Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all characters and locations are copyright property of J.K. Rowling. All original characters are the sole intellectual property of the author, and should not be reused without express consent. This fiction is intended solely for non-profit personal entertainment.

                                                                                      CHAPTER ONE - QUESTIONABLE DEPARTURES

            Red-gold rays of summer sun were skimming the tops of the trees, washing over the uniform rows of tidy houses that lined the streets of Little Whinging. It had been a mild, pleasant summer so far, which suited the residents of Privet Drive just as well as all things completely normal and mundane. To one boy, sitting at his desk and gazing out a window on the second floor of number four, the weather was not nearly so comforting.

            He was young, fifteen, almost sixteen, but the vivid green eyes behind his black-rimmed glasses were those of someone who had seen things beyond his years. Most of the rest of him was perfectly normal, with unruly black hair and a somewhat spindly frame, which was more than slightly exaggerated by the overlarge t-shirt and jeans that he wore. One thing that stood out when you looked at Harry Potter, though, was the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. A hallmark of his past that, despite a lifetime of seeing it every day in the mirror, he could no longer get his mind off of.

            It was the twenty-first of July, and barely four weeks had passed since he had said goodbye to his friends at King's Cross Station and come back to the Dursley's. Those same friends had produced a touching, and startlingly effective, gift at that parting: a message delivered to his formerly oppressive aunt and uncle that had resulted in a much improved environment upon returning to Privet Drive. He had never thought it would be possible for the Dursleys to treat him as any kind of real family… and indeed, he had been right. However, with the not-so-subtle intimations of certain "wild-eyed hooligans", whom Uncle Vernon could often be heard muttering about (accompanied by furtive glances, as if fearing that the walls had sprouted ears and wildly spinning eyes), for the first time Harry did not have to worry about suffering too greatly while spending his summer holiday in the care of his relatives. Indeed, Harry's time spent at the Dursley's these few weeks might have actually been better than bearable, if for a single minute of it he could stop dwelling on the events of last June.

            The summer months, often a time of isolation for Harry, were not helping his situation at all. The Dursleys, though cowed from their usual antics, made up for it by being even less sociable than usual. Harry could count the number of times someone had spoken to him since his return on a single hand. His Aunt Petunia didn't even order him around to help with the chores anymore. He had found himself almost hoping that he were being watched over again this summer by members of the Order of the Phoenix, so that maybe he could have someone from the wizarding world to visit with once in a while, but if he was being observed, he hadn't seen any sign of it. While at first he had been grateful for the solitude, Harry had soon realized that being continuously and utterly alone with his thoughts had made coping with the recent death of his godfather a regressive battle.

            Regular correspondence with his friends was one of his few distractions, but it was just that – a distraction, and not a cure. Letters both coming and going were all little more than hollow chit-chat. Nothing of any importance could be risked saying, a fact that he had been reminded of almost immediately. The first letter he had received from his best friend, Ron Weasley, had been delivered by an exhausted and ruffled Pigwidgeon, with a nasty slash in the envelope that Harry was almost positive had been made by a talon. The necessity of stealth was almost a mixed blessing, though. Poring over every word to ensure that nothing could be gleaned by an eavesdropper made writing a single letter a lengthy and involving process, an opportunity Harry took to keep himself occupied as long as possible.

            His subscription to the Daily Prophet was his other reprieve. Even without the lesson he learned about skimming the headlines the previous year, Harry would have read his copies twice cover-to-cover anyway. It was one more thing to pass the time.

            No number of letters or newspapers was sufficient to keep him totally distracted, however, and so Harry found himself now. Holed up in his room since lunch, waiting out the interminable time between that meal and dinner, he had already written long (but essentially empty) notes to Hermione Granger, Remus Lupin, most of the Weasleys, and even Mad-Eye Moody. He would have written more, but his owl Hedwig, who would have to actually be able to carry the post in order to deliver it, had hooted incredulously and nipped his hand when he pulled out the ninth piece of parchment. The Sunday Prophet was set aside (folded and piled neatly, simply because that task alone had taken a half hour) after the customary second reading, despite the fact that it seemed all the articles were nothing but endless reprints of the same warnings, advisories, and editorials focused on the single subject locked into the mind of every witch and wizard: the return of Lord Voldemort.

