Harry opened his eyes to the dreary morning. Rain lashed at the window and a powerful gale bent the tress into submission. His clock told him it was gone eight o'clock. He'd had three hours and twenty-two minutes sleep. Downstairs, someone was causing a fuss. He could hear Uncle Vernon shouting something about orphans, and he was almost certain Aunt Petunia had just screamed "fleas." His gaze shifted guiltily to Hedwig, who opened an eye and ruffled her feathers, as if to say, "How dare you think I have fleas?"
Every joint and muscle ached as he got out of bed and put his glasses on his nose. He had been sleeping with his jaw clenched, and his teeth protested as he yawned. He pulled on jeans and a jumper before quitting the room to go and see what all the noise was about.
Uncle Vernon was standing in the hall at the bottom of the stairs, a broom clutched in his hand, which he kept jabbing into a dark corner. When he saw Harry, he turned his angry face towards him and snapped, ‘You let it in here! Another wretched, disgusting, ungrateful stray trying to waste my money!' He jerked the broom again, and there was a gentle sound from floor level. Aunt Petunia rushed passed with a box of tissues and threw a glare at Harry. ‘You did this to Dudley deliberately! You know he's allergic!'
‘Get rid of it!' The broom was thrust into Harry's hands and both the Dursleys rushed into the kitchen, slamming the door behind them.
For a minute Harry stared after them before he got on his hands and knees and peered under the table creature his uncle had been attacking. There was something in the corner: a small ball of very damp, straggly fur. The first thought that leapt into Harry's head was "rat", but closer investigation revealed a fluffy tail rather than a smooth, scaly strip of flesh. It shuddered as Harry eased himself under the table and picked up its skinny body gently.
Small claws prickled at his skin as the kitten struggled to get away, but it was weak and couldn't break free of his loose grasp. They'd said to get rid of it, and Harry had to admit that cats weren't his favourite kind of animal, but he couldn't just put it out in the rain. It was very young - it didn't even look old enough to be away from its mum. He could take it to Mrs Figg; she'd know how to look after it. The only problem was, he wasn't sure if her house was occupied. It had looked markedly empty when he had walked past the day before.
‘First thing, let's hide you from the Dursleys. By the way, if you're an Animagus, can you let me know now?'
The kitten blinked at him with blue eyes and twitched its whiskers, but it didn't blur and change. Harry didn't know if you could animage into the infant form of an animal. That may have been if it was a human child to start with, but that kind of transformation was complicated magic. This was just an ordinary cat; there were a lot of them about.
He climbed the stairs and placed the little animal on his unmade bed. It sat in the folds of his duvet and began to wash itself. It was a little unsteady on its feet, and as he watched, it sat down and let out a small mew of discomfort. Harry frowned at it and looked around his room. All he had up here were owl treats, and he wasn't sure if they were edible for cats. He grabbed the box and looked at the ingredients. From experience with Crookshanks he knew that cats ate mice, and so did owls, so perhaps it would be all right. He had known for Hedwig to bring back dead toads and things as well, but the kitten looked hungry enough to eat anything.
He pulled out one of the treats and softened the hard, strange smelling biscuit in his fingers before offering it to the feline. It sniffed at it once, then gobbled it right out of his palm. Its rough tongue scratched and tickled as it licked the salty residue from his skin and meowed for more.
Mulching another handful of pellets, Harry stole Hedwig's water bowl, placed both food and drink on the floor, and put the kitten down beside them. Perhaps the Weasleys would give the creature a home; it could probably help keep all kinds of vermin away, although Harry dreaded to think what kind of rodents could be found in or around a wizarding home.
Turning his back to the feline, he opened his trunk and surveyed the mess contained within. Ron hadn't said anything about what time Harry would be picked up, but he decided that if he sorted all his stuff out now he could be ready for whenever they arrived. All his old schoolbooks were piled in his trunk, their covers splayed and their pages rumpled. He couldn't sell them again until he got to Diagon Alley, and even then he didn't think he'd part company with any of them until he knew he'd passed his O.W.L.s. Hermione kept all her books, saying they could come in useful, and Ron normally gave his to Ginny, but Harry had limited space available. He couldn't leave any evidence of his "abnormality" at the Dursleys' and there was only so much room in his trunk.
