The characters and world of the Harry Potter books are the property of J.K. Rowling, and are used here without her knowledge or permission. This story is set immediately following the events in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," and is not connected with my previous HP fanfics. Some chapters will contain strong language and violence.
As an experiment, I plan to post one chapter a week. Given
that the story's nowhere near finished yet, this provides me the exhilirating
and terrifying effect of writing without a net. Feedback is most welcome,
so feel free to contact me at email@example.com
On the eve of his sixteenth birthday, Harry Potter entered the kitchen of Number Four Privet Drive to find his aunt making a cake.
He did not for a moment fool himself into thinking that the cake had anything to do with him. Past experiences had shown that his relatives, the Dursleys, were not likely to bother with so much as a card, let alone cake or presents.
Harry should have been used to it by now. And it was not as if his birthday went totally unremarked-upon by everyone in the world, as it had done for the first eleven years of his life. He had just that morning received a card from his friend Hermione, and another bearing his other best friend Ron's distinctive semi-legible scrawl. Both promised presents later.
Still, it rankled to walk in and see Aunt Petunia lavishing a triple-layer chocolate cake with icing and sugar flowers. She went about this chore with a sort of frantic desperation, with many a chirpy question directed at her son as he sat slouched at the kitchen table.
"A few more flowers, don't you think, Diddykins? And shall we have ice cream with it? Or would you rather those little jam tarts you like so much? Dudders?"
Dudley, Harry's cousin, wrested his glazed eyes away from the kitchen television and looked at his mother.
"Would you like to lick the frosting bowl, Dinky Duddims?" She thrust it under his nose, almost bashing him in the mouth with the bowl's rim.
Harry hung back in the doorway, observing as Dudley reached out with a slow dearth of enthusiasm and took the bowl. It made a plunking sound as Dudley set it on the table. Aunt Petunia pressed a spoon into Dudley's hand, her smile strained so tight that Harry thought he could hear her skin stretching.
"There you go, my Ickle Diddums."
A long moment passed while Dudley peered into the bowl. A ponderous frown crawled across his face. It reminded Harry for all the world of the way his classmates had sometimes looked in Divinations class, knitting their brows as they tried to make sense of soggy blots of tea leaves.
In the old days, Dudley would have dived into the bowl so fast he'd have been in danger of cracking his skull on the bottom. He would have surfaced with his fat cheeks and chin smeared with chocolate, and more chocolate stuck in the baby-fine blond curls of his hair. He had not too long ago been suffering through a diet regime, living on sprouts and lettuce and grapefruit, so the forbidden sweets would have been all the more coveted.
Now, though …
It gave Harry a shiver to watch his cousin. He had never liked Dudley. Had, in fact, once been the constant subject of Dudley's taunts, beatings, and bullying.
But even Dudley didn't deserve this.
The Ministry of Magic had done what they could for him, within what limits Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia would allow, after that fateful summer night almost a whole year ago.
The night of the dementors. Two of the nightmare creatures had cornered Harry and Dudley, and surely would have sucked out their souls if Harry had not violated the Statutes of Secrecy in order to summon a Patronus to drive them away.
He'd wondered, ever since, just what Dudley had endured during those few awful moments. Harry's own run-ins with the dementors had caused him to relive his worst memory, the memory of a one-year-old baby hearing his parents murdered as they tried to protect him. His father's shouts, his mother's screams, Voldemort's shrill laugh as first James and then Lily Potter fell before him.
Dudley, of course, would have no such tragedies to haunt him. If anything, Dudley's worst experiences had probably all come at the hands of wizards, just in the past few years. Hagrid giving him a pig's tail … Fred Weasley's 'accidental' spill of Ton-Tongue Toffees …
There was no chance of finding out, though. Shortly after the dementor incident, Harry had been whisked away to spend the last few weeks of summer with the Order of the Phoenix. He hadn't seen or heard from any of the Dursleys until just a month ago, when they had arrived at King's Cross Station to meet the Hogwarts Express, returning Harry from the worst school year of his entire life.
