"Why does Harry have to come? He'll ruin it! He's stupid!" Dudley kicked Petunia's seat as Vernon loaded the picnic basket into the boot.
"Mrs. Figg couldn't watch him today, Diddykins, you know that," Petunia simpered. "Don't worry, I won't let the boy ruin our perfect holiday!"
Harry stood quietly on the sidewalk, his small bag in hand, waiting to be allowed inside the car.
Vernon slammed the boot shut.
"That's right, boy." He opened the driver's side door and hefted himself behind the wheel. "You'll behave in Kent, or it'll be the cupboard for a week for you."
"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry said, climbing into the back. He considered putting his seatbelt on, but what with the colour Dudley's face was turning, he thought he'd be safer unrestrained.
It was going to be a long drive.
Harry was right. It had been an interminably long drive. Dudley, never one to react well to boredom, had decided about twenty minutes into the trip that Harry was taking up too much space. When they finally arrived at their destination, Harry had indents in the shape of the car door on one side of his body, and bruises in the shape of Dudley's trainers on the other.
Upon arriving at the picnicking site, Vernon and Petunia had Harry set up their picnic table with all the supplies they'd brought. It was a company picnic for Uncle Vernon's firm, Grunnings, so there were other families in their area too, often with children. Harry had already been forbidden to talk to them, and when he finished setting up, Uncle Vernon instructed him to go locate the bathrooms.
Harry wandered off toward the small wooded area nearby instead. When Uncle Vernon gave him a task like that, it just meant he wanted Harry to disappear and not cause trouble. There was no reason to come back until the picnic was over. The wooded area was mostly quiet, though from time to time, a couple kids would burst through the thicket, stare at Harry curiously, and wander away when their parents called. No one stayed to talk to him, though.
Harry was fine with that, though. He had put a lot of thought into what he would bring when he learned about this day trip. He'd brought basically everything he owned, including an extra set of clothing, just in case he got muddy. Uncle Vernon had refused to allow Harry into the car with dirty clothing before, and Harry didn't want to imagine how that might turn out this far from home.
He was playing with his toy soldiers now, the ones Dudley had melted in the microwave and abandoned. Harry was having them fight the trolls he'd created out of interesting shaped rocks he'd found. All of the soldiers had strange deformities from the microwave, but those were just war wounds. The trolls were winning, after all, and the soldiers would have to call in reinforcements soon. Harry cast his eye around the small clearing he'd settled in, wondering what would come to help the soldiers. Probably the green elves. He plucked a few small branches from an evergreen and stuck them on their ends in the ground near the soldiers. Elves were always good fighters, and they had magic. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia didn't like it when Dudley watched shows with magic in them, and they positively blew up when they caught Harry reading fantasy books, so Harry knew magic was something dangerous and important and amazing.
Harry became so completely engrossed in his game that by the time he looked up again, the slant of the sun through the trees was significantly angled. Packing his toys into his kknapsack, he examined his clothing and found that his trousers were a bit muddy. He took another couple minutes to change there in the wood; if he emerged from his hiding spot looking scruffy, Uncle Vernon would not be best pleased.
He decided to slip into the lav and straighten himself out a bit more before he found the Dursleys, but when he exited the wooded area and started walking toward the picnic site, he found that many of Uncle Vernon's coworkers and their families had already left. He walked faster, hitching his bag up on his shoulder. A foreboding feeling settled in the pit of his stomach as he neared the area where he had last left his relatives.
He slowed his steps as he crested the small hill they had been picnicking at the top of. Aunt Petunia would surely have something to say about his disappearance, and would probably make him clean up their area and pack the car by himself, now that there weren't so many people. Uncle Vernon would spend half the car ride home telling Harry how ungrateful he was. Dudley would kick him some more. And they would all-
Harry stopped in the center of the empty picnic site and looked around. Nearby was the nearly empty car park where the Dursley's car had stood just a few hours ago. Uncle Vernon's sensible sedan was nowhere in sight. Harry's lungs felt constricted, and his heart was pounding in a distant sort of way. He looked around and saw that most of the other picnickers were leaving. If one of them spotted him here...
Feigning normalcy, Harry ducked into the lavatories and locked himself in a stall. He sat on the tank with his feet on the seat and made himself stay quiet, forced down the little whimpers and harsh breaths that wanted to spill out of him. If one of the people from outside heard him in here, he'd be caught and they'd send him to the police. The Dursleys had told him awful things about the police and nothing Harry had heard elsewhere or seen on the television (when he was able to watch without the Dursleys noticing) shed a more positive light on the police finding him. He huddled into himself and bent his forehead to his knees, breathing harshly (but quietly) into his trouser leg, his head pounding a white staccato behind his eyelids.
