Summary: Harry's fall into darkness continues.
Spoilers: It's best to have read all the HP books.
Disclaimer: All characters belong to JK Rowling, her publisher and her many, many well-paid lawyers. I am NOT making any money off this, nor am I trying to infringe on anyone's copyright. Believe that.
Song Disclaimer: "Let All That Are To Mirth Inclined" is a traditional English carol but the particular version I used for inspiration was by the most talented Loreena McKennitt.
Authors' Notes: Sequel to "Ruined In A Day". Was just going to leave RIAD as it was, but more than five people asked for a continuation so here I go!
Questions, Comments, Suggestions: Send to donnacsoprano76 AT yahoo DOT com. All flames are read, laughed at then deleted with extreme prejudice.
"Sea of sin I'm swimming in and I'm taking a dive
My mind's in need so my body feeds and it keeps me alive
It gets better and better as it gets wetter and wetter
Sea of sin know where you've been but I don't care..."
- "Sea of Sin", Depeche Mode
Sea of Sin
By Net Girl
Albus Dumbledore sat back in his chair, hands folded in his lap, and his eyes peered over the top rims of his spectacles at Harry Potter. The young man had come to his office, insisting on speaking to him and Dumbledore agreed without hesitation. Since the tragic suicide of Ginny Weasley and Ron Weasley's subsequent withdrawal from that semester's courses, Harry was rather alone. And he had changed.
Though, Dumbledore easily understood why. To see a friend do something so horribly drastic and then suffer from the guilt of not being able to save her, it took a toll on Harry. He'd noticed a slip in the boy's marks in the last month and a half. Not only that, Harry had withdrawn from his remaining friends.
And now, in a rather unexpected turn, Harry came to Dumbledore with news that he planned to return home for the Christmas holiday. The idea that Harry would want to do this, considering he spent four of his last six Christmases at school, was more than a surprise. Return to the Dursley home, a place Dumbledore still regretted leaving the young Harry all of those years ago?
Harry stared back at Dumbledore. The Hogwarts headmaster had been unusually quiet for a lengthy period of time. If it was good or bad, he didn't know. That was the trick with Dumbledore; so many things went on underneath that serene façade.
He's not the only one, Harry thought with an inward smile.
Since Halloween, Albus Dumbledore had taken a keen interest in Harry's mental welfare. At first, Harry believed Dumbledore suspected foul play in Ginny's death. However, Draco Malfoy's continued support of the suicide story threw any suspicion off of Harry. Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy loathed one another. Why would Harry's worst enemy lie about a thing of that nature if something was amiss?
After all, it wasn't a lie. She did step out of that window of her own volition, Harry reminded himself. The Why isn't important. Not that it matters to me, anyway.
Dumbledore sighed. "Well, Harry," he finally said. "I would be lying if I said this decision didn't surprise me. Are you absolutely certain you wish to return to the Dursleys over the holidays?"
Harry nodded. "The Ginny Weasley suicide made me reassess my own life. Made me realize how important family is," he quietly answered. He swallowed then looked back to Dumbledore. "I've been concerned about them lately, too. I ... I have this terrible feeling that Voldemort may try something. As awful as the Dursleys treated me, Professor, they are still family. And they're innocent people."
Dumbledore's sympathy went out to Harry. "I understand your reasons and the intention behind them is quite admirable."
Harry fought back the urge to laugh. A hand brushed over his mouth in time to hide the small smile he couldn't suppress. "Thank you, Professor," he said with a sigh. "I appreciate it. I haven't felt very admirable in the last few weeks. After ..." His voice trailed off and a few tears brewed in his eyes then he averted his gaze. "You know."
Dumbledore's expression softened as he leaned forward. "One day, Harry, you must forgive yourself for what happened that night. Dwelling on the past and the things you cannot change will only bring more misery. You had no control over those events, you couldn't stop it."
Harry's lips pressed together to keep from smiling and he clenched his teeth so he wouldn't laugh in Dumbledore's face. At times like these, he wanted nothing more than to tell the truth about that night. Then they would know exactly how much control he'd had over those events.
Dumbledore leaned back in his chair again. "Now, if you would allow me to ask one question, Harry?"
Harry lifted his head, his eyes peering over the top of his own glasses rims at the headmaster. The older man's manner had changed and that brought up Harry's guard.
"Yes?" he asked, trying to keep the suspicion out of his tone.
"What leads you to believe Voldemort may harm the Dursleys? You must have some reason beyond a 'hunch' to draw you back to their home?"
Harry stared at Dumbledore. Was this an honest question or a test? His eyes narrowed briefly as he tried to determine Dumbledore's angle.
"Ever since his full return, I've been ... sort of ... connected to him," he hesitantly answered. He waited for a reaction from the headmaster, but Dumbledore only nodded. "My head's full of things I would never dream up on my own. It's building, too." He let his gaze drop to the floor. "I know I should've said something earlier but I didn't want to believe it."
"Understandable," came Dumbledore's reply. He paused for a few moments then gently sighed. "It must be a challenge for you, Harry. The stress, unlike few can ever know. You have a stronger character because of it, though."
Harry nodded, keeping his head bowed. If he looked Dumbledore in the eye this time, he very well would laugh in the man's face. Stronger character. I guess I could agree. Maybe not in the 'honorable' sense of the word.
"I do the best that I can," he weakly replied.
"That's all anyone can expect from you," Dumbledore said. He smiled a little when Harry finally lifted his head. "I'll attempt to contact the Dursleys, Harry. They should know to expect you for the holidays."
Harry nodded again. "Thank you, Professor." He stood then headed for the door. He stopped, though, when he caught a glance at the Sorting Hat. It was almost like it'd been watching him.