At that time, Dudley had seemed all right. Until Harry got a closer look at him. Dudley was not all right. Dudley had changed.
For one thing, he was thinner. Not thin; he still weighed three times what Harry did. But … thinner. And in an unhealthy way.
Previously, Dudley's love of beating up on people had translated itself into a skill at boxing, and his flab had begun converting to muscle. Now, though, Dudley was a pale, saggy pudding of a boy. He had lost his formerly all-consuming – in every sense of the term – interest in food. Aunt Petunia had left off the diet and tried tempting her precious Diddykins with all his favorite meals, but Dudley only poked food around his plate.
His cheeks were no longer pink. His piggy eyes had lost their greedy glint. And Harry wasn't sure, but he thought that there might be a few strands of white in Dudley's blond hair. It was as if the dementors had spun ahead the hands of time, turning Harry's cousin into a prematurely old man.
Uncle Vernon had no trouble laying the blame squarely on Harry. Aunt Petunia might have known more about dementors than she let on – that she had let on anything at all still astonished Harry whenever he thought of it – but her husband was steadfast in his utter refusal and rejection of anything and everything having to do with the wizarding world.
Harry had done this. Not these dismembers, or whatever they were. And even if it was the dipenders, it was Harry's fault for bringing them down on Dudley.
If Uncle Vernon had had his way, Harry would have been out on his ear. That would have suited Harry just fine, too. But, now more than ever, Harry had nowhere to go and too many reasons to stay.
Thanks to Dumbledore. Dumbledore and his plans, Dumbledore and his secrets. Dumbledore, who had worked some big spell to ensure that Harry would be safe from Lord Voldemort so long as he could still live under his aunt's roof. Dumbledore, who had hardly even acknowledged Harry for all of last year.
The familiar anger twisted its way through Harry like a rope of braided fire, wormwood and acid.
At that moment, Dudley swung his head around and caught sight of him. Harry's expression must have been too well reflecting his feelings, because Dudley uttered a high squeak and lurched backward in his chair. His elbow hit the frosting bowl. It skidded off the table and smashed on the floor.
Aunt Petunia whirled. "What are you doing, sneaking about like that?" she cried, rushing to Dudley and enfolding as much of his quivering mass as she could in her thin, birdlike embrace.
"Nothing," Harry said.
"Did he scare you, Diddims-darling?"
"What's all the racket?" Uncle Vernon burst in, plum-colored with indignation. He spotted Harry, and glowered. "You. I might have known."
"I didn't do anything," Harry retorted. His fists curled, and he wished that his wand was curled into one of them.
"Hmph, a likely story," Uncle Vernon said, as Aunt Petunia continued to croon and fuss over Dudley. But as long as you're here, boy, a word about tomorrow."
"Yes?" Harry arched an eyebrow, knowing that it couldn't possibly have anything to do with tomorrow being his birthday.
"We're having company for tea." Vernon's thick sausage of a finger jabbed menacingly at Harry. "And I'll have none of your funny business. No owls, none of those … those folk dropping by. Do I make myself clear?"
"Don't you be mocking me, boy. I know you get some perverse delight in ruining important events for this family, but I've about had enough."
"You've about had enough?!" Harry's voice rose, and Dudley cringed against his mother's scant bosom. "How d'you think I feel?"
"Pretty damned cocky, I should say," blustered Uncle Vernon. "Those friends of yours, daring to speak to me that way at the train station! I should have given them a piece of my mind."
"As if you had any to spare," Harry muttered.
"What was that?"
Harry mutely shook his head. He knew what Uncle Vernon was talking about. At the end of the school year, several members of the Order had calmly informed the Dursleys that they fully expected to hear from Harry on a regular basis, or they'd be dropping by to check in with him.
