"You know, there are times I think about everything I've been through, how it's made me into who I am and what I believe in... and then there are times I wish I were a brick." -Harry Potter to Hermione Granger, on the Hogwarts Express back to London. June, 1995.

~ Chapter 1: It Started With a Kiss ~

"Dudley, you idiot!"

Harry clutched his nose, which was now dripping blood. Dudley lumbered off into the dark alleyway blindly, shoving Harry aside roughly into the cement walls as he attempted to escape the unnatural and heavy darkness that had descended on them both. As Harry dazedly tried to right himself, he realized that his wand was gone. It must have been knocked from his hand as well. He looked around for it wildly but it was impossible in the darkness.

"Damn it! Dudley come back, there's more than one!"

Dementors! Why the hell are there Dementors here? In Little Whinging!

"Light, I need light," he muttered, still fumbling around for his wand. "Where is it? Lumos!" Desperation made him say the spell, though he knew it was stupid without his wand. A bright light a number of meters to his left illuminated a small pocket of the alleyway. With no time to marvel at the spell actually working, Harry scrambled forwards only to watch as the light immediately vanished, the alleyway filled with the distinctly heavy sound of a body hitting the ground.

Harry's hands met with the plump body of his cousin who was shivering and whimpering on the ground, unable to move any longer. He must have run towards the light the moment he saw it and tripped. About to say something scathing, Harry's voice caught as his hand brushed a smooth piece of wood. Reinvigorated, he grasped it quickly and pulled it out from under his cousin, ready to defend them both- with a four inch piece of broken wand.

"Shit..."

Rage at his cousin flared and was extinguished in the same breath. It simply didn't matter; they were surrounded. Harry could feel them drawing closer, the cold darkness pressing in on him like he was deep underwater, suffocating him. With the loss of his wand, his burst of adrenaline was gone, and in its place was the awareness of his mother's desperate pleading, deciding to give herself instead of fighting in futility. Voldemort's cruel laughter as he ended her life. The back of his mind was dimly aware of himself trying, and failing, to cast a Patronus with a four inch stick. It was almost comical.

The wand fragment slid from his limp fingers as the Dementor's cold hands found their way onto his body. One held his left shoulder while the other forced his head to tilt back, their grip like steel. Harry was leaning limply against Dudley who had certainly lost consciousness. He vaguely wondered if the Dementors would be able to turn the fat lump over to get at his mouth.

Rattling cold breath drew his fading awareness back to his reaper. This was it. A few more seconds and his life would be over. Worse than over. Harry had heard before that in times of imminent death, people would see their life flash before their eyes.

Suffice it to say, it wasn't much of a highlight reel.

Xx~ Many weeks earlier ~xX

The day of Voldemort's return marked many things for the Wizarding world. It was the advent of death, destruction, and change, for better or for worse, wrapped carefully in a blanket of quiet anticipation, invisible to all but a few. However for one teenaged boy in particular, it only meant night after night of restless sleep, plagued by nightmares. Since returning from school there had yet to be a night uninterrupted, and this one was no different.

Harry awoke with a start, sweat covering his body. His scar twinged painfully in the darkness, which had an unnatural closeness to it. It took him a moment to realize that he was staring at the underside of his bed. He must have fallen out of it while thrashing around and wound up in this position. The mummy-like grip his sheet had on his body certainly attested to that fact, at least.

He did his best to extricate himself from the awkward position and sat up, leaning his back against the hard wooden frame of the small bed, taking slow breaths to calm the tenseness he was feeling. The scar gave another painful twinge, making him wince. It always hurt, ever since that day nearly a month ago. A dull ache that had become as familiar and unwelcome as the sight of his damned relatives. His heart rate was calmer now and he let his head fall back onto the worn mattress in weariness.

Another dream of the graveyard. Of Cedric's lifeless body, his eyes empty and staring. Trying and failing to escape from the mass of Death Eaters, his wand to heavy to lift, his body too sluggish to run. And he would wake much like he did today, breathing heavily and banging his head on the bed frame.

