Harry lay in the third bed to the left in Hogwarts' Hospital Wing, languid after his brush with death, watching the dust motes dance in the shaft of sunset-washed light. He'd been here far too long already. The other students would be arriving any minute, and yet Madame Pomfrey insisted on having him rest longer.
"I'm taking no chances with you, Mr. Potter," she had said as she pressed him back into bed with a practiced hand, "not after the summer you've had. No, you at least need to start off the year well enough, no matter that I can't ever seem to keep you that way." She'd muttered that last part while waving her wand to check the healing of his ribs. Then he'd been forced to take another draught of that horrible bone-healing potion and stay in bed another hour.
The potion had been nasty, but nowhere near the agonizing ordeal of his last experience here—after the poisoning. Just the memory of that made him nauseous. So Harry shied away from thinking about it, once again letting his gaze drift about the deserted room, to the carved stone of the high ceiling, and finally to the closed, white doors at the end of the Infirmary. In his mind he could see a big, black dog suddenly bursting through them. He would give anything to make it a reality, and to see the dog become a man, and to hear Sirius go off onto one of his completely unreasonable lectures on risk-taking. Oh, even that, Harry would suffer gladly.
A deep sigh racked his still-sore ribs. They were waiting for the breaks to heal before taking care of the bruising. With mounting frustration, Harry's mind reached for better thoughts. As had been his pattern of late, his mind caught on Ginny. She should be here soon on the Hogwarts Express with the others, which, he reminded himself, Dumbledore insisted was perfectly safe. There were disguised Aurors and the entire D.A. on board, as well as the added protection of Charlie guarding his friends in the guise of Harry Potter, taking Polyjuice Potion every hour to keep the illusion for the duration.
It was difficult to believe that it was already time for term to begin. The summer had been a blur of pain and anger, blood and fear, culminating in his ejection from the Dursleys home, the place he had officially called "home" for sixteen years. The Dursleys had bargained to be rid of him for good, accepting another house on the other side of town in exchange for one more week of the safety of blood magic. That would be enough to keep Harry safe for the coming year. Of course in spite of that arrangement, they'd tossed Harry out the front door at the first sign of Death Eaters on the front lawn. Harry gritted his teeth.
Dumbledore had gone into more talks with the Dursleys, but so far had not pursued charges against them. Harry almost understood why, though all the Weasleys, especially Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, were vocal in their anger about it. If this were to go to trial, there was the very real danger of Lucius or some other powerful Death Eater forcing the Wizengamot to swing penalties against Harry or some other such nonsense. The near-miss during the trial last summer after Harry's use of magic against the Dementors had been proof enough. And, of course, there was the fact that the Dursleys' needed to be protected from Tom, in spite of the fact that they hated all wizardry and wanted no help at all. Taking this to trial would bring the Dursleys attention that could be very, very dangerous. Most wizards would assume that Harry loved his family, and there were wizards who would hurt them for no larger reason than that. The idea of the Dursleys being attacked again because of him made Harry's mouth go dry. He could not love them as he should, but he still cared. It was just another reason to settle this quickly. Tom needed to be dealt with, and Harry . . . well, he couldn't take another summer like this past one.
His real vacation hadn't even begun until after Malfoy had left the Burrow. The prat's acid tongue and bitterness about his father had made him extremely hard to endure, though, to be honest, he had gone quiet just before he left to go to Snape's Unplottable Mountain Chateau—which apparently was a family holiday spot that Snape rarely visited instead of the punchline to some outrageously silly joke. Malfoy had remained there during the last week and a half of summer hols and things around the Burrow had gotten much easier.
