The whistle blew and rattled the glass panes of the Hogwarts Express as it pulled into King's Cross Station with an abrupt stop that caused the passengers to lurch forward.
"Harry, are you ready?"
Hermione Granger looked, with a worried face, at Harry Potter. Harry had not moved since boarding the train. He had simply stared out the window with a look of devout determination etched across his face.
"Harry?" Hermione asked again.
Harry blinked, "Yeah."
"You don't think your aunt and uncle will go spare do you?" Ron asked with a worried expression as he glanced at Hermione.
Harry grinned. "Probably, but what choice do they have? I'm only staying there one night."
"Well, we better go," Hermione declared as she picked up her book bag from the floor. "I doubt this is going to get any easier."
"Bloody hell," Ron swore, "I forgot to tell my parents what we were doing."
Hermione frowned. "You what?"
"I forgot to tell Mum and Dad," Ron repeated. "I guess in the craziness of Dumbledore's funeral it slipped my mind. Where's Ginny? Why isn't she in here anyways?"
Harry didn't answer. He knew perfectly well why Ginny was not in the train compartment with them.
"Well, I wrote to my parents as soon as we promised Harry we'd go with him to the Dursleys'," Hermione said in a serious tone.
Harry swallowed. "You two don't have to come. I can face them alone. After all, it's only for one night."
"No way, mate," Ron said looking appalled.
Hermione nodded. "Ron's right, Harry. You shouldn't be alone right now. It's not safe."
"Three wands are better then one," Ron added. "Plus, you aren't of age yet. You can't use magic outside of Hogwarts. Though I doubt the Ministry would say anything if you did."
Harry grimaced but didn't reply. Ron poked his head into the corridor as he scanned it.
"Oy, you there—have you see Ginny?"
Harry felt his chest constrict. Ginny was probably in a compartment nuzzled up with Dean Thomas telling him how big of a prat Harry was.
"Yeah, I just saw her get off the train," a voice Harry didn't recognize called back.
Ron frowned as he turned back to Harry and Hermione. Finally he shrugged and started to push his way out into hallways. Hermione gave Harry an encouraging smile as she followed Ron's lead. The train was rather empty for the end of the year voyage. Parents had collected most students right after the funeral.
"I suppose I'll just tell them when we get off the train. What are they going to say? I'm of age now," Ron said mostly to himself as he stepped off.
Hermione rolled her eyes at Ron's comment and Harry couldn't help but grin. He seriously doubted Mrs. Weasley would take such an understanding attitude about Ron's decision. It didn't take long to spot the family of redheads standing near the entrance to Platform 9 ¾.
"Hello, how are all of you? Hermione, I haven't seen your parents. Did they know that you were coming home early?" Mrs. Weasley asked as she tipped up on her toes to scan the crowd.
Hermione smiled nervously. "Yes, well—I'm going back to the Dursleys' with Harry."
"Oh no, Harry—you don't have to return to your aunt and uncle's house. You're more than welcome to come straight home with us," Mrs. Weasley insisted.
Harry heaved a sigh. "No, I promised Dumbledore I'd go back one last time. He wanted me to go back."
"And we're going with him," Ron piped in.
Harry thought he saw Ginny look up, but he might have been mistaken because the next moment she looked like she wasn't even paying any attention to the conversation taking place. Next to her, Charlie Weasley made a teasing gesture causing Ginny to laugh slightly, and Harry convinced himself that he had just imagined the concerned look on her face a moment before.
"Don't be silly," Mrs. Weasley said sternly, "I'm not about to let the three of you go off on your own. It isn't safe and you aren't—well, it's just a foolish idea."
Ron's face reddened a bit. "We're not letting Harry go alone."
"Harry, why don't you let Tonks or Arthur accompany you to collect your things. Then they can bring you back to The Burrow."
"Mum," Ron said in protest. "We're of age. We're not kids."
Molly Weasley placed her hands firmly on her hips. "Well, you're still too young. I'm not going to sit back and watch the three of you just run off because you think you can take care of yourselves. It's too dangerous out there."
Ron suddenly drew himself up to full height. "I'm going with Harry and Hermione."