It was unclear which of them had offended the Dursleys most. Mad-Eye Moody, with his blazing-blue magical eyeball hidden beneath a bowler hat? Tonks, in jeans and Weird Sisters tee shirt, hair of bubble-gum pink screaming up from her head? Lupin, shabby and gaunt, with the shadow of the werewolf's curse somehow lurking in his gaze?
The idea of such people paying a call to Number Four Privet Drive was enough to raise Uncle Vernon's blood pressure into the red zone and give Aunt Petunia quaking fits of nerves. So far, none of them had done it. But that was only because Harry had been allowed to correspond with everyone by means of owl post. He kept assuring them all that he was fine. It was a lie, of course, but there was nothing wrong that any of the Order or any of his friends could fix.
Harry left the kitchen, where Aunt Petunia had resumed trying to get Dudley to eat the rest of the frosting, or would Dinky Didkins prefer that Mummy made him a nice peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwich? Wasn't Duddums hungry at all? Wouldn't he just eat a little bit, to make Mummy happy?
The whole thing was pretty pathetic, Harry thought. Here was Dudley, finally losing weight, and Aunt Petunia was hysterical about it. The change had been so dramatic, even, that they'd taken back some of the hand-me-down clothes that had been given to Harry. Dudley's cast-offs were still acres too big for Harry, and he usually spent his summer holidays shuffling around in shirts and pants so baggy they could have served for a clown costume.
At least, that was how it had been before Tonks had turned up at Mrs. Figg's house one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Harry had been over there on the pretext of helping give medicine to Mrs. Figg's cats, but really checking in and assuring the batty neighbor Squib that he was all in one piece.
Tonks had breezed in, promptly stepping on two cats. "Wotcher, Harry!" she'd called cheerfully, in case he didn't recognize her in her current guise as the disheveled sort of lady who looked like some cousin of Mrs. Figg.
She'd then tripped over a third cat, broken a vase, and gotten hopelessly tangled in the coat-tree's brass-tipped branches. It took both Harry and Mrs. Figg, hampered by the meowing cats, to set her straight again.
Nymphadora Tonks, who refused to go by her first name, was an Auror. Harry wavered between being deeply envious of her – fighting Dark wizards was the career he most wanted to pursue – and wondering how, accident-prone as she was, Tonks had lived this long. She was also a Metamorphamagus, with the rare inborn ability to change her appearance at will.
It had been because of this ability that Tonks had learned several Tailoring Charms to alter her clothing to suit her new images. She taught these to Harry, who used them to size Dudley's garments down to fit his own much different shape. He'd shot up many inches recently, especially in the legs.
Of course, when Aunt Petunia had gone to borrow back some of Dudley's old clothes and found that they no longer even fit the recently-reduced Dudley, she'd nearly fainted. Then, she'd scolded Harry for a solid hour about using magic, somehow without ever once referring to it directly.
"You're not supposed to, outside of that school!" was the closest she could come to stating it right out.
Harry had given her a level look. "The Ministry of Magic has bigger things to worry about, now that Voldemort's back."
This was the truth, direct from Tonks. The Ministry was in a very bad light, after the whole truth had come out about Voldemort, his Death Eaters, the break-ins in the Department of Mysteries, the murders, the conviction of the innocent Sirius Black, and various other cock-ups and cover-ups.
Not least of which was the abominable conduct of Dolores Umbridge, erstwhile Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, one-time High Inquisitor, and briefly, Headmistress of Hogwarts. Her abuses of power had rocked the Ministry to its core.
The wizarding world as a whole had taken a severe blow in its trust of Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, as well as the wizarding newspaper, The Daily Prophet.
Everything was in an uproar, and so Harry hadn't been all that surprised when Tonks told him that nobody was about to bother much with a few Underage Wizardry transgressions.
Saying so to Aunt Petunia had caused the blood to drain from her face. Harry wasn't sure whether this had to do with him essentially telling her he could do magic whenever he pleased, or whether it was because he'd reminded her that Voldemort was back. Whatever else she might think of him, and of witches and wizards in general, the fact remained that Voldemort had personally murdered her sister.
