Harry stares up at his watch in the darkness, holding the button down so its green light will keep illuminating the numbers as it ticks down the seconds. At midnight, Harry releases the button and sighs. “Happy Birthday.” On his fifteenth birthday, just like every birthday before it, he’s saying the words to himself.
“This is terrible. This is worse than I thought it would be.”
Harry yanks his wand out from beneath his pillow and points it in the direction of the voice, his heart hammering in his chest. Standing in the corner near the window, where Harry knows no one had been a minute ago, is the shadowy form of a man. Harry can’t tell if he’s dressed in wizard or Muggle clothing, but he can see streetlight reflecting on an awful lot of silver in the man’s dark hair and close-trimmed beard.
He has to be a wizard, you idiot. Muggles would have had to open the window first to get in, and that would have irritated Hedwig.
He glances at his owl. Hedwig isn’t making any alarmed sounds, but she also knows that to wake the Dursleys is to invite more trouble than either of them needs.
“Who are you?” Harry asks, glad that his voice doesn’t shake.
“I’m a friend—well, let’s leave it at ‘ally.’ That probably seems more reasonable at the moment,” his guest answers. He has a pleasant voice, but then, so did Tom Voldemort’s diary shade. “Are you going to point your wand at me all night?”
“If I have to. It’s not like I have old men showing up in my bedroom all that often,” Harry retorts.
“I—old—you called me—” He can see the shadowy figure put his hand over his face. “That was not very nice.”
“You showed up in my bedroom at midnight, in the dark, without knocking, haven’t introduced yourself, and I’m the one who’s rude?” Harry asks in disbelief. “Seriously?”
“Old!” the wizard repeats again in dismay. “Fine, then. I apologize for the late intrusion, not to mention the secretive part, but I didn’t want to wake your interesting relatives. I’d probably stab them, and then there are police and M.L.E. investigations, and it’s just a great big pain in the arse.”
“Okay, that’s kind of a fair point,” Harry admits, but he doesn’t lower his wand. He’s not even supposed to have it out of his school trunk, but the Dursleys weren’t in Little Hangleton last month. He can’t sleep unless it’s in touching distance. “What do you want?”
“Might I turn on the light? It will probably make things seem much less clandestine—and don’t worry about sound carrying. I already cast a spell that will ensure that no one else will hear anything.”
Harry hates that his wand dips a little in reaction. “Which means you could murder me and they’d never know.” They wouldn’t care, either, but Harry suspects the stranger is aware of that.
“Usually the point to murdering people is that they don’t know about it beforehand,” his guest replies. “Light?”
“Hold on.” Harry gets out of bed, finds the jumper he took off last night, and shoves it along the bottom of his bedroom door. “Now I can—”
The ground tilts alarmingly; the only thing saving him from falling is the wizard’s sudden grip on his elbow. “Relax. I’ll let you go the moment I’m certain you’re not going to brain yourself on the floor,” he murmurs.
Harry shakes off the lightheadedness. “I’m fine.”
The wizard sighs. “You aren’t,” he says, but he lets go and flicks the bedroom overhead light on, which only has one surviving bulb left. The light in the room is horrible, producing dirty yellow paths interrupted by dark shadows. The man has short dark hair; his skin could be pale, brown, yellow, or none of those. Harry can’t tell what color the wizard’s eyes are, either, but the lines around his eyes seem kind instead of cruel.
“Who are you?” Harry asks again. He realizes, too late, that he lowered his wand, but this wizard also made it from one side of the room to the other without making a sound. Harry is probably outmatched, again, but so far he’s not bound, being threatened, or dead.
“I can’t tell you that, and not because I don’t want to.” The wizard steps back and leans against the wall a polite distance away, which makes Harry’s shoulders relax a little. His clothes are entirely Muggle, Harry realizes, but they don’t seem local. Neither does the man’s accent, though his English is flawless.
“Then what can you tell me?”
Harry doesn’t think it’s his imagination that the old wizard seems unhappy. “I’m here to save you from what’s to come. It’s just going to be a rather complicated method of saving.”
“What’s to come?” Harry asks.
“Voldemort,” the old wizard replies. Harry doesn’t flinch, though it’s a near thing. “Again, and again, and again, until someone dies. I’d rather it not be you, as would quite a number of other people.”
Harry almost starts laughing. “A number of—that’s rich. I read the Prophet, you know.”
“I read the Daily Prophet, too, but I’m not stupid.”
“Okay. Let’s say I believe you.” Not that Harry thinks he has much choice. “What does this ‘saving’ of yours involve?”
“I can tell you that you will be a hell of a lot safer than if you were to remain here. I can tell you that you will receive useful magical training for your survival, not the guesswork you’ve been expected to perform up until this point.”
Harry frowns. “What’s the catch?”
“The catch is that it could take a while,” the wizard replies.
“A while,” Harry repeats. “So people could die while I’m off doing whatever mysterious thing you’re talking about.”
“If you die, a lot of other people will also then die at Voldemort’s hand,” the old wizard says. “At this point, you’re arguing semantics. No matter which option you choose, death might be lying in wait.”
