The Sugar Quill
Author: St. Margarets (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Leaving Privet Drive  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Author's Note: This is for Shane who has waited patiently for a follow up story to Red is the Heart since September! I hope this story will round out the ending a bit more for all of you who felt the scene at King's Cross Station was just too abrupt. Thanks to Jo Wickaninnish for the beta read.

Leaving Privet Drive

"I love you, D."

"I love you more, sweetums."

Harry couldn't believe it. Dudley and his skinny, blonde girlfriend, Deirdre, were starting their snogging session at ten in the morning. Ever since he had returned to Privet Drive he had been subjected to this nauseating sight. The settee in the sitting room was their usual spot, but when Aunt Petunia took to Hoovering the carpet right under their feet, they usually retreated to the back garden.

Once, Harry wandered upstairs to rapidly descend again - the sounds of moaning echoing in his ears. He turned the radio up as loud as it would go to try to cast out that sound. Since Aunt Petunia rarely left the house these days, big D and little D didn't have much of a chance for that activity.

He sighed and opened the front door to check if the grass was dry enough to cut. He didn't have a job this summer since the Dursleys knew he would be leaving for good on his seventeenth birthday. That was only a day away. He couldn't believe it really - tomorrow he would be of age and leaving this place forever. And tomorrow it would be one year to the day that Ginny had surprised him on his birthday and had stayed to help him wallpaper.

He smiled thinking of her. The last thing she had said to him at King's Cross Station was "I love you." Perhaps that's why it rankled to hear Dudley and his snogging mate bandying it about like it meant nothing. Could they possible know what love meant?

The slurping sounds of wet kissing cut through his thoughts. Honestly. Then he grinned, knowing he had just channeled Hermione.

"Harry, come into the kitchen," Aunt Petunia called.

Shutting the front door, he hoped Aunt Petunia didn't have any more chores planned for him today. He had a lot of packing to do.

Aunt Petunia was seated at the kitchen table with a roll of parchment in front of her. "You're inheriting something at a bank tomorrow," she announced.

Harry quickly scooped up the letter and noticed that it was addressed to him. "You read my mail," he said, trying to keep his temper under control. He was also trying to hide his confusion. He already had his inheritance - it was in vault number six hundred and eighty-seven at Gringotts, and he had been dipping into it for the past six years to pay for his schooling.

"I'll read anything I want in this house," Aunt Petunia retorted, her nostrils flaring. "Tell me," she said, half-standing over the table to bring her face inches from Harry's. "Tell me where this money is."

He couldn't believe it. Well, he could believe it. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon loved money and would be willing to overlook any taint of magic if it came in the form of gold and silver. He glanced at the letter again. "It just says here that I am to report to Gringotts on July thirty-first to sign the papers confirming my inheritance." He stared stonily at his aunt's flushed face. "Inheritance doesn't mean money. It could mean land or a house . . ."

He rather thought it was just land, since Hagrid had said his parent's house in Godric's Hollow had been flattened by Voldemort's curse.

"You are to give it to us," Aunt Petunia demanded. "It's a small recompense for the amount of money and trouble you've caused us in the past sixteen years."

Harry's eyes narrowed. "I think twenty pounds ought to cover it."

She sat down with a thump and crossed her arms over her chest. "I can't believe your ingratitude!" A sly look crossed her face. "Give it to us and we'll sell it and split the proceeds. Why would a teenager want a piece of rubbish land anyway?"

He didn't know the answer to that either - except that whatever it was, it was his and had been his parents before that. Those two facts made it valuable. "Even if I did sign it over to you," he began in what he hoped was a reasonable tone of voice, "wizard land and houses come with charms that make them unplottable. A Muggle like you would never find it to begin with."

Aunt Petunia closed her eyes at hearing the details of magic. Suddenly she looked old and defeated. There was no way she could force Harry to hand over his inheritance and they both knew it.

"Tomorrow can't come soon enough," she said fiercely, standing so quickly the chair almost tipped over.

As the sound of her heels clicked over the linoleum and then up the stairs, Harry folded his letter from Gringotts and thought that for once, he and Aunt Petunia were in perfect accord.

