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The Second String

Chapter Text

The Second String

 

I. The Deep In-Breath

 

2 August, 1995

A towering, hooded figure was gliding smoothly towards him, hovering over the ground, no feet or face visible beneath its robes, sucking on the night as it came.

Stumbling backwards, Harry raised his wand.

"Expecto patronum!"

A silvery wisp of vapor shot from the tip of the wand and the Dementor slowed, but the spell hadn't worked properly; tripping over his own feet, Harry retreated further as the Dementor bore down upon him, panic fogging his brain—concentrate—

A pair of grey, slimy, scabbed hands slid from inside the Dementor's robes, reaching for him. A rushing noise filled Harry's ears.

"Expecto patronum!"

His voice sounded dim and distant. Another wisp of silver smoke, feebler than the last, drifted from the wand—he couldn't do it any more, he couldn't work the spell.

He tried, he did, but that familiar warm glow whispered away into the frigid air and guttered out with a faint sigh. Scraps of past happiness and imagined moments of joy alike escaped him. As he drifted into nothingness, his mind idly noticed that the Dementor's iron grasp, which had speared an ice burn into his neck, had loosened. It knew the fight in Harry had died.

Harry didn't notice when the Dementor lowered its hood and grasped his cheek with its other hand. He didn't notice as it opened its mouth and pressed it against his own frozen lips. The Dementor drew in a deep rattling breath, and an old thought from what seemed a lifetime ago echoed through Harry's hollowed mind, this isn't so bad, his twelve year old self reminded him.

Harry teetered on the edge of non-existence, beyond any horror or regret. At most he was dispassionately aware of the curiosity that was being but almost not being. He faintly registered a wrenching tug—was that his soul being taken? The terror he would expect at such a thought was absent.

Suddenly a voice sounded in the nothing. Though no louder than falling snow, it cut across the emptiness, so shocking in the endless silence that the words seemed to tattoo themselves in the not-air.

A soul for a soul, little wizard.

Whatever Harry was (do I have a body?) swayed.

A crackle of emotion infused the void. Is that regret?, the boy wondered.

The voice seemed to sigh. We are monsters no more than what we are made to be, little wizard. The price is fixed. A soul for a soul.

Harry nodded dumbly. That seemed fair enough.

Without warning the nothing exploded with the roar of long-held breath finally being exhaled. His body felt battered  by frost and fire, and a white-steaming mist that resurrected his will. Water, air, earth, which had all faded into the void, shattered themselves into being. Aware again of his bruised flesh and aching bones, Harry spiraled into the darkness of unconsciousness with only a faint thought.

I can see the stars.

xoxoxox

He first noticed how uncomfortably hot and sticky he was. As Harry opened his eyes, the blazing summer sun seemed to awaken his body, which loudly complained of a small army of aches and pains.

Shite, I spent the whole night outside. The Dursleys are going to kill me for missing their breakfast.

Getting to his feet was no fun, but there was nothing for it. It was amazing that none of the meddling neighbors had kicked him awake yet. Eyes squinting against the glaring midday sun, he turned to make his way back to Number Four.

What the hell?

He was on Privet Drive, he was sure of it, but all the houses after Number Two were just, well, not there. In fact, Number Two was missing a roof, and the absent brick on the sides revealed the loud logo printed on the drywall. Wisteria Walk was there, but it too was missing some houses, and all the trees in the neighborhood looked scraggly and too short. Number Four and its surroundings were nothing but field covered in burnt grasses, a far cry from their typical pristine green.

Wait. I got kissed by a Dementor. Kissed! What did it do to me?

"Oi! You, runt! What the 'ell are doing here?!"

Harry jumped at the booming voice. He looked up to see a group of men at Number Two glaring in his direction. The large, deeply-tanned man at their fore yelled again. "Dammit, boy, this is a closed site! We don' want no hooligans here!"

"What? You mean, are you building houses here?" This makes no sense.

"Well what the ruddy 'ell does it look like? 'A course we're building houses! This 'ere's set to be a 'uge new neighborhood in the next few years. Now why are you 'ere?"

Ignoring the stutter of his heart, Harry bit out, "Oh, I, er, I got lost. I'll just—go, I guess."

The man grunted and turned back to his companions as Harry numbly made his way to a main road. The whirling of his mind was threatening to make him sick up.

