Disclaimer: I do not own the Harry Potter universe.
Beta: Ethiliam – thanks for pointing out several inconsistencies. At least now I'll look more sophisti-something.
Harry woke up with a throbbing hand and an aching stomach. He straightened his broken glasses before looking around. He was jolted out of his pain-infused drowsiness. He wasn't in his bed. No, he was lying on the pavement in the narrow alleyway between Magnolia Crescent and Wisteria Walk. He shook his head, unintentionally making himself dizzy. The previous events returned to him after a moment of contemplation.
He'd tried to pull his wand on Dudley, but the boy had knocked his hand aside before punching him in the stomach. He'd blacked out after that – Dudley's laughter ringing in his ears.
Harry wasn't looking forward to Vernon's welcome.
Nevertheless, he made his way to Privet Drive, number four. Harry flexed his hand in a weak attempt to alleviate the soreness. As he approached the house, he noticed smoke rising from the front yard. His heart skipped a beat. He ran towards the burned-out pile. The lingering smoke clarified this wasn't some sick joke. His trunk and its contents had been destroyed.
The front door opened and Vernon appeared in the doorway.
"You dared –" Vernon whispered. "You dared to pull that – that thing on my son. I've ignored the trouble you've caused for too long. Protection, they said. Hah. No ... no longer."
Harry feared that tone more than Vernon's shouting ever could. "I've never –"
Vernon cut Harry off. "Changing a teacher's hair. Appearing on the school's rooftop. Giving my son a pig's tail. Inflating my sister. Enlarging my son's tongue. And now, threatening my son and drawing your wand on him? No ... no. We wash our hands clean of you, protection be damned."
"I never hurt Dudley," Harry protested.
"If you hadn't been here, if you hadn't been around us, then none of those incidents would have happened."
Harry started to shake his head. "Accidental magic is caused by distress. Maybe, just maybe, if you'd treated me like a normal child instead of throwing me in a cupboard and –"
A hollow laugh erupted from Vernon. "Do you truly believe that we would put a baby in a cupboard for no reason? Oh, no. We were kind enough to put you with Dudley. Do you know what happened? Dudley started crying more and more. Petunia found the reason days later. You kept floating toys away from Dudley. We tried to stop you, only for the dratted things to explode."
"I was an infant," Harry said. "You can't hold me responsible for that."
"We never held you responsible," Vernon said, taking Harry by surprise. "We held your kind responsible. This Bumblebee-fellow dropped you off – literally, mind you – with a letter. A letter! Petunia lost her sister and your kind couldn't even dignify her with a personal visit or an explanation. When strange things started happening, we had no one to turn to."
"Oh, Petunia tried. Owls are used for communication, she said. Only ... there were no owls to be found, least none that could deliver a letter. So she tried to locate a strange pub in the middle of London to ask for help. Do you know what happened that day? Do you? Do you?"
Harry took a step back from the furious Vernon, never having seen the man this angry before.
"Of course you don't. I came home to find my wife seated in the kitchen where she was staring at the fridge. I spent ten minutes to snap her out of it. She couldn't remember anything of that day. Nothing. That clarified that your kind doesn't care for us – what did that giant call us? Muggles? Nothing but vermin, aren't we? We ignore a letter of admittance and they assault us with more letters. We decline the admission and they send a giant to threaten us."
"Enough." Vernon nudged his head at the burned-out pile. "That's all your stuff. Consider it payment for everything your kind put us through. You're no longer welcome in our home."
An astonished Harry was left behind when the door slammed shut. Harry had never liked his family's treatment, but being told that their underlying resentment had been caused by 'his kind' for ditching him without any aide utterly galled him. Harry kicked the pile of ashes out of frustration while counting his lucky stars that Hedwig was out hunting. A piece of silvery cloth appeared from beneath the ashes. Harry took hold of it before pulling it out of the pile. He stared at his Invisibility Cloak, astonished that the fire hadn't been able to destroy it.
Harry threw his only surviving piece of clothing over himself. This was the second time that he heard the cracking sound of Apparition and he doubted it was a coincidence. He looked at his previous home and found no reason to inform his family. No matter the inconvenience, his relatives should have looked out for him. Back then, he had been an infant and thus innocent of his placement here.
They were through with him – well, fine. He was through with them too.
A flicker drew his attention. He crouched down and picked up a coin. Quickly and quietly, he searched through the remaining ashes. He pocketed all of the coins, for once glad that the magical world didn't use paper money.
Harry stood up and took one last look at the house that had been his supposed home for so long. He would never return here, not even for revenge. He refused to lower himself to his relatives' pettiness. He walked towards the park and, along the way, he realised that the last of his family had severed all ties with him.
He was alone now.
Harry woke up with a sore hand and an aching back. Déjà vu. His accommodations required some drastic improvements. He sat up, trying to ignore his back protesting the entire way, before looking around.
He had carefully considered his options last night – Hermione would have approved – and had summoned the Knight Bus to travel to Hogsmeade. The Leaky Cauldron hadn't been an option considering how his previous escape from Privet Drive had ended. After he had arrived in Hogsmeade, he'd noticed the late hour and had decided to camp out at the one place that everyone actively avoided: the Shrieking Shack. While he could have gone to the Three Broomsticks to prevent his current predicament, he suspected Madam Rosmerta would have detected his lie quicker than McGonagall could have. Better to be vigilant than to get caught ... though, Harry drew the line well before sacrificing body parts.
Harry walked towards the high street of the village, hidden under his Invisibility Cloak. Navigating a path became increasingly difficult and annoying when more people walked about, but it beat being recognised. He walked past the Three Broomsticks since he wanted a disguise before approaching the owner. He also walked past Honeydukes, not seeing any advantage in sweets.
After a short walk, he reached a shop that might be useful. He didn't know what to expect, but he wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing. As he crossed the threshold of the shop, a little bell tinkled. Harry's eyes widened. His Cloak was still hiding him. He grabbed it, folded it, and slipped it into his pocket before –
"Hello," an elderly voice said from a few feet away.
Harry shifted his hair to cover his stupid scar before he turned to face the man. "Hi."
"I'm Zonko, the owner of this fine establishment. Can I help you?"
"Err – I only wanted to take a look around. First time here."
"Take your time and don't hesitate to call for me."
Harry started loitering through every row, examining the massive amount of items. After passing through half of the rows, his shoulders slumped. Most of these things would draw attention to whoever was unlucky enough to be on the receiving end, which was exactly the opposite of what he needed. He didn't give up, though, and continued through the rest of the shop. Sadly, he found nothing of importance. He took one of the last objects and looked it over, wondering why someone would want a fake wound that still had blood dripping –
A chuckle made Harry look up. This last row had led him back to the counter of the shop.
"That used to be popular amongst young men," Zonko said. "Stick it on and hope the ladies get interested."
Harry looked down at the item again and was unable to hold back a snort.
"Good reaction. Only fools buy those. After the ladies find out ... then they'll receive some real wounds to show off, eh?"
Harry grinned, only to sober up when he remembered he had enough wounds to get along with. He put the item back and sighed before giving the shopkeeper an uncertain look.
"Nothing, eh?" Zonko asked. "Not to worry. You're not the first and you won't be the last. Enjoy the rest of your day."
"Thank you. You too." Harry walked towards the exit.
"Hold on, young man," Zonko said. "Mind helping me out? Forgive me for saying, but you don't seem to be in a hurry, not like most youngsters anyway. I have something in the back that requires a good pair of muscles."
Seeing no reason to decline, Harry said, "Sure."
They walked towards the back of the shop, only stopping in front of an empty wall at the very end.
"Take my right arm and I'll guide you through."
Harry wondered if perhaps he should've left the shop instead of being helpful. Not wanting to be rude, he did as requested and swallowed his gasp of surprise. Zonko had guided him through the wall, directly into a room twice as large as the entire shop. The room was lined with tables that held all kinds of inventions. Only the walls contained shelves, filled to the brim with ingredients and raw materials to build the items.
"Can't have anyone stumbling in here," Zonko said as he walked towards one of the shelves. "Here they are."
Harry saw the pair of boxes that were pointed out on the top shelf. He walked over, lifted one up, and set it down on a nearby table. He repeated the action until all the boxes were on the table. They weren't heavy, but he understood that an elderly man might have problems with the weight.
