Harry Potter stared unblinkingly out his bedroom window. His elbows were propped on his desk and he rested his jaw on his fists as he gazed out at the darkening sky without seeing anything. He could hear Aunt Petunia rattling around in the kitchen, preparing dinner for her family. Uncle Vernon had pulled into the drive a while ago, and Harry had heard him call for Aunt Petunia and Dudley when he'd entered the house. He and Dudley were probably watching television together while Aunt Petunia cooked, but Harry couldn't have cared less.
A blank piece of parchment lay on the desk before him, but he'd not yet summoned the energy to write the letter he'd thought about for days now. Hedwig hooted softly from her cage behind him. He blinked his dry eyes for a moment, and turned to look at her. "What is it?" he asked quietly. She cocked her head and looked at him quite seriously for a moment, then hopped along her perch and pushed open the door to the cage. Gliding gracefully toward him, and landing on the back of his chair, she tugged a lock of his hair gently with her beak. He sighed and stroked her slowly. "Am I taking too long for you?" he asked, and she cocked her head again, giving him an unblinking stare that seemed to say plenty.
"All right, all right... Gimme a minute," he muttered, and turned back to his desk. He unstoppered his ink and picked up his quill. He'd been mulling this over for days, surely he had worked out what he meant to say. He wrote a line and glanced back at Hedwig. "He's not going to be happy about this," he commented. She tilted her head, fluttered onto the desk, and pushed at the inkbottle with her foot. "Okay, okay..." He picked up his quill and quickly wrote out the rest of what he'd planned to say. He waited a moment for the ink to dry, then quickly sealed it and affixed it to Hedwig's leg for her. "Be careful, girl," he whispered, and stood to open the window. She nipped him lightly on the shoulder, before soaring out the window and into the gathering darkness.
He stood for a moment, his palms on the windowsill, feeling the coolness of the evening beginning to replace the heat of the day. He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning his head against the window frame, then sighed again and closed the window. He knew Hedwig wouldn't be back before morning, and Aunt Petunia thought that having the windows open caused more dust to accumulate... as if any dust particle ever thought of trying to reside at number 4 Privet Drive! He shook his head and let himself collapse onto his bed.
Harry snatched off his glasses and half-tossed them onto his desk, then scrubbed at his eyes with his knuckles. He hadn't slept well in ages, but... he shook his head, muttering to himself. "Don't start, just don't start..." he rolled onto his stomach, trying to find a comfortable position, but his mind continued to dwell on the note he'd sent off with Hedwig. Did I do the right thing? What else could I have done? He'd have to wait for the reply to know for certain.
As Harry drifted into sleep, his mind seemed determined to remind him of what had led him to this time. He groaned softly and buried his face in his pillow. The events at the Ministry... he remembered it all much too clearly. Dumbledore's office. The prophecy. His mind whirled through the memories...
King's Cross Station. The Dursleys were there to collect him. Lupin, Tonks, Moody, the Weasleys and Hermione approached his aunt and uncle and gave them direct instructions about taking care of Harry. He couldn't have begun to tell them how much he appreciated the gesture.
When at last they arrived at the Dursley home, he hauled his trunk and Hedwig's cage up the stairs to his room. Everything looked the same as when he'd left the previous summer - the bed, desk and wardrobe. And yet it all seemed so... different. Life felt different, he knew. He pushed his trunk against the wall and set Hedwig's cage on the small chest of drawers.
He turned slowly toward his trunk. He knew that putting away his things would only remind him even more of everything that had happened this year, but... there was nothing else for it, he'd just have to do it. He took a step toward the trunk, then paused and shut his bedroom door. He could do this, but he didn't need to have Dudley appear to comment on it all.
He knelt on the floor and unlocked the trunk. It wouldn't take him long to hang up his clothes and put away a few possessions, he reasoned. His school gear and books that were left from the year he'd leave in the trunk for now. He didn't allow himself to think of anything else that was in the trunk... not the penknife, not the photo album, nor the broken mirror... He shook his head and opened the latch, then took a deep breath and lifted the lid of the trunk.
And almost dropped it again.
There, on top of his Quidditch uniform and pads, was something he knew he hadn't packed.
He leaned the lid of the trunk against the wall and gently ran his fingers over the polished wood of the handle. He'd not even thought of asking for its return, but obviously Dumbledore had ensured that it was put in with his other belongings.
Harry swallowed hard against the sudden tightness in his throat and tried to blink away the tears that made his vision cloud over. The fat, wet drops splattered onto the glossy wood instead; Harry idly wiped them away with his fingers, and swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. He wouldn't do this - he couldn't do this! - now. Sirius had given him the Firebolt even before he knew the truth of his godfather's innocence, but now - Sirius was gone. He clenched his eyes shut, fighting back the wave of emotion that flooded through him whenever he even thought about his godfather.
