PROLOGUE: Changes

Part 1

Voldemort's furious screams still rang in Harry's ears when he landed on wet grass. He gave into the exhaustion and unclenched the numb fingers, releasing his wand, the Triwizard Cup and Cedric.

Another one dead because of me.

If his rebellious side wanted to argue, he was too tired to pay attention. The haze on his mind cleared enough to let through noise and light. He was instantly deafened by the shouting and blinded by the cameras flashing.

Someone was shaking him.

"Harry!" a powerful voice said, closer than the others. "Harry, I cannot pretend to know what you just went through, but you must wake up and tell me what happened. What did you see?"

"Professor… Dumbledore?" Harry mumbled.

"Yes, Harry, it is me. Can you tell me what you saw?"

"Voldemort," he whispered.

"Voldemort," Dumbledore repeated after him flatly. "He's returned?"

"Yes."

He couldn't tell if Dumbledore cast a spell on him, he only felt a wave of warmth and passed out.

~~oOo~~

He deliberately did not open his eyes when he awoke. There were voices, familiar voices, discussing what had happened during the Third Task.

"…delusional, Albus," someone was saying indignantly. It was a voice Harry knew, but couldn't quite place.

"Again with your crazy theories about You-Know-Who," that same voice continued. "The man is dead! He can't have returned!"

"You heard yourself what Mr. Potter said yesterday," Albus Dumbledore answered. There was no mistaking him for anyone. "And I don't believe he was lying."

"I'm not saying he lied, Albus," the first voice argued. "But what he believes he saw isn't necessarily the truth! For all we know, he could have been hallucinating!"

"Then who do you suppose was behind the kidnapping? I trust you will conduct a proper investigation. A student is dead."

"Yes, yes, it is very… unfortunate. I shall instruct Amelia to do whatever it takes to uncover the truth."

"We already know who's responsible," Dumbledore interrupted gently. "I implore you to see reason. At least listen to what Mr. Potter has to say."

Harry opened his eyes and sat up on the bed, ignoring the pain in his muscles. For a moment he wondered what to say but when no words came to mind, he stayed silent. Dumbledore looked at him with a hint of curiosity in his eyes.

"How long have you been awake, Harry?"

"A minute or two, Professor."

"Mr. Potter." The other man greeted him with a small nod. "I am truly sorry… the security… well, clearly, there wasn't enough security."

Looking at him now, Harry recognised Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic.

"It wasn't your fault, sir," he said. As much as he wanted to put the blame on someone, he didn't think the Minister was the right person.

"That's very generous of you, Mr Potter," the Minister said. "Now that you're awake, we can deal with… formalities. Yes…"

From his robes, he pulled out a bag full of Galleons and placed it on the nightstand.

"An official ceremony should be taking place, but under the circumstances… I'm sure you can understand. According to the sentries who were watching over the champions during the task, you and Mr. Diggory reached the cup together, but since he is… Well, you are the winner of the Tournament. And that's your reward. A thousand Galleons."

"I don't want it," Harry said. "I don't deserve it. It should have been Cedric's. At least give it to his family."

"Don't be ridiculous, boy!" the Minister snapped. "You won, fair and square. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must really return to the Ministry. Someone has to sort out this mess…"

"Don't you even want to know what happened?" Harry asked.

"You may be called on as a witness in the investigation. Until then, keep your story. And please, don't spread any rumours about You-Know-Who returning. The chaos has already got far too out of hand."

"I'm not lying!" Harry insisted. "It's true! I saw him! I fought him!"

But the Minister was already gone. Harry turned to Dumbledore, who was still watching him intently.

"Do you want to know what happened, Professor?"

"I do," the Headmaster said. "But I would not force you to relive those events so soon. Take a few days to recover. I only ask of you this – do not tell anything to anyone until after you've told me."

Harry considered it and shook his head.

"Thank you sir, but I'd rather deal with it now. It'll only get harder if I don't."

"Very well," Dumbledore said, nodding. "You have suffered no grave injuries, so I shall inform Madam Pomfrey not to hold you back when you wish to leave, although you should avoid overexerting yourself. Come see me in my office at your convenience." He turned to leave, but stopped briefly by the door. "If you're feeling a bit weak, there's nothing like a chocolate frog to get your energy up."

"What was that?" asked Ron a moment later. He and Hermione came in just as Dumbledore was leaving and heard the Headmaster's impromptu advice.