            Harry wished that his thoughts could be so simple, especially after certain prophetic revelations at the end of his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. However, his mind almost never dwelled on the looming threat of the greatest Dark sorcerer in history… it always drew itself to the sight of his godfather, Sirius Black, falling through the curtained archway in the Department of Mysteries, never to be seen again. It replayed before him over and over again, and it was fast approaching the point where not even his daily distractions could totally chase that haunting image from his mind's eye. It was as if a ghostly portrait were plastered before his eyes with a Permanent Sticking Charm. He leaned back in his chair, which gave a muffled creak, and rubbed his eyes vigorously with his knuckles until splotches of brightness blurred his vision.

            He could hear muffled clatter down in the kitchen, and knew that dinner would be ready soon. Part of him was anxious for the scheduled diversion, but the rest of him knew that sitting at a table and being roundly ignored would be no better this time than any.

            The call to the evening meal promptly came from the kitchen, and Harry went down to join his uncle, aunt, and cousin. His Aunt Petunia, ladling thick stew onto the plates as her wary eyes darted constantly towards the windows, was eerily quiet. Uncle Vernon coaxed his massive girth into a chair and shot Harry a glance, but kept silent apart from an indecipherable grunt. Last to arrive was Harry's cousin, Dudley, looking less like the young killer whale of old, and more like a Christmas ham on extensive weight training. His success in the Junior Heavyweight Inter-School Boxing League had blossomed with further promise over the last year, as Harry had been quick to learn and constantly subjected to second-hand mentions of; Dudley's prowess at beating boys his age into senseless pulp was ninety percent of the conversation undertaken in his presence. He subjected himself to the Dursley's gloating quietly, mostly because he could care less how physically imposing his cousin had become. Harry knew the titanic bully would likely be rendered impotent by a few choice words such as "magic" and anything that sounded like "dementor". Not that he had yet needed to exercise any key phrases: Dudley seemed to be avoiding him at all costs.

            They ate in silence, which gradually started setting off warning bells in the back of Harry's mind. The Dursleys invariably conducted their dinner table conversations as normal, simply ignoring Harry's presence (though not making him a topic of discussion, as had once been common). The apparent vacuum around the table this particular evening was striking Harry as somehow ominous.

            He wasn't about to be the one to break the silence, but soon enough, Uncle Vernon dropped his spoon with a clatter and cleared his throat several times. "Yes, well…" he began awkwardly, glancing back and forth between Harry and Aunt Petunia. "We've been in, er, contact…" he paused, his eyes darting to all the windows in rapid succession, "with your kind," he finished, whispering so softly that Harry couldn't be sure he heard him correctly. He was almost positive he hadn't. The Dursleys avoided anything and everything to do with magic and wizards as if it were an infectious disease. Harry wasn't even aware they had known how to get in touch with the wizarding world, short of asking to borrow Hedwig.

            "Er…" Harry prompted unsurely.

            "The three of us, that is to say Petunia, Dudley, and I," Uncle Vernon continued in a more normal volume, "will be leaving for York next week. Dudley has qualified to represent Smeltings in the National Summer Boxing League finals, and we're not about to take…" he stopped himself and worked his jaw, "we're not able to bring you along with us. That headmaster of yours, Dimblemore—"

            "Dumbledore," Harry corrected automatically.

            "Whatever. He said he would make 'arrangements' for you." Uncle Vernon ground his teeth, making the cords of his neck stand out angrily. Harry had a good idea why. Now that he had learned the truth behind why he had to stay at the Dursley's over the summers, he imagined Professor Dumbledore would not be happy about him needing to leave after barely a month of relative safety.

            Uncle Vernon recovered most of his composure, reached into one of the pockets of his Sunday jumper, and pulled out a folded and sealed piece of parchment. He held it gingerly, as if it might make to bite him. He handed it over to Harry, who broke the wax seal and began reading. The rest of the Dursleys took this as a sign that dinner was over, and rose to clear the table.

       Dear Harry,

               Though it is against my strong suggestions, it seems there is no convincing

          your aunt and uncle not to take their holiday without you. While I'm sure

          you realize the importance of this matter, I would guess you are understandably

          anxious to be with friends again.