*

"Out in the street tomorrow, are you?" Dudley sneered from the doorway of Harry's bedroom. His trunk was open and all his belongings were strewn about. There didn't seem to be a way to pack everything into the trunk without magic. And he didn't want to violate the underage magic restrictions with - he looked at his watch - two hours to go until he turned seventeen.

"That's right," he said, not bothering to look up.

"I'm sure you can get a job with the circus. They're always looking for freaks," Dudley continued.

Harry wondered how long it had taken for Dudley to work out that line. He continued to sort things, discarding a pile of school robes that were too short for him.

Dudley was still standing in the doorway, which was odd. Usually Dudley liked to deliver his insult and then move on.

"So . . ."

Harry looked up. Dudley was wearing a frown. "What are you going to do after that school of yours?" He shifted uncomfortably, like he was saying a rude word, "I mean - what do - er - wizards do for a living?"

"I'm going to be an Auror."

Dudley face cleared as if he were grateful that Harry said something incomprehensible. "What's that?" he asked in a condescending tone.

"It's like Scotland Yard," Harry answered briefly. Let Dudley think like he wanted.

Dudley had no answer to that. His small eyes fell on Harry's bed and the photos scattered there. "Hello, who is this?" He snatched up the Chocolate Frog photo of Ginny before Harry could reach him. It was the picture of her smiling at the viewer with the wind in her hair. "Nice," Dudley said appraisingly, "but she's no page three girl."

"Shut up!" Harry said, pointing his wand at his cousin. If he was going to break the underage restriction, defending Ginny from Dudley's insinuations was worth it.

Dudley eyed the wand and flicked the card back onto the bed. "Sorry, didn't realize she was one of your paper girlfriends."

"Out," Harry said, never lowering his wand.

"Good luck with the freaks. Just remember, you're not welcome back here - we want no more ties to your world."

"You know what, Dudley? Don't think you're so safe. Your own child could turn up magical. What would you do then?"

Dudley blanched. It had obviously never occurred to him that magic - or some sort of freakish gene - did run in his family. "I - "

Harry had a good idea that Dudley never saw the correlation between his activities with Deirdre and children either.

"No one would ever know," Dudley blurted.

Harry thought of the thousands of letters from Hogwarts pouring into the house the summer of his first year.

"Wizards always know," Harry said with a triumphant grin.

*

At five after midnight, Harry used magic to pack his trunk. He waited the extra minutes because he wanted to be sure that it was well into his birthday before he used magic. Watching his things fly neatly into the trunk was as satisfying as catching the Snitch. He had done it - he had survived the Dursleys.

There was a sharp rap at the window. Hedwig hooted softly at the disembodied hand tapping on the glass. Harry looked out to see that the all the streetlights were dim. Straining to see past the hand, Harry made out a large, dark shape that could only be . . .

"Hagrid," he breathed.

He Apparated to Hagrid's side and was astonished to see Professor Dumbledore and - of all people - Professor McGonagall.

"'appy Birthday, Harry," Hagrid said immediately. "Seems jus' like yesterday when I was deliver'n your Hogwarts letter to that ruddy hut." He sniffed loudly.

"Yes, happy birthday, Potter," Professor McGonagall said with a rare smile. "I trust you're glad to be leaving?"

"Wh - yeah." Harry stuttered, raking his hand through his hair. "I'm just surprised to see -"

"We was here the first night - when you was a baby," Hagrid said sentimentally. "Didn't know how it was all goin' to turn out then."

"As you can see, it turned out fine," Professor McGonagall said, unsentimentally. She locked eyes with Harry. "Don't ever forget that you are a survivor."

Harry was so surprised to hear his thoughts spoken aloud by Professor McGonagall that he stood there speechless. He finally nodded a little, wondering why Professor McGonagall had come to Privet Drive sixteen years ago.

Professor Dumbledore then spoke, "I think that Harry should be settled into his new quarters before the night is through." He looked at Harry. "Do you wish to say your good-byes to your aunt and uncle?"

