The Sugar Quill
Author: KEDme (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Shadow of the Serpent:  Chapter: Chapter 1: The Return
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The Shadow of the Serpent

Disclaimer: All credit for the Harry Potter universe goes to the great JKR. I take credit only for the work that is clearly mine.

The Shadow of the Serpent

Chapter One:  The Return

The Muggle airliner zoomed through the sky smoothly, most of its occupants unaware that it carried a very special passenger.  Had they known the history behind the dark-haired youth absently staring out the window, they may have taken more notice.  As it was, there was nothing to suggest that the average-looking teenager with messy hair and glasses was extraordinary in any way, even by wizard standards.  But Harry Potter, the boy in question, was a wizard - and a very unusual one at that.

Most wizards would say that the thin, lightning-bolt scar on the boy’s forehead was the result of a curse left by one of the most feared Dark Lords of the age.  However, the boy knew that the inconspicuous-looking disfigurement was a curse in more ways than one.  The Dark Lord, believed to be dead for many years, had recently found a way to return.  The scar was a living connection between the two wizards; a connection that had caused much trouble for the boy in the past several years.

As Harry Potter looked out of the window of the mostly empty first class compartment, he pondered his life and how it would change upon his return to England.  It had been a month and a half since he had last seen his home country and friends.  It had been even longer since he had last laid eyes on his true home, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  His life had changed a great deal since then.

Although just turned 16, he was a man now, and ready to shoulder the burden that had been thrust upon him so early in life.  He had learned many things over the past weeks, and - even though he knew he still had much to learn - he felt strangely at peace.  The feeling had not come cheaply - he had paid a huge price for it.  Now, however much he hated it, he was resigned to his fate.

Harry’s thoughts were interrupted by the re-appearance of his companion, a man of about forty with sandy-brown hair, a rich golden tan, and a handsome face edged with worry lines.  His daunting blue eyes surveyed the youth with concern as he sat down in the empty seat next to him.  

“We’ll be arriving at Heathrow in about 20 minutes.  The pilot says we’re on time,” he announced.

Noticing the far-off look of his companion, he hesitated.  “All right there, Harry?” he asked in a deep, concerned voice.  His intelligent gaze did not miss the flash of indecision that crossed the boy’s face.

Instead of answering, Harry just shrugged his shoulders and turned back to stare out of the window.

“You’re worried about what your friends will say when you see them again,” the man deduced with a grim smile.

“Wouldn’t you?” he said stiffly, inclining his head in agreement.

“From what you’ve told me of your friends, Harry, I think they’ll stand by you.  You’re still the same person you were before all this mess began,” the man said confidently.

Harry snorted.  “How would you know?”

“I suppose I don’t,” he agreed reluctantly.  “Not having known you before, it’s hard for me to tell.  All I know is that you obviously have some very loyal people on your side.”

Giving Harry a sidewise look, he grinned.  “At least you’re no longer apt to do a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation on them anymore,” he quipped.

“That’s partly what worries me,” Harry admitted seriously.  “I did and said some awful things before I came to you.  I don’t know if they’ll be able to get past it.”

“They, Harry - or she?” the man asked wisely.  He raised his eyebrow in a questioning manner.

Again Harry shrugged wordlessly and turned back to the window.

“What’s so interesting out there, anyway?” he asked, amused.  “You’d think after two days in the air it would all seem redundant.”

“Sometimes redundancy is good,” Harry replied without looking back.  “It helps clear the mind.”  Had Harry been looking in his direction, he would not have missed the large smile that that briefly crossed the man’s face.

“Speaking of which,” the man asked in a business-like tone, “have you had any indication whether Voldemort has sensed your return?”

Harry shook his head.  “Nope, not even a twinge.”

“Good,” his companion said with obvious relief.  “I’m sure he’s expecting it, since term is about to start, but there’s no sense in taking out an advertisement.  Do you have any questions about the plan?”

“Not really,” Harry replied as he turned to face his companion once again.  “Isn’t there any way I can persuade you to change your mind?”

The man’s eyes narrowed dangerously.  “Harry, we’ve been through this already.”

“I know,” the boy sighed.  “But going back there… it’s just not something I’m looking forward to,” he said.

“I’m sure it isn’t,” the man said sympathetically.  “However, it is a necessary part of the plan.”

“Isn’t there any other place?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

The man shook his head.  “Taking you to the Leaky Cauldron would be as good as a flashing neon sign telling Voldemort you’re back.  That’s something we want to avoid as long as possible.”

The man surveyed Harry with keen eyes.   “I won’t lie to you, Harry.  Nowhere is safe for you.”

“I think I could handle myself,” Harry said crossly, shooting him a pointed look.

“Remember what we talked about, Quetzal,” he said reproachfully.  “You need to keep the element of surprise on your side.  Voldemort can’t know anything's changed,” he said firmly.

The man watched the boy unconsciously finger the area around his wrists as he turned back towards the window.  In order to distract him from his dark thoughts, he asked a seemingly innocent question.  “So, how’s your friend adjusting to the altitude change?”