Unloading everything, he began to collect his clutter and organise it neatly. Books were stacked and clothing was rolled. His cauldron served as an excellent place to keep underwear and socks, and he wrapped his inkpot in his Invisibility Cloak to protect it from rough transport. There were only two of his quills left in one piece after the year at Hogwarts, and he placed them between the pages of his Transfiguration book.
As he started clearing up the ink-stained and crumpled parchment something chimed against the wood of his desk. Pushing aside the obscuring paper, he reached out and picked up the flower he had found outside the night before. It was cool and smooth against his skin—the fleshy softness of the flower had hardened into glass and shone eerily at him. In one smooth movement he threw it into the bin and dumped the parchment on top of it. He didn't want to know why a man who he thought was Peter Pettigrew had left him such a strange and obviously magical object, and he definitely didn't want to look at it.
Turning back to his trunk, he smiled as he caught sight of the kitten sitting on top of his robes and gently clawing the fabric into a comfortable nest. It settled down and tucked its paws in, purring loudly as it watched Harry move around the room. He made the bed and looked in the cupboards and drawers, checking to make sure he'd left nothing behind.
His wand was in his back pocket, despite Moody's warning about injured buttocks. Hedwig was in her cage, glaring at the small animal in his open trunk with her wide, yellow eyes. He had books, clothes, and even his toothbrush. Sitting on his bed, he frowned. It felt like he'd forgotten something. Something he did just about every summer.
He hadn't written to Sirius.
He bowed his head at the thought. It had been the same on his birthday. He had unconsciously waited almost an hour for an owl to arrive from his godfather before he'd remembered. It was pathetic really, but in the short time he'd known of his godfather's existence, he'd built up so many certainties. He'd been so sure of letters and presents and… and when it was all over, he'd been certain he'd have a home to go to.
‘Shouldn't have gotten my hopes up.'
Pulling himself together, Harry stood up and yanked his door open before marching downstairs and into the kitchen. It was a Sunday, so Uncle Vernon was not at work. He was still reading the paper, and at Harry's entrance the broadsheet twitched.
‘Got rid of it boy?'
‘I'm taking it with me,' Harry stated as Aunt Petunia shoved him into a chair and plonked cold eggs and sausages in front of him.
‘Going somewhere?' Vernon growled, his tone telling Harry that he was going nowhere, not if his uncle had anything to do with it.
‘I'm going to my friend's house for the rest of the summer.' He pushed the eggs and sausages away and Dudley scooped up the plate as Petunia swelled with annoyance.
The paper was resting on the table and Uncle Vernon's face was becoming an alarming shade of purple. His frowning eyebrows mostly obscured his beady eyes as he groaned, ‘Friend? Not that- that family. Red hair?'
‘Not in this house. Never again.'
‘It's all right,' Harry said, hoping it would be, ‘I can meet them outside.'
‘Can't that girl, - the one who calls you, the normal one, come and get you?'
‘She's a witch too you know.'
‘Don't say that word!' Petunia spat as she scowled at him. ‘I don't care what that little cow is. She's better than that wretched family.'
Harry stared at his aunt in horror before hissing, ‘Don't talk about my friends that way! You don't even know them. Hermione's more intelligent than the three of you put together. She'll probably do great things for the world one day, and Ron and his family mean more to me than you do. They're more like my family than you!'
‘Family!' she scoffed as his uncle got to his feet and glared at Harry. ‘Family to a stray like you? If it wasn't for my freak of a sister…'
Harry shut his eyes and tried to remain calm. The tirade was so familiar now that it had lost its offensive meaning. Digs at Ron and Hermione still meant something to him, but these words about his family were known territory. He felt a bitter smile twist his lips as he stared at the horse-like woman in front of him.
Dumbledore had said that he would be safe as long as he could call this place home and this woman his family. Voldemort couldn't touch him here; he could do him only limited harm whilst this was his home. A swell of odd emotion filled him and he heaved a quiet sigh.