"He gave me the password to his office," Harry explained.

"Oh, right. Sweets. Got it."

Hermione glared at Ron, as if trying to wordlessly project some message.

"How are you, Harry?" she asked softly, sitting down on the edge of the bed. It seemed as though she wanted to say more, but couldn't find the right words.

"I've been better."

"Nobody's saying anything," Ron said. "There are rumours flying around, though. Something about..." He swallowed loudly. "...You-Know-Who?"

"Hush!" Hermione silenced him. "Not here, Ron!"

"I'll tell you," Harry said. "After I meet with Dumbledore. And Hermione's right – it's not safe to talk here."

"We're not here to question you, Harry."

Hermione reached out and squeezed his hand lightly. Harry glanced at their intertwined fingers, but did not return the gesture. He felt… He didn't know how or what he felt. There were too many emotions mixed together to make sense of them. None dominated, but they were all there, bubbling just beneath the surface.

"Yeah mate," Ron said, nodding. "Must have been rough."

"Cedric is dead," Harry deadpanned. "What do you think?"

Ron averted his eyes and stared at the wall somewhere above Harry's right shoulder. "Yeah, that… Dumbledore made a speech this morning."

"Oh, Harry." Hermione's eyes were shining with tears threatening to fall. "I'm so sorry. It must have been horrible."

"I didn't really have time to think about being scared," Harry said. "I was focused on getting out of there. And I'm kind of getting used to being in mortal danger, you know? It's not the first time Voldemort's tried to kill me and it won't be the last."

"Don't say that!" Hermione shrieked. "Please don't say things like that, Harry. I- I don't know what I would do if-"

She bit her lip, looking ready to start crying openly, but she didn't. It wouldn't be like her to just burst into tears. Instead, she launched herself forward, enveloping him in a tight embrace. Harry let her hold him for a moment, while Ron just stood and watched, not knowing what to do or say.

They stayed with him for a while longer and Harry acted like they were expecting him to. He gave the answers he knew they were hoping for and made appropriate gestures. He could pull off brooding well enough. If either Ron or Hermione noticed it was just a performance, neither called him out on it. He didn't know why, but he couldn't find it in himself to be entirely honest with them at the moment.

He felt more alone than ever before.

~~oOo~~

Malfoy was waiting for him in the hallway when Harry left the infirmary, having somehow found out when he would be getting out. Or maybe he waited all night, just to make sure he'd catch Harry leaving. Flanked by Crabbe and Goyle, he stepped forward and gave his best superior smirk.

"How are you feeling, Potter? Hopefully you still have something left in you. I hear the Dark Lord's parties can get rather intense," he whispered the last sentence just as Harry was passing by.

Harry's only response was to bump into Malfoy forcefully, pushing the taller boy back.

"Why you little half-blood-" Malfoy began, but the words became stuck in his throat when Harry abruptly turned back and shoved him against the wall, grabbing a fistful of the expensive robes and putting an arm across Malfoy's neck. Crabbe and Goyle, dumbfounded, did not react.

"Listen to me very carefully, Malfoy," Harry growled. "I heard once that surviving a near-death experience hardens a person. Considering that I've done it more than once, perhaps you should think before you open your big mouth in my presence again."

"Wait until my father-"

"WHAT ABOUT YOUR FATHER?"

Malfoy cringed when Harry screamed the words right into his face.

"WHAT, MALFOY? WHAT ABOUT YOUR FATHER?"

"Potter-" Malfoy tried again. Harry cut him off, pressing down harder on his throat.

"I'm done, Malfoy. I've had enough of your taunts and this petty rivalry. Cross me again and you'll wish you'd never been born."

~~oOo~~

Draco was breathing heavily as he watched Potter stalk away. He massaged his throat and then tore into Vincent and Gregory.

"Why didn't you do anything, you imbeciles?" he snarled at them.

"I- I'm s-sorry, Draco, Potter was just-" Vincent stammered.

"Oh, shut up."

Draco's gaze bore into Potter's back until his nemesis turned a corner.

Putting up an act in front of his friends wasn't hard, considering they were about as intelligent as Longbottom, if more useful, but he couldn't shake off the cold feeling creeping up on him. He'd never seen Potter act like this before. It was… unnerving.

Father will want to know.

~~oOo~~

Harry marched towards the gargoyle guarding the entrance to Dumbledore's office grim-faced. He didn't bother trying to hide his foul mood or returning the greetings of the few people he met along the way. He barked out the password at the gargoyle and let the rotating staircase bring him before the door. He raised a hand to knock - and hesitated.