Harry turned back quickly, and flashed the man a genuine boyish smile.  “Well enough, I suppose,” he answered.  “He’s not thrilled with the air pressure, but he’s been napping most of the journey.  I think he may be awake now.  Care to say hello?” he asked, sliding his backpack that was lying on the floor between his feet over closer towards his companion.

The man’s face contorted oddly.  “No,” he said, backing as far away as he could get in the small space.  “That’s quite all right.”

The teenager laughed, and began to tease him mercilessly by trying to slide the bag closer.

Luckily, he was saved from more of Harry’s taunts by the airline attendant.  “Excuse me, Mr. Hunter,” the thin, long-legged blonde said, bending closer than was probably necessary to deliver the message.  “The pilot asked me to inform you that we are about to begin our final descent.  We should be landing at Heathrow in 15 minutes or so.  He asked that you and your companion remain on the plane until the last of the passengers have disembarked, so that he can speak to you about your special arrangements.”

“Thank you,” Hunter replied graciously.  As she started back towards the cockpit, he added, “Please convey my appreciation to the pilot, and let him know that his cooperation will not be forgotten.”

She nodded gravely and turned to deliver the message.

“Who is coming to meet us, anyway?”  Harry asked curiously.

“I wasn’t told names,” Hunter replied slowly, “but I was under the impression that you know them.”

“That’s helpful,” Harry said sarcastically, rolling his eyes.

“I’m assuming it will be the same ones that brought you to me in July,” he responded, ignoring Harry’s attitude.

“Well, as I was unconscious most of the time, that isn’t helpful, either.”

“Let’s see…” Hunter mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “there were four.  One was female with blue, spiky hair...”

“That would be Nymphadora Tonks,” Harry clarified, “but she goes by her last name, Tonks.  She’s an Auror and a member of the Order.”

“Yes, that does sound familiar,” Hunter conceded.  “Remus Lupin was the only one I knew.  The other two had red hair.”

“Do you remember anything about them?” Harry inquired.  "Most of the Weasleys are in the Order."

“One was in his twenties with longish hair, the other was clearly his father,” he told him.

“That would be probably be Bill Weasley and his father, Arthur,” Harry said.  "It's hard to tell, though from your oh-so-detailed description," Harry said sardonically.

“I take it there are several Weasleys in the Order these days.  Do they still have their trademark red hair?” Stephen asked curiously.

Harry grinned broadly.  “Yeah, they do,” he said.  Then for emphasis, he added, “Every last one of them.”

“You talk like there are many,” Stephen said in his customary detached way.   By now Harry knew him well enough to know this was a sign he was thinking about something.

“Let’s see…” Harry said, pretending to think, as well, “…there are Molly and Arthur, Ron’s parents.  Arthur works for the Ministry of Magic in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts department.  He and Mrs. Weasley are both members of the Order." 

"Then there’s Bill.  He works for Gringotts as a curse-breaker, but has a desk job now so that he can help the Order.  Charlie is the next oldest.  He lives in Romania, but he’s in the Order, too.  After Charlie, is Percy.”  Harry paused and made a face.

“Something wrong with Percy?” Hunter asked curiously, coming out of his zone long enough to let Harry know he really was listening.

“He’s the git of the family.  He works for Cornelius Fudge, and has basically disowned the family because they support Dumbledore and me.”

“Hmm… sounds as if Percy needs an attitude adjustment,” Hunter replied thoughtfully.

“Uh-huh,” Harry confirmed.  “It’s hard to believe he was a Gryffindor, the way he’s been acting.  Always had a big head, that one." 

"Anyway, after Percy are Fred and George, the twins.  They’re identical.  Oh, and they have their own joke shop in Diagon Alley.”

“How old are they?” Stephen asked, surprised.  "If Bill is the oldest, and there are two others in between, they can't be much older than twenty."

“They just turned eighteen,” Harry said proudly.  "They left school last term to start it up.  I'm sure students will be talking about the fuss the twins made before they left for generations.  Their exit was dramatic, to say the least.”

"Sounds like the something your Dad and his friends would have been proud of," Stephen said with a chuckle.  "That's the stuff of legends."

Harry smiled at the memory of seeing Umbridge get her just desserts at the hands of the Weasley twins.   “It was.  It took Filch a good while to correct the damage they inflicted on the school.  They always were the pranksters, but they’ve just taken it one step further.  After they left, they opened up their own shop.  From what I’ve seen, it appears to be a success.”

“Opening a shop is a big investment.  Where did they get the money to start it up?”

“I gave it to them,” Harry said uncomfortably.  In a hushed voice, so that Stephen had to strain to hear, he mumbled, “I gave them my Tri-Wizard Tournament winnings.”

Hunter raised his eyebrows in shock.  “Since when are they doing the Tournament again?  I thought it had been disbanded years ago because it was too dangerous.  And what was Dumbledore thinking letting you enter?  You just turned 16, for goodness sake!”

