Book 7 – Harry Potter The Deathly Hallows

Chapter One

Secrets Unraveled

Harry slowly raised his head and stared morosely at the familiar visage of number four, Privet Drive. What had already been a horrible day was rapidly getting worse. Not only did he have to appear unannounced on the Dursleys’ doorstep (something he knew they’d have no problem expressing their displeasure over), but he’d also have to tell them that two other freaks would be joining him this afternoon. The corner of Harry’s mouth twitched humorlessly as he envisioned how they’d take the news.

He’d left Ron and Hermione at King’s Cross station a little over an hour ago. They were each going to make quick stops at their respective homes before Apparating to Privet Drive. Harry smiled fondly, remembering their show of solidarity. He hadn’t been expecting it; he’d thought he’d be going on alone. Although he was desperately worried about them and the remainder of their quest, he had to admit that the thought of some support while facing his relatives was quite nice indeed.

Harry had thought it would be better – or at least less embarrassing – if he arrived at Privet Drive first and prepared his relatives for their arrival. He’d wanted to get away from the Hogwarts Express and the other students as quickly as possible…before he ran into Ginny.

Ginny.

Harry quickly shook his head – he couldn’t afford to think about Ginny. He still didn’t think his resolve was strong enough to hold.

Since he wasn’t yet of age, he’d quickly slipped away without speaking to any of the crowd at King’s Cross and taken the train to Privet Drive. The long, hot journey had left him irritable. It didn’t bode well for the coming reunion. He’d considered just Apparating back from Hogsmeade to avoid the Hogwarts Express altogether. So what if the Ministry chucked him out of Hogwarts now? He wasn’t going back, anyway.

Hermione, always the voice of reason, reminded him that there was no need to give the Ministry an excuse to break his wand, and Harry had to admit that she had a point.

Rufus Scrimgeour wanted Harry under his control, and Harry wouldn’t put it past the man to make life difficult in an effort to force Harry to comply. Harry had no patience for the man or his politicking. Still, recklessly using underage magic for the sake of mere convenience was a risk not worth taking.

He hated when Hermione was right.

So, he’d sat in a compartment with Ron and Hermione and tried to ignore the hole in his heart that Ginny’s absence created. He hadn’t seen her the entire journey home and wondered which compartment she’d sat on the train. Neither Ron nor Hermione had asked him where she was, but he’d caught Hermione staring at him speculatively on several occasions.

Harry had been steadfast in avoiding her gaze. He’d stared out the window miserably, his thoughts focused on happier days…

Ginny.

Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans and squaring his shoulders, Harry trudged across the street towards the immaculately pruned garden of number four, Privet Drive. He’d promised Dumbledore that he’d return one more time before his birthday, and he intended to keep that pledge. Harry’s chest tightened as he thought of his headmaster, but he blinked the moisture from his eyes and continued forward. This was what Dumbledore had wanted, and this was what he was going to do.

Still, knowing what he had to do didn’t make doing it any easier. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with the Dursleys’ nonsense. He had no patience for their petty bigotry…he had bigger challenges to face. The days when Vernon Dursley’s purple face could make him cower were long past. He wondered what he could expect when they opened the door to find him standing there after his eventful departure last summer.

All in all, he supposed it could be worse. He’d rather face the Dursleys’ ire than Molly Weasley’s fury when Ron informed her of his plans to ditch the Burrow this summer and head straight into the war that she’d been so adamantly attempting to shield him from.

Oh, no, Harry mused, he got off far easier in only having to face the Dursleys.

He wondered if Ron would have dropped his little bombshell while still at King’s Cross, or if he would have waited until arriving at the Burrow. Harry could picture Ron in the kitchen trying to reason with his mum, and Ginny would be there…

Ginny.

Harry’s heart constricted at the mere thought of her, and he pressed his eyelids together as if to squeeze her from his thoughts. Everything had seemed so simple and straightforward in his mind when he’d made his decision. He couldn’t put Ginny in danger. He’d never survive if he lost her, too.

But he had something he had to do, and he couldn’t afford any distractions while he was searching for the Horcruxes. Breaking it off had been the right thing to do. There was no reason that she should have to put her life on hold just because he did. It could take years to find them all.

At the time, it had seemed the perfectly logical thing to do. But now, away from Hogwarts and facing the unknown…now, nothing was clear. He didn’t know how he’d be able to function with this pain tearing such a hole in his heart. He felt as if he were bleeding continually from an invisible wound.

One thing he did know for certain: she could distract him with a simple smile, and he couldn’t afford to be distracted. He had too much that he had to do.

As for what did come next…that’s where Harry faltered. He knew what it was he had to do, he just wasn’t certain about how to do it. How could he find the remaining four Horcruxes? Where did he start? And how did he keep himself – or worse, Ron and Hermione – from suffering the same fate Dumbledore did when he’d located the last two Horcruxes? Or what he’d thought was a Horcrux, anyway…

R.A.B. How was he to find R.A.B.? Where did he begin?

The locket, the cup, the snake, and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw…

It seemed hopeless and overwhelming as a whole, so he’d have to start in pieces and work from there. He fingered the cold, hard metal of the fake Horcrux that he still kept in his pocket. Harry had found himself using it as some sort of talisman, holding onto it whenever the stress started to build. There had to be a way, and he was going to find it.

The first step would be Godric’s Hollow. He wasn’t certain what he expected to find there, it just seemed important that he go.

Scratch that. The first step would be getting through his last confinement with the Dursleys, and the sooner he started enduring that, the sooner he could move forward.

While he’d been lost in thought, Harry’s feet had carried him to the front door. Taking a deep breath, he tapped the knocker three times.

Here we go.

It took only a few moments before he heard footsteps approaching the door. It opened slightly, and Aunt Petunia’s horsy face peered through the crack. He watched as her eyes widened in surprise before the door swung open wide, and she yanked him inside by the collar of his shirt.

“What are you doing here?” Aunt Petunia demanded, her long neck craning from side to side to ensure none of the neighbors were out and about and watching Harry being manhandled by his aunt. “Why are you back here so soon? Did those freaks at that school of yours finally decide they didn’t want you either and throw you out? Did you think you could just show up here unannounced?”

“Hello, Aunt Petunia. It’s nice to see you, too,” Harry said pleasantly, pulling back from her grip and readjusting his collar. He spared a quick glance at the parlor, noting that nothing had really changed, although there were some crumpled sweet wrappers on an end table, which was unusual for Aunt Petunia.

“Don’t you ‘hello’ me,” his aunt snapped, dragging his attention back to her aggravated face. “I asked you what you are doing here? Term still has several weeks remaining.”

Harry shrugged and dropped his gaze to the floor. “We were released early this year,” he said vaguely, not wanting to discuss Dumbledore’s death with her quite so soon. He wasn’t ready.

Before she could reply, the kitchen door swung open, and Harry’s cousin Dudley lumbered into the room. He was even larger than Harry remembered, and his face looked tired and drawn. His eyes opened wide with shock upon seeing Harry, and he began gaping like a fish.

“What’s he doing here?” Dudley demanded, pointing a porky finger at Harry. Harry was pleased to notice the slight tremor in Dudley’s hand. After years of being the victim of Dudley’s bullying behavior, it was nice to have the shoe on the other foot, so to speak.

“Hey, Duds,” Harry said, grinning widely. “You’re home from school early, too. Did they chuck you out?” Harry asked, throwing Aunt Petunia’s taunt back at his cousin.

Harry was surprised when Dudley ignored Harry completely and turned his panic-stricken eyes upon his mother. “Thought you’d get him to look me over, did you? Trying to compare and see if he’s infected me? It’s all his fault, anyway. You know that. Him and that freak of an old man who took him the last time – they did this to me. You know they did something. He threatened you, I heard him.”

“Now, now, Popkin,” Aunt Petunia said soothingly, but Harry couldn’t help but notice the tremor in her voice. “Don’t get yourself upset. You know what happens when you get too fussed.”

Dudley’s eyes nearly bulged out of the sockets, and he grasped his mother’s forearms with enough force to leave red marks. “Mummy! Don’t let it happen again,” he whimpered.

Aunt Petunia pulled her arm away and began patting Dudley on the back and cooing softly as she led him into the parlor. Once she sat him on the couch and calmed him down, she turned back towards Harry. Her eyes were filled with such intense loathing that Harry found himself taking a step back involuntarily. What was going on here?

“Sit down and don’t dirty the sofa. I’m going to get Duddy a glass of lemonade,” she hissed, scurrying from the room. “Don’t upset him.”

Harry looked over at Dudley and furrowed his eyebrows. “What’s got your knickers in such a twist, Dud?”

“What are you doing here? Did they ask you to come look at me? I won’t have you or any of your freak friends pawing at me. Don’t think I can’t get that ruddy thing away from you, and when I do…” Dudley’s face matched the purple color that Harry usually associated with Uncle Vernon.

“Take it easy, Dud. You’re going to burst something. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here? What is this all about?” Harry asked.

His mind was racing, trying to remember all the details from his last trip to Privet Drive. It seemed like another lifetime ago. Professor Dumbledore had been pleasant, even though it was obvious to Harry that he had been upset by the way that the Dursleys had treated Harry. Still, he didn’t think that was something the Dursleys would have picked up. Harry’s comfort and well-being had never been one of their considerations.

Dudley appeared to be under the impression that Professor Dumbledore had threatened them, however. How would Dudley’s mind have formed that idea? Of course, being the bully he was, Dudley probably assumed everyone was threatening him, since he spent most of his time threatening others. Still, Harry tried to recall the conversation from the previous year to work out what had wound up his relatives so much.

Staring at Dudley sitting crouched into himself on the couch brought Dumbledore’s words back into Harry’s mind. He had said something about leaving a note for the Dursleys when he’d dropped Harry on their doorstep all those years ago.

“You did not do as I asked. You have never treated Harry as a son. He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands. The best that can be said is that he has at least escaped the appalling damage you have inflicted upon the unfortunate boy sitting between you.”

Was that what Dudley thought was a threat? How could it be, though? Another memory arose in Harry’s mind of a Howler sent to Aunt Petunia after the Dementor attack on Harry and Dudley in the alley before his fifth year.

“Remember my last.”

The last must have been this same letter. Harry was burning with curiosity to know exactly what the letter had said. He held little hope that Aunt Petunia would tell him, however. Why is she so worried about Dudley being upset, anyway? Not that she ever likes to see her little popkin upset, Harry thought with a grimace.

Only one thing to do for it, then.

“So what’s this about Professor Dumbledore doing something to you last time, Duds? Are you sprouting a tail again? I didn’t even see him do it. Of course, he has no problem with non-verbal spells, so you never know what he could have been up to,” Harry said casually, forcing down the painful lump that lodged itself in his throat when speaking as if Professor Dumbledore were still alive.

Dudley cowered away from Harry and scrambled off the couch faster than his bulk should have allowed. His hands instinctively searching his massive behind for, Harry assumed, the return of a pig’s tail. “Stay away from me! I mean it…you stay away!”

Harry stood up and began walking towards Dudley with a determined stride. “What’s wrong, Dud? Why are you so skittish all of a sudden? Lost your nerve, have you? Is this what’s got you acting like such a little girl?” Harry asked, drawing his wand from his sleeve.

“Put it away,” Dudley screeched, backing into a corner. Harry would have laughed if it weren’t so pathetic. This was the great git of a bully who had regularly made Harry’s life a living hell when he was small?

“I mean it, Potter, put that thing away,” Dudley growled.

“Or what, Dud? What are you going to do?” Harry couldn’t help his morbid fascination, wondering how far he could push before Dudley would strike back.

Before Dudley could answer him, however, the vase on the table next to him started shaking violently. It rattled on the table as it moved closer to the edge. Harry stared at it in surprise. He really wasn’t that upset, not about this, anyway. Why was his magic reacting so strongly?

“Oh, no,” Dudley moaned before the vase flew from the table and went careening towards Harry’s head.

Harry was so shocked that he never had time to move. The heavy ceramic vase slammed into the side of his face with enough force to knock him from his feet. The vase and Harry both landed on the floor with a heavy thud, the vase shattering in several large chunks.

Alerted by the noise, Aunt Petunia hurried back into the room and screeched at the destruction. “What have you done?” she spat, stepping over Harry to retrieve the broken pieces of her vase.

“It happened again, Mummy,” Dudley wailed. “He did it! I know he did.”

Aunt Petunia leapt to her feet and hurried over to Dudley. “There, there, now, sweetums. Mummy’s here. Everything will be all right. Come into the kitchen, and I’ll make you a nice snack. I’ll take care of everything.”

As she ushered Dudley from the room, she turned back towards Harry, who was still struggling to rise from the floor. “Stay here. I’ll be right back. I warned you not to upset him,” she hissed, her eyes nearly glowing with a burning intensity.

Harry groaned as he sat up and put a hand to his throbbing cheekbone. What is going on here? He pulled himself to his feet unsteadily and shook his head in an attempt to clear it.

Bad idea.

The entire room swam before his eyes, and he had to grasp the arm of the couch to remain upright. He tentatively moved his jaw from side to side, testing how much damage had been done to his face. He didn’t think anything was broken, but the pain was enough to make him wish for one of Madam Pomfrey’s potions.

This would be no ordinary stay at Privet Drive.

He’d done accidental magic before, but not in a long time. He didn’t remember ever hurting himself with it before, either. Something wasn’t right. He glanced out the window apprehensively, wondering if he’d be receiving a reprimand from the Ministry.

Great. That’s all I need.

Still, he’d never got them when it had happened when he was younger, so maybe he’d get by this time, as well. Nothing to do for it; he’d have to wait and see.

The more pressing matter was what was going on with Dudley. He’d acted almost as if he’d known what was going to happen. Almost as if…

Aunt Petunia strode back into the room at that moment and sat down stiffly, glaring at Harry all the while. Harry wasn’t certain what she expected of him, but followed her lead and sat down at the other end of the couch, waiting. After a few moments spent in silence, Harry couldn’t take it anymore.

“What’s happening here, Aunt Petunia?” he asked quietly. “I don’t think I did that. I think Dudley did. How is that possible?”

“Of course my Dudley didn’t do it. You’re the freak here, not him,” she snapped, before her face crumpled, and she put her head in her hands.

Harry was thunderstruck and at a loss for what to do. In all the years that Harry had spent with the Dursleys, she’d never once offered him a bit of comfort over anything, and he found it strange that he wanted to comfort her now.

Tentatively, he raised his hand and gradually moved it towards her before quickly pulling it back again. Twice more he struggled with the urge to lay his hand on her back in an attempt to calm her. She’d never taken kindly to his touch before, and he was afraid that anything he might do would stop her from talking. He wanted answers more than he wanted to comfort her, so he clenched his fists and fought to remain in his spot.

Aunt Petunia finally raised her head, and, although her lower lip trembled, she began to speak. “After you and your headmaster left here last year, odd things started to happen. These incidents grew more and more frequent until Dudley was finally asked to leave school. They suggested he needed counseling. As if we’d ever be able to talk about any of this. They thought he was acting out and being destructive on purpose. The nerve of some people.”

Harry’s head was swimming with questions, but he was afraid she’d clam up if he interrupted, so he just let her continue to ramble.

“What did your headmaster do?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “He removed the protection, didn’t he? He said we didn’t live up to our end of the bargain by not caring for you. We gave you food and shelter for all these years out of the goodness of our hearts. What more did he expect?

“He wanted us to love you like our own. You’re not our own! You’re just a reminder of the sister I wished I’d never had. We gave you shelter, and that has supposedly kept you alive and safe all this time. That should have counted for something. We could have just chucked you in an orphanage like Vernon wanted to do. Sometimes, I think we all would have been better off if we had.”

Harry had long ago stopped caring about or looking for the Dursleys’ approval, yet the coldness of the words stung.

“What do you mean by remove the protection?” he asked stoically, refusing to give her the satisfaction of knowing her words had hurt him. “The blood protection from my mother remains as long as I can call this house my home…at least until my birthday. He told you I’d be returning one more time.”

“Not the blood protection for you,” Aunt Petunia snapped. “This isn’t about you. I don’t care what happens to you or any of your freak world. As far as I’m concerned, we’d all be better off if you all just killed each other off. I want to know about the protections on Dudley. Dumbledore withdrew his part of the agreement, didn’t he?”

Harry blinked, nonplussed. “What are you on about?” he asked coldly.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, you never were very bright, were you? The spell he cast on Dudley. It’s obviously not working, because he keeps making these freakish things happen.”

“Dudley is a wizard?” Harry asked incredulously, the pieces all finally clicking into place. He felt as if the room was spinning, and he didn’t think it had anything to do with his throbbing temple. He knew magic ran in families – the Creevey brothers proved that. They were Muggleborn, and yet both were wizards…but Dudley. How could this have happened?

“Of course he’s not a wi…a.wi… He’s not a freak,” Aunt Petunia snapped, her voice nothing more than a high-pitched whisper. “I made a deal with your headmaster. He would block this unnaturalness from Duddydums, and I would take you in. It was all arranged. Then, after last year, whatever it was he did stopped working, because Dudley started having instances of these oddities every few days, and I can’t stop them. I want you to fix it. You do whatever it was he had done before. You can fix this, and you owe us that much.”

Harry’s mind was racing. How could this be? Would Dumbledore really have suppressed Dudley’s magic for all these years? It didn’t seem like something he would ever do. It didn’t make any sense.

As if from a fog, Harry’s mind recalled the way Aunt Petunia had always catered to Dudley’s every whim. How she’d acted as if the world revolved around keeping him calm and not letting him get upset. Harry’s worst punishments always came as a direct result of Dudley getting upset. He wondered if Petunia’s obsessive need to clean was only a byproduct of her anxiety over cleaning up what she considered a huge mess.

His mind continued to pick out little instances of times when Dudley had been upset. His thoughts again drifted to the night the Dementors had attacked, and Dudley had cowered in fear. Harry had wondered what Dudley could have been remembering. Could it have been some unexplained bits of magic that Dudley had fought to suppress? When Harry had found Dudley in the darkness, he’d had his hands clamped over his mouth. Harry had told him not to open his mouth, but when did Dudley ever listen to Harry? Could Dudley have actually seen the Dementors?

Harry felt as if his world had just spun completely out of his control yet again.

“Why would Dumbledore agree to hide Dudley’s magic? It doesn’t sound at all like Dumbledore,” he said slowly, his gaze boring into his aunt’s.

“He didn’t want to do it. We argued for quite some time about it. I’d seen the strange things that happened from the time my Dudley was still in his cot. I knew what it meant; I remembered it from Lily. There was no way I would allow it to happen again, not after I’d worked so hard to make a normal life for my family.

“It was the only way I would allow you to stay, and he was desperate for that to happen. I told him there was no way he’d ever get his hands on Dudley, anyway. Vernon and I would never allow him to go to that freak school. We raised him with a healthy loathing of all things so unnatural. Dudley is a good boy,” Aunt Petunia said, crossing her arms defiantly.

Harry rolled his eyes. It all made sense. Certainly the Dursleys wouldn’t have allowed Dudley to attend Hogwarts, and Harry knew from Dudley’s reaction a moment ago that he never would have wanted to go, anyway.

“So, what did Professor Dumbledore do, exactly?” Harry asked, unable to contain his curiosity. Aunt Petunia had never willingly told him anything in the past. Don’t ask questions had always been her standard response.

“How am I supposed to know how all your nonsense works?” Aunt Petunia snapped. “We took you in, and he did something to take Dudley’s name off of a register or some such thing. For a time, Dudley stopped making strange things happen. The only time anything abnormal happened was when Dudley would get upset, and I could easily blame that on you so Vernon never had to know.”

“Uncle Vernon doesn’t know his son is a wizard?” Harry asked, secretly appreciating the humor in that statement.

“Of course he doesn’t know. And Dudley is NOT one of you. Your headmaster did something to control it, and I want you to do the same thing now,” Aunt Petunia said, crossing her bony arms across her chest.

“I don’t even know how he could have done such a thing, never mind how do it,” Harry said, aghast.

“Well, if you want to stay here, you’d better think of something,” she snapped.

Harry’s mind clicked on a way to make this work to his advantage. “All right. I’ll try and find something. I’m going to need some help with it, though,” he said, rapidly changing gears.

“What do you mean help?” she asked suspiciously.

“My friends, Ron and Hermione – they’re brilliant with stuff like this. I’ll ask them to come and help me put it together. They’ll have to stay here for a while, though – while we research the correct spells to use. I’m certain it’s very complicated magic if Professor Dumbledore did it,” Harry said, his mind already plotting.

Aunt Petunia frowned with disapproval. “I don’t know.”

“All right, well…I can’t do it alone, so I suppose I’ll just be going,” he said, going so far as to turn around, rising and taking a step towards the door.

“No!” Aunt Petunia screeched. “All right… Your friend can bunk in with you, and the girl can stay in the guestroom. I won’t have any funny business under my roof.”

Harry smirked, envisioning the color Ron’s ears would have turned had he heard that remark. This was turning out better than he could have hoped. “All right, then.”

“You have to promise me you’ll all stay out of Vernon and Dudley’s way. When Vernon is home, you must stay up in your room, and I want this done as quickly as possible.”

“We’re agreed on that, then,” Harry mumbled.

“Oh, and another thing. Your friends will have to provide their own food. I’m not feeding any extra of your freaky friends. Vernon would never have it. They can bring their own or you can share your portion, but I won’t be responsible for them,” Aunt Petunia said, her haughty demeanor returning.

Harry had no choice but to agree. He hadn’t really thought about how they would eat. He could only hope that Hermione would be better prepared. She was certainly familiar enough with the Dursleys’ penchant for withholding nourishment. They’d just have to figure something out. Maybe if Mrs. Weasley wasn’t too upset with them she’d send something, or maybe Ginny would help…

Ginny.

On second thought, Harry decided that she couldn’t be involved with this in any way. It wasn’t fair to her, and he didn’t think he could stand to have her so close and yet so far. They’d have to come up with something else.

But her presence here would certainly be a nice contrast to Aunt Petunia, his mind said, betraying him.

Stop it, he told himself firmly. Ginny would not be involved.

“I’m going to send an owl. I’m certain they’ll be able to arrive shortly – they’re both of age,” Harry said, watching the panic fill Aunt Petunia’s eyes once again.

“What does that mean? They’re able to do…to…to use their things? I won’t have it in this house. You said they were coming here for research,” she said, a whine in her voice.

“Aunt Petunia, they’re coming here to work out how to do a spell that you asked me to do. Are you telling me that they can’t use magic to do it?” Harry asked, thoroughly enjoying his aunt’s conundrum.

Aunt Petunia’s lips thinned into a tiny sliver of a line. “One time and one time only. You owe me that much. You’re to help your cousin, and then you and your friends are to get out. I want nothing more to do with you or your kind. Vernon can see nothing unusual – he’s unhappy enough with you as it is.”

“So what’s new about that?” Harry mumbled.

“He’s been muttering about the fact that you came into an inheritance and didn’t bother to make us aware of that situation,” Aunt Petunia said with obvious disapproval. “We’ve provided you with house and board for sixteen years; certainly, if you’ve come into a house of your own, we deserve something for our trouble.”

“You won’t get anything that belonged to Sirius,” Harry said hotly. He might not want anything to do with Grimmauld Place either, but he certainly wasn’t about to let them get their grubby paws on it. He owed Sirius that much. Taking a deep breath to control his temper, he said through gritted teeth, “It wouldn’t do you any good, anyway. It’s a wizarding house – Muggles can’t see it. Although I suppose Dudley might be able to see it, actually…”

Aunt Petunia’s eyes widened with panic. “Enough. Diddyums most certainly will not be seeing any of your unnaturalness. Go and send your letter…and tell them to bring their own food,” she snapped before storming from the room.

Harry smiled grimly. Whenever it was that he’d be leaving this house to start the search for the Horcruxes couldn’t be soon enough.

The ringing of the doorbell startled Harry from his deep thoughts. He’d been up in his room, unpacking his few meager belongings from his school trunk. He reckoned that he and Ron would be quite cramped in his small bedroom, so a little organization couldn’t hurt. He wanted to be done with it before Hermione arrived and saw him doing it, however. There was no sense in letting her think she’d had any influence over him, or he’d never hear the end of it.

He glanced at the clock and was relieved to note they still had a half-hour before Uncle Vernon was due home. That should be just enough time to get settled and give Aunt Petunia some space to let him know they would be here. Even if they stayed confined for the most part to Harry’s room, there was no way for Uncle Vernon not to notice three extra people using the bathroom.

Hopefully, Aunt Petunia would think of something to placate him, and then Harry, Ron, and Hermione could just stay out of his way. It would be best for all of them to avoid a confrontation. Of course, having Ron

attempting to live as a Muggle ought to be a task worthy of the TriWizard tournament itself, Harry thought with a chuckle.

He was nearly gleeful with anticipation and was amused to realize that he’d never once before eagerly anticipated anything to do with the Dursleys as much as he was Ron’s presence in their very ordered life. It would be worth a few good telling-offs, actually.

He shut the door to his bedroom and hurried down the stairs, quietly noting Aunt Petunia straining her neck in order to peer out from the kitchen. Dudley was nowhere in sight.

Harry swung the door open wide just as the bell rang again.

“…you know anyone heard it the first time?” Ron was asking.

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Hi, Harry,” she said brightly before releasing a horrified gasp. “Harry! What happened to your face?”

Harry put a hand to his cheek, wincing at the deep bruising. He’d been so lost in his musings that he hadn’t even paid attention. “Long story. I’ve got loads to tell you.”

Hermione looked dubious. “Is everything settled?”

“’Course it is,” Ron said, taking Hermione by the arm and firmly ushering her inside. He obviously wasn’t about to take any of the Dursleys’ excuses. “Just stop talking for a minute and let him tell us what’s happening…then we can decide what to do about it.”

Harry stepped back, grinning, and allowed them to enter. “Everything’s fine, Hermione. Come on upstairs, and we can talk privately.”

Neither Ron nor Hermione made any effort to move. They both stood in the hallway, looking around the house. He saw Hermione frowning at the abundance of pictures of Dudley adorning the walls and every spare bit of surface space in the parlor. Harry was amused to notice that there was now a new picture perched on top of the table that only hours ago had sported the broken vase.

Ron grunted his displeasure, while Hermione’s brows knitted as she scowled. Harry couldn’t blame them; Dudley wasn’t much to look at, that was for certain. Harry was keen to get them out of the parlor and away from Aunt Petunia’s prying eyes before her nosiness might allow her to learn anything he didn’t want her to know.

“Uncle Vernon will be home soon, so it’s better if we go upstairs. I’ve got loads to tell you,” Harry said, trying to steer his friends toward the stairway.

Hermione, however, was peering over his shoulder with interest.

“You must be Harry’s Aunt Petunia,” she said. “I’m Hermione Granger. You’ve probably heard Harry mention me. We’ve been friends since our first year.”

Harry groaned inwardly. Too late.

“Can you do it? Can you help my Dudley?” Aunt Petunia asked, ignoring Hermione’s outstretched hand and peering intently at her face.

“Help him to do what?” she asked, startled.

Aunt Petunia whirled on Harry. “I thought you said they’d know what to do,” she hissed. “I allowed them to come here, because you said they could help him. They’re in your year…why do they know how to do it if you can’t?” She pointed her bony finger at Ron disapprovingly. “I recognize that one from that family who came to collect you and destroyed our parlor a few years back.”

“I said I’d need some assistance, and they’re it,” Harry said trying to placate her. “Unlike me, neither is underage. I only had time to tell them I needed some help – they don’t know all the details yet. Just give us a little time, and we’ll get it all set to rights.”

“What’s going on here, Harry?” Ron asked, his eyes darting back and forth between Harry and Aunt Petunia.

“Not now, Ron,” Harry said, glaring.

“How long will all this take?” Aunt Petunia demanded. “I can only appease your uncle for so long. I want this done and you out of this house as quickly as possible.”

“Nothing will please me more,” Harry said through clenched teeth. “Give us a fortnight, and we’ll never have to see each other again.”

“Mrs. Dursley…” Hermione said, her eyes wide.

“A fortnight? That long? Do you really expect me to keep you here that long?” Aunt Petunia screeched.

“I assume you want it done right without any mistakes that might affect Dudley?” Harry asked.

Aunt Petunia paled. “You better not do anything to hurt my Dudley. That would be just like you, wouldn’t it? I don’t know why I’m trusting the likes of you with this. You’ve always been jealous of Dudley, because you could never be like him.”

“Now, wait a moment, Mrs. Dursley…” Hermione tried again, shocked.

Neither Harry nor his aunt paused to look at her.

Harry rolled his eyes. “That’s just what I’ve always wanted – to be more like Diddydinkums. You’re trusting it to me, because you really don’t have any choice, do you? Of course, if you’d rather we just leave now…”

Aunt Petunia glared at him for several moments before her shoulders sagged in defeat. “Get upstairs and keep quiet until I can talk to your uncle. Under no circumstances are you to upset Dudley.”

Before the words were even completely out of Aunt Petunia’s mouth, the front door swung open, revealing the startled face of Vernon Dursley. He stopped in his tracks and looked with confusion at the faces staring back at him.

Slowly, his color turned a deeper and deeper shade of red before he started spluttering. “You! What the devil are you doing here? What is the meaning of this?” His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What have you done to my family this time, boy?”

“Hello, Uncle Vernon,” Harry said dryly.

“Don’t you take that tone with me. You are no longer welcome here – not that you ever were. Get out and take your damn friends with you,” Vernon snarled.

Harry smirked. “I think Aunt Petunia might disagree with you.”

Aunt Petunia glared at him viciously.

Uncle Vernon turned an enraged expression from Harry towards Aunt Petunia, but seemed to whither a bit under her scrutiny. “Petunia?” he whined.

“They need to stay, Vernon. They won’t be here long, and when they leave, we’ll be rid of him for good,” she said, waving her hand in Harry’s general direction.

“But…but…but,” Vernon said, spluttering.

“I’m not any happier about it than you are, Vernon, but this is how it’s going to be,” she said firmly.

Uncle Vernon’s shoulders slumped momentarily before he turned back on Harry. “I won’t stand for any of your funny business, boy, and I want to talk to you about this inheritance you so neatly forgot to mention last summer. What was it? Your dead convict of a godfather leaving you a house. Thought you’d hoard that information all to yourself, did you?”

Harry’s face remained impassive.

“It won’t do us any good, Vernon. It’s a…a…unnatural house. We wouldn’t even be able to see it, and it’s full of freakish things,” Aunt Petunia said with a shudder. She turned on Harry. “Go upstairs and settle in for the night. You’ll have to provide for yourselves, as we’re going out to eat.”

Harry turned towards his friends, who were staring at him in stunned silence. “Up the stairs, first door on the right,” he said, jerking his head toward the stairs.

Ron and Hermione hurried up without another word.

As Harry lay in his bed that night feeling much older than his sixteen years, he wished his mind was as tired as his body. He had filled Ron and Hermione in about everything that had happened with Dudley and Aunt

Petunia’s explanations for it. He had to admit, he’d enjoyed listening to Ron and Hermione’s outraged indignation to the way Harry’s relatives spoke to him.

Ron kept coming up with more and more names of the twins’ inventions to use on them, and even Hermione had suggested a curse or two. It warmed Harry’s heart to hear them, even if he would never allow them to get into trouble for doing something to the Dursleys. He enjoyed plotting it, nonetheless.

Hermione’s parents hadn’t wanted to let her go – they’d only seen her once during the whole year, at Christmastime – but Hermione had insisted that she was considered an adult in the Wizarding world now, and this was something she had to do.

Ron had been much less forthcoming about how his big revelation went at the Burrow. After much needling and cajoling from Harry and Hermione, Ron had finally admitted that he’d only told his mum that he was staying at Privet Drive with Harry, not that he wasn’t planning on returning to school at all come September. Hermione had scowled her disapproval and uttered something that sounded distinctly like coward.

They’d talked much more about Dudley and what Dumbledore could have done to mask Dudley’s magic. Harry still had trouble reconciling himself with the idea that Dudley was a wizard. It was mind-boggling. In the end, Hermione had promised to look into it while they were staying on Privet Drive. It would be something to pass the time, and if worse came to worse, she could simply cast a Cheering Charm before they left. That would keep Dudley happy for while.

It had been very late when they’d finally crawled into bed. Harry had shown Hermione to the guestroom and suggested she add a lock to her door. Ron hadn’t wanted to leave her alone, but shut up quickly after Harry suggested he stay in there with her. Harry smiled in the darkness, remembering the expression on Ron’s face. Hermione had transfigured Harry’s desk into another bed for the night, with the promise to make some changes to Harry’s room in the morning.

Harry hadn’t asked Ron or Hermione about Ginny, and neither had brought her up. He couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not. He knew he should just let her go, but he’d never expected how hard that was going to be. He was doing the right thing…wasn’t he? He had to keep her safe at all costs. If anything happened to her because of him…Harry didn’t think he’d ever be able to survive it.

When he’d been with her these past weeks, it had felt like, for one brief shining moment in his life, he’d been normal. Nothing else had mattered. Not Voldemort, not the Horcruxes, not a prophecy. He was just Harry Potter, a sixteen-year old wizard falling in love with a beautiful, red-haired witch.

Falling in love?

Wait a minute… Where had that thought come from? Harry didn’t know whether he loved Ginny or not – he hadn’t even considered it before now. How was he supposed to know what love was? All he knew was the way

she made him feel – so alive. She made him feel like he could do anything.

Being with Ginny had made him want more out of life.

He knew what the prophecy said, and half of him had always suspected that he was going to die, anyway. He’d just hoped he could take Voldemort with him. But she had to go and make him want more. She’d made him see the possibility of what life could be like, and, damn it, he wanted more.

Harry groaned and rolled over, viciously punching his pillow.

“Harry,” Ron’s voice called sleepily.

Harry froze; he’d forgotten Ron was there.

“Yeah?”

“You okay?”

“Yeah.”

Ron was quiet for a moment, and Harry thought he’d gone back to sleep when Ron suddenly spoke again. “Ginny didn’t seem pleased that I was coming here with you,” he said, in a voice that was much too casual to be natural.

Harry felt as if all the air had been compressed from his lungs. “Oh,” he replied in a choked voice.

Ron fell silent again, as if waiting for Harry to say something more. When Harry didn’t respond, he said, “You broke up with her, didn’t you?”

Harry took a deep shuddering breath. “Yeah,” he replied, bracing himself in case Ron leaped upon him.

Ron sighed heavily. “I think you made the right choice,” he said. “It would be too dangerous for her to come with us. You’ll have a lot to make up to her when this is over, though.”

To say he was surprised was a massive understatement. Still, he steeled himself for what he was about to say. “I didn’t ask her to wait for me, Ron. We have no idea how long this is going to take, or if I’ll even be around when it’s finished.”

“Don’t talk like that, Harry,” Ron said fiercely. “Of course you will. And she’ll wait.”

Ron fell silent again, and this time it was Harry who waited for him to say more. Finally, realizing that Ron wasn’t going to add anything to that statement, Harry couldn’t contain his curiosity. He wished he could control that hope that flared within his heart, but he couldn’t. He didn’t even know how to begin to try.

“How do you know?” he asked tentatively.

“She told me to take care of you,” Ron said. “As if that isn’t what I always do,” he added with a snort.

Harry hastily swiped his eyes with the back of his hand. She does care.

“Thanks, Ron,” he said, hating how gruff his voice sounded. He rolled back over on his side and listened to the sounds of insects flying outside the open window, his mind running over pleasant memories of the all-too-brief time he’d spent with Ginny.

Ron’s voice once again broke the silence of the room.

“Of course, after this is all over, if you ever break her heart again, I’ll have to beat you senseless.”

Harry grinned into his pillow. “You could try.”

“Don’t think I won’t.”

“Night, Ron.”

“Night, Harry.”

Chapter Two

When One Door Closes…

The next morning, Harry was awakened by the sound of Ron’s snoring, which was causing the entire room to shake. Combined with Dudley’s snores coming from the room next door, it sounded as if a battle of the bands was taking place.

Harry sniggered.

Uncle Vernon must be loving this. Of course, he snored fairly loudly himself, so maybe he was missing it. The door to Harry’s bedroom creaked open, and a disgruntled Hermione stuck her face inside.

“Does he always snore that loudly?” she asked testily.

“Pretty much,” Harry replied, grinning. He pulled the covers up closely to his bare chest, suddenly becoming aware of his state of undress. “Er, what are you doing in here, Hermione?”

Hermione’s cheeks turned pink, as if she just realized what she’d done. He noticed her gaze remained fixed on Ron’s bare chest as he lay uncovered on his bed, his arms flung open wide.

“Hermione,” Harry repeated.

She started. “Oh! I mean, erm…I just couldn’t sleep with all that racket. I’m going to Apparate into Diagon Alley and pick up some books at Flourish and Blotts that might help us with our search. I’ll get some breakfast while I’m out. Try and wake Sleeping Beauty there; we’ve got loads to do when I get back.”

Hermione had, thankfully, thought to bring sandwiches and snacks with her when she’d arrived yesterday, and they’d feasted in Harry’s room. He was grateful that she’d offered to get breakfast and relieved him of the duty of having to explain that the Dursleys wouldn’t be feeding them.

“All right. Be careful,” Harry said.

“Honestly, Harry. I’m only going to Diagon Alley. I’ll be back before you know it. What do the Dursleys like to eat? I could pick something up for them while I’m out, too.”

Harry just stared at her, mouth agape. “You…you…you want to get breakfast for the Dursleys?” he asked, unable to wrap his mind around the idea.

“Well, if I’m getting something for us, it would be the polite thing to do. I think that if we just made an effort you all could come to an understanding. You’re her nephew, after all, and she’s raised you since you were a baby. She came to you for help, and I think you have the chance to really build a relationship here, Harry.”

Harry’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly. Had his friend finally gone mad? He knew exactly what would happen if Hermione brought back food to the Dursleys – they’d sooner let it knock into their heads than touch it. They did as much last year with the wine Professor Dumbledore had offered them. He also knew Hermione well enough to understand that nothing he could say would dissuade her from her campaign.

“Why don’t you just get a variety of pastries,” he said. He was amused with the idea that Hermione’s latest crusade appeared to be to enlighten the Dursleys. Harry knew she stood a better chance with the house-elves. In fact, he’d spent most of his life being treated like a house-elf by the Dursleys. Between Ron trying to live like a Muggle and Hermione trying to civilize the Dursleys, this would be the most entertainment he’d had on Privet Drive in his entire life

After Hermione had left, Harry took a shower – a very long shower once he got distracted with thoughts of Ginny again – and then went to awaken Ron. He tried calling his friend’s name several times, and when that didn’t work, he lobbed a pillow at his head.

“What the… Bloody hell, Harry. What’d you do that for?” Ron asked grumpily, throwing the offending pillow back at Harry and pulling the covers over his head.

“Come on and get up. Hermione told me to have you up and dressed by the time she returned,” Harry said, grinning at Ron for jumping to attention at the mention of Hermione’s name.

“What? Returns from where? Where is she?” Ron asked.

“She went to Flourish and Blotts to get us some research material and also to pick us up some breakfast,” Harry replied, tossing Ron’s dressing gown at him.

“The shower gets wonky with the hot water sometimes. If it gets too hot, just jiggle the handle, and it resets itself,” Harry said.

“Jiggle the handle,” Ron repeated blankly.

“Yeah,” Harry said absently, opening the window to let in the owl delivering the Daily Prophet. He paid for the paper and turned back to find Ron still sitting there.

“What?”

“I can’t just tell the shower how hot I want it to be?” Ron asked, although it sounded more like a whine.

Harry remembered his first summer at the Burrow, when he was twelve and standing naked in Ron’s shower, completely perplexed over the lack of a handle to turn the water off and on. He’d broken out in goose bumps before it had finally occurred to him simply to ask the water to begin spraying.

Taking pity on his friend, he grinned and said, “Come on. I’ll show you how the common folk live.”

By the time Ron had finished with his shower and returned to Harry’s room (with the echo of Aunt Petunia huffing over the waste of water), Hermione had returned from her visit to Diagon Alley.

She burst into the room in a foul temper, angrily swiping the hair from her face. She dropped a heavy load of books onto Harry’s rickety old desk and plopped a box full of more pastries than even Ron could eat onto the bed.

“Your relatives weren’t hungry, so there’s plenty to eat,” she said stiffly.

Harry really tried his best not to grin. Really.

“What did they do? Throw them at you?” he asked.

“They’re under the impression that I did something to the pastries. Honestly, Harry, I can’t believe that you ever tried to poison them, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” she sniffed.

“They hate anything – and anyone – associated with magic. It has nothing to do with you, Hermione. It’s just how they are,” Harry replied, shrugging his shoulders.

Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “Well, that’s just as bigoted and narrow-minded as the Malfoys’ view of Muggles.”

Harry supposed she was right. “Yeah. Now that you mention it, I think Dudley and Malfoy could have actually been mates.”

“There’s an unpleasant thought,” said Ron with a grimace. He’d already opened the box of pastries and held one in each hand. He took a bite of one, causing jam to squirt up on the side of his face. He slowly licked it off. “Mmmm, this is brilliant. I love you, Hermione.”

Hermione’s cheeks turned pink as she hurriedly looked away and selected her own pastry.

Harry wasn’t certain what was happening between his two best friends. He’d thought that maybe they’d come to some sort of an understanding at Dumbledore’s funeral, but they hadn’t said anything to him. In fact, they were acting pretty much the same as they always did – except for a lot more blushing.

He didn’t know how he felt about it. He wanted his friends to be happy, but the idea of sitting on the sidelines and watching them fall in love while his own heart was aching was more than he could bear.

Ginny.

Things were different for Ron and Hermione, though. They were together on this quest for the Horcruxes. They were a team and worked much better with each other than apart. Harry watched his friends out of the corner of his eye as he ate his own pastry. Ron was doing a good job on both of his, but Harry noticed him pausing every once in a while to sneak a glance at Hermione. For her part, Hermione was much more discreet, but she was also copping her fair share of peeks at Ron. Harry thought there must be some powerful feelings between them if Hermione could distract Ron from food.

It was different for Ginny and him, though, wasn’t it? He had to protect her…she was better off far away from him. Still, the battle raged within his mind. For those few weeks that they’d shared together, he’d felt as if he could conquer anything. He’d felt so much stronger when she’d been by his side.

No! Stop!

He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t even allow his traitorous heart to think it. Ginny shouldn’t be anywhere near him.

He had to be the one to do this thing. Even if Ron and Hermione were with him on the hunt for the Horcruxes, he had absolutely no intention whatsoever of letting them get anywhere near Voldemort when the final battle raged. He’d take Voldemort out, and maybe die in the process, but he’d be certain that neither of his friends was anywhere near him when that happened. He could never allow any of them to become another spare. Especially Ginny.

An image rose unbidden in his mind of Cedric’s lifeless eyes staring from his crumpled body in a graveyard. Harry shuddered as his mind played a trick and warped the body into Ginny. Her warm, brown eyes – eyes that could melt an iceberg – stared blankly, almost accusingly, through him. He couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t.

He glanced up at Ron and Hermione in time to see Hermione use a napkin to wipe away the jam that still remained on the corner of Ron’s mouth.

It would be wrong of Harry to begrudge them this happiness, no matter how much his heart ached to see it. Hadn’t Professor McGonagall said that Professor Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think there was a little more love in the world?

He’d personally told Harry that love was his greatest strength, so why was he pushing it away?

No!

It was different for Ginny and him. Everything was always different for him, and he’d only end up getting her killed, or forcing her to watch as he died. No. It was better for her own sake to keep her away. He’d never want her to have to suffer the kind of horror and pain that he’d felt when he’d watched Sirius slip through that Veil.

Harry shook his head, steeling his resolve. This was the way it had to be.

“Okay.” Hermione’s voice dragged Harry out of his thoughts. “Let’s start with this room. It definitely needs some improvements.” She scowled as her gaze roamed around the stacks of broken toys cluttered in the corner and the rundown condition of Harry’s small bed. She withdrew her wand from her sleeve.

“We can’t use magic,” Harry said quickly. “The Ministry can’t detect who is doing the magic, only that it’s being done here, and I’ll get another reprimand. Dumbledore told me that’s why I got the letter when Dobby levitated my aunt’s pudding.”

“Not to worry, mate,” Ron said, his mouth still full of pastry. “My dad said he’d inform Matilda Hopkirk at the Ministry that Hermione and I were staying here this summer, and we’re both of age.”

“So…then…they won’t do anything if I use my wand, either. Right?” Harry asked, furrowing his brow.

“No, Harry,” Hermione said firmly. “You’re still underage, and we have to play by the rules if we want to avoid any trouble from the Ministry. They could still use a Priori Incantatum to see if your wand has been used. Let Ron and me handle the spells while we’re here.”

Harry scowled, feeling that old, familiar resentment arise within his heart. Dumbledore had always tried to shield him, and look at how well that turned out in the end. “Yeah. I’ll just sit back and be a good little boy – like I always do.”

“Right,” Ron said, choking slightly on a piece of his pastry. “You’re so good at staying out of trouble. It’s not our fault you’re such a young ‘un.”

A reluctant smile spread across Harry’s face. “Shut it,” he mumbled, but it was no use. It was impossible to stay in a foul mood when he had Ron and Hermione here with him on Privet Drive.

“So…what kind of changes do you have in mind?” he asked, looking back at Hermione.

“Oh, something like this,” Hermione said much too casually, as if she’d been thinking of nothing else since she’d arrived. She waved her wand toward the mess of Dudley’s old things in the corner and vanished them completely.

She turned towards Harry’s desk, and, with a brief flick of her wand, the chipped, sagging old wood transfigured into a polished cherry and doubled in size. Shiny brass knobs appeared on the drawers, and a small bookshelf formed on the top.

Harry’s jaw dropped in amazement. “Nice transfiguration, Hermione.”

She wasn’t finished. She turned her wand towards his bed – really, just a threadbare old mattress on top of a box spring that sagged in the middle. It immediately transformed into a replica of his beloved four-poster bed at Hogwarts, complete with a fluffy red duvet.

Harry felt as if his face would burst from smiling so wildly. “Wicked,” he said.

Hermione aimed her wand at the window. The bolts that had once held bars in place disappeared, and the window adjusted itself so the panes could swing outward, letting in a nice summer breeze. Heavy curtains in a shade of red that matched his bed linens appeared, tied back with gold braids.

Harry had never had curtains in his room before, and honestly, he’d never really even noticed. He was stunned at the difference it made.

“Oh, I know what I want to do with that,” Ron said, sounding disgusted.

Harry turned to see him pointing towards the cat flap on the door.

“What is it?” Hermione asked.

Ron answered before Harry could change the subject. “They used to shove his food through there when they locked him up after first year.”

Hermione’s lips thinned into slivers. “What did you have in mind, Ron?” she asked, her voice sounding extremely shrill.

“Remember that drive-through place your parents took us to yesterday?” Ron asked, grinning.

Hermione’s face lit up with a memory. “I know exactly what you have in mind,” she said.

Harry frowned. He did want them together, but he wasn’t certain that he liked this secret language that only they appeared to understand. “Erm?”

Hermione flicked her wand again, but the cat flap appeared unchanged.

“Did it work?” asked Ron.

“Try it,” replied Hermione.

Ron lay down on his belly in front of the door.

“What are you doing?” Harry asked, perplexed.

“I’d like three cheeseburgers and some crisps, please,” Ron said, speaking to the cat flap.

Before Harry even had the chance to ask Ron if he’d gone mad, the food Ron had requested slid from the flap on the door. Harry blinked in surprise.

