By the time Harry had walked down the path to the street, the light feeling he'd gotten from his conversation with Dudley had dissipated. He was cold, tired, and horribly injured. He toyed with the idea of summoning the Knight Bus, but he had no money on him. Not a single Knut. I should have kept my money under the floorboard too, he thought, berating himself for such a stupid mistake. Luckily, he'd spent most of the money in his pouch last year, only leaving a single Galleon and a handful of Sickles, so it wasn't a significant loss. He forced himself to trudge down Privet Drive to Magnolia Crescent. There was a small play park on the corner, but he was intent on the larger park about half a mile away.
The wind whipped at him, and carried with it some remnants of the earlier storm. He was shielded from the worst of it by the cloak, but it quickly sapped his warmth, and soon his meager strength. Within minutes he was shivering, but the cold also helped to dull the pain of his injuries. He walked slowly, passing houses that, in the darkness, looked utterly indistinguishable from Number Four. Behind those closed doors, how many other children were beaten, starved, humiliated and worse? Every car was Uncle Vernon's, every shrub was Aunt Petunia's, every bicycle strewn across the grass was Dudley's. As he passed one of the houses, he heard a child's cry from an upstairs window that must have been cracked. In moments, he saw the light flick on and heard the cries silence. The window was in the same position as Harry's room was, but he doubted the occupant was being shaken or slapped around for having some night terror.
Though hidden completely by the cloak, Harry could feel Vernon's footsteps behind him, hear his erratic, angry breathing. Feel the hot breaths on his neck, the hands reaching for him- with a muted shout, Harry spun around. Nothing. The street was silent and dark, empty save for Harry himself. He turned back and kept on walking, berating himself for aggravating his ribs. They pulsed with pain in time with his heart, and that pain spiked whenever he breathed, no matter how shallowly. I'm safe under the cloak, he reminded himself, nobody can see me and no one's around to worry about avoiding. Even with the slightly wilted state all the lawns were in, Harry knew the sharp-eyed housewives might see any phantom footprints he'd mark if he stepped on their grass during the day, either to avoid passerby or just to rest. Never in all his life had half a mile seemed such a vast distance. Healthy, he could walk it in under ten minutes, run there in four, but he'd been stumbling along for what felt like an hour.
Step. Step. Step. Each footfall played like a drumbeat in his head. It was erratic and slow, but he lost himself in it. His breathing, tortured and shallow as it was, played a perfect match to his pace. He turned the corner onto Iris Way. The park was three streets down now. Harry's mind kept wandering. All the botanical names for the streets in LIttle Whinging, and yet he'd never seen a single privet hedge, magnolia tree, or iris of any kind. The homeowners could plant so much in their gardens, but did they? No, they planted the same uniform things. The same type of grass, the same five flowers under the windows, maybe a slender ash tree if they were particularly daring. Maybe they named their streets after such nice things because they couldn't, or wouldn't, ever have them for themselves.
After an eternity in his soaked, miserable state, he finally saw the park. He knew it like the back of his own hand, having spent many long hours as a child hiding from Dudley and his gang. It covered a large area, serving as a more well-equipped area for several neighborhoods than the small play parks that littered them. Harry had no interest in the sports facilities or the playground, but instead the small wooded area. It consisted of exactly two hundred and fifty-three trees (Harry had counted one year), and he had found a few small areas surrounded by tall bushes. As he made his way across the park, he saw the first hints of dawn peeking through the clouds. Before too long, the neighborhood would wake up and, unlikely as it was, someone might bump into him in the park, either a jogger going for a morning run, or later, a child on their way to school. Harry had cut through plenty of times himself on his way to or from school.
He quickened his pace, though he was still slow. He'd made it this far by the small strength he still had in his body, but there was nothing left but force of will to keep him moving. He entered the woods and made for the nearest clump of bushes large enough to hide in. Wind shook the trees and the leaves rained water down on him as he moved. In time, he came to the dense cluster of shrubs and crawled along the ground to a tiny clearing in the center. It was just large enough for him to stretch out under the cloak, his feet just underneath a bush. Starving but too tired to bother eating, Harry stuffed part of the cloak into his mouth to muffle any screams he might make and settled onto the ground. It was cold and damp, but the thick leaf litter was soft enough to soothe his aching body just enough to fall asleep.
