This had to be a dream.
Harry Potter couldn't believe that he was following some big magical-man down a bustling road in London. Then again, anything was better than being stuck with the Dursleys, so he kept on (literally) walking in the shadow of Rubeus Hagrid – until Hagrid stopped before a tiny, grubby-looking pub. One that went totally unnoticed by the rest of the world, it seemed.
"This is it," said Hagrid, coming to a halt. "The Leaky Cauldron. It's a famous place."
Well, famous or not, Harry barely had time to take in the sights before he was steered inside by Hagrid. The place looked dark and shabby, although the same could not be said for the blonde woman sitting in the middle of the room, checking her two-inch nails. She was wearing a set of magenta robes, and her hair was set in an elaborate display of curls that could only be achieved by magic. Harry also noticed that many people were throwing the occasional, wary glance her way. Was she a troublemaker, perhaps?
"Crikey, I knew tha' nutter wouldn' give up." Hagrid sighed while standing beside Harry. "She's bin livin' here over the pas' week or so, hopin' ter catch you on day one. 'Spose yeh might as well face yer fame when it happens. Jus' don' agree ter any interview."
The entire room went silent upon seeing Hagrid. They waved at him as he made his way towards the bald barman – who smiled, reached for a glass, and asked Hagrid if he wanted 'the usual'.
"Can't, Tom, I'm on Hogwarts business," Hagrid said, clapping Harry on the shoulder and causing Harry's knees to buckle. And that was when Tom caught sight of Harry, saw his lightning-bolt scar, and gasped.
"Good Lord, is this – can this be –?"
You could probably hear a pin hit the floor at that moment, judging by the silence around the room.
"Bless my soul," said Tom, dropping his voice to a whisper that could still be heard across the room. "Harry Potter ... what an honour." Then he rounded the bar, rushed towards Harry, and – with tears in his eyes – seized Harry's hand. "Welcome back, Mr Potter, welcome back."
Before Harry could even respond, he was greeted and lauded by numerous faces, one of which he recognised from before (and who proudly introduced himself as Dedalus Diggle). Then there was a nervous-looking young man who shook Harry's hand, and whose stutter was so bad that Harry wondered why he hadn't yet fixed it with magic. And to top it off, Hagrid introduced the man as being Professor Quirrell; a teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Were all Hogwarts teachers this nervous and twitchy? Harry crossed his fingers, in his pocket, and hoped not.
Last but not least, the woman whom Hagrid had referred to as being a 'nutter' got up from her seat. She approached Harry with something like a strut in her step; and when she spoke, Harry got the fleeting impression that she was sizing him up.
"So, this is the Boy Who Lived. You're a bit smaller than I expected. Around four foot four, I'd say."
OK, so she was sizing him up. What a meanie. And she even went as far as to kneel and place her hand on Harry's shoulder, as if speaking to a toddler.
"Hello, dear. Would you like some tea, biscuits, cake, or perhaps a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich? There's a nice, cosy table in the corner where we can sit and chat. I'll even change the cushion to your favourite colour. Hmm, blue?"
"Green, and I'm not little," said Harry, trying his best to glare straight at the woman. But it only succeeded in making her tilt her head to the side and smile (she had three gold teeth) as if she were looking at a particularly cute infant. Hagrid, meanwhile, looked ready to intervene as he opened the back door of the bar.
"Oh, of course you're not, dear." The woman smiled even wider, which was starting to creep Harry out. "You're a big man with big fame, yes? The talk of the town today." Then she reached out and ruffled Harry's hair, causing him to take half a step back.
"Are you looking for an interview?"
The woman blinked. "Straight to the point, then. I'm Rita Skeeter, reporter for the Daily Prophet. But I suppose you don't even know what that is, right?"
"It's a newspaper."
"Excuse me," Hagrid said to Skeeter while standing at the door, "but we need ter get goin'. Got lots ter buy."
"Oh, come now. Surely a bit of questions won't hurt?" There was an almost manic look of excitement on Skeeter's face as she continued to speak to Harry. "So, how does it feel to take your first steps back into our world? Feeling excited? Confident? Anxious? Nervous?" Her grin faded into a flat, stern expression. "Or confused as to why you were kept out of it in the first place, by Albus Dumbledore?"
"Now wait jus' a second there –"
"Isn't 'anxious' the same as 'nervous'?" Harry asked, and Skeeter both ignored Hagrid and tried her best to remain patient with Harry.