               Sometime in the next few days, the knocks that equal the number of the phoenix's

          roost will tell you when your ride out has arrived. You will not know them, as

          I'm afraid the more familiar candidates for escort are all engaged with other duties,

          as well as arrangements that you will find out about shortly. I can assure you,

          however, that they can be trusted implicitly.

                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                      Albus Dumbledore

            Harry read the letter twice to be sure, but the message seemed simple enough. "The knocks that equal the number of the phoenix's home" almost surely meant twelve knocks for Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. Harry winced, and hoped fiercely that that was not where he was being taken… Grimmauld Place had been Sirius' home for only a short time, but it was also the place of the last happy memories of his godfather. He shook his head, trying to will away that train of thought, and quickly occupied himself with reading the letter twice more. Whenever he got to the part about the phoenix's home, however, he found himself once again drifting down a path he was still unwilling to tread.

            For possibly the first time in his life, he was grateful when Uncle Vernon started speaking to him. "We'll be leaving on the Saturday next, and I trust you will be well away by then?"

            Harry nodded. "The letter says someone should be by to pick me up before then. It doesn't say exactly when."

            Uncle Vernon exhaled heavily, his thick walrus moustache fluttering, but managed to keep his tone reasonable. "Crumblefore mentioned the need for secrecy and such rubbish, but I must say that he's being more than a little ridiculous. What does this Headmaster of yours think could happen, that some maniac would set up an ambush and start World War III on our doorstep?"

            Without thinking, Harry replied, "Probably."

            A plate crashed into the sink, causing three of the four people in the kitchen to jump. Harry noticed his Aunt Petunia's hands shaking as she tried to clean the dishes, and against his better judgment he felt a pang of sympathy for the Dursleys. He was marked for death by an unequivocally evil and violent wizard, the target of a force that he would not even wish upon his xenophobic relatives.

            "I mean they'd probably try, but they obviously didn't intercept the letter, and even if they had, they probably couldn't even get near the house," Harry went on hastily. The Dursleys may not have been much of a family to him, but they were all he had, and even they didn't deserve to live in fear of an attack by Lord Voldemort. The wizarding world was being fearful enough for the lot of them.

            "I'd like to see them try, anyway," Uncle Vernon blustered, after regaining a bit of his color. "Our old Duddster could knock the lot of them halfway to Southampton if they dared show their faces."

            Glancing at Dudley, Harry distinctly doubted that his cousin could even muster the courage to take a swing, but he kept that thought to himself.

            "So you don't know when they're coming for you, eh?" Uncle Vernon continued, apparently building steam for a good, long rant on the deficiencies of wizard-kind, a hobby he'd not had much practice at recently. "Are we supposed to schedule ourselves around the random beck and call of whoever appears at our doorstep?"

            Harry sublimated the strong urge to roll his eyes. "I'm sure they won't be too much of an inconvenience. I'll be gone with them as soon as they arrive," he said, trying not to sound too hopeful.

            "Who's coming for you, anyway? Those Wuzzles, the lot with red hair?"

            "No," said Harry, who wasn't sure whether he should be angry or laugh at his uncle's continuing inability to master the names of anyone not from the Muggle world, however simple. He settled in the place he seemed to take more and more often these days: resigned indifference.

            "Good," Uncle Vernon grunted, and across the room Dudley's shoulders slumped noticeably in relief. He had not had very good experiences with wizards, the Weasleys in particular. Uncle Vernon opened his mouth to continue ranting, but was interrupted by the ring of the telephone.

            Grateful that Uncle Vernon had been stopped before he could really get going, as Harry was betting that quite a tirade had been building up in his uncle ever since the beginning of summer holiday, he quietly excused himself to his room. He shut his door behind him and flopped down onto his bed, staring at the ceiling. Part of him almost wished that his uncle weren't so in control of his temper… a good long row might give him a bit of comfort in knowing that he wasn't the only one who felt like screaming at all the world at the top of his lungs.

            Scowling, Harry flipped over and grumbled at the injustice of it all. Shouting about it wouldn't solve anything, any more than it had last year. In fact, his being so hotheaded was why his godfather had ended up disappearing behind that gently swaying black curtain... Harry slammed his face into his pillow. He winced as he felt the frames of his glasses dig into his face, but he welcomed the twinge of pain that allowed him to keep his thoughts off his godfather.

