(Author's Note: Thanks to MissK and Pooca for beta-reading. This chapter is fairly heavy in exposition and recapping, and I'm reliably informed that it's a bit dull. Sorry about that :-) Things should pick up a bit after this, I hope.)
Harry Potter awoke with a start, his hand scrabbling in the darkness for his wand. His chest heaved under the holey t-shirt he wore to bed, and he squinted into the blurry gloom around him.
After ten seconds in which nothing moved, he lowered his wand and picked up his glasses from the bedside cabinet. Slipping them on, he wiped his hand across his forehead, grimacing with displeasure at the sweat he wiped off.
He had been dreaming again, the same jumbled dream that he'd been having since shortly after arriving back at Number Four, Privet Drive a few weeks before. The dreams were the source of the sweat, rather than the heat of the summer that, so far, had been rather mild. The scorching temperatures of the previous summer had yet to make an appearance and Harry's Uncle Vernon, who loved to complain, had grumbled the previous morning about the lack of sunshine. The summer before, Harry remembered, Uncle Vernon had moaned about hosepipe bans and the scarcity of electric fans in the shops.
Harry settled back on his bed, the clammy, sweaty sheets feeling unpleasant against his skin, but at least granting him a momentary coolness. He glanced over at his alarm clock, which read twenty-three minutes past five, and sighed. In a little over an hour, Uncle Vernon would get up, go to the toilet, bang on Harry's door, and go back to sleep for another hour. Harry, however, would be expected to get up, make breakfast for the Dursleys and have Uncle Vernon's lunch already packed for work.
If Harry was lucky, a member of the Order of the Phoenix might tap discreetly on the back door and let him know if there had been any developments that night in the war against Voldemort and his followers. Harry wondered upon the fact that news of murders and attacks were nearly the highlight of his day.
Generally, though, he was able to escape from the Dursleys after breakfast and return to his room until lunchtime, when he was expected to prepare food for himself, his cousin Dudley and his Aunt Petunia. After that, he was free for most of the rest of the afternoon. Aunt Petunia didn't trust him to make dinner, in case he did something to the food that upset Uncle Vernon. Mad-Eye Moody had threatened the Dursleys with punishment if he thought that they were mistreating Harry but Harry didn't trust Uncle Vernon's self control. The Dursleys had made an effort to be a little more civil to Harry than usual, but he found it extremely unnerving and wherever possible avoided contact with them.
The only other part of the holiday that distracted Harry from the maudlin thoughts that had threatened to overwhelm him since the trip to the Ministry was his evening trip to the playground on Magnolia Road. After dinner, Harry would leave the house and make his way to the playground where he would spend the evening with Remus Lupin, his former Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher. The two would talk until well after dark. Harry learnt a lot of things that he had never known and, in many cases, never really thought about.
Remus and Harry talked a lot about Sirius. Sirius Black had been Harry's godfather and a school friend of Harry's parents and Remus. He had died only a few weeks before, killed in a battle with his cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange, when he had been trying to rescue Harry from a trap set by the dark wizard Voldemort.
They had talked about Voldemort. Harry had learned after the battle in the Ministry that a prophecy had been made before he was born that said that only he could defeat Voldemort. The most powerful Dark Wizard in centuries, Voldemort had returned to power the year before, and had been manipulating Harry's mind throughout the previous school year, resulting in Harry leading his friends to the Department of Mysteries, and ultimately into the battle in which Sirius had been killed.
Harry steered clear of mentioning this prophecy to Lupin. Lupin, however, seemed to guess what Harry was thinking, and much of their time was spent going over Harry's magical fighting techniques. While Harry could not yet use magic outside of school, Lupin was quick to help him with any questions he had, and had a ready supply of books on how to fight the Dark Arts. The work had spilled over into Harry's subjects, and he had taken to losing himself in his Transfiguration notes or his Charms textbook when the memories of the last few weeks threatened to overwhelm him. Lupin had encouraged him in this, and Harry had found that it helped to keep himself busy, although he still didn't feel as though he would ever really understand Potions.
Harry lay in bed this morning, staring at his clock, remembering that he had fallen asleep midway through a chapter on battles between two large forces. He wondered if that had been responsible for his having the dream, again. He struggled to remember it.
