Disclaimer - Harry Potter belongs to JK Rowling, not me. I'm not making any money for this.
Harry Potter was alone in the third bedroom in Number Four, Privet Drive. Downstairs, Aunt Petunia was clattering around the kitchen making lunch and Dudley was playing some kind of game involving gunshots and explosions on the Playstation in the living room. From outside came the high pitched whine of Uncle Vernon's hand-held car vacuum. If Harry looked out of his bedroom window into the front driveway, he would see Vernon's portly behind bulging out of the car door as he hoovered up crumbs from the seats. It was a peaceful sort of day, the kind you get in the middle of summer where it's very warm, but early enough in the day so that there's still a cool breeze and the sun shines a fresh, bright light on everything. Aunt Petunia's flowerbeds were thriving, the colourful heads of the flowers bobbing in the occasional puff of wind. There was a pleasant freedom in the air, the kind that one experiences when it is known there's nothing to be done urgently, and nothing at all to worry about, one that occurs yearly for most teenagers in Britain during the summer holidays.
Harry was not one of those participating in this annual sense of wellbeing. He felt trapped and stifled, bored and isolated. Except for meals and trips to the bathroom, he hadn't left his room for days and his room was starting to look very similar to the state it had been in last summer, before he had started his fifth year. Stale clothes lay discarded on the carpet, textbooks and parchment were strewn across his desk and on the floor. Ink pots, quills and various old potions ingredients were flung carelessly into the corners of the room, along with a large pile of Daily Prophets which were on the point of falling over into his empty trunk which he had kicked to the wall in anger and confusion as he'd unpacked a week ago.
Despite the gentle breeze that played across his face as he lay slumped over his writing desk, and despite the cheerful sunshine that shone onto the mess of his room, Harry felt tenser and angrier than he had been for as long as he could remember.
He had been trying so hard not to think about anything, just wanting to be at peace, but the fact was he was furious, and no amount of sleeping or studying was going to get rid of his anger. He'd spent the train journey back to King's Cross Station at the end of term in relative silence, smiling weakly at Ron's jokes and making noncommittal noises as Hermione discussed study plans for the summer, making Ron issue sounds such as 'It's not called the summer holidays for nothing Hermione! Honestly!"
He had remained silent on the journey home from King's Cross, avoiding the Weasley family on the platform and heading straight for the car park with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. He had barely heard Vernon's pointed remarks on Harry's ungratefulness and the cost of the petrol bill.
His head had been reeling from his discussion with Dumbledore after that night in the Department of Mysteries. The last couple of days left of term had not been enough for him to come to terms with Sirius's death, and even now there were times when he was crippled with grief and guilt. Ron and Hermione had given him the space he had needed, and he had wasted the last days of term avoiding them and running over the events of that night in his head until he couldn't bear it any longer.
How could he have been so stupid?
Sometimes he wondered if Gryffindor's traits were all that desirable. Courage and chivalry were all very well, but he had been rash and too panicked and desperate to save Sirius to stop and think. And then he had been too blind against his prejudice against Snape to even consider going to him for help. No, he had to run headfirst into a dangerous situation, bringing his school friends with him where they could have died. What had he been thinking? Ginny was brave but if she had died…she was so young! And Neville could barely hold a wand straight at times! He had never really paused to consider exactly what 'danger' meant, what it would mean for someone to die because of his stupidity. It now seemed as if it was a miracle that Ron and Hermione had survived being his friend for so long.
Sirius had fallen so easily through the veil, died in a heartbeat. It had been easier than falling asleep and Harry had been reminded, if indeed he had truly ever known, that death was a thing so horribly real and frightening, and it could happen at any moment to anyone.
He felt the weight of his own mortality in his hands.
A shard of the enchanted mirror lay on the floor beside his bed, leant against his Gryffindor scarf, the pointed end facing upwards, glistening in the sunlight. How easy it would have been to fall out of his bed, as he had done several times before during a nightmare - or a vision - and then that shard might have slid into his skin, perhaps slitting his throat, or into his brain, doing damage irreparable by magic.
It seemed ridiculous, after facing dragons and the basilisk, and Voldemort himself, that he should die of such a mundane thing as falling out of bed. But now he had a sharp sense of how easily it could happen, and he was suddenly aware of how incredible it was that he had survived his other exploits at all.
He thought back to the prophecy that had been haunting his mind ever since he'd heard it.
...neither can live while the other survives...a contradiction if there ever was one, thought Harry, and to top it off, the prophecy had been made, not by an experienced and trusted seer, but the batty Professor Trelawney. If the things she predicted always came true, he would have died several times over by now, according to her.
So far, Harry had no trouble believing that Trelawney would make some ridiculous 'prediction', that Voldemort was crazy enough to believe a word that came out of an unknown seer's mouth without checking her success rates. But what came as a shock was that Dumbledore believed it.