            He tried to flood his mind with musings over who could be picking him up. That diversion was quickly exhausted, though, and he rolled off his bed. He paced restlessly, looking around for something to do. He had already written letters to everyone he could, and Hedwig was gone anyway. The Sunday Prophet was still sitting in the corner, but Harry couldn't bring himself to read articles such as "Ten Mental Exercises to Protect Yourself from the Imperius Curse" again. And because sixth year students at Hogwarts would not know their class schedules until they received the results of their O.W.L.s, Harry didn't even have any summer homework to occupy him. Figures, he thought disgustedly, the first time I've ever wanted to do homework, and I haven't got any.

            With a heavy sigh, he gave up and fell into bed, surrendering himself to sleep and the dreams that always followed.

                                                                                                                            -- -- --

            The prospect of Harry's departure seemed to place a kind of quiet tension upon Privet Drive. He didn't have to stretch to make the assumption that his relatives were looking forward to being rid of him just as much as he was to leaving. As each day passed, though, Aunt Petunia's glances through the curtains became more and more frequent, and Uncle Vernon's impatient fidgeting became more and more pronounced.

            Harry tried his best to continue avoiding the rest of his family (a task that required no effort), constantly hoping that whoever was coming to pick him up would do so soon. But by Tuesday, he had exhausted all the insignificant small talk he could write to his friends about, his stack of Daily Prophets was proving almost as captivating as a lecture by Professor Binns, and no amount of idle thinking was going to occupy him long enough to retain any semblance of sanity, not with the blessed end of another summer with the Dursleys on the horizon. By Wednesday evening he began the worrying. His friends, his O.W.L.s, Voldemort, his sixth year at Hogwarts; any trivial bit that popped into his head was bound to eventually degenerate into a near-panic attack.

            Thrashing around sleeplessly on his bed Thursday evening, the small part of Harry that had maintained rationality was realizing that he had become a bona fide nervous wreck.

            Friday was one of the most beautiful days of the summer yet, but Harry felt as if he were living within a fog. His fretting was now continuous, and had extended to wondering if something had happened to the unknown someones who were supposed to release him from the prison of Privet Drive.

            Uncle Vernon seemed to have reached the end of his own patience as well, and as they sat down for dinner, he barely touched his food, aside from cutting his steak into progressively smaller pieces in between scathing glances at Harry.

            For his part, Harry was keen to avoid the fury he sensed his Uncle desperately longed to release. But by the time Uncle Vernon's cut of meat had reached a consistency somewhere between pudding and soup, he couldn't contain his own frustration.

            "I'm—"

            As soon as Harry opened his mouth, a series of sharp knocks came from the front door.

            The Dursleys all jumped and gripped their silverware with white knuckles, testament to the strained mood of the household, but weeklong anticipation had Harry listening intently to the long string of sharp raps on the door.

            Seven… They'd already knocked more than any normal visitor would… Eight… Almost there, might he finally be able to leave… Nine… But what if someone had intercepted the letter… Ten… What if they'd cracked the code… Eleven… What if… Twelve.

            The silence was the loudest Harry had ever heard.

            Even the Dursleys were holding their breath, and some part of Harry realized he hadn't told them about the signal. Nobody moved for several seconds.

            The knocking started again, each sound rapping at a slow, purposeful interval. The knocks reached twelve and stopped again, but Harry was still frozen. The letter hadn't said anything about repeating the sign. Did this mean they weren't the ones? Were they just some common visitors, one of Dudley's gang, perhaps? Were they…

            Finally Dudley, of all people, rose and headed to the door. Harry couldn't bring himself to get out of his seat, until the storm of his rambling thoughts crashed to a halt on a singularly nonsensical realization: he didn't have his wand on him.