Harry had been able to recuperate more fully once he felt he could relax, or at least mostly relax. But the git's repeated assertion (in private) that Ginny was Harry's greatest weakness had continued to play in Harry's head. While Malfoy was there, Harry'd spoke to Ginny only when necessary. But once the git was gone, Harry found himself naturally watching her, and trying to not watch her, which only resulted in him being aware of himself not-watching her, which wasn't any better. In the end, he came to the conclusion that he'd always sort-of watched Ginny, always noticed her without really noticing. And now, trying not to be aware of her in a room just made him that much more aware of her. He thought, however, that he'd at least kept his difficulties to himself and no one else had noticed, but he was wrong.
Harry flushed under the white sheets, remembering.
Three nights ago, he had been playing chess with Ron and trying to not-watch Ginny. It had made his hands sweat, to see how little control he'd had over something that in the past had seemed so easy.
Harry leaned forward and nudged his pawn, not seeing any imminent danger from Ron's players at the moment. The pawn looked up at him, sighed, and then trudged forward with the air of a condemned man going to the gallows. As soon as the play was done, Ron leaned forward eagerly in his chair—always a bad sign. Then came the lopsided grin as he reached for the board, which could only mean disaster. Harry sighed and flicked his eyes over at Ginny again—without meaning to, of course.
She was still reading, her crimson hair piled in a flaming waterfall over one shoulder as she rested on the window seat of the living room. Harry could tell she was distracted by something. She was turning the pages slowly, much more slowly than usual. In front of her, on the couch, Hermione sat, flipping through her new Arithmancy book and mumbling to herself, already hard at work though it was still almost two weeks before term began.
It was a normal night here at the Burrow, post-Dementor attack. Harry was still surprised that it had been deemed safe enough for everyone to let him stay here, but then Grimmauld Place had been compromised, so there really wasn't any other option. Harry shook his head. The Fidelius Charm had failed again, just like it had for his parents. There always seemed to be someone ready to betray them. At least this time no one had died this time, though Mrs. Weasley had been injured. That memory always brought tightness into Harry's chest. The Burrow had been attacked just to get to him, and he hated the thought that he was bringing them all more danger, just by accepting their invitation of hospitality.
Suddenly, Ginny slammed down the book she had been reading. Harry jerked his gaze away from where it had been stuck (on her) and down at the chess board, cursing himself inwardly. His face was flaming.
"What is it?" Ron asked him curiously, then looked up at Ginny, who had just stopped beside them. Harry glanced up, caught in an instant by the way her hair swirled around her shoulders and her brown eyes narrowed in challenge.
"Well . . . what is it?" she snapped at Harry, hands settling onto her hips.
"Er—nothing," stammered Harry. He swallowed hard as he looked back at the board, jerking his knight over to block Ron's rook.
"Geroff! It's my turn," protested Ron along with the tiny, irate knight, setting the piece back—much to its satisfaction. "Where's your brain at, mate?"
"His brain must be stuck somewhere over my head, because that's where he's been staring at for the past hour-and-a-half," Ginny said heatedly.
"No—er . . . I mean, I was just . . . thinking in your general direction, that's all," Harry averted his eyes from Ginny back to the chess board as his cheeks went crimson again. He thought he had caught a faint smile on her face.
"Liar," she said without venom, "I just didn't want you to think I hadn't noticed, that's all." And with that, she walked back over to the chair, and scooped up her book. Harry breathed a sigh of relief as she continued on up the stairs.
"Your move," Ron said cheerfully, his grin self-satisfied.
Harry studied the board, disheartened to see that his much-beleaguered knight had joined the other black pieces that had been smashed and dragged off the board. He hadn't even noticed.
"So," began Ron in an odd voice, "I probably shouldn't even ask this . . ."
"So don't," said Hermione in a loud voice from over on the couch. Harry turned to look at her and saw one of her warning looks being passed to Ron.
"Ask what?" Harry piped up, his curiosity piqued.
"Ask if you've been staring at my little sister for a reason," Ron replied with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Ron," Hermione warned.