Harry’s uncomfortable feelings intensified with Hunter’s line of questioning.  He hated to be reminded of that time and was annoyed that he had brought up his age.  Hadn’t he proven himself capable?  “I was 14, actually, and it’s a long story,” he snapped waspishly.  Seeing Hunter’s confused face, however, made him realise he owed the older man an explanation.

“I’ll tell you all about it one day,” Harry said, “but right now is not the time and I’m really not in the mood, anyway.  If you hadn’t sequestered yourself from our world, you would know most of the details,” he said accusingly.  “It was in the papers a few months ago.”

“I had my reasons,” Hunter said.  He had a hint of a warning in his voice.

“Which you have yet to tell me,” Harry said stubbornly.  “You know all about me, yet I know almost nothing about you.”

“Of course you do,” Hunter said, smiling a self-satisfied smile.  “You know that I was once an Auror, and a member of the Order of the Phoenix, back when your parents were alive.  You also know that I have been travelling ever since I left England, I have my own way of doing things, I hate to lose, and I snore.”

“Why do I get the feeling you left a lot out?” Harry said with a frown.

“Because I did,” Hunter told him.  “Just like you, I have my secrets.”

“I don’t have secrets,” Harry protested grumpily.

“So what’s your mystery girl’s name?” he asked with a wicked glint in his steely-blue eyes.

“What mystery girl?” Harry said sharply.

“That’s what I thought,” he laughed.  “So, tell me some more about this red-headed family you’re so fond of,” the older man said, steering the conversation back to the subject at hand.

“Well…” Harry said slowly, attempting to drag his mind away from Hunter, his mysterious past, and thoughts of Ginny.

In the past six weeks he had tried to get information out of the older man, to no avail.  He refused to talk about the circumstances that drove him away from the Wizarding World.  It was all very dodgy in Harry’s opinion.  But Hunter had done a lot for him over the past several weeks.  He had literally saved his life.  Harry trusted him in spite of these little nuances.

“…the only two left are Ron and Ginny.  Ron is my age and Ginny is a year younger,” he said finally, after a long pause.

Silently ticking them off in his head, Hunter whistled.  “Correct me if I’m wrong, but is that seven children in all?”

“Yes,” Harry said absently.  He didn’t feel much like talking anymore.  His mind had already drifted to his friends - the youngest Weasley in particular. 

Just saying her name was enough to send his thoughts into a tailspin.  Without thinking, his hand found the Phoenix pendent that Dumbledore had given him for his birthday.  It helped to calm his mind and focus his thoughts.

He longed to see her again.  It seemed like an eternity since he had last held her in his arms.  For the thousandth time since they parted, he thought back to the incident by his door when Ginny had poured her emotions into him.  Closing his eyes, he successfully conjured up the feeling and immediately felt much better. 

Thinking about it helped centre him.  He was so focused on the feeling that he didn’t even notice his backpack stirring around his ankles at first.

“You’re doing it again,” Hunter said casually, breaking him out of his trance.

“Doing what?” Harry asked irritated that his concentration was broken.

“Letting your magic go,” Hunter said, pointing to the backpack which was twitching, wiggling, and floating about two inches off the ground.

Harry blushed slightly.  “Sorry,” he mumbled as he reached down to correct the damage he’d done.  Placing a hand over the pack, he closed his eyes and concentrated.  The pack instantly dropped to the floor, although it still wiggled slightly.

“I know you’ve heard this before, Harry, but you really need to watch yourself.  Now that we’re almost home, it’s imperative-”

“Yes, I know,” he said dismissively.  Seeing Hunter’s concerned face, he tried to make amends.  “I’ll try harder, all right?” he promised.

“You shouldn’t take it so lightly.  We need to work on that attitude of yours,” Hunter said playfully, wagging a finger at him.  “That’s what got you in trouble with Occlumency.  Speaking of which, have you been doing the exercises I taught you?”

“Yes, as often as I can,” he answered truthfully.  Harry’s face clouded.  “I don’t see why I need to hide certain things from my friends, though,” he told him disapprovingly.  It was an old argument.

Hunter surveyed the boy carefully.  “Perhaps you can tell them, in time,” he said.

“For now, it’s best if we keep some things just between the two of us.  I don’t even want Dumbledore to know.”  Harry looked ready to protest, but Hunter cut him off.  “Trust me on this, Quetzal.  I have my reasons.”

Harry’s retort was interrupted when the pilot’s voice came through the loudspeakers asking everyone to prepare for landing.  Two days ago Harry had been nervous when it came to his first landing.  Stephen had insisted on travelling Muggle-style for safety reasons.  Instead of the direct route, however, they had flown to Miami and then to New York, where they had stayed overnight and spent the day shopping.  Harry was in desperate need of new clothes, as he had grown substantially over the summer.  He had a feeling he would need new robes as well, which was another reason he was disappointed he could not go to Diagon Alley.

They spent the day in New York having fun, knowing that their return to England would signal a new phase in their lives.  Stephen insisted on paying for everything, even though Harry stubbornly vowed to pay him back.  Stephen waved it off as trivial; he had plenty of money thanks to his successful archaeological expeditions.  He was extremely well off, but refused to divulge just how wealthy he really was.  It made him extremely self-conscious. 

