied and abused by his cousin, but never had he come so close to fearing Dudley until this moment. The look of his cousin, however, was nothing compared to the sickening dread he felt when Uncle Vernon slowly turned his head towards him like a stalking predator.
"Oh no you don't, boy," he whispered dangerously, shaking his head side to side slightly. "You're not going to trick us into slipping up and giving you a chance to call your loony friends down on us for abandoning you at home. Oh no." He licked his lips, and his eyes were growing wild. Harry sunk down in his chair, feeling dread coiling in the pit of his stomach… feeling as though he were ten years old again. "We've had enough of your slavery already, you ungrateful whelp. You fetched those lunatics from the madhouse down on us back at the platform when we picked you up, repaying all our generosity and hospitality with naked threats and intimidation."
Harry was shaking his head helplessly, his eyes wide in fear. He was desperate to try and convince his uncle that he had it all wrong, but he couldn't find any words. Uncle Vernon was now inching around the table, moving towards Harry like a wild animal preparing to spring. His mustache was fluttering with each heavy breath through his nostrils.
"Maybe Dudley's right. Maybe we should lock you in your cupboard and leave you for your friends to find. It'd be a few days before they tried to check on you… and I've in mind a few ways to throw them off… I've had a lot of time to plot and plan, these long weeks… could barely think of anything besides getting rid of you…" His face was mere inches from Harry's, and every heavy breath was scalding and wild upon Harry's face. His eyes were most frightening of all. They were boiling pools of thoughtless spite, as though every foul memory he held was being attributed to Harry, feeding his sudden madness.
Harry was still jerking his head from side to side in disbelieving shock.
"Vernon, do you realize what you're saying?" Aunt Petunia gasped. "If they find out… if he tells them what you're saying…"
"Oh, he won't be telling anyone much of anything," Uncle Vernon snarled with senile confidence. "You crossed the line by threatening Vernon Dursley, boy. You made a big mistake." He was smiling now, a terrible, demented smile. "And you're going to pay for it."
With blinding speed, he reached out and grabbed Harry by the front of his shirt with two large purple hands, lifting him bodily out of his chair.
"We'll keep you, and none of your freaky friends will ever find you again!" shouted Uncle Vernon. He began shaking him violently.
Harry clawed at the hands holding him several inches off the ground, but he only felt himself being buffeted by his Uncle's fury. He screwed his eyes shut, and as desperation consumed him, a rush of energy like a burst of strong wind surged across him. Uncle Vernon yelped and dropped him abruptly, and Harry landed in a heap. He didn't know why his Uncle had released him, he didn't know what that rush of power he felt had been, he could only shuffle backwards, away from his Uncle. His back hit the kitchen wall, and he looked up to see Uncle Vernon, striding towards him, looking madder than ever.
"You can't get away so easily, boy! Your little tricks won't save you now!"
In a panic, Harry scrambled past his lumbering relatives and out of the kitchen, bolting up the stairs as fast as his desperation could carry him. He could hear the shouts and pounding footsteps as Uncle Vernon and Dudley gave chase. Harry stumbled into his room and slammed the door. He grabbed his desk chair and rammed it under the knob, hoping it would at least delay his Uncle for the moment he needed. Hedwig was squawking with agitation, wings flapping nervously in her cage, but Harry could not spare a moment to calm her.
Scrambling back to his desk, he grabbed the one item that could possibly save him without also getting him expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was the one thing he had actually used his newfound powers over the Dursleys to obtain, the one thing that had kept him sane while spending the last month under the insufferable disquiet at Privet Drive.
In a blind panic, he began to dial the first number that came to mind, just as the first slam of a massive body against his door came. The chair propping it closed wobbled, but held fast.
Hoping he had dialed correctly, he brought the phone to his ear. It took an eternity for the first ring to sound.
Another slam against his door, and one of the hinges gave an angry crack. Harry stared at the portal anxiously, praying for it to hold just five seconds longer.
The second ring. The third crunch against his door. The chair creaked in protest.
"OPEN THE DOOR, BOY!" Uncle Vernon bellowed. "IT CAN ONLY GET WORSE FOR YOU!"
"Come on, come on, pick up!" Harry pleaded into the receiver. Time seemed to be slowing down to a stop, and his brain seemed to be working twenty times faster than normal at the same time.
A third ring. A fourth thud. One of the back legs of the chair gave a sharp crack, and bent to an odd angle.
"Please…" Harry begged into the phone.
Several things happened at once. The fourth ring stopped almost before it began, replaced by a familiar voice saying, "Hello?" The fifth blow against the door bashed it inwards with the snap of breaking wood, and Uncle Vernon tumbled in, his face purpled with fury.
"Hello?" the voice asked anxiously, "Who is this?"
A burly arm wrapped around his midsection just as he tried to reply. It jerked him backwards, knocking away his breath, and nearly knocking the receiver from his grasp. The cord stretched, yanking the holder off his desk with a clatter.
"GOT YOU NOW, BOY!" Uncle Vernon roared triumphantly.
Uncle Vernon had dragged him all the way back to the door. Stars and blackness were mixing through his vision as he struggled for breath. In desperation, Harry managed to grab the edge of his closet. He dimly felt another odd surge around him, and Uncle Vernon howled in anger and pain, but did not release him. The phone cord stretched taut.