More buildings and houses were missing, but he recognized the skeleton of the Little Whinging he knew. As he passed the local pharmacy, he bent down to pick up a discarded Daily Mirror.

"Record-Breaking Summer Scorcher Continues! Will It Ever End?", the headline screamed at him. It's been hot, but 'record-breaking' is a stretch, he snorted. Harry was no stranger to journalistic hyperbole. He made to throw the paper down, but his eyes snagged on the date.

Monday, 3 August 1976.

He burbled out a delirious giggle. 1976. 1976. A moment later and Harry was bent over howling with laughter, tears streaming down his face. 1976. A woman walking past him glared and ushered her children to the other side of the lane.  The alarmed pharmacist yanked open his door and shooed Harry, still doubling over, from his storefront. 1976. Harry made his way to the alley behind the shops and flopped down on the cracked bricks and mud, gasping for breath and fighting to calm himself.

  1. His mind boggled.

So I was kissed by a Dementor and then I time travelled.

. . .

This summer sucks.

. . .

Do all people kissed by Dementors end up in 1976? Is this some sort of Dementor victim hub?

. . .

I was kissed by a Dementor. How, how am I even alive?

. . .

Harry would never clearly remember how long he spent in that sun-burnt alley pondering if he had gone insane, if he was in some kiss-inspired dream, if he were in Hell, if his soul was lost in an illusion as his body lay on Privet Drive, an empty husk. Eventually, and with great difficulty, he wrangled his mind into the semblance of rationality and arrived at a handful of working theories.

If I'm insane, nothing I do matters, so I might as well do something.

If I'm dreaming, I'll either wake up or I won't, so I might as well do something until then.

I'm probably not dead and in Hell, since 1) I don't think I deserve that, and 2) This would be a pretty  tame Hell. My hell would have more cupboards, Snape, Dursleys, and Voldemort.

Even if I've been kissed and this is an illusion, I might as well do something before my body dies.

So.

Time travel.

Holy buggering shite, time travel.

The fragile rationality he had cobbled together to get to this point promptly degenerated. At some point Harry realized he’d been sitting on his arse, hands over his eyes, shaking his head frantically for quite some time. This did nothing to bolster his opinion of his own sanity. He needed—he needed—he needed—

I need a grownup.

He brought himself up short. Adults—at least useful ones—were, alas, in short supply. 1976! My mum and dad are alive! They can help! They

His heart sank. They're kids now. Harry shoved the burgeoning hope that he could meet his parents—save his parents?—away. He would think about all that later. He certainly had enough to deal with as it was.

The problem was the same with Sirius and Professor Lupin.

Professor McGonagall sprang to mind, but while she was a good and decent woman, she'd never believed him much when she knew who he was. He couldn't envision her believing him now. Besides, the best she'd do is toddle him off to—

Dumbledore. Yes, of course, Dumbledore!

At once Harry wanted to rush off and divulge the whole ordeal to his headmaster. To lay his past, the Dementors, the kiss, the time travel in Dumbledore's lap and sit back with a biscuit to munch as the great wizard soothed his worries and made arrangements. The Headmaster would smile at him, his bright eyes twinkling merrily behind his spectacles, as Harry described his escapade, just he had done before.

But Dumbledore doesn't know me here. Who's to say he would even believe me?

Harry's stomach suddenly became a churning pit.

Awful things happen to wizards who meddle with time, Harry, Hermione's voice echoed.

Panic thrummed under his skin. After they rescued Sirius in third year, Hermione had told him all about time travel in the wizarding world (though he only listened with half an ear as he played Exploding Snap with Ron). Travel with time turners was highly regulated and misuse was punishable by time in Azkaban. Her eyes had grown soft and bored into his own when she explained that time turners couldn't go back more than twenty-four hours, and though wizards at the Ministry allegedly experimented with attempting to cultivate other forms of time travel, it was thus far impossible. 

I know what you're thinking Harry, she had said, but there's just no way you could go back and save your parents. I'm sorry, but even if you could, the effects could be disastrous and you could end up in a cell for the rest of your life, or erase yourself as yourself from existence or—At that point the cards had blown up, and Harry cursed himself for being more interested in a game than Hermione's typically long-winded, but now terribly pertinent, lecture.