Harry couldn't make sense of this. He realised that there must be some real prophecies, and knew that there had been real seers, rare as they were. He would even admit that some of Trelawney's predictions did come true; for instance in the case of Wormtail retuning to Voldemort.
It was just that while he might consider taking one of Trelawney's predictions into consideration, he didn't want to bet his life on it. It didn't make sense that he was the only one able to kill Voldemort, surely if someone fired a gun at his heart he would die?
Now there's a thought…
At the time, Harry pushed aside his doubts, when had Dumbledore ever been wrong?
He'd tried to silence his fears and he and Dumbledore had moved on to discuss why it was not because of the prophecy that Harry must defeat Voldemort, but because Harry could never live with himself until he had avenged his parents and ensured the safety of his loved ones.
So Harry was, effectively, trapped. Not saved but trapped by his ability to love. If only he cared less, he could just escape Voldemort and lived his life in peace…but what was peace if he couldn't share it with those he loved?
Of course he wanted Voldemort dead, but he couldn't see any other sixteen year old defeating him, never mind himself. He just didn't know enough; he wasn't any stronger or smarter or more powerful than any of his classmates, all the things he had been though, he'd only survived by chance and with the help of others. He'd had his suspicions, but after these recent revelations, Harry was beginning to wonder if certain things in his life had been orchestrated to test and strengthen him. The incident with the Philosopher's Stone, hidden in a school of all places, with defences so shoddy that first years could best them, and how the Chamber of Secrets had remained open until he and his friends had dealt with the problem themselves, how oddly helpless Dumbledore had been when it had come to Harry being entered into the Triwizard Tournament…
He forced himself not to let in that thought any further. He didn't want to deal with it yet.
He, Harry, was to kill Lord Voldemort.
If he didn't, he'd be hunted by him for the rest of his life and it was extremely likely that everyone he loved would die, just like his parents and Sirius had, to protect him.
Sure, he wanted to avenge his parents and Sirius, but he didn't want to die doing it.
He remembered so clearly what had happened next, at his last meeting with Dumbledore. How could he not? It had been the pivotal point in his life.
He had asked Dumbledore how he could prepare himself to face Voldemort. His head had been spinning with ideas of advanced Defence lessons, difficult and tricky to master spells and hexes…
Dumbledore had surveyed him through those half moon glasses and replied, "For now, I do not think it is necessary to start anything. You cannot use magic at your aunt's home in any case."
"But -" Harry's heart had sunk like a rock "I was hoping I didn't have to -" to stay at Privet Drive, he finished silently, hopelessly. He knew right away there wasn't any point arguing.
"When you return to Hogwarts after the summer, however" Dumbledore continued as if he hadn't spoken "I expect you to apply yourself more than ever in class, and practise defence spells on your own as well of course. Additionally, I have some memories to share with you."
"Memories sir?" Harry asked quickly "What do you mean?"
"I will be showing you my memories of Tom Riddle as I knew him, both as a boy and as an adult. I believe," he raised a hand to stop Harry from interrupting him with questions "I believe this will help you to understand what to expect from him when you do try to destroy him, which is very important. Know thine enemy, Harry."
There was a silence as Harry had digested all this information. Maybe getting to know Voldemort was important, but surely he'd need some more practical information? Such as how to defeat one of the most powerful dark wizards of all time?
"But… will I be getting any advanced defence lessons? It's just I think I'll need to know more than what's being taught in class. And - " he tentatively brought back the conversation to what he really wanted to discuss "Maybe I could stay with the Weasleys for the summer - " Dumbledore began to look rueful and Harry quickly added "I mean, they're in the Order and can protect me well enough, and if I stayed with other wizards then I could practise defence spells over the summer … and the ministry couldn't detect underage magic while I'm with them!" he added excitedly as the idea struck him.
When the professor looked unmoved on his decision, Harry quickly tacked on "Voldemort won't wait 'till I'm of age, professor!"
The headmaster sighed, looking very sympathetic.
"Unfortunately Harry there are good reasons why the underage magic law is in place and I cannot overlook you just because you are the boy-who-lived."
Harry felt his cheeks grow warm, feeling embarrassed. He hadn't meant to imply that he was above the rules.
"I don't mean to say that you only wish to do magic for selfish reasons." Dumbledore said kindly "You are correct after all, you need to learn new skills, but I think it is far safer all round if you wait until your return to Hogwarts before you start experimenting with new and difficult spells. I'm afraid you cannot stay at the Burrow this year, it's simply not as safe as being under your mother's blood protection." Dumbledore settled back into his chair, looking at Harry serenely over his half moon glasses.
Misery swept through Harry. He just couldn't go back there, it was bad enough before, but with this latest news... he just couldn't be isolated all summer, knowing about the prophecy. Then a thought occurred to him. He felt his face growing warm again when he thought about telling Dumbledore about this, but he felt desperate. He didn't want to guilt him into doing what he wanted, but maybe if he just knew...