Harry shuffled uncomfortably. "We've already said them."

"Very well then. We shall Apparate to the entrance of number twelve Grimmauld Place."

Harry looked up at hearing that address.

"I know it will be difficult to enter Sirius's home again, Harry," Dumbledore said kindly. "But I do think you will find it rather changed."

"Why can't I stay at the Burrow?" Disappointment seized him in a way he hadn't expected. He should be grateful that he was leaving Privet Drive permanently, and here he was whining about it.

"Mrs. Weasley would have liked nothing better," Dumbledore said with a twinkle in his eye. "But we feel you are safer at number twelve. Mr. Nott is there, of course."

Harry would have preferred Ron - or Neville or Seamus or Dean. But at least he wasn't going to be alone. Knowing he had no choice, he nodded.

"We'll take care of your trunk and your owl, Harry," Hagrid said.

*

The first thing Harry noticed when they entered Grimmauld Place was the strong scent of paint and what smelled suspiciously like wallpaper paste. Sure enough, the walls of the entrance hall were painted a soft spring green, and the threadbare carpet had been pulled up to reveal shiny wood floors.

"Who's been decorating?" Harry asked, thinking that he never would have recognized the place except for the serpent door handles, which were now polished to a bright sheen.

"Okay," Harry answered. "Um - what about my meeting at Gringotts tomorrow?"

"Professor Lupin has kindly agreed to escort you there at eleven o'clock."

At least he could have a lie-in. "Professor - "

"Yes?"

"Do you think I could visit the Burrow tomorrow - maybe after my meeting?" He wanted so desperately to see Ginny that he didn't think he could wait another day.

Professor Dumbledore smiled. "I think we can make arrangements for you to see your nearest and dearest."

And on that cryptic note, he left in a swirl of robes.

As Harry wearily climbed the stairs, he wondered if Theodore Nott had also picked out the colors - since all the walls seemed to be one shade or another of Slytherin green.

*

"Mr. Potter! Mr. Nott! The Headmaster wishes me to inform you that it is ten o'clock in the morning. I will add that it is high time for you both to wake up."

Harry opened one eye and remembered that he was sharing a room with Theodore Nott at Sirius's house - so that voice could only be . . . Harry reached for his glasses and saw the portrait of Phineas Nigellus impatiently tapping his frame.

"Finally, Mr. Potter," the portrait said when he saw Harry awake. "I think only a bucket of water would wake that one up," he said, indicating Theodore Nott with a tilt of his head. I've never seen someone sleep that heavily."

Harry looked over at the prone figure on the bed under the windows. The bright sunshine flooding the room was not bothering Theodore Nott, who was on his side with his back toward Harry. "He was asleep when I arrived last night."

"I see no reason to expend more energy than necessary. That is a good Slytherin trait. But - " Here Phineas Nigellus seemed at loss for words. "Mr. Nott has taken it to new levels."

Harry remembered Ron commenting on that very thing when they shared a dormitory.

"Well, Mr. Potter. You are of age today, I see. I double-checked your name in Bloodlines of Magic." He held up the heavy volume for Harry to see. "And I'm afraid you do not come into a title." He paused as though he thought Harry needed a moment to overcome his disappointment at this sad news.

"I - " Harry sat up, feeling like he was at a disadvantage during any conversation with Phineas Nigellus, and more so now that he was in his pajamas.

"I wish to give you some advice before you meet with the bankers today." The former Headmaster settled back into his chair. Harry wondered how long this lecture was going to take.

"I have to be at Gringotts at eleven o'clock," he said hastily. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Theodore Nott move, but he couldn't be sure.

"This won't take long," Phineas Nigellus said with a regal wave of his hand. "I first want to warn you against those who would help you invest your fortune. Many are in it for themselves. Albus Dumbledore is a wise man in many ways, but I'm afraid he has never paid the slightest bit of attention to money. I am willing to advise you, of course." He paused again.

Harry realized that he was supposed to thank him at this point. "Oh, uh - thanks." Harry also realized that he could use a cup of coffee and some breakfast.