Harry also found himself in a Muggle optical shop picking out new frames.  Stephen also insisted on an eye appointment, which was a good thing because his prescription had changed.  It had been quite a few years since his last examination.  He had to admit that the purchase had been worth it.  He could see much better now- which would definitely help when searching for the snitch- and the frames fit his face better.  He still chose round ones because he couldn't get used to seeing himself in anything else, but they were much lighter and more stylish.  They made him feel more confident, if nothing else.   

The next day they had risen early for the long flight to London.  The plan was to meet up with the Order members and then go to Headquarters, where Harry would spend the remainder of the night before Portkeying directly onto Platform 9¾.

The plane landed gently and before Harry knew it the passengers had departed.  He and Stephen had hung back to await the appearance of the pilot, who was supposed to give them instructions.  Harry was surprised to see Bill Weasley approach them instead.

Bill studied Harry warily at first, until Harry flashed him a shy grin and stuck out his hand.  “Good to see you again, Bill,” he said genuinely.

That must have been good enough for Bill, who took Harry’s outstretched hand and pulled him in a big bear hug that had Harry’s face turning as red as Bill’s hair.  “It’s good to have you back, Harry,” he whispered emotionally in his ear as he clapped him on his back in typical manly fashion.  Clearing his throat, he straightened up and pulled away, obviously realising that he had forgotten he and Harry had an audience.  Stephen just looked on placidly, his keen eyes surveying the two with interest.

Harry had his second surprise of the day when Bill turned to Stephen and acknowledged him stiffly. “Hunter,” he said with a nod.  Bill’s eyes narrowed, flashing a hint of suppressed anger.

“Weasley, isn’t it?” Hunter said evenly, but did not extend his hand.

“That’s right,” Bill answered coldly.

“Harry speaks highly of you and your family,” the older man said in a stiff voice.  Harry couldn’t tell from his tone what he was thinking.  There was a sort of wariness there that Harry hadn’t seen from his friend for a long time.

When he had first met Stephen, Harry had not thought much of him.  He was cold, distant, and closed up.  Slowly, however, the frostiness had given way to warmth and friendship.  He and Harry had bonded over the course of the past several weeks, and now they shared a unique relationship built on mutual trust.  They had been through a lot together, and each man had earned the others’ respect.  Harry trusted Stephen with his life.

Bill looked taken aback by this comment.  Clearly it was not what he had been expecting.  It was confusing to see the coldness between his two friends, and he wondered what had brought it on.  Knowing that he had to do something to break the tension, Harry interrupted the exchange with a well-placed comment.  “I don’t know where I’d be without all my friends,” he said, shooting a pointed look at each in turn.

Bill smiled at him warmly, seeming to shake off the unpleasantness and focus instead on Harry once again.  “Mum is going to be beside herself when she sees you, Harry.  I think she was worried you’d need fattening up.  She’ll be pleased to find that’s not the case.  You look healthier than I’ve ever seen you!”

Harry smiled at the thought of Mrs. Weasley’s cooking.  It had been too long since he’d had a proper meal.  The food on the island had been filling, and he’d certainly had enough, but he could really use some of Mrs. Weasley’s Shepherd's Pie and Yorkshire Pudding.  His mouth watered at the thought that he’d soon be back at Hogwarts eating his favourite, Treacle Tart.  Merlin, it had been too long!

Bill was still chattering, but the thought of food distracted Harry, and made him miss half of what the eldest Weasley said next.  Harry only heard, “…and Ginny will meet us there.” The comment was followed by silence, and both Bill and Stephen were looking at him expectantly.

“Excuse me?” Harry asked as politely as possible.  He didn’t want to appear rude and admit that he had been daydreaming and not caught all of what Bill said, yet he really wanted to know what had been said since it involved Ginny. He needed to know when he would see her again. 

It was the thought that had been foremost in his mind for the last several days.  Sighing, Harry admitted, “Sorry… it must be the jet lag - I think I drifted off there for a minute.  Would you mind repeating what you just said?”

Bill chuckled.  “I said that we need to get a move-on.  The Portkey is set to activate in...” he checked his watch, “...exactly two minutes.  Tomorrow we’ll use another time-activated Portkey to get to King’s Cross.  Ron, Hermione, and Ginny will meet us there.”

“What about our luggage?” Harry asked, as he gathered up his backpack.  He had little else to carry, as most of his belongings were in his trunk.

“Don’t worry,” Bill said confidently.  “It’s being taken care of.  Tonks and Lupin are handling that end.  It’ll be along shortly.”

Harry nodded as Bill pulled out an old, battered fork from the pocket of his jacket.  “Everyone set?” he asked when it seemed they were ready.  They nodded in the affirmative.  “All right, then… place a finger on the Portkey.  It’ll be activating in,” Bill checked his watch, “5…4…3…2…1….”

