The following day dawned bright and clear. A heavy fog had rolled in during the night, as it had done for the past week and a half, but a strong wind wiped it away before sunrise and remained to keep the temperature comfortably mild. The trees of Little Whinging were dancing merrily in the breeze, and even the birds seemed happy with the change in weather.
Harry was in such a deep sleep that he didn't wake until his Aunt Petunia banged loudly on his door. "Wake up! There's work to do, and we won't have you lying in all morning." Her pounding feet could be heard as she marched down the stairs towards the kitchen.
Harry blinked the sleep out of his eyes and yawned heavily as he tried to grasp onto consciousness. There was a dream at the edge of his memory, and he tried desperately to remember what it was about. There was a beach, and he had been flying kites with Ron and Hermione. But no matter how much he tried, the dream's details slipped through his fingers like fine sand. He had never been to the beach before and was amazed that he could have such a vivid dream about something he had never experienced. Distracted by his dream and intent on getting downstairs to fix breakfast—to forestall any grumbling from his aunt and uncle—he grabbed the shirt he had worn yesterday and walked out the bedroom door.
In his haste, he failed to notice the dancing figures on the cover of the duplicating journal on his desk.
When he arrived in the kitchen, Harry expected to be put to work frying the bacon and eggs, as was normal for a weekday morning. Instead, he was confronted with the purple face of his uncle.
"What is the meaning of it, boy?" Uncle Vernon grasped at his mustache in a way that told Harry that it was something horrid, probably something to do with the magical world. His Aunt Petunia sat in her chair by the table with an ashen face, staring off above Harry's head. "First, you get a job that pays nothing. We've been feeding and taking care of you for fifteen years." Uncle Vernon leaned in quickly. "The least you could do is get a job that pays something."
"I really haven't asked about being paid," Harry said, doing his best to sound nonconfrontational, "but at least I won't be in your hair." If there was one thing he'd learned about living with the Dursleys, it was to appeal to something that they wanted. Having Harry out of their sight for the majority of the day was definitely high on that list.
"Well…ask about it today," his uncle hedged. "And Mrs. Glazier came over this morning to ask if we had seen anything unusual last night. What d'you think she was talking about, eh? Undoubtedly more of your unnaturalness involved."
It was futile to argue, but Harry had to try. "I've been asleep. How could I know what Mrs. Glazier saw last night?"
"Ah, so you do admit to doing something last night!" his uncle crowed, raising his fist in triumph.
"No!" Harry sighed heavily and lowered his head in resignation. "Look, I don't know what you or the neighbors are talking about, but I've been asleep since eleven o'clock last night."
"I know it was something to do with your kind, boy, so don't try to deny it!"
"I don't even know what ‘it' was to know if ‘it' had anything to do with the magical world," he said, barely containing the mounting fury within him. Talking with Vernon Dursley when he was in this frame of mind was like trying to explain physics to a toddler.
Uncle Vernon's beady eyes narrowed, and he poked his beefy finger in Harry's direction. "I told you to never speak of that abnormality in this house! Your freaky friends were waltzing around the neighborhood last night, talking to normal people as if they weren't wi...wiz...."
"Wait." Harry's interest was piqued now. "What did they look like?"
"I didn't see the ruddy blokes," he said, suddenly on the defensive. "Mrs. Glazier said that they had long, black capes with hoods over their faces. And if you think for one...."
Uncle Vernon's tirade faded into the background as Harry absorbed that information. He knew that no one from the Order would be foolish enough to be seen while on duty, especially in numbers. That meant it could only be Death Eaters.
With that thought, Harry turned around and retraced his steps to his room. Uncle Vernon's words increased in volume at his retreating form, but Harry paid no attention. He had to tell someone about this and make sure that no one had been hurt.
When he reached his room, he instinctively went to grab some parchment and a quill to owl Dumbledore. Then he remembered that he couldn't send or receive owls for the same reason he needed to send one: there were Death Eaters watching Privet Drive.
"The journal!" Harry said to himself. He grabbed it off the desk where he had left it and gaped at the moving figures on the front. A large, black dog and a majestic stag were walking in circles on the book's cover.
Dismissing this for the moment, he opened it up to find his first message to Ginny. On the next page was a message in the neat script that Harry recognized from Ginny's letter to him two days ago. The deep red ink contrasted nicely with his blue.
The journals are a wonderful idea, and I'm honored to be the one you chose to give this to. If you change your mind and want to give this to someone else, I won't be offended. Have you noticed that no matter what ink you use, it comes out red? Funny that yours was blue, though.
Professor Lupin said that you were being watched by Death Eaters. He seemed afraid, Harry. I've never seen him that way before. Please watch out for yourself, and don't take any chances!
