Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I'm just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
Harry slowly raised his head and stared morosely at the familiar visage of number four, Privet Drive. What had already been a horrible day was rapidly getting worse. Not only did he have to appear unannounced on the Dursleys' doorstep (something he knew they'd have no problem expressing their displeasure over), but he'd also have to tell them that two other freaks would be joining him this afternoon. The corner of Harry's mouth twitched humorlessly as he envisioned how they'd take the news.
He'd left Ron and Hermione at King's Cross station a little over an hour ago. They were each going to make quick stops at their respective homes before Apparating to Privet Drive. Harry smiled fondly, remembering their show of solidarity. He hadn't been expecting it; he'd thought he'd be going on alone. Although he was desperately worried about them and the remainder of their quest, he had to admit that the thought of some support while facing his relatives was quite nice indeed.
Harry had thought it would be better – or at least less embarrassing – if he arrived at Privet Drive first and prepared his relatives for their arrival. He'd wanted to get away from the Hogwarts Express and the other students as quickly as possible…before he ran into Ginny.
Harry quickly shook his head – he couldn't afford to think about Ginny. He still didn't think his resolve was strong enough to hold.
Since he wasn't yet of age, he'd quickly slipped away without speaking to any of the crowd at King's Cross and taken the train to Privet Drive. The long, hot journey had left him irritable. It didn't bode well for the coming reunion. He'd considered just Apparating back from Hogsmeade to avoid the Hogwarts Express altogether. So what if the Ministry chucked him out of Hogwarts now? He wasn't going back, anyway.
Hermione, always the voice of reason, reminded him that there was no need to give the Ministry an excuse to break his wand, and Harry had to admit that she had a point.
Rufus Scrimgeour wanted Harry under his control, and Harry wouldn't put it past the man to make life difficult in an effort to force Harry to comply. Harry had no patience for the man or his politicking. Still, recklessly using underage magic for the sake of mere convenience was a risk not worth taking.
He hated when Hermione was right.
So, he'd sat in a compartment with Ron and Hermione and tried to ignore the hole in his heart that Ginny's absence created. He hadn't seen her the entire journey home and wondered which compartment she'd sat on the train. Neither Ron nor Hermione had asked him where she was, but he'd caught Hermione staring at him speculatively on several occasions. Harry had been steadfast in avoiding her gaze. He'd stared out the window miserably, his thoughts focused on happier days…
Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans and squaring his shoulders, Harry trudged across the street towards the immaculately pruned garden of number four, Privet Drive. He'd promised Dumbledore that he'd return one more time before his birthday, and he intended to keep that pledge. Harry's chest tightened as he thought of his headmaster, but he blinked the moisture from his eyes and continued forward. This was what Dumbledore had wanted, and this was what he was going to do.
Still, knowing what he had to do didn't make doing it any easier. He wasn't in the mood to deal with the Dursleys' nonsense. He had no patience for their petty bigotry…he had bigger challenges to face. The days when Vernon Dursley's purple face could make him cower were long past. He wondered what he could expect when they opened the door to find him standing there after his eventful departure last summer.
All in all, he supposed it could be worse. He'd rather face the Dursleys' ire than Molly Weasley's fury when Ron informed her of his plans to ditch the Burrow this summer and head straight into the war that she'd been so adamantly attempting to shield him from.
Oh, no, Harry mused, he got off far easier in only having to face the Dursleys.
He wondered if Ron would have dropped his little bombshell while still at King's Cross, or if he would have waited until arriving at the Burrow. Harry could picture Ron in the kitchen trying to reason with his mum, and Ginny would be there…
Harry's heart constricted at the mere thought of her, and he pressed his eyelids together as if to squeeze her from his thoughts. Everything had seemed so simple and straightforward in his mind when he'd made his decision. He couldn't put Ginny in danger. He'd never survive if he lost her, too.
But he had something he had to do, and he couldn't afford any distractions while he was searching for the Horcruxes. Breaking it off had been the right thing to do. There was no reason that she should have to put her life on hold just because he did. It could take years to find them all.
At the time, it had seemed the perfectly logical thing to do. But now, away from Hogwarts and facing the unknown…now, nothing was clear. He didn't know how he'd be able to function with this pain tearing such a hole in his heart. He felt as if he were bleeding continually from an invisible wound.
One thing he did know for certain: she could distract him with a simple smile, and he couldn't afford to be distracted. He had too much that he had to do.