Harry felt the familiar jerking sensation around his navel as the Portkey activated.  When he looked up again, he found himself in the most peculiar circumstances possible.  Bill’s Portkey had landed the three of them right in the middle of the Dursley’s dining table at precisely the moment Aunt Petunia had chosen to serve pudding. 

So startled were the Dursleys at receiving such unexpected and unwelcome guests that, for once, the normally vocal Vernon Dursley was rendered speechless.  Meanwhile Dudley sat blubbering in shock, and Aunt Petunia promptly dropped the fancy tart she was carrying in horror. 

Harry was shocked to be back on Privet Drive.  He had expected Grimmauld Place, but not this!  Most unsettling of all - besides the fact that he found himself in the very last place he wanted to be with the people he had hoped not to see again for another year - was the presence of a fourth person sitting silently in shock, her mouth hanging open.  It was the very person he had hoped to avoid as long as possible - someone he wished never to see again - Claire Smith.

***

Seven weeks earlier…

The summer was turning out to be the worst yet for Harry Potter.  After his aunt and uncle had returned from their business trip, Harry’s life became even more unbearable.  This time, however, it wasn’t his aunt, uncle, and cousin who were causing the problem.  Well, they hadn’t helped.  But to be honest, it was his own warped mind that served as his betrayer.

He had thought having his friends over would alleviate most of the feelings of depression that constantly threatened to overwhelm him, but it hadn’t.  What he got instead was an even deeper feeling of loss once they were gone and he was alone, stuck once again in his own private hell called Privet Drive.

Harry had avoided contact with people as much as possible, since he couldn’t trust himself to not do or say something he didn’t mean.  Voldemort was no longer holding conversations with him in his mind, but sometimes Harry had the feeling that he was doing his best to influence him, especially when he was angry or harbouring ill feelings.  It was those times that Harry could feel the snake inside him poised and ready to strike, and that was when he fought his hardest not to lose control.

He still didn’t understand what had made him lose control of himself that night.  He had searched all his textbooks and came up with no good explanation for Voldemort suddenly having access to his mind and controlling his body. 

He knew it was different from what he had experienced at the Department of Mysteries, because when Voldemort had tried to possess him, Harry had felt pain beyond pain.  Dumbledore had said Harry’s love for Sirius made it impossible for Voldemort to remain for very long in his body.  This felt more like telepathy rather than possession.

Of course, he had also done some rather odd things during that time, like hold his wand on Dumbledore, as well as the things he had said to Mr. Weasley and Ginny.  This was unsettling because he remembered exactly what he had done, but not why he had done them.  It felt as if he was not in control of his body, but without the pain he’d experienced at the Ministry, and without the pleasant, numb feeling that came with the Imperius Curse.  He had a sneaking suspicion that whatever had happened was connected with Wormtail's visit, but he had no idea what it could have been.

Harry spent a great deal of time thinking back on that night, to try and piece together what had happened.  When everyone had shown up at his door to “rescue” him, he had been both touched and a bit annoyed.  He was grateful that he had friends that cared enough about him to come rescue him and even risk getting into trouble, but he was irritated that his life was always one big crisis.  He was sick to death of being the bloody Boy-Who-Lived, and everything that came with it.  He just wanted some normality, for a change.

Sitting outside, alone in the approaching dusk, certain thoughts swirled around in his already crowded mind.  Besides his normal dark memories, Harry found new things to dwell on that were equally troubling: girls.

Last school year the girl on his mind was Cho Chang, the pretty Ravenclaw seeker.  She had been the first girl to make his stomach do flip-flops and tie his tongue in knots, making him stumble over his words when in her presence.

But events this past year had changed Harry profoundly.  By the end of the year, he'd had little patience to deal with Cho's histrionics, and no energy to put into trying to make things work with her.  Too much had happened, too much had changed.  Although he still found her attractive, he no longer cared about pursuing anything beyond friendship.  Even the fact that she was dating Michael Corner did not affect him in the least.  He had too many other things to occupy his attention in the past several weeks.   Then Ginny happened.

Thinking back, Harry had to admit that his relationship with Ginny had come from nowhere and progressed very fast.  He still didn’t know for sure what made him notice her that night.  It could have been her new look, fresh from the salon with Hermione.  Maybe it was the wise way she looked at him, with those knowing brown eyes that cut right to his soul.  Partly it was their conversation, and realising they had so many things in common.  Perhaps she was just the right girl, and it had been the right time.

Whatever the reason had been, Ginny and Harry had clicked that night.  Harry was resigned to the fact that he may never understand how he and Ginny had gone from mere friends to snogging each other senseless in one evening.  Truthfully, he didn’t care.  He was just grateful they had, because he didn’t have the reputation of being a fast mover in the girl department.  The less time he had to think about these things, the better. 

He had always held Ron’s sister in high regard, even though he hadn’t thought much about her in the past.  Somewhere in the back of his mind he had always known she was pretty - as pretty as Cho, certainly, though in a different way.  Where Cho was more exotic, Ginny was the girl-next-door type.  Both were beautiful in their own right, just in different ways.