So... he was going to tell Dumbledore what happened… and then what?

The Headmaster would ask for answers, but give none in return. He'd say well done, award a few hundred points maybe, and send him away. Harry would spend the rest of the term trying in vain to find answers to the questions that would inevitably arise – and fail. And then Dumbledore would send him to the Dursleys again.

Not this time. He was entitled to some answers himself.

Let's see just how badly the Headmaster wants to know what happened.

He turned on his heel but didn't make it two steps before the door opened behind him.

"Harry?" Dumbledore's voice came from within. "Is something wrong?"

He sounded sincere.

"Were it only one something."

He rushed back down the stairs, not waiting for them to carry him.

~~oOo~~

Dumbledore found him atop the Astronomy Tower, leaning dangerously far over the edge of the battlements.

"Unless I am terribly mistaken, it is long past curfew, Harry."

He did not respond.

"But considering the recent events, I think we can forget about this one night escapade. I am rather surprised, however, that your friends aren't here with you."

"Why?" Harry asked, still staring into the dark landscape.

"I assumed you would seek solace in their company."

"They weren't with me this time. They wouldn't understand."

"Do you blame them?"

"Of course not!" Harry snapped.

"Why didn't you come in?"

"I wanted you to come to me."

"May I ask why?"

"Yes," Harry said. "You may."

He felt uncomfortable under the Headmaster's intense gaze, but tried not to give it away.

"Very well. Why, then?"

He took a moment to compose himself. "It's incredibly frustrating, you know? To be treated like a child one moment and then expected to act like an adult the next."

"If I have offended you in any way, Harry, I am very sorry."

"I'm not offended," Harry said. "I just want some answers."

"To what questions?"

"Let's start with the one I asked after I killed Quirrell."

"Ah…" Dumbledore's eyes were filled with regret. "I didn't know you were blaming yourself."

"I'm not," Harry interrupted. "I don't feel particularly bad about it. He was trying to kill me. I wasn't trying to kill him, but it happened. That's not what I meant and I will thank you to stop evading the question, sir."

Dumbledore sighed heavily. "I remember your question, Harry," he said. "How could I not? It had haunted me for years even before you asked it."

"And why would that be?"

"Because, my boy, it is such a simple question and yet is has such a complex and terrifying answer."

"I saw Voldemort come back from the dead, Professor. I think I can handle it."

~~oOo~~

Hermione observed her best friend keenly throughout the remainder of the semester. Harry was avoiding company and taking long walks along the lake. She once saw him feed apples to the giant squid.

He wasn't brooding, as was norm for him, even though he tried to appear that way. He seemed to be taking things very well, considering what had happened. He was polite when someone addressed him directly, but his short, laconic answers made it clear he wasn't in the mood for talking. The most she could get out of him was that he'd spoken with Dumbledore the night after he woke up, but nothing more. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't convince him to open up to her, so after a few days she stopped trying.

Exams were held sooner than usual because of the investigation the Ministry wanted to conduct - the Aurors didn't want students getting in their way. Therefore, a decision was made to send everyone home a few days earlier.

Ron mistook Harry's behavior for… well, whatever Ron was thinking about these days. She honestly didn't even care anymore.

But despite it all, somehow the three of them ended up together on the train. Hermione didn't know what to say to start any sort of conversation. Ron couldn't stay still and Harry didn't seem bothered by the awkward silence. He was sitting by the window, watching the world move past them as they sped towards London.

Hermione noticed Ron fidget in his place near the door. She shot him an inquisitive look, but he just shook his head before finally turning to Harry.

"So, Harry…" he started lamely, "I wasn't exactly okay towards you-"

He stopped abruptly, scrunching up his face, as if he'd intentionally bitten his tongue after hearing his own words.

"I mean about my… behavior… lately. Look, I'm really sorry, okay? It's just you've been so weird since the Third Task and-"

Hermione was already opening her mouth to let Ron know he was being a prat when Harry interrupted him.

"It's fine, Ron. Forget about it."

He spoke in an flat tone, giving no indication of the anger that Hermione thought he was entitled to, or that he was happy at Ron's turnaround, which was what Hermione had been hoping would happen.

He's changed, she thought, a conclusion that did nothing to raise her spirits.

Of course he's different. He's been through a traumatic experience.

