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Chapter 4: The Greatest Present.


Harry was vaguely certain it was Flourish and Blotts in which he had just landed, with absolutely no grace or even a smidgeon of style as was becoming his custom. At least he had managed, with an assortment of wild, windmill-like arm movements, not to wind up flat on his rear end. He had hated the stupid Floo ever since his first disastrous attempt to navigate the overwhelming system had left him in less than desirable surroundings. He could feel the same unease creeping into his gut even now, as the shop seemed to bear a strikingly familiar quality to that of his brief, yet informative, visit to Knockturn Alley. Gone were the brightly packed shelves surrounded by the bustle of customers, the cheerful chatter of the storeowner as people queued up. It was only the familiar view outside the far window that gave any indication Harry had ever set foot in the place before.

Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly still a bookshop, despite the fact that its reputable status was being called heavily into question. The bookshelves towered above him, dustier almost than he was, what with the grime of the fireplace still clinging to the pyjamas he had forgotten to change out of and barely even realised what he was wearing. Cold and foreboding, the walkway between each was obscured by deep shadows, and a bell above the door jingling loudly at the other end of the aisle, as it was pulled open and two elderly women entered.

Ducking back into the shadows, Harry sat carefully on the edge of the fireplace, making sure he was out of the way enough not to find himself trampled should anyone else arrive. The rustling of pages above him was oddly disconcerting, and he drew his wand and held it uncertainly, unsure of exactly what he should do now. There was always the prospect of just Flooing straight back to Grimmauld Place, before anyone wandered over in his general direction and noticed him. All that awaited him there, though, was an awful lot of mess and absolutely no answers. And he was dying for answers now, answers to the innumerable questions that were passing through his head, each one fighting for attention and dominance.

Picking himself up, Harry dusted himself off as best as possible. His scorched foot still tingled unpleasantly, but he could not make out any serious injuries, even under the layer of filth currently serving as a fairly effective shoe. He was going to have to shower for years, and even then he still didn’t think he’d be truly clean. He thanked Merlin for small mercies at the sight of the sun streaming through the windows. At least he wasn’t going to freeze, although after the stifling air of the house, he felt a slight chill whenever a draft filtered past.

But then again, walking around barefooted in his most ghastly pyjamas, in the middle of Diagon Alley, wasn’t exactly the most inconspicuous of things he had ever considered doing. He could almost see Rita Skeeter’s damning headline already. At any rate, wandering around Grimmauld Place had left his face so streaked with dirt he doubted his scar could be seen. There was nothing he could do about the hair though.

‘Oh, you poor dear!’

Harry turned around too quickly, losing his already tentative footing and wincing as his burnt skin scraped across the soiled carpet. Hobbling slightly, he raised his wand in what he hoped was a threatening manner.

It wasn’t.

‘Ethel, will you come see this,’ evidently not Ethel shouted over her shoulder, her voice travelling between the bookshelves towards a mass of grey muttering to itself, before turning back to look at him. She bore an expression Harry most frequently associated with Molly Weasley, when he had once again risked his life in unnecessarily dangerous circumstances and lived to tell about it. Oddly enough, it also reminded him of the way Arabella Figg tended to look at her cats. ‘You can put that down, love, I’m not about to curse you.’

Harry didn’t though. Somehow the thought of what he could see coming was no more appealing than the prospect of being cursed. There was a definite grandmotherly glint behind the eyes that were staring at him.

‘What have you found now then, Audrey?’ the second witch mumbled as she shuffled over, leaning on a gnarled walking stick, her face just as grey as the robes she was swathed in. Ignoring Harry’s wide-eyed expression, she looked him up and down, barely sparing his wand a second glance. ‘Well, you’d better come with us then,’ she said, sighing expansively and turning slowly to make her way towards the front desk, as though she didn’t believe the thought of running or disobeying would even occur to him.

It was occurring to Harry though, repeatedly and anxiously. He was turning the possibility over and over in his head, but every time he was coming up blank. Audrey now even had her arm in his, as if he were the one leading her. He felt a bit stupid as he realised his wand was still pointed at her face, and he lowered it slightly as a blush rose on his neck.