Sometimes though, Harry would find himself in a much different setting. Meetings with hooded figures. The execution of a Muggle family. Moments of quiet as he looked out of a window to darkened grounds beyond, always focusing in at the last second on his snake-like reflection. The red eyes that met his own.

Lord Voldemort. The freshly returned nightmare of Britain's past.

And yet, Harry had been dealing with bad dreams the same way his whole life. Given enough time, sleep would eventually come and once more become something to take away his troubles, if only temporarily.

A rustle of feathers drew his attention to the open window where Hedwig perched, watching him silently. Her head tilted minutely and she hooted softly. Harry just give her a tired half-smile.

"I know, girl. I'll be fine."

Apparently satisfied, his snowy owl turned and took off into the night sky, the slow sounds of her wings fading quickly into nothing.

Knowing that he should at least try to get back to sleep, he pushed himself back onto the bed and lay down. What he wouldn't give for his warm four poster bed back at school. The spare mattress the Dursleys let him use wasn't exactly the most comfortable thing he'd slept on.

Well, did it matter, anyway? Weariness always won out in the end.

Xx~xX

"Boy, what're you up to?"

Harry glanced over at Uncle Vernon to see narrowed eyes looking at him in suspicion.

"Watching the news?" Harry said flatly, his own gaze returning to the television. A newscaster was talking about an armed robbery that happened in a part of London.

"The news," repeated Vernon, his face scrunched up as if he smelled something foul. "As if a freak like you would want to know anything about our news."

"Bravo. Nothing gets past you does it?" Harry said sarcastically before he was able to stop himself. Of course, Vernon was across the room in a chair while he was leaning on the door frame. By the time the angry man stood up to beat some respect into him, Harry was already out the front door and into the blistering heat of the summer. He wasn't normally so reflexive, but his relatives definitely brought out a unique side of him.

Vernon always seemed to be on the edge of snapping when it came to Harry, even more so than usual. Apparently the ever growing contrast between the resident wizard and his own son incensed him to no end, never mind all the stuff that seemed to happen every summer he came back. It was like asking for an uneventful life was impossible. Less than that, even. His summer vacation was only about two and a half months to begin with.

It didn't take long before his feet took him to the local park. Dudley was thankfully nowhere to be seen for once. He and his gang had probably gotten into something a little less legal than normal, or else they would be here, lording it over anyone and anything in the area. Harry took the opportunity to sit in a swing that Dudley's group hadn't broken yet and propell himself as high as he could, the wind whipping his disheveled hair around slightly. Even when he was moving enough that his body went horizontal and did that small free fall before the swing became taut he didn't blink, trying to make the thing move faster. Compared to his broom it was woefully tame.

This was the absolute worst. Voldemort was active now. After more than a dozen years as a e had finally regained a body. Considering the man's past, the lack of breaking news was unnerving, to say the least. Harry had assumed that there would be mass killings and destruction almost at once but so far it was either being covered up from the Muggles extremely well or Voldemort was laying low. No odd disappearances, either. It was equally frustrating because he didn't know exactly what to expect to begin with. He knew next to nothing about the first war other than that his parents' generation had been ravaged to an extent.

Not like it would make any difference if he did. One way or another, no one was telling him a single thing as to what was going on. All he had were extremely vague letters from Ron and Hermione, who were clearly in the same place, about absolutely nothing. The only thing Harry knew was that they knew a lot more than he did, which in itself was ridiculous because he was exponentially more involved in whatever Voldemort was planning than they ever would be. But no, he was forced to contend with positively infuriating post until something changed, if ever. Or better yet, they could do what Dumbledore always did and just say that it wasn't time yet for him to know... whatever.

Wood chips and dirt launched into the air as Harry's feet viciously liberated a line of the playground's floor.

