~~~~~ Chapter Three: Escape ~~~~~

Harry had gotten a lot of practice in having people whisper, stare, and even try to fawn over him. He'd been getting practice since the very first moment he stepped across the threshold of the Leaky Cauldron, in fact. It was very annoying, but it didn't seem to be going away. Harry counted himself lucky that the people who fawned all over him seemed rare, but he had decided to be cautious about new acquaintances. Ron's approach might have been a wee bit suspect, but he hadn't seemed to want Harry's fame, just his friendship, and he'd been right there when things started going bad.

Ron had been right there in the bathroom when he rescued Hermione from the troll. Ron had been right there when they'd gone to protect the stone. Ron had been right there when they snuck into the Slytherin Common Room. Ron had been right there for the spiders and the basilisk, too. Harry mused that Ron had put himself in harm's way when it had been a choice between that and losing the stone, or his sister. Ron had put himself in the troll's notice when it was just Hermione the know-it-all, whom Ron actively disliked, in danger. Harry counted Ron as a good friend.

Still, there was only so much Ron could do to shield Harry. Ron might have stuck around when the whole school turned against Harry, murmuring and whispering that he was the Heir, but even though he had been right there during the rescue, his presence at Harry's side did nothing to reduce the whispers about Harry. He tried to divert attention away from Harry, of course, by telling his version of events; nobody paid him any mind. (Actually, Ron was just trying to brag. Harry's dislike of attention might have skewed the boy's views a little bit.)

The whispers had been dying down in the weeks leading up to Ginny's abduction and rescue. They'd started up again with a vengeance the moment he'd stepped into the feast. Nobody seemed to care that Ron had gone down to the Chamber with Harry, or that Hermione and Ginny had been key players in that drama. No, the fact that Harry showed up to the feast in bloodstained robes while everyone else was clean, if a bit tired, completely overrode that. So, guiltily, Harry explained his reasons to his friends, and hid away from even their company except in their quiet corner of the Gryffindor Common Room or those places he couldn't avoid, like classes or mealtimes.

Harry had taken to wearing his father's cloak whenever he had to go anywhere and slinking alone through the corridors. He made frequent trips to the library, often meeting Hermione there and helping her research what wizarding law made of his summer plans. He'd also determined that he needed to speak to his Head of House. It sounded to him like breaking from the Dursleys would mean a permanent increase in the danger that faced him on a regular basis, so there was no point not to have as much magic on his side as possible.

Professor McGonagall had been a much easier trip than he'd been expecting, too. He'd explained that he had changed his mind and wanted to study Ancient Runes and Arithmancy next year. She'd warned him about the effort required to pass those courses, and he'd assured her he'd put forth as much effort as he had to. He'd suggested, in the most roundabout way he could, that he wanted to spend more time with Hermione, having missed her during the year. McGonagall's eyes grew suspiciously shiny at that, and she began rooting through one of the drawers in her desk.

Apparently, students change their minds about which courses they wanted to take in third year often enough that she had the paperwork already at hand.

Harry dropped Divination at Professor McGonagall's suggestion. According to her, taking that many courses pushed things a little. She went on to say, "Divination is a wooly enough subject at the best of times, Mr. Potter, and Professor Trelawney is … well, I can't say anything about it as I'm a Professor myself. Shouldn't have even brought it up."

The research in the library began taking up an ever-increasing amount of time. Hermione thrived on it, but he found that the continuous hours reading were aggravating an already massive headache. It was important, though, so he spent every spare hour sneaking books on law and custom into a few of the novels available in the Hogwarts Library. Every time Madame Pince or Professor McGonagall saw him and Hermione sitting at the same table, they'd hurry off into the stacks with knowing grins that made him a little uncomfortable.

There wasn't much to find, for all their effort. One law stated that no woman may wear her peruke on Sunday unless accompanied by a man in a periwig. Another stated that audible borborygmus in the Wizengamot chambers after noon would result in a fine of twelve sickles and a knut. Harry resisted the urge to bash his own head in when he discovered that at least one law was on the books no less than three separate times.

Even Hermione was slowly losing the ability to focus on the impenetrable law books. She kept staring into the middle distance, her jaw slack and her book slowly slipping from her hands. In the last week of school, she happened across a law stating that any creature slain in the defense of another witch or wizard belonged to the killer. It referenced an even older law that any wizard or organization that could not control a tangible asset like a magical creature or device ceded all rights to that asset to any wizard or organization that could do so. Gems such as these made the enormous quantities of dross they had to sift through worthwhile, though the language was such that Harry often had to turn to Hermione for a translation.

