For the first time in his life, Harry Potter felt a measure of contentment at his aunt and uncle's house at number four, Privet Drive.
To say he was content would have been far overstating the matter; this house was never meant to be his home and could never feel like one, not with all the bitter memories it held. But for the first time, he didn't feel imprisoned by the spotlessly clean walls, or suffocated by the weight of contempt from his relatives.
He'd been most reluctant to return to the Dursley's house, to be sure. After the funeral services for Dumbledore, he wanted only to return to number twelve, Grimmauld Place, and spend a few days grieving in private, to be interrupted only when he chose to seek out his friends, or other wizards in the Order. They would be mourning as well, and would understand Harry's need for both the peace of solitude and the distraction of conversation. So when Mad-Eye Moody asked him whether he planned to take the Hogwarts Express back to London, or be escorted straight to Little Whinging by a cadre of wizards on broomsticks, Harry's eyes had bugged out almost as far as Moody's.
"You can't possibly think I'm going back there?!" Harry sputtered, when he found his tongue again.
"Oh, I know you're going back there, Potter, it's the safest place and it's what's got to be done."
Harry couldn't reply; he felt as though a steel blade had slid into his chest. He looked quickly to the other wizards and witches within hearing distance. Professor McGonagall, her eyes still red from the funeral, gave him a look of deep sympathy, but nonetheless inclined her head toward Moody and nodded in support. Arthur Weasley stared at his shoes; he appeared to have already had this discussion with Moody and had been forced to concede defeat. Hermione bit her lip and frowned, glancing back and forth between Moody and Harry. Only Ron had the decency to look utterly flabbergasted by the notion that Harry should be cast out of the wizarding community at such an hour of pain and need, back to the Dursleys and their own brand of misery.
In the end, though, Hermione had convinced him that this was necessary. "Yes, that house is yours. Everyone knows you are going to be living in it eventually; that's why the Order are working so hard to fortify it for defense--not to mention cleaning out the mess. We're all behind that, Harry. But you know very well that until you turn seventeen, the safest place in the world for you is with your relatives. Now more than ever, Harry, you need to play it safe every chance you get."
"Rubbish, Hermione!" said Harry. "I'm done with safety! I'm done with Hogwarts! I've only got one thing to do in this world, and that's to put an end to Voldemort."
Hermione flinched at the name, but, to Harry's satisfaction, it was merely out of habit; she no longer cringed or cowered like most of the wizarding community. "Oh, really?" she said sarcastically. "Without any rest, any plan, any idea where to even start, you're just going to go zipping off into the wilderness, hunt down You-Know-Who, and wipe him out singlehandedly? Are you planning to get a bloodhound to sniff him out? Going to raise up your hand and say 'Accio Horcruces'?"
It took Harry a moment to figure out what she meant, but he finally decided that "horcruces" must be the plural for "horcrux." By the time he'd gotten back in synch with the conversation, it was too late for a snappy comeback. His silence had given Hermione all the time she needed to assemble her thoughts for the next round, and as much as he hated to admit it, there really wasn't anything intelligent he could say in response.
"You know darn well you're in no position to storm off solo after Voldemort," she said, softer this time. "Harry, we all need to think this through and get it done right, not run around like a bunch of frightened mice in a maze."
"Fine!" Harry snapped in frustration. "Fine. I'll wait, I'll think, I'll plan. But I'm staying with you guys, with you this time. I'm not going to be stuck in a house full of Muggles while everyone else does all the planning."
Hermione threw up her hands. "Harry, I'll give you my word that you won't be left out. We'll send you owls and messengers and I'll even get a cell phone. I've already looked into them and I think all the wizards should start carrying them; I'm sure You-Know-Who hasn't the faintest idea how to use one," she said firmly, even as Harry shook his head defiantly. "We'll keep you up to date, I promise! Everyone just wants you to stay safe as long as you can."
"I'm safe at Sirius's house, I'll be surrounded by Order wizards day and night--" Harry began.
"Who will have to stay there and baby-sit for you the whole time!" said Hermione exasperatedly.
Harry stared at her with fists clenched, too angry to speak. Hermione realized that this had been a low blow, and her expression softened somewhat. "Harry...I'm sorry, that was a rotten thing to say. But you know what I mean! Once you move into Headquarters, you know that the Order is going to want to guard you day and night. Even if you don't want it or need it," she added hastily. "They're going to do it out of their own need to protect you, not because you want to be protected. And every wizard who is standing guard at your side is one less wizard that could be out there tracking down You-Know-Who. Think about it, Harry! Why take all those people out of commission just yet, when there's a place you can go where no one has to guard you?"