“Have a nice day,” a voice echoed from the cat flap.

Hermione grinned, and Ron looked as if he’d died and went to heaven. He unwrapped a cheeseburger and took a bite. “Mmmm.”

“What do you think, Harry?” Hermione asked.

Harry had yet to remove his eyes from the cat flap. Slowly, a delighted grin spread across his face. “I think the smell of that food alone will drive Dudley mad.”

“It’s cold down here on the floor, though,” Ron said, his voice muffled with burger. “Can you do something about that, Hermione?”

Hermione flicked her wand yet again, and a lush soft carpet covered the floor. “It’s going to be a bit crowded in here, though,” Hermione said thoughtfully before closing her eyes.

Harry’s eyes widened as the walls began to shift outward, enlarging the room to nearly double its original size. Quickly, Hermione transfigured Ron’s conjured camp bed into a duplicate of his bed at Hogwarts. “There,” Hermione said with an air of satisfaction.

“My aunt is going to flip,” Harry said with glee.

“The house won’t appear any different from the outside, so it’s only if they come in here that they’ll notice,” Hermione said.

“Oh, believe me, Aunt Petunia will be sticking her head in. I’m certain the curiosity over what we’re doing up here is killing her,” Harry said grimly.

Hermione bit her lip. “She won’t be angry, will she?”

“Of course she will,” Harry said happily. “Not only did we perform magic, but now my room is nicer than Dudley’s. She’ll despise it.”

Hermione frowned. “That certainly can’t be a reason, Harry. She doesn’t like the magic, but she’s coming around now because of Dudley.”

“Okay,” he replied. He knew Hermione was only setting herself up for disappointment. He only hoped his relatives wouldn’t be too hard on her. He didn’t want to see them hurt her; she was truly trying to

help. He could handle the snubs – he’d had loads of practice – but he wasn’t about to let them take out their prejudice on her.

Their days at Privet Drive passed slowly, and Harry felt the stirrings of restlessness growing within him as they approached the day they would leave forever. He felt as if he were wound tight as a drum and plunged himself into the books that Hermione had brought back from Diagon Alley in an attempt at distraction.

He’d been having trouble sleeping, and dark circles had appeared beneath his eyes. Each night when he’d try to settle down to sleep, thoughts and vague memories would churn in his head, and he couldn’t turn them off.

The locket, the cup, the snake, and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw…

At times, he felt confident and ready to rush out and begin the hunt. The forced confinement grated on his nerves, and he was certain he’d worn a layer off his teeth from grinding them. At other times, the task at hand appeared so overwhelming that he felt hopeless and full of despair. The fake Horcrux that he always kept in his pocket seemed to mock him.

It was at these times that he’d retreat into himself, growing distant and increasingly quiet. He could see the concerned glances shared between Ron and Hermione when they thought he wasn’t looking, but he pretended not to notice and continued with his research.

Hermione had set him the task of writing down everything he could remember from the Pensieve memories that Professor Dumbledore had shown him, in addition to any comments that the headmaster might have made about Tom Riddle. They hoped for some clues that could help them narrow their search. He’d placed a charm on his notes similar to the Marauders map so that no one else would be able to read back what he’d written. The phrase he’d chosen as his password: I solemnly swear I’m up to some kick-arse good.

Actually, the kick-arse part had been Ron’s idea, and the two boys had chuckled over it for so long that Hermione had left the room in a huff. Ron’s task had been to scour old Hogwarts lists in an attempt to locate the mysterious RAB, but he claimed it was hopeless.

Hermione spent her time looking for references of Horcruxes, which thus far had proved futile. It seemed no one in the wizarding world wanted to discuss them. Harry had started referring to them as The-Items-That-Can’t-Be-Named, causing Ron to snort his fizzy soda. He’d been nicking it from Dudley’s stash since he’d arrived on Privet Drive. Harry had begun to wonder if maybe the library at Grimmuald Place would be a good place to find something on Horcruxes – it had been full of dark magic items – but he wasn’t certain if it had been completely cleaned out or not. He still didn’t have the heart to go there, so he pushed that thought to the back of his mind for the moment.

Ron’s complete and utter cluelessness about normal Muggle life was comical, and Harry enjoyed having the shoe on the other foot. He remembered all too well the blunders he’d made when he’d first entered

the wizarding world, and how Ron had enjoyed taking the mickey out of him for most of his mistakes. Payback was sweet.

For several days, their paths and Dudley’s hadn’t crossed, but on a sunny afternoon when the trio had abandoned Harry’s room to sit in the back garden that all changed.

“What’s this?” Ron asked, holding up a statue of a funny little man with a scrunched up face.

“It’s a garden gnome,” Harry answered absently as he scribbled in his notebook.

“No. It isn’t,” Ron said with disgust. “Don’t be stupid.”

“It’s what Muggles call gnomes, Ron,” Hermione answered patiently, giving his book a gentle shove back in his direction. Ron had grown increasingly bored with all their revising and constantly looked for diversions.

“Hey, Harry, think fast,” Ron said, tossing the ugly gnome towards Harry, who managed to catch it before it splattered dirt all over his notes.

Harry tossed it back without comment, and it sailed over Ron’s head, just missing his reach. “I can see you’re out of practice. Good thing we’re not going back to school, or I’d probably have to throw you off the team,” Harry said, managing to keep a straight face. He, too, was feeling restless, and winding Ron up seemed like as good idea as any.

“Throw me off the team, is it now?” Ron asked, drawing himself up to his full height. “Then who exactly would warn you about all those Bludgers that seem to follow you around all the time, Chosen Boy?”

With that, Ron launched himself at Harry and pinned him to the ground. The two boys rolled on the ground, wrestling with each other for a few moments and ignoring Hermione’s huffs until Ron finally had Harry pinned with his forearm across Harry’s throat.

“Yeah, you’ve got it right. The little runt never could stand to have anyone’s hands on his neck,” Dudley’s voice sounded from the corner of the garden. None of the three had noticed him standing there watching them

Harry froze at the sound of Dudley’s voice, his mouth forming a slight “O”. Dudley had avoided them as if his life depended on it since their arrival, and he hadn’t so much as spoken to Harry since the incident with the vase.

“What are you on about?” Ron asked, a hard edge to his voice.

“That’s what he always used to hate the most when me and my mates used to chase him, too,” Dudley said, nodding his approval.

Ron rolled off of Harry and stood up quickly, his ears growing redder by the minute. Harry raised himself up on his elbows, curious to see

how Dudley and Ron interacted, yet ready to pounce if things got out of control.

“I always wondered why you red-haired lot put up with him and had him come to stay at your house for summers. I can see now that he’s your target practice. I always used him for that, too. He always gives a good chase, but you can get him if you use your mates,” Dudley said with a self-satisfied smirk.

“We don’t all gang up on Harry,” Ron said indignantly. He reached down and pulled Harry to his feet, as if trying to prove there were no hard feelings. “He’s our friend.”

“Friend,” Dudley said, scoffing. “Who’d want to be friends with him?”

“I do,” Ron said vehemently. “Just like my brothers, my sister, and anyone else who knows him. He’s the best friend anyone could ask for, and we’d all do anything for him. Could you say the same for your mates, Dudley?”

Dudley appeared taken aback by Ron’s fierce loyalty. He stared back and forth between Ron and Harry several times, as if unable to wrap his small mind around the fact that someone would actually like Harry. “He…he knows how to do stuff with his stick-thing…but without that, he’s nothing but a pathetic little runt who messes up everything. He doesn’t have any real mates. My mates stick with me, because they know I’m the strongest.”

“Dudley,” Hermione said gently, “Ron and Harry were just playing around. Certainly at some point while you were growing up you and Harry must have gotten on…once in a while.”

“I’d never do anything with that freak,” Dudley said.

“Freak,” Ron said in disgust. “You don’t even know him, do you?”

“He is a lot like Malfoy, isn’t he? I’ve never noticed it before now, but Ron’s right. He never did much on his own, either – always had to have his little gang behind him. You should have come to Hogwarts when I went, Duds. Maybe you could have been one of Malfoy’s goons, too. I’m certain they would have placed you in Slytherin,” Harry said, unable to resist taunting his cousin back any longer.

“I’m telling mum you said the name of that school of yours,” Dudley said, backing towards the door, apparently very confused over the loyalty amongst the trio.

“What? Hogwarts? But Dudley, you should have gone there, too. You’re a wizard, after all,” Harry said.

“Harry,” Hermione said, grabbing his arm, but Harry ignored her.

“I never should have gone there. I’m not a freak like you lot,” Dudley said, taking a step towards them.

“He’d have never been able to handle it, anyway, Harry,” Ron said. “He’d be just another Crabbe or Goyle, fumbling his way through.”

“I’m not a wizard,” Dudley shouted, growing ever more enraged. His piggy eyes were flashing as he clenched and unclenched his massive fists.

“I’m surprised you haven’t taken full advantage of it, though,” Ron mused casually, leaning back against a tree and crossing his arms over his chest. “I mean…being able to use magic and all. From what Harry tells me, your favorite pasttime is picking on little kids. I’m certain you could have really scared some little Muggle kids by using magic…or frighten your mates into doing whatever you wanted. That’s the way you work, right?”

“What do you mean?” Dudley asked, his eyes narrowing.

“Ron! Ignore him, Dudley. He knows you can’t use magic on Muggles without getting into trouble, and besides, you wouldn’t want to intimidate any of your friends. That’s not what magic is all about,” Hermione said, glaring at Ron.

Dudley’s eyes gleamed, as if a light switch had just been turned. “I could make them do anything I wanted, couldn’t I?”

Harry shivered. Dudley’s reaction had eerily reminded him of the memories he’d seen of a young Tom Riddle. “Stop it. You’ll never have the chance to go to Hogwarts now, so it’s a moot point. Aunt Petunia saw to that.”

“I don’t need your stupid school, anyway. I can make this stuff happen just by getting angry. Things always happen when I’m angry…and you can’t do anything about it. She said it herself. You’re not allowed to use magic against Mubbles,” Dudley said, pointing at Hermione with a victorious glint in his eye.

“Just one problem with that, Duds,” Harry replied. “You’re not a Muggle; you’re a wizard.”

“Enough of this,” Aunt Petunia hissed, entering the back garden in a towering rage. “You were warned not to upset him and to stay away from him. I won’t have you corrupting him with your vile ways.” As she spoke, Aunt Petunia stood in front of Harry, with one hand on her hip and the other flicking a dishtowel at him.

Dudley smirked as he stood behind his mother. He always enjoyed seeing Harry get told off. “He said I was one of them, Mummy…that I could do….mag-”

“Don’t say it!” Aunt Petunia yelped, whipping around and slamming her hand over Dudley’s mouth. “Don’t even listen to them, popkin.”

“But Mummy, if you’d have allowed me to go to that school, I could have got a thing, too. I would have been able to keep him in line around here,” Dudley whined.

“Don’t speak of such things. I won’t have it. I’m not going through all that again. You are normal, Dudley. Never forget that,” Aunt

Petunia said fervently. She’d grown increasingly paler as he spoke, and now appeared ready to faint away on the spot.

“But that was my decision to make, not yours,” Dudley said, surprising Harry so much his jaw fell open. He’d never seen Dudley openly defy Aunt Petunia before; he usually only did it behind her back. Aunt Petunia was just as stunned, and she glared at Harry as if it were entirely his fault.

“I won’t speak of it again, Dudley. You’re to have nothing to do with that hellhole of a school,” Aunt Petunia said, with that no-nonsense demeanor that Harry remembered so well.

A sick, nauseous feeling arose within him as he fully realized the extent of Aunt Petunia’s hatred of the magical world – and everyone it. “You really hated her, didn’t you?” he asked quietly.

He hadn’t expected her to answer; she never did when it pertained to his mother. He was shocked when she turned to face him, her eyes blazing. “I never hated her; I hated what she became. I thought when she was done with that devil of a school that she’d come to her senses and return to her family, but no. Your cretin of a father had her by then, and look how they ended up. Then you arrived on our doorstep, looking just like him. I had to look into her eyes and see his face.

“I won’t have my Dudley meet the same end; I won’t have it.”

Harry was stunned. He opened and closed his mouth several times but couldn’t form the words.

“But, mum…I could be powerful,” Dudley said.

Harry couldn’t contain his disbelief any longer. “Powerful? You’ve already had them jumping through hoops since you were born. What more did you want?” Harry’s mind was racing. Had magic played a part in the dominance that Dudley had always appeared to hold over his parents? Had he somehow influenced their decisions? Had he unintentionally been prodding them along to buy just one more gift all this time?

As usual, the Dursleys ignored Harry’s outburst.

“Popkin,” Aunt Petunia said, putting a hand to Dudley’s face. “Of course you don’t want anything to do with all his foul nonsense. You’re better than that. He’s just trying to bring you down to his level.”

Dudley shuddered. “You’re right. I don’t want any of this touching me. I’m normal.” Dudley stormed over to Harry and poked his porky finger at Harry’s chest repeatedly. “I’m normal. You hear that, Potter? I’m normal.”

“Could have fooled me,” Harry replied, finally recovering the use of his voice.

Ron moved next to Harry and shoved Dudley’s hand away. “Keep your grubby, normal hands off him.”

“I warned you to stay away from him,” Aunt Petunia hissed at Harry.

“We were out here working on the project that you asked us to do. He was the one who came out here with us,” Harry replied.

“Well, stay in your room, then,” Aunt Petunia snapped. “Heavens, if the neighbors have heard any of this you’ll be in for it. Do you hear me? Get inside and stay away from Dudley.”

After Dudley and Aunt Petunia stormed inside the house, Ron turned towards Hermione. “Can you honestly think of any reason why Harry would want to continue a relationship with those people?”

“Because they’re his family,” Hermione said stubbornly.

“No, they’re not,” Harry said, shaking his head. “We share my mother’s blood, that’s all. You two have been my only family for a long time now.” Harry quickly picked up his books and headed inside without looking back at Ron and Hermione.

Hermione’s attempts at striking up a friendship with Aunt Petunia had continued, but they had – of course – been futile. Harry had kept trying to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen. He’d wondered if his aunt might actually enjoy some female company for a change, but Aunt Petunia made it perfectly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Hermione. Oh, she’d let her help with chores – Aunt Petunia could never resist having someone else to boss around – but when it came to any kind of conversation, Hermione was rudely rebuffed.

At first, Aunt Petunia had merely been snippy, but as the days wore on and Hermione’s persistence refused to wane, Aunt Petunia’s comments had become increasingly rude and more biting. For Harry, it was basically what he’d expected to happen, but he was caught unprepared for Ron’s reaction.

Ron had always been quick to stand up for Hermione; from a very early age, he’d always taken exception to anyone other than him giving her a hard time. But his fury over the Dursleys’ comments to Hermione appeared extreme – even for Ron standards. He’d already threatened them several times, and once Harry had even had to step in before Ron drew his wand on Uncle Vernon. He wouldn’t have much cared if Uncle Vernon got hexed, but he was afraid Ron would get in trouble for Muggle-baiting.

The night before they were due to leave, Harry found his Aunt Petunia doing her nightly wipe-down in the kitchen. They hadn’t found any kind of spell that would subdue Dudley’s magic, although they hadn’t really had the time to look very hard. They’d decided simply to use Hermione’s original idea of a Cheering Charm. Harry wished someone had thought of that idea when he and Dudley were younger; it might have made Harry’s childhood a lot more pleasant.

“Aunt Petunia,” Harry said quietly, hoping his uncle, who was watching the telly in the parlor, wouldn’t overhear him.

“What?” snapped Aunt Petunia.

“We’ve found something that should help Dudley. We’ll perform the spell tomorrow before we leave,” he said.

Aunt Petunia froze, her hand shaking slightly as it held a sponge over the kitchen counter. “You’re certain this won’t hurt Dudley?”

“Yeah. He won’t even be aware when it’s done,” Harry said.

Aunt Petunia nodded and went back to her scrubbing.

“I think we’re going to go to Godric’s Hollow. I want to see my parents’ graves,” Harry said, uncertain why he’d chosen to share this bit of information with her. There was something about knowing that he was leaving forever that felt strange. He certainly felt nothing for the Dursleys and knew they didn’t want him any more than he wanted them. Still, they were all he’d known for nearly sixteen years, his only living family; he couldn’t help but feel he should say something.

Aunt Petunia hesitated again, although so briefly that Harry thought he must have imagined it. “Don’t leave a mess behind and take all your belongings with you – I won’t be handling anything strange to forward. And be certain not to take any of Dudley’s things.”

Harry’s shoulders sagged. “Yes, Aunt Petunia,” he said softly, already regretting his efforts. As he turned around, he came face to face with a pale Hermione and a positively livid Ron standing in the entryway of the kitchen.

“Hey,” Harry said uncertainly. “We’re all set for tomorrow. Let’s just go back upstairs and finish our packing. We’ll leave in the morning.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Uncle Vernon asked loudly as he stomped into the kitchen, glaring at finding Harry, Ron and Hermione there.

Before Harry could respond, Ron bit out, “I believe Harry just said that we’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

“Good riddance to bad rubbish is what I always say,” Uncle Vernon muttered, his countenance visibly brightening.

“Aren’t you even going to say goodbye and good luck to your nephew?” Ron asked, nearly snarling. “That’s certainly the very least you can do.”

Uncle Vernon narrowed his piggy eyes at Harry. “That doddering old fool who was with you last year said you’d come of age this year. That means this is the last time we have to put up with all your nonsense, right?”

“That’s right,” Harry said, smiling humorlessly. “I’ll be of age in a few weeks and a fully qualified wizard. I’m no longer in need of your services.” Harry enjoyed the shudder of revulsion the word wizard caused amongst all his relatives. He just wanted to be done with all of this. It was time to move onward.

“Harry,” Hermione said pleadingly. Her eyes darted to and fro between Harry and his uncle. “You want to leave here on good-”

“I don’t bloody well believe you lot,” Ron said, his ears flaming. “What is wrong with you people? Do you know that I always felt a bit embarrassed about my house after the first time I saw this place, even with the bars on Harry’s window? I was stupid enough to feel ashamed of my house, thinking that Harry was coming from something better. What an idiot! I really can’t believe how stupid I was. It’s only now, watching your behavior, that I understand why Harry always seemed over the moon to arrive at my house. It’s no wonder. You lot are pathetic.”

Harry stared at Ron with wide eyes, visibly reminded of Mr. Weasley and a similar reaction when he’d come to collect Harry for the Quidditch Cup. Harry had never been so proud to have Ron for a friend.

And Ron wasn’t done with Uncle Vernon. “My mum…my mum can holler with the best of them. She could probably even give a banshee a run for her money. But I know damn well that if I had been born a Squib, it would have changed nothing. She might have been disappointed, but she would have treated me the same, and expected the same from me as she did the rest of my siblings. And no matter how hard she was on me, she’d never allow anyone else to be.

“That’s what families are supposed do. You pathetic wankers don’t even know Harry. How could you? You don’t even know the kind of person you’ve had here all the time and the lengths he would go for you if you asked. The sad part is that I don’t think you’ll realize it even after he’s gone.”

Harry looked up sharply in time to see a grimace cross Ron’s face after he’d said the words, and Harry felt a chill run down his spine. Aunt Petunia’s face had paled slightly, glancing quickly at Harry before returning her eyes to the floor.

Ron had withdrawn his wand and was waving it jerkily beneath the Dursleys’ noses, causing them to cringe back against the counters. Ron didn’t make any indication that he was going to curse them, and Harry was enjoying the tongue-lashing they were receiving, so he didn’t make any move to stop it.

“Damn it, if the Death Eaters only knew about you lot they’d have the best recruiting tool they’d ever come across, because I’ve never wanted to curse a Muggle as bad as I want to curse you. You know why I don’t? Because he—,” Ron jammed his finger at Harry, “he won’t let me. Why, I’ll never know. He certainly has never done anything to deserve the likes of you as family.

“The funny thing is, those same Death Eaters who could use you wouldn’t do it because of the fact that you’re Muggles. And the only thing standing between you and them right now is him. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

“Come on, Harry; we’re getting out of here,” Ron said, turning to leave the room. Hermione beamed at him, her eyes glowing with pride as she watched his retreating back.

Uncle Vernon’s face had gone from red to maroon and now displayed a nearly purple hue. He became much braver as soon as Ron moved his wand away. “I will not be spoken to with such disrespect in my own home by the likes of…of…of someone like you. You will all take all of your belongings and get out of my house in the morning,” he raged, as if it had been his idea all along.

“No problem, Uncle Vernon. We’ll be gone come morning. You can even redecorate my old room,” Harry said cheerfully, slapping the door to the cupboard under the stairs on his way past.

Hermione, who was walking directly in front of him, stopped sharply, causing him to bump into her.

“Herm-”

“What did you just say?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

Harry’s eyes widened, realizing his blunder. He’d never shared that particular story with Ron and Hermione. He’d always been a little embarrassed by it.

“Er, nothing. Just forget about it,” Harry said, trying to hurry them along. Ron had now stopped, too, and was staring with curiosity at the series of locks and door jams along the cupboard entry.

Hermione shoved Harry’s arm out of the way and forcefully opened the door, gasping at what she found inside.

Harry’s eyes wandered over his old, familiar, cramped quarters. A lumpy old mattress with several springs poking out still rested on a wire camp bed. Several toy soldiers and broken chess pieces were scattered on a shelf. Spider webs had covered the slanted ceiling completely, and a heavy layer of dust covered everything inside. Harry vaguely wondered why Aunt Petunia hadn’t sanitized this spot like she did everywhere else. It was almost as if all the things that frightened her were hidden inside that cupboard.

Harry recognized his childlike writing on the walls. Just scribbles, really, beside his name. He’d once confiscated some of Dudley’s crayons and made a habit of nicking more whenever he’d got the chance. He could see a crude drawing of a birthday cake with candles drawn in different colors with gradual improvement in the drawing. He remembered adding to it each year on his birthday.

To say that Hermione exploded would be an understatement. She whirled toward the Dursleys, whipping Harry in the face with her hair as she spun around.

“How could you?” she screeched, baring her teeth like a wild animal.

Aunt Petunia averted her eyes to the floor, but Uncle Vernon puffed out his chest as if to defend himself. Hermione never gave him the chance.

“What?” Ron asked blankly.

“You loathsome, despicable cretins. To think I tried to tell him to be nicer to you. You actually kept him locked in a cupboard when he was just a little boy?” Hermione raged.

“They what?” Ron exploded, his head swinging wildly from Hermione to the cupboard to the Dursleys and back to Harry again.

Hermione ignored him. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” she hissed, raising her wand.

Harry grabbed her hand and pulled it away from Uncle Vernon just as she gave it an upward flick. Unfortunately, as he’d pulled it away he’d pulled it towards himself. He suddenly found himself hanging upside down by his ankle in the entry hall of Privet Drive.

Aunt Petunia shrieked and covered her eyes. Uncle Vernon shielded her with his body and pushed her back into the kitchen. The slamming of the kitchen door echoed in the silent hall for a moment.

“Er, Hermione…can you let me down?” Harry asked with amusement.

Hermione gasped and gently released Harry from the spell.

“You used Levicorpus. I can’t believe you used one of the Half-Blood Prince’s spells,” Ron said in amazement. Harry could hear the delight in his voice.

“Never mind trying to use it on a Muggle. Are you trying to get yourself arrested, Hermione?” Harry asked, beaming at his friend.

“Ready to start living on the wild side?” Ron asked, grinning.

“Oh, shut it, you two. I was just so angry with them. I can’t believe you never told us about this, Harry,” Hermione said, trying to maintain her dignity in the face of her laughing friends.

Harry shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now; let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”

He could tell Hermione wanted to argue, but Harry didn’t give her the chance. He bolted up the stairs in front of them, leaving them to follow in his wake. Still, settling down in his bed that night, it was a very long time before he finally drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Three

…And Another Door Opens

The next morning, Harry awoke feeling groggy and disoriented. He blinked several times, trying to clear his head, but he just couldn’t manage to raise it from his pillow. He could hear raised voices coming from downstairs, and he dragged his pillow over his head in an attempt to drown out the noise. It had taken a long time for him finally to fall asleep the night before, and it felt as if he’d only dosed off a few moments ago. Vague recollections of a dream started to come back to him…

He’d been on his Firebolt, racing through some dark tunnels in search of something. He’d felt a desperate panic rising within him that took nearly all his strength to clamp down.

He’d kept hitting dead ends, no matter which way he turned.

Dudley was there, stirring a potion, and he’d locked Harry in his cupboard where Harry soon fell asleep. His hair had kept growing while he slept and eventually grew so long it crept outside the cupboard door.

Ginny had used his hair to find him and had to slay a dragon in order to reach him. He’d climbed behind Ginny on the Firebolt, and the two of them had sped off into the sunset.

“Great,” Harry mumbled into his pillow. “Now I’m dreaming about fairy tales, only I’m the damn Damsel in Distress.” Harry knew he would never tell another living soul about that dream as long as he lived.

His bedroom door banged open, and Ron and Hermione entered — wide-awake and already dressed. They both looked entirely too upbeat to suit his mood.

“Come on, Harry. Get up; we’re leaving,” Hermione said bossily.

Still feeling groggy, Harry wiped his eyes. “What time is it?”

“Time to go; Ron and I have taken care of everything. I’ve already shrunken our trunks and have them here in my bag. Let’s go,” Hermione said, trying to pull his covers back. “You’ve been anxious to leave forever, and we’ve got loads to do.”

“Hermione, let me get dressed,” Harry said, grabbing his bedcovers and feeling slightly panicked. He was only wearing boxers, after all. What was her hurry, anyway?

“I’ve left your clothes right there,” Hermione said, pointing to a pair of jeans and a T-shirt already laid out for him.

“Thanks, Mum,” he said, smirking.

“Don’t get smart,” Hermione said, frowning.

“We’ll meet you downstairs, mate,” Ron said, dragging a protesting Hermione from the room. He gave her a slight shove to walk in front of him and leaned back to say, “Just think; you’re finally free of this place. Mum will be going spare if we don’t arrive in time for her to feed you this morning. Hermione thinks there must be something going on with the Order, since she hasn’t noticed them keeping watch and no one is here to escort us to the Burrow.”

Harry hadn’t noticed any of the Order keeping watch at Privet Drive, either, but he knew that didn’t mean anything. With Ron and Hermione there to distract him, he hadn’t spent all his free time looking for Order members as he had in the past.

As Harry dressed, he glanced at his nightstand and saw a folded piece of paper that he didn’t remember placing there. He picked it up and read the few words printed on the inside in Aunt Petunia’s small, tidy, script.

Godric’s Hollow

16 Hillside Lane

Godre’r-graig, South Wales

Harry swallowed heavily and stuffed the note in his pocket. This was it: a real and tangible address of where his parents had lived — where he had lived, once upon a time. Why was Aunt Petunia giving this to him now? Was it her way of saying goodbye?

He’d have to think about it later. He stood up and took one long last look around his bedroom on Privet Drive. It felt strange, knowing he’d never see this room again. Not that he wanted to see it, but it felt strange, nonetheless. Although he hadn’t felt like a child in a very long time, this somehow felt as if he were really leaving his childhood behind. He was truly an adult and on his own now.

Smiling slightly, he turned on his heel and followed his friends downstairs.

“We have to put the charm on Dudley,” he said as he came down the last few steps to meet Ron and Hermione, who were standing by the front door.

“It’s already done,” Hermione said briskly.

“You did it already?” Harry asked, furrowing his brow. How long had they been awake?

“Yes,” Ron replied quickly, turning to open the door. Hermione shifted her eyes as Ron pushed Harry and her out the door ahead of him.

Harry stopped walking. “What did you do?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at the two of them.

“Nothing to worry about, mate; we took care of everything,” Ron said, and something about the way he was smiling reminded Harry eerily of the twins.

Harry decided that he really didn’t want to know. One task down — now it was time to face Ginny. That thought caused a slight shiver to run down his spine. Whether it was a thrill of dread or excitement, he wasn’t certain. Maybe it was a little of both.

As Hermione continued to steer him towards a spot just outside the wards where they would be able to Apparate, he turned to glance back at the house one last time. For a moment, he thought he saw Aunt Petunia’s face in the doorway, watching their departure. When he looked again, the doorway was empty, and he was certain he must have imagined it. If she’d been there at all, she was most likely checking to be certain they left, rather than feeling any sorrow over his departure.

They crossed the street in silence, Hermione nearly bouncing on the balls of her feet in her eagerness. “All right. Harry, hold on to my arm, and we’ll be at the Burrow in no time.”

Harry smiled and averted his eyes. Taking a deep, shuddering breath (refusing to admit that he was nervous to anyone), he grasped Hermione’s arm and felt the uncomfortable constriction in his chest as he was sped forward towards the Burrow…and towards Ginny.

Harry opened his eyes and was met with the sight of the ramshackle home he loved above all others. Although somewhat the worse for wear, it was still there and still offering a bit of normalcy against the rising storm. Harry didn’t think he’d ever been so happy to be anywhere in his life. Despite his apprehension about seeing Ginny, being at the Burrow somehow warmed him from the inside.

Chickens ran haphazardly around the coop, and Harry could see more than a handful of garden gnomes peeking out from behind a variety of lush green bushes, all of which were in full bloom. He inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma of baking scones mixed with the heady scent of summer.

A sudden urge for treacle tart and a warm greeting from Mrs. Weasley filled Harry’s mind. He had to fight to control his instinct to sprint for the front door and hurl himself inside. Gritting his teeth, he stepped in behind Ron and forced himself to walk at the slower pace. He had no idea what he’d say to Ginny when he saw her, but just the thought of seeing her filled him with such hope that nothing else mattered.

In his mind’s eye, he could picture her hair all windblown from a morning fly in the meadow and a spot of flour on her otherwise flawless face from helping her mother bake the scones that Harry was now certain were awaiting their arrival.

He forced down the uncomfortable thought that she might not even want to see him and wouldn’t be anywhere near him when his presence became known. He wasn’t certain which would be worse — her rejection or her welcoming arms that he’d have to avoid — but he couldn’t stop his own feet from hurrying to find out.

Ron pulled the door open, and they stepped into the chaos that was the Burrow. There were boxes and stacks of paper everywhere. Robes hung inside clothes bags from hooks on the ceiling, and Harry could make out a line of high-heeled shoes resting on the windowsill. Gaily wrapped packages were piled in every spare bit of space in the room, which admittedly hadn’t been generous to begin with. Voices could be heard shouting from upstairs, as well as in the kitchen.

The sudden vibration from a small explosion in another room knocked Hermione into Harry’s shoulder, and he barely caught the both of them before they tumbled to the floor.

“Bloody hell,” Ron said, craning his neck to see if there was any damage.

Harry set Hermione back on her feet just as Mrs. Weasley began shouting at Fred.

“Welcome home,” Ron said, grinning sheepishly.

A wide, delighted grin spread across Harry’s face. “Can’t think of any place I’d rather be,” he said honestly.

“Come on,” Hermione said, grabbing each of them by the hand. “Let’s see what that was and if your mum needs any help cleaning it up.”

Hermione pulled them into the kitchen, where they found a frazzled-looking Mrs. Weasley using her wand both to cut vegetables and stir several pots, while simultaneously berating the twins for their careless antics.

Bill sat calmly at the table, shuffling through what appeared to be a list of names, while Charlie Weasley sat across from him with a somewhat dazed expression on his face. Sitting next to Charlie was the reason for his dazed look — Fleur was instructing him on the proper pace to keep as he walked down the aisle.

Harry wasn’t certain if Charlie’s blank look was because of the topic or just Fleur in general. Ron still reacted the same way to the beautiful part-Veela. Hermione stiffened next to him and scowled at both Charlie and Fleur. Hermione had never warmed up to the French girl, and Harry wondered how Ginny was faring with her future sister-in-law. Ginny hadn’t liked Fleur any better than Hermione did.

Harry’s gaze lingered for a moment on Bill’s scarred face. The wounds inflicted by Fenrir Greyback were plainly visible and still looked quite painful. On Bill, though, they somehow gave him a rugged, manly sort of look. While Harry thought his own scar just drew unwanted attention, like the star attraction in a freak show; Bill’s gave the older man an aura of mystery. Bill appeared to be someone in control of the situation, and the scars added a bit of daring to his story.

Hermione had apparently been struck dumb by the lack of order in the kitchen and hung back slightly in the doorway, while Ron simply slipped into his customary seat at the table and tried to remain unnoticed. Harry wasn’t quick enough to follow suit.

“’Arry!” Fleur shrieked, gracefully moving away from Charlie and towards Harry. She took him in her arms and kissed him on each cheek. “I am zo ‘appy to ‘ave you here.”

Fleur’s shout had alerted the rest of the Weasley family to their arrival, and Harry shifted uncomfortably beneath all the attention.

“Hi, Fleur. Hello, everyone,” he mumbled, feeling the heat rise to his face.

“Oh! You’re all here,” Mrs. Weasley cried, rushing over to crush Ron in her embrace before pulling back to look him over carefully. Finding no apparent cause for concern, she turned around and treated Harry and then Hermione to the same treatment.

“We’re here, and we’re fine, Mum. Nothing to get so worked up about,” Ron grumbled, wiping his face of his mother’s kisses.

Harry pulled away slightly and stood with his back against the wall as Ron greeted the rest of his family. He scanned the room yet again, cursing his traitorous heart for its pathetic hopefulness. How was his resolve ever to hold if he’d trade the world for the mere sight of her at the first chance he got? His breath caught in his throat as Ginny came down the stairs and stopped at the bottom, her eyes taking in the happy welcome.

She looked like an angel as she floated down the stairs, and Harry thought his heart would burst from simply seeing her again. The morning sun streaming in from the kitchen window lit her hair with a fiery brilliance that Harry longed to run his fingers through. Her hair had always been so sinfully soft, and he loved to touch it.

Time lost all meaning and, for a brief moment, he was back at Hogwarts, and she was still his. He knew he was staring, but he couldn’t seem to drag his eyes away. It took all the force of will he possessed not to cross the room and take her in his arms. Suddenly and for a moment that seemed to last an eternity, nothing and no one else mattered to him.

Her eyes locked on his, and while time stood still their fierce gazes raked over one another as if each were committing every detail to memory to reexamine on lonely nights apart.

Dear God, she’s beautiful.

Gripping the amulet in his pocket fiercely, Harry forced himself to breathe and drag his eyes away. That was exactly why he had to stay away from Ginny. He was powerless against her charm, but there were things that had to be done, and he had to be the one to do them.

If anyone else had noticed his brief lapse of resolve, they didn’t say anything, although he was certain he could feel the heat from Hermione’s stare on the back of his neck.

Ginny entered the room and walked towards Ron, gently nudging him on the shoulder. “Welcome home, Ron. I’m so glad you managed to get here in time to do some of these chores. The family that works together shares in the joy together,” she said in a singsong voice.

“Great,” Ron grumbled, pulling an apple off the table and biting into it.

“Hi, Harry. Hi, Hermione,” Ginny said brightly.

Harry’s heart nearly broke in two. Leave it to Ginny to act as if nothing had changed and there wasn’t this huge wall of tension between them. He was certain she sounded casual to everyone else in the room, but he could hear the strain in her voice…and he knew he was the one who had placed it there.

He tried to open his mouth and return the greeting, but he couldn’t form the words. When did she become such a skilled actress?

“Hello, Ginny,” Hermione said. “Thanks for sending me those books. They were just what I needed, and they really came in handy.”

Harry’s head shot up, his eyes flickering between the two girls. He’d had no idea Hermione had been in contact with Ginny, or that Ginny had been helping. Damn! So much for keeping her out of it.

“How did everything go with the Muggles?” Mrs. Weasley asked. “They didn’t give you any trouble, did they?”

“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” Ron replied with a self-satisfied smirk, “and they’ll be finding little reminders of our stay for years to come.”

Fred and George grinned maniacally. “Ooh, do tell. It sounds like our ickle Ronniekins has been paying attention all along,” Fred said, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye.

“It’s so gratifying to see all our hard work come to its fruition,” George replied, sighing heavily.

“Oh, sit down and finish making those arrangements for the international portkeys. If the guests have any trouble getting here on the big day, I’m going to hold you both fully responsible,” Mrs. Weasley snapped.

“Never fear, Mother, dear. All the guests will arrive safely and promptly in time to see our dear eldest brother tie the shackle around his leg,” Fred said, batting his eyelashes dramatically.

“What do you mean wiz zis shackle buziness?” Fleur asked, frowning. “You two should be zo lucky to find zomeone willing to zettle down wiz ze likes of you.”

“Exactly!” Mrs. Weasley jumped right in. “That’s exactly what I’ve been telling them for years, Fleur dear. Maybe they’ll meet some nice friends of yours at the wedding.”

“Ho, ho,” George said, grinning. “We’ll take that as our mission. To meet and talk with each one of Fleur’s single friends who comes to the wedding.”

“Oh, pleaze. My friends are completely out of your league, little men,” Fleur replied dismissively, causing Bill and Charlie to howl with mirth.

“Seriously though, boys. Ron, Harry…did everything go all right at Privet Drive? Harry, did you move all your belongings out?” Mrs. Weasley asked kindly.

“Yeah, we got it all,” Ron answered. “Harry’s seen the last of that place, and good riddance. Those Muggles are mental. He’s just a homeless, orphan waif now, mum, so I suppose we’ll have to take him in.”

Ron grinned at Harry when he said it, but the sudden realization hit Harry like a punch to the gut.

He was homeless.

Realistically, he knew that he’d always have a spot at the Weasleys’, there for the asking, but the fact remained that he was truly on his own. He really didn’t belong anywhere. Not that he’d ever really belonged at the Dursleys, either, but at least it was an address. A place to hang his hat, as it were.

As if sensing his sudden unease, Ginny placed her warm hand on Harry’s forearm and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry, Harry,” she whispered. “You’ll always belong here, no matter what else has happened.”

Harry raised his eyes to meet hers and was nearly lost in their depth. How did she know? She’d always been able to see through whatever it was he was feeling and get to the heart of things.

Damn, this will be harder than I’d even anticipated.

He nodded slightly and saw the brief flash of pain in her eyes before she covered it up again. Smiling brightly, she turned her attention to Hermione and began chatting about bridesmaid dresses. Her dismissal allowed Harry to breathe again, but the pit he felt in his stomach would make eating impossible. He felt nauseous and needed to regroup. He hated feeling so wrong-footed and uncertain about everything.

“Of course, I suppose you could always go to Grimmauld Place,” Ron said, oblivious to the startled and aggravated looks he was receiving from the rest of his family. “You do own that now, don’t you, Harry?”

Harry’s insides went cold. He’d forgotten about Grimmauld Place, but it would never be home. “Yeah,” he said, finally finding his voice. “I’m going to go put my trunk up in your room. I’ll take yours up, too.”

He grabbed all the shrunken trunks from Hermione and nearly sprinted from the room. He knew they’d all be talking about him, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t stay there with her so close for one minute longer. He needed to breathe. And he’d thought it was bad at the Dursleys’. Somehow, he suspected that this would be the longest week of his life.

It wasn’t until he’d reached the brightness of Ron’s orange room that he remembered he couldn’t use magic to enlarge the trunks. He left both Ron and Hermione’s miniature trunks on Ron’s bed and sat down on the camp bed with his own. He’d stayed in Fred and George’s old room when he was here last summer, but he suspected that with so many people staying at the Burrow for the wedding, he’d be bunking with Ron. That’s what he’d done last Christmas when they’d had a crowd.

He stretched out on the camp bed and let his thoughts drift to the previous Christmas. Things had been so much simpler then. He grinned as he remembered the sweetheart necklace that Lavender had sent to Ron. He wondered what his friend had done with it. Chucked it out the window of the Gryffindor dormitory, most likely.

He relaxed and allowed his mind to wander as he drifted off to sleep. He really hadn’t slept well the previous night and was feeling quite drained. He wasn’t certain how long he’d dozed, but he awoke to Hermione sitting on his bed, making a “Harumff” sound.

Harry jerked and looked around wildly.

“Sorry, Harry,” Hermione said. “Mrs. Weasley put Ron to work with the twins, but I couldn’t stand listening to them for one more minute. They can be so insufferably condescending sometimes.”

Harry shook his head and tried to clear it. “Yeah,” he mumbled.

“Are you all right?” Hermione asked, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.

Harry shrugged.

“Ginny looks good,” Hermione ventured, letting her sentence hang in the open. Harry refused to respond.

Hermione huffed but continued prodding. “Fleur is driving her crazy with these wedding plans. Ginny says she’s done nothing but attend engagements and make plans for this wedding and will be just as happy when it’s over and done. She hates the dress robes she has to wear. Says they’re made for a ten-year old. I’m supposed to help her with them tonight.”

Harry fought the smile that threatened to crack his impassive expression. He could just imagine Ginny’s tirades against wearing anything that would make her look younger than she was. She hated being treated like a child.

“Why are you telling me this, Hermione?” he asked.

Hermione shrugged. “I thought you’d want to know, since you avoided talking with her at all.”

Harry frowned. “I-I- I didn’t avoid talking…I just–”

“Just what?”

“I just didn’t know what to say,” Harry whispered.

Hermione smiled sadly. “She misses you, Harry, and I know you miss her. No matter how well you think you’re hiding it.”

Harry swallowed against the thickness in his throat. “It’s even harder than I thought it would be.”

“Harry, if Professor Dumbledore said this great power you possess is love, do you really think it’s a good idea to be pushing her away?” Hermione asked, picking at a loose thread on the blanket on Harry’s bed.

Harry stiffened, closing off his emotions. “It has to be this way, Hermione. I won’t put her in danger.”

“She’s already in danger, Harry. We all are. Didn’t you see the hands on that clock downstairs? Ginny’s hand is still pointed to Mortal Peril, whether you’re with her or not. I think she could help us.”

“No.”

“Harry– ”

“Don’t push it, Hermione. I can’t let her die because of me, and I don’t want her to have to watch if it’s me that’s going to go,” Harry said, refusing too look at her.

“Don’t say that,” Hermione hissed, grabbing him around the waist and hugging him fiercely. “Don’t even think it. We can’t lose you, Harry.”

“Don’t be stupid, Hermione,” Harry said, finally looking at her directly. “We both know it’s a very real possibility. Look at what happened to Dumbledore’s hand while he was after these things. This isn’t a game, and I’m not nearly the wizard he was. It’s more than likely I’m going to die, but so help me God, I’m taking him with me when I do.”

“Don’t!” Hermione pleaded, her voice choked.

“Hermione,” Harry said gently, hating the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. He never did well with crying girls. “Let’s just take this one step at a time. It’s the only way I’m able to keep going forward. Ginny is a distraction — a very pleasant distraction — that I can’t afford.”

“Then you at least enjoy yourself at this wedding. Dance with her, drink and be merry and have a good snog if that’s what you want to do,” Hermione said, crossing her arms across her chest.

“Hermione!”

“What?”

“I can’t believe you, of all people, just said that,” Harry replied, unable to contain his laughter.

She shrugged. “If you don’t, you’ll have no right to complain if someone else does.”

“What does that mean?” Harry asked warily. The beast within his chest that had curled up in misery at the end of term suddenly raised its head and breathed fire.

“Well, Ginny told me that the two groomsmen are Charlie and Fleur’s cousin, Jean-Luc. Fleur has been making no secret of the fact that she wants to pair Ginny up with Jean-Luc,” Hermione said, her nose slightly in the air.

“What? What does Ginny think about this?” Harry asked indignantly. His monster was snarling. No prancing Frenchman was getting anywhere near his Ginny without her permission.

Unless…Harry’s insides suddenly went cold. What if Ginny wanted the attention? He felt the beast whimper and curl its tail inward.

“Oh, Harry. You know Ginny. She won’t be pushed into doing anything she doesn’t want to do, especially by Fleur. But she’s hurting, too, and…well…Ginny has been known to be spiteful on occasion,” Hermione said, somewhat apologetically.

Harry’s heart constricted so tightly that he thought he might asphyxiate himself. He clenched his fists, knowing there was nothing he could do. He’d brought this on himself, and if he thought a girl like Ginny wouldn’t have a string of other suitors waiting in line, then he was being foolish. He felt as if all the air had been let out of his wings.

Harry shut his eyes, his head slumping forward.

“It gets worse,” Hermione said, shifting as she made herself more comfortable.

He opened his eyes wearily. “How could it possibly get any worse, Hermione? Unless you’re about to tell me there is some wizarding custom that all the attendants in a bridal party have to snog each other in front of witnesses, as well.”

Hermione sniggered. “Actually, this concerns you. Ginny said that Fleur plans on having you entertain Gabrielle during the reception.”

Harry blinked several times, nonplussed. “Huh?”

“You know, her little sister?”

“I know who she is Hermione, but isn’t she around ten?” Harry asked.

“Eleven, actually. I wonder if she’ll be starting at Beauxbatons in September. I read that other wizarding schools–”

“Hermione!”

“What? Oh…right, Gabrielle.”

“Eleven. Do I really come off as being that desperate?” Harry asked, cringing.

Hermione giggled. “Of course not, Harry, but evidently Gabrielle has had a major crush on you since the Second Task. Fleur wants to make her dream come true by having you be her dance partner.”

“Great. I don’t suppose it occurred to her to ask me how I felt about this?” Harry asked, feeling nettled

“You know how it is with Fleur. How other people feel about anything has never been one of her top priorities,” Hermione said, sniffling slightly.

Harry rubbed his forehead roughly. He could feel a headache beginning in his temples. “Well, she can forget it. I’m not jumping because Fleur says jump.”

Hermione snorted. “Oh, ho. Now you sound just like Ginny. Besides, Harry, you can get as angry as you want. We all know you’ll never hurt that little girl’s feelings. So, if you really don’t want to spend the evening as her escort, I suggest you get it straightened out with Fleur straightaway.”

“Oh, I can see that conversation. I know it’s your wedding day and all, but I really don’t want to child-mind your sister, so please make other arrangements. As if I’m not already high on the list of cads to the Weasleys, anyway,” Harry said, rolling his eyes dramatically.

“No one thinks you’re a cad, Harry. Although Fred and George do find the idea of you being Gabrielle’s date highly amusing,” Hermione replied, sniggering.

“I’ll just bet they do. Did Ginny have any other little bombshells to drop, or is that enough for one day?” Harry asked, in a right foul mood now.

“Other than her complete misery of being apart from you, you mean?” Hermione asked, blinking innocently.

“Hermione,” Harry said, irritated.

“Okay, okay. She did say she thinks there is something dodgy going on at Grimmauld Place. Her mum has been very secretive about it, of course, but the Order seems to have come into a lot of information recently. She’s heard fragments of several conversations about a guest staying there.”

“A guest at Grimmauld Place? Who do you suppose it could be?” Harry asked, leaning forward with interest.

“I don’t know, Harry. Why don’t you ask? It is your house, after all,” Hermione said, frowning slightly.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s my house. If I want to know who is staying there, they should tell me. I have every right to know,” Harry said, warming to the idea

“Of course you do, but since when has that ever stopped them?”

Harry set his mouth grimly. “Well, that all changes now.”

“I know you don’t want to tell the Order about the Horcruxes, Harry, but don’t alienate them, either. There might come a time when we need their help. You know you can trust Remus and Professor McGonagall and all the Weasleys, at least,” Hermione said.

Harry knew that Hermione’s first instinct was always to go to someone in a position of authority, but Harry felt that if Dumbledore hadn’t told the Order about the Horcruxes then there must have been a reason. He wasn’t about to second-guess that decision.

