The pub fit the cliché "hole-in-the-wall" quite well. The structure, shoddy at best, could be found none-other than right off Knockturn Alley.
The hunched wizard, dressed in his burgundy suit, wrung his hands nervously, looking about the room for his patron. Naturally, spotting him in a back corner, the wizard cautiously made his way over to him.
The dim candlelight served well to hide his client's face within the shadow of his hood. He'd yet to get a good look at him, and that unnerved him, but the money was too good to pass up.
"You have news for me, Fletcher?" the voice was harsh and raspy, and commanded a certain air of nobility to it.
"I do, Sir. The boy has retained possession ofit," he punctuated this last piece.
"Hmm..." the man before him leaned back in his seat, pondering this revelation with his fingertips pressed tensely together. "This is very good news, Fletcher, very good indeed. This will be far easier than I had feared."
"Excuse me, Sir... but wasn't the whole idea to keepitin his possession?"
The hidden man let loose a small shrill of a laugh, cutting Mundugus cold, right to the bone.
Due to the nature of his profession, many would like to accuse ol' Fletcher of Death Eater dealings, but Dumbledore had found use in Mundugus's skill, and had thus always kept him under his wing and protection. But now, Dumbledore was gone. He had to be careful.
"Whatcha want with the boy anyways?" Fletcher questioned suspiciously. Business always came first, but he hadn't helped try to keep that kid alive for the last seventeen years to just piss it all away now.
"Ah, come to ease my dear Fletcher, I mean the boy no harm. Time will reveal all. Apart from this, I have a another task for you, One hundred Galleons. There is this woman at the Dueling Damsels..."
Chapter One: Plans
Something was wrong. He could sense as much, that something was off. He searched for the word. It swirled evadingly around his tongue yet would not come. He needed the word. With a word there is meaning, a definition. He could not understand this without the word.
The scene felt familiar, like one he'd known, one he'd lived - but he did not recognize the man nor the boy standing apart from one another in the tall grassed field.
There was a somber exchange. The older man approached the boy, kneeling before him and took him in his arms and hugged him close to his chest. It was a solemn goodbye.
The man stood back up and paced off ten steps before he whirled back around on the boy with his wand drawn, fire in his eyes.
"DO IT!" the man bellowed, before the scene changed, like it always did, the yin following the yang. The dark, empty eyes bore into him. Death. The claw of the rotting corpse lurched out to grasp him.
"Ayh!" Harry sat bolt upright, startled within his bed. He discovered himself panting. His heartbeat racing, his body was soaked with sweat. At first, he had no clue as to where he was. There was something in his hand - he looked. He had his wand.
Then Harry heard that all too familiar, obnoxious snoring rumbling from across the room and he turned to shake his head at his best mate, Ron. The Burrow... he was back safe at the Burrow - it had only been a dream. Harry sighed audibly as he collapsed back onto his pillow, now gazing up and past the planked, rickety ceiling.
Why, still with the dreams..?Harry could only ponder. He was supposed to have been done with all that, his connection with Voldemort broken. But the dreams did not abate him.
On that note,however, these were not necessarily of Voldemort though. He'd had them before, he realized this now, but since he had vanquished his sworn enemy, only three nights ago, these seemed to be of a different source altogether.
Morning light was already peeping in from the window, but Harry knew better, that it was still too early to be awake. The Sun had to have just begun to creep over the horizon, shedding light on a new day. A pair of morning birds sang to one another as they danced outside the window - wild and free.
For some reason, Harry's thoughts turned to Hermione, trapped, just like him. Ron was at least home. Home... Harry was not sure where that was for him.
Plagued by his exhaust, he thought of the last time he was here, half-expecting to find it all a dream, Bill and Fleur's wedding decorations still outside and his nightmare still very much alive and well. That day seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Hughmpfnoghn- Hgghfnmmpff!" Ron's incessant snoring rattled on like a tired diesel engine. Between the dream and Ron's blubbering, Harry knew he wouldn't be getting anymore sleep. Defeated, he begrudgingly rolled out of bed and picked up his shorts and t-shirt to make his way downstairs to the kitchen.
