Harry Potter had never before looked more forlorn. He supported a brilliant black eye, an injured shoulder, ribs that seemed to creak as he moved, and three fingers that were purpling before his eyes. Looking up into his dusty mirror, Harry thought there might have been a small chip in one of his teeth as well.
Harry had returned to Number Four Privet Drive no more than 72 hours previously. Normally, Harry begun each summer with a feeling of dread upon returning to the Dursley's, but his happiness from the return trip via Hogwarts Express, with his friends in tow, usually remained a small light in his life for several weeks. This year, however, that happiness did not slowly ebb away as the Dursley's put a fight into making his life miserable – that light of happiness turned tail and ran.
From the moment Harry carried his trunk up the stairs (making certain to bang it along the steps and walls), he had been in a world of hurt. For that discrepancy, he had gone without dinner and breakfast the next morning.
To the surprise of his portly cousin Dudley, Harry had been picking fights. Whether it was over the television to watch the news or the last breakfast scone, the Dursley's had never witnessed such a cantankerous Harry. When these fights left the spotlessly clean house, Dudley resorted to his favorite pastime; Dudley very much enjoyed a Harry-shaped punching bag. Harry, however, had not sat still or run. He fought back. Although no match for Dudley's size, his wiry physique usually allowed for Harry to get in at least a couple square punches.
Dudley was not pleased. The painful, but overall harmless, punching had evolved into much more brutish style. Dudley Dursley would certainly not allow his little cousin Harry to beat him physically.
Harry paid dearly. Aside from Dudley's physical abuse, Aunt Petunia continued to withhold meals for every scrap he found himself in.
To the astonishment of the entire Dursley clan, Harry Potter maintained his newfound cool and uncaring demeanor, even through their abuse.
Staring at his reflection, Harry's mouth twitched into a grim smile. If only Hogwarts could see him now, would they still believe him to be the Chosen One? Would rumors still circulate that he had actually murdered his competition in the Triwizard Tournament?
Hermione's voice echoed somewhere around the back of his mind. Harry knew what she would term his behavior: destructive. Hermione was always trying to diagnose Harry's problem; to fix him.
But what did Hermione know? She had been sitting calmly in the stands, no doubt cheering with her classmates, while Harry had been forced to watch Cedric Diggory die. While Hermione spoke seriously about the tournament to her best mate Ron, Harry dueled for his life.
No, Harry thought, Hermione would not understand.
Neither would Ron, he realized. So much of Ron's world revolved around food and Wizard's Chess that Harry was often surprised to hear him speak of anything else. Ron had actually envied Harry's involvement in the tournament! As if battling the most evil wizard the world had ever known was anything to be envious of.
Since returning to the Dursley's, Harry had thought of Cedric and Voldemort, and little else. Harry thought of Voldemort and his surely rising power during the day, and Cedric's dead, silent face haunted his dreams at night.
Harry could see no route that wasn't destructive for him at this point. Lord Voldemort wanted him buried six feet under, and Albus Dumbledore treated Harry as a pawn in the game between good and evil. Every letter Harry had yet received bore some mark of having been searched and edited by the Headmaster himself. Did Harry really need to be sheltered so severely?
After having been told, once again, that he was not old enough to understand the repercussions of his premature involvement with the war, Harry's relations with Albus had soured. Albus seemed to think that a fully informed Harry would run rashly into battle.
An uninformed Harry, however, was undeniably bitter.
Harry groaned at the same moment as his stomach. Scrunching his nose, he resigned himself to hunger. He crossed his fingers in hopes that he would not cross the path of any of the Durlsey's on his trip to the kitchen.
Skipping the stairs he knew to creak, Harry slipped quietly to his destination, though it was early in the day; Uncle Vernon was at work, and Aunt Petunia was surely spying on the neighbors. Harry chose to err on the side of caution nonetheless.
After nicking a particularly large mango, Harry made to steal back to his room. He was halfway up the stairs when another human being appeared.
"Hi ya, Harry."
Harry paused, looking upward. He opened his mouth to speak, but found it dry; Harry hadn't spoken to another human since his return to Little Whining. He cleared his throat and tried once more.
"Yikes, summer hasn't been kind, has it?" Stephen answered, taking in Harry's appearance. Stephen rolled up his own sleeve to show a purpling mark where finger lines could just be seen. "Haven't entirely escaped your cousin myself."
Harry smiled sympathetically at the boy. Stephen attended Smeltings with Dudley. Unlike Piers Polkiss, Dudley's nasty best friend, Stephen did not willingly set foot in Number Four Privet Drive. After failing his general biology course, Smeltings asked Stephen (a straight A student) to tutor Dudley, as they lived in the same neighborhood.
"Insufferable, isn't he?" Harry returned. Although they were not friends, spending much of the year at different schools and living in entirely different worlds, Harry still found he liked Stephen. Dudley did not feel similarly.
Stephen was shaking his head. "All we were learning was Newton's Third Law. Really, is that so hard?"