Because she had not talked in front of him up until this year, there were so many things to discover about her.  Harry felt he could take a lifetime getting to know the petite red-head, memorising every aspect of her personality, and still find something new that surprised him. 

The fact that they had so much in common was another plus.  Ginny knew some of what he was going through - what he had gone through - and she supported him fully; although she was not above putting him in his place when he needed it.  Certainly, they shared some bad experiences with Voldemort and both now bore the scars of those experiences.  Yet they also shared many other things.  Experiences and interests like flying, Quidditch, Gryffindor House, summers at the Burrow, pranks played by Fred and George, memories of Sirius, time spent at Grimmauld Place.  Thinking about this made him realise that he’d never had that much in common with Cho, and maybe that’s why his infatuation with her had dissolved.

Ginny made him smile.  She had Fred and George’s sense of fun, Ron’s temper, and her parents’ strong values.  She could be silly at times, yet she knew when to be serious.  She was kind, pretty, smart, and tough- everything a bloke wants in a girl.  She had certainly proven how tough she was in June, despite her deceptively small stature.  Although one of the youngest and smallest in the group who had gone to rescue Sirius at the Department of Mysteries, she had held her own against fully trained, grown Death Eaters.  More than that - she had earned Harry’s respect, not as Ron’s little sister, but as his friend.

She had fought Tom Riddle for over a year and was still able to maintain a normal life.  After seeing her dream of the Chamber of Secrets, Harry marvelled again at her strength.  Tom had tortured her mind and body, an experience Harry knew well.  The young Dark Lord had literally tried to suck the life out of eleven-year-old Ginny, yet he had failed.  A small part of him felt proud to know that he'd had a part in thwarting Voldemort's younger self, by saving Ginny’s life.

Despite these new feelings that brought him glimpses of happiness, Harry was miserable.  Now that he had time to think - now that Ginny and his friends were gone - life was back to being almost intolerable.  Thoughts of Sirius, Cedric, his parents, of Voldemort and the prophecy - they all swirled in his head like a tornado.  Even sleep gave him no relief.  Every time he closed his eyes he’d see someone he’d lost or could lose; the events of the final task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament; Sirius falling through the veil; or the Chamber of Secrets as Ginny had dreamed it, and he’d wake up screaming in a cold sweat.

Then there were the nights he’d dream of Voldemort, and fear would grip him that he might see Voldemort harming one of his friends or someone else he knew, especially Ginny, and he’d be powerless to stop it.  Harry was aware that Ginny was in as much danger as him right now. Voldemort wouldn’t hesitate to use the people Harry valued most in the world against him, and he already knew about Ginny.  He had done that with Sirius, and now Sirius was dead, lost to him forever.  If anything happened to any of the Weasleys or Hermione, he didn't know if he could live with himself.

He pondered these things as he wandered the neighbourhood aimlessly, in self-imposed isolation.  Sometimes he idly kicked at rocks to amuse himself, as he ambled down Wisteria Lane or Magnolia Crescent.  Often he found himself in the same deserted park he’d hung out in last summer, thinking about Sirius or Ginny.

He knew that an Order member was never far away, and that comforted him somewhat, as much as it irritated him.  He’d even heard Tonks knock over a dustbin on more than one occasion, or make rude comments under her breath to less than friendly neighbours.  He had to restrain himself from taunting her about it when it happened.  If any Death Eaters were following him, he could put his guards in danger by alerting would-be attackers to their presence.  Besides, he already drew enough attention to himself - he didn’t need people to see him talking to invisible people, on top of the strange looks he already got on a daily basis.

As he wandered the neighbourhood each day, occasionally he’d notice neighbours poking their heads out of their doorways or windows, to stare at him disapprovingly as he wandered.  As this was not unusual for him, he paid it no mind and ignored them.  Apparently Tonks had a harder time understanding that he’d been treated like an unwanted house-guest in this neighbourhood for years, thanks to the nasty rumours spread by the Dursleys.  Most didn’t dare approach him, and although it bothered him slightly, he didn’t dwell on it much.  After all, in one more year he’d be seventeen and through with the Muggle world for good.

‘That is,’ he thought tiredly as he ran a hand through his messier-than-usual hair, “if I live that long….’

Feeling his hair sticking up wildly made him wonder what Mrs. Weasley might say if she could see him now.  His face was beginning to take on the gaunt, pinched look he usually got after spending too much time with his “family”.  Harry wasn’t sure whether it was the meagre meals, the constant hostility, or the lack of sleep that was to blame.  He hadn’t washed his clothes in days, because that would require him to stay inside the house - something that was highly frowned upon these days - so he was looking rather more rumpled than usual.

He had been permitted to take a bath last night, however - but only after Dudley had used up all the hot water and left puddles all over the floor.  This was something his aunt and uncle were quick to hold Harry responsible for - immediately after he exited the bathroom, he was accosted.  Even though he had done his best to clean it up, apparently the water had seeped through the floor and was dripping from the ceiling into the living room. 