"Morning," a voice caught him off guard.
"Oi!" Harry jumped, startled, and in an instant he had his hand at his wand, which was sticking conveniently out his pocket.
Harry's surprise was short lived, thankfully, as it was only Hermione. Harry could tell by her shocked expression that she had seen him go for his wand and he became embarrassed. "Sorry Hermione, didn't expect anyone else to be up, I... I didn't see you there..."
"It's fine Harry, but honestly, must you take that thing with you everywhere?" Hermione asked him about his wand with all her motherly charm.
"What?" Harry defended himself. "Yours is just there," he pointed out, motioning to the table. And sure enough, Hermione had her wand just there beside her, readied at hand. She looked surprised, as if she hadn't been aware it was there all along.
"Habit... I guess," Hermione breathed as she cautiously picked it back up and stowed it away.
The door leading outside suddenly burst open. "Everything alright in here?!" a plump and balding wizard barged his way in with his wand held ready, asking excitedly.
Harry's eyes closed as his head fell back and his fists gripped tightly at his sides.It would never end.Harry did not bother to acknowledge the older wizard, and seeing her best friend's frustration, Hermione decided it best if she were the one to answer.
"Yes Burns, thank you. Everything is just fine, I simply startled Harry when he came down is all."
"Right," Burns nodded but scanned the kitchen suspiciously all the same. "Sounded like someone was in trouble."
"Thank you Burns," Harry finally added, "but as Hermione just pointed out, she startled me was all. I doubt any Death Eaters have learned how to apparate right inside all your defenses," Harry said with loathing. "Or are we going through all this security for nothing?!"
"Right," Burns repeated, looking to Hermione once more before slipping back outside. The latch on the door caught with a slightclick.
Harry was beyond frustration. He couldn't take it anymore. He felt his temper boil inside him, eager to be unleashed and allowed to flow out him.
Since the final battle, the Ministry had insisted that the three, "The Golden Trio" the Daily Prophet had coined them, have a special unit assigned to them for their protection. But to Harry, they were more like his prison guards than his protectors. With his appetite thrown, he knew he still had to eat something so he went for the milk and cereal for an easy breakfast.
"What are you doing up so early for anyways?" Harry asked Hermione now that their "guardian" Burns had left them, and having taken note of the bags under her eyes and the grogginess in her voice. She looked ill.
This tugged at Harry's heart. He had that brotherly-need to protect her. And he could not believe that this was mere coincidence, they the first two up - again. They with the least of sleep but with the greatest need for it. These last few days had been nothing short but of a continuation of the long nightmare that had preceded them this last year.
'At least Ron isn't having any problems!' Harry recalled his snoring with a smirk.
"I could ask you the same thing," Hermione retorted, pulling Harry out of his reverie as she continued to scan over the morning newspaper and sip her coffee absently.
Harry frowned with his back to her. Hermione needed sleep. They were already on to their fourth day since the final battle and still they had only gotten mere pockets of much needed rest just here and there. Didn't the so-called "adults" all know that more than anything, they just needed to sleep?
No. Of course they didn't. Harry felt a swell of rebellion in him for the day head. Three days ago, straight from the battle field they had begun ushering them along, the Trio.
Right off, still standing in the rubble of Hogwarts, began the endless number of interviews by the endless number of departments of Magic, demanding this, investigating about that. Lets just say they didn't get much - most certainly not from Harry that is.
Even worse than the Trio's interrogators were the wards of St. Mungo's, poking and prodding in test after test, examining for any lingering curses or jinxes in the most invasive ways. They had even gone as far as to keep them held up within the hospital under close observation that first night, stealing away their hard earned fight for freedom."It is for your own protection,"the "adults" had assured them.
