Spoilers: Includes spoilers for OotP.
Disclaimer: Characters, magic and locations within belong to or were inspired by the worlds of J.K. Rowling.
Author's Note: Well, I finally decided to sit down and write a sixth-year fic. It wanted to be a sprawling epic, but I managed to wrestle it down to under 100,000 words, so here you go.
The rain drummed violently against the windows of number four, Privet Drive. It collected in the corners of the window to the smallest upstairs bedroom, where the frame still leaked after Uncle Vernon had made a botched attempt at repairing it. Since, of course, everybody knew you couldn't pull safety bars from a window by roping them to a flying car, it followed that it couldn't possibly have happened, and therefore there could be no need to enlist the services of a carpenter. The fact that the window now leaked where no such leaks had been before, then, was simply Just One of Those Things.
The Boy Who Lived was unaware of the rain. The Boy Who Lived was aware of very little, to tell the truth, although the sleep he was currently locked in was certainly not undisturbed. A close observer might have noticed the faint tremble of a lip, a tension in the rangy frame - certainly not that large for a boy his age, but still beginning to outgrow the child's bed it rested on - that indicated more than restful sleep was going on under the surface.
Harry Potter dreamed...
In the way of dreams, he was both at Hogwarts and not at Hogwarts. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that these corridors were in the castle, yet he had never seen them before, and the world outside was a realm of dark and shadowy hills under a purple sky. Professor Dumbledore walked past, with a Muggle dressing-gown on, and his beard in curlers. "The greatest kind of magic, Harry," he said cheerfully, "is the kind that you don't use!"
Through the next doorway was Snape's dungeon, where the Weasley twins were standing over a cauldron, scooping out ladle-fuls of nothing at all into bowls.
"It's invisible!" said Fred.
"Intangible too," said George.
"In fact, it's not even there at all," they said together.
"Why don't you try some?" Fred handed him an empty cup.
Harry walked on. He entered the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic. The fountain had been restored, but the figures were different. His aunt and uncle were immortalised in gold as they sat at the breakfast table, sparkling water pouring from Aunt Petunia's teapot. A golden Dudley sat at their feet, looking up at them adoringly.
"Muggles, you know," said Gilderoy Lockhart, from his left. "They're the in thing. What every well-dressed wizard is wearing."
The back end of the room opened onto absolute nothingness. Most of his year-group were there, building a wall out of sugar cubes. As fast as one was placed, an ant would come along and carry it away, turning the whole process into nothing but a production line worked for the benefit of the ants.
"They eat the defences, see! And the weapons. It's genius," said Ron. He was wearing a bright orange Chudley Cannons sweater. "Do you think this will do?" he asked Harry worriedly. "I didn't have anything black."
Hermione marched past, blowing on a whistle that produced no sound. "It's never going to work, you know," she told Harry authoritatively. "These people don't know the first thing about thinking clearly. And who's going to put everything back in its place when it's over? That's what I'd like to know."
He walked on, through a door that led into the Room of Requirement. The only thing in it were four empty display cases, each draped with cloth in the Hogwarts house colours. Taped to the front of the Slytherin case was a note that said: "Fails to meet expectations. See me," in Snape's handwriting.
Harry opened the next door, and found himself outside Hagrid's hut. A big black dog was sitting at the half-giant's feet, a pink bow tied in his fur. "Look what I found, Harry, he's an Animagus." Hagrid beamed at him. "But Dumbledore says I'm not ter keep him. He's bin off his feed fer weeks, look, yeh can see right through him."
And sure enough, the dog was beginning to fade away before his eyes. Harry rushed forward, but all his outstretched hands touched was smoke.
"Look at the ground, Harry," Hagrid told him. "Yeh'll never keep anythin' alive with a weed like that in it." But when he looked down, what he saw was not weeds at all, but hundreds - thousands - of writhing snakes, bursting up out of the soil.
And then he woke up.
The rain had faded sometime during the night, and what was left was that rich, earthy smell that was somehow cleaner than just plain ordinary air. Harry sat up slowly, and put his glasses on.