            Normally, such a fact would simply annoy him a bit, or perhaps make him feel slightly less secure. After all, he had little practical use for his wand while on summer holiday. But his rationality had left him some time before, and the thought that he didn't have his most vital instrument of self-defense upon his person at that very instant inspired a sudden, all-consuming panic. He leapt from his chair and bolted from the kitchen, dashed past Dudley, who was in the foyer just reaching to open the door, and bolted up the steps three at a time. He careened into his room (managing to bounce the door off the wall so hard it swung closed), nearly tumbled headfirst over his bed, and slammed with a thud into the side of his desk, knocking away his breath. He gasped for air while groping across the surface of his desk until he felt the reassuring grip of his wand, while his adrenaline and panic-heightened senses registered the sound of the front door closing and voices coming from downstairs.

           Still trying to catch his breath, he rose to leave when his left knee scored a solid hit on the bottom of his desk drawer. The spasm of his leg and the explosion of stars in front of his eyes finally seemed to wrench him back to his senses, however, and after waiting a moment for his head to clear, he was finally calm enough to realize the foolishness of his panic. His face hot and feeling utterly sheepish, he pocketed his wand and left the room, making his way back downstairs.

            He didn't notice the cloaked figure in the hallway behind him, who had been scratching his head and examining the doors as if looking for something. As Harry walked away, the figure's face lit up in recognition, he drew out a small pouch, and went into Harry's room.

            Several calm, conversational voices were coming from the living room, which dawned on Harry as out of place. To his knowledge, Uncle Vernon had never been civil with a single member of the wizarding world in his life, and Aunt Petunia and Dudley often weren't even capable of speech in the presence of people who had little or no concept of what the Dursleys defined as "normal".

            He rounded the last wall to the living room cautiously, and stopped as soon as the scene came into view. His mouth dropped open as he saw his Uncle Vernon, smiling pleasantly and shaking the offered hand of a man in a long, shimmering gray cloak, with shining silvery blonde hair that reached his shoulders. His uncle was sounding almost relieved as he said something about ensuring Harry was off safely before the Dursleys left for York the next day.

            Harry's mouth was starting to stretch to inhuman proportions as his Aunt Petunia, wearing the smile she usually reserved for Uncle Vernon's business dinners, asked "Where did you get that dress?" to a striking woman wearing robes of deep forest green. Short of dirt, it was his aunt's least favorite color.

            Before his brain could begin to digest the sheer absurdity of the scene before him, Uncle Vernon called out, "Ah, there he is!"

            Everyone turned to face Harry, who was still standing in the archway looking as if he'd just been blasted with the strongest Confounding Charm in history. The two strangers looked at him, and the sight of them seemed to bring Harry out of his stupor, or at least redirect it. They were unlike anyone he had ever seen before, their faces beautiful beyond description, with fair skin almost glowing as though it bottled some inner light. They smiled at him. The man's was a roguish, perfectly-toothed grin that would have made Gilderoy Lockhart in his heyday ragingly jealous. The woman's was a soft, dazzling spectacle that sent shivers down Harry's spine both like and unlike those he had felt at the slightest glance from Cho Chang in years past.

            "Well don't just stand there, Harry, say hello to our guests," Uncle Vernon called with a jolly chuckle.

            Harry did a double take. He could not once recall his uncle addressing him by his name before.

            "The honor is all ours, I must say," the gray-cloaked man said in light, jovial tones, striding forward and offering a hand to Harry. He returned the man's strong handshake as best he could, which left his arm feeling like it was flopping clumsily as his brain struggled to catch up. He still hadn't gotten past that part about why his aunt and uncle were treating these strangers like visiting royalty.

            The woman walked up, seeming as if she were gliding across the carpet, the hem of her robes giving the barest swish of dignified movement. She bowed lightly to Harry, touching her right shoulder with her left hand as she dipped with a single, graceful movement. "Albus has told us so much about you," she said, and her voice was like the most beautiful song Harry had ever heard.

            "Er – th-thanks…" he managed weakly, a smile cracking his face that felt both preeminently stupid, and in the presence of the woman, blissfully perfect.

            "Oh, now, don't be shy, lad," Uncle Vernon laughed, "I know it might be a bit of a shock seeing one of your sort dressed so well, but that's no reason to go speechless. You're sure I can't take your coat?" he asked the woman politely.

            Harry would have boggled some more, but he seemed to have suddenly forgotten how. Not only had his uncle offered to take a coat the woman didn't have, he had said the words "your sort" in a manner that sounded like the highest of compliments.

            Had the Dursleys gone blind, mad, or both?

