Harry opened his eyes to a fuzzy form with an unmistakable shock of red hair. He sat up, attempted to smooth back his unruly hair, reached for his glasses, and fit them in place.
“We’re pulling into the station, so wake up already.” Ron was muscling the trunks and cages down from the luggage rack and setting them into the aisle, not really seeing that Harry had already sat up.
“We came back here and found you sleeping,” Ron said. “Hermione reckoned you were beat and could use a bit of a lie down, so we didn’t wake you.” Ron set Hedwig’s and Pigwidgeon’s cages on top of his trunk.
“Right, and I’ll bet you two were busy with prefect duties the whole time, and never…say…snogging in the next compartment?” Harry shot Ron a knowing look. As happy as he was for his two best friends, he just wouldn’t be Ron’s proper mate if he didn’t have him on about it some.
Ron leaned his head back from where he was shuffling the luggage in the aisle, and a broad, stupid grin filled his face. “I can’t lie, Harry, there was a bit of snogging… maybe more than a bit, and…”
“Enough, Ron!” Harry exclaimed, “I may want to take the mickey out of you about it, but I don’t really want to know!”
“Well, you asked!”
The train stopped with a slight lurch. Peering from the compartment window, Harry could see a small crowd of rather somber looking parents, gathering expectantly toward the forward passenger cars of the train.
He dropped open the window and stuck his head out. The air felt a bit heavy, and clouds had gathered in a grey blanket overhead. It looked like it would rain soon.
As the students began to file off the train, there were the typical hugs and smiles, but there was an uncharacteristic hurriedness about the scene as the families departed quickly.
Ron, being curious, joined Harry at the window. They saw Hermione ushering younger students from the carriages. Harry didn’t have to see it to know that Ron was grinning broadly at the sight of his… ‘girlfriend.’ That was just grand, Harry thought, but he could tell it was going to take some getting used to.
Mr. and Mrs. Weasley emerged hurriedly from the wrought-iron archway, which was the passage from platform nine and three-quarters to the Muggle station beyond. They saw Hermione at once and rushed to her, Mrs. Weasley gathering her into a long hug as Mr. Weasley patted her shoulder in an affectionate, fatherly way.
Harry could not hear them over the noises of the train and the platform, but as Hermione broke from the hug, she pointed toward them, and, seeing them with their heads out the window, she waved vigorously. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley turned and started toward them briskly.
Harry and Ron ducked back into the compartment and hurried out and around to the exit where Ron had piled the trunks and cages. They started transferring the luggage out onto the platform. The Weasley’s, with Hermione in tow, reached them just as they were hefting down the third trunk.
Mrs. Weasley caught Ron up in a huge hug.
“Geroff – Mum,” Ron protested, “Blimey, you hugged me when you saw us into the carriages at Hogwarts, just hours ago.” Ron pulled away.
“I know dear,” Molly Weasley exclaimed, “but it seems much longer.” She stepped toward Harry, holding her arms open and smiling. Harry had become used to Mrs. Weasley’s hugs over the years and, truthfully, he rather enjoyed them.
“Ginny didn’t want to come?” Harry asked rather sheepishly.
“No, dear,” Mrs. Weasley replied holding him at arms length and giving him a rather knowing smile. “She wanted to unpack and get settled, but you’ll be over to The Burrow soon enough.”
“Now then,” Mr. Weasley’s voice cut in, “Let’s get off the platform and get you two delivered to your families.” He motioned to Hermione and Harry.
“Oh, about that,” Ron started, “Hermione and I…we were gonna go with Harry...”
Surprise played across the elder Weasleys’ faces in unison, but before either could form a word in response, Harry cut in, “Oh, no, Ron…we’re not doing that anymore.”
Now it was Ron and Hermione whose faces registered surprise as they turned to Harry together. Before they could respond, Harry continued. “I’m not sure it would be wise to spring uninvited company on the Dursleys,” Harry said, patting his front jeans pocket unobtrusively.