"Is everything all right?" asked Dumbledore when he saw Harry staring at the Sorting Hat.
Harry glanced over his shoulder. "Yes, Professor, everything is fine." He made a faster escape from Dumbledore's office this time.
Dumbledore shifted his gaze from the door to the Sorting Hat. What about it had taken the young wizard's interest? He shook his head then pulled out a quill and a piece of parchment to compose a letter to the Dursleys.
"And then we'll have to take double Potions to even keep up!"
Hermione Granger barely heard a word Colin Creevey said to her. She'd been helping him and his friends catch up on missed lessons because of the unfortunate loss of Ginny. She'd hoped taking on a little tutoring would distract her from thinking about recent events. Making Ginny Weasley's group of friends her students wasn't the wisest course of action, however.
"Hermione?" asked Colin from his place on the floor in the Gryffindor common room. Hermione sat in one of the chairs facing the fireplace where a warm blaze flickered. He waved a hand in front of her face and she snapped out of her daze. "Have you heard anything I've said? You looked like you were somewhere else."
Hermione shook her head and turned the page in the sixth year Potions book. "I'm fine, Colin. Only thinking about a Transfiguration quiz I took earlier this afternoon. I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
Colin glanced over to his friends. "You're worried about a lousy quiz?" He could only chuckle. "You never worry about things like quizzes, Hermione. Anybody who knows you knows that."
"Definitely," agreed one of the girls. "Is something wrong?"
"Have you heard anything from Ron lately?" Colin inquired. He tapped the end of his quill against the book in his lap. "I've been wondering how he is. Sent him a couple of owls this month and I haven't heard back."
"I can't believe he only dropped the rest of this semester," a second girl put in. Her face became solemn. "I could never come back here if ... if it ..." Tears welled up in her eyes and Colin placed a hand on one of hers.
"Could we please not discuss this?" Hermione snapped at them. Her gaze flicked from one student to the next. "As if it isn't difficult enough, you insist on rehashing it all of the time."
With Ron gone and the way Harry had been since Halloween, Hermione was ultimately alone at school. None of her other friends had the history that she did with those two. She felt as though she could only truly deal with this with their help. And what did everyone want to talk about with her? Ginny. Or Ron. Or Harry. Frankly, she couldn't wait to leave for the Christmas holiday.
"Sorry," the small group apologized.
Hermione's face softened and she sighed. "Let's just focus on Potions, all right? If you want to be caught up before the end of Christmas break, you'll have to work extra hard."
"And our Hermione knows all about working extra hard," Harry said as he leaned on the back of the chair she sat in. He smiled at his fellow Gryffindors and then looked down at the top of Hermione's head. "I paid you a compliment, Hermione. The very least you could do is acknowledge it."
Hermione kept her eyes on the Potions book in her lap, scowling slightly. That was the change in Harry. He'd taken on a smart aleck trait that she found to be quite annoying. When he wasn't being a mute, that is.
The sixth years sat quietly, glancing from Hermione to Harry who loomed behind her.
"Well, someone's in a snit, isn't she?" Harry gripped the sides of the back of the chair and leaned over. "What's the matter, Hermione? Are you too good to talk to me today?"
Hermione turned in the chair and glared. "Do you mind, Harry? I'm in the middle of a lesson. If you want to bother someone, please, peddle your prattle elsewhere." Her head whipped around and she let out what sounded like a "Hmph."
Harry's eyebrows arched in mocking show of being impressed by the outburst. "If you'd rather not be civil to your own friends, I guess I'll go somewhere else." He stood straight but never took his eyes off of her. "I have packing to do, anyway," he added.
"Packing?" She turned again and looked up at him. "And where would you be going?"
"Where almost every other student here goes over the Christmas holiday, Hermione." A ghost of a smile crossed his face. "I'm going home."
She blinked and her jaw dropped open slightly. "You're ... you're going to spend Christmas with ... with the Dursleys?" She couldn't believe it when Harry nodded in confirmation. He loathed his aunt and uncle and made no secret of it. Why on earth would he subject himself to those awful people? "But ... you've gone to Ron's house for the last two Christmas breaks, Harry. Why the change? And why them?"
"I feel the need to reconnect with family ..." He let the sentence hang. A saddened frown, one he'd perfected since Ginny's death, settled on his face. "Perhaps this year ... things will be different, Hermione. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia might have a change of heart where I'm concerned."
Hermione snorted. "As though they even have hearts," she said then rolled her eyes. Her brow furrowed. "Maybe you shouldn't do this, Harry. If you want to spend Christmas somewhere other than here, I'm sure I could speak with my parents -"
Harry shook his head, holding up a hand. "No. It's a nice thought, one that I appreciate -" Gryffindor to her very soul. Isn't it so touching? She takes pity on poor me. " - but I've already made my decision."
"But ..." Hermione began. Harry was already on his way up the staircase, though. She tossed the book into the chair as she hopped to her feet. "Harry, wait."
He came to a stop on the landing and turned. He almost smiled at her as she bounded up the staircase, her long, curly hair flying behind her. She refused to give up on him. True Gryffindor behavior - loyal to the end.
"Harry," she breathed when she reached the top of the stairs. "Just ... wait." She took a minute to compose herself. "Look, I know you've been blaming yourself for Ginny but this isn't the answer. Is that what you want? To allow yourself to be berated and punished by your aunt, uncle and cousin, Harry? A penance?"
Harry gazed upon Hermione, his attention not on the words she spoke but on Hermione herself. He'd never noticed until then how beautiful she'd become. The Hermione before him was a far cry from the one he'd met on the train to Hogwarts. Even in the drab gray sweater and skirt all the female students wore, she was beautiful. From the top of her head down to her ridiculous knee socks.