Hills, and people, lots of people. Expectation and nervousness...
Harry strained, but the dream was gone. No more remained of it than had done on any other night he'd had it.
It was, he supposed, at least a change from the dream of Sirius falling through the veil. Watching his godfather's face change from amusement to shock as Lestrange's spell caught him in the chest, and then as he fell backwards, through the veil that hung from the archway.
Sirius had vanished. No body had been found and, according to Lupin, none was likely to be found.
"What goes through that arch stays there," he had told Harry, with a note of finality in his voice that stopped Harry asking anything more. He was sure that Lupin knew what lay beyond the arch, but Harry wouldn't ask. The look on Lupin's face when they had discussed Sirius' death had been enough to cool Harry's desire to find out more, and he suspected that he would have to ask someone else about the archway.
Luna Lovegood mentioned it, he remembered. She said she heard her mum there.
Harry resolved to talk to Luna when he next saw her. He had felt better after talking to her at the end of the school year, a feeling that had disappeared not long after his return to Privet Drive.
Plucking his glasses from his face, Harry settled back. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand before letting them droop shut. Settling back down, he willed himself to recapture the sleep from which he had awoken too many times since returning from Hogwarts.
This morning, however, he was able to fall asleep quickly, and enjoyed nearly an entire extra hour of rest before Uncle Vernon slapped his bedroom door several times, jolting him awake and halfway out of bed before he was entirely aware of what was happening.
Harry felt restless as he cooked breakfast for the Dursleys that morning. He smashed a glass without even seeing it, so preoccupied was he, and it wasn't until he stepped on one of the larger pieces that he realised what he had done. He was able to sweep it up before the Dursleys came downstairs, but a part of him felt that it was a bad omen for the day ahead. Even with Hermione's voice in his mind, mocking the idea of omens and portents, Harry still felt jittery as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. Easing open the door, he slipped inside and shut it quietly. He felt as though even the click of a shutting door would make him jump out of his skin.
Only trained reflexes on the part of Tonks saved her from being hexed off of Harry's bed. A quick "Expelliarmus!" disarmed Harry before he could cast a spell and left the green-haired Auror holding two wands and looking at Harry in surprise.
"Blimey, Harry, what was that about?"
"Tonks!" Harry hissed. "What are you doing in my room?"
"Er, I missed you earlier. Wanted to give you the latest, so I figured I'd wait up here for you while you were having breakfast." She looked contrite. "Sorry if I made you jump, Harry," she said, offering him his wand.
Harry sat on his bed, and took his wand back. "I'm just feeling a bit jumpy today, Tonks.
Tonks looked concerned. "Any idea why?" she asked.
Harry shook his head. "Did something happen last night? Did Voldemort..." Harry tailed off.
Tonks shrugged. "I haven't heard anything yet, to be honest. I shouldn't think there's any reason for you to feel jumpy, though."
Harry sighed, and scraped his hands back through his hair.
"You feeling alright, Harry?"
"Yeah, just..." he tailed off again.
"I can go, if you want?" Tonks offered. "I can get Remus or someone."
"No, it's... I'm just being stupid," Harry said. "I didn't sleep well last night. 'Spose it's just caught up with me."
"Right," Tonks said, not looking entirely convinced. "Nothing from your scar?" she asked.
"No," Harry said, gingerly touching the lightning-bolt shaped scar that ran across his forehead. "Nothing new. Nothing really since that night."
Tonks nodded in an uncharacteristically sombre manner. She didn't need to ask which night Harry was referring to.
There was silence in the room for a long moment. Hedwig cooed quietly in her cage, fluffing her wings as Harry and Tonks sat still and silent.
"So, nothing happened last night?" Harry asked quietly.
Tonks shook her head again. "Nothing that I've heard about. It's been dead quiet all week, really. Even the Daily Prophet has stopped reporting Death Eater sightings."
"Why do I feel so jumpy, then?" Harry asked, half to himself.
"Can't help you there, Harry," Tonks said. "Unless... well, don't the OWL results come out about now?"