Harry hopped off the swing when the sunlight began to fade, another day wasted in pointless frustration which bled out of him with the dying light of the evening. He knew that it wasn't completely their fault. Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, and whoever else would be in a position to give him information weren't doing so for specific reasons. He understood that. That still didn't mean he couldn't be pissed about the whole situation. If they really wanted to tell him something they could, and they most certainly weren't. At least that was what he kept telling himself. It also didn't help his mood that he felt like he was being watched whenever he went out. There was never anyone there, but it was unnerving to say the least.

With a resigned sigh he began making his way back to Number Four. With any luck he'd be able to get away the rest of the night without seeing Vernon. Maybe sneak some leftovers from the fridge. The whole summer was just one maddening affair. Honestly if he didn't do something soon he'd lose it.

Xx~xX

"Leaky Cauldron."

"Right, that'll be fourteen Sickles."

Harry paid his fare before stepping onto the Knight Bus, avoiding the eyes of everyone. He had an old cap of Dudley's he'd nicked pulled low over his forehead to hide his scar. Considering its size it was perfect.

"Wos your name again?" asked Stan, looking curiously at Harry as he passed.

"None of your business, I reckon," said Harry gruffly, pulling the brim of the cap lower. He made his way to one of the seats further back, away from the irritatingly nosey Stan Shunpike. Harry looked at his reflection in the window as the bus blasted off at breakneck speeds. His mouth was traced in a half-scowl, half-grimace.

If I had greasy hair I'd look like Snape. He always looks like something crawled up his ass and died.

The thought made him smirk. Shaking his head slightly he tried to put himself in a better mood. Harry had been brooding for the hundredth time when he remembered the suicidal magical contraption that was done up to resemble a public bus. He was certain that this thing was more a tin can with seats and rockets, than a sensible mode of transportation. Bolstered by the idea of doing something, it hadn't taken him any more than five minutes to get ready for a small adventure to Diagon Alley. After all, who was there to stop him?

It seemed like no time before Harry was wandering through the winding Alley. He was through the Leaky Cauldron before Tom could even get out a proper greeting, the same being said for Gringotts, though absolutely no one there wished him anything other than a pleasant day while wearing a strained smile. It was fairly busy, the street thick with people, but not the back to school rush. It was still fairly early in the summer and the school letters hadn't arrived yet. They usually tended to come near his birthday, and that was a few weeks away.

So caught up in simply looking around, Harry didn't realize he had no idea where he was until a random witch asked him for directions to a store he'd never heard of.

"The Lavender Tea Shop? No, sorry, can't say I do."

"It's all right, dear, thanks anyway," the woman replied, moving off to ask someone else. Harry followed her with his eyes before letting them wander around.

"The hell am I?" he muttered, eyeing the unfamiliar buildings. Both sides of the street were still lined with shops, but most lacked the alliterate lettering and sounded downright normal. Well, for wizards, anyway.

A sudden flash of recognition brought Harry's mind to a screeching halt, freezing him mid stride. That person... it couldn't be!

He turned sharply to follow and was almost immediately knocked over by a large wizard with arms full of boxes, barely allowing him sight directly in front of him. Two of the boxes fell forwards, landing solidly in Harry's lap.

"Oi, watch where you're going!" the man snapped, placing down his remaining parcels to free up his arms. "Hey, get back here!"

But Harry had barely heard the man, shoving aside the fallen boxes and scrambling after the person he'd initially been trying to catch. The guy bobbed in and out of sight, the back of his head the only thing visible among the throng of people. Additionally, they were moving back to the more crowded part of the Alley, and it was becoming more difficult to keep pace and track of him. Still, Harry was relentless in his pursuit, willing enough to roughly push past people if they were taking too long to move.

Suddenly his quarry turned, entering a store on the left and vanishing from sight. Harry dashed between two startled witches and made a beeline for the same door, wrenching it open and walking inside.

"Cedric!"

Harry grabbed at the guy's arm, finally bringing him to a halt as he turned-

"Cedric-!"

"Excuse me?" the young man said in confusion, his eyes moving from Harry's to the hand that was holding his arm. Harry let go quickly.

