A/N: This is my first fanfic attempt, so a big thanks has to go to my beta Katirah for helping to get things off the ground.
Disclaimer: Most of the characters and places in this story are of course the creation of J.K Rowling.
To a stranger, Privet Drive would look like a typical Surrey suburb, and not the sort of place where unusual things happened. The brick houses were large and spacious, the gardens neat and well maintained, and the cars parked in the driveways were all the latest models and still managed to gleam despite the thin, chilly mist that continued to cover the country. So anyone not familiar with the road’s inhabitants would have been surprised by the notable lack of reactions when the living room windows of Number Four were fairly rattled by a thunderous voice shouting, “You’re doing WHAT?”
The source of the noise was Vernon Dursley, a big, beefy man with a bushy moustache, no neck, and a large round face that was slowly turning purple with rage. The cause of this was his sixteen year old nephew, who was standing in front of him with his arms crossed and a determined look on his face.
“I’m moving out,” repeated Harry. “Some friends will be collecting me at midnight.”
Uncle Vernon glowered at him. He knew perfectly well that by “friends” Harry actually meant “Wizards”, and the only thing Vernon Dursley hated more than having one wizard in the house was having more than one.
“Why midnight?” he grumbled. “The sooner you’re out of here the better as far as I’m concerned, but you could at least do it at a civilised hour.”
Harry bit back the angry retort that he wanted to make, and instead forced himself to keep calm. “You heard Dumbledore last year,” he said, enjoying the way his uncle winced at the name of the former Hogwarts Headmaster. “Once I turn seventeen this house is no longer safe for me. It won’t be safe for you either if I’m still around. Voldemort will be able to walk straight through the front door if he wants to.”
Out of the corner of his eye Harry thought he saw his Aunt Petunia, who was in the kitchen carrying out her daily scrub of the kitchen worktop, suddenly freeze at the mention of the most feared dark wizard of recent times. After her outburst two years previously following a Dementor attack on Harry and his cousin Dudley, Harry had got the impression that she knew much more about the magical world than she let on. With a slight pang of annoyance, he realised that he probably wasn’t going to get the opportunity to find out just how much she did know, but then again it wasn’t important now. He had bigger things to worry about, and after leaving Privet Drive, he didn’t intend to see the Dursleys again. He turned his attention back to his uncle, who was scowling as a new thought occurred to him.
“How are these people collecting you?” he asked. “I don’t want the fireplace ruined again, and I won’t have flying cars around the place either. If the neighbours see anything …”
Harry hastily suppressed a grin. “Don’t worry about that,” he replied. “We’ll be Apparating. You won’t even notice I’m gone.”
“Really?” replied Vernon, clearly deciding not to bother asking what Apparating was. “Well, I won’t lie. We’ve done what was asked of us by bringing you up, and in a few hours time you’ll be an adult as far as all those loonies you hang around with are concerned. We won’t be responsible for you anymore, and I can’t say I’ll be sorry to see the back of you. Just make sure you tidy your room before you leave; it’s almost as bad as Dudley’s.”
As Harry turned to leave the living room, Petunia turned away from the sink and looked directly at him. There was a very odd look in her eyes, as she started to say something, stopped, swallowed nervously, and then, with a slight shake of her head, returned to cleaning the draining board. Confused, Harry paused with one hand on the door handle, waiting to see if she would say something. When it became apparent that nothing was going to happen, he left the living room and headed back upstairs to his bedroom for what he knew would be the last time.
The luminous hands on the alarm clock showed it to be little more than half an hour before midnight when Harry finally looked around an empty bedroom. All his possessions, spell books, cauldron, potions kit, and clothes, were packed into his Hogwarts trunk. A large stack of heavy leather bound books, recently purchased by Owl-order and covering a number of subjects related to Dark Magic, stood on the dresser, and an empty cage rested on top of them. Harry had sent his snowy owl Hedwig to The Burrow earlier that day. As he picked up a final piece of parchment from the desk, there was a knock on the door, and his aunt’s voice came hesitantly from the other side.
“Harry? Can I talk to you for a minute?”
As it was unusual for Petunia to want to do anything other than scold him, Harry opened the door and his aunt came in and sat down on the bed. As she did so, Harry noticed that her thin, horsy face was pale, and she was nervously twisting her hands together.
“Is it true what you told Vernon?” she asked. “You’re moving out? For good?”
“That’s right, sorry I couldn’t go earlier,” Harry snapped.
