The ride to London on the Hogwarts Express was quiet and uneventful. Harry asked that Hermione and Ron lock the door of their compartment, knowing he wouldn't be able to stand it if Draco stopped by to do his usual end-of-the-term sneering. They acquiesced, a bit puzzled, but were very kind when Harry claimed he had a headache and even offered to talk in whispers the whole time. Of course, they spent rather a large number of minutes whispering to each other and going slightly red whenever Harry caught them at it, but he tried not to mind.
His best friends in the whole world. Could he really do this, really keep this from them? Dumbledore was bad enough. How could he stand this? He refrained from sighing heavily, knowing it would only arouse their curiosity.
He'd just have to figure it out, that's all. Thing would surely fall into place, wouldn't they? And he had a whole summer ahead to think about it, when he wouldn't have to do anything at all.
Since the door had been locked, Harry didn't see Fred and George until the time came to get off the train. Ron and Hermione had already gone into the corridor. Harry was struggling with his bags when two identical red heads popped in.
"He's alone!" hissed Fred in a stage whisper.
"Great," whispered George, "now's our chance! Stuff 'im in our bags and we'll take him home and keep him all summer long!"
Harry turned around with a laugh. "Yeah? And where'll you hide me?"
"Under my bed," George said promptly, swaggering into the compartment. "I'll get rid of all the dustballs. You'll be safe as houses. What do you say?"
"It sounds better than living at the Dursleys'," Harry replied gloomily, thinking of who awaited him on the platform.
Fred and George exchanged quick glances of sympathy. "You know you'll get to come visit us at the end," Fred said comfortingly. "And Mum is always happy to see you. Like another son, she says."
"Like she needs one," George said sarcastically. "Hurry up, Fred, and give it to him. We've only got a minute before Ron comes poking around looking for him."
"Give me what?" Harry asked with no small amount of trepidation.
Fred winked, and pulled a thickish book out from one of his robe's inner pockets. (Fred and George's robes always seemed to have more inner pockets than most people's.) He handed it to Harry with an unmistakable leer. "Something to remember us by," he said. "Bit of summer reading ... help you figure things out, maybe learn a bit ... "
Harry stared at the book, feeling himself blush to the roots of his hair. It read A Wizard's Manual of Same-Sex Sex and the couple on the cover illustration were going at it quite ... vigourously. "Thanks," he mumbled.
"Oy, I think I hear Ron," George said quickly. "Shove it in your bags." Hands clumsy with embarrassment, Harry obediently stuffed the book in the suitcase he had nearest to hand, knowing that having Uncle Vernon see him with it would be far worse than being discovered by his friend. As if George had conjured him up, Ron poked his head in the compartment a few seconds later.
"Harry, what's keeping - oh, it's you two. What are you up to now?"
"I like that," Fred said, affronted. "Not even trusted by our own brother - "
"Now I know you're up to something," Ron said. "C'mon, Harry, before they slip something explosive in your bags." George guffawed.
"And how d'you know we haven't already?" he demanded. Harry willed his blush to die down. "Yeah, let's go," he muttered.
The sight of Uncle Vernon waiting in the station seemed particularly unpleasant that year. For a second Harry was sure he wasn't going to be able to bear being back at Privet Drive all summer, and thought about sending Dumbledore an owl, begging the headmaster to let him stay at Hogwarts, or the Weasleys', or even with Sirius and Professor Lupin, wherever they were. But that was no good. Dumbledore always said no, even though he was very kind about it. The summer months stretched out before Harry in a long and lonely vista.
Then he remembered the extra item in his suitcase, and felt a little shiver in his stomach. On the other hand ... that was something he'd definitely need privacy to look at. "Summer reading," Fred had said. And it had certainly looked ... instructive.
Snape wouldn't be the only one doing research this summer, Harry decided, suddenly resolved to make the best of things. He pushed his cart towards the belligerent man awaiting him. He had lots of things to think about, lots of things to decide. Lots of things.
He'd better get started.
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