Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I'm just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
Harry slowly raised his head and stared morosely at the familiar visage of number four, Privet Drive. What had already been a horrible day was rapidly getting worse. Not only did he have to appear unannounced on the Dursleys' doorstep (something he knew they'd have no problem expressing their displeasure over), but he'd also have to tell them that two other freaks would be joining him this afternoon. The corner of Harry's mouth twitched humorlessly as he envisioned how they'd take the news.
He'd left Ron and Hermione at King's Cross station a little over an hour ago. They were each going to make quick stops at their respective homes before Apparating to Privet Drive. Harry smiled fondly, remembering their show of solidarity. He hadn't been expecting it; he'd thought he'd be going on alone. Although he was desperately worried about them and the remainder of their quest, he had to admit that the thought of some support while facing his relatives was quite nice indeed.
Harry had thought it would be better – or at least less embarrassing – if he arrived at Privet Drive first and prepared his relatives for their arrival. He'd wanted to get away from the Hogwarts Express and the other students as quickly as possible…before he ran into Ginny.
Harry quickly shook his head – he couldn't afford to think about Ginny. He still didn't think his resolve was strong enough to hold.
Since he wasn't yet of age, he'd quickly slipped away without speaking to any of the crowd at King's Cross and taken the train to Privet Drive. The long, hot journey had left him irritable. It didn't bode well for the coming reunion. He'd considered just Apparating back from Hogsmeade to avoid the Hogwarts Express altogether. So what if the Ministry chucked him out of Hogwarts now? He wasn't going back, anyway.
Hermione, always the voice of reason, reminded him that there was no need to give the Ministry an excuse to break his wand, and Harry had to admit that she had a point.
Rufus Scrimgeour wanted Harry under his control, and Harry wouldn't put it past the man to make life difficult in an effort to force Harry to comply. Harry had no patience for the man or his politicking. Still, recklessly using underage magic for the sake of mere convenience was a risk not worth taking.
He hated when Hermione was right.
So, he'd sat in a compartment with Ron and Hermione and tried to ignore the hole in his heart that Ginny's absence created. He hadn't seen her the entire journey home and wondered which compartment she'd sat in on the train. Neither Ron nor Hermione had asked him where she was, but he'd caught Hermione staring at him speculatively on several occasions. Harry had been steadfast in avoiding her gaze. He'd stared out the window miserably, his thoughts focused on happier days…
Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans and squaring his shoulders, Harry trudged across the street towards the immaculately pruned garden of number four, Privet Drive. He'd promised Dumbledore that he'd return one more time before his birthday, and he intended to keep that pledge. Harry's chest tightened as he thought of his headmaster, but he blinked the moisture from his eyes and continued forward. This was what Dumbledore had wanted, and this was what he was going to do.
Still, knowing what he had to do didn't make doing it any easier. He wasn't in the mood to deal with the Dursleys' nonsense. He had no patience for their petty bigotry…he had bigger challenges to face. The days when Vernon Dursley's purple face could make him cower were long past. He wondered what he could expect when they opened the door to find him standing there after his eventful departure last summer.
All in all, he supposed it could be worse. He'd rather face the Dursleys' ire than Molly Weasley's fury when Ron informed her of his plans to ditch the Burrow this summer and head straight into the war that she'd been so adamantly attempting to shield him from.
Oh, no, Harry mused, he got off far easier in only having to face the Dursleys.
He wondered if Ron would have dropped his little bombshell while still at King's Cross, or if he would have waited until arriving at the Burrow. Harry could picture Ron in the kitchen trying to reason with his mum, and Ginny would be there…
Harry's heart constricted at the mere thought of her, and he pressed his eyelids together as if to squeeze her from his thoughts. Everything had seemed so simple and straightforward in his mind when he'd made his decision. He couldn't put Ginny in danger. He'd never survive if he lost her, too.
But he had something he had to do, and he couldn't afford any distractions while he was searching for the Horcruxes. Breaking it off had been the right thing to do. There was no reason that she should have to put her life on hold just because he did. It could take years to find them all.
At the time, it had seemed the perfectly logical thing to do. But now, away from Hogwarts and facing the unknown…now, nothing was clear. He didn't know how he'd be able to function with this pain tearing such a hole in his heart. He felt as if he were bleeding continually from an invisible wound.
