Harry always liked Diagon Alley. He enjoyed walking past the shops full of potion ingredients and strange magical artifacts, looking into the window of Quality Quidditch Supplies to see the latest broom, and eating ice cream at Florean Fortescue's. After his time at Privet Drive, and the gilded cage of the Burrow, he was out at last, and felt wonderful. It was easier to believe, here, that he might not be marked to face Voldemort. That he might be able to live a normal life.
"Look, there, just coming out of the Leaky Cauldron. Is that Potter?"
"Yes, that's him. Today might be… interesting. Go get the others. I want a full team here in twenty minutes."
Harry strolled up the street, stopping outside Quality Quidditch Supplies to look at the latest Nimbus model, finally tearing himself away to head for Gringotts. Security kept getting tighter he saw, noting Aurors walking along trying to look casual. Of course, he had his own bodyguards, too: Tonks and a senior Auror he hadn't met before. Along with Ginny, Ron, and Roger, Harry felt like he was leading a parade. Tonks was a Quidditch fan, and they talked about the Nimbus X as they walked up the street. It was nice to talk about something like flying, without worrying too much about how the Gryffindor team would do this year.
"Everyone is in place, sir."
"Good. Make sure everyone is alert. We won't get more than one chance."
His moneybag heavier, Harry emerged from Gringotts and walked back down Diagon Alley. He would see about books first, then spend some more time looking at the new Nimbus. His guards would try to make the trip short, but if this was going to be the only time he got here all year, he was going to make the most of it.
A dozen black robed and hooded figures appeared in a circle with the small popping noise of apparition. Harry turned at the popping sounds behind him and grabbed for his wand. The hooded figures were less than fifty feet away, and one of them was already pointing towards him. Tonks and the other Auror both had their backs turned, and they went down under a volley of curses before they could get a single hex off, removing the only barrier between Harry and twelve full-fledged Death Eaters.
"Harry! RUN!" Ginny jumped in front of him, casting a shield charm. Ron grabbed her and Harry grabbed Roger, who was frozen in place. A curse skimmed Ginny, but her shield turned it aside. Ron and Harry managed to get Ginny and Roger moving. They all ran down the street as the screams started around them. Behind them the Death Eaters began hurling curses into the crowd.
"Area two, moving towards Area three."
The thirty-caliber bullet was supersonic, giving its target no warning. The force of the impact knocked the target off his feet, and he was dead before he hit the ground. Three more rifles cracked, and three more figures fell as the first sniper jacked a second round into place.
Spells conveniently shoot streams of light, making it easy to find their source. A properly concealed rifleman can be very hard to see, however. Muzzle flashes are fleeting, and sound is deceptive in a built up area, especially if the targets aren't familiar with rifles in the first place, and aren't looking in the right places as a result.
Harry looked back over his shoulder, and stopped in confusion. The Death Eaters weren't following him. They were looking around wildly, apparently holding strong shield charms but no longer hexing anyone. Then he looked down at the street and saw a trail of blood leaking from a pile of dark robes less than ten feet away, an outstretched hand still touching a wand pointed towards him.
The Death Eaters were experienced, and their shield charms would have held off almost any spell, short of an unforgivable curse. But against the completely non-magical bullets, they might as well have held up sheets of paper. Five more of the Death Eaters fell before the remaining three Disapparated.
They left behind them a scene of chaos. None of the wizards in the street understood what was going on, and a number had been hit by the Death Eater's spells. Harry stared horrified at the bloody ruin of the figure that had been chasing him only seconds before. The hood had been knocked aside, revealing a shattered head – or what was left of it – underneath. A human life had messily ended.
"Clear. I count nine targets down."
"I concur. Looks like they got about fifteen civilians, but Potter didn't get hit."
"OK, we're out of here."
Ginny pushed Harry to the ground, standing over him with her wand out, her face pale. Harry hadn't realized she was near him; his eyes never left the shattered body in front of him. This wasn't the cold death of a curse, or the quiet disappearance of a body. This wasn't a story, or a television show. This was bloody, real, and raw. Harry Potter looked across the battlefield that had arisen on a peaceful street, and felt sick.
The next day the headline of the Daily Prophet read: ‘Mystery Deaths in Diagon Alley!' The story took up the entire front page and continued on page 2. For all its length, it was short on details. Apparently twelve Death Eaters had appeared in Diagon Alley. Nine of them had been killed by an unknown force, but not before the Death Eaters had injured fourteen bystanders. The rest of the article was composed of speculation, demands for better security, and dark hints that the Ministry knew more than it was telling. Arthur Weasley didn't have much to add. "They were shot with Muggle firearms, that's really all we know. Whoever did it must have known what they were doing, though. We searched carefully and found exactly one bullet that missed, and one Death Eater shot twice. Eleven shots fired for nine killed." Arthur shook his head in disbelief. "We don't know a single thing about them besides that."