Before he knew it, he had been steered forcefully into a large armchair, which had seen better days. Several hundred of them. A cloud of dust enveloped him as he landed with a soft thud and the creaking of worn springs, a number of which were sticking through the cover and poking him unpleasantly every time he moved…or breathed. It must be a new form of torture, Harry decided with a grimace. Uncomfortable chair and unpleasant, unwashed old people smell. Not that he probably smelt much better. At least they weren’t trying to hug him, although it looked very much like it was only a matter of time as far as Audrey was concerned.

He had barely taken in his surroundings when Ethel was back in front of him, leaning over him, since he was now sitting down, and surveying him calculatingly. With a grunt she shrugged off one of her long cloaks, whisking it over her shoulders with surprising ease for someone who moved so slowly, and throwing it across his lap. ‘You ought to be more careful,’ she said softly. ‘But then again, you young do seem to think yourselves immortal. Just wait until you catch a cold though, and don’t come running to me for sympathy because it’ll be all your own fault, young man.’ Harry could only nod apologetically in reply, words failing him as Audrey reappeared from behind the counter, a steaming cup in her frail hands.

‘Poor lad.’ Harry winced at the familiarity with which she referred to him. ‘You look half starved. Get some of this in you.’ The mug was thrust forcefully into his hands, almost hot enough to burn as he lifted it to his nose and took a cautious sniff. Tomato, he thought to himself, even as above him, Audrey burst into peels of laughter. ‘Look at him; he thinks we’re going to poison him.’ The blush was back again full force as Ethel muttered something about ungrateful youth, and Harry took a hasty gulp before he caused more offence. After all, he mused, they certainly didn’t seem threatening. At least, not in a ‘hand-you-over-to-the-Dark-Lord-for-certain-death’ sort of way. ‘Let’s get you cleaned up a bit then, shall we?’

The comment was enough to finally loosen Harry’s tongue, since Audrey had pulled her wand and cast a warming charm over a bowl of water he hadn’t previously noticed. A coarse looking sponge floated menacingly on the surface, as Harry clutched the half empty mug of soup closer to his chest, like a shield. ‘No, really,’ he managed to splutter. ‘Thank you so much for this, but you needn’t worry yourselves on my account.’ He scooted backwards, regretting it as a particularly vicious spring embedded itself in his ribs. He yelped and jumped forward again, almost spilling the remains of his meal.

‘Nonsense,’ Ethel commanded scathingly from where she now sat behind the counter, small eyes fixed on him as she nursed her own cup, which Harry doubted contained soup. ‘You cannot go out looking like such a ragamuffin. Your parents would be horrified if they saw you.’ Harry opened his mouth to comment, but found himself cut off by a wet sponge being dragged across his face. He spluttered slightly, rubbing the soap from his eyes with the back of his hand.

‘Well, will you look,’ Audrey said with a grin. ‘We do have skin under here.’ Harry glowered, and tried to glare, but found himself once again stopped as his forehead was swiped. The water in the bowl was already turning a sickly brown as she wringed out the sponge, offering him another smile that quickly morphed into a look of horror. ‘Ethel,’ she gasped as Harry screwed his eyes shut in anticipation of what was to come. ‘Will you look at this?’ Harry risked a glance, opening one eye enough to make out Ethel, limping once again towards him. He could smell her breath, peppermints with a decidedly alcoholic background, as she leant across him and wiped the area around his scar clean with her thumb. ‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’

Ethel shook her head, and Audrey once again started fussing around him, comments such as poor boy and must have been terrible reaching his ears. He met Ethel’s gaze curiously, at a complete loss for words as to what to say to her. No one had ever failed to recognize his scar before, and whilst it was oddly refreshing that his name wasn’t already being shouted from the doorway, Harry was also left a little unsure as to how to explain it. Somehow, having to use the phrase ‘Saviour of the Wizarding World’ wasn’t overly alluring.

‘Are you going to explain it then?’ Harry just shrugged, feeling a little guilty for being so rude when they had both been so nice to him, if a little intimidating. ‘Are you sure?’ Ethel continued. ‘If you don’t, then I’m afraid you will leave me with no choice but to draw my own conclusions.’ A raised eyebrow had Harry reconsidering his answer, as he took a sip of his now cold soup to stall for time.