Such a shame that Ron left her here all alone, isn't it, Harry? whispered that voice in the back of his mind; the voice that had been relatively quiet. Until now.
Yes, it is, he thought in response. Such a shame.
Without fully realizing, his hands raised up, to reach for Hermione. To touch her. She was so close. All he would have to do is say a few words and persuade her to come with him. Why would she say no? She was so worried about him; she wanted to help. He had a few ideas of exactly how she could help him. When he had her all to himself ...
Yes, it's such a shame, Harry. Such a shame that a girl that pretty is a Mudblood and unworthy of you.
His hands dropped back to his sides after he'd "heard" that. He met Hermione's gaze. She was concerned, he could tell. Despite it all, she still cared about him - a true Gryffindor. And despite what the voice "said", he still wanted her.
My mother was just like her, he countered. She was Muggle-born.
True. But did she survive Voldemort? No. Neither did your father. You're better than these weak, pathetic beings, Harry. A Mudblood is barely good enough for a Weasley, certainly not good enough for the likes of you.
"Harry?" Hermione asked. He'd not said a word for nearly two minutes and the look in his eyes troubled her. "Are you listening to me?"
He turned away and opened the door to the boys' dormitory. "I have to pack my things, Hermione," he quickly mumbled and stepped through the door.
"Harry, would you wait?" She put up her hand and stopped the door from shutting on her. She gasped sharply when Harry's hand seized her by the wrist. She didn't move a muscle.
"Don't follow me," he coldly said while peering through the crack at her. He squeezed her wrist a little harder than he should have. "Just ... don't."
Hermione stepped back when Harry let go and then slammed the door in her face.
Harry did not recall falling asleep but he had to be asleep. The things happening around him could not possibly be reality. A parade of the dead, those directly or indirectly murdered by Lord Voldemort, surrounded Harry. Where he was, he couldn't sort out. Darkness shrouded everything beyond the circle of ghosts present. He recognized some of the faces - Cedric Diggory, for one - and so many others were unknown to him. They were from all walks of life, Magic and Muggle folk alike. All shared one thing in common - death by the Dark Lord.
He ignored them. He tried to will himself to awaken. None of it worked. The ghostly bodies called out his name; they didn't seem to want to help him, either. Anger colored their disembodied voices. In the distant darkness beyond them, blood-curdling screams cut deep into Harry's soul. What was left of it, anyway.
Harry fell to his knees. His hands clutched the sides of his head as he squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't stand this much longer. Why were they terrorizing him? What had he done to these people? He wasn't Voldemort. These were the Dark Lord's victims torturing him.
His eyes opened when he heard a soft voice, one that he knew from a very long time ago. The touch of a hand on his shoulder forced him to look up to the person. Lily Potter, skin near ashen but her eyes still vibrantly green and hair as fiery as it was in the pictures he had of her, stood before him. She appeared to be the only soul in this awful place concerned for him.
"Why are you doing this to us, Harry?" she asked. Her hands reached out for him but he instinctively avoided her touch. A hurt look crossed her features at his reaction. "We had so much hope for you."
"I haven't done anything," he countered defensively. He gazed upon his mother, something inside of him stirring. She was so melancholy. Not one picture he had of her, not one picture of Lily Potter showed this emotion. Her eyes were filled with pity, not for herself, but for him. "I didn't do any of this."
Lily kneeled before him, both of her hands on his face now as she gazed deeper into his empty eyes. "You don't know what you've done, Harry. You don't want to know." She shook her head, a pained sigh escaping her pale lips. "Don't continue on this path. We'll never be free if you do."
Harry pulled away from his mother's touch and he rose to his feet. "This isn't my fault!" he yelled. He jerked a thumb at himself. "I never wanted everyone to count on me! I never wanted to have to care about all of this! This was your fight, not mine. Yours and Dad's."
Suddenly, the other apparitions vanished leaving only Harry and Lily in the midst of the darkness. His mother's expression was a mix of disappointment, fear and sympathy. Her hands rested in her lap, her head slowly shaking from side to side.
"No one asks to be a hero, Harry. It just sometimes turns out that way," she calmly told him. "Your father and I -"
"You had a choice!" he shouted, pointing an accusatory finger in her face. "You had your choice and I never did! You're both dead because of it, too. I won't become like you." He felt a sharp pain in his scar and he winced.
Lily sat back on her heels. "Is that it, Harry? You're frightened? Fear has driven you to manipulate and murder an innocent child?" Her lips pressed together. "She trusted you. And you used that against her."
"That was her mistake, then," he hissed in response. He placed his hands to his head again when the throbbing intensified. His eyes closed. "I'll do what I want and I'll be who I want."
"So you would become Voldemort?"
His hands dropped to his sides as his eyes opened. "Anything is better than becoming you," he snarled in response. "Dead! And dead for what? Some pointless cause. I refuse to die for something I never chose to be a part of. I won't!"
"Everyone dies, Harry."
He narrowed his eyes as he leaned over to his mother. "Not Voldemort," he growled. "Some things can never die."
Lily bowed her head, sorrow becoming heavy on her heart. "Then you've learned nothing from all of this," she softly said.
"I've learned enough. Enough to know it's better to not care. To not become involved." He back away from his mother's reposed figured, backed away towards the darkness that surrounded them. "And I won't care, Mother. Not anymore."
Soon, she vanished from his sight, swallowed up by the looming darkness.
Slowly, Harry's eyes opened. He stared up at the ceiling in his room.
He'd escaped the nightmare and was back in the waking world. Blinking a few times, he propped himself up on his elbows then took a look around his room. No one else was there. Outside of the window, he saw that night had fallen. Likely, his remaining roommates were in the Great Hall, having their grand Christmas feast, all of them being holly and jolly at the most wonderful time of the year.