He stayed there for what felt like hours, until all the noises of other people outside the lavatory went silent, and all he could hear was the wind rustling through the trees. Even after the silence had reigned for longer than Harry could keep track of, he stayed in the lavatory, doubled over, arms wrapped around his thighs, staring dully at the door to the stall. There was a lot of graffiti on it. 'Shawna is a bitch', and 'Jay woz here 1985' were scrawled in his direct line of sight. There was a deep gouge through Shawna's name. Harry waited, and when his throat stopped feeling quite so raw and his face was tight, but no longer wet, he unbent himself and climbed off the toilet. He couldn't stay here forever. Toilets had people to clean them. Someone would eventually find him.
He ducked outside and glanced around, scrubbing at his face. The sun had nearly set already, and there was no one in sight. Without stopping to consider his options, he veered off toward the woods where he had spent most of the day. He would regroup and make a plan there.
Harry reached the wood and climbed one of the trees as high as he could without feeling the tree start to lean. He hunkered down as the last rays of light died, his kknapsack secured firmly to his back. He hugged the trunk, pressing his face against it and feeling more grounded, and he thought. Now that he'd had some time to get over his initial panic, Harry had calmed down a bit.
For a kid his age, Harry had no illusions about his relatives. They didn't like him, they didn't love him, and they didn't care about him. He was a nuisance, that's all. When interacting with him, they spent most of their time trying to make him more useful, and spared no expense to let him know just how useless he actually was. If he wasn't doing chores, he was being punished for some offense or another. It made Harry a very pragmatic sort of six year old.
He knew the Dursleys hadn't just forgotten him. He knew they weren't coming back. It was dark already. They could have driven to Privet Drive and back at least twice in the time since he'd noticed their absence. He knew that the only way he was going to see Privet Drive again was through his own efforts. Vague plans of boarding a train or a bus filtered through his mind. Though he wasn't really sure how those things worked, he knew they must. People used them every day to get home.
But as Harry came back to himself, he slowly began to realize that he might not want to.
The Dursleys were awful. He dreamed daily of another family that would come and whisk him away, that would save him and love him and treat him like their own the way the other kids' families did, the way the Dursleys treated Dudley. He wanted badly to belong to someone else, mostly so that he wouldn't have to notice how much he didn't belong to the Dursleys.
Harry breathed in the calming scent of the trees around him and finally acknowledged the inevitable. He didn't have a family. He didn't have relatives anymore. All he had was himself, and really, that was all he'd ever had. He was no worse off than he had been before.
It was this thought, so completely novel and yet so obvious, that knocked Harry entirely out of the panic he had been in since he'd realised that the Dursleys were gone. He had everything he owned with him. He had a place to sleep for the night, and it wasn't as though he hadn't slept in a tree before. Aunt Marge's dogs had kept him up a tree overnight on more than one occasion. Suddenly exhausted, Harry managed to drift off, allowing himself to imagine that this was just another one of those times, that he was in the back garden and Ripper was pacing restlessly around in the roots, a low rumble in the back of his throat for whenever Harry shifted.
There was a town near the picnic site. This thought was foremost in Harry's mind when he woke the next morning, and as he climbed down from the tree, stiff but well rested, he considered how he might get there.
That was silly though. He was on his own now. Walking was the only option, really. Harry hitched his satchel up on his back and started off through the trees along the motorway, following the signs. As he went, he began to realize that obtaining food was important. He'd snitched a bit of food from Aunt Petunia as she put their picnic together yesterday morning, but he'd eaten all that already. He hadn't expected to have to make it last indefinitely. Usually there was a bit of warning for that sort of thing. Uncle Vernon's moods were fairly predictable.
As he thought about it, though, he realized that getting food would be easy. When the Dursleys decided not to feed Harry, all he had to do was nick their leftovers from the bin. Kids at his primary school threw out food too. He just had to find a school or a neighborhood where the garbage bins were accessible.
He reached the edge of the town as the sun reached its height in the sky, and considered his options. The main road in town was probably the best place to go at first, to figure out where the school was. He turned onto a larger road and followed it, certain that it would lead him where he needed to go. Sure enough, as he walked, the houses grew closer together and shops began to crop up.
He spotted a grocery and eyed it. There was food in there. And where there was food, there were people throwing food out. Harry had learned this at a young age. It was hard not to notice when everyone had extra but him.
He walked toward it cautiously, trying to figure out where they would keep the bins.