"Sort of, yes. Now tell me, young man, which house do you think you'll make at Hogwarts? There's Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Take your pick. Oh, and how do you feel about being led around by the gamekeeper instead of the Deputy Headmistress herself?"
"All righ', that's enough bombardin' the poor lad with questions," said Hagrid, almost seizing Harry by the shoulder and steering him away. "Harry's go' nothin' ter say ter you unless it's a good, clean question."
"At the very least, how about giving Miss Skeeter a photograph, Harry?" And that was when Skeeter snapped her fingers, causing some paunchy man (whom Harry had barely noticed standing in the corner) to step forward. He was carrying a large black camera, and took up position in the middle of the room, facing Harry and Skeeter. "This is Bozo, my photographer."
Bozo gave a sort of casual salute to Harry.
"Better make this quick, then," said Hagrid, checking his watch. "Professor Dumbledore wouldn' wan' Harry drownin' in his fame."
"He sure is drowning in those clothes, though," Skeeter said while writing something in her notepad. "Are those Muggles you're living with rich or poor, Harry? Neither answer seems particularly comforting."
"You've go' ten seconds ter take tha' photograph ..."
At that, Skeeter knelt down beside Harry, opened his fringe nice and wide (so as to show his scar), and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. Then she steered him about a metre to the right and told him to smile as the camera flashed, and emitted a puff of smoke.
"Ah, such a lovely picture with the entrance to Diagon Alley behind us," Skeeter said, and when Hagrid began leading Harry away, Skeeter smiled at the latter. "Bye, Harry! I look forward to hearing about your first crush, and more, someday!"
"What did she mean by 'and more'?" Harry asked Hagrid, once they were in the small, walled courtyard behind the bar. Skeeter sure seemed like one heck of a nosy woman.
Hagrid was standing at the dustbin facing the brick wall, too busy counting three bricks up and two across to respond. Then he tapped his umbrella three times on the wall, and watched as it opened to reveal a large archway. "I'm, er, really no' the bes' person ter be askin' abou' such things. Anyway, forget abou' tha' troublemaker, and say hello ter Diagon Alley."
There, past the archway, was a cobbled street which twisted and turned out of sight – with the nearest shop stocking a wide variety of ... cauldrons?
"Hagrid, are those really –"
"Cauldrons, yeah. Whadda yeh think we use 'em fer?"
That was a good question, so Harry rubbed his chin, in thought, while looking at the cauldron-shaped sign hanging over a stack of cauldrons outside the shop. "Maybe to make food or soup or" – Harry shrugged – "magical drinks?"
Hagrid chuckled. "Potions, Harry, although yeh're no' entirely wrong with tha' third one. Just don' say summat like tha' in front o' Professor Snape, the Potions master at Hogwarts."
There were far too many shops for Harry to even count around here, including (but not limited to) an owl emporium, an apothecary, a 'Quidditch' shop, a stationery shop, a place selling 'robes for all occasions', a grocery store, a bookshop, a towering snowy-white building, and – most importantly – an ice-cream parlour.
"Hagrid," Harry said as they passed the ice-cream shop, and approached the towering white building, "can we get some ice-cream?"
"Gotta take care of some Hogwarts business first, not ter mention gettin' you some money. Ah, here we are, Gringotts."
But Harry wasn't entirely interested in a simple bank at the moment. Sure, the place had a fancy poem engraved on its inner doors ("... yeh'd be mad ter try an' rob it," said Hagrid), and a vast marble hall inside, but Harry's thoughts were consumed by the ice-cream parlour outside.
"Morning," Hagrid said to a free goblin, while walking up to the long counter. "We've come ter take some money outta Mr Harry Potter's safe ..."
Minutes later, Harry and Hagrid were past the security-check stage and were walking to one of the doors leading off the hall. Some random goblin (whose name Harry couldn't care to remember) then took them down a steep, narrow stone staircase lit by flaming torches – and then he whistled to summon a small cart up the tracks. Was this a bank or an underground theme park? The goblins sure got some of their choice strange, though, but Harry just sat back and enjoyed the ride. The cart seemed to be steering itself through a maze of tracks until, finally, stopping at vault six hundred and eighty-seven.
"All yours," said Hagrid, standing beside the open-mouthed Harry once Grippook (that was his name, right?) had unlocked the door. There was a billowing of green smoke which cleared to reveal countless columns of bronze, silver, and golden coins.
"The little bronze ones are Knuts, remember?" said Hagrid, pointing out the coins. "Twenty-nine of 'em makes a silver Sickle, which needs seventeen ter make a gold Galleon."