He found a smile creeping across his face as he thought of his upcoming trip home.
This will be a Christmas that no one will soon forget, Harry, the voice said then chuckled lightly.
And the last Christmas ... for some of them, he "replied".
The next day, Harry sat in the Great Hall, his luggage on the floor behind him, his attention focused solely on the game of wizard's chess before him on the table. The excited chatter of the younger students went unnoticed by him. His next move concerned him more than anything else. It was tricky to play both sides of the board equally. With Ron gone, he'd been forced to play alone. It was probably the only time he ever won, too.
Finally, he decided on the move, slid the piece to the desired spot on the board then he turned it so he could play black. It was different when he had actual contact with the pieces. It made it more ... involved.
"The train is leaving soon, Harry," Hermione said. She lifted her chin a bit when he looked up at her. She still had no idea what she'd done to him to make him so angry the day before but she chose to be the better person in the affair and not hold a grudge.
"I know," he quietly replied then shifted his attention back to the game. A hand hovered over the Bishop but withdrew when he had a better look at where the white pieces were positioned. "Are you here to ask me to join you at your happy home for Christmas again?"
"No," she evenly replied. She took a seat on the opposite side of the table. "If you want to go back to the Dursleys, Harry, then that's your business. Whatever your reasons may be, they are your reasons, and I only hope that it doesn't backfire in your face."
Harry moved a piece and the black Knight on the board decimated the white pawn. Hermione flinched. The barbarism of wizard's chess never failed to bother her. He lifted his gaze from the board once again. "I have my strategy, Hermione," he assured her. "You didn't think I'd go there without a plan, did you?" He turned the board so he could play white again.
Hermione stared at him for a moment, curious as to what he meant by that statement. She glanced towards the entrance of the Great Hall. "Actually, one of the reasons I stopped by here, Harry, was to ask you something."
Harry's hand hung over the Rook then pulled back, thinking better of the move. "What would that be?"
"I'd planned to visit the Weasleys while on holiday break," she replied. She rested her elbows on the table, watching him take extra care with his next move. "Did you want to come with me? Ron says he hasn't heard from you in over a month. A visit would be a nice surprise for him, I think."
"Can't. I'm busy," he automatically replied. He finally moved a piece and the white Knight slid into place then Harry turned the board again. He glanced at her. "Was that all?"
She stared at him, eyes wide in disbelief at his response. "You're too busy to visit your best friend?" she asked. "I can't believe you just said that. Of all the times Ron could really use your help, the time he really needs you ... you're BUSY?"
Harry pretended as though Hermione had already gone, his gaze affixed to the chessboard.
She swiped one of her arms over the board, sending the remaining pieces flying across the table and onto the floor. "Would you pay attention to me when I'm talking to you?"
Harry sat back, stunned at what she'd done. He met her enraged gaze. "What is wrong with you?" he demanded, nearly shouting.
She stood, rested her palms on the table then leaned over to him. "If you want to act like an arrogant jerk towards me, fine. I can handle it, Harry," she hissed. "However, I won't sit idly by while you shrug off one of the few people who has been there for you whenever you needed someone."
"I told you I'm busy," he shot back at her. "Do you think I wouldn't see Ron if I could?"
She stood straight now, her eyes burning into him with anger she'd not felt towards him in weeks. "Fine," she shortly replied. "I'll be sure to let Ron know he's not important enough for the fabulous Harry Potter to grace him with a visit!"
"You do that, then!" He leaned over to pick up the pieces of the chess game while Hermione grabbed the handle of her trunk on wheels and headed out of the Hall. She's gone crazy, he thought as he gathered up the chess pieces.
Hermione came to a sudden stop. She reached her hand into one of her coat pockets and removed a small wrapped box from it. She turned then chucked the box at Harry's head with every ounce of strength she could muster.
"Happy Christmas, Harry!" she shouted after it clocked him in the back of the head. "There's your stupid gift!"
Harry put a hand to the back of his head as he sat up and shot a glare at Hermione's retreating figure. He saw the box she'd thrown sitting on the table. Putting down the chess pieces, he picked up the box and examined it. The tag said it was from both Ron and Hermione. His first instinct was to toss it into the rubbish bin, but he didn't.
Carefully, he removed the wrapping paper and turned the black box over in his hands. Once he was convinced that it wasn't cursed in some way, he opened the lid. Inside was a rather unusual gift - a simple gold locket on a plain gold chain. He removed it from the box and gave it a once over.
On the back, he discovered an inscription: Friends Forever. He opened the locket and found pictures of Ron and Hermione contained within it. These weren't magical pictures; they were stationary Muggle photos. Each of them wore a bright smile. Pictures taken in much happier times, he supposed.
"Taken to wearing jewelry now, Potter?"
Harry turned a little to see Draco Malfoy, alone, standing behind him. Draco was also ready for the trip home for the holidays. Not that it was out of the ordinary for him to go home.
"It was a Christmas gift," he replied looking back to the pictures of Ron and Hermione.
Draco peered over Harry's shoulder to get a better look at what Harry had in his hands. "Well, a pretty piece of jewelry unforgivably tainted by pictures of the Mudblood and Weasley." He smirked. "The pictures aren't even moving."
"It's a Muggle made photo, that's why, Draco," Harry said as he snapped the locket shut then stuffed it in his coat pocket. He began to pick up the rest of his scattered chess pieces. "And you really shouldn't be here, either."
"Afraid to be seen with me?" Draco asked. He crouched down to help Harry pick up the chess pieces. "Is this better, then?"
"People would wonder why we'd be talking to each other," Harry muttered as he glanced up at Draco. "You should be smarter than that, Malfoy."
