Harry leveraged himself slowly up into a seated position, glaring blearily at his flashing alarm clock. It was already hot in Dudley's spare room, he noted. That didn't look good for the gardening later today. Maybe, he reflected, if he got started early, he could finish before the real heat of the day.
Harry swung his legs over the edge of his bed and rubbed his eyes, considering his options. After a moment, he decided to owl Hermione and Ron, first. With letters to look forward to, it would be a lot easier to get through the day's work. Grabbing a Bic pen (his quills, despite being entirely non-magical, had been confiscated immediately upon arrival) Harry found a piece of lined notebook paper in one of his desk drawers amoungst old, broken toys of Dudley's, and began a note to Ron. Five minutes later, he addressed one to Hermione, a much more careful and thoughtful letter that assured the bushy-haired girl that he had already completed every assignment for school – a record, as tomorrow was his birthday – and that he was doing rather well, thanks. The Dursleys were being downright civil this summer, which Harry personally attributed to Mad-Eye Moody's threatening Uncle Vernon with torture or worse.
He clucked to Hedwig, then explained to the snowy owl that he figured Hermione and Ron to both be at the Burrow by this point. The owl dipped her head in acknowledgement, but he could swear that she turned her beak up at the crumpled notebook paper secured with twine. He fed her an owl treat to placate her, then sent her on her way.
This early, there wasn't much in the way of activity at Number Four, Privet Drive, Harry noted as he slipped down the stairs and into the kitchen. Petunia was already starting breakfast, but she was yawning and not yet fully dressed. Harry looked blankly at the lowfat yogurt she was spooning into little dishes and sighed. When Harry'd complained that the family-inclusive diet continued, Hermione had told him that it was no use. I've read all about it; Dudley would be far better off eating decent meals in decent quantities than in starving himself completely. He won't lose any weight at that rate. Harry, in this vein, occasionally snuck his cousin some eggs on wheat toast, when Aunt Petunia gave him lunch. He was silently debating whether he had forgiven his cousin to the point that he would share his birthday cake with the other boy.
He had no doubts that Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were eating any time they were outside the house, and hated them more rather than less for doing the same to Dudley as they were to him.
"There's the weeding to do today," Aunt Petunia reminded him, as if he would forget. "Since Dudders has been losing so much weight, some of the shirts Aunt Marge sent him are a tad too husky; you're welcome to them," she continued, sounding as though he was anything but welcome.
Harry refrained from snorting; sure, Dudley had lost some weight, but that only brought him down to the size they still allowed on theme park rides. Anything that was too big for Dudley was bound to make him look a right idiot. "Yes, thank you," he said politely. After all, she hadn't yet insulted him. He could almost imagine he was having a normal conversation with a normal person.
Harry didn't need to be told twice. He loped over to the tool shed and withdrew the fussy flowered gloves that Aunt Petunia favored, along with a hand-fork to loosen tough soil; then he sank abruptly in front of the first bed of flowers.
Harry had gotten his OWLs back and was startled to note that he'd somehow managed an Outstanding on his Potions OWL. It meant that he had to endure another full year with his least-favorite professor, but it meant more than that. It meant that it wasn't his imagination that Professor Snape not only treated him unfairly in class, but also graded him unfairly. It meant that he'd have another class without Ron, who had been unforgivably gleeful about his own Acceptable. It actually meant, as Hermione had informed him crisply, that he'd be joining the other five members of the class who'd managed such a grade. Hermione was one, of course, and Hermione knew – somehow, Harry couldn't begin to imagine – that Draco Malfoy was another.
He was looking forward to that class like he was his next battle with Voldemort. He could just imagine Snape's look of shock and surprise, slowly altering to the familiar dislike he so often wore when he looked at Harry. He could hear the Potion Master's voice now: Mister Potter, in my Advanced Potions class? When he was in Remedial Potions a mere six months ago? There must be some sort of error, Potter, wouldn't you agree? He was wondering if Professor Snape could continue to grade him so harshly, even when an unbiased observer had deemed his potion-making skills remarkable.
Harry winced unconsciously, tossing the weeds into a small pile to his right.
Not all of the plants employed in potion-making were exclusive to the wizarding world; in fact, the bulk of them could be found easily in field and meadow – and in certain gardens. Harry found himself absently using Aunt Petunia's to study. It gave his brain something to focus on while he worked, distancing his thoughts from the glare of the sun and the sting of sore muscles. After the first couple of times, he realized that he was thinking unconsciously about the difficult paper he'd heard Snape assigned all of his sixth-years, and a plan slowly began to form in his mind.
It had started last Wednesday as he was weeding, staring at the lobelia and attempting to recall what its uses were in Potion-making. It was a sedative, he remembered that much, although in which potions he couldn't recall. On the heels of that was the realization that it was also used in a universal antidote, one which healed the effects of a wide variety of harmful substances. When he reached the morning glories growing trained around both fence posts on either side of the front yard, he's searched his memory until he recalled that the seeds were for finding lost objects and in a potion for fearlessness, known as Cour de Leon.
