Bill and Ron walked up the driveway of number four Privet Drive that evening. Harry had been watching out the window since Aunt Petunia left, and ran out to meet his guests. "Ron! Bill! How did you get here? What took you so long?"
"We went by floo to Diagon Alley, and then took a bus out here. I've never been on a Muggle bus before. It was even better than the tube. There was one real nutter on the bus with us. What was it he kept saying, Bill?" Ron said. His face showed all the excitement of a boy at Christmas, getting a look at a world that he rarely got to see.
Harry knew how he felt. It was the same feeling that Harry had every time that he stepped through the barrier at platform nine and three quarters. Harry found it funny that the Muggle world could excite Ron this much, though.
"Millennium hand and shrimp, or something like that," Bill replied. "Honestly Ron, the poor man was obviously sick. It's good to see you again, Harry." Bill extended his hand to shake Harry's, seemed to change his mind, and wrapped the younger boy in a fierce bear hug. "So what kind of trouble are you going to get yourself into this year? It's going to be hard to top what you've already done." Bill smiled as he released Harry.
Harry's smile slipped as he again remembered what his latest adventure had cost him. He forced the thoughts from his mind and replied, "I might try staying out of trouble this year. It would be different." Harry led the way inside. "My aunt left earlier. She made me promise again that we wouldn't make a mess."
Ron stepped into the house and went immediately for the television. "Is this it? How does it work? Dad said that there aren't really any little people in there, was he just putting me on?"
Harry laughed. "No, there aren't any little people in there. He was having a go with you, mate. You press this button here to turn it on." The screen flared to life, showing an image of the evening newscaster. "And these buttons here change the channel. Uncle Vernon had satellite put in, so we have lots of channels." Harry flipped channels until he landed on a movie channel where the movie was just starting. He backed away from the set and went to sit in a reclining chair.
Ron plopped down with his face inches from the set. "Harry, all I can see are little colored dots. What's happened to the picture?"
Harry and Bill laughed. "Nothing happened to the picture. It's made up of lots of little dots. Try backing away from the set some."
Ron backed off from the television and came and sat on the couch beside his brother. Harry made some popcorn in the microwave and brought sodas for his guests. The three settled down and watched movies until late in the evening, until one by one they nodded off with the television still playing.
Harry awoke on the morning of his birthday feeling that it could, quite possibly, be his best birthday ever. There were no Dursleys around, his best friend was staying the night, and they had stayed up indecently late watching television. Bill had slipped off for an hour the day before, and returned with a huge sack filled with all of Honeydukes best.
Harry smiled and nearly burst into laughter remembering the Chocolate Frogs races last night. There were no less than six frogs hopping madly across Aunt Petunia's spotless kitchen floor. I'm not sure that we got all of them. Last I recall there was one hiding under the refrigerator.
Harry got out of bed and stomped noisily toward the bathroom. On the way, he paused to bang loudly on Dudley's door. Harry knew that allowing Ron to sleep in Dudley's bed would infuriate his cousin, which made it all the more exciting. A muffled groan from the other side of the door assured Harry that Ron was now awake. With that taken care of, he plodded on to clean up. One toothbrush and a few half-hearted swipes with a comb later he walked back to his room. Just as he passed Dudley's door, it opened, and Ron stuck a sleepy face out into the hallway.
"Ha, Harry? What time is it?" Ron asked sleepily.
"Going on eleven, I think," was Harry's reply.
"What time did we go to bed?" Ron yawned and rubbed at his eyes.
"Well, the late movie cam on at three, so...about half past four, I think." Harry was amazed that they had managed to stay up that long, but Ron kept finding another movie to watch. His friend seemed almost mesmerized by the television, especially action movies. To tell the truth, Harry would have to admit that he hadn't seen many more movies in his life than Ron had. And just what kind of language was "Yippie kai yay" anyway?
Ron groaned. "Can't we just go back to bed?" He started to push the door shut, but Harry quickly leaned his weight against it, and they got into a pushing match with the door. Ron stepped back suddenly, allowing Harry to fall forward into the room.
"Mister seeker isn't so graceful without his broom, is he?" Ron laughed and offered Harry a hand. "You're getting slow in your old age. Happy birthday, mate."
A bellow from downstairs interrupted them. "Would you two keep in quiet up there? Some of us are trying to get some sleep."
Harry and Ron looked at each other and said simultaneously, "Bill's up." They raced off downstairs to ensure that Bill would not get back to sleep.
Harry, Ron and Bill spent the rest of the morning cleaning up the house and packing Harry's trunk for school. Hedwig spent the morning watching and squawking as things sailed past her cage.
"Don't worry, girl. I promise not to forget you." Harry still occasionally felt guilty about leaving Hedwig until last during what Ron had dubbed "The Great Escape" last night. Losing Hedwig would have been like...losing Sirius. Harry suddenly sat down on the bed and stared off into space. After a moment Ron noticed and stopped throwing clothes out of the closet.
"Harry? You all right? What's...?" Ron stopped as he got a good look at Harry's face.
"I...I can't believe that he's not here today. I know he's gone, I watched him fall. Damnit, Ron, I want him here. He deserves to be here." Harry choked off a sob. He stood up, grabbed the rest of the clothes and books off his bed and dumped them unceremoniously in his trunk. "This isn't doing me any good. Let's see what Bill is up to."
Harry, Ron and Bill made their way to the park later that afternoon. Several times he caught himself searching the area for any sign of his friends, and had to remember that he wasn't supposed to know what was happening. He was therefore surprised to find that when they rounded the last corner, the park was empty. Harry scanned the area once more and turned to Ron with surprise etched on his face, when everyone appeared out of thin air standing not more than ten feet in front of him.