Dumbledore was probably already the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot. If Harry went to him, who was to say that the Headmaster wouldn't decide—or even be obliged—to turn him in to the Ministry even if he did believe him? Harry had traveled nineteen years, something both apparently impossible and probably really illegal. This Dumbledore didn't care about Harry like his Dumbledore did. Would he be put in Azkaban? End up imprisoned by Ministry researchers? What this meant he had no idea, but he'd heard the Dursleys watching Dr. Who and alien movies through the slats in his cupboard often enough to know that this probably would entail never seeing the light of day again. While he didn't have Hermione's intimate knowledge of the intricacies of, well, anything, Harry felt that the Ministry learning he was from the future would qualify as a very bad thing.

Dumbledore was too great a gamble. At least for now.

I seriously need a mom or a dad for this.

A ray of hope shot through him. He did know one other set of grownups who might be able to help him, at least a little. True, Molly Weasley would probably fuss and be more of an impediment, though she might be able to take care of his grumbling stomach. Mr. Weasley, on the other hand, had been the only adult to trust him enough to tell him anything of Sirius when he had first escaped two years ago. Besides, Bill probably wasn't even old enough to be at Hogwarts yet. Maybe they wouldn't know Dumbledore well enough to send Harry to him.

Harry knew no one else, had no place to stay, and only a few Muggle pounds and wizarding coins in his pocket. Beyond that, he had but the clothes on his back and his wand.

I have to do something.

And the Weasleys probably aren’t the stupidest something I can do.

Drawing in a deep breath, he rounded the corner back onto the main street. With his shoulders squared and his body tensed for the unknown, he stuck out his wand. Hopefully the Knight Bus was around in 1976.

xoxoxox

Harry's knees were shaking as he took his first tentative steps down the lane where the Knight Bus had deposited him. His hands were shoved into his pockets, one gripping his wand, the other his new violently-purple toothbrush. The Knight Bus conductor, a younger Ernie Prang, had gaped and nearly fallen over when Harry paid the few extra coins for the latter. Harry wondered if anyone had ever actually purchased the Knight Bus toothbrush before. Honestly, what kind of person would buy a toothbrush from public transportation?

Well, a time traveler would.

He'd had the bus drop him off a bit more than mile away from the Burrow, and now found himself charging ahead into an encounter with his future best friend's parents.

It's okay, he repeated to himself. They're good people. I have my wand.

And a toothbrush. Nothing can stop me now! 

He walked down the lane slowly, carefully constructing a lie that might seem believable. It wasn't as if he could barge into the Burrow claiming to be a time-traveling family friend right from the off.

All too soon the Weasley's house came into view. It looked much as he remembered it, though the top two floors hadn't yet been added on and the front garden was dotted with a mess of children’s toys. The golden light of candles in the windows made the Burrow seem like a fairy-tale cottage glowing against the backdrop of the slowly setting sun.

The tableau was broken by an angry growl sounding behind him. Harry didn't even have time to think to draw his wand before he was set upon by…a very small dog. The snarling terrier lunged for his ankles, causing Harry to lose his footing in surprise and tumble to the ground. With what could only be the canine equivalent of a smirk, the little dog planted himself on Harry's chest in triumph.

"Ronald! Ronald! Stop it! Oh, you bad boy, get off that young man!" the unmistakable voice of Molly Weasley scolded.

"Aw right! Go Ron! You got him!" came the delighted cry of a child. "Who's a good doggy, boy?"

The terrier preened.

Harry gawped. His mind was getting rather tired of all the boggling he'd subjected it to today. Ron was named after the family dog? Oh, I bet he really hates that. It was no wonder Harry had never known. Ron probably owed Fred and George a hefty debt for keeping that little fact quiet.

There was an exasperated sigh. "Oh, goodness, Ronald, yes, congratulations on capturing the intruder dear, but please let the poor boy up now."

With a cheerful yip, Ron the terrier trotted off towards the house. Harry tried not to stare as he dusted himself off and faced a much younger and very pregnant Mrs. Weasley, who smiled at him even as she held him at wand-point. Beside her stood a young boy, maybe five or six—Bill? Charlie, maybe?— who was also pointing a stick at Harry. The child assumed what he must have considered a forbidding look, though its effect was undermined by the small branches of leaves still sticking out from his ‘wand.’ Ron the terrier pawed at them.

"Hello there, dear. Forgive little Ron. He's always been a very faithful protector of his family. Poor boy's nearly in his twenties now but still gives it his all, has been since my Arthur was a schoolboy," she confided before straightening her arm and looking at him more sharply. "Now, please excuse my frankness, but these are troubled times we live in, aren't they." It wasn't a question. "Who are you and why did you come to my home?"