Harry couldn't understand a word of that particular statute either, but Hermione assured him that Hogwarts lost all right to the basilisk the first time someone got petrified. Since Harry killed it, the snake was all his. They copied down the reference to the law and went outside. They had a law they could point to, now, and that should be enough, considering that there was no such thing as legal counsel in the wizarding world. Privately, Hermione wondered why squibs weren't given specialty training in law. She might have suspected bigotry, if she hadn't tried to read the legal code herself and found it both dull and impenetrable.

0-0

The rest of term passed more or less quietly. A photographer came in, took pictures of Dumbledore, the elder Malfoy, and the kids. Apparently, Malfoy had agreed to a bit of subterfuge suggesting that Dumbledore had not been sacked, but only pretended to be in order to draw out the attacker. Harry gave a curt "no comment", but Ron told a harrowing story that ended with the rocks caving in on them when Lockhart's wand backfired. Ginny also had no comment, and Hermione only referred them to the book she'd found the reference to basilisks in.

Harry spoke with the Weasley Twins about how underage magic was tracked, "Just in case."

"It's the Trace, Harry."

"We're not sure where or when it's slapped on you, -"

"But we know it doesn't detect non-active magic, like potions."

"Supposedly, it doesn't work so well when you've got adult wizards throwing magic about, so you might be able to cast at the Burrow, with Mum and Dad about, -"

"But Mum's a real stickler for the rules, she'd never let you get away with it, Harry. She barely lets us get away with our potions work, as it is."

A short conversation with Dobby wasn't much help either. Apparently, he'd mimicked Harry's magical signature as thoroughly as he could, and the Trace had picked up on it. He knew it would happen, but couldn't explain why. Harry'd stopped Dobby from breaking his nose on the castle walls to punish himself, then thanked him for his help. Harry considered the problem in the train compartment as the Hogwarts Express pulled away from the castle for the summer holidays, ignoring the booms of Fred and George's game of Exploding Snap.

The real problem was his trunk. He'd get caught in minutes if he had to lug it around. There was no way the muggles wouldn't notice a child dragging a heavy trunk. Fred and George had already confirmed that they couldn't get a shrinking charm to last more than twelve hours, and that just wasn't enough time.

His epiphany came when Hermione pulled out a thick text on transfiguration. The problem was knowledge. Power was obviously a component, but the twins had admitted that it took a bit more skill than they currently possessed to make the charm stick. He slipped out of the compartment and jogged down the train. Spotting blue trim, he called out, "Excuse me!"

The Ravenclaw prefect turned around. "My family's taking a road trip after I get back," Harry lied, "and I was hoping you knew a way to keep my trunk shrunk for a few days. The best my friends can manage is twelve hours." She smiled and nodded.

"Sure, I can do that." He led her back to the compartment. On seeing each other, the prefect and Ginny blushed, though neither said anything. Fred and George grinned at each other, imagining reasons for this. Harry didn't notice, as he was pulling his trunk free of the pile. She waved her wand in the shape of a sideways eight in a circle followed by a box formed of two triangles. She flicked her wand twice, and then touched it to the trunk, incanting, "Manentem adstringo."

The trunk shrunk until Harry could put it in his pocket. "It should last four days. If you place your wand in the center of the lid and imagine a balloon popping, it should unshrink. You'll not get cited for that unless you do it in front of muggles. The ministry generally searches for active magic, and that was part of the spell I set up, so it won't show up." She glanced at Ginny, then left in a hurry. Ginny assured them that she wasn't being discriminated against because of the events in the Chamber. Her issues with Miss Clearwater were a completely separate thing. When the twins tried to pry, she brandished her wand and reinforced the concept of privacy with a few muttered threats.

At the platform, Harry let Hedwig fly off, telling her to find him in a few days. He ditched her cage when nobody was looking, and left the Platform. His uncle complained all the way to the car, then insulted him twice before they'd left the parking lot.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Azkaban echoed with the screams of its prisoners. Minister Fudge was making his twice-yearly rounds. He seemed spooked by the relatively sober and sane visage presented by one of the inmates, who politely requested the newspaper. He liked to do the crossword.

"Are you serious?!" Minister Fudge sputtered.

"Always."