Opening one of the boxes, Zonko said, "Every now and then, I need to clean up or this room would explode from the sheer amount of unsold items. Oh my ... this brings back memories." He took out a small box filled with baubles and smiled at it. "If my daughter found out I still had these, she'd eviscerate me. After she neutered me. And follow up with beheading ... or quartering. She always was thorough."
Harry frowned at the man who talked about his imminent death with an easy smile. "Invention gone wrong?"
"Not at all. These work perfectly – too perfect, actually. You see, if you swallow one of these baubles then your voice transforms to sound like an older, rugged man for one hour. I worked hard on these and hoped they'd be a hit. Alas, I never got to sell them."
Zonko sighed. "My granddaughter. Little Zali. One of these baubles had travelled along to my daughter's house by accident and it had fallen onto the floor. Zali crawled around the house and managed to find one and ... did what all children would have done. She put it into her mouth and swallowed it."
Harry pursed his lips together, already able to imagine what had happened.
"There wouldn't have been a problem if she'd kept quiet. But, no. Little Zali had to pick that very moment to babble. Not babble, really. No. She picked that exact moment to say 'mo-mi' for the first time."
Harry tried to refrain from laughing. Only, he wasn't very successful.
"Yeah," Zonko said. "I thought it was funny too. My daughter didn't. No, she didn't think it was funny at all. Cursed my name in multiple ways before threatening me to never sell them. Pity, really."
Harry eyed the baubles. "Are you certain you don't want to sell them?"
"I like my manly bits where they are," Zonko said. "Although ... she never said anything about handing them away."
When Zonko held out the box, Harry said, "I couldn't."
"Consider it payment for your help and one favour."
"What kind of favour?" Harry asked as he accepted the box.
Zonko leaned forward. "This never happened. You get caught, you don't know me and I don't know you. Morgana, blame those red-headed devils. They seem to like trouble."
Harry knew that all too well. "I will. Thank you."
Passing through the wall, they walked back into the shop.
"Doesn't Filch ban all of your items?" Harry asked before he could stop himself.
Zonko smiled. "Nothing in this shop is banned at Hogwarts. The moment an item makes it onto his list, I change the name." He pointed at a board above the counter. 'Dungbombs: banned 49 times. Now available as Stink Pellets.'
"Err ..." Harry grimaced. "I might have gotten caught with those a while back. I'm certain they're banned now."
"They were long overdue a name-change anyway," Zonko said, placating Harry. "Have a nice day, young man."
"You too and thanks again."
Harry stepped outside and pocketed the box of baubles. Glancing at the next shop, he froze at the pink exterior. Gladrags Wizardwear. He looked down at his shabby clothing and decided to get this over with.
"Not going to pull a Potter."
When Harry heard his name, he turned towards the source. Two wizards were walking away from him. Harry frowned at the usage of his name. The tinkle of a bell pulled him out of his musings. An elderly woman walked by him while muttering various curses. Harry took the opportunity to slip into the shop. He stopped when he picked up a whisper.
"Snobbish, stuck-up, foul little bitch. Take your hat and shove it up your –"
Harry cleared his throat before the statement was finished.
The distracted girl snapped her head towards him. "Oh no," she said, cheeks flaming red. "Please don't tell my boss. She'll fire me and I'll –"
Harry saw the impending arrival of the girl's boss from a back room, so he quickly coughed to halt the avalanche of explanations and excuses.
The girl frowned. "Do you need a cough drop? We have some in the back."
"No. I'm fine," Harry said.
"Hello, dear," the new arrival said. "We'll be with you in a moment. Samantha, a word please."
Samantha paled before moving away with her boss. Harry couldn't overhear the conversation, but he saw Samantha's shock before she started nodding and shaking her head at the appropriate times. The two women made their way back, Samantha one step behind her boss. She fake-wiped the sweat from her forehead. Harry's lips twitched.
"Sorry about the delay. I'm Madam Gladrag. How can we help you?"
Harry opened his mouth, only to close it again. He had no idea how all this worked, so he settled for the truth. "All my belongings were destroyed in a fire ..."
"Everything?" Madam Gladrag asked, looking him up-and-down.
"I'll close the shop so we won't be disturbed. Samantha, the essentials first, if you please."
Harry refrained from frowning as the woman closed the shop. He was unable to contemplate why the shop needed to be closed since Samantha distracted him.
"... boxers or briefs?"
"Oh, Merlin," Harry said.
"I don't know what he wore. Might have gone commando, for all I know."
Harry stared at Samantha. "You're enjoying this too much."
"My parents told me to get a job that I like, so here I am," she said, not the least bit embarrassed.
The most uncomfortable hour later, the counter had sufficient clothing to last Harry through the entire school year. Both women were extremely helpful during the process, not even trying to sell him more than he would need – a frequent complaint from his former relatives. Harry paid the bill, inwardly thanking himself for not spending much so that he had an emergency fund. He frowned at the stack of clothing, becoming acutely aware of his new problem.
"Err," Harry said.
Madam Gladrag crossed her arms. "You didn't think this through, did you?"
"What gave me away?" Harry asked, smiling at the woman.
She shook her head at him. "Can you spare another five Galleons?"
Harry didn't hesitate to hand the requested money over. They'd helped him so far, so he couldn't imagine why they'd swindle him out of his money now. Madam Gladrag handed the money to Samantha.
"Standard school trunk with the normal enchantments. Use the Floo, dear."
Samantha disappeared into the back room, leaving Harry and Madam Gladrag behind. Harry looked around awkwardly, not really knowing what to say. In his own defence, he didn't have much experience in shopping or talking with strangers.
"You'll need to replace all your school supplies too?" Madam Gladrag asked.
Harry nodded, not looking forward to more shopping.
"The local divisions here are smaller and might not have everything, so you're better off going to Diagon Alley. You can Floo to the Leaky Cauldron from the Three Broomsticks for a few Knuts."
"Thank you, but I think I'll wait for my friends. We'll all need next year's supplies, anyway," Harry said, wincing as he imagined how his two friends were going to react to –
"Sorry?" Harry asked, having missed the question.
"The fire; did you lose anything valuable?"
Harry's thoughts ended up at the irreplaceable map of the Marauders. "One-of-a-kind interactive map of Hogwarts," he said, no longer bothering with secrecy now the map had been destroyed.
"Interactive? That sounds like a handy map. You didn't make it yourself?"
"No." Harry's eyes widened a bit before a smile blossomed.
"Ah," Madam Gladrag said. "You know who made it. I guess you know what to do this year, then?"
"Recreate the map."
Harry wouldn't only ask Sirius and Remus; he'd also entice Hermione for this project. She would disagree on principle, of course, but then he'd wear her down with the prospect of research, unique spells, and a high probability of preventing his yearly adventure.
"You could try Dervish & Banges if you have something usable left. They can repair most magical items. No brooms, though. Too complicated for them."
Harry's smile evaporated. "My Firebolt," he whispered.
"Expensive, that," Madam Gladrag said. "No sense to dwell on it. You can't change the past. Be glad that you're in fine health. Things could be much, much worse."
No matter his earlier promise, Harry was having a hard time to keep himself from planning Vernon's demise. Castrating, eviscerating, and beheading suddenly sounded like acceptable punishments. Harry shook his head to get rid of those tantalising thoughts. He took a moment to pull himself together. Madam Gladrag had started moving around the shop, putting back the clothes Harry had fitted but not purchased.
He looked around the shop and spotted a few sections that hadn't been covered. All but one contained women's clothing. He walked towards the strange section that was stacked with large and heavy cloaks. He skimmed the isle and spotted several with hoods. He held one in front of him that looked his size.
Harry startled. "Not really, why?"
"Travelling cloaks," Madam Gladrag said. "Heavily enchanted to make them more durable than normal clothing, and they come with built-in Heating and Cooling Charms which can be regulated with the tap of a wand."
"Brilliant." Harry didn't care for the enchantments much. He eyed a different feature. "Mind if I try it on?"
"They don't come cheap," Madam Gladrag said. Noticing his steadfast expression, she continued, "All right, but take one size bigger. This one would only last you a year. No matter what anyone tells you, charms to enlarge items do not work well on enchanted clothing. Case in point the fool that checked himself into St. Mungo's several years back, half-frozen and half-burned due to the warped charms."
Harry accepted the larger cloak and put it on. He lifted the hood over his face. Harry was certain this wasn't infallible, especially not if someone stood as close to him as Madam Gladrag, but it was better than nothing. "I'll take it."