He sat there, silent, for several moments, trying to breathe around the tightness in his chest and throat. It was all too easy to lose himself in the memories that were so closely connected to everything regarding his broom, this school year. Quidditch. Malfoy. Detentions. And the one person who was irrevocably tied to virtually every negative experience that year: Umbridge. He bit his lip, trying to get his emotions under control before he exploded. He hadn't known he could hate another person with the kind of depth that he had for her and those who worked with her. She was in an entirely separate category from Voldemort and his cronies, but she was despicable in her own right.
He suddenly shook his head, trying to clear his mind of the maelstrom of emotions. He opened his eyes and stared at the Firebolt again. "I won't make the same mistakes again," he whispered to himself. "I won't. It's time for things to change."
With a flare of determination, he grabbed the broom and turned, surveying the room critically. A moment later, he was at his bedside, and he carefully placed the broom between his desk and bed, where he could see it easily, no matter where he was in the room. Then, willing himself to keep going, he quickly put away his clothing and the few other things that he wanted to have out of his trunk. With a sudden flare of rebelliousness toward his relatives, he deliberately placed his schoolbooks, parchments, quills and inks on his desk in plain view, along with a wizarding photograph of his parents.
Suddenly, the bedroom door was flung open so hard that it rebounded from the wall and almost slammed into Vernon, who was attempting to enter. Sputtering his outrage, Vernon Dursley smacked the door with a beefy hand, holding it firmly against the wall. Harry jumped, startled by the initial noise, but seeing that it was his uncle, he calmly turned his back and resumed straightening his books. "You - you - put those things away immediately! How dare you bring that sort of rubbish into this house?! You ungrateful, miserable -" Uncle Vernon never finished his sentence, as he suddenly found himself confronted with the business end of Harry's wand. The sound that he made as his tirade abruptly ended sounded rather like "...bibble..." - not that Harry was paying much attention at the moment.
"Don't talk to me that way!" Harry hissed, fairly vibrating with fury. "I've put up with you for years because I didn't have any more choice about my being here than you did, but no more. You don't have to like it, but you're going to leave me alone!"
Vernon's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Or what, boy? You want to get yourself thrown out of that school for freaks? Just because some of those ... creatures demanded that you write to them doesn't mean they're going to tell me what to do in my own home! You're going to put that rubbish away and get started on the jobs that need doing here, or..."
"Or what?" Harry interrupted, stepping toward his uncle, his wand still at the ready. "You'll lock me in here? You'll make me go to bed without supper? I think I've had enough of that, thank you." Harry flicked his wand, almost lazily, and noted with satisfaction the way his uncle flinched at the movement. "I know more spells for making you miserable than you can count. I know more about magic -" Harry took great pleasure in drawing out the word and watching his uncle twitch again "-than you can imagine. So don't tempt me." He jabbed his wand toward Vernon's fat neck, then deliberately flicked one of the buttons on Vernon's shirt with the tip of his wand. Uncle Vernon gulped audibly, but stubbornly stood his ground.
"There are jobs to do here, boy. You're not going to get out of..." Uncle Vernon began again.
"I. Said. NO!" Harry yelled, losing the last remnants of control on his temper. "Make Dudley do something for once in his fat, miserable life! Do them yourself, hire someone to do them - I don't care! Just leave me ALONE!" He jabbed his wand firmly into the middle of Uncle Vernon's mile-wide shirt-front as he yelled, and Vernon abruptly stumbled backward toward the door. Harry pushed at his uncle's shoulder, scarcely even aware of what he was doing - knowing only that he desperately, urgently needed the man to just leave.
Vernon staggered through the door, still stuttering his protests, and Harry slammed it behind him, then quickly grabbed the chair from his desk and wedged it against the door. He might not be allowed to magically lock it, but he could certainly delay any attempts to get into his room any time soon.
Harry stood in the center of his room, his chest heaving as he fought to regain control of his temper, and he suddenly caught sight of his broom again.
Unbidden, he heard himself whispering, "I won't make the same mistakes again..." But he had, hadn't he? He'd just promised himself not to let his emotions, his temper, control him. And Uncle Vernon had completely obliterated that promise only minutes after he'd made it.
Harry sank onto his bed, staring at his Firebolt again in the soft light of the sunset outside his window. He'd... he'd been so certain he was doing the right thing when he'd gone off to find Sirius at the Department of Mysteries. And then - he swallowed against the painful lump in his throat - he'd been so certain that he'd found a way to see Sirius again, when he'd gone to talk to Nearly Headless Nick, only to be soundly defeated again.
He leaned back against the wall, pulling his feet onto the bed and resting his head against his drawn-up knees. He sat there, unable to stop the thoughts swirling through his head and his heart, until long past when the house had grown quiet after the Dursleys all had gone to bed. He never knew when he fell asleep; he only knew that he woke up the next morning with his glasses near his pillow, still wearing the clothes he'd put on before he left Hogwarts.