"I take it this doesn't happen often." David seemed extremely worried by the attack. Everyone was gathered in the Burrow's kitchen.
"Wizards with Muggle firearms? No. I've never heard of it happening at all."
"But it worked," Ginny put in.
Arthur nodded. "I don't think a squad of Hit Wizards from the MLES could have done as well. Though they would have taken at least some of them alive."
"Whoever this is, they're quick to kill. I don't like that." Mrs. Weasley sounded hesitant, knowing the Death Eaters could easily have killed Harry if someone hadn't intervened. The fact that they could have killed Harry too, and hadn't, didn't help much.
"From the sound of it, they didn't care about prisoners at all," David put in. Was this world any better than the one he'd left? He wondered.
"Neither do the Death Eaters, usually," answered Mrs. Weasley grimly.
No one noticed Harry slip out the back door.
Harry sat outside the burrow, watching the sun set before him. The war had started, and once again Voldemort had tried to kill him. It forced Harry to remember Dumbledore's office just a few months ago – and the prophecy. He would have to face Voldemort, and one of them would die. If Harry died, nothing he had done would matter, because Voldemort would take over the world. If Harry lived, he would become The Boy Who Defeated He Who Must Not Be Named. There would be no chance of a normal life after that. All he wanted was a normal life, and a family. Was that so much to ask?
"Good evening, Harry."
Harry turned as Mr. Weasley came up behind him. "Is it time to come in?"
"No need just yet, Harry. Something on your mind?"
Harry hesitated, but Mr. Weasley was in the Order, and if he couldn't trust him, he couldn't trust anyone. "It's just… the prophecy." He didn't know what else to say.
Mr. Weasley looked at him carefully. "I know there's a prophecy about you and You-Know-Who. Is that what you mean, Harry?"
Harry just looked down. It sounded so petty, being afraid of something Trelawney had said.
"Harry, I don't know what the prophecy says, and I shouldn't. I gather Dumbledore told you what it said?"
Harry could only nod.
"Why does it bother you?" It wasn't an accusation, just a quiet question.
Harry tried to organize his thoughts. "It's just… it seems like it doesn't matter what I do, because I know that there's only one thing that will matter, and I don't have a choice."
"I see." Mr. Weasley seemed to think for a minute. "Harry, how much do you know about Divination?"
That startled him. "Well, I mean, I've had class for three years…" But Mr. Weasley shook his head.
"I doubt Sybil Trelawney would have taught you this Harry. A true prophecy is indeed certain to be fulfilled, but that does not mean it is certain to be interpreted properly." He paused a moment, then went on. "Let us say that a Seer predicted that ‘one who carries the sign of lightning would die on the 19th of August.' How would you interpret that, Harry?"
"Well… I guess that would mean I'd die tomorrow," said Harry slowly. He wasn't sure what Mr. Weasley was getting at.
"That would fulfill the prophecy, yes. But think of this Harry. It would equally fulfill the prophecy if a man you'd never met, just someone who had a lightning-shaped scar on his hand, died twenty years and a day from now. The trouble with prophecies, you see, is that we see in them what we want or expect to see."
"But Professor Dumbledore…" Harry trailed off as he tried very hard to remember exactly what he had heard – born in the seventh month, he remembered. Had it said the year? No. But surely Voldemort had marked him has his equal; or had he? Would he really have risked a duel with an equal just to show off for his Death Eaters? Maybe, just maybe, someone else might come forward whom Voldemort, still not knowing the second half of the prophecy, would truly mark as an equal.
Mr. Weasley was watching the play of emotions on Harry's face. "You may indeed fulfill the prophecy Harry. Whatever it may be. But I think you will find there is a chance that you won't. So you have the same chance as any of us – and the same choices to make. Now I think we should go inside; Molly will be worried."
The conversation with Mr. Weasley made Harry feel better, but the next night found him sitting outside again as the day ended. This time Ron came out to drag him inside for a game of Wizard Chess. Harry let himself be dragged, but his heart wasn't in the game, and Ron checkmated him in just thirty moves.
The following night Harry was once again outside, and told Ron when he came out that he didn't feel like playing chess. Ron seemed at a loss for what to do, and finally went back inside. A few minutes later, Ginny came out.
"Hello, Harry." She sat down beside him, not too close. Harry felt guilty. He had been avoiding her since the attack – she hadn't panicked. Everyone expected him to know what to do, but he had just stood there frozen until she jumped in front of him. Maybe she should be teaching DA.
"I want to thank you," Ginny told him. Harry turned to her, surprised. She wanted to thank him?
"For teaching me, for teaching all of us I mean, last year. We wouldn't have made it through the Department of Mysteries or Diagon Alley without you."
Harry couldn't believe he was hearing this. "You wouldn't have even been there if I hadn't been a prat!"
"We chose to go, Harry. We're going to have to fight sooner or later." She spoke softly and looked down as she said the last part. Sadness was not something Harry enjoyed seeing in his friends. He struck out desperately for some way to cheer her up.