Hermione seemed to catch on immediately, and she smiled very slightly. “Okay, Harry,” she blurted out, stepping closer to Ron and out of view of his parents she grabbed his forearm, to let him know to go along. “But you will owl us as soon as you get there?”
“Oh, yeah…right away,” Harry offered. “Besides, it’s not as if I’ll be alone…” He hesitated at the slip, but quickly recovered. “I’ve got, Hedwig to keep me company.” He gestured to the cage on his trunk.
“Right then,” Mr. Weasley spoke in a preemptory tone as he rocked from heel to toe and back. “Ron, grab that trolley there.” He pointed to an abandoned cart a few steps down the platform. “Now, let’s get moving.” His expression clearly communicated that he knew something was up, but was clueless as to what it was. He was obviously prepared to accept that it was one of those things between his children that he was not meant to understand, and left it at that.
As Harry, Ron, and Mr. Weasley ordered the luggage onto the trolley, Hermione approached Mrs. Weasley casually.
“Mrs. Weasley,” she said in a low whisper. Molly turned to Hermione. “I was wondering about security…for Harry,” Hermione whispered again. “Shouldn’t there be Aurors here to meet him?”
Mrs. Weasley glanced around the station slowly, turning her head a little, and stepped closer patting Hermione’s arm. “Oh, there is security here,” she whispered back. “It’s just that Harry is sort of on the outs with the Minister, so no one is supposed to be seen.”
“Oh,” Hermione responded quietly, sweeping the platform now, with her own eyes.
“Come along now... and don’t you worry.” Molly took Hermione’s hand, hooking it on her arm and patting it gently, as she moved to follow her husband, who, with Ron and Harry, was nearly to the archway.
They walked together a few paces, when Mrs. Weasley spoke again, “So…Ginny said something very interesting when we got back to The Burrow…about yourself and Ronald?”
Hermione’s eyes widened and she could feel all the blood leave her face. She gasped as together they stepped into the darkness of the passageway from the platform to the station beyond.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
The small group weaved their way through the station with ease. Mr. Weasley, looking at all the lamps in King’s Cross Station, had asked Harry to explain about “eckeltricity.” The explanation, which Harry knew was lost on Mr. Weasley, nonetheless carried them through the station to the main entrance. As they approached, Harry noticed his aunt and uncle waiting uneasily near the main doors.
Harry waved the group to a halt a good three meters before they reached the Dursleys.
Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were glancing about the station and trying to look as though they were casually interested in the architecture. Harry knew they simply didn’t wish to make eye contact with Mr. Weasley, whose encounters with the Dursley’s had proved somewhat traumatic in the past.
“Right, then…” Mr. Weasley began, “I expect I ought to have a word with your aunt and uncle before you head off with them.”
Harry could see by the way that his uncle’s face was growing flushed that he had heard Mr. Weasley’s words. “That’s alright…” Harry stopped Mr. Weasley. “I am quite certain that I’ll be treated just fine this visit.”
Mr. Weasley looked over at the Dursleys, his face scrunched up in disapproval. He seemed to consider for a moment then let out a loud “Harrumph.” He too could tell that Vernon Dursley was listening, and he hoped it was clear how the people who really cared for Harry felt about his treatment in the Dursley’s home. Arthur looked back to Harry and smiled, “If you say so, Harry.” Harry smiled appreciatively at this friendly, concerned man, and offered his hand in a sturdy handshake. “Well, you just let us know when you are ready to come home to The Burrow,” Mr. Weasley added.
“I will, sir,” Harry replied.
Just then, Hermione caught Harry round the shoulders pulling him into a tight hug. “You be sure and communicate, Harry…and soon.”
Ron stepped up and offered his hand, which Harry shook vigorously before pulling him into a hug with him and Hermione. “I’ll let you know what’s happening right away. I’ve got loads to discuss with…well you know,” Harry whispered to Ron and Hermione.
“You take care, mate, don’t start any trouble,” Ron blurted a bit too loudly, his eyes traveling over the Dursleys.