And then there were the funerals starting on that second day. The countless, tearful, heart wrenching funerals. The faces flitted before him: the small form of Collin Creevey, Remus and Tonks never to see their little Teddy again, Fred, taking half of George and a piece of them all with him, Snape and his true self finally coming to light... and a countless number of other still faces with closed eyes and cold skin, being laid to rest for the final time.
In the end, Harry had become near numb to them - which in and of itself was unnerving. But at least he was allowed to attend. The Ministry never let him get too close, all three of the Trio constantly surrounded by an armed guard wherever they went. The worst thing was that these funerals were their only chance to get outside the walls of St. Mungo's or the Ministry itself. "There are still Death Eaters out after all," they told them,"it's for your own protection."
"Protection?!"Harry loved to mock. That didn't mean the Ministry wouldn't line the three of them up for several well rehearsed press interviews in front of a few dozen reporters though.
It made for great propaganda, showcasing the heroes off like that. "It gives people a sense of security," the officials encouraged them. But as the cameras flashed and the reporters hollered questions randomly and over one another, scribbling angrily away on their quick-quill notepads answers that the Trio never gave, Harry had abruptly put an end to it. All further interviews had still as yet been postponed.
After they had kept them locked up at the Ministry that second night, readily available for continued interviews with continued departments of the Ministry now night and day, Harry had threatened with his wand until Shacklebolt himself got involved and they were delivered back to the Burrow on that third day.
Oh, it didn't mean that there still wasn't a small army of Aurors standing guard outside however, and it most certainly didn't mean that the three had any freedom whatsoever.
"It's worse than being on the run," Harry had grumbled to his two friends on several occasions.
"Are you not talking?" Hermione asked softly, bringing Harry back again. He sighed a long sigh as he ran his fingers through his black, unkempt hair.
"Couldn't sleep," was all Harry said. Hermione looked up and frowned at him.
As he joined her at the table, he thought about telling her of his continued dreams, but then decided against it. It wasn't as if these were visions of Voldemort, and he knew that if he did say anything at all on the topic to her, that she would just flip out and overreact. So, Harry decided to keep his dreams to himself and spare her the trauma.
"Yes, I guess I can't either," Hermione finally answered him with a long sigh of her own, catching his eyes as he sat down. Their gazes held unwaveringly. There was a deep look between them. So much said without a word spoken. They'd long since learned to understand each other like this, all alone during their long nights on the run.
As something passed between them, something some onlooker, some spying Burns could have no understanding of, the two shared a short smile together, there alone in the kitchen of the Burrow. They were warm and familiar and reassuring smiles. For how long now had they been each others only other morning companion? They had made it! They had faced those challenges together and now they would face these, together. They understood each other, and nothing more needed to be said on the matter.
"Mail came early," Hermione said softly, nodding towards the neatly divided stacks that laid beside her. "The poor owl looked as if he were molting - nearly killed over right here. I had to give him a few extra treats..." she said with a smirk.
Harry smiled at Hermione's pouting lip, picturing the unfortunate owl and coming up with Pig, but his humor was cut short by the sight of the four piles. There was a small stack for the Weasleys, two much larger hills for Ron and Hermione, and one deep row that Harry knew belonged to himself.
From that first day following the final battle, an influx of mail had come in from all across the country, plus even a number from abroad. All of them from thankful governments or well-wishers and fans, hoping for an autographed response. Oh, Ron and Hermione got their fair share of it alright, but still not nearly as much as Harry did.
And more than anything, Harry wanted absolutely nothing at all to do with it. He would be happy to simply ignore the letters, ignore everyone, but Hermione insisted. "You at least owe them that, Harry!" she would go on, "It's the least you could do!"
"As if!"Harry yearned to snap back at these, but he always held his tongue. He had no nerve to deny Hermione her wishes. Harry didn't think he owed any of them anything, no one but Ron and Hermione and those few who were there with him at the end, so he sucked it up and did it for Hermione.