"Sir..." he began, and then stopped. Could he really say this? He didn't want everyone fussing over him if this got out.
"What is it Harry?" Dumbledore looked concerned, and even more so when Harry hesitated for even longer. The old wizard leant forward, his penetrating blue eyes on Harry's.
"Harry, you can tell me anything that is on your mind-"
"It's just that - the real reason I don't want to go back-" Harry burst out, then stopped to search for the right words.
"I – Hermione said a long time ago I should tell you about it, but I didn't want - "
"What's wrong Harry?" Dumbledore peered at him sharply, concern etched in the lines of his face.
Harry began to talk very quickly so he could get it all out faster. "Well I – obviously there are loads of reasons – I already told you, but most of all - " he closed his eyes.
"The Dursleys hate me sir, and I know that you must know this by now but after Sirius…" Harry took a steadying breath, and swallowed hard "and - and hearing about the prophecy - about what I have to do - I just can't go back to being alone again. They - "
He stared fixedly at the carpet.
" - they've put bars on my window, they lock me in my room for weeks sometimes and I don't get enough food half the time . . . I just can't go through that again."
There. He'd said it. It might have been three years ago that this had last happened but Dumbledore didn't need to know that, and after all, he was still subject to similar treatment. Even if Harry was used to being treated like that, as a headmaster Dumbledore couldn't possible ignore that sort of abuse, he couldn't send him back – but now the old wizard was talking again, his head bowed.
"I am deeply sorry Harry." Dumbledore raised his eyes to meet Harry's, and they looked old and tired. "I never wished for you to have to live with such treatment. It must have been a difficult burden to bear."
"Yes sir. I just don't want to go back" he answered quickly, desperately.
"Harry..." Dumbledore slowly shook his head, looking tired and old "I'm not sure you understand, my boy."
"Understand?" Harry was very confused and felt a deep sense of foreboding that he couldn't place.
"Harry…" The headmaster stopped for a moment, closing his eyes and looking pained. When he opened them, Dumbledore looked as if he were searching for the right words to soften a blow, and Harry felt something cold sink inside him.
"You are the only chance the wizarding world has against Lord Voldemort and you are in grave danger. How can I take you away from the strongest protection I can give you?"
The old man stood up and slowly walked over to him
"If anything were to happen to you, I would be sacrificing not only you, Harry, and I hope you know that you are very dear to me, but I would also be sacrificing every man, woman and child who fights against Lord Voldemort. If I were simply an ordinary old man I would do what I could to keep you happy, but as a headmaster, as the leader of the Order of the Phoenix I have to make difficult choices and sacrifices."
"I don't -" Harry began, then stopped when he saw Dumbledore's weary expression. "Sir..." he said, his voice shaking a little, hoping against hope that this man, who he trusted, was not going to say what he thought he was.
"In this case, I'm afraid the sacrifice is your happiness." Harry stared back unseeingly, and Dumbledore continued talking, his eyes averted and his voice old and tired.
"I have to sacrifice both of our happiness to save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives. If anything were to happen to you, Harry…I have to think of the greater good."
Harry listened, confused and shocked as he began to slowly realise what Dumbledore was saying.
"You must understand Harry…it will be hard, as this lesson is one best learnt through experience and it's a choice best made of one's own volition. But you are a man now … and it is the time to make choices. It is wrong of your relatives to do these things but between that and death…I'm afraid I have tried and failed to find stronger protection for you elsewhere. Sometimes we need to make sacrifices for the greater good. In this case, your safety in exchange for your comfort and happiness, and my conscience."
Harry felt his jaw drop slightly and his become strangely numb.
In Number four, as he thought over this moment, his mind always flew into turmoil, his head was spinning with thoughts so quickly he was unable to think. He knew about self-sacrifice, and he knew Dumbledore understood this, but it was one thing to know it and another to hear it as fact, that he must do it. He'd felt as if the stabilisers had been taken off, as if he had been thrown, alone into the unknown. Dumbledore cared more for finishing Voldemort than for Harry's happiness and well-being. Somewhere deep down, Harry knew that Dumbledore was at least partly right, but it was a shock to the system. Dumbledore was on the side of the light, of the Order, but now that Sirius was dead, there was no protector or guardian who was solely on Harry's side, who cared about Harry's happiness above all else.
Harry felt raw, abandoned, first by Sirius and now by Dumbledore. He had no wish to think of 'the greater good'. He had never wanted more than to simply be normal and to be loved, yet now he had a 'destiny' that would probably lead him to his death, and he was being denied the right to live a normal, happy life at all.
From what had seemed like a long distance away, Dumbledore was still speaking.
"I will not condone the abuse and I will personally have a word with the Dursley family, but you must live with them during the summer, at least for the majority of it -"
"No." Harry had interrupted, his voice empty, his mind still ringing with the injustice of it all.