“Oh, you know me, Ron…I wouldn’t do that without you.” Harry grinned at them as he stepped back.
Harry retrieved Hedwig’s cage and his trunk, and with a wave, he bid the group goodbye. With uneasy smiles, they were off to meet Hermione’s parents at one of the other exits.
Harry turned and wordlessly followed his aunt and uncle out through the exit and to the car. As they pulled from the parking lot and onto the road, the sky finally gave up holding onto the rain and heavy droplets pelted the car. Uncle Vernon flipped on the wipers, and Harry listened to the rhythmic clapping for nearly ten minutes before his aunt and uncle finally started conversing tersely. Mostly, Uncle Vernon was complaining about what they were going to do with the boy now that he was back again.
By the time they arrived at Privet Drive, the rain was quite heavy, and it was rather dark. The clouds were blotting out what might have been a bright sunset. Vernon Dursley stepped from the car, opened his umbrella, and waddled around the front of the car to open the door for his wife, escorting Petunia to the house beneath his canopy. As he reached the front entry, he opened the car boot with its little remote on the key chain. Harry knew Uncle Vernon would not be returning with the umbrella, so he stepped into the rain and pulled Hedwig’s cage from the seat next to him. He hauled his trunk out, closed the boot, and made his way to the door. Once inside he went directly up the stairs to the second bedroom.
Harry set Hedwig’s cage on top of the small bureau, plopped his trunk at the foot of the single bed, and sat on it heavily. He glanced around the room. Nothing seemed to have been touched since the last time he was there. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the distinct lack of dust, Harry would have sworn that not a soul had entered the room since the previous summer. He heaved a sigh…Well, he thought, At least it’s only for a short visit this time.
After he’d let Hedwig out, cleaned her cage, unpacked, and changed into dry clothes, he felt a low rumble in his stomach and wondered if it would be okay to go down to the kitchen and look for some leftovers. Harry opened his bedroom door and listened at the hallway. He could hear the telly and an occasional chortle from Uncle Vernon, so he suspected it would be safe to slip down.
He crept quietly down the stairs and stopped in the hall, listening to be sure Uncle Vernon was completely occupied with his program. He heard a loud rumbling guffaw from the sitting room and slipped across the hall into the kitchen.
Harry stopped suddenly as he saw his Aunt Petunia at the kitchen sink, clad in apron and yellow rubber gloves, laboring to scour the bottom of a heavy roasting pan. She looked up as he entered the room, but didn’t seem to react adversely at all, which surprised him. He glanced about the room quickly and noted that all was in absolute order…and not just clean, as was his fastidious aunt’s insistent condition, but truly orderly. And then it hit him…there was no video game console hooked up to the telly in the dining room. In fact, there was no telly at all in the dining room. That could only mean one thing…Dudley was not at home.
“I suppose, you are hungry?” Aunt Petunia asked, indifferently.
“Yes I am,” Harry said somewhat apologetically. “Perhaps there are a few leftovers?”
Petunia looked up from the sink and smiled very slightly. “I thought you would probably slip down to nick something, though I suspected it would be a little later. There’s a plate in there for you.” She tipped her head toward the fridge.
Harry was a little taken aback, he crossed to the fridge and indeed found a plate filled with a generous helping of roast beef, boiled potatoes, steamed carrots, and gravy, all neatly covered under a layer of cellophane. He had never before been offered so much food by his aunt. “Are you sure this is for me?” he asked hesitantly.
Aunt Petunia, who had finished with the roast pan and placed it neatly on the drying rack, slipped off her gloves and took the plate from Harry, who was still a little shocked. “Nonsense,” she said, looking him up and down. “You have grown so much and you are still so thin.” She pulled off the cellophane and placed the plate in the microwave. She covered it neatly with a paper towel and set the timer for two minutes. “Besides, with my Dudders still away at school, who else is going to eat it?” She retrieved a knife, fork, and napkin, setting them in front of Harry on the counter divide between the kitchen and dining room. She retrieved a glass from the cupboard and filled it with milk from the fridge.