After the fat, incompetent Minister left, Sirius Orion Black gently leafed through the Prophet. His throat ached from just that interaction, but he knew better than to ask for water. Right, ask the dementors for more water. He turned to the front page and paused. There, above the fold, was a boy the spitting image of his brother. James looked just like he had first year.

Sirius shook his head, and looked again; read the article. He slumped against the wall of his cell, feeling an odd sort of miserable triumph. Harry'd succeeded without him, and what a success! He'd never needed his godfather anyway. Good. Sirius mourned. He'd have been a terrible godfather anyway. He smiled at the pictures of his godson's friends. Such worthy people to surround himself wi—

The paper crackled under his grip. His lips turned up to bare his teeth, and Sirius Orion Black of the Ancient and Noble House of Black felt something he hadn't felt in a decade. Purpose. That filthy, disgusting rat dared get near his godson?! He'd tear him limb from limb, then piss on the bits. Revenge was not a happy thought at all, and Sirius knew the dementors couldn't possibly sap him quickly enough to prevent Pettigrew's miserable, stinking carcass from finding itself on the Ministry steps.

Azkaban echoed with the screams of its prisoners, and with mad, barking laughter.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

"And another thing, boy! Where's your trunk? You do something freakish to it? Well, I won't have it in my house, you hear me?!" Vernon's bluster was finally winding down to a dull roar. Harry figured he wouldn't have a better chance to make his case. If this didn't work … he'd consider more drastic measures.

"Uncle Vernon," Harry began. His uncle preferred meek and respectful. Quiet was the key, "How'd you like to get rid of me forever?"

Vernon's rant paused, and he eyed Harry in the mirror. "What's the catch, boy?"

"The others want me to stay with you. If they find I've run away, they'll track me down and force me to return."

Vernon was dead silent for the next mile. "It gonna cost me money, boy?"

Harry hid a smile. His uncle was hooked, "Not a pound, Uncle Vernon. I just need to slip out of the house without being noticed."

His uncle chewed on his moustache, shifting his bulk into a turn. "You're not gone by tomorrow, I'm locking you in your room again, boy. You don't come back, we'll never think about you again. I see you again; you'll find yourself a world o' hurt, freak."

Harry nodded, carefully keeping his face blank. The car finished its journey in silence. Harry slipped out of the lorry and up to his room without a sound and pulled his father's cloak from his pocket. He made sure to show himself at the window before pulling the curtains closed, and swirled the shimmering cloth about his shoulders to wait for night.

0-0

Harry slunk out the back door, over the fence, and out onto the next street over. Years with the Dursleys had taught him silence, and the Cloak made hiding easy. He had his trunk stashed in his back pocket and his wand secreted up his sleeve, held in a loose grip. He'd been in a hurry, and hadn't made arrangements for his broom, something he was regretting. Flight would make this escape a snap.

Everything went more smoothly than he could possibly have hoped. He couldn't spot any sign of any watchers, and nobody tried to stop him. He hurried away from Little Whinging as quickly as his legs could carry him.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Dobby followed his Great and Powerful and Wonderful and Amazing Master in the between-space elves use to hide when waiting on their masters discretely. He folded his long bony fingers against each other and pressed his lips to the knuckles on his first fingers as he watched his Good and Awesome and Superb and Kind and Sublime Master walking cross-country, hidden by a shimmering cloak that made it hard to focus on the Best Master A House Elf Could Ever Want. Dobby wondered privately to himself why his Master hadn't given him any instructions about what to do. He thought hard all night long, and all day the next day, trying to come up with some reason his Master had chosen not to give Dobby his Elfly Duties.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

It was noon the next day, and Harry was exhausted. Walking all night and all day was significantly more wearing than he'd expected. He tried to imagine doing this with his trunk full size, and couldn't. His stomach complained, but he didn't have any money but the wizarding coins in his pouch. Harry grumbled to himself. This could have been better planned.

No matter, he thought as he trudged ever onward. I'm free, and I'll just have to sneak into Diagon Alley at some point. I'll be able to take care of being hungry then, and I've gone hungry before. I don't need food yet, I just want it. Hidden beneath his father's Cloak, Harry grinned. If worst came to worst, he'd simply use the cloak to steal from one of the restaurants he kept passing. It wasn't the most ethical solution, but it was better than starving.