"It won't help - you talking to them, it'll just make it worse for me if they feel threatened."
What was the point, he didn't care what they did to him, he just didn't want to have to go back with them, and if he couldn't do that, then what did anything matter? They weren't starving him anymore anyway, he much preferred their indifference.
"Sir – I think I'll just go back to Gryffindor to pack."
He stood and turned to go, mind numb.
"Harry!" suddenly Dumbledore was behind him, voice urgent, but he kept walking anyway "You must believe me when I say that I do not minimise your suffering. I will come and fetch you from your relatives as soon as I can, but you must stay there, at least for part of the summer."
Harry kept walking
Slumped at his desk, alone in his room in a house where he was more than not welcome, after weeks of summer with nothing but letters for company, Harry had never felt more alone.
In front of him, Dumbledore's letter swum before his eyes
. … You are being guarded by an Order member at all times - do not seek them out, they are under cover….…I endeavour to keep you updated with Voldemort's actions as much as possible…
And here, always in the last two paragraphs of Dumbledore's letter, was the part which Harry always dreaded to read yet had forced himself to read it again and again.
…a family of four in Birmingham - tortured, killed -muggles, two muggle girls in Dorchester - raped, tortured, killed, a wizarding family of three in Edinburgh, all killed, probably tortured - the bodies are mutilated beyond recognition, a fifty-year-old muggle-born witch in Cardiff - tortured, killed, five teenage muggles in Carlisle - tortured and killed, the girls were raped…
At first, when he had read the letter, he had been shocked. Afterwards he had felt a little grateful to Dumbledore, that he had finally included Harry in all of this information that the Order must also know.
But then, after the first few letters, when Harry began to think properly about the information he was receiving, rather than just being sickened, he had realised that this was news without being news at all. It told him nothing about what Voldemort might be planning next, what Dumbledore suspected was his next major move. This…information, it seemed to be the day-to-day entertainment schedule for the Death-Eaters rather than real information. It was, Harry thought dully, Dumbledore's way of letting Harry know why he must sacrifice his own happiness for the greater good.
"Boy!" came Aunt Petunia's screeching voice from downstairs. Harry, having been addressed thus for the last sixteen years of his life was in no doubt as to who she was summoning, but he didn't move an inch, but continued to stare blankly at Dumbledore's letter, wondering when the next one would arrive, if ever.
He heard Aunt Petunia's footsteps coming upstairs, followed by several sharp raps at the door.
"Boy! Come downstairs! Your uncle and I want to speak to you!"
Harry groaned into his folded arms. Petunia had been trying in vain to get Harry to carry out his usual chores, but so far he had simply ignored them. Clearly she had now appealed to Vernon.
"BOY!" came Uncle Vernon's characteristic bellow from downstairs, and Harry clenched his fists. Judging by their tones, he couldn't see them relenting this time. He dragged himself to his feet and running his fingers through his uncombed hair, made for the door. Heavy footsteps thundered up the stairs. Harry glanced at himself in the mirror on the side of the wardrobe. He looked like death warmed up: pale, thin, with black marks under his eyes, which seemed duller than normal.
THUD THUD THUD.
Harry jumped back as Vernon started hammering his fist on the door.
"Open up right this minute!"
Harry did so, and stared dispassionately back at the short, stout man who glared back at him, moustache quivering with anger.
I could have lived with Sirius.
"Get yourself downstairs in the kitchen!" he barked "Your Aunt and I want to get some things straight about how things happen in this house! Show some respect!"
Harry plodded down the stairs wearily and stepped into the bright kitchen, wrinkling his nose as the stench of thick bleach assaulted his senses. Aunt Petunia appeared to be in the middle of cleaning as usual, but she had put aside her gloves and apron and was now glaring at Harry. Through in the living room, Dudley was wedged into the leather recliner, clutching a large packet of crisps, his piggy eyes fixed on the television.
"We've had it!" Vernon snapped, and Harry's attention snapped back to his aunt and uncle abruptly. "You've done nothing but laze about since you got back from that freakish school, and we're not having it! Your aunt has told you repeatedly to help around the house, and you've had the cheek to ignore her!"
Harry stared dully back. He wasn't about to change his routine now. He refused to cater to the whims of these people, he wasn't doing them any harm by staying quiet in his room.
"If you think this is how things are going to continue this summer, you've got another thing coming, boy! From now on, you'll do everything that your aunt and I ask you to, is that clear?"
"Whatever." Harry said, the first words he had spoken all summer, and turned to go.