"No one has to guard me anywhere--" Harry began, but Hermione waved her hands dismissively again and cut him off.
"Fine, no one has to guard you, but they will anyway. Why can't you go to the one place where you are 100% safe, just for a few weeks, Harry, so that everyone can stay focused?"
"Because it stinks!" shouted Harry. "I don't want to go back there ever again! I hate it!"
Hermione sighed. "I know, Harry. I know this isn't asking you to go have a hot-fudge sundae. No one wants you to be with those awful people; we'd all rather have you close by. Moody and Ron's dad had a royal row over it; I thought they were going to get their wands out toward the end. Mr. Weasley wants to take you to the Burrow. Lupin was totally excited about you staying with him at Headquarters. Hagrid even wanted you to move into his place so you could stay on the Hogwarts grounds." Harry's brows raised upon hearing the last bit; although Aunt Petunia fed him the barest of scraps, even her grudging meals would certainly be better than the overcooked (but plentiful) fare in Hagrid's cabin.
Hermione continued, "But it all comes back to the same thing, Harry: you're in the greatest danger ever, now, and as long as you have a place of safety, it's just insane not to use it. That was your mother's gift to you, Harry, her legacy. Once you come of age, there may not be a single place on Earth that will be safe for you. You may never be able to rest again until...until...a long time."
Hermione's eyes were becoming misty. Harry's stomach lurched as he realized he had no desire to see Hermione cry over the prospects of his future. And what she had said made sense; once the hunt began, he might not rest again until it was over, however long that would take. Maybe he should take some time to prepare for the task.
Harry eventually conceeded, very bitterly, to return to Privet Drive until he came of age and the protections set on that house were lifted. He wished he could make Number Four the new Headquarters, voicing his frustrations that the Order wasn't taking advantage of the "protections" bequeathed upon the Durselys' home, but no one would think of it. "That house belongs to your uncle, Harry," said Remus Lupin, as they sat in the Gryffindor common room on the last night of the term. "Even if they welcomed us," he went on as Harry snorted derisively, "we could hardly have people Apparating, and owls zipping around all the time, in a Muggle neighborhood like that."
"You do it at Number Twelve," said Harry.
"Come on, Harry, you know there's a difference. Most of that street is empty and the rest of them are too busy hiding behind their own curtains to notice. But those people--" Lupin raised his hands up in a very good mimicry of a Muggle peering through binoculars, "--they can't seem to get enough of snooping at their neighbors. Besides, that's not the point. We're not wanted there, Harry, and that's that."
"I'm not wanted there either, but you send me there anyway!" said Harry sourly.
"Ah, but you're family," smiled Lupin with a twinkle in his eye. "They have to take you whether they want you or not!"
Harry sighed. "So I go have a spa vacation at my uncle's house while everyone else risks their lives. How heroic. I wonder how many people Voldemort will kill while I'm sitting around being nice and safe on Privet Drive?"
Lupin furrowed his brow a little, then smiled wanly again. "Harry. You're preparing yourself for a challenge that none of us could take on. We're all glad you have a safe sanctuary for the next few weeks. No one thinks you're running off to lounge about, watching that picture box thing while we all toil away in danger. Because we all know you're going to step up when the time comes--and believe me, we're all going to be working round the clock to make sure that time comes as quickly as possible."
Lupin leaned back in his chair and looked at Harry with the same comprehending sadness that Hermione had shown earlier, although without tears in his eyes. Harry frowned a moment, looked down at the tabletop, then up again. "But I don't want to be safe if my friends are in danger."
Lupin sighed. "I think, Harry," he said slowly, "that if I had a place to go, where I knew I was beyond Voldemort's reach, I would be torn too--it does seem selfish to protect yourself and leave your friends to fend for themselves. But maybe you can think of it this way: A coward would do that right off the cuff, without giving it a second thought, because that selfishness and fear is exactly what makes him a coward. The fact that you don't want to do it, that your instincts are to reject safety and stand by your friends, that's proof that you're no coward."
"So, hiding from danger isn't cowardly, as long as do it for the right reasons?" Harry snarled sarcastically. To his surprise, Lupin sat up and slammed his fist to the table, causing every head in the common room to turn toward them.
