A/N: This is a 25-chapter novel that I've just completed writing. I wanted to wait until it was done before I posted it anywhere, and now it's ready! I realize that it may seem odd that I'm posting a pre-HBP novel now, but the first half of it was already written before HBP was released. It is a 7th Year fic, but does not take HBP into account.
I'm planning to post a new chapter each week. Thanks for reading and reviewing!
Dedicated to Bret, my lovely beta, who asked all the right questions. I couldn't have done it without you.
The Gryffindor common room was strewn with wrapping paper and ribbons; a warm fire crackled in the hearth. The handful of students who had decided to stay at Hogwarts for the Christmas holidays lounged on comfy chairs or stretched on the floor, chatting and examining their newest possessions.
Fifteen-year-old Ginny Weasley curled up in a chair with Crookshanks, the ugly but cuddly orange cat belonging to her friend, Hermione Granger.
"Where's Harry gone?" asked Hermione, lifting her head from her newly acquired book From Medieval to Modern: A History of the Most Influential Witches in Britain and looking around the room.
"Think he said he was going for a walk," Ginny's brother, Ron, answered from the floor where he was making his way through a box of his mother's fudge and flipping through the latest Martin Miggs comic books he had just received.
"Good," said Hermione, returning to her book, "he looked like he could use some fresh air."
The three of them had chosen to stay at Hogwarts for Christmas this year to keep Harry company. They couldn't bear the thought of him being alone, especially now. It had been a grueling year for him, having suffered horrors that no sixteen-year-old boy should have to endure. The death of his godfather that summer had tossed him through the breaking point, and as he'd started his sixth year, he had withdrawn so far into himself that his friends feared he might never recover. But time has a way of healing wounds, and in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Harry had seemed to respond to the flurry of activity around the castle. Slowly, he began to emerge from the darkness that had shrouded him.
"That sounds like a nice idea, actually," said Ginny, stretching so that Crookshanks leapt off her lap. "I could do with some fresh air too. Looks lovely outside." She climbed the stairs to her room, grabbed her cloak and red knit mittens, and headed for the portrait hole.
Hermione watched as the other girl crossed the room. "Ginny, if you see Harry…" she began in a gentle warning tone.
"I'm not going to find Harry, Hermione, I'm just going for a walk. I won't bother him." Between Hermione and Mrs. Weasley, Ginny thought that Harry had quite enough mother hens worrying over him. She didn't need to add to it.
The front doors of the castle opened to a bright, crisp day. Her breath made clouds in the air as she tramped across the frosty lawn, past the Quidditch pitch, and around to the top of the cliffs behind Hogwarts. This was her favorite place, the cliffs. Not many students dared to venture so near to the edge, and she found it was a perfect spot for when she wanted to be alone.
She picked her way down an old staircase carved in the rocks, which was officially off-limits to students and kept for emergency uses only, but they had become as familiar to her as the trees she'd climbed as a child back at the Burrow. At the bottom, smooth water lapped against the rocks and disappeared into the opening in the cliff wall where the first-years traditionally arrived by boat. After a few minutes of silent contemplation, she turned and made her way to the edge of the rocky beach where the lawn sloped down to meet the lake. She continued along to a grove of trees marking the beginnings of a wide stream, but she realized too late that another person had already claimed this spot. A thin, dark-haired boy sat on a rock, tossing pebbles into the stream.
"Oh, Harry, I'm sorry. I didn't see you there, I was just out for a walk. I'll go another way; you probably want to be alone."
Harry hadn't noticed her and started in recognition of her voice. He skipped another rock along the surface of the water without looking at her and stood up. She turned to leave, but stopped at the sound of his voice.
"No, I think I've been alone for long enough."
Something told her that he wasn't just talking about this particular day.
"Walk with me?" he asked. She gave him a sympathetic smile as he fell into step beside her. They continued along the path beside the stream in silence. Harry shoved his hands deep into his pockets.
Ginny glanced up at Harry to see if he wanted to stop and rest, but he was still walking along slowly, staring out at the water. She must have imagined it. The water burbled over rocks and under low branches, drowning out the sounds of their footsteps. But after a few minutes, there it was again.
They reached the low stone wall at the edge of the Hogwarts border, barring them from continuing on. Ginny gestured to the right, and Harry nodded silently.
Harry drew his elbows closer to him and hunched his shoulders against the brisk air. The grass crunched beneath their feet as they stepped off the path and turned to head back toward the castle.
And then Ginny began to understand what was happening. Because even though she had felt these things emanating from Harry as clearly as if he had said them, he had not spoken a single word.