"No!" Vernon bellowed, and Harry felt a meaty palm clamp down on his shoulder and wheel him back around "Don't you dare speak to me in that to-"
"Get your filthy hands off me!" Harry snapped, feeling something break inside of him at the contact. He felt quietly revolted at Vernon's touch, this small minded man who had never done a thing for another person in his life. He hadn't tried laying a hand on him since he'd started Hogwarts, and that'd he'd done so now caused something inside him to flare up. Vernon had mistaken Harry's state of grieving for weakness.
"How dare -!" Aunt Petunia shrieked, but Harry cut her off, ignoring Uncle Vernon, who seemed to be swelling with rage, his usually red skin turning an unpleasant purple shade.
"What the hell did you think I was, when they left me on your doorstep, some kind of personal slave?" Harry said impulsively, his voice sharp, then felt an odd satisfaction as his eyes passed over his aunt and uncle's outraged faces.
The television in the living room fell silent.
"Now listen here, BOY!" Uncle Vernon thundered, making Harry's eardrums pop "I'm going to personally make sure that you're very sorry you even considered speaking to us that tone -"
"Shut UP!" Harry bellowed back, and then the hot rage that had been simmering deep inside him all week boiled over. Vernon's words were ridiculous, the stupid fat man was so obviously frightened of Harry that his words meant nothing.
"Do you actually think you can scare me?" he shouted "You fat, pathetic bastard!"
The atmosphere changed abruptly, and Vernon sputtered pathetically, his hue deepening to a deep violet, but Harry continued.
"That's right, don't try and deny it, you've never done anything worth anything in your sad life!"
Harry felt taller, he felt as if his muggle family was cowering in front of him - but Petunia still had spite written all over her face.
"Don't you dare act as if we haven't fed or clothed you for the last sixteen years -" she shrieked
"I am a regional manager at Grunnings you ungrateful whelp!" Vernon shouted suddenly "More than you or your disgusting parents ever-"
"Oh really?" Harry said in a forced calm tone "My parents were employed by the government to fight dark wizards, risking their lives every day to save people. And you think selling drills compares to that?"
"If you expect us to believe your parents were ever anything more than a pair of useless drunks - " Vernon started, but Harry cut him off with a scornful laugh, even as he saw a myriad of sneering Draco Malfoys do the same in his head. Harry was so angry… he knew he could be like this, he'd always known. He'd just never considered trying to behave in this way, letting his anger out.
For a moment Harry felt panic as he stared back at his relatives' furiously terrified faces and remembered the darkness, being locked in the cupboard, night after night with the empty feeling in his stomach. It almost overwhelmed him, he felt himself cower slightly before he conjured his inner Malfoy into his head, and straightened up.
"I don't care what you believe, Uncle Vernon! Why would I care what a nobody thinks? My parents - even I've contributed more to the world than you!"
"As if anyone would care-" Petunia snapped
"I'm famous in my world!" Harry blurted out, feeling weirdly bolstered by the fact, "Can you imagine how many people do care? Did you ever think what those freaks would do to you if they knew how you've treated me?"
He felt light with triumph as he said this. He had never said such things about himself before, but he felt immensely better now that he had.
"You've seen it, the way other wizards look at me. I've let you get away with treating me the way you have."
He felt like a boasting child, but coldly, Harry realised this was the truth. Dumbledore would not remove him from the Dursley's home, but he had offered to make them treat him better. If he had told someone the truth before…
Meanwhile, Vernon was beginning to look angrier and angrier. Harry felt a sudden shock of fear yet again, but he pushed away those feelings. He was never going to feel intimidated by these people again. He shook himself mentally and spoke. "It's going to stop." he said firmly, "I'm not going to let you walk all over me again."
"Poppycock!" Vernon bellowed "We'll treat you the way you deserve! And I don't believe a word of it! Look at you! If you were half of these things, why don't you go and stay with one of your fans?"
"I have to stay here." Harry replied steadily
"Feed you own sorry self then!" Petunia shrieked, her face looking quite deranged "You won't be stealing food out of Duddy's mouth anymore!"
"It would do Duddykins a world of good if someone intercepted his food supply." Harry said dryly.
Vernon's face darkened.
"Get out of my house this instant!" he bellowed, pointing a quivering finger towards the front door.
Harry ignored him and went back upstairs. He strode over to his trunk and pulled out the invisibility cloak, his money pouch and his Gringotts key.
He was just about to leave when he realised that Vernon's fat body was blocking his door frame and in three heavy strides his uncle was in front of him, a new expression on his face: fury mixed with something else.
He stepped back, reaching for his wand, but a sweaty hand closed on his neck, and before his hand could close over the stick of holly wood, he was pushed backwards and he hit the wall, his shoulder colliding painfully with the cupboard.
Harry had taken beatings before, this was nothing new - even if it had been a few years since the last one, so he simply scrambled to his feet, intending to make a dash for the door.
But Vernon was charging towards him, and Harry heard his shirt rip as Vernon grabbed him by the collar.
"You will never speak to us in that tone of voice again." Vernon's voice was quiet and threatening, and Harry felt an unexplainable chill in his stomach. Something was different.