"Ron, it's okay--" Harry started.
"Hermione and I of are of age and Harry doesn't have a choice. We aren't going to let him face those horrid people alone again," Ron snapped.
Hermione seemed to have sunk down behind Harry hoping not to be pulled into this conversation. Suddenly Ron grabbed his trunk and pushed his way through Platform Nine and Three-Quarters into Muggle London.
Molly stood there thunderstruck as Ron disappeared from sight. Ginny however was now paying full attention to the events unfolding. Her eyes locked onto Harry as her lips drew thin.
"It's only for one night," Hermione said suddenly to Mrs. Weasley before Harry grabbed her arm and pulled her along behind Ron.
The moment the two emerged from the barrier Ron appeared.
"Can you believe her?" Ron ranted. "She acts like I'm still ten years old."
"She's just worried," Hermione said softly. "It's risky right now to do anything. It's what everybody is going to think now that Dumbledore is gone."
Harry frowned as he pushed his trunk towards a stairwell that would lead up to the exit.
"Harry, wait up!" Ron yelled.
Hermione followed quickly. "Where are your aunt and uncle?"
Harry glanced back at them. "I didn't tell them I was arriving today."
"What?" Ron said in sudden disbelief.
Harry shrugged. "Well, I figured if you two were serious about coming with me to Privet Drive then it was safer if we just showed up versus having my aunt or uncle retrieve us."
"So, are we taking a train or taxi?" Hermione asked.
"Of course not," Ron said annoyed. "You have your Apparation license don't you?"
Harry shook his head. "It's too risky to use magic. We don't know who might be watching. I think we should take a, err…a taxi."
Hermione pointed. "Over there, at Platform One."
Ron glanced over Hermione's head towards the direction she was pointing. Harry watched Ron as it became apparent Ron had never ridden in a taxi before in his life. Harry had seen them before, but he had never actually taken a taxi. Uncle Vernon had always driven.
"Harry… how are we going to pay for a taxi? They cost money don't they?" Ron asked.
Realization suddenly hit Harry. He only had a pocketful of wizard money and he seriously doubted that the taxi driver would accept Galleons or Sickles. Hermione seemed to gather that Harry had not planned this far ahead and simply rolled her eyes.
"I have some Muggle money, but taxis are really expensive," she supplied. "Maybe we should take the train to Epsom and then take a taxi from there."
The two nodded as they followed her to the ticket counter where she purchased three tickets for the train to Epsom. The train ride went by quickly as the three sat silently watching the scenery pass the window.
"So, what's up with Ginny anyway? Why wasn't she with us on the train ride home?" Ron asked as he stared at Harry. "You two aren't fighting are you?"
"Ron," Hermione nipped.
"I'm just asking. She's my sister. I have a right to know," Ron argued.
Harry hid all the emotions from his face as he turned his head so he didn't have to look at Ron. "We're not seeing each other anymore."
Ron looked confused for a second then asked, "Why not?"
Harry took a deep breath before replying, "Because it's not safe. Voldemort used her against me once just because she was your sister. Imagine what he would do if he knew…"
Ron winced as Harry said the Dark Lord's name causing Hermione to let out an annoyed huff. Ron seemed to think about what Harry had said for a moment then nodded.
"Well, probably for the best then."
"Honestly, you two really don't use your heads sometimes. Ginny isn't in any less danger because you broke up with her, Harry. You two were seeing each other the entire last part of the year. Malfoy and Snape both knew that."
Harry felt some blood drain out of his face, but he didn't respond. Neither did Ron.
The train stopped at the Epsom station and the three disembarked with their things. The station wasn't nearly as crowded as King's Cross, but the large trunks did attract some unwanted attention. Suddenly Hermione stopped and let out a soft noise. She then turned to face Harry and Ron.
"All this stuff won't fit," she whispered pointing to their trunks.
"Huh?" Ron asked slightly dumbfounded. "What do you mean it won't fit?"
"She means Muggle taxis don't have Expanding Spells placed on their boots," Harry answered.
Hermione bit her lip before finally sighing. "Make sure nobody is watching."