Uncle Vernon had been in a rage after being hit by several large drops of water, as he tried to watch the 11:00 news.  Dudley, of course, had made himself scarce, but not before he had gleefully informed his parents that Harry was the one currently using the bathroom.  Because of this, he was now rationed to one, five-minute bath per week, under the strict supervision of Uncle Vernon.  Harry shuddered to think of how his beefy uncle would enforce that particular rule.

After being yelled at for fifteen solid minutes, Harry finally managed to return to his room, only to have to scrounge for clean pyjamas and rummage around for his hairbrush, which had been missing-in-action for more than a week.  Searching for another fifteen minutes through the piles of clothes and other rubbish strewn about the room, he finally gave up and combed the thick mess as best he could with his fingers, muttering to himself the whole time and wishing he had some of that Sleekeasy potion that Hermione had once used.

Following another restless night of sleep, his hair now stuck up in even stranger angles than usual, causing more than one person to do a double-take and frown crossly as he passed them on the street.  He’d tried to wet it down, but without a brush it was a hopeless endeavour.  He’d have to think of a way to nick a comb or brush from Dudley's room, he supposed, if his didn't turn up soon.

The July heat was just beginning to show itself, as Harry found a deserted park bench and plopped himself down.  The air had a musty smell to it as the rising sun burned off the last of the morning dew.  He could tell already that it was going to be a sticky, humid sort of day that might be followed by a thunderstorm at some point.  Once again he wished he had access to the news, not only to keep tabs on Voldemort and strange activity in the Muggle world, but also for a simple weather forecast.  Perhaps he should think about places he could go in case of a sudden storm.

As he was sitting there thinking about these things, a shadow from behind made him jump.  Turning swiftly, he cursed himself for not being vigilant enough to have his wand ready in case of attack from behind.  Through the beating of his heart however, he was suddenly grateful he hadn't done anything rash.  It would be difficult to explain to the figure behind him why he had a magic wand, much less why he had it trained on her.  Harry squinted up at the silhouette of Claire Smith.

Harry hadn't seen Claire since the weekend had ended.  After Mr. Weasley had woken Dudley's friends from the spell Hermione had put them under, Harry had caught a glimpse of the "gang" leaving Privet Drive, from his upstairs bedroom window.  All of them had looked the worse for wear, but even after passing out from too much alcohol and Merlin knew what else, Claire had somehow managed to still look good.

She stood over him now, her face partially obscured from the morning sun, and looked at him curiously.  "Fancy meeting you here," she said conversationally, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"I didn't know you lived in this neighbourhood," Harry said, so surprised to see her that he forgot to be irritated.  Claire had teased and tormented him back in primary school, and this weekend she had done her best to cause a rift between him and Ginny.  Harry quickly caught himself and attempted to scowl at her but, try as he might, he couldn't bring up negative feelings towards her.  She stood there next to him, her blond hair impeccably sleek and her clothes perfect and stylish, and Harry couldn't help but notice how beautiful she looked.  What's more, she seemed to have an expression of genuine concern on her face.

“We moved here two years ago,” she said.  Frowning, she commented, “You don’t look so good, Harry.  Is everything all right?”

Briefly Harry considered what to tell her.  The truth was nothing in his life was all right, but how could she be expected to understand that?  He couldn’t even tell her a fraction of what was wrong, not that he cared to anyway.

Finally he said, in what he hoped was a nonchalant voice, “Never better.  And you?”

“Well,” she sighed tiredly, “that might take a while.  Mind if I sit?” she asked.  Harry noticed for the first time that her eyes didn’t look as confident and determined as they had the other night.  Instead, they looked almost… sad.

“Okay,” Harry said, scooting over on the bench to allow her room to sit down.  He waited for her to continue.

“My life is a mess, Harry,” she said sadly in a soft voice.  Something about the way she spoke led him to believe she was being truthful.  “I found out last night that my parents are divorcing.”

“Oh,” was the most Harry could come up with in response.  He had no experience with such issues.  He couldn’t remember much about his own parents, and his aunt and uncle were all he knew as far as parents went.  He did have Mr. and Mrs. Weasley as surrogate parents, but they couldn’t take the place of his parents no matter how much they tried.  No one could, really.

“Er… I really don’t know if I’m the best person to talk to about this,” Harry said hesitantly.  How could he say he envied her for even having parents?

Claire didn’t seem to hear him, however.  “I came home last night from Daphne’s house to find my mother packing,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.  She swiped them away angrily, as if they were offensive to her.  Her demeanour was rigid and angry now.

Harry’s uncomfortable feeling intensified.  It was similar to the feeling he had with Cho last year when she had cried on his shoulder over Cedric.  He didn’t know what to do other than just let her talk and nod appropriately.  Anything he thought to say sounded stupid, because the fact was he didn’t know what she was going through.

“She’s moving to Paris with her new boyfriend,” Claire said bitterly, sniffling quietly.

Harry wished fervently he had a hanky or tissue on hand.  He searched his brain for something to say.  “Er… I’m sorry,” he said lamely, wishing he could say something better - something brilliant that would make her stop crying.