‘Thank you,' he muttered.
‘Ungrateful miserable brat – what?'
‘I said thank you.'
‘What for?' Petunia demanded as if daring him to find a reason.
‘You took me in when you didn't want to. It was-' Harry swallowed, trying to push aside the anger. He had to mean it, and he knew that deep down, beyond the indifference that shaded to loathing at times, he did mean it. Had he ever said it? Would it help?
‘It was kind of you. Thank you.'
For a moment there was no movement on her face. She stood aloof and haughty, looking down her nose at him. She parted her lips and her eyebrows drew into a deeper scowl, but before she could say anything the doorbell gave a gentle chirp.
‘That'll be them. I'd better go.' Harry left the room, feeling the thick and loaded silence follow him as he made his way to the door. He opened it carefully and gasped as Mrs. Weasley dragged him into a hug.
‘Oh Harry dear! It's so good to see you!' She squeezed quickly and when she drew back her eyes were bright, but she laughed and straightened his glasses. ‘The others are practically desperate to see you…oh.' Her smile vanished as the kitchen door opened and Aunt Petunia stepped into the hall. Her face was grim but she nodded politely.
‘Hello there,' Molly managed, ‘I'm Mrs. Weasley and this is my daughter Ginny.' She motioned to the youngest of the Weasleys, who Harry could see was resisting the urge to crane her neck to get a good look into the house.
‘And this is my other daughter Hallie.'
Harry frowned as a taller woman opened the gate and walked up to the door. She glanced at him and said ‘Wotcha Harry,' before turning to address Petunia. ‘May we come in?' she motioned to Ginny. ‘Just for a moment. I think Harry has too much stuff to carry himself.'
Harry looked at his aunt's face, watching various expressions contort her features. Finally she said, ‘Of course. I'm afraid I must make lunch. Shut the door behind you boy. We shall see you next summer.'
Ginny and the so-called Hallie made their way inside as Molly stood awkwardly on the doorstep, huddling under the small porch out of the rain and wind. ‘Don't touch anything Ginny,' she whispered after her daughter.
‘All right Mum.'
Harry glanced at her and saw her roll her eyes and pull a face. Sometimes she could look remarkably like Ron. He had the same expression when Hermione scolded him about homework.
‘Tonks, why exactly are you in disguise? The Dursleys have seen you, remember?'
‘I know, but that hag looked so horrified by my hair last time I thought I'd make an effort to look normal.' The older woman chuckled and flicked her long ginger hair over her shoulder before she grasped the handle of Harry's door and pushed it open.
‘Have you got everything?'
‘Yeah, I don't have much. Wait!' He held out a hand to stop her as she went to shut the trunk and a small black shape leapt down to sit on the floor. ‘Cat.' He smiled weakly as Ginny swept it up in her arms and began to fuss. She tickled it under its chin and laughed as it pawed at her long hair. She shook her head so that lengths flopped over her face and covered the kitten in a bright blanket.
‘Where did she come from Harry?' she asked.
‘I don't know, it showed up this morning.' He frowned for a moment as Tonks secured his luggage and grabbed at one handle. ‘How do you know it's a girl?'
Ginny looked up at him and grinned, her eyes glinting with mischief. ‘The same way as with people really.'
‘Can you two give me a hand?' Tonks asked, ‘I daren't use magic with those stupid Muggles around.'
Harry grabbed the other end of the trunk as Ginny whisked up Hedwig's cage and Harry's Firebolt. They lurched down the stairs and out the door. Rain smattered down on them as Molly shut the portal firmly and cast one last disparaging look at number four Privet Drive before urging her charges in front of her.
A long, black car was parked at the curb. The paintwork gleamed as rivulets of water clung to the darkened windows, and the hubcaps reflected bright silver in the puddles that lay in the road. The boot was opened quickly, and Harry's trunk and broomstick went into the large storage space. Tonks slipped into the seat next to the driver, and Harry, Ginny, and Mrs. Weasley made themselves comfortable in the back with Hedwig and the kitten.