He ached all over, but that was far from unusual. He'd shot up inches more over the last year, and now the child-sized bed was a fraction too short for him. With the Order of the Phoenix keeping a suspicious eye on his relatives he could probably have cowed them into ordering him a bigger one, but he hadn't wanted to; that would feel too much like there was a chance he might be staying. And after all, today he turned sixteen. If they kicked him out now, he could at least get a job. By his current standards, that counted as a cheerful thought.
His circumstances provided little enough occasion for cheer. Ron and Hermione both wrote to him when they could, but with all the secrecy and constant shuffling of positions, their letters came erratically, and only held inconsequential chatter when they did. Even OWL results, the big topic of the early part of the summer, hardly seemed to matter when you knew everything that was going on that wasn't being said.
His own results had been better than expected. He'd received a P for Divination, of course - amazing it wasn't a D or a T - and he was fairly sure that the A he'd scraped in History of Magic was down to somebody having a word with the examiners about mitigating circumstances after his collapse in the middle of the exam. He wondered if the Astronomy exam had been similarly weighted, in that case for the benefit of the whole group: he'd been given an E for that, and although he thought he'd done well on the written paper, he knew for sure his star chart had been barely three-quarters completed.
He'd also received 'Exceeds Expectations' in Charms, Transfiguration and Herbology, and 'Outstanding' in his two favourite subjects, Defence Against the Dark Arts and Care of Magical Creatures. Although it was hard to bring himself to care too deeply about his grades, he was pleased about that one for Hagrid's sake.
In Potions, he'd received another E, which was frankly a miracle - but still not enough to be accepted by the incredibly strict standards of Professor Snape's NEWT classes. However, Dumbledore had apparently had some form of 'quiet word', suggesting that perhaps with the current state of the wizarding world it might be reasonable to relax his standards just a little further for the coming year. No doubt Snape would be bristling with indignation, and assume he was being asked to do it specifically because of Harry.
Ron had only managed a P in Potions, and was gleefully and triumphantly contemplating the joys of a Snape-free existence next year. Harry was still feeling apathetic about school right now, but no doubt a few minutes into his first Potions lesson of the year, he'd quickly be envying his friend's good luck.
Ron's grades were not quite as good as Harry's, but he had managed to secure three Es, and an 'Outstanding' in Defence Against the Dark Arts, thanks to their extra-curricular activities last year. Hermione, naturally, had managed Os across the board, except for an E in History of Magic - Harry felt somewhat guilty about that, as he was sure it must have been his own fainting fit that had distracted her. She was currently panicking over narrowing down her list of subjects she wanted to take NEWTs in, which by all appearances was all of them.
Harry had his own selections pretty well mapped out. Since he wanted to be an Auror - or, at least, that was the only career path he had the slightest clue about pursuing - that put Charms, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Transfiguration and Potions on the list automatically. He could have pushed it and chosen a fifth subject as well, but frankly, why put himself through it?
Ron's choices were fairly well constrained by his grades. He and Harry would be together in Charms and Defence Against the Dark Arts, at least, but in his letters he'd been rambling about probably having to take Astronomy and Herbology. Hermione, of course, could do what she liked - which would no doubt involve picking five subjects and campaigning to be allowed to take a sixth. Harry only hoped she'd pick Potions as one of them. He didn't want to be the only Gryffindor in that room.
His aunt and uncle eyed him darkly as he stomped down to the breakfast table, but didn't say anything. A few visits from Mad-Eye Moody - who was in the habit of scheduling such things at random hours of the night to keep the enemy on their toes - had got them into an advanced enough state of paranoia that they barely dared speak to him in case his protectors should suddenly appear. Frankly, he considered it an improvement.
There were no birthday cards or presents in the Muggle post, of course, but owls brought him some books from Hermione, a set of Quidditch miniatures from Ron - as soon as he opened the box, the captain figure zipped out and began circling the light fittings, shouting commands in a tone rather reminiscent of Oliver Wood - and various snacks and gadgets from the rest of the Weasley family. He wanted to be excited about the presents, but it was hard to make himself care very much about anything. He felt like he'd been living in a fog all summer, a protective numbness that had blocked out his grief and anger, but at the expense of all his other feelings too.