Uncle Vernon held him by his throat, crushing his neck as he beat Harry from all sides. Then Harry was on the ground, bound and too weak to struggle as the man stomped on his legs repeatedly, not stopping until they were both broken, resting at unnatural angles. Then he was still on the ground but being held down at knifepoint by Aunt Petunia. "What did you do to my darling boy?" She demanded of him. Harry tried to respond that he'd done nothing but as he opened his mouth to say so, the knife darted in and stabbed his tongue. Scenes changed faster and faster, until Harry could only get an impression of what was happening. He was flying-no, falling-in a storm, being whipped around by fierce winds. He was being fed to Lupin-as-a-wolf, eaten by the basilisk, being flattened by the troll's club. He was held down by Uncle Vernon on train tracks, watching as an oncoming train rushed towards him.
He was bound to a stone statue in a graveyard with his scar carving a line of agony through his skull, a snake crawling between the stones, and a dreadful sense of foreboding.
With a strangled cry, Harry woke up. It was late in the day, he could tell from the light. The clouds had mostly cleared out while he'd been asleep, leaving the air in a strange not-warm not-cool state. What the bloody hell was that? Harry thought to himself. The other parts of his dreams were normal, but that last one didn't feel like those at all. I was in a… a graveyard? He thought, But I've never been in one. The dream confused and terrified him. I've never been in a situation remotely like that.
He lay there for a while, thinking. Divination placed great importance on dreams. Harry had never bothered with putting in much effort in the class, taking it just for an easy grade, but some things had stuck. The magic of dream interpretation, or oneiromancy, as Trelawny called it, was one of the haziest aspects of divination, simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest branches of the art. On the one hand, it required almost no magic to study, and indeed many Muggles had the ability. On the other, the human mind was so complicated that significant objects or events in dreams could have dozens or even hundreds of meanings based on context.
To further complicate things, dreams were multifaceted in the knowledge they gave. Many dreams were inward-facing, or introspective, giving insight into one's personal nature. Others were prophetic, and still others would show past events. As Harry lay on the ground, he parsed through those last horrifying moments in his dream. A gravestone and me tied to it… gravestones represent death, decay, and mortality but also remembrance, love, and respect… tied to a gravestone… bound to death, bound to memory, held captive by mortality? He snorted. Hardly an original concept to that one, 'bound by his mortal nature.'
Snake crawling among the other graves… snakes represent fundamental evil, temptation, and have also been used as a symbol of healing. A snake among the gravestones… he let his mind ponder the complex symbolism as he slowly moved his body, testing his injuries to see how much he could move. Though he was far more durable than a Muggle, Uncle Vernon had done some serious damage to him. His broken ribs still ached furiously and sent sharp jolts of pain through him whenever he breathed too deeply. His face was swollen and pounded in time with his heart. Some time during his long trek over, he had reset his broken nose, which still hurt awfully. The shoulder that had gotten dislocated was another sharp pain. Tentatively, he rolled onto his left side, the better side, and pulled his food over. Slowly, he ate a few slices of bread, letting the food calm his stomach. He felt considerably better after eating, so he shakily got to his feet.
Peering more closely at the sky, he could see it was late in the afternoon. The bushes he was in muffled most of the sound coming from the outside, so he crept between two of them to peek out at the park. There were around thirty people in the area, most of them children playing football and some younger ones off playing some made-up adventure. A few mothers stood in a group keeping attentive eyes on the whole affair. Off to Harry's left lay his goal: a grey cinderblock structure that housed the park loos. There, he could get some much-needed water and wash the blood off his body and even clean his clothes off a bit.
Though he was extremely thirsty, he decided to wait for a while. Even under the cloak, there were too many people running around for him to feel safe going the near quarter mile over. He wouldn't be able to move fast enough to avoid anyone running at him. So, he crept back into his little clearing and kept his ears sharp, listening to the noise. Children yelled and laughed, traffic passed by on the road, and soon he heard what he was waiting for. One by one, mothers called for their children and left. He crept back out of the bushes, this time carrying the cloak. A few straggling kids kicked the football around between themselves, but even as he watched they called out goodbyes to the others and ran off to their homes.