“I’ll work with the Order, but I’m not telling them anything about our mission. They had no problem stringing me along for the past few years; let’s see how they enjoy having the shoe on the other foot.”

Hermione frowned and bit the corner of her lip but didn’t argue with him for once.

“Don’t worry, Hermione. If Dumbledore didn’t tell them, he must have had a good reason.”

This seemed to make Hermione feel better about the situation. “Let’s go downstairs and see about dinner. Ron should be done with his work by now and will be wondering where we’ve gone.

“You go on down. I’m going to take a shower, and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

“Harry — ”

“I just need a few minutes to steady myself before seeing her, all right, Hermione?” he said, looking at his feet.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” Hermione said quietly.

“I do, too. Believe me; I do, too.”

When Harry came downstairs a good while later, he headed straight for the kitchen, certain he’d find a crowd of Weasleys there. What he hadn’t anticipated was hearing the low murmur of voices coming from the sitting room as he walked past. The sound of his own name caught his attention, and he stopped to hear what was being said.

He had to squint against the dimness of the room, but he could just make out Ron and Hermione sitting on the couch at the far end of the room and speaking in hushed tones. Ron had his arm draped casually over the back of the couch, and Hermione was nestled in the crook. They were stuffing little gift boxes with chocolates — for the wedding, Harry assumed — but it looked as if they were eating more than they were packaging. Harry had to grin, watching them.

“So, he’s upset, and she’s upset. How is that different from anyone else in this bloody house? Someone is always upset.” Ron said, scowling moodily.

“It’s more than being upset, Ron. They’re both miserable, and I don’t know what to do about it,” Hermione replied, gently swiping a bit of chocolate from Ron’s mouth with her finger.

“Maybe it isn’t up to you to do something,” Ron said, his voice strained.

“I know you think he’s right to keep her out of it, Ron…but what if he’s wrong?” Hermione said, resting her head on the back of the couch.

“What do you mean? How is trying to keep her safe wrong?” Ron asked, perplexed.

“Because she’s not safe, no matter what he does. And he might be the one who’s in more danger without her. You saw how happy he was when they were together. How long has it been since you’ve seen Harry that way? Even his marks improved.”

Ron shrugged. “Not everything is about marks, Hermione.”

“I didn’t say it was,” she snapped, sounding a little hurt. “Ron, don’t you see what’s going on?”

“What?”

“Harry’s had a tough life, and not many things have truly gone right for him. Ginny is just about the best thing that ever happened to him. She made him happy, and he’s willing to give her and all that up in order to rid the world of Voldemort so all the rest of us can be safe.

“Ginny has loved Harry since before she even knew what love was. She stood on the sidelines and watched him struggle, even moving on herself rather than forcing her feelings on him. When they finally came together and acknowledged their feelings for each other, it was like every dream Ginny ever had coming true. Now, she’s willingly giving him and all her dreams up, because she knows the rest of our lives depend on his success, and he’d never be able to live with himself if he didn’t try.

“Don’t you see? They are so alike it’s painful. It’s like that Christmas story,” Hermione cried.

Ron wore a stunned expression. “What?”

“You know, that old Christmas story about the man who wanted to buy a present for his wife, and he sold the only thing of value he owned — his father’s pocket watch — to buy her a hair clip for her long beautiful hair. Meanwhile, the wife cut her hair and sold it in order to earn enough money to buy a gold chain for the man’s watch.

“It’s beautiful and so romantic in a bittersweet sort of way,” Hermione said, smiling sadly.

“You mean they both ended up with a present they couldn’t use?” Ron asked, horrified.

“Oh, Ron. That’s not the point,” Hermione snapped. “They ended up with each other.”

Harry pulled back sharply and blindly stumbled for the kitchen. He sat down on a stool, breathing heavily. Was that what he and Ginny were doing? Each one sacrificing what was most important to them for the greater good? And would both of them end up with nothing in the end?

He had never wanted to make Ginny suffer. He put his head down and ran his fingers through his hair.

I don’t know.

He’d never considered it as any sort of noble act; he just wanted to keep her safe. Harry was beginning to think there was no way to do that.

“Harry?”

He looked up to find Mrs. Weasley standing in the doorway. She was looking at him with concern over finding him sitting alone in the dark.

“Are you all right, dear?” she asked kindly.

“Yes, Mrs. Weasley. I’m fine.”

“Well, I suppose you’d say that even if you weren’t fine.”

Harry grinned sheepishly. “Guilty as charged.”

Mrs. Weasley poured a glass of cold pumpkin juice and placed in front of him. She sat down in the seat next to him and took his hand in her own. “The one thing in this world that always seems to be in short supply is love, yet it’s the one thing that grows and multiplies the most when shared. We should never throw away a chance to have more of it in our lives. ”

Harry looked up into Mrs. Weasley’s eyes and found only warmth and compassion there. He felt his own eyes fill and blinked furiously in order to hold back the tears that suddenly wanted to fall. “I’m just trying to do what’s right, Mrs. Weasley.”

“I know you are, dear,” she said gently, rising up from the table and kissing him on the head. “She knows it, too.”

Harry nodded silently as Mrs. Weasley pushed a piece of warm bread into his hands. “That should hold you until dinner. We’ll be eating out in the garden tonight. There will be more room out there. Be a love and go ahead and start setting the table for me, would you, dear?”

As soon as he went outside, Harry knew he’d been set up. Ginny was already there, placing napkins next to each of the plates. Harry gathered the silverware and began helping her to set the table.

“Let me guess — Mum sent you out here?” she asked without raising her eyes from the table. The low, husky quality in her voice sent a shiver up his spine.

“Yeah,” he replied.

They worked in silence for a few moments, working in tandem to set each place setting. Finally, Harry couldn’t take the strained silence anymore. “It’s good to see you, Ginny.”

“Is it?” Ginny asked dully.

Harry swallowed. “You have no idea.”

“Why did you allow Ron and Hermione to go with you? They’re going with you again, aren’t they? When you go off to do the thing you’re going to do,” Ginny said, turning to face him and placing her hands on her hips.

“What?”

“You said you had things to do alone now. Ron and Hermione being with you isn’t actually alone.”

“No. They never listen to me.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have listened, either,” Ginny said, her eyes glistening brightly.

“Ginny– ”

“No. I shouldn’t have said that. I know you’re only doing what you have to do, and I know it isn’t any easier on you. That doesn’t always help,” she said, her shoulders slumping.

“I know,” he replied, his heart aching. She was absolutely right, but he had no idea what he could say to make it better for her, aside from the one thing she wanted to hear. And that was the one thing he couldn’t — shouldn’t — do.

“So, what happens now? With us, I mean. Do we just go on and pretend nothing has ever changed?” Ginny asked.

“I dunno. Can you do that? ‘Cause I really don’t think I can,” Harry said honestly.

Ginny shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll do what I have to do.”

“You always do,” he said, trying to smile.

“Yeah. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.”

Harry snorted. “No. It does that.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the Weasley clan, along with Fleur, Hermione, and Ekaterina, Charlie’s Romanian girlfriend. She had long, straight dark hair that hung well below her waist and dark eyes that appeared to study them all intently. She was as opposite to Fleur in coloring as she could be, yet equally beautiful.

“You are Harry Potter,” she said in a thick accent, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Yes, I am,” Harry said, lowering his eyes.

“I am honored to meet you. I have heard stories of you since I was a little girl,” she said.

Harry felt his face burn, and he longed to be anywhere else. He noticed Ginny biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.

“Come on, Katia. You’re embarrassing the kid. Leave him alone,” Charlie said, chuckling and tugging on his girlfriend’s hand.

Ginny giggled. “You’ve never got used to that, have you?”

Harry shrugged. “I wish just once someone would say, ‘Hullo, Harry. Nice to meet you,’ and leave it at that.”

Ginny grinned and stuck out her hand. “Hullo, Harry. Nice to meet you.”

“Ha, ha.”

“Oh, ‘Arry. ‘E iz still zo ‘umble,” Fleur said, increasing Harry’s embarrassment. “’Ee weel ‘ave all ze girls lining up to dance wiz ‘im at ze reception.”

“As long as he saves one for me,” Ginny said, and Harry could hear the hard edge in her voice. She was challenging him.

“I can do that,” he said, locking his eyes on hers and raising an eyebrow.

“But, Ginny. Don’t go promising all your dances before ze wedding. Jean-Luc is zo anxious to meet you. You may find yourself wishing you had a free dance card,” Fleur said, waggling her finely arched eyebrows.

“I think I can manage my own dance partners, thank you, Fleur,” Ginny said through gritted teeth.

“But of course you can,” Fleur replied, waving her hand dismissively. “I just zink you will be pleazed when you meet ‘im.”

“I’m certain I’ll be happy to meet all your family, Fleur,” Ginny said sweetly.

Harry had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting into laughter. She sounded so sincere, yet he could hear the snide quality in her voice. His inner monster was dancing an intricate waltz with the knowledge that she wasn’t going to let herself be set up with Jean-Luc. Harry hated his name just on principle.

Of course, that same monster had been snarling in fury just moments ago when Fleur had been attempting to play matchmaker for his Ginny.

He had to stop thinking like that. She wasn’t his Ginny anymore.

“Fleur, my love, you have to stop worrying about everyone else’s dance partners,” Bill said, wrapping his arms around Fleur’s waist and nuzzling her neck. “You only have to think about sharing all your dances with me.”

Fleur’s eyes softened as she turned to rub her nose against Bill’s. Harry turned away in embarrassment and walked towards the other end of the table.

“They’re sicky sweet, aren’t they? I hope they cool off after they’ve had a honeymoon,” Ginny said, wrinkling her nose. “Maybe regular shagging will help.”

“Ginny!”

“What? Come on, Harry. They’ve been living here with Mum, who has impropriety detectors hooked up in every room. All that sexual tension has to be released somewhere,” Ginny said.

Harry didn’t know if she was joking or not, and he stared at her uncertainly. “Er.”

“Oh, I’ll be so happy when this wedding is finally over,” she exclaimed.

He didn’t know what possessed him, but he couldn’t stop the words from coming out. “Yeah, and maybe you and Jean-Luc will hit it off splendidly and dance the night away. You’d better keep your mum’s detectors in mind then.”

He knew he was in trouble before the words had even finished leaving his mouth.

“Don’t worry, I know my way around them,” Ginny said, her voice rising angrily. “What’s it to you, anyway? The idea is to not let anyone know there was ever anything between us, right? Maybe kicking up my heels with a handsome Frenchman is a good way to get that rumor moving.”

“Wouldn’t know. Why don’t you try it?” Harry replied, his own anger mounting.

“Maybe I will,” Ginny snapped, her eyes suspiciously bright.

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

Harry turned on his heel and stomped away from the table. He knew his and Ginny’s raised voices had attracted the attention of several of the others, but he didn’t really care at the moment. He stopped at the front of the Burrow and took several deep breaths. None of the Dursleys had managed to get this much of a rise out of him in the entire fortnight he’d spent there. How did she manage to do it three times in the space of a few short hours?

Damn, she can get under my skin.

Harry noticed a fat little garden gnome munching on one of Mrs. Weasley’s prize rose bushes right out in the open without even making an attempt at concealment. With his Seeker reflexes, Harry’s hand shot out and grabbed the little gnome around its middle. Winding up and releasing some of his anger and frustration as he did, Harry flung the creature and watched as it sailed over the fence, screaming all the way.

That felt good.

Harry began searching for gnomes in earnest and releasing some of his pent up frustration by cleaning them out of the garden. He wasn’t certain how long he’d been there — long enough to work up quite a sweat — when Ron joined him. His ears were a deep magenta, and he was a scowling fiercely.

Harry silently handed him a struggling gnome. Ron looked at the ugly little creature for a moment without saying a word, then, with a snarl, he tossed it well past the garden gate.

“Nice one,” Harry said appreciatively.

They tossed a few more gnomes in silence before Harry finally asked. “What set you off?”

“Have you seen the guest list for this wedding?” Ron asked, tossing another gnome.

“Er, yeah, Ron. It was the first thing I did when I got here,” Harry said sarcastically. “How was I supposed to have seen the guest list? Why? What’s wrong with the guest list?”

“Turns out you and Fleur aren’t the only former Tri-wizard champions who will be attending,” Ron said, viciously swinging a gnome in the air.

“Huh?”

“Viktor Krum, Harry. Vicky was invited, and he responded that of course he’d be here and looked forward to catching up with old friends. I’ll just bet I know who he’s really looking forward to catching,” Ron spat.

“Ron. Fleur and Viktor competed together in a grueling competition. We bonded in a weird sort of way. It only makes sense that we’d all be here together when one gets married,” Harry said, not quite believing he was actually saying it.

“Cedric won’t be here,” Ron said testily.

Harry flinched.

“Sorry,” Ron said quickly. “It’s not your fault. It just hacks me off.”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

“You’re one to talk. I saw you go storming out of the back garden. Ginny looked like she was about to cry,” Ron said, crossing his arms across his chest.

Harry flinched again. If he’d felt bad before, he felt ruddy awful now. Maybe letting Ron and his brothers clobber him would help.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be all right; Mum will see to it. A few of my brothers might be ready to hex you, though, so I’d watch your back,” Ron said.

Harry looked at Ron with some apprehension. He raised an eyebrow but didn’t voice the question.

“No, I’m not angry with you. You’re just as upset as she is; you just hide it better. Hermione told me,” Ron said, smirking.

“Remind me to tell Hermione I owe her one,” Harry said, tossing another gnome.

“You’ll work it out. Both you and Ginny are more resilient than most people are. You’re more resilient than me, anyway. Hermione told me that, too. It’ll all work out in the end, though; I’m certain of it. Maybe we can hex Vicky and Jean-Lucifer into fancying each other,” Ron said, only half-joking.

“Maybe Jean-Lucifer is just what Ginny needs,” Harry said despondently, unable to resist using Ron’s nickname.

“Don’t be stupid. What Ginny needs is you, same as you need her. I know my little sister, Harry. She didn’t spend how many years waiting for you only to give up now that you’re finally paying attention. Ginny’s way more tenacious than that,” Ron said, shaking his head.

Harry smiled, feeling a little better.

“What’s going on between you and Hermione, Ron? Are you together or not?” Harry asked, not entirely certain he wanted to know. Still, Ron had made him feel better; he should at least try to do the same.

Ron was quiet for a few minutes. “I think so. I mean…we never actually said anything, but…after Dumbledore’s funeral…it just all sort of clicked, you know? We didn’t have to say anything.”

“Er, Ron. I think maybe you do have to say something. This is Hermione we’re talking about. She likes words,” Harry said, grimacing.

“You think?” Ron asked, looking dumbfounded.

“Yeah, I do,” Harry replied confidently.

“Bloody Hell.”

Harry snorted. “After all this time, you’d think we would have figured out what we’re doing.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Ron asked, handing Harry another gnome.

“Prat.”

“Git.”

Chapter Four

Until Death Do Us Part

The day of the wedding dawned bright and glorious. Harry was awoken at what felt to him to be an ungodly hour by the chirping of birds. The

sun streaming in from the cracks of the blinds in Ron’s attic bedroom pierced his skull with a fierce, unforgiving intensity. The ruddy twittering was driving him mad.

Harry had been to his first stag party the previous evening, and even the sobering charm that Mrs. Weasley had performed on them all before ushering them off to bed hadn’t stopped the pounding of his head this morning. He had a vague feeling of unease, but he wasn’t certain if it was only due to the nauseating headache.

It had been one of the strangest weeks in Harry’s life, and that was saying something. The Burrow – a hub for chaos and activity under normal circumstances – was the center of operations for the upcoming nuptials. If Mrs. Weasley had appeared frazzled to Harry over the previous years while working with the Order, it was nothing to her state while preparing this wedding.

The Delacour family had arrived two days ago with more trunks and belongings than a small army should rightfully own. The ceremony itself was to take place in the meadow where Harry had played Quidditch with Ron and his family on many occasions. Therefore, the Delacour family took over the other side of the garden, where they had erected a large tent surrounded by lush flowerbeds.

Harry had never seen anything quite like it, even at the Quidditch World Cup. The tent was more like a castle – with peaks and turrets – and bore the French flag on the top. The area surrounding the tent blossomed with an array of exotic plants and flowers, and a small fountain appeared in a newly formed pond.

If Mrs. Weasley was stressed, it was nothing compared to the state of Mrs. Delacour. Harry had yet to hear her speak in anything but a shout, and he’d noticed Mr. Delacour liberally filling her tea with some oak-matured mead on more than one occasion.

Bill and Fleur appeared oblivious to all the fuss and merely floated in and out of the chaos with the sappiest expressions upon their faces. Fleur had moved out of the Burrow, where she’d been staying, and in with her own family, leaving Ginny, Hermione and Ekaterina sharing one room. Harry supposed that Ginny liked Ekaterina better than Fleur, because the tautness in her face had lessened considerably after the French girl’s departure.

Since their blow up in the back garden nearly a week ago, the tension between Ginny and him had been so thick it could be cut with a knife. They had taken great pains either to act overly civil to one another or to avoid each other entirely. Ginny again proved her accomplished acting ability by easily pretending that nothing was wrong, treating Harry as no more and no less than Ron’s visiting friend. She was civil, polite and frustratingly distant. It was only on brief, rare occasions that Harry thought he caught a glimmer of something in her eyes, but when he looked closely, it was gone.

Harry, on the other hand, was failing miserably at playing along. He couldn’t just close off his feelings and pretend there was nothing wrong, no matter how hard he tried, and the effort was making him increasingly bad-tempered. It occurred to him that while he had failed

dismally at mastering Occlumency during his fifth year, Ginny would probably be very good at it.

The presence of Jean-Luc Delacour certainly hadn’t helped matters. Suave and debonair, Jean-Luc was everything Harry wasn’t. He was only a year older, but he somehow managed to appear vastly more sophisticated. He had dark hair that he wore slicked back and robes that not only fit impeccably, but also were made of the finest material.

It gave Harry a new determination to go shopping for some Muggle clothes of his very own and in his own size for the first time in his life.

Jean-Luc had kissed Ginny’s hand when he first met her, and always seemed to know the right thing to say or had some witty response to everything said to him.

Harry felt as if he were tongue-tied in comparison.

All the women in the house were fawning over Jean-Luc, and Harry had memories of being back in fourth year and trying to compete against Cedric to get a date to the Yule Ball. The only consolation was that none of the other Weasley brothers cared much for Jean-Luc, either. Ron acted out overly exaggerated imitations of his prancing ways, and Harry suspected the twins were devising a major prank.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke, Harry thought savagely.

Despite her brothers’ obvious disapproval – or maybe because of it – Ginny appeared quite enamoured with the dashing Frenchman. Every time Harry saw her, she was with him, laughing at his stupid jokes or listening intently to whatever it was he had to say. Harry had seen her take his arm on several occasions, and he appeared to take every opportunity to place his ruddy hands upon her waist.

The monster in Harry’s chest had been roaring with such intensity that Harry was shocked no one else could hear it. He’d been in a right foul mood, and most of the Weasleys had been giving him a wide berth because of it. The only one who apparently wasn’t bothered at all by his foul disposition was Gabrielle Delacour. She’d become Harry’s shadow, following him nearly everywhere and helping him with whichever task Mrs. Weasley or Mrs. Delacour assigned to him.

Gabrielle chatted incessantly as they worked, and Harry hadn’t yet found a way to disengage himself from her presence. She followed him, laughed at nothing, and then blushed the deepest shade of Weasley red if he happened to answer one of her endless questions. He remembered when Ginny had a crush on him, back in his second year, but that had been different somehow. Ginny had never been this annoying.

It was as if he were assigned Colin Creevey as a Potions partner, only with more giggling. The only slight positive to the whole situation was that Fleur had stopped pushing Harry to entertain Gabrielle. It was as if ever since Harry and Ginny’s shouting match in the back garden, Fleur had a new pet project. She purposely arranged tasks and insisted that both he and Ginny needed to work on them together.

Harry would have been eternally grateful to her if the circumstances been different, but spending time with Ginny while she was acting coolly polite and detached was nearly driving him to distraction.

Hence the reason he’d imbibed so much at the stag party the previous evening.

It had started innocently enough. Charlie had gathered all the Weasley brothers (minus Percy), Harry, Jean-Luc, Mr. Weasley and Mr. Delacour, and they had Apparated to a private room at the Leaky Cauldron. Remus, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt and several other members of the Order had met them there, along with some of Bill’s co-workers and old friends.

Harry had taken a seat with Ron in a corner, somewhat distanced from the rest of the crowd. He’d been happy enough with his cold Butterbeer when Charlie approached their table with a bottle of Firewhiskey and added a shot to his and Ron’s drinks. Harry hadn’t yet tried the legendary drink and was quite keen to oblige. It burned going down, and he spluttered and coughed until he got used to it.

He’d only intended on trying it and leaving it at that, but he’d ended up taking a fair share of ribbing over being the only bloke there still underage. He felt he had something to prove, particularly to Jean-Lucifer, whom the alcohol didn’t appear to be affecting at all.

He had soon found it very difficult to string words together clearly – more difficult even than he normally did – and he wasn’t quite certain how he’d got back to the Burrow at the end of the night.

Which was how he’d ended up lying here on the camp bed in Ron’s sickeningly orange room, trying to decide if he had the energy to cast a Reducto spell on the sun.

“Bloody hell,” Ron groaned from beneath the covers on his bed.

Harry tried to sit up but ended up falling back onto his pillow and swearing. “I am never drinking Firewhiskey again as long as I live,” he moaned. “Whose brilliant idea was that, anyway?”

“I think it was yours, mate,” Ron replied, and his voice sounded abnormally loud in the stillness of the room.

“Good morning, boys,” Hermione’s voice trilled as she pushed open the door and entered Ron’s room, grinning merrily. Both boys cringed and pulled away.

“Oh, it’s a perfect day for a wedding. Mrs. Weasley has breakfast ready. Come on, get up. The guests will be arriving soon, and you need to be dressed in order to greet them.”

“Hermione,” Ron groaned, rolling over and pulling the covers up over his head. “It’s only the crack of dawn.”

“Nonsense,” Hermione said, pulling the covers off him completely and then turning and doing the same to Harry. “It’s almost ten o’clock.

Everyone else is up and has been for quite some time. Ginny, Fleur and Gabrielle have already left to have their hair done.”

“Left where?” Harry asked, suddenly interested. He grabbed his blanket back from Hermione to cover his bare chest.

“Oh. They Apparated to some cousin of Fleur’s in London. Ron, your mother is going to be up here in a minute if you don’t get up,” Hermione said.

“My head,” Ron moaned.

“Oh!” Hermione said, starting. She pulled two phials from the pocket of her dressing gown. “Here. Your mum said to give these to you to help clear your heads.”

Harry took the phial eagerly and downed the contents, wincing at the taste. His mind cleared instantly, and the throbbing in his temples receded.

“Why didn’t you say that bit first?” he asked irritably. Now that he could think, he realized he still had that distinctly uneasy feeling. He suspected it had something to do with his hangover, along with his apprehension over having to spend the day watching Jean-Luc fawning over Ginny. Still, the prickling on the back of his neck caused him some concern. He’d have to remain alert. He wasn’t about to let anything spoil this wedding for the Weasleys.

***

Several hours later, Harry found himself dressed in his stylish gray dress robes and helping Ron and the twins escort guests to their seats out in the meadow. Rows and rows of white chairs were set up in a semicircle around a white gazebo adorned with more white roses than Harry had ever seen. Aunt Petunia would have been beside herself at the lushness of the blooms.

Viktor Krum’s arrival caused Ron’s eyes to narrow and his ears to grow red, despite the fact that Viktor arrived with a stunning blonde beauty on his arm. Harry hurried over to greet them and escort them to their seats before Ron could make a scene. Viktor did ask about Hermione, but Harry chose not to mention that fact to Ron.

When the wedding began, Harry went to take a seat towards the back of all the rows, but Ron grabbed him and dragged him to sit with him and Hermione in one of the rows reserved for all the Weasleys. Harry felt oddly touched.

He honestly didn’t remember much of the ceremony after Ginny walked down the aisle. Gabrielle had walked down first, wearing gold dress robes with a bit of a ruffle and lacing up the front. The sleeves rested on her shoulders, and she wore a gold shawl draped across the top. Her golden curls were piled heavily atop her head, and even Harry had to admit she looked thoroughly charming.

Ginny followed next, and Harry felt his mouth go dry. He couldn’t even manage to swallow. The gold robes, while pretty on Gabrielle, looked

stunning on Ginny. They appeared to hug every curve, and Harry would have been hard pressed to drag his eyes away if Voldemort had chosen that moment to attack. Her hair was curled softly and piled into an intricate pattern of plaits atop her head with thin wisps surrounding her face. She’d tied the shawl more closely around her than Gabrielle had done, but even with it there Harry could tell the sleeves on the robes bared her shoulders completely.

She was stunning, and he was lost.

The ceremony commenced, and he supposed Bill and Fleur had said their I do’s at some point. Honestly, however, Harry hadn’t been aware of anything else but the shine of the sun on Ginny’s fiery hair, and the pink lipstick she wore on her softly smiling lips. He watched several times in fascination as Ginny’s small tongue darted out to moisten them, making the lipstick shine.

Before he knew what was happening, Bill and Fleur were kissing one another, and small white doves flew from all the trees surrounding the gazebo.

“Now, let’s get this party started,” Fred said, slapping George on the back.

“Right, brother mine. We promised to dance with each and every one of Fleur’s friends. I, for one, took that promise as a personal oath,” George replied.

Harry rolled his eyes and followed them to the area where tents had been set up holding tables of food and drink. He took a seat with Ron and Hermione and wasn’t surprised to find Gabrielle at his elbow almost instantly.

“Oh, there iz an empty zeat right next to me, ‘Arry,” the young girl said eagerly, patting the chair beside her.

Gritting his teeth and ignoring Ron’s snigger, Harry sat down. Ron and Hermione sat across from him, looking extremely cozy. Fred and George were up and already instructing the band by the dance floor in the middle of the tent.

Bill and Fleur were seated at a table for two at the front of the tent, with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and Mr. and Mrs. Delacour occupying a table to their right. Harry sat with the other Weasley siblings and Gabrielle at a table on the left of the happy couple. Harry looked up in time to see Ginny and Jean-Luc taking the remaining seats at his table.

Harry’s eyes locked on Ginny’s for a moment as she sat down, and he was unable to pull them away. She was wearing make-up on her eyes that made them look kind of smoky and unbelievably sexy. He didn’t remember ever seeing her wearing more than lipstick at school.

“Let me pour you zome of zis wine, Ginny,” Jean-Luc said, and it sounded like he was caressing her name.

Harry’s beast snarled crossly.

“Thank you, Jean-Luc,” Ginny replied sweetly.

Scowling, Harry took a liberal drink of his own wine.

Despite all the delectable food that was offered, the dinner dragged excruciatingly slow for Harry. Between Gabrielle’s hints about how much she wanted to dance and Jean-Luc’s constant attentiveness to Ginny, Harry was ready to leap on his Firebolt and dive bomb the whole affair.

The only upside was the wine that had made him pleasantly warm. He’d quickly forgotten his promise of just that morning never to imbibe again. Even a hangover would feel better than the way he felt at the moment.

When he finished his dessert, he thought he’d managed to make it through the evening. He’d planned on slipping away from the festivities quietly and making it an early night. They were leaving for Godric’s Hollow in the morning, and he wanted to be well rested.

That plan changed when Jean-Luc asked Ginny to dance. She nodded brightly and turned around. Looking directly into Harry’s eyes with something he thought looked like a challenge, she allowed the shawl that she’d been wearing to drop from her shoulders.

Harry gulped as his mouth went dry. He felt as if all the air in his lungs had been forced out of him. The neckline of Ginny’s dress suddenly appeared much lower than the modest cut of Gabrielle’s, and Ginny’s bosom looked as if it were barely being contained. Her robes no longer looked as if they had been made for a little girl at all.

Harry’s jaw dropped open, and he wasn’t even been aware of it until Hermione elbowed him sharply in the ribs. Ginny’s eyes sparkled with triumph.

Jean-Luc, of course, handled the situation with much more grace than Harry had managed. He leaned over and whispered something in Ginny’s ear, causing her to blush and look toward her feet. In doing so, she missed the appreciative look the Frenchman cast down her cleavage.

Harry didn’t miss it, however, and jumped to his feet.

Once again, it was Hermione who held him back. “Don’t make a scene, Harry,” she hissed.

Harry glared at her. “Did you see where he was looking?” he demanded crossly.

“Yes. The same place you were looking. Honestly, Harry. It’s called a push-up bra,” Hermione said, her cheeks turning pink.

“What the bloody hell has Ginny done to herself?” Ron demanded, finally finding his voice after Ginny and Jean-Luc had walked onto the dance floor. “That…that doesn’t look like my baby sister, and I don’t want all these blokes looking at that.”

“Would you lower your voice,” Hermione snapped. “Ginny wanted something to make her dress robes look less childlike, so I told her what to get.

It’s a Muggle thing, and it’s designed to take what you’ve got and…push it all up a bit.”

“A bit?” Ron demanded furiously.

“Never mind your sister, Ron. She can take care of herself. Besides, she’s only dancing amidst the presence of her entire family. Speaking of dancing, I believe you promised me one,” Hermione said, raising an eyebrow.

Ron gulped but held out his hand and escorted her onto the floor, still throwing murderous glances towards Ginny and Jean-Luc.

Scowling, Harry turned on his heel and stormed away from the table. While Charlie was watching Ginny closely, Ekaterina was smiling knowingly at Harry, and he couldn’t stand it. He saw Remus standing with Tonks near one of the bars and walked over to join them.

“Wotcher, Harry,” Tonks said. She was wearing bright fuchsia robes with a hair color to match. Harry was happy to see that both her Metamorphmagus abilities as well as her relationship with Remus appeared to be back on track. The couple was nearly beaming. Despite the sting he felt from the mess his own relationship with Ginny had become, he was pleased the fates appeared to be smiling on his former professor.

“Hi, Tonks. Hello, Remus,” Harry said, shaking the older man’s hand.

“What’s the matter, kid? You look like you just lost your best friend,” Tonks said with concern.

Harry shrugged. “I’m all right.”

Remus’s eyes scanned the dance floor and came to rest on the glittering figure in gold with the fiery red hair. “Ah. I see,” he said, before handing Harry a shot of Firewhiskey.

Harry raised his eyebrow.

“Sirius always said it helped to take the edge off,” Remus said, raising his own glass. He and Harry clinked their glasses together before tipping back the shots.

“How are things going at headquarters?” Harry asked once his eyes had stopped streaming.

He noticed the furtive glance that passed between the two Order members before Tonks answered. “Busy. There has been a lot happening.”

“Like what?” Harry demanded. “I know someone’s staying there that you’re protecting.”

The last statement was merely a shot in the dark, but it appeared to hit its mark. “Not here, Harry,” Remus said, speaking in a low voice. “We can talk about it another time in a more secure location.”

As he spoke with Remus and Tonks, Harry’s eyes kept glancing surreptitiously at the dance floor. He watched as Ginny danced with several partners in addition to Jean-Luc, although he appeared at her side more often than not. She looked as if she were having the time of her life. He hadn’t known she could dance so well. If it weren’t for the fact that Jean-Luc was out there with her, he would have enjoyed watching her.

The monster in his chest was screaming at him to go out there and ask her to dance, but he held back. He couldn’t do that. If he went near her now, he’d be lost, and he knew it. It was better for her and all involved if he kept his distance and allowed her to move on with her life.

He just wished it didn’t have to hurt so much.

As Tonks turned to speak with someone from the Ministry, Remus leaned over to speak softly in Harry’s ear. “If she won’t leave your thoughts even when you try to keep her away, perhaps the answer lies in keeping her closer to your heart.”

Harry sighed, still staring at Ginny as she danced. “I wish it were that simple.”

“Sometimes it is,” Remus said mildly.

“It’s too dangerous right now, and I don’t want to see her hurt,” Harry replied, the standard answer suddenly sounding weak even to his own ears.

‘Ah, I see. That old mistress Nobility appears to run strong in your family, Harry. Your father went through a stage of wanting to protect your mother, too. He didn’t want her involved in the Order or fighting Voldemort, but he finally came around and allowed her to be herself. He realized that he fell in love with that feisty, stand-up-for-what-she-believed-in girl, and then he asked her to change. That wasn’t really fair to either of them,” Remus said, taking another drink.

“Is that what I’m doing?” Harry asked, shocked. He’d never quite looked at it that way. Of course his parents had both been involved in the fight against Voldemort. The prophecy had said they’d defied him three times. His mother was in the Order, the same as his father, yet he’d still tried to protect her when Voldemort had first arrived at Godric’s Hollow. How had he reconciled the two such opposing desires?

“It would be highly unfair if Ginny locks away her true personality in order to support your quest, only to have you fall out of love with her because she’s no longer the same girl with whom you fell in love in the first place,” Remus said.

“That would never happen,” Harry stated firmly.

“I feel like a hypocrite giving you this advice, Harry, considering my actions of the past year,” Remus said, wincing. “But take it from a man who knows where you’re coming from, you’re much stronger and a more able wizard with her than without her.”

Harry sipped his wine, mulling over Remus’s words. Hadn’t he said himself that he’d never felt stronger than that brief time he and Ginny were together? Hadn’t his own parents decided that living and loving were worth all the risk?

“Come on, Harry. Let’s dust off your dancing shoes,” Tonks said, grabbing his hand and dragging him onto the floor. He danced with Tonks, Mrs. Weasley, Hermione and even Fleur before insisting he needed a break.

A disturbance near the entrance of the tent caught his attention, and he walked over to investigate. Fred and George stood there with arms akimbo, glaring at Percy, who was standing at the entrance, looking extremely uncomfortable. With him stood the Minister of Magic, dressed in his finery and bearing gifts. Harry was reminded of a similar scene this past Christmas.

“What are you doing here, Percy?” Ron demanded, storming across the tent and stopping within inches of his elder brother.

“I was invited,” Percy said, lifting his nose and adjusting his glasses.

“Yeah, and you didn’t reply,” Fred spat.

“Mum had a good cry over it, as I recall,” George said.

“Unfortunately, my busy schedule didn’t allow my prompt response, and I do apologize for my ill manners,” Percy said stiffly. “I’ve come to deliver a gift to my eldest brother, so if you’ll excuse me…”

“Mr. Potter,” Rufus Scrimgeour said before Harry could slip away. “I wondered if we might have a word while Percy here discusses a private matter with his family.”

“Harry is family,” Ron snarled. “More so than this sod,” he said, jerking his head in Percy’s direction.

“Percy? Is that you?” Mrs. Weasley cried, interrupting them all. “Oh! You did come; I knew you would. Come over and see the newlyweds. Bill will be so happy to see you.”

As Mrs. Weasley led Percy away, Scrimgeour stared pointedly at Harry. “A word, Mr. Potter?”

Harry crossed his arms across his chest but didn’t move away from Ron and the twins. “We have to stop meeting like this, Minister. I suppose old habits are hard to break.”

A flicker of annoyance crossed Scrimgeour’s face. “Things are dismal, as I’m certain you are aware. Now that some time has passed since Albus Dumbledore’s death, I’m wondering if you’ve taken the time to reconsider my proposition?”

“Your proposition?”

“About Ministry protection, Harry. I’m certain you’ve read the reports of Muggle casualties. Just last week there was another attack in Diagon Alley, where several shops were destroyed.”

“I’m aware of them. What are you doing about them?” Harry asked.

“The Ministry is doing everything within its power—”

“Released Stan Shunpike yet?”

“That is not going to get us anywhere,” Rufus Scrimgeour said, his voice rising slightly.

“No, what’s not getting us anywhere is your refusal to accept that I’m not going to be your poster boy,” Harry said, snarling. “If you want my approval for the way things are being done at the Ministry, then earn it. Start doing what needs to be done. Skip these useless handbooks on how to protect yourself and start teaching people something useful. Teach them how to cast a Patronus, or how to deflect the Inferi. Stop terrorizing people you know are innocent just to make it look like you’re doing something.

“You can start with questioning those former suspected Death Eaters who claimed to be under the Imperius. Hell, any Death Eater worth his salt knows to claim he was acting under the Imperius, and you’ll release him. The fact that Stan Shunpike never thought to claim it should tell you he’s no Death Eater.”

“This is getting us nowhere,” Scrimgeour said irritably.

“No, and I can see from your refusal to accept some cold hard truths that it’s not going to. You might have once wanted to help people when you first became an Auror, but now you’re just like Fudge, more concerned with politics and public perceptions. That isn’t the kind of leader we need in this climate, Minister. So, you go right ahead and do what you’ve got to do, while I’m going to go and actually get something done,” Harry said, fuming.

“Exactly what is it you think you’re going to be doing?” Scrimgeour asked suspiciously.

“Oh, a little of this, a little of that,” Harry replied, shrugging his shoulders.

“You know what Albus Dumbledore was doing before he died, and I intend to find out,” Scrimgeour accused, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

“As I said,” Harry replied with dead calm, “you do what you have to do. Right now, I have a wedding to enjoy, and your presence is neither needed nor wanted here.” With that, Harry walked away from a spluttering and very angry Minister of Magic, Ron following closely in his wake. Harry was amused to see Fred and George remain behind to escort Scrimgeour from the tent.

“Whoa, Harry,” Ron said, grinning appreciatively. “You just dismissed the Minister of Magic. I’m glad Hermione didn’t hear that, though. She would have started hyperventilating.”

Harry smiled. “Are you two having a good time?”

“Yeah, we are,” Ron said, watching Hermione chatting with Viktor Krum.

Harry tensed, waiting for the explosion. “Ron.”

“She came here with me. She wants to be with me,” Ron said firmly, keeping his eyes fixed on Hermione as she walked across the dance floor.

He could hear that slight measure of uncertainty still in Ron’s voice. Deciding to tease a bit, he asked sharply, “Did you get a nice look at her bum?”

Ron jumped. “What? I- I- I didn’t.”

Harry couldn’t hold the stern face any longer. “You did so! I just watched you. You can’t take the mickey out of me anymore about Ginny unless you want to get it back about Hermione. She’s the closest thing I’ve got to a sister, you know.”

“Sod off. Don’t let her hear you say that, either, or she’ll cry all over you. We all know how well you handle crying girls,” Ron said, elbowing Harry in the ribs.

Harry shoved Ron’s shoulder. “Git.”

“Would you like to dance, ‘Arry?” Gabrielle asked. She’d walked up behind them without his noticing.

Harry groaned inwardly, while Ron sniggered.

“I’d be honored, Gabrielle,” he said gallantly, causing the young girl to beam. He glared at Ron as he led Gabrielle onto the dance floor. As the music played, he caught sight of Ginny, once again dancing with Jean-Luc, and had to grit his teeth in frustration. He tried to steer Gabrielle away from where Ginny and Jean-Luc were dancing, finding it unbearable to watch her. Somehow, however, every few steps Gabrielle managed to maneuver them nearly next to the chatting couple. He knew he was the one who was supposed to be leading, but he’d never quite got the hang of the steps.

Just as they came alongside Ginny and Jean-Luc, the music changed into a slower song, and the couples surrounding them pulled each other closer.

“I zink it iz time to switch partners,” Gabrielle said, shocking both Harry and Jean-Luc. She let go of Harry and wrapped her arms around her cousin. She said something in French as the two began to dance.

Harry and Ginny were left staring at one another.

“So, are you going to ask me to dance, or what?” Ginny asked, raising a finely arched eyebrow. Harry could read the challenge in her eyes. She was daring him to walk away.

Damn it all to hell, but he couldn’t do it.

“Would you care to dance with me, Ginny?” he asked hoarsely, licking his suddenly dry lips. A thin sheen of sweat formed on his upper lip as got a better look at the neckline of Ginny’s dress. His eyes wouldn’t behave and kept trying to look down.

Ginny’s eyes softened as she put her small, warm hand within his own. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and pulled her firmly against him, inhaling the sweet, flowery scent he remembered so well.

He forgot about his feet and counting the steps and simply allowed himself to be swept away in the moment, loving having her body pressed against his. He ran his hand along the silky material of the dress robes on her back and hissed involuntarily when he reached the bare skin near her shoulders.

“You look lovely,” he whispered.

“Merlin’s Beard, Harry. Was that a compliment?” she asked, laughter dancing in her eyes.

His eyes dipped to the cleavage that seemed to be fighting its constraints, and he swallowed heavily. He could now feel the sweat rolling down his back. “I suppose it was.”

Ginny smiled gently and leaned in to rest her head on Harry’s shoulder. He shut his eyes and placed his cheek against the softness of her hair. He had no idea how long they stood there, simply swaying to the music; he just knew this was where he wanted to be. When Ginny finally looked up and into his eyes, he was mesmerized by the play of lights on her face. He leaned over slowly and her lips parted, but before he kissed her he glanced around the room.

He suddenly realized they were the only ones still on the dance floor. The band had taken a break, and there were several people watching with watery eyes as the two of them swayed back and forth to phantom music.

Harry pulled back sharply, his eyes darting wildly. Ginny giggled and hid her face against his arm. Grabbing her hand, he pulled her off the dance floor, stopping only to grab a glass of wine for each of them, and outside of the tent into the warm summer air. The meadow was lit with hundreds of floating candles, and several other guests had come outside to enjoy the slight breeze.

Harry kept ahold of Ginny’s hand as they walked across the meadow and stopped by the pond that the Weasley children often used as a swimming hole. Ginny leaned her back against a big old oak tree and placed both glasses on the ground.

“Are you going to finish what you started, Harry?” she asked.

Harry knew she meant the almost-kiss on the dance floor, but his head kept screaming that she was talking about so much more. If he did it, if he leaned over and kissed her now, he didn’t think his resolve was strong enough to let him walk away again.

“Ginny,” he whispered, his eyes once again displaying a will of their own and dipping to the ample display of cleavage.

“Harry!” Ginny said, stamping her foot. “My eyes are up this way.”

“Sorry,” Harry mumbled, heat rising to his cheeks.

Ginny folded her arms across her chest crossly. “You should be.”

“You were the one who put it on to make…those…pop out at me,” Harry said, waving his hand in the direction of her chest. “You must have wanted them to be noticed. You can’t get angry with me for noticing.”

“I did want you to notice…but I wanted you to notice the whole package,” Ginny replied, stamping her foot again. “I wore make-up and stockings on my legs. I have a new hair style…not just the boobs.”

“I can’t help it; I like the boobs. I like the whole thing. That dress is snug in places where school robes just aren’t,” Harry said earnestly.

Ginny’s anger began to melt, and her shoulders started to shake with laughter. “How much of that wine have you had to drink, Harry?”

Harry grinned sheepishly. “Enough not to care what I’m saying.”

Ginny wrapped her arms around his neck and began playing with the bit of hair at the nape of his neck. “So, you like the robes, then?” she whispered, sending a shiver of pleasure up his spine.

“I like the robes,” he groaned before crushing her body to him and kissing her firmly. It was some time later before they came up for air, both panting heavily.

“I missed that,” Harry said.

“Me, too,” Ginny replied. “What happens now, Harry?”

“No clue,” Harry responded truthfully. “I really don’t think there is a person under that tent that doesn’t know exactly how much I care about you…except maybe Jean-Lucifer…so what’s the point in denying it?”

“Jean-Lucifer!” Ginny gasped, giggling. “He’s an idiot.”

“Yeah. I think so, too,” Harry responded, thrilled to hear it. He took her in his arms and kissed her again.

When they broke apart, Ginny brushed the fringe from his forehead and rested her own against his. “We’ll work it out, Harry, and we’ll work it out together. For tonight, let’s just enjoy the rest of the wedding, yeah?”

“Yes. I’m finally going to take Hermione’s advice and go back inside that tent, dance with my girlfriend, and even snog a bit if the mood hits me.”

“Hermione told you that?”

“Can you believe it? She practically insisted, but I was too busy being noble to listen,” Harry said, smirking. “Who’d have thought all it would take was some gold dress robes and a push-up bra.”

“The dress robes were more an act of rebellion, really,” Ginny said, sighing. She held tightly to Harry’s hand as they walked back towards the tent, as if afraid to let him go. “They can stuff me into it, despite the fact that it’s designed for someone who is eleven, but the fact remains that I’m not eleven. I’m not a little girl anymore, and my body is going to burst out of it.”

“It’s bursting just fine,” Harry said cheekily.

Ginny smacked him on the arm. “Prat. It’s only an illusion, you know. Once the bra comes off, everything settles right back down where it was.”

Harry grinned. “That’s okay. I always looked; I just didn’t get caught as much.”

Ginny giggled and hugged him around the waist. He wrapped his arm around her, and they entered the tent. Jean-Luc immediately made a beeline towards them.

“Zere you are, Ginny. I have been looking everywhere for you,” he said, looking slightly irritated.

“No time to chat now, Jean-Luc,” Harry said, handing him their empty glasses. “I promised my girlfriend the next dance.”

He swung Ginny onto the dance floor, completely ignoring the stunned expression on the Frenchman’s face.

Ginny laughed fully, and Harry realized for the first time that he hadn’t heard that real laugh of Ginny’s since he’d arrived at the Burrow. It was like music to his ears. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gabrielle watching them with a sad smile. When she noticed Harry watching her, she raised her chin and smiled bravely. Harry smiled back, mouthing the words, ‘Thank you.’ She truly had given him the shove he needed. Gabrielle straightened her posture and winked before blending into the crowd.

They danced to several more songs, completely oblivious to the fond stares they were receiving from some of the other guests and ignoring anyone – the twins in particular – who tried to interrupt them. As the night began to wear down, some of the guests began to depart, leaving more empty space on the dance floor.

When some loud bangs were heard from outside the tent, Harry thought Fred and George had ignored their mother’s warnings about not bringing any Weasley Whiz Bangs to the affair. It was only after the screaming started that he realized something was terribly wrong.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he spun toward the entrance. Ginny was right beside him with her wand already drawn.

“Stay beside me,” he hissed, beginning to walk towards the tent opening. He cursed himself for becoming so involved in the drama of his personal life that he’d completely ignored that feeling of unease that had plagued him this morning.

His eyes scanned the room quickly, but he couldn’t see Ron or Hermione anywhere. As he reached the tent’s entrance, he immediately knew what was happening, despite the fact that several members of the Order were glancing around wildly with their wands drawn, searching for the cause of the disturbance.

There had been many wards placed around the Burrow, not only to protect the Weasleys, but also due to the fact that Harry had been staying there. Additional wards had been placed in preparation for this wedding, and while they kept the Death Eaters outside the perimeter, they had no effect on Dementors.

Harry could already hear his mother’s distant screaming in his head as he strode outside the tent.

“Anyone who can cast a Patronus, do it now,” he bellowed. “We’ve got Dementors coming from that direction,” he said, raising his wand towards the other side of the meadow. “Expecto Patronum.”

Prongs leapt from his wand and charged toward the tree line. Immediately, he could see several other Patronuses following in that direction, as well. Ginny’s tiger erupted from her wand a moment later.

“Are you certain, Harry?” Kingsley Shacklebolt asked, trying to herd some of the screaming guests away from the tent and back to the Apparition point. In their panic, some of the guests were running right toward the Dementors.

“I’m certain,” Harry replied grimly.

“How do you know? I don’t see any of them.” Kingsley said.

“Trust him,” Ginny replied, looking pale and strained. “He’s right. I can hear it now, too.”

Sirius’s voice entered Harry’s mind, growing clearer by the second.

“There,” he said, pointed at a spot in the trees. Several of the hooded, black-cloaked figures were emerging onto the meadow, and their numbers appeared to be growing at an alarming rate.

