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Harry lay back on his bed with grim satisfaction, surveying the books he had just bought on his little spree to Knockturn Alley. It had been a whim, really, but everything had just got too much. He and his girlfriend Cho had broken up…

This led him again to wonder exactly what he had seen in her in the first place. So, she was pretty, but that was it. Why was that enough to date her? She was all wrong for him. He knew that now. There were plenty of other girls who were just as good-looking, though girls were just so complicated. He didn't really know how he felt about any. Hermione, since she'd shrunk her teeth, Parvati Patil, Ginny–

He stopped right there. Think of what Ron would say. Trying not to think about how seeing Ginny with Michael had made him feel, he carried on mentally listing his woes.

Sirius was dead. Dead, and he's not coming back. He was still desperately trying to somehow make his death unreal. It didn't happen. It couldn't have. But when he wondered about the outcome of going back in time to save him, every book that would tell him how to do it warned him that he could muck up the whole of history. It was Hermione who had stopped him doing it regardless.

"You can't, Harry, there are some things that you just can't do. Your attitude puts far too much emphasis on individuals. You've got to think of the wider picture. You can't send all of history wonky."

Harry acknowledged the truth of this, but his eyes burned to think that he would no longer be receiving letters from the closest thing to a parent he had known. The loss still pierced him like a physical blow, though the pain was growing dimmer. Then he felt it was dishonourable to Sirius' memory to feel less pain. He did not know what to think, so he moved on.

The Dursleys. Dudley seemed a little bit different from the boy he had known. He was quieter, and politer. Aunt Petunia – he didn't know what to think. She seemed grateful for the fact that she owed her son's soul to Harry, but she didn't appear to be able to sort out her feelings towards owing her son's life to a part of the world she so hated: a wizard; a spell. And Uncle Vernon. The reason Harry had gone on that wild goose-chase of a trip in the first place. His way of dealing with the fact that he owed his son's soul to the Patronas charm Harry had cast last summer was to convince himself that Dudley would have been better off dead, or soulless, than saved by a wand. And he'd said so, with plenty of salt and sugar about wizards in general, and Harry in particular. Harry had tried contacting Tonks, Mad-eye and Mr Weasley, who had promised to help if necessary last year, but nothing was forthcoming.

Which was why Harry had made a quiet little floo trip to Knockturn Alley to acquire a few rather nasty books on potion-brewery that he could use without evoking the Trace and being expelled under the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery. Besides the expert-standard potions that needed power from the potioneer, a spell in the form of a potion was undetectable in the way ordinary charms were. So Hermione had mentioned in her latest letter, and he devoutly hoped she was right.

He opened the first of the books. No, he couldn't do that to Uncle Vernon, much as he might deserve it. He did not want to simulate werewolf venom, though the idea of his uncle suddenly finding himself with lycanthropy was attractive. No, not a potion to induce Alzheimer's. Not vampire venom, either. Not a substitute for dragon's blood – that was bound to be dangerous. These potions were truly evil. He wouldn't touch anything in this book.

The next seemed a little safer. Ah, this one promised to convince the victim that his loved ones kept becoming snails for a second every five minutes. Vernon would think he had gone mad. Wonderful. He had just lit the fire under the cauldron when he heard the crack of an apparator. Startled, he looked around, but not being bowled over by an excited Dobby, he dismissed it. He must have imagined it.

Soon, the green spiral fumes were rising from the cauldron. Harry concentrated. Potions wasn't his forte, and he had to get this right. Uncle Vernon deserved it. Yes, it smelled of coconut. Next. Three bones from a bat's wing. One sopophorous bean, whole. Two cups of desiccated beetle eyes. Excellent. His cauldron seethed violet. He bent low to examine it. Perfect. He could see snail shapes in the cauldron, just right too. Now his uncle could suffer.

He suddenly threw down the potions book, sickened with himself. He had gone to the street of the Dark Arts for the petty purpose of punishing the idiot who was his uncle? What was the matter with him? He hated the world, he was going mad, there it was again: Sirius was dead. He felt as though a part of Harry had died too – the good part, the part that would never torment a relatively harmless muggle. No, it wasn't that. Why was he doing this?

His mind, sharpened with mental pain, gave him the answer. He was distracting himself from his loss. And he would have to ask Dumbledore if he could leave Privet Drive. Now. Ron's house would give him a better atmosphere to get rid of his grief.

Besides, why wasn't anyone writing back to him? Not Ron, his father, Hermione, Mad-eye – not even Professor Dumbledore! He was stuck here with no way out. Despite everyone's assurances, this summer was as bad as the last. Or perhaps something had happened to everyone – no. He wasn't going to think that, just as he was slowly healing from the shock of losing Sirius. There must be another reason.

"If only you could talk, you'd tell me what's up," he said worriedly to his owl.

He heard the sound of a clearing throat.

Slowly, unwillingly, he lifted his eyes and met the cold, dead black ones of Severus Snape.