The silence was thick and heavy in Little Whinging, and about as comfortable as a wool blanket on this intolerably hot summer day.
As if by written agreement, the inhabitants of Privet Drive did nothing to break the monotony of another drought-laden season. The cadence of sprinklers was again stilled; not a soul stirred outside; even the humming of bees was hushed. Only one sound was brazen enough to break the stillness of the day, and that rather strange sound came from inside number four.
The sound did not come from Vernon Dursley, master of the house, though his round head quivered and his enormous mustache bristled under his nose in sheer indignation as the noise continued.
"That boy must be stopped!" His voice was a harsh whisper, not even loud enough to be heard up the stairs. But the sound paused.
"Oh thank heaven," murmured his companion, a thin lady placed carefully in the recliner across the room.
She lifted her dainty teacup and saucer higher before she drank, wanting no spills on the very nice, very new carpet laid as the most recent testament to her frugality and her love of cleanliness. White carpet. Not plush, of course, lest it pick up dirt down deep where she couldn't clean. No, this carpet was almost as hard and featureless as its backside. But it was pure, unadulterated white, and it showed off the pale perfection of the white walls so well.
Petunia Dursley congratulated herself with a sip of the cup's contents, closing her eyes in bliss at the moment of silence. Then the horrid scratching sound began again and she jerked her cup away, clashing it noisily against the saucer.
Tea came raining down on her creased linen pantsuit and splashed the chair. She froze in horror. A spot had fallen on the carpet!
"It's that boy again!" Vernon bellowed.
"He's ruined my carpet," she wailed.
"This is the LAST STRAW! BOY!" Vernon stood and shouted the last word with all the force his barrel-chested body could generate. "GET SOME SHOES ON AND GET DOWN HERE NOW!"
Petunia was sobbing hysterically, already on hands and knees inspecting the spot. "Ruined!" Then she remembered the cleanser. She took off at an undignified run for the cupboard and cast the door open. Inside was an orderly collection of cleaners, with the carpet cleanser displayed prominently in the middle—a special cleaner just for white, featureless carpet.
Petunia snatched it, and a cloth out of the rag collection. She spared only a quick venomous thought that the brat should still be living in the cupboard where he wouldn't be allowed to make noises like that, disturbing body and soul, before she headed off to attack the blemished carpet. On hands and knees again, she sniffed and doused the spot that had grown to the size of a quarter.
"I'll be just a minute, Uncle." The hateful voice drifted down, its coldness as evident as its carelessness.
After freezing with unbelief at the words, Petunia huffed out an indignant breath and attacked the spot with renewed vigor. Horrible brat! And what a terrible, horrible summer it was turning out to be! Ever since the boy had come home, everything had to be done to make him happy. She was expected to do his work for him and clean for him when just feeding him three times a day was hard enough. No one could take care of that monster. No one could make him happy! They lived every day in fear that he would contact those people and complain. Then they would descend upon the house and—and—
She halted her ministrations as she realized that Vernon was standing at the bottom of the stairs, listening to that scratching noise, looking like a bulldog about to attack.
"Oh, Vernon, be careful," she hissed. "What are you doing?" Her face flushed with an unnatural heat. He was flirting with disaster, tempting the judgment of the horrible wizards who watched over the boy like demi-gods. They would know if the boy was angered, if he was mistreated—
"Someone has to teach him a lesson! He sits up there, ignoring me—IGNORING ME!" Vernon shook his fist toward the stairs. "Treating me as if I was unworthy of his attention. I'll teach him who's unworthy! It's about time things went back to THE WAY THEY WERE!"
Petunia watched him pound up the stairs as if they deserved a good trouncing simply for being so upward and her heart skipped a beat. He was going to put things right! Maybe this would end the awful tension that had gripped the house since the boy had returned. Maybe they could get Dudley to eat normally again—poor Diddyums had lost too much weight now. And maybe that brat would learn some respect. She thought the word with as much venom as she could, and watched Vernon's beefy bulk mount the top stairs with satisfaction. He would put the boy right, and personally . . . she hoped he dared use the force that might be necessary.