"If you're certain." She escorted him back to the counter.
Samantha arrived with his new trunk when Harry paid for the cloak. He smiled at the design of the trunk: dark-red with the crest of Hogwarts adorning the lid.
"Here's your change," Samantha said, handing over the remaining coins.
"Thanks." Harry opened the lid and moved to the first stack of clothing.
The clothing flew from the counter into the trunk, neatly arranging itself.
"Wicked," Harry said.
"I know you're male," Madam Gladrag said, "but even you can benefit from reading a book on household charms. Little spells like these make your life easier."
Samantha grinned at the resigned face Harry was pulling.
"How far along are you, Samantha?"
Her grin disappeared. "Chapter five."
Harry fought to keep his own grin from appearing to avoid the older woman shredding him like she'd shredded Samantha.
"Do you know how to use enchanted items like the trunk and the cloak?" Madam Gladrag asked.
Harry shot her a puzzled look.
"The items will only recognise the first wand that uses them. Safety feature. For the trunk, tap and say shrink, enlarge, up, or down. For the cloak, tap and say activate, deactivate, increase, or decrease. The latter two will regulate the temperature while the former two will decide if the charms become active."
"Won't the Ministry –?"
"Only for real spells, not for activation words."
Harry took out his wand and tapped the trunk. "Shrink." He ducked to pick up the cardboard box.
"Don't forget to bind the cloak as well."
"I won't. Thank you for helping me out!"
"You're welcome, dear. Enjoy your day."
"See you!" Samantha said, giving him a wave.
Harry walked out of the shop in a better mood than entering it. He had considerably more clothing than before, two items to hide his identity, and a chance to recreate the map. Not even the loss of his Firebolt could dampen his mood.
Harry entered the Three Broomsticks with his recently acquired disguise; cloak on, hood up, and bauble swallowed. He approached the owner of the pub, Madam Rosmerta, who was cleaning the dishes behind the counter.
"Hello, I'd like to rent a room," Harry said with a rugged voice.
Madam Rosmerta looked up. She stared at him. "Room only, or room and board?"
She started scrutinising him, which made Harry shift from foot to foot. "Anonymous?"
"Payment up front, one week in advance."
Harry paid Madam Rosmerta, received his key, and deposited his trunk in his room. He saw no sense in wasting a bauble, so he went back down and ordered lunch before sitting down in a corner of the pub. When his lunch arrived, he started devouring it. He took another bite when he nearly spit it out upon overhearing his name again.
"Worthy of Harry Potter, indeed."
Harry swallowed before shifting himself to observe the man that had spoken. Two men sat at a nearby table, one elderly and one in his late thirties.
"What is it now?" the younger man asked.
"Some crackpot wizard claims he defeated the Yeti instead of Lockhart. Says the man interviewed him and then wiped his mind to take the story for himself." The elder shook his head. "Bloody coward. Didn't come forward when Lockhart could defend himself, did he?"
"Typical." The younger man said with a sneer. "Bloody opportunists. Like that Potter boy who's claiming You-Know-Who is back. Blasted kid trying to cower us into – I don't know what, but it can't be good. Last war was bad enough."
"Too right, it was. Never want to go through that again. Dead men don't come back, not even Dark Lords. The boy can't handle his fame, if you ask me. Cheated his way into the tournament first and now this foolishness."
Harry lost his ravenous appetite. He stared at the two men, no longer caring if they noticed him or not. When the duo left, Harry swiped the Daily Prophet they had left behind. He paged through it until he found the Lockhart article, reading through it word-for-word until he found the offending sentence at the very end.
A tale worthy of Harry Potter.
Harry traipsed to his room, leaving the newspaper behind. He closed the door behind him before collapsing on his bed. Now he knew why the Daily Prophet wasn't reporting anything about Voldemort. They were ignoring the entire situation, preferring to blame him for being delusional. They were slandering him while Voldemort was out there doing Merlin knows what. This reminded him of his second year. No ... this was worse, a thousand times worse.
No longer able to contain himself, he jumped out of the bed. He walked towards the crystal that hung next to his door. He skimmed through the crinkled parchment that hung beneath the crystal until he found what he needed. He tapped the crystal with his wand.
Harry's scream of rage went unheard.
When Harry woke up, he stretched himself before smiling. Third time was truly the charm and – on an unrelated note – enchanted beds were absolutely fantastic considering all his previous aches were gone. He freshened up and opened the window when Hedwig tapped against it. She flew into the room and settled on the bed's headboard. Harry petted her while she fell asleep, trying not to think how close he'd been to losing his precious owl.
He donned the cloak and made his way down into the pub for breakfast. He almost tripped over his own feet when he noticed the pub was nearly full with only a few empty chairs available. An empty table was non-existent. Before he could disappear back into his room, Madam Rosmerta had come up to guide him towards a table. She sat him down with a promise of breakfast. Harry glanced at the other occupants of his table and – to his great dismay – saw the two men that he had overheard yesterday seated across from him.
Harry started on his breakfast, keeping his ears open and thus overhearing fragments of conversation from the people that sat near him. None talked about him, thankfully. Harry had almost finished his plate when he was shaken from his eavesdropping by owls flying through the room. Newspaper delivery. Since he no longer had access to the older issues, he was happy that he hadn't cancelled his subscription yet. He untied the newspaper from the owl that landed in front of him. He didn't have to look for anything because he had made the front page.
POTTER'S RELATIVES MURDERED
HARRY POTTER MISSING
As Harry read through the article in record-breaking speed, his breathing hitched. He cut through all the nonsense and summarised the entire front page in two short facts: his relatives no longer had their souls and he had been declared missing. He looked around the room and could see everyone's shock. Conversations slowly started, only this time they weren't against him.
"Truth in what Potter has –"
"Only happened when You-Know-Who –"
To Harry's surprise even the elderly man across from him started discussing the latest twist.
"If the boy is right?"
The conversations steadily increased until a sound silenced the entire pub.
Harry grimaced at the woman that stood in the middle of the pub. While he didn't know anything about fashion, he was fairly certain that Lavender and Parvati would declare that outfit to be burned for impeaching on every fashion rule that existed. The woman gave off a vibe of superiority which made Harry dislike her even more.
"Madam Umbridge," Madam Rosmerta said. "Can I help you?"
"Oh, no. I'm merely passing through," Madam Umbridge said as she brushed some imaginary ashes off of her clothes.
"Of course you are."
Harry picked up on the frosty response. Madam Rosmerta didn't seem to like this woman. Madam Umbridge started making her way to the exit.
"Madam Undersecretary," the elderly man said, halting the woman in her tracks.
"Yes?" she asked, turning to face the man.
Harry lowered his head a bit.
"The paper talks about Potter's relatives. Soulless, they say. I thought the Dementors were under the control of the Ministry?" the man asked unabashed.
"They are," Madam Umbridge answered in a clipped tone.
"I wasn't aware of other ways to lose one's soul."
"Dark Magic is capable of many things, all of which banned by the Ministry."
"You're saying Potter –"
"Do you think the Goblet of Fire could have been bypassed with common-day magic? The Ministry could not interfere then, but we are looking into several options now."
"Dark Magic," the man whispered. "Never would've thought ... merely a child."
Someone else asked, "Will Potter be expelled?"
"Hogwarts is under the administration of Headmaster Dumbledore who is protecting Potter. Should you feel unhappy then I recommend you to contact the Board of Governors. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have pressing matters to attend to."
Harry watched the woman leaving the pub. A small yet victorious smile graced her face. The whispers around him picked up at an unprecedented rate. Some swore not to send their children to Hogwarts if he was there while others swore to take matters into their own hands if the Ministry didn't deal with him.
Harry had heard enough. He excused himself from the table to return to his room. He closed the door, locked it, silenced it, and then allowed himself to let loose.
"That foul little bitch," he shouted. "That vicious, disgusting, hideous hag. How dare that bint insinuate I had anything to do with –?"
The implications hit Harry hard and he staggered into the bed. His relatives were soulless now. While he'd never liked them and found himself unable to shed tears for them, he still wouldn't wish that fate on anyone.
And then the people – no, the idiots in the pub; they'd almost sided with him ... until that hag had turned them against him by making a few statements that led to the wrong conclusions.
