Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all associated characters are owned by J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., Warner Brothers, and others.
Author's Note: Many thanks to Jner for her work in beta-ing this for me. Any mistakes remaining are mine alone, though.
Harry strode out of the station and into the sunshine, dragging his trunk with one hand and carrying Hedwig's cage in the other. For the first time in a very long time he felt as though he could cope. He recalled the strange conversation he'd had with Luna Lovegood the previous day. Even though he would have avoided the strange Ravenclaw given the opportunity, talking to her about Sirius's death, and the odd feeling of hope she'd left him with, had eased the weight on his mind a little.
The support that Mad-eye Moody, Mr Weasley, Tonks, Remus Lupin and Hermione had shown him at the station when he was faced with the Dursleys, with the prospect of yet another summer of drudgery and ill treatment ahead of him, had also helped. It had given him a glimpse of potential freedoms he might be able to realise over the holidays, and reminded him that his friends were going to stick by him.
For once he knew that, if the Dursleys continued their obvious mistreatment of him, they would find themselves facing the repercussions, something that his Aunt and Uncle had never had to face before with regard to Harry.
It reminded him a bit of his first summer back at Privet Drive after a year away at Hogwarts. Back then, his relatives had been a little timid around him in fear of having him use his magic on them, until of course the strange house elf, Dobby, had created a situation where the Dursleys found out that he wasn't actually permitted to do anything to them.
'Yes, freedom,' Harry thought as he walked along the street outside the station, smiling to himself.
Freedom of sorts, anyway.
He didn't have to put up with the constant verbal abuse from his relatives for once, and perhaps - just perhaps - he might actually be allowed to know a little bit about what was going on.
Harry stopped at the Dursleys' car. He was somewhat surprised to notice that Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and his cousin Dudley were almost right behind him, looking out of breath as they had attempted to match Harry's purposeful stride from the Kings Cross concourse to the row of cars parked beyond the taxi rank. Uncle Vernon nearly stumbled over Harry's trunk as he laid it down next to the parking meter, and cursed under his breath as he looked at the time remaining on the meter and the money he had wasted.
"I hope you don't think that those freaks at the station are going to be anywhere near our house this summer, boy?" Uncle Vernon started with a snarl. "I don't take kindly to being threatened about what goes on in my own house."
Harry considered his words carefully, knowing that help was just around the corner if he needed it, but not wanting to antagonise his uncle unnecessarily.
"Then you had better make sure that you're nice to me, hadn't you, Uncle Vernon? " Harry replied in an insincerely sweet tone, "Otherwise I'm sure they'll be over as quick as a flash."
Harry purposely left out any mention of him personally carrying tales about any mistreatment. He had no intention of calling for help unless it was absolutely necessary. However, the oblique reminder of the supernatural abilities that his friends had was intended to make Uncle Vernon think twice before doing something really obnoxious. Something like replacing the bars on Harry's bedroom window, and basically keeping him a prisoner all summer.
He'd experienced that after the situation with Dobby and didn't particularly fancy a repeat performance, even if he was likely to be rescued in short order when Remus and the others failed to hear from him. He didn't particularly want to be on his relatives' bad sides any more than they wanted him in the house, and he knew there was a fine line between vague threats that might prevent Uncle Vernon from being nasty and something bigger that might provoke him and send him over the edge.
"It's quite simple, Uncle Vernon," Harry continued. "You don't have to like me. All I'm asking is that you treat me reasonably well and, largely, stay out of my way, and I'll do my best to stay out of yours. You already know that I'm not supposed to do magic out of school, so I'm not going to threaten you or anything, I just want to be treated with a little bit of respect instead of like dirt."
Uncle Vernon started nervously at the mention of the word 'magic', but recovered sufficient poise to bluster back at Harry. "Well make sure you do, boy."
That seemed to be enough for Uncle Vernon, who unlocked the car and opened the boot for Harry to put his trunk in. Harry opened Hedwig's cage and stroked her. "Go on, Hedwig, you'd best fly from here," he said, releasing the snowy owl and placing the empty cage in the boot.
Uncle Vernon's face started to turn purple, and it looked like he was about to start another outburst, probably about 'dratted owls in the house', Harry thought, so he decided to head off that argument before it even began.
"You don't really want an owl screeching around in the boot of the car when you're trying to drive, do you Uncle Vernon?" he asked rhetorically. "Surely you'll find it less distracting without Hedwig in the car."
Uncle Vernon huffed a little, but seemed to accept Harry's logic and motioned for him to hurry up stowing his belongings and get into the car. "Make sure the dratted bird stays away from us too, you understand boy?" Uncle Vernon added, ensuring he got the last word in as he squeezed himself into the driver's seat and slammed the door.
As they pulled away and headed out of central London towards the Surrey suburbs, Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia made small talk in response to the news that came on the radio for the most part, while Dudley sat in silence, as far away from Harry on the back seat as he possibly could.
Meanwhile, Harry turned his thoughts to the recent past and the near future.
Sirius was dead.