"I SAID—" he yelled, even before unlatching the lock, throwing the door open with smashing glory, "GET YOUR SHOES ON AND COME DOWNSTAIRS NOW!"
The words ricocheted about the room satisfactorily, but caused little effect. The boy did not even move. But the quill was silent for the moment, Vernon noticed with a quick pump of pride. The brat was sitting at his cousin Dudley's cast-off desk, looking entirely unwell as usual. Vernon immediately yelled again, to keep from noticing.
"IS THERE A BLOODY REASON WHY YOU'RE IGNORING ME? BECAUSE I CAN THINK OF A FEW BLOODY REASONS WHY YOU SHOULDN'T BE—INCLUDING THE FACT THAT I'LL GIVE YOU A GOOD THRASHING IF YOU DON'T START SHOWING SOME RESPECT, BOY!"
Unfortunately, Vernon had a habit of moving when he talked, and now he could see more of the boy's face as those unnatural eyes flickered up. Vernon took a step back at the feverish gleam in those bright green eyes, almost feral with their expression of chipped, black hate. The intensity contrasted so oddly with the dark circles underneath his eyes and the pale skin all around.
Even more unsettling, Vernon saw again the way his hair had taken to growing long in uneven patches that far overshot his shirt collar in thick, jet-black streaks. Of course, the shoulders that hunched over to a dull point on both sides, and the collarbone sticking out even more prominently than years before from under his t-shirt managed to make his clothing look oversized and ridiculous as usual. The gangly boy could certainly no longer be called short, but the growth looked forced upon him, as unnatural as the rest of his appearance. Vernon took this in disapprovingly, and reasserted himself with a step to the side and more blustering.
"DID YOU HEAR ME, BOY? ANSWER ME!"
The boy simply continued to stare. He stayed perfectly still, and his voice, when he finally spoke, was perfectly steady, though rough from disuse.
"I'm working on a very difficult essay. Was there a reason you needed me downstairs? It would be better if I could continue my train of—"
"YES, THERE'S A BLOODY REASON—I NEEDED YOU! WHEN I CALL YOU, YOU HAD BETTER COME, BOY, OR I WILL MAKE YOU WISH YOU'D NEVER BEEN BORN!"
The boy took a deep breath and let it out. "Bit late for that, isn't it?" He dipped the long quill pen in the ink bottle and started that scratching noise again.
Vernon was completely flummoxed. He had no idea how to deal with someone in this state. The boy used to scurry about in fear when he was younger, and even though he had slowed his pace in recent years, yelling usually managed to at least get him to his feet. Vernon fired a few more words out, but to his immense frustration, the volume had lowered a tad.
"Get your SHOES ON, come downstairs NOW and stop that INFERNAL SCRATCHING!"
Harry Potter, almost-sixteen-year-old hero of the wizarding world, for that was who the boy was, slowly and carefully put down the offending quill, then sat back in his chair. His face was impassive, as though they had been chatting lighting about the weather. "Why?"
Harry watched Vernon start sputtering, his doughy face vacillating between magenta and a more bluish tone as he chose his words, obviously needing to put everything through the filter of is-this-something-that-will-make-the-boy-lose-it-and-write-his-wizarding-freak-friends-or-not before letting loose.
"Your hair," Vernon finally spat out, "is a disgrace and I won't tolerate it any longer."
"My hair, as you so eloquently put it, has always been a disgrace and will probably be that way until I die or until I become a Potions Professor and it lies greasily against my scalp like a dead mink pelt. There's no point in getting exercised over it."
Harry turned back to his paper. He could feel Vernon's beady eyes boring into his neck. The man only managed to get three words out:
"Hair. Cut. NOW."
"And there's no point in dragging this out," Harry went on easily, picking up his quill again. "I can't safely go anywhere to get it done and even if I did get it done, no one will see it. No one will know the difference."
"We'll know the difference, boy," Vernon said nastily, "the only family you've got left in the world. And you may be a FREAK, but I won't have you going around looking like one."