Your job sounds fascinating, and I would give anything to be able to leave the Burrow for a spell. Ron's been moping around without Hermione to argue with. He's pathetic.
Just remember that I'm here for you if you ever need to talk.
Without hesitation, he dipped his quill in an inkbottle and scratched out a hasty note to her.
Get word to the Order that one of my neighbors saw a group of Death Eaters last night on Privet Drive. My uncle told me this morning. Make sure that Dumbledore knows about it, and tell me what he says.
Leaning back in his chair, he placed the quill on his desk and let out a resigned sigh. There was nothing more he could do now but sit back and wait. He realized, quite suddenly, that he seemed to be doing a lot of that lately, and the more he thought about it, the more it irked him. Ever since he was a baby, nothing seemed to be in his control. His parents' deaths and his subsequent life with the Dursleys, how long he had to stay with them every summer, the suffering of his friends and loved ones.... It all came back to one thing: Voldemort. He was the reason Harry's life was controlled and miserable, and he was the one who would pay.
As he resolved to take a more active role in determining his course in life, Harry's feelings of despondency changed into a driving force to rid the world once and for all of Voldemort's threat. No longer would his life be dictated by an egotistical madman; no matter how dangerous the prospect of killing an almost immortal being was, Harry would find a way.
Glancing down at the open journal on his desk, he noticed that letters were forming on the page: "H-a-r-r-y-?"
He grabbed the quill and hastily loaded it with ink.
I'm so relieved. Dad just got back from a meeting with Dumbledore. They said that they would double the guard at your house but they couldn't do any more. Apparently, the Order has only one Invisibility Cloak, and they can't afford to be seen.
How are they going to protect the entire neighborhood with a couple of Aurors?
I don't know, Harry, but I'm sure Dumbledore knows what he's doing.
How can you be so sure, Gin? After all, he couldn't save Sirius, and he was right there when he died.
There was a pause in the writing, as Harry's ink slowly dried on the page. He had never really talked about Sirius' death with anyone before, and he wasn't sure now was a good time to start. But before he could head off the eventual discussion, Ginny's words were forming on the page.
Harry, I don't have all the answers, but I know one thing. You are important to a lot of people, and there is nothing that guarantees that those people will be safe. Your godfather loved you and would have gone after you no matter what. Don't blame yourself, Harry. I know that's what you're doing, and it's not right. You didn't kill Sirius.
Harry couldn't wait any longer and jabbed his quill across the page in a tirade.
I AS GOOD AS DID! You don't know what it's been like living with this guilt and shame and loneliness. No one understands, Gin, no one.
You can't honestly believe that, Harry! You can't hide behind your guilt forever, and I for one am not going to tolerate it. And contrary to what you might believe, I do know what it's like to be lonely. My whole first year at Hogwarts was a giant exercise in loneliness and guilt, and I learned something from that experience that you need to understand, Mr. Potter. You can control your life by deciding how many friends you have and how deep your friendships run. You can control your life above everyone else, including Voldemort.
Harry was in shock. Ginny's words bored into him like one of Uncle Vernon's drills, shattering all his carefully erected defenses. Waves of shame followed this realization, as he began to comprehend the foolishness of his actions. Trusting in his visions of Sirius being tortured, running recklessly to the Department of Mysteries, and causing the death of his godfather all weighed upon him heavily. It was Hermione who had acted as a voice of warning, telling him not to believe the visions. Like Hermione, Ginny was his friend, and she was just as right as Hermione had been. He couldn't keep his friends out of his life, and in the coming battles, he would need them more than ever.
But under this new understanding, there was an emotion that ran too strong to be changed by anyone else. Ginny was right; he was the only one who could decide how he lived his life. He also knew that as much as he loved his friends, his desire to see them alive and happy, even at the expense of his own life and happiness, was still strong—so strong that he was bound both by his intense need to protect those he loved and by a duty to stick with his friends, born of the experiences they had shared over the past five years.
This unresolved conflict was impossible for Harry to understand, and until he could, there would be no peace in Harry's life.
Listen, Ginny. I know I'm being a prat, and I'm sorry. But you have to understand that there is something operating outside my control that does affect my life and the lives of my friends. It's not just that Voldemort wants to kill me; it's that he is the only one who can. More important, I'm the only one who can kill him.
There, he said it. It was the one thing that had been relentlessly nagging at him since he first heard the prophecy in Dumbledore's office last month. Now the burden seemed lighter and more manageable, but he still could not ask his friends to go with him all the way to witness either Voldemort's defeat or his own death.
What are you talking about, Harry? I was there in the Department of Mysteries and know how much Voldemort fears Dumbledore. Besides, there are loads of other wizards and witches in the Ministry who are capable of handling this war. Why do you think it has to be you?