There was nothing Harry could do about that now. Despite the support he'd received from his friends, Harry still felt responsible for his death in part, knowing that if he hadn't fallen for Voldemort's trick to get him to the Department of Mysteries, there was a fair chance that Sirius would still be alive.
The melancholy memory dragged Harry out of his good mood, and into a more sombre train of thought. Had there been anything he could have done to stop Sirius getting killed? Sure, if he had ignored the visions that Voldemort had planted in his mind, and not acted on his "hero complex" to dash off to the Ministry of Magic to try and rescue Sirius, then perhaps things would have been different. He really should have listened to Hermione when she tried to tell him that it could have been a trap.
That was one letter that he knew he would have to write pretty soon. He needed to apologise to Hermione for not trusting her judgement. Although his friends hadn't pressed him into talking about the events at the Department of Mysteries, perhaps out of respect for his despair over Sirius, Hermione obviously had every right to invoke the "told you so" lecture once she was sure he was in a fit state to listen to it. Harry chuckled to himself at the thought of Hermione missing out on such a great opportunity. Yes, he definitely owed Hermione an apology and he hoped that she, and the other four who'd gone to the Ministry with him, would forgive him for putting their lives in danger.
How could he have known that the visions he had suffered weren't real, Harry thought to himself. There wasn't anyone at Hogwarts that he could have turned to – Dumbledore had spent the whole year avoiding Harry, but even if Harry had been inclined to try and contact him about the visions he would have been out of luck. Dumbledore had already been driven from the castle by the Ministry's interference by that time. He had tried to warn Professor Snape, but had been met with Snape's usual snide put-downs, rather than any indication that help would be forthcoming.
When he had tried to get into the Hospital Wing to speak to Professor McGonagall, he had found that she had been admitted to St. Mungo's for treatment, following the unprovoked attacks by Ministry personnel the night of Harry's Astronomy practical exam, when she'd tried to stop them disposing of Hagrid. Even had he felt like confiding in any of the other teachers at Hogwarts, he wasn't sure that he could trust them to act to help – he could remember his first year when he had tried to warn Professor McGonagall that the safeguards surrounding the Philosopher's Stone had been compromised and she had totally ignored the warning.
Remembering Snape's total disinterest in helping save Sirius led Harry to another thought: Occlumency. The lessons with Professor Snape that had been supposed to teach him to keep Voldemort out of his mind had been a complete farce. As usual with Snape's lessons, there had been no preparation for the tasks he was expected to engage in, and no explanation of how he should react to defend himself. All Snape had told Harry was to 'clear your mind', hardly an easy feat given Harry's emotional trauma at the time.
And if it wasn't enough that he had to have his name dragged through the mud, suffer a full trial by the Wizengamot, be accused of lies, be forced to use a bloodquill by that hag, Umbridge, and witness in first person an attack on his best friend's dad, he'd had to experience Hogwarts' foremost Death Eater invading his mind under the guise of 'lessons' to protect him.
Harry hated Snape. He was never going to forgive him for putting him through that, for using him as a tool to continue his enmity with Harry's long-dead father, even as he was supposed to be teaching Harry skills to protect himself. Much like his Potions lessons for the past five years, Harry had found that Snape's hatred for James Potter seemed to have extended itself to Harry as a means of personal satisfaction or retribution for the humiliations he had suffered at James's hands some twenty years earlier.
Anger coursed through Harry's veins at these thoughts and he struggled to control himself. 'That's what I've been doing all year', he thought with a sudden burst of clarity, 'struggling to control myself. Well, maybe it's time for that to change. Maybe regaining some control is the first step here.'
This revelation was a little startling to Harry. Although he'd spent a large portion of the previous year being unable to control his emotions, he'd actually had a fair amount of practice at it in the past – both in dealing with the Dursleys and during his Potions lessons with Snape. He wondered why, in the last twelve months, he'd seemingly lost the capacity to ignore slights and insults he'd found himself getting used to and letting them slide over him on a seemingly perpetual basis.
No doubt the horrific effects of being utilised in the ceremony that enabled Voldemort's re-birth, and the stresses and strains of the Tri-wizard Tournament had taken their toll on him. Having to return to the Dursleys and their distinctive lack of care for him hadn't helped either. He'd had little opportunity to process the events of that psychologically disturbing occasion before being thrust back away from the wizarding world with nobody to help him make sense of it. The isolation had forced him to internalise his trauma, with no outlet for the anguish he'd suffered.
At least this year Harry had the prospect of some contact with the wizarding world, rather than being prevented from communicating anything of substance to his friends or being able to discuss his soul-rending experience as had been the case the previous summer. Harry made a mental promise to himself that he would not return to the selfish, moody and emotionally disturbed state that he had been in for the past twelve months.
A little calmer now, Harry's thoughts turned to other weighty matters that had been thrust upon him over the past few days. The prophecy – did it mean what he thought it meant? How far were these things set in stone? Harry concluded that, even knowing the prophecy and hearing Professor Dumbledore's explanation of how he'd interpreted it, he actually had a lot more questions than solutions, and there was really only one person he knew that was likely to be able to answer them.