He mechanically showered and dressed, then made himself some breakfast before even Aunt Petunia was awake. He quickly washed his dishes and put them away, then aimlessly wandered out the back door into the garden. It was still quite early - the sun was just above the horizon, and the low clouds were still painted with its vivid colors. Harry sank onto the bench on the patio and stared into space as the neighborhood slowly began to waken.
He had no idea how long he sat there before his aunt stuck her head out the back door. "There you are!" she snapped. "I've been calling you for ages! Get in here and help with breakfast!"
"I've already eaten," Harry answered quietly, without turning to acknowledge her.
"I don't care if you've eaten! Dudley needs a good breakfast! If I have to tell you again, you'll -"
"I'm sure you'll try to make me sorry," Harry finished for her. He stood up, his hands still in the pockets of his jeans. "Dudley can make his own breakfast for all I care. I'll be back later." He turned and walked away from her without looking back. He could hear her sputtering after him. The kitchen door slammed, and then he heard a roar from Uncle Vernon, but by then he'd rounded the corner of the house and was out of their sight.
He wandered without thought or direction until he found himself at the play park not far from Privet Drive. It seemed that most of the damage from Dudley's gang the previous summer had been repaired, and he found himself sitting in one of the swings, morosely dragging his feet through the sand as he slowly moved back and forth.
Hours passed, and he meandered slowly through the streets of the neighborhood without truly noticing where he was or where he was going. He passed a vendor selling ice cream bars, but only noticed when a small girl, perhaps about four years old, ran up to him and asked if he could give her a few extra pence. He stared down at her dumbly for a moment before he finally roused himself enough to reply, "Sorry, I don't have any money." She looked at him for a moment longer, clearly disappointed, before she shrugged her shoulders and skipped away.
Eventually he found himself back at the Dursleys, and he let himself in through the back door. At least it was cool indoors - it was turning into an incredibly warm day outside. The house was silent, and he went about finding himself something to eat. He made himself a sandwich and found some crisps and a fizzy drink, then turned on the telly by the kitchen table to watch as he ate. There wasn't much on that could be considered entertaining, but he finally settled on a nature program until he finished his meal.
He tidied up the kitchen after himself, and went upstairs to his room. He had no idea where the Dursleys had gone, and cared even less. At least the house was peaceful for once. He picked up his Transfiguration textbook, intending to start some of his homework, but before he knew it, the sleep he'd been missing seemed to sneak up on him and in no time he was sound asleep.
The following weeks continued with much the same patterns - long, lonely, quiet days during which he finished all his summer homework just to have something to occupy his mind. He re-read the books Sirius and Remus had given him for Christmas, although it was terribly hard to even begin them initially.
Yet always, always his mind never seemed to stay far from the events at the Ministry and everything else that had happened that year. He'd never been able to spend as much time with Sirius as he'd wanted to, but now he missed his godfather constantly. He received letters from his friends frequently and they tried to share news and information with him more than they had the previous summer, but there was still so much they weren't allowed to say, and it was maddening. Harry answered mechanically, refusing to delve into anything more personal than observations on the weather, but repeatedly telling them that he was "fine", no matter how often they asked.
Finally, after one too many glares from the Dursleys, far too many run-ins with Dudley and his gang, and all too frequent nightmares, Harry knew that he couldn't stand being with the Dursleys much longer if he valued his sanity. He'd decided days ago that he would write to Dumbledore and tell him that he wanted out of here. Now. He'd toyed with the idea for a few more days, rolling the words around in his mind, trying to find a way to convey just how intent he was on getting away from his relatives.
Dear Professor Dumbledore,
I don't know how else to say this but to just tell you that I plan on leaving this house on the morning of 28 July. If you have a specific place you prefer for me to go, please send instructions or provisions. Otherwise, I intend to take the same transportation as I did just prior to third year to the home of a Ministry employee I've visited before.
I can't won't... stay here any longer than that.
Hedwig had soared into the darkening sky with the letter. Now all he had to do was wait for the reply.
The next morning, Harry was awake again quite early - another nightmare about Sirius falling through the Veil meant that he'd awoken in a cold sweat, a shout dying in his throat. He sat up, shaking, wiping the dampness from his cheeks on the sheet. He quietly made his bed, then gathered his clothes and went to shower, trying to distract himself from the nervousness of waiting for Hedwig's return.
He made himself eat breakfast. He wasn't truly hungry, but the last thing he wanted was to make himself sick while he was with his relatives. He knew it was possible that Hedwig could be gone until the next day, since he'd given the Headmaster several days' notice of his intentions. He hardly dared to hope, and he hated to admit it to even himself, but he wished desperately that he would be allowed to visit the Burrow. He hadn't got to visit there the previous summer, and the idea of returning to Grimmauld Place was daunting, even without the thought of Sirius' absence.
