When he’s two years old, Harry follows a fluttering paper bird away from Aunt Petunia’s side.
It’s bright green and flaps its wings just like the real thing-- doubling back towards him when he reaches for it and flipping its beak through his hair in a way that tickles. Harry laughs and toddles after it, all the way down the street and around the corner, to a little cafe tucked out of sight.
The windows are all warmly lit, there’s pleasant music pouring from the open door, and a man is sitting at one of the tables outside. His amber eyes are as warm as the windows, and the paper bird is perched on his knee.
“Hello, little one,” the man says. All the scars on his face are softened by his smile. Harry isn’t afraid of him for even a moment. “I’ve found you at last.”
It’s the earliest memory Harry has of kindness.
Growing up, Harry will assume it’s Moony’s shabbiness that Aunt Petunia can’t stand. The man’s clothes are worn and threadbare, same as Harry’s, but he’s nowhere near as easily cowed as Harry is by the big, loud, mean Dursleys. He invites himself into Number 4 Privet Drive, Harry on his hip and distracted by the paper bird Moony gave him, while Petunia is still at the market in town.
“Where’s your room, Harry?” the man asks in his gentle voice. “Where do you sleep and play?”
Harry looks up from his bird and points at the cupboard under the stairs. It’s small and dusty and full of spiders, but it’s all he knows. He’s too young to understand why Moony goes still and silent, but he understands when the man’s other arm wraps around him that it’s a hug and it’s good and it’s what Auntie Petunia does to Dudley when she says “I love you.” Harry almost crushes his bird in his hurry to hug back.
Quiet Moony sits him at the table and makes him a tuna sandwich, cut into triangles, and is still peeling an apple for him when the Dursleys come home. He puts a hand in Harry’s hair as he gets up from the table, ruffling his fringe into his eyes. When Harry can see again, laughing, there are three more paper birds next to his slightly crumpled one on the table, flitting around his empty plate as though they’re picking up crumbs from his sandwich.
There’s an argument happening in the next room, explosive and violent, but he’s distracted and there’s a silencing charm between the sitting room and the kitchen, anyway. Harry wouldn’t have understood it even if he could hear-- what the kind stranger meant when he told Petunia “this isn’t what she wanted for him. I’m here now, I’m not going anywhere.”
Harry says goodbye to his cupboard that day, but he never says goodbye to Moony. He never has to.
“Harry,” Moony says in dismay, “what happened to you?”
Harry looks down at himself. He hadn’t thought Piers pushed him down hard enough to break any skin, but the knees of his secondhand jeans are torn and bloody. The palms of his hands are no better. Harry tucks them behind his back.
“Nothing,” he says. It’s the right thing to say, because nothing ever comes of telling. Moony is nice, and he would fight for Harry more than his teachers ever did, but he doesn’t want Uncle Vernon to shout at Moony just because of Harry’s skinned knees.
Moony closes the book and gets out of his chair. Harry blinks in surprise when the man kneels in front of him, so they’re nearly eye-to-eye. Moony says, “Do you remember the paper birds?”
Of course he does! Harry still has them tucked away in his bedroom. He likes to run his fingers along their folds and imagine them flying again. Sometimes they do, sweeping around his room in little tornadoes of color. Sometimes they feel like something impossible he pulled out of a dream, but they came from Moony and he’s as real as anything else. Petunia always scowls and Vernon always blusters when he comes for a visit, so he’s definitely not someone Harry made up.
Harry says, “I remember! Are you going to make me another one?”
Smiling, Moony says, “Remind me before you go home and I’ll make as many as you can carry. But before that-- “
He takes Harry’s hand in his much larger one, holding it open so the scuffed skin on Harry’s palms faces them. In Moony’s other hand is a long, thin piece of wood.
It looks like the switch Aunt Petunia threatened to use on him just the other day, when he ripped up a flower bulb instead of a weed. Harry’s immediate, knee-jerk reaction is to flinch away when Moony lifts it.
