- 1 -
"The boy, Harry, he's gone."
For a moment Albus Dumbledore felt unable to do anything but stare at the head of his old acquaintance that had only moments ago appeared in his fireplace.
"What exactly happened?" He asked when he found his voice.
"I don't know, I don't know. The week before last I saw him go to school like any other day, but that's the last I saw of him. He wasn't at school for the last two weeks. Nobody saw him. Not in the garden, not anywhere. Tried to talk to his aunt, she didn't say much just that he was sick but-" Old Mrs. Figg wiped her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief, then blew her nose loudly.
"But?" Albus prodded softly, careful not to upset the old woman even more.
"But then today the police showed up. Law enforcement. Asked questions about Harry. Their son, the Dursley boy, said something at school about Harry being gone for a while now. Don't know much else, they went inside then. But, but I just felt you needed to know." She hiccupped.
"Thank you, dear. That was indeed the right call. I'll see what I can do."
"You have to find him, Albus. He's so small. Tiny. Such a nice boy. And the cats like him. Even Mr. Tumbles. Even he."
Albus left for Privet Drive immediately. This didn't sound good, not at all. He had given Harry into the care of his relatives because it was the safest place for him to be, the only place for him to be, and if he'd run away… Albus didn't want to contemplate the consequences.
He disillusioned himself and apparated straight to the doorstep of Number Four Privet Drive. When he was sure that nobody was watching him, he lifted the charm and knocked on the door.
Nobody opened it.
Albus knocked again. Louder this time.
Still, nothing but he could hear faint noises coming from inside. Hastened steps that quickly became louder, then the voice of a woman. "I'm coming, I'm coming!"
The door opened a crack and Petunia Dursley peered out. She looked rather poor. Her face was even gaunter than he remembered and there were dark circles under her eyes.
"Yes?" She snapped.
"I'm here about Harry," Albus said.
"Who are you?" She squinted at him mistrustfully.
"Albus Dumbledore. I brought Harry here and left you the letter."
"You!" she hissed, her eyes sparkling with anger. "You brought this down on us. What do you want?"
"I simply wish to talk to Harry, he will receive his Hogwarts letter soon."
"Harry isn't here."
"And where is he?"
Petunia looked him up and down, her mouth twitched marginally when her eyes reached his purple striped pants. She opened the door wider.
"Come in. Quick, before the neighbours see."
The house looked just as pristine as Albus had imagined it, there were no dusty surfaces, the floor was squeaky clean and pictures of a happy family – of three, he noticed with a sinking feeling – smiled from the walls.
There were clinking sounds coming from the kitchen. Petunia twitched nervously. "The living room is this way."
A big red stain, probably red wine, marred a light-coloured carpet in the living room. A half-full bottle of brandy was sitting on the table. It was the first sign that there might be something out of the ordinary going on in this house.
Petunia switched on the light and only two of three light bulbs shone.
Another sign. He couldn't for the life of him imagine that Petunia Dursley would allow her house to be anything but perfect, not under normal circumstances at least.
Albus took a seat in the only armchair and looked at Petunia grimly. "Where is Harry, Petunia?"
She started kneading her hands nervously. Her fingernails were too short and uneven. It seemed she was biting her nails.
Albus still didn't know what to expect, but his hope that all of this might turn out to be a big misunderstanding shrank substantially.
"He's gone," she said.
"What do you mean gone?"
"Means just wha' she said, don' she?" A slurred voice remarked from the hallway, soon followed by the massive frame of Vernon Dursley. He stumbled into the living room, bringing with him a stinging smell of strong alcohol and tobacco.
Vernon slumped onto the couch next to Petunia, who flinched and glanced at her husband nervously.
Since when was Vernon Dursley a drunk? What had happened to this family? Should he have known? Should he have taken Harry away?
A heavy feeling settled into Albus' stomach. Guilt.
"Are you sure you don't want to, um, go upstairs, darling? Take a nap?" Petunia tried.
Vernon ignored her, or simply didn't hear her, and looked at Albus with unfocused eyes. "Freak's gone, 'n good riddance."
Then, as if he had only just realized that there was a stranger sitting in his living room, Vernon added. "'n who are you anyway?"
Albus let Petunia explain the situation. Vernon's face turned redder with each word.
"What happened?" Albus repeated when Petunia was finished.
"What happened? What happened?" Vernon hollered. "You hear that, Pet? He wants to know what 'appened!"
He stopped his rant to take a large gulp of brandy from the bottle on the living room table. "That freak happened, nothing else. Came here, destroyed our lives. That's what happened. Destroyed my fucking life."
"And how did he do so?" Albus asked patiently, not sure what to make of Vernon's accusations. He had no idea what kind of child Harry had grown up to be, but he couldn't imagine him turning out as bad as Vernon said he was.
"Made me lose my job! Made me the laughing stock across the neighbourhood. Lost my car because of him!"
"HOW? HOW?" Vernon shouted again, spit flying from his lips. Albus vanished it with a discreet twitch of his wand before it reached his face.