"Yes, Harry. Choosing a safe place to get ready for the hardest task of your life is not cowardice," Lupin said, not loudly, but since the common room had gone deadly silent, it rang out forcefully. Lupin noticed the silence and glanced around the room at all the staring faces. He lowered his voice. "You can be resentful and make yourself miserable, convince yourself that everyone thinks you're a coward. Or you can accept the circumstances and use them to your fullest advantage. You have that choice, Harry," he said softly. "Maybe you're only doing this because we're all making you, but now that you're doing it, you can choose how to feel about it. I think you'd be a lot happier if you tell yourself this is an opportunity, instead of telling yourself you're running away."
And so Harry set off on the Hogwarts Express the next morning with the remaining students, knowing that a brigade of Aurors was watching the train from both land and air, with a newfound determination to make something out of the next few weeks. He parted from Ron and Hermione at King's Cross Station with many assurances that the summer would be over in a flash. Hermione met her parents on the Muggle platform, returned to slip Harry a small gift, and parted with a quick hug and a promise to talk to him very soon. Fred Weasley came alone to fetch Ron from the station; he tried to invite Harry to their joke shop on Diagon Alley for the afternoon, but Harry declined.
Harry was only mildly surprised that his uncle was not at the station to meet him. Tonks had been assigned inside King's Cross to guard Harry's arrival; the two of them spent an enjoyable hour sitting on a bench and hiding behind a Muggle newspaper, peeking around it at passers-by. Tonks would attempt to copy their faces, with comical results. It finally became obvious that the Dursleys were simply not coming to pick up Harry. Tonks and Harry slipped behind an unused ticket counter, where she took Harry's hand and Apparated them both straight into the Dursleys' kitchen, right in the middle of supper. This, of course, nearly sent Uncle Vernon into an apoplectic fit.
Harry neither heard, nor cared to hear, the ensuing discussion between Tonks and his relatives. Their petty gripes and idiotic priorities were intolerable to his ears anymore. He hauled his trunk and Hedwig's cage to the stairwell, lugged them up to his room one by one (noting with dull resignation that his bedroom had been converted into a storage/giftwrapping room over the past year), and simply shut the door and collapsed on the bed. Although the sounds of argument in the kitchen went on and on, he only made out a few words when he opened the door in response to a sharp tapping. A plate, piled high with food, was hovering in the hallway, while a fork and knife were busily drumming their handles on the door. He could hear angry, incoherent grunts from Uncle Vernon coming from the living room; he sounded as though he'd been gagged (Tonks had, in fact, given up and sealed his mouth shut within the first few minutes of their discussion). From the kitchen, he could hear Tonks saying "...this is your own sister's son, your kin, your blood..." He shut the door as soon as his dinner had scuttled into the room, the flatware performing a bright little riff on the desk before settling down.
The next morning, he slept in quite late and sauntered downstairs to find the house empty. He was surprised to find that a bowl of cereal and some bread and jam had been left on the table at his usual chair. He considered the possibility that it might be poisoned, then chuckled at the thought that Mad-Eye Moody would be proud of him for suspecting it. Harry knew real murderers; Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were, in a nutshell, too cowardly to try to harm him.
And so the tone was set for Harry's stay on Privet Drive. Harry essentially ignored his relatives, remaining in his room most of the time. Meals were shoved regularly through the cat flap in his bedroom door, and were consistently of ample quantity. Harry couldn't remember ever feeling so well-fed here. He wondered sometimes exactly how Tonks had succeeded in getting that message through his aunt's thick head, when so many other wizards had tried and failed. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia merely turned their backs when Harry did come downstairs, without any glares, harrumphs, or other signs of recognition. Harry didn't even mind the fact that Dudley met his gaze on occasion, because the flash of pure terror in Dudley's eyes gave him a perverse sort of thrill.
With peace and quiet, a full belly, and the knowledge that he was secure, Harry soon had to admit that his friends had been correct. He was amazed by the amount of time he simply slept, dreamless; it was as though his body had taken over his will and forced him to rest and renew himself.
On the third day, Harry was awakened by an odd ringing sound. At first he thought it must be some new game of Dudley's; it had that electronic, chirping quality of a Muggle device. He ignored it, but after rolling over in his bed, he realized that the noise was definitely coming from within his room. Harry sat up and leaned around, triangulating on the sound, then picked up his Hogwarts robes from their heap at the foot of the bed. More puzzled than alarmed, he shook the robe and realized that the source of the sound was in a pocket. Suddenly recalling Hermione's parting gift on the platform at King's Cross, Harry fished out the little package, which warbled cheerfully at him as he unrolled the tissue paper wrapping.