As he'd done the last few weeks, after he'd eaten, he went outside to the garden bench and sat, silently watching as dawn broke over the neighborhood. He was still sitting with his eyes closed peacefully, leaning his head back against the side of the house, when he sensed a shadow fall over his face. He jerked upright, his hand flying to the pocket where his wand was as his eyes focused on the source of the shadow.
"What do you want?" Harry snapped. He'd already had several encounters with Dudley's gang of mates, and while he hadn't been physically harmed, it had taken all of his resolve not to let his anger override his good sense whenever he was in the same vicinity as Dudley.
Dudley shifted slightly, and Harry suddenly realized that Piers, Dennis, Malcolm and Gordon were all there as well - standing off to the side slightly. Harry swallowed, his eyes narrowing at them all, and he stood up, sliding his hand into his jeans pocket deliberately. He wouldn't have thought that Dudley would do anything too obvious with his parents close by, but apparently Dudley wasn't too bothered by that. "Well?" Harry demanded, glaring at each of them, then returning his gaze to Dudley.
"We're going to the park. Thought you might want to come play," Dudley answered, his voice low enough not to carry too far beyond the circle surrounding Harry.
Harry snorted. "You've never played with anyone but yourself, Dud," he replied, his tone matching Dudley's in both volume and attitude. "I know what you're trying to do, and I'll not volunteer to be your whipping boy, Ickle Duddikins." Dudley glared at him and took a step closer. Harry glared back, defiantly. "Go play with your little friends and leave me alone."
Dudley nodded, once. Piers and Malcolm grabbed Harry's shoulders and pushed him roughly against the side of the house. Harry grunted at the impact, but managed to keep his hand clenched on his wand. He glared at Dudley, ignoring the other boys. "Leave.Me.Alone. NOW," Harry hissed.
Instead, Dudley leaned in close, pinning Harry even more effectively against the house. "Or what?" he snarled. He suddenly thwacked Harry's forehead with one beefy hand, causing the back of Harry's head to collide painfully with the side of the house. "You'll tell one of your freaky friends?" he taunted, thwacking Harry again. Harry could hear sniggering from some of the other boys, but he didn't bother concentrating enough to tell who was doing it. "What do you think they'll do?" Thwack! "Come and carry you away like some sort of fairy godfather?"
Harry saw red.
He snarled like a caged lion and jerked away from the hands holding him, his anger seeming to give him additional strength as he fought against the weight of the restraints on him. He shoved Dudley away with all his might, instinctively throwing himself forward as Dudley stumbled and fell onto his back. Harry landed squarely on top of Dudley, straddling his cousin's chest, his knees pinning Dudley's arms, his hands planted on Dudley's massive shoulders. He leaned forward, his eyes glinting dangerously, and all those years of being Dudley's punching bag and scapegoat boiled out with no thought of holding back. He sensed the other boys coming toward them, and he growled, "Tell them to back away, or you'll be more demented than they already know."
Dudley squirmed, and Harry tightened his grip on his cousin's shoulders, and shifted so that Dudley could feel the wand in Harry's pocket. "NOW," he snarled, and Dudley cringed slightly.
"Okay, okay..." Dudley grunted. "Back off, you lot. This is between us."
Harry sneered in satisfaction, but kept his voice low enough that the other boys wouldn't be able to hear him. "Unless you want something worse than what you've already tasted, Duddy, you'll leave me alone, and you'll make sure they leave me alone. Understand?" Dudley glared at him, his piggy eyes squinting in the sunlight, but then he nodded grudgingly. "You can tell them whatever you like, but you stay away from me, or the next time something happens, it'll be permanent." Dudley nodded again, once, and Harry glared at him a moment more, then released his grip on Dudley's shoulders and scrambled to his feet. He glared at the group of boys who were staring at him mutely, waiting for their leader to retaliate. Harry opened his mouth for a moment, about to say something to them, then closed it abruptly, shook his head and stalked into the house and up the stairs to his room.
He barricaded his door, and flopped onto his bed, tossing his glasses onto the desk as he did. He rolled onto his stomach and pounded his fists against his mattress. He felt an almost-uncontrollable urge to hit something - someone - anything - to find some way to release the anger and frustration and pain that had gnawed at him for weeks. Harry was almost shaking with fury, half-wishing that one of them had given him an opportunity to let his fists fly, to give him an outlet for the emotions that were all-but-overpowering him.
He lay on his bed for quite some time, pounding his pillow periodically, trying to calm himself enough to be able to go downstairs or outside again.
He'd been in his room for hours, alternately seething and trying to distract himself, when he heard a soft tapping at his windowpane. He jerked upward, and recognized Hedwig even without his glasses. He quickly opened the window, and she fluttered onto his bed, holding out one foot for him to remove the message she was carrying. He quickly untied it and stroked her appreciatively, then carried her to her cage and gave her some extra treats. She hooted softly at him, then hopped onto her perch and helped herself to the treats and her water dish.
