Chapter 2


 

Across the Atlantic, another boy slept, one hand curled loosely around a narrow cylinder of wood. It had been over a year since Lord Voldemort’s defeat, yet Harry Potter had not yet lost the habit of sleeping with his wand. Even now, the slightest noise had him sitting bolt upright in bed, on high alert for the possibility of an attack.

It took him a few seconds to take in his surroundings – the ornately carved wooden furniture; the tall windows, letting in slivers of early morning sunlight between their long, velvet curtains; the posters of motorcycles and Muggle girls in bikinis, permanently fixed to the walls – and realize he was safe in his home at number twelve, Grimmauld Place. The faint rustling sound that had roused him from his sleep he now recognized as the scurrying of small feet on the floorboards below. Kreacher, his house elf, was moving about – preparing breakfast, by the smell of it. Harry closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of fried bacon and fresh blueberry muffins for a second, before he scrambled out of bed and down four flights of stairs to the cavernous kitchen in the basement of the old manor.

When Harry had first inherited number twelve, Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of his godfather, Sirius Black, he’d had no intentions of actually living there one day. With Sirius gone, there was nothing left to brighten the gloomy mansion. But after hiding there for a month the previous year, while on the run with his friends Ron and Hermione, Harry had come to view the house as a safe haven, a sanctuary. He actually missed the place after they were forced to leave it, and once the danger had passed and the dust had settled, it had just made the most sense for him to return to Grimmauld Place and make it his home.

With Kreacher’s help, Harry had thoroughly cleaned the house, while his girlfriend, Ginny, provided the feminine eye needed to redecorate it. The set of shrunken house elf heads that had once lined the main staircase had been relocated to Kreacher’s new quarters on the third floor, along with the troll leg umbrella stand and the rest of the Black family belongings left behind in the house after Mundungus Fletcher had finished looting it. Only the two bedrooms on the topmost landing, once belonging to brothers Sirius and Regulus Black, were left unchanged. Harry slept in his godfather’s old room and kept Regulus’s as a shrine to the man whose sacrifice had helped him defeat Voldemort.

Kreacher still worshipped the ground on which “Master Regulus” once walked, but he had come to respect Harry as his rightful new owner. “Good morning, Master,” croaked Kreacher in his bullfrog’s voice, bowing Harry into the kitchen.

“Just Harry, please, Kreacher,” said Harry, who was still uncomfortable with the idea of “owning” a house elf. He knew that Hermione, founder of the organization S.P.E.W., the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare, did not approve. But Kreacher wasn’t like Dobby, whom Harry had freed from his enslavement as the Malfoy family’s house elf. Dobby had hated serving his former masters and delighted in his newfound freedom, but to most house elves, being let go was a disgraceful insult. Harry knew he would only be doing a disservice to Kreacher, who had lived his whole life in this house, if he were to give him clothes and make him leave. Besides, Kreacher was much more pleasant to be around these days, and his cooking was too good to give up.

“Yes, Master Harry,” Kreacher replied, placing a plate heaped high with eggs, hash browns, bacon, and a blueberry muffin in front of Harry as he sat down at the long, wooden table.

Harry didn’t bother to correct him again. His muffin had already been sliced and spread with melting better. Mouth watering, he picked up one half and took a big bite. “Mmm,” he said, through a mouthful of blueberries. “I think you’ve outdone yourself, Kreacher.”

“Master is too kind,” Kreacher said humbly, brushing aside the compliment. “What time will Master’s friends be arriving?”

Harry smiled; it was a nice change to hear Hermione and Ginny referred to as “friends,” rather than “the Mudblood” and “blood traitor brat.” “Not ‘til seven. I’ll probably head straight to King’s Cross after work.”

“Kreacher will have dinner on the table when Master and his friends return,” Kreacher replied, twisting his lips into what could almost pass for a smile in return. The expression looked strange on him, as Harry had grown so accustomed to seeing a scowl on his face.

“Thanks, Kreacher!” Harry bolted down the rest of his breakfast, then went back upstairs and dressed at top speed. “See you later!” he called to Kreacher, as he left for work. On his way to the nearest Underground station, he passed Muggles wearing business suits and the browbeaten expressions Tuesday mornings bring, but Harry couldn’t be bothered to feel down on a day like this. The sun was shining, the mid-June heat was rising, and his two favorite women in the world would soon be on their way to see him. He had every reason to smile this morning, as he did so often these days.

What a change Voldemort’s death had made in his life! No longer did Harry live in a constant state of paranoia, waiting to be attacked. No longer did he have to put up with the accusations that he was a liar, an attention-seeker, or a tragic hero driven mad by the trauma he’d suffered. His life had quieted down some in the months since his name had finally dropped out of the press, following extensive coverage of the Battle of Hogwarts by the Wizarding media.

