Harry knew that when the bright posters for back-to-school supplies were plastered onto the shop windows, or when the flip-flops turned to sneakers and the shorts turned to trousers, that fall was on its way. He was also distinctly aware that those signs came fashionably early, usually around when July ended. August was more like the Sunday of Summer, where the entire month was dedicated to preparing for the next ten or so. He figured, on the day that he got kicked out of Jasper's Bakery, it was around August fifth, six days after his eleventh birthday. He'd been taking loaves of bread and stashing it under his shirt (Aden and Archer would appreciate them, maybe even let him have a bigger slice than usual for his hard work), a violation of law that could have landed him in a police station if Jasper hasn't recognized Harry and taken pity. These days he was frail and bony, and if you lifted up his shirt, you could see his xylophone of ribs, the prominent knob of his hip bone, and the pale skin that stretched over each vertebra. He tended to keep his shirt down for precisely that reason, but Jasper could easily deduce he was starving.
The air was very muggy that evening, hot but with little sun. Later that night would surely be colder, which made him bow his head. Winters were harder than anything out of the streets. No one had time for the ten-year-old beggars—eleven-year-old beggars, that was. He had a blanket and an old jumper stashed into the trashcan down the street, and he prayed silently that it was still there. If anyone, Aden would keep it safe.
As it turned out, he was expected to see them soon. He started to make his way down the street, taking multiple glimpses at the people walking around him. Several of the passersby looked at him as he parted the hoard of people, like a salmon swimming upstream. He could only imagine what he looked like. He hadn't bathed in days.
They were both sitting on a park bench, clad in their usual black leather. Last Christmas they had both worked up the money to get Harry his own faux leather jacket, which was now his most prized possession, and a lot nicer than anything the Dursleys had ever gotten him. When he left, he took nothing accountable with him. Maybe that was why people were scared of them, three homeless boys strapped in dark leather and running about the city, appearing to cause havoc on anyone they pass. In truth, they were all very calm and serene. Aden liked to spend his time in the local book store, hiding in the back corner for hours at a time because he didn't have the money to leave with the book in hand. Out of the three of them, he was the mastermind, the plotter with all real quick wit and clever thoughts.
Archer on the other hand was the most foolish. He had a switchblade in his pocket and a comb in his shoe. A lighter was accessible at all moments. A majority of their time together was spent keeping his impulsive actions and thoughts underhand so he didn't end up in the back of a police car (again). But he was definitely loyal, that was for sure. In his left shoulder was a bullet wound from when he'd pushed Aden out of the way from a stray man with a gun last October.
Usually, when Archer wasn't doing anything illegal, they weren't involved in any tomfoolery and debauchery—especially not with Harry around, seeing as he was often the one who needed taking care of, being the youngest and most inexperienced. Harry hated knowing he let the group slow with him. Because he was there, they didn't drink or smoke cigarettes anymore. They rarely stole any food to keep them alive, and they didn't get into as many fist fights. They told Harry that it was a good thing, that Harry was a positive influence, but he could tell that Archer missed the adrenaline pump he got from sinking his fist into another man's gut, and while he didn't approve of violence, he also didn't approve of changing people. That was when he suggested the anterior motive—the boxing ring allowed contestants to fight for free the second Thursday of every month, where he would be allowed to pummel whoever he wanted and not get in trouble, and Harry would not be hindrance who stopped him, because it was all fair sport. The next competition was that night.
"Harry, m'boy!" Archer cried, wrapping his arm around Harry's neck in a friendly headlock and rubbing his knuckled into his skull. "We'd have thought you ran away for hills, mate. Where did you go?"
"Jasper's," Harry mumbled, sounding defeated. He really did have his eyes set on that loaf of bread. It would have fed them for the next night or two, and they could have eaten like real men instead of begging for scraps.
"Oh," Archer said. It wasn't angry or sad. Just, oh. Oh.
"We're glad you're back," Aden said quietly from behind his book—he'd snatched it from the crate outside of the library, where the old and threadbare books were placed when no one dared to take them out anymore. It wasn't stealing if it was free.
"Yeah. My match is tonight, mate. I'm up against Fisher, and d'ya know what that means?"
"Victory?" Harry asked dubiously, dropping his knapsack and pulling out a half-empty waterbottle.