Harry knew when he was out of his league. He could try to go against the stupidity that permeated the pub below, but he'd be attacked before he finished the first sentence. He needed help. He sat down at the nearby desk which held a few sheets of parchment, several quills, and an ink bottle. He wrote a short letter.
Need your help. Tell no one.
Third year. Invisible Butterbeer.
Your trouble-attracting friend.
The note wasn't perfect, but he didn't care. Hermione would find the thing obvious while anyone else wouldn't learn anything from it. Harry walked to the headboard and tied the note to Hedwig's leg. The action resulted in the owl's awakening.
"I'm sorry, Hedwig, but this needs to get to Hermione. It's urgent."
Even though she'd only had an hour of sleep, Hedwig took off and flew straight towards Hermione. Harry settled down on the bed, reflecting on the morning's events. While he had had a good night's sleep, the emotional turmoil ensured he fell into a restless slumber.
Harry's sleep shattered when something landed on top of him. His attempt to sit up was foiled since his arms were pinned against his body. A sliver of fear passed through him. The weight shifted. Harry found himself staring into a familiar pair of brown eyes. For some inexplicable reason, she was waving a familiar-looking note in front of his face.
"This, Harry," she said, voice increasing rapidly, "is not sufficient. Not after you get attacked. And without any mention of your health. Not even a stupid 'I'm fine'. And Hedwig – well, she refused to take a note back. Do you have any idea what I went through?"
"I –" Harry yelped when Hermione poked him in the side.
"No. Of course you don't."
"But – Ouch! Stop poking me!"
Hermione leaned closer until her nose touched Harry's. "When you're attacked again – don't look at me like that, we both know you will be – then you will let me know exactly how you're doing the very second after it happened. Because if you don't ... I swear to you, whatever state I imagine you in ... I-will-put-you-in!"
Harry felt uncomfortable when her breath felt hot against his skin. He decided to correct her before she made any more incorrect assumptions. "I wasn't in any danger! Vernon kicked me out. I was already here when that attack happened."
Hermione pushed herself off of Harry. She sat down on the bed. "I worried over nothing?" she whispered, lowering her head. She lifted the note. "'Need your help', that's all I'm here for, isn't it? Would you have contacted me if you hadn't needed me?"
"I – I forgot."
"Friends don't forget each other," Hermione said, wiping away a tear that trailed down her cheek. She shook her head, stood up, and left the room.
The sound of the door closing rang in Harry's ears. Not knowing what had gone wrong, he put himself in her shoes to find the problem. He didn't need much time. His eyes widened at the mere thought of reading about Hermione's parents becoming soulless and Hermione vanishing without a trace. Voldemort could have –
Harry cursed himself for being an idiot.
He ran out of the room, only making the tiniest of efforts to grab his Invisibility Cloak. There was no time for cloak-and-dagger. Not with Hermione's friendship on the line. He scanned the pub in the blink of an eye – an easy task since there were only a few stragglers. Madam Rosmerta made eye contact with him and motioned towards the exit of the pub. Harry ran out and skimmed to a halt.
When had it gotten dark outside?
Looking up and down the high street, Harry was unable to find Hermione. He evened his breathing in a vain attempt to stop himself from panicking. A sniffle drew his attention. He slipped around the corner of the pub and almost fell over Hermione who was seated against the side of the Three Broomsticks. She was hugging her knees with her head down.
Harry knelt next to her. "I'm sorry, Hermione, I wasn't thinking clearly. Vernon burned all my things and –"
"He what?!" Hermione asked, horror obvious on her tearstained face.
He took his Invisibility Cloak from his pocket. "This and some money survived. I had my wand on me."
"But – but ... why?"
"Dudley taunted me and I drew my wand, but he punched me out first. I woke up and made my way home where all my stuff had already finished burning to ashes. Vernon kicked me out, said he'd had enough. He talked about Bumblebee dropping me off with a blasted letter. They Obliviated Petunia when she tried to access the Leaky Cauldron for help when I started exploding toys. They feared and hated magic after that."
Hermione wiped away her tears before standing up. She motioned for Harry to stand up. After he complied, she embraced him, but he didn't return the motion.
"Harry?" she asked.
"Am I a horrible person?"
"I know they're gone, but I can't find it in me to mourn them. I don't even miss them. They ignored me, insulted me, belittled me, and even if they had a reason –"
Hermione loosened her hold on him before grabbing his face, forcing him to look into her eyes. "Doing any of that to a child can never be justified, no matter what. You're not responsible." Her eyes narrowed. "Bumblebee, however, is very much responsible."
"Doesn't take a genius to figure –"
A rough voice interrupted Harry's response. "I heard something around the corner."
"Will you give up already, John? The boy isn't here. Madam Rosmerta is already furious with us for searching her pub!"
Hermione swiped the Cloak from Harry's frozen hands. She swung it open before throwing it over Harry and herself. Not a moment too soon. Two men stepped around the corner to scan the side of the pub.
"See ... nothing here. When I find the prankster who reported Potter in the middle of Hogsmeade ..."
Harry and Hermione held their breath until the men stomped off. Hermione grabbed Harry's hand before pulling him towards the pub.
"We can't go back in there," Harry whispered.
"They already searched it. I doubt they'll do that again, especially considering Madam Rosmerta's ire. Chances are that she only allowed them to search because you weren't in your room anyway."
Hermione pulled an unresisting Harry through the pub and into his room. Harry's mind had frozen at Hermione's statement. Once inside, he pulled out his wand to tap the crystal, locking and silencing the room. Then, he faced Hermione who had reclaimed her seat on the bed.
"How did you know what room I was in?" Harry asked.
"I asked Madam Rosmerta," Hermione said, frowning at Harry.
"But – I –"
"I disguised myself!"
"How?" Hermione asked. "You can't use magic."
Harry put on the heavy cloak and pulled the hood up. "I have something to transform my voice too. She –" He stopped talking when he noticed Hermione's lip quivering before she gave in and started laughing softly. "This doesn't work as well as I thought, huh?"
"I can see why you need my help. Your face still stands out and after all the coverage from the tournament last year ... like it or not, you're famous."
"But no one recognised me at –"
"Harry," Hermione interrupted him gently. "Could we stop hopping back-and-forth? Start from the beginning."
Harry sat down next to her and started telling her everything he remembered. He started at Dudley's taunting and ended at Vernon's tirade. Then, he continued with his arrival in Hogsmeade, his camping out at the Shrieking Shack, and his shopping at Zonko and Gladrags. Harry did his best to ignore Hermione's twitching lips, just as much as she tried her best to avoid interrupting him. He finished with his stay at the Three Broomsticks, which included the appearance of the pink-wearing bint.
"Harry," Hermione said when he finished, "do you remember when Ron called me mad and then questioned whether I was a witch?"
She didn't bother to keep the disbelief out of her voice when she said, "Zonko needed a pair of muscles?"
"Wingardium Leviosa," Harry whispered.
"And do you truly believe that a shopkeeper of a clothing shop would bother to help a customer to buy a trunk?"
"The shops here do have shopping bags. You told her that you'd lost everything in a fire, so she deliberately ignored the bags and helped you get a trunk."
Harry's shoulders slumped. "Madam Rosmerta?"
"Did you see anyone in the pub with their faces concealed? She doesn't allow it. Since no one noticed you, I suspect she cast a notice-me-not on you while you asked her for a room. Seeing how you were nearly found, the charm needs to be recast."
"I'm sorry, Harry," Hermione said, no longer holding her laughter back, "but your spy-career has ended before it truly started."
"By all means, don't hold back." Harry pushed himself further onto the bed. He placed a pillow against the headboard so he could sit comfortably against it.
Hermione composed herself and cleared her throat. "So, you needed me?"
"How are you?" Harry asked.
"Fine." She pursed her lips. "You're not getting off the hook that easily, though."
Harry winced. "No problems travelling here?" he asked, figuring that his issue could wait a moment longer. His head snapped to the window. "It's dark outside. Won't you get into trouble?"
"I won't," she said. "Hedwig arrived after my parents had left for their holiday – they're married for twenty years and decided to celebrate – and hours before Mr Weasley arrived to pick me up. I told him my parents had changed their plans so they could spend more time with me." Hermione smiled. She stood up, walked around the bed, and settled down next to him. "Thank you for asking. Now, why did you need me?"