Harry cast another Patronus and shouted at Mrs. Weasley, who had just emerged from the tent, her face a mixture of fear and rage. “Mrs. Weasley, get anyone who can’t cast a Patronus back to the Apparition point and get them out of here. Arrange some portkeys to go to headquarters for anyone who can’t Apparate. Who is the new Secret Keeper?”

“Minerva,” Mrs. Weasley said. She appeared slightly stunned, and Harry’s heart lurched in sympathy. She’d worked so hard for this wedding.

“But, Harry, we can’t send them there; it’s supposed to be secret,” she said nervously.

“As long as it’s under the Fidelius Charm no one can tell its location, anyway. Besides, it’s my house, and I like the idea of it being used as a place to house refugees,” Harry said, directing Prongs towards another Dementor.

“But-”

“Mrs. Weasley, there’s no time. We have to get everyone out of here.” Harry suspected that Mrs. Weasley’s arguments had more to do with whoever the Order was hiding at Grimmauld Place, rather than a concern for headquarters. In normal circumstances, she most likely would have demanded the evacuees be sent there.

“You’re right; I’m on it. Ginny, you come with me,” Mrs. Weasley said, squaring her shoulders.

“No, Mum,” Ginny said. Her voice trembled slightly, but her eyes were firm.

“Ginny, this is no time to argue,” Mrs. Weasley said, grabbing her daughter by the arm.

Ginny pulled away from her grasp. “Exactly. I can cast a Patronus, Mum. I’m needed here.”

Mrs. Weasley’s resolve wavered. She looked indecisive for a moment before a Dementor appeared directly beside her.

“Expecto Patronum,” Ginny bellowed, and her tiger mowed down her mother’s attacker. “Go now, Mum.”

Mrs. Weasley looked one more time at Ginny and Harry with despairing eyes before turning and hurrying toward the house.

A loud, clanging sound filled the night air, reverberating across the open meadow.

“What was that?” Harry shouted, glancing around wildly.

“I think it’s the wards coming down,” Ginny replied grimly.

“Great. Have they started clearing any of those people out yet?” Harry shouted over the noise of the battle now taking place.

Ginny looked over towards the direction of the house, squinting her eyes to see. “Some. A lot of people have had a bit to drink so they’re arguing. Some are just panicking. I can see Mum and Professor McGonagall trying to move everyone. The crowd has thinned some, but not a lot.”

Flames could now be seen around the perimeter, and the scent of smoke was rapidly filling the air. Harry stared around hopelessly. He could see various Order members on the front line, trying to hold back the

Dementors. Several of the soul-sucking demons had breached the line and were moving toward the tent. He could see the Death Eaters, as well. Their masked shapes were creeping from the shadows and casting spells to weaken the wards, Harry assumed.

Squinting his eyes to try and see through the smoke, he could tell that even the Patronuses were weakening the wards. It wouldn’t hold much longer. The members of the Order looked tired and drained.

He could see Fleur, her beautiful white wedding robes streaked with dirt and Auntie Muriels’s tiara askew on her head, standing firm and firing off her butterfly Patronus as she covered Bill. Bill was hunched down and waving his wand in intricate patterns. Harry assumed he was attempting to strengthen the wards.

Staring desperately at the chaos around him, it occurred to Harry that he still hadn’t seen either Ron or Hermione, and the feeling of hopelessness began to build in his chest.

Where are they? And how am I going to stop this from happening?

Chapter Five

And Life Goes On

An unearthly fog covered the length of the Weasley meadow, where only moments before a celebration of life had been taking place. The floating candles had all been extinguished by the cold, damp fog that always accompanied the presence of Dementors. Shouts and muffled grunts mixed with the sounds of rapid spellfire as those guests who had chosen to stay and fight attempted to hold back the approaching Dementors. Death Eaters could be seen gathering along the edge of the forest, casting a barrage of spells and further weakening the already strained wards.

Harry was cold and feeling slightly dizzy from the intensity of the memories flashing through his mind. His teeth chattered as he moved quickly toward the crouched figures of Fleur and Bill, Ginny’s hand held firmly in his own. He could feel her small body trembling, and he knew the Dementors were affecting her as badly as they were him.

“What are you doing ‘ere, ‘Arry?” Fleur hissed, directing her butterfly Patronus toward the direction Harry had just sent Prongs. Her beautiful white wedding robes were smeared with dirt and mud, and one sleeve looked as if it had been singed. “If zose Death Eaters do get in, zey will come right for you. You should evacuate now.”

“I’m not leaving,” Harry said firmly, his eyes locked with Bill’s. This was as much his home as any other place he’d ever stayed, and he would not leave it without a fight. He saw a look of acceptance and understanding flash on Bill’s scarred face, and he was grateful for it.

Finally, someone who wouldn’t treat him as if he were a child.

Bill nodded, and Fleur apparently took this as reason enough to cease her demands. Auntie Muriel’s tiara remained perched on her head, shimmering as the lights from various spells illuminated it. The

thought rose unbidden in Harry’s mind that it was Ginny’s right to wear that one day, and he’d see to it that she got the chance.

“What are you trying to do?” he asked.

Bill sighed heavily, and Harry was struck by how strained and exhausted the eldest Weasley sibling appeared. The scars lining his face stood out starkly against the paleness of his skin. “The wards around the Burrow are failing. That loud clanging sound and the flickering lights that appear every few seconds are indications that the wards are about to collapse. I’m trying to strengthen them, but I don’t know if I can.”

“Strengthen them how?” Harry asked.

“I designed the framework for these wards by using strength from the positive emotions that I feel for the Burrow,” Bill said, and Harry could easily envision him as a Professor of Ancient Runes. “The wards are capable of being strengthened by transferring power from a witch or wizard connected to the place within the boundaries. I reckoned that one of us would always be here in case of an attack and could use our emotions to power it. I hadn’t expected the sheer number of spells being cast in each direction, however. The Burrow has always been crowded, but not this crowded.”

“So, anyone who feels strongly about the Burrow could do it?” Harry asked, furrowing his brow.

“Anyone who feels positively about it, yes. It takes a lot of power, Harry, which is why I can’t even stand up right now,” Bill warned. “I don’t think I have the strength to hold them up much longer.”

Fleur placed her hand protectively on Bill’s shoulder.

“What if we try to do it together?” Harry asked, and now he felt Ginny’s hand on his own shoulder.

Bill looked at Harry uncertainly, his eyes flicking back and forth between his sister and Harry. Harry though he appeared vaguely uncomfortable, but he couldn’t dwell on that now.

“Look, I love this place as if it were my own, and you said yourself that what you’re doing now isn’t going to work,” Harry said with a hint of annoyance.

“I don’t have time to teach you all the spells and wand movements in a few seconds, Harry, but I think I can continue casting them by using your strength and transferring it to the wards,” Bill said contemplatively. “Head to that hill over there and climb to the top; that way, we can cover the whole area. On my signal, you have to project all the positive emotion and anything good you feel about this place into your thoughts. I’ll take it from there. Make certain to have some cover, though, as this will leave you feeling very drained.”

“I want to help, too. I’ll go with you,” Ginny said immediately, her eyes glinting with determination.

“No. Stay and help Fleur cover Bill; he’s more exposed here, and we can’t lose more than one Patronus while I’m up there,” Harry replied, knowing she’d hate the answer.

Ginny frowned and stared back and forth between Harry and Bill, lying on the ground. Finally, she looked out across the meadow at the pitifully few Patronuses struggling to hold back the surging Dementors. Nodding, she squared her shoulders and whispered, “Be careful,” before kissing him fiercely.

“You, too,” Harry replied, squeezing her hand once.

He turned, crouching down low and running behind some of the others, as he moved carefully toward the small hill that Bill had indicated. He stumbled several times as waves of Dementor-inspired memories crashed over him. By the time he’d climbed the hill and reached the right spot, he was panting from exertion.

He could barely distinguish Bill and Ginny through the smoke, but thank Merlin for that red hair; he could spot it anywhere. He’d also been able to spot the twins standing near the perimeter with Tonks, her wolf Patronus signaling their position. He wished he could see Remus, but that search would have to wait.

When Bill sent red sparks into the air, Harry shut his eyes and channeled every positive thought and memory he had about the Burrow into the front of his mind. He had many to choose from and started focusing on memories of the Burrow connected with all that lived there.

He remembered the wonder and awe he’d felt as a twelve-year old coming to stay here for the first time. He’d learned so much that summer, not only about the wizarding world, but also about how it felt to really be a part of a family. He’d experienced how it felt to belong and not simply be cast aside as a nuisance.

He remembered the smell of freshly baked scones, roasted chicken, treacle tart, steak and kidney pie and all his other favorite foods that Mrs. Weasley had quickly discovered and always served in ample supply. He remembered the feeling of pleasure he’d felt that first time she’d washed and darned his socks right along with Ron’s and her other children’s. She’d folded them and put them back in his trunk, and he’d sat there in slack-jawed amazement for a full minute until Ron had asked him what was wrong. Aunt Petunia had usually just given him the socks once Dudley poked holes in them; Mrs. Weasley had actually mended them for him.

Harry took a deep, steadying breath and continued focusing on his memories.

He remembered Mr. Weasley’s shed, full of more electrical sockets than anyone could ever need in a lifetime, and the elder man’s open glee over sharing his discoveries. He remembered not only being asked his opinion for the first time, but also actually feeling as if his answer mattered.

Harry’s legs shook as he stumbled but managed to remain upright.

He remembered Quidditch matches in the meadow, tossing gnomes in the garden, and the camaraderie of a slap on the back from a group of redheads that had treated him as another brother, rather than the freak in the cupboard. He had laughed here, really laughed and enjoyed the summers for the first time in his young life.

Harry’s legs finally gave out, and he stumbled to the ground, panting heavily. He was tired, and his head ached, but he pushed the positive memories through and battled against those the Dementors tried to force to the front.

He remembered the face of the prettiest girl he’d ever seen smiling at him warmly in greeting, her eyes alight with such warmth, compassion and downright orneriness he thought he could drown in their depth. He remembered kissing her barely an hour before, and the feeling that he could do anything as long as she remained in his arms.

Harry needed his arms to support his weight now, yet still he pushed the memories and emotions forward.

This was the home of his best friend, the friend who’d opened his arms wide and shared his family with a lonely boy who’d never had even a glimpse of such a life. It was the home of the girl he loved, the girl who loved him enough to let him go. It was the home of the family that had stood by him and believed in him when no one else had, and he would not allow it to be taken from them now.

Not if he could help it.

A loud surge of blinding light illuminated the meadow for a brief moment, and Harry had to shut his eyes against the glare. A whoop of joy that unmistakably belonged to one of the twins filled the air and caused Harry to blink dazedly. Shouts of glee filled the night, and Harry became aware that his body was no longer chilled. He could find no trace of the Dementors.

He lay on the ground, panting, for a moment, trying to summon the energy to stand. He could see Prongs cantering back towards him and running with a small Jack Russell terrier Patronus that he knew belonged to Ron.

Ron was all right! He was somewhere in this chaos, and hopefully that would mean Hermione was all right, as well.

He recognized most of the faces remaining in the meadow and hoped that meant that Mrs. Weasley had managed to help the other guests escape. He fought against the dimness trying to encroach upon his vision, shaking his head in an attempt to clear it. The motion caused his world to tilt alarmingly, and for a moment he thought he might get sick. He had just managed to control his nausea with a few deep breaths when Ginny appeared by his side.

“Harry!” she shouted, dropping to her knees beside him and cradling his head in her lap while gently running her fingers through his hair. “Are you all right? Oh, you poor thing. Bill said you’d be exhausted. You did it, Harry! You really did it. You were magnificent.”

Harry grinned and leaned into her touch. “It worked then, yeah?”

“It worked splendidly,” Ginny replied, her eyes bright with excitement. “Not only did you strengthen the wards, but you somehow pushed them even further back and forced the Dementors out, as well. I literally saw one Death Eater’s body being flung through the air. You were brilliant, Harry. Even Bill is impressed, and it takes a lot to impress him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he offers you a job after you leave Hogwarts.”

“Yeah? Harry Potter, Curse Breaker, eh?” Harry said, managing a weak smile. “Maybe if being an Auror doesn’t work out for me.”

“Let’s get you back to the house where you can rest. Do you think you can stand?” Ginny asked.

Harry tried to rise on his elbows but couldn’t manage to make his body respond and flopped back onto the ground. “Right here is fine,” he said, fighting to keep his eyes open. Suddenly, he felt his world tilt again as he was scooped up into thick, heavily muscled arms.

“Come on, Harry. Let’s get you out of here,” Charlie Weasley said. “Ginny can say thanks by snogging your brains out later.”

“She said I was magnificent,” Harry said, slurring his words.

“Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head, mate. She said you were a hopeless idiot yesterday. She’s always been temperamental, that one,” Charlie replied, grinning.

“Hey!” Ginny cried, slapping her brother on the arm. “I’m right here, you know.”

Despite his closed eyes, Harry could tell Ginny was smiling. He was too tired to care that Charlie was carrying him to the Burrow, so he just let his body relax, and the dimness on the edge of his vision covered his eyes completely.

The tinkling of glass, the drone of muted music, and the distant peals of laughter were the sounds Harry heard as he slowly drifted back to awareness. He was warm and comfortable and felt more secure than he had in quite some time. He wasn’t willing to give that up by opening his eyes just yet.

“Exactly how long are you going to pretend to still be asleep, Harry?” Ginny asked. He could hear the amusement in her voice as that sweet, flowery scent he always associated with her wafted across his nostrils. “You’re not hurt, and being too tired is no excuse to deny me the dancing that was promised me.”

“We danced,” Harry said, smiling but keeping his eyes closed.

“Barely! You’ll have to do better than that to keep me satisfied,” she said primly.

“Is that so?” Harry asked, enjoying the banter. He opened his eyes wide as memories of the night crashed down upon him.

He sat up suddenly, glancing around the room and feeling slightly panicked. He felt his heart rate increase as he recognized his surroundings. He was back in the one place that he’d sworn he never wanted to see again. He was back at Grimmauld Place…at Sirius’s house.

He was lying on a couch in one of the small sitting rooms off the main hallway, and his head had been resting on Ginny’s lap. She rubbed his back soothingly, apparently understanding his dismay.

“Why are we here?” he asked tightly, struggling to do anything but look around at his surroundings.

Ginny moved closer and wrapped her arm around his stiff shoulders. “We sent a lot of refugees from the wedding here, remember? Mum was too uptight to leave anyone at the Burrow until the wards are thoroughly checked, so we’ve moved in for the night. Bill and Fleur absolutely refused to allow Voldemort to spoil their special day. They’ve continued the party right in the ballroom; the band set up their equipment and are down there playing right now.”

Harry could hear the grudging respect for what Fleur had done in Ginny’s voice.

“Bill’s all right?” he asked. If he felt as bad as he did, certainly Bill couldn’t be dancing. He cracked his neck from side to side, trying to judge if had the strength to dance. He felt as if he could sleep for a week, and it galled him to think Bill was in much better shape.

“Oh, he’s just sort of propped up in a corner, watching Fleur dance. He can barely keep his eyes open, but she wasn’t about to let him use up all his remaining energy dancing. I’m certain she has other plans for him this evening,” Ginny replied, her eyes twinkling.

It took a moment for the full impact of what Ginny said to sink in, and when it did Harry blushed crimson. “Ginny!”

Her words stirred images about what Bill and Fleur might get up to that he really didn’t want to think about. Having Ginny pressed so nicely against him caused his train of his thought to switch tracks to images of her that none of her brothers would want him thinking about, and his anatomy began to respond. He shifted uncomfortably, the collar of his shirt suddenly becoming unbearably tight.

“That caught your attention,” Ginny said, smirking as if she knew exactly what she’d done.

She was right, too; he had been preoccupied with the idea of being back at Grimmauld Place until she’d moved his thoughts to other things.

“Ron and Hermione,” he said suddenly, staring into her eyes with alarm. “I saw Ron’s Patronus, so I know he did turn up eventually, but-”

“Nothing to worry about,” Ginny said soothingly, shaking her head and placing her soft hand on his lips. “Hermione did get cursed with

something, but she’d already been tended to by Mum when I saw her. I haven’t got the full story out of anyone yet, as I’ve been rather preoccupied with you, but I believe it had something to do with an altercation between Ron and Viktor Krum.”

Harry groaned and dropped his head into his hands. Ron, what did you do?

“All three of them are here somewhere. Ron’s been by several times to check on you, along with Fred, George, Charlie and Mum. Every ten minutes or so one of them pops their head in. I think it’s a conspiracy,” Ginny whispered dramatically. Soft wisps of hair had broken free from the intricate knot on her head and tickled his face as she leaned near him. He longed to free the rest of her hair and let it fall loose.

“Don’t they trust us?” he asked, grinning.

“Should they?” she asked, arching her brow.

“Well, we’d best live up to our as yet unearned reputation, shouldn’t we?” he asked, quickly rolling over and twisting so that she was now resting back on the couch, and he was leaning over her. More pieces of her hair came undone as he pressed his lips to hers and lost himself in the sweetness of the kiss.

It felt like only an instant later when there was a sharp clearing of a throat from the entranceway to the room. Harry pulled back reluctantly, to find Ron standing in the doorway, glowering, his lower lip swollen to twice its natural size.

“Do you have to do that?” he asked, his speech oddly distorted from his fat lip.

“Most definitely,” Harry replied cheekily and quickly planted another kiss on Ginny’s lips. “What happened to you?”

Harry and Ginny sat up and moved apart slightly on the couch, as Ron entered the room and took a seat across from them.

“Well, if you hadn’t noticed because of all your snogging with my sister…there was a battle with Death Eaters at my house a bit ago, Harry,” Ron said, disgruntled.

“You don’t say? That would explain why I’m flat on my back then, wouldn’t it? Funny, I don’t remember seeing you during the battle,” Harry said, cocking his eyebrow.

“You told him,” Ron said, scowling at Ginny.

“Of course I did,” Ginny replied, smirking and snuggling closer to Harry again. He wrapped his arm around her and ignored Ron’s glare.

“What happened to Hermione?” he asked, torn between enjoying seeing Ginny spar with Ron and wanting the details before it erupted into all-out sibling warfare.

“Vicky tried to get me with a Reducto spell that ricocheted off Mum’s hutch and hit Hermione. Mum patched her up, but she’s not talking to me. As if it’s my fault,” Ron said, crossing his arms across his chest and scowling at the room in general.

“Why did he try to curse you?” Harry asked, suddenly feeling very tired again.

“He could have been provoked,” Ron admitted grudgingly. “That’s not the point, though. He curses her, and she won’t talk to me. How am I supposed to ever figure that one out?”

Harry groaned. “What did you do, Ron? Why were you hexing each other? I thought you’d told me earlier that you knew Hermione went to the wedding as your date. I thought everything was okay between you.”

“It was okay until that git tried to make his move on my girl,” Ron said angrily, and Harry suspected he didn’t even realize how he’d referred to Hermione. “After you went off with Ginny, I knew you’d end up snogging, and I didn’t want to see it, so I went to look for Hermione. I found her cozied up with Vicky back inside the Burrow.”

“But Ron, I thought we’d talked about this. She went to the wedding with you, as your date. I thought you were okay with her and Viktor,” Harry said wearily.

“I was okay with it when he was just an old boyfriend on the dance floor, but I wasn’t okay with finding him chatting her up while she was wearing that dress and looking like that and sitting in my house at my kitchen table. No bloke would be okay with that, Harry,” Ron finished with a shout, his ears as bright as his hair.

He had a point. Harry hadn’t liked seeing Jean-Luc with Ginny, and there wasn’t even a past between them. For the first time, Harry understood and sympathized with Ron’s feelings about Viktor.

“So, what happened? And what do you mean you knew we’d end up snogging?” Harry asked, suddenly realizing what Ron had said.

Ron rolled his eyes. “Come off it, Harry. You haven’t been able to keep your eyes off of her all week, and Merlin knows she wanted to snog you. She can’t seem to control herself.”

“Hey!” Ginny cried indignantly.

“Neither of you were very discreet,” Ron said, sounding remarkably like Percy at that moment

“Obviously not, if you noticed,” Ginny replied coolly, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Well, obviously I was right if what I just walked in on was any indication. Good thing I wasn’t Mum,” Ron said, narrowing his eyes.

“Mum is so grateful to Harry right now that we could have been shagging, and she would have allowed it,” Ginny replied dismissively.

“Ginny!” Harry yelped, glancing quickly at Ron to gauge his reaction. He sat stone still and gaped like a fish.

“Well, she is. You saved the Burrow, Harry. She’d look the other way for just about anything right now. You really should use that to your advantage and let her know that you’re not coming back to our house. Get that out of the way,” Ginny said, biting her lip in thought.

That’s not a bad idea, Harry thought, wondering how Ginny already knew he wasn’t going back. They hadn’t yet discussed anything about the future. He only knew that he wanted her in his.

“I can’t let her know my plans when I’m not even certain what they are yet. Besides, I would have helped Bill no matter what,” Harry said sincerely.

“About that, Harry…I’m really sorry,” Ron said, staring intently at the carpet.

“Sorry for what?” Harry asked.

“Sorry for not being there when the fighting started. I promised you that I’d be at your side through this whole thing, and I let stupid Vicky distract me at the first hint of trouble. I didn’t even know about the Dementors because I was so busy rowing. Then, when Hermione got hurt, I lost it. I couldn’t think of anything else but getting her sorted. It wasn’t until you were already up on that hill helping Bill that I got my arse into gear. I should have been right there with you the whole time,” Ron said, his shoulders slumping.

“We both should have done, Harry,” Hermione said from the doorway. She was very pale, and her eyes were shining bright with unshed tears as she gazed intently at Ron.

“Hermione!” Harry said, relieved to see her up and walking.

“Are you all right?” she asked, her eyes darting to him for a moment to do a cursory inspection.

“I’m fine. You’re the one who got hurt, from what I’m hearing,” Harry replied.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I need to take it easy for a few days and take a potion for a few cracked ribs. Nothing too serious. You’ve been out of it completely, and Ginny wouldn’t let anyone near you,” Hermione said with a disapproving sniff.

Ginny blushed, abashed. “He was sleeping.”

“It looks like things are okay between you two. I’m happy for you. You really were being silly, Harry,” Hermione said, smiling fondly at both him and Ginny.

Harry ignored her slight rebuff. “Speaking of being silly…” he said, staring pointedly at her and Ron.

Hermione raised her nose slightly in the air. “As usual, Ron overreacted.”

“Overreacted, did I? When I walked into the kitchen he had his hands all over you. What was I supposed to think?” Ron demanded angrily.

“All over me? He most certainly did not, Ronald Weasley. He asked if I was happy, and I assured him that I was. We embraced and would have ended the conversation there if you hadn’t stormed into the room as if the hounds of hell were on your tail,” Hermione said waspishly.

“He had his hands…wait…what? You told him you were happy? With me?” Ron asked, suddenly sounding very insecure.

Hermione’s eyes softened. “Did it really worry you when you thought I was hurt?” she asked in a small voice.

Harry immediately wished he were somewhere else. Anywhere else. Ron and Hermione were his best friends in the world, but he really didn’t want to be a witness to this side of their relationship.

“So, is Mum still hanging all over Percy?” Ginny asked. Obviously, she was uncomfortable with Ron and Hermione’s conversation, as well.

“Percy? Percy is still here?” Harry asked.

“Yeah. He was still talking with Mum and Dad when the attack began, and Mum just insisted we all stay together,” Ginny replied.

“The git was shocked that Death Eaters would actually attack the Burrow. It was as if he couldn’t believe they would ever actually take notice of it…or us. I know Mum is happy to have him here and talking to her, but I don’t trust him. I don’t think he should be here,” Ron said darkly.

“I was wondering about that, Harry,” Hermione ventured tentatively. “I mean, there are a lot of new people here learning about headquarters. Do you really think it was such a good idea to use this place as a sanctuary?”

“Yes,” Harry replied shortly.

“I mean, obviously it was imperative to get everyone to safety, but the Ministry has safe houses and checkpoints for just such occasions,” Hermione said.

“I think using this house as a sanctuary for anyone running from the Death Eaters, or from the Ministry, is exactly what Sirius would have wanted,” Harry replied quietly. “Besides, I’m certain Mad Eye is performing Memory Charms on anyone who leaves, and with the Fidelius Charm in place, no one can reveal the location, anyway.”

“They can’t reveal the location, but they can reveal who is here and who they think is in charge,” Hermione insisted.

“How come the Fidelius still works if Dumbledore is d…” Ron asked, trailing off with a sharp glance in Harry’s direction.

“The Fidelius doesn’t end when the Secret Keeper dies, or else all anyone would have to do is kill the Secret Keeper. It’s a slow, gradual fade of the magic, and it leaves time to reapply the charm with a new Secret Keeper. Professor McGonagall is ours, I believe,” Hermione said.

“She is,” Ginny said, nodding. “Percy isn’t the only potential security risk here. There are several of Fleur’s extended family here that we know nothing about.”

“And I’d say Jean-Lucifer is too stupid to be a Death Eater, but they took Scabbers, so you can never tell,” Ron said, grimacing.

Harry had forgotten about Jean-Luc with all the chaos after the attack. He glanced quickly at Ginny to see her reaction.

She simply rolled her eyes. “You weren’t very nice to him,” she said to the room at large, although she didn’t appear concerned over it.

“Harry hates him,” Ron replied, as if that settled everything.

“None of us liked Jean-Luc,” Harry said indignantly. “I think Fred and George were planning to prank him, although I don’t know if they ever did.”

“They didn’t,” Ginny said, picking a piece of lint off the skirt of her robes.

“How do you know?” Ron asked.

“Because Bill warned them off doing it. Jean-Luc was making Harry jealous, and Bill thought it was the best thing to push him past his nobility complex. Fleur put him up to it, actually,” Ginny replied, futilely trying to control her grin.

“So it was a conspiracy?” Harry asked, dumbfounded at the lengths all the Weasleys would go in order to set him up.

“Of sorts,” Ginny replied, shrugging. “Don’t mess with us Weasleys.”

“What’s this I hear of Weasleys being messed with? That just can’t be allowed,” Fred said as he entered room.

His robes were torn and dirty, and he’d magically stuck flowers in odd locations to mask the destruction. Of course, the plan had failed miserably and only enhanced the ruin. Somehow, Harry suspected that was exactly what Fred had intended.

“It’s wrong on so many levels,” George replied in that odd way of sharing the same thought with his twin.

“What are you gits doing here? I thought you were busy groping all of Fleur’s friends,” Ron asked, sounding both disgusted and proud of his elder brothers.

A wave of exhaustion flowed over Harry once again, and he leaned back against the couch and shut his eyes as he listened to his friends banter.

Fred sighed dramatically. “So many women…

“…so little time,” said George.

“Why didn’t the two of you get your own dates for this wedding, anyway?” Ginny asked. “I’m certain there must be some witches somewhere who haven’t been warned off yet.”

“Dates?” asked Fred in mock horror. “Why would we want to bring dates to an event where there would be many beautiful French women…”

“French Veela women,” George added.

“…who hadn’t yet had the pleasure of being introduced to us. We were willing to sacrifice ourselves for their greater benefit,” Fred said.

“Good grief,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes and elbowing Harry in the ribs. He’d started to drift off again. He opened his eyes owlishly wide and tried to focus on the conversation.

“What about Angelina?” Hermione asked. “I’d thought that you two were seeing each other.”

“Angelina?” Fred asked, blinking. “We went to Yule Ball together back in sixth year, but as far as I know it wasn’t a lifetime commitment. If it were, technically you should be sitting on that couch with Viktor Krum.”

Ron’s expression soured instantly, and Hermione’s cheeks pinkened.

“Oh, let’s not do this again,” Ginny said with a tired sigh. “What are you two up to, anyway? You had extremely guilty expressions on your faces when you came in here.”

“Us? Guilty expressions?” Fred asked in mock horror.

“We’ll have you know, sister dear, that we’ve perfected the art of covering our guilt with expressions of nonchalance,” George replied, scowling.

“We did not appear the least built guilty,” said Fred.

“Uh, huh,” Ginny replied drolly.

“We were merely avoiding Mum’s wrath. She’s quite put out at the moment, because it appears the nightingales from the wedding ceremony have not only followed us here, but have also taken an odd liking to Percy’s head,” George replied with a mischievous grin.

“They’re fluttering about in a most unattractive way,” said Fred.

“And you know nothing about that?” Ginny asked.

“Well, I suppose it could have something to do with the reproducing bird feed we sprinkled in his hair when he wasn’t looking,” George said, scratching his head thoughtfully

“With a disillusionment charm on it, of course,” said Fred.

Harry, Ginny and Ron all sniggered, while Hermione tut-tutted her disapproval. Harry’s eyes were itchy, and he tried unsuccessfully to cover another yawn.

“Mum is over the moon that he’s here, but Moody is insisting he can’t leave without a Memory Charm. They’re battling it out now. Moody is handing out Memory Charms like Honeydukes chocolate,” George said.

“Well, then, let’s go and get our last dances in before the party is over completely,” Ginny said brightly.

“I don’t think Harry looks up for much dancing, Ginny,” Hermione said, glancing at Harry. He forced himself to sit up straighter.

Ginny looked Harry over for a moment before nodding resolutely. “He’ll be fine. We need one good night before we decide on what happens tomorrow.”

Harry knew she was right. They hadn’t really discussed much of anything. They’d spent most of the time since reuniting snogging each other senseless. Not that that was a bad thing, mind, but he would have to make some hard decisions on the morrow. For tonight, he wanted this one last chance at glittering fairy lights and pretending the future didn’t appear so bleak.

Leaning on Ginny and Ron, he followed the others from the room to have that one last dance.

The next morning, Harry sat in Sirius’s old spot at the worn kitchen table at Grimmauld Place. He sipped a steaming cup of coffee and tried to figure out his next move, as he fingered the tiara that Fleur had worn yesterday, which he’d found on the table this morning. He’d planned on leaving for Godric’s Hollow today with Ron and Hermione, but that was before Hermione got hurt, and Ron had had to abandon his home. Now, he didn’t know what he was going to do.

And then there was the complication of Ginny.

Harry knew she suspected they had planned on leaving, but she was still trying to piece together what they were going to do. He knew now that he couldn’t cut her out of things entirely — he needed her. He found he was far more focused now that he wasn’t worried about where she was and what she was doing.

Still, he’d promised Dumbledore only to reveal the information about the Horcruxes to Ron and Hermione. He hadn’t even told Professor McGonagall when she’d asked what they’d been doing. He couldn’t break that promise, and he hoped Ginny would see it that way. He did have to tell her about the prophecy, however. He owed her that much. But the Horcruxes…

He trusted her implicitly, of course, but a promise was a promise. He supposed it was his own way of hanging on to his connection to Dumbledore, but he felt he still needed that. He ran his hand through his tousled hair and groaned.

“Things that bad, are they, lad?” Moody’s voice croaked.

Harry looked up to see the grizzled ex-Auror standing in the doorway, squinting his one good eye as he scrutinized Harry.

“Things could be better,” Harry replied wryly.

“Aye, that they could,” Moody said, sitting down at the table with Harry.

“Can I ask you something?” Harry asked.

“Appears to me you just did,” replied Moody.

“When an Auror is on a case, is there a spell he can perform to detect if Dark Magic has been used?” Harry asked, thinking back to a cold, dank cave on a chilly spring night.

“Of course there is,” Moody said shortly.

“Can you teach me?” Harry asked.

Moody’s glass eye narrowed as he studied him. He was silent for a moment before he waved his wand towards the open door. A moment later, a small black case came zooming into the kitchen. Moody opened it and pulled out what looked to Harry like a pair of theatre glasses.

“This is used by upcoming Aurors during training. It’s a Spell Detector. When you wear it, you can see traces of a magical imprint surrounding objects. Dark magic shows as red,” Moody said, pushing the glasses towards Harry. “As an Auror becomes more proficient with them, some can even use their wand and a Revealo spell to detect the imprints, but you need to be able to achieve a unique level of concentration to detect the colors.”

“Professor Dumbledore did it with just his hands,” Harry mumbled, his mind in the not-so-distant past.

“Well, that was Dumbledore, wasn’t it?” Moody said gruffly.

“It can have a feel to it, too, can’t it? Just enough to cause a shiver, maybe?” Harry asked, searching for the words to relate his meaning.

Moody glanced sharply and appraisingly at Harry. Harry had the vague feeling that Moody was somehow impressed. “Anyone able to feel a magical imprint would have to be mighty powerful, indeed. That would be a highly useful skill for anyone who wanted to be an Auror. One would want to keep such abilities quiet. That kind of information should be kept from the wrong hands.”

“Indeed,” Harry replied, his eyes widening. Had he really felt something that night in the cave when Dumbledore was looking for the traces of Voldemort’s concealment? Harry couldn’t be certain, but he at least now had a way to attempt to find out.

“Can I borrow this?” he asked, holding the Spell Detector.

“I don’t think I’d notice if it went missing,” Moody replied, shrugging.

Harry nodded and tucked the black case into his shirt pocket. “Where is everyone this morning?” he asked.

Moody slowly poured himself a cup of coffee. “Avoiding me, most likely,” he said at last. “None of the Weasleys are too happy with me right now.”

“Because of Percy?” Harry asked. He knew Percy had finally managed to leave headquarters the previous evening, and he could tell that Mrs. Weasley hadn’t been happy about whatever arrangements had been made.

“I understand he’s Molly and Arthur’s boy, but he’s a liability. It’s my job to concern myself with liabilities,” Moody said gruffly.

“You used a Memory Charm, then?” Harry asked.

“No, but I still think we should have. Molly was adamant that he be allowed to remember reconciling with his family. Memory Charms are tricky business, mind, so I couldn’t promise her that. We finally settled on an Unbreakable Vow. Arthur agreed to it, but Molly was livid. I don’t envy being in Arthur’s position this morning,” Moody said with a grimace.

Harry sniggered over the idea that battle-scarred Mad-Eye Moody was intimidated by Molly Weasley. Not that Harry wasn’t, as well, but still…

“She probably won’t speak to me for days before she lets loose again,” Moody said. “I’ll miss the meals. I haven’t eaten this well in years.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think Mrs. Weasley could let anyone go hungry, no matter how angry she was,” Harry said.

Moody chuckled. “Let’s hope you’re right. She doesn’t have a soft spot for me like she does you.”

Harry grinned and said cheekily, “Lucky me, then.”

The kitchen door swung open again, admitting Ginny and Hermione. Both girls looked rather disgruntled and only half-awake. Harry poured them both cups of coffee, and they accepted gratefully.

“Morning, ladies,” Moody said.

Both merely grunted.

“Why did you get up if you’re still so tired?” Harry asked.

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Do you know my mother? She’s on a rampage this morning about cleaning this place up before we go back to the Burrow.”

“She is rather adamant about leaving,” Hermione said sleepily. .

Ginny took the tiara from Harry’s hands. “This belongs to my Auntie Muriel. There is a great story behind it. It–,”

“She wants us busy so we don’t look around too much,” Hermione said, suddenly wide-awake.

“Pardon?” Ginny asked, frowning and placing the tiara back on the table.

“Your mum. She doesn’t want us looking around here too much,” Hermione said, raising her eyebrows significantly.

Harry suddenly remembered the conversations about a guest staying at Grimmauld Place.

“Good morning,” Remus said, entering the kitchen with Tonks following closely behind him. “You’re all up bright and early today. I would have thought you’d all have wanted a lie-in after all the dancing last night.”

“Who else is staying here?” Harry asked sharply, his eyes locked on Remus. Remus lowered his gaze to pour a cup of coffee.

“The Weasleys and the Delacours are here until the wards at the Burrow can be checked,” Remus replied calmly.

“This is m-my house,” Harry stated with a slight tremble in his voice that he hoped no one else heard. “I may have agreed that the Order could use this house, but I want to know who this mystery guest is; I want to know why he is here, and I want to know now.”

Remus looked at Moody, who shrugged. “It is his house, and he appears to know more about what Dumbledore was up to than any of us.”

Remus’s shoulders sagged. “I know,” he said. “And Harry, we need to know what you’re planning in order to help you. We want to protect you.”

“You can’t. No one can. I can’t tell you what I was doing with Professor Dumbledore, Remus. I promised him I wouldn’t. If he’d wanted the Order to know, he would have told you himself,” Harry said firmly, feeling slightly uncomfortable in denying Remus.

Beneath the table, Ginny took his hand and squeezed it slightly. He gave her a weak smile, appreciating her support.

“Of course,” Remus replied, and Harry could easily read his conflicting emotions. He trusted Dumbledore implicitly, but he also wanted to protect Harry. When would they ever understand that it was beyond them to do that now? It always had been.

“Who is the Order protecting?” Harry asked again.

“Draco and Narcissa Malfoy,” Tonks said, speaking for the first time. Her face contorted into an ugly scowl. “My family.”

Harry’s jaw dropped open. He wasn’t certain what he’d been suspecting, but that wasn’t it. Draco Malfoy? Here? Malfoy, the one who’d plotted Dumbledore’s death all last year? The one who’d led the Death Eaters onto school grounds in search of a little glory? And Narcissa! The one who’d plotted with Kreacher to get Sirius killed? Here? In Sirius’s house?

“What?” Harry exploded, pushing back his chair and causing it to clatter to the floor. He was at the door in two strides, ready to mount the stairs and strangle Malfoy with his bare hands.

Remus grabbed him by the shoulders and held him back. “Listen to me, Harry.”

“What in Merlin’s name is he doing here?” Ginny demanded, her eyes blazing in fury.

Hermione’s face had turned chalk white, as she stared back and forth between Harry and Remus.

“He’s supplied us with some valuable information,” Remus said, struggling to hold Harry back.

“Whatever it is, he’s lying,” Harry snarled.

“He’s not. It’s information that has been confirmed,” Remus said. “We were able to stop several deaths because of it.”

Harry stopped struggling, breathing heavily. “Why would Malfoy give you any information? There has to be something in it for him.”

“Of course there is. He has strong survival instincts. Voldemort ordered his death for failing to complete his orders. According to him, Snape helped him and Narcissa escape. They were trying to go into hiding when we caught them,” Tonks said.

“Snape?” Harry snarled, seeing red again. “Why would he help them?”

“He’s always had a soft spot for Narcissa. Voldemort ordered her death, as well, for asking Snape to help Draco,” Remus said softly.

“He killed Dumbledore, and Malfoy helped him do it,” Harry said. He was physically shaking with fury.

“He got in over his head, Harry,” Remus said, sighing wearily. “Look, I don’t believe he’s helping us out of any great desire to right past wrongs, but he does want to live. His only hope of being able to do that now is if we win; otherwise he knows he’ll be hunted for the rest of his life. And it won’t be a long one. It’s a forced partnership with mutual benefits for both sides. He doesn’t want to die, and he does want to protect his mother.”

“She helped kill Sirius; I don’t want her here. She has no right to seek refuge in this house,” Harry said, a hard lump forming in his throat.

Remus hung his head and answered in a strained voice, “I know, Harry. Believe me, I understand how you feel, but we have no choice. We no longer have our spy among the Death Eaters. Both Draco and Narcissa were heavily involved in some of Voldemort’s plans. They understand how the minds of the Death Eaters work better than we do. We can use their help.”

“And in exchange they stay alive,” Harry said bitterly.

Remus nodded, still keeping a hand on Harry’s shoulder. He could see Hermione fearfully watching him, waiting to see what he was going to do. Ginny’s expression was fierce; she didn’t like this any better than he did, but she was prepared to follow his lead.

“I hate this,” he whispered, taking a deep breath.

“I know,” Remus said sadly.

“That little ferret better stay out of my way. If I so much as see him, or hear him make one snide remark, he’ll never see the hex coming. And no one better stop me this time,” Harry said fiercely.

He took one last look around at the pale faces of the others before storming from the room.

Harry spent the remainder of the day stewing over the fact that Malfoy was here, in Sirius’s house. His reaction could be called tame compared to the howl of rage Ron bellowed when he learned of the arrangement. Mrs. Weasley had been informed that they’d all have to remain at Grimmauld Place for a few days before anyone could inspect the Burrow. Mrs. Weasley hadn’t been pleased at all.

As he paced in his room, Harry came to the conclusion that he needed to get out. He needed to set his plan in motion, and something told him that his plan needed to commence at Godric’s Hollow. Something was drawing him there.

He’d promised Ron and Hermione that they’d work together to find the Horcruxes, and he still needed to figure out how Ginny fit into all this, but Godric’s Hollow was his own. This was his private quest. He wasn’t certain why he needed to go there so badly, but he knew that he did. And he knew he wanted to do it alone.

That night, as everyone slept and all was quiet in the house, Harry packed a light rucksack and took along the address Aunt Petunia had given him. He left a note telling Ginny not to worry and that he’d be back, there was just something he had to do first.

A/N: This chapter was written before JKR clarified how a Secret Keeper worked, so I left it as is. I do need others able to get into Grimmald Place.

Chapter Six

Godric’s Hollow

The steady hum of the train lolled its few scattered passengers to sleep as they traveled from England into Wales on a cool summer night. After his unannounced departure from Grimmauld Place, Harry had headed directly for the train station. While staying at the Burrow, he’d arranged to have some of his gold converted to pounds, thus enabling him to purchase a train ticket.

He was still underage and unable to Apparate legally, and he’d also been concerned that the Order would have been able to trace him if he used any magic. He was certain Ron and Hermione would deduce where he was going, but he hoped that they wouldn’t reveal his destination out of anger over being left behind.

He’d never shown them the slip of paper Aunt Petunia had given him that last morning at Privet Drive, but he reckoned that Lupin would know the address if they mentioned Godric’s Hollow. There was nothing to be done for it now; he could only hope they’d hold their tongues.

He didn’t plan on being gone very long and fervently prayed they’d understand by the time he returned. He still wasn’t certain what was drawing him to the place where it had all began for him. He was unsure what his own reaction would be on seeing the spot where his parents were killed, and his life had been irrevocably altered. It all felt sort of surreal to him as he stared unseeingly out the train’s window.

Ever since Dumbledore’s funeral, the idea of seeing his parents’ final resting spot had obsessed Harry. He’d agreed to allowing Ron and Hermione come with him, but the more he’d thought about it, the more he wanted to make this journey alone. He knew his friends cared about him and only had his best interests at heart, but he didn’t feel up to answering Hermione’s unending questions or dealing with Ron’s awkwardness over any show of emotion. He needed to do this alone.

Luck had been on his side when he’d reached the train station. He’d managed to catch the evening’s last train to Swansea with only ten minutes to spare. Even if they’d noticed him missing immediately, no one could have figured out where he’d gone and caught him in time. He’d have to switch trains when he arrived, but only for a short distance. Then he hoped to catch a taxi that would take him to Hillside Lane.

His stomach roiled at the thought. He had no idea what to expect once he arrived. Try as he might, he could recall nothing of his life in Godric’s Hollow. His earliest memory was of massive amounts of green light. Hagrid had told him the house had been ruined, but he’d never heard if it had been rebuilt, or sold, or what had become of the land. He didn’t even know if it was a Muggle or wizarding area. He bounced his leg on the ball of his foot anxiously as the train drew ever closer to Wales.

He kept his wand at the ready, and his eyes scanned the train car warily, but no one had bothered him since he’d climbed aboard and taken his seat. It was as if he’d finally achieved the anonymity he’d always desired while traveling amongst the Muggles. He wasn’t about to let

his guard down, however. The prickling sensation on the back of his neck made him feel as if he were being watched.

There was no moon to brighten the landscape, so Harry could only stare into the darkness and imagine it racing past. From the map he’d glanced at back in the train station, he knew Godre’r-graig was near the sea. He allowed his mind to wander over pleasant images of his parents walking along the beach.

He pressed his nose against the window as thoughts of Ginny once again filled his mind. She’d looked lovely in her wedding finery, and he savored the memories of their shared kisses. He smiled as the thoughts of their day together washed over him. She was a bright spot in the cold, dismal murk that was his life at the moment. How had he ever hoped to do this without her?

As dawn’s light crept slowly across the horizon, Harry tiredly rubbed his itchy eyes. He collected his bag as the train pulled into the station and stepped off and into Wales. It took him awhile to find the connection he was seeking, but he managed without a lot of fuss and by the time the morning sun was blazing and life was returning to the sleepy holiday village, Harry was standing on Hillside Lane.

He’d asked the cabdriver to let him out at the end of the quiet street, preferring to walk up to the house and give himself some time to adjust. The nervous fluttering in his stomach continued and seemed to increase the closer he got to his destination. It was a bright, clear morning, and Harry was pleased to note that the street with its secluded cottages appeared unique and so unlike Privet Drive. That alone bolstered his spirits somewhat.

Godre’r-graig was a quiet Muggle village with quaint Birch-lined streets of old stone cottages. It wasn’t located directly on the sea, as Harry thought, but was set further back and was more woodsy than he’d anticipated. Still, he could smell salt in the air and knew he wasn’t far from the coast. As he trudged up the street, his heart hammering in his chest, he clenched and unclenched his fist around the fake Horcrux in his pocket. He found his hands were suddenly sweating profusely, despite the coolness of the morning.

As Harry turned around the bend in the road, his breath caught in his throat. The lots on either side of number sixteen were vacant, making it appear that it was set on its own in the forest. Nature had reclaimed most of the land and it was overgrown with weeds and vines. In the midst of it all, Harry could see the remains of a stone structure. Only one wall still stood amidst the rubble and stone in a depressed crater.

Harry found something lodged in his throat, and swallowed painfully. He had to drag his unwilling feet closer as his mind warred with the conflicting desires to both see the destruction and to run away from it. He had the oddest sense of familiarity, even though he knew that was impossible. He’d been just over a year old when he’d left here; there was no way he could remember this place. Still, the feeling persisted as he trudged closer.

He again felt that prickling on the back of his neck and turned around apprehensively. The wind ruffled the trees slightly, but other than the droning buzz of insects and a few birdcalls, nothing disturbed the peace of his surroundings. Harry kept his wand in his hand as he moved closer.

It’s just nerves.

Thick clumps of lilies grew along the edge of the house foundation, and Harry wondered if his dad had planted them for his mum. He swallowed again, realizing for the hundredth time how little he actually knew about his parents and their life together.

As he inched closer and closer towards the ruins, he wondered – if things had happened differently – whether his dad would have put a tire swing on a low-lying branch of one of the garden’s many trees. There was a swing at the Burrow that appeared to have seen a lot of use, and it had come to symbolize a happy family home to Harry. He would have liked to see a swing in his own yard.

He wondered if he might have had younger brothers or sisters who would have swung with him or maybe demanded that he push them. He thought he would have liked being a big brother.

The persistent lump in his throat grew in size as he imagined both his parents taking him to King’s Cross on his first day of Hogwarts and actually accompanying him onto the platform. Everything could have been so different…

Rage and loss filled Harry’s heart as he stared at the destruction around him with deadened eyes. Voldemort did this. He stole whatever chance of happiness and a normal childhood Harry had ever had. It wasn’t fair!

It doesn’t do to dwell on dreams…

Dumbledore’s voice echoed in Harry’s head as he stepped over the threshold and inside what would have once been his family’s home. Harry shuddered; there had been entirely too much death already. He could feel a tingling sensation under his skin that made him uneasy, and he glanced warily at the street once again.

Nothing disturbed the peacefulness of the morning, and Harry scolded himself for losing his nerve. Being here was making him jumpy. In his mind’s eye, he could vaguely imagine how it would look if all the walls had remained intact, and thanks to the memories the Dementors had evoked in him, he could hear the echo of his parents’ voices.