Dumbledore seemed to think that mattered, somehow. Harry felt nettled whenever he thought about that whole business. All this time, and Aunt Petunia had known more about what was going on in his life than she'd been saying. Which was nothing new … he was surrounded by people who knew what was going on and wouldn't, for whatever reason, see fit to enlighten him.
Hedwig clicked her beak at him as he entered his room, still lost in thought. Her perch was beside the television set.
Uncle Vernon's concession to keeping Harry happy, in hopes of keeping Moody and the others away, had been to give him one of Dudley's old sets after they'd bought Dudley a brand-new plasma television. This way, Harry could keep up on the Muggle news without resorting to hiding in the bushes and listening through the window, which was what he'd done all the previous summer.
The Muggle news, however, remained less than helpful. So did the Daily Prophet, which had at least quit its snide attacks on his character. Ever since that terrible night in the Ministry, everything had been quiet. Too quiet.
Harry fed Hedwig an owl nibble. She bumped her beak against his fingers affectionately, and blinked her huge golden eyes. An inquisitive sound came from her throat. She fidgeted on her perch.
"No, I don't have any post to send today," he said, stroking her downy white feathers.
She clicked at him again, reprovingly this time.
"What? All right, so I haven't written to Ron or Hermione in a while. What of it?"
Another golden-eyed blink.
He sat on the edge of the bed and propped his chin in his hands. The room around him would have popped the eyes of any of the Privet Drive neighbors, what with the broomstick propped in one corner, the cauldron and pile of spellbooks on the desk, the snowy owl, the black robes hanging neatly in the closet.
Hedwig seemed to be staring fixedly at the windowsill, where Harry had put his cards from Ron and Hermione. Ron's letter contained the usual invitation to come and visit at the Burrow, but it was a diffident, hesitant invitation, as if Ron knew that Harry didn't particularly want to be at the Burrow.
That was the trouble. Normally, he loved visiting the Weasley house, which was cramped and ramshackle and absolutely brilliant with its many quirks and its happy clan of red-haired Weasleys.
But things were different, now. There was a deep and bitter rift between Percy, one of Ron's brothers, and the rest of the family. Percy worked for the Minister of Magic, and even though the Ministry's official stance now was that Dumbledore had been right all along, Percy's pride wouldn't let him make amends.
Too, Ron's brothers Fred and George were no longer living there, as they had a shop to keep up in Diagon Alley. The Burrow just wasn't the same without them around, causing trouble.
Harry's spot on the Gryffindor Quidditch team had been taken over by the youngest Weasley, Ginny. He was sure that since his lifetime Quidditch ban had been lifted in the wake of Dolores Umbridge's disastrous stint at Hogwarts, he'd be reinstated on the team when school started again. If he wanted to be … and that was the trouble. He wasn't sure if he did want to be Seeker again.
"It's not only that I would feel bad about usurping Ginny's place," he told Hedwig, who hooted softly at him. "It's … I don't know. What's the point of it, really? Flying around trying to catch a little golden ball, when out in the real world, people are suffering and dying … it's stupid."
He remembered how hurt he'd been last year when Ron had been made prefect instead of him. That, too, seemed sublimely stupid now. Prefects, which of the four Hogwarts Houses was going to win the House Cup, how well he'd done on the O.W.L. exams he'd taken at the end of the last term … none of it mattered. It was all dumb school stuff, meaningless.
"Like Voldemort gives a kettle of dragon dung about any of that stuff," Harry said to Hedwig. "So what if Gryffindor gains or loses points? It's all empty. It doesn't mean anything."
Hedwig hooted again, reprovingly this time, as if even his owl objected to his use of Voldemort's name.
"Oh, stop," he said. "I don't need that from you. At least Hermione's come around and can say it now, even if Ron still can't without practically having a nervous breakdown. What, would you rather I call him the Dark Lord, like Snape does?"