"The Daily Prophet is slandering me. The one time they reported facts ... a walking fashion-disaster turned the entire pub against me with a few unrelated statements. I dealt with that crap at Hogwarts, twice, and I won't deal with it in public. They were demanding my expulsion and I doubt I'd want to find out why those two men were looking for me."
"I've read all the newspapers," Hermione said, "and Dumbledore's lost all his positions except the one at Hogwarts. Makes me wonder how he's still able to protect you."
Harry frowned. "Should we contact him?"
"Absolutely not!" Hermione said, giving him a disgruntled look. "He's done nothing to stop any of this. Besides, leaving a child with a mere letter? I wouldn't consider that for someone I hated."
Thinking about all of his current problems, Harry lamented, "Why can't people accept the truth? Voldemort is back and their denial is only making things worse."
Hermione leaned forward, eyes unfocused. Harry waved one of his hands in front of her when she didn't move or talk. Eventually, she turned her head to face him.
"Because," she whispered, "it's not about the truth. It's never been about the truth."
"Second year, the entire Heir-situation. Fourth year, the entire fourth-champion-situation."
Harry stared at Hermione, wondering how that was supposed to make sense. "And?" he prompted.
She pushed herself back against the headboard, shifting uncomfortably. Harry handed her a pillow to tuck in between her back and the headboard. She did so and, after settling in, took a deep breath.
"When the rumours about the Heir of Slytherin started, everyone wanted to know who it was. You spoke to a snake and they all blamed you without a shred of evidence. At the end of the year, the entire situation was resolved and you were revealed innocent. We know who the Heir was ... but no one else knew. So, why didn't anyone ask?"
Harry shook his head, not able to answer the question.
"They didn't want to know anymore," Hermione said. "Even if they found out, it would pale in comparison to ... you."
"When your name came out of the Goblet of Fire, everyone blamed you for interfering with the tournament. They wanted to know how you got in. After the first task, they all stopped caring. You outmanoeuvred a dragon, so a silly Goblet stood no chance against you. They –"
"What?! You know I didn't –"
"I know," Hermione snapped. "You know. They don't know. The truth is meaningless if people don't want to know."
"Why on Earth wouldn't they want to know the truth?"
"Your name came out of the Goblet and forced you to compete. Either someone anonymous interfered, which shows the incompetence of the organisers and which implicated three different Ministries ... or you interfered, which shows their hero rebelling while they get a chance to see what their hero can do. There was no evidence to prove either claim, so they preferred to blame you instead of their Ministries."
Harry softly knocked his head against the headboard a few times. "People don't want to believe Voldemort is back. Since there is no evidence, they'd rather believe I'm a liar."
"And they definitely don't want to believe that a Dementor attacked your relatives. That would imply the same thing could happen to them. So ... they convince themselves that you somehow did it," Hermione added.
Harry and Hermione sat on the bed for half an hour, neither saying a word as they both thought of ways to get out of this despicable mess that Harry had once again found himself in. When Harry noticed Hermione's growing smile, he was not relieved due to the vicious glint that accompanied the smile.
"I have an idea," Hermione said.
"Yes?" Harry asked tentatively.
Listening to Hermione's explanation only validated Harry's deduction. Either Hermione had gone insane or he was royally screwed.
"Well?" Hermione asked.
Harry didn't answer. He put his hand against her forehead, ignoring her frown. "Are you feeling all right?"
Hermione slapped his hand away. "It's the only way."
"I asked your help to – you know – help me. Not to sacrifice me."
"Do you have a better idea?"
While any idea would have been better, he couldn't think of any. He slumped further into his pillow.
"I didn't think so."
Harry refused to look at her, knowing all too well that she was smiling at him. He was startled when she slid down, patted the pillow, lowered her head on it, and then closed her eyes.
He stared at her. "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to sleep."
Hermione's eyes snapped open. She glared at Harry. "Do you want me to leave? After all, I'm only a Muggle-born who's a close friend of Harry Potter, who happens to have an arch-enemy that recently resurrected himself before summoning his followers –"
"I get it!" Harry said, halting her tirade. He shifted slightly.
Noticing the movement, Hermione grinned. "Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"Not at all."
Neither of them believed that. Harry swallowed his reaction when Hermione tugged on his leg, forcing him to slide down. He didn't protest and repeated her actions – patting the pillow before lowering his head on it. Hermione shifted again, making Harry freeze when she put her pillow directly next to his. She moved herself to lie directly next to him.
"Is this more or less comfortable?"
"Less," Harry said, voice unsteady.
Harry looked at her in shock.
"If you even consider moving away, I'll force you to do every piece of homework the very day you receive the assignment ... for the entire school year. You made me worry the entire day and now you get to comfort me the entire night."
Before Harry could protest, Hermione grabbed one of his arms and pulled it around herself.
Harry swallowed before whispering, "Goodnight."
Harry let out a soft sigh. Since he had slept through the entire day, he found it very difficult to fall asleep again. The one moment where he'd almost dozed off, Hermione had snuggled into him. Very difficult had shifted into impossible.
While he'd realised Hermione was female during the Yule Ball, he'd never held that image in his head. She was Hermione, his best friend – a position she'd earned when Ron had decided his jealousy was more important – who worried enough about school for the both of them. The bushy-haired would-rather-die-than-get-expelled eleven-year-old who he had jumped on a troll for.
This friend was not meant to cuddle into him, brush her breasts against him, and look enchanting in her sleep. She was certainly not meant to have an ironclad grip on him, which made the fact that he needed to use the loo even worse. Oh, no ... she wouldn't dare to move her leg over – all right, she did dare. Harry sighed.
The first ray of sun shone through the window, hitting Harry's eyes. He moved his free hand to block the sunlight. Hermione shifted again, though the motion seemed more calculated. A hand softly tapped against his chest, moving up and down.
"Good morning," Harry said.
The hand stopped its actions, halting in mid-air. Eventually, her index finger was lowered again, poking Harry slightly below his midriff.
"Unless you want me to lose control over my bladder, don't do that again."
The index finger retracted. She placed the hand on his stomach. Her half-sleeping voice sounded distorted through his clothing. "I'm dreaming this ... right?"
Harry's bladder made itself known again. As such, he imagined the quickest way out of this position. "Yes ... yes, you are. I'm about to seduce you and have my wicked way with you."
Hermione's eyes snapped open, her cheeks crimsoning. She disentangled herself from Harry and put some distance between them. "Harry!"
Harry wasn't listening. He jumped out of the bed and ran into the bathroom. Seconds later, the sound of him taking care of business could be heard, including his sigh of relief.
"Oh." Hermione whimpered. She stood up and closed the bathroom door.
When Harry left the bathroom, he was smiling. "That made my day."
"The day only just starteee –" Hermione broke off with a yawn.
"Since I didn't get a shred of sleep, my day will be a tad longer."
Hermione blinked sleepily, processing his statement. "You didn't sleep? At all?"
"Nope, I was awake the entire night," Harry said. "Almost dozed off once, but you decided to cuddle and –"
Hermione made her way into the bathroom. "I'm going to – Yeah."
Harry grinned at the retreating Hermione. Of course he had been embarrassed, but an entire night of contemplation was more than sufficient time to work through that. Whatever Hermione's scheme had been had backfired spectacularly. He didn't know if there was anything to her persistence yesterday, but at least he'd enjoy finding out. He patted his clothes in a weak attempt to straighten them out. He wasn't about to change with Hermione in the next room. He put on the cloak – hood up – and swallowed a bauble.
"Breakfast?" Harry asked when Hermione left the bathroom.
Hermione startled at the voice. When she saw him standing there, her lips twitched before nodding at him. They made their way downstairs where Madam Rosmerta greeted them. Harry paid close attention and noticed the notice-me-not charm hitting him.
Due to the early hour, the pub hadn't filled yet. Harry and Hermione sat themselves at the bar so they had a better position to look at everyone inside the pub. They made idle conversation, both pointedly ignoring everyone around them.
As if the morning had been scripted, the owls flew into the pub when it had filled up.
THE FALL OF POTTER
Harry and Hermione skimmed through most of the article since it contained nothing new. The 'reporter' had stirred Umbridge's comments together with Harry's obvious desire for fame and ... voila, Harry had started learning Dark Magic before he had set foot in Hogwarts, and he had killed Cedric when the boy had almost won the tournament.