Thinking quickly, Harry tried to figure out a way to tell Ginny what was in the prophecy, without giving away too much. It would be dangerous to tell too many people about it, and he knew that anyone with that knowledge would be in greater danger from Voldemort.
Ginny, I don't know how much I can tell you, but you have to trust me. I am the only one who can kill Voldemort. That's probably why Dumbledore didn't try to kill him then. He could have, did you know? Voldemort possessed me and asked Dumbledore to kill me. I guess Voldemort thought Dumbledore would try, in the off chance that he might be able to kill him, but he didn't.
The page remained blank for quite some time, and Harry wondered if he was right in telling her what little he had. Chewing on the end of his quill, he searched for a way to take back what he'd said. Finally, Ginny's words appeared before him.
I'm so sorry, Harry. I guess now we both know what it's like to be possessed.
There were wet marks on the page, and Harry looked at them curiously. Then a new one formed, and he realized that Ginny was crying.
Don't cry, Gin. It's all right.
NO! It's not all right! You have to deal with so much, and you don't even have a family to be with. I wish you didn't have to be there with those wretched Muggles. Then you could at least have someone to talk to.
But Gin, I do have someone to talk to—you.
But it's not the same, Harry. You need someone to be there and talk with face to face. It's miserable for you to be there, without anyone to talk to. Believe me, I know what it's like to need to talk and not have anyone.
Harry sighed, utterly defeated. There would be no keeping Ginny out of his life. She was just too determined, and he felt strangely comforted by this.
Next time we meet, let's talk about this face to face, OK?
That sounds good, Harry.
Goodbye, Gin. Thanks for the chat. You'll never know how much it helped.
Any time, Harry.Goodbye.
With a final tearstain on the page they were writing on, the words stopped, and the ink dried. Harry was contemplating what had been said between them and wondered why he'd never given Ginny the time of day before. She was a better friend to him than anyone save Ron and Hermione and had displayed a shocking amount of insight into his soul.
Harry's stomach gave a low growl that reminded him that he hadn't eaten anything yet today. It was almost half past eight, so Harry quickly changed clothes and ran a comb through his untamable hair. Deciding that it would have to do and that he could live without breakfast, he grabbed the Portkey and waited for it to activate.
Still shaken from his conversation with Ginny, Harry stumbled a little upon arriving at the bookshop. His unsteadiness didn't go unnoticed by Katie, who was waiting near the front door.
"All right, Harry?" she asked quietly.
"I'm fine. Just a little out of sorts." Harry tried to gloss over his feelings to avoid an awkward conversation. "Is Aberforth here?"
Katie hadn't taken her eyes off of Harry since he arrived. "He's in the back. Why don't I go get him?"
Without waiting for an answer, she walked to the storeroom to find their boss. Harry took a moment to look around and noticed that the sections closest to the register were filled with similar-sized books. The three rows immediately in front of him were labeled "Religion and the Occult." Just as he was about to inspect a few of the titles, Katie returned.
"Aberforth wants us to work together today, so I'll show you which sections we're going to be moving." She shook out her long, light brown hair and pulled it into a ponytail to keep it out of her face while they worked.
Harry followed Katie past the sections on history and from his vantage point was able to appreciate just how much of a girl she was. Quidditch robes weren't exactly flattering attire, but the simple Muggle dress she wore today allowed Harry an entirely different perspective of his fellow Gryffindor.
As they turned down one of the Shakespeare aisles, Katie caught him looking at her backside and smiled perceptively before continuing down to the end. Flushing red at being caught ogling her bum, Harry tried to look at anything else but couldn't help noticing the exaggerated way she was now swinging her hips as she walked. A fog seemed to form in the aisle, as Harry suddenly found it difficult to breathe.
"Here we are," she said brightly as they emerged into a part of the store Harry hadn't seen. It was a large, open area with small, cushioned chairs interspersed among small end tables. The heaviness of the air seemed to lift as they moved towards the small bookshelves along the far wall. "He wants us to empty these shelves and move the books to the same spot in the storeroom as yesterday."
Still red with embarrassment, Harry nodded almost imperceptibly and moved a cart that was already in the room to one of the shelves. He began unloading books onto it, and Katie joined him after a second. They proceeded to empty the closest bookcase. Every now and then, their hands brushed and Harry drew back sharply. Katie didn't seem to notice, and if he was seeing things properly, the accidental brushings only increased as time went on.
"Having a good summer so far, Harry?" Katie asked after they returned from emptying the first cartload.
"Not really," he answered. Harry didn't want to get into the whole thing with his situation at Privet Drive with anyone who didn't already know, so he hoped that she would leave well enough alone.