“Please, Harry, don’t be like that,” said Petunia earnestly. “I want to explain…I want you to understand why I’ve treated you like I have all these years.”
Harry looked at her in total disbelief. She wanted to explain? She wanted him to understand? He understood perfectly well why he’d been treated like he had. She had made it perfectly clear the night that Hagrid had turned up to deliver his Hogwarts letter that she considered her sister a freak, and Harry an unwelcome burden on the family. The anger rapidly built up inside him, and he was on the verge of ordering her out when he looked again at the nervous _expression on her face; something wasn’t right here. He sat down in the chair by the desk and nodded at his aunt.
Petunia took a deep breath. “When your mother got her letter from the school, I took it as evidence that she really was a freak. There had been, well, a few incidents when she was growing up. I expect you can imagine the sort of things. I was almost glad when she went. But when she came back after her first year, she was almost a different person, much more happy and confident than before she left. And when she told me about some of the things she had learnt and about some of her friends I, well, I was practically jealous.”
She paused for a moment before carrying on. “We actually started getting on better than we ever had before. I used to go to Diagon Alley with her when she went to buy her school books. She even took me to Hogsmeade once during the holidays.”
Petunia stopped and smiled slightly at the look of stunned incredulity that was forming on Harry’s face. “Oh, she was never shy about hiding what she was. The number of warning letters she got… Anyway, what changed things was when I met Vernon. I just knew that he wouldn’t accept her or her friends; she had started going out with your dad by that time. We had a big argument. I told her that I couldn’t risk seeing her, that I would have to pretend she didn’t exist. She wasn’t happy.” Petunia suddenly buried her head in her hands and let out a great sob. “That was the last time I ever saw her. I didn’t even know she was dead until Dumbledore brought you to the house.”
Harry sat there, still too surprised to say anything as his aunt tried to dry her eyes. He vividly remembered Aunt Petunia standing in front of Hagrid in a rundown shack and shrieking about her sister being a freak, and yet now here she was, talking about having visited Hogsmeade. Harry shook his head in an effort to clear his thoughts as Petunia carried on.
“I was so frightened when I realised what had happened. Your parents were dead, and all Dumbledore was concerned about was protecting you. I had a husband and a son to look after! Wasn’t he worried about them? What if the Death Eaters came after me, or Vernon? I thought that maybe if I was hard on you, that if I could maybe stop you from becoming one of them,then maybe we’d all be safe.” She looked up with an _expression that was a mixture of anguish and pain. “I’m sorry, Harry. I know now that that was wrong, that it would never work. I just wanted to keep my family safe. Can you forgive me for that?”
Harry sat in quiet disbelief, trying to absorb everything he had just heard. His aunt not only knew all about the Wizarding world but had grown up with it through his mum, and yet she had given it all up for her husband and her family. And when Harry considered that thought, he realised that he knew exactly what she was going through. He patted her gently on the arm.
“It’s OK, Aunt Petunia,” he said softly. “I understand what you were trying to do now. I really do.”
Petunia sniffed and wiped her eyes again. “That’s very kind, Harry, but you don’t have to pretend…..”
“I mean it,” insisted Harry. He took a deep breath. “Before I came back this summer, I had to break up with my girlfriend. I don’t want to risk her getting hurt.”
“You had a girlfriend?” Petunia fixed him with a very penetrating look. “Do you love her, Harry, or is this just, well, you know, a first relationship thing?”
Completely wrong-footed by the sudden change of direction in the conversation, Harry found himself replying without realising it. “I do love her,” he said quietly, “more than I’ve ever loved anything before, I think.”
“Then you must see her again. No, listen to me, Harry,” said Petunia, seeing the look of scepticism on Harry’s face. “Believe, me if anything happens to either of you, and your last memory of her is telling her you don’t want her in your life anymore, you’ll regret it more than you think.”
For a moment, aunt and nephew looked at each other in silence, both realising just how much they had revealed to each other in the last few minutes. Their thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the ringing of Harry’s alarm clock. Looking over, Harry saw that it was now only five minutes until midnight.
“Aunt Petunia,” he said urgently. “I have to let my friends know it’s safe to come here. Most of them will stay outside, but one or two will Apparate straight into this room. Can you keep Uncle Vernon distracted till we’re gone?”