Harry stared at Tonks blankly for a few seconds. "I forgot," he admitted, slowly. "There's been so much going on, I didn't even think about the results."
"I'm surprised Hermione let you forget," Tonks said, grinning. "Last time I heard from her, she was worried she'd failed everything."
Harry poked at a hole in the carpet with the toe of his trainer. "Wouldn't know," he said. "I haven't been writing back to them."
Tonks cocked her head to one side, and to Harry it seemed as though her nose grew slightly longer. "Why not?" she asked.
Harry shrugged. "Just don't want to talk to them," he said. Both Ron and Hermione had mentioned Sirius and the Department of Mysteries in their first letters to him, and he hadn't wanted to spend the summer talking about that subject with them.
He pulled out the drawer on his bedside cabinet and took out the letters from Ron and Hermione. He handed them to Tonks, who glanced at them. "You didn't want to talk to them about Sirius?"
Harry shook his head, silently.
"You can talk to me, if you like Harry. I didn't know Sirius as well as I would have liked, but the old dog was my cousin. I miss him too."
"You're talking to Remus, aren't you?" Tonks asked.
Harry hesitated, then nodded. In fact, while he and Remus had talked about Sirius, they hadn't really discussed Sirius' death, not in terms of the effect it was having on the two of them. Harry wasn't sure why Remus was avoiding the subject, but he was grateful that his former teacher didn't seem eager to discuss the topic.
For Harry, the loss of his godfather was a pain too recent and too great in magnitude to allow him to even begin to come to grips with. A dully throbbing void in Harry's chest was a constant reminder of Sirius' absence, one that sometimes left Harry gasping for breath as the memories overwhelmed him.
At those times, Harry resolved to mention Sirius' death to Remus the next time he saw him. He felt, somehow, that discussing the battle in the Department of Mysteries was the right thing to do, that it would help him feel better, that the hurt would lessen as it had when he had spoken briefly to Luna.
Each time he saw Remus, though, his resolve faltered. The grey-haired, tired looking man appeared more worn then he ever had done. The deep lines that marked his open face seemed to be etched still more deeply. Harry felt as though his former teacher was aging before his eyes. And when Harry tried to introduce the topic of Sirius into the conversation, Remus' face would darken further, before he touched upon a happy memory that he could share with Harry. As Remus recounted a tale of childhood adventure, the lines seemed to disappear and Remus seemed much younger, much happier.
Harry couldn't bring himself to drag Remus away from his memories.
Instead, he listened to the stories, laughing at times. When Remus asked, which was often, Harry would recount his own stories of Sirius, most often the story of the end of Harry's third year at Hogwarts, two years before, when he had helped Sirius escape the clutches of the Ministry of Magic and the Dementors of Azkaban.
This, too, seemed to alleviate Remus' unhappiness, but Harry could never quite manage to make the link between talking about that night and the night six weeks before.
"You want me to hang around, Harry?" Tonks asked. "I don't mind."
Harry shrugged, then looked at her curiously. "Don't you have to be in work, Tonks?"
"Nah, it's okay," she grinned. "Kingsley swung me a bit of time off after I got hurt. This way I can help the Order, and if I should happen to stumble across something the Ministry might be interested in..."
"You can always report it, right," Harry said.
"'Sides, ever since Fudge stepped down, the Ministry's a bit of a dead place to work, anyway. No-one's sure if the new Minister'll declare war on Voldemort or if he'll want us to try and deal with this thing quietly."
Harry nodded, not really listening. The resignation of Cornelius Fudge as Minister of Magic shortly after the school holidays had begun had not surprised Harry.
"Anyway, they reckon they'll announce the new candidates for the job this week," Tonks said.
Harry grunted, and Tonks looked at him with a faint trace of concern on her face.
"Reckon you'll be alright 'til Remus gets here tonight?" she asked, as Harry stared blankly at the wall. "Harry?"
"What?" Harry blinked, as though just realising Tonks was still in the room. "Yeah. Sure. See you later."
Tonks looked as though she were about to say something, then changed her mind and Disapparated with a swish of displaced air that was matched exactly in pitch and duration by the sigh that escaped Harry's lips as he scraped his hands across his face and through his hair.