Moony’s whole face fills with pain, like rain puddling in the potholes in the road that Uncle Vernon roars about. Harry is six years old and old enough to know pain when he sees it. He’s abruptly, incredibly sorry that he hurt this person who has always been nice to him, and ashamed of himself, but he can’t help the way his eyes dart back to the stick.
“Watch,” Moony says, and then he says, “Episkey.”
The broken skin on Harry’s hands and knees close, and the ache fades, and Harry stares in open-mouthed wonder.
“You’re magic!” he blurts. It only takes him a moment to catch up to his surprise, and when he does, there’s only delight left. “I knew you were!”
Moony touches Harry’s messy hair, as though he loves it as much as Aunt Petunia hates it. His eyes are bright amber and sad but his smile is as kind as it’s ever been.
He tells Harry it is magic, but it must be kept a secret. He gravely accepts Harry’s solemn promise not to tell. He sweeps his wand and fills the room with all manner of paper animals that fly and run and swim through the air and something comes alive in Harry that must have been sleeping before.
By the time he’s ten years old, Harry has heard all about Hogwarts. He knows about the Houses and the castle and the secret passage to Honeydukes and all the mischief and trouble his family got into there. He aches for it, and asks Remus for story after story after story.
Remus, in his soft, rasping voice, tells Harry anything he wants to hear. He tells him that his father was a bit of a prat before his mother knocked some sense into him, he tells him that his godfather was as wild and loyal as they come, he tells him about a map they made together and the pranks they came up with to get out of homework and all the points they lost and gained for Gryffindor.
It sounds like a dream. Harry wants to go to school there, he wants to see the Giant Squid and compete in Quidditch matches and meet the talking portraits. Remus promises him he will. He says, “If you’re anything like your parents, you’ll turn Hogwarts on its head.”
Hesitantly, Harry says, “What if I’m not like them? What if I’m not even a Gryffindor?”
It makes Remus pause. It’s near the end of the month and he looks very tired, but he’s never sent Harry away.
“It’s not fair that I got to know them and you didn’t,” he says softly, “but James and Lily were two of my best friends, and I hope you’ll trust me enough to believe me about this.” He crouches, the way he always does so Harry doesn’t have to crane his neck to look up at him. Eye to eye, Remus tells him, “They loved you more than I have words for. They would have loved you no matter what House colors you wore, no matter how good you were in your classes, whether or not you played Quidditch. I promise you, no matter what else you might hear, you are their greatest pride.”
Harry believes him, because of course he does. Because it’s Moony, who does magic for him and takes him for ice cream on his birthdays and is the first thing that comes to mind when Harry thinks of his family.
The morning Harry’s acceptance letter arrives, Dudley snatches it away at the breakfast table. Uncle Vernon tries to rip it up, but Harry silently begs the paper not to tear and it stubbornly stays whole in his uncle’s meaty hands.
Harry shouts, “I’ll tell Remus!” and Aunt Petunia’s face goes ashen. Uncle Vernon’s face is turning purple, he’s near-apoplectic with rage, but he shoves the letter back across the table. Harry takes it back and runs upstairs to ask one of the colorful birds to fly to his wizard friend.
Remus comes right over, alight with joy and pride, and they sit together on his bed and comb through the letter and the supplies list. Harry asks when they can go to Diagon Alley, and Remus’ expression changes.
“I can’t go with you, I’m afraid,” he says lightly. “Your new headmaster will send someone else to do your shopping with you.”
Harry is ten and stubborn and bright for his age. He scowls thunderously and digs in his heels, because he isn’t afraid of Remus the way he is of his aunt and uncle. And Remus sees too much of Lily in him. It takes all of about three minutes to wear him down, and then he explains:
There was a Dark wizard who hurt a lot of people, and there was a war. Harry’s parents went into hiding and they were betrayed and that’s how they died. Because of tricky and ancient blood magic, the Dursleys were the best of a limited number of options for where Harry could grow up safely.