On a hunch, he'd gone to the local library and searched out the plants in Muggle books. Sure enough, their uses only differed in interpretation, sparking Harry's interest. Were the uses of the plants passed down from wizard to Muggle – from Muggle to wizard, even? He was willing to acknowledge that their uses might have been discovered independently by both groups, but if so, then he could argue Potions as a mere subset of Plant Chemistry, writing a brilliant paper that would, not incidentally, absolutely infuriate Professor Snape. It would be a paper that would turn the wizarding world on its head, implying that the 'subtle art that was potion-making' was really quite thoroughly Muggle in origin.
He hadn't informed Hermione of the ambition, but he was planning on working very hard in Potions this year. He'd come to the slow realization over the summer that the Professor's attitude might not be as much of an obstacle as it seemed. Harry forced himself to admit that he came to class unprepared and made no secret of how much he disliked the Professor. While the latter wasn't likely to alter, he could certainly do something about the former. Snape typically asked him questions, and when he didn't know the answer, derided him. Harry was determined that, this year, Snape would have to find a new tack. He was going to become an Auror, and nothing Severus Snape could say or do would stop him, even if he had to work twice as hard as anyone else just to make it through a lesson.
Dudley loped out into the bright sunlight, squinting against the glare. "Mum says it's time for breakfast, Harry."
Harry stood, tossed the gloves atop the growing pile of weeds, and moved inside.
Aunt Petunia barred the door. "You! Don't you set foot in this kitchen! You're filthy! What possessed you to go out before breakfast?"
He frowned, agitated that he still had to look up to look her in the eye. He was wondering when he was going to grow, as Ron already had. "You told me–" he began, before sighing and slumping in defeat. He was helpless, in a way. He could not do magic, and he could not hurt her physically – it wasn't in him, though he'd thought about it dozens of times, even to the point of detail – what weapon he'd use, how he'd wait until Uncle Vernon left for work – but it was no use. And most of him was very happy for that, blindingly grateful to find himself incapable of such a thing.
That decent part of him was hiding, now, though. He wanted nothing more than to bash her duplicitous skull in, and it was only his control that kept him from doing so.
"You can eat when you're through out here," Aunt Petunia continued, as though conceding a point. She slammed the door in his face.
Harry growled inarticulately, his wand hand itching, before whirling back to the flowers. His stomach rumbled, and he had the absurd and simultaneous urges to burst into tears and tear every flower out of the soil that housed it. He rapidly submerged both impulses, but the effort left him breathless, feeling empty as a clapperless bell, a familiar feeling that sped his heartbeat.
Harry gazed around, wondering what it was that he'd done, and unable to detect anything out of the ordinary. He frowned, leaning once again over the flower bed, the motion now mechanical rather than determined. His mind felt achingly blank.
After nearly an hour, the back door opened again. Harry realized that Dudley had brought his food out so that he could finish eating outside, in front of Harry, but Harry couldn't bring himself to care very much.
It was only when Dudley placed the plate next to Harry that he realized what the other boy was really doing. "Thanks," Harry mumbled, still unsure what to do about these sudden surges of kindness that seemed to occasionally grip his cousin.
Dudley nodded, also looking awkward, then retreated to one of the lawn chairs, perching at the edge. It was an odd sight, Harry reflected as he snatched suddenly at the food and shoved it in his mouth. There was no telling when Aunt Petunia might pop back out, after all. Dudley waited until he was finished before speaking, a courtesy Harry wouldn't have thought him capable of. "I got the books you wanted," he finally interjected.
Harry frowned, trying to parse the sentence. It didn't help that he was dehydrated and still feeling the shaky expenditure of too much energy. "Books?" he echoed stupidly.
"Books. You recall. 'If I only had these books, even Muggle ones, I could possibly begin to be prepared for the school year –' " he quoted in a vain, high-pitched voice.
Harry flushed. "I didn't know you'd actually get me any," he replied rapidly, before he could think to censor his words. "The – the Muggle ones... what was I talking about?"
"I guess you don't really need them after all, then?" Dudley inquired, sounding even more put-out. "So you were just ranting aimlessly? Fine." He stood angrily and stalked back into the house.
Harry stared after him, trying to will the conversation to come back to him. It was surprisingly difficult. He still felt slow and almost dazed. Maybe he'd been in the sun too long.
When he'd finished, and rinsed himself off, he entered his bedroom to find that a small stack of library books had been dumped on his bed. They were all Botany volumes, except for one, which was Plant Chemistry.
Dudley was definitely getting half of his cake.
By the time evening rolled around, Harry was happy to be lying down and awaiting his birthday presents. Every muscle ached. He busied himself by flipping through the book on Botanical Medicine, correlating it with his first-year Potions text that he'd managed to save from Uncle Vernon. He was amazed at how many different plants had similar uses in an ostensibly magical potion as they did in a Muggle preparation. He was just wondering how he'd go about proving who had discovered what, when a tap sounded at the window. He leapt up to allow Hedwig, Errol, and Pig into the bedroom.