Harry was stunned, and almost tripped as he crossed the two steps to the counter. He pulled out a stool and sat at the place his Aunt had set with knife and fork, and he accepted the glass of milk with a gracious smile. The microwave chimed and Aunt Petunia fetched the plate, setting it in front of Harry. He ate rather quickly, wondering if his uncle would jump out and snatch the food away, making it all a cruel joke, but he could hear his uncle chuckling along with the laugh track in the other room.
Harry watched his aunt as she returned to the rack of dishes with a fresh dishtowel and began putting everything away. She seemed much more relaxed than he was used to, and he realized that the whole house felt much calmer somehow. It could only be, he thought, because his cousin wasn’t back from Smeltings for the summer holidays yet. He had never considered what life in the Dursley home would be like without Dudley. “When does Dudley get home?” Harry asked quietly.
“What was that?” his aunt asked as she looked over from the pantry where she was straightening the shelves. “Oh, Dudders will be home next Saturday,” she said, her voice brightening. “Vernon and I will drive up to fetch him from school.” Petunia frowned slightly, and Harry took it to mean she wasn’t interested in conversing with him.
Harry finished his plate quietly as his aunt puttered around the kitchen. She seemed to be preparing a stock list in front of the open pantry, and even inspected the contents of both the fridge and freezer. He took his soiled dishes to the sink and washed them carefully. He dried them with the towel his aunt had used, set them away in the cupboards, and put the towel neatly back on its hook. “I’ll just be off to my room now,” he said.
“Okay,” Aunt Petunia muttered distractedly.
Harry slipped out of the kitchen and was halfway up the stairs when he heard his name called behind him. He turned and his aunt was standing at the base of the stairs looking up at him. “Harry…” she spoke again somewhat hesitantly. “I am sorry about the death of your Headmaster…I know, you were very fond of him…and, him of you.”
Harry’s jaw gaped open. It hadn’t occurred to him that his aunt would know about Dumbledore’s death. He realized suddenly that the Dursley’s must have had some kind of communication from Hogwarts just to know to pick him up two weeks early at the station. He stared down at his aunt, not knowing what to say.
“Well, good night, Harry.” The corners of Aunt Petunia’s mouth bent upward slightly in what Harry assumed was an attempted smile. She turned, but then stopped and looked up at him again. “Harry…if you please, there is a certain matter I should like to discuss with you…perhaps tomorrow?”
If Harry had been stunned in the kitchen, he was now completely unsure if he was even in the right house. “Um…yes, of–of course,” he stammered in response.
“Good night, then.” Aunt Petunia stepped out of sight, and back toward the kitchen.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Harry shut his bedroom door and leaned back on it heavily. He hadn’t expected civility. True, his uncle had complained in the car, and had wordlessly made him lug his trunk in the rain, but his aunt had actually been nice to him. Well, polite anyway. He didn’t know what to think.
What a day it had been. He could hardly believe that he had awoken early that morning to pack before facing a subdued and mournful breakfast in the Great Hall at Hogwarts Castle. He had attended his Headmaster’s funeral that very morning, but that seemed somehow ages ago now. His hand slid to the hip of his jeans and he felt the shape of the bar of pewter in his pocket. It didn’t seem so much like Dumbledore was really gone.
Harry breathed several calming deep breaths and pushed himself off the door. Hedwig had returned to her cage and was hooting appreciatively as she preened in her clean space. Harry crossed to the window and closed it against the steady rain still falling outside. He petted Hedwig gently along her back and promised to let her out again soon.
Harry wasn’t particularly tired, having napped on the train, so he retrieved a quill and inkwell from his trunk, as well as a few sheaves of parchment, and sat down, determined to write Hermione her promised letter.