She challenged her own argument, pointing out that it had happened before. Professor Quirrell, the basilisk, dementors… and Harry stayed Harry.

But none of those events quite compare to seeing You-Know-Who rise from the grave.

That much Harry had told them, but gave no details. He also refused to speak about whatever it was he had discussed with the Headmaster.

He was isolating himself from everyone. Oh, he would speak to her and Ron sometimes, but briefly, and never initiated the conversation himself.

Rumours ran wild around the school, Malfoy became more vicious than ever and Harry just ignored it all, no doubt infuriating the Slytherin even further. Hermione only saw him acknowledge Malfoy once – with a stare that carried a hint of the anger that she was sure had to be boiling inside of him. She suspected Harry was simply choosing to be angry rather than afraid. While she could sympathise with that approach, it worried her that he kept everything inside. She almost wished he would take it out on her and Ron to get it off his chest.

It seemed, however, that if it was to happen, neither she nor Ron would be there to witness it.

Perhaps it's his own way of… I don't know, protecting us. That would be just like Harry, to try and deal with all that on his own.

In the last few days she'd managed to convince herself that this was the case and decided to leave him be for now.

He'll talk to us when he's ready. I won't push him.

~~oOo~~

Harry let himself be hugged by Hermione, gave Ron a faint smile and assured that they were okay, evaded Mrs. Weasley and went through the portal to the muggle part of King's Cross, only to be stopped by the imposing figure of Alastor Moody.

The ex-Auror didn't move, but Harry went for his wand nonetheless. He'd found out from Dumbledore that the person who had been teaching him Defense the whole year turned out to be an impostor. A Death Eater.

How could Dumbledore have not recognised that someone was impersonating the man he considered a close friend? Or if he had, which was likely with Dumbledore, why hadn't he done anything about it?

The impostor was caught trying to flee the school, still in disguise. Dumbledore searched the Defence Professor's office and found the real Alastor Moody locked inside his own trunk. The Death Eater must have been in a hurry to leave, because he had left everything behind, including his prisoner. Minister Fudge, in his infinite wisdom, had the man Kissed by a dementor.

Harry was starting to have serious doubts about the people who ran Wizarding Britain.

"Don't worry, boy," Moody said. "It's the real deal this time. Although I commend your vigilance."

"Forgive me if I'm a little suspicious, sir," Harry replied.

"Aye, can't blame you. Still, I'm here for something important. Why don't you show me this uncle of yours, eh?"

"Why?"

"I reckon he needs to be reminded that you're his family, and what that means."

"Did Dumbledore tell you to do this?"

"Aye," Moody grunted in response. "Heard 'em Dursleys weren't treating you too well."

"I see," Harry said. "Thanks for offering, but there's no need."

"What're you sayin' boy?"

"I know how to deal with them. You can tell the Headmaster I'll contact him if need be."

Moody stared at him intensely with the normal eye while his magical one moved constantly in all directions. "You sure, lad?"

"Quite sure. I have to do this on my own."

Moody kept staring.

"It's time for me to start changing some things," Harry said.

"Very well, if you're sure," Moody agreed, nodding once. "But someone will check up on you tomorrow, just in case."

"Unnecessary," Harry said. He caught Moody's gaze and added, "But appreciated."

"Then I wish you a good summer, lad. Constant vigilance," Moody said gruffly and disappeared through the portal.

Harry turned away from it and started pulling his cart towards the exit. Vernon was waiting for him outside.

"Hello, uncle."

"Just get in the car, boy," Vernon ordered and turned on his heel, walking back to a silver sedan.

"New car, is it?" Harry asked once his things were in the trunk. He knew very little about cars, but he could see that it wasn't the one he rode in to London last year. He got into the front passenger seat. He'd never been in the front.

"What the- get in the back!" Vernon hissed, spitting.

"I don't think I will," Harry answered coldly.

Vernon's eyes widened momentarily and his face became a deeper shade of red. "How dare-"

"Shut up," Harry snapped. "Or I'll be forced to call up my godfather."

"Your… godfather?" Vernon blurted out, confused and angry.

"Yes, my godfather." Harry turned to look his uncle in the eye. "Sirius Black. The wanted mass murderer. He's a wizard, like me."

He looked straight ahead again and leaned into the seat comfortably. He'd given his Dursley problem a fair bit of thought during the train ride. He wasn't going to spend another summer weeding their garden and cooking their food. He would push against them further than they would dare push back.

