“Ow! Dudley, stop!” cried the smaller of the boys who were tussling on the grass under a large tree. The blond woman with them glanced up at the sound, shifted on the park bench and slowly lowered her pale eyes back to the magazine she was reading.
The bigger boy, Dudley, tightened his grip on a chunk of his cousin’s messy, black hair and gave him shake for good measure. “Make me,” he sang, a grin spreading across his pink face.
Harry glanced up at his aunt, who was pointedly ignoring them and then back at his tormentor. He sighed and pinched Dudley’s fat arm. His cousin howled and let go while Harry rolled away and sprang to his feet, ready to- “What did you do?” his Aunt Petunia demanded, hurrying over.
“He-He hurt me-e-e!” Dudley wailed, scrunching up his face. Aunt Petunia inspected the little red mark on his arm, kissed it better and rounded on her nephew.
“He pulled my hair,” Harry said defensively.
“Perhaps if it wasn’t so long, he wouldn’t have been able to,” she snapped. She grabbed a handful in her bony fingers and gave a tug, rather harder than her son had. Tears –real ones, not fake ones like Dudley’s – sprang up in Harry’s eyes. “It needs a cut. Tonight, I’ll-”
“M-mum!” Dudley sobbed.
“I know, Popkin,” she said, adopting a kinder tone the minute she stopped talking to Harry. “Here, up we get.” Dudley reached up to her, obviously wanting to be carried. Aunt Petunia took her son’s hand instead. She’d long since stopped carrying him, claiming he was too old for that. Harry suspected it had more to do with his cousin’s size, and that if Dudley wasn’t so fat, his Aunt would still carry him everywhere. “Don’t come back until you’ve thought about what you’ve done,” she called without turning. Dudley looked over his shoulder as the pair of them left the playground and gave Harry a smug look.
“Yes, Aunt Petunia,” Harry muttered, kicking the grass. He swiped his tears away, made his way over to the swings and sat down, one hand wrapping around the chain, his feet making holes in the bark-chips. He already knew what he’d done wrong – he’d hurt Dudley – but there was no way he was going back to Number Four for quite some time; he knew from past experience that, the moment he got home, he’d be locked in his cupboard for the night and being bored at a playground was better than being bored at home.
“Excuse me?” Harry looked up, startled, to see a tall man – yes, it was definitely a man, even if he was wearing a dress - with shaggy, shoulder-length black hair standing next to him. The man’s grey eyes were distant and intense all at once and vaguely familiar but Harry didn’t know where from. “Is that seat taken?” the man asked quietly, pointing to the other swing. His voice was friendly, but scratchy as if he hadn’t used it in a while; it matched the man’s gaunt appearance.
“No,” Harry said. “You can sit down if you like,” he added, when the man made no move to do so. He was just staring at Harry, looking happy and sad at the same time.
“Thank you,” the man said, sitting. Harry nodded and went back to staring at his trainers. “My name’s Padfoot.”
“Harry,” Harry said, frowning slightly as he looked up. “Do I know you from somewhere?” he heard himself ask.
“Maybe,” the man – Padfoot – said nonchalantly. “I’ve been on the news recently.”
“Oh,” Harry said. He’d heard that tone before – Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon used it when people came to the house – it meant he wasn’t lying, but that he was leaving something out. “What for?”
Padfoot was quiet for a long time. “I broke out of prison,” he admitted, with a sheepish smile. Harry’s eyes widened. He leapt off the swing, backing away from the strange man with the strange name in his strange clothes. Harry’s eyes flicked toward the general area of his house. He was fast thanks to years of practice at running away from Dudley but he didn’t think he would be able to get there before Padfoot caught him. “I’m not going to hurt you, Harry,” Padfoot said, patting the swing. Harry watched him warily. “I promise,” Padfoot said smiling as he patted the seat again. “I just want to talk.”
Harry sat, unable to help but feel a little suspicious. “Why?”
“You seem like a nice kid. Maybe we can be friends.”