Ron looked at her like she was mad but Harry had a good idea what she was going to do. She slowly pulled out her wand and without uttering a word the trunks shrunk to the size of a purse.
"You're really getting good with wordless magic," Ron said with an impressed expression.
Harry had to admit that Hermione's wand skills were remarkable, but he couldn't help but be reminded of his last encounter with Snape. It had been with wordless magic that Snape had countered all of Harry's spells.
"We need to go to Little Whinging in Surrey," Hermione told the driver as the three loaded the closest taxi.
When they arrived at Little Whinging Harry insisted the driver stop near Magnolia Crescent. He didn't think Aunt Petunia would appreciate it if the neighbors saw all three of them getting out of the taxi in front of her house.
"It looks different from the ground," Ron commented with a nod as the three walked up the alley where Harry and Dudley had encountered the Dementors.
Harry smiled lightly as he gave Ron an appraising look. Finally he pointed to a spot in the alley. "That is where the Dementors attacked me. Come on, this way."
Privet Drive was not a sight for sore eyes. It had never felt like home to Harry Potter. It had always just been someplace he had to go. Finally they were there, standing in front of the house that looked identical to all the houses around it.
"Should we knock?" Hermione asked, looking worried.
Harry glanced at the lot of them. Knocking would probably be a good idea but they would lose the element of surprise. It was now or never. He grabbed the doorknob and twisted it open. The living room was empty and looked just as it had the last time Harry had seen it. Except, last time Harry had seen it Dumbledore had been alive.
Harry suddenly realized the weight of the locket in his pocket again and closed his eyes. "Let's get this over with."
"It's really clean," Hermione commented, as she seemed to search for something positive to say.
"Ron, you know which room is mine. You and Hermione go on up. I don't plan on socializing with the Dursleys. It will be less of an issue if they don't know you guys are here."
"What are you going to do?" Ron asked.
Harry sighed, "Let them know I'm back I suppose."
Ron made a motion to protest but Hermione grabbed his arm and started towards the stairs. Suddenly she stopped and her eyes grew wide.
"Is that the cupboard?"
Harry turned around to see his little cupboard where he had spent so much of his youth and frowned. "Yeah."
Hermione gasped, "Those horrid people."
Harry turned towards the kitchen as he heard something stirring behind the door, and then he locked eyes with Ron and mouthed the word 'go.'
Ron pulled a protesting Hermione up the staircase and barely made it out of sight before Aunt Petunia opened the door and shrieked.
Harry grimaced at his aunt's dramatics but did not move.
"You! What are you doing back so early?"
Harry shrugged nonchalantly. "School's closed. Our headmaster was murdered."
"Murdered?" Petunia whimpered. She staggered backwards slightly and her hand flew to her mouth.
"Yeah, murdered—by our Potions Professor," Harry continued, finding a strange enjoyment out of upsetting his aunt.
Petunia Dursley sucked in a sharp breath. "So, you're back for the entire summer?"
Harry smiled. "No, just one night. I promised Dumbledore I'd return one more time. You remember him don't you?"
Petunia glanced around the room. "Who were you talking to? I heard voices."
"Honestly, Aunt Petunia, hearing voices isn't a good sign," Harry cheeked.
Petunia scowled. "Get out of my sight. You've been nothing but a burden on me since that freak left you on our door."
Harry didn't waste time as he raced up the stairs and down the hallway he would soon forget. Ron and Hermione, with troubled expressions etched on their faces, were sitting on his bed.
"Ron's already charmed the room. Nobody should be able to hear us talking," Hermione said quickly as she saw a thought cross Harry's face.
"They won't come in here; they never do," Harry said as he took a seat in the chair near his desk.
Just as the words left Harry's mouth, a car door shut outside the house signaling that Vernon was home from work.
Ron was studying a poster on his wall then looked out the window and nodded. "The view's not bad."
"Now that the bars are gone?" Harry joked.
"I can't believe Dumbledore kept making you come back to this terrible place," Hermione said with a thoughtful look on her face as she pulled her knees into her chest.
Harry lowered his eyes in thought before he said, "This was the safest place. As long as I returned once a year, I had a special protection. It was part of my mother's sacrifice."