Harry sat down on his bed again and put his glasses on. He recognized Dumbledore's handwriting on the neatly tied scroll, and he glanced back at Hedwig, who was watching him intently. "Guess I asked for this, didn't I?" he sighed. She hooted at him again, cocking her head to look at him expectantly. "He's going to tell me to stay put, I'm sure," Harry said quietly, staring at the parchment in his hands. He sat still for a moment, trying to convince himself that he could deal with whatever the Headmaster had said, before resolutely opening the letter.
While I can understand your desire to reside elsewhere, I am afraid I cannot allow you to travel unsupervised at this time. Likewise, the destination you prefer does not provide sufficient safety for you to visit.
Harry's heart sank, and he had to force himself to read the rest of the message.
I will, however, allow you to be escorted to a more secure location in the near future. Transportation will arrive soon, so be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.
Harry didn't know whether to be relieved or even more angry... his stomach was twisting itself into knots. He didn't know where Dumbledore planned for him to go, but he had a hunch that he would be going to the headquarters for the Order, and the thought filled him dread. He looked around his room and realized that he would have to pack his things if he was truly going to leave "at a moment's notice." He sighed and laid the letter on his desk, then slowly began to pack his school supplies and belongings into his trunk.
Harry stayed in his room till dinnertime, ignoring the sounds of the household around him. He'd packed his trunk, keeping out only his wand, and a few books to help occupy him until he could leave. He heard his aunt call Dudley into the kitchen for dinner, and he considered skipping the meal, but his stomach had already reminded him repeatedly that he'd missed lunch. He sighed and put down his book, then went to the bathroom and washed. He headed toward the kitchen, only to hear his uncle's voice quite clearly, "So where is he?"
Aunt Petunia's voice answered, "He must still be in his room. Haven't seen him all day." There was a snort and some indeterminable muttering from Uncle Vernon, and then Harry pushed open the door.
Uncle Vernon looked up, a bite of roast beef half-way to his mouth. "Well, nice of you to honor us with your presence!"
Harry didn't even bother to acknowledge Uncle Vernon, just looked toward his usual place at the table. There was no place setting for him, although Dudley and Aunt Petunia had already begun eating as well. Harry sighed to himself and then went to the cupboard to retrieve his cutlery and crockery, then returned to his seat. Aunt Petunia silently passed him the serving dishes and he quickly filled his plate and began eating.
He was hungrier than he'd realized, and since the Dursleys were actually allowing him to eat his fill this summer, he wasted no time in making up for the lunch he'd missed. Aunt Petunia wasn't quite as good a cook as the house-elves at Hogwarts, or Molly Weasley, but her skills were more than adequate, and now that his relatives weren't making obvious attempts to starve him, he usually enjoyed the meals she prepared. Well, he amended to himself, the food's decent, at least. Can't say much for the company.
Dudley had the television blaring next to the table, and Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia attempted to carry on a conversation with each other in between bites - something about the neighbors, as usual. Harry did his best to ignore them all. He'd developed a headache earlier in the day, and the combined noises were making the pain return with a vengeance. When he'd first felt the dull ache, he'd had a moment of panic that his scar might be hurting again, but after awhile, he realized that it was just a rather ordinary headache, most likely brought on by his anxiety about his letter to Dumbledore and all that it encompassed.
He finished his meal without speaking to anyone, and then dutifully cleared away his dishes. Without conscious decision, he then found himself going out the door toward the back patio, and he sank onto his usual bench with a sigh of relief. The sun was setting, and it was already cooling off considerably. It felt wonderful after being holed up in his room all day. There was a slight breeze, and he closed his eyes and leaned back against the house again, then caught himself and opened his eyes instead.
Another wave of pain passed through his head, and he groaned softly as he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and buried his face in his hands, then rubbed his temples, trying to relieve some of the pain.
"Headache?" came a voice, quite nearby, and Harry almost jumped out of his skin. His wand was in his hand in a flash, and he scanned the area for anything abnormal. He heard a quiet chuckle from the right, and trained his wand there without hesitation.
"Who's there?" he demanded, his heart hammering in his chest.
"Sorry, Harry, didn't mean to startle you," the now-familiar voice said again, followed by a subtle shimmer as Remus Lupin pulled off an Invisibility Cloak and stepped toward him slowly.
Harry's wand never wavered. "Don't move! How do I know who you really are?" Harry snapped, determined.
Lupin stopped, and held his hands in front of him placatingly. "What do you want me to say?"
Harry thought fast. "What form does my Patronus take?"
"It's a stag," Lupin said quietly. When Harry's wand didn't move, he added, "It takes the same shape as your dad's Animagus form when he'd become Prongs."