Harry learned within the couple weeks when the various food stores in town threw things out. There were other people that sometimes came to investigate the bins, and Harry made sure to stay well out of their way. He saw them sometimes, out of the way of the rest of the town, in the places he had thought would be safest to sleep or relax (until he saw they'd had the same idea). He didn't talk to anyone if he could avoid it. And he usually could.
He still didn't know what the town was called, but it hardly mattered. He was good at being unobtrusive, and knew enough to stay out of sight when the other kids his age would be in school. It was nearly summer and then he'd be able to move unimpeded for most of the day. Until then, he'd lie low.
He spent a lot of the day after school was out at the library in town. No one looked twice at a kid in a library. No one expected Harry to buy something or get out, and when the librarian saw him sitting at a table with a book she'd smile and leave him be. Harry nicked a couple 'Surviving in the Wilderness' books from the adult section and hid them inside picture books. He struggled through them, since he had only recently started reading books that didn't have pictures in them, but he thought he understood a fair amount of it. There were pictures, at least. Those helped. He learned a bit about how to keep himself warm at night, how to light fires, and what plants in the woods were definitely not edible. He smuggled the most useful book (the one with the most pictures) out of the library, and tore out the metal in the binding that made the library buzzer go off so that he could keep it in his knapsack without alerting suspicion.
After a while, Harry moved on from the survival books (though he kept his nicked guide). He read selectively from the children's section, whatever caught his eye that day, and eventually curiosity drove him to the adult section. His comprehension skills improved dramatically when one of the librarians pointed out the children's dictionaries and taught him how to use one.
Harry had two changes of clothing in his bag, which he wore until he couldn't ignore how dirty they were. The librarians had started looking at him askance. He had already spent some time thinking about this, though. The picnic site had been near a river, and Harry went back one day and washed his things on rocks, like the pictures in his 'Surviving in the Woods' books.
All in all, though it wasn't warm, it wasn't peaceful, and Harry spent a lot of time stressed, hungry, hiding, and lonely, he managed to get through several months living in the small town near the picnic area. He had just enough food and he was resourceful for a kid his age. More importantly, he was tiny, and he could fit places where others couldn't, which gave him a lot of hiding places where no one would think to look for him.
One of the older people who frequented the grocery's skip took an interest in Harry after the first month. He frequently tried to speak to Harry and follow him. Harry didn't like attention when he was still living with the Dursleys, but now even the sound of another person's voice directed toward him got his adrenaline up, and he ran away empty-handed a fair few times.
Tonight, Harry had had to wait for a couple people to leave before he could get to the bins himself, so he was already feeling antsy and ready to run. He climbed over the rim of the skip and dropped inside, hoping to fill his bag up and not have to come back until next week. There was some perfectly good bread, which Harry took, and a torn box of cereal that was only a little bit damp. He had just finished rooting through a bag half full of bruised, near rotten vegetables (everyone else had gotten all the decent stuff, so Harry was left to sort through and find a passable cucumber and a few apples), when he heard someone approaching.
He froze and crouched down further, peering out through a gap in the small square door in the side of the skip.
"Hey, kid." It was the older man that had been following him. Harry clutched his bag to his chest, squishing the bread. He didn't answer.
"Kid, you okay? You got any parents?"
Harry stared at the small door. His heart was pounding and his limbs were shaking. He willed the door to stay closed with all his might.
"I'm not gonna hurt you," the man said, though Harry ignored this. If the man wanted to talk to Harry, he was probably bad news. He was standing right outside the skip now. Harry pressed himself against the back corner, staring at the small door. The top of the skip was closed. His only way out was that little door, and Harry could see the man standing just outside it.
"It's okay, kid." The man put his fingers up to the gap and tried to open the little door. It wasn't budging. The man cursed and reached up to lift the top instead. Harry's heart leapt and he saw the man's scruffy face appear milliseconds before everything went dark and his entire body tensed like it was being squeezed through a drainpipe.
Harry gasped as he opened his eyes and found himself clinging to the trunk of a tree. Baffled, he took stock of his situation. He was perched on a branch forty feet above the ground on the other side of the car park. From this height, he could see the skip and the grizzled man standing in front of it, peering inside. Harry blinked. His knapsack was squeezed between him and the trunk, and though the food was squashed, it was still perfectly edible.
He took a few minutes to calm himself down, staring avidly at the old man in case he found Harry in the tree and came after him again. For his part, the man just stared into the skip for a bit longer, walked a full circuit around it, and eventually wandered off.
Once he left Harry's sight, walking in the opposite direction, Harry allowed himself to really relax. This was one of his safest hiding places. No one ever climbed trees to sleep but him, and no one in this town ever really looked up. Even if they did, the leaves obscured most of Harry's position. He decided to just stay here for the night, and worry about how he'd gotten there tomorrow.