The car was bigger than most Muggle cars, and Harry felt that it was familiar. It seemed like a Ministry car and as it purred away from the small urban street, it seemed to glide through the traffic. Harry had a distinct feeling that none of the pedestrians or other motorists could see the car properly, or if they could they hurriedly forgot about it, or passed it off as a figment of their imagination.
‘How have you been dear?' Molly's voice was very gentle and drew his attention away from the window. She was sitting very stiffly and her expression told him that she regretted asking the question. Her hands were clenched tightly in her lap, her thumbs pressing down hard. ‘I know that… I mean…'
‘I've been all right, considering.' Harry gave a lopsided smile and was relieved to see her relax.
‘Are you sure dear? We've been desperate to get you out of that place, but Dumbledore insisted you wait at least a couple of weeks.'
‘It wasn't bad. The Dursleys knew full well that people were watching out for me and would do them some serious damage if they messed about.' In the front seat Tonks huffed and Harry saw the driver's shoulders slump slightly. ‘The worst bit is not knowing what's been happening.'
Ginny looked up from her attentions on the kitten as her mother sighed and shook her head. ‘You've got just as much clue as the rest of us Harry. It's been almost silent. There have been two low-key attempts at getting the recently incarcerated out of Azkaban, but as the Ministry has joyfully been reporting, those efforts were foiled.'
Harry frowned grimly. He knew that the prisoners wouldn't be secure for long, not now that the Dementors were gone. ‘At least the Ministry is acknowledging Voldemort's return, right?'
‘Yes Harry,' the driver said, his tired voice familiar, ‘but they are playing it down. Their limited successes in Azkaban are putting Fudge at his ease.' Silver eyes flicked up to the rear view mirror and Harry smiled at Remus Lupin. The eyes crinkled briefly before the older man's attention returned to the road.
‘Other than that it has been quiet. You-Know-Who is lying low.'
The conversation gradually returned to safer ground, and Harry found himself starting to relax. His homework was complete and he had what was left of the summer spread out luxuriantly in front of him. He stretched his legs and reached down to tickle Hedwig's head between the bars of the cage. She gave a small twitter and went back to her vigilant glaring. Her eyes hadn't left the kitten in Ginny's lap since they had settled in the car, and now she kept bridling as Ginny opened packets of UHT milk and feeding them to the feline.
‘Perhaps you can keep her, Ginny.' Harry suggested, looking to Mrs. Weasley to read her expression. ‘I mean, I've got Hedwig so I can't keep the cat as well, and you don't have a pet yet, do you?'
‘Oh it would be great, although Crookshanks might not like her.' Ginny's smile fell a little as she thought of the problem.
‘Well you've got the whole summer to find out,' Molly soothed, ‘Besides, if that ginger monster decides against her there's bound to be someone in the village willing to take her in. What are you going to call her dear?'
‘I'll think about it, thanks Mum.'
Motorways slipped and slithered beneath the tires of the car and the massive sweeping curves of the dual carriageways gradually thinned into the Byzantine coils of more rural roads. Ottery St. Catchpole was nestled in a shallow, lush valley. Rolling green hills surrounded the area and dense little clusters of trees crowned the rolling peaks. A small river wound through the settlement, and as the vehicle splashed through the ford and carried on up towards the next hill Harry saw that the stream, swollen with the rain, was inching its way up the banks. Several villagers were watching its progress with uncertain expressions on their faces.
The Burrow stood behind a sprawl of pine trees on the downward side of the hill and the car drew to a halt beside a similar vehicle already parked there.
‘Everyone out then,' Tonks said cheerfully. ‘I'm afraid the Burrow will be a bit more crowded than normal, Harry. Dumbledore's orders.' With a flick of her wand, she levitated his trunk and made her way towards the house. ‘I'll leave this in Ron's room for you!'
‘Thanks!' he called after her.
Harry grabbed Hedwig's cage as Lupin picked up the Firebolt and slammed the boot. He paused by Harry's side for a moment, and now that Harry could see his dad's friend thoroughly, he realised that he wasn't the only one suffering. Lupin looked painfully thin. His hair was dishevelled and grey and white were predominant over the dark brown that it had once been. Eyes that had often been bright with laughter were flat and dim, and shabby robes hung off his frame. ‘Are you…' Lupin looked down at the ground briefly. ‘I'm thinking that you're suffering more than I am Harry. I'm sorry.'