"Maybe it's not me who has the problem." Draco handed a few of the black pieces to Harry. "Hiding who you really are from the rest of these useless, ignorant prats? It's sad."
"I'm not hiding." He glared briefly at Draco. "One day, things will be different."
"And until that day comes, you'll keep playing like you're St. Harry, Patron of the Pathetic and Downtrodden?" He snorted. "You would be better off accepting yourself for who you really are, I think."
"And you would be better off not thinking," Harry growled. He narrowed his gaze on Malfoy. "It doesn't suit you." He snatched the last of the pieces from Draco's hands. "Exercise some common sense and leave before someone sees you."
Draco smiled at Harry, his eyes glimmering. "You should show me a little more respect," he replied, a hint of warning in his voice. "Or did you forget I'm the only other person who knows what truly happened to poor Ginny Weasley?" He wickedly chuckled.
Harry leaned over again, his eyes staring into Draco's with a malicious gleam. "And might I remind you there are an awful lot of windows in this school?" A smile spread across his face, one that sent a chill through Malfoy. "Would be such a shame for you to accidentally tumble from one of them."
Draco's smile vanished. He rose to his feet and wrapped the green and white scarf around his neck. "No need to make threats," he cautiously replied. He glanced about and saw that no one else was in the vicinity. He swallowed hard.
"I never make threats," Harry said as he packed up the pieces and board of his chess set. He stood, meeting Draco's gaze once again. He saw the fear in the other boy's eyes.
Malfoy could prattle on about telling Harry's secret but Harry knew he never would - and not because of the ramifications from the school, either. Simply put, Draco Malfoy was terrified of him. If he weren't, he would've told the truth about Ginny's death long ago. Draco may have been an idiot but he wasn't stupid. He knew how to keep his skin where it belonged - on his body.
"Train's leaving soon," said Harry, a brighter smile on his face this time as he regarded the Slytherin. "Have a wonderful holiday. I certainly plan to." He patted Draco's shoulder roughly then gathered up his bags and headed out of the Great Hall.
Draco watched Harry leave, his eyes narrowing at him at the same time. Had the cards been dealt differently, he would have had Harry under his thumb. Still, he did what he had to to ensure that the rise of Voldemort happened. Keeping Harry Potter off the front line of the war was a major step in that direction.
Harry stood on the walk just a few strides away from the front door of the Dursley home on Privet Drive. A cold wind blew and flakes of snow showered all around him and collected in his dark hair. His eyes caught sight of the Christmas tree through one of the front windows. A brief glimpse, though. On the front door was a Christmas wreath. If he didn't know better, he would've assumed the family who lived there was like every other on the block.
He knew better, though. Seventeen years with these people had taught him the truth. The Dursleys held nearly immeasurable contempt for him and they never made any attempt to accept him for who he was. On a level they never acknowledged, the Dursleys were frightened of him. Frightened of what his power could do to them ... if he chose to use it against them.
Slowly, the front door opened and Harry snapped out of his thoughts. Just inside the doorway, as portly as ever, stood Dudley Dursley. He and Harry stared at one another. No doubt Dudley was surprised by Harry's decision to return. Harry's cousin treated him no different than his aunt and uncle. In fact, he reveled in terrorizing Harry.
"Father!" called Dudley over his shoulder and into the house. "He's here!"
Soon, Dudley stepped out of the doorway and Vernon Dursley took his place. A scowl appeared on his face when he saw Harry at the end of their walk. When the letter came by owl from the Hogwarts headmaster, Vernon thought it was some sort of cruel joke. Some way to ruin the little time of the year he had free from his job. It wasn't a joke. His vile nephew was home again. Ready to cause trouble, too, no doubt.
"Come on, then!" Vernon called, waving a hand for Harry to get a move on. "We haven't all day to stand here and wait for you!"
Harry picked up his bags then headed up the walk to the Dursley home. He stopped at the door, his gaze locked with his uncle's. He could tell Vernon wanted to ask why he'd come back; it bothered him to have Harry in his house.
"Aren't you going to welcome me home, Uncle Vernon?" he asked.
Vernon snorted, turned on his heel and left Harry standing at the door. As he walked away, he muttered something about "psychotic magic folk".
"He's not happy you've come back," Dudley informed Harry. "Wanted to enjoy his holiday, knowing that after this year we'd finally be rid of you."
Harry smiled at his cousin. "I know exactly how he feels," he coolly replied. He picked up his bags again and Dudley stepped back to let Harry into the house.
When he reached the living room, Harry placed his things on the floor and glanced around. The place was so warm and welcoming. Christmas tree and all the gifts so perfect and orderly, the decorations bright and cheery and the aroma of so many homemade treats saturated the house. This was Christmas at the Dursleys - fake on the outside.
Sort of like you, Harry, said the voice. Innocent on the surface, just like everyone else. But underneath -
"My goodness!" exclaimed Petunia's voice. When Harry turned, he found his aunt standing in the living room, a horrified expression on her face. She pointed to his luggage. "Those filthy wet bags on my clean rugs! You'll take those upstairs right this second, Harry! Right this very second! Such disregard for my things! You should be ashamed of yourself."
"I'm so happy to be home, Aunt Petunia," Harry said as he did as he was ordered. He passed by her on his way to the staircase. "So wonderful to be with the family who gave me so much." The sarcasm attached to the last comment went unnoticed by Petunia.
"You would do well to never forget that, boy!" Vernon called up at Harry as Harry trudged up the stairs with his things. "The sacrifices your aunt and I made for you, the embarrassment we suffered just so you could have a roof over your worthless head!"