He was shoved roughly into a corner, and this time it was his cheek that took the brunt of the blow. Vernon's hand was pressing so tightly around his neck, pushing it so hard against the wall, that Harry though his nose might break.
Harry felt Vernon's musty breath in his ear as his face was pushed harder against the wall.
"Leave. And don't you ever come back." Vernon spat, and Harry could feel the spittle hit his cheek.
Then the pressure on his head was gone, and Harry fell away from the wall, his face throbbing. He could hear Vernon's footsteps move across the room, and as he began to pick himself up, he was startled by the noise of his uncle dragging his Hogwarts trunk across the floor.
"What 're you-" Harry began croakily, then leapt to his feet as with a tremendous volley of crashes, his trunk was hurled down the stairs.
"Out!" Vernon shouted, pointing to the door, finger quivering "OUT!"
He walked until he was sure he was far away enough so that none of the Order members who were watching over the house would notice.
Then he stopped, breathing heavily, to think.
Well, he hadn't expected things to go that far.
He felt shaken, which was understandable. It had been a long time since Uncle Vernon had frightened him - really frightened him, that is. His skin was still tingling with the shock - but now was not the time to think of that. Who knew how long he had to get under cover…
He was fine. He had to be.
Harry took a deep breath, and looked around. After checking no one was watching, he pulled the cloak off, and stuck his wand out over the road, flattening his fringe over his scar as he did so.
A bright purple triple-decker bus appeared out of thin air and Harry forced a grin. Now was not the time to panic.
As Stan Shunpike stepped out of the bus, he stepped past him, shoving several galleons into Stan's hands and said "The Leaky Cauldron, please."
He'd hope Stan would take the bribe without any questions, but behind him he heard him say excitedly
"Hey Ern! It's Ha-"
"My name's Neville!" he said loudly turning around. Speaking out loud seemed to break the spell on him, and he felt a bit more normal. "Neville Longbottom."
"But-" Stan began confusedly, then he looked down at the galleons and smirked, a knowing look came into his eye "Oh! Of course! Righ' you are, Nev!"
Grinning widely, Stan gestured towards the nearest chair, but Harry ignored him, heading for the far corner of the bus, something he came to regret once the bus took off, as every time it braked, all the chairs and their occupants slid towards the front of the bus and when it stopped they slid back again rather violently. By the time they came to the Leaky Cauldron, Harry could feel bruises forming on his knees.
Harry made his way stealthily through the pub to Tom the barkeep, and when the old man turned to him he asked, very politely, where he could find an owl to take a letter for him.
"For you, Mr Potter, you may use my owl free of charge." Tom said cheerily, his wizened face bright with a smile.
Harry thanked him and smiled, but inside he was cursing. He'd forgotten to flatten his fringe again - how was he supposed to get out of here without being spotted?
Thankfully he remained unnoticed at least until Tom supplied him with a quill and a piece of parchment and he backed into a dark corner of the pub to write to Dumbledore.
He'd been thinking of what to write for the duration of his journey on the Knight Bus, but he still couldn't seem to get the words down.
I've been kicked out of Privet Drive by my uncle. I know you'll probably want to send me back, but I think this is it. I'll be at Ron's house.
It wasn't amazing, but it would do. He'd stay at The Leaky Cauldron tonight, and then floo to the Burrow in the morning. He still didn't feel quite right, after his confrontation with Uncle Vernon, and he felt as if he should sort out his emotions before being surrounded by so many noisy, questioning Weasleys.
In fact, the more he thought about it, he wished he hadn't told Dumbledore where he was going. He suddenly didn't fancy company at all.
Well, I can always owl later and let them know I'll be another day or two, he decided.
After installing his trunk in a small but comfortable room, it was starting to grow light, so Harry walked stealthily into Diagon Alley, keeping one hand on his wand and the other in his pocket, clutching his invisibility cloak. He hoped against hope there were no Death Eaters around, and no Weasleys either. He had wondered whether he should wear his cloak, but then dismissed the idea - there was nowhere to hide to take it on and off, and it was unlikely the Gringotts goblins would serve him while he was invisible.
He kept his head down and hurried towards the wizarding bank. To his dismay, he saw that the few early morning customers were being patted down with secrecy sensors. Harry paused, doubts forming in his head for the first time since leaving Privet Drive. What on earth was he doing? All it would take was one exclamation of 'It's Harry Potter!' and any Death Eater in the vicinity would make a beeline for him. He'd left the Order members keeping an eye on him back in Privet Drive…he was on his own now.
But he couldn't turn back.
A vision of Uncle Vernon's sneering meaty face shimmered in his mind's eye.
There was nothing for it.
