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.
The next morning, Harry was awakened by the sound of Ron's snoring, which was causing the entire room to shake. Combined with Dudley's snores coming from the room next door, it sounded as if a battle of the bands was taking place.
Uncle Vernon must be loving this. Of course, he snored fairly loudly himself, so maybe he was missing it. The door to Harry's bedroom creaked open, and a disgruntled Hermione stuck her face inside.
"Does he always snore that loudly?" she asked testily.
"Pretty much," Harry replied, grinning. He pulled the covers up closely to his bare chest, suddenly becoming aware of his state of undress. "Er, what are you doing in here, Hermione?"
Hermione's cheeks turned pink, as if she just realized what she'd done. He noticed her gaze remained fixed on Ron's bare chest as he lay uncovered on his bed, his arms flung open wide.
"Hermione," Harry repeated.
She started. "Oh! I mean, erm…I just couldn't sleep with all that racket. I'm going to Apparate into Diagon Alley and pick up some books at Flourish and Blotts that might help us with our search. I'll get some breakfast while I'm out. Try and wake Sleeping Beauty there; we've got loads to do when I get back."
Hermione had, thankfully, thought to bring sandwiches and snacks with her when she'd arrived yesterday, and they'd feasted in Harry's room. He was grateful that she'd offered to get breakfast and relieved him of the duty of having to explain that the Dursleys wouldn't be feeding them.
"All right. Be careful," Harry said.
"Honestly, Harry. I'm only going to Diagon Alley. I'll be back before you know it. What do the Dursleys like to eat? I could pick something up for them while I'm out, too."
Harry just stared at her, mouth agape. "You…you…you want to get breakfast for the Dursleys?" he asked, unable to wrap his mind around the idea.
"Well, if I'm getting something for us, it would be the polite thing to do. I think that if we just made an effort you all could come to an understanding. You're her nephew, after all, and she's raised you since you were a baby. She came to you for help, and I think you have the chance to really build a relationship here, Harry."
Harry's mouth opened and closed wordlessly. Had his friend finally gone mad? He knew exactly what would happen if Hermione brought back food to the Dursleys – they'd sooner let it knock into their heads than touch it. They did as much last year with the wine Professor Dumbledore had offered them. He also knew Hermione well enough to understand that nothing he could say would dissuade her from her campaign.
"Why don't you just get a variety of pastries," he said. He was amused with the idea that Hermione's latest crusade appeared to be to enlighten the Dursleys. Harry knew she stood a better chance with the house-elves. In fact, he'd spent most of his life being treated like a house-elf by the Dursleys. Between Ron trying to live like a Muggle and Hermione trying to civilize the Dursleys, this would be the most entertainment he'd had on Privet Drive in his entire life
After Hermione had left, Harry took a shower – a very long shower once he got distracted with thoughts of Ginny again – and then went to awaken Ron. He tried calling his friend's name several times, and when that didn't work, he lobbed a pillow at his head.
"What the… Bloody hell, Harry. What'd you do that for?" Ron asked grumpily, throwing the offending pillow back at Harry and pulling the covers over his head.
"Come on and get up. Hermione told me to have you up and dressed by the time she returned," Harry said, grinning at Ron for jumping to attention at the mention of Hermione's name.
"What? Returns from where? Where is she?" Ron asked.
"She went to Flourish and Blotts to get us some research material and also to pick us up some breakfast," Harry replied, tossing Ron's dressing gown at him.
"The shower gets wonky with the hot water sometimes. If it gets too hot, just jiggle the handle, and it resets itself," Harry said.
"Jiggle the handle," Ron repeated blankly.
"Yeah," Harry said absently, opening the window to let in the owl delivering the Daily Prophet. He paid for the paper and turned back to find Ron still sitting there.
"I can't just tell the shower how hot I want it to be?" Ron asked, although it sounded more like a whine.
Harry remembered his first summer at the Burrow, when he was twelve and standing naked in Ron's shower, completely perplexed over the lack of a handle to turn the water off and on. He'd broken out in goose bumps before it had finally occurred to him simply to ask the water to begin spraying.
Taking pity on his friend, he grinned and said, "Come on. I'll show you how the common folk live."
By the time Ron had finished with his shower and returned to Harry's room (with the echo of Aunt Petunia huffing over the waste of water), Hermione had returned from her visit to Diagon Alley.
She burst into the room in a foul temper, angrily swiping the hair from her face. She dropped a heavy load of books onto Harry's rickety old desk and plopped a box full of more pastries than even Ron could eat onto the bed.
"Your relatives weren't hungry, so there's plenty to eat," she said stiffly.