One thing he did know for certain: she could distract him with a simple smile, and he couldn't afford to be distracted. He had too much that he had to do.
As for what did come next…that's where Harry faltered. He knew what it was he had to do, he just wasn't certain about how to do it. How could he find the remaining four Horcruxes? Where did he start? And how did he keep himself – or worse, Ron and Hermione – from suffering the same fate Dumbledore did when he'd located the last two Horcruxes? Or what he'd thought was a Horcrux, anyway…
R.A.B. How was he to find R.A.B.? Where did he begin?
The locket, the cup, the snake, and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw…
It seemed hopeless and overwhelming as a whole, so he'd have to start in pieces and work from there. He fingered the cold, hard metal of the fake Horcrux that he still kept in his pocket. Harry had found himself using it as some sort of talisman, holding onto it whenever the stress started to build. There had to be a way, and he was going to find it.
The first step would be Godric's Hollow. He wasn't certain what he expected to find there, it just seemed important that he go.
Scratch that. The first step would be getting through his last confinement with the Dursleys, and the sooner he started enduring that, the sooner he could move forward.
While he'd been lost in thought, Harry's feet had carried him to the front door. Taking a deep breath, he tapped the knocker three times.
Here we go.
It took only a few moments before he heard footsteps approaching the door. It opened slightly, and Aunt Petunia's horsy face peered through the crack. He watched as her eyes widened in surprise before the door swung open wide, and she yanked him inside by the collar of his shirt.
"What are you doing here?" Aunt Petunia demanded, her long neck craning from side to side to ensure none of the neighbors were out and about and watching Harry being manhandled by his aunt. "Why are you back here so soon? Did those freaks at that school of yours finally decide they didn't want you either and throw you out? Did you think you could just show up here unannounced?"
"Hello, Aunt Petunia. It's nice to see you, too," Harry said pleasantly, pulling back from her grip and readjusting his collar. He spared a quick glance at the parlor, noting that nothing had really changed, although there were some crumpled sweet wrappers on an end table, which was unusual for Aunt Petunia.
"Don't you 'hello' me," his aunt snapped, dragging his attention back to her aggravated face. "I asked you what you are doing here? Term still has several weeks remaining."
Harry shrugged and dropped his gaze to the floor. "We were released early this year," he said vaguely, not wanting to discuss Dumbledore's death with her quite so soon. He wasn't ready.
Before she could reply, the kitchen door swung open, and Harry's cousin Dudley lumbered into the room. He was even larger than Harry remembered, and his face looked tired and drawn. His eyes opened wide with shock upon seeing Harry, and he began gaping like a fish.
"What's he doing here?" Dudley demanded, pointing a porky finger at Harry. Harry was pleased to notice the slight tremor in Dudley's hand. After years of being the victim of Dudley's bullying behavior, it was nice to have the shoe on the other foot, so to speak.
"Hey, Duds," Harry said, grinning widely. "You're home from school early, too. Did they chuck you out?" Harry asked, throwing Aunt Petunia's taunt back at his cousin.
Harry was surprised when Dudley ignored Harry completely and turned his panic-stricken eyes upon his mother. "Thought you'd get him to look me over, did you? Trying to compare and see if he's infected me? It's all his fault, anyway. You know that. Him and that freak of an old man who took him the last time – they did this to me. You know they did something. He threatened you, I heard him."
"Now, now, Popkin," Aunt Petunia said soothingly, but Harry couldn't help but notice the tremor in her voice. "Don't get yourself upset. You know what happens when you get too fussed."
Dudley's eyes nearly bulged out of the sockets, and he grasped his mother's forearms with enough force to leave red marks. "Mummy! Don't let it happen again," he whimpered.
Aunt Petunia pulled her arm away and began patting Dudley on the back and cooing softly as she led him into the parlor. Once she sat him on the couch and calmed him down, she turned back towards Harry. Her eyes were filled with such intense loathing that Harry found himself taking a step back involuntarily. What was going on here?
"Sit down and don't dirty the sofa. I'm going to get Duddy a glass of lemonade," she hissed, scurrying from the room. "Don't upset him."