"Remind me which that is again?" Harry feigned a forgetful look. He hoped Stephen would chalk his forgetfulness up to the summer holidays.
"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction."
"Oh, of course. Always mix it up with the second law."
Stephen nodded in an understanding matter; Harry was merely relived his excuse made sense.
"All I'm trying to do is explain it. It's so simple!" Stephen exclaimed. "Then he starts going on about how I'm a know-it-all who really needs to be acquainted with his fists."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Dudley knew what the word acquainted meant?"
Stephen chuckled appreciatively. "Good one, Harry. Anyway, I suppose I better be off. Mum's making lunch soon. Care to join?"
"That's alright," Harry declined politely. He held up his mango. "I've got some studying of my own to do."
"Good man," Stephen commended. He held out his hand for Harry. "Good luck trying to escape Dudley."
Harry grasped his hand firmly and smiled in return. "Good luck trying to teach science to him. I imagine it's a bit like teaching an elephant to step quietly."
Stephen jumped the last few steps, chuckling at Harry's joke as he made for the door. Sure he was once again alone, the smile slipped from Harry's face as he made for his room once more.
Sinking onto his bed, Harry bit his teeth into his lunch. His stomach growled in a satisfied manner. Having little else to do, Harry opened his trunk and tossed every book he owned onto his bed. His glare became more pronounced as he went, realizing he had previously read every one. Being texts for school, he knew each front and back.
Harry glared at Hedwig's empty cage. He heavily considered writing to his godfather, Sirius. Sirius would certainly know many good and useful books, especially for a wizard in Harry's position. However, Harry was also certain that Professor Dumbledore would be watching the mail, and he would not approve of Sirius sending Harry any reading material that was not strictly for school.
With a thought niggling at the back of his head, Harry stole out of his room once more and back into the halls. He tossed his mango into the wastebasket in the living room as he settled by the bookshelf. Scanning the texts, he found the large map of the United Kingdom he was looking for. Harry unfolded it, careful not to tear the old paper.
His eyes lit up slightly upon seeing the proximity of Surrey and London – thirty miles to the northeast. A mere thirty miles separated Harry from the closest magical community (that he knew of): Diagon Alley.
Hermione's voice came back in full force, warning him away from leaving the safety of his home. Harry shooed it away, and he returned the map to its place on the shelf.
Striding to the broom cupboard under the stairs, Harry withdrew a small bobby pin from the depths of his pocket. He repressed a shiver; not long ago had he been forced to live in the very closet before him. He began to fiddle with the lock, and in no time at all felt it click open. Sighing in relief, Harry yanked open the door to find the only possession Uncle Vernon had firmly not allowed Harry to keep in his bedroom – his broom.
He reached forward and took it gently. Every part of Harry ached to fly once more.
Shaking his head, Harry closed the door and returned the lock. He peered up the stairs to ensure Dudley's absence before dashing to his room.
Harry glanced out the window. It was cloudy, but sun still peaked through the skies. If he left at dark, the shops in Diagon Alley would surely be closed. He sighed, hoping he would be fast enough to escape any wandering eyes.
He dawned his cloak and pulled the hood high over his head. He pushed the window open and climbed onto the sill. With one quick look around, Harry jumped from the window. For an instant, he felt his stomach drop as the broom dipped; it quickly compensated for his weight, however, and rocketed through the sky. Harry gave a whoop of excitement; this was the first time in weeks he had felt so good.
Not wanting to waste time or draw the eye of a skyward-looking muggle, Harry angled his broom directly upward and shot into the sky. It was several moments before he broke through the clouds, a light dew covering his skin. The sun was brighter from his position, and he grinned like a giddy schoolgirl.
Harry withdrew his wand from his pocket and muttered one of the few spells allowed outside of Hogwarts. The Ministry of Magic had made an exception to the law, allowing the most basic of survival spells to slip underneath the radar. His wand spun to life and pointed just slightly to his right.
Satisfied with his wand as his compass, Harry angled his broom in the right direction and shot off. He would be landing in London in less than half an hour.
Harry took his time to enjoy his flight, but it ended all too soon. Before he was ready, he was dipping down quickly out of and back into the clouds as he searched for a place to land. Finally, he spotted a little park just far enough from the infamous Leaky Cauldron. Although traffic was heavy, he hoped Muggle ignorance would keep him hidden as he rocketed to the ground.
Landing smoothly for such a long drop, Harry dashed away to the little shed he had spied from the sky. He fiddled with the lock, thanking the gods above that it was similar to the lock on his cupboard under the stairs. It popped open easily and Harry made haste in moving several brooms and rakes to the side. He hid his broom underneath, praying no park maintenance crew would come working on such a dreary day.
Harry pulled off his cloak altogether. It would attract far too much attention in the Muggle world. He strode purposefully toward the bustling streets, blending in well with the crowds. Only when he reached the old wooden sign that decorated The Leaky Cauldron did Harry replace his cloak. He drew the strings tight as he pulled up his hood.