He inched forward, pushing random pieces of rubble out of the way with his foot, until he came upon a piece of blackened, scorched earth. It appeared as if there had been a fire on this one small bit of ground. Harry knelt down and ran his hand in the dirt. It felt decayed, lifeless, as if nothing would ever grow in that spot again.

A chill ran down Harry’s spine. This was where his father stood when he’d been murdered. Harry knew it with the same certainty that he knew his own name. He shut his eyes tightly and took a deep, shuddering

breath. He continued walking through what once was his home, staring without really seeing. He kept hoping for some stray memory to surface, but there was nothing.

An overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness washed over him as he sank to his knees and sat amidst the ruins, uncertain where to go or what to do next.

What am I doing here?

Suddenly remembering his conversation with Moody the previous morning, Harry removed the Spell Detector from his rucksack and placed it on the end of his nose. He inhaled sharply as pale images of blue, pink, and green light emanated from every direction on the lot at number sixteen. Harry frowned in confusion.

He walked back to the spot of scorched earth and stared through the Spell Detector. The light he saw was vivid red and appeared to be pulsating. Harry yanked the Spell Detector off his nose and backed away as if he’d seen something indecent. This place – his familial home – was virtually alive with magic.

It suddenly occurred to Harry that the entire area must be under a concealment charm, otherwise the Muggles might have rebuilt it, or worse, the wizarding population would have turned the spot into a tourist attraction. He’d found the location very easily, but he’d known where to go, or perhaps it wasn’t hidden from him since it was his family. All of these uncertainties made his head pound.

He put the Spell Detector back on and continued to poke around. It took several minutes before he saw more traces of red. They were coming from a spot near the back of the dwelling, where much of the rubble was piled. He wondered if perhaps there had been another floor since there was so much debris. He moved some stones and dirt again until he saw the same, deadened black marking. This was where his mother had died, where he’d received the mark on his forehead. Harry absently ran his fingers along the scorched earth, his mother’s screams echoing in his head.

Putting away the Spell Detector, he reached out with his thoughts to try and identify the magic on his own. He felt the same shiver he remembered from the cave on that fateful night with Dumbledore. Still, he didn’t know if that was simply coming from the maelstrom of emotions this place was evoking in him.

Harry sighed heavily and stood upright. There was nothing here but memories now, and he’d have to test his ability to feel the magic in a less traumatic place. It was useless to attempt it here. As he turned on his heel and took a single step, he saw a quick flash of a long, wiry tail flicking behind some rocks. Harry drew his wand, aiming at the pile of rocks.

“Reducto,” he hissed, blowing the rocks apart.

The rat squealed and scurried toward another pile of rubble, revealing its telltale silver paw as it sprinted.

“Reducto,” Harry growled again, sending more dust and particles into the air. “Hiding in cracks and holes again, Wormtail? I suppose a rat can never change its spots, either, eh? Come out and face me man to man.”

As the dust from his second blast settled, Harry looked around warily. There was no sign of the rat anywhere.

“Come out, Wormtail. I don’t have time for your sodding little games. You’ve been following me for quite some time now; you must have something to say. Spit it out before I do what I should have done a long time ago,” Harry said, his hand shaking. All the rage, fear and pent-up emotion over seeing the destruction of his parents’ home finally had an outlet, and Harry was nearly radiating fury. Here in front of him was the stinking little rat who’d betrayed his parents and was directly responsible for everything that had happened here. The thought that Wormtail could still find his way here because he was supposed to have been this home’s protector made his blood boil.

Harry was going to see to it that he finally paid.

“Where are you?” he snarled, enraged. A slight noise caused him to spin and blast a spot on the ground, but still Wormtail didn’t reappear.

“You coward. You’ve always been a coward. You never deserved their friendship,” he said, panting.

He was met with silence. He stalked around the area, chest heaving and clenching his teeth as he tried to control his anger.

After several moments, a raspy voice from somewhere on the other side of the one remaining wall startled him. “Will you put down your wand and listen to me for a moment? If you won’t listen, then I can just disappear once again.”

“What do you have to say that I would possibly want to hear?” Harry asked, slowly inching along the wall and preparing to strike when he reached the end.

“I want to discuss a common enemy,” Wormtail replied, his voice wavering.

“’A common enemy,’ is it now?” Harry asked. He was almost there, just a few steps more. “Have you earned Voldemort’s disfavor, Wormtail? He’s your enemy now, is he?”

“No! I didn’t mean the Dark Lord,” Wormtail squeaked, sounding panicked. “I’m talking about Snape.”

“Snape?” Harry asked, stopping dead in his tracks. “What about him?” He momentarily forgot his rage and hatred of Wormtail as he heard the name of the man he loathed above any other, save Voldemort. Snape had killed Dumbledore in cold blood, and he’d helped to kill Sirius. There was no doubt in Harry’s mind, and he was going to see to it that he paid.

“Yes, I thought that might interest you,” Wormtail said as he slowly scurried around from behind the wall and came face-to-face with Harry. Both held their wands on one another, although neither made a move to cast a spell. Wormtail’s eyes darted rapidly, and he appeared ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.

Harry was momentarily tempted to simply curse him anyway, but his curiosity about Snape was overpowering that impulse. Still, Ron’s words from long ago arose in his mind.

Throw your wand away and punch him in the nose.

Harry drew back his fist and did just that. Wormtail’s head snapped back, and he fell to the ground, clutching his bleeding nose as he scrambled away from Harry.

“Be glad that’s all I did,” Harry spat, shaking out his split knuckles.

“I thought you’d want to discuss Snape,” Wormtail said, sniffling.

“What about him?” Harry repeated.

“He’s gained great favor with the Dark Lord for killing Albus Dumbledore. There isn’t a plan underway that he isn’t involved in or at least aware. Where the Dark Lord once trusted many, he now trusts only one,” Wormtail spat, bitterness unmistakable in his voice as he dabbed at his still-bleeding nose and rose to his feet.

Harry watched him warily, seeing red when he so casually mentioned Professor Dumbledore’s demise. “Voldemort doesn’t trust anyone. You’re the fool if you believed that, and Snape is a fool now to think he won’t turn on him in an instant when his usefulness has expired. You’re not his friends but his servants, nothing more.”

“You underestimate the benefits of the Dark Lord’s favor,” Wormtail replied reverently.

“I underestimate nothing. I know exactly what he’s all about,” Harry said coldly.

“I once stood in that spot of great favor,” Wormtail said, puffing out his chest and raising his chin defiantly.

“Yeah, I remember; you lost your hand over it. So what? Now you’ve been bumped down a spot, Wormtail? Being replaced not sitting well, is it? What do you want me to do about it?” Harry asked incredulously.

“I know you despise Snape as much as I do. I know you’d like him brought to justice. I might be able to help you with that,” Wormtail said, lowering his voice conspiratorially.

“And get him out of your way in the process?” Harry asked, finally cottoning onto Wormtail’s agenda.

Wormtail shrugged. “Indeed. Snape’s capture could be mutually beneficial.”

“And after Voldemort’s fall, the fact that you turned Snape in couldn’t hurt your own sentencing. Isn’t that true?” Harry asked.

“I honestly don’t see that happening, Harry, but it never hurts to have all your options covered,” Wormtail said.

“How very Slytherin of you,” Harry said drolly.

“Some would take that as a compliment.”

“So, this is why you wanted to talk to me? You’ve followed me all the way here from the train station for this? Hold on. Why were you at the train station, anyway? How did you know I was coming here?” Harry asked, raising his wand.

“Actually, I expected you yesterday,” Wormtail squeaked, his beady eyes darting back and forth. “At the Burrow you said that you’d be here the day after the wedding. I suppose the unexpected guests delayed your arrival. My master was livid that you’d managed to get away. Snape told him exactly how the wards at the Burrow were constructed. He hadn’t expected them to be able to reinforce them against the Dementors.”

Harry’s mind reeled. Wormtail had heard him at the Burrow? How? But of course! As Scabbers, Wormtail would know all the ways in and out of the Burrow, and as a rat he could probably breech the wards, much as Sirius had done at Hogwarts in Harry’s third year. Wormtail knew everything there was to know about the Burrow, right down to the gnomes in the garden.

Damn! Ginny had never been safe there, and he’d almost left her alone and undefended.

“You’ve been at the Burrow all this time?” Harry asked, his throat dry.

“I was assigned there. The Dark Lord knows everything and doesn’t hesitate to use anything to his advantage. You’d do well to remember that, young Harry. He’s aware of my connection to the Weasley family, and he knows of their importance to you,” he said, a hint of pride showing on his pasty face. “Your interest in the Weasley girl has not gone unnoticed by the Dark Lord. Severus specifically mentioned how taken you are with the girl. He’s right that you do wear your emotions on your sleeve.”

“So, you’ve been spying all this time,” Harry said, his voice deadened.

“You’d be surprised at the knowledge I can accumulate in my Animagus form. Even those that know that I have the ability to transform forget and speak openly without realizing I am there. I know more about the Dark Lord and his plans than any of the rest of them. I know more than even he’s aware I know,” Wormtail said, beads of sweat glistening on his brow as he spoke.

“What do you know? I can’t imagine he’d trust you with anything important,” Harry said, thinking quickly. He was purposefully goading him, but he could see a resemblance to Dudley in Wormtail. Dudley had

always said too much if Harry merely showed the slightest skepticism in his imagined greatness. Harry hoped the same ploy would work on Wormtail.

“I know plenty. I was there. I was the one who nursed the miserable wreck of a creature he was. It was me who helped him prepare the potion. It was me who helped him return. I was his most loyal servant,” Wormtail shrieked plaintively.

“And he discarded you when he was done,” Harry said, feigning boredom

“I know about the Horcruxes,” Wormtail whispered triumphantly.

Harry’s blood ran cold. “What?” he asked numbly.

“I know about the Horcruxes. There are seven of them, two of which have already been destroyed,” Wormtail said. “You destroyed the first one.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harry said unconvincingly.

“I think you do. I think the part you don’t know is the part only the Dark Lord, Severus, and I know. I suspect Dumbledore had also at least pondered it before he died,” Wormtail said mysteriously, obviously relishing having something to hold over Harry.

“What are you on about?” Harry asked.

“I’m talking about the reason the Dark Lord will win in the end – his Seventh Horcrux – the one you will be unable to destroy,” Wormtail replied smugly.

Harry was perplexed. He didn’t want to reveal any of the Horcruxes if Wormtail was only bluffing, but even as the thought occurred to him, he discarded it. Wormtail was more certain of himself than Harry had ever seen the man. He knew something, and Harry had to find out what it was, despite every internal nerve and instinct that was screaming at him that he didn’t want to know.

“After the Horcruxes are destroyed, he’ll be mortal. He can die like any other man,” Harry said firmly.

“I’m not speaking about the bit that’s still in him. I’m speaking of the Horcrux even he wasn’t aware of until two years ago. The Horcrux he never intended to make,” Wormtail said, eyeing Harry speculatively.

“What are you on about?” Harry asked in frustration.

“Don’t you know, Harry? Haven’t you at least suspected?”

The pit in Harry’s stomach was growing heavier by the moment. “What are you saying?”

“Didn’t you wonder why He left you alone all of last year? Why after the Department of Mysteries fiasco he never made another attempt on your life? Even during the battle at Hogwarts, all the Death Eaters had strict orders not to harm you. You were to be left for him, he told

them. I know the real reason. I’ve heard him talking to Severus,” Wormtail said, sneering.

Harry was momentarily stunned. He was right; Voldemort had been unusually quiet all of last year. He should have come after Harry with a vengeance for all the trouble he’d caused at the Ministry.

Why hadn’t he?

Trembling visibly, Harry forced himself to ask the question, “Why?”

“He possessed you at the Ministry. I heard him talking to Severus about it. That’s when he realized the truth, and it shook him. It’s you, Harry. You are his Seventh Horcrux,” Wormtail said, smiling with a mad gleam in his eyes.

Harry’s throat was dry, and he suddenly felt very cold. “That can’t be true,” he whispered hoarsely.

No. No, no, no, no, no.

“But it is true, and I can see by the look on your face that you know it is. He intended to make a Horcrux that night he came here for you,” Wormtail said raising his arm expansively. “It was his plan. He told Severus that the spell to make a Horcrux is wordless, it takes the act of murder and an intense amount of concentration, but there is no incantation; the force of will powers the spell.”

Wormtail’s casual discussion of murder made Harry’s stomach churn.

“He believes that he got over-excited the night he came to kill you. He thought he was going to eliminate the only obstacle in his path. He was thinking of his final goal, already planning to kill you, when your mother got in the way,” Wormtail said, and here his voice did waver slightly.

Harry’s heart pounded in his chest so loudly that he could barely hear what Wormtail was saying. This can’t be happening.

“It was her death that caused the creation of the Horcrux, and when he cast the Killing Curse at you, it rebounded on him but sent that piece of his soul into you. You are the Seventh Horcrux, Harry,” Wormtail continued unmercifully.

Harry stepped back as if struck. Of course! It made perfect sense, why hadn’t he seen it before? Harry felt sick. Why hadn’t Dumbledore prepared him? Had he been trying to protect him from the truth yet again? For in his heart, Harry knew this was true. It was as if the last piece of a puzzle finally clicked into place.

“That’s why he’ll win in the end, Harry, because the only way for you to defeat him is to destroy yourself,” Wormtail said, shaking his head with mock sadness.

“And what makes you think I won’t do that?” Harry asked, surprised by how strong his voice sounded.

Wormtail frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m speaking of dying. Why would you sacrifice yourself? That wouldn’t make any sense.”

“Of course it wouldn’t make sense to you. You were the one who betrayed your best friends to save your own neck. You couldn’t possibly understand dying so that they might live. Look at that,” Harry screamed, pointing at the spot of blackened earth. “That’s where my father died because of you. He died right there, and nothing will ever grow there again. You did that to him.”

Wormtail cringed and pulled away, refusing to look at the spot.

Harry’s head began to spin. No, no, no.

“He wants to get to you now, Harry. He wants to capture you and lock you away where he can keep you safe. He won’t kill you, but he won’t make your life pleasant, either. Snape will see to that. Snape hates you and longs to see you suffer,” Wormtail said, sniffling. He was sweating profusely and appeared suddenly agitated, his beady eyes shifting in every direction.

“If you can’t destroy the Dark Lord, you can at least ruin Severus,” Wormtail said, taking a step closer towards Harry.

Harry was shivering violently now, so much that he could barely hold onto his wand. He couldn’t understand how it had got so cold. His vision was blurring slightly, and he blinked to try and stay focused.

Wormtail inched closer again, but in his confusion Harry couldn’t seem to care.

“Get away from him, Peter,” Remus’s sharp voice rang out across the garden.

Harry blinked dazedly, uncertain how Remus came to be there just then. Wormtail reacted much more quickly. He squealed and ducked behind Harry, using him as a shield between Remus and himself.

Harry was too stunned to move and only stared at the two men uncomprehendingly.

Remus glanced at Harry with a worried expression. “What have you done, Peter? What did you say to him? Harry, move away.”

Harry turned to look at Wormtail and blinked. In that instant, Wormtail morphed back into his Animagus form and sprinted into a pile of debris, squealing in fright.

Remus immediately gave chase, running towards the spot where the rat had disappeared and blasting it with his wand.

Unable to wrap his mind around what was happening, Harry stood numbly as the two raced around the ruins. He felt oddly disjointed, as if he weren’t really there and only witnessing something happening on the Dursleys’ telly rather than real events. It was Remus’s piercing cry of pain that snapped him out of his fog.

He hurried over to his former professor, who was crouched on the ground, cradling his hand. Harry could see a thin trail of blood running between Remus’s fingers.

“Damn it, he’s gone. He got me with that damn silver hand,” Remus said, shaking his hand. “It’s only superficial, nothing Poppy can’t fix. What happened here, Harry? Are you all right?”

Harry swallowed, unable to form any words. His mouth opened and closed futilely.

I’m going to die, anyway.

Remus grasped him by the shoulders and shook him slightly. “Stay with me, Harry. Tell me what happened.”

Neither can live…

Harry tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry. “How did you find me?” he asked in a raspy voice.

Remus stared at him thoughtfully for a few moments, but Harry couldn’t decipher what he was thinking. Finally, he wrapped his arm around Harry’s shoulder and led him over to a pile of broken stones that was big enough to rest upon. He pushed Harry down and sat beside him.

“Hermione first noticed you’d gone missing and found your note this morning. She was rather hysterical. You’re going to have quite a bit of explaining to do upon your return, Harry,” Remus said with a hint of amusement. “Everyone flew into panic mode trying to figure out where you could be. To his credit, Ron remained stoically silent, even under his mother’s tirade.”

Harry blinked. He heard Remus’s words, but felt as if he was speaking about something distant and not really connected to him. He couldn’t shake the fog that had enveloped his brain.

I’m going to die.

“Hermione finally caved under the onslaught from Molly. She told everyone about your plans to visit Godric’s Hollow. She wanted to follow you immediately, but Ron said it was most likely something you wanted to do alone,” Remus said.

Harry looked away. He knew Ron would understand, if only because of his own desire to avoid awkward displays of emotion. He found himself wishing they had come with him, if only to help him wrap his mind around this Horcrux business. Hermione would know what had to be done.

“Ginny had been quite livid with you, as well, until that point. She evidently felt you’d promised not to exclude her and then went back on it. She only softened when Ron explained your desire to see this place alone. It occurred to me that she’s a remarkable blend of both your friends, your Ginny,” Remus said mildly.

Harry smiled weakly. He’d never thought of it that way, but he supposed it was true. Ginny did display a lot of the qualities that

attracted him to both Ron and Hermione. He shivered again. Merlin, he’d give anything to see Ginny and be away from here right now. Why was it so unseasonably cold?

He realized Remus was waiting for him to speak.

“Ron’s right,” he said, his throat very scratchy. “I needed to do it on my own. I’d wanted to see their graves, but I haven’t found any trace of them…just this,” he said, gesturing to the ruined structure.

“I see. I understand your desire to see it, Harry, but I wish you’d at least taken someone with you. It isn’t something you should have done alone,” Remus said quietly.

Harry shrugged. “Nothing to be done for it now.”

“Would you still like to see where they’re buried?” Remus asked, his voice strained. A brief flash of sorrow crossed his face as he asked the question.

Harry nodded solemnly.

Remus stood up, and Harry followed him, finding a detached amusement in the fact that Remus still went through the now non-existent door. They walked up a hill to the area behind the cottage ruins, almost to the line of trees. Harry reckoned he could vaguely see the hint of blue that indicated how close they were to the ocean. It was a calm, peaceful resting-place. It was what Harry would have chosen for them.

Remus placed his hands on Harry’s shoulders and gave a slight squeeze. “I’ll give you a few minutes alone, but I’ll be right over there if you need me,” he said, walking back down the hill.

Harry looked down at the small stone marker baring the names of each of his parents. It seemed somehow fitting to him that they should share the same marker. He swallowed against the painful lump in this throat and sank to his knees beside the stone.

“Mum? Dad?” he whispered. “I’m here. I came back.”

Harry swallowed again; he really didn’t know what to say. “I wish…I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He listened disjointedly to the sounds of birds in the trees, wondering how they could sound so cheerful when his own world was falling apart. He’d succeeded in finding one of the Horcruxes, but did he have the strength to destroy himself? How could he tell Ron, Hermione and especially Ginny? He stared hopelessly at his parents’ gravestone.

“I don’t know what to do,” he whispered brokenly. “I could really use some help here.”

He waited for a moment, unmoving except for the increasing trembling of his body. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but nothing had changed. The sky hadn’t opened up with answers, and no great voice of wisdom directed him on where to begin. There was nothing here. His parents’

bodies had been buried here long ago, but the only piece of them that was left behind was Harry. He’d had them with him all along.

Tentatively, he reached his hand towards the grave marker and ran his hand along the engraving of his parents’ names. The pressure of his fingers tracing the letters was met with nothing but cold, unyielding stone. Harry shut his eyes tightly and willed the tears away.

Suddenly, it had all become too much. Harry wrapped his arms around himself and hung his head, as reality seemed to slip away.

Remus appeared next to him, but Harry didn’t know how he’d got there. He wasn’t real, anyway. Nothing was real.

Remus, who appeared very concerned, was speaking to him, but he wasn’t really there. Words didn’t mean anything anyway, because it was all just an illusion. Why wouldn’t Remus stop calling his name?

He wasn’t going to answer someone that wasn’t really there.

He was walking now. Remus was leading him away – he couldn’t form the words to tell him that he hadn’t found what he’d been looking for in the first place. His legs felt heavy, and he could barely move them. The sudden, crushing sensation of being squeezed hit Harry like a blow, but he didn’t cry out because it wasn’t really happening.

Harry blinked and realized he was somewhere else. Headquarters, it looked like, but he wasn’t really here. It was so very cold and there was nothing he could do to get the warmth back in his body. He stumbled but Remus caught him before he fell.

“Harry!” Remus’s voice was harsh and slightly panicked. Harry remained silent.

Remus led him inside and into the main parlor. A great crowd of people was there, faces he knew but couldn’t place. He didn’t know why he was even trying, anyway. The room began to spin, making him feel nauseous. Voices rang out, calling to him, but he couldn’t understand the words, so he ignored them.

He saw Hermione move toward him, tears streaming down her face as she spoke. He shrank away from her, and Ron held her back, whispering something in her ear. She frowned at him, but stopped shouting and instead stared at Harry worriedly. Harry turned away, not wanting to answer her questions. His gaze roamed over the many faces, searching…

When he saw her, she was sitting alone in a chair in the corner of the room, but to him she appeared to be the center of all the activity. Her brown eyes were filled with concern as she slowly rose and simply held out her arms to him. He was drawn to her as if she were a beacon on a rough, stormy sea. He moved into her embrace, and although she was a good head shorter than he was, he bent low and rested his head upon her shoulder. She closed her arms around him and held him tightly as he clung to her, not even caring that anyone else was there.

He could hear shuffling sounds behind him and thought Remus might be clearing the others out of the room, but he paid no attention. Every

ounce of energy he had was focused on keeping his composure and not falling to pieces. Ginny helped him to do that.

Images of his day, of Wormtail’s words and what they meant flashed in his head, and he began to shake. Ginny tightened her hold around him and began whispering soft, gentle words meant to comfort, and he felt like a heel knowing he was going to break her heart.

He squeezed his eyes shut, wishing the world away. “Ginny,” he croaked. “I’m going to die.”

“Don’t talk like that, Harry. Of course you aren’t going to die. We’re in this together, and I won’t let anything happen to you,” she replied fiercely.

Harry was unable to form the words. He’d have to tell her everything but not just now. He just wanted to hold and be held by her right now, feeling safe for the first time that day.

Standing there wrapped in the warmth of her embrace and smelling the sweet flowery aroma of her hair, for one brief moment, he could almost believe that was true.

Chapter Seven

Forward Progress

Harry slowly drifted awake, gradually becoming aware of a brightness piercing his closed eyelids. He lazily rolled to one side, hoping to doze again and nearly fell to the floor. He managed to catch himself just in the knick of time, but was startled fully awake. He blinked several times in confusion.

Dazedly, he glanced around the room and realized that he was sprawled on the couch in the drawing room at Grimmauld Place with Ginny snuggled close and sleeping peacefully at his side.

She shifted in her sleep, seeking the warmth from his body that had pulled away from her during his near fall. Soft tendrils of her hair tickled his nose and stuck to his lips as he pulled his head back, trying not to wake her.

He had vague recollections of holding her in this very room the previous evening, but he found it hard to believe that Mrs. Weasley had allowed her to stay here with him all night. He wasn’t even certain how he’d got back to Grimmauld Place in the first place, never mind how he and Ginny apparently had spent the night together.

It was just his luck that the first time he’d ever found himself in this predicament, he had absolutely no memory of how it happened. That scenario seemed horribly appropriate for how his life worked, he thought bitterly. He shifted slightly, and Ginny’s eyes fluttered open.

“Morning,” she said groggily.

“Morning,” he replied, smiling softly at her sleepy expression. He pushed the hair out of her eyes and kissed her forehead.

“Are you all right?” she asked, suddenly sitting up straighter. The memories of the previous evening were obviously coming back to her.

“Yeah,” he said sheepishly, not quite meeting her eyes. “Thanks, Ginny.”

She’d been there for him when he’d needed her the most, but he couldn’t put that into words. He didn’t yet want to confront what he’d learned yesterday. He needed to work it out in his own mind before telling his friends. It was even more difficult with Ginny since she had no knowledge of the prophecy or the Horcruxes. This was too big to keep from her, however. He just had to figure out exactly how much to tell her, never mind how to say it.

“We were all really concerned about you last night,” Ginny said tentatively, and he was grateful to her for not demanding answers right away. “Mum didn’t want to disturb you after you’d fallen asleep, but she used a charm to alert her as soon as you woke. Expect her any minute. She’d never allow enough time for any funny business.”

Harry blushed deeply enough to do any Weasley proud and tried to extricate himself from Ginny’s embrace.

“Don’t worry. It’s not you she doesn’t trust; it’s me,” Ginny said, grinning. She arched her eyebrow and looked him up and down speculatively. “She’s probably right about that.”

Her words intrigued him as his brain started thinking of all the possibilities in that statement. He knew that any one of her brothers would likely hex him for the thoughts in his head, but at that moment, he didn’t really care.

He leaned over to kiss her just as Mrs. Weasley rushed through the open door, wearing her dressing gown and looking slightly flushed. There was no doubt in Harry’s mind that she’d sprinted from her bed and raced to the drawing room the moment her charm had alerted her that Harry was awake. He was happy Ginny had known about the charm so they hadn’t been caught in a full-out snog.

Ginny lowered her head and rested it against his chest, giggling. “Morning, Mum,” she said, her voice muffled.

“Good morning, Ginny, Harry. How are you, dear?” Mrs. Weasley asked, moving towards the sofa and sitting down between Harry and Ginny. Ginny stood up and made faces at Harry behind her mum’s back as she spoke.

“I’m fine, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, grinning at Ginny over her mother’s head.

“Honestly, Harry,” Mrs. Weasley said, sounding more stern. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. Running off like that alone. What were you thinking? You could have been killed. Now, I know you’ve become used to handling things on your own, but there is really much too great a risk for you to be running off without protection. I love you as if you were one of my own, dear, and I couldn’t bear to see you hurt.”

“Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, touched by her devotion. She really had been the closest thing to a mother he’d ever known, but she had to understand right now that she couldn’t stop him from doing what he had to do. “Don’t think I don’t appreciate that you’re trying to protect me, because I do. No one has ever done that, and it means the world to me…but you can’t protect me from this. I’m more than involved in this fight…I am this fight. It centers around me more than you realize-”

“I know you’ve suffered more than most in this whole wretched war, Harry, but you’re still very young — too young to be fighting. You’re still in school,” Mrs. Weasley said, desperately. Tears filled her eyes, and Harry felt like a heel for hurting her after all she’d done for him, but he’d come this far. He couldn’t turn back now.

“It doesn’t matter, Mrs. Weasley. Professor Dumbledore gave me a job to do. We were working on it the night he died, and I intend to finish it,” Harry said firmly, glancing at Ginny to gauge her reaction.

She’d silently watched the exchange, an unreadable expression on her face as she stood behind her mother. She’d stayed in the room to offer her unconditional support, but Harry knew she’d insist upon some answers soon.

“What do you mean Professor Dumbledore gave you a job to do? Certainly Albus didn’t mean for you to put yourself in harm’s way,” Mrs. Weasley asked shrilly. He watched as she swelled with indignation, ready to unleash her outrage on a man who was no longer there to take it.

“We’re all in harm’s way, Mrs. Weasley, and I’m going to do everything I can to stop it. I can’t tell you anything more right now, but I’m asking you to please trust me on this,” Harry said, staring intently into Mrs. Weasley’s watery eyes.

“I’m not going to tell you I’m happy about this, Harry, because I’m not, but I know I can’t stop you,” Mrs. Weasley said, sniffling. “Ginny, go upstairs and change your clothes. I’ll start breakfast.”

Harry hung his head wearily as Mrs. Weasley bustled from the room. That hadn’t gone as well as he hoped, and he wondered if he’d get a similar reaction from the rest of the Order. He dreaded her reaction when she learned that not only wasn’t Harry returning to school, but he was taking Ron and Hermione with him.

Ginny squeezed his shoulder reassuringly as she left the room. Harry got up and stretched. He had to talk with Ron and Hermione and begin making some plans for finding the other Horcruxes, but now all he wanted was a hot shower. He felt dirty and abused somehow, and desperately wanted to clean the filth away.

***

As he’d suspected, the shower helped immensely. He had a clear head and felt ready to confront Ron and Hermione with his startling news. He’d sunk as low as he’d ever felt in his life the previous evening, and he felt there was no place to go from here but up. He didn’t want to die, but if that was the only way…

Ron and Hermione wouldn’t like it, but they were as committed to ending Voldemort’s reign as he was; they’d do whatever it took. Perhaps they could even help him figure out what would be the easiest way to….to…to eliminate the seventh Horcrux.

Harry was doing better than he’d been when he’d first heard Wormtail’s news, but it was still easier to separate the thing from himself, even in his own mind. It made it easier to think about what he had to do, anyway. He’d need to do it at virtually the same time as he killed Voldemort. Perhaps Hermione could help him figure out a way to take care of both things simultaneously.

After his shock had worn off, a new determination had settled over Harry. If it had to be someone, it was better that it be him. He couldn’t stand to have anyone else die for him, and his entire family might be waiting for him on the other side. He knew his friends would miss him, but it wasn’t as if he’d be leaving any family behind. Better that it was him rather than one of them. That was his driving force at the moment, anyway.

He was so lost in thought as he emerged from the bathroom that he walked right into someone who’d been waiting for the shower.

“Pardon,” he said, the rest of the words dying in his throat. He blinked in surprise.

Standing right there in front of him, wearing an expensive-looking dressing gown with a golden “M” emblazoned on the left pocket and an infuriating self-satisfied smirk, was Draco Malfoy. His usually sleek blonde hair was mussed as if he’d just awoken, but his eyes narrowed when he saw Harry.

“Do watch where you’re going, Potter,” Malfoy said, wiping imagined dirt from his dressing gown. “I can’t believe I’m being forced to share a bathroom, never mind having to share it with you.”

Harry’s shock melted into rage. “Malfoy,” he spat. “I may have said you could stay here, but it doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, so stay out of my way.”

“You said I could stay here?” Malfoy said incredulously. “I’m staying here because your precious Order needs me. I’m the only one who can give them the kind of information they need. This house is rightfully mine, anyway. It belongs in my family. I’m certain there is a will lying around somewhere that will declare it as true; my mother will see to it that it goes to me. Best be nice to me, Potter, or when that happens I’ll have your own Order chuck you out on your arse.”

“Here’s a bit of a news flash, Draco,” Harry said, clenching his teeth. “The will has already been found and confirmed. This house and everything in it belongs to me. Imagine that. Me, owning all this stuff that belongs in your family lineage.”

Harry ignored Malfoy’s expression of stunned outrage, picked up an ancient-looking vase that was resting on a display table in the hallway and cavalierly tossed it in the air.

“Be careful with that,” Malfoy hissed. “That’s been in my mother’s family for generations. It dates back to the Blacks that were present during the time of the Founders.”

Harry looked at the vase intently, then raised his eyes to stare into Malfoy’s gray ones. Tipping his hand over, he allowed the vase to fall and shatter on the floor.

“Oops,” he said tonelessly.

“You idiot!” Malfoy screeched, kneeling on the ground and trying to scoop up the pieces. “My mother will kill you for that, Potter. How can this house possibly be yours if you’d so easily destroy its treasures?”

“Sirius left it to me. I think it was his final prank on you sorry lot,” Harry said, raising his chin defiantly. It felt as if he were giving Sirius the final shot against the family who had turned against him.

“Sirius,” Malfoy said, disgust dripping from his words. “He never should have been the heir. He had no pride, no family honor. Regulus was the rightful heir to this house; he knew his proper place.”

“Tell it to the Goblins,” Harry said, turning his back on Malfoy. “I’m certain they’d love to hear it.”

He left Malfoy fuming in the hallway and walked back to his own room to get dressed. Baiting Malfoy might have been childish, but it had felt really good, and Harry’s heart was lighter as he ran down the stairs to the kitchen. He found Ron, Hermione and Ginny all seated at the large table waiting for him.

“Harry!” Hermione exclaimed, jumping out of her seat and rushing towards him before Ron could stop her. “Are you all right? What happened yesterday? What were you thinking running off and leaving us behind? We’d talked about this, Harry. Ron and I were supposed to go with you. We were all going to do this together. You can’t go around changing our plans and singularly making these kinds of decisions. Why did you do that? Why?”

“Hermione!” Ron said, grasping her shoulders and leading her back to the table. “Give him a chance to speak. I’d like to hear this as well,”

Harry could see the telltale red on Ron’s ears and knew that Ron was equally upset with him for leaving them behind.

Harry took a deep breath, trying to control his irritation. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was going. I just decided that I needed to see my parents’ graves alone.” He looked over at Ginny. “That’s where I went, to my family’s home in Godric’s Hollow.”

“Yeah. We’d worked that bit out ourselves,” Ron said.

“But why?” Hermione cried plaintively. “It’s too dangerous to do these things on your own, Harry. We’d already planned it,”

“Plans changed,” Harry said, running a hand through his hair in exasperation. “Look, I don’t know if I can make you understand this, but it was just something I had to do alone. I won’t do it again; we’re in this together, but I had to do that part alone.”

“What happened while you were there?” Hermione demanded crossly. Harry wasn’t certain which she was angrier about, the fact he’d gone alone or that he’d altered her carefully laid out plans.

“Hermione,” Ginny said warningly, speaking for the first time since he’d entered the room. Keeping her eyes fixed on Harry’s face, she said, “I think that might have been rather personal for Harry.”

Harry felt bolstered by her defense, and he smiled weakly. “Thanks, Ginny. It was difficult, and I do need to talk to you all about some of it. Maybe we could go up to the drawing room where it’s a bit more private.” He’d been watching the door warily, hoping they wouldn’t be interrupted. The kitchen always seemed to be the center of activity at headquarters.

As they followed him up the stairs, Harry’s heart raced. He’d really mucked up this time. He needed to talk to Ron and Hermione alone in order to get his thoughts together before approaching Ginny. But how was he supposed to ask her to leave without hurting her feelings, or worse, getting hexed? Ron took the problem out of his hands.

“Beat it, Ginny,” he said, turning in the doorway to block her entrance.

“What?” Ginny asked indignantly, surprise and irritation clearly showing on her face. She placed her hands on her hips and glared at her brother.

Ron crossed his arms across his chest. “We’ve got things to discuss that you don’t need to hear. You can snog him later.”

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily, Ron. I want to know what happened at Godric’s Hollow, too. You don’t mind, do you, Harry?” she asked, looking up at him, color rising on her cheeks.

Harry could see the trace of uncertainty in her eyes, and he cursed Ron for his tactlessness. “Back off, Ron. Give me a minute,” he said, pushing Ron into the room and turning to face Ginny. Her eyes were glistening slightly, and his stomach clenched.

“Ginny, I do want to tell you about Godric’s Hollow. There are things I want to talk to you about that I can’t discuss with Ron and Hermione, but there is also something that I need to discuss with them that I just can’t share with you. I promised. Please understand,” Harry said, his heart dropping when he saw the determined glint in Ginny’s eyes.

“Oh, get over yourselves,” she snapped, pushing Harry backwards into the room and irritably casting the Muffliato spell as she stepped through the door.

Ron and Harry stared at her, stunned, although Hermione was grinning slightly.

“Ginny, you used magic,” Harry said stupidly.

“Yeah, what of it? You and I are the only underage people in a house full of qualified wizards; they’ll never trace it back to me. Besides, this house is Unplottable anyway,” Ginny said, brushing her hair out of her eyes with exasperation.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Ron bellowed. “I’m telling Mum.”

“Yeah, why don’t you run along and do that, Ron? Meanwhile Harry can tell us what happened in Godric’s Hollow, and what he plans to do about the Horcruxes,” Ginny replied calmly, sitting on the couch and crossing her legs. She looked up at Harry expectantly.

Both Ron and Harry stared at her, mouths agape. Hermione, Harry noticed, shrank deeper into the corner of the couch where she was sitting.

“What did you just say?” Ron asked, his voice coming out in a strained squeak

Ginny ignored him and turned to Harry. “Well?” she asked, arching an eyebrow. It was only down to how well he’d come to know her that he saw the nervous tremble in her hand as she twisted her hair. Ginny always twisted her hair when she was anxious.

He glanced between Ginny and Hermione. Hermione wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“You told her,” he snarled, glaring at Hermione. “Dumbledore asked us to keep this to ourselves. I gave my word.”

Ginny leaped from the couch and stood in front of Hermione, glaring right back at Harry. “Don’t be stupid — of course you wouldn’t tell me — you were the one that promised, not Hermione. You couldn’t say anything because it would go against that blasted nobility of yours. No matter how infuriating it can be, we don’t want to mess with the kind of person you are. It’s important for you to keep that integrity, I think.

“Of the three of you, Hermione is the logical one who would seek help. She wants facts and data and will use any means necessary to get to the answers she needs. Of course she told me, she knows I can help. She’s also a good friend and knew I was going mad. I knew enough to be terrified for you, but not what was real and I think my imagination was making everything worse.”

“Hermione?” Ron asked, shocked. Harry would have found the expression on his face comical if he hadn’t been so angry.

“I’m sorry!” Hermione shrieked. “I wasn’t getting anywhere with our research, and I needed someone who could sneak me some books from the library here at Grimmauld Place. Ginny would come to the meetings with your parents and wait for them in the library so she could sneak some books out to me. I know you promised, Harry, but I honestly think Professor Dumbledore would have allowed you to include Ginny if he knew the stakes. You need her.”

Harry swore violently and turned his head away. He wasn’t even certain why he felt so angry. This was the solution he’d been seeking, a way to share things with Ginny without having to betray his word, but damn it, he’d wanted to keep Ginny out of this, and she’d been at the heart of it all along. It was galling.

“How could you do that, Hermione?” Ron shouted, his temper finally exploding. “She’s not getting involved. It’s too dangerous.”

“Honestly, Ron. I realize you’re very protective of your sister, but-”

“My baby sister, Hermione. She’s too young to get involved in this,” Ron said.

“Would you have followed Harry if all this had happened last year?” Hermione asked. “Of course you would. She’s the same age as you were then. The difference in her age and Harry’s is nearly the same as Harry’s and mine. Do you think he’s too young to be involved?”

“What? Of course not; it’s not the same thing,” Ron shouted, flailing his arms in the air. “It’s his fight. Ginny’s not getting involved because it’s too dangerous for her.”

Ginny whipped her head around so fast that Ron took a step backwards from her fury. “Don’t you dare say you want to keep me out of this or it has nothing to do with me, Ron Weasley. It has much more to do with me than it does with you. These Horcruxes are bits of sodding Voldemort’s own soul. I had one of those bits in me, and I’m going to make damn sure that never happens to anyone else! And as for being too young; I’m older than you were when we went to the Ministry. As I recall, I came out of that fight a damn sight better than you did.”

She turned to Harry, determination gleaming in her eyes. “This, this is my fight, and you’re not going to keep me from it. I have as big a stake in this part of it as you do.”

Harry thought she’d never looked more beautiful with her hair flowing down her back in waves, looking almost as if it were standing on end like an angry cat. Her gaze was passionate and fierce, and it occurred to Harry that he’d never thought of it this way, from her point of view. Of course she had a personal stake in this. She’d been possessed by one of these very Horcruxes. If anyone would know how it felt to have a bit of Voldemort’s soul stuck inside him, it was Ginny.

What was done was done. They couldn’t go back, and she was right. For her, like him, this was personal.

“All right, quiet,” he bellowed over the arguments of the other three who were all bickering and snapping at one another. The tense atmosphere in the room had dissolved into complete chaos. “This is getting us nowhere. Ginny knows what we’re up against, but from this point forward, we keep this information amongst ourselves. Are we clear?” he asked, staring hard at Hermione.

They all nodded and looked at him expectantly. He noticed that Ron still looked disgruntled, while Ginny appeared triumphant, and Hermione

merely looked satisfied, as if her plan had come together in the end. Harry had to bite back a smile. They really were the best friends he could have ever wanted.

Taking a deep breath, he said, “So, we need to go after the Horcruxes before I can face Voldemort. The problem is, I really have no idea where to begin. Professor Dumbledore showed me all those memories from Riddle’s past, and he thought the clues were hidden in them.”

“Why do you have to be the one to face Voldemort?” Ginny asked, her eyes wide. It was as if now that she’d finally been accepted into their confidence, the reality was frightening her.

Harry glanced sharply at Hermione

“I told her about the Horcruxes because I needed some help with the research materials, and I thought you could use some moral support. I didn’t tell her about the prophecy. I thought you should do that,” Hermione said, giving Harry a weak smile.

“The Chosen One,” Ginny whispered, a distinct catch in her voice. “It’s true then?”

Harry nodded and watched as her lower lip trembled slightly. His gut twisting, he waited while she steeled her resolve. “Are you okay?

Ginny gave him a watery smile. “Shouldn’t I be asking that of you?”

He took her hand in his and rubbed it reassuringly. “I’ve had awhile to take it all in. Believe me, I didn’t handle it well at all when I first heard.”

“I’m scared for you, but I know you can do this. You’re a powerful wizard, Harry. You can beat him, and you will survive,” Ginny said solemnly.

Harry swallowed painfully. This is it. “That’s what we need to talk about. I wasn’t alone in Godric’s Hollow yesterday. Someone followed me.”

Ron’s head whipped up, and Hermione gasped, “Who?”

“Wormtail,” Harry replied grimly, the name leaving a sour taste in his mouth.

“Wormtail? What did the little rat want?” Ron snarled. “I’m surprised you let him live.”

“Ron,” Hermione hissed reproachfully.

Harry ignored her. “He’s jealous of Snape. He thinks Snape has stolen his thunder or something. He wanted me to eliminate Snape for him.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Ron said, his eyes nearly popping out of their sockets.

“I’m dead serious,” Harry said, barely moving. His jaw was beginning to ache from clenching it so hard. “He said he knows a lot more about what’s going on in Voldemort’s inner circle than even Voldemort is aware.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Hermione said, frowning. “Doesn’t Voldemort use Legilimency on his Death Eaters?”

“Yeah, but no one ever considers Scabbers to be a real threat, do they?” Ron asked.

Harry took a deep breath. “He knows about the Horcruxes,” he said quietly.

“Bloody hell,” Ron swore.

“What?” Hermione shrieked simultaneously. “Did he say that? Did he actually say Horcrux?”

Ginny crossed her arms across her chest and pursed her lips. “The circle of people who know this secret is getting bigger and bigger. Perhaps that will be what leads to his downfall.”

Harry’s hands began to shake, and he clenched them to hide it from the others. “He…he told me about the Seventh Horcrux. The one he doesn’t think I’ll be able to destroy.”

“The Seventh Horcrux. Well, that’s him, isn’t it?” Ron asked, perplexed.

“Technically, the bit that’s still in him is the last that has to be destroyed, but it’s the bit that all the others were created from, so it’s actually the first. The seventh is the last one he created,” Harry replied, his voice sounding strained even to his own ears.

“So, that’s Nagini, right?” Hermione asked, studying him carefully.

“No,” Harry said, his throat dry. “Dumbledore was wrong….or merely misleading. Nagini was never a Horcrux. All his Horcruxes were created before he lost his powers.”

“How is that possible though?” Hermione demanded. “I thought you said he was planning on making the Seventh Horcrux with your murder.”

“He was,” Harry said, nodding stoically.

“Well then how…Oh!” Hermione exclaimed, clamping a hand over her mouth.

“What?” Ron asked, lost.

“Oh no, Harry. This can’t be true,” Hermione cried, tears springing to eyes.

“What are you on about?” Ron demanded, frustrated.

“How did this happen? He must be mistaken. He’s just trying to scare you,” Hermione said shrilly, clutching Harry’s arm and growing more hysterical by the minute.

Ginny put her arm around Hermione’s shoulder and said fearfully, “I think you’d better explain, Harry.”

And so he did. He told them all about his confrontation the previous day and how Wormtail had explained to him how Voldemort’s own over-confidence and excitement had created the Horcrux from Lily’s death, and how the soul fragment had ended up inside Harry.

The others listened in horror, their faces mirroring his dismay. Harry cleared his throat. “So, the way I see it, we have to figure out a way to destroy both Voldemort and the Seventh Horcrux at the same time.”

“No!” they all shouted at once, their shock giving way to fierce determination.

“Don’t be stupid,” Harry snarled without mercy. “Don’t you think I haven’t been thinking about this? There is no other way. Voldemort has to be destroyed, and if I have to sacrifice myself to do it, well…that’s just what I’m going to do.”

Hermione wiped the tears from her eyes, biting her lip in thought. “No, Harry. There has to be another way. It can’t end like this. Professor Dumbledore never would have given you hope that you could survive if it weren’t possible,” she said fiercely. “Riddle’s diary was still a diary after you sank the fang into it. And the ring! Dumbledore was still wearing it as a ring after he removed the bit of Voldemort’s soul.”

“Yeah, but with a big crack down the middle. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like the Longbottoms, Hermione. I’d rather die,” Harry said vehemently.

Ginny whimpered slightly from where she was seated on the couch. Harry reached out and took her hand. He could feel her trembling even though she tried to hide it.

“But, the diary wasn’t damaged,” Hermione insisted. “Professor Dumbledore hurt his hand horribly destroying that ring, but you didn’t hurt yourself destroying the diary, and the diary remained intact. Only the soul fragment was gone. There has to be a way.”

Ron stared at Hermione hopefully, nodding his head. His Adam’s apple bobbed convulsively.

“Maybe,” Harry replied, refusing to allow the seed of hope to blossom too fully. “But we can’t trust that. We’ll have to explore both options — a way to destroy both remaining bits of soul, and a possible way to survive.” He still couldn’t bring himself to say out loud that he was the Horcrux.

“I won’t lose you now,” Ginny said quietly but firmly.

Harry knelt down in front of her and took her face in his hands, lowering his voice so only she could hear him. “I can’t make any promises to you, Ginny. Merlin knows I wish I could, but if there was ever something worth fighting for, it’s what you’ve shown me my life can be. I do want that, Ginny. I want you,” Harry said, leaning over and kissing her softly. He could taste the salt from her tears and hated himself for making her cry.

“We’ll do this together,” she whispered. “We’ll find a way.”

Harry wrapped his arms around her and hugged her fiercely. He decided then and there that he would live and be happy with Ginny while he could. It was exactly what his parents had done. His one greatest regret about losing Sirius was that they’d never had enough time simply to be together. He’d give Ginny the gift of time; it was all he has to give.

As he embraced Ginny, his eyes fell on the tapestry hanging on the wall and it sparked a memory.

“Oh, I ran into Malfoy this morning,” he said, sitting next to Ginny and putting his arm around her shoulders. Both Ron and Hermione’s heads shot up from their discussion in the corner.

“You did?” Hermione asked blankly.

“What did the wanker have to say?” Ron asked darkly.

“He was sputtering about owning this house. You should have seen his face when I told him that I actually did. He said Regulus should have inherited it, not Sirius,” Harry replied, reliving the memory of Malfoy’s shocked expression.

“Regulus?” Hermione asked, frowning.

