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A Year Like None Other

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If there was anything that Harry Potter liked more than chocolate frogs or sugar quills, it was getting mail from his friends. Sometimes, that had been all that had got him through those miserable summers with the Dursleys. He honestly didn't know how he'd managed to make it through the monotonous vacations back before he'd known Ron and Hermione and Dean and Seamus and Remus and Neville… Of course, there'd been that awful summer when Dobby had charmed all the owls away, when his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had been furious that he'd spent an entire year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They hadn't wanted him to go, which actually puzzled Harry whenever he thought about it. It had got him out of their hair for an entire school year. You'd think they'd have been delighted to send him off to any boarding school, even if it was one that taught magic. So what if they hated magic? They hated him more.

"Going to open that, mate?" Ron asked between bites.

"Yeah," Harry answered without looking up. It was no wonder that seeing this letter had brought to mind all those times he'd been stuck at the Dursleys and gasping for mail from his friends. He was at school now, sixth year, surrounded by happy Gryffindors gulping down a quick lunch -- although how anybody could be happy before double Potions was a good guess -- and it seemed he'd got a letter, delivered by magic owl, from those same Dursleys, the ones who hated anything magical.

Nah, couldn't be, Harry decided. It was a joke, right? From Fred and George, even though Harry had no idea how the twins could have gotten his Muggle address. Sure, sure, they could find his house, if they had another enchanted car, that is, but to know how to write out the location of it, Muggle style? But there it was, written right there on the envelope: 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey…

Harry sighed, thinking it less and less likely this could be a joke. Fred and George's father might work in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Department at the Ministry of Magic, but since he'd once asked Harry what the precise purpose of a rubber duck was, Harry didn't think that Mr Weasley understood much at all about Muggles. And this letter… well, even if you ignored the address, it had Muggle written all over it. The envelope wasn't made of a nice parchment, it was just paper, and long and white like the envelopes Uncle Vernon used for business. Besides, a return address? Wizarding letters didn't need those, and they certainly didn't bear postage!

Sighing, Harry began picking at the little profile of the Queen, just for something to do. It was better than opening the letter, that was for sure. In over five years, the Dursleys had never once written him at school. It couldn't be a good sign that they were starting now.

"Eh, Harry?" Ron prompted again, this time with his mouth full. "You want me to open it for you?"

"Nah." Harry shook his head. "I just think… maybe it'd be better if I waited a bit. Yeah. Until after Potions, you know. Best to go into that with a clear head. That slimy excuse for a teacher'll take a thousand points off Gryffindor if I let my potion boil over again like last week."

Hermione looked up from the book she'd been obsessing over for the past day and a half, Countering the Countercurse: Reversing Reversals. "How could you mistake salamander eyes for sea grass, though, Harry? You should know by now that adding animal elements to a potion based on poppy seed oil is going to have repercussions! Don't you remember the principles we learned third year, about animal, vegetable, and mineral, and how some ingredients just want to stay true to class?"

"Ah, Miss Granger. Showing off again, like the arrogant Gryffindor you are." A cool voice from above made them all look up. Snape, of course, his lips twisted, his eyes burning like twin torches, only black. Just the sight of it made Harry want to shudder. No, cancel that. It did make him shudder, because he remembered that same look near the end of last year, when the Potions Master had refused to go help Sirius, no matter that Harry was pleading.

Come to think of it, maybe he'd refused because Harry was pleading. In any case, Sirius had died. Suddenly, instead of being worried that Snape might have heard the "slimy excuse for a teacher" remark, Harry hoped he had.

"And Mr Weasley, with his mouth crammed full as usual, dropping crumbs for the house-elves to magic away. Ten points from Gryffindor for sloppiness." His eyes passed over the three of them, but Harry didn't look up. No point, not when he'd just lose points for his house. The rage smouldering in his eyes would be enough to set Snape off. Not that Snape had ever needed an excuse, let alone a reason, to take points off Gryffindor.

Snape slid past them then, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief.

"The nerve!" Hermione hissed as soon as Snape exited the tall doors at the end of the hall. "He knows perfectly well that the house-elves don't have to sweep this floor! But that's good, isn't it? I mean, they have enough to do. Whoever spelled the floor to blink away debris about to hit it must have thought so--"

"Hermione!" Ron groaned in exasperation. "Do you have room for anything in your head except studies and house-elves? Harry's got a letter he's afraid to open, or didn't you notice?"

She noticed then, plucking the envelope from his fingers and flipping it over twice as she examined it. "Oh. Sorry, Harry."

Ron still didn't know which end was up. "What? What's the matter?"

"It's from the Dursleys," Harry groaned, though how his Muggle relatives had got their hands on a magic owl was still a good question, in his view.

"The Dursleys," Ron slowly repeated. "They don't ever write you."

"So it can't be anything I want to hear," Harry concurred.

"Aw, they can't do much to you," Ron replied, stuffing another slice of carrot cake between his teeth. "It's not like they can take you out of school, is it? Dumbledore'd never stand for it. For one, you're safe here, and for another, how're you going to fight You-Know-Who if you don't become a fully trained wizard?"

"I suppose," Harry murmured, taking the letter back from Hermione. He should probably open it, right? What could the Dursleys do, after all? They'd been cowed the whole summer, just because Mad Eye Moody had given Uncle Vernon some strict advice regarding Harry and mistreatment. In a lot of ways, it had been his best summer yet. The Dursleys had ignored him completely, had looked right through him and acted like he wasn't even in the house, but that was better than chores from dawn until dusk and rants about his parents.

"Read your letter after Potions," Hermione suddenly agreed. "It's probably nothing, Harry, but you don't want to risk it, not with Snape. He's really had it in for you this year, worse than before."

"Yeah," Harry said again, thinking of the pensieve, of Snape's worst memory. Even as angry as he was over Sirius, he was still sorry he'd pried like that. Or maybe he was sorry not so much because he'd offended Snape, but because he'd seen things he really didn't want to know. About his father. About Sirius. "Time for Potions, then," he groaned, pushing to his feet.

"What about the letter?" Ron urged. "It can't be that bad. Why don't you read it on the way?"

"Later," Harry refused. "Much later."

In fact, if he had his way, he just might never open that letter. Harry's expression brightened at that, even if he was on his way to Potions. Yeah, that was it, he'd just never open the letter. The Dursleys wouldn't have written him anything he wanted to read, so that was that. Of course he might have some explaining to do when summer rolled around, but that was months away, still.

Harry shoved the letter deep in his bag, determined to forget about it.