Chapter 1 - Coming Home
Harry Potter opened his eyes to the early morning sun at Number Four Privet Drive for the last time and took a deep breath of warm summer air. It was July 31, his seventeenth birthday, and from this day forward he would be considered a fully-fledged, of-age wizard, no longer forced to live under the magical protection that his aunt and uncle's home had afforded him. Arthur Weasley, the father of his best friend, Ron, had used his connections at his Ministry of Magic office to secure a car to bring Harry straight to the Burrow, which would be listed as his official place of residence as he entered his last year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry stretched and reached for his glasses on the nightstand only to find three owls perched around his room, bearing birthday wishes. He sat up and grabbed Ron's owl, the small, energetic Pigwidgeon, so that he could release him first as he was beginning to annoy the other owls. Once he had untied a small parchment from Pig's leg, the owl zoomed around the room twice before finding his way out the window. Harry shook his head as he unrolled the letter.
I know you'll be here later today. Just wanted to be the first to wish you Happy Birthday. So, you're finally of age! We'll have to see if we can scare up some trouble doing magic while you're here. Mum's planning a little party for you tonight, you know how she is. See you soon.
Ron had turned seventeen the previous spring at the end of their sixth year. But unlike his brothers, Fred and George, he hadn't felt it was necessary to use magic at every turn just because he was legally allowed. He and Hermione had decided to wait to take their Apparition Tests until Harry could join them. Hermione had already turned seventeen as well, but as she delighted in pointing out to them, one could not Apparate or Disapparate on the Hogwarts grounds anyway, so it made no difference to her if they had to wait. They couldn't imagine taking the test without Harry.
He turned to a tawny post owl holding a rectangular package with Hermione's neat writing on it. The owl took the treat he offered and flew out the window as he unwrapped the package and read the letter first.
Happy Birthday! I wish I could be with you today and give you a big hug and tell you how proud I am of you. But, this gift will have to do. I read that it's traditional to give wizards one of these when they turn seventeen, so I hope no one else has gotten one for you.
I'm traveling in France with my parents on holiday this week, but I'll be at the Burrow for a week in mid-August so we can all take our Apparition Tests together. I can't wait! See you then.
Opening the box, he pulled out a wand holster made of soft leather. He had often noticed other wizards wearing these and smiled as he snaked the strap around his waist and tried it on. The last owl bore a small chocolate raspberry birthday cake from a bakery in Hogsmeade, courtesy of Hagrid. As much as Harry loved him, he was very grateful that Hagrid had sent a bakery cake rather than trying to make one himself, as Hagrid's creations tended to border on the inedible. He retrieved a small fork from inside the box and ate several large mouthfuls before setting it aside.
Looking out of his window at the sun rising steadily higher, Harry stood up. It would be time to leave soon. He dressed and finished packing his gifts and personal belongings into his trunk, thankful that he could now use his wand to magically expand the inside to accommodate everything and still have room for his Firebolt. His stomach rumbled. He hoped that he could get through breakfast quickly and be on his way when the Ministry car arrived, then realized it was unlikely that Aunt Petunia had even made breakfast for him, probably hoping that he would leave faster if she didn't feed him. He dug out Hagrid's box again and quickly finished off the rest of the cake before thumping down the stairs with his trunk and Hedwig's cage.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he pulled the curtain aside and saw a large black car waiting for him on the street. He looked around for a moment before saying in a loud voice, "I'm leaving!" A scraping sound came from the kitchen, and his aunt and uncle emerged into the hallway, Uncle Vernon dabbing his greasy mustache with a napkin and Aunt Petunia wiping her hands on a dishtowel as they stood in front of him.
Harry exchanged stiff goodbyes with them, his guardians for the past sixteen years. They did not try to pretend that they were sad to see him go, but Uncle Vernon held out his hand as a parting gesture and mumbled, "Good luck, boy, with whatever nonsense it is that you're going to do now," while Aunt Petunia said, "You haven't left anything behind, have you? Because I won't be sending it along if you have." And then, in a rare moment of regret and pity for her only sister's son, she embraced him rigidly (the only time Harry could ever remember her hugging him at all) saying, "Be sure to keep out of trouble," and then withdrew behind her husband, looking down and pretending to smooth her skirt. His cousin, Dudley, could not even be bothered to haul his fat behind off the couch where he sat laughing at one of the mindless television programs that he watched endlessly.
"Goodbye," Harry said with a forced smile before wheeling his trunk, containing all of his earthly belongings, and Hedwig's cage out the door to where the Ministry car and driver stood waiting for him. He looked up in surprise when he recognized the driver's face, hidden behind his black cap.