As for what did come next…that's where Harry faltered. He knew what it was he had to do, he just wasn't certain about how to do it. How could he find the remaining four Horcruxes? Where did he start? And how did he keep himself – or worse, Ron and Hermione – from suffering the same fate Dumbledore did when he'd located the last two Horcruxes? Or what he'd thought was a Horcrux, anyway…
R.A.B. How was he to find R.A.B.? Where did he begin?
The locket, the cup, the snake, and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw…
It seemed hopeless and overwhelming as a whole, so he'd have to start in pieces and work from there. He fingered the cold, hard metal of the fake Horcrux that he still kept in his pocket. Harry had found himself using it as some sort of talisman, holding onto it whenever the stress started to build. There had to be a way, and he was going to find it.
The first step would be Godric's Hollow. He wasn't certain what he expected to find there, it just seemed important that he go.
Scratch that. The first step would be getting through his last confinement with the Dursleys, and the sooner he started enduring that, the sooner he could move forward.
While he'd been lost in thought, Harry's feet had carried him to the front door. Taking a deep breath, he tapped the knocker three times.
Here we go.
It took only a few moments before he heard footsteps approaching the door. It opened slightly, and Aunt Petunia's horsy face peered through the crack. He watched as her eyes widened in surprise before the door swung open wide, and she yanked him inside by the collar of his shirt.
"What are you doing here?" Aunt Petunia demanded, her long neck craning from side to side to ensure none of the neighbors were out and about and watching Harry being manhandled by his aunt. "Why are you back here so soon? Did those freaks at that school of yours finally decide they didn't want you either and throw you out? Did you think you could just show up here unannounced?"
"Hello, Aunt Petunia. It's nice to see you, too," Harry said pleasantly, pulling back from her grip and readjusting his collar. He spared a quick glance at the parlor, noting that nothing had really changed, although there were some crumpled sweet wrappers on an end table, which was unusual for Aunt Petunia.
"Don't you 'hello' me," his aunt snapped, dragging his attention back to her aggravated face. "I asked you what you are doing here? Term still has several weeks remaining."
Harry shrugged and dropped his gaze to the floor. "We were released early this year," he said vaguely, not wanting to discuss Dumbledore's death with her quite so soon. He wasn't ready.
Before she could reply, the kitchen door swung open, and Harry's cousin Dudley lumbered into the room. He was even larger than Harry remembered, and his face looked tired and drawn. His eyes opened wide with shock upon seeing Harry, and he began gaping like a fish.
"What's he doing here?" Dudley demanded, pointing a porky finger at Harry. Harry was pleased to notice the slight tremor in Dudley's hand. After years of being the victim of Dudley's bullying behavior, it was nice to have the shoe on the other foot, so to speak.
"Hey, Duds," Harry said, grinning widely. "You're home from school early, too. Did they chuck you out?" Harry asked, throwing Aunt Petunia's taunt back at his cousin.
Harry was surprised when Dudley ignored Harry completely and turned his panic-stricken eyes upon his mother. "Thought you'd get him to look me over, did you? Trying to compare and see if he's infected me? It's all his fault, anyway. You know that. Him and that freak of an old man who took him the last time – they did this to me. You know they did something. He threatened you, I heard him."
"Now, now, Popkin," Aunt Petunia said soothingly, but Harry couldn't help but notice the tremor in her voice. "Don't get yourself upset. You know what happens when you get too fussed."
Dudley's eyes nearly bulged out of the sockets, and he grasped his mother's forearms with enough force to leave red marks. "Mummy! Don't let it happen again," he whimpered.
Aunt Petunia pulled her arm away and began patting Dudley on the back and cooing softly as she led him into the parlor. Once she sat him on the couch and calmed him down, she turned back towards Harry. Her eyes were filled with such intense loathing that Harry found himself taking a step back involuntarily. What was going on here?
"Sit down and don't dirty the sofa. I'm going to get Duddy a glass of lemonade," she hissed, scurrying from the room. "Don't upset him."
Harry looked over at Dudley and furrowed his eyebrows. "What's got your knickers in such a twist, Dud?"
"What are you doing here? Did they ask you to come look at me? I won't have you or any of your freak friends pawing at me. Don't think I can't get that ruddy thing away from you, and when I do…" Dudley's face matched the purple color that Harry usually associated with Uncle Vernon.
"Take it easy, Dud. You're going to burst something. Why don't you tell me what's going on here? What is this all about?" Harry asked.
His mind was racing, trying to remember all the details from his last trip to Privet Drive. It seemed like another lifetime ago. Professor Dumbledore had been pleasant, even though it was obvious to Harry that he had been upset by the way that the Dursleys had treated Harry. Still, he didn't think that was something the Dursleys would have picked up. Harry's comfort and well-being had never been one of their considerations.