Surprisingly, she chuckled through her tears.  “Thanks,” she said gratefully.  “I appreciate that.  I know I haven’t been very nice to you in the past, and I didn’t exactly make a good impression the other night, so that means a lot to me, Harry.”

She looked at him closely, still sniffling slightly.  “What’s up with you?” she asked.  “And please don’t tell me ‘nothing’.  You look like hell.”

“Thanks,” Harry said dryly.

“No,” she laughed lightly, brightening somewhat.  “I didn’t mean it like that.  You just look knackered.  Like you haven’t slept soundly in weeks - almost as if you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders,” she explained.

Harry thought wryly that she wasn’t far off the mark.  “I just have a lot on my mind,” he answered truthfully.

“Is it anything to do with that red-headed girl that came to your house the other night?  Ginny?” she asked.

Harry tried to detect a hint of malice in her voice but couldn’t find any.  Since she was being so friendly, he supposed he ought to say something by way of explanation.

“Partly,” he said.  “I’m just going through some things right now.  I-I miss all my friends, especially Ginny.”  He paused, unsure whether to say the last thing on his mind.  Taking a deep breath, he added, “My... my Godfather died a few weeks ago.”

“Oh, Harry,” Claire gasped.  “I’m sorry!  I didn’t know.  Were you close?”

Harry pursed his lips.  Had he and Sirius been close?  Not really.  They hadn’t had time.  ‘And now we never will, because of what I did.’  Harry felt his chest tighten and his breathing grow ragged.  The anger and self-loathing was beginning to surface again and deep inside him he felt the snake stir. 

“I had hoped we’d be,” he managed in a choked voice.  “He couldn’t raise me because, er… well, he had to go away for a long time and couldn’t take me with him.”  Harry paused.  “I know he cared about me, though.  He wanted me to live with him once he got some personal business cleared up.  Now I have no one, really.”  He swallowed hard.

“Sirius was the closest thing to a father I ever had.”  He scowled deeply and tried to fight the rising pain that threatened to engulf him.  He remembered what Ginny had told him last weekend, and tried to take comfort in the fact that it was not his fault Voldemort had tricked him.  It was not his fault Sirius was dead.

Harry was not even aware that he had closed his eyes as he attempted to shove the pain back into place.  He was so concentrated on not feeling, that the pain in his head took him completely by surprise.  All at once, his scar burst open and he felt the snake inside him rearing, angry and black, anxious to be released.

He struggled to control it, but knew he was failing.  His first thought was that he couldn’t let it escape because if it did, he didn’t know if he’d be able to fight it back into place.  He was too tired, too weak.  The snake wanted vengeance and it didn’t care who got in its way.  Claire would be in danger.  The Dursleys would be in danger.  Potentially, anyone who crossed his path would be in danger.  And it would be his fault…

Claire hadn’t noticed anything unusual about Harry until he cried out in pain and clutched his hands to his forehead.  “Harry!” she exclaimed, touching his shoulder in concern.  “What’s wrong?”

It was an innocent action, but it was enough to distract him.  Just as suddenly as it had come, the battle with his inner demon was over.  Harry Potter had lost.

***

[A/N:  Thanks to everyone who reviewed and seemed so excited that I was back.  You really make it all worth while!  We are getting settled in and used to our new home.  My job is going to be much more time intensive, but I’ll still make time for my writing.  I just have to cut down on my urge to read all your stuff so much!  It’s hard, because there are so many good authors and stories out there and I get inspiration from reading.

OK… on to business.  Many of you have asked questions that I can’t respond to.  Some authors write lengthy author’s notes and address everyone individually.  As I post on several different sites, this is too time-consuming.  Sorry… there aren’t enough hours in the day to accommodate everyone and sleep, too.  But if you include your email with your review or email me personally, I’d be happy to respond to specific questions.  I also can’t email you personally when I update.  Two sites that I post on will send you an alert (www.checkmated.com and www.fanfiction.net ) when your favourite authors or stories are updated, though.  That’s how I keep up with the stories that I follow. 

About the story… just to clarify:

1.      Yes, I wrote the poem.  If you read it carefully, it may give you some clues about what will happen.  Every line holds meaning and relates to HP and this story.

2.      Harry does get more powerful in this story, but he’s still just a kid struggling to deal with the things life has thrown at him.  He’s human, with all the flaws of humanity.  I’m still trying to stay within the boundaries of canon (as of OotP), while stretching my own creativity.  Not that I think JKR will do anything remotely like this in HBP, lol!  Not even close!

3.      I picture Stephen as akin to Robert Redford with some Harrison Ford and Sean Connery thrown in.  You can picture him however you choose.  He’s a complex character with a past almost as complex as Harry’s.  I love him!  And, he’s British.

4.      This story alternates between the present and past.  Let me know if you get confused.  I’ll try to make it as clear as possible when I change between the two.

Finally, I have a new beta at checkmated.  Thanks to Buckbeaky for taking me on.  As always, thanks also go to Chromatix and my family.]  

//
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