"Hello, Harry," said his old professor. "Everything alright, I trust?"
"What are you doing here? Did the Order send you?"
Remus nodded. "We thought it best that one of us accompany you to the Burrow, just as an extra precaution. I volunteered for the job."
Harry had become somewhat accustomed to the fact that he was under the special protection of the Order of the Phoenix ever since Lord Voldemort's return two years before. He mostly felt their presence during school holidays when he was away from Hogwarts, but now it was comforting to see the face of an old friend. The constant threat of Voldemort was in the back of everyone's minds, with the attacks that had been occurring sporadically. They were all waiting for the next one, knowing it was inevitable.
He handed his things over and turned to look at the house once more. Images flashed through his mind - the cupboard under the stairs where he had been forced to live for ten years of his life, believing that his parents had died in a car crash, being beaten up by Dudley and despised by his aunt and uncle. He pushed those thoughts from his mind now and left them in a heap on Uncle Vernon's manicured front lawn. They were in his past now, and he didn't ever want them cluttering his head again. He had enough to occupy his mind these days.
"Good riddance," he said under his breath, climbing in the car, and relaxing into the soft gray interior. He didn't look back as the car pulled away from the curb, and he allowed himself to let go. He was free.
As the car traveled leisurely through Little Whinging, Harry thought back to a conversation he'd had with Professor Dumbledore at the end of his sixth year, just over a month before. The headmaster had asked to meet with Harry to discuss what would happen after he turned seventeen.
"Harry, I know you understand that when I placed you with the Dursleys as a baby, it was for your own protection."
"Yes, I know that, sir," Harry had said uncomfortably, not sure why Dumbledore was bringing up this subject again.
"But I also understand how unpleasant that situation has been for you, so I have taken the liberty of arranging other accommodations for you once you come of age on your next birthday. That is, if you agree, of course."
Harry sat up straighter. He had always dreamed of being able to live with his godfather, Sirius, one day. But now Sirius was gone, and he had nearly been crushed from the weight of that loss. If it couldn't be with Sirius, there was only one other place he'd rather live.
"I have contacted Arthur and Molly Weasley and they have graciously agreed to offer their home as your place of residence for as long as you wish." Dumbledore smiled as Harry's face lit up in surprise. "The Burrow, as you know, has its own strong magic and Arthur has assured me that the wards will be reinforced prior to your arrival."
"Thank you, sir. I don't know what to say." Harry felt elated at the thought of finally being able to leave the Dursleys forever.
Dumbledore inclined his head. "You're welcome. Even though you have certainly proven that you can take care of yourself time and time again, I know that I, and those who care about you, want nothing more than to see you happy and with those you love. However," he continued, "I must remind you to remain cautious. When you come of age, you will no longer be looked upon as a child in the wizarding world, but as an adult. And while I am sure you are looking forward to all of the freedoms that will afford you, there are drawbacks as well."
"You mean Voldemort," Harry began. "I understand my responsibility, sir. I know it's only a matter of time before I have to face him again."
"I'm sure you do, Harry, though it is not Lord Voldemort to whom I am referring. He is a threat to you no matter what your age, and I know you feel that deeply enough not to have to dwell on it here. No, I am referring to a less evil, though equally cunning, group of people… the Press."
"The Press?" Harry said blankly. "What have they got to do with me being an adult?"
"You were not aware, but from the time you arrived at Hogwarts, I have made it clear to the Wizarding Press that they would not be permitted to interfere with your upbringing or schooling. Special wards were put up here and at the Dursleys which prevented any photographers or reporters that would wish to exploit you from gaining access to you."
"But what about…"
"Rita Skeeter." Dumbledore sighed. "Yes, I'm afraid she was a necessary evil that I would have rather avoided. But with the Triwizard Tournament being an international event, I could hardly forbid press coverage of it. It would have reflected badly not only on this school but on our relationships with the other schools that were participating. I am only sorry that she caused you undue stress during what was already a horrific year for you. It did, however, strengthen my resolve to keep the Press from exploiting you further. And fortunately, Miss Granger disposed of Rita quite nicely if I remember," he chuckled.
"But the purpose of this chat, Harry, is so that you may understand that once you turn seventeen, the Press will most likely no longer grant you the wide berth that they did as an underaged wizard. You are famous and, like it or not, a symbol of hope for many during these times. As an adult, the Press will consider you fair game, and Magical Law will uphold their right to do so. The wards here at Hogwarts, and eventually at the Burrow, will remain in place to protect you, but venture outside of those protections, and you will be on your own. Do you understand?"
