When the floor began to shake, Harry knew the Dursleys had returned. Glancing at the clock, he was surprised to learn that it was half nine already. He met Mr. Giles’s gaze as he put down his book.
“I should probably go,” he said wanting to do nothing of the sort.
“Yes,” Mr. Giles came back to himself. “Yes, of course.” He put his book down and stood with Harry who set the book onto the coffee table. “You’re welcome to borrow the books.”
Surprised, Harry smiled lightly, glad he wouldn’t have to give up a way to pass the time. “Thanks,” he said.
“Not at all. And when you’ve finished there’s plenty more,” said Mr. Giles with a self-deprecating smile of his own.
The roundabout invitation to come again made Harry grin wider. He wasn’t sure if it was relief or simply the normalcy of a polite conversation, but for whatever reason, Harry picked up his newly borrowed books feeling lighter than he had in months.
Unfortunately, reality came crashing back down around his ears as soon as he stepped through the door of the Dursleys' apartment.
“Just where have you been!?” Uncle Vernon rounded on him as he entered the living room.
“Don’t tell me you’re suddenly concerned,” Harry snapped, his good mood evaporating. “You locked me out, remember?”
“We looked for you!” snapped Aunt Petunia shrilly with more than a hint of fear in her eyes. “You can’t tell those . . . those people we didn’t.”
“It is not our fault that you can’t be bothered to come in at a decent hour!” Vernon shouted.
Harry bristled angrily. He
couldn’t be bothered? “So it’s my fault that you didn’t look for me? I’m sure Moody will love to hear about that!”
Vernon’s face turned a satisfying purple as he scrambled for a reply that could overcome his fear. “You were not where you were supposed to be!” he finally shouted which made no sense at all since Harry wasn’t supposed to be anywhere except inside the grounds of the apartment building.
"I was only where I've been the whole time I've been here," Harry shot back sarcastically.
"And how should I know that?!"
Harry’s breath caught. The casual admission that they didn’t care only fueling more anger. And only anger he told himself sharply. They had never cared. “Who will Moody believe?” Harry said, chillingly quiet before turning in disgust for his room. He slammed the door satisfyingly behind him.
Through the door he could still hear Uncle Vernon yelling at him about wandering off to who knew where but Harry quickly tuned him out. It was always his fault that he was ignored, his fault that he was yelled at, his fault that the bacon burned in the morning, his fault that he had to be locked up or out or in. Harry dropped his books on the small table that was serving as his desk and grabbed a piece of parchment.
"Dear Professor Lupin,
"I got locked out by the Dursleys tonight," he began his letter.
The following day, Harry slipped out to the courtyard as soon as breakfast was over with his borrowed books. For once, he was able to forget about the Wizarding World and everything except the novel in front of him. Nothing else mattered when the main character was caught up in intrigue in Algeria and the fate of the world seemed to be resting on her shoulders instead of his. For the first time since returning to the Dursleys Harry felt like the knot in his stomach was loosening up. He didn’t even mind when Aunt Petunia glared at him over lunch since he knew he had another world to escape to once he left the flat.
When he went up for dinner, he met Mr. Giles on the stairs and this time Harry grinned when he saw him.
“Hallo, Harry,” Mr. Giles smiled back. “I see you’re getting on,” he gestured toward the slip of parchment that Harry was using as a bookmark.
“Yeah, it’s brilliant,” Harry replied. “Never thought I’d end up reading a day away.”
“Amazing how a good book can suck you in,” said Mr. Giles clearly pleased. They continued up the last flight to their landing, splitting off to their respective doors. “Have a good evening,” said Mr. Giles. Harry doubted it, but he replied in kind anyway before going inside.
Uncle Vernon was waiting for him. Harry stopped in his tracks, not having seen his uncle this angry since he’d tried to throw him out of the house last summer. “You . . .” Uncle Vernon stuttered, barely able to get words out. “You . . . Do you know who showed up at my office today?” he finally ground out.
Harry resisted the urge to grin. He could guess. “No,” he said loftily, “do tell.” Uncle Vernon went purple at the amusement that bled through Harry’s words and then words weren’t a problem as he shouted at Harry how two wizards had waltzed into Grunnings in bright robes and pointy hats demanding to see one Mr. Vernon Dursley. Apparently they’d had a little chat and now Vernon’s career was ruined. Harry couldn’t bring himself to care. In fact, he couldn’t even contain the gleeful laughter that tasted so sweetly of revenge and made Vernon go even purpler. Harry could tell he was just dying to call him all sorts of nasty things and banish him to his room, but his beady eyes gave away the fear of retribution worse than a humiliating day at work. Before he said anything that he would regret, Vernon spun on his heel and stormed into the kitchen.
That evening, the Dursleys ate in front of the telly where Harry didn’t bother to follow. Instead he settled at the kitchen table with his book, for once happy to be alone.
Hedwig found him in the garden before lunch with letters from his friends. There was a joint letter from Ron and Hermione filled with vague “can’t say but you know”s that only made Harry feel left out. Ginny’s letter was chattier but with an undercurrent of things left unsaid. Harry went back to his book and ended up re reading the same page for ten minutes.
Finally, he gave up and closed the book, letting it slip off his lap onto the grass. He felt so . . . useless. It was like last summer all over again where he was out of the loop while his friends were in the thick of it. Although Harry wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the thick of it himself after last year, but he at least wanted to know what was going on. Knowing that Tonks, Mr. Weasley, Professor Lupin, and all them were out on Order business while he was alternately ignored and yelled at by his relatives was grating. His life was split into two things that were so far apart he couldn’t get his head wrapped around it without feeling like it would just fall apart.