The pub remained silent and Harry wondered if the Daily Prophet had overstepped their creative writing. Several people turned towards the Floo when it flamed up and a person stepped out.
"Dawlish," Madam Rosmerta said. "What is it now?"
"Just doing my job, Madam Rosmerta," the man said. He scanned the pub. "Anyone here seen Potter?"
"Going to arrest the bastard?" the well-known elderly man asked.
"Can't. We can only ask him what happened to his relatives."
"Can't? Paper says he murdered Diggory's kid!"
Dawlish shook his head. "The champions could have used the Unforgivable Curses on each other and we still wouldn't have been able to touch them. The tournament rules override the national laws."
"Bah, he's going to get away with this?"
Dawlish shrugged before walking out of the pub. The noise picked up again, all of them reaffirming themselves. Questions transformed into statements which turned into evidence towards Harry's guilt.
Harry slumped a tiny bit. Hermione's hand landed on his shoulder, squeezing it. She'd arrived at the same conclusion he had. Their plan had become utterly worthless since it required a slow build-up. With the constant interference from the Ministry, that would be impossible.
A small chuckle escaped Harry. Hermione frowned at his strange reaction. Her response ensured his chuckle escalated into laughter. He couldn't stop himself. Obviously, the Ministry was sending someone to this pub each day to sway the small crowd. Harry's laughter escalated into the bellyaching kind when a powerful image hit him. These people allowed themselves to be treated like babies who swallowed everything they were presented with ... except vegetables, but Harry doubted the Ministry was stupid enough to feed them that.
The notice-me-not charm shattered from the scrutiny Harry found himself under, but he didn't care. Nevertheless, he felt another charm snapping into place around his face – courtesy of Madam Rosmerta. Harry didn't turn around to look at the pub's occupants. He was done with this idiocy. A few random statements and their opinions spun as quickly as Malfoy's head when Hermione had punched the slimy bastard over a year ago.
"Something funny about this?" the elderly man demanded, obviously having designated himself as sole spokesperson.
Harry's laughter ebbed away. "Yes. But, I'm uncertain what's more funny: the Ministry or you."
"Why don't you turn around and face me like a man?"
Harry grabbed his empty glass and spat in it. "Like you're facing Potter? I must have missed his arrival."
No response outside of a few stray whispers.
"Remember last war?" Harry asked, intent on feeding them a few cold facts of his own. "Of course you do, you're old enough. Started with mysterious disappearances, didn't it? Escalated to mysterious deaths. All the while, the Ministry assured everyone they had it all under control ... until He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named stepped out of the shadows. Wasn't under control anymore, was it? Especially with all those Death Eaters appearing – all of them fully trained.
"Sound familiar? 'Cause it should. Bertha Jorkins ... not seen since – oh, more than a year ago? Barty Crouch fell ill ... then vanished. But, don't worry, because everything is under control. No need to investigate.
"Then Potter came back with a corpse, claiming You-Know-Who had been resurrected. But, don't worry, because everything is under control. A few remarks in this – this –" Harry grabbed the Daily Prophet and spat on it. "– rag and everyone turns on Potter. Not like he ever did any good. Not like anyone here toasted Potter's name when the war ended. No ... everything is his fault, the bastard!
"Then yesterday ... oh-ho, yesterday. Soulless relatives. What a coincidence that Potter is at odds with the Ministry, and suddenly his relatives lose their souls. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? But, of course, it was Dark Magic. Never heard of any magic that could replicate a Dementor's Kiss, but there you go." Harry chuckled. "What's next? Maybe Dumbledore has been training the kid in Necromancy? Or, maybe Potter did die that dreadful night and Dumbledore resurrected the kid to do his bidding!"
The chuckle turned bitter and Harry turned around in his seat to face the elderly man. "None of that matters, does it? Doesn't matter if Potter is right. Doesn't matter if You-Know-Who is back. Only thing that matters is that it is happening again. Disappearances. Deaths. Might be You-Know-Who. Might be Sirius Black. Might be another fool that's making a bid for power."
Harry stood up and walked towards the elderly man. "Potter has the answers and the Ministry isn't asking him any questions. Not like the kid will protest to verify his story, will he? And not like the Ministry has anything to fear if they are right ..."
Harry put his hands on the table and started leaning into the man. "But ... don't worry," Harry whispered, his voice easily carrying across the silent room. "When it's you that disappears ... when it's you that dies ... I'll wait in this pub for the news. And when another Ministry flunky comes along to tell everyone that everything is fine ... I'll take their word for it. 'Cause the Ministry has everything under control."
Harry straightened up and strode out of the pub. Ignoring the sudden commotion he left behind, he made his way towards the Shrieking Shack.
The sound of something being dragged across the ground made Harry look up. He saw Hermione in the distance with his trunk behind her. He quickly made his way towards her.
"You –" she said, breathing uneven.
He snapped out his wand and tapped the trunk. "Shrink."
Hermione glared at him. "We need to leave, now." She grabbed him by the hand after he'd picked up his trunk, and started dragging him along.
Hermione squeezed his hand. "No time, Harry, move!"
They ran out of Hogsmeade. Hermione raised her lit wand immediately.
The Knight Bus appeared. Not waiting for the conductor's routine, Hermione stepped inside. Harry followed her and, still dazed from their sudden departure, missed the directions Hermione gave. The bus shot away, making Harry grab onto a nearby railing with one hand while grabbing hold of an unsteady Hermione with his other hand. His eyes narrowed at the grinning driver.
"Here we are," the conductor said.
Harry's eyebrows shot up. They had bypassed the entire line, a fact several people picked up on as they suddenly started protesting loudly. Hermione didn't waste any time and stepped off the bus, tugging Harry along. He started to feel like a pet, dragged around to wherever their owner wanted them.
"Hermione, what the –?"
"Almost there." She walked towards a nondescript house and opened the door with one of her keys.
Harry stepped inside. "Now can you tell me –?" He broke off when he saw Hermione's eyes burning into his.
"You – you – genius!" She closed the distance and hugged him. "You almost put me into cardiac arrest when you started laughing. Do you have any idea what you've done?"
Hermione released the hug and arched an eyebrow.
"Oh, fine. Bastards just pissed me off. Bunch of rotten gits."
She shook her head at him before she stepped into the living room and sat down on a couch. "We wanted to make them find out the truth, but you questioned something more important. You made them question their own safety. The moment you left, everyone started demanding to know what was going on and how they could have forgotten about poor Bertha Jorkins. You got them to do exactly what you wanted, but we overlooked one tiny detail."
Harry frowned. "Like what?"
"The Ministry had another flunky in the pub. Probably to see how everyone reacted to the Daily Prophet. He left when he noticed the chaos. Madam Rosmerta had already fetched your trunk and ordered me to get out of the village as fast as I could. I wouldn't be surprised if the place is drowning in Aurors to try and restore order."
Harry hadn't expected that. "What now?"
"Now, you stay with me and we'll know if your tirade made any difference tomorrow."
"And if it doesn't?" he asked miserably.
"We leave." She received a shocked look from Harry. "What? We know there are other schools to learn magic. My parents won't care one iota which school I'm at, as long as I get a good degree. We already went through hell in second and fourth year – you more than me – and I'm not putting up with it another year." She grinned. "It interferes with my study time."
Harry snorted at her before looking around the room. "So ... what do you normally do during the summer?"
Time lost all meaning.
Surrounded by too many stacks of parchment and stray books, Harry was seated at the living room table. His hand ached from the amount of writing he'd done. He wanted his suffering to end.
"I'm never asking you that question again," Harry mumbled.
"Done?" Hermione asked as cheerful as ever.
"Why am I doing this if we might not go back?" Harry complained for the umpteenth time.
"It's not about the homework –"
"It's about knowing what's in it, yeah-yeah. My brain hurts."
Hermione grabbed the last piece of parchment that Harry had finished, quickly noting down the necessary adjustments. She handed it back to him and gave him the same look as before. The hurry-up-and-finish-this-or-I'll-lecture-you-till-you-die stare.
"I've been awake for twenty-four hours. Don't you have any mercy?"
"No," she said. "This is the last one. Come on, Harry."
Harry sighed before starting the process of writing the homework out again while taking Hermione's corrections into account. He finished with a bigger ache in his hand and a bigger headache than before. "You're evil."