"What ever you do," Phineas Nigellus continued in a solemn voice. "Do not sponsor a whaling ship."

Harry's mouth dropped open.

"Don't argue," Phineas said, putting up one hand. "I know a successful voyage can yield astronomical dividends - invest in a share or two if you must. But I will confess to you that I have learned this lesson the hard way - with not one, but two, ships lost to sea monsters and storms around the Horn of Africa."

Harry felt he could safely promise that he would never invest in whaling ships.

"Excellent." Phineas Nigellus looked positively delighted that Harry was being so biddable. He continued, discoursing on the merits of ivory hunting in Africa, dragon breeding in Romania, and poppy production in the Far East - all things that Harry thought were illegal in most countries.

When the portrait finally ran out of ideas, Harry couldn't help himself. "So, sir, what do you think of importing say - brandy?"

Phineas Nigellus sucked in a breath and looked in both directions before he whispered. "French brandy?"

"Of course," Harry said coolly.

"Cornwall," Phineas murmured. "Trust only the smugglers in Cornwall. That's all I'm at liberty to say."

Harry thought he heard a snicker come from Theodore Nott's bed, but the figure remained motionless.

"You have the makings of a Slytherin," Phineas said, looking at Harry with new respect. "Are you still betrothed to the poor, pure-blood girl?"

Harry glanced at the back of Theodore Nott's dark head. "Yes," he said, thinking it was easier to go along with the portrait.

"Good," Phineas said nodding. "Stay away from actresses. As soon as they hear you have a fortune, they will come flocking."

Harry also felt he could keep that promise.

"Potter!" the portrait exclaimed, taking out his pocket watch. "It's half past the hour. Hurry up." And with that, Phineas Nigellus stalked out of his frame.

Immediately Theodore Nott rolled over. He was wide-awake and smirking at Harry. "No whale oil for you."

Harry laughed. "Is that why you're always asleep when he sees you?"

"Of course," Nott replied, sitting up and stretching. "Only way to avoid that talking anachronism." He smiled slightly. "What else is off the list? Actresses?"

"Yeah." Harry opened his trunk at the foot of the bed and started to gather his clothes.

"You're not really getting married, are you?"

"Hardly," Harry said, "I didn't want another lecture, so I just went along with him."

Theodore Nott snorted. "Tell me about it. He said about the same thing when Luna was here."

Harry peered at him over the lid of his trunk. "Luna was here?"

Nott flushed and shifted on the bed. "Yeah - well - she somehow figured out how to Floo here - but there was no Floo powder for her to Floo back - so we waited here for Phineas to relay a message to Professor Dumbledore."

This all sounded wonderfully familiar to Harry. "Can Luna wallpaper?"

Nott laughed and answered in abstracted tones, "Not if you want the pattern to go in the same direction."

"That would be - er - boring."

Nott quirked one eyebrow. "And who wants boring?"

"Indeed." Harry ducked behind the trunk lid to hide his smile. That was certainly true. While you might be mystified or amused, you would never be bored with Luna Lovegood.

*

"Well, that's it, Mr. Potter," the Gringotts director of investments said, straightening the signed documents and then vanishing them for safe keeping with a wave of his wand. "Do you have any questions?"

Did he have any questions? Just a million, he thought. Starting with why? Why did he have land in Wales, a successful bed and breakfast in Whitby, a golf course in Perth, and one third of the shares in the Wizarding Wireless when all he really wanted was . . .

He stared at the portrait of the founder of Gringotts - a white bearded goblin with a nasty smile - and tried not to think about what he didn't have. There was no point in it. And what he did have felt like the heaviest burden he would have to carry around the rest of his life. At least if he fulfilled the prophecy, he would be rid of it for good. But how was he to rid himself of a herd of dairy cows on the isle of Jersey?

"No, thank you," he finally answered.

"I know this must seem quite complicated to you now, but you will learn the ropes quickly enough."

Harry nodded and stood up stiffly, the hour-long litany of possessions and holdings was getting to him.