Dudley appeared to be under the impression that Professor Dumbledore had threatened them, however. How would Dudley's mind have formed that idea? Of course, being the bully he was, Dudley probably assumed everyone was threatening him, since he spent most of his time threatening others. Still, Harry tried to recall the conversation from the previous year to work out what had wound up his relatives so much.
Staring at Dudley sitting crouched into himself on the couch brought Dumbledore's words back into Harry's mind. He had said something about leaving a note for the Dursleys when he'd dropped Harry on their doorstep all those years ago.
"You did not do as I asked. You have never treated Harry as a son. He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands. The best that can be said is that he has at least escaped the appalling damage you have inflicted upon the unfortunate boy sitting between you."
Was that what Dudley thought was a threat? How could it be, though? Another memory arose in Harry's mind of a Howler sent to Aunt Petunia after the Dementor attack on Harry and Dudley in the alley before his fifth year.
"Remember my last."
The last must have been this same letter. Harry was burning with curiosity to know exactly what the letter had said. He held little hope that Aunt Petunia would tell him, however. Why is she so worried about Dudley being upset, anyway? Not that she ever likes to see her little popkin upset, Harry thought with a grimace.
Only one thing to do for it, then.
"So what's this about Professor Dumbledore doing something to you last time, Duds? Are you sprouting a tail again? I didn't even see him do it. Of course, he has no problem with non-verbal spells, so you never know what he could have been up to," Harry said casually, forcing down the painful lump that lodged itself in his throat when speaking as if Professor Dumbledore were still alive.
Dudley cowered away from Harry and scrambled off the couch faster than his bulk should have allowed. His hands instinctively searching his massive behind for, Harry assumed, the return of a pig's tail. "Stay away from me! I mean it…you stay away!"
Harry stood up and began walking towards Dudley with a determined stride. "What's wrong, Dud? Why are you so skittish all of a sudden? Lost your nerve, have you? Is this what's got you acting like such a little girl?" Harry asked, drawing his wand from his sleeve.
"Put it away," Dudley screeched, backing into a corner. Harry would have laughed if it weren't so pathetic. This was the great git of a bully who had regularly made Harry's life a living hell when he was small?
"I mean it, Potter, put that thing away," Dudley growled.
"Or what, Dud? What are you going to do?" Harry couldn't help his morbid fascination, wondering how far he could push before Dudley would strike back.
Before Dudley could answer him, however, the vase on the table next to him started shaking violently. It rattled on the table as it moved closer to the edge. Harry stared at it in surprise. He really wasn't that upset, not about this, anyway. Why was his magic reacting so strongly?
"Oh, no," Dudley moaned before the vase flew from the table and went careening towards Harry's head.
Harry was so shocked that he never had time to move. The heavy ceramic vase slammed into the side of his face with enough force to knock him from his feet. The vase and Harry both landed on the floor with a heavy thud, the vase shattering in several large chunks.
Alerted by the noise, Aunt Petunia hurried back into the room and screeched at the destruction. "What have you done?" she spat, stepping over Harry to retrieve the broken pieces of her vase.
"It happened again, Mummy," Dudley wailed. "He did it! I know he did."
Aunt Petunia leapt to her feet and hurried over to Dudley. "There, there, now, sweetums. Mummy's here. Everything will be all right. Come into the kitchen, and I'll make you a nice snack. I'll take care of everything."
As she ushered Dudley from the room, she turned back towards Harry, who was still struggling to rise from the floor. "Stay here. I'll be right back. I warned you not to upset him," she hissed, her eyes nearly glowing with a burning intensity.
Harry groaned as he sat up and put a hand to his throbbing cheekbone. What is going on here? He pulled himself to his feet unsteadily and shook his head in an attempt to clear it.
The entire room swam before his eyes, and he had to grasp the arm of the couch to remain upright. He tentatively moved his jaw from side to side, testing how much damage had been done to his face. He didn't think anything was broken, but the pain was enough to make him wish for one of Madam Pomfrey's potions.
This would be no ordinary stay at Privet Drive.
He'd done accidental magic before, but not in a long time. He didn't remember ever hurting himself with it before, either. Something wasn't right. He glanced out the window apprehensively, wondering if he'd be receiving a reprimand from the Ministry.
Great. That's all I need.
Still, he'd never got them when it had happened when he was younger, so maybe he'd get by this time, as well. Nothing to do for it; he'd have to wait and see.
The more pressing matter was what was going on with Dudley. He'd acted almost as if he'd known what was going to happen. Almost as if…
Aunt Petunia strode back into the room at that moment and sat down stiffly, glaring at Harry all the while. Harry wasn't certain what she expected of him, but followed her lead and sat down at the other end of the couch, waiting. After a few moments spent in silence, Harry couldn't take it anymore.
