Chapter One: The Pale Cast of Thought

After eleven years of receiving what was little more than gift-wrapped refuse, Harry Potter never dreamed the day would come when he would begrudge the sight of real presents. And yet as the sun rose on his sixteenth birthday, bringing with it a small peck of parcel-laden fowl, Harry somehow found it difficult to feel grateful. The events at the end of his fifth year at Hogwarts still haunted him, having much the same effect as being handcuffed to a dementor. Outrage and disbelief had given way to solemn withdraw shortly after he'd arrived back at Privet Drive, and he'd spent the last two months lying dejectedly in his room, replaying that last week of school in his mind and growing more and more sullen with each passing day. As far as he was concerned, the fact that this day also happened to be his birthday didn't change matters in any way.

The owls came almost all at once, and Harry had relieved them in turn and sent them away without an utterance of gratitude. Hedwig, who had been thoughtful enough to go and fetch Ron's gift to him without even being asked to do so, made quite a fuss, ruffling her feathers and clicking her beak loudly at him, which Harry simply ignored. Highly indignant, she flew past her open cage and back into the morning sky after the others. Harry watched her go, unable to muster any remorse, then raked the parcels into a pile at the foot of his bed and lay crossways on the mattress beside them.

"Any normal boy," he thought to himself, "would be happy to see a pile of presents. Any normal boy might at least be excited knowing that he was sixteen, in many ways considered a man now."

So why was it Harry was so bereft of cheer?

"Because I'm not a normal boy," he thought with a smirk. It was a fact that had been repeatedly drilled home to him since he was eleven years old. Only now, what made him different wasn't just that he was a wizard. That no longer seemed like anything unusual to him. Neither was it even that he was 'The Boy Who Lived', vanquisher of the dreaded Dark Lord (a feat he little remembered when he could help it and in which he had played no conscious part.) What made Harry truly different was that he was, he knew now, the designated saviour for not only the Wizarding world but potentially the Muggle one as well. It was a role Harry really had no desire to fulfil. Thinking back on his conversation with Dumbledore only two short months ago, during which this dire prophecy had been revealed, Harry couldn't help but wonder wryly what Christ must have felt when the angel had come down to inform Him of His destiny.

"At least," Harry reasoned, "I'm not being asked to martyr myself." Indeed, the fate of the world seemed to hinge on his continued survival. It was for this reason he was presently imprisoned in this nightmare of Muggle conformity. Despite the fact that his friends' threats had worked a kind of incomprehensible magic on the Dursleys' outward behaviour toward him, Harry found Privet Drive to be nigh unbearable. That his relatives were now civil, even at times forcibly pleasant, only made his stay there all the more excruciating. In the last weeks, the world as Harry had known it had been set on its head, and ironically he might have found some measure of comfort in the familiarity of his uncle's threats or Dudley's thick-headed, heavy-fisted bullying.

As Harry lay mulling these thoughts over for the hundredth time, the sun outside had risen high enough to pour through his window, setting ablaze the decorative foil wrapping on one of his neglected presents. Too distracted by its sparkling, Harry finally sat up and toyed with it absently, having no intention of opening it just yet. Looking at it was almost painful, and not because of the glint of the sun in his eyes from the foil. It reminded him all too well of the last present he had received; one he had left unopened until it had been far too late to enjoy. With some effort, Harry somehow resisted the urge to riffle through his dresser draw to retrieve, yet again, the small, rectangular mirror stowed there.

No. Harry wasn't in the mood for presents. But he did force himself to study the array of cards spread side by side before him on the blanket. For a moment, all he could discern of them was the absence of the familiar, untidy handwriting that, for the past two years, he had most looked forward to seeing.

Harry heaved a sigh. It would be inexcusably rude to toss them all away unopened. Besides, they just might contain some clue as to when he could expect to be sprung from this prison of trimmed hedges and grotesquely tasteful wallpaper. He reached for the nearest card, finding it filled with close, neat script and utterly generic content.