The previous summer had been one of stifling dullness. While Hermione and the Weasleys had been assisting the Order of the Phoenix in their war with Voldemort's forces, Harry had been kept in the dark. Albus Dumbledore, leader of the Order and Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, had tried to keep Harry safe by isolating him as much as possible from the wizarding world.
At least he realised he was wrong about that, Harry scowled as he picked at the stodgy food that Aunt Petunia had cooked for dinner that evening. Dudley had been released from his diet after two years of hard exercise and learning to beat people up as the Junior Heavyweight boxing champion of South-East England, and Uncle Vernon had declared that there would be no 'namby-pamby rabbit food' that summer. As a consequence, Dudley had already consumed roughly his own weight in suet, and this evening had eaten, by Harry's estimate, three battered cod and four portions of chips. Dudley's muscular frame was already beginning to show signs of returning to its previously whale-like proportions, and Harry thought that his tight t-shirt was straining more at the stomach than the chest.
But Harry couldn't bring himself to tease Dudley about his weight. For one thing, he suspected that Dudley was still more than strong enough to beat him up. Also, though, Harry hadn't felt like making fun of Dudley since returning to Privet Drive. Aside from thoughts of Sirius' death, one memory stood out brightly from his fifth year at Hogwarts.
In an attempt to protect Harry from the mental assault of the Dark wizard Voldemort, Dumbledore had ordered Professor Snape, the Potions master, to teach him Occlumency. This branch of magic protected the user from telepathic assault, but required concentration and calmness, two things Harry had felt incapable of during the last year. During one failed Occlumency session, he had stumbled across a memory that Snape had stored in a Pensieve. The memory had shown Harry's father, James Potter, and Sirius humiliating Snape when they had been at school together. The memory left a sour taste in Harry's mouth for more than one reason.
He had had to accept that his father had not always been the kind, friendly wizard who smiled up at him from his photo album. Harry had tried, and failed, to reconcile the sneering, bullying teenager who had tormented Severus Snape with the only slighter older man who had married his mother and joined the Order of the Phoenix. It seemed inconceivable to Harry that his father had gone from hexing Snape for fun, to standing side-by-side with him in the fight against Voldemort.
Harry had tried to fathom the mystery for hours at a time, but he felt as confused by it now as he had when he had first viewed the memory weeks before. Whenever he felt unable to think on it anymore, he found his mind wandering to thoughts of Sirius, standing at James Potter's side. This, at least, was less confusing to Harry. Sirius and Snape had hated each other with a passion that had continued to burn well into adulthood. Shortly after the memory Harry had seen, he knew, Sirius had tricked Snape into nearly being killed by the werewolf that Remus Lupin became each full moon. Remus and Sirius had told him that the feud between Snape and them had been entirely a two-way affair, but even allowing for Remus and Peter Pettigrew being merely observers, it still meant that Sirius and Harry's father had spent their time at Hogwarts fighting with Snape.
Two of them against one of him. No wonder Snape liked the Dark Arts so much. It was probably the only way that he could get his own back on Sirius and my dad, Harry scowled.
This line of thought had lead to an uncomfortable idea forming in Harry's mind. Snape's been right all this time about my dad. About him being arrogant, and about how I should thank him for all he's done.
Harry's stomach lurched at the thought of admitting to Snape that he'd been right about Harry's father. He forced himself to think of Remus' and Sirius' reaction to Harry's discovering of the memory. They had treated it like an ordinary scene, which didn't help Harry at all. Still, Harry knew that Remus wasn't the sort of person to condone the bullying that Snape's memory had seemed to portray. Harry was left with a faint hope that the scene merely showed Sirius and James scoring a point against Snape, rather than conducting another ritual humiliation of him. That Snape had apparently been holding his own against the pair until he lost his wand seemed to lend some credibility to this theory.
But my Dad still went after Snape because he was bored, because he wanted to impress Sirius. Snape didn't do anything to him then...
Harry sought for something else to think about, something to take his mind off the memory of Sirius and his father, side-by-side, disdainfully bullying a young Severus Snape. As always seemed to happen now when he thought of Sirius, Bellatrix Lestrange came to mind. Lestrange was a Death Eater, one of Voldemort's most loyal followers. Harry had chased after her in the Ministry and she had goaded Harry into using an Unforgivable curse.