And as such, Hermione being Hermione, she diligently saw to it that both he and Ron answered each and every letter - much to their combined chagrin. Ron had even sparked a few rows over it with her, but she was unyielding. Good ol' Hermione.
Harry's hand cramped up just thinking about it.'At least I'm not having to write them with one of Umbridge's quills,'he smiled to himself as he summoned his stack of the mail.
"What?" Hermione asked, seeing Harry's little chuckle.
"Oh," Harry said coyly, "just thinking about how much you remind me of that toad Umbridge."
"Harry!" Hermione gasped, feigning shock. "That's an awful thing to say!"
"Ha, yeah!" Harry laughed as he began to sift through the top few letters with one hand, passing over each while feeding himself with the other. "I'm sorry - only teasing, 'Mione. I was just thinking that at least we're not in detention, writing all these with one of Umbridge's special quills!" Harry was still smiling, but the mood sobered. It wasn't one of their most pleasant memories. On the back of his hand, Harry could still see the faint outline of:"I must not tell lies..."
"When did you start calling me 'Mione anyways?" she asked with a tender smile in her voice, glancing to Harry from beneath her fallen bangs.
"You don't like it? I thought it had a good ring to it..." Harry smiled.
"No, I guess it's okay. Better than Ron's new nickname for me anyways," she shook her head at the recollection.
"What? You don't like Herms?!" They both had a good laugh at this.
Harry carried on with his stack of letters, sifting through them, casting each aside in turn as he continued with his cereal.
"From anyone we know?" Hermione asked him.
"Nah," Harry yawned loudly, "but there are a couple from France and Germany," Harry smiled cheekily as he flipped the faces of the latest addresses towards her as if to prove it. Hermione laughed.
"The famous Harry Potter, we're writing to inform you we've named yet another holiday after you!" she teased him in a mock, male, husky voice. Harry did not appreciate the joke and catapulted some of his milk and cereal at her.
"Hey!" she jumped back laughing, nearly tumbling over in her seat. "Not funny!"
"Neither are you!" Harry countered, smiling just the same as Hermione settled back into her seat, cleaning herself with a quick scourgify.
"How about you, anything good in there?" Harry nodded towards the Daily Prophet she was reading. The top corner of it had arched backwards just enough to where Harry could make out the date in the corner. It only intrigued him because for so long now he had hardly known what day of the week it was, much less the date. It read: May 5th, 1998.
"Most of it's quite awful, I'm afraid. I don't know why I go on with it. Just more stories of the crimes and tragedies committed by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, more people coming out of hiding, telling of their horrible plights. On the upside, I think the Ministry has just about rounded up all those that had escaped from Hogwarts..." she let this piece of news linger.
"Good," Harry said simply as he slurped his cereal off his spoon. "Then maybe they'd send these buffoons home-" Harry nodded towards the back door "-and give us our bloody lives back!" Harry huffed, summing up his anger.
Harry was done with Death Eaters and the like. He did not fear them coming after him and rue the day they did! He certainly did not think he needed a team of bodyguards controlling everywhere he went and looking over his shoulder at everything he did. Hermione nodded her agreement before returning to her paper. Harry flipped away a few more letters.
"And they've named a new Headmaster of Hogwarts..." Hermione trailed off to read on.
"Who?" Harry asked earnestly after Hermione left him hanging.
"Or should I say Headmistress," Hermione smiled coyly.
Hermione smiled wider and nodded.
"Good," was all Harry said once more and added a strong, furtive nod of his own.
"As her first act, she's annulled the current school year. All students are invited back to retake the term," Hermione read a subtext of the article to him.
"I guess it makes sense. What, final exams aren't even until next month, are they?"
"We'd be taking our N.E.W.T's..." Harry could hardly suppress a laugh as Hermione frowned when she said this. He could see the longing in her eyes.
"Well think of that Hermione! I bet if you start now, you'll just about be ready to ace each one of them by then!" Harry found his own joke particularly funny, but Hermione just shook her head at him.
