Disclaimer – About the characters … none of them are mine // JK Rowling owns them all // nice of her to share
About the money … no profit made here // JK Rowling has it, she's // richer than the Queen
Author's note – I wrote this story chiefly for my own amusement, as a break in the midst of a very different writing project. My intention was to produce an unobjectionable – and inconsequential – bit of fluff, and to use it as an exercise in writing physical descriptions. That said, Myth & Legend, my incomparable beta for whom no amount praise can possibly be sufficient, assures me that I have done no such thing, but have instead given birth to a scandalous tale sure to reap a whirlwind of controversy. Now, up to a point, controversy is all to the good, but perhaps a few words of explanation are in order even so.
Most obviously, this story is very much second-generation fan fiction, owing at least as much to the classics of that genre as it does to JK Rowling. Like every aspiring deck hand in the H/G Navy, I owe an enormous debt to After the End, a passing tribute to which has found its way into my little story. Can you find it? It's not hard. Two more specific acknowledgements: I wouldn't have thought of dragons as a metaphor if I hadn't been reading Kokopelli's Letters of Summer (finally finished – hooray!). The physical setting of the willow tree by the brook, finally, is borrowed from a sprightly tale (although one altogether unsuitable for the refined audience of PS.net) entitled Weak at the Knees about which I will say no more other than to point out that I have provided Harry and Ginny with a bit more room under the tree in question – and have kept their ardor – barely – within age-appropriate bounds.
… Which brings us to the point of this note. Some readers may be surprised and/or furious at the way in which I have portrayed Ginny Weasley. I see her, in this her fifteenth summer, as a person very different from the shy star-struck little girl we first saw in Chamber of Secrets. She has grown up, and if she is once more focused on Harry it is in an altogether more mature way – in the best sense of that much-abused word. She has what Harry needs, on a number of different levels, and she knows it. She's done with waiting and ready to seize the moment when it comes. But is she in character, canonically speaking? I think that what I have portrayed is one possible extrapolation from the Ginny we met in Order of the Phoenix. I do not, however, have any illusion that the scene I have written, or anything like it, is likely to show up in any of the subsequent books. In part, that's why I wrote it. It is indeed the old, old story, but only to those of us who shipped out, as it were, at an impressionable age. JKR will never give it to us; we have to do as best we can on our own. To all those before me who have gone down to the sea of stories in this particular ship, thus, this account of the afternoon in which Our Girl stood up and did what had to be done is humbly dedicated.
Round about the fourth week of July in the summer following his fifth year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it began to dawn on Harry Potter that he wasn't minding exile with his revolting relatives nearly as much as usual. He was – dare he say it – enjoying his stay at Number 4 Privet Drive because his awful Aunt and unspeakable Uncle were, as usual, only too happy to pretend that he didn't exist. Even his loathsome cousin Dudley largely left him alone. A rich and varied schedule filled with underage drinking, petty vandalism, and acts of unprovoked violence against children as much as half his own size left the Pride of the Smeltings Boxing Club much too busy for all but the most token harassment of a silent and unresponsive Harry.
All of this suited Harry just fine. No one talked to him, which was good. No one looked at him searchingly with sad concerned eyes, which was even better. The Dursleys, bless their empty little Muggle minds, didn't even realize that anything unusual was amiss, and that was best of all. It left Harry free to pursue his own activities of choice. These included brooding, sulking, inventing complicated plots for wreaking painful and humiliating vengeance on a certain Severus Snape, or simply sitting perfectly still and staring at the wall of his bedroom. This last was his favorite. He could do it for hours on end.
Even Harry could tell that this was not a good sign.
He could not, however, bring himself to care. Every three days, he sent Hedwig the owl off to find Ron Weasley. I'm fine, the note she carried would say. The Muggles are treating me all right. Don't worry about me. Sometimes, for variety, he substituted OK for fine. On one particularly gloomy day he wrote I'm doing really well, but he later regretted it and went back to his usual form. The purpose of the notes was simple. As long as his friends received regular news of him they would leave him alone, and being left alone, just then, was what Harry Potter wanted most in the world. Inside the carapace of ice he was constructing for himself, he was safe, all emotions frozen numb.