Harry remembered her screaming as the spell hit her, remembered the fleeting feeling of victory as she fell to the ground.
He remembered, as she clambered to her feet and he'd realised that the curse hadn't been powerful enough to really hurt her, wishing that he could hurt her even more.
"What's up with you, boy?" Uncle Vernon barked, glaring at Harry from his deep-set, piggy eyes. "Non-magical food not good enough for you, I suppose?"
Harry looked up from his plate. "It's fine," he said, slowly. "I'm just not very hungry right now," he added, not wanting to provoke a confrontation with his uncle. While he knew that Uncle Vernon considered himself bound by Mad-Eye's words to treat Harry properly, Harry had a feeling that Uncle Vernon could lose his temper at any moment.
"You'll eat it, and be thankful," Uncle Vernon snapped. "I'm not having you tell those freak friends of yours that we're not feeding you."
"They're not freaks," Harry muttered, feeling strangely relieved that Uncle Vernon seemed to be reverting to his usually horrible personality. Harry had been wondering how long Mr. Dursley would be able to cope with being nice. Much longer, he suspected, and the resultant return to normality would have involved more than a few comments about Harry's 'freak' friends.
He poked listlessly at the dumplings that seemed to take up half the plate, feeling sure that they were expanding as they soaked up the gravy with which his plate was awash. Harry wasn't used to such heavy meals, even at Hogwarts, and after several weeks of life at Privet Drive, he was beginning to feel ill at the slightest thought of Aunt Petunia's stodgy dinners. He thought longingly of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, where bowls of salad often went untouched at meal times, but were always available if a student wanted a lighter option. He wondered briefly if Dobby and the other house-elves were offended when their salads weren't eaten, or when the great mounds of swede, parsnips and sprouts that accompanied every meal were all but ignored by the students.
The image of Dobby shifted in Harry's mind, and instead of the ever-helpful Hogwarts house elf, Harry found himself thinking of Kreacher, the house elf who had served the Black family for decades, before betraying Sirius to the Malfoys.
It's Kreacher's fault, Harry thought, prodding the shriveled potatoes that had, at the start of the meal, been plump and floury. He sighed.
Dumbledore said Sirius should have treated Kreacher better, Harry thought. He scowled again. The traitorous thought had just appeared in his mind, in the same way that similarly traitorous thoughts regarding Sirius, James and Snape had appeared over the summer. Harry had wondered whether there had been some lasting damage caused by Voldemort's repeated invasions of his mind over the last year, something that made him think badly of the people around him despite his best effort otherwise, but he had eventually come to the conclusion that there wasn't.
I'm just seeing both sides of the story, he thought. Sirius and my dad weren't perfect, Snape wasn't always an evil git, Kreacher might not have betrayed us if Sirius had been a bit nicer to him.
No, he would have, Harry thought, scowling so ferociously that Dudley pushed his chair back from the table and began eating his food at arms length. Kreacher was nasty, just plain nasty. He didn't like Hermione, and she tried to treat him with kindness.
Harry exhaled heavily as the flaw in his logic stood proudly to attention. Hermione's a Muggle-born, though. Kreacher wouldn't respect her if she was made Minister of Magic.
Harry looked up into Uncle Vernon's beefy red face. He was looking at Harry as though he expected him to explode, or turn into a giant spider, or something like that.
"I'm sorry?" Harry asked, trying to be polite.
"You're sitting there, not eating, huffing and pulling faces like you're ill. I'm telling you, boy, I know that those people are watching us, well, I'm not having it."
Uncle Vernon stood up, and began to speak in a loud, clear voice.
"Do you hear me? We've given the boy food. We've treated him properly. We'll not have it said that we've done anything to him. If he gets sick, it's his own fault. Look at Dudley, he's a healthy boy, not pulling faces and sighing all over the place -"
Dudley, for his part, was looking at his father as though Mr. Dursley had gone completely insane. Aunt Petunia, meanwhile, was peering into the corners of the room, and it took Harry a few seconds to realise that she was looking for whatever she thought was being used by Mad-Eye and the Order to monitor them.