The director shook hands and followed him out into the lobby. The first thing Harry noticed was a bright shock of red hair. For a split second he thought it might be Ginny, but it wasn't. Bill Weasley had taken over escorting duties.

"Harry," he said, clapping him on the shoulder. "All done? I'm sure Higgins bored you silly. Let's feed you some lunch at the Leaky Cauldron."

Harry wanted lunch at the Burrow, but he didn't think that was possible the way Bill was steering him quickly through the crowd in Diagon Alley. "What happened to Professor Lupin?" he asked as, he hurried to keep up with Bill's long strides.

"He was called away on business for the Order," Bill said.

Harry knew better than to ask more questions. At least he would be able to hear about Ginny if he ate lunch with Bill.

"In here," Bill said, standing aside so that Harry could walk into one of the private dining rooms the Leaky Cauldron provided.

Harry started into the room, wondering why they couldn't eat at the bar, when he stopped in his tracks. Standing by the window, in a square of sunlight, was Ginny.

*

"Harry!" She was in his arms before he could recover from the shock of seeing her so suddenly or the shock of realizing anew how wonderfully, vibrantly beautiful she was . . .

He held her tightly, still not quite believing he was smelling her hair and hearing her voice and feeling her touch. She finally pulled away to look up into his face. "Happy Birthday," she said softly. Her eyes were bright with emotion.

"It is now," he said hoarsely. He wanted to kiss her, but something held him back. It was almost as if he had forgotten how. In the long month at Privet Drive, no one had touched him, no one had tried to make him laugh, and no one had looked at him with love. And now he was experiencing an eerie feeling of dislocation - like waking in an unfamiliar room, and he didn't quite know how to cope.

She stopped smiling and touched his cheek. "Are you okay?"

"I am now," he said helplessly, not really understanding what had come over him. He was almost shy at seeing her again.

Her eyes searched his face. "Maybe you're hungry," she finally said with a small smile. She stepped away from him, but kept one arm around his waist. "We can eat anytime we want."

The cloth-covered table was set for two. It was only then that Harry realized Bill was not in the room and that the door was closed. "Just us?" he asked, feeling nothing but relief that he was going to have Ginny all to himself for a while.

"Just us." She tapped the table with her wand and the plates were filled with steak and potatoes and heaps of steaming vegetables. It smelled wonderful and Harry could feel his spirits rising. Maybe he was just hungry since he had to skip breakfast to make the meeting on time.

They sat at the table, Ginny with her back to the window. She smiled encouragingly and dug into her meal. Harry followed suit, relishing the feeling of having enough - enough food, enough time to just drink in the sight of Ginny.

Halfway through the meal, Ginny finally spoke. "You're staying at Sirius's?"

"Yeah."

"Is it - okay?"

"It's like being in a different house since it's been decorated," Harry mused. "You know, after we papered the sitting room last summer, I felt more at home at Privet Drive. It's amazing what a little change like that can make . . . "

"It wasn't such a little change - it took us all day," Ginny retorted, but she was smiling. "I never knew that you felt better at your aunt and uncle's after that."

"I did," he said simply. "But this summer . . ." He hadn't put many of his complaints in his daily letters to Ginny. The Dursleys had treated him the same as they always had, but for some reason, it bothered him more than ever.

"You know, Harry," Ginny said, pushing her plate aside. "One of the Healers at St. Mungo's said that after having your heart opened up like that, you would be a lot more sensitive to -"

Harry groaned before she could finish. "Not that word again - just add sweet and I'm officially kicked out to the boy's dormitory."

Ginny giggled. "Where are you going to go? You can't go to the girl's dormitory."

"To the lost world of the sweet and sensitive blokes. I think they have a lot of tissues and self-help books there." He smiled wryly.

Ginny put out her hand and he took it. "I can see why their hostile treatment would bother anyone - and you didn't have your usual defenses."

He squeezed her hand. It was true. He was so used to being open with her and having his affection returned, that he had forgotten how to harden himself against the low-grade cruelty of the Dursleys. But now that he was back with her, he had to drop those defenses for good. "Yes, dear," he said meekly.