All Harry could do was nod, and then he turned to face the goblin beside him. "Mr Grippook –"
"'Griphook'," the goblin said, seemingly unfazed by the mispronunciation. Harry had a fleeting suspicion that goblins generally disliked wizards no matter what.
"Mr Griphook, how much money is in my vault?"
Harry had no idea what the goblin was doing at the vault's entrance, but after a few seconds of silence and slow hand-gestures, Griphook responded with "Nineteen thousand, five hundred and fifty-seven Galleons, fifteen Sickles, and twenty-one Knuts in total – due largely in part to the success of Sleekeazy's Hair Potion."
"Yer dad's dad invented that," Hagrid told Harry, who turned to look at Griphook standing beside him.
"Wow, really? Where can I find him?"
"In the ground." Griphook then walked towards Hagrid. "Shall we move on to more pressing matters?"
"Lemme take enough for a couple o' terms first," said Hagrid. Then, once he'd finished withdrawing whatever he felt was enough from Harry's vault, he requested that Griphook head for vault seven hundred and thirteen next. "Can we go a bit slower? Think I'm gonna be sick. Might need a magical drink or two."
"One speed only," said Griphook.
When would this bank-trip ever end? All Harry could think of was running into that Fortescue place and getting himself some ice-cream. Did wizards make extra-special desserts? The kind that Dudley would never ever get his porky hands on?
"Stand back," said Griphook, once the cart had stopped at vault seven hundred and thirteen, which had no keyhole. "Only a Gringotts goblin is permitted to touch these doors. Anyone else would be sucked in and trapped, and we only check for thieves about" – he grinned in a nasty, tooth-baring manner – "once every ten years. And don't even bother with Disapparition."
"With what?" Harry asked, scratching his chin while looking at Hagrid – who smiled.
"Yeh're gonna enjoy tha' kinda magic someday, Harry, once yeh get the hang of it." Then he sighed. "Disappearin' an' reappearin' almost anywhere you want. Wish I could do it. Wish I was allowed ter try an' do it."
So it was like teleportation, then? But of course magical people would try something like that – wait, what was Hagrid even collecting in this vault? Harry ceased his daydreaming and tried to get a better look inside the vault, once Griphook had opened it. But instead of seeing his dizziest daydream's worth of treasure, all Harry saw was some grubby-looking package wrapped in brown paper.
"What's that, Hagrid?"
"Blimey, you ask more questions than even yeh mum did when Professor McGonagall brought her ter Diagon Alley, and that's saying summat," Hagrid said while tucking the mysterious package deep within his coat. "Righ', time ter ride tha' infernal cart again. No talking ter me, OK?"
After riding the cart and crossing the vast marble hall, Harry and Hagrid were once again standing in the bright, morning sun. There were far more stores than Harry could count at the moment, so he didn't know where to run first now that he had a bag full of shiny, clinky gold.
"Might as well get yer uniform," said Hagrid, nodding towards Madam Malkin's store. "Listen, would yeh mind if I slipped off fer a" – he smiled – "'potion' in the Leaky Cauldron? I hate them Gringotts carts; makes me sick ter me stomach."
As much as Harry wanted to put himself in a set of wizarding robes, he'd much rather put something in his stomach first. Something sweet and cold, thank you very much. "OK, but I want some ice-cream first."
"No problem. Professor Dumbledore said yeh're free ter wander around the main street." And that was when a sudden, stern look came across Hagrid's face. "So that means no headin' off too far, especially not inter Knockturn Alley, you hear?"
"And be sure ter close tha' fringe o' yours, too," Hagrid said while walking away. "Unless yeh wanna be swarmed by loads o' admirers."
But why would Harry even consider wandering off to random places when there were ice-creams that needed to be eaten? Sure, he couldn't wait to get his hands on a wand and do some magic, but it was essential to prioritise, and Harry therefore rushed towards Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour.
The parlour had a black-and-white chequered floor, a creamish theme, a long display-counter running along the right side of the room (when looking from the entrance), and various tables scattered across the left – as well as outside. There were so many treats for sale that Harry stood frozen while browsing the parchment in his hands. In fact, he stared for so long that Fortescue served almost a dozen customers before Harry finally made up his mind.
"Two large, chocolate ones," Harry said while thinking about Dudley and Piers Polkiss enjoying their ice-creams back at the zoo. "And the best lemon ice-lolly you've got."
"That'll be four Sickles and twenty Knuts," Fortescue said behind the counter, and Harry smiled.