"It all makes sense now," Hermione said in a low voice mostly to herself, as if suddenly hit with realization. "Why didn't I realize that Dumbledore would use that type of magic to keep you safe? It's genius."
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE'S BACK?"
Harry, Ron and Hermione's heads snapped up and turned towards the door as Vernon Dursley's voice roared through the walls. Hermione bit her lip then nervously turned back towards Harry.
"Harry, the protection you're talking about—it must work both ways. Obviously your mother's family would have been a target after Voldemort killed your parents," Hermione began fretfully as she watched the door as if she expected it to rip open. "They've got to go into hiding. Once you leave the protection will be broken. That is, once you leave for the last time and no longer call this place home."
"I've never called this place home," Harry corrected, still staring at the door.
"Yes, you have," Hermione argued. "This is the place you came once a year. Hogwarts wasn't really home to you. What other place did you have?"
Harry screwed his face. "There is no way I'll ever be able to convince the Dursleys to leave. They hate magic, and everything about it!"
"I WILL NOT HAVE THAT FREAK IN MY HOUSE! I'VE ALLOWED THIS FOR TOO LONG!"
Ron glanced towards the door again. Suddenly there were the sounds of somebody coming up the stairs.
"Vernon, listen to me. You know what his kind are capable of. He's just here for the night."
"How many times have we opened our doors to him? After what that, that—Bumbleroar did to humiliate us last year, I'll be damned if I let him back in this house!" Vernon roared.
Hermione glanced at Harry's face, which suddenly looked a bit red.
"Ignore them," Hermione whispered.
"It's just one night," Harry muttered to himself as he suddenly crawled down to the floor and stretched out.
A loud knock sounded on the door and Hermione gasped and grabbed Ron's arm.
"Don't say anything," Harry said quickly before going to the door and cracking it open just enough to see Uncle Vernon but not enough for Uncle Vernon to see inside the room.
"You," Vernon spat. "You have the nerve to come back into my home after what you and that old fool did to my family last year. I remember what he said; you're of age now."
Harry refrained from lashing out and calmly replied, "I'm not of age until the end of July. However, I don't plan on staying that long, I promise you."
"Vernon," Petunia said from just out of Harry's line of sight.
"Petunia, I know he's your nephew but we've dealt with this rubbish for long enough," Vernon said firmly.
Vernon turned back to Harry and pointed a stubby finger into his face. "Don't you get rude with me. I want you out of here right now. You've done nothing but cause your aunt and me embarrassment since you were burdened on our doorstep. I've remained silent for nearly sixteen years because I didn't want to cause your aunt any more grief, but this time you've gone too far. Just thought you'd show up, did you?"
"Yeah, something like that," Harry said with a smirk.
"I won't tolerate it. I remember what that old crackpot said last year. You have a house, why in bloody hell did you come back to haunt ours for?"
Harry heard Ron shift and decided that he had entertained Uncle Vernon for long enough.
"I'm only here for the night. I can either stay peacefully in my room without any problems or I can knock the two of you out with a simple spell and have free rein of the house. Your choice really," Harry said with a casual shrug.
Vernon's face flushed purple as Petunia let out a soft cry. Harry attempted to shut the door, but Vernon Dursley placed his hand firmly on the door to prevent its closure.
"I'm not finished!"
Harry struggled to keep the door from revealing Ron and Hermione on his bed as he stared at Vernon Dursley with a disgusted look.
"Well I am," Harry retorted in a cool voice.
"Vernon, please," Petunia pleaded as Harry brandished his wand.
Vernon glowered. "One night; if you aren't gone by the time I wake in the morning that wand won't do you any good."
Harry started to reply angrily, but instead he simply shut the door and flung his wand onto his desk. Hermione had a bitter expression on her face and Ron simply looked dumbfounded. Hermione let out a small 'tsk' and leaned back against the wall. Harry realized that this was the first time she had actually encountered the Dursleys and the Dursleys could leave a foul taste in anybody's mouth.
"I guess this means we've got to get up early?" Ron asked as Harry bent down and began to rummage through his recently expanded trunk.
Harry nodded, "I want to get an early start anyway."