Hermione grabbed the parchment and looked it over before nodding. She took all the pieces of finished homework and put them neatly into his trunk. "Great. Now that your homework is out of the way, we can do whatever we want for the rest of the summer. Visit the park, go for a swim, watch a few movies ... anything."
Looking up into her smiling face, Harry felt happy for one blissful second. Then, his face fell as horror seeped in. "I've fallen asleep. Any moment, you'll wake me up and prod me to do more homework. 'Write this again, Harry. Drool is unacceptable on homework.'"
She stood up and guided him up the stairs. "You've been awake an entire evening, Harry, and I couldn't think of anything else to keep you focussed. Now, we can go to bed and you'll be back on your regular sleeping schedule."
"U-huh," Harry whispered.
She entered a room and pushed Harry onto the bed. He closed his eyes, smiling when he felt the soft mattress beneath his body. He failed to notice the bed shifting since he was already dreaming.
"Wake up, sleepyhead," Hermione said, shaking Harry.
Harry's eyes fluttered open. "Why are you in my bed?"
Harry felt that his right arm was around a distinctive feminine body. "Yes, you are."
"You're in my bed."
He blinked. "Why am I in your bed?"
Hermione's sigh tickled against his skin. "My parents' room has a bed, which is off-limits and will result in me cursing you if you sleep in there. My room has a bed, obviously. Beyond that, there are a few couches in the living room, but none of them can be expanded into beds. According to my dad, they were not made to be slept in; and no, I didn't ask how he found out. So, unless you want to sleep on the floor ..."
"I'll pass on that, thanks," Harry said, remembering his two rough awakenings.
"Good. I'm getting used to the snuggling." She let out a happy sigh while snuggling a bit closer.
Harry froze. "Stop that."
"Why? You didn't mind when you were sleeping."
His mouth fell open. "How long have you been awake?"
"An hour," she said. "You needed to lie in for a bit. Besides, you looked utterly adorable."
Shooting Hermione an incredulous look, Harry swallowed thickly.
Hermione untangled herself from him. She stood up before stretching herself. Harry stared at her, completely missing her smile. She opened a drawer to pull out some clothes. When Harry spotted a piece of underwear, he closed his eyes while trying to get rid of all the images his vivid imagination came up with.
"I'm going to shower," Hermione said. "Sleeping in the same clothes twice without refreshing wasn't a good idea. We smell."
Harry got out of the bed and looked around the room containing the bed, a closet, several drawers, a desk, and a few bookshelves. The walls weren't decorated with book-pages and the desk wasn't buried under a mountain of books. In fact, the room had a clean and well-maintained appearance. The only thing that stood out and made him laugh was the colour-coded calendar that hung next to the door.
Hermione entered the room while he was reading the calendar. Her hair was still damp from the shower. She left him to his reading and opened his trunk. Taking out a few items of clothing, she stepped over to him and pushed them into his hands. "Bathroom is free; go wash up."
Fifteen minutes later, they were both seated at the breakfast table.
"We'll need to go shopping today," Hermione said. "My parents will be gone for a month and I'm not supposed to be here, so there isn't much food in the house – unless you like canned food or spaghetti every day. This was the last of the bread, I'm afraid."
Harry shrugged. "Huh," he said as realisation set in. "Weird."
"We can do what we want." He savoured those words. "No one to stop us from leaving the house, going shopping, or ... anything, really."
Hermione nodded before taking another bite out of her sandwich. When something tapped against a window, she turned towards it.
"Must be the Daily Prophet," Harry said.
Hermione's eyes widened.
She hurried to the window. "Harry, I told you, I let you sleep in. This should have arrived an hour ago." She untied the newspaper.
"Don't keep me waiting," Harry said. "Will we be going back to Hogwarts or not?"
Hermione read through the article to ensure she didn't misinterpret the headline. She looked up at Harry, but was startled when another owl swept in through the open window. A letter was dropped in front of Harry.
"Portkey?" he asked in disgust, uneasy with unknown owl-post after his blatant kidnapping.
Hermione turned the Daily Prophet around so Harry could read the title.
PUBLIC DEMANDS INQUIRY
"Harry ... this article goes loads beyond what you did yesterday. More people have been disappearing and public safety is being questioned heavily. The Daily Prophet is demanding answers from the one person that might have them: you."
"So," Harry said, looking at the letter, "this is an 'invitation'?"
Harry opened the letter. "Dear Mr Potter ... queue several paragraphs of Ministry nonsense. Ah, here it is. Your presence is required at a public inquiry. Queue more nonsense."
Hermione swiped the letter and read through it. "They're describing what your rights are. You could deny potions and –" She frowned, thinking about the implications. A look of outrage appeared on her face. "Those – those bastards!"
"Could you repeat that?" Harry asked, wondering if he'd heard that correctly.
She narrowed her eyes at the letter. "They had no reason to include this information. They're calling this 'an unjustified questioning' and 'an invasion of privacy'. They want you to refuse the potions so they can label all your answers as hearsay and inconsequential."
"There goes my career path. No chance I'm becoming an Auror to join such incompetence," Harry said.
Hermione lowered the letter, eyes wide. "Get dressed."
"I am dressed." Harry frowned at her.
"Right. You didn't finish the letter, did you? The inquiry is today."
"In one hour."
Hermione glared at him for parroting her answers. "Yes, today, in one hour – I'm astounded at the Ministry's speed too. We need to get ready and make our way to the Ministry."
Harry started ticking on his fingers. "Made homeless. Done mandatory shopping. Incited the public. Done my homework." He crossed his arms. "I want a free day, damn it!"
"There's always tomorrow."
"That's what I thought yesterday," Harry mumbled.
Harry and Hermione were waiting in the antechamber of Courtroom Ten.
The two friends had arrived at the Ministry and had wanted to make their way towards the courtroom in relative silence, but several important-looking people had attempted to separate them at the security checkpoint. Harry had protested rather vocally. The entire Atrium had fallen silent when they realised Harry had arrived. So, his escorts hadn't had much choice when faced with the possible ire of the public.
On the way down, Dumbledore had approached them. Harry had taken great delight in ignoring the old man. Harry blamed Dumbledore for last year's mess – if the man had thoroughly investigated the forced participation then none of this would have taken place. Also, after Vernon's tirade, Harry rightfully blamed Dumbledore for his relatives' spiteful treatment.
The door to the antechamber swung open, drawing the attention of Harry, Hermione, and their escorts. A middle-aged witch entered the room with a gloomy expression on her face. She handed everyone in the room a note.
"Read it," she said.
Harry unfolded the note.
Merlin and Morgana's secret love child became the first elf, Nimue, who aided a snot-nosed brat to fulfil his destiny.
The paper incinerated after Harry had finished reading it. By then, the witch had left the room. Before he could question Hermione, the door opened again.
Everyone walked out of the antechamber. Hermione gasped. The courtroom was packed with people; the lower part with wizards and witches in official robes, the upper part with random people that wanted to witness the inquiry. Harry tugged on Hermione's arm before walking to the chairs that stood in the centre.
"Your friend will need to leave," Minister Fudge said.
Hermione made to turn back, but Harry tightened his hand around her arm, not allowing her to walk away.
"Mr Potter, ignoring the court will –"
Harry decided not to allow the airhead to get his point across. "I'm here for a voluntary inquiry, and my good friend Hermione wanted to give her support should I need it." Harry guided Hermione into one of the seats before taking one himself.
A grey-haired monocle-wearing witch spoke up before the Minister could. "This is not a trial, Cornelius."
"Very well," the Minister said with obvious annoyance. "Inquiry of –"
Harry saw the man's mouth moving and moving and moving and ... Harry didn't listen. With the amount of people here, there had to be some grandstanding, but this was getting ridiculous. He was shaken from his thoughts when Hermione tapped his arm. At her urging, he looked at Fudge.
"Welcome back," the unamused Minister said.
"Thank you." Before anyone could speak up again, Harry added, "I'd like Veritaserum, please."
The grey-haired witch's monocle nearly fell out of her eye.
"No one will be able to dispute what I say," Harry said. "My summons contained a description of all existing truth potions. Veritaserum is unbeatable."
"Very well," she said.
"Amelia, we can't waste Ministry resources on this," the Minister said, voice wavering – a stark contradiction after his previous speech.
Amelia looked at the Minister. "This entire situation is unusual, Cornelius. You might have missed it," she said, sarcasm obvious, "but there are hundreds of people here, including someone from the WNN."