One deep breath later and Harry was plunging into the story he had concocted. "I'm really sorry to disturb you, ma'am. I was at home doing chores outside and my big brother pranked me. He just learned to Apparate and passed his test, you see. Anyway, he grabbed me and Apparated me to some field, and then he just left me there! I found my way to that lane, and came here because it didn't look like a Muggle house." He sheepishly lowered his eyes. "Again, I'm really sorry, but I don't even know where I am…"

Molly clucked sympathetically. "Oh, that sounds like something my Arthur and his brothers would have done. Though teenagers doing side-along!" She tsked and lowered her wand. "Well, why don't you come in dear, and we'll get you sorted out."

She ushered him inside, the boy and dog right at her heels.

Harry couldn’t help but jump when Molly lumbered behind him and unceremoniously began dusting the dirt and grime off his back and—he gulped a bit—his backside. "Goodness, child, you look a fright! How long ago did your brother maroon you?"

"Er—I dunno what time it is now." He glanced at the side wall and was surprised by the absence of the Weasley family clock. "But it was before lunchtime. I've been wandering around for awhile now."

"Dear Merlin! That was hours ago! No surprise you're looking so peaky. Hold on for a moment and I'll set you up with a nice dinner."

Harry grinned. He really was hungry. The Dursleys, as per usual, had fed him only enough to keep Ron the dog healthy that summer. He felt a twinge of guilt that he created his lie with an eye to manipulating Mrs. Weasley into offering dinner, but couldn't regret the end result as he watched her spoon a generous portion of beef stew into a large bowl.

"Now," Mrs. Weasley said, as she placed the heaping bowl in front of him, "what's your Floo address? I'll call your mother straight away and let her know you're all right."

Alarm bells rang in Harry's head. He had apparently not thought his cunning plan all the way through. Shite! Think of something! Rallying, he smiled at the her. "Oh, my mum and dad aren't home today, ma'am. Otherwise my brother would never have dared such a stunt."

Shaking her head, Mrs. Weasley readied a smaller bowl for the Weasley boy, who had plonked himself next to Harry and was peering at him in undisguised interest. Ron had overcome his initial aversion and had plastered himself to Harry's other leg, large brown eyes gazing at him hopefully. "Ronald, off with you, don't bother the boy for scraps!"

Ron responded by inching impossibly closer.

Molly sighed in defeat. "Dear, what did you say your name was?"

Shite. Shite. Shite. 

"I, uh, didn't ma'am. Sorry about that. I'm—" He was saved from floundering for a name by the entrance of a twenty-something Mr. Weasley, who at this age looked quite like the twins.

"Evening Weasleys!"

The boy chirped a hello and Molly kissed Arthur's cheek. Mr. Weasley turned and looked at Harry with a cocked eyebrow. "Well now, when I left this morning Charlie was quite a bit shorter and had rather redder hair!"

Mrs. Weasley smiled. "Oh, Arthur, our guest got a bit lost earlier today." The smile faltered into a concerned frown. "Wait…Actually, where is Charlie? I haven't seen him..."

"Probably still setting fires in Dad's shed," the boy—who had to be Bill—offered casually.

Arthur was off in a flash. Molly quickly wiped her hands on the apron that covered her heavy belly. “Thank goodness you’re going to be the last one,” she muttered quietly. “I can't handle two, how in the world am I going to manage three?"

Harry bit back a smile. Poor Molly had no idea.

The kitchen was suddenly silent but for Ron the dog's whimpering attempts to inspire Harry's charity.

"Why would your brother be lighting fires?"

Little Bill grinned. "I told him that baby dragons would only come an’ live with us if the shed was super hot." The boy pulled a rankled face. "Didn't 'spect him to actually be able to light fires. I'm almost six and don't know how. An' he's only three!"

Oh poor Mrs. Weasley.

"Were they very big fires?"

"Nah, they were little ones, I think." Bill looked rather mollified by this.

They continued eating in a companionable silence. As he looked around the familiar yet unfamiliar Burrow, Harry felt an oppressive weight settle over him.

The Weasleys were good people, a young family with their own lives and their own problems. How could he just drop the mess that was his life into their laps? Percy hasn't even been born yet! With a start he realized that more was at stake than just him disrupting the domestic bliss of the Burrow. Much more. Just by his very presence, he could change the future. He knew that the Weasleys all survived the first war, healthy, happy, and intact.