Dear Harry,

Happy Birthday! It must be wonderful to finally be of age! Just think, you can study Apparation now.

As he read, Harry could practically hear Hermione's voice, saturated with desperate cheer.

Things are well at the moment but hectic. I know you must be dying for news, and I'm sorry, but I can't say more here in case this card gets intercepted.

With an irritated grimace, Harry wondered why she even still bothered to included that disclaimer. He found it almost impossible to remember the last time he'd received a message that wasn't bare and cryptic. From this, he assumed Hermione was at Grimmauld Place with Ron again this summer. But besides the usual Wish You Were Heres and See You Soons, there was little else of interest in the owl and confetti speckled card. He then pulled up Hermione's gift to him and, indifferently, peeled back its dark wrapping to reveal a small box filled with various of Harry's Honeyduke's favourites. He shoved it to the side and reached for the next card.

It opened with an 'Oi Mate!'. Ron was not nearly so tight-lipped as Hermione had been, or as falsely cheerful. He complained in much detail about not being able to practice Quidditch while stuck at Grimmauld Place over the summer. He particularly dreaded what Angelina was going to say when she found out.

And don't try to make me feel better by telling me you've never gotten to practice over the summer and Oliver never kicked you off the team. You're a Seeker. And a seeker either knows how to catch a snitch or he doesn't. But I'm a Keeper and a fairly lousy one at that. I mean, a Keeper has to have strategy.

Ron went on and on about the rigours of his position, as though Harry had never seen Quidditch before. It perturbed him slightly that Ron made so little of his responsibilities as Seeker. After all, who decided the outcome of a match anyway? And who ends the bloody thing? Not the bloody Keeper. After Ron's tirade had ended, however, the rest of the letter wasn't nearly so bad.

Percy, it seemed, had managed to beg his way back into the fold. This might have had less to do with remorse and more to do with the fact that he had been sacked along with his infallible mentor, Cornelius Fudge, and was otherwise homeless. Mrs. Weasley wished him a Happy Birthday and had, despite it being summer and sweltering outside, knitted him another sweater, which Ron informed him accounted for the rather lopsided appearance of the parcel he'd sent.

I've sent some stuff in there as well, but my real gift is in the envelope with this card.

Sure enough, Harry found a thin, brightly coloured paper straw that looked amazingly like a Muggle candy called 'Pixie Stix'. He studied it with slight trepidation before returning to Ron's letter. Apparently, this new 'candy' the twins were developing was so sure to be a success that they went on a shopping spree, buying Ron new sets of both school and dress robes. They even were springing for Ginny a brand new broom; because, according to Fred, considering how she's now alternate Seeker to Harry, and considering as well Harry's aptitude for landing himself in the hospital wing, she's very likely to need it.

All this spending is starting to worry Mum, but trust me, Fred and George are gonna make a fortune. I got to play guinea pig, as the candy's still in the testing stages, and I don't think it's much more than coloured sugar to tell the truth. But I'm guessing they fixed it with some sort of cheering charm. And Bloody Hell, does it ever cheer you up! I figured you could use some for sure. Be careful though, it's still too strong. Kinda like drinking too much firewhiskey but without the clumsiness and fewer giggles. Now that I think about it, maybe it's best that you didn't try it until you're free of the Muggles. For some reason it gives you the bollocks of a bloody hippogriff, I'm telling you. I don't remember a whole lot of what happened after Fred let me test it, but I'm thinking I just might have propositioned Hermione. I can't think of any other reason why I'd wake up with a sore jaw and her giving me the silent treatment. She still won't tell me what I said, and I keep trying to explain to her that I can't apologise if I'm not sure what I'm apologising for. Not that she'd forgive if I did, probably. Anyway, I keep begging Fred and George to let me try another, but all they ever do is grin at each other (which kind of makes me nervous) and start jabbering about the money they're about to make. Eh. It's alright though. I've found out where they keep it all stashed. Got one in my hand right now, actually. Don't know what I'm going to do when they move back to their flat. It's crazy here, mate, I'm telling you!