‘Could be a curse scar,’ Audrey called from where she was rummaging behind the counter. ‘Seen a fair few these last years, although nothing like that.’ Ethel looked questioningly to Harry, who shook his head emphatically and paid extra attention to the cloak across his legs. ‘None of them were so uniform though,’ Audrey continued, obviously oblivious to his answer. ‘I mean, remember old Robert when he came in a couple of months ago? Completely covered his back they did. Failed Shielding Charm my arse, I said.’ She straightened up with a slight clicking of her back, book tucked under her arm. ‘Excuse my language, love. But no, Robert got himself on the receiving end of a nasty curse there. He was just lucky it was some incompetent throwing it, instead of someone in power.’ Harry glanced inquisitively at her before lowering his gaze back to his lap. ‘Still, he returned the book, even though it was no use to him. Told him it wouldn’t be, but he insisted.’

‘S’not a curse scar,’ Harry mumbled.

‘What was that, dear? You’ll have to speak up. Hearing’s not what it used to be.’ Audrey was already deeply engrossed in the book.

‘He said it’s not a curse scar,’ Ethel repeated.

‘Really?’ Audrey looked rather crestfallen. ‘Oh well, I suppose you’d be the one to know if you’d avoided any life threatening curses recently. How did you get it then?’

Harry kept his gaze lowered and pulled the cloak more tightly round his shoulders. Then he resorted to old excuses. ‘Car accident.’

‘Car?’

‘Yeah,’ Harry replied nervously.

‘Funny, never heard of a car before.’ Audrey looked puzzled, summoning a large book from a nearby shelf.

‘Don’t worry yourself,’ Ethel interrupted her, a steely glint in her eyes as she straightened up, casting Harry an odd look. ‘It’s a Muggle thing.’

Audrey dropped the book she had been pouring through as if shocked. ‘Muggle!’ she exclaimed, looking warily to where Harry was sitting. ‘That must mean…’ The same hardness that was in her friends eyes had reached hers. ‘Were your parents Muggles, boy?’

‘My mum was Muggle-born,’ Harry offered helpfully as Audrey shrieked.

‘Mudblood!’ she shouted, pointing a shaking finger at him. ‘Spawn of Mudblood! I cannot believe we let you into our shop.’

‘Hey.’ Harry jumped up indignantly, feeling a little disoriented by the sudden turn the conversation had taken. ‘There was never any rule about this before, and even if there was, it’s a stupid rule. What’s wrong with Muggle-borns?’ Ethel’s gaze had become even stauncher as she spoke, in cool contrast to Audrey’s near hysterics.

‘I recommend you leave,’ she said coldly. ‘Now.’ Harry glared silently, dropping his empty mug onto the floor and pulling the loaned cloak from around his shoulders. ‘Keep it,’ Ethel said as the garment was held out to her.

Audrey was quivering slightly to one side now, as she pointed her wand at the door, causing it to throw itself open and hit the wall with a bang and a shudder. ‘Take it with you,’ she affirmed, as Harry stared at the cloak he was still holding out. ‘Tainted that it is now, we don’t want it here.’ She stared at the open door for a moment, chewing on the inside of her cheek in deliberation. ‘Perhaps we should call the authorities?’ she asked, almost nervously, as Harry wrapped the offending article back round his shoulders, the weight comforting.

‘No,’ Ethel stated. ‘They would ask questions, and we helped him.’

‘We didn’t know.’ It was a desperate whine.

‘It wouldn’t matter, and you know it. Let him go.’ She cast Harry another look, not as cold as the last one, but still far from friendly. ‘Someone else will find him, I’m sure.’ She raised a pointed eyebrow in his direction, and Harry sidled carefully past them both, the door within his reach as he turned and mumbled a hasty ‘thank you,’ before running into the street beyond.