“Friends?” Harry asked, his eyebrows shooting up. He’d never had a friend before. Dudley had made sure of that. “But you- prison-” He was a little tempted to befriend the man, purely to see the look on his Aunt’s face is he bought this criminal in his strange, dirty clothes home.
Padfoot sighed. “Have you ever been in trouble for doing something you didn’t do?” Harry nodded slowly. That happened to him all the time. Once, he had been running away from Dudley and his gang and ended up on the roof of the school kitchens. He had no idea how it had happened – all he could think was that when he’d jumped to hide behind the big rubbish bins, the wind had caught him. And, only last week he’d had to take that school report home to inform the Dursleys about the incident with Mrs Peterson’s wig; today was the first day since then that he’d been let out of his cupboard. “It was like that.”
“Did it help that you told them you didn’t?” If they were anything like the Dursleys, it wouldn’t have.
“I didn’t have a chance,” Padfoot said, fiddling with his frayed sleeve. “No one listened because they were so bloody- er... angry,” he amended with a quick glance at Harry who smirked, “and they wouldn’t have believed me anyway.”
“I believe you,” Harry offered. Padfoot didn’t seem like the sort of person who deserved to be locked up.
“Thanks, kid,” Padfoot said, smiling. Harry nodded. “So, what about you? Ever broken out of prison?” Harry laughed and shook his head. His cupboard was more or less a prison but he wasn’t meant to talk about it. “What do you like to do, then?”
“Er...” Harry said, “well, I cook a lot.” He didn’t particularly enjoy cooking – at least not for the Dursleys – but he’d rather cook than weed the garden or help Dudley tidy his spare bedroom.
“Do you read?” Padfoot asked. “Play any sports?”
Harry hesitated. He was always picked last in team games – just last week, Ben Forster who had a broken arm had been chosen before him – and he was always the first one out in games like dodge-ball, not due to lack of skill, but because Dudley and his gang always targeted him first, even if they were on the same side. “I suppose I like sports but I don’t get to play very often and Dudley doesn’t read so we don’t have many books.”
“Why don’t they buy you your own books?” Padfoot asked slowly. Harry shrugged. Padfoot stared at him. “Your clothes,” he said finally, running a hand over his chin, “were they Dudley’s?” Harry nodded, plucking a loose strand off his too-big jumper. “Do you have anything that’s yours?”
“There’s nothing wrong with hand-me-downs,” he said dutifully repeating Aunt Petunia’s words. He started to kick the bark-chips again.
“Never said there was,” Padfoot said quickly. He was quiet for a bit and then asked, “If you could have one thing – anything – what would it be?”
Harry, who’d never been asked such a question before wasn’t quite sure what to say. He took a moment to think about his answer and then said, “My parents.” He didn’t really mind that he was talking to a complete stranger. Padfoot watched him sadly. “They died in a car crash when I was a baby.”
“C-car-crash?” Padfoot choked. “A car crash?”
“Yeah,” Harry said. “I don’t remember it but that’s where I got my scar.” He brushed his fringe aside but Padfoot didn’t look, which was odd. Most people Harry met seemed fascinated by it, even if he didn’t show it first. Harry felt himself liking Padfoot more by the moment. He, aside from Mrs Figg, was the only person who didn’t treat him like dirt, or, alternatively, with awe, neither of which Harry particularly liked.
“Car crash?” Padfoot said again, louder this time. Harry couldn’t quite place his tone, but at a guess, he would have said he was shocked and maybe even angry. “They told you it was a car crash?!” Harry nodded apprehensively; he’d spent enough time around his cousin and Uncle to recognise a tantrum brewing. Padfoot stood suddenly. “Are you coming?” he asked, already striding across the grass.
Harry got up and followed after a moment’s hesitation; he’d expected yelling – what for he didn’t quite know – and he didn’t quite know what to make of this calm fury. “Where are we going?”
“Your house,” Padfoot said briskly.
“My-my house?” Harry repeated, just to make sure he’d heard right.