Fred whooped with delight, "That was priceless, Harry. You should have seen the look on your face."
George clapped Ron and Harry on the shoulder and said, "Good one, Ron, you set him up perfect. For a minute there, I thought he was going to cry."
Harry turned to Ron, "You? You set me up for this? You...." Harry paused and smiled at all his friends. "Okay, you got me," and he started to laugh along with everyone else, his low spirits forgotten for the moment.
Harry's party lasted most of the rest of the evening. Just seeing all of his friends together, wishing him well, was present enough. From Fred and George he got a bag full of their latest samples, including a new fireworks selection and something they called heart bombs. Hermione's present was an interesting looking book on advanced Quidditch strategy. Ron's present of a dozen chocolate frogs would have probably gone over better, if Harry hadn't thought about what he had eaten the night before. Several of the members of the Order stopped by to have cake and deliver presents of their own. Tonks delivered a book entitled Magical Self Defense For Those Who Truly Need It late in the afternoon. Harry's favorite presents, however, were a pair of photo albums. The first was a small collection of pictures of the Marauders and Lily; some obviously taken at Hogwarts, some that looked to be later in life. The final picture in that book was of the four animagi, all in animal form. Inscribed under the picture, in neat precise writing, was, "As long as truly remember us, we will never be far from your heart." A tear trickled down Harry's cheek as he read the words. When he looked up to thank Remus for the gift, Harry found that he had already left. Harry opened the second photo album and found that it was not from Remus, but instead from Ginny. The title page read, "A Picture History of Harry Potter-As We See Him." Harry started through the pictures, many of which had to have been the work of Colin Creevey. Pictures of Harry holding the Quidditch Cup; Harry on his broom; Harry, Ron, and Hermione laughing together. Harry sat on a bench, dumbfounded by all the work that must have gone into creating this book. Harry never realized that there were so many pictures of him; and in every picture, he was smiling.
"Thank you, Ginny. This is...this is amazing. Where did you find all of these?" Harry felt like jumping up and lifting Ginny off the ground in a huge hug, but couldn't quite bring himself to do it.
"I had a lot of help. Colin and Dennis were kind enough to send me every picture they could find, and I got more from the school and Mum and well, everyone pitched in. Do you really like it?" Ginny blushed deeply, "I hoped you would, but then I thought it was really silly, but...well, I wanted you to see the Harry that we all see."
"I love it, I really do. It's fantastic. Thank you." Now it was Harry's turn to blush. She really is a great friend.
Harry, Ron and Bill spent the next morning going back over number four Privet Drive one last time. The sounds of a chocolate frog had awoken Bill in the middle of the night.
"Ron, I thought you said they only had one good hop in them," Harry said as he rummaged under the couch, looking for any telltale signs that he had enjoyed himself during the Dursleys' absence.
Ron was on the other side of the room checking under the television cabinet. "Bill bought ‘Mighty Frogs', not the regular kind. They're the latest in the ‘Sentient Confectionery' line. The bloody things last forever if you don't eat them right away."
"Well, if we don't find it, I'm sure that Dudley will," Harry chuckled. The thought of Dudley trying to chase down a chocolate frog was just too funny. He slumped to the floor and began to laugh.
"Hey, what's this?" Ron stood up from behind the television with a letter in his hands.
Harry looked over and immediately stopped laughing. "Oh, no. I had forgotten all about that. The owl that delivered that was what set Uncle Vernon off. I never even had time to open it."
"Official, from the Ministry of Magic," read Ron. "Only to be opened by Harry Potter." Ron looked at Harry. "I know what this is. It's your OWLs. I saw the envelopes when Fred and George got theirs." Ron's face suddenly fell, "I guess that means that mine will be at home when we get there."
Harry crossed the room and held out his hand. Ron wordlessly gave him the letter. "I don't know if I want to open it," said Harry. Look at it this way, with that prophecy and all, it may not matter much. With that thought, Harry broke the seal and unfolded the letter. Harry skimmed the opening paragraph and found his scores listed below. His jaw dropped in amazement. "I got six?" He asked the world incredulously. He looked up at Ron. "I got six. Everything except Divination and History of Magic. I got an ‘O' in potions." Harry couldn't believe it. Take that Professor Snape. I have the grades for your class; I have the grades to be an Auror.
Ron watched as Harry did a little dance of joy. "Congratulations, mate. I just hope I got enough that Mum doesn't kill me." Ron smiled at Harry yelled to Bill, "Bill come see what Harry's done. He just got his OWLs."
A car from the Ministry arrived later that afternoon to pick up Harry, Ron and Bill. Harry carried Hedwig to the car on his first trip, just to assure her that she would not be left behind. Harry was somewhat surprised to see Arthur Weasley at the wheel.
"Hi, Harry. Good to see you again. Just put everything in the trunk, I'm sure there's enough room." Arthur reached over the back seat to offer Harry his hand. "It seems that I'm back in the Minister's good graces now. When I asked him about finding you a way to get to the Burrow, he handed me the keys to his personal car and told me take the rest of the afternoon off. Looks like all that trouble last year finally paid off."
"I'm glad for you, Mr. Weasley," Harry replied. He quickly ducked back out of the car and returned to the house for his trunk. When everything had been loaded, Harry and Ron climbed into the backseat, and Bill got in the front with his father. Number four Privet Drive soon faded from view in the mirrors, and with it, so did all thoughts of the Muggle world that Harry was leaving behind.