To Harry, it was a welcomed relief from the chaos and uncertainty of the year he’d spent tracking down Horcruxes in his quest to defeat Voldemort. He didn’t miss being on the run, camping in a different patch of forest every night, scavenging for food and going hungry most of the time, fighting the elements and trying to avoid the Death Eaters and Snatchers. He still had enemies, both in and out of Azkaban, but it wasn’t like before. There was no longer a price on his head; he could come and go as he pleased. When he was recognized on the streets, it was by supporters and admirers, rather than Voldemort’s followers. He was still uncomfortable being the famous Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, The Chosen One, but at least he had finally proven himself by living up to those titles.

Harry descended the stairs that led into the Underground station, where he purchased a ticket and boarded the train that would get him closest to his destination, the Ministry of Magic. As he still hated the sensation of Apparition, distrusted the Floo network, and couldn’t very well fly through London on a broomstick, Harry relied on Muggle transportation to get to and from work each day. Most wizards would scoff at the idea of famous Harry Potter taking a Muggle train to work, but Harry found the train ride relaxing. It gave him a chance to simply sit and mull over the day’s events. After so much time spent running, acting on instinct to survive, Harry relished having time just to sit and think.

I’m starting to sound like Hermione, he thought to himself, as he reemerged into the sunlight on the street above. He walked a block to the employee entrance of the Ministry’s headquarters, which was disguised as a public toilet. After flushing himself down the toilet, he was deposited into one of the gilded fireplaces on the left side of the Atrium, the lobby of the Ministry of Magic. He stepped out of the grate onto the polished, dark wood floor, where his best friend, Ron, stood waiting for him.

“All right, Harry?” Ron greeted him.

Harry grinned at his lanky, red-haired friend. “Hey, Ron.”

When they’d received their career advice three years ago, during their fifth year at Hogwarts, Harry never expected to find himself and Ron actually working for the Ministry of Magic. Although he’d held on to his ambition to become an Auror, that was the year that the Minister of Magic himself, Cornelius Fudge, had accused him of being a deluded liar for announcing Voldemort’s return. The following year, Fudge’s successor, Rufus Scrimgeour, tried to make Harry the Ministry’s mascot, though Harry blatantly refused to support a government that convicted innocent people of supporting Voldemort. And the year after that, the Imperiused puppet-minister Pius Thicknesse forced Harry into hiding by deeming him “Undesirable Number One.” But the current Minister of Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, was a far better leader than his last three predecessors, and it was only on his invitation that Harry and Ron had joined the Department of Magical Law Enforcement to be trained as Aurors.

“Hope the day goes fast, eh?” said Ron, as the two of them stepped onto one of the lifts.

Harry suppressed a smirk, not fooled by Ron’s casual tone. He knew Ron couldn’t wait to see Hermione, just as he was dying to be with Ginny again. “Let’s hope,” he agreed.

While he and Ron had gone straight into the Ministry without completing their final year at Hogwarts, Hermione had chosen to go back to school to finish out her seventh year and sit for her N.E.W.T. exams alongside Ginny. It had been a long nine months, being apart from them both while Harry and Ron embarked on their first year of Auror training, but at last, the school term was over, and Hermione and Ginny would be coming home on the Hogwarts Express that very evening.

Harry couldn’t wait to hold Ginny again, to run his hands through her long, silky hair, to feel her lips, warm and soft against his. They had lost so much time together. He was determined to make up for all the missed opportunities.

It was hard to concentrate on his combat training exercises that day, with Ginny on his mind. His brain felt fuzzy, his reflexes slow. He was relieved when the work day finally came to an end. He and Ron changed out of their robes and into Muggle clothing before they left together through the fireplaces on the right side of the Atrium, flushing themselves back into Muggle London.

They rode the Underground to King’s Cross Station. To Harry’s relief, it was far less embarrassing to take Muggle transportation with Ron than it was his father; Mr. Weasley, a pureblood wizard who was fascinated by Muggles, always wanted to stop and point out perfectly ordinary things, which tended to attract the attention of Muggle passersby. Ron was just as clueless about Muggle technology, but didn’t care enough to ask a lot of questions. He just let Harry go first and simply followed his lead, as they navigated their way through the Underground system.

At King’s Cross, they headed straight for the barrier between Platforms Nine and Ten, which served as the gateway to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, where the Hogwarts Express was due to arrive. Leaning casually against the barrier, appearing deep in conversation, they waited until no Muggles were around, then slipped on through what had appeared to be a solid wall. They emerged on the other side of the barrier, beneath a wrought-iron archway that spelled out the words Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. A few other people were already milling about under an Arrivals sign that said Hogwarts Express, seven o’clock, and the number of friends and family members waiting for their students to return only multiplied the closer it came to that time.