"WNN?" Harry asked Hermione in a whisper.
"Wizarding Wireless Network," she whispered back, looking as if she might faint. "We're on the radio."
"Ah? That's all you have to say?" Hermione asked, narrowing her eyes. "There could be thousands of people listening, and you dragged me into this!
Harry tried to think of a way out of this situation. "Well, I didn't want to hoard all the fame, and I couldn't think of anything to get you for your birthday, so –"
"Oh, shut up," she said before turning away from him.
They looked up only to see most of the courtroom attendees chattering away amongst themselves. This continued several minutes, until a door behind Harry opened. Someone approached them.
Harry watched in disbelief as the most hated person in his life, not counting Voldemort, stood in front of him: Severus Snape. The man held a tiny bottle of clear liquid in front of him.
"No," Harry said. "Not happening."
"Are you refusing, Mr Potter?" the Minister asked, smiling down at Harry.
"Snape's hatred of me is well-known by everyone in Hogwarts. He might have poisoned the phial," Harry said.
"Potter," Snape said, "Slughorn and I are the only licensed Potions Masters to create this particular truth potion. The former is unreachable. Are you refusing?"
Harry's annoyance grew at the victorious sneer on the man's face. "I'm not refusing. Why don't you take it first to prove your capabilities?"
"Mr Potter," Amelia said, "you're trying our patience."
"I'll take it," Hermione said, squeezing Harry's arm.
"Hermione –" Harry started.
She sighed. "Avenge my death if it's poison."
Snape removed the cork from the phial and extracted three drops. He floated them into Hermione's open mouth where they touched her tongue.
"Did you steal Gillyweed from my office?" Snape asked.
"No," Hermione said.
"Did you –?"
"Silencio!" one of the escorts – a pink-haired woman – cast on Snape.
A murmur spread throughout the packed courtroom.
"Severus Snape," Amelia said, standing up, "you are fined one thousand Galleons. You know you are not authorised to ask questions. Hand the phial to Auror Shacklebolt and leave the courtroom."
Harry glared at the piece of filth as the man strode away, wondering why he hadn't anticipated that the vindictive git would abuse the situation.
"Miss Granger," Amelia said, "were you in the antechamber earlier?"
"Did someone enter the room?"
"Yes," Hermione said. A flicker of understanding appeared in her eyes. "She gave me a piece of paper which read, 'Merlin and Morgana's secret love child became the first squib, Arthur, who sought out an elf to aide him with his destiny.'"
The woman in question stood up. "Confirmed."
"Will that do, Mr Potter?" Amelia asked.
Harry nodded. Remembering the radio broadcast, he said, "Yes, thank you."
"Auror Tonks, the dose lasts half an hour. Silence Miss Granger if needed, and arrest anyone that attempts to question her."
Auror Shacklebolt stepped in front of Harry before levitating three drops of Veritaserum onto Harry's tongue.
"Mr Potter," Amelia said, "were you in the antechamber earlier?"
"Yes," Harry said, feeling his tongue forced to speak the truth. "I received a note which read, 'Merlin and Morgana's secret love child became the first elf, Nimue, who aided a snot-nosed brat to fulfil his destiny.'"
"Confirmed," the middle-aged woman said again.
Harry decided to get this over with. "Peter Pettigrew helped Voldemort resurrect himself after the third task. My relatives kicked me out of the house, so I have no idea how they ended up soulless."
Everyone in the courtroom stared at him in horror, except for Hermione who was shaking her head at his jump-straight-in approach.
"He's lying!" the Minister said. "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named can't be back!"
"What an idiot," Harry said. A broad smile appeared. "Hey, I was able to say that."
Hermione's lips twitched. "We've both taken an unbreakable Ministry-restricted truth potion and he's still denying it. You're right. The man is an idiot."
"Cornelius, you know they can't –"
Seven dark-cloaked figures shimmered into the courtroom. Everyone silenced when they realised who they were. One of the figures strode up to Harry. Aurors Shacklebolt and Tonks kept their wands pointed down, not wanting to tangle with these people.
"Mr Potter, please tell us everything about Voldemort that you consider of importance."
Unable to stop himself, Harry said, "Voldemort killed my parents before trying to kill me. During my first year, he possessed Professor Quirrell in an attempt to steal the Philosopher's Stone. During my second year, he possessed a student through a diary, unleashing a Basilisk within Hogwarts. His real name is Tom Marvolo Riddle. He resurrected himself at the end of the Triwizard Tournament with Peter Pettigrew's help. He summoned his loyal followers to his side: Avery, Lucius Malfoy, Macnair, Crabbe, Goyle, and Nott."
At each name, spell-fire flashed through the courtroom. The cloaked figures stunned the present Death Eaters.
"A diary?" the person in front of Harry asked.
"Yes, we found it in a bathroom and I wrote in it. The diary sucked me into a memory of Tom Riddle. Afterwards, the book was stolen by the previous owner who nearly lost her soul as Voldemort tried to revive himself. I destroyed the book with a Basilisk tooth and then used it to trick Lucius Malfoy into releasing Dobby from his service."
"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr Potter."
Harry looked around the courtroom and saw that the six other figures had already vanished, along with their captives. Harry's questioner – having remained behind – turned to face Amelia.
"The Unspeakables have the situation under control, Madam Bones. Nevertheless ... you might want to opt for a competent Minister," the man said before disappearing from the courtroom.
Hermione tapped Harry on the arm, motioning him to follow her into the antechamber. Auror Tonks followed them inside and closed the door before locking it with several spells.
"Now," Hermione said, "we don't have to worry about being forced to answer stray questions."
"Good thinking," Harry said. "I really wouldn't want to answer things like 'What is the worst law you've broken?'"
"I used a Time-Turner to save Sirius Black," Hermione answered. She slapped a hand in front of her mouth.
Harry and Hermione turned to face Auror Tonks who remained at the door. She ignored them, seemingly not caring about Hermione's confession.
Hermione recovered from her shock. "Harry!"
"Sorry," Harry said, raising his hands in defeat. "Didn't think that through."
She swallowed her retort. A grin slowly appeared on her face. "So ..."
"How did you feel about our first night together?"
"Silencio!" Auror Tonks cast at Harry, followed with another Silencing Spell aimed at Hermione. "No more talking until that potion is out of your system." Turning away, she mumbled, "Merlin, I thought I'd be finished with this teenage crap after graduation. But, noooo. Let's have Nymphadora guard the kids. She'll be able to understand them and connect with them and –" She huffed. "As if. The only thing of mine that will connect with them will be my foot up their –"
Even though the Silencing Spell only silenced its targets, Harry and Hermione seemed to have lost their hearing too. Several awkward seconds passed while they tried to avoid direct eye contact – a difficult feat considering they tried to figure out how the other felt.
Eventually, Harry took a deep breath, stepped next to Hermione, and gently took her hand. There. The awkward silence was gone now. In its place, a desperate feeling of anticipation had arrived – in some ways a thousand times better, in other ways a thousand times worse.
When Hermione gently squeezed his hand and stroked her thumb along his, Harry let out a relieved sigh. They shared a small smile before turning to watch Auror Tonks who was still cursing her luck.
Seven Unspeakables stood in a cold, stone room. One of them held a fragile diary with a hole through the middle and the name T. M. Riddle on the back. The diary was thrown through the archway that stood in the centre of the room. When the diary disappeared, the Veil started flickering. The entire room lit up when a brilliant and surreal light started emanating from the Veil.
A small piece of soul flew through one of the walls, screaming until the Veil gobbled it up.
The Unspeakables waited for the process to complete, all of them quite bored.
"The fool took the bait. Pity we didn't find out sooner."
"Should we spread the books now or wait a few years?"
The Veil feasted on several more pieces of soul.
"Now. If I know Dumbledore then he'll have destroyed all references to Horcruxes."
"Ah, he never understood how to win through subterfuge. As if our predecessors would have built a gateway directly to Death for no reason."
"Easiest way to get rid of Dark Lords."
An ugly, snake-like, and ethereal soul flew into the room, struggling against the invisible force. "Noo! Stop this foolishness! I can make you powerful – all of you!"
The Unspeakables shared a look.
"Promises of power. How ... original."
The Veil fluttered when the last piece of soul went through. The light died out, darkening the room.
"How many idiots have been disposed this way?"
"... does it matter?"