"What's happening here, Aunt Petunia?" he asked quietly. "I don't think I did that. I think Dudley did. How is that possible?"
"Of course my Dudley didn't do it. You're the freak here, not him," she snapped, before her face crumpled, and she put her head in her hands.
Harry was thunderstruck and at a loss for what to do. In all the years that Harry had spent with the Dursleys, she'd never once offered him a bit of comfort over anything, and he found it strange that he wanted to comfort her now.
Tentatively, he raised his hand and gradually moved it towards her before quickly pulling it back again. Twice more he struggled with the urge to lay his hand on her back in an attempt to calm her. She'd never taken kindly to his touch before, and he was afraid that anything he might do would stop her from talking. He wanted answers more than he wanted to comfort her, so he clenched his fists and fought to remain in his spot.
Aunt Petunia finally raised her head, and, although her lower lip trembled, she began to speak. "After you and your headmaster left here last year, odd things started to happen. These incidents grew more and more frequent until Dudley was finally asked to leave school. They suggested he needed counseling. As if we'd ever be able to talk about any of this. They thought he was acting out and being destructive on purpose. The nerve of some people."
Harry's head was swimming with questions, but he was afraid she'd clam up if he interrupted, so he just let her continue to ramble.
"What did your headmaster do?" she asked, her eyes narrowing. "He removed the protection, didn't he? He said we didn't live up our end of the bargain by not caring for you. We gave you food and shelter for all these years out of the goodness of our hearts. What more did he expect?
"He wanted us to love you like our own. You're not our own! You're just a reminder of the sister I wished I'd never had. We gave you shelter, and that has supposedly kept you alive and safe all this time. That should have counted for something. We could have just chucked you in an orphanage like Vernon wanted to do. Sometimes, I think we all would have been better off if we had."
Harry had long ago stopped caring about or looking for the Dursleys' approval, yet the coldness of the words stung.
"What do you mean by remove the protection?" he asked stoically, refusing to give her the satisfaction of knowing her words had hurt him. "The blood protection from my mother remains as long as I can call this house my home…at least until my birthday. He told you I'd be returning one more time."
"Not the blood protection for you," Aunt Petunia snapped. "This isn't about you. I don't care what happens to you or any of your freak world. As far as I'm concerned, we'd all be better off if you all just killed each other off. I want to know about the protections on Dudley. Dumbledore withdrew his part of the agreement, didn't he?"
Harry blinked, nonplussed. "What are you on about?" he asked coldly.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, you never were very bright, were you? The spell he cast on Dudley. It's obviously not working, because he keeps making these freakish things happen."
"Dudley is a wizard?" Harry asked incredulously, the pieces all finally clicking into place. He felt as if the room was spinning, and he didn't think it had anything to do with his throbbing temple. He knew magic ran in families – the Creevey brothers proved that. They were Muggleborn, and yet both were wizards…but Dudley. How could this have happened?
"Of course he's not a wi…a.wi… He's not a freak," Aunt Petunia snapped, her voice nothing more than a high-pitched whisper. "I made a deal with your headmaster. He would block this unnaturalness from Duddydums, and I would take you in. It was all arranged. Then, after last year, whatever it was he did stopped working, because Dudley started having instances of these oddities every few days, and I can't stop them. I want you to fix it. You do whatever it was he had done before. You can fix this, and you owe us that much."
Harry's mind was racing. How could this be? Would Dumbledore really have suppressed Dudley's magic for all these years? It didn't seem like something he would ever do. It didn't make any sense.
As if from a fog, Harry's mind recalled the way Aunt Petunia had always catered to Dudley's every whim. How she'd acted as if the world revolved around keeping him calm and not letting him get upset. Harry's worst punishments always came as a direct result of Dudley getting upset. He wondered if Petunia's obsessive need to clean was only a byproduct of her anxiety over cleaning up what she considered a huge mess.
His mind continued to pick out little instances of times when Dudley had been upset. His thoughts again drifted to the night the Dementors had attacked, and Dudley had cowered in fear. Harry had wondered what Dudley could have been remembering. Could it have been some unexplained bits of magic that Dudley had fought to suppress? When Harry had found Dudley in the darkness, he'd had his hands clamped over his mouth. Harry had told him not to open his mouth, but when did Dudley ever listen to Harry? Could Dudley have actually seen the Dementors?
Harry felt as if his world had just spun completely out of his control yet again.