Then a truly chilling thought occurred to him.

What if I do something that leads to Ron or the twins or Ginny not even being born? I could destroy their entire existence completely by accident!

There was nothing for it. He simply couldn't interact with the Weasleys any more than he already had.

I have to leave. Leave now and not come back.

The Weasleys had been good friends to him, and now the kindest thing he could do in return was to not be their friend, to be nothing but a passing visitor, soon to be forgotten in the chaos of a newborn Percy.

Yes, Molly and Arthur could be the adults Harry needed, but they deserved better than for him to ask them to be.

Bill, he noticed, was regarding him with the wide-eyed seriousness only possessed by small children, as if he had cottoned on to Harry's growing discomfort.

Ron whinged again. Harry smiled sadly and began smuggling bits of beef under the table for him.

The little boy giggled.

The Weasley parents soon returned with a chubby little three-year-old Charlie. The boy looked most put out, whether it was because he was in trouble or because no dragon hatchlings had arrived, Harry couldn't be sure.

"Sorry for the interruption dear, would you like some fruit for pudding?" Mrs. Weasley called as she bustled about readying bowls for Charlie and her husband.

Leave now.

"Thank you so much for everything, ma'am, but it's starting to get pretty dark. I really should be going home." He paused. "Er—I hate to impose, but do you mind if I use your Floo?"

Mr. Weasley smiled absently as he began savoring his stew. "Not at all, son. Are you going straight home?"

ShiteWhere am I going to go? Diagon Alley? How will I explain going there? I can't say I live nearby, since I told them I'd been working in our garden…

Hogsmeade.

I'll figure out the next step once I'm there.

"I, well no. I promised my dad I'd pick something up for him in Hogsmeade—we live nearby—and I don't want to disappoint him. Do you mind if I just Floo to the Three Broomsticks?" Please buy this, please buy this.

"Of course, dear," Molly assured him. She eyed his clothing critically. "Although I can't let you out in public looking like that, I'd never be able to face your mother! Why there's even rips in the seat of your pants!" Harry turned a bit red at this unexpected revelation and tried to discreetly clasp his hands behind his back. Molly, heedless of his embarrassment, continued. "Well, I'll just shrink some of Arthur's old clothing for you. He hates to admit it, but he's put on just a bit around the middle since the boys were born, so there's plenty lying about that doesn't fit him anymore."

Mr. Weasley made an indignant noise which Molly ignored in favor of bustling out and up the stairs. "Won't be but a moment, dear!"

Harry grinned. The Weasleys had always been unfailingly kind.

xoxoxox

Harry grimaced. This Molly and Arthur were less kind than their future selves. He was fairly certain they had used his need for clothing as an opportunity to get rid of things that neither wanted to remain in Mr. Weasley's possession.

The shrunken bell bottom denims were horrifying on their own, but were made so much worse by the powder blue tee shirt he now reluctantly sported. Emblazoned across the front in puffy orange letters was The Billywigs! Stonehenge 1969, 'Stoned and Henged' Tour. Orange vines writhed lazily all around the torso as florescent pink and purple flowers bloomed, spun, and floated about in a dizzying ballet.

Mr. Weasley had balked when Molly produced the shirt. "Not my Wigs shirt! That was an incredible concert!" Molly had snorted in response that she couldn't believe he even remembered it, what with all the "knotgrass you and Benjy smoked—don't think I don't know about that, Arthur Weasley!"

Bill had innocently asked what knotgrass was and why his dad would make it smoke, bringing an abrupt end to the argument.

Atop Mr. Weasley's beloved eyesore was what had to have been one of Molly's first attempts at knitting. Thick forest green yarn meandered uncertainly into what might look like a proper cardigan only to someone who abused knotgrass. But it was the purple stitching across the left breast which proudly, if shakily, proclaimed the sweater to belong to one "Artie," that really got to Harry. He had protested that he had no need of a sweater given the warm weather, but a slightly wild-eyed Arthur had insisted that he should take it lest he catch an unexpected chill. It was hardly a mystery why Arthur would be chuffed to get rid of the monstrosity.