The door slammed forcefully behind him, almost clipping the back of his heel as he leapt out of its way. Pulling his fringe down to cover his now clean scar, Harry wrapped himself up tightly in spite of the heat from the sun. He felt chilled to the bone after the presence of those two. Glancing up at the sign, he pondered over the faded lettering of the shop name, wondering if there was some kind of irony going on that he just wasn’t getting. It was nothing like the shop he had visited last summer, and the whole thing was becoming far too confusing. Stepping carefully across the street, he glanced in the window of the Owl Emporium. It looked a little tattier than he remembered, but otherwise exactly the same. Certainly no strange old woman came barrelling out the door after his apparently unclean blood. Cages of owls hooted happily at him at he passed by, and he stopped to stroke their soft feathers absently while his gaze followed the rest of the street.

Gringotts still dominated the place, the building tall and impressive, staring down at him in the same manner it had always done. Its stark white front looked a little out of place in comparison to the shabby shop fronts though. Harry realised, with some annoyance, that he was definitely thinking of going there, and that he didn’t have his key. He had left it in his trunk with all his other possessions, which he assumed were still in his room. Not that he remembered seeing them. But then again, he had been in too much of a rush to find Remus to really bother looking. Surely Gringotts had some other form of identification he could use. At the end of the day, if they didn’t accept this wretched scar as proof that he was the one entitled to the Potter vault, he doubted anything would work. And he desperately wanted something to wear, something other than hand-me-down pyjamas and the cloak of someone too disgusted by him to claim it back.

Despite his jumbled thoughts as he made his way slowly down the street, Harry couldn’t help but notice that Madam Malkins seemed to have inexorably disappeared. So had Florean Fortesques, the once cheery tables, with their coloured umbrellas, replaced by a large window that still managed to look grubby, regardless of its apparent newness and the garish display of robes inside. His instincts were telling him that to stop and inquire about places where he could purchase jeans and a t-shirt or two was a bad idea. Not that he had anything against wearing robes, but he had only ever worn them at school. The idea that he would wear them casually was a little odd, and even the thought of it made him feel overdressed.

No, he’d stick out like a sore thumb in jeans, but possibly not as much as he would have done in his rotten oversized night wear. Since he had taken the time to look around, he had noticed that even the low number of small children he had seen were wearing robes. It was something that left him suddenly and incredibly thankful for the cloak. It was too long, with the hem trailing awkwardly on the ground, and the extra weight was a burden in the still air, but it felt like the greatest present he had ever been given.

That was probably the onset of panic talking.

The paving slabs were gritty beneath his bare feet, and he had to be very careful walking through the throngs of people to avoid getting his toes accidentally stamped on. His heart beat painfully against his chest, his breathing gasping and erratic as he remembered the last words of the witch.

‘Someone else will find him.’

Had she known who he was all along? Had she been trying to lull him into a false sense of security? Harry didn’t think so; she had seemed just as shocked as her friend to discover who he was. Not who, but what he was.

Since when had having Muggle relatives meant anything to anyone beyond Voldemort and his stupid, idiotic, always-out-to-ruin-everything believers?

That thought almost had Harry slapping his own forehead. God, but he was stupid. There was no rule saying that nice old ladies, who fed him soup and insisted he clean himself up before going out, couldn’t be followers of Voldemort. Obviously not the kneeling, grovelling, bending to his every will kind of follower. They’d probably insist Voldemort washed his hands after a day’s hard slaughter before allowing him to sit at his throne, and even then, they’d be adamant that he show them to prove it.

But then again, he found it hard to believe that anyone who followed Voldemort, even if not as a direct servant, would not manage to recognize him, Harry Potter, upon sight and from at least fifty paces.

‘Someone else will find him.’

Harry had a horrible suspicion he did not want to be running into whoever this someone else was.

Picking up his pace, he dodged haphazardly between the growing crowds of people, keeping his head down and his eyes fixed firmly on the ground at his feet, unwilling to make eye contact for even a moment, even accidentally. He shivered slightly as a light breeze swept round his bare feet and tickled the back of his leg. His foot was starting to throb again, insistently and repeatedly as he ducked into a nearby alleyway, leaning against the wall and letting the edges of the cloak fall from his fingers. Lifting his foot into his hands he winced at the inflamed redness he saw, running a finger gently across it and hissing at the pain. Bloody typical, and he hadn’t a single healing charm in his repertoire. Hermione probably knew a handful already, and Harry vowed they would be the first things he would learn when he next saw her.