"I... I'm sorry about that," Harry apologized, forcing himself to meet the eyes of the complete stranger he'd just followed. "I thought you were someone I knew."

"Oh, there's no trouble," the man said in understanding. Now that Harry was getting a better look at him, he realized that this man was a bit older than he first appeared, however similar his features were to Cedric's. They had the same build and hair color too. "Have you lost your friend? You sounded somewhat alarmed."

"Ah, yeah I suppose," Harry found himself answering. Suddenly he wasn't really so excited to be away from the Dursley's anymore.

"Well, don't give up looking, you'll see him eventually," the man said encouragingly. "Take care." He gave Harry a small pat on the shoulder before returning to his business, walking further into the store. Harry just closed his eyes for a second, letting out a long breath.

I'm such a fucking idiot.

Shaking his head to clear it, Harry looked around at the shop he'd blindly entered. There were various animals in cages and tanks stacked to the ceiling, hanging in places where stacks didn't work. He didn't see anything dangerous, so more than likely a pet shop. Though interestingly enough a quiet pet shop, one of the reasons he hadn't pegged it on entry. The Magical Menagerie was one part animals three parts noise, and they had a lot of animals. This place was oddly peaceful.

"Something I can help you with, kid? I'll tell you now, if we don't have it then it either doesn't exist or you shouldn't be touching it to begin with."

Harry looked over at the man who was addressing him. The shirt he was wearing had a bunch of animals moving around on it with the words 'Creature Comforts' across the top, likely the name of the shop. Harry cracked a grin as he watched a chimp swing from letter to letter and back again like they were monkey bars.

"Guess you don't get Hagrid as a customer much then, do you?" Harry answered with a chuckle. Much to his surprise the man laughed.

"You're right about that. Nothing here either big enough or deadly enough to catch his eye. I do see him from time to time, though. He visits all the magical creature shops at least a couple times a year, far as I know." Harry smiled at this, interested by the random bit of information. "But anyway, are you looking for anything in particular or just browsing? First time in here I take it?"

"Yeah. Just browsing, I guess," Harry responded, moving out of the way as two people carried a large tank complete with water and fish out of the front door. "I've already got an owl. Actually I was wondering why it was so quiet in here."

The man gave him a confused look before suddenly understanding. "Oh, you know I totally forgot about that." He quickly pulled his wand, flicking it at the far wall. Immediately, the store was filled with the sounds of animals, though at a moderate level still not where it probably should have been. "We've got the place set up to adjust the sound from all the cages at once. Sometimes I can't hear myself think. Places like the Menagerie don't do this because they'd rather hear animals screaming all day than people, especially kids." This drew a snort of mirth from Harry and the man grinned. "Anyway, if you have any questions feel free to ask anyone with one of these shirts. Mammals on the right, birds on the left, and reptiles in the back. Anything else is in the middle."

"Thanks." Harry considered what the man had said before heading to the back. The Magical Menagerie was geared to students, but maybe somewhere further in the Alley...

"Bingo."

Creature Comforts sold snakes.

Not very many types though, from the look of it. There was a massive tank that had dozens of them, all with various colors and patterns, but the fact that they weren't doing anything other than moving all over one another must have meant something. The sign said they weren't venomous either.

Oh, and they were making fun of him.

"Look, another sssstupid human. If this glass weren't here I'd eat him in a ssssingle bite!"

"He lookssss weak."

"And sssstupid!"

"Don't just sssstand there! Feed us, uselessss human!"

"Perhapssss he's looking at his ugly reflection! He sssseems frozen in shock!"

Harry's eye twitched in annoyance before he grinned maliciously. He quickly made sure he was alone before leaning in.

"You know..." he began, his words silencing the entire group of snakes as they stopped in their tracks. "I suddenly feel the desire to have a snake for my next meal. I'm sssso hungry too. Shall I eat you all?"

In an amazing display of coordination, every snake in the tank moved directly in front of him, forming nice even lines as they all stared up into his eyes.