"What? I'm sure you're already well ahead of the rest. I don't imagine too many learned much from the Carrow's unless it was on how to be a raw git!"
Hermione smirked at this, but at the same time, it wasn't that funny. This past year had been so dark, for them, for Hogwarts, for the whole wizarding community. Nothing was that funny about it. Silence once again fell upon the Burrow.
"Well, I for one am excited about it!" Hermione said.
"Excited?! About school?!" Harry acted shocked. "Imagine that!"
"Oh hush!" she waved him off. "I am, and you should be too! Your N.E.W.T.'s are important Harry! Graduating is important!"
"Hmm..." Harry took another mouthful of cereal. Funny, at the moment, it didn't feel all that important. "I don't know."
"Harry!" Hermione gasped, putting down her paper she turned to face him. "You can't be serious, Harry?! You're going back, aren't you?"
Harry did not answer right off, but pondered it for a moment. Back to school? Hogwarts was his home away from home. He imagined that he should feel elated for the chance to be back inside Hogwarts' walls. But then again... it was no longer the same Hogwarts he remembered.
A fierce battle had left it's scar. They may have cleaned away all the blood, but that didn't mean Harry couldn't remember all it's stains. And Dumbledore was gone. Snape was gone. Dobby was gone. How many had been murdered in those sacred halls? It would be a very different Hogwarts.
It also meant he'd be back on display for all the other students. The other students... He'd just been hunted like a fox for nearly a year by both Voldemort and the Ministry alike and had managed to survive. He and Ron and Hermione had performed magic most of the other students wouldn't in their lifetimes. He had stared death in the face and survived. He defeated Voldemort. Was he past school? "I don't know..." was in the end, all Harry could offer her.
Hermione was about to retort, but Harry's attention was suddenly drawn to the next letter of his stack. There was a large, emblazoned "M" on the front of it - it was from the Ministry of Magic. Seeing this, Hermione saved her smart reply as she watched Harry cautiously tear it open. There was never much good news from the Ministry these days.
Harry unfolded the letter and the more and more of it he read, the faster and faster his eyes darted back and forth across the page. When he finished it, he re-read it once more just for good measure.
Harry shifted uneasily within his seat. He was unsure of how to feel about this news, but one thing he did recognize, was the opportunity it presented him to finish up the "project" he had been working on. Seeing the uneasiness on his face, Hermione could await no longer.
"What is it, Harry?" Hermione asked him softly, afraid of what it might be.
Harry hesitated a moment before he began. "It's the Dursley's. Apparently they're back in England..." Harry trailed off, eying his letter.
Hermione let out an obvious sigh of relief. "Harry, I thought it was... but that's great news! Aren't you glad they're safe?!"
Harry shrugged, not exactly answering her.
"When did they get back?"
"Yesterday," he said dryly. "And they're set to leave today..."
"Today?" Hermione startled. "Leaving? To where? Why?"
"I don't know, it doesn't say," Harry answered honestly.
"Well Harry, you must go to see them!" Hermione adamantly insisted.
Harry looked to her with a twisted, comical expression. "Go see them? What for?!" Harry demanded, but then softened as he could see Hermione's disappointment in him.
"Hermione, just about the only thing the Dursley's hate more than me is magic, and because of me, they had to give up their lives and go into hiding for the last year under magical protection. Ha! No, I don't believe they'd be too thrilled to see me anytime soon!"
"Harry, I know that can't be true! I'm sure they'll be glad to see you," she tried encouraging him, but Harry just shook his head.
"You don't know the Dursleys, Hermione."
"So then I'll go with you," she said matter-of-factly. Harry dropped his hands to the table and stared at them. Here she was, with her own problems, still taking care of him.'What would I do without you?'
Hermione let him sit in his silence. She knew him well enough by now, seeing Harry have to make difficult and tough decisions time and time again, that she knew he liked to think things out, get his thoughts in order. So, she let him think.