"Why would Dumbledore agree to hide Dudley's magic? It doesn't sound at all like Dumbledore," he said slowly, his gaze boring into his aunt's.
"He didn't want to do it. We argued for quite some time about it. I'd seen the strange things that happened from the time my Dudley was still in his cot. I knew what it meant; I remembered it from Lily. There was no way I would allow it to happen again, not after I'd worked so hard to make a normal life for my family.
"It was the only way I would allow you to stay, and he was desperate for that to happen. I told him there was no way he'd ever get his hands on Dudley, anyway. Vernon and I would never allow him to go to that freak school. We raised him with a healthy loathing of all things so unnatural. Dudley is a good boy," Aunt Petunia said, crossing her arms defiantly.
Harry rolled his eyes. It all made sense. Certainly the Dursleys wouldn't have allowed Dudley to attend Hogwarts, and Harry knew from Dudley's reaction a moment ago that he never would have wanted to go, anyway.
"So, what did Professor Dumbledore do, exactly?" Harry asked, unable to contain his curiosity. Aunt Petunia had never willingly told him anything in the past. Don't ask questions had always been her standard response.
"How am I supposed to know how all your nonsense works?" Aunt Petunia snapped. "We took you in, and he did something to take Dudley's name off of a register or some such thing. For a time, Dudley stopped making strange things happen. The only time anything abnormal happened was when Dudley would get upset, and I could easily blame that on you so Vernon never had to know."
"Uncle Vernon doesn't know his son is a wizard?" Harry asked, secretly appreciating the humor in that statement.
"Of course he doesn't know. And Dudley is NOT one of you. Your headmaster did something to control it, and I want you to do the same thing now," Aunt Petunia said, crossing her bony arms across her chest.
"I don't even know how he could have done such a thing, never mind how do it," Harry said, aghast.
"Well, if you want to stay here, you'd better think of something," she snapped.
Harry's mind clicked on a way to make this work to his advantage. "All right. I'll try and find something. I'm going to need some help with it, though," he said, rapidly changing gears.
"What do you mean help?" she asked suspiciously.
"My friends, Ron and Hermione – they're brilliant with stuff like this. I'll ask them to come and help me put it together. They'll have to stay here for a while, though – while we research the correct spells to use. I'm certain it's very complicated magic if Professor Dumbledore did it," Harry said, his mind already plotting.
Aunt Petunia frowned with disapproval. "I don't know."
"All right, well…I can't do it alone, so I suppose I'll just be going," he said, going so far as to turn around, rising and taking a step towards the door.
"No!" Aunt Petunia screeched. "All right… Your friend can bunk in with you, and the girl can stay in the guestroom. I won't have any funny business under my roof."
Harry smirked, envisioning the color Ron's ears would have turned had he heard that remark. This was turning out better than he could have hoped. "All right, then."
"You have to promise me you'll all stay out of Vernon and Dudley's way. When Vernon is home, you must stay up in your room, and I want this done as quickly as possible."
"We're agreed on that, then," Harry mumbled.
"Oh, and another thing. Your friends will have to provide their own food. I'm not feeding any extra of your freaky friends. Vernon would never have it. They can bring their own or you can share your portion, but I won't be responsible for them," Aunt Petunia said, her haughty demeanor returning.
Harry had no choice but to agree. He hadn't really thought about how they would eat. He could only hope that Hermione would be better prepared. She was certainly familiar enough with the Dursleys' penchant for withholding nourishment. They'd just have to figure something out. Maybe if Mrs. Weasley wasn't too upset with them she'd send something, or maybe Ginny would help…
On second thought, Harry decided that she couldn't be involved with this in any way. It wasn't fair to her, and he didn't think he could stand to have her so close and yet so far. They'd have to come up with something else.
But her presence here would certainly be a nice contrast to Aunt Petunia, his mind said, betraying him.Stop it, he told himself firmly. Ginny would not be involved.
"I'm going to send an owl. I'm certain they'll be able to arrive shortly – they're both of age," Harry said, watching the panic fill Aunt Petunia's eyes once again.
"What does that mean? They're able to do…to…to use their things? I won't have it in this house. You said they were coming here for research," she said, a whine in her voice.
"Aunt Petunia, they're coming here to work out how to do a spell that you asked me to do. Are you telling me that they can't use magic to do it?" Harry asked, thoroughly enjoying his aunt's conundrum.
Aunt Petunia's lips thinned into a tiny sliver of a line. "One time and one time only. You owe me that much. You're to help your cousin, and then you and your friends are to get out. I want nothing more to do with you or your kind. Vernon can see nothing unusual – he's unhappy enough with you as it is."