Harry sagged with relief. "Lupin," he croaked, his throat impossibly dry. "You scared me to death!"
"Sorry 'bout that," Lupin answered in that same quiet, soft voice. He nodded toward the bench. "Mind if I sit with you?"
Harry shook his head. "No, please - sit!"
Lupin sat beside him and then laid a friendly hand on his shoulder. "I think you've grown since I last saw you," he said with a smile.
Harry grinned in surprise. "Really?"
Lupin's hazel eyes twinkled at him. "Really." He smiled warmly. "You just reminded me of when I was your age, and all of us boys used to constantly try to see who was getting taller first."
Harry grinned again. "That's easy: Ron's always tallest, no matter what."
Lupin chuckled. "I suppose that does simplify things." He paused, then squeezed Harry's shoulder gently and asked, "How are you?" Harry opened his mouth to reply, but Lupin then continued, "And don't give me this 'fine' business that's been in all your letters. How are you really?"
Harry looked at Lupin for a moment, before looking away, staring into the twilight sky. He shrugged slightly, then said softly, "I'm...okay. Not great, but okay. I'm tired of being here, and tired of not knowing anything that's going on, but..." he trailed off for a moment, and Lupin waited patiently for him to continue. "...but I'm mostly okay."
"You looked like you had a headache..." Lupin prompted, and Harry nodded.
"Dudley was pestering me this morning, and I stayed in my room most of the day just to keep away from him. I-I didn't know if I'd be able to not hex him into oblivion if I saw him again. I suppose it caught up with me."
Lupin nodded. "Tonks said she was sorely tempted to do something to him for you, but for once she resisted the temptation as well."
"Tonks was here then?"
Another nod. "I haven't got to be on duty here much, so I was hoping I might catch you alone this evening."
"Can you tell me what's been going on?" Harry asked, turning toward his former professor.
Lupin shook his head then. "Actually, there's not much to tell. There's been very little activity since..." He paused a moment, then finished quietly, "... since that night at the Ministry. We're watching and waiting, essentially."
Harry groaned in frustration and ran a hand through his hair. "What's he going to do now then? Everyone knows he's back, yet nothing's being done! What do we have to do, write someone a bloody invitation?" he spat.
Lupin's hand had moved to rest on the back of the bench, but now it came back to Harry's shoulder and squeezed firmly. "Harry, calm down. I didn't say nothing's being done, I said that Voldemort's not doing anything to call attention to himself. Fudge has actually asked for input from Dumbledore, and Dumbledore has given him plenty of advice about what should be done to increase security and awareness, and so far, Fudge has done almost everything Albus has asked for. You have more than enough to worry about these days; you don't need to make yourself mental over things you can't control."
Harry swallowed against the knot of anger building in his chest and throat. "I want out of here," he said softly. He knew he sounded as if he was begging, but he didn't care. "Professor, pl-" he began, but Lupin held up a hand to stop him.
"Not 'professor', Harry. Just Remus. Or Lupin - whatever you prefer. But we're just friends now, remember?"
Harry nodded. "Sorry," he muttered. Lupin smiled encouragingly at him, and he plunged ahead again. "R-Remus, I just - I don't mean to complain, but-"
"-'but' you want out of here soon," Remus finished for him. Harry nodded again and looked up to find his friend studying him. "I don't know exactly when it will happen, but I know Dumbledore plans to get you out of here within the next couple of days or so. I know you'd wanted to go to the Burrow, but the wards there just aren't sufficient. I'm afraid you'll probably be coming to Headquarters."
Harry looked down at his hands, folded across his knees, as he swallowed again. "I thought as much," he said quietly.
"Will you be okay with that?"
Harry shrugged, but Remus seemed to be waiting for him to say something further. "I guess I have to be, don't I?"
Remus sighed quietly before answering. "I suppose you do. There are a lot of things we don't have much choice about, I'm afraid."
Harry nodded, still staring toward the ground. He felt Remus' hand slide across his shoulders to give him an affectionate squeeze. Harry felt his throat tighten at the warmth in that action. "I miss him," he blurted suddenly, scarcely even aware he was considering saying anything.
Remus sighed quietly beside him. "I know you do. I do, too," he said softly. He paused briefly. "Can I ask you something without you thinking I'm meddling too badly?"
Harry felt a corner of his mouth quirk. "Have you been around Mrs. Weasley a lot lately?"
Remus chuckled. "Not especially. I'm just concerned. How are they treating you, really?" Harry didn't have to ask who "they" were.
He shrugged. "Not too bad. Mostly I think they try to pretend I don't exist."
"Are you sleeping all right?"
Harry sighed and dropped his head into his hands again, dragging his fingers through his hair. "I sleep," he answered. "I don't sleep well very much, but I sleep."
"It'll get easier eventually, Harry. It hasn't been that long yet," Remus responded quietly, then glanced at his watch. "Blast! My shift is ending any minute now. I'll go and fetch you something for your headache once Hestia arrives though, all right?"