Harry clenched his teeth together as he made his way to the room the Dursleys had given him. After opening the door, he dropped his backs on the floor and let his gaze travel around the room. He sighed a little. The feeling of dread that usually came with his return home after a year at Hogwarts wasn't with him this time. But still ... the memories of it were strong.
After draping his coat and scarf over the back of his desk chair, he set to unpacking his things. As he did so, he heard the sound of Dudley thundering up the stairs. A moment later, Dudley's heaving breathing let Harry know his cousin had arrived. He paid no attention to him and he focused on sorting through the things he'd brought with him from school.
"Hope you weren't expecting any gifts, Harry," Dudley said as he strolled into Harry's room. He walked around, perusing the many Hogwarts related items that made up the décor of his cousin's room.
"I've never expected anything from you," Harry murmured. He glanced up at Dudley who now stood by Harry's desk. Dudley picked up a small plaque Harry had received from the Gryffindor House Quidditch team the year before - in honor of all his splendid work as their Seeker. He wished he'd never brought it home now. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get settled."
Dudley turned around, the plaque still in his hands. "Why are you here?" He drummed his fingers on the wooden token of appreciation from the Quidditch team as he regarded Harry with suspicion. "That kooky old man's letter said something about your wanting to be with us. Why?"
Harry approached Dudley, snatched the plaque from his fat hands then met Dudley's startled gaze. "Perhaps I'm the only one in this house who knows the true value of blood," he evenly replied. "Is that everything, Dudley? Haven't you something to do? Such as hang from Aunt Petunia's apron strings?"
Dudley backed up until he was safely outside of Harry's room. "You'd better watch your step around here these days, Harry. Things aren't the same as when you left," he warned. With that said, he headed back downstairs, calling out for his mother.
You don't know how true that is, Dudley, Harry thought. He started to change out of his traveling clothes and get ready for dinner.
Harry descended the steps lazily. He was in no hurry to join the Dursleys for dinner. In fact, they probably hadn't waited for him, anyway. That would've been courteous and such action was beyond them in regard to him. From the dining room, the sound of Petunia's shrill laughter caught his attention. How that woman claimed to be a sister to Lily, he'd never cease to wonder. Petunia was the polar opposite of his mother, in every aspect.
At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped then stared at the small door that led to the cupboard underneath the staircase. Eleven years he'd spent in that dark hole with the dust, spiders and his own loneliness. A hand reached for the knob so he could see inside of it just one more time. At the last moment, his hand jerked back and he looked in the direction of the dining room.
You need to spend quality time with the Dursleys, he darkly thought, his eyes narrowing.
"I want a car for my next birthday," Harry heard Dudley declare once he neared the dining room. Harry came to a stop before he made it to the doorway, leaned against the wall and listened.
Of course you'd want one. And you would get it too. Just like you get everything you want.
"What do you think, Petunia? Is our Dudley ready for such a heavy responsibility?" Vernon asked.
"He most certainly is!" Petunia proudly proclaimed. "We'll buy you whatever you want, dear. You deserve it for being the most wonderful son in the world."
Harry rolled his eyes, and he wondered how he managed not to vomit. Once composed, he rounded the corner and all three of the Dursleys froze in the middle of what they were doing to look at him. As he expected, they were halfway through a rather lovely turkey dinner. No place was even set at the table for him.
Without a word, he seated himself at the last empty place and glanced at each of them. Petunia turned her nose up at him with disdain, Vernon muttered something under his breath and Dudley went back to devouring his turkey leg. A silence hung over them as the Dursleys continued to eat, barely even glancing at Harry. Harry only studied each member of the family with an appraising eye.
Vernon finally had had enough. He clanked his teacup so loudly onto the saucer that it made Petunia jump in her seat, and then Vernon turned to Harry. "What's this all about, boy?" he demanded gruffly. "What kind of game are you playing at?"
"Game, Uncle Vernon?" Harry asked, his eyebrows furrowing in faux confusion. "I haven't any idea what you're on about. I'm only sitting here."
"That's exactly what I mean," Vernon shot back. He leaned towards Harry, his eyes narrowing in suspicion at his nephew. "You've never cursed us with your presence over the Christmas holidays before. Why are you here now?"
Harry stared at him. The Dursleys knew nothing about what happened last Halloween. They couldn't have cared less, either. Ginny Weasley meant as much to them as she did to Harry himself. She was nothing.
Dudley had stopped chewing and waited on Harry's response.
"You really don't want to know," Harry replied. He shifted his gaze to Petunia who watched him with a guarded expression. "I wouldn't want to worry you. Especially if nothing happens."
Vernon eyed Harry. "If nothing happens? What do you think is going to happen?"
Harry shrugged. "I can't say, Uncle," he casually answered. "Not even I know. I doubt he would do anything to you since I'm here." He looked across the table to Dudley. The boy was wide eyed. "Voldemort doesn't like me much."
Vernon and Petunia looked at each other, both of them outwardly alarmed by the mention of the name 'Voldemort'. They knew very well that he'd been the one responsible for the deaths of James and Lily. That he was very powerful and very evil. On the other side of the table, Dudley let out a muffled whimper.
"You came here knowing this?" Vernon practically shouted as he glared at his nephew. He retrained the urge to take the boy and slap him across the face until Harry couldn't stand any longer. He also worked to keep his fear in check. "One of those ... those psychotics could come here ... and you never said anything to us!"
"I just did," Harry calmly replied. He wanted to laugh. The reactions from the Dursleys were the best entertainment he'd had since Ginny jumped from the window on Halloween night. Only if Dudley ended up wetting his pants could Harry call this revenge 'perfect'. He almost laughed aloud at the very thought.