Harry stared at the little device for a moment, utterly baffled. He'd never seen anything like it. By its incessant ringing, he deduced that it was a telephone, but it looked nothing like the Durselys' rotary-dial model downstairs. He turned it over and around in his hand, a smooth, metal bar, anodized in Gryffindor red, but having no obvious telephonic features. After fiddling with it, he managed to undo some sort of unseen clasp, and the thing opened like a clamshell, but this only made matters worse! The inside was covered with buttons, some numbered, some bearing incomprehensible little arrows and symbols; he wondered if Hermione had made this herself for extra credit in Ancient Runes. For a brief, panicked moment, he supposed he might have to ask Dudley how to operate the dratted thing, but then he noticed that one of the buttons was labeled, "Talk." That has to be a good sign, he thought, and pressed it. The ringing stopped, but now, of course, he had no idea where to find the microphone to speak into.
"Harry?" came a tinny version of Hermione's voice from a tiny slit at the top of the device. "Are you there?"
Harry guessed that if that end was the listening portion, the bottom must be the talking side, and put the phone closer to his head (instinctively keeping it far enough away that, if it decided to chomp itself shut again, it wouldn't be able to bite him. Hagrid's Care of Magical Creatures class had given him an extraordinary sense of caution around anything that resembled jaws). "Hermione? I'm here. What on Earth IS this thing?"
Hermione laughed. "I told you, Harry, it's a cell phone, they're just the latest thing among the Muggles. You can carry it anywhere, it's not like the old telephones that had to be plugged into a wall. Isn't it cute? I hope red is OK, they come in all colors. I must tell you first off, Harry, that these have batteries in them that need to be charged--every night, you have to flip open the bottom end and plug the whole thing into a wall outlet. When it needs more electricity, it suddenly stops working, so if that happens, don't worry that something's happened to me, just plug it in the wall for a while."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Hermione, I'm actually kind of familiar with how batteries work." He could picture her pursing her lips and sniffing at his jab.
"Right, then. How are you, Harry?"
"Fine, actually. I'm really fine! The Dursleys are leaving me alone, and they're almost treating me like a human being, it's weird."
"Oh, that's good, Harry! I'm still with my parents, they just can't believe all that's happened. I'm going to stay here until the wedding, I think they're rather worried about me. And it's sort of hard to convince them I'll be all right, poor dears, they've been reading the Prophet too and are very frightened about the state of the Wizarding community. They've been mentioning some horrible bloke named Hitler, he sounds like the Muggle version of You-Know-Who."
"Wonderful. So nice to know that monsters aren't limited to Wizards," muttered Harry. "So...do you know what else is going on?" He was unwilling to ask about the Order directly, as he did not share Hermione's faith that these cell phones were safe from spying ears. Apparently she had decided not to risk it either, judging by her vague response.
"I know that people are working very hard to prepare...safe places, for the...ongoing work. The general feeling is that it's easier to forge outward if there's a...sort of fortress where people can regroup or fall back. And since it's pretty much certain that the, um, other side, has already been digging in somewhere, we felt we should too."
Harry nodded. "That sounds like a good plan. But is anyone--"
Hermione cut him off. "It's not really a good idea to discuss details, don't you think?"
Harry felt his hackles raise; once again, he was being cut off from the goings-on of the Order, despite promises to the contrary. "Yeah. I understand," he growled. "Why keep me up to date, after all?"
Hermione's voice dropped about twenty degrees. "Should I remind you that you're supposed to be RESTING?"
Harry nearly clicked the phone shut, but he didn't really want to stop talking to Hermione. He also didn't know if that would actually turn the thing off or not. Closing his eyes and forcing a deep breath, he finally spoke again. "All right, all right. At least tell me if everyone's OK."
"Yes, Harry, definitely. We were all worried that there might be a second strike after..." her voice shook, "you know. But everything's been quiet. We figure that You-Know-Who is trying to gather information, just like we are--figure out just how much damage that...last act actually caused, where the weakest points are now. You'll see it all in a few weeks, Harry. Just rest now, though, OK? Rest and get ready for...what comes next."
"Yes, ma'am," said Harry with a sigh. "I am, it's actually kind of nice. But it's a lot easier now that I know that...things aren't heating up out there."