Hedwig and Errol were both carrying a cake so heavy that Harry wondered that they'd made it at all, and undiscovered; Pig had a small package tied to one leg, but was whizzing about so happily that it took Harry ten full minutes before he managed to snag the small owl.
Harry untied the string from Pig's leg and released the tiny bird. Peering in the half-light of the streetlamp outside his window, Harry examined the package in his hands.
It was small, with silver-and-gold shimmering paper that had obviously been bought in a wizarding shop. Tearing the paper carefully revealed a beautiful gold sphere that reminded Harry of a shimmering snitch. It glimmered and pulsed in his hands.
It took a moment before Harry realized that Hedwig was standing patiently on his dressing-table, offering her leg. Untying the parchment revealed both Ron and Hermione's writing.
Hope all is going well with your family. I'm ever so glad to hear that they're
treating you better. It's about time!
I'm amazed you've completed all of your assignments. Well, I'd better
tell you, or Ron will do it for me; I haven't completed all of mine. Are you
certain you truly understood the reading Professor Snape gave us on the uses
of anemone tincture in calming potions? The fifth and seventh questions are
bothering me, honestly, although the rest is rather simple. I'm sure you've
noted, as I have, that we've more Potions assignments than in all of the other
classes put together. I'd heard Snape expects a lot from his sixth-year students,
but I hadn't imagined it would be this challenging!
Anyway, we're hoping you can come visit before we have to go to
Hogsmeade, but if you can't, I'll understand. As much as I'd love to see you,
the three of us don't tend to get much work done when we're together, and the
last thing you need is to get on Snape's bad side so early in the term.
Happy Birthday Harry! We'll see you in Hogsmeade if not before.
Let's meet in the Leaky Cauldron, all right?
Harry felt his throat go dry with sudden anxiety, and grabbed his pen to scribble a rapid note to Hermione: What anemone? Never got any papers. Send that along with copies of ALL supplemental materials, and retied it to Pigwidgeon. After feeding Pig a small owl treat, he tossed the bird out the window and stared blankly ahead, too wired to sleep. He felt terrified, and oddly betrayed. Why hadn't he received the Potions materials? Was Professor Snape in such disbelief about his grade that it had been contested? Was he not in Advanced Potions?
He retrieved his Hogwarts letter and smoothed it out, scanning it again just to be certain. There it was, on official stationary, his placement in Advanced Potions, Advanced Herbology, Advanced Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Advanced Charms, along with a list of the required texts. Nowhere had he ever received a note discussing any summer work from Snape. He groaned, realizing he should have known better than to imagine, even for a moment, that the sadistic Potions professor would do something so kind as refrain from assigning homework during a vacation.
No; the only possible reason he hadn't received anything from Snape was that Snape hadn't sent it.
Not to him.
Harry bristled, his fists clenching. The crinkle of paper alerted him to the fact that he was still holding Ron's letter. Unfurling it carefully, he examined it in the dim light.
Hermione's actually fussing over homework already! And I can see that she didn't even bother to say why we wanted you to come early. The long and short of it is that Bill's gotten engaged, and the entire family – and I mean the entire family – is here to meet her. Mum says we'd love to have you here too.
The ball is a Dark detector from me and Hermione. It's Hermione's work, mostly. It'll light up green when you're around a witch or wizard who's up to no good. It also glows red when the person means you well, and other colors fill in the sort of everyday in-between intentions. Hermione held it all day, and it was a sort of purplish color most of the time, which we reckon means something in the middle.
P.S. – Don't let the Muggles get you down!
Harry then examined the cake, which looked to be a rich double-chocolate layer treat. He breathed in the scent, allowing it to calm him, to remind him he was cared-for. He sliced a piece off, slapped it unceremoniously into his hand and proceeded to eat it, trying not to think of Potions, or Hogwarts even, or anything but the sweetness of a birthday, and friends who unfailingly remembered him each and every year.
Once he'd eaten all he could hold, he was back to pondering his fate. He had a week until classes started, and although Hermione was the only person he knew who could possibly understand an emergency request for assignments, he doubted that they would come in time. Moreover, he doubted that the Dursleys would let him stay holed up in here in order to complete the work that he needed to.
His plan to show up to Potions brilliant and over-prepared was falling to dust around him. It seemed he was up to Plan B – copying off of Hermione.
No, Harry suddenly decided. No, I got into that class because of my score, which means I can do this. Today I decided nothing Snape does is going to phase me, and that includes this... I'll be fine. I'll just do a couple of hours' work before I go to sleep each night. I can manage that much...
Feeling a bit better, Harry stowed his cake under a loose floorboard, then placed the yellow bauble into his desk drawer. It shone a soothing gold that winked out the moment his hands left it. He yawned widely and collapsed into bed, arranging himself comfortably while Errol and Hedwig did the same. The sounds that the owls made were comforting, the ruffle of feathers and soft keening noises reminding him of Hogwarts.
Before he knew it, Harry was asleep.
Onward! (But first... review!)