Petunia threw down her napkin and rose to her feet. "How dare you come back to this house in such a manner!" she exclaimed. "Whatever business you have with that school and those people, it's none of our concern! You've involved us in this mess of yours, you ungrateful -"
"You involved yourselves!" Harry shot back. He spoke so vehemently that Petunia sat back down in her chair. "You're involved because of who you are ... Auntie." The venom on the last word was enough to sting even Petunia Dursley. "As much as you hate to admit it, we share the same blood. And that's blood certain people would love to violently spill."
Petunia's mouth hung open, a look of shock and horror cemented on her face.
Harry's gaze slid to Dudley. He saw Dudley's chin trembling and the only child of Petunia and Vernon Dursley was on the verge of tears. "You're in for the same fate, should Voldemort choose to do anything, cousin," he said. A smile barely shied from his face when Dudley whimpered again, louder. "You share the blood Auntie Petunia and I do."
Dudley swallowed hard then the tears finally spilled down his chubby cheeks.
Vernon rose to his feet. "That's enough! I should -"
Harry stood, showing no fear of his uncle. He was eye to eye with the man. Yes, in six years, he'd grown up. It wasn't until that moment did it fully register with Vernon Dursley that his physical size was no longer a factor in keeping Harry in line.
"And you ... Uncle," he said, voice low as he spoke. "You're nothing. Being what you are, a useless Muggle, Voldemort would spare you from death." He watched with pleasure as Vernon's expression changed, his uncle's eyes filling with that fear again as he faced off with Harry. "But you'll wish he'd have killed you. Sometimes ... living is a much worse punishment, especially if you're in constant agony."
Vernon stared at Harry. This was a side of the boy he'd never seen before. Coupled with the thought of this Voldemort torturing him without mercy, Harry's outburst had him frozen. It was as though time had stopped.
"You need me, Uncle," Harry evenly said, much calmer than he'd been moments before. "Who will protect you from Voldemort? The police?" He laughed. "And there isn't a witch or wizard within a thousand kilometers who would stand up to him, either. Do you know why that is?"
Vernon shook his head. He was too scared to speak now.
"Because he's killed so many of them in the past. All who went up against him, all except me, DIED." He fell silent so Vernon could absorb that information. "You need me more than I ever needed you." He looked from Dudley then let his gaze settle on Petunia. "You don't know how lucky you are that I'm around. Your lives, pathetic as they are, would've ended six years ago, Auntie, if it hadn't been for me."
Petunia had tears in her eyes by this point. One of the few times Harry ever recalled the woman crying. Whether it was out of fear, or pity or guilt, he didn't know nor did he care. It was satisfying to see the git upset. Perhaps now they would have some idea of the constant doom hanging over him because of who he was. Who he'd been.
"Sleep well," Harry shortly said. Shoving the chair back towards the table, he left the dining room and headed back up to his room. Once inside, he slammed the door shut then fell into the darkened corner, away from the window and any light that came in from the outside of the house. Placing his hands to his forehead, he closed his eyes and ignored that throbbing.
The voice laughed inside his head. You did a beautiful job, Harry, it complimented him. They'll not be able to sleep again. Unless you give them a little help.
"Happy Christmas, Hermione," greeted Mrs. Granger when Hermione came down the stairs.
Christmas day had finally arrived. This year, it was only Hermione and her parents celebrating. Not that Hermione minded. After the semester she'd had at Hogwarts, she wasn't in the mood to be around a lot of people. A small Christmas would be perfect.
Hermione smiled at her mother. "Happy Christmas," she replied. "Is Father down yet?" She could hear Christmas carols coming from the other room.
"Yes. We've been waiting for you." As they entered the room where the Granger family Christmas tree glimmered brightly and a warm fire crackled in the fireplace, she went on. "I remember a time when you were the one waiting on us."
"That was a long time ago," Hermione replied with a shy smile. Her attention shifted to her father who sat in an armchair, sorting through the daily paper. "It's Christmas. Can't you read that later?"
Hermione's father folded the paper and placed it on the table beside his chair. "I needed to do something until you decided to join us," he teased then accepted a hug from his daughter. "I assume we can exchange gifts now?"
For the next hour, the Grangers exchanged gifts while chatting about Christmases past and sipping hot cocoa from mugs. Since leaving school, this was the happiest Hermione had been. No thoughts of Harry or anyone else but the family in front of her. This was how she wanted her life to be - as safe and peaceful as it was at that moment.
"Oh, Mother! It's fabulous!" Hermione gasped as she pulled the rectangular cedar box from its ornate packaging. She opened the lid of the wand case and ran her fingers over the red velvet lining. "It's so beautiful. You didn't have to get this for me. My old one is fine."
Mr. And Mrs. Granger exchanged glances and Mrs. Granger said, "I didn't. If you'd have read the tag, you would've known."
"Hmm?" Hermione picked up the packaging, found the tag then she blinked. "It's ... it's from Ron." Her eyes shifted back to her parents. "Ron gave me this."
Mr. Granger nodded. "Yes. Mr. Weasley dropped it off earlier this morning. Couldn't stay long, though. I think he planned to see your friend Harry today as well."
Hermione held the wand case to her chest with in both hands. She knew very well that Ron couldn't have possibly afforded such a grand gift. Somehow, he'd managed to buy it. When she'd visited him two days before, he'd given no indication he'd even bought her a gift. She didn't expect one either.
"I'll have to thank him when I see him again," she quietly said.
There was a short silence while the songs on changed. A lone woman's solemn voice began to sing.
"Let all that are to mirth inclined
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved Son
For to redeem our souls from thrall
Christ is the Saviour of us all..."
Mrs. Granger glanced at her husband then she looked to Hermione. "Why the frown, Hermione? I thought you liked it?"