Petunia nodded, and without warning, gave Harry a quick hug. Then, struggling to compose herself, she silently left the room. Harry looked at the closed door for a moment. The last few minutes had turned his world completely upside down, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it now. Sighing heavily, he retrieved his invisibility cloak from his trunk and slipped it on. Moving over to the window he pulled a large gold coin out his jeans pocket and gave it a sharp prod with his wand. Almost instantly he heard the loud whip-like crack that accompanied most Apparitions. Peering carefully out of the window, he spotted a shadowy figure crouched down on the far side of Uncle Vernon’s car. As it cautiously moved around to get a better view of the garden, the dim light from the nearby streetlamp allowed Harry to identify the bald pate of Kingsley Shacklebolt. That meant that either Moody or Tonks was around the back. As Harry continued to watch, Kingsley raised his wand and sent a stream of silver vapour into the air. Moments later, and despite preparing himself for it, Harry jumped as two more loud cracks right behind him announced the arrival of people right inside his bedroom. Despite knowing he was in theory safe – it was still just before midnight - Harry gripped his wand tightly, turned around and nearly fell over in shock. He had been expecting to see Lupin, or maybe Mr Weasley, but instead, leaning against the wall, wearing their Hogwarts cloaks and looking extremely pleased with themselves were Ron and Hermione. Ron grinned as Harry struggled out of the invisibility cloak.
“All right, mate? Ready to go then?”
“Ron! Hermione!” Harry gawped. “Where did you two come from?”
“The Burrow, where else?” replied Ron, clearly enjoying Harry’s confusion.
“You know what I mean,” retorted Harry. “Surely Hermione didn’t use Side-Along Apparition to get you here?”
“Of course I didn’t, Harry,” responded Hermione. She looked sternly at Ron. “You don’t mean to say you haven’t told him yet?”
“I haven’t had a chance. You know how busy I’ve been,” replied Ron defensively. He turned sheepishly to Harry. “I got my license in the first week of the holidays. I got fast-tracked through, new Ministry initiative to protect employees and their families. Anyway, you’re a fine one to talk. Dad said you don’t need to take the test now. What’s all that about?”
Harry looked nervously over at the clock, “We don’t really have time to discuss this now. I’ll explain back at The Burrow.”
“No, Harry, we need to talk about it now,” said Hermione, looking at Harry with the same stern frown she used when he was late with his homework. “Secrecy is really important now. The last thing you need is to be hauled in front of the Wizengamot again.”
Harry sighed in exasperation and handed over the piece of parchment he had picked up earlier. “All right,” he grumbled, “but you’d better be quick.”
Ron looked over Hermione’s shoulder as they both quickly scanned the letter. Harry had read it so often he could quote it word for word. Below the unfamiliar stamp of the Department of Magical Transportation, it read:
Dear Mr. Potter,
During investigations into events surrounding the murder of Professor Albus Dumbledore, it has come to our attention that on the night of his death, you performed a Side-Along Apparition with the Professor from an unknown location to the Three Broomsticks Public House in Hogsmeade. Side-Along Apparition requires a much higher degree of skill than that required for a solo Apparition, and to achieve it without any training beyond that required to pass the standard test is almost unheard of. In recognition of this, and following discussions with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, it has been decided to award you your Apparition license without requiring you to take a test. You are of course welcome to apply for a refresher course if you wish.
Senior Apparition Instructor
Dept of Magical Transportation
Ministry of Magic
“You lucky git,” said Ron when he finished reading it. “Only you could Apparate without a license and get away with it.” He was grinning, but Hermione was looking less happy. Harry thought he knew why. Although she never said it, Hermione hated being outperformed in any subject. He thought he knew a way of placating her though, and pointed towards the trunk and the pile of items next to it.
“Um, Hermione, I don’t suppose you would know how to deal with this lot, would you?”
The scowl on Hermione’s face relaxed slightly as she wordlessly pointed her wand at the trunk. It instantly shrunk down to the size of a shoebox. She picked it up as Harry picked up the pile of books, while Ron collected Hedwig’s cage and Harry’s broomstick. Hermione bit her lip as she looked over at the alarm clock.
“Midnight,” she announced. “We’d better move fast.”
“We can’t Apparate straight into the house, Harry,” said Ron, turning to look at Harry. “It’s still got defensive charms on it. Aim for the broom shed.”
Harry nodded his understanding. As Hermione and Ron disappeared with two loud cracks, he took one last look around the room that had apparently kept him safe for the last five years. Then, thoughts fixed firmly on Ron’s house, he stepped forward into the uncomfortable dark compression of Apparition, and an uncertain future.