Thinking of Snape made his lip curl. If anything, he and the Hogwarts Potions Master hated each other worse now than they ever had before. He wondered sourly if Snape had gotten in trouble with Dumbledore for canceling Harry's Occlumency lessons.
"Talk about dismal failures," he said, letting his forehead drop into his hands. "If I'd really tried, if I hadn't been so curious about that corridor … even if I hadn't looked in the Pensieve! Everything might have come out different."
Shame burned in his heart, his gut, and his cheeks. How much of it was Snape's fault and how much of it his own, he didn't know how to calculate. Probably not even Hermione, Arithmancy genius that she was, could figure that out.
The worst of it was that all this time, Harry had been priding himself on taking after his father, believing the good that everyone else said about James Potter and dismissing Snape's remarks as being born of remembered rivalry and a spiteful mind.
"But Snape … he had the right of it," Harry said miserably. He heard a ruffle of feathers and felt a soft weight beside his leg as Hedwig hopped onto the bed. "That time he accused me of strutting around Hogwarts like my dad, and I said, all self-righteous, that my dad didn't strut … but he did strut, didn't he?"
The scene Harry had witnessed in the Pensieve felt as indelibly carved into him as was the lightning-bolt scar on his forehead.
He didn't understand how it could be, though. The Pensieve, at least as far as he understood it, enabled a person to remove his own thoughts and memories from his head, and store them in the stone bowl as sort of a liquid-silver substance. He had looked into Snape's memories of Snape's own fifth year at Hogwarts and seen the younger versions of James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew.
How, if the Pensieve was supposed to show him Snape's memory, had Harry been able to wander away from the memory-image of Snape to overhear his father and his father's friends? They had been talking about things that Snape wouldn't have known at that time, talking about Lupin being a werewolf, about their own full-moon adventures as Animagi. The Snape in the memory had not been paying any attention to them, not until James decided to entertain a bored Sirius by picking on Snape.
"If it was just Snape's memory," Harry said, stroking Hedwig, "I could … not discount it, but … well, tell myself that his memory was colored by his hate for them. But it showed me stuff that Snape didn't know. So it was more like … more like a real window onto the past than a moment of memory. Which means it wasn't colored by Snape's hate. That was the way he really acted. My dad."
He raised his head. The bedside table still held a framed photograph of his parents, both of them smiling and happy and looking very much in love.
"They were happy," he said. "They were in love. I believe what Lupin and … and Sirius …"
Harry choked on his godfather's name. Tears stung his eyes. He snatched off his glasses and wiped the tears away, angrily, on his sleeve.
"I believe what they told me," he said. "About how my mum got to like him all right after he settled down and stopped being such a bullying prat."
Still, it wrenched at him to think that his father, the one everyone said Harry so resembled, had been a bullying prat in the first place.
A flapping rustle at the window brought his head around in a hurry. Three large owls were jockeying for position there, while a smaller fuzzy shape the size of a tennis ball zoomed in over their squabbling heads. Hedwig let out an indignant hoot and hastily resumed her perch, fluffing her feathers out grandly and eyeing the fuzzy tennis ball as if daring it to come too close.
The fuzzy tennis ball – really, Ron's owl Pigwidgeon – paid no attention to Hedwig. Pig sped in delirious circles around Harry's head instead. Only the reflexes of a born Seeker let him grab the little owl from the air before Pig made him too dizzy to see straight. He replaced his glasses on his nose and was able to make out the other three owls as they sorted themselves out and came into the room.
One by one, they delivered their parcels and letters into his hands, then made their manners to the still-fluffed-out Hedwig and departed. When they had all gone but Pig, Harry had a pile of packages on his bed, and he could hear the heavy stomp of Uncle Vernon coming up the stairs. Quickly, he threw a blanket over the packages, and stuffed Pig into an open drawer.
