Harry shook his arms in an effort to keep the blood pumping through his veins. He stretched his back and let out the air in his lungs with a whoosh. Life at the Dursleys was as terrible as ever, but at least he was alive.
He chuckled to himself, thinking of the numerous times that Voldemort had tried to kill him and failed. Had he been a less serious person, Harry might have thought himself invincible. But the circumstances surrounding each encounter with the Dark Lord had made an indelible impression on his mind. Harry knew he was mortal if anything and very capable of being killed.
So he resigned himself to his fate, performing the mind numbing chores that his uncle thought would somehow wheedle out the magic from his blood. Aunt Petunia was no less strict with him, and took extra pleasure in making him cook the meals that he couldn't eat.
As bad as living with the Dursleys was, if he did something stupid now, it would ruin his only chance at getting revenge on the one creature that kept him from being with the people he loved. Voldemort killed his parents, and through Bellatrix Lestrange, his godfather, Sirius Black. More importantly, the looming threat of Voldemort kept Harry away from his friends and the Weasleys, the only family Harry had ever known. So it was with much reservation that Harry stayed at Privet Drive long after he would have normally gone mad. This is why he sat in his room and stared absently out the window.
Ron, Hermione, and to his pleasant shock, Ginny had all been diligent in sending letters his way throughout the summer. Last night, he stayed awake purposefully so he could greet several owls that arrived just after midnight. Normally, he would just toss and turn in his bed, never really sleeping, but not fully awake. Dreams would try to penetrate his mind, but it seemed that he could never get deep enough into unconsciousness to allow them to get a foothold in his brain. Last night, however, he didn't even try to drift into pseudo-sleep because he knew his friends were there for him and wouldn't let his birthday pass without notice.
Harry wasn't disappointed, either. A box of every Honeydukes' sweets from Ron, two books on magical defense from Hermione, a set of dragonhide boots from the twins, Fred and George, an enchanted fireproof cloak from Hagrid, and an empty photo album from Ginny.
Each gift came with a card wishing him well and promising that the end of the holidays was soon at hand. Mingled with the happiness of having such good friends to share birthday greetings with, Harry couldn't help but feel frustrated knowing that everyone recognized his pain at being cooped up with the Dursleys, but were kept from doing anything about it.
Harry knew he should really go downstairs to grab some lunch, but it was just too much effort to be given a piece of cheese and slice of bread. It would do to wait until he left Little Whinging before he worried about things like eating and sleeping properly. He had survived the Dursleys before; he would be able to survive them again.
The distant hooting of an owl broke into Harry's thoughts. He glanced at Hedwig's cage to find her happily asleep, with her head tucked under one wing. Looking outside, he saw a large tawny owl flying right for his bedroom. It flew in gracefully through an open window and landed directly on the footboard of his bed. Harry removed the attached scroll and the bird immediately flew away without as much as a blink.
Unrolling the parchment, Harry saw a familiar dark green ink.
I hope this letter finds you well and that your situation isn't too intolerable. Recent events have convinced me that it would be safe for you to leave your relatives for the remainder of the summer. I have arranged for you to travel to the Weasleys' this evening. Please be prepared to leave at six o'clock promptly. I have already informed your aunt and uncle, so you won't need to bother telling them.
Headmaster, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Just as he finished reading the letter, a shriek from his aunt, followed by the deep bellowing voice of his uncle, filtered from downstairs. Not a full minute later, his bedroom door burst open and its frame was filled with the imposing sight of his Uncle Vernon.
"How many times have I told you to keep those ruddy birds away from us?" His face was already purple indicating that he had built up a head of steam during his short climb upstairs. In his hands was a crumpled up piece of parchment, whose delivery had obviously sparked this most recent tirade.
Trying to be calm and reasonable, Harry said, "I can't control them, Uncle Vernon. They just deliver the mail."
"Tell those...those...people to use the post like normal folks. I'm tired of all the unnaturalness that you bring around here." Vernon's face twisted in anger and disgust. He pointed a beefy finger at Harry and finished, "Get your things packed and leave as soon as your...friends get here." He turned to walk out, and then over his shoulder said, "We're going out and won't be back until after you've left." With that, he strode out the door and let it slam behind him.
At six o'clock, Harry was shocked to see Professor Dumbledore himself Apparate into the living room. "Good evening, Harry."
"Hello, Professor," Harry answered. He was quite nervous to see his headmaster after destroying his office almost two months ago.
"Normally, I wouldn't have been able to be the one to escort you to the Burrow, but my schedule just became free," he finished with a twinkle in his eyes. Something about the old wizard offered Harry a measure of assurance. He held up a crystal ball and said, "Shall we go then?"
"I'm all packed," said Harry as he stood up to place his finger on the Portkey in Dumbledore's hand. In his other hand, he held onto his trunk and owl cage firmly, having sent Hedwig to fly herself there.