Harry smoothed the parchment on the desktop and dipped his quill in ink. He rubbed the feather end against his forehead as he thought, and then he began writing:
I am here and safe at Privet Drive. Everything is fine. It turns out that Dudley isn’t home from school for another week so the house is quiet. It is a bit perplexing really, I’ve never seen the Dursleys so calm. My Aunt actually fixed me a plate this evening, and it was good, not the usual tinned meat or soup. Then she said she wants to talk to me about something. I haven’t the faintest idea what it could be.
I am sorry to have changed plans on you and Ron like that at the station, but I could see you got it right away. Thank you. This way you can have the time with your parents, and I will see you at The Burrow before very long.
Please don’t worry about me. I know I should be mourning, but I have other things on my mind just now. I will not have time for loneliness during this time I have to spend with the Dursleys. I promise I will stay occupied.
I know you will want to try to help by doing research, but I think it is better to not worry about the future right now and concentrate on your own family. Somehow I now believe that there will be time enough for worry later.
Know that, for now, all is well. I promise to write again soon.
Harry read through the letter a number of times checking to see if there was anything questionable there should it be intercepted. He decided finally that there was not, so he set it aside and wrote a second, nearly identical, letter to Ron. When he was satisfied that its content was also safe, he set it aside as well and smoothed out yet another piece of parchment. He dipped his quill again, and stared down at the smooth surface of the unblemished sheet. This next letter, he thought, was going to be hard. He touched his quill to the page and gently scratched out the beginning.
He looked at the words on the parchment and felt the odd stirring of that creature that seemed to live inside him. He began writing, starting over several times and seriously diminishing his supply of parchment. Finally, after filling his dustbin with crumpled drafts he settled on what he felt would be safe to send.
I wished you had come on the train with us today. Something happened that I so want to share with you. I have sent Ron a letter, and I told him it is okay to tell you about the train. But there will be much more to share when I come to The Burrow.
I know what I said at the funeral hurt you terribly. You seemed so understanding. That made it so much harder to do. I hope that you can forgive me for hurting you?
I was afraid…I am afraid, for you. I do not know exactly what’s coming, except that my future will be dangerous. The thought of subjecting you to that scares me, even though I know that you would brave anything. I just don’t want for you to have to.
I have so much I want to say to you, so much to try to explain. This morning I felt one way, but so much has happened and I am no longer sure.
I think I was wrong. I hope you will forgive me… and forget what I said at the funeral.
Harry carefully folded and tightly coiled the three letters, tying them securely with bits of parcel string, except for the one for Ginny, which he tied with a piece of red ribbon he had scavenged from inside his trunk, left from some Christmas present he suspected. He looked out the window to see that the rain had slowed to the barest drizzle. He opened it, breathing in the cool sweet smell of the rain-scrubbed air. Hedwig stirred and hooted at the breeze.
“Are you ready for a flight, Hedwig?” Harry asked. In answer Hedwig bounded from her perch out onto the bureau, and soared smoothly to the windowsill. Harry secured the letters to her leg with a leather tie, and ran his hand down her back. He explained where each letter went and to whom then he added, “I would really rather they are not intercepted, so you be alert.” Hedwig moved her head quickly and hooted at him in an insulted tone. “I’m sorry,” Harry responded, “But I worry about you, you know.” Hedwig, cooed apologetically, nudged Harry’s arm lightly, and then launched herself into the moonless night. Harry watched her flap quickly away and out of sight before he closed the window.
Turning back from the window, Harry went to the bureau, pulled out a pair of clean pajamas, and made his way down the hall to the loo. In a few short minutes he was ready for bed. He emptied the contents of his jeans’ pockets, the fake Horcrux from one, and the pewter base from another, climbed into bed, lifted his pillow, and stashed the locket beneath. With a pull on the chain of his bedside lamp, he sent the room into darkness. Harry turned the base around in his fingers, feeling its smooth edges and raised letters. He wondered for a moment where he had stashed his collection of Chocolate Frog Cards, but recalled seeing them in the bottom of his trunk, bound by a Muggle rubber band. He fell asleep quickly, still clutching the base in his hand.