He stepped forward as the witch and wizard in front of him were checked at the entrance to the bank, but luckily the guard who raised his sensor and moved towards him didn't recognise him; Harry had flattened his hair over his scar carefully. His eyes passed over Harry's face disinterestedly and he began to run the sensor over Harry's clothes in a bored, half-hearted fashion.
"On you go," he said finally, nodding towards the door, and Harry continued feeling relieved. Once inside, he tried not to catch anyone's eye, and headed for the nearest free goblin and placed his key on the desk.
"I'd like to withdraw some money from my account," Harry said " but can I have it in muggle money?"
The goblin looked up, taking the key. "Name?"
The goblin examined the key for a moment.
"And how much muggle currency do you require?"
Harry thought quickly. He wanted a lot of money, but how much?
"Could you tell me how many Galleons I have in my account?"
"Certainly." the Goblin scowled and reluctantly hopped off his stool and disappeared through a nearby door. He returned with a sheaf of papers in his knobbly hands.
Harry felt a little faint at the number the goblin quoted. "Um. Could I have…" he thought for another second. Surely it wouldn't hurt… "One thousand pounds? And – fifty galleons, please."
"Of course." the goblin seemed unfazed "We charge one galleon for even ten pounds converted. That comes to a total of one hundred galleons?" he looked at Harry enquiringly.
"That's fine." he replied blankly, stomach churning. What am I doing?
The goblin clicked his fingers and a smaller goblin approached them. He whispered something to the goblin, who then hurried off abruptly. Within minutes he reappeared holding a leather purse, which he handed to the first goblin, who then removed a sheaf of fifty-pound notes from it and took a bag of galleons from behind his desk and pushed it towards Harry.
"As you are buying muggle currency you need not visit your vault for your galleons. We will deduct the correct amount later. Would you like to check that everything is in order, Mr Potter?" the goblin handed Harry the money who quickly counted that there were twenty notes, and glanced quickly into the bag of gold coins.
"That's great." Harry said, and pocketed the money.
"If sir would just sign this receipt?"
Harry quickly signed the slip of paper on the desk and smiled weakly as the goblin bid him good day.
What am I doing?
Harry darted furtively back into the Leaky Cauldron, his school supplies to be owled to him later and his new robes in a brown paper bag under his arm. He was yet to receive Dumbledore's owl, so he was heading out into muggle London. He had a vague plan which had occurred to him in the night, which was the reason for the heavy wad of fifty pound notes in his pocket, but it was beginning to seem silly.
He looked down at his baggy muggle clothing flapping in the breeze. He had been wearing these rags like a house elf, as if he belonged to the Dursleys, as if he acknowledged himself as a lesser being, as if he accepted being their slave.
No more. Harry was starting over.
He had to rely on himself. And the first thing he intended to do was establish himself as his own person. He needed to cheer himself up, and he needed to feel confident in taking this big step out into the wide world alone.
He snorted. As if his aunt and uncle had ever been supportive! But at least he'd had a home. Now, Harry was officially homeless - or, if he chose, he could make his own home.
But every time he saw his dirty, tired face in the mirror he felt as if he'd taken a step too far. Could he really handle this? He felt like a runaway child, and his time was running out before Dumbledore came to reign him in.
He needed something to prove to himself that he was a person just as capable of being independent as Hermione. No one would ever doubt that she couldn't handle living in the real world independently - she more or less already did, what with living in a different society from her own parents. She bought her own books, managed her own Gringotts account, and knew more about life in wizarding society than Harry.
He needed to get a grip on his own life, starting from now. And he needed to believe he could do it.
And moreover, he felt awful. His hair was greasy, his shoes were too tight, his stomach was growling, but looking at the delicious lunches the Tom made had had him feeling queasy, and worst of all he looked like a street urchin.
Harry hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to the nearest shopping centre.
He was dropped off on a busy street filled with muggle shoppers with bulging carrier bags. The taxi driver had pointed out the right building to him, and he hurried towards it, but the shop beside it caught his eye.
It was an opticians. As he paused outside it, a saleswoman clutching a wad of leaflets hurried over.
"Are you thinking about laser eye surgery?" she asked quickly, pressing a leaflet into his hands "We offer treatments for only two hundred pounds, if you sign up today."
"Um." Harry had no idea what laser-eye surgery was, but it didn't sound pleasant. "Actually - I thought - well I suppose I wanted a new pair of glasses-"
"Excellent!" the woman cut in, motioning towards the shop "Would you like me to show you our range? You could walk away today with a designer frame for as little as a ninety pounds!"
As 'little'? Harry wondered if he had made the right decision by only taking out only a thousand pounds. Wordlessly, he followed the saleswoman into the shop.
"Geek-chic is very in right now." she bubbled, passing him an oversized pair or red frames to try on. Harry stared at himself doubtfully in one of the mirrors on the wall.
"I don't think I need to look too much more like a geek." he said firmly, handing them back and casting his eye over the array of spectacles on the walls.