“Sirius’s brother,” Harry replied, forgetting that none of the others had heard that story when Sirius told him.

“Regulus Black?” Hermione asked, her brow knitting.

“Yeah, his name is still on that tapestry over there,” Harry said pointing. Hermione jumped up and nearly sprinted to the tapestry. “Sirius showed it to me the summer we stayed here. His mum burnt his name off it, but she kept Regulus’s because he upheld the family’s honor by becoming a Death Eater.”

“Sounds like Mrs. Black,” Ron replied. “Mad as a Hatter, that one.”

“Regulus Alphard Black,” Hermione squealed, waving her hands in the air. “Harry! R.A.B. — his initials are R.A.B.”

Harry stared at her, blinking stupidly. There was no way it could be that simple. Things in his life didn’t just work out that way.

“You can’t be serious,” Ron said, voicing Harry’s thoughts.

They all moved toward the tapestry where Hermione was repeatedly jabbing Regulus’s name with her finger.

Harry’s mind raced, trying to recall any bit of information about Regulus Black that he might have gained. “He did become a Death Eater then panicked when he realized exactly what he’d got into, and he tried to run. Remus said he only lasted a couple days before they caught him.”

“Maybe he panicked because he learned Voldemort was making Horcruxes. Dumbledore did stress how much of a taboo they are. Maybe he actually tried to do the right thing by destroying one,” Hermione said thoughtfully.

“So, where’s the locket, then?” Ron asked.

Ginny knitted her brows together thoughtfully. “Do you think it could be right here in Grimmauld Place? What happened to all that stuff we cleared out of here during my fourth year?”

“Didn’t it all get thrown away?” Hermione asked, horrified.

“Actually, I think some of it is stored up in the attic,” Ginny replied, her eyes widening as if she’d finally remembered a piece of the puzzle she’d been seeking.

Harry turned and bolted from the room, Ron and the girls following right at his heels. Mrs. Weasley’s sharp voice stopped them in the hallway.

“What are you lot up to? What has you all in such a hurry?” she demanded suspiciously.

“Harry made a derogatory remark about the Cannons, and Ron took offense,” Ginny lied smoothly.

“Honestly, Ron, you and that ridiculous orange team. Leave Harry alone and stop running in the house,” Mrs. Weasley scolded as she headed back towards the kitchen.

Harry arched his eyebrow at Ginny, impressed. She shrugged and quickly moved towards the attic. The others followed, walking quickly but taking care not to run.

The attic was cluttered with boxes piled from floor to ceiling in rows and rows from the door all the way to the far back corner of the room.

Harry groaned when he saw it.

“Bloody hell,” Ron moaned, looking around hopelessly. “Hermione, this looks like something you would have organized.”

Hermione sighed. “It’s daunting, I know, but the fact it’s organized might prove helpful. Things have most likely been stored according to which room they were found. Once we find the right room, it should narrow our search considerably.”

Harry thought Hermione sounded almost gleeful at the prospect. He caught Ron’s eye, and they both grimaced.

“How are we supposed to know which room we want though?” Ron asked.

Pulling the fake Horcrux from his pocket, Harry showed it to the others. “We’re looking for an amulet very similar to this one.”

“I think I remember something like this when we cleaned one of the rooms,” Ginny said, taking the locket from Harry. “I remember that it wouldn’t open, but I don’t recall which room we found it in.”

“Well, that does help,” Hermione said eagerly. “We cleared a bunch of rooms on the second floor landing together, so we’ll begin our search there.”

They spent the next several hours going through box after box but not finding what they wanted. Harry was growing frustrated and weary when Ginny’s shout distracted him.

“Did you find it?” Ron asked eagerly.

“Well no, not the amulet,” Ginny said, “but look at this.”

Hermione grabbed an old painting out of her hand. The frame was scratched and scuffed, and it looked incredibly old.

“Sweet Merlin,” Hermione said, breathing heavily.

“What is it?” Harry asked curiously.

“Is it what I think it is?” Ginny asked.

Harry glanced over Ginny’s shoulder to see the painting Hermione was holding. It depicted two couples standing in what Harry thought was the great hall at Hogwarts. They were clad in exquisite dress robes, one of the men standing slightly apart from the other three.

“It’s the founders of Hogwarts,” Hermione said, awestruck. “Look, Harry, Godric Gryffindor is wearing the sword you used against the Basilisk.”

Harry looked closely and realized she was right. He looked carefully at the other founders, recognizing Helga Hufflepuff from a painting he’d seen at Hogwarts. The other woman, a stern looking witch wearing a glittering tiara, reminded him of Professor McGonagall. He assumed this was Rowena Ravenclaw. The fourth person — the one standing slightly apart and scowling — was Salazar Slytherin.

“How did this end up packed away up here?” Hermione asked, breathing heavily. “This is a priceless piece of history. Harry, you have to show this to Professor McGonagall.”

“I bet it’s worth a fortune, mate,” Ron said.

“I’ll give it to her when she arrives for the Order meeting this evening. They want to talk to me about yesterday, and what I was doing

with Professor Dumbledore. I’m going to have to put them off, and they’re not going to like it. Maybe this can be a kind of peace offering,” Harry said, smiling weakly.

“Harry! Call Kreacher. Maybe he can help us,” Hermione said suddenly.

Harry’s eyes widened. “Kreacher!” he bellowed.

There was an immediate crack and the dirty, disheveled house elf appeared, scowling at all of them. He was wearing a filthy tea towel with the Hogwarts logo emblazoned upon it.

“The halfblood whelp summons him, and poor old Kreacher must answer. Oh, if his mistress only knew what Kreacher has been reduced to,” the elf muttered under his breath, woefully shaking his head from side to side.

Hermione knelt down in front of him. “We’re terribly sorry to have disturbed you, Kreacher. We’re in need of your help,” she said kindly.

“The mudblood dares to speak to Kreacher directly. Kreacher won’t answer her,” the house elf said.

“That’s enough, Kreacher,” Harry said angrily. “I won’t have you using that foul word. Do you understand me?”

“It’s all right, Harry. He doesn’t know what he’s saying,” Hermione said.

“Don’t be fooled by him, Hermione,” Ron said, staring at Kreacher menacingly. “He knows exactly what he’s saying. We want to know about Regulus Black.”

“Master Regulus was a great and honorable wizard. He never once broke his poor mother’s heart. He died in service to the Dark Lord,” Kreacher said reverently.

“He died because his friends murdered him,” Harry said flatly. “Look, we’re not here to listen to you spout off about how great it is to serve the Dark Lord. I want to know if Regulus ever had something that looks like this,” he said, holding out the fake Horcrux for Kreacher to see. “I want you to tell me what happened to it.”

Kreacher twisted his lips together and grunted, obviously trying not to answer. Finally he could resist no more. “It was here, on a shelf in the drawing room. That horrid halfblood thief who has stolen many of my mistress’s fine things took it.”

“Mundungus!” Ron exclaimed.

“Of course. Remember, Harry? We saw him in Hogsmeade with a trunk full of your things from this house,” Hermione said.

“Where does Mundungus live, though?” Ron asked.

“I bet Fred and George will know,” Ginny said.

“That’s our next step then. We have to find out where Dung lived before he was arrested and then search his place,” Harry said. “I’m assuming the Ministry is still holding him?”

“Yeah, Dad mentioned something about it recently. Let me talk to Fred and George; I bet they’ll know where he lived. I think they’ll tell me,” Ginny said.

“Why would they tell you and not me?” Ron asked, frowning.

“They like me better,” Ginny said simply.

Harry smirked at Ron’s disgruntled expression. He felt better now that they were finally making some progress. A clear objective always calmed and focused him. Two Horcruxes had been destroyed, and they had a good lead on another. He knew what the final two pieces were, so only two left to find. He was doing better than yesterday.

Ron, Hermione, and Ginny were determined to find a way for him to survive. He didn’t think they’d succeed, but the fact they were so focused on it warmed his heart. He could do this. He could eliminate Voldemort so his friends and the people he loved, at least, had the chance for a better life.

Chapter Eight

An Uneasy Alliance

Due to a number of unforeseen interruptions, the Order meeting scheduled for that evening never actually happened. Harry squirmed in his chair, poking at the remains of his supper with his fork and dreading all the questions the Order members were sure to ask. He knew that some of them, Remus and Moody, for instance, would accept what he had to do. Others like Mrs. Weasley and Kingsley Shacklebolt certainly would demand more information than he could give.

He was startled out of his musings by the arrival of Mr. Weasley and Professor McGonagall, who entered the room wearing grim expressions. The kitchen at Grimmauld Place, which only moments before had been filled with pleasant chatter and the raucous laughter of the twins, became oddly still. This ragtag group of survivors had been through too much recently not to feel anxious over the prospect of more bad news.

“What is it, Arthur?” Mrs. Weasley asked fearfully, jumping up from her chair and pushing Mr. Weasley towards it.

Harry suddenly realized how tired and old Mr. Weasley appeared. His eyes were red-rimmed with dark circles beneath them, and white hairs were visible on each temple. Harry turned his gaze to Professor McGonagall, to whom Hagrid had given his chair. She, too, appeared to have aged rapidly since Professor Dumbledore’s death only a month ago.

Harry’s throat grew tight. This war was killing them all. Voldemort was killing them all, and he had to be stopped.

“What happened?” he asked, his voice sounding stronger than he felt. He rapidly scanned the room, trying to determine if anyone was missing.

The expressions on both Mr. Weasley’s and Professor McGonagall’s faces made him worry that there had been another death.

He felt a small hand creep into his own beneath the table and turned to see Ginny watching her father with fearful eyes. He threaded his fingers with hers and squeezed reassuringly.

“I’ve just come from a meeting with the Board of Governors,” Professor McGonagall said. “They’ve made their decision.”

“Scrimgeour called in all the department heads to hear the results,” said Mr. Weasley wearily.

“They’re not reopening Hogwarts, are they?” Harry asked numbly, uncertain if he should feel shocked or enraged.

“No, they are not. They’ve decided that they cannot guarantee the safety of incoming students. The Aurors are simply stretched too thin as it is,” Professor McGonagall replied, an uncharacteristic waver in her voice.

“How can they do that?” Hermione cried, scandalized. “Where are students going to go for their education?”

“The governors feel that not enough students would have returned, anyway. It’s no secret that You-Know-Who has a great interest in Hogwarts. Most believe he only stayed away because of Dumbledore, and that there is nothing to stop him now. Parents won’t send their children directly into his path,” Mr. Weasley said, sharing a pointed look with a numb-looking Mrs. Weasley.

“Dumbledore would ‘ave wanted it ter remain open,” Hagrid said, pulling a handkerchief the size of blanket from his pocket.

“I realize that, Hagrid, but the Board would not be swayed,” Professor McGonagall answered briskly.

“Did Rufus Scrimgeour push for it to be closed?” Harry asked. He wouldn’t put it past the man to keep Hogwarts closed in retaliation for Harry’s refusal to aid the Ministry. He’d think Harry would be far more vulnerable and in need of assistance outside Hogwarts walls.

“No. This decision came from the Governors,” Professor McGonagall replied, sighing.

“He’s not an evil man, Harry; he’s just not going about this the way we’d like,” Tonks said. “He does want to bring an end to this war; he just wants to be the one to get the credit for doing it. He won’t stand in our way, but he will try and find out what we’re doing. He’s used to being in charge, and he doesn’t like feeling like an outsider.”

“Scrimgeour’s become as obsessed with the politics of being Minister as Fudge was. He’s not doing enough because he fears the public’s reaction,” Bill said angrily. He’d become somewhat embittered toward the Ministry since Greyback’s attack.

As several arguments over the pros and cons about having Scrimgeour as Minister broke out around the table, Remus leaned over to speak quietly with Harry.

“All right, Harry?”

“I’m fine, Remus. Thanks for coming after me yesterday,” Harry replied, staring intently at a dark spot of wood on the table in front of him.

“I’d easily do it again, Harry, but I’d prefer it if I didn’t have to,” Remus replied. “I sincerely hope you won’t be running off without telling anyone again.”

Harry didn’t respond but continued to stare at the table, lightly tracing the spot with his finger.

“Harry,” Remus said, waiting for a response.

“I can’t make you that promise, Remus,” Harry whispered.

On his other side, Ginny was doing a poor job of feigning disinterest, and he was certain she was hanging on every word they said. Ron and Hermione also appeared to be watching him closely. He wondered why Mrs. Weasley hadn’t insisted all of them clear out when the others had arrived. He supposed she would if the topic turned to anything she deemed inappropriate for their young ears.

“Harry, you need to inform the Order about what you’re going to do. I know you well enough to see you’re planning something. We can help you,” Remus said, a pleading quality in his voice.

“I can’t. Remus, you told me once that it all came down to whether or not we trusted Dumbledore’s judgement. At the time you said you did. Is that still true?” Harry asked, turning to face him for the first time.

“I- I do, but Dumbledore is gone, Harry,” Remus said quietly, his voice pained.

“And he left me a job to do. He wanted me to do it, and to keep quiet about it. I’m going to honor that request,” Harry said vehemently.

Remus hung his head, his shoulders slumping. “Very well, Harry. I won’t do anything to stand in your way. However, if there is anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Harry nodded. “There is something you can do. The Weasleys have to stay here; they can’t go back home. You have to make certain they stay here. Wormtail said he’s been at the Burrow, and that he was assigned there to keep an eye on them. Voldemort knows about their connection to me. It’s not safe for them to return.”

Remus’s face darkened. “Understood. I don’t think Molly will be happy about it, but Arthur will see reason. Peter’s not going to destroy another family.”

He wanted to tell Remus about what Wormtail had said about Ginny, but not while she was eavesdropping. It was yet another reason he wanted to keep her close to him. It was the only way he could ensure her safety.

“Anything else?” Remus asked.

“Yeah, there is,” Harry said thoughtfully. “When I went to the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasleys, we stayed in magical tents. There were some that were small enough to look like Muggle pop tents, so they could be transported easily. Do you think you could locate one for me? You can take the funds from my account at Gringotts.”

“Consider it done,” Remus said.

“There is one other thing I’d like to discuss,” Professor McGonagall said, standing up and raising her voice above the chatter. The room quieted and turned towards her once again.

“Please go ahead, Minerva,” said Mrs. Weasley.

“I visited the Hog’s Head earlier today and spoke with Aberforth Dumbledore,” she said, her voice quavering slightly.

Harry’s head shot up, an image of the tall barkeep from the Hog’s Head pub rising in his mind. He was Professor Dumbledore’s eccentric brother? Harry sat slack-jawed, wondering how he’d never made the connection — the similarity between the two appeared so obvious now. An inexplicable swell of sadness arose in Harry’s chest at this revelation. There was so much about Professor Dumbledore he’d never known, and now he never would.

“Did he have anything unusual to report?” Moody growled.

Harry’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. Of course! That was how Dumbledore always knew what was happening in Hogsmeade. His brother would have kept him abreast of anything unusual. Harry smiled sadly, feeling great fondness for his cagey former headmaster.

“He’s finished putting Albus’s affairs in order. He said that Albus left specific instructions on where some of his belongings were to go. I’ve brought several items with me to deliver to some of you,” Professor McGonagall said stiffly, waving her wand. Several plain brown boxes appeared around her.

Harry’s insides went cold. These were Dumbledore’s things, his prized possessions…

“Harry,” Professor McGonagall said, sounding distinctly gentler that she had a moment earlier. “This one is for you. Aberforth was particularly adamant that you receive it posthaste.”

Harry nodded numbly and took the package without comment. He rested it in his lap, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes. Hagrid began blowing his nose into his huge handkerchief, and Mrs. Weasley dabbed at her eyes. Harry’s heart hammered inside his chest, and he found the air in the room had become stifling.

“Hagrid,” Professor McGonagall said, but she didn’t get any further as Hagrid dissolved into wracking sobs, mumbling about what a great man Dumbledore had been. Hermione jumped from her chair and began patting him on the back consolingly. In the confusion, Harry quietly took his package and slipped from his chair, escaping from the room unnoticed.

***

Harry sat cross-legged on his bed with his chin in his hands, staring at the box Professor McGonagall had given him. The package remained sealed, unremarkable really, with its plain brown wrapping, but Harry knew that opening it would be a last goodbye. Professor Dumbledore was really gone; he wasn’t coming back. He knew that not opening the package wouldn’t change anything, but to Harry, it would somehow make it final.

He’d been sitting in the same spot for over an hour and wasn’t certain if everyone was still meeting downstairs. He’d wanted to open whatever it was Dumbledore left him privately, in case it contained anything to do with Voldemort or the Horcruxes. He also didn’t trust his own emotions and didn’t want a crowd to witness yet another breakdown. He knew he should get on with it before anyone came up to check on him, but he couldn’t seem to force himself to do it.

His door creaked open slightly, and Ron poked his head inside. “All right, mate?” he asked tentatively.

“Yeah,” Harry said. “I’m fine. You can come in.”

Ron pushed open the door and entered the room followed closely by Hermione and Ginny.

“Harry!” Hermione said, frowning slightly. “Why did you leave without saying anything? I hadn’t even noticed you had gone.”

Harry merely shrugged.

“What did he leave you?” asked Ron, nodding toward the package.

“Dunno,” Harry replied, shrugging his shoulders again.

“You haven’t even looked?” Hermione cried, aghast. “It could be something important, Harry, something we could use.”

“I know,” he said quietly.

Hermione apparently realized the reason for his hesitancy because her face softened, and she gazed at Harry with something that looked like pity. He averted his eyes, and she backed off and sat beside Ron on his bed.

“Everyone’s gone now; they never really had a proper meeting. I can’t believe Hogwarts won’t be opening at all,” she said tremulously.

Harry started when the edge of his bed dipped slightly. He looked up to see Ginny sitting on the end, watching him closely. Her expression was neutral, and he was grateful for it.

“So, did Professor McGonagall finish delivering everything?” Harry asked in what he hoped was a casual voice.

“Not everything,” Ron replied darkly.

His curiosity piqued, Harry looked towards Ron and raised his eyebrow.

“Dumbledore left something for Snape,” Ron said, spitting the name.

Harry clenched his fists tightly. “Not surprising; he always did trust the git.”

“It is rather startling, though,” Hermione said, looking troubled.

“Why’s that?” Harry asked through gritted teeth.

Ginny took his hand and gently unclenched his fist, revealing several crescent shapes drops of blood where his nails had dug into his skin. She wiped the blood away and clasped his hand within her own warm one. His stomach settled slightly.

“Well….now, I know you don’t want to hear this, but just listen to me,” Hermione said nervously. “Professor Dumbledore adamantly trusted Professor Snape. He insisted that he was on our side-”

“Until he killed him,” Harry shouted, unable to contain his fury.

“I know that, Harry,” Hermione said. “Still, I kept hoping there was some other explanation, that maybe they had planned it this way for some reason.”

“You think Dumbledore planned for Snape to do him in?” Ron asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Hermione cried, exasperated. “I just can’t help wondering if there is something we’re missing. But now, if Dumbledore left Snape something…maybe he didn’t know. I’d like to know what he left him. It might answer some questions.”

“There is no question,” Harry said flatly. “Snape killed him. Dumbledore left him something because he trusted him; he thought he was his friend. Snape’s no different from Wormtail.”

“You can’t honestly still think Snape is working for our side, Hermione,” Ron said.

“No. I suppose not,” Hermione said, deflating, “but I just wish I knew for certain.”

“There’s nothing to know,” Harry said angrily, feeling more agitated by the moment. “He’s a murderer, Hermione. He killed Dumbledore, and he can never be forgiven for that.”

“I spoke with Fred and George,” Ginny said suddenly. “I asked them if they knew where Mundungus lived.”

“Did they?” Ron asked.

“No, but when I told them Harry needed to know, they said they’d do some checking. They said Dung never seemed to stay in any one place too long,” Ginny replied.

“Great,” Harry said, that hopeless feeling threatening to overtake him again.

“Don’t worry, Harry. Leave it to Fred and George. If anyone can find his last address, they can,” Ginny said bracingly.

“It’s something, I suppose,” Harry said. “I asked Remus to see if he could find us a magical tent to use while we’re travelling. We can use Headquarters as our base, but I reckon we’ll have to be on foot a lot. Dumbledore was away a lot last year, and we know that’s what he was doing.”

“That’s a very good idea, Harry. When do you think we’ll go?” Hermione asked.

“Not until after my birthday,” Harry said. “I don’t want any Ministry entanglements about underage magic, and it’ll give us a little time to get everything in order. We need to decide where we should go first. Ron and I also have to take our test to get our licenses to Apparate.”

Ron shifted uneasily, and Hermione gave him an encouraging smile.

“Why don’t you open that box,” Ginny said gently. “Maybe it will give us an idea.”

Harry glanced at the ordinary-looking box and sighed heavily. Nothing left for it. “Yeah…okay,” he said, pulling at the tape. Once he’d moved past his initial hesitation, he found his curiosity overwhelmed him, and he hurried to find what was inside.

He unwrapped the last of the packaging and lifted an incredibly old, stone basin from the box, placing it on his desk reverently. Several wrapped items were stored inside.

“What is that?” Ron asked, peering at it closely.

“It’s Dumbledore’s Pensieve,” Harry said quietly, removing the items inside.

“Harry, these are really rare,” Hermione said, curiously examining the runes along the edge of the Pensieve.

“And expensive,” said Ron.

“This is how he showed you the memories of Tom?” Ginny asked, running her finger along the rim. “Are those the memories?”

Harry nodded, unwrapping the last of sealed phials. “Yeah. These are the memories he showed me in our lessons. He felt understanding Riddle’s past was the key to finding the Horcruxes.”

“But wouldn’t Dumbledore’s memories have died with him?” Ron asked.

“No. A lot of these memories belonged to other people, all of whom are long dead. One of them was even a house-elf,” Harry said, as he unwrapped the final two items.

He turned quickly when Ginny gasped.

“Is that…?” she asked, her voice wavering.

Harry held the diary that had once wreaked havoc upon a young Ginny’s life. He looked deeply into her troubled eyes, willing some of his strength to her. Having just dealt with confronting some of the horrors of his own past, he knew exactly what she was feeling.

“Yeah, it is. I don’t know how Dumbledore got it. I gave it back to Lucius Malfoy with the sock that freed Dobby. Maybe Malfoy dropped it, or Dobby had it. I dunno, maybe Dumbledore somehow got it back from Malfoy Manor,” Harry replied, watching Ginny closely.

Ginny reached a shaky hand toward the tattered book with the fang hole through the cover. Harry solemnly handed it to her, knowing she needed to confront her demons.

“No, Ginny, don’t,” Ron said, making a grab for the diary.

Harry grasped Ron’s hand and held him back. “Let her do it, Ron. She needs this,” he said, his eyes remaining fixed on Ginny.

Her eyes were dark and haunted, but remained free of tears. She silently flipped several of the pages before looking back at Harry. “Just a book,” she said shakily.

Harry nodded. “That’s all that’s left now; just a book. You beat him, Ginny.”

“No, you beat him,” Ginny said with a small, humorless laugh. “I was unconscious.”

“You did beat him; you survived. You were never supposed to have done that. You fought him for a year alone, and you survived. Never sell yourself short for that, Ginny,” Harry replied vehemently.

Ginny’s eyes filled with the tears she’d held off for so long, but she forcibly blinked them away. Harry leaned over and gently kissed her forehead. She leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder.

“What’s in the last package?” Hermione asked quietly.

Still keeping an eye on Ginny, Harry opened it. It contained Marvolo Gaunt’s black stone ring. “It’s the other Horcrux. The one Dumbledore destroyed,” Harry said.

“Ooh, can I take a look at it?” Hermione asked.

Harry handed it to her. “There’s something else in this box,” he said, pulling out one of Dumbledore’s delicate silver instruments.

“What does it do?” Ron asked.

“No idea,” Harry replied, studying the instrument closely. It consisted of several, fragile silver cylinders with a tube at the top.

“Are there any instructions?” Hermione asked.

“No,” Harry replied curtly, struggling with a memory on the edge of his consciousness. “I’ve seen this one before though,” he said, distracted.

“Well, of course you have. Dumbledore’s office was chock full of them, and you were in there often enough,” Ron said.

“When were you in Dumbledore’s office?” Hermione demanded.

“Last Christmas. The night Harry had that dream about Dad getting attacked by the snake,” Ron replied.

“That’s it!” Harry exclaimed, snapping his fingers.

“That’s what?” Ginny asked.

“That’s where I’ve seen this thing. It was that night, the night I had that vision, or whatever it was. Dumbledore did something with this instrument. It had green smoke coming out of it,” Harry said excitedly. “The smoke turned into a snake.”

“I don’t remember that,” Ron said, frowning.

“Well, you had other things on your mind, didn’t you?” Harry asked.

“But, isn’t there a note or anything telling you how it works?” Hermione asked, blowing a stray piece of hair off her face.

Harry looked inside the box again, but it was empty. “No. There’s nothing.”

“I can try asking Professor McGonagall,” Hermione said. “She might know how it works.”

“That’s a good idea,” Harry said, nodding absently. “I still need to show her the portrait of the Founders.”

“I think she’ll tell you that it’s safer here for the moment, since Hogwarts isn’t reopening. I don’t think she has much trust in the Ministry right now,” Hermione said.

“Can’t say as I blame her,” Harry replied.

“So, if Hogwarts isn’t reopening, at least I don’t have to tell my mum that I’m not going back,” Ron said.

“You’ll have to tell her you’re leaving though, Ron. She’s still not going to be happy about it,” Hermione said.

“I don’t think we should tell her,” Ginny said. “She’ll never agree to it, and she’ll more than likely try to stop us. We should just slip away the first time. You said we were going to use Headquarters as a base, didn’t you, Harry?”

“Yeah, I said that to Lupin,” Harry replied, grinning. “How did you hear that, Ginny?”

Ginny smiled. “I’m the youngest of seven, Harry. If I hadn’t learned to eavesdrop, I’d never know anything.”

Harry grinned. “That was how I managed with the Dursleys, too. I reckon we can go through these memories in the Pensieve until it’s time to leave.”

“Where do we go first?” Ron asked.

“I think the best place to start is the same place he did, at the orphanage,” Harry replied.

“It was a Muggle orphanage, right?” Hermione asked.

“Yeah,” Harry said, nodding.

“Can I borrow Hedwig?” Hermione asked. “I’ll send a note to my mum asking her to get us the names of any orphanages that were running in London fifty years ago.”

“How would she know that?” Ron asked, dumbfounded.

“She can just use the internet,” Hermione replied, shrugging.

Ron’s bewildered expression never changed. “The what?”

“Oh, that’s a computer, right?” Ginny asked, grinning widely. Her enthusiasm reminded Harry of Mr. Weasley.

Hermione’s cheek twitched as she tried to contain her laughter. “Yes, it involves a computer. Don’t worry about it; she can do this. She’ll be happy I asked her for some help.”

Harry looked up and met her eyes questioningly.

Hermione shrugged. “She just feels a bit disconnected from my life now. How could she not? There’s nothing to be done for it, Harry, but she’ll like being asked for her assistance.”

Harry sighed, feeling badly that Hermione’s family was drifting apart. “Okay, then. It’s a start. You three need to practice your shield spells while we’re here, as well.”

“Harry, we covered shields in fifth year in the DA,” Ron said scathingly.

“If we run into any resistance, or if Voldemort figures out what we’re doing, it’s you three they’ll go after. Voldemort wants me alive,” Harry said firmly.

“Yeah, so he can do you in himself,” Ron said darkly.

“Wormtail said that after he figured out I…when he…he ordered the Death Eaters not to kill me,” Harry said, stumbling on the words. “That’s why he never came after me all last year. He wants to capture me and keep me somewhere under his control.”

The others gasped in horror.

“We won’t let that happen, Harry,” Ginny said, shuddering. She moved closer to Harry and wrapped her arm around his waist, as if anchoring him.

“Voldemort still doesn’t know the whole prophecy. As long as Snape didn’t know, that is. Dumbledore told me the only two people who knew the exact wording were him and me. So, if Snape didn’t know, that means Voldemort still doesn’t know that he has to be the one to kill me in order to come to full power,” Harry replied.

“But Snape does know that Dumbledore was looking for the Horcruxes, right?” Hermione asked suddenly.

“Yeah. Dumbledore said that Snape was the one who saved him the night he hurt his hand,” Harry said, wondering where Hermione was heading.

“Then if Snape really has turned-”

“He has.”

“If Snape really has turned,” Hermione said, ignoring Harry’s interruptions, “he’s told Voldemort what Dumbledore was doing. Voldemort isn’t stupid. He’s going to believe that Professor Dumbledore passed that information to someone else, and that person will try to do the same. He’ll be guarding the other Horcruxes.”

“Maybe,” Harry said, nodding. “Not necessarily, though. Voldemort never would have told anyone else if he were secretly doing something to bring down an enemy. The Death Eaters are his minions, not his friends; Dumbledore stressed that over and over last year. He would never share that kind of information, so he’d never consider the idea that anyone else would.”

“Do you think that’s something Malfoy might know?” Ginny asked.

“It’s possible, but he’s not likely to tell me,” Harry said, imagining the sneer on Malfoy’s face if he were to question him.

“You could get Moody to ask him,” Hermione said.

“Hermione, we’re not telling anyone else,” Harry said through gritted teeth. He ran his hand through his mussed hair in frustration.

“I still think someone in the Order ought to know what we’re doing, but I understand how you feel about this,” Hermione said, frowning slightly. “Still, I think Moody would help. I doubt Malfoy would know

about the Horcruxes, so you could just ask if he’d suddenly ordered any of them to guard anything without reason.”

Harry frowned, mulling it over. Hermione had a tendency to always want to run to someone in authority, and she could never admit that the authorities might be wrong. Still, her idea could work, except…

“Moody’s too suspicious; he’d never leave it at that.”

“He trusted Dumbledore, and I think he trusts you,” Ginny said.

“All right. I’ll ask Moody if I can talk to Malfoy. That’s just the thought I want in my head as I try to go to sleep,” Harry said sarcastically.

Ginny ruffled his hair affectionately. “Aww, it’s not easy to be the hero.”

Harry scowled, making Ginny giggle.

The girls bade them goodnight and returned to their own room. It took Harry a long time to fall asleep, and when he did his dreams were marred with visions of werewolves, locked boxes and green smoke.

***

Harry’s heart pounded as he paced inside a small room off the main hallway in Grimmauld Place. Amazingly, Moody had agreed very easily to Harry’s request to question Malfoy. Harry’s expression must have shown his surprise, because the old Auror began to chuckle.

“I figured you were working with Dumbledore on something, and I reckon you’re going to carry on with it. If Dumbledore didn’t think it was something I needed to know, that’s good enough for me. Constant vigilance, Potter. The less people who know what you’re up to, the less chance there is for a leak,” he said. “I gave my word to Dumbledore that I’d see this through. If that means helping you with whatever it is you’re doing, that’s just what I’m going to do.”

Turning, he stomped out of the room to fetch Malfoy, his wooden leg thumping on the floor with each step.

Harry moved to the back of the room and took a seat in a darkened corner, hoping for the chance to observe Malfoy’s interaction with Moody before he was alerted to Harry’s presence. He was doubtful that Malfoy would cooperate, but if he had any information that could aid him in any way, Harry was determined to get it.

Hearing voices in the hallway, he ducked into the shadows and waited.

“Just because I am forced to survive in these less-than-stellar accommodations does not give you the right to barge into my room uninvited, Mr. Moody. Decent wizarding manners dictate the necessity of sending an owl to arrange an appointment. Despite your lack of breeding, I expect you to uphold these common niceties,” Malfoy sneered as he entered the room, sat down on a stiff-backed chair and placed his feet on the matching footstool.

Moody followed closely behind wearing an amused expression. He sat in a chair opposite Malfoy and leaned towards him so that their noses were nearly touching. “Listen here, Darren, and listen good-”

“It’s Draco,” Malfoy spat, affronted.

Moody continued as if there hadn’t been an interruption. “You’re not here as a houseguest, you’re here because if you were anywhere else, you’d be dead already.”

“And without the information I can provide, you lot won’t be long behind me,” Malfoy replied, although he had paled slightly.

Harry took a moment to take a good look at Malfoy’s appearance. He’d lost the dark circles beneath his eyes, and his skin no longer had an ashen pallor, but he still appeared pale and drawn. He spoke with all the haughtiness and bravado Harry had come to expect, but there was an air of brittleness beneath it that hadn’t been there in the past.

“We’ve been through all of this already and agreed to come to an arrangement that could be mutually beneficial,” Moody said, sounding weary, as if he’d been over this same conversation many times already.

“That doesn’t mean you can barge into my chambers-”

“I knocked on your door, David,” Moody said dryly. “I have a few questions that need answering.”

“It’s Draco,” Malfoy said through gritted teeth, “and when my mother hears about this, she won’t be pleased.”

Moody nodded his head towards the door. “By all means, if you need your mummy present, go and fetch her.”

Malfoy puffed out his chest indignantly. “I won’t be treated as a common house-elf, and I’m perfectly capable of handling my own affairs.”

“And I won’t be treated as your nanny. Grow up, Dudley,” Moody growled, his magical eye looking directly at Harry’s hiding spot and winking.

Harry nearly choked trying to hold back his laughter.

“It’s Draco,” Malfoy spat, clenching his teeth. “What is it you need to know? I don’t have all morning.”

“Sorry to interrupt your busy social schedule,” Harry said, moving into the light and taking the chair next to Moody. He imitated Malfoy by placing his feet on the footstool and crossing his hands on his chest. “I hadn’t realized how fascinating the portraits were up on your wing. I assume that’s who’s keeping you busy since none of the living inhabitants in the house will actually speak to you. I’ll have to visit when I’m in need of stimulating conversation.”

Malfoy’s expression rapidly turned from stunned to angry. “Potter,” he sneered, glaring down his nose at Harry. “What are you doing here? I’m not staying if he’s in the room.”

“He’s the one who has a few questions for you, and since it’s his house, he gets to decide where he goes,” Moody replied indifferently.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Malfoy said obstinately, looking away from Harry.

“All right,” Harry replied, shrugging his shoulders. “I believe you know how to find the front door. Be sure to take all your belongings as there are plenty of people waiting to use your room. Moody, would you mind asking Narcissa Malfoy to join me? I’ll see if she’s any more cooperative then her son. We’ll offer her the same deal.”

“Stay away from my mother, Potter,” Malfoy snarled, two bright pink spots appearing on his pale cheeks.

Harry gazed at him coldly. “If you won’t cooperate, Malfoy, then I need to find someone who will.”

Malfoy clenched his fists tightly, a myriad of expressions crossing his face. “What is it you want to know? I would have thought the precious Chosen One would have better things to do. If you want me out of here so badly, why don’t you follow your destiny so the rest of us can all get on with our lives?” he sneered.

“That’s enough,” Moody growled, pulling out his wand and pointing it at Malfoy.

“It’s all right, Moody,” Harry said calmly. He knew Malfoy had the tendency to boast when he was angry; Harry was counting on that habit now. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do, Malfoy, with or without your help. I don’t care what happens to you anymore than you care what happens to me. But I think we both have other people living in this house that we do care about. Do you think you can control your childish outbursts for a few moments, or should I go ask your mother?”

Malfoy paled yet again at the reference to his mother. Still, his anger won out, and he sneered, “He’s going to cut you into little pieces and feed you to his snake.”

Harry forced himself to keep his voice steady. “Perhaps, but if I can’t take him with me, your life isn’t worth dragon dung.”

Malfoy’s anger appeared to swell, and for a moment, Harry was certain he would draw his wand and hex him. After a moment, however, he seemed to deflate and sank wearily back into his chair. “What do you need to know?” he asked tonelessly.

“I want to know if Voldemort,” Harry ignored Malfoy’s hiss when he said the name, “has shown any particular care in guarding certain places recently — meaning in the past year. He would have asked for these places to be under surveillance, but he wouldn’t have given any reason why. Does this sound at all familiar?”

Malfoy’s eyes showed a spark of recognition although he tried to cover it. “Why is it important?” he asked.

Harry shrugged indifferently. “It might not be, but call me curious.”

Some of Malfoy’s haughty bravado returned as he said dismissively, “I don’t think it could possibly be significant.”

“What’s not significant?” Harry asked, his eyes narrowing, the hair on his arms suddenly standing on end.

“Whatever is being guarded isn’t important, or he would have other, more important people guarding it. People that matter,” Malfoy replied.

“Like you?” Harry asked, rolling his eyes.

Malfoy flushed. “He gave me the greatest task of all, and I fulfilled it,” he said pompously.

Reminded of Malfoy’s role in Dumbledore’s death, Harry felt his skin burn with indignation. “You didn’t; Snape did. In the end, you couldn’t do it. You’re not a killer, Malfoy. Someday you might even be proud of that.”

“What do you know about it?” Malfoy asked, his eyes widening with alarm.

“I know plenty. I know you were lowering your wand when Snape and the others burst through that door. Professor Dumbledore offered you a chance, and you were going to take it,” Harry said, shuddering as he remembered.

Malfoy narrowed his eyes shrewdly. “How do you-”

“Let’s get back on track here, boys. What do you know about whatever is being guarded, Draco?” Moody asked, using the correct name for the first time.

“I don’t know what or where it is, but he assigned Pettigrew, Crabbe, Goyle and Simmons each to do something and report directly to him. None of them is the brightest or most loyal of followers, so whatever it is can’t be very significant,” Malfoy replied, shrugging.

Harry’s mind was racing. Wormtail was watching the Burrow, which of course meant watching him. That would leave the cup and the unknown Horcrux. So, what could the fourth person be watching? Assigning Death Eaters who weren’t particularly smart was exactly Voldemort’s style. They wouldn’t question why or look any deeper into what they were doing, and if the other Death Eaters had attitudes like Malfoy’s, they wouldn’t believe whatever was being done was significant.

Wormtail was Wormtail, and if Crabbe and Goyle were anything like their offspring, they wouldn’t be very bright. He didn’t know anything about Simmons, but imagined he would fall into the same category. Why four of them, though?

Of course! The locket. If Voldemort never knew that RAB had gone to the cave and stolen it, he wouldn’t have been aware that Harry and Dumbledore made it there, either. Dumbledore had said Lucius Malfoy told his master about the diary, and Harry imagined that Snape would have told Voldemort about the ring, but no one knew about the locket. He’d still have someone watching the cave. Their orders would be to report anything suspicious or any visitors immediately so Voldemort could descend upon the place himself.

This was a start. If they could find these people, they’d know they were in the right place.

“Does that mean anything to you, Potter?” Moody asked, watching Harry carefully.

“It might,” Harry said absently. “Who really knows what Voldemort is thinking?”

Malfoy dropped his head in his hands, rubbing his forehead wearily. “Look, Potter, I don’t know if this Chosen One business is true or just more of your hype, and I don’t really care. The Malfoy name is as old and respected as any pureblood wizarding family today, and we are being hunted like animals. Neither my mother nor I deserve to live this way. If you’re going to try and end this madness, I’ll do what I can to help you. It doesn’t mean we’re friends, and it doesn’t mean I’ll want anything to do with you once this is all over. If you’re still around, that is.”

“Fair enough,” Harry said, nodding. “I’m certain I won’t want anything to do with you once it’s all over, either.”

Turning his back on Malfoy and nodding slightly at Moody, Harry strode from the room with his head held high. He had a place to start.

***

Far from London, in a dark stone manor-house set apart from all others, the Dark Lord had summoned his minions. He sat behind a massive oak desk in a high-backed chair resembling a throne. His serpentine features studied the masked, robed figures standing before him, their heads bowed in submission. His long, thin fingers stroked his wand almost lovingly as his fierce red eyes bored into the group.

“Which of you can tell me where Potter and the blood traitor clan have gone?” Voldemort hissed softly. His voice was calm, yet still it caused a shudder to pass through most of the Death Eaters.

“Might I suggest,” a smooth, oily voice volunteered from the back of the room, “that they’ve taken shelter inside the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix? As I’ve reported, the entire Weasley family is in it, and Potter is prone to protect them.”

“Yes, Severus,” Voldemort said, his eyes briefly flashing with an eerie red glow. “You’ve been quite helpful in supplying me with the names of those in this Order, but you haven’t been able to tell me where their headquarters is located.”

Snape bowed even lower to the ground. “My humble apologies, Master, but you are aware of how the Fidelius Charm works. Without the Secret Keeper, the location cannot be revealed.”

Voldemort’s irritation showed as he tightly wrapped his emaciated fingers around his wand. “And who would that Secret Keeper be?” he asked.

“As you know, after killing Albus Dumbledore, I am no longer privy to the happenings in the Order,” Snape said silkily.

“Yes, we all know you were the one to kill Dumbledore, Snape,” Bellatrix Lestrange sneered, unable to maintain her silence any longer. “You appear overly fond of reminding us. What he asked was who their new Secret Keeper is.”

“Thank you, Bella,” Voldemort hissed dangerously. “While I appreciate your loyalty, I do not appreciate your speaking out of turn.”

Bellatrix’s eyes widened behind her mask, as she had finally realized she’d overstepped her bounds. “Of course, Master,” she said, bowing her head. “My apologies.”

“Do not let it happen again, Bella,” he said calmly. As she took a step backwards to take her place in the line of Death Eaters, he raised his wand and hissed, “Crucio.”

Bellatrix dropped to the floor, screaming and writhing in agony. The other Death Eaters kept their gazes focused straight ahead, never moving. After an inordinate amount of time, Voldemort lifted the curse and turned to address Snape once again, leaving Bellatrix whimpering on the ground. No one moved to assist her.

“You know these people better than the rest of us, Severus. Whom do you suggest they would have chosen as their Secret Keeper?” he asked.

Snape moved his finger across his chin slowly, deliberating. “My instincts would say either Minerva McGonagall or Alastor Moody, but there is always the enigma of Potter to consider,” he said, his upper lip curling.

“What does Potter have to do with it?” Voldemort asked.

“If the brat has any say in the matter, he is most likely the Secret Keeper himself. He’s exceedingly arrogant, and his opinion of himself is exceptionally high. His foolish Gryffindor streak wouldn’t allow anyone else to be at risk, therefore, he’d take on the role himself,” Snape replied, grimacing as if he had an unpleasant taste in his mouth.

Voldemort shook his head dismissively. “The Order would never allow a sixteen-year-old boy to be Secret Keeper.”

“Ordinarily, I would agree with you, however all rules tend to be bent to Potter’s whim. Dumbledore himself entrusted the boy with far too much information,” Snape said, clenching his fists.

“Dumbledore was a fool, and his fondness for the boy was one of his greatest weaknesses. I don’t want any of you to concern yourself with Potter. Leave him to me. I have very specific plans for the boy. He needs to learn what it means to defy me, but he is by no means a threat to our plans,” Voldemort said.

Snape looked as if he would argue, but lowered his head and backed away. “Yes, Master.”

“Have any of you incompetent fools learned how it was that the blood traitors managed to repel the Dementors from the wedding reception?” Voldemort asked in a low voice.

“Potter and the eldest Weasley, the one I marked as one of my den, managed to strengthen the wards, my Lord,” Fenrir Greyback said.

“I see,” Voldemort hissed. “I expect, Fenrir, that you will want to be the one to see that this Weasley is punished?”

“Yes, my Lord. I’ve marked him, and I am certain he is now feeling the frustration over how the Ministry regards our kind. He’ll be ripe to turn to our side once I make him a full werewolf,” Greyback said, grinning maniacally.

“Excellent. What of our missing Malfoys? Have they been apprehended?” Voldemort asked.

The Death Eaters shifted uncomfortably, but no one spoke.

“I asked a question, and I expect an answer,” Voldemort said without raising his voice. Still, the threat in his tone was unmistakable.

“No, my Lord. They appear to have vanished,” said a woman’s voice.

“How is this possible?” Voldemort asked.

Again, he was met with silence.

“Answer me,” he bellowed, green sparks flashing from his wand.

“They could not have done it without aid,” Bellatrix replied, still huddled on the floor. She gasped in pain as she rose on her knees. “My sister doesn’t have any contacts who would aid her against you, my Lord. An acquaintance of Draco’s must be offering them sanctuary.”

Snape’s face remained impassive.

“I want them found and brought before me, along with whomever it was who facilitated their escape. Whichever of you finds them will, of course, earn my favor and a small measure of my gratitude,” Voldemort said.

“What about Wormtail?’ Bellatrix asked. “He’s not here. Perhaps he allowed my sister to escape.”

“Wormtail lacks the courage to do anything so bold. I am aware of his location, as I am aware of each of your assignments. Never forget that, Bella,” he said menacingly.

“Yes, Master,” Bellatrix said, wincing.

“You all have your orders; don’t disappoint me again. I will be far less gracious the next time we meet if you again have nothing to report but utter failure,” he said, his cold, snakelike gaze raking over all of them. “Severus, please remain behind. I have something I need to discuss.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Snape said, bowing stiffly.

The remaining Death Eaters Disapparated as quickly as they could, eager both to do their master’s bidding and to be away from his wrath.

“It has been over a month since Albus Dumbledore’s death, Severus, and there has not been a single sign of movement towards any of my Horcruxes. I believe you were mistaken that Dumbledore would have made someone else aware of what he was doing,” Voldemort said, his voice a low hiss.

Snape bowed his head and moved slowly toward the desk. “Of course you may be right, Master. However, I feel I knew the Headmaster very well after rendering my services to him for so very long. He always had contingency plans.”

“Yet you’ve said that you’d lost some of his trust towards the end. You said you thought he was keeping something from you,” Voldemort replied, his scarlet eyes narrowing into slits.

“Yes,” Snape said, shifting uncomfortably. “He didn’t feel I was doing enough to learn what the Malfoy boy was planning. I was unable to reveal what I knew and without Draco’s cooperation, the stories I fabricated were proven false. As you know, Dumbledore always believed everyone could be saved. He’d hoped that I could offer the boy the chance to reform.”

“Yes. His compassion was one of his greatest faults. He could never understand that there are those of us who never wanted to be saved,” Voldemort said, a hideous smile twisting his face.

Snape grimaced as if swallowing something slimy and unpleasant. “He also refused to reveal what he was discussing with Potter on their many evenings together.”

Voldemort waved his hand carelessly. “You said you’d ensured that Potter was unable to learn Occlumency the previous year. Perhaps Dumbledore attempted to teach the boy himself and caught on to your deceit.”

Snape bristled, an ugly sneer crossing his sallow features. “The boy is incapable of using the simplest of techniques. Saying he was unable to learn was not far from the truth.”

“Still, Dumbledore was fond of the boy,” Voldemort said, apparently amused by Snape’s naked hatred of Harry.

“Yes,” Snape replied through gritted teeth. “He was so fond of him that he often allowed the boy to interfere in matters that should have been left to those more capable. I fear that Potter might actually be the one Dumbledore confided in about the Horcruxes. The boy’s ego is certainly large enough that he would believe it was something he could handle.”

“Ridiculous. Dumbledore always had a weakness for his favorites, but he would never share the information that could destroy me with a sixteen-year-old boy. Be careful, Severus, your jealousy is showing,” Voldemort said, amused.

Snape cocked his head slightly. “If I may respectfully point out, my Lord, you assigned a sixteen-year-old a similar task.”

Voldemort’s smile faded and his eyes narrowed again. “I assigned the Malfoy boy his job as a punishment to his father. I knew he’d be unable to complete his task, and I was right. It was you, Severus, who destroyed my enemy. I never expected the Malfoy boy to survive. Dumbledore was far too noble to ever willingly place anyone he considered a child in such danger. His love for the Potter boy would never have allowed it.”