Harry really tried his best not to grin. Really.
"What did they do? Throw them at you?" he asked.
"They're under the impression that I did something to the pastries. Honestly, Harry, I can't believe that you ever tried to poison them, so I don't know what all the fuss is about," she sniffed.
"They hate anything – and anyone – associated with magic. It has nothing to do with you, Hermione. It's just how they are," Harry replied, shrugging his shoulders.
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "Well, that's just as bigoted and narrow-minded as the Malfoys' view of Muggles."
Harry supposed she was right. "Yeah. Now that you mention it, I think Dudley and Malfoy could have actually been mates."
"There's an unpleasant thought," said Ron with a grimace. He'd already opened the box of pastries and held one in each hand. He took a bite of one, causing jam to squirt up on the side of his face. He slowly licked it off. "Mmmm, this is brilliant. I love you, Hermione."
Hermione's cheeks turned pink as she hurriedly looked away and selected her own pastry.
Harry wasn't certain what was happening between his two best friends. He'd thought that maybe they'd come to some sort of an understanding at Dumbledore's funeral, but they hadn't said anything to him. In fact, they were acting pretty much the same as they always did – except for a lot more blushing.
He didn't know how he felt about it. He wanted his friends to be happy, but the idea of sitting on the sidelines and watching them fall in love while his own heart was aching was more than he could bear.
Things were different for Ron and Hermione, though. They were together on this quest for the Horcruxes. They were a team and worked much better with each other than apart. Harry watched his friends out of the corner of his eye as he ate his own pastry. Ron was doing a good job on both of his, but Harry noticed him pausing every once in a while to sneak a glance at Hermione. For her part, Hermione was much more discreet, but she was also copping her fair share of peeks at Ron. Harry thought there must be some powerful feelings between them if Hermione could distract Ron from food.
It was different for Ginny and him, though, wasn't it? He had to protect her…she was better off far away from him. Still, the battle raged within his mind. For those few weeks that they'd shared together, he'd felt as if he could conquer anything. He'd felt so much stronger when she'd been by his side.
He couldn't do this. He couldn't even allow his traitorous heart to think it. Ginny shouldn't be anywhere near him.
He had to be the one to do this thing. Even if Ron and Hermione were with him on the hunt for the Horcruxes, he had absolutely no intention whatsoever of letting them get anywhere near Voldemort when the final battle raged. He'd take Voldemort out, and maybe die in the process, but he'd be certain that neither of his friends was anywhere near him when that happened. He could never allow any of them to become another spare. Especially Ginny.
An image rose unbidden in his mind of Cedric's lifeless eyes staring from his crumpled body in a graveyard. Harry shuddered as his mind played a trick and warped the body into Ginny. Her warm, brown eyes – eyes that could melt an iceberg – stared blankly, almost accusingly, through him. He couldn't let that happen. He wouldn't.
He glanced up at Ron and Hermione in time to see Hermione use a napkin to wipe away the jam that still remained on the corner of Ron's mouth. It would be wrong of Harry to begrudge them this happiness, no matter how much his heart ached to see it. Hadn't Professor McGonagall said that Professor Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think there was a little more love in the world?
He'd personally told Harry that love was his greatest strength, so why was he pushing it away?
It was different for Ginny and him. Everything was always different for him, and he'd only end up getting her killed, or forcing her to watch as he died. No. It was better for her own sake to keep her away. He'd never want her to have to suffer the kind of horror and pain that he'd felt when he'd watched Sirius slip through that Veil.
Harry shook his head, steeling his resolve. This was the way it had to be.
"Okay." Hermione's voice dragged Harry out of his thoughts. "Let's start with this room. It definitely needs some improvements." She scowled as her gaze roamed around the stacks of broken toys cluttered in the corner and the rundown condition of Harry's small bed. She withdrew her wand from her sleeve.
"We can't use magic," Harry said quickly. "The Ministry can't detect who is doing the magic, only that it's being done here, and I'll get another reprimand. Dumbledore told me that's why I got the letter when Dobby levitated my aunt's pudding."
"Not to worry, mate," Ron said, his mouth still full of pastry. "My dad said he'd inform Matilda Hopkirk at the Ministry that Hermione and I were staying here this summer, and we're both of age."
"So…then…they won't do anything if I use my wand, either. Right?" Harry asked, furrowing his brow.
"No, Harry," Hermione said firmly. "You're still underage, and we have to play by the rules if we want to avoid any trouble from the Ministry. They could still use a Priori Incantatum to see if your wand has been used. Let Ron and me handle the spells while we're here."