With a self-conscious tug on the ill-fitting sweater Harry exited the fireplace at the Three Broomsticks, grateful that at least this time he didn't fall arse over kettle. A much younger and even more buxom Rosmerta glanced up from Witch Weekly long enough to widen her eyes at his clothes before shaking her head and returning to the gossip columns. He slipped out quietly.

The sun had set on Hogsmeade. Harry was at a loss, however, about where to go. It had been a short but exhausting day, and the stew he had devoured at the Weasleys' was becoming an uncomfortable lump in his stomach.

Well I have to sleep somewhere.

The inn was definitely not an option. He had only 3 galleons and a few knuts and sickles left, which probably wouldn't be enough for a room, let alone food. His first thought was the Shrieking Shack, but its popularity with tourists guaranteed he wouldn't be able to come and go during the day without being detected. Remus Lupin would likely be back at Hogwarts in less than a month as well, and Harry had no desire to run into the teenage werewolf version of his former professor.

I bet Professor Lupin and Sirius would know all sorts of good hideouts.

He could have smacked himself. Of course Sirius knew where to hide around Hogsmeade! He'd spent all of last year shacked up in a cave on the outskirts of town!

Harry scampered across the hills and through a field or two before arriving at the rocky outcrop where he was relieved to discover the cave still there, looking exactly like the last time Harry had seen it. The interior was empty of all the various species of beasties he had been imagining would be waiting for him in the dark. He idly considered tidying up the cavern floor and setting up house, so to speak, but he had nothing to set up. Not ten minutes after entering the cave Harry had passed into a deep sleep, the unfortunate Weasley sweater experiment balled up into a surprisingly serviceable pillow.

xoxoxox

14 August, 1976

Harry sat on a tree stump deep in the Forbidden Forest and stared at the dead rabbit in his hands.

He was so hungry.

Harry was no stranger to living on the barest of meals, but the past week and a half was enough to almost make him long for the Dursleys' house, where he could at least sneak enough to eat from the top of the rubbish bin when he was desperate.

Hogsmeade provided no such luxury. A few days into his stay at the cave, he had crept into the hamlet late at night, intent on rummaging through the dumpsters at the Three Broomsticks and Madame Puddifoot's. To his great disappointment, he found only a complete lack of any sort of garbage receptacle in the entire village. Apparently, magical trash was dealt with by vanishing or banishing it in some way.

Being homeless in the wizarding world was much more of a challenge than he had expected.

It was during that long first week and a half that he had resolved never to contact Hogwarts or either of his parents. The realization he had at the Weasleys' house that he could so adversely affect the timeline had left him paralyzed, afraid to commit any action all.

(Though in the back of his mind he cherished the hope that he could find some way to prevent his parents' deaths. He knew the when, where, how, and who, so perhaps he could find a way to swoop in at the last moment and stop Voldemort. Granted, this would probably erase him as he was from existence, but his exhausted mind reminded him that he had a good five years to work that little snag out.)

At first Harry had felt heartened by coming to some sort of decision, but that decision also barred the only ways he could think of to get stable food and shelter.

The cave became the landscape of his limbo. He could not—would not—be able to haunt the margins of Hogsmeade for the next nineteen years, patiently waiting to catch up with himself. At the same time, he also didn’t dare become part of the wizarding world, lest he be discovered and shuttled off to Hogwarts. Hermione had told him once that magical children were required to engage in some sort of tuition until they could prove their control over their powers by passing their OWLs. The ministry could not find out that there was an unqualified wizard running about the area.

Three days prior he had finally decided to test and see if he could use magic without being detected. After deftly catching the withered late summer pears that he had summoned from a tree-top, every muscle in his body had tensed in full alert, his eyes wide and waiting to spy a Ministry owl winging its way to him. The owl never came.

Since then, he’d taken to using magic only within the confines of the cave or deep in the forest to avoid unwanted observation, and still cringed at each incantation in fear that this would be the one that the Ministry notices.

Being able to use magic was a godsend, but Harry soon realized that the Hogwarts curriculum was light on survival skills. He thanked the heavens that Hermione had taught him Accio so well, even if all of his attempts to use it to summon fish from a forest pond had thus far resulted in him being pelted with mud rather than fish.

But that morning he had finally conceived of a way of getting fresh meat. He had set himself a perch deep in the Forbidden Forest, and waited until prey happened by. When a rabbit had innocently hopped into the dell, he stunned it and used a magic-sharpened rock to give it a quick death. Easy.