"I heard that you stay with some Muggle relatives. Is that right?"
"Yeah," he said with a little edge in his voice.
They had stopped moving books now, and Harry was staring stonily at a piece of art on the wall. Katie looked at him, but he didn't give her as much as a glance.
"I also heard that they don't treat you very well." Normally, Harry would either continue putting on a stony front to forestall further discussion on the subject or lash out in anger at the person intruding on his private affairs. However, there was something in Katie's voice that made him pause. There was understanding and empathy, not the flippant curiosity he usually encountered.
Looking back at her, Harry said quietly, "They think wizards are unnatural and spent my first ten years there trying to squash it out of me. As if it were some kind of disease."
She nodded in understanding, saying, "My parents are Muggles and never really accepted me as a witch. They almost didn't let me go to Hogwarts because they thought I would turn into something wretched, like you see Muggles dress up as on Halloween." Katie sat down on one of the chairs and nervously twisted the hem of her dress.
Harry sat down in the chair next to her, trying to take in the knowledge that she almost didn't get a chance to come to Hogwarts. "My aunt and uncle still don't want me to go there. They barred the window to my room and put a lock on my door before my second year."
"Wow," she blurted. "And I thought my parents were bad."
Feeling a bit more comfortable with her, Harry decided to press a little further. "How did you convince them to let you come?"
"It was McGonagall who did the trick. They were adamant that I couldn't learn anything worthwhile there and that I would get a better education at a normal school."
"I've heard that argument before," he chuckled wistfully.
"Yeah. Well, McGonagall showed them what kinds of useful things could be done with magic. She transfigured one of our bushes into a swimming pool and conjured a six-course meal. I've never seen my dad so shocked! So after that, it was easy for them to let me come and learn how to make them rich and save them all sorts of time," she finished sarcastically. "I guess they think I'll be some kind of magical servant when I graduate."
Nodding his head in agreement, Harry added, "That's exactly how my aunt feels, minus the magic. They have me doing chores from morning to night in the hopes that they'll sweat the magic out of me. I think that secretly, they can't wait for me to do things for them with magic." He let out a snort. "The only thing that they'd ever want me to do with magic is make their bank balance larger. Like that's going to happen."
Harry watched her chew on a fingernail in thought. "Listen, Harry. About the flirting earlier...."
Harry's face immediately grew warm at the blatant mention of her actions. "No, I understand," he interrupted. He really didn't but wasn't prepared to talk to Katie about it quite yet. In fact, he needed to talk with anyone but Katie, if he was going to have a chance to understand properly. He'd never been in this situation before, and it was all very confusing. "You don't have to explain anything," Harry finished nervously.
She smiled appreciatively, not bothered by his reticence, and glanced at her watch. "After we finish up here, d'you want to grab a bite of something with me?"
The tension between them eased, and Harry was grateful. "Oh...well...I don't have any Muggle money."
"Don't worry about that," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "My treat."
He nodded sheepishly, and they got back to work. By the time noon rolled around, they had the entire section cleared of books. Aberforth was nowhere to be seen, so Katie locked up as they left the shop. "He disappears sometimes, so he left me a set of keys for when I need to go out," she explained.
Stepping out into the street, Harry stopped cold. His heart missed a beat as he looked around at the familiar dilapidated offices and overflowing skip. Searching frantically, his eyes landed on a small, red telephone box down the street. It was the visitor's entrance for the Ministry of Magic.
Noticing that he had turned pale and was shaking slightly, Katie put her hand on his and said, "Is something the matter?"
Taking a few calming breaths, he looked up at her face and saw compassion in her eyes. "I'm.... It's.... That's the Ministry's visitor entrance," he said, pointing a shaky finger at the phone box.
She followed his finger to the seemingly vandalized box and said, "Of course it is. But I don't understand why...."
"It's where Sir—my godfather was killed last month." His heart was beating frantically, and it was difficult for him to stand properly. A vision of Sirius falling through the veil flashed in his mind. He could hear himself screaming and feel the pressure of Lupin's hands on his shoulders, holding him back....
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Harry. I didn't know you had a godfather," she said sympathetically.
"'Sall right," he said hoarsely. "Let's just go get some lunch." Harry needed to get away from the powerful memories and started walking away from the phone box, hoping that it was the right direction. He distractedly tried to recall if this was the way he and Mr. Weasley had come last year when he had his hearing.
As they walked farther from the bookshop and Ministry entrance, Harry's breathing slowly returned to normal, and he was able to push the memories of last month into the back of his mind. A fresh breeze wound its way into the alley-like street, clearing the air and bringing peace to Harry's thoughts.