Harry scowled, feeling that old, familiar resentment arise within his heart. Dumbledore had always tried to shield him, and look at how well that turned out in the end. "Yeah. I'll just sit back and be a good little boy – like I always do."
"Right," Ron said, choking slightly on a piece of his pastry. "You're so good at staying out of trouble. It's not our fault you're such a young 'un."
A reluctant smile spread across Harry's face. "Shut it," he mumbled, but it was no use. It was impossible to stay in a foul mood when he had Ron and Hermione here with him on Privet Drive.
"So…what kind of changes do you have in mind?" he asked, looking back at Hermione.
"Oh, something like this," Hermione said much too casually, as if she'd been thinking of nothing else since she'd arrived. She waved her wand toward the mess of Dudley's old things in the corner and vanished them completely.
She turned towards Harry's desk, and, with a brief flick of her wand, the chipped, sagging old wood transfigured into a polished cherry and doubled in size. Shiny brass knobs appeared on the drawers, and a small bookshelf formed on the top.
Harry's jaw dropped in amazement. "Nice transfiguration, Hermione."
She wasn't finished. She turned her wand towards his bed – really, just a threadbare old mattress on top of a box spring that sagged in the middle. It immediately transformed into a replica of his beloved four-poster bed at Hogwarts, complete with a fluffy red duvet.
Harry felt as if his face would burst from smiling so wildly. "Wicked," he said.
Hermione aimed her wand at the window. The bolts that had once held bars in place disappeared, and the window adjusted itself so the panes could swing outward, letting in a nice summer breeze. Heavy curtains in a shade of red that matched his bed linens appeared, tied back with gold braids.
Harry had never had curtains in his room before, and honestly, he'd never really even noticed. He was stunned at the difference it made.
"Oh, I know what I want to do with that," Ron said, sounding disgusted.
Harry turned to see him pointing towards the cat flap on the door.
"What is it?" Hermione asked.
Ron answered before Harry could change the subject. "They used to shove his food through there when they locked him up after first year."
Hermione's lips thinned into slivers. "What did you have in mind, Ron?" she asked, her voice sounding extremely shrill.
"Remember that drive-through place your parents took us to yesterday?" Ron asked, grinning.
Hermione's face lit up with a memory. "I know exactly what you have in mind," she said.
Harry frowned. He did want them together, but he wasn't certain that he liked this secret language that only they appeared to understand. "Erm?"
Hermione flicked her wand again, but the cat flap appeared unchanged.
"Did it work?" asked Ron.
"Try it," replied Hermione.
Ron lay down on his belly in front of the door.
"What are you doing?" Harry asked, perplexed.
"I'd like three cheeseburgers and some crisps, please," Ron said, speaking to the cat flap.
Before Harry even had the chance to ask Ron if he'd gone mad, the food Ron had requested slid from the flap on the door. Harry blinked in surprise.
"Have a nice day," a voice echoed from the cat flap.
Hermione grinned, and Ron looked as if he'd died and went to heaven. He unwrapped a cheeseburger and took a bite. "Mmmm."
"What do you think, Harry?" Hermione asked.
Harry had yet to remove his eyes from the cat flap. Slowly, a delighted grin spread across his face. "I think the smell of that food alone will drive Dudley mad."
"It's cold down here on the floor, though," Ron said, his voice muffled with burger. "Can you do something about that, Hermione?"
Hermione flicked her wand yet again, and a lush soft carpet covered the floor. "It's going to be a bit crowded in here, though," Hermione said thoughtfully before closing her eyes.
Harry's eyes widened as the walls began to shift outward, enlarging the room to nearly double its original size. Quickly, Hermione transfigured Ron's conjured camp bed into a duplicate of his bed at Hogwarts. "There," Hermione said with an air of satisfaction.
"My aunt is going to flip," Harry said with glee.
"The house won't appear any different from the outside, so it's only if they come in here that they'll notice," Hermione said.
"Oh, believe me, Aunt Petunia will be sticking her head in. I'm certain the curiosity over what we're doing up here is killing her," Harry said grimly.
Hermione bit her lip. "She won't be angry, will she?"
"Of course she will," Harry said happily. "Not only did we perform magic, but now my room is nicer than Dudley's. She'll despise it."
Hermione frowned. "That certainly can't be a reason, Harry. She doesn't like the magic, but she's coming around now because of Dudley."
"Okay," he replied. He knew Hermione was only setting herself up for disappointment. He only hoped his relatives wouldn't be too hard on her. He didn't want to see them hurt her; she was truly trying to help. He could handle the snubs – he'd had loads of practice – but he wasn't about to let them take out their prejudice on her.