Padfoot didn’t answer; he was muttering about something called Dumbledore and stupid muggles, neither of which made any sense to Harry. He walked without talking all the way down Magnolia Road – Harry jogging to keep up – then hesitated on the corner of Magnolia Crescent. “Which way now?” he asked.
“I’m not supposed to bring strangers home,” Harry said.
“I know your aunt,” Padfoot said impatiently. “Petunia, isn’t it? Tall, skinny woman. Married to Vernon, a fat bloke with no neck and an ugly moustache.”
“That’s them,” Harry said, trying not to laugh. He led Padfoot – who was still muttering about car crashes - down Magnolia Crescent, through the side alley onto Wisteria Walk and then onto Privet Drive. At this point Padfoot seemed to recognise the street and led Harry all the way to Number Four’s driveway. He paused by the door and then, with an oddly triumphant look, jabbed the doorbell.
“James didn’t even own a damn car!” he growled as they waited.
“James?” Harry said. “Wait, did you know my-?”
“Took you long enough!” he heard Aunt Petunia say as the locks on the door clicked. “Go apologise to Diddy and then you can go and stir the- Oh!” she said, as she opened the door and saw Padfoot. Her pale eyes narrowed as they drifted over his unusual clothes, and then up to his face. Aunt Petunia never forgot a face. “What did you do?” she hissed, spotting Harry who froze in the driveway.
“I d-” Harry stammered.
“A car crash?” Padfoot said softly. Aunt Petunia paled. “You told him that Lily and James died in a car crash?”
“Get inside,” she snapped, jabbing a bony finger at Harry. “Go to your cu- room,” she said, her eyes flicking to Padfoot. “That Dumbledore man promised your kind would leave us alone. You aren’t welcome here.” Harry, who was walking very slowly toward the door, - trying to hear as much as possible - wondered who or what Padfoot’s ‘kind’ was.
“I’m not welcome in a lot of places at the moment,” Padfoot said, folding his arms.
“Inside!” Aunt Petunia snapped at Harry, who had just bent to tie his shoelace to buy himself more time to listen.
“They didn’t even own a car!” Padfoot said, throwing his arms up in the air.
“I’ll call the police,” she told him.
“Try,” Padfoot said, twirling a long wooden stick – which he’d pulled from somewhere in his clothes - between his long fingers.
“Put that away,” Aunt Petunia said, her voice shaking ever so slightly. “I don’t want any of... of... that here.”
“Any of what?” Harry asked.
“I said inside!” she shrieked. Mrs Farey from Number Seven across the street looked up. Harry scampered into the house, ducking the swipe she aimed at his ear. “You too,” Aunt Petunia said to Padfoot. “I’m not discussing this out here.” Harry darted down the hallway and into his cupboard. He closed the door most of the way but left a small crack which he pressed his ear to. “And make sure you wipe your shoes on the mat. You’re filthy.”
“A car crash?” Harry heard Padfoot say loudly as soon as the front door clicked shut.
“Keep your voice down,” Aunt Petunia snapped. “Yes, we told the boy it was a car crash. What else were we supposed to say? That a lunatic blew them up?” Harry’s hand moved up to trace the lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. Blew them up...?
“That’s exactly what you should have told him! He has a right to know why he’s living here, a right to know why his parents are dead! They died to save him and you told him it was an accident?!” Harry took a deep breath and realised with a jolt he’d stopped breathing.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Aunt Petunia said frostily. “We want him normal, like Dudley.” There was no doubt who she was talking about. “Telling him stories like that would make him wonder why they were killed and we don’t like questions. He’d push us and we’d have to tell him the whole freaky story, about my unnatural sister, the Snape boy and that wretched Potter.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Padfoot demanded.
“I not having any of that in this house,” Aunt Petunia said shrilly. “When we took him in, we swore to put a stop to all of that freakish nonsense. Telling him things like that would encourage unnatural behaviour and-”
“What about when he goes to Hogwarts?” Padfoot asked. “Everyone knows his story, everyone but him, apparently-”
“That doesn’t matter. He’s not going.”