"So what's new about that?" Harry mumbled.
"He's been muttering about the fact that you came into an inheritance and didn't bother to make us aware of that situation," Aunt Petunia said with obvious disapproval. "We've provided you with house and board for sixteen years; certainly, if you've come into a house of your own, we deserve something for our trouble."
"You won't get anything that belonged to Sirius," Harry said hotly. He might not want anything to do with Grimmauld Place either, but he certainly wasn't about to let them get their grubby paws on it. He owed Sirius that much. Taking a deep breath to control his temper, he said through gritted teeth, "It wouldn't do you any good, anyway. It's a wizarding house – Muggles can't see it. Although I suppose Dudley might be able to see it, actually…"
Aunt Petunia's eyes widened with panic. "Enough. Diddyums most certainly will not be seeing any of your unnaturalness. Go and send your letter…and tell them to bring their own food," she snapped before storming from the room.
Harry smiled grimly. Whenever it was that he'd be leaving this house to start the search for the Horcruxes couldn't be soon enough.
The ringing of the doorbell startled Harry from his deep thoughts. He'd been up in his room, unpacking his few meager belongings from his school trunk. He reckoned that he and Ron would be quite cramped in his small bedroom, so a little organization couldn't hurt. He wanted to be done with it before Hermione arrived and saw him doing it, however. There was no sense in letting her think she'd had any influence over him, or he'd never hear the end of it.
He glanced at the clock and was relieved to note they still had a half-hour before Uncle Vernon was due home. That should be just enough time to get settled and give Aunt Petunia some space to let him know they would be here. Even if they stayed confined for the most part to Harry's room, there was no way for Uncle Vernon not to notice three extra people using the bathroom.
Hopefully, Aunt Petunia would think of something to placate him, and then Harry, Ron, and Hermione could just stay out of his way. It would be best for all of them to avoid a confrontation. Of course, having Ron attempting to live as a Muggle ought to be a task worthy of the TriWizard tournament itself, Harry thought with a chuckle.
He was nearly gleeful with anticipation and was amused to realize that he'd never once before eagerly anticipated anything to do with the Dursleys as much as he was Ron's presence in their very ordered life. It would be worth a few good telling-offs, actually.
He shut the door to his bedroom and hurried down the stairs, quietly noting Aunt Petunia straining her neck in order to peer out from the kitchen. Dudley was nowhere in sight.
Harry swung the door open wide just as the bell rang again.
"…you know anyone heard it the first time?" Ron was asking.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Hi, Harry," she said brightly before releasing a horrified gasp. "Harry! What happened to your face?"
Harry put a hand to his cheek, wincing at the deep bruising. He'd been so lost in his musings that he hadn't even paid attention. "Long story. I've got loads to tell you."
Hermione looked dubious. "Is everything settled?"
"'Course it is," Ron said, taking Hermione by the arm and firmly ushering her inside. He obviously wasn't about to take any of the Dursleys' excuses. "Just stop talking for a minute and let him tell us what's happening…then we can decide what to do about it."
Harry stepped back, grinning, and allowed them to enter. "Everything's fine, Hermione. Come on upstairs, and we can talk privately."
Neither Ron nor Hermione made any effort to move. They both stood in the hallway, looking around the house. He saw Hermione frowning at the abundance of pictures of Dudley adorning the walls and every spare bit of surface space in the parlor. Harry was amused to notice that there was now a new picture perched on top of the table that only hours ago had sported the broken vase.
Ron grunted his displeasure, while Hermione's brows knitted as she scowled. Harry couldn't blame them; Dudley wasn't much to look at, that was for certain. Harry was keen to get them out of the parlor and away from Aunt Petunia's prying eyes before her nosiness might allow her to learn anything he didn't want her to know.
"Uncle Vernon will be home soon, so it's better if we go upstairs. I've got loads to tell you," Harry said, trying to steer his friends toward the stairway.
Hermione, however, was peering over his shoulder with interest.
"You must be Harry's Aunt Petunia," she said. "I'm Hermione Granger. You've probably heard Harry mention me. We've been friends since our first year."
Harry groaned inwardly. Too late.
"Can you do it? Can you help my Dudley?" Aunt Petunia asked, ignoring Hermione's outstretched hand and peering intently at her face.
"Help him to do what?" she asked, startled.
Aunt Petunia whirled on Harry. "I thought you said they'd know what to do," she hissed. "I allowed them to come here, because you said they could help him. They're in your year…why do they know how to do it if you can't?" She pointed her bony finger at Ron disapprovingly. "I recognize that one from that family who came to collect you and destroyed our parlor a few years back."