Their days at Privet Drive passed slowly, and Harry felt the stirrings of restlessness growing within him as they approached the day they would leave forever. He felt as if he were wound tight as a drum and plunged himself into the books that Hermione had brought back from Diagon Alley in an attempt at distraction.
He'd been having trouble sleeping, and dark circles had appeared beneath his eyes. Each night when he'd try to settle down to sleep, thoughts and vague memories would churn in his head, and he couldn't turn them off.
The locket, the cup, the snake, and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw…
At times, he felt confident and ready to rush out and begin the hunt. The forced confinement grated on his nerves, and he was certain he'd worn a layer off his teeth from grinding them. At other times, the task at hand appeared so overwhelming that he felt hopeless and full of despair. The fake Horcrux that he always kept in his pocket seemed to mock him.
It was at these times that he'd retreat into himself, growing distant and increasingly quiet. He could see the concerned glances shared between Ron and Hermione when they thought he wasn't looking, but he pretended not to notice and continued with his research.
Hermione had set him the task of writing down everything he could remember from the Pensieve memories that Professor Dumbledore had shown him, in addition to any comments that the headmaster might have made about Tom Riddle. They hoped for some clues that could help them narrow their search. He'd placed a charm on his notes similar to the Marauder's map so that no one else would be able to read back what he'd written. The phrase he'd chosen as his password: I solemnly swear I'm up to some kick-arse good.
Actually, the kick-arse part had been Ron's idea, and the two boys had chuckled over it for so long that Hermione had left the room in a huff. Ron's task had been to scour old Hogwarts lists in an attempt to locate the mysterious R.A.B., but he claimed it was hopeless.
Hermione spent her time looking for references of Horcruxes, which thus far had proved futile. It seemed no one in the wizarding world wanted to discuss them. Harry had started referring to them as The-Items-That-Can't-Be-Named, causing Ron to snort his fizzy soda. He'd been nicking it from Dudley's stash since he'd arrived on Privet Drive. Harry had begun to wonder if maybe the library at Grimmuald Place would be a good place to find something on Horcruxes – it had been full of Dark magic items – but he wasn't certain if it had been completely cleaned out or not. He still didn't have the heart to go there, so he pushed that thought to the back of his mind for the moment.
Ron's complete and utter cluelessness about normal Muggle life was comical, and Harry enjoyed having the shoe on the other foot. He remembered all too well the blunders he'd made when he'd first entered the wizarding world, and how Ron had enjoyed taking the mickey out of him for most of his mistakes. Payback was sweet.
For several days, their paths and Dudley's hadn't crossed, but on a sunny afternoon when the trio had abandoned Harry's room to sit in the back garden that all changed.
"What's this?" Ron asked, holding up a statue of a funny little man with a scrunched up face.
"It's a garden gnome," Harry answered absently as he scribbled in his notebook.
"No. It isn't," Ron said with disgust. "Don't be stupid."
"It's what Muggles call gnomes, Ron," Hermione answered patiently, giving his book a gentle shove back in his direction. Ron had grown increasingly bored with all their revising and constantly looked for diversions.
"Hey, Harry, think fast," Ron said, tossing the ugly gnome towards Harry, who managed to catch it before it splattered dirt all over his notes.
Harry tossed it back without comment, and it sailed over Ron's head, just missing his reach. "I can see you're out of practice. Good thing we're not going back to school, or I'd probably have to throw you off the team," Harry said, managing to keep a straight face. He, too, was feeling restless, and winding Ron up seemed like as good idea as any.
"Throw me off the team, is it now?" Ron asked, drawing himself up to his full height. "Then who exactly would warn you about all those Bludgers that seem to follow you around all the time, Chosen Boy?"
With that, Ron launched himself at Harry and pinned him to the ground. The two boys rolled on the ground, wrestling with each other for a few moments and ignoring Hermione's huffs until Ron finally had Harry pinned with his forearm across Harry's throat.
"Yeah, you've got it right. The little runt never could stand to have anyone's hands on his neck," Dudley's voice sounded from the corner of the garden. None of the three had noticed him standing there watching them
Harry froze at the sound of Dudley's voice, his mouth forming a slight "O". Dudley had avoided them as if his life depended on it since their arrival, and he hadn't so much as spoken to Harry since the incident with the vase.
"What are you on about?" Ron asked, a hard edge to his voice.
"That's what he always used to hate the most when me and my mates used to chase him, too," Dudley said, nodding his approval.
Ron rolled off of Harry and stood up quickly, his ears growing redder by the minute. Harry raised himself up on his elbows, curious to see how Dudley and Ron interacted, yet ready to pounce if things got out of control.