"Oh, I missed you," Ginny said, half-laughing, though there were tears in her eyes. He tugged on her hand so that she left her chair and came to his side.

"I missed you too," he said, pulling her onto his lap.

"It worried me, when you didn't want to kiss me," Ginny whispered.

"I did - I do - want to kiss you," he said. "I just don't want to be apart again."

"I know," she said, brushing her lips against his cheek.

"And if we're together today, and then if I don't see you again for a long time, it will be worse."

"I know." She continued, dotting tiny kisses around his mouth.

"And if I don't kiss you soon, even the sweet and sensitive blokes are going to kick me out."

"Why don't you then?" she teased with a whisper.

And they said no more. All the walls hiding his emotions came tumbling down, just as he had feared. But instead of feeling the pain of separation he felt completeness, and where he had endured hatred, he felt only her love.

*

Ginny sighed and put her head on his shoulder. "I suppose our time will be up soon for this parlor."

Harry felt around the table for his glasses. "Then what?"

"Well, we're supposed to have treacle tart - I ordered that because later you're going to have cake - "

He smiled at the chagrined expression on Ginny's face. "I am?"

"Ooops," she said, putting her hand over her mouth. "Listen, I didn't get you a gift because I . . ."

"What?" He couldn't imagine what Ginny had in store for him.

"It was supposed to be a surprise - but I sort of organized a party for you."

"I've never had a birthday party before," he said, pleased.

"I know - that's why I wanted to do it. But then I worried that you wouldn't like too much of a fuss. . ."

"How much of a fuss?" he asked sharply, now realizing the implications of a crowd of people staring at him.

"Just the family - and Hermione and the Order members who are allowed at Sirius's house," Ginny said quickly.

"It's going to be at Sirius's?"

"Oh! I hope that's not going to be a problem for you," she said, a pleading note in voice. "Dumbledore wouldn't let us have it at the Burrow."

"It's okay," he said, hugging her. "I've already been there and I have already been harassed by Phineas's portrait."

"What was on his mind?" Ginny asked.

"Not to invest in whaling ships."

"You know, I never would have guessed that." She giggled.

"It surprised me too - but not as much as what I found out at Gringotts."

"And what did you find out at Gringotts?" Ginny prompted, sliding off of his lap and tapping the table with her wand. Immediately the dishes disappeared and two plates with treacle tart thudded on to the table.

Harry wished she would come back, but the treacle tart did look good. He picked up his fork before answering. "The goblins have been investing my parent's fortune ever since I was a baby."

"Fortune?"

He shrugged. "I sort of lost track of how it all adds up. There are so many different holdings and -" He stopped when he saw that Ginny was biting her lip, her treacle tart still untouched. "What?"

"I - I don't know," she said faintly. Then she colored. "I never thought of you as having a fortune. It makes me feel . . ."

"Weird?" Harry supplied. "Burdened, dizzy?" He put his fork down with a clatter. "That's the way I felt."

"You don't have a big mansion with an army of house elves or anything - do you?" Ginny asked with big eyes.

"What if I did?" he asked angrily. He had hoped that Ginny would understand, that she would know what to say to make him feel better about inheriting a bunch of stuff that he didn't earn. But how could she understand? Another voice inside of him asked. She hadn't been raised with money either.

"I just - " Her eyes pleaded with him not to be angry. "It sounds so lonely," she finally blurted out. "I don't want to think of you clattering around in some gloomy house all by yourself."

He let out a sigh. It wasn't the money - she was worried about him. Trust Ginny . . . . "No," he said in a softer voice. "There isn't one house. Apparently the cottage where my parents last lived was someone else's. It's all invested in businesses, like bed and breakfasts or golf courses." Then he grinned. "I have one-third of the shares in the Wizarding Wireless."

"You do?" Ginny's eyes were round.

"The director said that my grandmother forced my grandfather to buy them because she was a huge fan of . . ."

"Days of Destiny!" Ginny crowed.

"Right." Harry laughed. "That was one of the few original investments. I actually saw her signature." He swallowed. "Her name was Elizabeth."

"That's a nice name," she said softly.