"I said I'd need some assistance, and they're it," Harry said trying to placate her. "Unlike me, neither is underage. I only had time to tell them I needed some help – they don't know all the details yet. Just give us a little time, and we'll get it all set to rights."
"What's going on here, Harry?" Ron asked, his eyes darting back and forth between Harry and Aunt Petunia.
"Not now, Ron," Harry said, glaring.
"How long will all this take?" Aunt Petunia demanded. "I can only appease your uncle for so long. I want this done and you out of this house as quickly as possible."
"Nothing will please me more," Harry said through clenched teeth. "Give us a fortnight, and we'll never have to see each other again."
"Mrs. Dursley…" Hermione said, her eyes wide.
"A fortnight? That long? Do you really expect me to keep you here that long?" Aunt Petunia screeched.
"I assume you want it done right without any mistakes that might affect Dudley?" Harry asked.
Aunt Petunia paled. "You better not do anything to hurt my Dudley. That would be just like you, wouldn't it? I don't know why I'm trusting the likes of you with this. You've always been jealous of Dudley, because you could never be like him."
"Now, wait a moment, Mrs. Dursley…" Hermione tried again, shocked.
Neither Harry nor his aunt paused to look at her.
Harry rolled his eyes. "That's just what I've always wanted – to be more like Diddydinkums. You're trusting it to me, because you really don't have any choice, do you? Of course, if you'd rather we just leave now…"
Aunt Petunia glared at him for several moments before her shoulders sagged in defeat. "Get upstairs and keep quiet until I can talk to your uncle. Under no circumstances are you to upset Dudley."
Before the words were even completely out of Aunt Petunia's mouth, the front door swung open, revealing the startled face of Vernon Dursley. He stopped in his tracks and looked with confusion at the faces staring back at him.
Slowly, his color turned a deeper and deeper shade of red before he started spluttering. "You! What the devil are you doing here? What is the meaning of this?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What have you done to my family this time, boy?"
"Hello, Uncle Vernon," Harry said dryly.
"Don't you take that tone with me. You are no longer welcome here – not that you ever were. Get out and take your damn friends with you," Vernon snarled.
Harry smirked. "I think Aunt Petunia might disagree with you."
Aunt Petunia glared at him viciously.
Uncle Vernon turned an enraged expression from Harry towards Aunt Petunia, but seemed to whither a bit under her scrutiny. "Petunia?" he whined.
"They need to stay, Vernon. They won't be here long, and when they leave, we'll be rid of him for good," she said, waving her hand in Harry's general direction.
"But...but…but," Vernon said, spluttering.
"I'm not any happier about it than you are, Vernon, but this is how it's going to be," she said firmly.
Uncle Vernon's shoulders slumped momentarily before he turned back on Harry. "I won't stand for any of your funny business, boy, and I want to talk to you about this inheritance you so neatly forgot to mention last summer. What was it? Your dead convict of a godfather leaving you a house. Thought you'd hoard that information all to yourself, did you?"
Harry's face remained impassive.
"It won't do us any good, Vernon. It's a…a…unnatural house. We wouldn't even be able to see it, and it's full of freakish things," Aunt Petunia said with a shudder. She turned on Harry. "Go upstairs and settle in for the night. You'll have to provide for yourselves, as we're going out to eat."
Harry turned towards his friends, who were staring at him in stunned silence. "Up the stairs, first door on the right," he said, jerking his head toward the stairs.
Ron and Hermione hurried up without another word.
As Harry lay in his bed that night feeling much older than his sixteen years, he wished his mind was as tired as his body. He had filled Ron and Hermione in about everything that had happened with Dudley and Aunt Petunia's explanations for it. He had to admit, he'd enjoyed listening to Ron and Hermione's outraged indignation to the way Harry's relatives spoke to him.
Ron kept coming up with more and more names of the twins' inventions to use on them, and even Hermione had suggested a curse or two. It warmed Harry's heart to hear them, even if he would never allow them to get into trouble for doing something to the Dursleys. He enjoyed plotting it, nonetheless.
Hermione's parents hadn't wanted to let her go – they'd only seen her once during the whole year, at Christmastime – but Hermione had insisted that she was considered an adult in the Wizarding world now, and this was something she had to do.
Ron had been much less forthcoming about how his big revelation went at the Burrow. After much needling and cajoling from Harry and Hermione, Ron had finally admitted that he'd only told his mum that he was staying at Privet Drive with Harry, not that he wasn't planning on returning to school at all come September. Hermione had scowled her disapproval and uttered something that sounded distinctly like coward.