Not for the first time, Harry just wished he were normal – normal for a wizard anyway, he wasn’t willing to give that up. Normal with parents and no Dark Lord and no getting people killed and his friends hurt and being locked up with the Dursleys for another sixteen days. No having to kill the most powerful wizard around to save the world before he was killed first.
Harry grabbed his book with renewed determination. He was going to read and forget about everything else. There was only now and the words on the page. It didn’t quite work, but it was close enough.
Voices on the landing greeted Harry as he came up for dinner. Harry easily recognized Aunt Petunia’s strident tones buttering up whoever she was speaking with. Aunt Petunia trying to be nice ended up making her sound whiny.
“We’ve tried everything,” she was saying. “But nothing, absolutely nothing gets through to him, and it’s one thing after
Harry rolled his eyes. She was obviously talking about how rotten he was again . . . and to Mr. Giles, no less, he saw has he came up the last few steps. Both adults went silent and looked at him, Aunt Petunia with barely disguised fear and Mr. Giles with a wry smile. “Hello, Harry,” he said. “I see you’re almost finished with your book. How do like it?”
If there was any time Harry could have wished for a camera it would have been then to capture the look on Aunt Petunia’s face that was currently going from sour to slack jawed to horrified. Harry grinned at her before turning back to Mr. Giles. “It’s great,” he said. “I’ll probably finish it tomorrow.”
Aunt Petunia’s jaw snapped shut, her expression once again settling on sour. “Supper’s waiting,” she snapped. “We’ve been waiting on you.”
“So kind of you,” Harry smiled sweetly at her again.
“Well, I won’t keep you,” said Mr. Giles. “Harry, if you’d like to borrow another novel you’re more than welcome to stop by after dinner.”
Mr. Giles turned away to his own door then and Harry followed his disgruntled aunt into their flat. The grin never left his face, even when Aunt Petunia started picking on him about his room and being late. Harry just stared back across the table perversely pleased that she knew that normal people thought he was normal too.
It was stiff and awkward at first. Harry didn’t know what to say and Mr. Giles was still cleaning up in the kitchen from his own dinner. The flat was just as cluttered as it had been the last time he’d been there, and Harry was a little leery of the new stacks of papers on the coffee table that was a little to close to the couch for comfort. All the confidence he’d had when he’d casually announced to the Dursleys that he was coming over had vanished in the two seconds it had taken to cross the threshold.
“So what was my Aunt telling you about me?” Harry broke the silence when Mr. Giles came and stood in the doorway to the kitchen.
“What? Afraid I’ll believe what a troublemaker you are?” said Mr. Giles with a smile. “Tea?”
Harry shrugged. “Why wouldn’t you? You don’t know me. And yeah, I mean yes please. Tea sounds nice.”
“I know my share of juvenile delinquents,” Mr. Giles turned back to the stove and put the kettle on. “Was one myself. I must say everyone turned out all right in the end.”
“You?” Harry couldn’t wrap his head around the mild Mr. Giles as a skinny Dudley. He was too, well, nice. “Did you rob a library or something?”
“No, I had a library card for that.”
“So what did you do?” asked Harry, curious now.
Mr. Giles took his glasses off and wiped them with a handkerchief from his pocket, looking like he regretted mentioning anything about it. “I’m sure I don’t want to give you ideas.”
“It can’t be that bad,” said Harry whose curiosity was now soundly piqued.
“Yes, well. Did you enjoy the book?” Mr. Giles stuttered to change the subject.
“Yeah,” Harry decided to let it drop. He didn’t want to lose his only friend at the moment. “It was good.”
From there, discussion faded into book talk. The Eight
had been about a life or death search for a chess set that held secrets and magic with the main characters representing chess pieces as they fought for possession in a real life game of chess. The deception, half truths, and constant danger and fear of discovery reminded Harry at some points of his own life.
“I definitely didn’t figure out who the White Queen was,” he said at one point, thinking more about Barty Crouch than the book.
“The hints were there,” said Mr. Giles with a smile. “But unless you knew what to look for, she was effectively hidden. Not much in life is as it seems at first glance.”
Harry smiled at that. Mr. Giles didn’t know the half of it. “No, it isn’t.”
Mr. Giles was silent, his expression thoughtful. He looked like he was going to say something, but he didn’t.
“What is it?” Harry finally couldn’t take the heavy silence any longer.
“Your aunt and uncle don’t like you being here, do they?” said Mr. Giles.
“No,” said Harry uncertainly, wondering where this was going.
“They keep trying to scare me away from you.” Mr. Giles spoke carefully as if he didn’t want to scare Harry away by talking about it.
Harry shrugged uncomfortably. “They don’t like me and they hate it when I’m happy. People from my school look out for me.” He didn’t meet his neighbor’s eyes. The person who should have been looking out for him was dead. When he finally did look up, Mr. Giles looked thoughtful again.
“I suppose they’re rather far away,” he said quietly. Harry only shrugged again and looked away. “If you should need anything, Harry,” Mr. Giles waited for him to look up. “Please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“I’m sure I won’t,” said Harry startled by the offer.
“Even if it’s just to talk,” Mr. Giles smiled taking the tension out of the conversation. Hesitantly, Harry smiled back.