"I wish I could have known her," he said, hating the forlorn note in his voice.

"She would have loved you."

"How do you know?" he demanded, the anger taking him by surprise. "Just because she was my grandmother doesn't mean she would have loved me. My own aunt hated me - still hates me to this day . . ." There he had said it - what had been bothering him all of this time. He had always held out a tiny hope that someday, somehow - the Dursleys would stop hating him. And he wondered what he could have done differently.

"She would have loved you," Ginny said in a steady voice, "because you have a very secret appreciation for soaps."

Even though his eyes were blurry, he could see her leave her chair. She pushed her way into his lap and put her arms around his neck. "I don't know why anyone would hate you," she whispered sadly.

He held her tightly, wishing he didn't feel this way. "Probably because there's something worth hating."

"Harry," she said fiercely, holding his face in her hands, so that he was forced to look at her. "I have seen your heart - I know you. There's something wrong with them - not you."

He couldn't argue with her because it was true - she did know him like no one else could possibly know him because of their experience together in the Chrysalis Charm. And if she was sure . . . He took a deep breath and started to stroke her hair with his hand. "I'm just being stupid," he began.

"Not stupid," she said, caressing his face, "sen-"

"Ginny," he said warningly.

She giggled. "Okay - I won't say it." She kissed his cheek. "I, for one am glad that you have those shares in the Wizarding Wireless. If the writers start on a plot line I don't like, then you can threaten to pull your shares."

He laughed. "Isn't that interfering with - er - art or something?"

"I wouldn't classify Days of Destiny as art."

"Right." He smiled at her. "So what should I do with the Jersey cows?"

"Jersey cows?"

"Well, they're dairy cows on the Isle of Jersey."

"Oh. Give them to your aunt."

Harry could just imagine Aunt Petunia opening the door one morning to bring in the milk - and to find a whole herd of lowing cows in the front garden.

"You could leave a note," Ginny suggested. "That says: 'Dear Aunt Petunia -'"

"'Have a cow,'" Harry said.

Ginny giggled and continued, "'Sincerely yours, etcetera, etcetera.'"

"I reckon fortunes aren't such bad things," Harry conceded.

*

"Are you ready?" Ginny asked as they stood on the front steps of number twelve. They had taken the Knight Bus from Diagon Alley since Ginny couldn't Apparate.

"Is the party starting now?" he asked nervously. It was only mid-afternoon since Bill didn't think it was safe for them to wander around Diagon Alley on their own.

"No - are you ready for Ron and Hermione? They should be here by now."

"Of course, I'm ready to see them." He couldn't imagine why he wouldn't be.

"Well." Ginny smiled. "They're Apparating now - and it's kind of . . . You'll see."

Harry grinned. Hermione was probably giving Ron endless tips on how to do it better - and Ron was disregarding her advice with indignant huffs. It would be so good to see them.

"Hello!" Ginny called from the entrance hall. "We're here!"

As Harry shut the door behind him, he heard a loud crack followed by a soft pop. Hermione was rushing at him before he had a chance to register anything else.

"Harry! Happy Birthday," she said, hugging him briefly. Then she turned to look at Ron on the floor with one shoe on his hand. "That's better this time," she commented. "But you're still awfully loud."

"And you're still . . . ," Ron said with a sideways glance at Hermione.

Hary looked to Hermione who was beginning to blush.

"Happy Birthday, mate," Ron called from the floor. Then he took Harry's outstretched hand with his shoeless one.

"Thanks," Harry said, hauling Ron to his feet. He indicated the large trainer on Ron's hand. "Does that happen often?"

Ron shrugged and slipped his foot into the trainer. "I've only splinched clothes. At least I have trousers on."

Hermione tut-tuted and Ginny giggled.

"There's a story here," Harry said with a grin.

"And everyone at the Weasley family reunion can tell it," Ginny added.

"Excellent timing, Ron."

Hermione interrupted briskly. "Yes, well. Ginny and I have things to do. Maybe you two can play chess or something." She looked pointedly at Ron.

"Oh - right," Ron said, catching on. "Fancy a match?"