At half past one, after a grudging 'birthday lunch' of beans on toast, he received a visit from Remus Lupin.
"Harry!" He smiled warmly, but the lines on his face were etched deeper than they had been only months ago, and the grey in his hair had been fast overtaking the brown. "Happy birthday."
Standing stiffly by the door, Uncle Vernon radiated disapproval, but kept his mouth shut beneath his quivering moustache. Lupin, of all the Order of the Phoenix, was probably the best at looking unobtrusive in Muggle clothing, but the threadbare jumper and patched trousers he wore were extremely shabby - to the Dursleys, almost as great a crime as being a wizard.
"Professor Lupin!" Harry gave his first smile of the day, although it was not precisely a happy one. It would be a long, long time before he was able to look at Remus Lupin without their shared sorrow filling the space between them. "What are you doing here?"
"Alastor has-" he smiled slightly- "admittedly, not without argument, given me permission to take you out for the afternoon. I thought you might welcome the chance to get some fresh air."
Lupin was one of the very few people who could manage to say something like that, and have it come out exactly as civil as it seemed on the surface, without the slightest hint of insult to the Dursleys. Nonetheless, Uncle Vernon sneered in distaste.
"Fine," he said curtly. "Don't bring any of your freak friends back with you." He practically shoved Harry out of the front door before slamming it behind them.
"Where are we going?" Harry wondered, as he and Lupin began walking. The sky was a bright, clear blue, without a trace of the rainclouds that had filled it the night before. Mad-Eye Moody was no doubt lurking somewhere behind them, scanning it suspiciously for invaders. The idea of being shadowed day and night like a prisoner under guard grated, but Harry decided to pretend he didn't know it was happening.
Lupin smiled apologetically, giving a very light sigh. "I'm afraid, with... things being the way they are, it's not very safe for you to travel far beyond the confines of Little Whinging. And London, of course, is far too dangerous, even the Muggle district. However, I've been exploring the local area a little since we came here, and I thought you might appreciate a trip into another town, just for a change of scenery."
Harry was happy enough to agree. In truth, though he'd lived here ever since that fateful day Voldemort had killed his parents when he was just a baby, he knew little more of the area than those parts of it he could reach on foot. The Dursleys never took him anywhere, and now that he was actually old enough to arrange for transport of his own, he wasn't allowed to go anywhere.
They took the bus. Harry studiously ignored the highly conspicuous witch and wizard who followed them on, difficult as it was. The witch spent several minutes rummaging in her purse, mumbling things like "How much are the funny little ones with seven sides worth again?", while her companion had not quite grasped that whilst shorts, Wellington boots and a shirt and tie were technically all Muggle clothing, they were seldom worn together, and especially not in a combination of red, green, purple and orange.
Still, at least they ensured that nobody at all was staring at Harry and Lupin. Harry had to admit that, whatever else you said about the Muggle world, the lack of people gawping at the scar on his forehead was a definite plus. In Little Whinging, not only did nobody know who he was, nobody cared.
Lupin seemed remarkably at home on a bus; when Harry asked him about it, he smiled mysteriously. "Let's just say I've had to get used to passing through all kinds of places."
Of course he had. Aside from Albus Dumbledore, there were few people in the wizarding world prepared to give a job to a werewolf, however harmless and well qualified the werewolf in question might be. Harry supposed that passing for a Muggle from time to time might give Lupin the same kind of welcome anonymity he himself sometimes yearned for.
"Professor-" he began as they left the bus station, and Lupin smiled at him.
"Harry, you know, it's been a long time since I was your teacher. You're sixteen today; I think that's a good enough occasion for you to start calling me Remus."
Harry was caught between a smile and a feeling of great melancholy. He'd hoped - stupid, really, he knew, but he'd hoped - that perhaps now that the danger of Voldemort was out in the open, Lupin might have been allowed to come back to Hogwarts and teach again. He'd been the best qualified Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher they'd had. Just about the only one, actually. All the others had been either incompetent or out to get them all killed - or in the case of Umbridge, both.