Harry had never known Ron to be so verbose, at least not on paper. He looked down at the 'candy' he still held with renewed apprehension and dropped it into the box with Hermione's chocolates before reaching for another letter. Before he could find one under the mess of wrapping paper and empty envelopes, however, there was a knock on his door, followed by muffled grumbling.

Harry didn't reply and hoped the Dursleys would just give up and go away. But after another sharp knock, the door opened without Harry's permission, revealing one of the most hideous sights to which Harry had ever been privy. As he stared back at the Dursleys, standing crammed inside his bedroom doorway sporting forced smiles, Harry thought vaguely that this was the stuff nightmares were made of. For a while, no one spoke. They all just stared at Harry as the clock in the hallway announced the passing seconds. Finally, his Aunt Petunia cleared her throat pointedly.

"Popkins," she urged Dudley in a sing-song voice. Dudley groaned and stepped toward Harry as though at gunpoint, thrusting out the fancy gift he was holding.

"Hapbirthdy," he grunted and immediately started studying the walls. Harry looked at the package being offered him and was actually impressed. It was covered in a pearly white, obviously expensive wrapping with a ridiculously large, gauzy bow on top. He guessed whatever was inside must really be something, at least to the Dursleys' minds.

"No thanks," he said, looking up at Dudley who appeared quite put out about the fact Harry still hadn't taken the box from him. "Really, you guys didn't have to. You keep it, Duds."

Dudley gawked at him as if he'd grown another head and then turned an almost fearful glance back at his father.

"Listen here, boy!" his uncle said, already red in the face. "We went to all the trouble of not only remembering this accused date but also spending more than you're worth of our hard-earned-"

"Ver-non," Aunt Petunia warned through smiling teeth in her 'not in front of the company' voice.

"But, Petunia dear, he acts as if we're trying to hand him a ruddy bomb. Not that I wouldn't like to," he added under his breath. "I didn't get up and put on my best suit just to watch the ungrateful little whelp snub-"

"My!" Aunt Petunia spoke over Uncle Vernon, her eyes unnaturally wide. Vernon grunted and fell silent. "It looks as though you've already got quite a lot of presents there," she continued to Harry, so politely he wondered she hadn't hurt herself. "I suppose it's just a bit overwhelming to open them all at once?" she said, trying to smooth things over. But Harry wouldn't play along.

"Actually, no. I don't really want any of these, either." Petunia's smile soured slightly. Harry picked up the box of Honeyduke's sweets and dumped it atop the shiny gift Dudley still held extended. "There you go, Duds. Knock yourself out."

Uncle Vernon made a noise like he'd just swallowed something especially unpleasant at the sight of Dudley digging through the confections, his eyes round as saucers.

"Now, Son, you don't want to ruin your lunch," he said nervously. "Just you hand that here to me until...after."

Grudgingly, Dudley withdrew his fat fingers from the box, but Harry saw him pull something from it where Uncle Vernon couldn't see and slip it into his pocket. Vernon would have had a heart attack, and Harry had the impulse to give Dudley away to him. He might actually have enjoyed the promising glare he'd've gotten from Dudley for ratting the porker out. But more than this, Harry just wanted the Dursleys to leave while everyone still had their heads so he could open the rest of his cards and have that over with. Dudley shuffled over to his father who almost took the boy's hands off snatching the suspicious candies away from him.

"Very well then, Harry. We'll just leave your present on the hall table then, shall we?" Petunia simpered. Harry shrugged and, grumbling, the Dursleys finally shuffled off, pulling Harry's bedroom door closed behind them.

Back to the matter at hand.