"-d'you hear me?" Uncle Vernon went on. "We're not to blame if he's got something wrong with him. Well, of course he has something wrong with him, but it's nothing to do with us, do you understand? The boy's abnormal, but that's your fault, not ours!"
Harry watched in amazement as Uncle Vernon paced the kitchen, ranting at the washing machine, barking at the fruit bowl. He remembered how paranoid Uncle Vernon had become five years before, when Harry's Hogwarts letters had followed them relentlessly all over the country, and wondered if Uncle Vernon was about to try and drag them away to some distant island off the coast again. Harry had a feeling that Mad-Eye might consider that to be mistreatment, and wondered if Uncle Vernon had considered this.
But Uncle Vernon seemed content with ranting at whoever it was that he thought was listening. Harry wondered briefly whether anyone might be monitoring Privet Drive that closely, but decided against it.
If Moody heard Uncle Vernon going on like this, he'd be in here before you could say 'Constant vigilance!''
Uncle Vernon seemed to be winding down, and Harry took the opportunity to get up from the table and scrape the remains of his dinner into the bin. He put his plate into the sink and tried to sneak past Mr. Dursley, whose face had turned a faintly alarming shade of purple, but he was stopped by a meaty hand dropping heavily down on his collarbone. Harry staggered slightly, before looking up into Uncle Vernon's twitching, damson-tinted face.
"And where do you think you're going, boy?"
"Er, upstairs, Uncle Vernon," Harry said. "I've got homework to do."
"Why not have the night off?" Mr. Dursley asked, his hand squeezing Harry's shoulder in a way that was starting to hurt. "Come and watch the television with us, like a real-" Harry watched in amazement as Uncle Vernon swallowed, with difficulty. "Like a real family."
Harry couldn't even begin to hide his astonishment. Beside him, Dudley, who had been trying to shuffle away from Harry without being noticed, toppled off his chair with a loud crash.
Mr. Dursley didn't notice. Instead, he continued to gaze down at Harry in a manner that Harry could only describe as forced fondness.
"So, what do you say...?" Mr. Dursley swallowed again. Harry thought he looked like a bull trying to swallow an ostrich egg. "Harry?"
Harry blinked several times in surprise. Hardly ever in the nearly fifteen years that Harry had been living at Privet Drive, could he remember his Uncle ever addressing him by name in such a, well, friendly manner. It had always been "You," or "Boy." Occasionally, he had referred to him by his full name ("HARRY POTTER!!") but only when he was particularly angry with him. Whenever Mr. Dursley adopted the friendly, wheedling tone he was now using, Harry knew that we was about to be treated like a small child, given a small treat in exchange for a big favour, usually his silence.
"Good," Mr. Dursley said, clearly taking Harry's lack of response for agreement and sweeping him out of the kitchen and towards the living room. "Get up, Dudley, and do the washing up," he said to his son on the way past. Harry's last sight of the kitchen was an astonished looking Dudley lying prone on the floor, goggling after his father in undisguised shock. Harry wondered if his own face looked anything like that. It certainly felt that way.
Five minutes later, Harry was settled on the sofa in the living room, with Mr. Dursley alternating between watching his favourite programme on cars, and shooting great beaming smiles at Harry. Harry, for his part, was beginning to settle down, having been sat on the edge of his seat for those five minutes, expecting an attack or a fresh rant from Uncle Vernon at any moment.
He's lost it, Harry thought, risking a glance at Mr. Dursley as he pretended to understand what the presenter was saying about the latest imported car from Germany. To make matters worse, Aunt Petunia was sat beside her husband and mimicking his every move. Harry felt almost as though he was in a cage at the zoo, being grinned at by two horrible children. He couldn't quite understand what Uncle Vernon was thinking, having him in the living room while Dudley clattered loudly in the kitchen, breaking plates every minute or so in protest at having to do the washing up.
I mean, he's gone mad. But why do I have to suffer as well? All I want to do is go and do my homework, and then I can sneak out later on to talk to Remus.