"Victory!" Archer screeched, falling next to Harry in the grass and punching the dirt. "Victory is mine! I will win, Harry, and we shall eat like kings in a great hall of success!"
Harry had heard this speech several times since giving the idea of boxing in the first place. Archer had won most of the matches he'd participated in, and lost only to the truly qualified. Fisher was a scrawny bloke with spindly limbs and a gaunt face, not unlike Archer, Aden, and Harry nowadays, but he was low ranking, and there was no doubt Archer could take him.
"Your hubris shows brighter than the stars," Aden laughed, flipping a page.
They continued like that for a while, making small talk and quips to each other's insults as brothers do, and Harry took the time to let what was left of the setting sun bathe him. The park was mostly deserted at this time of day, where night was just starting to break. It must have been around seven o'clock, about an hour and a half from Archer's fight. Two people were opposite him of the park, kissing in a tangle of limbs so tight Harry couldn't tell whose arm was whose. Three benches over was an old woman and man in very peculiar clothing, long cloaks of odd colors: oranges; reds; purples. The man had a long white beard tied with a string, and the woman, while having no beard, had dark hair up in a tight bun atop her head. He had the impression that he'd seen the two before, and merely raised his eyebrows when he remembered that the beard of the old man had been familiar in Jasper's Bakery. The man looked then and now like he was about to stand and run for Harry, slight insanity dancing in his eyes, and it didn't make him feel good.
"Why don't we head down for the ring, yeah? There's always a long line there, and there's no reason we should have to wait."
Archer and Aden listened to him, like they always had, and together they strolled down the city sidewalk of London. Harry made sure to take sharp turns and confusing alleyways to avoid the two people who scared him out of his pants.
Inside, the place was dark and musty. It smelled like sweat and work, and Harry didn't think that was good at all, but Archer perked at the familiarity, and he ran for the lockers.
Aden slung his arm around Harry's shoulders. "It'll be a fun night for sure."
Harry could only kindly agree.
Minerva angrily hiked up the hem of her skirt, bunching up the fabric in her fist and bringing it up to her knees so she could hop over the fence outside of the Dursley yard.
"This is ridiculous," she said for what might have been the millionth time. "We know where he is. Let's go get the boy."
"We need the letter, Minerva. I'm afraid there isn't any other way but to ask the Dursleys politely. The boy cannot stay in Hogwarts over the summer. We need to give him this home."
"This home does not want him, though I can't imagine why. Isn't it better to have a home that loves him? Those two boys seem to care for Potter, don't they?"
"They do," Dumbledore mused, "yes, but they cannot even feed him regularly. Maybe we can get the Dursleys to reconsider."
But they didn't, of course. Upon seeing the two odd people on their doorstep, the Dursleys shut their door and hid away, and even when confronted by magic, they didn't dare take the boy.
"He ran away years ago!" Vernon yelped, his great big face turning an awful puce color. "The boy never did anything but eat our food and disrespect his authorities, and frankly, he's better out there on the streets like the bum he is!"
Minerva, who was turning redder by the minute, thought about slapping the Dursley but resorted to something less violent: using a hex to knock over a potted plant and sending it smashing to the ground in a bunch of splintered fragments. It was one of the more uncharacteristic acts she'd ever admitted to doing, but she knew it would send the arse reeling in anger.
"OUT!" he screamed, "OUT OF MY HOME."
Dumbledore and Minerva left the house in a puff of smoke and appeared outside the fight club.
"You didn't grab the letter!" Minerva said.
Dumbledore lifted the small piece of parchment he had in his pocket. "Oh yes, I did."
Archer was winning, as expected. He had his gloves in front of his face, feet bouncing up and down on his toes, his Cheshire grin splitting his face in half in a devilishly cunning way. One punch. Two punches. Three punches. Down.
A bell rang. People clapped. Aden stood up and cheered for his brother, and Harry did the same, punching the air and whooping. Archer bowed and then, just because he was a show off, did a flip off the ropes around the ring.
"Bastard," Aden laughed, and then quickly apologized for swearing in front of Harry.
"I don't mind," he told him, and then he caught it: the twinkle of insanity in blue eyes and the long white beard.
"Oh. Oh. Oh, we need to leave, Aden. Now."
Archer popped down. "Hey! Not bad, eh?" He frowned when he noticed that no one was paying attention to them. "Hey, guys! I won! Pay attention to meee!"