"Are we going to The Burrow then?" Ron asked.
Harry shook his head. "No, not yet. We're going to Godric's Hollow."
Morning came quickly. Harry awoke as an unwelcome burst of sunlight stung his eyelids. He stifled a yawn and stretched his stiff back. The makeshift bed he had created on the floor looked as uncomfortable as it had slept.
"Ron?" Harry mumbled as he looked around the floor for his best mate.
The second bed of robe blankets and a textbook pillow was vacant and Harry felt his heartbeat quicken. Harry felt his belly grumble and a thought crossed his mind. Surely Ron hadn't been thick enough to wander downstairs? Harry sprang to his feet and in less than two steps he was pulling the door open. He glanced back into his room just before stepping out into the hallway when he spied his missing friend. There was Ron with Hermione in an upright position. It looked as if the two had fallen asleep while talking, most likely about him.
Harry closed the door he had wrenched open and moved towards the bed. Hermione's head was placed in an uncomfortable-looking position on Ron's shoulder. Harry rubbed his eyes then nudged Ron.
"It's too early," Ron grumbled without even opening his eyes.
As Ron stirred, Hermione jerked up with a start and looked uncertainly at Harry. He merely grinned and grabbed a clean shirt out of his trunk.
"We need to get going. Uncle Vernon will be up soon," Harry said flatly as he paused for a second before taking off his shirt.
Hermione lowered her eyes as Ron pulled himself off Harry's bed and rummaged through his own trunk. He stifled a yawn and looked pointedly at Hermione.
"Cover your eyes, will you?"
Hermione blushed as she quickly lowered her face. "Honestly."
Ron nodded and followed Harry's lead, pulling a clean shirt over his head. Hermione's face turned redder as she began to look through her own highly-organized trunk. She made a motion to pull something out then sighed and closed her trunk instead. She suddenly grabbed her wand off Harry's bed and gave it a quick wave to shrink their trunks.
"Do we even know how to find Godric's Hollow?" Ron asked.
Hermione cleared her throat. "I did some research before we left. I hope that's all right, Harry."
Harry smiled briefly. While he had a general idea where Godric's Hollow might be, he had to admit he had assumed Hermione had already looked up the information. Hermione was not smiling.
"I couldn't find any information about any wizarding communities named Godric's Hollow," Hermione finally stated.
Harry's smile slipped slightly as he noticed something that he had simply missed until that moment. There was a box sitting discreetly on the corner of his desk. The box didn't have any distinguishing characteristics. The brown tape on the edges had faded yellow and had begun to peel.
"Harry, what is that?" Ron asked as he watched Harry with curiosity.
Harry reached his desk, slid the box towards him, and began to open the tattered top. Inside were assortments of small items. There was a stack of letters and a few old textbooks. Harry pulled out the books and letters and set them on his desk.
"That Charms book hasn't been used in nearly a decade at Hogwarts," Hermione commented.
Harry didn't answer as he continued to shift through the items. At the bottom of the box was an old wand that looked like it had been neglected for many years. A thought entered Harry's mind. Could this wand have been his mother's? Were these her things?
Hermione, with a pointed look, began flipping through the charms book then sighed. "Well obviously they stopped using it. Some of these charms are outdated."
"Who are the letters from, mate?" Ron asked peering over Harry's shoulder.
Harry shrugged. "I dunno. I've never seen this stuff before."
He pulled off the top letter and opened it.
It's amazing here. I'm so thankful Harry, James and I have found safety at long last. I know things between us haven't been on the best of terms since Mum passed but know that you will always be my sister. Nothing is going to change that. I look forward to the day where we can sit around like old times and have a chat about anything and nothing at all. I've enclosed another slip of paper with this letter. If anything should happen and you need to reach me this is where we are located. Please memorize the address and then destroy it. You have my trust now and always.
There was a scrap piece of paper taped to the bottom of parchment. Harry recognized the penmanship immediately. He doubted he would ever forget it as long as he lived. He had seen it appear many times after he would say 'I solemnly swear I'm up to no good.' This was the handwriting of one of the Marauders. This was the handwriting of Peter Pettigrew, his parents' Secret Keeper.