Hagrid's card wasn't even a card, only a scrawled, near-illegible note folded in two and wishing him a 'Happee Birthdae.' That and the absence of the usual box of what always seemed to be homemade gravel, otherwise known as treacle fudge (for which Hagrid did apologise), told Harry the Order must be very busy indeed. His dim spirits were beginning to turn dark. There was only one small package left unopened and no card, and there had not been any mention of his imminent release. Harry felt a sulk coming on and was tempted to ignore the rinky-dink parcel and go back to bed. But a disgruntled glance at it revealed there was writing on one side, and so Harry cocked his head to read the slanted, upside-down script.

To: Harry
From: Remus

Harry's throat tightened. He had never received anything from Professor Lupin himself, only regards included in Sirius' letters to him. And so it was impossible for Harry to think of Lupin without also thinking of his godfather, without remembering that night in the Ministry when Lupin had caught him in his arms as Harry had tried to rush forward and pull Sirius from the arch.

He's gone, Harry

It took a moment for Harry to recover from the memory, but when he had, he went ahead and picked up the small parcel and found, to his surprise, a note had indeed been included. It was adhered to the top so that the box would be impossible to open without first removing it. Harry tried in vain to swallow the ever-growing knot in his throat. He didn't think he could bear to read the same vague, impersonal small talk from this man so intimately linked to him through mutual tragedy. Hesitantly, Harry tore open the flap and removed the strip of paper. His heart gave a trip as he scanned the first line:

Harry, do not open my gift to you until you have read this through. First, I want you to grab your wand and anything else small enough to fit into your robe pockets that you feel you cannot live without for at least a few days. I've made arrangements to collect the rest later on.

There was nothing more. Harry blinked at the note he held and then down at the small, inconspicuous package resting in his lap. In the next moment, Harry had donned his robes, pulling them on so quickly he missed the opening and almost ripped a hole in the sleeve. Stuffing his wand hastily into the inside pocket, he took inventory of his room, accessing each item his eyes fell on in turn as to their importance to his very immediate future. His gaze fell and wistfully lingered on the trunk at the foot of his bed. He wouldn't have an opportunity to use it, but he hated leaving behind his beloved Firebolt, despite that it didn't exactly fit the size criteria. Reluctantly, he tore his eyes from the trunk and practically lunged at Lupin's gift, falling to his knees beside his bed and seizing it with trembling hands. Plain brown twine bound plain brown paper to a plain brown box, and inside was an inanimate novelty snitch. It appeared to be made of plastic and was sloppily painted an unrealistic shade of yellowish orange.

Harry wet his suddenly dry lips and took a shaky breath, flexing the fingers of the hand he held poised over the box. Tentatively, he reached inside. But before his fingers brushed the surface, he jerked his hand back with a curse as though the thing had bitten him.

"Bollocks," he muttered, rising abruptly to his feet. He couldn't believe he'd almost forgotten it. Wrenching open the bottom drawer of his dresser, Harry quickly fished Sirius' mirror from the folds of a pair of badly worn and long-retired boxers. Sunlight glinted off its surface, warming his face for the briefest of moments. He squeezed his fingers around it and let out a sigh of relief before slipping it into the pocket of his jumper. Then, without further hesitation, he strode over to his bed and plucked the snitch gingerly from its container. Instantly, Harry experienced the unpleasant, albeit familiar, sensation of being dragged forward through space navel first.

After a short eternity, in which Harry felt he would certainly be sick, his feet finally struck solid ground. When he regained his senses, he found himself standing in shadows, staring down a dark and musty hallway. Silence pressed in on him, accompanied by a sense of severe apprehension.

"H-hello?" he called, but his words were devoured by the darkness. Heart pounding, he decided to venture a step forward. But just as he lifted his foot to do so, a hand reached from the darkness to his left and clasped his shoulder. Harry gave a small cry and jerked away from the hand, turning in time to see Professor Lupin step forward into the scant light of a distance lamp. Harry's relief was so great that, for a moment, he had difficulty breathing. Lupin gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

"Happy Birthday, Harry," he said, offering Harry a weary but sincere smile. Harry grinned back at him thinking that, now, it just might turn out to be.