"One, two, three..." Harry felt the familiar tug on his navel and they were pulled from Little Whinging in a blur.
Upon arriving at the Burrow, Harry's legs buckled underneath him and he tumbled into something on his left. Instead of breaking his fall, however, he fell on top of it. It wasn't until the thing started to push him off that he realized it was a person.
"Geroff, Harry!" came the sound of the youngest Weasley.
He looked at her properly now. Since their faces were only a couple of inches apart, it wasn't too hard to do. "Sorry, Gin," he muttered, making a renewed effort to regain his footing. Finally righting himself, he glanced at Dumbledore and was rewarded with a wink and, though he could barely discern it from the odd tilt to his long beard, a smile.
He moved to help Ginny up and had his hand brushed away impatiently. "I can do it myself, Harry." She got up but almost fell into him instead. Harry grabbed her waist to steady her and Dumbledore, who surveyed the scene from over her shoulder loudly cleared his throat. Harry quickly removed his hands and felt his face burn.
Since it was his ungraceful landing that had knocked her down in the first place, Harry made certain that she was all right. She seemed shorter than the last time he saw her, but he reasoned that it might be because he had grown so much taller since the end of June. Lack of proper nourishment hadn't kept his body from shooting up nearly six inches in that time.
"Are you all right?" he asked with genuine concern. "I'm not the best at using Portkeys."
"I'm fine, Harry," she said softly. She hadn't taken her eyes off Harry after they stood up and hadn't made any move to step away.
Satisfied that Ginny was all settled, Harry glanced around the room properly. It was much the same as he remembered. There were some new pictures of the various family members scattered around the multicolored walls. One peculiar thing that he noticed was that none of the pictures seemed to have Percy in them.
"Where did all the pictures of Percy go?" he asked Ginny. She still hadn't moved an inch.
"Wha-oh," she said, shaking her head as if to clear her thoughts. Her eyes clouded over and her lips pressed into a thin line. "Well, he's in the pictures, but it seems that even his photographic self doesn't want anything to do with the family."
"Yeah, well that git's lucky he hasn't come back," a new voice sounded. "He's in for a bruising if he shows up here expecting us to be all chummy."
Ron descended the stairs and Harry jumped back a little from Ginny, letting his arms drop to his sides.
"I believe that your brother is currently trying to find a sense of direction in his life. I wouldn't be too hard on him just yet." Professor Dumbledore was still in the corner of the room, eyes twinkling merrily in Harry and Ginny's direction.
"Sorry, Professor, I didn't see you there," said Ron who ducked his head at this sudden realization. He walked up to Harry and said with a backhanded whisper, "But I still think he's a git."
Clapping Harry on the back, Ron said, "Good to see you, mate!"
"I'm glad to finally be here," Harry said with a glance at Ginny.
"Mum said dinner would be ready in a bit. Want to walk around outside until it's done?" Ron grabbed Harry's arm and steered him to the back garden. He seemed to be a little tense and nervous about something.
"Thanks for getting me here, Professor. Bye, Ginny," Harry called over his shoulder on the way out the door.
"What's the matter, Ron?" Harry asked as they made their way up a small hill towards a tree.
"It's Hermione. She's driving me bonkers and I don't know what to do about it." Ron looked on the verge of a breakdown.
"Ease up, Ron," Harry said, slowing them down as they reached the tree. "What's this about Hermione?"
They sat down facing the Burrow. Ron grabbed a large blade of grass and began chewing on it nervously. "She's gone barmy, Harry. I swear she does it on purpose, too. I can't take much more of this." He hung his head dejectedly between his knees.
"She does what on purpose? You're going to have to tell me something I can use, or I can't help you."
Ron lifted his head and sent Harry an apprehensive look. "We're still best mates, right?" Harry nodded. "If something were to happen between me and Hermione, that wouldn't change, right?"
Harry laughed to himself. So that was what this was all about. Harry recalled all the little things that Ron and Hermione had done to show their feelings to one another without actually showing them. He wasn't particularly observant, but even Harry had been able to pick up on certain things. "Listen, Ron. You like Hermione, right?"
"Of course I do! She's one of my best friends."
Harry shook his head, "No, mate. That's not what I'm talking about and you know it. Do you like her?"
Ron muttered something incoherent.
"Speak up, I couldn't hear you."
He lifted his head again to look Harry in the eye. "I said, yes, okay? I like Hermione and I swear if something doesn't happen soon, I'm going straight to St. Mungo's to check myself in."
"Okay, so you like Hermione and she likes you. What's the problem?" said Harry with a perplexed look.
"I never said she likes me...and that's the problem," he said ripping a handful of grass from the sod. "I've tried everything I could to get her to say it, but she acts like she doesn't know what I'm talking about."