"A sssspeaker!" they all hissed in awe, their upper snake bodies bowing as one. "Forgive ussss! We are unworthy!"

"Come again?"

x~x

Eventually Harry returned to the stores that he visited regularly, easily able to find his way back to the area he was familiar with from the pet store. His encounter with the odd cult of snakes was still causing him to chuckle at random times. He'd definitely need to visit them again as the summer went on.

Quality Quidditch Supplies kept him occupied for some time before he headed over to Eyelops just to see the owls. He always liked to check to see if they had any snowy owls as fine as Hedwig, but they never did. It made Hedwig seem even more special than she already was. Stopping by Madame Malkin's, Harry was quickly fitted for a plain black robe that he could go around in while in the Alley without sticking out too much. He also picked up some underwear. You really could never have too much underwear. Or socks, for that matter.

He'd only been in the bookstore for ten minutes before a thought struck him. Weren't there books about Voldemort? After all, there were plenty about himself. Hermione had practically introduced herself to him on the Hogwarts Express by listing a bunch of books that she'd learned about him in. A shocking experience, really. The Rise and Fall of... something? No matter, he could just ask. Any book that had him was bound to have Voldemort, and considering that Voldemort had been around long before he was, there was no doubt that even more books would have the Dark wizard.

Harry wanted to know as much as he could about what had happened. It was a reach, but perhaps by studying the earlier war he would be better prepared for this one. Voldemort wasn't stupid by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he was one of the most brilliant wizards of his generation. It was bizarre but curious to think that if he had done anything remotely positive with his life then he would have likely been placed close to, if not on Dumbledore's pedestal. Unfortunately for the world, Voldemort did go the serial killing path of apparent world domination, culling those with impure blood, and became a Dark wizard. Books would only help Harry so much, but any bit of information was better than none. Anything that might help keep him alive as any normal almost-fifteen year old would be worrying about in his day to day life.

By the time he was done, he sat in the Leaky Cauldron at about three in the afternoon, eating a well deserved late lunch. He had also ordered dinner to go for later. Hands down, this had been the best day of the summer. He would keep doing as he had been, checking the news and trying to coax out any information from anyone, but now he wouldn't be going spare in between when he was trying all that. At least he now had some new things to read that could help prepare him for what was ahead.

Xx~xX

Harry finished the final line of his Transfiguration essay with a flourish. His homework had been much easier than he initially anticipated, even though he was going into his OWL year. He wondered if Hermione had finished her homework yet. Always a chance, even though it was almost his birthday. Just one week to go. There was no question that Ron hadn't done any of his yet.

"Why the hell did we take Divination?" Harry asked himself for the thousandth time, not even bothering to do the summer assignment. What an immense waste of time. He should have taken Ancient Runes or something. The class would have been a tough one in his third year but it certainly would have been better than the bullshit that the crazy predicting bat put him through each week. Having someone predict your death every time you saw them was a bit annoying, to say the least.

Heaving another small sigh, he put away his Transfiguration and took out his Charms work. In what seemed to be a stroke of genius, Harry decided to do the most troublesome homework first and the easiest last. Potions, as the one that always required the most work, went first. Charms was his last assignment. In doing so he felt lighter after completing each one, his task becoming easier rather than harder. Putting his book on the desk, Harry glanced at a letter he had gotten earlier. The initial anger he had felt had dissipated after a few days but there was still nothing positive about how it left him now.

Harry,

It has come to my attention that you visited Diagon Alley today. Though I know your Aunt and Uncle's home is not somewhere you would rather be, there is no place safer for you. Diagon Alley and anywhere else for that matter are all vulnerable to attacks from Voldemort and his followers. It is imperative that you remain patient until we can collect you from your relatives'. Hopefully that can be some time by early August. Please do not worry us all by venturing off again. You are more important to us than you might think.

Best,

Albus Dumbledore

The letter had arrived via Fawkes a few minutes after he had returned from the Alley that day. How had Dumbledore known? Was he actually being watched somehow? It was the only letter he had received from the Headmaster all summer and it merely told him to stay put. No information, not even a how are you.