“You don’t work for Dumbledore,” Harry guesses. He’s not sure what makes him certain, but he is.
“No. He’s not a bad sort, but we have some differences of opinion,” the wizard says.
The old man scowls. “Your residing in this fucking house, for starters. It was meant to be temporary, not permanent.”
The swearing is a little surprising, but he’s heard worse from Dudley’s gang. Harry is more concerned with the second half of what was said: temporary, not permanent. “You knew my parents.”
“I did.” The old man frowns and crosses his arms. “They wouldn’t have wanted this.”
Harry clenches his jaw. He’s heard that one a lot, too. “Oh, really? What would they want, then?”
The wizard just raises an eyebrow. “They wouldn’t want their child to be forced to fight in a war he’s not prepared for.”
That isn’t what he expected at all. Harry lets his arm relax at his side, even if he can’t release his white-knuckled grip on his wand. “You’re the first person I can think of who’s ever said anything like that to me.” He’s heard a lot about how Harry should let adults handle problems, and then he gets to watch and roll his eyes as they don’t do anything. He was sick of that nonsense in his first year of primary school.
“No, I imagine they’re too busy prattling on about Chosen nonsense,” the wizard mutters. “I will not force you from your own home, Harry Potter, but I believe you’re intelligent enough to realize I’m telling you no falsehoods.”
“But there are still plenty of things you’re not mentioning at all.”
For some reason, that makes the old man smile. “Clever lad. There are many reasons for my secrecy, and some of the secrets I hold are meant to safeguard others aside from you.
“If you decide upon my offer, you can take very little with you. Not photos or books, not clothes beyond what I find appropriate. Your wand and your Cloak—yes, I’m aware of its existence, and would not ask you to leave it behind—and if she’s willing, your owl.”
“Everyone else just tells me what I’m supposed to be doing.” Harry hates that he sounds pathetic.
“Which you don’t often agree to. You’ve too much defiance in you for that, but you’re not used to being granted the opportunity to make a decision that’s all your own.” The old wizard spreads his arms wide. “I can give you that, at least.”
Harry glances at Hedwig again, who is only regarding their visitor in quiet curiosity. She’s a good judge of character, even when he hasn’t been. If she’d decided the old man was a threat, she would be repeatedly lifting her talons and putting them back down, anxious to attack. “Let’s say I believe you. You’re offering me something genuine, some way of killing Voldemort without dying in the process.”
“I notice that the aspect of safety doesn’t seem to be a concern.”
Harry shrugs. “I’ve never been safe. Not that I can remember, anyway. I mean, you could have just killed me the moment you got here, and you didn’t. Either you’re bad at making people dead, or you’re hung up on making people like you before you kill them.”
The wizard is giving him an odd look. “You’ve either watched too much telly, or not nearly enough. I am actually quite good at making people dead, thank you, but we’re back to how many others find it to be an inconvenience.”
“Right. You mentioned that.” Harry stares at him. The more he thinks about it, the more the old man looks a little bit like he should be family. “Have we—have we met?”
“We have. And after you leave here, we’ll meet again, as well.”
“You’re not going with me?” Harry blurts out in surprise.
“I can’t.” The old wizard doesn’t look happy about it, at least. “As I said: I safeguard others aside from you.”
“If one of your jobs was safeguarding me, you are really bad at your job,” Harry says dryly.
The old man sighs. “Yes, well, I’m not the only one. A lesson you should remember, Harry, is that a single person can only do so much: no matter how much wisdom they hold, no matter how powerful they are, or how much influence they’ve gained. I’m sorry for what you’ve lost; I can only offer to make up for it.”
Harry tries to come up with reasons to say no. He’s dealing with a strange wizard who could be meaning to send him anywhere…but isn’t as if he can’t get back. If he can take his wand, and Hedwig, he can send a message off and have someone retrieve him.
He thinks of Cedric falling in a blast of green light. Some nights he can’t sleep for remembering it. When it’s not him, it’s Hermione, Ginny, Ron, Sirius—and he can’t. He can’t let that happen. If it takes random bargains with strangers to be able to protect them from Voldemort, Harry already knows he’s going to say yes.
“Okay,” Harry says, and tries not to shrug again when the old man just looks at him. “I watched someone I like die in front of me, sir. I killed my first Dark wizard at age eleven with my bare hands. A basilisk controlled by Tom Riddle tried to eat me when I was twelve. I learned Peter Pettigrew betrayed my parents, not my godfather, when I was thirteen—oh, and that my other godparent is a werewolf, that was fun, but I don’t hold that against him. Then last year a Death Eater got me involved in a tournament that could have killed me three times over, and since I didn’t botch it, Voldemort is walking around in a body again with a wand he can point at anyone he pleases. You know I’m going to say yes.”
“I did, and I did not,” the wizard replies. He rubs his face, as if thinking, but Harry knows he isn’t mistaken when he sees the glimmer of moisture in the man’s eyes before it’s gone again.
You’re family. Or close enough for it not to matter, Harry realizes. You care.
If he wasn’t certain before, he is now. “What do I need to do?”
“Your watch has to stay here. It’s a useful device, but it cannot go where you’re going,” the wizard tells him. “I see trainers resting on top of that trunk, but they’ll not do. Do you have boots?”