"Professor Dumbledore sends his regards," Lupin said, which Harry took noncommittally. His faith in Professor Dumbledore had been absolute - and last year, it had shattered. The Hogwarts Headmaster had always let everybody think he was in control of everything; now that Harry knew that wasn't true, he was furious at him for letting them all believe so. How many times had he and the others risked their lives over the years, relying on that false security?
The shops in the town were not terribly exciting to anybody accustomed to their wizarding equivalents. Harry had no interest in clothes, no need for computer games or music that he couldn't take to Hogwarts, and absolutely no knowledge at all of current Muggle crazes or fashions.
Lupin's destination, he discovered, was a second-hand bookshop of the crammed and erratically organised kind. There were three floors, each with several rooms full of bookcases, no two of the same design. There were books piled higgledy-piggledy everywhere, even along the walls as you came up the spiral stairs.
It was, Harry had to admit, rather reminiscent of some of the shops in Diagon Alley; everything was very old and dusty, and logic appeared to have taken a back seat to random whimsy. Still, he was not entirely sure what they were doing here, and said so as Lupin led him up to the smallest of the rooms on the uppermost floor.
"Look again," Lupin advised him, with a faint smile.
Harry did, but could see nothing remarkable. Just piles of old books... he looked closer as the careful gold lettering on one of the spines caught his eye. Curious Charms and Hilarious Hexes to Astound Your Friends, by Loki Vrolijker.
"These are magical books!" he realised, amazed.
"Indeed they are," Lupin agreed. "Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley alone cannot serve the needs of every witch and wizard in the country. You might be surprised how many shops like this one have a shelf of special merchandise... for those with a discerning eye."
Harry frowned. "But, the Muggles-"
"These shelves are charmed, of course. If any non-wizard should come up here, they would appear to hold the driest, dullest books imaginable on that person's least favourite subject. A lot of second-hand bookshop owners are Squibs or retired wizards, Harry. There's something very magical about old books... even those that have no special properties of their own."
"Hermione would love it in here," Harry said, grinning.
The time flew by surprisingly quickly while he was browsing the shelves. In Flourish and Blotts he'd have been the one tugging impatiently on Hermione's arm to drag her away to somewhere more interesting, but after being so far removed from the wizarding world it was wonderful to just be able to flick through the pages of an ancient tome and see diagrams of wand movements and descriptions of spells. If he squinted and inhaled the dust, he could believe for a while he was in the library at Hogwarts.
Harry wanted to take half the shelf home with him, but he had a suspicion that Lupin was going to want to treat him since it was his birthday, and he was sure his ex-Professor could hardly afford to be spending all his money on Harry. So, regretfully, he finally picked out a book of defensive hexes and a rather lurid graphic novel about dragon-tamers in the middle ages.
"Let me pay for those," Lupin said, as they descended the stairs, and Harry smiled to himself.
They stopped for tea at a quiet little café not far from the bookshop. That was Harry's suggestion: Professor Lupin had been willing to stop for fast food anywhere he would have chosen, but Harry had seen how thin he was. He wasn't at all convinced that Lupin had been taking care of himself since- well, since - and decided that if he was going to have him trapped for long enough to be forced to eat a meal, he could at least make sure it was a decent one.
Perhaps that was what you called growing up.
Truth to tell, he wasn't sure he could have stood babbling voices and harsh artificial lights in any case. At least it was empty and quiet in the café, and even their 'escort' managed to be unobtrusive.
They caught the last bus back to Little Whinging; Lupin gave Harry's shoulder a squeeze on the doorstep just before he went in. "Look after yourself, Harry," he said softly.
"I will." He turned and gave him a slight smile. "You too, Profess- um, Remus." His awkward stumble made his ex-teacher smile, but a quiet sadness still showed through behind it. Harry knew exactly how he felt.
He went to sleep that night feeling rather melancholy, but also a little more at peace with himself than he had been in a while. The strange dreams of the night before did not recur, and - perhaps unfortunately - as the days passed and the relatively uneventful summer wore on, Harry quite forgot about them.