"What's wrong, Harry?" Aden asked.
"There are people following me," Harry said. "We need to leave."
The brothers looked at one another, expression unreadable.
"You guys go," Archer said in a sudden seriousness. "Aden, you take Harry to the safe spot. They aren't looking for me, so I'll collect the victory money and pick up some dinner. I'll meet you there, and don't get sidetracked. Love you, Bro." And then he was swallowed by a crowd of admirers who patted his back and ruffled his damp raven hair.
"C'mon, Harry. You know the rules."
Harry knew the rules by heart. He'd memorized them some years ago after first meeting the two brothers in a darkened alleyway, when they had first taken him under their wing. He had promised not to be a nuisance (so much for that), so they allowed him to travel with them, and since then, so much had already happened.
One: Stick together.
Two: No one gets left behind.
Three: No one messes with Harry.
Four: Listen to what another person says. So if one person says to leave them, to save themselves, then go. Don't look back, just run.
Five: Once a brother, always a brother.
Six: Try your damndest not to get arrested (that means you, Archer), because we need each other, and if you do something selfish that gets you taken away, you are at fault.
Seven: There is no such thing as alone.
Eight: Don't rat.
Having Aden tell him to remember the rules only meant that if something happened to Aden, Harry would have to run and run fast. That didn't help his uneasy stomach, but he agreed to oblige nonetheless, however unsure he would be able to follow through with it.
The old man started to near Harry, so Aden and him bolted for the double doors, taking a turn down three streets and cutting the corner next to the joke shop. A knot of children passed, and Aden had to side-step out of the way. It was getting darker. Harry could barely see ten feet in front of him.
"Pick it up, little man," Aden said, taking Harry's hand and then steering them in a completely different direction, out of the streets all together until they were laying on the soft grass of an open field. It was their safe spot, but it didn't feel safe.
Aden collapsed onto the grass. "We're too far away, they couldn't tell where we went. The old man's… well… old."
As if on cue, there was a loud crack! and the old man appeared literally out of thin air.
"Ah, hello, Harry. We might have gotten off on a bad foot."
He couldn't help it. Harry screamed. Aden did, too. They got up, and grabbed their things, making their way down the hill but before they could reach the bottom, something invisible rebounded, and they were sent flying back. Nothing hurt but his pride.
Aden swore. He pushed Harry behind him. "Run," he whispered, and Harry knew he would have to. But when he pushed back to go down the hill, something thick stopped him, like a wall of invisible rubber.
"I can't. There's something blocking—"
"No, no. Please, we are not trying to hurt you."
The woman next to him, whose face strongly resembled a put off pug, huffed. "Oh, merlin! As if we could. Potter, do we look like we could hurt you? I'm practically rotting in my socks! I should have retired ages ago."
"Oh, you're not nearly as old as I am, Minerva," the bearded man said, smiling faintly and eyes dancing. Harry couldn't tell if the man was sincerely nice or a deft conman. He'd heard that kidnappers were very persuasive.
When Aden spoke next, his voice was firm. "What do you want with Harry?"
Harry tried to push Aden out of the way. He didn't want one of the only people he cared about to get hurt on his behalf—that and he really did want to face the two mystery people. He wanted to see their faces properly, instead of leaning around Aden's narrow sides in hopes of seeing the two. He felt like a child. But he felt like a protected child.
"We're old family friends," he said. "Your parents, Lily and James, were students at a school I taught at when they met. Got married a few years after graduation, and then they had you." He looked pointedly at Harry.
"How do we know you're telling the truth?" Aden retorted. It was very strange for Harry to see him like that. He very rarely got angry; sometimes Harry thought of him as the most even-tempered person in London, possibly the world, especially for someone who had to put up with Archer and him.
"Those are my parent's names," Harry whispered. "Lily and James. He knows them."
"Harry, it's easy to break into family records."
"You're very clever—Aden, is it? You remind me of a few other students of mine. At Hogwarts."
"I've never heard of it," Aden nearly spat. "There's no school anywhere in England with that name!"
"It's in Scotland," the woman muttered. "Look, we just need to talk to the boy, okay? We promise not to hurt him."
There was a gasp from behind them. Archer stood, plastic bag in one hand, other poised mid-air in shock.
"Professor," he muttered. "I—um—sir."