And if that doesn't work, I can always ask Moody to drop by.

Vernon pulled into the driveway.

"Take my trunk upstairs," Harry said and promptly got out of the car, making sure to slam the door shut with as much strength as he could muster. Vernon, understandably, didn't care much for such behavior.

"Boy," he said through gritted teeth. "What do you think you're doing?"

Harry shot him a furious look. "Putting you in your place. And you could use the exercise."

"And where'd you get the idea that you can order me - or anybody - around? That freak school of yours, I'll bet-"

"Vernon," Harry said smoothly, his voice laden with malice. "You don't want to make a scene, do you?"

With that, Harry turned around and went inside, where he was immediately assaulted by Petunia.

"What was that?" she screeched. "What will the neighbors think!"

"I think their opinions are the least of your concerns right now," Harry purred and drew back his hand.

When Vernon saw Harry's handprint on Petunia's face and the culprit rummaging through his fridge, he threw caution to the wind and charged at Harry like an enraged bull. Harry simply moved out of the way.

"You always say I'm ungrateful for your taking me in," he said. "Well, this summer I'll make sure to show you the depth of my gratitude."

"HOW DARE YOU RAISE A HAND TO MY WIFE?" Vernon bellowed.

Narrowing of Harry's eyes was all the warning Vernon received.

The next moment one of Petunia's tawdry vases was hurtling toward him. Vernon swiped his hands madly and the vase was thrown aside, shattering on the floor, but Harry wasted no time. He brought the kitchen chair down like a hammer, knocking Vernon off his feet.

He was in the moment, and furious. The anger that had been building up for years was pouring out like a flood.

"How dare I? HOW DARE YOU!" Harry roared. He jumped back when Vernon's chubby fingers tried to grab his shirt and lashed out with a kick. And another one. And another.

"You treated me like dirt! I did everything you said and all I got in return was that stupid cupboard!"

Vernon had stopped fighting back and just raised his arms to protect his face. Petunia's whimpering could be heard from the hallway.

Harry tired quickly in anger, leaving Vernon right where he was, bruised and bleeding. He then turned back to his aunt and clenched his fingers around her throat.

"You treated me worse than a dog," he snarled. "If Dudley had been orphaned, my parents would have treated him like one of their own." He had no way of knowing that, actually, but he didn't care. "Things will be different from now on. Say one word I won't like, give me one wrong look, and I'll fucking kill you."

~~oOo~~

Life in Little Whinging had one significant advantage over the magical world. Here, Harry was relatively anonymous. He didn't really know anyone apart from the Dursleys and he couldn't care less what lies they had told their precious neighbors. Here, he was away from the prying eyes of his peers, Hogwarts staff and reporters. He could vent his anger and frustration on the Dursleys with no interference.

He was being watched, of course. He was wandering in the park one afternoon when he heard someone say his name.

"Wotcher, Harry."

In a blink of an eye, he had his wand out and pointing at the stranger.

"Nice reflexes," she said with appreciation. "I heard you were fast, but that's not something I'd expect from someone who spends as much time in hospital beds as you do."

It wasn't hard to remember someone with her distinct look, even though he'd only seen her once before, and very briefly.

"You were on the platform when I talked to Moody," he said. "Did he send you?"

"Well, he knows I'm here, but the request didn't come from him."

Harry allowed himself to relax his stance a little, but didn't lower his wand. "Dumbledore, then."

"Wrong again."

"My supply of patience is notoriously low these days."

She raised her hands in a defensive gesture, holding a letter in one. "Whoa, calm down. I'm watching you because Dumbledore said so, but I'm not supposed to talk to you. I'm actually going against orders by revealing myself, but family comes first."

"I think if I had any family beyond Dursleys, someone would have told me."

The woman grinned at him. "My mom is Sirius' cousin, so that makes me his... first cousin once removed, or something like that. And Sirius is your godfather, so that practically makes us family too."

"Fine." He put his wand away. "Who's the letter for?"

She held it out towards him. "You. Sirius wanted to talk to you, but it's not safe for him to leave the headquarters for now."

"What headquarters?"

"Read the letter. And by the way, I'm Tonks."

Harry hesitated for a moment. "Alright, Tonks," he said eventually. "Thanks for the letter."

"I'll see you soon, Harry." She winked at him and disappeared among the trees.