“Not going?!” Padfoot shouted sounding angry again. “What in the name of Merlin’s toenails do you mean he’s not bloody going?!”
“I won’t have one in the house,” Aunt Petunia said, with an air of finality.
“You can’t just decide that. You can’t just ignore it and hope it’ll all go away.”
“It seems to be working well so far,” Aunt Petunia snapped, “and I’ll thank you not to tell me how to raise my own nephew.”
Padfoot’s reply was lost in the sound of the front door flinging open. “Evening, Petunia dea-” Harry heard his uncle say. “Who’s this?”
“I’m a friend of Lily’s,” Padfoot said before Aunt Petunia could say anything. “We’ve met before-”
“You!” Uncle Vernon roared. Harry could tell, just from the volume of his voice that his face was already purple. “You! Get out of my house!”
“I’ve come to talk to you about Harry,” Padfoot said calmly.
“Get out!” Uncle Vernon bellowed again. “BOY!” Harry jumped at being addressed, lost his footing and tripped out of his cupboard, landing sprawled in the hallway. He stared at the glossy black shoes in front of him and slowly looked up to see his Uncle’s purple face. I knew it, he thought dazedly. “What did you do?!”
“Nothing,” Harry said hastily, scrambling to his feet.
“What did you tell him?!” Uncle Vernon shouted, spraying Harry with spittle. His meaty hand grabbed Harry’s baggy shirt and gave him a shake.
“Enough!” Padfoot shouted. There was a bang and Uncle Vernon released Harry with a yell and stepped back, cradling his now very red fingers. Harry took a step back and straightened his glasses. Padfoot looked furious, but not, Harry didn’t think, at him. “You and your wife,” he snarled at Uncle Vernon, “out. I need to talk to Harry.”
“This is my house!” Uncle Vernon shouted, his moustache quivering. “You can’t tell me what to do!”
“Oh, I think I can,” Padfoot growled, twirling his stick. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon gave both Harry and Padfoot one last look of pure hatred and stalked down the hall and into the kitchen. “Are you all right?” Padfoot asked Harry, tucking the stick into a pocket of his dress.
Padfoot didn’t look convinced but he didn’t push the point. “How much did you hear?” he asked.
“Something about a car crash but not much else,” said Harry, not meeting Padfoot’s grey stare.
“I could always tell when James was lying and you’ve inherited his face,” Padfoot said conversationally. “How much did you really hear?”
“All of it,” Harry admitted sheepishly.
“I thought so.” Padfoot sighed, running a hand through his dark hair. “This is not going the way I thought it would,” he muttered before letting out another sigh.
“You planned this?” Harry asked doubtfully.
“Planned? Nah, I just- It wasn’t- You were supposed to be happy,” he sighed. “You were supposed to be playing pranks on your Aunt and Uncle with your cousin! You were supposed to know all about your mum and dad! You were supposed to be excited, because you’ve only got two and a half years until Hogwarts!”
“Sorry,” Harry said quickly.
“It’s not your fault,” Padfoot said, looking shocked. “It’s theirs.” He jabbed a finger in the direction of the kitchen, where Harry could hear his Aunt and Uncle arguing. “They want you to be ‘normal’... What a load of hippogriff dung.”
“Hippogriff- Never mind.” Padfoot began to mutter under his breath about ‘James’, ‘Lily’, ‘Dursley’, ‘Dumbledore’ and ‘Aurors’.
“Erm... Mr Padfoot...?”
Padfoot blinked and then laughed. “Just Padfoot, Harry.”
“Did you really know my parents?”
Padfoot looked down at Harry with a sad smile. “You look a lot like your dad, you know,” he said, “but you have your mum’s eyes.”
“Really?” Harry asked, hoarding this knowledge away.