Promptly at seven, a train whistle sounded, and Harry’s heart leapt at the sight of the familiar scarlet steam engine chugging down the track. The Hogwarts Express pulled up alongside the platform and slowed to a stop. Inside the train, Harry could see compartment doors flying open, eager students filling the corridors. As he watched the flood of young witches and wizards pour out onto the platform, hauling their heavy trunks, Harry experienced a moment of regret, in which he wished he had gone back to Hogwarts for one final year. He thought of his four-poster bed in Gryffindor Tower, of having tea in Hagrid’s hut, of feasts in the Great Hall and DA meetings in the Room of Requirement, of Quidditch matches and House Cups and the Triwizard Tournament…

But then he spotted a familiar figure with long red hair dancing down her back. She turned, saw him, smiled, and suddenly, Harry could think of nothing else but Ginny Weasley. “Harry!” she cried, bounding toward him, her hair streaming behind her like flames. Her face was even more radiant, as, beaming, she threw herself into his arms. He caught her in a tight hug, his hands entangling themselves in her hair. “Harry, I missed you so much,” Ginny whispered into his ear, her lips caressing his cheek.

Harry thought of all the nights he’d lain awake with the Marauder’s Map spread out on his bed, searching it by wandlight until he found the tiny figure labeled Ginny, asleep in her dormitory at the top of Gryffindor Tower. “I missed you, too. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” Ginny pulled back, grinning, her brown eyes bright.

“Ahem.” They both turned to find Ron watching them, his arm around Hermione and a smirk on his slightly pink face. “If you’re done snogging my sister, Harry, I thought I’d remind you that Hermione’s here, too.”

Judging by the color in his cheeks, Harry suspected Ron had just enjoyed a bit of snogging, too, but he decided not to mention it. Instead, he smiled, released Ginny, and strode over to hug Hermione. “Welcome home, Hermione.”

“Oh, it’s so good to see you, Harry!” she replied, hugging him back tightly. “It just hasn’t been the same at Hogwarts without you two.”

“Yeah, this year was actually peaceful! And quiet!” Ginny added, giving them all a good laugh. “And… well… completely boring.”

“We’re glad it’s over,” Hermione agreed, as Harry and Ron grinned at each other.

“Never thought you’d hear Hermione Granger actually say she was glad to be done with school, huh, Harry?” Ron joked.

Harry sniggered. “Yeah, Hermione, usually you’re crying over the thought of being off for a whole summer. Oh, the horror!”

“Yes, well, now that I’ve finished at Hogwarts, I’m quite looking forward to starting my career! I’m thinking of applying to the Ministry myself, possibly the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures; I really think I could make more headway in securing equal rights for house elves there, don’t you think?” Hermione said briskly, back to her old ambitious self.

“Not the Spew stuff again,” groaned Ron, rolling his eyes at Harry. “And to think, we almost made it a whole year without having to hear about the plight of poor ickle house elves!”

How many times do I have to tell you, Ron, it’s the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare, not Spew! Honestly!” huffed Hermione, tossing back her head of bushy brown hair. Harry didn’t miss the little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, though, despite her attempts to hide it. He’d known for a long time that this back-and-forth bickering between Ron and Hermione came out of love, rather than hate. Arguing was almost their way of showing affection for one another.

Harry didn’t quite understand it, but then, girls and relationships had always been something of an enigma to him. All he knew was that, with Ginny, it was easy. He didn’t have to think too much, didn’t have to question her every move or second-guess himself. Their relationship felt so comfortable, so natural. He knew even as he reached out to take her trunk that she would swat his hand away, insistent on dragging her own luggage, just as she knew he would still try. Harry had a savior complex, just as Ginny had a fiercely independent streak, but they understood that about each other.

“Hey, speaking of house elves,” Harry said suddenly, to break up Ron and Hermione’s latest lover’s spat, “Kreacher said he’d have dinner ready when we get back to Grimmauld Place.”

“Ooh, I’m so hungry, I could eat a hippogriff! Shall we go, then?” asked Ginny pointedly, catching on to what Harry was trying to do.

“Yeah, let’s go,” Ron agreed, offering to haul Hermione’s trunk, a tip he had surely picked up from Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches, which he’d given Harry two birthdays ago, after his brothers Fred and George gave him a copy. Ron surely wouldn’t have thought to be so chivalrous on his own.

Unlike Ginny, Hermione had no qualms about letting her boyfriend help with her luggage, though as they walked back to the barrier, she remarked, “Oh Harry, I hope you’re not letting Kreacher work too hard.”

“He wants to, Hermione. He’s really come around, that Kreacher.”

And sure enough, when they arrived back at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, Kreacher had a steak-and-kidney pie and Harry’s favorite treacle tart waiting for them. As he sat down to dinner with Ron, Hermione, and Ginny, Harry felt, for the first time since leaving Hogwarts, that he was truly home.

***


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