Satisfied, Harry donned the cloak and carefully started making his way over to the park loos. Though the ground in the woods wasn't rough, he moved carefully anyways. Most of the leaf litter had been cleared out by the wind yesterday, but there were still some stray leaves that would make noise if he stepped on them. If there was anyone nearby, it would be very strange to hear leaves crunching with nobody in sight. Though he moved slowly, the woods were small enough that it took just a couple minutes to get clear. Harry scanned the park again. There were a couple people walking through, but nobody near him. Crossing the field, he quickened his pace. Shortly, he was at the building. Before he opened the door to the men's room, he scanned the park once more. It wouldn't do to have the door mysteriously swing open in full view of some clueless person out for a walk. For the moment, the park was empty, so Harry slipped inside.
Before coming out from under the cloak, he scanned for feet underneath the stall barrier. Fortunately, it was empty, but the smell did it no favors. Harry locked the door and shed the cloak, looking at himself in the mirror. He looked about as poorly as he felt. His shirt, never in the best condition, was stained with a mixture of dried blood, ground-in dirt, and a large yellow-green patch of bile. He carefully took it off and started rinsing it in the sink. In such poor condition, it would take a lot of treatment to get all the stains out, but water would help. After rinsing the shirt, he gave his jeans and even his pants the same treatment. He wrung out as much water as he could before tossing them on the stall divider. He'd need to jump to get them down, he noted, embarrassed. Here he was, nearly fourteen, and just barely five feet tall. And it had only been in the last month at Hogwarts that he'd even hit that!
Clothing seen to, Harry pulled out a stack of paper towels from the dispenser and gave himself a birdbath. It took most of the stack to just wash off all the dried blood he had caked on him. By the end of it, Harry was shivering from the cold water evaporating off his skin. The room was warm from being heated by the sun for at least a few hours that day, but was quickly cooling down. The weather must be changing again, Harry realized. After drinking his fill from the sink, he took down his pants from the stall barrier. It took him three tries to jump high enough to get them. He held them under the air dryer, and got them decently dry, or at least wearable, and pulled them on. Being an old pair of Dudley's, he'd had to run string around the waistband so they'd stay up on his absurdly thin hips. This pair was probably from when Dudley was ten or eleven and the waist size was twice what his was! The string cinched tight enough to keep his drawers from dropping, he repeated the same treatment on his jeans and shirt. Before he donned the cloak again, he wiped off the sink and cleaned up the water that had dripped off of him. It was stained quite pink from the blood, and he didn't want to make anyone suspicious.
That done, he unlocked the door and slipped out again. While he'd been inside, the weather had indeed changed. More clouds had blown in and he could smell the rain coming. There was nobody in the park from what Harry could see, so he rushed back as best he could to his rudimentary camp. He felt quite a bit better now after having some food and water and getting cleaned up. Everything still hurt, but it was more bearable now that the things that could be helped had been helped. He even felt good enough to eat some more. This time, he scooped some strawberry jam out of the jar and spread it on the bread as best he could with his fingers. Though he'd done most of the cooking while home, he'd never made jam before. Aunt Petunia must have made it while Harry was off at school. She was quite good at it too, he thought, licking his fingers clean. He'd only ever had store bought jam on the rare occasions he'd been given a sandwich for lunch, and this was far better.
As he ate, he thought about what to do next. If the clouds were any indication, it was going to rain soo, so staying here another night was not likely to be a good idea. With how bad his condition was, and how frail his immune system, being outside in the rain would make him sick, and he'd not be able to deal with a bad cold on top of everything else. Last year, he'd gone to the Leaky Cauldron after running away, so maybe he'd go there again. But no, he'd never be able to get to London. He had no money for the Knight Bus and his broom was still shrunken. He needed to get potions too, in order to heal his ribs. Everything else would eventually take care of itself, but broken ribs were nothing to take lightly.