"Hello?!" the voice called from the receiver, now sounding frightened.
"Hermione!" Harry gasped breathlessly, straining with all his might to keep the phone close to his face. "Help!"
With a snap, the wire broke from the receiver. As though the sound had come from his own shattered hopes, the last strength left his body, and Harry felt himself being pulled backwards, farther and farther, until there was only blackness.
-- --- --
Harry didn't know how much later it was when he came to. It may have been hours, but it was more likely minutes. He had to blink several times to even realize he had come to, and with a start that slammed his head into a repressively low ceiling, he realized where he was.
He groped around blindly until he finally found the string to his lone light, and with a fearful wince, tugged on the string. To his relief, the bulb was still good, and soft, blessed light flooded into the despicable familiarity of his old prison. He had grown significantly since he had last found himself here, and there was barely enough room for him to sit, even curled up with his knees clutched to his chest. A ratty old rag that had once been his bed was still on the floor, and his hair was filled with dust and cobwebs.
He tried to open the door, knowing before he even had his hand on the latch that it was no use. Indeed, he rattled the knob, but it was held fast. And judging by the unnaturally dark look through the thin slits of the shutter/food flap, something very large had likely been placed directly in front of the door.
Muttering a curse, Harry shifted around as best he could, taking inventory of his situation. His first thoughts were a mix of both regret and relief. He did not have his wand on him, and while that meant there was therefore no chance of him getting out of the cupboard on his own, it also meant that he would not be tempted to risk expulsion from Hogwarts. He would rather spend days, weeks if necessary, in his cupboard than escape only to know that he could not return to his one true home.
There was precious little else to find. The shelves of his prison were covered in dusty old photo albums and shoeboxes, along with the precious few books his aunt and uncle owned. Those were wedged into the tightest corner, and Harry doubted the Dursleys even knew they were there. Harry had, of course; those few novels had been his closest friends on many a long night spent in the solitude of his cupboard.
They might serve as a distraction again, but they were of no other use to him. He was trapped, with no way out.
All he could do now was wait, and hope that Hermione had figured out what had happened.
Luckily, that was a bright hope. Hermione Granger was one of his best friends, and intelligent beyond measure. If anyone could put two-and-two together, she was it.
Doubt crept into his thoughts, though. Hermione would have to get in touch with someone via owl post, and that in itself was risky business nowadays. Not to mention the time it might take to rally someone to check on him, and then there was still the problem of his relatives. His Uncle Vernon's words echoed in his head. I've in mind a few ways to throw them off… I've had a lot of time to plot and plan, these long weeks… could barely think of anything besides getting rid of you…
With a heavy sigh, he leaned back as far as he could in his restricted space, and tried not to dwell on thoughts of what it would be like starving to death inside his cupboard.
-- --- --
Some hours later, Harry awoke with a start. His senses cleared quickly, and he heard a loud, rumbling sound through his cupboard door. It sounded like someone pushing something very large and very heavy across the floor outside his prison. Light appeared through the slits of his shutter, and for a moment he dared to hope. He was almost smiling when the door opened, only to reveal his Uncle and Dudley, the latter holding a baseball bat, readied menacingly over his head for what could make for an unpleasant blow. His Uncle hastily slid a plate inside, then slammed the door again.
Harry scowled, and contemplated throwing the door back open and making a break for it, but the rumble of moving furniture blotted out the light before he could work up the courage.
Had he looked down at the plate Uncle Vernon had thrust into the cupboard, he might have found it easier to motivate himself.
Anger swelled inside him as he stared down at the dish that he initially assumed had held some meager ration of food. Instead, he glared down at a saucer of water. That was not the reason for his fury, though; attached to the plate was a note, and written on the note was a simple message:
We'll be having roast fowl tonight.
Taped to the note was a single snow-white feather.
Harry ripped the paper into tiny pieces in mute rage. White spots danced before his eyes, and he was so angry he couldn't do anything but shake. Hedwig. The damnable Dursleys were going to actually eat Hedwig. That was a sickening act beyond what he had even believed his despicable relatives capable of.
His anger slowly gave way to despair as he stared at the walls of his pen, which seemed even closer than they had a few hours ago. He buried his head in his hands, which still grasped the tattered shreds of the note. Harry could feel tears welling in his eyes, and he couldn't believe what was happening.
He had dueled the likes of Draco Malfoy, defeated a basilisk with nothing more than his wits and an old sword, matched spells with wizards three times his age, driven off a hundred dementors single-handedly, and stared down Lord Voldemort himself. Before he could even talk, he had been dubbed "The Boy Who Lived", and imbued with the power necessary to defeat the Dark Lord.
Now he was nothing but a helpless boy locked in a cupboard, crying over an owl.
*A/N* - This was one of the many, many attempted beginnings to my sixth-year fic, Harry Potter and the Labyrinth of Daerandir (the first two paragraphs are basically identical, but from there… well, check my profile and read the other fic to find out!). I read this and thought it was well-written and fleshed enough to make for a little one-shot look at how the real Book Six might begin. It's a bit unpolished (such as too many parentheticals, kind of like this author's note), but since when are fanfiction writers striving for Pulitzers? Especially in a category where fics get knocked to page 10 before the next day is done.