Remus’ face twists a little when he tells the story, something angry and animal surfacing in his eyes. He’s not supposed to be here, he explains to Harry. He’s not allowed to be. But Harry imagines, for one fleeting moment, what his life would have been like without Moony in it-- and his mind shies away from the terrible idea, like a bird startled into flight. He flings himself against the man hard enough to knock the breath out of them both.
“I promise I won’t tell,” Harry blurts, “so don’t go, okay?”
Arms settle around him, secure and safe, and Remus says, “You know better than that, Harry. They’ll have to drag me away in chains.”
He doesn’t say and they might. Harry doesn’t hear it in his tone. He just leans back and grins, the child of prodigies and Marauders, eyes as bright as his mother’s when she leaned over a frothing cauldron, as his father’s when he soared fifty feet above the ground.
Secrets are his birthright. He knows how to keep them, knows the thrill of them, and someday he’ll know the danger of them, too.
When September 1st comes around, Remus takes him as far as King’s Cross. Harry gets onto the platform with no trouble, and there’s plenty of time to pick an empty compartment and stow his trunk away. He has a stack of books for the long ride and a pocket full of spending money for the trolley and a snowy owl on his knee.
Instead of a gaggle of redheads, Harry meets a tearful boy looking for a toad.
“Gran will be furious if I’ve lost him,” the boy says in a near-whisper.
Harry shuts his book with a snap and says, “Let’s find him, then.”
When Ron comes looking for a place to sit, he finds the two of them pouring over a paperback Muggle novel. Hedwig is keeping an eye on Trevor, in case he tries another escape attempt. Harry looks up, and his eyes are as bright as lightning and his scar is stark and pale against his brown skin and Ron knows exactly who he is. Neville knows, too.
But he introduces himself as “Just Harry,” and gets up to help Ron wrestle his trunk away, and when the trolley comes around he buys enough sweets to share, and by then there’s more important things to talk about than the Boy Who Lived.
Draco Malfoy extends the hand of friendship, but Harry hates the way he looks at Neville. It’s the same way Dudley and Piers used to look at him. Then he makes fun of Ron’s secondhand robes, and Harry’s had just about enough.
“I know a jinx that will turn your hair purple,” he informs Malfoy bluntly, eyeing his pale blond head and imagining how easily the bright color would stick to it. It worked on Remus well enough and his hair is tawny, closer to brown. “Should I give it a try?”
Malfoy’s hands fly up to his hair defensively, a look of horror crossing his face, and Professor McGonagall appears before any spells have a chance to fly. She pauses to take in the scene, Ron at Harry’s shoulder and Neville cowering just a step behind and Malfoy pink with rage. Harry looks up at her, thinking of the stories Remus told him of his strict and caring Head of House, and offers a smile when her eyes finally settle on him.
Something in her stern expression softens. The twitch of her mouth is not quite a smile, but it’s enough of a tell. Harry knows he’s not in trouble, and nudges Neville to look up so they don’t trip when they follow her into the Great Hall.
Ron’s properly terrified, because his big brother told him some tall tale about wrestling a troll, and Harry stifles a laugh. He knows it’s just a silly hat, but he also knows better than to pass the secret along.
Besides, it’s not a secret for long. The aged hat sings a song about the Houses, and by the end of it Harry is vibrating with excitement. The cunning Slytherins sound like they’d know the most about getting away with pranks, and Remus told him never to cross a Puff because they’re the most loyal people in the world and they’ll hold grudges forever. He isn’t sure he’s bright enough for Ravenclaw, but he likes the look of the students pouring over books and largely ignoring the Sorting going on at the front of the hall. Any of those Houses would probably be amazing.
But his eyes catch on the scarlet and gold of the Gryffindor table, and he yearns for it. He wants to sit at the table his parents sat at. He wants to see the Hogwarts Moony got to see.
He cheers the loudest for Neville’s Sorting, and Ron gives him an encouraging shoulder pat when it’s his turn, and the hat slips low over his eyes and hums in his ear.