For a brief moment, Harry regretted running away from the Dursleys. Sure it was unbearable, but he'd at least had a place to sleep. But then he thought back to what Dudley had said, that he'd thought Uncle Vernon was going to kill him, and stamped that whisper of regret out. Still, he'd rushed into yet another major decision without thinking about anything. He'd carelessly let himself get cornered, sending Hedwig away to Hogwarts for the summer without a note to his friends. And how here he was, sitting in a pile of leaf litter in a muggle park with rain starting to fall, stealing away his meagre body heat. He had enough food for another day, and then he'd be starving again, and it would be worse now than ever before. The Dursleys starved him, yes, but he'd still been given enough to stay alive, and he'd often been able to steal leftovers or scraps from cooking.
Stop it, Harry, he told himself, you are NOT going back there. Where would he go then? Wherever it was he went, it had to be within walking distance. He racked his brain. Nobody in the area would so much as spit on him if he was on fire thanks to Aunt Petunia's incessant lying. Even any new residents would be hesitant to help someone looking like him. Suddenly, from the depths of his memory, he remembered a place. The park groundskeeper's equipment shed. What did he remember it from? He kept thinking about it as he gathered up his food and other things, then crawled out of the hedge-clearing to make for the shed. It was tucked away in a corner of the wooded section of the park, half hidden behind trees and shrubs. It was fully dark now, and with the rain starting to fall more heavily, the orange light of the streetlamps barely reached him.
A flash of memory hit him as he walked. It was dark and cold, and he was freezing and so hungry. He could see the pale white glow of snow on the ground as he made his way through the forest. He could feel the rest of the memory ready to come back to him, but he pushed it away so that he could focus on getting to shelter. Though it was dark, it did not take him long to get to the cinderblock building. The park latrine building was left grey so it would be visible, but the equipment shed had been painted green so it wouldn't be quite so visible. Couldn't have people see the help after all. On the far side of the structure, there was a garage door that wasn't locked (though the regular door was). It was still quite the struggle to lift it up a couple of feet so he could shimmy underneath it.
By the time he was inside, he was once again pale and shaking due to aggravating his ribs. He groped around blindly until he found a pull cord. A single, bare lightbulb illuminated when he pulled it. The shed was small and cramped. Most of the space was taken up by a large sit mower, which also filled the room with the nose-itching smell of cut grass. There was a can of petrol and some motor oil sitting underneath a table that was strewn with various mechanical and gardening tools. A large bag of fertilizer slumped in one corner. Miraculously, there was also a large sink in the opposite corner. Harry tested the tap water. It was clean, but there was no hot water, which, though unsurprising, Harry found very disappointing. He drank from the tap and ate some more of his now rapidly dwindling supply of food. Though it was chilly inside, there was no ventilation, so Harry could already feel it getting marginally warmer.
Before long, the sounds of another thunderstorm rumbled through the shed, shaking Harry from sole to crown. The walls were more soundproof than Number Four's, but the foundation shook, and to his embarrassment Harry found himself curling up on the beat-up chair, clutching his cloak to his chest like some baby. But, there was nobody here to see him, no Malfoy to mock him for jumping at loud noises, no Dursleys to work him to the bone and never allow him a moment's peace. For once he was even grateful his friends weren't there to see him shudder and whimper at the booming thunder. At Hogwarts he had to be tough for them and of course the hundreds of other eyes that were constantly on him.
As he sat there clutching his cloak, he finally let the memory he'd held at bay come back to him. It was Christmas Eve, and he was six years old. He'd spent all day working, cleaning the house and helping Aunt Petunia with dinner. Even at six, he was able to do most of the work by himself. He was still clumsy with a knife, and Aunt Petunia would cuff him over the head every time he nicked himself. Not because she cared about him hurting himself, but so that he'd remember not to bleed on their food. He worked all day and finally put the ham into the oven when Aunt Petunia came and grabbed him.
Being shut in his cupboard for holidays was nothing new for Harry, but she didn't take him to the cupboard. She made him walk to the front door and opened it. "I don't want you in here ruining Christmas for my family, boy." She spat out at him. "You can come back inside in two days." Harry knew better than to ask her for anything. Uncle Vernon sometimes would let him out of his cupboard early if he begged, or give him some food, but Aunt Petunia would only be more mean to him if he tried that. Still, he didn't want to spend two nights outside in the snow. It was freezing and the wind was blowing and it was snowing and he didn't have any warm clothing to wear.