Harry forced his body on, unable to suppress the smile on his face. It didn't matter that he was hungry and tired and sore. He was free.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Off the coast of Azkaban, a black dog struggled through the waves under bright sunlight. Night might have made a better ambiance for the escape, but the dementors were less active during the day, and he needed every advantage that came his way.

An hour of a struggling dogpaddle later, the dog dragged itself onto the soil of mainland Britain. Shaking itself dry, it set off for where it vaguely remembered the Longbottom Manor was. Away from the dementors, its priorities had changed. See godson, then rend the traitorous bastard limb from limb.

0-0

There was no scent of Harry at Longbottom Manor. Not one trace. The dog snarled. If Harry wasn't with the Longbottoms, where was he? He should have ended up here, if Sirius couldn't care for him. Time to try other likely families.

0-0

A large black dog slunk through the suburbs. The night made him relatively invisible, but he still wanted to avoid muggle Animal Control. He whined, remembering how Lily'd set them on him for pranking her hairbrush. Honestly, he thought she'd looked great with neon green hair. He'd kept that memory by remembering how his stupid foolishness had cost the closest thing he still had to a brother and his wife their lives.

No. Focus, Padfoot. Seven possible homes, seven homes with zero scent of his godson. He'd thought he'd caught something at the Weasley's, but the whole place was deserted, not a sign of the whole family. No, there was only one place left to check. He growled, smelling his godson on the rosebushes and the lawn, and on the door of the automobile. He had no idea how Harry had ended up with Petunia, of all people, but he wasn't about to rest until he found Harry and made sure he was all right.

Padfoot followed the most recent scent trail, leading away to the west-ish. It was a day or two old, but he'd find the only remaining Potter and he'd make sure. He'd made the mistake of trusting Dumbledore with Harry once, and he'd ended up in Azkaban for his troubles. He'd make sure his godson was really, truly okay first, this time.

0-0

Padfoot was in a wee bit of a panic, if he was being perfectly honest with himself. The boy's scent had just up and disappeared! He'd crossed a muggle street at one point, but the scent had been confused by a hundred dozen muggle scents, and even though Padfoot had checked every single alleyway, turn-off, and door on the entire street, there was no sign of his godson. Where is Harry Potter?

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Dobby nodded in satisfaction as he dusted his hands. Clearly, his Master (the Amazing and Wonderful and Good and Superb, etc.) hadn't given him any instructions because Master Harry Potter Sir trusted Dobby enough to know what to do without any instructions whatsoever. Every time he thought of this, Dobby wiped a tear from the corner of his eye; his Master was so kind to Dobby. Just as obviously, Master Harry Potter Sir was trying to hide, so Dobby had done the only sensible thing, and removed the old tracking charm he saw attached to his Good Master Harry Potter Sir's left foot. He'd then gone and cleaned every trace of his Wonderful Master Harry Potter Sir's trail he could reach in an hour and a half.

Dobby nodded to himself, patting himself on the back. He was the best House Elf ever, and Great Master Harry Potter Sir would never, ever regret not freeing him. Dobby would make sure of it.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Remus Lupin was a man old beyond his years, and shabbily dressed besides. He was a werewolf, and he'd lost the only family he'd ever had twice over. His family by blood had been slaughtered by the very werewolf that cursed him, and the Pack he'd built at Hogwarts had fallen apart about his ears. He'd lost all three of his friends in one go, and hadn't even gotten to see the child he thought of as a nephew in years.

He didn't have a steady income, nor a sizable one, for that matter. Every knut that didn't go to keeping him alive had gone to the search for Harry Potter. It was a search that wasn't assisted very much. Anyone he might have trusted to help believed in Dumbledore absolutely, and while he might have owed the man a great debt for allowing him to attend Hogwarts, Remus Lupin could not accept the man's word at face value. He had to see the child he thought of as a nephew for himself.

He'd lost track of time, and had been living hand-to-mouth for the past four years solid, without even a Knut to spare towards the search for Harry. When he caught sight of the article in the Prophet, he realized that Harry was attending Hogwarts. He decided, then and there, to put his many O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s to good use and applied for the open Defense Against the Dark Arts post at Hogwarts. He'd get to see his nephew again! He might even have a Pack once more!

The only thing that had kept him sane over ten years of living in solitude with his curse and his grief was the charm he'd cast on little Harry the last time he'd seen him. It was a fairly useful babysitting charm, and many parents used it to reassure themselves as to the state of their children. Lupin's had deteriorated over the years, and been blocked somewhat by whatever wards Dumbledore had put into place, but it had reassured Lupin that Harry was still alive.