It scolds Harry for thinking himself not good enough for Rowena’s House, laughingly agrees with his summation of the Hufflepuffs, and then feels around the corners of his mind; for his open-mindedness, his eagerness to belong, his inherited trickster’s streak, his general disregard for rules, his one-track mind when it comes to bullies and the people who unwillingly attract them.
Difficult, very difficult, says the hat, who said the same thing for Neville and Hermione Granger, who will say the same thing for Luna Lovegood and Ginny Weasley, but I think I know where you’ll do best.
And it shouts aloud, “Gryffindor!”
Harry writes to Remus about his two new friends, about the view from the First Year’s room in the tower, about Snape and how right Remus was when he predicted the Potions professor’s grudge, about that first flying lesson and Malfoy stealing Neville’s Remembrall and McGonagall’s decision to scout Harry for the Gryffindor House Quidditch team. Given that it’s only been a few days since his last letter, it feels like there’s still a lot to tell him. He scrawls through three feet of parchment before he runs out of words.
He always sends Hedwig on her way with stern instructions to give Remus her particular brand of owly affection, because he thinks Remus might be lonely with Harry gone. She always looks at him gravely before she nips his nose and wings away, so Harry thinks she understands.
Ron struggles through Charms, and Hermione Granger is kind of bossy, but Harry doesn’t laugh with the other boys when Ron makes fun. Lily’s eyes are bright with disapproval, and when he runs after Hermione, Neville is only a step behind him.
It’s a little awkward, sitting in the girls’ loo while a classmate he doesn’t know very well sobs on his shoulder, but Harry puts his arm around her anyway. Neville fishes a Chocolate Frog out of his bag and presses it into her hand. It’s slightly squashed, but Tilly Toke winks at her from the card underneath, and it works a little smile out of Hermione.
The Halloween Feast must have just started upstairs, but Ron shuffles into the loo not even twenty minutes after Harry and Neville arrived. He’s staring at his feet, hands shoved deep in his pockets, and manages to look Hermione in the eye to say he’s sorry.
“I was a prat,” he adds. “All my brothers are better than me at everything, and they always rub it in my face, and it-- I dunno. It felt like that’s what you were doing. But I shouldn’t’ve made fun.”
Hermione’s face is tear-stained and her eyes are all puffy and her hair is a mess, there’s chocolate melting in her hands and the bottoms of her robes are damp from where there’s water puddled on the tile floor, but she’s still the sharpest thing in the room. She looks at Ron like she’s looking right through him.
And then she says, “I was a prat, too.”
There’s a troll in the dungeons, but by the time it lumbers into the girls’ bathroom, the four Gryffindors aren’t there. They were in the basement anyway, and Harry knew where the kitchen was. He wasn’t tall enough to reach the pear, so Ron tickled it for him, and the house-elves were surprised to see them and delighted to feed them and the danger passed them safely by.
Neville is late to lunch, and Harry goes looking for him. Naturally, Hermione and Ron push their plates away and come along. They find him in a corridor just off the entrance hall, cornered by a pack of Slytherins headed by Malfoy, and Ron groans low.
“Mate, don’t start anything,” he says, knowing it’s hopeless. He likes Malfoy about as much as he likes Potions, but his dislike has to go on the shelf because Harry’s is big enough for them both and keeping him from picking fights is a full-time job. Harry takes every instance of bullying so personally, whether it’s Neville or someone they don’t know or even a snooty Ravenclaw they don’t get along with. It's just extra personal when it's Neville.
Sure enough, Harry doesn’t hesitate, eyes locked on his frightened friend. “Malfoy already started it.”
They all get detentions, except Hermione and Neville. Until Hermione says, “Excuse me, Professor? I was involved as well,” and Sprout looks like she doesn’t know what to say to that.
“You keep getting in trouble for me,” Neville says glumly, picking with disinterest at his lunch. “Seamus says I should stick up for myself.”