Unsatisfied with how slow he was moving, Aunt Petunia gave him a forceful shove and he stumbled forward, tripping over the threshold of the door and falling in a heap on the ground. Without another word, he heard the door close and the bolt slide in. It was already dark outside, but Harry wasn't afraid of the dark. His cupboard was way darker than it ever was outside. He was, though, afraid of the cold. He'd heard his Aunt and Uncle warn Dudley about losing fingers or toes if he didn't dress warmly. Frostbite, he thought they'd call it. Harry thought that was rather sad, that the cold would eat his fingers and toes and then he wouldn't be able to do chores so he could eat. Even the cold got to eat more than him, it seemed.
He'd been locked outside before, but always when it was warmer outside. He couldn't go and sleep in the grass in the backyard, the cold would eat him. The gardening shed was locked too, so he couldn't go in there. The neighbors wouldn't help him either. Mrs. Smith next door at Number Six glared at him every time she saw him, and Mrs. Baker shook her finger at him. He wanted nothing more than to sit down and have a good cry, but he knew that crying never fixed anything, and if anyone heard him, it would only make things worse. So, he started walking. The streets were deserted, probably because of the snow. He'd heard something about crossing streets, but couldn't remember what. After a while walking aimlessly in the snow, he found himself at the big park.
Maybe he could find a cave in the woods? It was worth a shot. As he got into the trees, he felt a little better. The wind wasn't quite as bad in here, and the snow wasn't either. It was still really cold though, so he pressed on. Most of the light was gone, but he could see the snow glowing white on the ground. He crunched through it, shivering miserably, when he saw something off through the trees. It wasn't a cave. It was better. A building.
Harry shivered in remembered cold. He'd spent most of those two days in here curled up under an old tarp. It had almost been better than being locked in his cupboard, because even though it was colder and he didn't even have his ratty mattress to lie on, he had water and could go to the bathroom any time he needed. He still hadn't gotten any food for those two days though, and when he came back his Aunt looked disappointed to see him in one piece.
Well, that was long in the past now. It made for an unpleasant memory, but then, most of his memories were unpleasant. It had only been in the past three years that he'd had any good memories, and even Hogwarts had plenty of nasty things associated with it, and he was a danger magnet. He'd take the bad with the good, however. He could eat as much as he wanted there, and was allowed to have friends and sleep in a decent bed. Even that much was worth putting up with murderous professors, rampaging murderous magical animals, and eldritch horrors (that were also murderous).
Harry had spent most of the day sleeping, but with how injured he was, his body demanded more. He'd eaten as much as he could handle, so he rummaged around in one of the wall cabinets and pulled out an old tarp. It might have been the same one he slept under eight years ago, it looked old enough. It was large enough to fold over twice underneath him to pad the floor and still cover him comfortably. He'd sleep tonight, and tomorrow figure out how to get to London. He turned the light on and fell into an uneasy sleep.
He awoke to darkness. Panicking for a moment, he remembered what happened the last few days and where he was. Most of his aches and pains had faded overnight. His shoulder was down to only hurting when he moved it much, and from what he could see, his bruises had faded to green and brown. Even his ribs felt a bit better, though he still wanted to get a potion for them. He had no clue what to get, but maybe someone would have some advice. Did anyone even sell potions, or were people expected to make them for themselves. He'd never much bothered with Potions as a class, Snape had stamped any interest he'd had out within minutes, but now regretted it. It seemed that it might be useful, if only for knowing what he'd need to buy or make to heal himself.
Well, nothing else for it. He had to get to London. Wizarding transportation seemed to be out of the picture, as he had no money, knew of no other magical people in the area (and indeed, wondered how on Earth he'd managed to hold onto any at all in such a rigid, boring place), and couldn't unshrink his broom. Scrounging around for muggle money would take far too much time, and he had no idea how much a train ticket cost. He could just jump the turnstile at the station, but then he glanced down at his shirt. The rinse yesterday had not done much for its state. It was crusty with all the different nasty bodily fluids it had been soaked with, as well as the ground-in dirt from working in the garden so much. It also reeked, now that he was paying attention to it. Even if he was able to jump the turnstile, he'd attract so much attention on the train he'd be lucky not to be arrested just for looking as bad as he did.