Harry considered his friend's dilemma for a moment and then said, "Ron, Hermione isn't going to be the one to say anything. You've got to be the one to do it."
Ron jerked his head up, "Are you nutters? I'm not telling her about my...my...feelings!"
Harry chuckled out loud this time. "Look, Ron. Hermione's the smartest witch of her age, right?" Ron nodded sullenly. "She's bound to have figured out what you're trying to get her to say and she's obviously not going to do it. So that means you have to be the one to start things. Otherwise, you're just going to keep dancing around each other until one of you gets sick of it."
It was at this moment that Harry realized with a jolt that he was giving advice on relationships. Mr. 'I've only had one date in my whole life' was handing out tips on how to hook up with girls. Talk about irony.
But Harry realized that it wasn't experience that made his advice worthwhile. He had lived a life almost devoid of any kind of love and was able to recognize it when offered. It was clear that Hermione and Ron had feelings for one another and they both dealt with those feelings as if they were an invading force. They denied their existence, pretended they were something else and forcefully lashed out at the very thing that caused the feelings to be there in the first place - each other. It didn't take an expert on romance to figure that out.
Ron cleared his throat and picked nervously at the blades of grass stuck to his hands. "Are you saying that she might stop being friends with me?"
"No, Ron, but she might find someone else to be with that makes her happy that way."
The colors on Ron's face changed from white to red and then back to white in the blink of an eye. He looked up at Harry frantically, pleading, "Please, Harry, I've got to do something!"
"You've got to tell her how you feel or you're going to lose her," Harry replied unflinchingly.
"But what if she doesn't feel the same way? I can't handle rejection." He looked pitiful, but Harry was convinced this was the best thing.
"Are you a Gryffindor or not?" It was cliché, but Harry knew it would appeal to Ron's sense of House pride. "It's probably the only thing holding her back, mate. Just tell her and get it over with. I promise it'll work itself out."
Harry clapped his friend on the back and got up to make his way back to the Burrow. He figured Ron would need some time to think about their conversation. Besides, it was probably time for dinner and he was ready to start eating properly again.
Dinner was a raucous affair. Mrs. Weasley seemed to need an excuse to make a lot of food, and so that it wouldn't go to waste, had invited Bill and Charlie to eat with them. Fred and George were miffed at not being asked as well but came anyway. Mrs. Weasley had wanted Harry's first day away from the Dursleys to be relaxing and didn't want the twins to cause a scene.
Harry noted that five separate conversations were taking place at the same time around the Weasley table and tried unsuccessfully to hear them all at once. Instead, he settled on one at a time.
"Did you hear about the lady in Nottingham that enchanted a set of golf clubs?" said Mr. Weasley to no one in particular.
"Norbert's about full grown now," remarked Charlie who was filling in Ginny on all the happenings in his dragon camp.
Fred and George were trying to convince Bill that investing in their joke shop would be wise. "It's a sure thing, Bill. We've got enough capital to see us through the end of the year, but with a little help, we could open another shop in Hogsmeade and double our profits!"
Mrs. Weasley interrupted their sales pitch and said, "Boys, I'm sure Bill has better things to do with his money." Then under her breath, but loud enough for Harry and Bill to hear, "Like get married and give me some grandkids."
"Mum, Fleur and I aren't ready to get married yet. And don't go putting ideas in her head, okay?"
"You and Fleur?" Harry asked. "So the English lessons paid well?"
"Yeah," he said with a chuckle. "I suppose so." Bill ruffled Harry's hair and said, "If it was up to me, no one in this house would know. It's bad enough to hear about how I'm wasting my life away and how I'd be better off married to a nice witch with ten kids running around me." With a sigh, he got up with his plate to go to the kitchen.
"Oh, Bill?" said Mrs. Weasley. "Be a dear and fetch Ron from the garden?"
"I'm here, Mum," said Ron upon entering the back door. "I'll just go wash up." He headed for the stairs to climb up to the bathroom.
After Harry had satisfied his need for food with three helpings of everything on the table, much to Mrs. Weasley's delight, he decided that Ron had no plans on coming down to eat. He grabbed his plate and made to get up when he noticed that Ginny had put her napkin down and had crossed her knife and fork on her own plate. "Can I take your dishes, Gin?"
She seemed a bit surprised by his offer, but said, "Sure." She handed her plate over to him and walked to the stairs. After putting their plates into the sink, Harry went to find out what was up with Ron.
Arriving on the top landing, he literally bumped into Ginny, who was just about to knock on Ron's door. "Sorry," he muttered.
"Harry! You scared me," she said with a scowl.
Motioning towards the door, he said, "Are you here to see what's wrong with Ron?"
She flashed Harry a confident smile. "Oh, I know what his problem is. I just came up to see if he needed help making up his mind."
"So you've got things under control?"
She nodded and gave the door a solid rap with her knuckles. Ron's muffled voice was heard through the door, "Come in."