Harry sat quietly, watching the programme and waiting for his chance to escape. But when the car programme ended, Aunt Petunia leapt to her feet and offered to make tea. Harry spent the next half an hour watching a dreary programme about do-it-yourself, while his tea went from scaldingly hot to undrinkably cold without passing through any stage in between. When the programme ended, Harry jumped up and was halfway up the stairs before the Dursleys had any chance to react.
Harry burst into his room, slamming the door behind him and looking frantically about. He relaxed. Here, at least, he was safe.
A knock on the door made Harry leap a foot into the air.
"Harry, dear, would you like some dessert?" Aunt Petunia trilled through the door.
"Ah, no thank you Aunt Petunia," Harry said, his heart pounding in his chest.
Harry could faintly hear a whispered conversation taking place outside his bedroom door.
"Well, I'll bring you some up anyway," Aunt Petunia said, eventually. Harry heard two sets of feet walking away from the door. He looked at his watch. It was past time for him to meet with Remus, and he definitely felt the need to see a genuinely friendly face
He ran across his room to the bedroom window, and flung it open. Swinging himself up and onto the sill, he placed one foot on a bracket that Mr. Dursley had installed to hold the bars used to keep Harry prisoner in the summer before his second year. Taking a deep breath, Harry wrapped the ends of his too-baggy jumper's long sleeves around his hands and swung himself out of the window, grabbing hold of the ivy which Aunt Petunia had grown up the side of the house. For once, he was grateful to be wearing Dudley's cast-off old clothes as the thick material protected his hands from scratching by the plant or the rough brickwork.
As he was about to drop out of sight of his window, the door opened. Harry paused to watch Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia enter the room and look around in amazement. He ducked quickly, and swiftly climbed down the thick ivy, trusting that it would support his meager weight. Heavy though Aunt Petunia's meals were, he hadn't actually eaten very much of them and he certainly hadn't put on any weight since the start of the summer.
He reached the ground, and glanced up just in time to see Uncle Vernon leaning over the windowsill and staring down at him with a look of undisguised surprise on his face that was rapidly turning to one of hatred.
"What - Where -" he spluttered.
"I'll be back in a bit," Harry called up. "Just going to see Professor Lupin. You met him at Kings Cross, remember?"
Harry had to admit that there was a degree of satisfaction to be had in dropping the names of wizards into conversation with Uncle Vernon. The beefy man quailed like a frightened child when reminded of his Moody-induced obligation to treat Harry properly.
"Well... Don't stay out too late, okay?"
Harry smirked. "I won't. I'll be back at the usual time."
He turned away before Mr. Dursley could reply to this. He wasn't even sure that the Dursleys had noticed his leaving the house each evening since arriving back at the Burrow, and wasn't in the mood to discuss exactly when the 'usual time' was. On several occasions, it had been well after midnight.
As he walked along Privet Drive, Harry remembered the uprising of happiness that he had felt when leaving Kings Cross weeks before. The feeling had been linked to the appearance of so many people who genuinely cared for him. Not just the Weasleys and Hermione, but Moody, Lupin, Tonks and Kingsley and, by extension, the whole Order as well. The feeling had sustained him through the start of the holidays, but it had gradually diminished. He had received letters from Ron and Hermione at the start of the holidays, but when he sat down to reply, he wasn't sure what to say to them.
They don't want to hear me go on about Sirius, and there's nothing interesting going on here. I'm sure Remus is letting them know I'm okay, so why waste their time?
He kicked a stone aimlessly along the road as he made his way into Magnolia Crescent, and then across to Magnolia Road. He barely even paused now, vaulting across the locked park gate with an ease born of long practice, his eyes scanning the park for wherever it was Remus was sitting that evening.
His old Professor had turned this part of their meeting into something of a challenge. If he arrived before Harry, he would pick a new part of the park to sit in to test Harry's ability to spot new details. It wasn't much - Lupin was a tall if skinny man and so was rather hard to miss - but Harry felt that the little challenge was Lupin's way of telling Harry to stay vigilant.
This night, though, Harry had no trouble whatsoever in spotting Lupin.
Or rather, in spotting where Lupin wasn't. He wasn't there.