On the main street, the buildings were bigger and less shabby. Harry noticed that several young men were sending very appreciative looks towards Katie. A part of Harry's mind was angry with them for looking at her that way, and he had to restrain himself from wanting to knock them into the gutter.
Katie led them to a small restaurant with an outdoor seating area. They decided to eat outside since it was a nice day, and soon enough, Harry had put the Ministry and what had happened to Sirius there last month out of his mind.
While they were waiting for their food to arrive, Katie looked keenly into Harry's eyes and said, "If you'd like to talk about what happened...." Harry shook his head, to which she nodded. "Well, if you need anyone's ear to bend, I'd be happy to lend you mine."
He gazed at her searchingly, feeling chastened by her offer. "Thanks, Katie. I'm just not ready to talk to anyone yet. But if I ever feel like it, I'll be sure to look you up."
The waiter arrived and placed a bowl of soup in front of Katie and a sandwich by Harry. As the waiter left, Harry thought he heard a rustling noise to his right but paid no attention to it because Katie started to speak. "So what do you think our chances are this year for the cup?"
"With only you, Ron, and Ginny on the team, it'll be hard to get a good lineup before matches start," he said after swallowing a mouthful of food.
"What about you?" she asked incredulously.
"I've been banned, Katie. Don't you remember when Umbridge banned me for life?"
"Oh, codswallop!" She slapped the table in protest. "I'm sure McGonagall will lift the ban the second you get off the train, if she hasn't already. And Ginny isn't officially on the team, so she would have to try out again in any case." Harry thought this might not technically be true and made a mental note to ask Ginny through the journal tonight.
"Well, in any case, I think we need to recruit some decent players and have a good, strong training program before we can think about going for the cup."
A knowing smile stole across her face, and she said, "You sound like the future captain of the house team to me."
Harry blushed briefly and then said, "I don't think Dumbledore will pick me. He skipped over me for prefect last year, so I suspect he'll do the same for captain. Besides, Ron has a better head for strategy and planning than I ever will." Thinking about it for a while, he realized just how suitable Ron was for captain. The only drawback would be getting him up early enough for practice. "What about you? You're the oldest on the team now."
"You and I have been playing the same amount of time, and since it's McGonagall who decides, she'll probably pick you."
Thinking about how stern McGonagall normally was, how much she'd championed his playing on the team, not to mention the enjoyment she took in keeping the Quidditch trophy in her office, Harry could picture her putting him in as captain. "Well, I guess we won't know until we get back." He grinned at Katie and realized with a start that it was the second time he'd really smiled in as many days.
After finishing their meal and reliving some of the more memorable moments in Gryffindor's Quidditch history, they began walking back to the shop. Time seemed to travel quickly as they walked, and before Harry realized it, they were turning down the small street towards Aberforth's shop and the Ministry.
"And then after Ron hit me with the Quaffle, Fred handed me one of their joke sweets and the bleeding just got worse and worse!" said Katie. They chuckled at the shared memory, Harry laughing more to keep his mind off their location.
Harry made to answer but stopped short when there was a large crash behind them. He whirled around and pulled out his wand, pointing it at a pair of dustbins that were rolling slowly down the street. His eyes darting between the bins and the end of the lane, Harry backed Katie into the closest wall to shield her from any threat.
Her hand grabbed his from behind, as Katie's trembling frame pressed close to Harry for protection. After a few tense moments, it seemed that nothing else was going to happen, and they walked slowly back to the bookstore. Not wanting to let anyone get a jump on them, he kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was following.
Arriving at the door to the shop, they stopped, and Harry waited for Katie to unlock it. When nothing happened, he looked up at Katie in question.
With a smirk on her face, she raised her hand, and Harry was shocked to see that he had it firmly clasped in his. "It's easier to unlock the door with both hands, Harry," she said demurely.
"Yeah...right," Harry said blushingly, withdrawing his hand from hers. It was the only time he had ever held a girl's hand, and he hadn't even intended to do it. But even now, remembering the touch of her slender fingers intertwined with his made him feel strange—powerful and protective. It was alien to him, and he couldn't understand where it came from or how to deal with it.
The door unlocked smoothly, and they entered the musty shop together, heading for the open area they'd left earlier. Harry flopped down onto one of the soft chairs and let out a relieved sigh. Katie slipped into the chair opposite him with a small grin on her face.
After a few moments of silence, Harry asked, "Where do you think Aberforth went off to?"
"He almost never stays here more than a few hours a day. Some days I open and close without seeing him once."
Adding one more item to his mental list of odd things about Aberforth, Harry decided that he would investigate the bookstore a little more closely than he already had. "Have you looked around this place much?"