"Of course not," Harry said loudly, and, he hoped, convincingly. He was going to have to get better at this by the time they headed to school. But then again, there would be a lot more to occupy his mind there—the D.A., Quidditch, if they let him play, and Snape—Snape and that N.E.W.T.-level Potions class. Probably, the awkwardness or whatever-it-was would go away by then. By the time Harry faded back into the conversation, Hermione was telling Ron off.
"I think I'll turn in," he interrupted quickly.
"Sure, mate. Go on up. This game'll keep. I'll . . . be up in a bit." Ron stammered a bit and his ears turned pink, a sure sign of subterfuge. Harry just nodded and smiled over at Hermione.
"Good night, Harry. Sleep well." She smiled sweetly at him and he felt a bit better. But as he walked up the stairs, the lone one of the trio, a feeling swept over him that he didn't like, but remembered very well from Fourth Year—loneliness. It stayed with him, tainting his thoughts as he lay in bed for nearly an hour after getting ready for bed, shuffling his way through dim possible futures, horrors unknown and triumphs unseen.
". . . for neither can live while the other survives . . ."
That night, Harry dreamed horribly, but woke no one with his cries. Even Ron slept through all of it. Like most of his bad dreams lately, it had centered on his time in Malfoy Manor and the abuse he had suffered at Lucius Malfoy's hands. When he awoke in a cold sweat, with the bloody Hall of Mirrors vaporizing into the darkness of Ron's room, it was hard to tell which he was more grateful for: the wand gripped in his hand, or the bedclothes completely covering him. Lucius had crossed a line that night, making humiliation a part of the night's torture. It made it impossible for Harry to feel normal, impossible to leave it behind. And the veiled threat that Draco had made, about future abuse being worse . . .
Harry pulled up the gray screen in his mind and forced his breathing to slow to normal. If he allowed it to dominate his thoughts this way, then Lucius had won. Harry decided to make another list, one a bit different from his "Ways-to-Keep-My-Friends-From-Gettting-Killed" list. It took only a few minutes to write down everything on his mind.
TO DO LIST:
1) Kill Lucius
2) Kill Tom
3) Master Procclumency/Occlumency
4) Kiss a girl—on purpose
In the end, the list was a bit surprising. Wanting to kiss a girl was . . . new, and seemed completely out-of-place on the list. But the thought was as a siren call to him, something that glowed with normalcy and felt . . . wholesome, less desperate. He had to keep it on there. So far, he'd only had that one kiss with Cho, which hadn't even been a particularly good one. He wasn't sure, but he thought that probably—maybe—it would have been nicer if it had been someone not-crying and someone he was moved to kiss on his own. Cho was completely out of the picture now, so he would have to . . . stay on the look-out for someone. Someone special. Someone amazing and fabulous and brave; they'd have to be brave to want to be around Harry Potter. He smiled bitterly at that.
And since he wasn't sure he would survive killing Tom—in fact, he had an inkling that Tom would only go if he could take Harry with him—kissing a girl simply had to go higher up on the list. So he revised it.
TO DO LIST:
1) Master Procclumency/Occlumency
2) Kiss a girl on purpose (a good kiss, too)
3) Kill Tom
4) Kill—well, put Lucius out of commission
That was better. After organizing his thoughts, Harry felt better and was able to go back to sleep quickly, this time to a dreamless rest.
Harry's extra hour of rest was finally up, but Madame Pomfrey was nowhere to be seen. He eased himself out of bed and slipped on his shoes again. It was curious to him that Dumbledore hadn't even shown up here to talk things over with him. But then again, Malfoy had been here all afternoon, probably whinging for attention, plus there had been all the stunned Death Eaters to deal with as well as Grawp. Dumbledore probably had quite enough on his hands. Harry knew what to do now, anyway. It was all prearranged. Quietly, he grabbed his broom and eased out of the Infirmary, moving cautiously toward the Astronomy Tower. It was fine if a teacher saw him, or even a student, just as long as two of him weren't spotted. And right now, with Charlie heading his way in an Invisibility Cloak, the chances were small, but not nonexistent, that it could happen.