            "No, thank you," the woman replied.

            "We cannot remain long, I'm afraid," the man interjected, "we arrived late as it is. I hope we didn't inconvenience you."

            "On, no, not at all," Uncle Vernon said dismissively. "You're sure you can't stay for a spot of tea?"

            The man shook his head. "No, we really must be off. Perhaps some other time."

            "Yes, yes, we'd be delighted. I'll admit, we don't often entertain anyone from Harry's part of the world, especially not such fine people as yourselves. I daresay, I'd not be able to pick you out of a crowd at any of the fine establishments we frequent!" he said with a laugh H

Harry remembered from every time an important guest at Privet Drive had told a joke.

            Before Harry could form one of the dozens of confused remarks and questions his brain was demanding he ask, the man had reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Well, we must be off. Dumbledore is expecting us five minutes ago, no doubt."

            Harry moved at the light but insistent touch and started making his way to the door when Uncle Vernon called out, "Oh, you almost forgot these!"

            The man turned as Uncle Vernon walked up, holding out both hands, which were clasping empty air. The man reached out and took the two invisible objects, moving one hand as if to casually place a hat upon his head, and the other as if to clasp and twirl an illusory walking stick. With a tip of his unseen hat, the man turned, once more ushering Harry along with him.

            As the three of them walked out, Harry heard his cousin saying, "Be sure to come and visit again!" and his Uncle Vernon adding, "We'll see you next summer, Harry!"

            The man was chuckling as soon as the door shut behind them, and a glance to his side showed Harry that the woman was failing to hide a playful smile.

            "Er, excuse me," he finally managed, several steps down the path, "but I never, uh, got your names."

            "Tamison Silverrose, at your service," the man replied, never breaking stride.

            "Teira," the woman replied simply, inclining her head courteously.

            "And this is the third member of your escort, whom I hope managed to pack all your things while we were talking," the man continued, indicating a shadowy figure leaning against a lamppost. He straightened as they approached and nodded confirmation to Tamison, and then regarded Harry with a piercing gaze that strongly reminded him of Dumbledore.

            The man's smile reminded him of the Headmaster, as well, as he discovered when they reached him at the well-lit curbside. "I'm Ayralin," he greeted amiably, "It's good to meet you at least, Mr. Potter." His voice was stronger than Tamison's, and more serious, but after half expecting a grandfatherly voice to match his other similarities to Dumbledore, Harry was met with an amicable tone that instantly reminded him of none other than his godfather.

            The thought took him unawares, making him drop his gaze to try and shield the discomfort he suddenly felt. As such, he didn't catch Teira's wince at his reaction.

            "Well, no time to dawdle with pleasantries. We need to make it to the meeting as quickly as possible," Ayralin continued, sounding casual but exchanging a significant glance with Teira.

            They began to walk, with Harry slightly behind Tamison and Teira, and Ayralin behind him. The deluge of questions he still held from the encounter in the living room quickly brought Harry out of his painful reminiscence. "Who are you?" he blurted, before he could stop himself to form a more sensible query.

            Tamison smiled – he never seemed to really stop smiling, actually. "I assume you don't mean our names?" he asked lightly, and Harry nodded meekly. "We're friends of Albus Dumbledore. He wanted us to meet you, and the rest of your friends and the Order members were all otherwise engaged, so we killed two birds with one stone, as you say."

            Harry was silent for a moment before pressing, somewhat nervously, "You didn't answer my question."

            "Sharp lad," said Tamison approvingly.

            "I would guess you were unaffected by our disguises back in your house?" Teira asked.

            "Of course not, or did you miss the look on his face when he saw you?" Tamison interjected roguishly.

            "What disguises?" Harry asked. "Did you use a spell to fool my aunt and uncle like that?"

            "Not a spell as you would define it," Teira replied vaguely. "More like a… natural camouflage."

            "What do you mean?" Harry said, growing even more confused. "You are wizards, aren't you?"

            To his further bafflement, Tamison shook his head. "No, we aren't. Dumbledore will explain when we arrive," he said, raising a hand to stop Harry, who had already opened his mouth to ask another question. "He seems to have a gift for making such things understandable. If I try, you'll just be worse off," he said with a wry grin.