"Oh, yes." She rolled her eyes. "When the shop is open, I get several regular customers wanting to know about new arrivals. Some folks are interested in mystery novels, others in classics, but the most popular is history." Katie got up from her chair and motioned for Harry to follow.
They walked through the sitting area and past the entrance until they were on the other side of the shop, where Harry had been working the day before. Seeing the rows and rows of books, he wondered at how the small shop could hold so many and started to suspect that Aberforth had some magical assistance with the interior space.
"This row is divided between Celtic and Irish history," Katie told him. "These two rows are dedicated to European history before the Hundred Years' War, and this one is a mixture of religious history and folklore." She turned down the nearest aisle, and Harry followed.
The sound of Katie's voice faded from Harry's mind as he became entranced with one particular book in the religious history section. It was the only book that wasn't on the shelf spine out, so its front cover was clearly visible. Sensing that Harry was no longer following her, Katie asked if he was all right.
"I'm...fine. It's this book." He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. "I've seen this somewhere before...in a dream or something." The cover art was exquisite and depicted a large, glowing tree at the top. Leading up to it was a narrow path that seemed larger near the bottom of the picture. The path had a line running along its middle, and there were people depicted walking towards the tree. Some of them had their hands on the line, as if it were a guide or railing. Others were shown walking on the edge of the path and were falling off into a muddy river.
Katie took the book and looked at it curiously. "That's odd. I don't remember seeing this book here before. Maybe someone pulled it out and forgot to put it back in the right place?"
Harry took it back from her and examined it more thoroughly. There were little clouds of something that appeared to be smoke interspersed along the path, and the people seemed to try to avoid them. At one point, Harry could have sworn he saw the mists moving but couldn't be sure. The book didn't have a title on the cover, and when he opened it, he saw that it was written in a language he didn't recognize.
"Some kind of ancient rune," Katie supplied. "It's one of my elective classes, but I've never seen this before."
"D'you think Aberforth would mind if I borrowed this for a while?" Harry asked.
"He most certainly would not," came a deep voice from behind them.
Turning around with a start, they saw that Aberforth had appeared and was grinning at them merrily. "Since I haven't been able to read anything for a hundred years, it certainly won't find much use here."
This jiggled something in Harry's memory about Aberforth, but he couldn't seem to remember what it was. "But don't you need it for your customers?" inquired Harry.
"I doubt they would be able to use that particular book," he answered with a twinkle in his eye. "Perhaps Miss Bell would be able to get it translated for you?"
"I suppose I could get my Runes professor to look at it," she said uncertainly.
"Well, I'm sure that you'll think of something," Aberforth said, turning to face Harry. "I believe that's all for today, Harry. Why don't we activate your Portkey and have you head home?"
"Oh," he said, surprised. "All right." Harry glanced at the book in Katie's hand, then took out the rusty baton from his backpack and waited until Aberforth waved his hand over it. Then he was pulled from the bookstore and on towards Little Whinging.
As the week drew to a close, Harry was in his usual place at Privet Drive. His room had been his only sanctuary, and he spent most of his free time in it. In between his job at the bookstore and working on the two essays he had been assigned over the summer holidays, time seemed to travel quickly. All the better in Harry's mind: the faster time went, the sooner it would be before he could go back to Hogwarts and the only home he'd really had.
Although Katie had eased back on the flirting, she hadn't stopped altogether, and Harry wondered what was going on between them. In the short time they had worked together, they got along great, but Harry couldn't help but wonder where their new friendship was going.
Harry yawned and fell back into his bed, trying to go to sleep. The Dursleys had left him mostly alone, so he had been able to finish his homework earlier than ever before. He was glad that it was done, but in the back of his mind, he was also sad because he had nothing else to occupy his time with now that his job at the bookstore was almost finished. It was three days until his sixteenth birthday, and he wondered if it would be like all the other birthdays, solitary and mundane.
Hedwig was sleeping lazily in her cage. She rarely went out, now that there was no post to deliver or fetch. Usually, she would leave the day before his birthday to collect presents from his friends. Harry realized that this year, he would be lucky to get anything but a blink from his owl, the only creature in the whole house that liked him.
He and Ginny had written often to each other through the journal since that first exchange. Harry helped her with homework, and she filled him in on all the happenings at the Burrow. Ron would occasionally have Ginny send a message to Harry but never wrote in it himself. The three of them weren't able to come to a consensus on who would be the best captain of the Quidditch team, but both Ron and Ginny seemed to think that Harry was the best suited.