"I leave you to it then," he said. Ginny flashed another beaming smile at him and walked into Ron's room.
Trusting Ginny to be capable of handling her brother, Harry walked out into the garden to enjoy the last of the waning sunshine. He ambled up the small hill on the edge of their property and took a seat by one of the large trees on its summit. From here, he was able to see most of the village below and the top of Stoatshead Hill in the distance.
Harry leaned back into the hard trunk and let his mind wander. A flock of birds crested the hill and turned south towards the village, calling to each other in a harmony of twitters and tweets.
His thoughts carried on for a moment as he tracked the birds' progress but were broken by the sound of a slamming door and the squeaking hinges of the back screen door. Soon a soft sobbing sound could be heard in the distance, and it grew closer with every passing second. The form of Ginny Weasley appeared in his view, holding her arms close to her chest, her head bowed, walking purposefully towards the tree where he sat. As she climbed the hill, he could clearly hear her intermittently sniffing and sobbing into a handkerchief.
So intent on the ground in front of her, Ginny didn't notice Harry until she was about to step on him. "Harry! Wha--what are you doing here?"
"I was just admiring the view." Harry was referring to the now twinkling lights of Ottery St. Catchpole, but he hadn't taken his eyes off Ginny's face. "Care to have a seat?"
Sighing in relief, she sat down beside him and resumed dabbing at her eyes. The silence lengthened between them and Harry moved slightly to face her properly. "Are you all right? Has something happened?"
Ginny waved her hand as if to shoo a fly and said, "No, nothing too important." She seemed to hesitate for a moment as if to decide whether or not to continue. "It's just Percy. He sent Mum a letter and told her she was wasting her time trying to get him to come back to the family. He said that he'd continue to ignore us until we realized that Fudge was more qualified than Dumbledore to fight against You-Know-Who."
Harry noticed that her teeth were clenched as she spoke and her hands were pulling at the handkerchief roughly, as if it were Percy's neck. All trace of sadness had left her as she seethed in rage. "The stupid prat! Who does he think he is, treating Mum like that? If I see him again, it won't be soon enough. I've needed to practice my Bat Bogey Hex on someone anyway."
Through it all, Harry had decided that it was best to let her vent, as she obviously needed to. Inside, however, Harry's mood reflected Ginny's exactly, and he secretly wished he could be the one to hex Percy into a quivering mass.
"But poor Mum. She still loves him and it hurts her when he acts like this." Sadness returned to Ginny and fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. The bright moonlight made them glisten on her pale skin. "Oh, Harry. What are we going to do? Just when we need the family to be at its closest, he has to go and send a letter like this."
Defying the feeling of panic inside him and ignoring all sense of reason, Harry reached out an arm and captured her in a hug. "It'll be all right, Gin. You'll see. Percy may be an insufferable git, but he's still your brother," he said as he breathed into her hair.
She didn't respond, except to strengthen her embrace and rest her head on his shoulder, sniffing miserably. Her breath was tickling the hairs on the back of his neck and he once again fought off the voice inside his head that told him to stop holding her. Instead, he maneuvered her to sit in his lap and she moved her arms to wrap around his collar. Ginny's head continued to rest on his shoulder as the sobs waned away.
For the second time that day, Harry wondered at his newfound ability to comfort others. First, he was giving advice to Ron about his feelings for a girl, now he was holding one in his arms. If this had been Cho sitting in his lap, crying miserably, Harry knew that he would be unable to form a coherent thought. With Ginny, he was able to use their friendship as a springboard for conversation. There was no awkwardness and no expectations, just two friends.
As Ginny relaxed completely in his arms, Harry realized that even though Ginny was no Cho Chang, he was glad for it. He wasn't smitten with the redhead, but the friendship they shared was worth more to him than a hundred Cho Changs.
"Harry?" came her muffled voice.
"Thanks for being here for me. I...I really needed someone just then, and I'm...I'm glad it was you." She lifted her head slightly and looked at him right in the eye.
Harry was struck with a new thought. Ginny Weasley was a very pretty girl, and the world seemed to swim behind her. All he could focus on was her bright brown eyes, alight with thanks and warmth. Her eyes flitted down to his lips and then back to his own eyes. A flush began to creep up his cheeks as he realized what was about to happen for only the second time in his life.
"Ginny?" he whispered.
"Yes, Harry?" Her voice was different, filled with some unknown emotion. It seemed deeper to Harry and he found that he liked the way she said his name.
"I...I think we should get back inside before they send out a search party."
He thought he saw a look of disappointment flash over her face but it was too quick to tell. She moved slowly out of his lap and when she was clear, Harry jumped up as quickly as he could before he offered a hand to help her. As they walked side-by-side back to the Burrow, Harry couldn't help wonder what exactly had happened under that tree.