Snape scowled. “My Lord-”

“Enough! I do not want to hear any more of this, Severus. I have plans for Harry Potter. I believe the prophecy referred to him as a threat because he is a Horcrux, not because he is anything special on his own. Once I realized what had happened, it became clear to me. I can handle Harry Potter. He is no longer a threat to me. My plans to dismantle the Ministry can now begin. There is no one who can stop me,” Voldemort said, his eyes glowing.

“Yes, Master,” Snape replied, an uneasy frown upon his face. It was no secret that Snape believed that Harry’s reputation was highly overrated, but he also had to know that it wasn’t wise to underestimate the boy. He had a nasty habit of being in the right place at the right time.

Chapter Nine

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Harry awoke early on the morning of his birthday after a night mercifully unmarred by dreams. Lying in bed and luxuriating in the feel of the warm sunlight streaming though a crack in the curtains, he breathed deeply.

He was finally of age, finally a man.

The Dursleys briefly crossed his mind. The magic his mother invoked by giving her life for his would have ended at midnight. He wondered idly what that would mean for the Dursleys, if anything. He knew the Order was still keeping an eye on Privet Drive, and he also knew the Dursleys

would never accept an offer to go into hiding. As far as they were concerned, they were done with him and his world. For their sake, Harry hoped that was true.

He suspected that before they had departed, Ron and Hermione had done something to let the Dursleys know they were unhappy with the treatment Harry had received through the years. He purposefully hadn’t asked them, however. If he didn’t know what they’d done, there was no way he could feel guilty about it. Besides, it wasn’t as if the Dursleys didn’t deserve a bit of torment, anyway.

Shaking his head, he tried to steer his thoughts away from his relatives. He never had to go back, and that felt good. He had a busy day ahead, and tomorrow…tomorrow his adventure would begin. Remus had supplied him with a magical tent, and it was now tucked away inside his rucksack. The four teens had packed lightly, uncertain how long they would be gone and not wanting to have to lug heavy bags with them.

He and Ron had an appointment at the Ministry at nine o’clock to take their Apparation tests. Mr. Weasley had agreed to accompany them to the testing center on his way to work. Harry was looking forward to it, although slightly apprehensive that Rufus Scrimgeour would try to take advantage of his appearance at the Ministry.

Harry glanced over at Ron’s bed and was surprised to find it empty. It was a rare occasion that Ron was up before Harry. He knew that Ron was feeling extremely nervous about the test, and he hoped that his friend wouldn’t let his nerves unhinge him. They had to be able to Apparate once they began their quest. Harry was nervous about the fact that Ginny would have to SideAlong for another year before she was of age, although she’d hinted at the fact that she already knew how to do it.

His door opened with a creak, startling him, and he squinted his unfocused eyes at the blur of red streaking towards him.

“Good morning, Harry! Happy Birthday,” Ginny squealed, kissing him soundly as she sat on the edge of his bed.

Harry grinned widely, feeling inexplicably giddy all of a sudden. “Thanks, Ginny. I’d have turned seventeen sooner if I’d known I’d get a greeting like that,” he said, smiling cheekily.

Ginny grinned and gently ran her hand along the side of his face. “Mum’s making an enormous birthday breakfast, so I hope you’re hungry.”

“I am,” he said, turning to kiss her hand. “I hope this test goes all right for both of us. I’ll be happy when it’s done and over with. Where is Ron? Have you seen him?”

“He’s in the kitchen. Mum’s trying to coax him to eat something, but he looks really nervous. When will the prat ever learn that he only mucks it up because he convinces himself that he’s going to do so?” she asked in exasperation.

“I know,” Harry said, grimacing. “He’s not a prat though; he’s just nervous.”

“He’s a prat,” Ginny said firmly. “Everything is all set to go tomorrow. I hope Mum won’t be too upset.”

“I know,” Harry replied worriedly. He really didn’t want to hurt Mrs. Weasley, but he also knew that she’d never allow them to leave without knowing where they were going. Even if they’d come up with a plausible excuse, she’d most likely resist the idea of their leaving the safety of headquarters.

Hermione’s mum had found the name and address of the orphanage fairly quickly. Luckily, it was still open and hadn’t been torn down or converted into anything else. Its location wasn’t all that far from the Leaky Cauldron, although they’d decided it was safer to avoid the pub and travel as Muggles.

They planned to sneak out of Grimmauld Place at dawn, before the rest of the household had arisen. He was certain that they’d have to deal with the fallout upon their return, but he hoped by then to have one more Horcrux recovered. It would put him on firmer ground while holding off the Order.

“Hopefully, this little battle of wills she’s been having with Narcissa Malfoy will keep her occupied so she won’t fret too much,” Ginny said, biting her lip.

Narcissa Malfoy had yet to make an appearance since they’d all arrived at Grimmauld Place. She’d remained sequestered in her rooms, requesting that meals be sent up to her. Mrs. Weasley had prepared the trays nicely enough, but she’d refused to deliver them to her, forcing Narcissa to either get them herself or have someone else do it. Mrs. Malfoy had also refused to return any of the trays to the kitchen after using them, and Mrs. Weasley was determined not to collect the growing pile that stood in the hallway. She wanted Mrs. Malfoy to return and clean them herself.

“I’ll be sorry to miss that row when it happens,” Harry said, grinning.

“Yeah. I’ve noticed Fred and George have been hanging around a lot recently. I think they’re just hoping to be here when everything blows,” Ginny replied.

“I hope your mum and dad won’t be too angry with me when they realize we’ve left,” Harry said. “They’ve done a lot for me.” Although he didn’t say it, the idea of the Weasleys’ disapproval troubled him greatly. They meant a lot to him.

“Don’t fret now, Harry. We’ll deal with things as they come, together. Actually, I think Dad might suspect we’re up to something. He’s not as unaware of what’s happening around him as he sometimes appears,” Ginny said, smiling fondly. “He’ll help with Mum. He’s not having as hard a time admitting we’ve all grown up as she is.”

Harry wondered if that were true for Ginny as well as her brothers. Somehow, he suspected that Mr. Weasley might have a much harder time accepting the idea that his little girl had grown up enough to run off with a boy in order to face an insane Dark wizard and a bunch of Death Eaters than the fact that one of his sons had done it.

When Harry remained silent, she reached out and gently caressed the side of his face. He leaned his head into her palm, relishing the comfort.

“How are you doing?” she asked, her expression grave. He knew at once exactly what she meant.

None of them had discussed the Seventh Horcrux with him since his startling revelation. It was as if the subject had become taboo, and they all tiptoed around it carefully while discussing anything to do with the search. On several occasions, he’d discovered Ginny, Ron and Hermione with their heads huddled together and whispering frantically, although they always broke apart when he’d entered the room.

He suspected they’d spent a lot of time discussing him and seeking a possible escape from his situation. The fact none of them had approached him didn’t bode well, and Harry didn’t have the heart to ask. He was only holding it all together by moving forward and keeping his eye on the prize.

One Horcrux at a time had become his mantra.

“I’m okay,” he whispered, shrugging. “Have to be, don’t I?”

“Not with me,” she whispered gently. “I promised myself to be the one to prop you back up if you falter. You might be determined to save the wizarding world, but I’m determined to save you.”

A lump rose in Harry’s throat as he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Speaking into her shoulder he said, “That might not be possible, Ginny.”

Ginny’s grip tightened around him. “It is possible. Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve. I’ve told you that before, don’t you remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Harry said, smiling. “You came to my rescue then, too.”

“That’s me, Ginny Weasley: hero rescuer,” she said, still clutching him tightly. He could feel rather than see her grin.

“I’m no hero,” he said gruffly. “I don’t even know what I’m doing.”

“It’ll be all right, Harry. I know it seems insurmountable when you look at what we’ve got to do as a whole, but if we take it a little at a time, sooner or later the puzzle pieces will come together and everything will fit,” Ginny said. He couldn’t see her face, but her voice sounded confident, and it soothed him.

“You make me feel like I can do anything,” he whispered.

“You can.”

“I saw my mum and dad’s graves when I was in Godric’s Hollow,” he said. He’d left that part of the story out when he’d told them all about

Wormtail. He didn’t know why, but he suddenly had the urge to talk about it with her.

“That must have been hard for you,” she said, running her fingers through his hair.

Harry shrugged, enjoying the sensation her fingers were creating. “It was strange. I’ve always wondered about them, but I thought when I finally saw their resting place that I’d feel some sort of connection to them or something. I dunno. It’s stupid really.”

“It isn’t stupid, Harry.”

“It was hard to be there; it made me think of how different things should have been, but I didn’t feel like they were there. I didn’t feel any different about them then I always had. Does that make any sense?” Harry asked.

“I suppose,” Ginny said carefully, “that maybe it’s not the place where they are buried that connects us to the people we’ve lost, but the feelings we have inside for them. I’ve never lost anyone really close to me, so it’s not like I know what I’m talking about, but Mum lost a couple of her brothers in the last war. I never knew them because they died before I was born, but I know she still talks to them sometimes, particularly when she’s feeling stressed. Fred and George were named for them, well, their initials anyway.

“I don’t remember Mum ever going to their graves, but it doesn’t mean she loved them any less. Maybe some people need a grave as a place to grieve and others don’t. You never had a gravesite to go to, right? You’ve always just known they died, so you’ve found other ways to feel connected to them.”

“I suppose,” Harry said, burrowing his face into her hair and smelling that sweet floral scent he loved so much. Until he was eleven, he’d believed his parents had died in a car accident. He could remember lying in his cupboard and having imaginary conversations with them. He’d never considered that it was a form of grieving.

“So, what do you want to do for your birthday?” Ginny asked, and he knew she was trying to cheer him up. Feeling in the mood to actually celebrate his birthday for a change, he let her.

“I know exactly what I want to do,” he said, nibbling on her ear, “but I think your mum might object if we spend the day up here — not to mention your army of brothers.”

Ginny giggled, moving her head to give him better access to her neck. She moaned softly as he continued to plant kisses along the slender column of her throat, and he thought the sound might drive him mad.

Harry had just managed to relax and begin to enjoy himself when he heard Mrs. Weasley hollering to them that breakfast was ready. Harry and Ginny broke apart reluctantly, both panting and looking rather rumpled.

“Well,” Ginny said, standing up and straightening her clothing. “It’s nice to see that my mum’s timing is as impeccable as always.”

“Yeah,” Harry replied grumpily, attempting unsuccessfully to flatten his extremely mussed up hair. “It’s just brilliant.”

“Don’t worry, Harry. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to continue our activities once we’re out from under her eye,” Ginny said with an impish wink. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she turned and left the room, leaving a gaping Harry to follow in her wake. Her words had sent his mind into overdrive, and he was suddenly very keen to begin their quest for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with Horcruxes.

When they entered the kitchen, they found it already crowded. Everyone turned to stare, causing both of them to blush brightly. Harry was surprised to see Ginny coloring; she was usually better at not letting her family get to her than he was.

“Appears as if our birthday boy might have already received one of his presents,” Fred said innocently.

Harry felt heat flame in his face and neck and knew that he’d turned even redder, if that were possible.

“Shut it, you,” Ginny said in a low voice, piling a scoop of scrambled eggs onto a plate. She handed the plate to Harry and filled another for herself.

“Yes, Ginny,” George said, grinning mischievously. “What took you so long? Was it hard to get Harry to rise this morning?”

Harry choked on his eggs, looking around wildly to make certain Mrs. Weasley was still busy at the stove and hadn’t overheard their conversation.

Ginny appeared to have regained her composure. She casually cast her eyes downward at Harry and muttered, “Not really.”

Fred and George sat motionless except for their eyes, which darted back and forth between Harry and Ginny. They wore identical stunned expressions before both broke out in hearty laughter.

Harry wanted the floor to open up and swallow him whole. He was certain any one of her many brothers was about to curse him from existence. He was glad he’d at least come of age, so he could defend himself when they chose to attack. He glanced warily at Ron only to find that his friend wasn’t even paying attention to them. He was pushing food around on his plate and glancing at his watch every few seconds. Ron was impatient to leave.

Sensing Harry’s stare, Ron looked up. “Get moving, Harry. You don’t have time to eat. Dad’s ready to take us to the Ministry; he just went to grab his cloak.”

“Ron,” Ginny said, grabbing Harry’s arm as he went to stand. “This is his birthday breakfast; he should get to enjoy some of it.”

“And he needs to have something in his stomach to do well on his test,” Mrs. Weasley said, moving over to the table and placing a few more slices of toast on Harry’s plate. “Harry, you look flushed, dear. Are you feeling all right?”

Mrs. Weasley put the back of her hand on Harry’s forehead to check if it was warm.

“I’m fine, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry murmured, feeling anything but fine. He’d completely lost his appetite and felt as eager as Ron to leave the kitchen and the dangerously smirking twins.

“Don’t let the test worry you, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said, misinterpreting his unease. “I’m certain you’ll do fine. And even if you don’t, you can always take it again later.”

“If Harry’s feeling peckish, Mum, I’m certain Ginny will be able to take care of him,” Fred said with an evil grin. “She seems to know a lot about his needs these days.”

Not wanting to hear anything more, Harry jumped from his chair and managed to spill his coffee all over the table in the process. Mrs. Weasley hurriedly grabbed a towel and began to sop up the mess.

“Sorry, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, flustered. This only caused Fred and George to laugh harder.

Ginny glared at her brothers. “Ignore them, Harry,” she whispered, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “Good luck. You too, Ron.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, barely acknowledging any of them as he dragged Harry from the kitchen.

***

They had to use the visitor’s entrance when they arrived at the Ministry, causing Harry’s stomach to churn unpleasantly. Mr. Weasley placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze while they were inside the telephone box. Harry was grateful for the support but was even more appreciative of Mr. Weasley’s silence. He couldn’t bear right then to talk about what had happened the last time he’d been there. The memories were all too close to the surface.

When the telephone box sprang open, they stepped out and into the atrium. Harry had only a moment to notice that the fountain in the center of the room had been replaced before a throng of reporters rushed forward towards them.

“There he is,” one of them shouted. “Mr. Potter, could you look this way.”

Flashbulbs began going off in all directions while so many questions were fired at Harry that he couldn’t hear any of them.

Surprised, he remained motionless for a moment, staring blankly at the number of reporters. Mr. Weasley grabbed his arm and began pushing him

towards a glass doorway. Ron walked on his other side, attempting to shield him from view.

The doorway opened suddenly, and Percy Weasley stood motioning them inside. They sprinted through just as Percy slammed the door shut and sealed it with his wand. Harry could see the reporters banging on the glass while still shouting their questions and snapping pictures.

“This way,” Percy said, leading them down a corridor and out of sight.

“What the devil was that all about?” Mr. Weasley asked, straightening his robes.

“That,” Percy replied grimly, “was the Minister’s idea. He informed the press that you’d be arriving here this morning, Harry.”

“Did he bother telling them I’m only here to get my Apparation license?” Harry asked, firing up at once.

“No. Although he never said you were meeting with him, he left the reason for your appearance very ambiguous,” Percy replied, not meeting Harry’s eyes.

“What else aren’t you saying?” Harry asked instinctively.

“I was sent to get you away from the reporters and take you through security before you had time to answer any questions,” Percy said, two bright spots of color appearing on his cheeks.

“You did what you had to do to keep your job,” Harry said, waving his hand. “Besides, I didn’t really want to talk to those reporters, anyway.”

Percy started for a moment, blinking behind his horn-rimmed spectacles. Finally, swallowing heavily, he said, “Thank you, Harry.”

Harry again waved his hand in the air, “Bygones. We have more important worries at the moment.”

“Still, I treated you very badly. I can see that now,” Percy said, shifting uncomfortably. Harry could tell that apologizing was something Percy found very difficult to do.

“Percy, the best thing you can do now is to make things right with your family. These are dangerous times, and you don’t want to leave anything undone or unsaid until it’s too late. Take it from someone who knows,” Harry said seriously.

Percy nodded gravely, his eyes shifted for a moment towards Ron who stood with his arms crossed across his chest and a scowl on his face.

“Your mother will be pleased to hear we spoke, Percy,” Mr. Weasley said, his voice sounding slightly choked.

“I’ll visit her soon. You’d best head up to the testing center. They’re expecting you,” he said before turning on his heel and hurrying down the corridor.

“I can’t believe you let him off that easily,” Ron said, shaking his head.

“He’s your brother, Ron,” Harry replied.

“All the more reason he shouldn’t have acted like such a git,” Ron said, scowling. “It’ll take a bit more than that for me to forgive him.”

Harry glanced at Mr. Weasley, expecting him to reprimand Ron. The older man didn’t, however, apparently accepting that Percy would have to mend his relationship with his siblings on his own.

“We’d best go upstairs,” Mr. Weasley said brightly, pressing the button for the lift and wearing a wide grin that made him appear younger than he had in months.

When they reached the testing center, they found it empty except for a young witch who was sitting at the reception desk. She smiled engagingly and lowered her lashes, telling them to take a seat. They sat in comfortable chairs while the witch cast flirtatious smiles across the desk. Harry shifted uncomfortably while Ron perked up straightly in his chair. After several moments, the witch began to pout, sticking her heavily painted lip out dramatically. She obviously was seeking Harry’s attention, but he wasn’t heeding her advances.

Ron scowled when he realized the witch wasn’t paying any attention to him, and he began to fidget. His leg quickly bounced up and down as he shifted in his seat.

“Don’t worry about it,” Harry finally hissed. “You’ll do fine. You’ve done it before.”

“I hate tests,” Ron hissed back.

Mr. Weasley sat with his face behind a magazine pretending not to pay attention, although Harry could see his body twitching with suppressed chuckles. Thankfully, Harry’s name was called first, and he followed the stern-looking witch down the corridor and away from the receptionist and Ron’s nerves.

He emerged twenty minutes later sporting a huge grin with his Apparation license in his hand.

“Well done,” Mr. Weasley said, patting him on the back. “Well done, indeed. Why don’t you have a seat while we wait for Ron?”

Harry had the distinct impression that Mr. Weasley had something particular that he wanted to discuss, and Harry’s stomach twisted with nerves.

“Now you’ve come of age, I imagine some things will change,” Mr. Weasley said a bit too casually, while picking at a stray thread on the sleeve of his robes.

“Yes, sir,” Harry replied, resisting the urge to tug at his collar. His neck suddenly felt very hot and prickly.

“I’m aware that you were working on something with Albus before he died, and I can only assume you intend to finish what you’ve started,” Mr. Weasley said.

Harry forced himself not to fidget and to control his urge to blurt out everything. It was much harder to keep the truth from Mr. Weasley than it had been from Moody or Remus. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, Mr. Weasley, but I really can’t-“

“I’m not asking you to tell me anything that you’re not comfortable in telling me, Harry. I do want you to know, however, that you can always come to me, or to anyone in the Order, for assistance if you feel you need it,” Mr. Weasley said solemnly. “You can come to me at any time, Harry.”

“Thank you,” Harry said, surprised. He knew that Mrs. Weasley wouldn’t like his involvement in anything to do with the Order, but he’d never considered the possibility that Mr. Weasley might see things differently, more objectively.

“I’m not promising that everyone in the Order will feel this way,” Mr. Weasley said, shifting his position. “I suspect there will be several people quite angry with you, actually. But I’ve watched you over the years as you’ve grown, Harry, and I know you are a more-than-capable wizard. You and Ron are adults now, and I can no longer expect to make decisions for you.”

“And Mrs. Weasley?” Harry asked, fearing the answer. Harry dreaded her disapproval almost as much as he had Dumbledore’s.

“Molly will be angry, but I think you know that. You and Ron will always be her little boys. She doesn’t want to let go. She’s a strong witch, though; she’ll be all right. She loves you, Harry; she’ll forgive you,” Mr. Weasley replied, his expression softening.

Harry noticed that although Mr. Weasley suspected that Ron would be leaving with Harry, he had no idea about Ginny. He wondered if his feelings would change when his daughter disappeared, as well. Somehow, he suspected it was easier for Mr. Weasley to see his sons as men than it was to see Ginny as a woman.

“I hope so,” Harry replied earnestly.

“Might I suggest that you make a very public trip through Diagon Alley after you leave here?” Mr. Weasley asked cagily. His eyes gleamed slightly with mischief, reminding Harry of Fred and George.

“But…won’t that draw a lot of attention?” Harry asked, confused. The Order had always made such a point of keeping his movements secret and hidden.

“Precisely. And if every so often you’re seen publicly, those half-wits downstairs will be more than happy to report it. It would serve you

well if You-Know-Who doesn’t suspect that you’re missing,” Mr. Weasley replied.

“That’s a brilliant idea, Mr. Weasley,” Harry said, grinning.

“I can use some contacts at the Ministry to ensure the press is alerted to where you’re going to be when you want them there. I think Percy might also be able to help us with that endeavor,” Mr. Weasley said, smiling.

“Thank you,” Harry replied, his throat feeling suddenly tight.

They were interrupted when Ron came through the door, beaming and carrying his own Apparition license.

“Eyebrows and everything,” he said, grinning.

“Well done,” Harry said, clapping him on the back.

“Congratulations, son. I knew you had it in you,” Mr. Weasley said.

“Thanks, Dad,” Ron replied, his ears turning bright red.

The receptionist rose from her chair and opened a door to the right of her desk. “Congratulations to both of you. There is an Apparation point located right outside this door you can use,” she said, looking hopefully at Harry once again.

Mr. Weasley put an arm around each of the boys and began ushering them towards the door. Harry took a few steps before stopping.

“Isn’t there an Apparation point in the main lobby, Mr. Weasley?” he asked.

“Yes, there is,” the witch answered before Mr. Weasley could open his mouth. She appeared suddenly nervous and unsure of herself. “We have this separate location since our testees are usually so anxious to use their new license. Right through this door.”

She attempted to steer them through the exit, still smiling, but Harry detected a panicky look in her eyes.

“Thanks, but I think I’d like to take the walk,” he said, stopping despite the pressure of her hand on his shoulder.

She grabbed his arm, trying to halt his progress. “Mr. Potter…Harry, there really is no need-“

“Oh, but I think there is,” Harry said, pulling his arm free and leaving through the same door they’d arrived.

“What are you on about, Harry?” Ron asked, following him towards the lift.

Mr. Weasley smiled knowingly. “Boys, I need to get up to my office. I trust you can make it back on your own?”

“Yes, Mr. Weasley. We’re right as rain…and thank you,” Harry replied.

“Think nothing of it,” Mr. Weasley replied, heading in the opposite direction.

When Ron and Harry reached the main lobby there were a number of reporters still mulling around hoping to catch Harry’s exit. They spotted him almost instantly and began to move towards him. Harry raised his hand in the air, flashing his new license for all of them to see. Several flashbulbs snapped the pose.

“I did it,” he cried jubilantly, knowing there would no longer be any questions as to why he was there.

He and Ron shared a smile as they sprinted to the Apparation point and Disapparated in time to escape the questioning reporters.

***

When they returned to Grimmauld Place, after a long and very public walk through Diagon Alley, they found a birthday feast fit for a king awaiting them. They’d made several stops along the way, including a visit to Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Fred and George had gifted Harry with his birthday present while they were there, claiming it was better opened away from Mrs. Weasley’s prying eyes.

Harry opened the package to reveal two bottles of Ogden’s Firewhiskey.

“Those are Everlasting Party bottles,” Fred said.

“Guaranteed to last for the length of any single party,” replied George.

“Or at least until you pass out,” said Fred with a grin.

As they traveled along the busy street, they’d run into several classmates and had their photographs taken several times. All in all, Harry thought it was a very successful outing.

Upon their return, he was overwhelmed by the amount of food Mrs. Weasley had prepared. A knot of guilt twisted in his stomach over his planned deception, and he attempted to impress upon Mrs. Weasley how grateful he was for her kindness.

She brushed him off as if it was nothing, but Harry thought he saw a look of understanding in Mr. Weasley’s eyes.

“Mmm, roasted lamb,” Ron said, sitting down and pulling a plate towards him.

“Never mind the food, Ron. How did you do?” Hermione asked, biting her lip anxiously.

“How’d I do with what?” Ron asked through a mouthful of potatoes.

Hermione was flabbergasted. “With what? With your test, of course. Honestly, Ron. Where have you been all this time?” Hermione asked.

“Oh. Passed,” Ron said, shoveling another forkful into his mouth.

“I knew you could do it,” Hermione exclaimed, throwing her arms around him.

Ron’s eyes flew open wide before a very self-satisfied smile crossed his face, causing Fred and George to snigger.

“And you, Harry? How did you do?” Ginny asked, sidling up next to him and taking the chair next to his.

“Got my license,” Harry said, grinning.

“I knew you’d do it,” she replied, leaning over and pecking him on the cheek. Harry felt his face burn.

“They did it despite Rufus Scrimgeour’s attempts to distract them,” Mr. Weasley said, serving himself some of the dinner.

“What do you mean?” Remus Lupin asked, looking up in alarm.

“It was nothing,” Harry said, shaking his head.

“What was nothing?” Remus asked.

“Scrimgeour had a bunch of reporters waiting to ambush Harry,” Ron replied. “You know how he’s been after Harry to make appearances at the Ministry. He wanted them all to see him there. They tried to shoo us out after we finished our tests, too, but Harry wouldn’t let them do it. He strode right through the lobby flashing his new Apparation license so they’d all know why he was there. I’d love to see Scrimgeour’s face when he hears about it.”

“He already did,” Mr. Weasley said grimly.

“What happened?” Harry asked, alarmed by Mr. Weasley’s expression.

“He wasn’t happy. The evening edition of the Daily Prophet is already out and filled with your picture and several stories. Absolutely nothing about your support for the Ministry as he hoped, however. He sacked the witch who worked in reception at the testing center,” Mr. Weasley replied.

Harry felt dreadful. He’d wanted to upset Scrimgeour’s plans, but he hadn’t meant to get the receptionist in trouble.

“Not your fault, Harry,” Ginny said firmly, correctly reading his expression. “You can’t control what everyone else does. What you did was right, and you can’t help that Scrimgeour acted like a prat.”

Mr. Weasley smiled fondly. “Although I won’t go so far as calling the Minister for Magic a prat,” he said, his lips twitching, “Ginny’s right. It wasn’t your fault so don’t let him make you feel guilty.”

“Enough of this,” Mrs. Weasley said, frowning. “This is Harry’s birthday dinner. Let’s talk about something pleasant.”

Harry remembered how upset she’d been the previous year when news of the war interrupted his birthday celebration. He knew she meant well, but she still wasn’t accepting the fact that he was part of this war, whether she liked it or not.

He was startled from his thoughts when Tonks entered the room looking pale and exhausted. Her mint green hair hung limply on her shoulders. “Sorry I’m late,” she said, sinking wearily into the chair Remus had pulled out for her.

“You look terrible, Tonks,” Mrs. Weasley said, alarmed.

“Rough day,” Tonks replied with an attempt at a smile.

“Did they have you out at Azkaban again?” Remus asked, handing her a glass of wine and fixing her a plate of food.

Tonks nodded, sipping the wine gratefully. “That place is horrible.”

“Azkaban?” Harry asked. “What are you doing at Azkaban?”

“The Ministry has had Aurors guarding the prisoners there since most of the Dementors fled,” Tonks replied.

“Most of them?” Harry asked. “There are still some there?”

“A few of the older, more infirm ones,” Tonks replied heavily. “Miserable creatures. I suspect some of the ones that stayed did so simply for the easy prey. They didn’t want to have to go and look for their own food. Doesn’t matter that there aren’t many left, however. The walls of Azkaban are nearly alive with their scent because they’ve been there so long. It’s a horrid place.”

Mrs. Weasley shuddered. “I can’t believe they send you there. I remember when Arthur had to go out there once. It took him days to recover,” she said tearfully.

Mr. Weasley comfortingly squeezed her hand. “Now, Molly. Someone has to guard the prisoners, don’t they? There really isn’t another option.”

“I think the Ministry should consider building an entirely new prison, away from the effect the Dementors have had on Azkaban,” Bill said. He and Fleur had recently returned from their honeymoon and both were tanned and appeared well-rested. “We could use charms to keep them incarcerated and house-elves to supply the food.”

“Zat is what we do in France,” Fleur said, staring at Bill adoringly. “Eet eez a much better way, I zink.”

“Maybe after the war, something like that will be done here. Right now, all the Ministry’s resources are focused on You-Know-Who and the destruction he’s causing,” Mr. Weasley said heavily.

The paper had reported new Dementor attacks almost daily while the Dark Mark had been seen more and more often in Muggle areas. During the past week, several buildings had caught fire in Birmingham and despite their

best efforts, Ministry officials had been unable to extinguish the flames.

“When we’re finished with dinner, I’ve made a treacle tart for pudding. That one is your favorite, isn’t it, dear?” Mrs. Weasley asked, glaring at both Bill and Mr. Weasley.

“Yes, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry replied. Despite wanting to hear more about what was happening at Azkaban, he couldn’t help but be pleased with the prospect of Mrs. Weasley’s treacle tart.

Conceding to Mrs. Weasley’s desire for a happier subject, the rest of the guests let talk of the war rest for the moment. The remainder of the dinner was spent pleasantly with laughter and the twins’ teasing of Ron about his first failed attempt at gaining an Apparation license.

All of them were so immersed in the festivities that no one noticed the kitchen door opening once again. Narcissa Malfoy stepped into the kitchen with a wary expression, carrying a stack of empty trays. She walked towards the sink and placed them next to it, glancing with distaste at the countertop.

“Narcissa,” Mrs. Weasley said pleasantly. “Would you care for something to eat?” Harry noticed that Mrs. Weasley didn’t jump up to serve her as she usually did when someone entered the kitchen.

Ginny leaned over and whispered in Harry’s ear. “I don’t believe it. She brought the trays down. She must be hungry; she hasn’t eaten all day.”

Mrs. Malfoy appeared affronted by the invitation. “I’d prefer to take a tray upstairs,” she said stiffly.

“Well, there’s plenty of food, and I see you’ve brought down some trays. You’ll just have to clean them up since there aren’t any clean ones left, and then you can help yourself,” Mrs. Weasley said, smiling. She turned towards her own dinner without a backward glance.

Mrs. Malfoy stood slack jawed, staring with revulsion at Mrs. Weasley. Her long, bony white fingers gripped a tray in shock. “Certainly, there are house-elves to do such things,” she said, aghast.

Mrs. Weasley smiled and shook her head. “Oh, not since Kreacher left for Hogwarts. Not that he was ever much help anyway. No, we all have to pitch in with the chores around here if we want anything to get done.”

“Malfoy Manor has a full staff of house-elves. Certainly it won’t cause any difficulties if I have one of them come to work here,” Mrs. Malfoy said haughtily.

“No,” Remus said harshly, sounding angry. “We discussed this when you arrived. You proved it yourself that a house-elf’s loyalty cannot be guaranteed.”

Harry’s stomach clenched as Narcissa raised her nose in the air without apology.

Hermione folded her arms across her chest and scowled at the mention of the house-elves. Harry knew it was taking all her self-restraint not to start arguing over elfish welfare. She had to know her pleas would fall on deaf ears. Still, he knew Hermione well enough to realize she’d be unable to stay silent for long.

“I’m expected to prepare my own food?” Mrs. Malfoy asked incredulously, her pale blue eyes widening in disbelief.

“Only if you want to eat,” Mrs. Weasley said, still smiling although her tone had turned frosty.

Harry leaned back in his chair and grinned, feeling this was one of the best birthday gifts he could have received. Still stung over the reminder of Kreacher’s betrayal, Harry didn’t think Mrs. Weasley was making the Malfoys’ stay nearly as unpleasant as it should be. Narcissa Malfoy had met her match in Molly Weasley, however, and Harry didn’t think the arrogant woman had any idea with whom she was dealing.

He glanced over at Fred and George, who were leaning back in their chairs sipping wine and swinging their heads back and forth as if watching a net ball tournament. Ginny was biting her lip to keep from laughing. No one said a word.

Narcissa was furious. She glared daggers at the entire party. Harry thought she would turn on her heel and storm from the kitchen, but her hunger must have overridden her pride. She grabbed a tray and slammed in into the sink, disdainfully wiping it off.

Walking stiffly towards the table with her head held high, Narcissa’s cold gaze roamed over the many delectable items, finally resting on the cake with the words Happy Birthday, Harry written on top.

Her ice blue eyes locked on Harry. “This is your birthday dinner,” she said arrogantly. It wasn’t a question.

“It is,” Harry said, smirking.

Narcissa put the tray back on the counter. “I’ve lost my appetite,” she said, her gaze sweeping over the Weasleys and the other guests. “I’m surprised there are so many willing to get so close to you. The people who do have a nasty habit of ending up dead.”

Harry gritted his teeth and forced himself not to flinch. His face must have paled, however, for Ginny immediately grabbed his hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

She turned towards Narcissa and said, “While those nearest you have the nasty habit of ending up in prison.”

Narcissa’s eyes narrowed, but before she could retort Mrs. Weasley sharply said, “That’s enough.”

Narcissa turned on her heel and left the room with her nose in the air.

Harry let a breath out through his nose.

The kitchen was silent for a moment after her departure. Finally, Ron leaned across the table and whispered dramatically, “I wonder if she keeps her nose stuck so high in the air after living with Lucius and Draco for so many years? She started looking up just so she wouldn’t have to look at them.”

Ginny snorted and angrily blew a stray piece of hair from her face. “Never mind her, Harry. Don’t let her spoil your party.”

Conversations resumed around the table, and Narcissa’s presence was soon forgotten. Despite his best efforts, Harry’s mood was dampened, however. Said in anger or not, Narcissa’s words were true, and they renewed Harry’s worries for those closest to him. He pasted a smile on his face as he opened his gifts, but was eager to escape and clear his head.

When the dinner was finished, Mrs. Weasley shooed them all from the kitchen and insisted that she would clear the dishes. Harry tried to break away and sprint up to the room he shared with Ron, but his friends apparently knew he was feeling low, and they all followed him.

Ginny sat on his bed beside him, while Ron and Hermione sat on Ron’s bed. Fred and George plopped down on the floor and began rummaging through Harry’s pile of birthday presents.

“Here it is,” Fred exclaimed at last, pulling out one of the bottles of Firewhiskey that he and George had given him earlier that day.

“Harry, mate, I think you’re in need of this,” George said, handing the open bottle to Harry.

Harry looked at it silently for a moment before tossing it back and taking a long swig.

“Harry!” Hermione cried, scandalized.

“What? He’s of age,” Ron said, taking the bottle from Harry, and downing his own swig. Ron handed the bottle to Fred. Each of the twins took a drink before passing the bottle to Ginny.

“Ginny’s not of age,” Hermione said, warily watching the bottle. Harry suspected she was more nervous about the fact that her turn would be next rather than Ginny’s age.

Ginny rolled her eyes and took a deep swallow. She looked at them all triumphantly for a moment before her eyes began to water, and she started to cough and splutter.

Harry patted her on the back, grinning. “Have you had Firewhiskey before, Ginny?” he asked.

Still unable to speak, Ginny shook her head, her eyes streaming.

“I had it for the first time on Bill’s stag night. Speaking of which…I felt bloody awful the next morning,” Harry said, still rubbing Ginny’s back.

“Ahh, yes, we’ve taken care of everything,” George said, rummaging in the box that still held another bottle of Firewhiskey. He removed a phial of murky gray liquid and took a sip.

“Guaranteed to avoid a hangover,” Fred said, taking his own sip and handing the phial to Harry.

Ginny handed the bottle to Hermione, who glanced warily at them all. “I really don’t think this is a very good idea. Your mother could be up here at any minute,” Hermione said.

Fred lazily waved his hand at the open door. “We’ll hear her on the stairs if she comes this way. She won’t anyway. Tonks is here, and Mum was making tea. Once those two get chatting, it’ll be hours before they’re done. Bottoms up, Hermione,” he said, grinning.

Hermione set her shoulders, breathed deeply and took a very dainty sip of the Firewhiskey.

“You can do better than that,” Ron said when Hermione had finished coughing. “Think of it as an experiment. You can’t truly tell Harry and me off for drinking if you don’t have first hand knowledge of the full effects.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed as she glared at Ron. Without breaking eye contact, she tipped the bottle back again, this time taking a long draught and making the twins whoop with glee.

“You show him, Hermione,” Fred said, delighted.

“I always thought there was more to you than that prim and proper exterior,” George said, taking the bottle from her.

Hermione frowned and Ron wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Lay off,” he said to George in a low voice.

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, little bro,” Fred said, taking the bottle from Harry. “No one is picking on your Hermione.”

Ron’s ears turned red, matching the color in Hermione’s cheeks.

As they passed the bottle around and listened to the twins’ amusing stories of events from their shop, Harry tried to shake his unease. The Firewhiskey felt warm in his belly, but he wasn’t as relaxed and carefree as he had the last time he’d drunk it. Narcissa’s words kept ringing in his head.

The people that get close to you have a nasty habit of ending up dead…

Harry angrily took the bottle from Ginny and took another drink, desperately trying to block the implication of the words.

Ron, Hermione and Ginny are the people closest to me now…

Ron had begun slurring his words, while Ginny had developed an uncontrollable case of the giggles. Despite his morose thoughts, Harry

couldn’t help but be amused seeing her this way. At first, she’d laugh at any nonsensical thing the twins’ would say but gradually would giggle if anyone so much as looked at her.

Surprisingly, Hermione appeared to hold it better than either of the Weasleys. She kept right up with the others, but hadn’t started acting silly. She had grown much quieter than usual, however.

Ginny turned towards Harry, frowning slightly as she studied him intently.

“What?” he demanded finally, slightly unnerved by her intense gaze.

“I don’t know where I came up with fresh pickled toad; they’re really more emerald in color. I suppose it was harder to rhyme emerald,” she said, giggling so hard she couldn’t catch her breath.

The others roared with laughter, as Harry felt color flame to his cheeks, remembering that horribly embarrassing Valentine from second year.

“Er…right,” he said, shifting his position so he could lean back against the wall. “Maybe you’ve had enough of that Ginny.” He’d begun to worry what else she might blurt out in her drunken state. He was sitting in a small room with three of her brothers.

“Bloody Hell, Harry, lighten up,” Hermione said, shocking them all. Ron’s mouth gaped open.

“Hermione,” he said. “You just cursed.”

“I’ve spent the last six years practically living with you, Ron. Did you think I hadn’t picked up some of your ruddy habits?” Hermione asked, taking another drink.

Fred and George forgot all about Harry’s Valentine as they turned towards Hermione with calculating expressions.

“Which of his other habits have you picked up on, Hermione?” Fred asked eagerly.

“Well, I haven’t learned how he stuffs an entire potato into his mouth at one time, but I really don’t think I want to know that,” she said seriously causing the others to laugh. “But I have picked up a load of curse words and can make my face appear as if I’m listening to you intently when I’m really plotting out an entire assignment in my head. Of course, I don’t think Ron’s really thinking about assignments when he does that, more like a Quidditch roster. I’ve never seen anyone so obsessed with ruddy Quidditch. Back when we were younger — before he was on the team — he used to quote facts and records about every match in history while we watched Harry play.”

“I never thought you were really listening,” Ron said, stunned.

“Oh, I wasn’t paying attention, but I did like to listen to your voice. You have a very pleasant-sounding voice when it’s not cursing or

shouting about something. You do tend to shout a lot,” she said seriously.

The gleeful expressions on the faces of Fred and George told Harry that they would never let Ron live this down.

The people that get close to you have a nasty habit of ending up dead… If they’re going to insist upon following me, it was more than likely that one or all could…

Harry shuddered, knowing he’d never survive their loss. Voldemort could never know that the surest way to destroy Harry would be to hurt any of them. He couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t.

“Harry,” Ginny said softly, taking his hand. Her eyes were glazed and slightly vacant, but she still appeared to sense his inner turmoil.

His head was spinning, and he suddenly felt very old and tired. He may have only just turned seventeen, but he felt as if he’d already lived several lifetimes.

“Everything will be okay,” Ginny whispered, shifting so she could burrow her head under his arm. “Try not to worry so much.”

“Oh, isn’t this a sight,” a drawling voice said from the doorway.

Harry looked up to see Draco Malfoy leaning against the doorframe, an undecipherable expression upon his pale face. His blond hair was unkempt, hanging over his eyes in a very un-Malfoyish way.

“What do you want?” Ron asked, jumping to his feet and wavering slightly.

“I came to investigate the cause of all the noise. I hadn’t realized I was interrupting your pathetic little party,” Malfoy sneered.

Ginny started to laugh, wrapping her arms around her waist to try and control her giggles.

Harry smiled at her, amused, while she caught her breath.

“He really does look like a ferret,” she said, gasping.

“Shut it, Weaslette,” Malfoy said, his gray eyes flashing. “You pathetic little blood traitor. Consorting with Potter and the Mudblood — you’re a disgrace to your heritage. Of course, you always had a thing for Potty anyway, didn’t you?”

“Watch your mouth,” Ron snarled, clenching his fists.

“Leave her out of it, Malfoy,” Harry snarled, jumping off the bed and raising his wand. He’d been looking for an outlet for his tension all evening, and the blonde represented the perfect opportunity. “Don’t let me ever hear you speak to her that way again.”

Ginny had stopped giggling and was desperately trying to focus on what was happening.

“Leave her out of it? She’s already at the center of it, Potter. God, you really are naïve, aren’t you? Snape already told the Dark Lord all about your little girlfriend. It’s no more likely she’ll survive this war than you will,” Malfoy said.

The people that get close to you have a nasty habit of ending up dead…

“What do you want, Malfoy?” Harry demanded through clenched teeth, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing that his words had any effect on Harry. “I’m certain you were only too happy to confirm that before Voldemort turned on you.”

“I was just wondering why the Light’s precious Chosen One is holed up in a bedroom getting pissed with his little band of cronies while everyone is waiting for him to save the world. I don’t think their faith would be that strong if they could see you now, Potter.”

“Why not?” Ron asked belligerently, moving to stand in front of Harry. “I think it would do everyone some good to see that Harry isn’t letting V-Voldemort interfere with him living his life.”

Malfoy flinched at the name, his eyes widening slightly that Ron had said it. Harry thought it was the first time he’d ever heard Ron actually say it, and wondered how much of that was the Firewhiskey talking.

“In these dark times, everyone needs a few laughs,” Fred said, standing up next to Harry.

“Harry told us that a few years back, and he was right. He will win, and he’ll survive. And we’re all going to be right there alongside him making certain he does,” George said, flanking Harry’s other side.

Harry’s heart swelled with pride. Looking over at Malfoy, he could see the uncertainty on the blonde’s face. It occurred to Harry how similar his and Malfoy’s situations were. Each was assigned the impossible task of destroying the powerful leader of an opposing force. But their choices had differed greatly. Now, Harry was surrounded by a fiercely loyal group of friends prepared to die with him if they had to, while Malfoy was alone and in hiding from the very people to whom he had sworn his allegiance. Their choices and consequences were so very different.

“Then you’re all going to die,” Malfoy spat. “You prats have no idea what you’re getting into. The Dark Lord doesn’t fool around, he won’t tolerate your little jokes.”

“Maybe that’s his problem,” Fred said.

“Everyone needs a good joke,” said George.

Harry spied Ginny out of the corner of his eye. Scowling, she’d stood up on the bed and wavered precariously while holding her wand on Malfoy.

“Ginny, don’t,” he said, reaching toward her. He was afraid that in her inebriated state, she’d only end up cursing herself. She fell back, and he managed to catch her before she landed. In the distraction, Harry heard the distinctive whoosh of a spell being cast, although he knew it hadn’t come from Ginny’s wand.

He turned around to see Ron, Fred and George staring in shock at the doorway where a white ferret squealed and scurried up the hallway.

They looked at each other, stunned speechless before turning as one to face Hermione. She sat on Ron’s bed, calmly polishing her wand. “Ginny was right,” she said simply. “The bloody wanker does look like a ferret.”

The twins roared with laughter, as Ron dropped to his knees in front of her. “I love you, Hermione,” he said.

“It’d be nice if you could say that once in awhile when I hadn’t done your homework for you or performed a brilliant piece of Transfiguration,” Hermione said primly.

Ron’s ears burned. “I’ll work on it,” he said in a low voice.

“On that note, brother dear, I think it’s time we bade them farewell,” George said.

“Yeah. Mum should be up here any minute now, and I don’t want her to think we had anything to do with the condition this lot is in,” Fred said.

They wished Harry a Happy Birthday and bade them all farewell.

Harry turned to see Ginny curled up on his bed like a cat, sleeping soundly. He covered her with a blanket and softly kissed her head.

“Come on, Ron. Let the girls sleep in here, and we’ll bunk in their room. We’ve got to get an early start,” Harry said.

“Right,” Ron replied, still staring at Hermione with a curious expression.

Harry snuggled into Ginny’s bed that night, taking a deep breath and smelling that intoxicating floral smell that was all Ginny. Their quest would begin tomorrow, but lying here now, he felt strangely comforted.

Chapter Ten

Delays, Disappointment, and Dating

Harry awoke with a start, momentarily panicked because he didn’t recognize his surroundings. Slipping his glasses on his nose, he stared wildly at the bright yellow walls and abundance of flowers and cosmetics and well…girly stuff. Then he remembered switching rooms with Ginny and Hermione the night before. He’d set an alarm to wake him at dawn, then had cast a silencing charm around the bed so no one else would be alerted.

He could hear Ron snoring heavily, and he had to bite back a laugh seeing his tall friend’s feet sticking off the end of the other bed while the rest of his body was wrapped in a fluffy pink-flowered blanket. He wished he had a camera; Fred and George would pay a huge sum for that picture.

Harry lay back for a moment and stretched, breathing in the scent on his pillow…Ginny’s pillow. He let his eyes wander across the room, now alert and able to focus on his surroundings. It was easy to distinguish Ginny’s side of the room from Hermione’s. One half was neatly organized with everything in its place, large stacks of books precisely tucked in both corners. The floor on the other half was covered with clothing, gum wrappers, stray quills and several copies of Witch Weekly. Harry was disgruntled to see his own likeness winking from a picture in the top corner of one of the magazines.

He shifted uncomfortably, feeling something lumpy underneath his back. He reached down under the covers and pulled out a ragged stuffed animal. It looked as if it had once been a bear, but was now a sorry sight indeed. He grinned, knowing he’d have something to use to take the mickey out of Ginny later.

Yanking back the covers, he put his feet on the floor and immediately stepped on something. He reached down to lift it off the floor. His face flushed brilliantly when he realized he was holding Ginny’s bra.

“What’s that?” Ron mumbled, squinting at him across the room.

“Nothing,” Harry squeaked, his voice sounding very high. He guiltily shoved the bra behind his back and tried to change the subject. “You’ve got to get up. We need to move quickly.”

“What are you on about, Harry? What’s that behind your back?” Ron asked, fully rousing at the sight of a flustered Harry.

Harry tried to inconspicuously tuck the offending garment beneath Ginny’s covers. Despite his embarrassment, he couldn’t help but notice how soft and silky the material felt, and he rubbed his thumb along the edge as he tried to hide it.

Ron leaped out of bed and reached around to grab the bra from Harry. “What are you trying to hide?” he demanded.

“It’s nothing,” Harry said, panicked and trying to get the evidence away from him.

At that moment, the bedroom door swung open revealing Hermione and Ginny. The two girls stood there, their faces a mixture of surprise and amusement, staring at Ron and Harry who were facing each other in the middle of the floor, Ginny’s bra stretched between them.

“Well,” Ginny said at last. “I hadn’t realized you two had such pervy tendencies. I do have other bras, you know. You don’t have to fight over that one.”