Without a glance backward, Harry opened the door. Tom the bartender called to him, but it was merely a greeting he would give any patron. Harry was thankful Tom could not see him full.
Harry crossed the pub quickly, avoiding eye contact with any of its patrons. He pushed open the door and entered the small alley behind. Raising his eyes for the first time, Harry couldn't help but grin at the brick wall in front of him. It seemed ages ago Hagrid had showed him its secrets beneath.
Harry stepped forward and tapped each brick with a sharp movement. The bricks shivered beneath his wand, slowly moving away into a large archway. Before Harry could even spy the streets, he could smell the ice cream from Florescue and the ingredients from the Apothecary.
Harry was home.
"My, young man, you sure have quite the book list."
Harry glanced up at the man behind the counter of Flourish and Blotts. His eyes were still shadowed behind his hood, but he quickly noticed this was not a rarity in the Alley now. Many people walked with their heads down and hoods up. Although most had not believed the rumors of Lord Voldemort's return, it seemed that caution still hung heavily in the air. Harry nodded concisely to the shop keep.
"Summer reading," Harry grunted. His voice sounded cracked, even to him.
"I admire a man with a love for books," the elderly man replied as he looked through the pile. "Books on the Ministry and the previous war? You must believe that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has indeed returned."
An eerie silence descended around them as the few other customers heard his remarks. Harry nodded once more.
"But better safe than sorry, I suppose," the man continued, unaware of the tense air.
"Better prepared than dead on the spot," Harry grumbled.
The man looked up at Harry with curious eyes. He continued ringing up the purchases, however, with a sharp look from Harry. Soon, Harry was striding from the shop with two full bags of books. He stopped to replenish his potions supply at the Apothecary and continued down the road. Harry was quite thankful he had thought to withdraw a large amount of money during his last visit to Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Chances of running into someone he knew was high if he had to venture to the bank; that was a chance he was glad to not have to take.
With a glance to either direction, Harry found himself slipping into an alley just across from the Magical Menagerie. He had no premeditated wish to enter Knockturn Alley, but the idea had come to him while flipping through a book at Flourish and Blotts. He was reading a passage on the supposed fall of Voldemort when he came across a term he didn't know. The glossary defined it as a dark practice of those who follow Voldemort, which was quite vague in Harry's opinion. If he planned to be informed on the upcoming war, he would need more information than the ministry willingly put into books. He needed a book that felt no reservations about exploring and explaining the Dark Arts. Knockturn Alley, Harry knew from a previous adventure, would surely supply him with just that.
Harry stole a glance upward as he walked by Borgin and Burkes. He shuddered, quite happy he would not be venturing there. Several shops down stood a vile looking shop with a sign claiming to sell literature. Harry held back a snort; he sincerely doubted anything there could classify as literature.
Harry entered nonetheless. No bell alerted the shop keep to his arrival, as was customary of the shops in Diagon Alley. Ignoring the draft at his ankles, Harry strode to the first shelf and began to pick up books at random. He avoided anything covered in chains or blood; he was quite certain one book snarled at him. He picked up several books that looked interesting, including one titled simply 'Riddle'.
Purchases in hand, Harry strode to the front. He set his books on the counter and cleared his throat. Moments later, an elderly, strict looking man hobbled from the back of the store. He glared at the hooded man holding his books.
"I would like to purchase these," Harry said slowly, altering his voice as best he could.
The man snarled at him. "Got the money for it, eh?"
Harry nodded curtly. The man picked up the first book and turned it over in his hands. "A follower?"
"Interested," Harry lied, knowing the man was referring to Voldemort's infamous band of followers, the Death Eaters.
The man grinned nastily and shook his head. His response was sarcastic, however. "What a brave soul. 35 galleons."
Harry cringed inwardly at the price, but handed the man the coins nonetheless. He picked the books off the counter and turned to leave.
"What's your name?" the man asked, although it was obvious he was regarding Harry with suspicion. "Don't recognize you."
"Distant relative of the Zabini's," Harry drawled, throwing out the first name he thought of.
The man's demeanor shifted. "Give them my regards."
Without an answer, Harry returned to the streets and quickly to Diagon Alley. He felt the need for a hot shower after strolling through the depths of Knockturn Alley. Hastily, he returned to the Leaky Cauldron and then the busy London streets. He was pleased to find his broom had been unmoved as he wiggled it from the shed. Harry slipped the handle of his bags over the handle of his broom and pushed off roughly from the ground.
After another invigorating flight, Harry found the streets of Little Whining beneath him once more. Locating his bedroom window, he didn't slow as he shot directly through to his room. He rolled onto the floor, not bothering to suppress the grin that accompanied him after a bit of flying. Harry's grin widened as he thought about his day.
His impromptu (and dangerous) trip to London had resulted in two things: an arsenal of new books and a very renewed, fiery Harry.