The footsteps paused. Harry could envision Uncle Vernon out there, red in the face, having heard the hooting and dearly wanting to shout at Harry, but fearful that if he did so, before he knew it, a pack of wizards would be at his front door. When everything stayed quiet, except for Pig's excited flutterings in the drawer, the footsteps retreated down the hall.
Harry examined the packages. Once, the sight of actual birthday presents would have made his heart leap. Now, he did feel pleasure, but it was tinged with dolefulness.
The largest was clearly from Hagrid, and contained a slab of nut brittle that was not brittle at all; it could have served as a stretch of cobblestone paving and would crack the teeth right out of Harry's jaw if he tried to eat it.
The next one bore Hermione's neat script, and contained a beautiful lesson planner bound in black leather, with the letters D.A. embossed on the front in gold.
A rueful laugh escaped Harry as he ran the pad of his thumb over these letters. Did Hermione really think that the Defense Association, also known as Dumbledore's Army, was going to be allowed to continue? They would have yet another Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher this year, presumably one who really knew his or her stuff – if, that was, Dumbledore could find anyone to take the job, which was by now well and truly believed to be jinxed. The last thing the students would be permitted to do would be to independently study under Harry's tutelage.
But, flipping through the creamy pages, he shared for a moment Hermione's hope. Quidditch might not mean anything to him now, but the D.A. still did. At least in the D.A., they were doing something that mattered. The charms, jinxes, curses and countercurses they'd studied had been put to good use when he, Hermione, Ron, Neville, Ginny and Luna Lovegood had ended up deep in the Department of Mysteries.
"Not good enough use," he said. "We failed. I could have gotten them all killed. I did get Sirius killed. And for what?"
Hermione had been right about him. Harry Potter and his "saving people thing." She had been right, and to really rub it in, even Voldemort had known that much about his young adversary. All they'd accomplished, in the end, was to make sure that Voldemort could never hear the complete wording of the prophecy.
"It wasn't worth it," he said to the owls, as Pig emerged from the drawer, cheeping, with a sock draped over his head. "I would have handed the prophecy over to him myself if it would have brought Sirius back."
His anger flared anew at the memory of Sirius, hit with a spell from his cousin, the Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange. Falling backward through that arch, through the billowing black tatters of the veil. Falling, and then just … gone.
What were they thinking at the Ministry of Magic, anyway? To have something like that set up on a pedestal in the middle of a room, without a fence around it, without even a warning sign? All right, so it was hidden in the bowels of the Department of Mysteries, where not just anybody was supposed to be able to wander in, but … but still! Something that dangerous, sitting right out unprotected? If he'd been American, Harry thought with a flash of dark humor, he'd sue the Ministry for the loss of his godfather.
Then again, he should just be grateful that he wasn't sitting in Azkaban right now, with Lucius Malfoy and the rest of the Death Eaters. He had, after all, cast one of the Unforgivable Curses. He'd attempted to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange, and give her back a taste of what she'd given to Neville and his parents. That was a life term in Azkaban right there, hanging over his head.
But it wasn't like the Lestrange woman was going to turn up and accuse him. She had escaped with Voldemort, and whatever they tried to do to Harry to exact their revenge, it wouldn't be through the Ministry's legal system.
Harry took a deep breath and attempted to shed this chain of bleak and gloomy thoughts. If Hermione had gotten him a Pensieve, instead, he could have been rid of them for good. He rubbed the letters on the cover of the lesson planner again, and set it aside.
The last package was small and looked rumpled, as if it had been opened and re-wrapped several times. As he undid the paper, a card fell out. There was a note. Brief, terse.
Found this. Thought you might want it. Checks out okay.
The note was signed, Moody.
A wry grin tugged at the corner of Harry's mouth. "Checks out okay … that's Moody, all right."
But the grin fell off his face the instant he opened the package and saw what was inside.
He should have known. One of Moody's previous well-meaning gestures had consisted of showing him a photograph of the Order of the Phoenix back in their heyday, so many of them subsequently dead or driven mad, Harry's and Neville's parents among them.