The letter proved informative – much more so than the ones Hermione and Ron had sent him, polite and full of assurances of support. Hermione also explained, in vague terms, why they couldn't write him about anything important – Dumbledore didn't want to risk the owl being intercepted. Harry supposed passing messages through one of his guards, like Sirius did, would defeat the purpose of them remaining unseen, although why Dumbledore wanted it that way he couldn't understand. At least now he had an idea of what the Order of the Phoenix was and what they were doing.

He returned home late - it was already dark. Privet Drive Four was filled with the usual noise of the telly playing in the living room, its light spilling out into the hallway. Harry passed by, spotting Vernon and Petunia huddled together on the sofa. Vernon noticed him and quickly looked away. Harry smiled with grim satisfaction.

Good.

The elder Dursleys had been properly cowed. Vernon's bruises were still clearly visible. He'd had to take a week off from work - he wouldn't show up at the office like that.

Petunia shivered under his gaze. She had been constantly on the verge of tears for the past few days.

Dudley, surprisingly, did not emulate his father and showed no signs of fear. Instead, he'd given Harry a wide berth since his return. Until tonight, apparently.

He was at the kitchen table, munching on a late evening snack and staring into the smaller television in the corner.

"Beat anyone up lately, Potter?" he asked idly.

"Keep talking and you'll have the honour of being my first victim today."

"Really?" Dudley scoffed. "I'd like to see that."

"I know a spell that will cut you in half," Harry said. "Wanna see your guts on the floor, Dudders?"

"You can't use your stick," Dudley retorted. "You'll be expelled from your school for freaks."

Harry glared at him. "But you'd still be dead."

Dudley seemed to be considering the implications of this threat. "I don't like what you did to mum, you know."

Harry snickered. "You've just noticed? Took you long enough."

"Watch your mouth, Potter," Dudley said. "You talk too much."

"You started talking first."

"In your sleep, too. Voldemort, Voldemort, Voldemort! Who is he, your boyfriend?"

A window cracked, glass split in half. Harry glanced at it and turned back to Dudley. "Shut up."

"Did you do that?" his cousin demanded, pointing at the window. "You've already wrecked your own room, now you start breaking stuff down here?"

"SHUT UP!" Harry snapped, slapping his hands onto the table.

"You must be having your period or something," Dudley mocked. "Come on, pull out that wand of yours. Let's see some magic!"

"DUDLEY!" Vernon's voice reached them from the living room. "Don't use that word!"

"You're just going to let him get away with everything?" Dudley yelled back. "The freak hit mum and you-"

He couldn't finish the sentence because Harry broke a plate on his face. Then he knelt down on Dudley's chest, grabbed the collar of his shirt and slammed his head against the floor.

"I told you to shut your mouth," he growled. "Don't make me repeat myself again."

~~oOo~~

Ron withdrew an Extendable Ear.

"Well, it's official," he declared. "Harry's gone nuts."

"Don't say that!" Hermione protested.

"Why, do you disagree?" Ron asked. "He's beating the muggles into a pulp - I'm not saying it's a bad thing, they deserve it - but don't you think it's a bit worrying?"

Hermione bit her lip.

"He's been through so much... and they treated him badly. Everyone has a breaking point, Ron. Harry must have found his."

"I overheard Tonks saying that he was having nightmares. Trashing in the bed, screaming..." Ron spoke in hushed tones as they retreated to the room Hermione shared with Ginny. "She wanted to do something, but they have orders from Dumbledore not to enter the house. And then it just stopped, for no reason. You have any ideas?"

"No," Hermione said. "I would need to know more than that. But it's not unusual for him to have nightmares. And if they stopped, all the better."

It must have something to do with You-Know-Who, she thought.

"I don't get why he has to stay there," Ron grumbled. They weren't allowed to leave the house and Hermione suspected he must miss Harry's company just as badly as she did.

Well... perhaps not as much.

"Bloody muggles," Ron said. "Serves them right, even if Harry is crazy."

At that moment, she couldn't agree more.

~~oOo~~

After an entire week filled with threats, glares and verbal abuse, culminating in Dudley receiving seven stitches after Harry's latest blow-up, the Dursley family finally understood the message Harry had been trying to convey.

They weren't in charge anymore.

At first, they rebelled against hiss attempts to impose his tyrannical rule on them, but eventually accepted the fact that this new Harry wasn't just a phase that would pass with time. The presence of the Order guards - some of them, like Mundungus Fletcher, weren't hard to spot - only served to intimidate the Dursleys further. They would rather obey Harry than let the neighborhood notice they had freaks crawling all over their property.