Harry nodded mutely, and Remus stood and picked up the Invisibility Cloak again. Leaning over, he put his hand on Harry's shoulder again. A gentle squeeze coaxed Harry into looking at his former professor. "I'm sorry I can't stay longer - I have a meeting to attend. We'll talk more later, all right? And if you ever need me, I'm available."
"Thanks, Remus," Harry answered quietly.
Remus gave him a reassuring smile, then disappeared beneath the Cloak. A moment later, Harry heard a distinct pop of Apparition and murmured voices. Another pop indicated that Remus had left.
Harry sat on the bench, unable to summon the desire or energy to move, and a few moments later, he heard another pop. His reflexes took over, and he had his wand in his hand again, pointed in the direction of the sound, before he even had consciously thought to do so.
Another slight shimmer, and Hestia Jones' black hair came into view. "It's just me, Harry," she said, smiling, as another pop indicated that Remus had left again.
He didn't lower his wand. "Prove it," he answered.
Hestia seemed to be thinking hard for a moment, then grinned at him, her pink cheeks dimpling as she did so. "I see you still have both buttocks. Been heeding Moody's advice lately?"
Harry could feel his face flush at the teasing. "Not especially," he answered, then added hastily, "But don't tell him I said that!"
Hestia laughed easily. "I won't. He tries to ignore the way most of us carry our wands, I think." She held out a small bottle. "Remus said you needed some headache potion. I suggest you wait until you're in your room to take it - it's likely to make you quite sleepy, and I doubt your relatives would bother to carry you to your bed."
Harry snorted at the idea. "You're right about that. Thanks," he answered as he pocketed the bottle.
"I'd best start my watch, Harry. I'll be here most of the night; Kingsley will be relieving me. Let us know if you need anything, all right?"
Harry nodded and made to go into the house. He turned back just in time to see her hair disappear beneath the Cloak. "Thanks," he repeated.
"You're quite welcome," came her disembodied voice. "Get some rest."
Harry retreated into the house. The dishes from dinner were still piled on the table - he presumed that Aunt Petunia meant for him to do them. He ignored them and headed for the stairs.
"Boy!" Uncle Vernon's voice from the living room stopped him.
Harry paused, his hand on the stair rail. "What?"
"Get back to the kitchen and wash those dishes."
Harry turned half-way and glared at his uncle. "No," he answered plainly.
"Listen, you miserable -" Uncle Vernon began again.
"I said, 'no," Harry repeated. "I'm going to bed."
Uncle Vernon sputtered. "Bed?! So you can wake us all up again with your yelling?" He began the process of getting off the sofa, and Aunt Petunia reached over to help him to his feet. He advanced on Harry, who resolutely stood his ground.
"You'll do those dishes, or so help me..." Uncle Vernon began, threateningly.
"I won't. I told you: I'm not your servant. Do them yourself if you want them done so badly!" Harry snapped, and started up the stairs, but a beefy hand closed around his arm and jerked him backward.
"You'll not talk to me like that! You'll do those jobs to help make up for the fact that we've kept you here all this time! Your kind may not acknowledge generosity-" Uncle Vernon bellowed.
"Generosity?!" Harry yelled, his anger easily matching Uncle Vernon's. "You call it generosity when you locked me in a cupboard most of my life? When you put bars on my window? Was it generosity when you half-starved me, even when I was just a child?! I know generosity, and you have none of it! You never have, and you never will!" He abruptly wrenched his arm out of his uncle's grasp, ran up the stairs and slammed his bedroom door, then jammed his desk chair against it once more. Uncle Vernon roared something at him from below, but he didn't bother to attempt to decipher the words.
He sank onto his bed, burying his head in his hands once more, trying to control his ragged breathing. He felt something digging into his thigh, and realized that the potion bottle was still in his pocket. He dug it out and set it on his desk, then tossed his glasses onto the desk as well. He rubbed his eyes, scrubbing his hands over his face. He sighed again, then stood up and quickly stripped off his clothes, tossing them into the corner - wishing he could throw the Dursleys instead of just Dudley's hand-me-downs. He quickly tugged on his pajamas, then grabbed the potions bottle. "I hope it knocks me out 'til September," Harry muttered to himself, before quickly drinking the contents. He flung himself onto his bed, sprawling as he stretched, then crawled under the blankets.
The potion worked quickly; he sighed with relief as his headache faded, and he burrowed further into his bed. It's a good thing Hestia warned me, he thought as he felt himself relaxing toward sleep. It would've been a shame if I'd gone to sleep while Uncle Vernon was yelling.
Harry was rudely awakened the next morning by Uncle Vernon pounding on his bedroom door. "Get up now!" his uncle thundered. "Someone's here for you, and I'll not have them on my property one moment longer than necessary!"