The charm was a decade old, and he'd not gotten a reasonable location from it since Dubledore's wards went up. When he felt the magic snap apart and he lost the last bit of contact with his Pack that Lupin had, he woke with a start. He was devastated, of course, but the magic had been wearing thin anyway, it wasn't entirely unexpected. Remus had always been the most levelheaded of the Marauders, so he reassured himself for the next day by reaffirming his plan. Knowing that Harry was attending Hogwarts made his course of action obvious: he had to get that DADA job. Remus Lupin went back to sleep, his resolve hardening. He'd get that job, even if the rumored curse meant he died for it.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

The wards around Number Four, Privet Drive were really a thing of beauty. Lily was the most brilliant witch of her generation, and while she and her sister had long since had a falling out, there was a war on. She'd spent three nights constructing the most potent wards she could and tying them to her own blood, doing her best to ensure that Voldemort couldn't strike at her sister to harm her. As long as someone with Evans blood in their veins lived at this House, they would be safe.

She'd keyed the wards to the emotion of love, too. The construction was being done out of love for her sister, after all, and she was sure that Petunia and Vernon loved each other, even if she couldn't imagine them together without throwing up in her mouth a little. In the end, nobody with anything less than positive intentions to her blood could so much as find the house.

As Lily Evans was the most brilliant witch of her generation, Albus Dumbledore was the most brilliant wizard of his. He'd known of her casting, since she'd needed her husband's cloak to do it properly, and James Potter had explained to Dumbledore, "Sorry, sir, but we won't have the cloak as an Order asset for a few days, Lils needs it to ward her sister's house in secret. I'll loan it to you again once she's done."

So when the most powerful charms and wards failed around the Potter home, Albus had immediately turned to what he assumed was Lily's backup location. Albus breathed a sigh of relief to see the wards still standing. Later that day, while waiting for Hagrid to arrive and listening to Minerva's complaining about the muggles (really, he'd thought better of her than simple bigotry, they were probably fine people even if they did lack magic), Albus had cast a simple charm to let him see magic, since he'd have to add a few layers to the wards, just in case. He'd been quite surprised when, in the middle of his work, Hagrid had arrived with young Harry, and the magic of the wards around Petunia's House had reached out to coil itself around the tendrils of magic leaking from Harry.

He assumed this was the result of a fall-back measure Lily had engineered, and adjusted his own ward-work to tie the whole scheme to Harry, as he assumed Lily had intended. In fact, this was a simple side-effect of the fact that Lily's protection ritual on Harry and her wards around Petunia's home both used love as an emotional key.

They were still some very potent wards, of course. The amount of force behind them never wavered, since that was a component of the casters who set the wards, and the end result was a collaborative effort of the most brilliant students of magic from two generations, as well as one of the people reported to be one of the most powerful wizards since Merlin.

Unfortunately, as a result of the emotional keys in both spells, the durability of the wards was tied to how much love Harry felt and received. Had Harry been loved by the Dursleys and been loved in turn, the wards would have withstood assault by Voldemort himself. Due to the neglect he had suffered at their hands, however, the wards wouldn't keep out a determined fourth-year student, once they got past the misdirection effects that kept them away from the house.

Had they been at full strength, the wards might have lasted a solid month or two before snapping, but as they were, when Harry left, intending never to return, the wards barely held out until he settled down for the night before snapping like a dry twig. What magic was left in their construction dissipated within the hour.

~~~~~ o.0.o ~~~~~

Night had begun to fall again. Harry had no idea where he was, but there was no sign of the magical world, and Harry still lacked muggle money. It was high time he slept, though, and there was a good, hidden spot here. Harry settled down for a rough night. He'd had a bed ever since Hagrid had picked him up out of the hut on the rock, and he wasn't looking forward to another night on the ground.

Harry hunkered down as best he could. He had no idea how the Trace worked, but he was almost positive he wouldn't be able to cast any spells, so there was no hope of a cushioning charm. He stuck himself in the corner of a fire escape, his wand carefully pointed at the entrance to the escape, and made sure his father's cloak was wrapped about him securely. Suspended above the street, Harry noticed the large black dog snuffling around, but didn't pay it any mind. There was, after all, no way for it to reach him. Harry closed his eyes and was asleep in moments, his body still and his dreams quiet.