"Oh, well. Yes, of course, I do -"
The telephone ringing interrupted Hermione.
"Bother," muttered Mr. Granger as he cast a glare in the direction of the phone. "Who could be calling here on Christmas morning?"
"Oh, don't be so grumpy," Mrs. Granger said then she started to get up to answer it.
"I'll get it!" Hermione hopped to her feet and rushed to the phone. She was happy for the interruption. Explaining why she reacted the way she did to Ron's gift wasn't high on her list of priorities. "Granger residence," she said once she had the receiver to her ear.
"... And being come unto the place
Where the blessed Messiah was
They humbly laid before his feet
Their gifts of gold and incense sweet ..."
Hermione heard someone breathing on the other end of the line. Her brow furrowed and she looked to her parents who watched her expectantly. "Hello?" she asked. "Is anyone there?"
Her eyes widened briefly in surprise. "Harry?" She glanced at her parents and they only turned away. "Is that you?"
The voice on the other end of the line was flat, distant and emotionless. She couldn't believe that it was Harry, he'd never sounded so mechanical before.
"What's the matter, Harry?" she asked. Her hand toyed with the phone cord; it twisted around her wrist like her insides did at that moment. "Harry?"
"... See how the Lord of heaven and earth
Shewd himself lowly in his birth:
A sweet example for mankind
To learn to bear an humble mind ..."
Her hand froze. "What?" she whispered. Her rational mind knew whom he meant but her emotional one wasn't processing the information. Maybe she'd heard him wrong. Maybe this was a nightmare. Maybe it wasn't really Harry on the phone. So many excuses, so many excuses.
"They're dead," he repeated, his voice still vacant of any feeling.
Hermione's mouth hung open. She couldn't think of a proper response to such news, nothing that would be of help, at any rate. She looked to her parents. They both stared at her, worried and curious expressions on their faces. "How?" was all she could think of to say.
She instinctively winced at Harry's usage of the Dark Lord's real name. Only two people in the wizarding world ever used it - Harry and Albus Dumbledore.
"Last night, he killed them," Harry continued. "When I woke up this morning, they weren't downstairs. I went to Dudley's room, I found him in his bed. His body, that is, same with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. Dead."
"Oh my God." Hermione placed a hand to her mouth as she turned away from her parents. "Oh, Harry. That must've been awful. I'm so very sorry." The Dursleys were horrible people but they didn't deserve to be murdered. "What ... how ... " She wasn't sure how to ask the next question. "What ... happened to them?"
"Crushed to death. All three." Harry paused on his end when another voice, muffled, spoke. He said something in return then continued. "They believe they were crushed to death by a snake, a boa constrictor, to be exact. Only a snake of that size could've done it. Or so they say."
"A snake? That's a bit odd." Hermione was baffled by the method Voldemort chose to use against the Dursleys. Then again, it was Voldemort. He was known to be quite creative in ways to murder people. Especially Muggles. "And who are 'they'?" she inquired. It just then dawned on her that he was speaking about people other than himself.
"Ministry of Magic."
In the background, Hermione heard more voices. "Harry, what's happening? Are you all right? Do I need to come over there?" She glanced at her parents again. Her mother now stood at her side, listening attentively to Hermione's end of the conversation.
"Ron's father came by shortly after I found them," Harry answered. "He contacted the Ministry. They've been all over the house since they arrived. Searching for what, I don't know."
"Perhaps they think Voldemort's snake, or snakes, are still within the house?" she suggested. She sighed heavily. "You're lucky to be alive, Harry." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "He could've murdered you, too."
"He could have but he didn't," he said without a bit of concern in his tone. "Voldemort isn't aiming to kill me, Hermione. He wants to remind everyone who holds the power."
Hermione bit her lower lip. He did have a point. Voldemort killed three people, with a snake no less, without even rousing Harry. He could've finished what he'd started seventeen years ago. He didn't. He'd chosen not to.
"He has something planned," Harry went on. "I have a feeling this is only the beginning."
A chill ran down her spine. Not only was it the words Harry spoke but they way he'd spoken them. She didn't notice that her hands trembled as she gripped the receiver. "Are you certain you don't want me to be with you, Harry?" she asked again.
"Let all your songs and praises be
Unto his heavenly majesty
And evermore amongst our mirth
Remember Christ our Saviour's birth."
"No," he answered after a short silence. "You'd only be in the way."
"In the way? Harry, I -"
The line went dead.
"Harry?" She tapped the button on the cradle a few times but it was no use. He'd hung up on her. Slowly, she placed the phone down, her gaze dropping to the floor as she began to process everything Harry had told her. Voldemort was positioning his pieces for the end game. It was near.
"Hermione?" Mrs. Granger said when her daughter stood in silence, staring at the floor. "What was that all about?"
Hermione's eyes brimmed with tears as she lifted her head and looked at her mother. She feared for their safety more than ever now. If Voldemort could slip into the Dursley home with Harry there, what chance did her own parents have? How could they ever be secure?
"Honey?" her mother asked.
"For to redeem our souls from thrall
Christ is the Saviour of us all."
Hermione wrapped her arms tightly around her mother, burying her face in Mrs. Granger's shoulder at the same time. She never wanted to let go. Not ever.
Harry hung up the phone and looked over to Mr. Weasley. The man wore a look of half-sympathy, half-pure terror on his face. He didn't say a word to Harry, only motioned for him to come along then he left the den to rejoin the people from the Ministry of Magic.
They'll never suss it out, Harry, the voice assured him. You're much too clever for the Ministry of Morons.
It's not the Ministry I'm worried about.
Harry lowered his gaze to the open locket in his hand. His eyes narrowed upon the faces of Hermione and Ron beaming back at him.