“Then tell Seamus he can do his own Herbology homework from now on,” Harry says promptly. His eyes stray down the table, to where their guilty-looking yearmate is pretending not to listen in, and the green of them seems to glow under the rain clouds enchanted across the ceiling. He doesn’t say anything to him, though, turning back to Neville with a friendly grin. “Drink your juice, Nev. We’re still practicing flying during free period, and you’re not using low blood sugar as excuse to get out of it.”
Where did you come from? Ron wants to ask Harry sometimes. He doesn’t, though, because Harry would probably just look at him blankly and say something irritating like, “I’m from Surrey.”
Hermione catches Ron’s eye from across the table and gives him a commiserating smile. They’ll play chess while their friends practice drills and dives in the air, and Ron loves how challenging a game with Hermione always is. She keeps him on his toes, her mind bright and twisting and tactical.
She may be a know-it-all, but she’s Harry’s know-it-all, and that means she’s Ron’s and Nev’s, too. Besides, she's not as bad as Ron used to think.
Harry wants to go home for Christmas, because it'll be worth seeing the Dursleys if he gets to see Remus. But Remus writes him that he’s ill and Harry would have a much better time at the Castle for the holidays. Harry frowns, but he folds the letter and puts it with all the others, safe in the bottom of his trunk next to the green paper bird that came to Hogwarts with him.
Ron and his brothers are staying, too, so it won’t be too lonely. Harry owl-ordered presents for all his friends and for Remus, and there’s a pile of presents waiting for him, too.
The only one that takes him by surprise is the Invisibility Cloak, more because of the note attached that says use it well than the cloak itself. Remus said he didn’t know where James' cloak ended up. Harry wonders how it ended up here at Hogwarts to be bundled up and left under a tree.
But as Ron admires it with wide eyes, Harry runs his fingers against the textured fabric and thinks only of his father, and his mischief and misdeeds, and what fun and amazing and stupid things this cloak must have done with him.
The Mirror of Erised shows Ron standing apart from his brothers, and it shows Neville walking with his head held high, and it shows Hermione a sprawling library and an endless day to explore it, and it shows Harry standing with two people who must be his parents and people behind them who must be his family. Remus is there and so is a dark-haired man with a crooked grin, and so are Neville and Hermione and Ron, exactly as if it’s a normal mirror he’s looking into with his friends. They’re all smiling at him.
It might show the future, like Ron said, and it might show things we want, like Neville said. But Harry doesn’t know for sure, and he doesn’t know how he feels about it. He only goes back one time, with Hermione, who wants to copy the runes written along the edges of the mirror and study them. He sits with his knees drawn up to his chest and watches from the side where he won’t be able to look into his reflection.
Whatever the mirror is supposed to do, it showed him people who are dead, and people who are here. The only thing they have in common is that they care about Harry, and Harry cares about them, so maybe the mirror shows you what’s inside your heart.
Hermione looks annoyed when he tells her his guess. She shuts her book and shuffles her papers together and says, “Why do I bother with research when you always guess it right?”
Harry grins, not fooled by her cross act for a moment. “You love research, ‘mione. You can still tell me what you found, I’ll listen to the whole thing.”
She eyes him for a moment, as though her principle is at war with her reason, and then she primly opens her book again and Harry settles in happily to listen.
I hope you’re staying out of trouble, Remus writes, but maybe I should know better.
Harry doesn’t know what to say to that, because Remus really should know better. Between the baby dragon at Hagrid’s, the subsequent trip into the Forbidden Forest and the hooded figure drinking unicorn blood, the creature lurking behind a locked door on third floor corridor, the staggering number of detentions he’s earned so far with Snape, the mystery of Nicolas Flamel, and the frustrating puzzle involving a package and an empty vault and a break-in at Gringotts, Harry barely has time to do his homework.
But there’s Quidditch. There’s the roaring hearth in the common room, and games of Exploding Snap, and taking a dare from the Weasley twins to wade into the lake and tickle the Giant Squid while Ron roared with laughter and Neville hid his eyes and Hermione yelled at him to Get Out Of That Water This Instant. There’s the warmth in McGonagall’s eyes when his transfigurations go exactly right, and Hagrid’s awful rock cakes, and breakfasts in the Great Hall with all of his friends, sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired and reaching around each other for their favorite foods.