Finally, he'd be able to have not only a better, more expensive, wizard-made version of Dudley's and Polkiss's treats but also a better, more expensive, wizard-made version of that cheap lolly which the Dursleys had bought Harry back at the zoo. Revenge sure was sweet, and Harry so wished that Dudley could be here, watching Harry savour that which the wizarding world – Harry's world – had to offer. The blond pig would probably be drooling onto his shoes while gawking.
Speaking of blond, Harry had just about finished his first ice-cream (while sitting outside) when he saw a rather snobbish-looking boy exit the robes store, opposite the ice-cream parlour. The boy had sleek, blond hair; an annoyingly arrogant, nose-in-the-air kind of look, and was carrying a bag of robes while walking towards the neighbouring bookstore. Then he stopped and stared as Hagrid came up the street, towards Harry.
"Ah, tha' hit the spot! Got yer robes yet?"
"Not yet," said Harry, looking towards the boy standing across the street. "There's a blond boy staring at you like he's in a zoo."
"Huh? Oh, tha' explains why," Hagrid said under his breath, as a taller version of the boy exited the shop, with a bulging bag of books in hand. "That there's Lucius Malfoy, school governor, which means the other one's obviously his son. We'd best get a move on before they make fun of yeh, Harry."
Harry's question made Hagrid stroke his beard, in thought. "Well, let's just say tha' those are the sorta people who believe in 'blood purity' above everythin' else. If yeh're not 'pure' from a rich magical family, yeh're no' gettin' their respect."
"But both of my parents were magical people, weren't they?" Harry asked as he stood up from his seat. "I'm pure."
"'Course yeh are, just no' in the way tha' they would want."
So they carried on with Harry's first proper shopping trip of his life, by heading straight across the street to Madam Malkin's. Here, Harry got his uniform sorted, and then he exited the store just as the two Malfoys were joined by a tall, slim, blonde woman – likely the boy's mother.
"... none of yeh business why I'm taking this boy around Diagon Alley," Hagrid told Mr Malfoy, who had the same, arrogant expression as his wife and son standing on the pavement, beside him. Harry could tell that the Malfoys weren't keen on making a scene in front of dozens of passers-by. "If yeh've go' summat ter say, take it up with Professor Dumbledore, Malfoy."
Mr Malfoy spoke in a cold, stern manner. "I'm sure the rest of the governors would be interested to know that Dumbledore's methods are growing stranger by the day. One would expect the" – he wrinkled his nose a bit – "'newcomers' to be led around by someone from the Ministry or, at the very least, the Deputy Headmistress."
"Enjoy yer day," said Hagrid, to which the Malfoys simply walked past him and Harry.
The Malfoy-boy, however, barged into Harry (with his shoulder) and muttered "See you at Hogwarts, Mudblood" before heading down the road, with his parents taking the lead.
"What's up?" Hagrid asked Harry, once the coast was clear. "Take my advice, and jus' pretend yeh never saw those sacks o' dragon dung. No, wait, tha's an insult ter dragons, that."
When Harry told of the Malfoy-boy's barging comment, Hagrid went red in the face, cracked his knuckles, and then – suddenly – smiled in a cold, vindictive manner. "He said tha' ter yeh? Well, they're gonna feel like a real bunch o' fools – which they are – once Skeeter puts yeh face on the front page o' the newspaper. 'Course, I'm surprised tha' Lucius and Narcissa didn't see the big resemblance of yer dad in you, seeing as he was at school with 'em for a bit."
"What does 'Mudblood' mean anyway?"
They were walking towards the front of Flourish and Blotts when Hagrid stopped. "Never ever say tha' word, Harry. It's probably the worst thin' yeh can call a Muggle-born, which you obviously aren't."
So they entered the bookstore, where Harry ended up buying everything he needed for the year – although Hagrid stopped him from getting anything else. Hagrid explained that Harry wouldn't be able to handle the advanced stuff yet, as well as the fact that underage magic was generally illegal outside of Hogwarts.
"Don' overwhelm yerself over the next month," Hagrid said as they exited the store. "I know yeh're excited an' all, but it takes more than jus' readin' a book or two ter get good with magic. Read in moderation at the Dursleys. Tha's my advice."
They visited the cauldron shop next, followed by the apothecary (which smelled like a blocked public-toilet), then the owl emporium (where Harry got a beautiful, snowy white owl as his birthday present), and then, finally, the moment which every single eleven-year-old would be looking forward to: the wand shop. And it was here in this narrow and shabby store, whose owner had the most unsettling pair of silvery eyes, where Harry was about to get his first hands-on taste of magic.
He couldn't wait.