Except now he was cupping the little rabbit’s body gently in his hands, the white fur delicate and soft against his skin. Its eyes were open and glassy.

Harry was so hungry.

But honestly, the whole thing made him sick.

What the hell is wrong with me? It's just a bunny! This is, er, the natural order of the world! Food chain or whatnot. I'll die if I don't eat, so it died and I'll eat. Stop being such a Hufflepuff about a bloody rabbit!

A speck of something blew into one of the creature's sightless eyes. It looked like it should bother the rabbit. But the rabbit was dead.

I'm just freaking out because this is the first time I've killed something I didn't hate and that wasn't trying to kill me.

. . .

Bottom line: I’m talking to myself and cradling a dead rabbit. This is ridiculous.

With a small shudder Harry stood from the stump and placed the rabbit atop it. Crouching low, he used his rock knife to clumsily begin skinning his capture, an undertaking far messier than Harry thought it was supposed to be. After what seemed like hours, his task made all the more difficult because he avoided actually looking at what he was doing when possible, he was left with a lump of bloody flesh and an unsightly, gore-covered rabbit skin.

Although his internal voice chided him for his sentimentality, he couldn't just leave the skin as it was. Instead, he crossed to one of the more picturesque trees and silently dug a small grave for the skin.

What the bloody fuck is that?!his mind choked out as he turned back to his prize.

Standing between himself and the stump was a … something. If he had to give it a name, he supposed he would have called it a horse, though there was something reptilian about it too. It was completely fleshless, its black coat clinging to its skeleton, of which every bone was visible. Its head was dragonish, and its pupil-less eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither—vast, black leathery wings that looked as though they out to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet, the creature looked eerie and sinister (*). Everything about the little beast's appearance screamed at Harry to run or draw his stowed wand, but instead, thinking fleetingly of Hagrid and Buckbeak, Harry looked it in the eye and then gave a deep bow.

The little thing made an odd chirping bark that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

Meeting its eyes once again, he was startled to see it turn and look at the rabbit meat, and then move its gaze firmly back to Harry.

Guilt flooded through him.

"I—I killed the rabbit," he admitted, and suddenly the words tumbled out of him in an rambling flood. "I didn't want to, I swear I didn't, but I'm just so hungry, you see. I don't know what else to do! I'm just hungry and I'm stuck here.”

And now he had reached the point where he was blubbering and justifying himself to a baby death stallion.

The beast regarded him steadily for several long moments, then chirped cheerfully, wobbled on its ungainly legs over to the stump, and snatched the meat with its mouth.

"Oi! That's mine!”

The baby death stallion—really, what else can I call it?—turned and tottered over to Harry. Looking him in the eye, it dropped the meat into his hand, and gave another merry bark.

Before he could question the action, Harry reached up and began stroking the thing's head with his unbloodied palm. The little creature literally quivered in delight at his touch and gave a rasping, rumbling sort of purr. Harry couldn't explain it, but as he looked into the white eyes of the delighted little beast he felt unaccountably better.

And then the baby death stallion turned and made short work of the bunny hide's makeshift grave, digging up the dirt with surprising alacrity and happily latching onto the pelt with its jaws. Harry watched in bemusement as it took to tossing the hide into the air and attempting to catch it with its teeth.

Eventually its macabre game of fetch gradually took the beast out of the clearing, but Harry could hear it chirping happily as it continued its game deeper into the forest.

Shaking his head, Harry wrapped the carcass in leaves and left to make his way back to the cave.

Two beetle-black eyes watched him go.

xoxoxox

1 September, 1976

The sun had nearly sunk below the mountains, painting the sky and providing Harry with a breathtaking view of the hollows below his perch atop one of the wooded outcrops above Hogsmeade.

The train hadn't arrived yet, but it couldn't be long now.

He knew he shouldn't be there, shouldn't have risked coming to watch the Hogwarts Express pull into the station and empty itself of seven years' worth of students, but he couldn't help himself. Yes, he could admit that he hoped to catch a glimpse of unruly black hair, or streaming red hair, or hear the mischievous laugh of his young godfather, but that wasn't the real reason he was subjecting himself to an increased threat of discovery. Not really.

It had been nearly a month since he arrived in the past, a month since taking up residence in the cave and learning to support himself in the Forest. He had developed a routine and was enjoying steadier, if still usually unappetizing, meals. But this was just…subsistence. He just existed. It wasn't enough.