Padfoot nodded and pulled a small mirror out of his pocket. “James Potter,” he said softly and then turned it toward Harry. The mirror was clearly not a mirror. Harry decided it was a sort of pocket television - though he didn’t know how that was possible, since every telly he’d ever seen was bulky - because when he looked into it, he saw his father. James Potter was a handsome, messy-haired man with a long nose, bright hazel eyes and a happy, friendly smile. James waved and then turned to laugh at someone Harry couldn’t see. “Can I see my mum too?”
“It doesn’t work like that, kiddo,” Padfoot said apologetically.
Harry was a little disappointed but he nodded. He’d seen a few photographs of his mother when he helped Aunt Petunia clean out the attic, but she’d been younger than he was in most of them. “What were they like?”
“Lily was... well, she was brilliant. Beautiful inside and out and probably the nicest person I’ve ever met, though she did have a bit of a temper. James... was funny and brave... stubborn too. Bit of a prat at times but aren’t we all? He was the best friend anyone could ever have.”
“Were you close?”
“They were my family,” Padfoot croaked. He cleared his throat loudly and was quiet for a moment. Harry waited patiently. “Your dad and I were so close people thought we were brothers, and your mum and I had a rocky start but she was like my sister by the end.”
“So are we related?” Harry asked.
Padfoot smiled. “Second cousins – your great grandparents are the same as mine; Cygnus and Violetta Black.” He swallowed, looking decidedly nervous. “I’m also your godfather... They - your mum and dad – wanted me to look after you if anything ever happened to them. But then, well, I was arrested and Dumbledore brought you here.”
“But now you’re free,” Harry said, wondering if Padfoot was saying what he thought he was saying.
“Not free,” Padfoot said, “but I am out of prison.” He stared at his feet for a long time and then looked up again, seeming agitated. “Under normal circumstances, I’d never ask this; you’re – what – eight and a half? And I’m trying to evade Aurors and the rest of the Ministry, but if you want... another home-”
“Another home?” Harry asked, his voice climbing an octave. “As in, away from the Dursleys?”
“It’s fine if you don’t want to,” Padfoot said quickly.
“I want to!” Harry half-shouted.
“Really?” Padfoot asked, beaming. Harry nodded emphatically. “Are you sure? I don’t know what state the house is in yet, and it might be dangerous – like I said, there are people after me-”
“I want to,” Harry said, hardly believing what he was hearing. He’d always dreamed that an unknown relative would come and take him away and now, Padfoot, his dad’s best friend, was offering to do just that.
“I have no idea what to do with a kid,” Padfoot continued. “Moony always said I’d make a terrible father...”
“You can’t be any worse than the Dursleys,” Harry said bluntly.
Padfoot grinned a little ruefully. “I guess not.” He paused, running a hand over his cheeks. “Merlin, this visit is definitely not going the way I thought it would.”
“I was going to come and see you,” Padfoot admitted, “maybe get to know you a bit. And then I was going to go into hiding while I figured out how to make everyone else see that I’m innocent. After that I would have come back and made you the same offer as I am now.”
“I can help you prove you’re innocent,” Harry said.
“I appreciate the gesture, Harry,” he said with a snort, “but me adopting you is going to look pretty bad. Everyone will think I’ve kidnapped you for Voldemort-”
Padfoot sighed. “I keep forgetting you don’t know, but I don’t have time to tell you now. I need to leave before someone sees me here and calls the D.M.L.E.-”
“The what?” Harry asked.
“Department of Magical Law Enforcement,” Padfoot said. He waved a hand to cut off Harry’s exclamations of “Magic!” and “You can’t say that word here; Uncle Vernon hates it”. “If you’re coming, you’d better pack.” Harry pulled open the door of his cupboard. “I-is that a bed?” Padfoot spluttered, peering in. Harry shrugged, grabbed his rucksack and started tossing clothes into it. “You-They make you sleep in here?”
Harry shrugged again, stuffing a pair of Uncle Vernon’s old socks into a pocket. “I’m ready,” he announced a moment later, hoisting his rucksack on.