Harry stared at his hands clasped in his lap, taking in Dumbledore's words. He had never really taken the time to think about it, but with the exception of Rita Skeeter, he had, in fact, led a relatively anonymous life since entering the wizarding world. The press attention he had received was during times he had been thrown into the public spotlight - especially during and after the Triwizard Tournament - but he had to admit he had not been hassled in his everyday life. He hated the fact that he was famous and that his actions, intended or not, had made him into a hero, but Dumbledore was right. He supposed this was something he would just have to get used to. He looked up and nodded.
"Do you have any advice on how to handle them?"
Dumbledore sat back in his chair and looked over his spectacles at Harry. "I will only say that there may be times when it will be to your advantage to make yourself available, and times that it would be better to remain… invisible," he said with a raised eyebrow to make his meaning clear. "It will be up to you to distinguish which is which."
Harry stared out the car window as village streets gave way to country lanes, and soon they were traveling on a secluded road with wide fields on either side. Remus turned around to Harry.
"I'll be jumping to the Burrow now; just hang on to your seat."
Harry held tightly to the door handle as the car sped up a bit and disappeared with a loud crack, reappearing on a tree-lined dirt road just outside the sleepy village of Ottery St. Catchpole. They turned into an unmarked driveway between the trees and rumbled down the long, narrow path which led to the Burrow. Harry leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the house, a tightness forming in his chest as he felt once again the loss of being able to live with Sirius and learn from him, to be part of that connection with his parents, his past.
"You know, Harry," Remus said from the front, as if reading his mind, "Sirius and Molly didn't always see eye to eye about you, but he would be glad that you are living with the Weasleys now, that you're with people who care about you."
Harry took in the worn but comfortable home, its teetering frame rising up to the sky, dotted by gabled windows and smoke stacks jutting out at odd angles, and a pang of guilt nagged at him. He was being ungrateful. The Weasleys regarded him as family; maybe it was time he started thinking of them as his family as well.
"Thanks, Remus," he said.
Mrs. Weasley's short, plump frame could be seen in the front yard feeding the chickens, which skittered away at the sound of the car. She turned to see what the commotion was, but at the sight of Harry's face in the window, she broke into a smile, set down her basket, and hurried toward them. Harry opened the door and stepped out, smiling.
"Harry," Mrs. Weasley said lovingly before enveloping him in a great hug and squeezing him tight. "Welcome home."
Harry felt a lump rise in his throat as he whispered, "Thank you."
Mrs. Weasley turned to Remus, who was retrieving Harry's trunk, and chatted with him briefly. "Thank you so much, Remus, for collecting Harry. Arthur and I appreciate you taking the time out to see him here safely. Can you step in for a bite to eat?"
"My pleasure, Molly. But no, I have to be getting back," he said. "Goodbye, Harry, I'm sure we'll see each other soon." He waved and Harry watched as he drove out of sight.
The front door of the Burrow opened and a tall redhead stepped out, breaking into a grin. "Hey!" he yelled, jogging toward them. His lanky frame had filled out nicely over the past few years, and even though Harry had grown as well, his friend still stood a few inches taller.
"Hey, Ron," Harry grinned as they slapped each other on the back.
"Have you had breakfast, dear?" Mrs. Weasley asked as Ron took out his wand and levitated Harry's trunk toward the house.
"Not really, just some birthday cake that Hagrid sent," Harry said, following behind her with Hedwig's cage. Ron grimaced, but Harry quickly clarified. "A bakery cake. It was from a bakery."
"Ah," Ron nodded.
Mrs. Weasley turned. "Now really, what kind of a breakfast is that for a growing boy? You come inside and we'll fix you right up."
Harry knew better than to argue with Molly Weasley, even though he wasn't really that hungry. She set about making a fry-up for him while he looked around the kitchen, letting the smells and noises of the Burrow fill his senses, touching and picking up things here and there, willing himself to believe that this was his home. He stopped in front of the large grandfather clock that stood between the kitchen and living room when he noticed his face staring back at him from a small golden hand attached to the clock with his picture on it, pointing to the word "Home." His mouth dropped open, and he reached out to touch the hand with his name carved into the stem.
"Do you like it?" Ron had come to stand beside him, smiling. "It was Ginny's idea."
"Yeah," Harry started but had to stop and clear his throat. "Yeah, it's really…" He shook his head in wonder, speechless. Ron chuckled and thumped him on the back. Harry pulled himself away and returned to the table, tucking in to a large plate of sausages and eggs while Ron stopped at the foot of the stairs leading up out of the kitchen to the bedrooms above.
"Ginny! Harry's here!"