Harry learned through letters that Hermione and Ron, along with most of his family, had been relocated from the Burrow to the Order's headquarters in London. Harry theorised that Dumbledore was trying to keep him in the dark as payback for wrestling the text of the prophecy from him in June.

Or perhaps he was just reading too much into things. Having little to do in Little Whinging, Harry spent a lot of time thinking, mostly about what Sirius was writing him.

Then there were the nightmares.

They weren't just images of the night of Voldemort's resurrection. The knowledge that he was out there made Harry feel apprehensive, uneasy, nervous... But Voldemort wasn't here right now. He was a looming presence on the horizon - a threat, and never one to be underestimated, but not genuinely terrifying. The nightmares were something much more disturbing. Something all men fear - and Harry was no different.

The unknown.

There were eerie, echoing sounds, images, emotions: rage, uncertainty and hunger, for power and other things, strange things. And pain. Above all pain. His, someone else's - it didn't matter. It was always present, chilling to the bone and burning as red-hot steel. Voices screamed, begging mercy of their tormentor, but there was never any rest.

He didn't know what to make of it, what it was supposed to mean, and it scared him. There was something familiar there, but for days, he couldn't figure it out, forced to swim in the ocean of meaninglessness... Until one night, order was born of the chaos.

~~oOo~~

The Defence classroom looked different than he remembered it. The heavy curtains were gone, and the room was brightly lit. The skeleton that usually hung from the ceiling was also missing. The desks, instead of neat rows, were arranged in a u-shape, closer to the walls, leaving more space in the middle, where two of his classmates were currently exchanging spells. The stunner was the most liberally used by both of them, but each duelist had their own style.

The boy forewent subtlety in favour of more powerful and direct attacks, trying to shatter his opponent's defences with a steady onslaught.

The girl, on the other hand, danced around her end of the platform, deflecting most spells, which then dissipated against a barrier surrounding the platform. Her wand was spitting out hexes and jinxes whenever she could get a clear shot.

The boy stood straight, an easy target, and simply blocked all of her attacks, grinning as he did. The girl looked like she was having trouble keeping up with him – it showed in her expression and the fact that she started blocking some of his spells, her shield faltering with each blow.

The boy stepped forward, preparing to cast his final spell, but he took a moment too long and it was all the girl needed to snag the victory from him.

"Everte Statum!" she cried.

The spell struck the boy in the chest and suddenly he was the one grimacing while the girl smiled at him viciously.

"Very well done, both of you," said a woman at the back of the classroom. "But there can only be one winner. Take ten points for your victory, Miss Black."

Black? Harry's memory was fuzzy. He didn't recall anyone with that surname at Hogwarts. She looked to be about his age and he was sure he'd have remembered someone named Black in his year.

"Next time, don't start what you can't finish, mudblood." Black sneered at the boy, lying in a heap beyond the platform after her spell had thrown him off it.

"You just lost your ten points, Miss Black. There will be no foul language in my classroom."

The teacher reminded Harry of McGonagall, but that obviously wasn't her. She looked nothing like the Transfiguration Professor and besides, when did McGonagall ever teach Defence?

Black glared at the boy furiously, mouthing 'mudblood' at him and went back to her seat.

"Now, we still have a few minutes left. Any volunteers for the next demonstration?"

"Professor Merrythought?" asked someone from behind Harry. "I haven't had a chance to duel in a while."

Harry was puzzled. This new voice was eerily familiar. More so than anything else in this place.

The Professor smiled at the speaker. "No wants to go up against you anymore, Tom. I might have to start bringing in older students to provide you with adequate opponents."

Tom? The only Tom Harry could think of was the owner of the Leaky Cauldron. He couldn't be sure. His memory was still clouded. On second thought, there was also-

His chair screeched on the floor as he turned back hurriedly to look behind him, straight at the handsome face of Tom Riddle.

Riddle's gaze shifted from Professor Merrythought to Harry. He kept the friendly smile in place, but his eyes expressed more disgust than Harry thought it was possible to convey with a single look.

Suddenly, Harry felt very hot. He jammed a finger inside his collar to loosen it and found that he wasn't sweaty. The growing warmth became a pulsating headache and he barely stopped himself from slapping a hand on his scar in front of Riddle.

"What are you looking at, Potter?"

That was when he woke up.