It seemed that Ginny was determined to keep the communication channels open between them and to never let Harry get himself into a deep depression again. Harry realized that he had greatly misunderstood the youngest Weasley and was regretting that fact. She seemed to possess all the finest qualities of her six older brothers. Ginny was a very smart witch and would give Hermione a run for her money, had they been in the same year; it was a trait she shared with Percy. Her courage was legendary, much like her brother Charlie. What Harry had just begun to understand about her was that she also had a mischievous streak, which put her twin brothers to shame when she set her mind to it. She was also as stubborn and as prone to outbursts of temper as Ron, especially when it came to defending her family. Harry valued this newly acquired understanding and silently vowed to treat her with greater respect in the coming year.
Since his first conversation with Ginny through the journals, he had been able to clear his mind much more easily for his Occlumency practice. It was still difficult, but he found that his thoughts wandered less, and he was able to focus on one specific idea. He chose to focus on the image of a burning candle. It was neutral enough that there were no feelings associated with it, but real enough that he could clearly visualize it in his mind.
As he stared at the ceiling, his thoughts turned to Voldemort. What was he doing right now? Where was he, and when would he attack again? Harry wasn't stupid and knew that Voldemort wouldn't just go away. He figured that the Dark wizard was simply biding his time until he had enough strength to fight again.
A piercing scream shattered the calm of Little Whinging. The sounds of men's rough shouting and muffled sobbing filtered through the open window of Harry's bedroom. Then, the unmistakable crack of wandfire jerked Harry into wakefulness, and he scrambled to the window. What he saw there was exactly what he had hoped he would never be forced to witness in his whole life.
Twenty or thirty Death Eaters were herding the residents of Privet Drive into the street. There were families in nightclothes huddled in the small pools of light under the street lamps, desperately clinging to their loved ones. The scene of vicious hatred displayed before him caused Harry's stomach to churn, and he had to fight the urge to retch. His hands were clutching the windowsill, but he barely noticed the stabbing pain of his nails biting into the wood.
Two of the Death Eaters strode up to number four and began hurling hexes at it. Each colored bolt of light rebounded with a loud gong as soon as it touched the invisible line marking the property boundary. A figure appeared just down the street from the two Death Eaters and fired off a purple-colored bolt from his wand. It struck one of the dark-hooded men, who crumpled to the ground. The other Death Eater turned to attack the wizard, but before he could get a shot off, the wizard Apparated away.
The fallen Death Eater had attracted the attention of the rest of the attacking force, and soon, half of the Death Eaters were hurling hexes at the house in an attempt to force its occupants out. The Dursleys scuttled madly about downstairs trying to find a safe way out, but the house had been surrounded by now. Harry could hear Uncle Vernon bellowing about serial murderers and escaped lunatics among the sounds of slamming doors and a sobbing Aunt Petunia.
Harry grabbed his wand and rushed down the stairs in an effort to get outside and fend off the attack. Somewhere in the back of his head, he could hear a voice telling him that it was a fruitless effort and that he would be killed the moment he left the house. Another small part of his mind told him that death was something to be embraced, as it would bring him closer to his parents and Sirius. These thoughts were, in turn, counterbalanced by a determination to live up to the expectation that he was the only one capable of stopping Voldemort's reign of terror once and for all.
Rough hands grabbed Harry's shoulders and thrust him against the kitchen wall as soon as he left the stairs. Uncle Vernon's face was inches away from his, twisted and purple with rage. "What on earth did you do, boy?" Spittle flew from his mouth as he said this, showering Harry with vile wetness.
Harry straightened his body and countered the force his uncle was putting on him, pushing him back a bit. "It's Voldemort's people attacking. I certainly didn't invite them here." He removed his uncle's hands from his shoulders, then turned and exited the kitchen for the living room, leaving an apoplectic Vernon Dursley to continue his ranting.
The sound of wandfire and the loud gongs of reflected curses echoed through the house. Dudley cowered in a corner of the living room with Aunt Petunia nearby. Harry quickly evaluated his options. The wizard who had Disapparated after taking down one of the Death Eaters was probably an Order member and would have alerted Dumbledore by now, so Harry didn't have to worry about that. He could go out and fight, risking life and limb, and probably not make as much as a dent in their forces.
Uncle Vernon appeared and confronted Harry once more. "This Volde-thingy is the one that killed your parents?" Harry nodded, still deep in thought. "And now he wants to kill you again? Like last summer with the Dementoids?" Harry nodded again absently.
Their conversation was broken when the wandfire and gonging reports were silenced. The occupants of number four looked around at each other in wonder. Then a deep, gravelly voice broke the unexpected calm and shouted, "Harry Potter!"
Harry tensed and tightened his grip on his wand.
"We know ye're in there, Potter. Come out, and we'll not kill you straight away."
Harry strained his ears to detect who the voice belonged to. There weren't too many Death Eaters who he hadn't heard at one time or another. Then again, Voldemort had time to gather new recruits, and so Harry couldn't be sure that this wasn't one of them.