"I always wondered why you red-haired lot put up with him and had him come to stay at your house for summers. I can see now that he's your target practice. I always used him for that, too. He always gives a good chase, but you can get him if you use your mates," Dudley said with a self-satisfied smirk.
"We don't all gang up on Harry," Ron said indignantly. He reached down and pulled Harry to his feet, as if trying to prove there were no hard feelings. "He's our friend."
"Friend," Dudley said, scoffing. "Who'd want to be friends with him?"
"I do," Ron said vehemently. "Just like my brothers, my sister, and anyone else who knows him. He's the best friend anyone could ask for, and we'd all do anything for him. Could you say the same for your mates, Dudley?"
Dudley appeared taken aback by Ron's fierce loyalty. He stared back and forth between Ron and Harry several times, as if unable to wrap his small mind around the fact that someone would actually like Harry. "He…he knows how to do stuff with his stick-thing…but without that, he's nothing but a pathetic little runt who messes up everything. He doesn't have any real mates. My mates stick with me, because they know I'm the strongest."
"Dudley," Hermione said gently, "Ron and Harry were just playing around. Certainly at some point while you were growing up you and Harry must have got on…once in a while."
"I'd never do anything with that freak," Dudley said.
"Freak," Ron said in disgust. "You don't even know him, do you?"
"He is a lot like Malfoy, isn't he? I've never noticed it before now, but Ron's right. He never did much on his own, either – always had to have his little gang behind him. You should have come to Hogwarts when I went, Duds. Maybe you could have been one of Malfoy's goons, too. I'm certain they would have placed you in Slytherin," Harry said, unable to resist taunting his cousin back any longer.
"I'm telling Mum you said the name of that school of yours," Dudley said, backing towards the door, apparently very confused over the loyalty amongst the trio.
"What? Hogwarts? But Dudley, you should have gone there, too. You're a wizard, after all," Harry said.
"Harry," Hermione said, grabbing his arm, but Harry ignored her.
"I never should have gone there. I'm not a freak like you lot," Dudley said, taking a step towards them.
"He'd have never been able to handle it, anyway, Harry," Ron said. "He'd be just another Crabbe or Goyle, fumbling his way through."
"I'm not a wizard," Dudley shouted, growing ever more enraged. His piggy eyes were flashing as he clenched and unclenched his massive fists.
"I'm surprised you haven't taken full advantage of it, though," Ron mused casually, leaning back against a tree and crossing his arms over his chest. "I mean…being able to use magic and all. From what Harry tells me, your favorite pasttime is picking on little kids. I'm certain you could have really scared some little Muggle kids by using magic…or frighten your mates into doing whatever you wanted. That's the way you work, right?"
"What do you mean?" Dudley asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Ron! Ignore him, Dudley. He knows you can't use magic on Muggles without getting into trouble, and besides, you wouldn't want to intimidate any of your friends. That's not what magic is all about," Hermione said, glaring at Ron.
Dudley's eyes gleamed, as if a light switch had just been turned. "I could make them do anything I wanted, couldn't I?"
Harry shivered. Dudley's reaction had eerily reminded him of the memories he'd seen of a young Tom Riddle. "Stop it. You'll never have the chance to go to Hogwarts now, so it's a moot point. Aunt Petunia saw to that."
"I don't need your stupid school, anyway. I can make this stuff happen just by getting angry. Things always happen when I'm angry…and you can't do anything about it. She said it herself. You're not allowed to use magic against Mubbles," Dudley said, pointing at Hermione with a victorious glint in his eye.
"Just one problem with that, Duds," Harry replied. "You're not a Muggle; you're a wizard."
"Enough of this," Aunt Petunia hissed, entering the back garden in a towering rage. "You were warned not to upset him and to stay away from him. I won't have you corrupting him with your vile ways." As she spoke, Aunt Petunia stood in front of Harry, with one hand on her hip and the other flicking a dishtowel at him.
Dudley smirked as he stood behind his mother. He always enjoyed seeing Harry get told off. "He said I was one of them, Mummy…that I could do….mag-"
"Don't say it!" Aunt Petunia yelped, whipping around and slamming her hand over Dudley's mouth. "Don't even listen to them, popkin."
"But Mummy, if you'd have allowed me to go to that school, I could have got a thing, too. I would have been able to keep him in line around here," Dudley whined.
"Don't speak of such things. I won't have it. I'm not going through all that again. You are normal, Dudley. Never forget that," Aunt Petunia said fervently. She'd grown increasingly paler as he spoke, and now appeared ready to faint away on the spot.