Harry gripped his quill tighter, wishing it was a wand. Now . . . he was getting angry. Not good. Deep breath.
"I'm not allowed to go outside of this house. I don't like it anymore than you do—"
"I know what this is about," Vernon said with a sudden greedy look in his eyes, stepping forward, his mustache quivering with delight. "You're trying to look like that godfather of yours, aren't you? The murdering wizard who got himself done in?"
The room turned dark in Harry's eyes. A pallid circle of light surrounded Vernon's face, highlighting the malice there.
"Want long hair like him, eh? Want to be a killer, too? I'll bet they taught you—"Vernon stopped, suddenly choking on a wand pressed deep into his fleshy throat.
Harry was there, shaking, one hand grabbing the man's rounded shoulder for leverage, the other pressing the wand deeper at his neck, all with deadly, calm efficiency. Words bubbled out from a well of hatred so deep that it seemed unfathomable.
"Don't—talk—about—him—ever—again. Leave me alone, go back downstairs and yes—" he barked out a bitter laugh, "pray that I do want to be a killer if you value your life at all."
Vernon's eyes bugged out of his head as he struggled to get away. Harry was surprised to realize that his grip on the man's shoulder was so tight, and relented The slow flush of rage faded from his cheeks, but he kept dark eyes fastened on Vernon. His uncle had backed away, hands at his neck, obviously fighting equal parts fear and violent rage, looking for all the world like he'd like nothing more than to pull Harry apart piece by piece.
Harry considered this with sudden emotional distance. Should he try to to protect himself from his uncle? He didn't actually feel like it. He felt more like Life owed him some payback for his idiocy in falling hook, line and sinker for the Dark Lord's schemes and costing Sirius his life.
However, Vernon disappointed him, settling for mere words again. "We'll give you a week to get more used to the idea, boy. But I will not have you in my house looking like that. Not even those FREAK friends of yours could approve." He turned to pass back through the door.
Harry's teeth were set on edge. But he called out softly, catching Vernon's beady eyes just before the door closed.
"Uncle Vernon, if you take me outside of this house, we will at some point be attacked by Death Eaters. Of course, my friends will try to help, but you won't be their highest priority. And the best you could hope for is a quick death. The worst would be unthinkable. I simply don't believe that a haircut is worth it. Do you?" The silence was heavy. "And before you even try it—no, I forbid Aunt Petunia from coming anywhere near me with those shears of hers."
The door slammed shut and the sound of a lock clicking home heralded Harry's imprisonment once again.
No dinner for him tonight.
The walls began to close in and Harry cursed Umbridge for the thousandth time—sending the Dementors last summer and taking away his freedom. Dumbledore had heard enough of the other side's inner workings to know that they knew exactly where Harry was now. He had forbidden Harry to leave the house, much as he had forbidden Sirius to leave Grimmauld Place last year.
Breathing forcibly through the sudden pain in his chest, Harry turned to his paper, picked up the quill and buried himself in thoughts of smaller things.
Sometime later, he noticed that the unrolled parchment on the desk was nearing the four-foot mark, covered in neat, looped handwriting, but the last paragraph had the distinction of being a bit bunched-up and more spidery than the top lettering. Harry noticed it with a sigh.
He'd hoped to make this assignment so perfect that even his ever-irate-and-nitpicking Potions professor, Severus Snape, couldn't find fault with it. Of course, that was a nearly impossible task, which is precisely why Harry had tackled it with such gusto. A four-foot essay on medicinal ethics for patients who were in a coma-like state took a narrow-mindedness and focus to detail that was all-consuming.
Harry had done little else but prepare and write ever since he'd gotten over his shock at being allowed to continue on in Potions to the N.E.W.T. level, and Hermione Granger, his best friend of the female variety, had sent him the necessary books. Now, there was only a foot to go. Hermione would be agape, but Harry was mainly trying to make it take as long as possible. He wrote slowly and steadily late into the night, defiantly blinking away his fatigue and ignoring the swirling vortex of memory that threatened to engulf him at any moment.