Harry swallowed quickly, trying to find the words to say. ‘You knew Sirius better Professor – I mean Remus. He was your friend. I miss him terribly but… I'm sorry too.'
For a moment there was just the patter of rain before Lupin rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. ‘Come on, let's get you inside.'
The kitchen of the Burrow was warm as always. The large table was covered in parchment and books, and Harry couldn't help but smother a grin when he saw Hermione busy at work in the midst of it all. At the sound of Hedwig's cage being placed on the tiled floor she looked up, and her pensive expression broke into a massive grin. ‘Harry!'
Her quill smattered ink on her page as she cast it aside and walked over to give him a quick hug. She stood back and eyed him up and down critically; she looked like she was about to comment, shook her head and smiled instead. ‘It's such relief to have you back. We've been worried about you.'
‘That's an understatement.' Ron's voice grumbled from the stairway. He stepped into the kitchen, grinning hugely. ‘Besides, every time it looks like I'm not having a horrible summer, Hermione makes me do more homework.'
‘Oh Ron!' Hermione huffed, but her lips were quirked into a small smile as she spoke. ‘I bet you haven't tidied your room like your mum asked.'
‘Of course not. I was waiting for Harry to help. Come on.'
Harry followed his best friends up the stairs, pausing only to listen as Molly shouted, ‘Lunch is in an hour, and if you're hungry, Harry, help yourself!'
‘All right, thanks!'
‘Have they not been feeding you again?' Hermione asked quietly, ‘I mean, you're quite thin, Harry.'
‘I just haven't been hungry.'
‘Hate to tell you mate, but you're not going to have a choice here. Mum'll force feed you if she has to.' Ron laughed at the idea before pushing the door to his room open. ‘Fred and George aren't actually here at the moment, but they say they need their room still. Bill and Charlie are always in and out as well so you're stuck in here.'
‘Ron, do you actually have a floor?' Hermione asked.
Harry looked over her shoulder and tried not to laugh. Ron's small room looked like it had been hit buy a tornado. Clothes littered the floor and the Spellotape that held up the Chudley Canons posters up seemed to be losing some of its stick, forcing the player to huddle in corners as the paper drooped.
‘It's natural. Besides, it'll only take a minute to clear up.'
Harry slipped past Hermione and followed Ron into the room. One by one, they waded through the clothes on the floor, picking up t-shirts, robes, jeans and jumpers as they went. Clean clothes went on Harry's bed and dirty ones went in a basket in one corner. Within ten minutes the bare wooden floor was visible again and Hermione was fussing over the fact that Ron had fifteen socks, all of which were odd.
‘Hey Harry, put those on hangers will you?' Ron handed Harry some wire coat hangers and gestured to the clothes as he tried to stick the posters back up on the wall. Harry picked up some jeans and nearly jumped out of his skin when the hanger rippled and reached out little clips to grab onto the trousers. The hanger then flew to the wardrobe and hung itself on the rail.
‘Good isn't it?' Hermione grinned. ‘My mum would give a lot for some of those.'
She rammed the lid on the dirty washing basket and stood back as it started making groaning sounds. There was an abrupt whoosh of water filling the small space and the container started to judder and seethe before it fell silent and spat out clean, dry and neatly folded clothes into a nearby drawer.
Hermione sat on the floor by Harry's trunk as Harry went to help Ron with the posters. Harry glanced over when she gave a startled yelp and saw that she had her ear pressed to the trunk's lid.
‘What is it?' Ron asked.
‘Something in here is squeaking.'
‘Great.' Harry grumbled. ‘Hedwig probably brought in a live mouse and let it go.' He walked over and opened the clasps, jumping in surprise when something colourful shot past his cheek and landed on the floor where it danced in erratic circles, feverish in its alarm.
The three of them stared at the sneakoscope blankly for a moment before their eyes returned to the trunk. There, sitting on top of Harry's old robes and gleaming in the watery light of the rainy day was the flower.