Harry shrugged. "Do I get to win on my birthday?"

"Ha. I've been playing Nott - he's good."

That was just what he needed - Ron with his chess skill honed by a Slytherin. "Maybe I'll watch you two."

They found Theodore Nott in the room they shared. Harry was relieved to see that Phineas was not in his frame. He didn't want to talk about money anymore.

Nott had his own chess set and it was as different from Ron's set as - well - as different as Nott was from Ron. These chess pieces were not physical with each other, but they made short, sharp taunting speeches that were quite amusing to listen to.

"Ha! Foiled again, my dear pawn."

"I won't stand in the way of your demise, black Knight."

"What ever do you mean?"

"Look to your right," the white pawn hissed.

It was like watching a badly acted soap - even more melodramatic than Days of Destiny. Typically, neither Ron nor Theodore Nott spoke a word during the hour and a half of play.

"My goodness, it's quiet up here," said Mrs. Weasley from the doorway. "Harry, happy birthday, my dear." She hugged him as soon as he reached her. "You're finally free of that place."

It was starting to sink in. He really was free. He hugged her back. "Um, Mrs. Weasley can I ask you something?" He looked back at Ron and Theodore Nott, but they were still absorbed in their game. "Would you mind if I gave Ginny a kitten for her birthday?" he asked in a low voice.

Mrs. Weasley beamed at him. "Oh, Ginny loves cats. Of course she can have one."

Harry was relieved since he had already contacted the owner of Mrs. Slippers and had been promised one of the litter. In fact, he was welcome to all of them.

"Now Harry, Ginny has come up with a surprise for your birthday . . .." She hesitated.

"She already told me about the party," Harry murmured. "She wanted to prepare me - but I'll pretend to be surprised."

"Good." Mrs. Weasley looked relieved. "Ron and Hermione are just as excited."

*

It wasn't hard work to look surprised when Harry saw all of the people gathered in Sirius's kitchen. It was a pleasant room now, painted a cheerful yellow - not that Harry could see that much of it, since it was festooned with crepe paper and balloons.

"Happy Birthday, Harry!" the group called out. Here were his people - the ones who knew him, taught him, wished him well. Some of them even loved him, he thought as he took in Ron, Hermione, and Ginny standing by the enormous cake on the table.

In a flush of excitement, he blew out the candles and cut large slabs of cake for everybody. It was only when he was settled at the table, after his third butterbeer, that he could finally separate everyone out from the throng.

Theodore Nott was trying to convince Fred and George to put disclaimers on all of their products.

"How do you know some goofy ten-year-old isn't going to put one of your fireworks up his nose?" Nott demanded.

"If he's stupid enough - " Fred began.

"To put a firework in his nose -" George continued, rolling his eyes and taking a swig of butterbeer.

"Then he's too stupid to -"

"Read -"

"The disclaimer." Fred shook his head. "It wouldn't prevent accidents."

"Ah, but it prevents, lawsuits," Nott said, leaning forward as he warmed to his subject.

Ron and Hermione were listening to Charlie describing Seamus's first day at the dragon reservation. "This little Chinese Fireball - just hatched - must have thought Seamus was his mum, because he followed him around all day. Poor bloke had some bad burns on the back of his legs by then end of the day."

"Poor Seamus!" Hermione said sympathetically.

"Poor Seamus," Charlie scoffed. "It's traditional to receive a pint of Firewhisky for your first dragon burn. He was feeling no pain, believe me."

He couldn't hear them, but he could see Mr. Weasley in an animated conversation with Lupin and Mad-eye Moody. Mrs. Weasley was having her wine glass re-filled by Bill. And Ginny was giggling over something with Tonks in the corner.

As he looked around, the voices washed over him. He was seventeen today, an adult in the eyes of the wizarding world. When he finished school and fulfilled the prophecy, he would buy a little cottage, and with some help, he would paper and paint it. It would be his home.

But that future could wait, he realized as he caught Ginny's eye and smiled. Because, he thought with a peaceful heart, in many ways - finally - today - he was already home.

//
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