The silence lengthened, and then the voice came back, yelling, "If you don't come out and surrender in one minute, we'll start killin' yer precious Muggle neighbors!"
Harry blanched. Somewhere in his mind, he had figured that it would probably come to this, and he knew what he had to do. As he was approaching the door, a burst of orange fire erupted in front of him, and a piece of parchment appeared in midair, then fell to the floor, accompanied by a single phoenix feather. Both Vernon and Petunia jumped in fright and backed even farther away from Harry.
He quickly grabbed the parchment and read the note out loud to himself:
"Harry, stay in the house, and do not attempt to engage the Death Eaters. Order forces on the way. Dumbledore."
Harry dropped the parchment and ran to the window to see what was going on outside. Did Dumbledore know that they were about to start killing people? He saw three Death Eaters on the other side of the garden wall and no one else. When they saw movement at the curtains, they all fired green-colored curses at him, which rebounded into the air above their heads.
"Knock it off, you three. We don't want 'im dead yet. Keep yer eyes open, but don't shoot!" It was the same voice that had been trying to get Harry outside. And quite frankly, that's exactly where Harry wanted to be.
Still trying to figure out what to do, besides wait for the Order to show up, Harry chanced another glance out the front window. He saw two children being carried up the street to number four. Children! They were going to kill children! Now Harry was in a panic. On the one hand, he was under strict orders to stay inside, but on the other, he just couldn't let them hurt innocent children. He decided to wait and see what they were going to do and try to buy as much time as he could before the Order came.
"Oi! Harry! Yer minute's almos' up! We've got a couple o' wee Muggles that are dying to meet you." Harry heard sniggering from some of the Death Eaters. He looked out the front window again and saw who it was they had tied up. It was the small redheaded girl he'd seen playing in her yard the other day, and it appeared that her little sister was with her. The younger one couldn't have been more than four years old. They were both bawling their eyes out, calling for their mother, and had their arms and legs tied securely.
Blind rage coursed through Harry's veins, and he burst out of the front door, brandishing his wand in front of him, intent on hexing every Death Eater who came close to hurting those girls. He had the presence of mind to stop short of the property line, careful to keep as much protection on himself as he could.
"Crucio!" shouted one of the Death Eaters in the back of the group, and a beam of light slammed into the wards in front of Harry, bouncing back into the group. One of the Death Eater's comrades was hit with the curse and writhed in pain, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"I told you to cease fire!" a Death Eater to the right of the girls said. Harry thought he heard him mumble, "idiots," before he locked gazes with Harry.
Staring down the apparent leader, who chuckled at him, Harry pointed his wand directly at the man's heart and said, "Let them go now, and I won't kill you all."
Loud laughter rang from the group, which had grown to include almost all of the attackers. "Don' be stupid, boy! Unless you want to see these two sweet things dead." The Death Eaters guarding the children jabbed their wands into their sides, which made the girls start crying again and set off more peals of laughter from the group.
Harry's mind was racing now as he contemplated his next move. The girls looked up at him with pitiful expressions, their nightdresses torn and dirty; tears were streaming down their faces. He looked back at the triumphant looks in the eyes of the Death Eaters and dropped his wand arm.
"Now step into the street," the leader called.
Harry hesitated, and in that exact moment, another ball of orange flame ignited in midair, directly between him and the two girls. A small key, another piece of parchment, and another feather appeared and fell to the ground. Harry stooped down to pick up the note, not letting his eyes off the Death Eaters, but it had only one word on it in Dumbledore's distinctive writing: "Portkey." There was a distant sound of numerous pops, but Harry barely noticed this; his intent was to grab the key and try to run for the two girls before it activated.
The lead Death Eater's eyes went wide as he saw Harry move to grab the key. "Don't..." he began, but it was too late. Harry had just barely touched the edge of the key with his finger, when he felt a jerk behind his navel and flew through the air. The last thing he saw was the looks of surprise on the little girls' faces.
When the trip ended, Harry found himself face down on a dark hardwood floor. Apparently, starting a Portkey trip from a kneeling position was not the best method to ensure a smooth landing. He groaned to himself and tried to get up, but his left wrist hurt painfully when he tried to use it. Instead, he rolled over slightly and stared into the room where he had landed. It was dark, but he could see the outline of a sofa and a bookcase.
Stomping sounds came from the direction of the ceiling and then approached the room. A gruff voice called in the darkness, "Who's there?"
"It's me," he croaked. His throat was dry, and he couldn't find anything else to say.
"Harry!" a shrill voice spoke. Someone appeared at his side, and he smelled apples and cinnamon. Light brown eyes peered into his.