That was going to mean rebuilding some bridges that he thought might currently be burning and trying to get Dumbledore to share information, which in the past he had been rather reluctant to do; but also, even if the prophecy didn't mean that Harry was destined to face Voldemort, and that only one would survive, the fact that Voldemort himself seemed to believe that Harry had to be killed at all costs meant that Harry had to be prepared.
The street was quiet on this sunny Sunday evening as Uncle Vernon pulled up outside Number 4 Privet Drive and Harry reached this conclusion. Uncle Vernon wasted no time in leaping out of the driver's seat and heading into the house, a feat of athleticism Harry was sure his oversized frame hadn't attempted in decades, leaving his wife and son to their own devices as he distanced himself from his 'freak nephew' as quickly as possible.
Aunt Petunia turned to Harry. "I hope you don't think those people at the station are just going to turn up at my house?" she noted. "I'm not having you tattling to them about how we treat you here, it's none of their business. I know that Vernon feels threatened by them and I don't want him doing something strange, like that night when we ended up in that hut, in the sea in the middle of nowhere. You'd better behave yourself and not upset him with your nonsense."
Harry knew that he shouldn't provoke Uncle Vernon, but the problem was of his Uncle's own making. The main reason that Uncle Vernon wasn't capable of understanding 'magic' people was because of his bigoted attitude to anyone that was different to him or acted differently to how he thought they should act. However, Harry was prepared to cut his relatives a little slack for the time being, though, since this was probably as pleasant as they had ever been to him. He didn't really want to involve the Order in dealing with the Dursleys if it could be avoided, even if it meant that he got to see his friends more often.
"I'll do my best not to provide Uncle Vernon with an excuse to do anything he'll regret," Harry assured his Aunt, careful to avoid any specific promises about his personal conduct, "but you really will have to treat me better than you have done in the past."
Aunt Petunia looked particularly affronted at this, and Dudley elected to depart whilst the going was still good, although his attempts to slip away unnoticed forced Harry to stifle a chuckle. 'Dudley' and 'stealthy' were two words that just didn't go together.
"Don't you forget we've taken you in when we had no compulsion to do so, fed and clothed you," Aunt Petunia began, clearly winding herself up to deliver something of a monologue.
Harry thought this was a bit rich. He would freely admit that the Dursleys had taken him in after his parents' deaths, but since Harry had been doing many of the chores around the house since around the age of six, had been clothed in Dudley's cast offs, and given the most meagre portions to survive on, he didn't think that Aunt Petunia's argument held an awful lot of weight.
"Yes, Aunt Petunia, I'm fully aware that you have sheltered and clothed me for nearly sixteen years. Why, you even gave up your smallest cupboard for me to have as my bedroom for almost eleven of those years – how thoughtful of you!
Aunt Petunia looked askance at Harry's unusual display of sarcasm, but he didn't let her interrupt. If he had, he was sure she'd only have started another rant about 'how ungrateful' he was.
"I'm not asking for any special treatment whilst I'm here," he continued. "I'm sure that I can cook my own food, and I'll stay well out of Uncle Vernon's way-"
"And Dudley's, too," Aunt Petunia cut in.
"Fine. And Dudley's too," Harry agreed. "I might occasionally need to use the phone, and to invite a friend or two into the house, but I'll be sure to keep them well out of your way."
Aunt Petunia looked aghast at the thought of those 'freaks' being invited into her home, but as long as Harry didn't bring their attention to his 'unnaturalness', he thought she would probably be happy to ignore him. She had successfully managed to ignore all but the most basic of his needs for sixteen years, so he thought that she would at least be able to treat him well enough that he didn't need to call upon anyone from the Order. A month or so over the holidays shouldn't prove much of a challenge, and then maybe he'd be allowed to go to The Burrow.
He hoped that Uncle Vernon would feel the same way. His temper was much worse than Aunt Petunia's, and he seemed to explode at the merest mention of Harry's talents or friends. He could only imagine Aunt Petunia's expression if Mad-eye Moody turned up on the doorstep with his leathery face, flashing blue eye and part-missing nose in response to one of Uncle Vernon's outbursts. He wasn't sure how closely he was being watched by the Order.
"Good," Aunt Petunia said, interrupting Harry's reflections and apparently deciding that the subject was closed. She opened the door to get out of the car, but then paused a moment to add one final comment. "Oh, and you'll need to keep that owl of yours quiet as well. It's yet another thing that we barely put up with."
Harry nodded and got out of the car as well. He collected his trunk and Hedwig's cage from the boot and made his way up to the bedroom that had been his for the past five years, with plans to get some letters written and, hopefully, some questions answered.
He sat down at his desk, and started writing – it was time to try and change his life, and he had to start with the man considered to be the most powerful wizard in the world, Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore seemed to know more or less everything that was going on, and Harry thought that, besides owing Dumbledore a rather large apology as well, he might at least try and find some way of making life a little less traumatic.
Hedwig flew in through the open window unnoticed as Harry wrote. She took one look at the letter he was concentrating on so deeply, and settled down for a nap, knowing that she had another journey ahead of her.