"Well, how would you like to look?" the saleswoman enthused "Sexy, sophisticated?" she passed him a pair of square frames.
Harry tried them on uncomfortably. He just wanted to buy any pair of glasses and to get out of there as soon as possible. He looked in the mirror and cringed, then as he turned back to the saleswoman, his eye lit on a poster.
Time for a change? Try contact lenses! A pretty lady with a sparkling smile stared glassily at him from the wall. How odd it was when pictures didn't move.
"Would you like to try some contacts instead?" the saleswoman prompted helpfully, following his gaze.
"Erm - how much-?"
"We have disposable lenses, which are cheaper, and ones that will last you up to a month…"
A full half-hour later Harry escaped from the shop, clutching a bag containing his old glasses and several spare sets of contacts to last him through the school year. He was wearing a free, trial pair of lenses which he could barely feel, and although he felt naked without his glasses he was determined to give his new look a go. He wondered if there was a wizarding equivalent of contacts, and resolved to look into it.
Suddenly a barber shop caught his eye and he began to move hastily towards the shopping centre before he made any more drastic decisions - but then a flicker of movement caught his eye and he spun around, reaching for his wand.
It was only an owl.
He breathed a sigh of relief, but tensed up as he remembered what it would be about.
Would Dumbledore try to send him back? Or was the owl being tracked, was he about to be surrounded by Order members and forced to explain how he'd got himself into this mess?
He stepped back into an alleyway, hoping to avoid the attention of muggles as the owl landed on his arm. He fumbled with the letter until he had detached it and unfolded it. The owl flew away.
Your relatives have been spoken to, and they are now under the impression that if they cause you any harm, alarms will summon me to the premises.
This is, of course, not true, as I need a sample of both yourself and each of your relatives' hair to complete the enchantment. I have their samples, and if you wish for me to follow through with the charm, you may send me yours.
Your uncle and aunt were not at all pleased, and were rather vehement about the fact that you had been unforgivably rude to them. As such, I have promised them that you will provide an apology, in return for their allowing you to return. Please do not let me down.
Kingsley Shacklebolt will collect you from the Burrow tomorrow at one o' clock in the afternoon, so please be ready.
It worries me that you saw fit to leave the safety of your home, when you could simply have shouted from your garden for the Order members guarding your street. They would have contacted me immediately for you and I would have helped calm down the situation. I can only assume that you had forgotten of their presence in your hurry. It is imperative to keep you safe, please be more careful Harry.
Please owl me at any time if you need anything - anything at all.
Harry swallowed, before screwing up the parchment and stuffing it into his pocket.
His stomach felt hollow, and he wished that he had eaten something now.
He left the alley way and walked towards the shopping centre again, feeling horribly alone. He hadn't told Dumbledore exactly what had happened, so why was it a surprise that he had been sent back to his relatives?
He felt as if his chance to make a new and frightening start had passed. He forced himself to feel relieved. No one would know now. The wad of money hung heavy, untouched in his jeans pocket. No harm done.
This was probably a good thing. Who did he think he was, taking a thousand pounds from his parents money?
He stared at the bulge in his pocket, and was surprised at just how strong the disappointment welling up inside of him was.
Had he really been that keen to start his life independently?
He began to walk slowly out of the alley way, thinking hard.
He'd always wanted to leave the Dursleys, and for a moment he'd let his overactive imagination believe he finally had. He'd always had vague thoughts of living with Ron, and for a short time, Sirius, but today for the first time, he'd thought about true independence.
Maybe it was because he was finally of age, in the muggle world at least.
He wasn't a muggle though. If he was, maybe he'd have sat his muggle exams and have done well enough to merit a job with decent wages. The Dursleys would never have let him stay at school, he would have been kicked out as soon as he'd hit working age - now.
Maybe that was partly why Uncle Vernon had decided to do it? Theoretically, Harry could make his own way in the world. What if he did?
Harry's mind raced. He could get muggle work during the summer holidays to supplement his Gringotts vault. He was old enough to get a flat! It would work, if only Dumbledore…
His heart sank. If only Dumbledore didn't come and find him and take him back to the Dursleys, as he surely would if Harry wasn't at the Burrow tomorrow at 1pm.
He had a realistic idea of his chances at evading the headmaster for a whole summer.. Perhaps if he had time to research an anti-tracking charm of some sort, and went around in disguise…
But then, he thought, if I can hide at least until term starts - only two weeks - I can spent the whole year researching things like that!
He stood at the edge of the alley, watching the chattering shoppers go about their mundane lives. He so badly wanted to do this, all of a sudden. Now that the idea had occurred to him, he thought it would drive him mad, sitting alone in his room at Privet Drive when he could be out here, living his life.
He was sure it wouldn't work. He wanted to do it though, if only for a few days of freedom before being caught.
A grin working its way onto his face, he stepped out into the sun.