He’s definitely not staying out of trouble, but he’s having such a good time that maybe Remus wouldn’t mind all that other stuff.
Neville doesn’t try to stop them when they go after Snape, because he goes with them instead. He recognizes the Devil’s Snare before Harry has caught his breath from the fall through the trapdoor, and says, “Hermione, cast a light!”
The four of them kick up on broomsticks to chase a winged key, and Ron murmurs to Hermione, “Why were there four brooms?” It’s a good question, but one they have to save for later, because there's an enchanted chessboard in the next room.
Hermione is frowning widely now, and so is Ron again, and it does seem a little strange that these challenges were so on the nose. Everyone knows how well Neville does in Herbology, and Harry is the youngest Seeker in a century, and it’s widely known that Ron beats even sixth years in games of chess.
When Ron is thrown down and the game is over, Neville stays beside him with a tremulously determined expression and tells Hermione and Harry to go ahead. Hermione solves the riddle of the poisons, but she’s shaking by the time she points out the vial Harry needs to swallow, and they both know by that point that they’ve been guided here. Someone arranged it all. She hugs him hard before he steps through the fire, and it’s almost like her hands left an imprint on his arms and shoulders that Harry can still feel when he’s alone.
Quirrel is there, and Voldemort is there, and the Mirror of Erised is there. Harry finds the stone, Lily’s love burns Voldemort’s hands away from Harry the way Hermione’s light burned the Devil’s Snare away from her friends, and Harry wakes up in the hospital wing with Neville asleep at the side of his bed, and Hermione reading a book next to Ron’s.
She looks up as though she can feel his eyes on her, and smiles. Her hair is all over the place and her robes are all wrinkled and she’s absolutely the prettiest girl in the world. “It’s okay,” she says. “Go back to sleep.”
Harry believes her, because it wouldn't make sense not to. He gropes for Neville’s hand and squeezes it before he sinks back through velvet waves of darkness.
At the leaving feast, the four of them are awarded points for their stupid adventuring and they win Gryffindor the House Cup at the very last second. Harry thinks it’s a little unfair of Dumbledore to change the green and silver banners the way he did-- he wasn’t too worried about the point system or the cup, but he knows a lot of the other kids were, and not all the Slytherins are gits like Malfoy. There must have been a fairer way to do it.
Professor Dumbledore is kindly and grandfatherly, with his long beard and his twinkling eyes and his colorful wizard hats, but Harry is pretty convinced that the man set everything up. The trials and the Stone and the mirror. He wants to talk to Remus as soon as he can, and packs eagerly for the train ride back to King’s Cross.
“I have a lot to think about,” Harry confesses to the others, once their compartment door is locked and warded. “Hermione, can I write you?”
“You have to ask? I’m going to owl you every single day, Harry, and if you don’t reply I’ll hex your robes yellow the minute I see you next year!”
Her eyes are suspiciously bright. Ron pats her knee, and says, “I’m gonna ask mum about inviting you lot over for the summer. You won’t have to wait till next year to hex him, ‘mione.”
Neville is quiet, shoulders slumped and toad clutched in his lap, and Harry nudges their shoulders together.
A smile darts across Neville’s face, bright for all that it’s brief, and he says, “Don’t worry about me, Harry. I just-- I’ll miss you.”
Hermione and Ron jump in to say it’s okay! And we’ll see you soon! And we’ll still be friends no matter what! But Harry knows Neville knows all that already. He knows you just can’t help being sad sometimes.
So Harry pulls out his wand and gives it a wave, murmuring his favorite charm. His friends stop talking to watch in wonder as their compartment bursts into color in the form of a flock of paper birds, swooping and spiraling and soaring. Hedwig hoots indignantly, and Ron yelps when one of them gets into his hair, but it only takes a few seconds for Neville to start laughing.
And once he starts, he doesn’t stop, and the rest of them laugh right along.