They'd talked much more about Dudley and what Dumbledore could have done to mask Dudley's magic. Harry still had trouble reconciling himself with the idea that Dudley was a wizard. It was mind-boggling. In the end, Hermione had promised to look into it while they were staying on Privet Drive. It would be something to pass the time, and if worse came to worse, she could simply cast a Cheering Charm before they left. That would keep Dudley happy for while.
It had been very late when they'd finally crawled into bed. Harry had shown Hermione to the guestroom and suggested she add a lock to her door. Ron hadn't wanted to leave her alone, but shut up quickly after Harry suggested he stay in there with her. Harry smiled in the darkness, remembering the expression on Ron's face. Hermione had transfigured Harry's desk into another bed for the night, with the promise to make some changes to Harry's room in the morning.
Harry hadn't asked Ron or Hermione about Ginny, and neither had brought her up. He couldn't decide if that was a good thing or not. He knew he should just let her go, but he'd never expected how hard that was going to be. He was doing the right thing…wasn't he? He had to keep her safe at all costs. If anything happened to her because of him…Harry didn't think he'd ever be able to survive it.
When he'd been with her these past weeks, it had felt like, for one brief shining moment in his life, he'd been normal. Nothing else had mattered. Not Voldemort, not the Horcruxes, not a prophecy. He was just Harry Potter, a sixteen-year old wizard falling in love with a beautiful, red-haired witch.
Falling in love?
Wait a minute… Where had that thought come from? Harry didn't know whether he loved Ginny or not – he hadn't even considered it before now. How was he supposed to know what love was? All he knew was the way she made him feel – so alive. She made him feel like he could do anything.
Being with Ginny had made him want more out of life.
He knew what the prophecy said, and half of him had always suspected that he was going to die, anyway. He'd just hoped he could take Voldemort with him. But she had to go and make him want more. She'd made him see the possibility of what life could be like, and, damn it, he wanted more.
Harry groaned and rolled over, viciously punching his pillow.
"Harry," Ron's voice called sleepily.
Harry froze; he'd forgotten Ron was there.
Ron was quiet for a moment, and Harry thought he'd gone back to sleep when Ron suddenly spoke again. "Ginny didn't seem pleased that I was coming here with you," he said, in a voice that was much too casual to be natural.
Harry felt as if all the air had been compressed from his lungs. "Oh," he replied in a choked voice.
Ron fell silent again, as if waiting for Harry to say something more. When Harry didn't respond, he said, "You broke up with her, didn't you?"
Harry took a deep shuddering breath. "Yeah," he replied, bracing himself in case Ron leaped upon him.
Ron sighed heavily. "I think you made the right choice," he said. "It would be too dangerous for her to come with us. You'll have a lot to make up to her when this is over, though."
To say he was surprised was a massive understatement. Still, he steeled himself for what he was about to say. "I didn't ask her to wait for me, Ron. We have no idea how long this is going to take, or if I'll even be around when it's finished."
"Don't talk like that, Harry," Ron said fiercely. "Of course you will. And she'll wait."
Ron fell silent again, and this time it was Harry who waited for him to say more. Finally, realizing that Ron wasn't going to add anything to that statement, Harry couldn't contain his curiosity. He wished he could control that hope that flared within his heart, but he couldn't. He didn't even know how to begin to try.
"How do you know?" he asked tentatively.
"She told me to take care of you," Ron said. "As if that isn't what I always do," he added with a snort.
Harry hastily swiped his eyes with the back of his hand. She does care.
"Thanks, Ron," he said, hating how gruff his voice sounded. He rolled back over on his side and listened to the sounds of insects flying outside the open window, his mind running over pleasant memories of the all-too-brief time he'd spent with Ginny.
Ron's voice once again broke the silence of the room.
"Of course, after this is all over, if you ever break her heart again, I'll have to beat you senseless."
Harry grinned into his pillow. "You could try."
"Don't think I won't."
A/N: So, there it is. Tell me what you thought. I've been working on this for quite some time now, and while I do promise to finish it, I can't promise once a week updates this time around. My beta and I discussed it, and neither of us is up to that again. Still, I'm well into writing the story, so I promise to keep the chapters coming. Originally I estimated 18 chapters, but I think it'll be more like 25. I hope that works for you.
I need to give special thanks to some people who not only kept nudging me towards writing this, but offered wonderful support, advice and feedback, as well. Kathy, Dianne, George, Ham and Dennis – you lot rock! I never would have done this without each of you.
Also thanks to my wonderful beta, Mistral who so graciously offered to take me back on despite all the work I put her through the last time. I couldn't do this without you, Rachel. I so enjoy reading the little comments you stick inside the text, lol.