He wasn't particularly keen on having a row with the Headmaster, but felt he had every right to. The past few days had been the most enjoyable of any time ever spent in the Dursley's wretched house. It didn't help the old man that he was the one who thought it wise to place Harry with his relatives in the first place, instead of with anyone else where he might have actually enjoyed growing up. Or at least been referred to by his own name instead of "boy" or "freak." He would have probably been happier with the Malfoys.

By the time the grandfather clock downstairs struck midnight Harry had finished all of his work. Once more he lay on the floor, staring out the window into the night sky. Soon he'd be back at Hogwarts. Soon he'd be back in his own world.

Xx~xX

Harry rose from another restless night's sleep as Vernon pulled out of the driveway heading to work. He could hear his Aunt moving around lightly downstairs and the walls vibrating slightly from the snores of his cousin. Moving quietly, he showered and returned to his room, throwing on the most form-fitting of Dudley's old clothing. He also slid his wand into the wand holster that he had purchased from Ollivander's on one of his trips to the Alley, which was charmed to be invisible among other things. It let him walk around in a t-shirt without fear of looking odd carrying a wand. Considering that this summer was one of the most brutally hot summers he had ever experienced, it was well worth it.

"What are you up to?" said Petunia as he came downstairs. She regarded him suspiciously.

"Nothing worth giving me that look," he said bluntly, his own expression unimpressed. "You honestly think I would do something to give Uncle Vernon more of a reason to come after me?" It wasn't like Petunia ever raised her hand to him. Well, if you discounted the handful of times he had been hit sharply with a frying pan or some other thing in her grasp. Still, never with her own two hands. "I'll be out all day again, don't worry about feeding me." Not like you ever did.

He didn't go far today, just a short-ish walk to a store where he got a sandwich. He spent the remainder of the day hanging out at the park, taking out his frustrations on the ever deepening line he was carving beneath the swing. Everything was going fine until Dudley showed up with his gang. Oh, and the Dementors too. Which brought Harry back to reality.

His first kiss was about to be with a soul sucking specter of doom.

Anger swelled in his lungs. Regret pooled in the pit of his stomach. His scar burned like liquid fire, and darkness took his mind.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Author's Note: Welcome to my greatest (and completed work). A lot has gone into this, and I hope that you enjoy it. This blurb about the story was written by Newcomb (an old Beta as of completion) and has always stayed with me. Even if this is as far as you go, please read it before you leave and thanks for being here.

"There's a certain kind of Harry Potter fanfic that goes something like this: after Sirius/Cedric dies, Harry decides to start taking shit seriously, has a vision/finds his parents' will/trains really hard, then gives Dumbledore and the Order the finger and starts kicking independent ass. There's a reason such stories resonate with people, a reason they're popular. Harry, in canon, for all his virtues, is lamentably passive. But what most authors do is spend about one chapter molding Harry into the Harry they want, and go from there. The Merging is different. It takes its time. The changes are gradual, and they feel organic. Every way he asserts himself – magically, with Dumbledore, with his professors, with girls – comes in fits and starts and is kind of messy. Traditional punching bags like Molly Weasley are given fair treatment, and come out in shades of grey. This one takes a few chapters to really hit its stride, but it's well written, funny at times, and puts you in the head of an authentically developing independent Harry Potter."
-Newcomb

From Shay: This story has a nice build, it's really big on character development and interactions, as well as some other themes. It's realistic and fun, sad and heartwarming. You will see shadows of of pairings in here, but none of the characters are randomly okay with polygamy, so sorry harem fans. And I'll admit it gets fairly darker by the end.

Disclaimer: I really didn't do a great job of including Ron in this story beyond the basic stuff. Just never was interested in him as a character and I think it shows. Just wanted to own up to that.

Please, let me know what you think by leaving a review. If anyone has any questions at any point in this thing, feel free to ask me in a review or a PM. I am still making content for post story chapters, short and long.

The journey has just begun!