Sitting right by the gate, though, was another adult wizard who Harry recognised immediately.
"Dung? What are you doing here?"
Mundungus Fletcher coughed around his pipe, and grinned up at Harry from inside the collar of his great overcoat.
"Remus asked me to come down and see you," he said. "Says 'e's dead sorry 'e can't make it tonight. Wanted me to come and apologise. So, sorry."
"Why couldn't he make it?" Harry asked.
Dung shifted in his seat.
"Well, he got caught up with business, right? You know 'ow it works, 'Arry. Can't tell you much."
"Well, what can you tell me, Dung? What was Remus doing?"
"I can't tell you that, Harry."
"Where was he?"
"I can't tell you that, neither."
"Was there an attack? Come on Dung, it'll be in the Prophet tomorrow if there was."
"Yeah, yeah, alright. I guess I can tell you that, at least. Blimey, 'Arry. You don't give a bloke much chance, do you?"
"Not all of it, obviously," Dung said, shifting uneasily under Harry's gaze. "They smashed up a bunch of houses. No one got killed, apparently. Anyway, the Order got alerted and Remus had to go."
"On his own?"
"Nah, 'course not. Loads of people went."
"Well, that Shacklebolt got in touch with his Aurors and a bunch of them showed up as well."
"What happened?" Harry asked, wishing that Dung would just tell the whole story and not keep pausing. Each time he did so, he looked at Harry in a way that made Harry's skin crawl. He had a horrible feeling that Fletcher was building up to something.
"So was there a fight, then?" Harry persisted.
"Not really. Most of the Death Eaters scarpered as soon as our lot showed up. A few stuck it out, though. They wanted to show off, I reckon. So there was a bit of dueling."
"Yeah. Remus went after one, that Lestrange bloke, least that's what I hear."
"What happened?" Harry asked, dreading the reply.
Fletcher shifted in his seat again. Though it was difficult to tell under his heavy greatcoat, it looked as though the older man was squirming. Harry remembered the previous summer, when Molly Weasley had glared at Mundungus when the unrepentant crook had brought some stolen cauldrons into the Order's headquarters. He had reacted in much the same way then as he was now.
"Dung!" Harry snapped, planting his hands on either side of Mundungus' head and leaning forward so his eyes were only a few inches from Mundungus' eyes. "Tell me what's wrong! Did Remus get hurt?"
Mundungus looked up at Harry, a very panicked look on his face. Harry was reminded fleetingly of Neville Longbottom, standing up to Draco Malfoy despite being scared stiff.
"Is Remus hurt?" Harry snarled.
Slowly, Mundungus nodded.
Harry closed his eyes, and felt the bloom of anger inside him be snuffed out as surely as a flame doused by water. His shoulders dropped, and his knees felt weak. He just managed to avoid collapsing into Mundungus' lap, instead swiveling to drop onto the bench beside him.
"Badly?" he whispered.
"I dunno," Mundungus said, his voice sounding a little shaky. "I know he's been taken to St. Mungo's. Listen, 'Arry, I should -"
"Take me to him, Dung," Harry said.
"What? No, I can't! Dumbledore'd kill me." He got up, and walked away from the bench. "Our orders are to make sure you stay here, 'Arry. Not for much longer. You can go to see Molly and her kids or something soon, but you've gotta stay here. That's Dumbledore's orders."
"I don't care about Dumbledore's orders!" Harry yelled, leaping from his seat. "Besides," he added, his voice shaking. "Dumbledore isn't here. You're going to take me to London, Dung. We're going to go and see Remus. I lost Sirius, I lost my parents. I'm not losing him as well."
"Harry," Dung began, backing away and raising his hands. "Dumbledore-"
"I told you, Dung," Harry said, pulling his wand from his pocket and pointing it at Mundungus. "I don't care about Dumbledore. Now, you're going to find a way to get me to London, tonight, so I can go and see Remus. Either that, or I'm going to hex you so hard that you're going to wish Mrs. Figg was back here, bashing you over the head with her bag of cat food. Then I'll hop on the Knight Bus and see Remus anyway. Do you understand me, Dung?"
Mundungus, shaking a little, looked at Harry. He nodded.