"Archer Lightreed. Please to see you again."
Aden whirled around. "You know the man, Arch?"
"Oh—Oh, God. I should have told you, Aden. I just didn't think—and oh, Harry. I had no idea you were—I haven't been in the magical world in—this was the man we're running away from?"
"Stop dicking around!" Aden yelled. "What the hell is going on?"
"Archer Lightreed was a… let's say rather innovative student at Hogwarts for three years. Quite the wizard, I'll admit."
"Wizard?" Harry said, but no one seemed to hear him.
"You knew I was going to a boarding school for a little bit," Aden said, setting down his bag, perching himself on the grass, and then pulling out a Styrofoam tray.
"Yes, but you quit! And as far as I knew, it was a stupid—stupid school for teenage delinquents!"
"Me? Delinquent? It's like you don't even know me, brother," he laughed.
Aden stilled and then turned to the man. "Name?"
"Professor Dumbledore speaking, Headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
"That's not even funny."
"I'm not going to leave you guys," Harry said, though the back of his chest ached. After a long and trailing conversation with Dumbledore and McGonagall, he'd never been more thrilled in his life. He'd never been so special.
"You have to," Archer said. "I dropped out because I wanted to support my brother, but that's not going to happen to you. Hogwarts is a brilliant school, and we're not going to deprive you a future."
"You shouldn't have deprived yourself a future," Aden muttered, but handed Harry his jacket either way.
"What happened to once a brother, always a brother?"
"You are a brother," Aden assured him, ruffling his hair. "Just look at you! You've done so much to help us, and it's not like you'll be gone forever. By the time you get back, Archer and I will have a big ol' house for us to stay in. No dodgy parks or parking lots. You'll have a big bed to sleep in all year round, yeah?"
Harry thought that sounded better than anything he'd ever heard. He missed his old cupboard back in Number Four Privet Drive a lot, because even if it was small and dingy, it was warm, but he'd never said that aloud. Nothing could have made him go back with his two almost-families helping him out. But if the three of them had a home together… they'd be a proper family.
"I want to go," he said firmly, "but you guys need me. You said it yourself."
Archer pressed his lips together and kneeled down to be at Harry's level. He was so much taller than all three of them, being the oldest. "We do need you, but for once in your life, Harry, you have to be selfish. You're going to be studying magic. Doesn't that excite you? There will be feasts and wands, and you'll have gold jingling in your pockets, and people will love you. Look—I haven't been in the magic world since I was thirteen, and that was nearly six or seven years ago. Back then, they always talked about The Boy Who Lived, but I had no idea that it would be you."
"The Boy Who Lived?"
Archer looked back, for the first time in a very long time, sadly. "Yes. But let's not talk about that. You're more special than you think."
Harry blushed and ducked his head. Down the hill, the two professors were waiting for him to finish their goodbyes, so Harry could buy his things and head to the train. They told him that he was the late, that everyone had received their letters a week ago, but he couldn't be tracked down. Harry would be leaving immediately after full-filling his shopping list.
"How do you know it's safe?"
"Since when have you ever cared about being safe, Mr. I-Wonder-If-That-Rope-Is-Sturdy-Enough-To-Hold-All-Of-Our-Body-Weights? But yes. Hogwarts is that safest place I know."
"Harry. You have to."
"I'll miss you guys."
They both sighed. "We'll miss you, too. But you have to remember rule number four. I know you know which one that is."
"Of course I do."
They both hugged Harry, and he had a sudden urge to say no and never leave, but the thought of a big castle and a warm bed made him let go. They told him to leave. Breaking the rules was not acceptable.
"We'll miss you, Harry. Goodbye."
"It's not really goodbye, after all."
Consider this my only consolation for being on vacation for a whole week. I got back a few days ago, but here I am! It's a one shot, and I probably won't do a sequel, but I'm not ruling it out completely in case I want to do a what-happens-when-Harry-comes-back fic. I don't know yet. We'll see how this one is received.
I'll update my other fan fiction, Take My Hand and Take My Whole Life Too, soon. As always, the link to my novel on wattpad is on my profile. Uh… what else… I don't really know where the inspiration came for this. I'm not as happy with it as I would have liked, but I think I'll live. Aden and Archer are of my own invention, and they're good characters, I think. They're fun to write. Other than that… adios!