"How should I know? He's the freak. He's the one with those thrice-damned powers. I know he did something, I know it!"
"So Harry didn't really do anything?" Albus was perplexed. Petunia had grown up with a witch as a sister, she should very well know that it was not in the capabilities of an untrained, young child, wizard or not, to magically make Vernon lose his job.
"Didn' you listen to me old man? I los' my biggest client and then my job. I know he did something. Gave me bad luck or somethin'. I just know!"
He sat back exhausted from shouting and drank some more.
This was deeply unsettling. As far as Albus could tell Vernon had lost his job and blamed Harry for it, had started drinking, and probably blamed Harry for that too.
"Why did Harry run away?" He finally asked.
"I'm not sure," Petunia said.
"Yeah, how should we know," Vernon agreed.
"Did you maybe do something to him, in your anger?"
Petunia bristled. "He didn't-"
"Pet. Lemme. I jus' knocked him about a bit. Not too hard. Least not harder than he deserved," Vernon said.
Albus closed his eyes and tried very hard to suppress his rising fury. "What did he do to deserve such punishment?"
"Turned his teacher's hair blue, the little freak!" Vernon said triumphantly, drunkenly thinking Albus would understand this reason.
"So he did some accidental magic and you punished him for it?"
"Gotta beat that freakishness out of him. Nothing else works."
Petunia covered her face with her hands. "I tried to stop him," she mumbled. "Tried to tell him that it was too much. He never hit Harry before. Not really. Harry ran out of the door the first chance he got and we haven't seen him since."
Half an hour later Albus left Number Four and apparated straight to his office. The news left him exhausted, but he had no time to rest. He had people to inform, a search to organise, had to somehow keep the news from getting out to Voldemort's remaining followers…
He was confident that they would find Harry. They simply had to.
Something was pressing into his back uncomfortably. He moved around a bit, trying to find a more comfortable position. It didn't help much, but he was so tired, he didn't want to wake up yet. His head was pounding. Maybe sleep would help. With a sigh, he sank back into the darkness of his dreamless sleep.
A few hours later he woke up once more, something was still pressing into his back. And now that he thought of it, into his cheeks too. He opened his eyes and was greeted by trees.
He gasped. Where the hell was he? Why wasn't he in his cupboard? What had-
Suddenly memories of the previous night – or had more than one night passed? – came back to him.
His horrible teacher. His anger. Blue hair. Vernon's anger. And then pain. He remembered tearing his arm out of Vernon's grasp, remembered running out of the front door, wishing to be anywhere, just anywhere else. He remembered feeling squeezed like there was no room for him to move. Then his memory stopped.
Harry got to his feet. His arm hurt like hell. He rolled up his sleeves and took a look at it. There were black and blue markings where Vernon had grabbed him, scratches of too long fingernails. He hurriedly pulled his sleeve down again. He didn't want to see this.
He was surrounded by trees. No matter in which direction he looked, only deep, dark green awaited him. Should he go left or right? Or maybe straight ahead?
He felt like crying. He had no idea where he was.
Either straight ahead or left, he decided, then raised his uninjured hand and started to count:
"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…"
His own voice sounded odd to him, scratchy, probably from screaming at Vernon.
He finished the rhyme. "Left side it is," he murmured and started to walk.
He felt like a stupid little child for using that rhyme, but he didn't know what else to do. Maybe he got lucky with it. Maybe he'd reach a street soon and could ask someone to take him-
His train of thought stopped abruptly. Take him where? Where could a stranger take him? He didn't want to go back to the Dursleys, who made him sleep in a dark cupboard. He didn't want to go back to Uncle Vernon, who had hurt him. To Petunia who hated him. He couldn't go back there.
After a few hours of walking his arm and head throbbed painfully and he decided to take a rest. He lay down on his belly and rested his head on his good arm.
Just as he was about to close his eyes he saw it. Right in front of him, only a few yards away, was a wall of dark wooden boards. It was hidden between trees and bushes, but it was definitely a wooden wall. Maybe a small hunter's hut!
He scrambled to his feet and started running.
Maybe he was lucky and the hunter was there!
It turned out he was right, there was indeed a hut and its small windows were illuminated. He ran up to the door and stopped in front of it.
Suddenly doubts began to gnaw at him. What if this wasn't a nice hunter? What if this was some kind of evil person, a criminal, a murderer even, hiding out in the woods?
For lack of other options, he decided to knock anyway.
It took an eternity before someone opened the door. It was an old man. His sparse hair was as grey as his eyes, his face sunburned, his hands rough. He wore weird clothes, not a trouser, and a shirt, but something that looked like a robe.
The man looked down at him, and the boy shrunk back when he saw the annoyed, nearly angry expression, that marred the man's features.
"What's a wispy wizard like you doing in my woods?"
Wizard? What? Maybe this was neither a hunter nor a criminal but simply a nutcase?
"Um, hi, I'm Harry," he simply said in the end.
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