It had been nearly a month since he'd last seen or spoken to another human being.

Solitude had always been Harry's most constant companion, and even at Hogwarts he had never been all that social a creature, but a month of solitary confinement in the wild left him frayed, and he was starting to become, well, a little strange.

He often imagined Hermione and Ron, or sometimes the twins, with him in the cave, and would host long conversations with them before remembering that he was alone and just talking to himself. He needed other people much more than he had ever thought he would.

Indeed, the best thing about his solitary life in the forest was his slowly developing friendship with the baby death stallion, who had taken to unexpectedly scampering into his presence on silent hooves. He hadn't been able to stop himself from dubbing the thing "Colin." What else could he name a little beast that was overcome by an alarming level of ecstasy whenever it was in his presence?

Harry was startled when he realized he even kind of missed Colin Creevey.

So here he was, waiting in the shadows of the overhang, desperate to catch the sounds of human conversation.

The Express finally pulled in, and Harry caught his breath as the students streamed out, their excited voices drowning into a soothing din. At one point he thought he might have snared a glance of red hair, but it was lost in the human tide below.

"Firs' years! Firs' years over here!" 

Hagrid.

He exhaled the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and flopped to the ground, a sharp pang piercing his heart at hearing his first friend's familiar call. Soft skin suddenly nuzzled against his right ear. Harry looked up to see Colin regarding him steadily. With a small smile he scratched the death stallion just behind his sort-of-ears, and smiled a bit more widely at the delighted purr he earned in response.

Then he felt something begin eating his hair.

Apparently, Colin had invited a friend. A light grey goat stood to his left, idly attempting to snack on a particularly wild thatch of hair on the side of Harry's head. Rebuffed, it bent down and began cropping the grass next to the boy.

Harry had no idea if such things as magical goats existed, but felt that a civil approach was best. "Um, hello…goat. Are you a friend of Colin's?"

The goat eyed him for a moment before returning to its meal.

Almost content with the most company he’d had since the Weasleys, Harry sat back and watched the stars grow brighter as the twilight shifted into black. Eventually, he realized Colin had departed for wherever baby death stallions must go at night, but the goat remained. Harry stood, his limbs creaking. "Well, goat, time to go home."

The goat looked at him.

"Er, good night, goat." Harry turned and began slowly navigating his way down the rocky outcrop. A clatter of hooves accompanied him. He looked up to see the goat following him down the rocks. Eyebrow raised, he continued his descent and then began walking the overgrown path back to his cave. The goad trotted beside him.

"You want to come with me?" The goat did not reply. Harry continued walking. The goat followed.

Upon his arrival at the cave, Harry turned. "Well, goat, I guess you're welcome to stay with me if you want. You, uh, don't already have a home?" 

Why do I keep asking the goat questions?

"Well, okay, come on in." A thought struck Harry, who had looked closely at the goat and spied distended udders. "But you can't stay here for free. You're a girl goat, yeah? Well, you can stay here as long as you like if you let me milk you."

Harry, being a product of muggle suburbia, had no experience with milking any animals, but figured it couldn't be that hard. Having a supply of milk would allow him to drink something other than stream water, and he could even use it to make cheese (though his understanding of how to be a fromager was even less formed than his understanding of how to milk a goat).

The goat bleated and entered the cave. Bewildered with his new roommate, Harry shrugged and followed.

"You're tryin' real hard to die, aren't you boy?" The voice growled out of the darkness, abruptly rousing Harry out of a deep sleep.

A dark imposing figure, its hand outstretched with wand pointed at Harry, was outlined against the entrance of the cave. Movement at his side revealed that Goat had again been eating his hair as he slept.

Harry considered going for the wand in his back pocket, but knew that he had no chance of getting it before the unknown man cast at him.

He was startled that he wasn't more startled. Maybe he was just a bit too pleased to finally be talking to a person. "Are you going to kill me then?"

"Probably. Suppose it depends."

Harry knew it was pointless, but he wasn't just going to lay there and let some unknown person kill him. He tensed his legs to spring, but before he could do so, the man had silently cast a spell that streaked across the black of the cavern and hit him squarely in the chest. He immediately lost all feeling in his body below the neck and dropped as if boneless to the ground.

"Let's just see if you'll live the night or not, lad. Though I'm bettin' not." A sliver of moonlight illuminated the man as he moved in.

Harry's mouth dropped open.

"Dumbledore?"