And who knew what would happen then? So now it was back to magical modes. He remembered another time, when he was nine, when he had wound up on the roof of his school when Dudley was chasing him. It was doubtful he could repeat that now though. Maybe I can pay fare for the Knight Bus later, once I get some money. It was worth a try. Remembering the nauseating ride, he decided to forego eating. No use throwing up in front of who knows how many people. With how famous he was, it would just be his luck that someone would recognize him.
He drank from the tap and folded up the tarp, putting it back in its place. He might need to use this shed another night and didn't want to tip off the landscapers that the building wasn't secure. After gathering his possessions and turning off the light, he slipped out underneath the garage door again. The shed was near the corner of the park, so Harry made a beeline for the road. Unfortunately, he wasn't as careful as he had been the previous day, and completely missed the fact that there were plenty of people in the park. So caught up in his mind he was that he didn't notice the small kid that ran into him until he was on the ground.
"Oh, sorry. Didn't see ya there." The kid apologized. Harry got to his feet, noticing that the kid, maybe ten or eleven, was just about as tall as he was, and hadn't fallen down himself.
"It's ok." Harry muttered back. Falling had jostled his ribs, and he was breathing in short hissing gasps. He looked at the kid more closely. It was the same one who had watched him painting the house a few days ago. "You're Malcolm's brother, right?" he asked, hardly even realizing he'd spoken.
"Yeah, I'm Michael," came the reply, considerably less enthusiastic as he realized who he was talking to. "It's you…" he trailed off.
"Yep, it's me." Harry said in monotone. The last thing he wanted was the kid running off and telling Harry's whereabouts to his brother. If that happened, it would only be a matter of time before his relatives heard where he was, and then… well, who could say what would happen then? Then he realized Michael wasn't looking at him like a piece of trash. "What?"
"It's just… everyone heard about what happened. How your uncle tried to kill you." Michael trailed off again, but Harry said nothing. "They all say you're some kind of criminal but, well, I've seen you for years. You don't do anything except work. We all kinda know that how they treat you isn't right, but nobody wants to cause any 'drama'." Harry could hear the air quotes. "So, I figure, if you ARE bad, it's their fault for never treating you right. I wouldn't blame you."
Harry was puzzled. Nobody had ever done so much as pretend to care what went on in that house, and now he was being told that everyone knew and did nothing? Well, of course they knew, they'd seen him out slaving away half his life. "Thanks, Michael." he said. It was impossible to keep the bitterness from his voice, but surprisingly the kid nodded as if he understood.
"Well, I'm glad you're getting out of here. I guess if I were you, I'd rather live in that shed too, than go back there."
Harry didn't want to keep wasting time. The longer he spent talking, the more likely it was that someone else would see him. "I've gotta go." he said.
Michael nodded. "Yeah, I'm meeting some others for football soon." After that, they both went their separate ways. Harry, for some reason, felt far lighter than he had before. At least someone had noticed. It was far too late to change anything, but it still felt nice to know that he wasn't invisible to these people.
He walked over to the street and waved his wand like he'd seen muggles hail taxis at King's Cross. With a bang like a gunshot, the absurd purple triple-decker bus appeared. Stan Shunpike, the conductor, stepped out. "Welcome the the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the-"
"I know, Stan." Harry cut him off. Stan looked rather put out until he took a good look at Harry.
"Bloody 'ell mate, what 'appened to ya?" he said, aghast at the state Harry was in.
"Nothing too bad, but I don't have any money on me. Can I get a ride and then… I don't know… pay later?" Even saying it felt awkward.
"Oi, Ernie!" Stan shouted to the driver.
"Wot is it?"
"Do you still 'ave that Gringotts thing?"
"Yeah, why do ya need it?"
"Passenger don't got any cash on 'im." Harry heard loud rummaging going on inside the bus as Stan turned to address him again. "Do ya 'ave yer vault key witcha?"
Harry pulled it out from around his neck.. Stan ushered him onto the bus and as soon as the doors closed the bus was off. Harry had grabbed a rail but still staggered at the ridiculous acceleration. He handed his key to Stan, who put it into a lock and tapped his wand against it a few times. "There ya go. Where are ya 'eaded?"
"Diagon Alley." Harry choked out, already feeling dizzy from the wild turns the bus made.