Harry shot out of bed with They're here! as his only coherent thought. "Coming!" he answered, while he hopped on one foot, trying to get his other foot through the tangled jeans he'd had on the previous night.
He dressed in record time, opening the door just as Uncle Vernon raised his fist to beat on it again. "Where?" Harry asked quickly as he jammed his wand into his back pocket.
Vernon jerked his head toward the stairs. "The kitchen. Get rid of them quickly!" he snarled, following more slowly as Harry bounded down the stairs.
Harry dashed into the kitchen to find Aunt Petunia muttering to herself as she rummaged through the kitchen cupboards. She'd obviously been in the midst of preparing breakfast, and she still gripped a wicked-looking serving fork in one hand as she gathered items from the cupboards. Dudley was no where to be seen, thankfully, but sitting calmly at the kitchen table were Arthur Weasley and Remus Lupin, the latter seemed to be keeping an eye on Mr. Weasley, who was obviously delighted to be in a real Muggle kitchen; he was eagerly eyeing everything in sight.
"Erm... good morning," Harry began. Remus and Mr. Weasley looked up at him, smiling warmly as they greeted him. Aunt Petunia gave him a suspicious glare, before turning back to her cooking.
Harry put his hand to his back pocket, trying not to be too obvious about it. Remus gave him a knowing look. "Prongs," he said quietly.
Mr. Weasley nodded. "Norbert," he added. Harry stared at him for a moment, wondering how he knew that, but Mr. Weasley just smiled and winked at him.
"Are you ready to go?" Mr. Weasley asked. "If you're not, I'm sure we can help with things here until you're packed."
Remus turned his head and coughed, and Harry could see the amusement Remus was attempting to hide. Fighting back a grin of his own, he answered, "Sorry, Mr. Weasley, but I'm all packed. I just have to get my things."
"Oh," Mr. Weasley answered, obviously disappointed. "Well, let's get them for you then, shall we?"
Uncle Vernon had appeared in the doorway just in time to hear this last exchange, and he now glowered at them all. "What's this? We're about to be rid of you, and you didn't bother to let us know?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "I didn't know when they were coming, only that it would be soon."
Uncle Vernon snorted. "Well, don't dawdle now. Get moving!"
Remus and Mr. Weasley both stood up, silently moving into position behind Harry. "We'll just collect Harry's things, then," Remus said with quiet authority. "After all, we need to ensure that he's been well cared-for."
Uncle Vernon began to turn purple. "Now see here!" he blustered, wagging one finger in the general direction of the wizards in his kitchen.
Remus and Mr. Weasley immediately drew their wands. "No," Remus replied, still quite calm. "I think we've seen enough."
A hand landed on Harry's shoulder; he wasn't sure whose. "Let's get your things," Mr. Weasley said quietly. Harry nodded and led the way through the kitchen door toward the stairs.
Once in his room, Harry shoved the rest of his belongings into his trunk, and Remus deftly shrunk Harry's trunk and Hedwig's cage. "Is that all you need?" he asked as he pocketed the items.
"Yeah, that's all of it."
"Let's get going then, shall we?" Mr. Weasley prompted.
"We'll go out the back door, Harry," Remus informed him. "Mad-Eye and Tonks are waiting for us there."
Mr. Weasley led the way to the back door; he and Remus still had their wands drawn. As they passed through the kitchen, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon stopped what they were doing long enough to stare at them with a mixture of indignation and fear.
Mr. Weasley went out the back door cautiously, motioning for Harry to stay between him and Remus. Mad-Eye Moody and Tonks were standing at opposite corners of the back patio, obviously on alert. "All clear?" Remus asked quietly.
Without turning to face them, Moody replied, "So far. Ready then?"
"Yes," answered Mr. Weasley and Remus together, and they moved to flank Harry. Tonks moved toward them, still watchful, and stood in front of Harry.
"Wotcher, Harry," she said quietly.
"Hullo, Tonks," he answered just as softly.
Moody moved into position behind Harry. "Let's go then," he said, and it was clearly an order.
Mr. Weasley pulled a rather battered-looking toy soldier from his pocket, and they all touched the toy as Moody touched it with his wand-tip, muttering something indistinct as he did so. A moment later, the familiar jerk swept Harry off his feet, depositing them all in front of Number 12, Grimmauld Place.
Harry swallowed hard as he looked up at the house where his godfather had grown up. Remus put a hand on Harry's shoulder, squeezed it briefly. "Welcome back, Harry," he said quietly.
A/N: Well, here we go. At some point, "Bah, Humbug" will fit into this story, but for now I'll leave it as a stand-alone. Y'all might wanna fasten your seat belts... I think it's going to be a bit of a bumpy ride ;-)
Thanks tons to Chele, Lissa, Joe, Chad and others who've encouraged me to write. Thanks also to Allie for the super beta job! Stay tuned ;-)