Harry shakes his head. “No, just those and school shoes.”
“It snows in Scotland.” The man looks unimpressed. “Your school sees bloody snowfall.”
“But I’m only here in the summer. Nobody local is selling boots for the snow in summer,” Harry explains. No one in walking distance, at least.
“Is that your best pair of trainers, then?”
“It’s my only pair,” Harry says.
The wizard makes a sour face. “All right. Fine. Hand them over, and a pair of the school shoes if they’re made of real leather.”
Harry does so, bemused. “Anything else?”
He’s directed to find the darkest pair of denims he owns, a t-shirt or a long-sleeve cotton shirt, preferably with no pocket. Harry settles on a white t-shirt; a rust-brown hooded jumper is also considered acceptable. The old man doesn’t look pleased about the jumper, but the only cloak Harry owns is for school in the winter. His guest is shaking his head over it not being true wool and declaring it useless, which also seems to include a muttered rant about polyester.
The clothes Harry was wearing are otherwise clean, so he keeps his pants on while changing into the approved selections. The old man has his back turned as he prods at both pairs of shoes. His wand is made from unvarnished wood, but Harry is really not the best person to go to when it comes to identifying trees that don’t have leaves on them. Sometimes he’s useless even if they still have the leaves.
Harry pulls up the loose floorboard in his room, shining his pathetic excuse for a flashlight down into the dusty recesses. He’s not worried about much here except for the book of wizarding photographs, gifted to him by Hagrid, and the leather pouch that holds what wizarding money he keeps during the summer. Hagrid got him a wallet once, but it kept biting him instead of biting strangers, so Harry gave up on it. Hagrid really hadn’t seemed surprised at the “news” that Harry’s wallet had eaten itself, which makes Harry not regret at all his decision to leave it in a garbage bin.
“You can take the money. That will be useful,” the old wizard says without turning around. “The photographs are important?”
“They’re of my parents,” Harry says. “If we’re meeting again, then…then I was hoping you’d look after them for me. They’re not safe here at the Dursleys, not if I’m gone.”
The wizard looks over his shoulder to peer at Harry. Then he glances down at the leather-bound book of moving pictures. “I promise they will be safe. Is there anything else you value as much?”
“Just people, and they’re not here.”
“Of course,” the wizard says in a low voice. “If you have proper winter socks, put them on. If you don’t, double up on summer weight. You’ll want the extra padding.”
“For what—oh.” Harry looks in surprise at the pair of black boots waiting on the side table where two sets of shoes had been before. “That’s really neat Transfiguration.”
“You’ll learn it,” the old man says, smiling. “Black leather from the one set, but trainers have better soles to them. Make sure they fit; sometimes I bollocks up the sizing.”
Harry tries to smile. “Oh, so you make your own shoes a lot?”
“I’m particular,” the old man grumbles.
Harry settles his feet into the boots, even if he’s already too warm in a pair of blended wool socks. Those he could buy easily enough; between the wool and the warming charms he looked up, he’d kept his feet from freezing off when it snowed during the school year. “Sizing’s good, unless my feet get longer.”
“Transfiguration. There is enough material there to take you up at least one more size,” the wizard counters. “Ready?”
Harry feels a bad jolt as he realizes that he’s done everything that’s been asked of him. He can’t take anything else, he’s dressed, and the night isn’t getting any younger. If he dawdles too long, he risks Uncle Vernon’s early waking and temper. “Here,” he says, thrusting out the photos. “Please don’t lose them. I don’t know if there are any other copies.”
“I won’t.” The wizard tucks the book into his jacket and tilts his head at Hedwig. “Your owl? You have to ask.”
“Yeah.” Harry walks over to her and opens the cage, watching as the street lamps from the window cut a white swath over his arm as he unhooks her door. “What do you think, girl? Want to go to some new place that isn’t here?”
Hedwig nips his fingertips and then shuffles her way out of the cage. She stretches her wings wide and then tucks them back into place, sidling up his arm until she’s perched on his shoulder.
Harry turns around to face the wizard again. “I think that means yes.”
The old man is watching the owl. “It usually does. Hold out your hand.”
Harry tucks his wand into his sleeve, making sure it’s secure. His cloak is properly shoved into his rear denim pocket. There is money in his front pocket. He’s dressed, he has his glasses, and Hedwig is calm.
Then he reaches out and clasps the old man’s hand. The shape of their hands is even a bit similar, though the old man’s skin is much darker. Harry’s skin tries to be bronze, but his mum’s complexion interferes and turns it really pale, like hers had been. Harry’s dad was maybe one-quarter white and three-quarters something else, and Petunia hates James Potter for that, too. Harry can pass well enough as long as people ignore the bird’s nest masquerading as his hair.
“Is this like Apparition, then?” Harry asks, trying not to let on that he’s half-terrified.
“A bit, but not Side-Along. You and Hedwig will be going on your own.” The old man touches his wand to Harry’s forehead—not his scar, but directly in the center. “This is going to feel a bit odd.”
“Odd how?” Harry asks, but he never hears the answer.