"Have I ever told you about the first time I met Hagrid?" Harry seemed to change the subject.
"I believe so," Hermione watched him carefully. "That after you'd received your letter from Hogwarts and your uncle, a bit berserk I believe you told of him, dragged you all out to some remote lighthouse on your birthday?"
"Remote?!" Harry scoffed. "It sat on a tiny, bleeding island! Toted us out in the middle of a storm on a tiny bleeding rowboat!" Harry's eyes faded into the background as he recalled the memory.
"It was the first time I ever met a wizard, the first time I learned that I was a wizard..." Harry sighed, "And my uncle Vernon pulled a shotgun on him."
"Oh!" Hermione gasped. "You never told me that part of the story, Harry! What did he do?!"
"Hagrid?" Harry cocked a brow at her. "He grabbed the barrels with one hand and bent them to the ceiling."
"Ho!" Hermione laughed, covering her gaped mouth with one hand. "Well I guess it could have been worse..."
"It was," Harry frowned.
"My uncle pulled the trigger."
"Did anyone get hurt?!" Hermione was in disbelief that Harry had not shared all of this before.
"Not exactly. The gun just blew a hole in the ceiling, but my aunt went absolutely mental and my cousin Dudley tried using the distraction to sneak some of my birthday cake Hagrid had made for me..."
"Oh no, don't tell me..?!"
"Hagrid used his little "umbrella" and gave my cousin a pig's tail!" Harry, though doleful in his recollection, couldn't completely suppress a smirk at the memory.
"What?! You're kidding me, Harry!"
"No. And that may be kids play for you and I, Hermione, but I later found out that they had to get it surgically removed..."
"Oh no," Hermione winced.
"Yeah," Harry said even more grimly. "Doesn't matter. They never liked me Hermione. After I learned I was a wizard and could do magic, they feared me. They shunned me..." Harry shook his head, "and I have no doubt my uncle would just as soon pull that shotgun on me now, and you want to go with me?!" Harry chuckled to himself. "Well, it's you're funeral!"
Hermione gave him an empathetic look as she reached across the table and placed a hand on his. For some reason, Harry's eyes closed with her touch. There was a well of history and reassurance that passed through them. Her touch lent him her strength. Her courage gave him courage. They sat in silence for a moment before Harry opened his eyes once more to her full, brown orbs looking back across at him.
"I'll go to be there for you, Harry, because I really think you should, but I'm not going to force you," Hermione gave in, but Harry knew she had already won.
"No," Harry sighed. "No, you're probably right Hermione - as usual. You know, after last time I didn't think I'd ever see them again - didn't think I'd still be alive to see them... and now that I'm of age and Voldemort's history, I don't imagine I'll ever go back there again. But..." Harry took a deep breath, "no matter how unpleasant they are, they are still my family and we parted on good enough terms last time. Maybe, once more, just to see them off..." Harry forced a meek smile.
"I think that's a good idea, Harry. It's settled then," Hermione smiled approvingly, giving Harry's hand a firm squeeze.
"We'll have to be off today though. And soon..." Harry informed her uneasily. There was no telling when the Dursleys would be departing, and though truth be told he wasn't at all that eager to see them, he decided that he needed the alibi and he was none to shy about the opportunity to be delinquent from their planned-for-them day ahead.
As they returned to their preoccupations, Harry stole a glance at Hermione from the corner of his eyes. She was looking back at her paper now, but she was no longer reading, Harry could tell as much. With her brows furrowed, he knew she was busy plotting her own "project," plans he knew she thought were anonymous to everyone, but she couldn't fool him. He knew her too well.
And he in turn sat brooding himself, redrawing his carefully laid plans over within his head. The time had come. He didn't mind one bit an excuse to miss all the day's interviews and examinations, and especially the ever present team of bodyguards. The potion was ready. All he needed to do now was make it into the city to complete their traveling arrangements and then they'd be right to leave, and a trip to the Dursleys' could provide just that. They would be leaving today.