"I understand, Harry," Hermione said warmly. "I really will tell you if things heat up. And you can call me, too--I've programmed this number into the speed dial, just hit the Memory button and then select it. Listen, I need to go now, my mum took the day off work to spend with me. Try not to let it ring so long next time. We'll talk again soon, OK?"
"Sure, OK," muttered Harry. "And Hermione?" He paused.
"Thanks for doing this."
"You're welcome, Harry. I'm happy to do it. Take care."
The connection closed, and Harry took a good long look at the phone. He found a button labeled "Mem," which popped up a single phone number on the screen when pressed; that must be hers. There was no button labled "Select," however, and he gingerly pressed several buttons before determining that the "Talk" button caused the phone to dial the number. Not wanting to bother Hermione, he punched "End" as soon as he realized it was placing the call. He next found the battery charger and plugged the unit into the wall. He shook his head, grinning at how an everyday Muggle object like this had become so foreign to him, then looked up at Hedwig. She was glaring through the bars of her cage with such an offended expression that he burst out laughing.
On his fifth day back, Harry awoke before noon--so early, in fact, that Aunt Petunia hadn't even delivered breakfast yet. Feeling alert and refreshed, he dressed in Muggle clothes and went downstairs to the kitchen, where his aunt was bustling about the stove in her bathrobe. He didn't want to startle Aunt Petunia, who did not turn around when he entered the room, but he felt a little ridiculous just saying "Good morning" under the circumstances. He settled for pulling out a chair with a loud scrape, which at least gave his aunt some warning that there was another living being in the kitchen, so when she did finally look up, she only suffered the shock of discovering that it was Harry. She jumped, nearly upsetting the pot of porridge she'd been cooking.
"You! Don't sneak up on people like that!"
"I wasn't sneaking," said Harry. "I just walked into the room. I'm allowed to walk around, aren't I?"
Aunt Petunia wrinkled her nose and turned back to her porridge. After an uncomfortable pause, she finally asked, "Wouldn't you rather have breakfast in your room?"
"No, I feel like a little change of scenery today. I hope you don't mind if I eat at the table, you know, like a regular sort of person."
She gave Harry a glare that almost made him change his mind, but he wasn't about to back down now, nor sit through another bowl of lukewarm porridge upstairs. He watched her ladle two bowls full, noticing that she didn't skimp on his serving as she'd always done. She brought the bowls to the table, placed one in front of Harry, and sat down across from him. Watching her scoop up the food quickly with her spoon, trying to finish and get away from him as soon as possible, he felt an unexpected pity for her. Without even thinking, he said, "Aunt Petunia, are you happy here?"
She stared at him, frozen, her spoon midway between bowl and mouth. He immediately regretted saying it, expecting her to bellow about his cheek at asking such a thing. Much to his suprise, she simply set down her spoon and looked at him. Another silent pause, this one equally uncomfortable but in an entirely different way, and then she spoke in a quiet, unconvincing voice. "I have everything I'm supposed to have--a lovely home, a husband, a strong son...of course I'm happy."
Just as Harry could hear the language hidden in the hisses of snakes, he heard the real truth in Aunt Petunia's reply, which was quite different from the meaning of the words she said. Without trying in any way, he found himself receiving a flood of thought and emotion from his aunt, rolling through his consciousness so rapidly that only the briefest impressions were recognizable. His mother, through Petunia's eyes--a kindhearted girl, Petunia's best friend, the only one who didn't tease her for being so shy. Suddenly Lily was gone, on a tremendous adventure in a huge castle like a princess, while Petunia stayed behind. His uncle, young and thin, standing in a doorway with a bouquet; the flowers, the seasons, the time of day all changing, but his was the only face that ever appeared at her door. Petunia's wedding day, filled not with love and passion, but a sense of relief and security. The birth of her child, the disappointment of wanting a sweet little girl, the deep resentment that Vernon only wanted sons and got one. The constant, exhausting effort of shoving thoughts like these far into the back of her psyche.
Harry's jaw fell open as he processed this rush of information; a lifetime had come to him in the time it took to say a single sentence. His aunt didn't even seem aware of the exchange, and stared at him, puzzled, finally turning around to see if something odd was happening behind her. At last she frowned and asked, "What's the matter with you, boy?"
Harry shuddered and mumbled, "Legilimency," before forcing himself to focus on his breakfast again.
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