"But that was my decision to make, not yours," Dudley said, surprising Harry so much his jaw fell open. He'd never seen Dudley openly defy Aunt Petunia before; he usually only did it behind her back. Aunt Petunia was just as stunned, and she glared at Harry as if it were entirely his fault.
"I won't speak of it again, Dudley. You're to have nothing to do with that hellhole of a school," Aunt Petunia said, with that no-nonsense demeanor that Harry remembered so well.
A sick, nauseous feeling arose within him as he fully realized the extent of Aunt Petunia's hatred of the magical world – and everyone it. "You really hated her, didn't you?" he asked quietly.
He hadn't expected her to answer; she never did when it pertained to his mother. He was shocked when she turned to face him, her eyes blazing. "I never hated her; I hated what she became. I thought when she was done with that devil of a school that she'd come to her senses and return to her family, but no. Your cretin of a father had her by then, and look how they ended up. Then you arrived on our doorstep, looking just like him. I had to look into her eyes and see his face.
"I won't have my Dudley meet the same end; I won't have it."
Harry was stunned. He opened and closed his mouth several times but couldn't form the words.
"But, Mum…I could be powerful," Dudley said.
Harry couldn't contain his disbelief any longer. "Powerful? You've already had them jumping through hoops since you were born. What more did you want?" Harry's mind was racing. Had magic played a part in the dominance that Dudley had always appeared to hold over his parents? Had he somehow influenced their decisions? Had he unintentionally been prodding them along to buy just one more gift all this time?
As usual, the Dursleys ignored Harry's outburst.
"Popkin," Aunt Petunia said, putting a hand to Dudley's face. "Of course you don't want anything to do with all his foul nonsense. You're better than that. He's just trying to bring you down to his level."
Dudley shuddered. "You're right. I don't want any of this touching me. I'm normal." Dudley stormed over to Harry and poked his porky finger at Harry's chest repeatedly. "I'm normal. You hear that, Potter? I'm normal."
"Could have fooled me," Harry replied, finally recovering the use of his voice.
Ron moved next to Harry and shoved Dudley's hand away. "Keep your grubby, normal hands off him."
"I warned you to stay away from him," Aunt Petunia hissed at Harry.
"We were out here working on the project that you asked us to do. He was the one who came out here with us," Harry replied.
"Well, stay in your room, then," Aunt Petunia snapped. "Heavens, if the neighbors have heard any of this you'll be in for it. Do you hear me? Get inside and stay away from Dudley."
After Dudley and Aunt Petunia stormed inside the house, Ron turned towards Hermione. "Can you honestly think of any reason why Harry would want to continue a relationship with those people?"
"Because they're his family," Hermione said stubbornly.
"No, they're not," Harry said, shaking his head. "We share my mother's blood, that's all. You two have been my only family for a long time now." Harry quickly picked up his books and headed inside without looking back at Ron and Hermione.
Hermione's attempts at striking up a friendship with Aunt Petunia had continued, but they had – of course – been futile. Harry had kept trying to tell her, but she wouldn't listen. He'd wondered if his aunt might actually enjoy some female company for a change, but Aunt Petunia made it perfectly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Hermione. Oh, she'd let her help with chores – Aunt Petunia could never resist having someone else to boss around – but when it came to any kind of conversation, Hermione was rudely rebuffed.
At first, Aunt Petunia had merely been snippy, but as the days wore on and Hermione's persistence refused to wane, Aunt Petunia's comments had become increasingly rude and more biting. For Harry, it was basically what he'd expected to happen, but he was caught unprepared for Ron's reaction.
Ron had always been quick to stand up for Hermione; from a very early age, he'd always taken exception to anyone other than him giving her a hard time. But his fury over the Dursleys' comments to Hermione appeared extreme – even for Ron standards. He'd already threatened them several times, and once Harry had even had to step in before Ron drew his wand on Uncle Vernon. He wouldn't have much cared if Uncle Vernon got hexed, but he was afraid Ron would get in trouble for Muggle-baiting.
The night before they were due to leave, Harry found his Aunt Petunia doing her nightly wipe-down in the kitchen. They hadn't found any kind of spell that would subdue Dudley's magic, although they hadn't really had the time to look very hard. They'd decided simply to use Hermione's original idea of a CheeringCharm. Harry wished someone had thought of that idea when he and Dudley were younger; it might have made Harry's childhood a lot more pleasant.
"Aunt Petunia," Harry said quietly, hoping his uncle, who was watching the telly in the parlor, wouldn't overhear him.
"What?" snapped Aunt Petunia.