The item that lay in his hands was a mirror, an old mirror in a tarnished silver frame. The glass was dark and clouded, showing his reflection only dimly, as if through a pall of smoke.
"Oh," Harry said, strengthlessly. He closed his eyes and bit his lip until his teeth drew blood.
When he had control of himself, he got up, ignoring Pig's jubilant swooping and diving around him as he went to his trunk. It sat open against the wall, a jumble of school items he'd never properly put away strewn across the bottom. There was his Sneakoscope, and the half-eaten box of sugar mice Professor Flitwick had given him, and the glossy heap of his Invisibility Cloak.
And, folded indifferently into a threadbare Dudley-sized pajama shirt, was a small mirror, dark glass, tarnished silver frame. Harry picked it up. It was the twin of the one Moody had sent him.
An urge gripped him, an almost irresistible urge, to hurl both mirrors against the wall as hard as he possibly could. To shatter them into a million pieces.
Hedwig hooted, as if reading his mind and reminding him of seven years' bad luck. Fourteen, if he broke them both.
"Bad luck?" Harry scoffed, and barked a harsh laugh. "Bad luck? I don't know how my luck could get much worse, to tell you the truth!" He followed this up with a vile epithet that left Hedwig astonished on her perch.
Even Pig stopped in mid-air, taken aback. The little owl looked, in that instant, weirdly like Ron, eyes wide, beak hanging open, utterly dumbfounded expression.
"If I'd thought …!" Harry shook the mirrors, almost dashed them together. "If I'd just thought to use these, it all could have been prevented. I would have known Sirius was safe at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, and I never would have gone rushing straight to where Voldemort wanted me. Everything would have been different."
Pigwidgeon settled carefully onto the perch beside Hedwig, and Hedwig, gaze still riveted on Harry, didn't object to the small, fuzzy interloper.
He took another breath, this one shuddering in and out of his chest, and lowered the mirrors. Now they were both his, the last legacy he'd ever get from his godfather.
"What do I do with them, that's the question," he mused.
Ordinarily, he might have given one to Ron, so that the two of them could communicate any time they liked, just as Sirius and James had done in school. But he discovered, with a sinking sense of dismay, that he didn't really want to be able to communicate with Ron. Or to have Ron readily able to communicate with him. He didn't want to give a mirror to Hermione, either.
"And they're my only real friends," he said.
Hedwig blinked reproachfully at him.
"Well, they are," he protested. "Lupin, all right, maybe he does like me … or maybe it's just because he feels obligated to my father. Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt and everybody else in the Order … to them, I could just be another assignment from Dumbledore. All that time they spent having to guard me … like I was some thing and not a person. As for Hogwarts … half the time, they've thought I was some sort of crazy show-off. Even when they believe me, how many of them really trust me, or see me as anybody other than the Harry Potter?"
He caught himself, realizing that his voice was climbing to a near shout. As he scrubbed his hands through his messy mop of black hair, Pigwidgeon zoomed into his face again. At last, Harry saw that the little owl still had something tied to its leg.
"Okay, okay," he said as Pig battered against his palms like a badminton birdie gone berserk.
Getting Ron's owl to hold still long enough to be relieved of the burden was always a challenge, but at last Harry triumphed and released Pig to whirl happily through the bedroom again.
The parcel was tiny, and when he opened it, it turned out to be a wooden box with a clear crystal lid. Inside, on a bed of what looked like wine-colored velvet, rested an old-fashioned, ornate brass key.
He read the note, deciphering Ron's scrawl.
Dear Harry, it read. Dad got this authorized. It's a Portkey. If you want, it'll bring you to the Burrow anytime. Hope to see you soon. Ron.
As soon as he finished reading the note, the clock began to chime. Midnight. His birthday. He was now sixteen years old.
Continued in Chapter Two: Dudley's Tea Date.