"You were great, back there. You were really brave," he blurted, but he couldn't bring himself to say the other half – and I was pathetic.
She looked up at him and smiled. "Thanks, Harry." They looked at each other for what felt like a long time, then turned away.
"Err... should we go in?" Harry stood, and found himself offering Ginny a hand up. She took it and stood. He held her hand for a moment, noticing the softness of her skin, and the strength underneath. She was someone real, warm, and alive, to contend with the memory of the outstretched hand of a corpse. After a moment she dropped his hand, giving him a small smile, and they walked back to the Burrow.
The next three nights found Harry outside once again, talking with Ginny. Somehow, talking to her about nothing in particular helped him relax. He could almost believe that his life was normal for a little while, sitting on the grass as the sun sank into the trees, talking about Quidditch or Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.
Sometimes their talk was more substantial. Ginny relived the accident in America, and the terror she had felt. It seemed to help her to tell someone about it. Harry thought about all the years he had thought that was how his parents had died, and somehow telling Ginny about it made it hurt less.
The Dursleys provided plenty of conversation material. Harry had never really talked about his life at Privet Drive, not wanting to remember it, not wanting it to appear that he was complaining. Faced with a full-scale war… it seemed safer to talk about Aunt Marge's insults.
There were moments of humor in those stories too. The third night found him telling the story of the boa constrictor he had accidentally freed.
"So then it raised up its head and looked me right in the eye. I was scared, but somehow I knew it wasn't going to hurt me. Then it said ‘Thanks,' snapped at Dudley, and slithered out. I just said ‘You're welcome.' I didn't know what else to say! ‘Excuse me, does this sort of thing happen often around you, or do I have a career in rescuing snakes ahead of me?'"
Ginny giggled. "Harry Potter, the Savior of Serpents! That's a much better title than that awkward ‘boy who lived'… sorry." By unspoken consent, the war and anything to do with it was off limits.
"Its OK," he replied dully. Now he remembered another day, another giant snake that was no friend to him. He could almost feel the bite of the ropes holding him to a gravestone as Nagini circled…
Ginny took his hand in hers, squeezing gently. Almost on instinct he returned the pressure. Neither of them said anything, and neither was sure afterwards how long they sat there, taking a small measure of comfort from the grip before Mrs. Weasley called them inside.
Harry wasn't sure how to act around Ginny the next morning at breakfast. On the one hand, he wanted to spend time with her. On the other, he was worried that she'd think less of him, and that he shouldn't be loading all his troubles on her.
He was still debating with himself when an owl swooped in with the Daily Prophet. Mrs. Weasley picked it up and opened it to the front page. She looked at it for a moment, then gave a little gasp of horror.
"What is it, mum?" Ron asked.
Mrs. Weasley placed the paper flat on the table, and everyone dashed for a spot where they could read it. The now familiar Dark Mark was floating over a small house.
Hogwarts Student, Family, Kidnapped!
At ten minutes past midnight, members of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad responded to a report from the Misuse of Magic office that a number of spells had been used at the home of Justin Finch-Fletchley, a Muggle-born student about to enter his sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The MLES team arrived to find the Dark Mark over the house, and no sign of the Finch-Fletchley family. Ministry officials refused to give any details, saying only that an investigation was under way.
Everyone kept to themselves that day, and the evening found Harry once again sitting outside alone. It was later than usual when Ginny joined him, and he was startled to see she had been crying.
"Ginny? What's wrong?" he asked, concerned.
She didn't acknowledge him for a moment, staring at the last traces of the sunset as she picked at the grass in front of her. Then her head lowered and Harry saw tears leaking down her cheeks.
"I… I went over to Dean's yesterday, and I told him… told him I was breaking up with him, that it just… it wasn't… I couldn't…" she broke off, took a deep breath, and continued, "and he was so upset, and what if they attack him, and the… last thing he remembers…" She broke off, and Harry was twisted in confusion. What should he say? He had almost forgotten she was dating Dean. For that matter, he hadn't really considered that, as a Muggle-born, Dean might be the next target. He had thought only of Hermione. He did the only thing he could think of, and reached out for her hand, as she had done the previous night.
Ginny's tears slowly stopped, and he patted her hand awkwardly. She sniffed, then pulled away from him and stood. She turned away from him for a moment and wiped her face with her arms. When she turned back her face was blank, tears wiped away, her voice without emotion. "We should go in."
Harry felt that he had done something wrong. "I'm sorry… I wish I could help."
She turned to him, and the hint of a smile curved her mouth. "You did help Harry. Thank you."
Author's Note: OK, read the prophecy yourself. I'm not saying Harry CAN'T be the one being referred to there, just that it is possible that someone else might be. I honestly don't think Voldemort would have dueled with someone he thought was an equal just to play to his Death Eaters. While we have no reason to believe he's telling the truth, his comments both in CoS and GoF indicate he doesn't believe he has an equal at all – at least not yet.