"We've found something that should help Dudley. We'll perform the spell tomorrow before we leave," he said.
Aunt Petunia froze, her hand shaking slightly as it held a sponge over the kitchen counter. "You're certain this won't hurt Dudley?"
"Yeah. He won't even be aware when it's done," Harry said.
Aunt Petunia nodded and went back to her scrubbing.
"I think we're going to go to Godric's Hollow. I want to see my parents' graves," Harry said, uncertain why he'd chosen to share this bit of information with her. There was something about knowing that he was leaving forever that felt strange. He certainly felt nothing for the Dursleys and knew they didn't want him any more than he wanted them. Still, they were all he'd known for nearly sixteen years, his only living family; he couldn't help but feel he should say something.
Aunt Petunia hesitated again, although so briefly that Harry thought he must have imagined it. "Don't leave a mess behind and take all your belongings with you – I won't be handling anything strange to forward. And be certain not to take any of Dudley's things."
Harry's shoulders sagged. "Yes, Aunt Petunia," he said softly, already regretting his efforts. As he turned around, he came face to face with a pale Hermione and a positively livid Ron standing in the entryway of the kitchen.
"Hey," Harry said uncertainly. "We're all set for tomorrow. Let's just go back upstairs and finish our packing. We'll leave in the morning."
"What is the meaning of this?" Uncle Vernon asked loudly as he stomped into the kitchen, glaring at finding Harry, Ron and Hermione there.
Before Harry could respond, Ron bit out, "I believe Harry just said that we'll be leaving tomorrow."
"Good riddance to bad rubbish is what I always say," Uncle Vernon muttered, his countenance visibly brightening.
"Aren't you even going to say goodbye and good luck to your nephew?" Ron asked, nearly snarling. "That's certainly the very least you can do."
Uncle Vernon narrowed his piggy eyes at Harry. "That doddering old fool who was with you last year said you'd come of age this year. That means this is the last time we have to put up with all your nonsense, right?"
"That's right," Harry said, smiling humorlessly. "I'll be of age in a few weeks and a fully qualified wizard. I'm no longer in need of your services." Harry enjoyed the shudder of revulsion the word wizard caused amongst all his relatives. He just wanted to be done with all of this. It was time to move onward.
"Harry," Hermione said pleadingly. Her eyes darted to and fro between Harry and his uncle. "You want to leave here on good –"
"I don't bloody well believe you lot," Ron said, his ears flaming. "What is wrong with you people? Do you know that I always felt a bit embarrassed about my house after the first time I saw this place, even with the bars on Harry's window? I was stupid enough to feel ashamed of my house, thinking that Harry was coming from something better. What an idiot! I really can't believe how stupid I was. It's only now, watching your behavior, that I understand why Harry always seemed over the moon to arrive at my house. It's no wonder. You lot are pathetic."
Harry stared at Ron with wide eyes, visibly reminded of Mr. Weasley and a similar reaction when he'd come to collect Harry for the Quidditch Cup. Harry had never been so proud to have Ron for a friend.
And Ron wasn't done with Uncle Vernon. "My mum…my mum can holler with the best of them. She could probably even give a banshee a run for her money. But I know damn well that if I had been born a Squib, it would have changed nothing. She might have been disappointed, but she would have treated me the same, and expected the same from me as she did the rest of my siblings. And no matter how hard she was on me, she'd never allow anyone else to be.
"That's what families are supposed do. You pathetic wankers don't even know Harry. How could you? You don't even know the kind of person you've had here all the time and the lengths he would go for you if you asked. The sad part is that I don't think you'll realize it even after he's gone."
Harry looked up sharply in time to see a grimace cross Ron's face after he'd said the words, and Harry felt a chill run down his spine. Aunt Petunia's face had paled slightly, glancing quickly at Harry before returning her eyes to the floor.
Ron had withdrawn his wand and was waving it jerkily beneath the Dursleys' noses, causing them to cringe back against the counters. Ron didn't make any indication that he was going to curse them, and Harry was enjoying the tongue-lashing they were receiving, so he didn't make any move to stop it.
"Damn it, if the Death Eaters only knew about you lot they'd have the best recruiting tool they'd ever come across, because I've never wanted to curse a Muggle as bad as I want to curse you. You know why I don't? Because he –" Ron jammed his finger at Harry, "he won't let me. Why, I'll never know. He certainly has never done anything to deserve the likes of you as family.
"The funny thing is, those same Death Eaters who could use you wouldn't do it because of the fact that you're Muggles. And the only thing standing between you and them right now is him. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
"Come on, Harry; we're getting out of here," Ron said, turning to leave the room. Hermione beamed at him, her eyes glowing with pride as she watched his retreating back.