Leaning back against the wall, he stared at the slither of sky for a few moments, catching his breath and calming his thoughts. Things change, he scolded himself, and there was absolutely no reason for him to be getting himself so worked up because a measly store changed hands, even if the hands into which it had changed were horrible old women with stupid ideals hands.

What he should be getting worked up about was the fact that he’d been in Diagon Alley, unescorted, for over half an hour, with no owls demanding he return instantly and stop being so impulsive, and no Order members appearing to drag him back. Either Dumbledore’s wards were failing, or he was too distracted to realise that Harry was here. Neither one boded overly well for his immediate well-being.

It was a point well proven, as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle uncomfortably, causing him to rub them harshly, unable to suppress the shiver that trickled down his spine.

Harry recognized this feeling, unfortunately.

The alley seemed to fade around him in a way that was all too familiar, the shadows disappearing into the walls as he shivered again, cold, clammy hands tightening on his wand. The air thickened around him, pressing in on him as he struggled for breath, eyes darting behind him briefly to where the sounds of the street beyond still trickled unknowingly through, leaving only one conclusion.

They were after him.

Bugger.

The pair drifted in sight, cloaks swirling around them in spite of the deathly stillness surrounding him. Harry bit his tongue hard. Whilst the feeling didn’t exactly help to inspire happy memories, it did help to distract him from the echoes of a woman’s screaming.

Boy did his foot hurt.

Pushing it to the back of his mind Harry thought desperately of Ron and Hermione. He thought of Quidditch and Chocolate Frogs and racing brooms and Hedwig and all the things he loved, before pointing his wand with dramatic flair and shouting, ‘Expecto Patronum!’

The stag emerged from the tip of his wand in a blazing trail of light, hooves sparking on the stones as it leapt towards the creatures, antlers down and eyes glowing. It trotted victoriously back to Harry a few seconds later, pawing the ground with legs that flickered and shimmered before fading slowly.

Too soon.

Two more robes suddenly emerged, their rasping breathing filling the space around him as Harry jumped backwards, stumbling on the cloak and aiming the wand again, shouting even louder, the charm echoing round him in the narrow confines. He didn’t stay to watch this time, as the stag materialised again eagerly, instead scrabbling to find his feet and running back towards the familiar shops.

Harry almost barrelled into the first person he saw, spinning round and shouting a hasty apology before tearing onwards, ignoring the shocked and curious gazes that followed his desperate flight. He knew he couldn’t use the fireplace in the bookshop. Those ladies would probably invite the Dementors in after him, and then raise a toast to his death. But he didn’t know where else had one, apart from the odd shop in Knockturn Alley. He was already heading the wrong way for that too, and didn’t think turning back was the greatest of ideas, which just left him with the Leaky Cauldron.

Ducking around a young family, he limped onwards, the pain in his foot flaring as he saw the wall in the distance. Hopefully it didn’t require a password both ways, as Harry had no idea of the order of bricks you were supposed to tap, it having been years since he’d seen Hagrid last use them. He hadn’t even been paying attention at the time, what with everything else being so overwhelming and all.

Risking a glance over his shoulder, all he could make out was the backs of shoppers, seemingly unperturbed by his quick and unexpected sprint through the Alley, and the nature of the creatures chasing after him. They were still following him; he could feel them, like a dull throbbing in the back of his mind. What he didn’t understand, however, was why the rest of the street wasn’t also running away screaming.

Taking his eyes of the path ahead had been a bad idea.

He hit the person full speed, rebounding with a dull oof, and finding himself sprawled painfully on the pavement, cloak dropping from his shoulders and revealing the monstrosities he wore beneath. Trying to grab the corners with shaking fingers and drag it round his thin frame, Harry glanced shakily over his shoulder. His wand was still aimed through the folds of the gathered fabric as he struggled to his feet, mumbling to a pair of black buttoned boots that he was very sorry as his gaze trailed up slowly to see exactly who he had just run into.

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