Padfoot was staring at the spider in the corner of the roof. He shook himself. “Here, let me,” he said, reaching for Harry’s bag. Harry stared at him. “Here,” Padfoot said impatiently. Harry passed it over with a curious look at his godfather. Padfoot slung it over his shoulder and led Harry down the hall and into the kitchen.
Dudley was playing with Glen, his tortoise; the poor creature was currently being flown over Dudley’s empty plate, accompanied by noises better suited to a rocket-ship than a reptile. Aunt Petunia hadn’t touched her food at all, but kept sipping at her glass of water, while Uncle Vernon – whose plate was empty – drummed his thick fingers on the table. All three of them looked up at Harry and Padfoot.
“Leaving are you?” Aunt Petunia said waspishly, her pale eyes darting over Padfoot.
“About time,” Uncle Vernon grumbled.
“I’m taking Harry with me.”
“Taking the boy?” Aunt Petunia said, sounding puzzled. “Where?”
“I’m going to live with him,” Harry said.
“I’m his godfather,” Padfoot said indignantly. “If he wants to live with me, you can’t stop him.” Aunt Petunia’s lips thinned. Her chair scraped as she stood and left the room. Everyone watched her go. She returned about thirty seconds later with a pink tinge in her cheeks and a crumpled letter which she handed to Padfoot. She sat down again, studiously avoiding Uncle Vernon’s eyes. Padfoot read the letter quickly and then passed it back. “I’m still taking him.” Dudley, who was craning his neck to try to read it slipped off his seat. Harry turned his laugh into a cough and swore he saw his godfather’s mouth twitch.
“But the protection... he won’t be safe...” Aunt Petunia said, looking at Harry.
“I can take care of him,” Padfoot said, resting a hand on Harry’s shoulder.
Aunt Petunia pursed her lips as though she doubted this but all she said was, “I suppose I’ll need to call Mrs Figg and tell her you won’t be coming over tomorrow.”
“We won’t be sending you money,” Uncle Vernon said. “If you want the boy, you can pay for him.”
“Money won’t be a problem,” Padfoot assured them. He looked down at Harry. “Would you like a minute to say goodbye?”
“Bye,” Harry told the Dursleys. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Padfoot press his lips together to keep from laughing.
“So, wait... you’re leaving?” Dudley said, picking himself up off the floor.
“Yep,” Harry said.
Dudley frowned and then stuck out his pink hand. “Bye, then.”
Harry shook it feeling rather silly. “Yeah, bye. Bye, Glen,” he added for good measure as Aunt Petunia flung her arms around her son.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Padfoot muttered over Aunt Petunia’s wailed praise for Dudley’s manners. “All set, kid?” Harry grinned, nodding. The two of them left the kitchen followed by Uncle Vernon who was humming under his breath and looked as if he might break out in a jig at any moment. As they walked down the familiar hallway, Harry took one last glance at his cupboard and smiled slightly. Padfoot followed his gaze. “You sure this is everything?” he asked, tapping the strap of Harry’s rucksack.
“Pretty sure,” Harry said, grinning. He was leaving Privet Drive! It was actually happening! He cast a quick look at his Uncle who opened the front door, looking the happiest Harry had ever seen him. Harry followed Padfoot outside and turned, racking his brain for something to say; what did one say at the end of seven and a half years of mutual dislike? Thank you, maybe...? Harry thought. But for what? No sooner than Harry opened his mouth to say ‘Bye’ again, Uncle Vernon snapped the door closed. Well that makes things easier.
“Git,” Padfoot muttered with a dark look at Number Four. “Ah, well. Not our problem anymore.” Harry took one last look at Number Four before following Padfoot down his Aunt’s perfectly kept garden path. “Are you hungry or can you wait?”
“I can wait,” Harry said shrugging.
“Excellent.” He sighed loudly. “I wasn’t going to worry about it but I’ve got you now... I think we’ll have to go to Gringotts before we do anything. I’m just about out of money and security’s going to get tighter once they realise I’ve got you... How to get there...?”
“London,” Padfoot said with a grin that lit up his thin face. “More specifically, Diagon Alley.”