Uncle Vernon's face had gone from red to maroon and now displayed a nearly purple hue. He became much braver as soon as Ron moved his wand away. "I will not be spoken to with such disrespect in my own home by the likes of…of…of someone like you. You will all take all of your belongings and get out of my house in the morning," he raged, as if it had been his idea all along.
"No problem, Uncle Vernon. We'll be gone come morning. You can even redecorate my old room," Harry said cheerfully, slapping the door to the cupboard under the stairs on his way past.
Hermione, who was walking directly in front of him, stopped sharply, causing him to bump into her.
"What did you just say?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.
Harry's eyes widened, realizing his blunder. He'd never shared that particular story with Ron and Hermione. He'd always been a little embarrassed by it.
"Er, nothing. Just forget about it," Harry said, trying to hurry them along. Ron had now stopped, too, and was staring with curiosity at the series of locks and door jams along the cupboard entry.
Hermione shoved Harry's arm out of the way and forcefully opened the door, gasping at what she found inside.
Harry's eyes wandered over his old, familiar, cramped quarters. A lumpy old mattress with several springs poking out still rested on a wire camp bed. Several toy soldiers and broken chess pieces were scattered on a shelf. Spider webs had covered the slanted ceiling completely, and a heavy layer of dust covered everything inside. Harry vaguely wondered why Aunt Petunia hadn't sanitized this spot like she did everywhere else. It was almost as if all the things that frightened her were hidden inside that cupboard.
Harry recognized his childlike writing on the walls. Just scribbles, really, beside his name. He'd once confiscated some of Dudley's crayons and made a habit of nicking more whenever he'd got the chance. He could see a crude drawing of a birthday cake with candles drawn in different colors with gradual improvement in the drawing. He remembered adding to it each year on his birthday.
To say that Hermione exploded would be an understatement. She whirled toward the Dursleys, whipping Harry in the face with her hair as she spun around.
"How could you?" she screeched, baring her teeth like a wild animal.
Aunt Petunia averted her eyes to the floor, but Uncle Vernon puffed out his chest as if to defend himself. Hermione never gave him the chance.
"What?" Ron asked blankly.
"You loathsome, despicable cretins. To think I tried to tell him to be nicer to you. You actually kept him locked in a cupboard when he was just a little boy?" Hermione raged.
"They what?" Ron exploded, his head swinging wildly from Hermione to the cupboard to the Dursleys and back to Harry again.
Hermione ignored him. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," she hissed, raising her wand.
Harry grabbed her hand and pulled it away from Uncle Vernon just as she gave it an upward flick. Unfortunately, as he'd pulled it away he'd pulled it towards himself. He suddenly found himself hanging upside down by his ankle in the entry hall of Privet Drive.
Aunt Petunia shrieked and covered her eyes. Uncle Vernon shielded her with his body and pushed her back into the kitchen. The slamming of the kitchen door echoed in the silent hall for a moment.
"Er, Hermione…can you let me down?" Harry asked with amusement.
Hermione gasped and gently released Harry from the spell.
"You used Levicorpus. I can't believe you used one of the Half-Blood Prince's spells," Ron said in amazement. Harry could hear the delight in his voice.
"Never mind trying to use it on a Muggle. Are you trying to get yourself arrested, Hermione?" Harry asked, beaming at his friend.
"Ready to start living on the wild side?" Ron asked, grinning.
"Oh, shut it, you two. I was just so angry with them. I can't believe you never told us about this, Harry," Hermione said, trying to maintain her dignity in the face of her laughing friends.
Harry shrugged. "It doesn't matter now; let's get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day."
He could tell Hermione wanted to argue, but Harry didn't give her the chance. He bolted up the stairs in front of them, leaving them to follow in his wake. Still, settling down in his bed that night, it was a very long time before he finally drifted off to sleep.
A/N: Hello everyone. Thanks so much for the wonderful welcome back. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all your comments and greetings. Everyone is so stressed about Ginny, lol. While in canon I don't think she'll be involved too quickly, that's not why I read fanfiction. From the sounds of it, it's not why you read it either. Rest assured, Ginny will make her presence known shortly.
My heartfelt thanks to my beta, Mistral, for all your hard work in getting this ready to present. No matter how many times I read it, you always find stuff, lol.
I'd also like to express my thanks to my first wonderful pre-beta: KEDme who always keeps me grounded, props me up when I need a confidence boost, and gently tells me when things aren't working. Most of all, she keeps reminding me that I started doing this to have fun.