Numb was good. Numb was not remembering that Sirius Black was dead as a direct result of Harry's headstrong stupidity. Numb was not dealing with the fact that a certified prophecy guaranteed that his fate was to be either murderer or murdered. Numb was not acknowledging that he was being a complete and utter prat, and that all of the people who cared for him were most likely going off their heads with worry. Every time she returned from a delivery, Hedwig brought him letters from one or another of these, which he threw away unread. I'm fine, he would answer. The Muggles are OK. Don't worry.
All things considered, Harry later reflected, the biggest surprise was probably that his friends waited nearly a month before mounting a mission to rescue him from himself. It began with a telephone call from Hermione Granger on the evening of 30th of July. His reaction when it came was largely resignation. It was too much to hope that they would just let him be. He took the phone from his aunt.
"Harry, you haven't been reading your mail, have you?"
Her voice was brisk, with Head-Girl-in-Training written all over it in large stern letters.
"How do you know?"
"Because if you had been, you would know that Ron and his Dad are coming to get you tomorrow. You'll be at the Burrow for your birthday, Harry, and you haven't so much as acknowledged the invitation."
"Yeah, I knew that."
"Oh Harry, don't bother to lie to me. Just be ready tomorrow at ten o'clock. OK?"
However dimly, Harry understood that he really ought to be saying something else, something more, but he couldn't for the life of him think what.
"Uh … Hermione?"
"I'm not doing this very well, am I?"
What came over the wire sounded suspiciously like a repressed chuckle, and when Hermione spoke again the Head Girl voice was gone, replaced by one Harry remembered well, a voice equal parts exasperation and affection, one that brought a very strange and painful feeling to the base of his throat.
"No, Harry, you're not. Don't worry, though, we'll get you straightened out. I can't come with them to get you, but I'll be at the Burrow tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime the Weasleys will set you to rights. I'll see you soon, Harry, I promise."
"Right. Bye then."
Harry wasn't sure whether to be grudgingly sorry or extremely grateful that the conversation was over. It was some minutes before he regained the proper state of numbness required for conversation with his aunt.
A few trifling idiosyncrasies aside, Arthur Weasley was a bright man. He had learned the last time he had attempted to extract Harry from the clutches of the Dursleys that arriving by way of the Floo network was an invitation to needless complication. He remembered this now. It also helped that his standing at the Ministry of Magic had improved sufficiently to permit him once again the occasional use of an official car. The vehicle that pulled up in front of Number four at 9:58 on the 31st of July was of a length, sleekness, and blackness sufficient to impress even Uncle Vernon.
It didn't impress Harry. He just lugged his possessions into the car and settled in for the ride. He was pleased to find not only Ron but also his twin brothers. Having three Weasley boys along meant that nothing beyond the occasional grunt was required to keep the conversation moving along. Had Harry been paying attention to Fred, George, and Ron, he would, by the end of the trip, have been quite knowledgeable about the finer points of the magical novelty trade, the prospects of the Chudley Cannons over then next several years, and the recent elopement of their sister in the company of one Dean Thomas. Fred slipped in that last after the first half hour just to confirm that Harry was not, in fact, listening to a word they said. He wasn't.
What Harry was actually doing, although he didn't realize it at the time, was putting to good use the skills that he would not admit to having acquired as a result of his lessons from Professor Snape in the art of Occlumency. Higher and stronger he built his defenses, more intent on keeping out his friends than he had ever been on eluding his enemy. By the time they reached the Burrow, the automaton with the frozen heart was ready to walk and talk, almost like a real boy.
Molly Weasleys's engulfing hug of welcome was a trying moment, bringing an uncomfortable tightness to his chest, but Ron inadvertently came to his rescue.
"Mum! You're smothering him!"
"Hush Ron. Welcome home, Harry Dear."
"Um, thanks, Mrs. Weasley."
Toting his trunk, Hedwig's cage, his broomstick, and other sundry items up to the attic room Harry shared with Ron filled the next few minutes. Helping Mrs. Weasley set the kitchen table for lunch occupied several more. The meal itself was bearable, as his mother's presence prevented Ron from talking with his mouth full. Unfortunately for Harry, Molly Weasley, unlike her son, was able to stop eating long enough to carry on a conversation at the luncheon table. The words Harry had been dreading were soon heading his way: birthday dinner … presents … a few friends …