            "So what did the Dursleys see, then?" Harry asked curiously.

            "Exactly what they wanted to see," Teira replied cryptically.

            "To their eyes, we appeared as a pair of very well-dressed aristocrats, it would seem," Tamison explained. "It's a good bit of fun, trying to figure out what people see of us so we can play along. It helps that we've had a lot of practice."

            "You got carried away with the hat and cane, though," Teira chided. "It would have been quite a shock to them if you had bungled it and broken the enchantment."

            Tamison shrugged. "If anything, they deserved a good shock to the system. Dumbledore was ready to curse them halfway to Eldamar after they were so stubborn about their little trip."

            Filing away the odd name as one of undoubtedly many wizarding locations he'd simply never heard of, Harry pressed on to his next question. "And why were they acting so… weird?" he said, failing to come up with any other word to describe the Dursley's behavior. "My uncle's never been that pleasant. To me, or to anyone he knows is a wizard, well-dressed or not."

            "You're just as perceptive as Dumbledore told us," Teira said with a commending smile, which caused Harry to feel heat rising to his cheeks.

            "What you saw was a small but rather interesting side effect our presence has upon Muggles," Tamison offered.

            "We're here," Ayralin said, before Harry could ask Tamison what he meant by "our presence".

            Harry looked around, and recognized that they were in the alley between Magnolia Crescent and Wisteria Walk; the narrow aisle where he had fought off a pair of dementors the year before… and where he had first seen his godfather.

            "Where did you leave the stone, Teira?" Tamison asked, shuffling along the left side of the alley.

            "Here it is," she called from slightly farther down the dim path. They all gathered near her. "Just touch the guidestone," she instructed Harry, holding up a flat, circular rock that fit comfortably into her palm. The top of it was carved with symbols that Harry had never seen before, though they looked somewhat like Arithmancy runes Hermione worked on.

            "A Portkey?" Harry asked.

            "No, though very similar," Ayralin replied. "A guidestone is untraceable, and a great deal less turbulent, thankfully."

            Harry reached out and placed the tips of his fingers on the stone, which was slightly warm to the touch. He studiously avoided looking at Ayralin. Not only did his voice remind him of Sirius, in the barely perceptible light of the alleyway, his thick, dark hair made the resemblance almost eerie.

            Tamison and Ayralin touched the guidestone as well, and Teira began to chant softly under her breath.

            As they stood there waiting, Harry was struck by a worrisome detail. He looked around, straining his neck left and right while trying to keep his fingers on the stone.

            Tamison noticed his fidgeting. "What is it?" he asked.

            "Er, where are all my things? You said he packed them all," Harry said, nodding to Ayralin, "but I don't see my trunk… or anything, for that matter."

            The dark-haired man reached beneath his cloak and drew out a small pouch, jingling it soundlessly. "I took everything that wasn't bolted down, just to be sure."

            Harry stared at the tiny bag in confusion as Teira's chanting reached a crescendo, and the world seemed to dissolve around him.

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*A/N* - I must have written more versions of this opening chapter than I have for any other fic I've ever done… well, for HP, at least. I will be attempting to recreate JKR's wonderful style and subtlety to the best of my comparatively inferior abilities. As such, always be on the look out for tiny hints, and let no word go unheeded. If there is one thing I have been able to assimilate from reading the HP books, it is a love of making sure every word counts. Of course, since I've nowhere near the guile with words that our favorite British billionairess does, I'll get one of two results. One, my "subtlety" might end up being glaringly obvious to anyone with the wits given a Blast-Ended Skrewt, leading to a boring plot and spoiler-filled review box. Or, I might fly so far under everyone's radar that I overshoot surprise and suspense entirely to end up with a bunch of people who have no idea how my story got where it did.

Of course, this is all assuming I finish the story at all. My HP fanfics have the disconcerting tendency of inspiring me to pick up the series itself again, which leads me to look from those pages to my own and wonder what in the bloody hell I'm doing trying to emulate perfection.

I will, of course, leave the true discernment of the quality of my work up to you unbelievably patient folks, who have not only read my first chapter, but have survived my ramblings long enough to get through these three pointlessly babbling paragraphs. Which, as I am sure you will be thankful for, now end.