Hermione roared with laughter. “Do you have any of our knickers on, as well?” she asked, doubling over at the scarlet hues that suffused Ron and Harry’s faces.

“I- What- He- What are you doing with my sister’s bra?” Ron bellowed, glaring at Harry.

Harry’s eyes widened as all three of them turned to look at him. “Nothing,” he stammered. “I stepped on it when I got up, and I tried to put it back, and that’s when you woke up.”

“Will you two be quiet,” Hermione hissed. “Do you want to wake up the whole house?”

Laughing, Ginny walked over and took her bra from Harry and Ron. She lightly pecked Harry on the nose. “You’re cute when you’re embarrassed,” she said.

Suddenly realizing he was standing there in his boxers, Ron grabbed the pink flowery blanket and wrapped it around himself. “What are you two doing in here?” he asked. “We’re not dressed yet.”

“I can see that,” Ginny said dryly. “I wouldn’t suggest wearing that color though, Ron. It clashes with your hair. That’s why I gave it to Hermione.”

Hermione giggled, her cheeks very pink. “We’ve got the stuff all ready. We’ll meet you downstairs in five minutes. Hurry up,” she said, staring pointedly at Ron. “Your mother is usually the first one awake.”

The girls went downstairs while Ron and Harry quickly dressed. They met Hermione and Ginny in the entrance hall.

“Are we ready to do this?” Hermione asked. Now that the time had come, she looked wary and uncertain.

“Yeah,” Harry said, infusing his voice with a confidence he didn’t really feel. Hunting the Horcruxes would feel better than waiting to do it, he was certain. Putting his hand on the door, he took a deep breath, and the four of them stole quietly into the gray pre-dawn light.

They soon reached the address that Mrs. Granger had given them for the orphanage, but it was still too early to enter. They bought some muffins at a nearby café and sat down at a table on the sidewalk with a clear view of the orphanage. Harry narrowed his eyes, studying it. There was a vague resemblance to the building he remembered seeing in the Pensieve, but there was something different that he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

“It’s definitely the right address,” he said slowly, “those steps going in are the same, but-”

“It’s been renovated,” Hermione said. “The article my mother forwarded to me said it was completely redone in 1972. They kept some of the old building and added that section over there.” Hermione pointed to the

other side of the building that stretched further down the block than Harry had realized.

“They’ve renovated it? How do we know they even kept the section where Riddle lived?” Harry asked, alarmed.

“We don’t,” Hermione said, shrugging. “But we have to check anyway, don’t we? It’s not like there’s anything we can do about the fact they renovated, Harry. After all, it’s been ages since Riddle was here. There would have to be some changes for it still to be open.”

“Yeah, well, even the renovations were done before we were all born. They’re probably due for more,” Ron said around a mouthful of muffin.

Harry shrugged. Hermione was right; he didn’t know why he hadn’t even considered the possibility. Riddle would have first been here over sixty years ago, everything couldn’t stay the same.”

“How are we going to get in?” Ginny asked. “They’re Muggles, but they must have security.”

“Yeah, but I think I can get past it,” Harry said. “Dumbledore used a blank piece of paper to convince the headmistress that Tom Riddle was supposed to go to Hogwarts. I think I can do the same charm. Once I’m inside, I just need to find a secluded spot where we can Apparate later. I think it’ll be better if we go back tonight with the Invisibility Cloak.”

“That’s a good idea,” Hermione said. “We’ll go rent a couple of rooms for the night. It’ll give us a place to wait.”

“All right,” Harry said. “I’ll meet you back here in two hours, and you can show me where to go. I want to walk around the building and see if I can recognize anything before I go inside.”

Hermione, Ron and Ginny departed, and Harry walked up and down the street in front of the orphanage. He had a strange sense of déjà vu as he passed the stone entrance. This was definitely the same place, and the brick front remained intact. He waited to enter the building until there was some activity on the street.

It had obviously been updated, but Harry found it recognizable. He could see the stone steps that led up to the offices behind a comfortable sitting area decorated in calming blues. A large wooden desk guarded the stairs, and a gray-haired receptionist sat flipping through some papers. She pursed her lips and lifted her reading glasses onto her nose. Something on the paper she held displeased her for she scowled as she pulled the page from the stack and placed it to the side.

Something in the woman’s face reminded Harry of his Aunt Petunia. She had the same disapproving look he remembered seeing so many times while growing up on Privet Drive. His aunt always assumed that everyone was out to take advantage of her.

Harry strode confidently up to the desk. Going with his instincts, he approached her as he would his aunt.

“Good morning, Mrs…Hatcher,” Harry said, pretending to read from the paper he carried. He’d actually simply glanced at the nametag she wore affixed to her jacket. “I was sent to look at a problem you’re having with one of your computers. I understand you’ve been having a lot of trouble with it lately.”

Mrs. Hatcher, who had looked at Harry with extreme suspicion when he first approached her, puffed out her chest. “Why, yes, we have, young man. Those infernal contraptions are always breaking down and making us lose all our data. I don’t know how you people get away with selling such inferior equipment.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Harry said, nodding his head stiffly. “If you’ll just direct me to where the malfunctioning equipment is, I’ll be on my way without disturbing your work further.”

Mrs. Hatcher appeared mollified that he considered her work important. “We have a family coming in for an adoption later today, and Mrs. Thompson will be quite upset if there is a problem getting all the paperwork ready. Now, which machine is it? Who put in the service call?” Mrs. Hatcher asked.

“I believe the name was Mrs. Thompson,” Harry lied smoothly.

Mrs. Hatcher picked up one of the papers in front of her, frowning slightly. “You’re not on the Visitor List,” she said, reading it again.

Harry schooled his features into a look of confusion. “I’m not?” he asked, leaning over the paper. Keeping his wand hidden beneath his hand, he wordlessly cast a spell.

“Oh! Here it is. It is Mrs. Thompson; you’d best hurry then. Her office is right up the stairs and to the right. I believe she’s here already,” Mrs. Hatcher said, waving him through.

“Thank you,” Harry replied, quickly hurrying up the stairs.

As he moved away, he heard Mrs. Hatcher mutter in a very disapproving voice, “They get younger every time.”

He quickly walked down the corridor, taking in the sterile walls and worn carpeting. He could see some classrooms down one corridor, and assumed the living quarters were on the other side of the facility. The children inside the classroom again looked well cared for, but Harry thought the sadness and loneliness of the place was palpable.

Uncle Vernon had regularly threatened to send him to an orphanage, and he’d often thought he’d have been better off. Now, he knew he wouldn’t have enjoyed this life, either. He might have been better off physically, but he would have hated the forced conformity. He was certain he would have ended up in loads of trouble, and he shivered at the strange similarity he once again felt with a young Tom Riddle.

He didn’t like the place and wanted to get out as soon as possible. He needed to find a quiet spot that was likely to be unoccupied in the

evening hours. Peering into one office, he saw a janitor fixing a broken shelf on a bookcase.

“You here to fix the computer?” the man asked, glancing only briefly at Harry. He was old and grizzled, reminding Harry slightly of Mad Eye Moody.

“Er…yeah,” Harry said uncertainly.

“Ruth said she’d sent you along. This one just mucked up as well,” the man said, banging on the bookcase. “Can you take a look at it, too?”

“That looks like a really old bookcase,” Harry said, sitting at the desk and pretending to examine the computer. “I imagine they don’t get new furniture here very often.”

“Nah, we make do with what we have. They stored a bunch of the old furniture from before they renovated the place downstairs in the storeroom. We bring it up whenever some of the new stuff breaks. They just don’t make furniture the way they used to. The old stuff might look rough, but it’s much sturdier than the crap they make nowadays,” the man said.

Harry nodded in what he hoped was a sympathetic manner. “Do they keep any old computers down in that storeroom? Ones that could be used for spare parts?” Harry asked, thinking fast. “It might save you something on the invoice.”

The man shrugged. “I dunno. You can check. The door at the end of the corridor leads down there. Can you fix that one?” he asked.

Harry looked at the computer, having no idea what was wrong with it or how to repair it. He glanced over at the janitor, whose back was to him. He discreetly waved his wand and wordlessly cast a Reparo spell.

The computer hummed almost happily.

“It’s all set,” Harry said. “Nice to meet you.”

The man nodded gruffly but didn’t reply. Harry hurried down the corridor and slipped inside the door to the storeroom. Thankfully, it was unlocked.

Harry was overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the underground storage space. Rows and rows of metal-framed beds and wardrobes were stacked over every bit of available space. Searching them would likely take all night.

Harry slipped the Spell Detectors out of his pocket and placed them on the end of his nose. He got lucky getting down here; maybe he’d be lucky again. He quickly perused the room, but could see no trace of red that would indicate Dark spells. They’d have to return tonight and look more carefully. For now, he had to get back to the others.

***

That night, Harry side-along Apparated with Hermione into the dusty storeroom, giving her a chance to look around and get familiar with the layout. Then they Apparated back to the small inn where they’d rented a couple of rooms and brought Ron and Ginny back with them.

“This place is kind of creepy,” Ron said, glancing warily at all the old furniture stored in piles. The air was dank and musty, and the dim light from their wands cast long shadows on the walls. “I wonder why this room is so deep underground.”

“I think it might have been used as a bomb shelter during the war,” Hermione said absently, looking around.

“This is a Muggle building, Hermione. They didn’t know about the war,” Ron said, puzzled.

“Not with Voldemort. Honestly, Ron, you should have been the one to take Muggle studies. Around the time Grindelwald was terrorizing wizarding Britain, the Muggles were involved in a huge war, as well. During the Blitz, when London was being heavily bombed, people used bomb shelters to try and protect themselves.”

“They hid the children down here?” Ron asked, shuddering.

“I’d imagine,” Hermione said.

“This place is kind of creepy,” Ron said again.

“There’s a lot of sadness here,” Harry said quietly. “Come on, I noticed some wardrobes over here.”

He saw Hermione lock eyes with Ron for a moment before following him.

“You really think that if there is a Horcrux here, he would have hidden it in the wardrobe, Harry?” Hermione asked. “How can you be certain he would have been able to find the same one he used when he was here?”

Harry shrugged, feeling daunted by the large number of places to look. “If he came back to hide one here, I’m certain that’s where he would have put it. It’s just a hunch, but it’s all we’ve got. He would have been able to find the right wardrobe — I’m certain of it. But, the longer I’ve been here today, the less likely I think he would have left a Horcrux.”

“Why?” Hermione asked, startled.

Her brows had knit at his words. Hermione always wanted solid reasons for doing things. Harry suspected much of this quest would involve simply going on gut instincts, and he wondered how she would cope. He knew she wouldn’t like his answer to this question, either.

“It doesn’t feel right; I can’t explain it,” Harry said.

“Harry, you’re going to have to do better than that. We can’t base our entire search on your instincts,” Hermione said.

“His instincts have got him out of sticky situations in the past,” Ginny said, weakly smiling at Harry.

“His instincts have also got him into plenty of sticky situations,” Hermione snapped. “We can’t afford any mistakes. We can’t simply act on gut feelings.”

“We’re going to have to, Hermione,” Harry said. “It’s exactly what Dumbledore did that night in the cave. It was more sensing something than knowing it.”

“How did he know it, though?” Hermione demanded, stamping her foot.

Harry ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “Look, this place would hold bad memories for Riddle, not powerful ones. He was helpless here. That memory we saw in the Pensieve — where he stored the first tokens he took in that wardrobe, that’s what made me think he might put one back in there. But, I don’t think so. He likes power and the feeling of control. When he first learned he was a wizard…it was Dumbledore who held all the power. Dumbledore had all the answers, and Tom was at his mercy. Voldemort wouldn’t have liked that memory. He wouldn’t have liked feeling that way.”

“So, you don’t think there’s anything here? Then what are we looking for?” Ron asked, unable to hide his eagerness at not having to search all the wardrobes.

“Just because that’s what I think doesn’t mean it’s true,” Harry replied. “It’s certainly possible that he hid something here. Even if we don’t find anything, I’m certain it won’t be the last dead end we chase before this is over.”

“It’ll give us some practice,” Ginny said brightly. “Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky.”

“You said you didn’t feel anything, Harry. What do you mean by that?” Hermione asked.

Harry sighed. “I can’t explain it exactly. With the diary and again when I was at the cave with Dumbledore… I could sense something. I hadn’t really given it much thought until Moody told me how to sense magic with these,” Harry said, holding up the Spell Detectors. “I’m hoping that when we do manage to locate a Horcrux, it’ll happen again, and I’ll be able to explain it better.”

Hermione frowned, obviously not satisfied with his answer, but she let it drop for the moment.

Standing in front of row after row of broken-down old wardrobes, Ron looked overwhelmed. “Are we supposed to go through every one of these? It’ll take ages. They’re all empty, anyway.”

“Well, he’s not going to leave anything right where you can see it,” Hermione said scathingly.

“Here, use these,” Harry said, handing the Spell Detectors to Ron. “I don’t know if they’ll still be able to pick up any magic after sixty

years, but look for a glowing color on any of them. If it’s red, it means Dark Magic.”

“What are you going to do?” Ron asked

“I’m going to walk through the dormitories under the Cloak and see if I see any of the older-style wardrobes are still in use up there,” he replied.

“I’ll go with you,” Ginny said. “It’ll be quicker with two sets of eyes in each place.

Harry nodded and raised his arm so she could slip under the Cloak with him. All of his senses suddenly went on high alert once she was pressed so close to him. It was all he could do to focus on simply walking toward the stairs.

“Just looking for wardrobes,” Ron said, disgruntled. “No snogging while you’re up there.”

“Leave them alone, Ron,” Hermione said. “Come on, let’s get started.”

Harry and Ginny climbed the stairs and walked quietly towards the wing where the orphans slept. With a massive effort, Harry forced his body to calm down and his mind away from the thought of how nicely his hand fit in the curve of Ginny’s hip as they searched the rooms.

Several times they saw staff workers patrolling the corridors, but the Cloak kept them hidden, and they simply froze until the person had passed. It was during these ‘frozen’ spells that Harry’s mind would once again become overly aware of Ginny’s closeness. He’d have to drag his thoughts back to the present each time they began moving again.

It took a long time to search all the rooms, and they found no trace of any of the old wardrobes still in use. Several of the orphans were still awake and only pretending to sleep when the workers entered the rooms. Harry smiled, remembering doing the same thing to Aunt Petunia when he was younger. He’d frequently sneak out of his cupboard and prowl the house once the Dursleys went to bed, occasionally sneaking food from the kitchen.

“I don’t think there’s anything up here, Harry,” Ginny said when they reached the end of the wing.

“No. It was unlikely anyway, but worth checking,” Harry replied, feeling slightly discouraged.

Ginny stopped walking, turned around and pressed him against the wall. There was a determined glint in her eyes that he’d never seen before, and a slow smile spread across her features. Harry became instantly aware of every part of her body that was pressed against his, and he wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her in place.

“What was it Ron said about snogging?” she asked huskily, her lips so close to his that he could feel her warm breath. The temperature in the corridor must have risen ten degrees, and he didn’t understand how his body could be so warm and yet still shivering.

“That we couldn’t do it,” Harry whispered before crushing his lips to hers and kissing her thoroughly.

His hands moved up and down the length of her back, the need to touch every part of her was all consuming, and Harry lost himself in the passion of the kiss. Ginny wound her fingers through his hair, and her body seemed to mould against his as if she were liquid. His heart thrummed in his chest, and he felt his knees growing weak. Thankfully, he was still pressed against the wall. He thought it would be entirely unmanly if he collapsed from the intensity of her kisses.

He had no idea how long they kissed — morning could have dawned for all he knew — before Ginny pulled back, panting. She put her arm against the wall for support, resting her head on his chest. It took several minutes for both of them to calm down and catch their breath.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been kissed like that,” Ginny said, raising her head and looking slightly dazed.

“Like what?” Harry asked, beginning to feel nervous. Didn’t she enjoy it? Because I certainly did…

“Like…like a woman,” Ginny said, averting her eyes. Even in the limited light from their wands, he could see a pretty blush staining her cheeks.

Harry’s chest swelled with pride. “You should be kissed that way,” he said. After a moment thinking about it, he frowned and clarified, “But only by me.”

“Possessive now, are we?” she asked, grinning.

“Absolutely,” Harry replied, beaming. Suddenly his heart lightened, and he was unworried about the fruitlessness of their search so far.

Threading his fingers with hers, he tugged slightly, and they began walking back towards the storeroom. Ginny caressed his hand with her thumb the whole way. He could smell her sweet floral scent, and it reminded him of something.

“Sorry to deprive you of your bed partner last night,” he said, smirking.

Ginny’s brow furrowed. “My what?” she asked, peering up at him.

“I woke up this morning and felt a lump under the covers. I pulled out what I think was your teddy bear,” he said, laughing at her confused expression.

“Oh! You found Snot,” Ginny said, giggling.

“Snot? Your teddy bear is named Snot?” Harry asked incredulously.

“Do you have a problem with that?” Ginny asked, grinning.

“I may have never had one of my own, but I think the general idea behind a teddy bear is that you like them,” Harry said, raising an eyebrow.

“But I love Snot,” Ginny said, slapping him on the arm.

“Then why would you call him Snot?” he asked, laughing at her scandalized expression.

“I got him when I was really small, and he didn’t have a name. The boys used to tease me about him, saying he was babyish and such, and I would always say ‘he’s not’. Fred and George could make me so mad with their teasing, and I’d screech it at them. They picked right up on it and twisted it so they called him Snot. He’s been called that ever since,” Ginny said, laughing. “Even though I was angry with them, it is a funny name, and it fits.”

Harry laughed, imagining the scene of a younger group of Weasleys teasing each other. They all had the life every child who lived in this place would give anything to have, and he didn’t think they really had any idea how lucky they were.

“You didn’t pack him though. How come you left Snot behind?” Harry asked as they reached the door that led to the storeroom.

“I’ll just have to find something else to wrap my arms around and snuggle close,” she said, impishly kissing him on the nose before she pulled out from under the Cloak and sprinted down the stairs.

Harry was left on the landing, gaping like a fish. Heat rose to his face and neck, and he had to take several deep, calming breaths before following her.

Ron and Hermione were still searching each of the old wardrobes with the Spell Detectors. Stray pieces of Hermione’s hair had pulled loose from her ponytail and hung limply around her face. Ron was sweating and had a smudge of dirt on his cheekbone.

“Where have you two been?” Ron asked grumpily. “You’ve been gone for ages.”

“It’s a big place, Ron,” Ginny said dryly.

“Did you find anything?” Hermione asked. Harry thought she sounded a bit desperate.

“No. We didn’t see any of the old wardrobes upstairs,” Ginny said sighing. “How about you? Did you find anything?”

“No. Nothing,” Ron said shortly. “It would be easier if we had more than one of these Spell Detectors. We could have cut our time in half.”

“I’ll start at the other end of the room,” Harry said. “I don’t know if I can sense anything, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.”

They spent the next several hours painstakingly searching each row. Harry felt discouraged. He hadn’t sensed anything, but wasn’t confident

enough that he actually could do it to consider the wardrobes he’d searched clean. Ron would have to continue with the Spell Detectors through the whole room.

“Harry!” Ron shouted suddenly, startling him. “I think I’ve got something. It’s faint, but I can definitely see red.” Ron’s voice, which had sounded so exhausted only moments earlier, was suddenly filled with excitement.

Harry quickly moved to the wardrobe Ron had indicated. He shut his eyes and ran his hands over it, concentrating intently. He felt something, but he couldn’t quite name what it was. There was a very distant humming, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, almost like the wardrobe was electrically charged.

“Can you sense anything?” Ginny asked after several moments.

“Yeah…I can,” Harry said, feeling slightly amazed.

“What do you mean? What do you feel?” Hermione demanded. She’d followed Harry’s example and was running her hands along the wardrobe just as he had.

“Can’t you feel an energy?” Harry asked. “It almost makes me shiver. I think if the traces were stronger, it would.”

Hermione appeared extremely frustrated. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Harry. I don’t feel anything.”

“But he’s right, Hermione,” Ron said, shoving the Spell Detector toward her. “Look.”

Hermione put them on and gasped. “I can see faint red lines. They’re nearly transparent, but they are there.”

Harry nodded. “I think they’re transparent because the magical energy is so old. There hasn’t been any magic done here recently, but I’d bet you galleons this was once Tom Riddle’s wardrobe.”

Ginny involuntarily took a step away from the wardrobe.

“It’s not here,” Harry said, running a hand through his hair and mussing it up further. “We’re not on the right trail.”

“But how did you feel it without the Spell Detectors, Harry? I don’t understand how you’re doing that,” Hermione said, stamping her foot in frustration.

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I just can.”

“So what’s next?” Ron asked, stifling a yawn.

“We should go back to the inn and get some sleep,” Harry said. “Tomorrow we’ll see if we can find Hepzibah Smith’s former address. I bet it’s on file at Borgin and Burkes.”

“How do you propose getting them to give it to us?” Hermione asked.

“A distraction and the Invisibility Cloak ought to work,” Harry said with a grin. “Let’s get some sleep.”

A sudden noise at the far end of the storeroom startled them all.

“Who’s there?” a child’s voice called into the darkness.

They extinguished their wands, and Harry raised the cloak in front of them like a curtain just as the boy flicked a switch. Ron flinched when the bright florescent lights lit the room.

“I know there’s someone in here,” the child said shakily. Harry could see him now. He was young — eight or nine — and wearing pajamas two sizes too small. He strode through the storeroom with a confidence that hinted, despite the waver in his voice, this wasn’t his first time out of bounds after hours.

The boy began walking up the row, peering underneath some of the furniture. If he got too close, he’d be certain to see them.

Harry raised his wand and sent a spell in the other direction. A scurrying sound clearly emitted from a crack in the wall.

“Just rats,” the boy mumbled. “Someone’s probably been sneaking food down here.” He turned and quickly hurried up the stairs, dousing the lights as he left.

“That was close,” Ron said. “Nice distraction, Harry.”

“We can’t just leave him,” Hermione said. “He’s wandering around on his own, and he could get hurt. I’m certain that’s against the rules.”

“He’s not hurting anyone, Hermione. I don’t think this was the first time he’s done this. Didn’t you ever do some midnight prowling when you were younger?” Harry asked, again remembering the countless times he’d done the same thing. Sometimes, it was the only bit of freedom he’d managed to get.

“I still think we should ensure someone finds him,” Hermione said, worriedly twisting her hands. “He was really young to be all alone.”

“He’s fine; we’re not turning him in,” Harry said, feeling a kinship with the rebellious boy. He Apparated out of the storeroom before anyone could argue with him about it.

***

The four returned to the inn and slept well into the afternoon the next day. Once they’d risen, they plotted how to discover the location of Hepzibah Smith’s former address. Harry and Ron went into Diagon Alley under the Invisibility Cloak, barely getting through the crowded streets without being seen. It wasn’t as easy for the two of them to fit beneath the Cloak as it had once been.

Harry felt a guilty pang when they passed Fred and George’s shop. There was quite a crowd gathered around it, but he didn’t spot either

identical red head. He hoped the rest of the Weasleys weren’t in too much of a panic over their disappearance. Ron walked past the shop, keeping his eyes focused directly ahead, and Harry knew he was worried too.

When they reached Knockturn Alley, Ron slipped out from under the Cloak and entered Borgin and Burkes, holding the door open long enough for Harry to enter unnoticed. Ron poked around inside for several moments while Harry edged towards the desk. The shop had only one other customer, and the clerk kept a wary eye on Ron the entire time he was there.

When the other customer asked a question of the clerk, Ron took advantage of the distraction and knocked over a display of biting coins. The clerk hurried over, scowling at Ron and the two of them tried to pick up the coins without getting their fingers chomped off in the process.

Hidden beneath the Cloak, Harry easily slipped behind the desk and opened a file drawer. Quickly locating several files marked ‘Smith’, he perused each until he found the information he sought. There had been several executors of the Smith fortune since Hepzibah’s death. The current name on the file was a Sebastian Smith. Harry memorized the address and quickly returned the file.

He lightly tapped Ron on the shoulder before moving towards the door, distracting Ron from the biting coins for a moment. Ron immediately got bit and dropped the coin he was holding

“Err…sorry about that,” Ron mumbled to the disgruntled clerk.

“Just take your business elsewhere and get out,” the man snarled.

Ron didn’t need to be told twice. He hurried to the door and held it open wide so Harry could slip out before following him onto Knockturn Alley. They ducked into a side street so Ron could cover himself with the cloak.

“Did you get it?” Ron hissed once they were both concealed and moving.

“Yeah. I did. It’s here in London. We can go there in the morning — it’s too late now. Ginny and Hermione are probably wondering what’s keeping us,” Harry said. They’d left the girls at the inn reckoning it would be easier with just two of them beneath the Cloak.

Ron suddenly slapped Harry on the shoulder. “Over there, look,” he hissed.

Harry turned his head to see Dean Thomas and Parvati Patil strolling hand in hand and looking in the windows across the street.

“I thought Parvati’s parents pulled her and Padma out of Hogwarts because it was too dangerous. How come they’re letting her stroll through Diagon Alley, then?” Harry asked, shaking his head.

“Dunno. I want to know when she and Dean became an item. How come all of Ginny’s old boyfriends end up dating your old girlfriends?” Ron asked, smirking.

“Shut it,” Harry said, disconcerted. “Parvati was never my girlfriend. We only went to the Yule Ball, and that wasn’t exactly a raving success as far as dates go.”

Ron chuckled. “Yeah but, Harry, you didn’t exactly have a passionate relationship with Cho, either. She cried through most of it, remember? You had what, one decent snogging session? As I recall, she even cried through that. A smooth operator you obviously are not. Why else do you think I didn’t mind your dating my sister?” Ron asked, nearly doubling over in glee.

Harry knew Ron was winding him up, but he felt cross nonetheless. He shoved Ron’s shoulder with his own, nearly causing the red head to stumble out from under the Cloak. “If you don’t want to hear any details about your sister’s love life, I’d back off if I was you,” Harry said irritably.

“Hit a sensitive spot, have I?” Ron asked, chuckling.

Harry wanted to hit him. He suddenly felt rather nervous about the idea of his kisses being compared to other kisses Ginny had received. What if she found him lacking and hadn’t wanted to say anything? He discarded this notion almost instantly; Ginny was never one to keep her opinion to herself. Never mind the searing kiss they’d shared the previous night. She’d responded with as much passion as he felt. His confidence slightly restored, he still couldn’t let Ron off without some comeuppance.

“I’ve got no worries, mate,” Harry said, elbowing Ron in the ribs for good measure. “It’s not like Ginny has ever dated anyone older or more experienced, anyway. Both Michael and Dean were only Hogwarts students, too.”

Harry slyly glanced at Ron out of the corner of his eye. His friend had paled slightly as the implication of Harry’s words hit him. Harry smirked, feeling vindicated.

“Shut it,” Ron said, grumbling. He shoved Harry forward a bit more roughly than necessary.

***

The next morning, they arrived at the address Harry had seen on the card at Borgin and Burkes. At some point in the last decade, the Smith family had converted the house into a museum. According to the card, part of the house had been kept as living accommodations, while another portion was open to the wizarding public.

The sign on the door read ‘open’, so the four simply walked inside.

It no longer resembled anything Harry remembered in the Pensieve. Gone were all the fussy old lady furnishings, replaced by display cases and slick leather chairs.

“Potter! What in blazes are you doing here?” cried an annoyingly familiar voice.

Harry turned to see a tall, skinny blonde boy striding towards him. Zacharias Smith was a fellow Hogwarts student who made a habit of being an annoying thorn in Harry’s side.

“Smith,” he said, nodding.

“I would have thought you’d have gone into hiding somewhere. It can’t be hard to find you if you’re out strolling in public. If You-Know-Who really is trying to kill you, that is,” Smith said, sounding as if it didn’t really matter either way.

Harry shrugged, refusing to be baited. “I’ve had things to do.”

“Yes. I saw your picture in the Prophet the other day after you got your License to Apparate. It must have been a slow news day,” Smith replied.

“What do you want?” Ginny asked angrily. She’d never forgiven Smith for his derogatory commentary during their Quidditch match against Slytherin the previous year.

“What do I want?” Smith asked incredulously. “I think you’re confused. You’re the ones who came in here, remember, dear?” he asked condescendingly.

Harry saw Ginny reach for her wand, and he quickly stood in front of her.

“Zacharias Smith, of course,” Hermione said. “Your family runs the museum. I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection.”

Smith stared at her, blinking. “You mean you didn’t come in here to see me? You’re here to see the artifacts. I can understand your interest, Granger. You always were an over-achiever, but the rest of you lot never appeared overly interested in the Hufflepuff lineage. What are you on about?”

“Nothing,” Harry said, shaking his head. “It was Hermione’s idea to come, and we didn’t have anything better to do. We didn’t know you’d be here.”

Smith nodded, although he still appeared slightly suspicious. “Well, take a look around then, but don’t touch anything. You’re lucky you came when you did; we’ll be shutting down for a fortnight in September.”

“Really? Why?” Hermione asked.

“I assume you’ve heard that Hogwarts isn’t reopening. I’m spending my last year at Beauxbatons. My parents are traveling with me until I’m settled. I’m surprised you’re not doing the same, Granger. How are you going to complete your studies?” Smith demanded.

“My mum is home schooling all of us,” Ron said, his ears turning only slightly pink.

“I see,” Smith said disdainfully, looking down his upturned nose at them. “I’m certain that will be adequate if you can’t afford to go to France. I’ll leave you to admire the treasures.”

“’I’ll leave you to admire the treasures,’” Ron mimicked, prancing after Smith. “Why the little-”

“Ron,” Hermione said reproachfully. “Just be quiet and look around a bit so we can Apparate back when we’re ready.”

They spent a little time looking over some of the antiques and reading a bit about the known information on Helga Hufflepuff so they wouldn’t further arouse Zacharias’ suspicions. When they gathered back outside, Harry made a decision.

“Okay. If the museum will be empty after September the first, we’ll have to come back then for our search,” Harry said.

“Did you feel anything while we were inside, Harry?” Ginny asked.

“No, but I was kind of distracted. We’ll have to do a thorough search when we return,” he replied.

“So, where do we look in the meantime?” Ron asked.

“The only other place I know for certain Voldemort spent some time. Albania,” Harry replied grimly.

“Albania?” Ron repeated, wide-eyed.

“I know that in fourth year, Wormtail went to look for Voldemort and found him living in the forest in Albania. I can only assume that’s where he went after he lost his powers because he felt safe there for some reason. Dumbledore said that he disappeared for awhile after leaving Borgin and Burkes, so I thought maybe he spent some time there,” Harry said.

“I suppose it’s as logical a choice as anywhere,” Ginny replied, her eyes betraying the fact she felt overwhelmed.

“What about Borgin and Burkes though?” Ron said. “You just said he worked there. Maybe he hid one there. We should have looked while we were there yesterday.”

“I don’t think so,” Harry replied, shaking his head. “He was only a clerk, and he likes being the one in control. Besides, there would be too much chance of a hidden object being found and sold. I think he didn’t choose the orphanage because he didn’t feel powerful there. By the same token, he hid the ring right in the Gaunt house after he killed Morphin. I think the killing makes him feel powerful. He killed Hepzibah right in the Smith House, that’s why I think he would have hidden the Horcrux right inside.”

“So, we go to Albania. Any idea where we should Apparate?” Ron asked. “I assume Albania is a big place.”

“Well,” Hermione said, adopting the tone she always used when she was about to spout a mind-numbing amount of facts on them. “About thirty percent of Albania is covered by forest. The Black Pines are mostly centrally located. I think we should start there since it seems like the kind of place Voldemort might hide. There’s an Apparation checkpoint in Elbasan. We could start there, and then move into less populated areas.”

“What are you, a walking atlas?” Ron asked incredulously.

“Did you think Ginny and I spent yesterday skiving off while you were in Diagon Alley? I suppose that’s what you would have done. We went to the Muggle library. I assumed our next location would be Albania,” Hermione sniffed.

“So you think Elbasan is the best place to start?” Harry asked quickly, trying to head off the brewing row.

“Well, I assume Voldemort would have chosen an area that was sparsely populated, but we know Wormtail ran into Bertha Jorkins at a nearby inn, so he couldn’t have been completely secluded,” Hermione said.

“Good point. It looks like we’re heading on a road trip,” Harry said, sniggering. He remembered Uncle Vernon cursing about the riff raff youth backpacking across the continent and took pleasure in the idea he was adding one more thing to the list of things his uncle disliked about him.

** ** **

After nearly a fortnight in Albania, they had no more to show for it then when they’d arrived. They were all feeling discouraged and had grown short-tempered with one another.

They’d traveled through village after village asking questions and seeking anything they thought might be related to Voldemort’s presence. All they’d gained was the growing suspicion of the local Muggles. They used the tent for shelter along the way, and although the weather had cooperated, they were growing restless from being cooped up together.

The tent had two rooms, one a sitting area with a small kitchen, the other a bedroom equipped with two sets of bunk beds. The first night, Ron and Harry took the bottom bunks, but Hermione, who’d never cared much for heights, didn’t like being on top so she switched with Harry. Ron was simply too tall to fit on the top bunk, he’d hit his head on the ceiling.

Ron and Hermione’s bickering had resumed with new vigor as the days passed. Harry decided he and Ginny needed a break from them, if just for a little while. On August eleventh, Ginny’s sixteenth birthday, Harry told Ron and Hermione he was taking her out on a proper date. He told them to go out and enjoy themselves, too, just go to a different restaurant. They needed to lighten the mood and this seemed the perfect opportunity.

Ginny, who’d been feeling a little homesick about being away on her birthday, was delighted. She’d squealed with delight, throwing her arms around Harry’s neck when he made his announcement and kissed him repeatedly.

“Oi,” Ron shouted. “I don’t want to see that.”

“Then don’t look,” Harry said, grinning and accepting more of Ginny’s kisses.

Hermione smacked Ron on the arm, frowning in disapproval. “Honestly, Ron. Leave them alone; it’s her birthday.”

“Just be sure not to let the celebrating get out of hand,” Ron said darkly.

“Yes, Mum,” Ginny replied, rolling her eyes.

Neither of them brought any clothes suitable for an evening out, so they decided to do a little Transfiguration. Harry dressed in black trousers and a white button-down shirt, while Ginny wore a sage green sundress that flared out from her waist and fluttered around her legs as she walked.

Harry decided he liked watching her walk.

“You look amazing,” he said when he’d finally regained the ability to speak.

“Oh, Ginny. You do look really nice,” Hermione said, quickly Transfiguring Ginny’s jacket into a light shawl.

Ginny blushed; her eyes still locked on Harry’s as she took the shawl. “Thanks, Hermione.”

“You do look nice when you decide to dress like a girl for a change, Ginny,” Ron said. “Better than what you wore to Bill’s wedding.”

Hermione rolled her eyes in annoyance. “Ron! Can’t you even say something nice on her birthday?”

Ron blinked incredulously. “I just did. I said-”

“I know what you said. You’d do better to keep your mouth shut once in a while,” Hermione said, turning her back in a huff.

Harry decided to make their escape while they could. Grabbing Ginny’s hand, he pulled her away from Ron and Hermione. “We’re leaving. Have a good night,” he called after them.

“Don’t wait up,” Ginny shouted, giggling at Harry’s raised eyebrows.

There was a small pub in the center of the village, the kind of pub every village seemed to have, Harry had noticed. They’d spent some time there on their first evening in town. Those kinds of places were always

good for striking up a conversation with the locals and getting small details it would be otherwise hard to find.

Harry purposely didn’t choose this spot for his date with Ginny. He’d noticed a small inn not too far from it, however, that had a nice restaurant and a quieter atmosphere. When they arrived, Harry was pleased with his choice. The restaurant was dimly lit with candles glowing on each table. Soft music played in the background, and a small portion of the floor space was set aside for dancing.

Harry swallowed hard when he saw the dance floor. He hadn’t considered that and didn’t know if Ginny liked to dance. He remembered her complaining about Neville stepping on her feet during the Yule Ball and didn’t expect that he could do much better. Maybe Ginny didn’t like to dance.

“Oh, Harry. This is lovely,” Ginny said, her eyes sparkling brightly.

Harry thought the way the candlelight made her eyes glow was breathtaking, and he decided that birthday or not, he could put up with dancing if that was what she wanted to do.

The waiter sat them at a quiet, romantic table in the corner with a gorgeous view of the mountains. They’d been conjuring most of their food back in the tent, so they hadn’t sampled much of the local fare.

Ginny perused the menu thoughtfully before making her selection. Harry had never been very picky with food; he usually had just been happy to get some, so he was a bit more adventurous than she was.

When a waitress who repeatedly beamed at them served the food, they shared the selections off each other’s plates. Mostly, however, they had eyes only for each other. If asked later what he’d had for dinner that night, Harry couldn’t have answered, but he could describe exactly how her dress clung to her form and the way the firelight streaked her hair with gold.

Ginny was obviously conscious of his stare, for a pretty blush stained her cheeks and the column of her neck. Harry’s traitorous mind wondered if she blushed like that all over, and he was exceedingly glad she couldn’t do Legilimency to hear that thought. The more time they spent together, the less he’d been able to control the direction his mind wanted to take.

Over dessert — a decadent chocolate creation that made his mouth water merely looking at it — Harry handed Ginny a small box wrapped in gold paper with a green bow perched on top. Ginny squealed in delight and immediately began tearing off the paper. Harry laughed, reminded of Ron on every Christmas morning since he’d known his red-haired friend.

Ginny’s smile faltered slightly when she pulled out a long velvet jewelry box. Her eyes sought out Harry uncertainly, biting her lip in what Harry thought was an extremely kissable way.

“Harry,” she said hesitantly.

“Just open it,” he said, knowing she was worried about the cost. He felt slightly nervous about giving it to her now.

Ginny flipped open the lid and pulled out a bracelet comprised of a delicate gold chain with a thick charm of a golden heart. The heart appeared to almost float on the chain. Ginny’s small fingers played with the heart, examining it closely.

Harry swallowed. “You told me that it was my responsibility to protect everyone from Voldemort, but that it was your job to protect me,” Harry whispered. “I just wanted you to know — no matter what happens — that you’ve done that. You’ll always have my heart, Ginny.”

He had seen the bracelet in a local shop after he’d realized how close it was to her birthday, and the saleslady had insisted that Ginny would love it. Sitting with her now, he suddenly thought the words sounded stupid and very corny — like something Bill would say to Fleur. He wished he’d chosen something else.

Ginny looked up at him with tears sparkling in her eyes. “Oh, Harry,” she said, reaching across the table to take his hand. “It’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve owned. Would you put it on for me?”

She reached her arm across the table so he could fasten the clasp around her wrist, both sniffling and beaming at him at the same time.

Harry’s heart swelled as he realized how much Ginny truly liked the gift. He suddenly thought that Bill might be onto something about girls, after all.

His world came crashing back down to earth when Ginny asked, “Do you want to dance?”

The expression on his face must have shown his true feeling before he could hide them because she laughed, rising from her chair and tugging on his arm. “Come on. You danced at the wedding and it was fine, remember? It was the dance that actually set everything to rights for us,” she said.

Harry followed her to the dance floor and wrapped his arms around her, swaying to the music. Every few minutes, Ginny would stretch her arm out straight so she could admire the sparkle of her birthday present. Her appreciation made Harry feel as if he could do anything. He had to admit, dancing had its advantages. He liked the freedom of being able to hold her close and run his fingers along the fabric of her dress without censure.

Later that evening, after more dancing than Harry had ever done in his life, Ginny whispered, “This has been the best birthday I’ve ever had. Thank you, Harry.”

“It’s not over yet,” he replied, grinning cheekily. “What say we head back to our tent?”

When they reached the tent, Harry was pleased to note that Ron and Hermione still hadn’t returned from their date. He sat on the couch and

pulled Ginny onto his lap. She curled her legs over his and rested her head on his shoulder.

He leaned his cheek onto the top of her head, enjoying the softness of her hair. “We’ll have to have nights like this more often,” he said, closing his eyes. “Doing something fun and enjoyable takes the tension away and brings everything back into clear focus.”

Ginny shifted so she could start trailing kisses along his neck and ear. “Harry,” she whispered huskily. “It’s still my birthday for another hour, so Voldemort and his Horcruxes can just sod off until it’s over.”

Harry grinned, leaning his head to the side to give her better access. He groaned at the sensations she was creating. It suddenly didn’t matter where or who he was. All that mattered was this slip of a girl in his arms and what she was doing to him. His stomach was fluttering madly as he shifted their position so he could capture her lips.

Time lost all meaning to them, but Harry had somehow ended up sprawled on top of Ginny as they lay back on the couch, their hands moving and exploring as if all on their own. Harry’s breathing caught in his throat as his hand touched the bare skin on Ginny’s well-muscled leg. Voices outside the door snapped them back into reality and they jumped off the couch, desperately straightening their rumpled hair and clothing.

Ron and Hermione had returned.

Harry and Ginny dashed into the bedroom they all shared just as the flap to the tent opened. Ginny sprinted inside the bathroom to change into her nightclothes while Harry used the bedroom. He was already lying in his bunk when Ginny returned. She quickly climbed into her own bunk across from him, and the two of them lay still waiting for Ron and Hermione to enter.

They each lay quietly, prepared to feign sleep when the door opened. Harry’s heart hammered in his chest, his adrenaline pumping. He could see Ginny’s profile in the darkness, and he grinned at her. She returned the smile, lying on her side and facing him across the gap between the two beds. Several long minutes passed, but the door never opened.

“Reckon they’re not coming right to bed?” Harry finally whispered.

“I suppose they’re probably doing exactly what we were doing,” Ginny said, giggling.

Harry’s eyes widened. “Do you think?”

He listened closely, but couldn’t hear any sounds coming from the main room.

“I think,” Ginny whispered, giggling again.

“About that, Harry,” she said, biting her lip.

“What?” Harry asked, feeling the temperature in the room drop alarmingly.

“Uhm…I had a really good time tonight. It was the best birthday I ever had,” she said.

“But?” Harry asked, knowing there was more.

Ginny swallowed. “But…I think it was a good thing Ron and Hermione came back when they did. We were getting a bit…carried away,” she said haltingly.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, feeling deflated. He hadn’t meant to scare her, but she was right. He hadn’t felt in control.

“No! It’s not your fault. I was just as involved as you were. When my head is clear like this, I know I’m not ready for the next step yet. But when I’m in your arms and kissing you, all I want is more,” Ginny said, her eyes pleading with him to understand.

Harry knew exactly what she meant. She made him reckless. “You take away my thinking ability,” he said, nodding.

“Good,” Ginny replied, smirking. “I’m glad it’s not just me who feels that way. We’ll just have to try to take things slow.”

“But we don’t have to stop kissing, do we?” Harry asked, a shiver of apprehension running down his spine.

“Absolutely not… Just try and get rid of me, Potter,” Ginny said, grinning impishly. “Besides, I like the kissing.”

“Good,” Harry mumbled.

***

It was quite some time later when Ron stormed into the bedroom, fuming and determined to go out looking for Harry and his little sister in order to pound Harry to a pulp. He pulled up short when he found the two of them sound asleep in their beds, both wearing contented smiles across their faces.

Chapter Eleven

Lions and Tigers and…Dragons?

The first of September dawned hot and sunny over the Albanian forest. The search for clues as to where Voldemort had hidden his Horcruxes had thus far proved futile. While they had found what Harry suspected was Voldemort’s hideout during his years in exile, it hadn’t contained a trace of a Horcrux, nor a hint as to why Voldemort had felt safe there.

As they’d searched the hovel tucked deep in the forest; Hermione had stumbled upon a shallow grave containing several human bones. Harry suspected they were the remains of Bertha Jorkins. The foursome had hated the idea of leaving her there — unmarked and alone for eternity —

but couldn’t draw attention to themselves by alerting anyone at the moment.

So, they had carved a small headstone and placed it on Bertha’s grave. They’d bowed their heads while Hermione said a few words in remembrance. Before they left, they placed a locator spell on the grave, so they could later alert the Order of the location of Bertha’s remains. It was the best they could do, but Harry’s conscience still nagged at him. He knew very well that his remains could be left lying on the ground in the not-so-distant future. If that was to be his fate, he at least wanted to be treated with dignity.

Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione had allowed themselves the luxury of a lie-in on the morning of the first. They’d planned to Apparate back to London late in the afternoon and make a few public stops in Diagon Alley before visiting the Smith Museum. Harry thought that Mr. Weasley’s suggestion of being seen in public on occasion was valid, but he wasn’t certain if the elder man would still want to help him accomplish this after his daughter had disappeared with Harry.

Harry’s eyes opened slowly as he lazily stretched and rolled over on his side. He could hear Ron’s snores drifting from the bunk beneath him. The room appeared fuzzy without his glasses. He squinted as he peered at Ginny’s bed, but didn’t see the familiar cascade of red that usually covered her pillow. He felt that familiar twinge of disappointment at her absence, but squelched it.

Sitting up and cracking his back, he put on his glasses and blearily looked around. Both of the girls’ beds were empty, and he thought he could smell the aroma of bacon coming from the other room. Harry swung his legs over the side of his bunk and jumped to the floor. Ron never twitched, so Harry left him to his slumber.

He found Ginny and Hermione in the kitchen. Ginny was frying some bacon on the stove while Hermione hunched over a cup of coffee. Harry had been surprised to learn how grumpy Hermione could be first thing in the morning. At Hogwarts, she always came downstairs bright and eager to start classes. While on this journey together, however, he’d discovered that until she had a shower, Hermione’s morning demeanor rather resembled Ron’s.

Ginny had told him that Hermione had always been that way; she usually didn’t come downstairs until she’d managed to fully wake herself. Hermione liked her routine, and part of that routine involved avoiding all human contact when she first awoke. Ginny said that on days when Hermione appeared at breakfast already very cross, Parvati and Lavender had insisted on speaking to her first thing.

“Morning, Harry,” Ginny said, greeting him with a warm smile.

The creature that resided inside Harry’s chest purred. “Morning,” he replied, unable to suppress the goofy smile that crossed his face.

“The breakfast isn’t quite ready, but there’s coffee in the pot if Hermione is willing to share,” Ginny said, poking Hermione in the ribs with her spatula.

Hermione jerked away from Ginny’s prodding and silently pushed the coffeepot towards Harry.

“Good morning, Hermione,” Harry said, pouring a cup and breathing in the freshly brewed scent.

“How did you sleep?” Ginny asked, gently ruffling his hair as she walked back towards the stove.

“Never better,” Harry replied, watching her crack some eggs on the counter.

“I’ve been thinking about our plans to be seen in Diagon Alley, Harry,” Hermione said, sitting up a bit straighter in her chair. She’d managed to open her eyes about halfway.

“What about it?” Harry asked warily. He felt a row brewing, and he knew disagreeing with Hermione in the morning was a bad idea all around.

“Do you really think it’s wise to be seen by anyone before we search for the Horcrux? I mean, what if we run into one of the Order or get detained by the Ministry? I think we ought to go straight to the museum and then go to Diagon Alley tomorrow,” Hermione said.

Harry shook his head. “We’ve already discussed this, Hermione. I don’t know what will happen if we find a Horcrux. I’m not certain how we’ll destroy it, or…or if we’ll be injured in the process,” Harry said, swallowing heavily. The image of Dumbledore’s withered hand arose unbidden in Harry’s mind, followed by the sound of Dumbledore’s pleading as Harry had forced him to continue drinking that foul liquid. Harry shuddered as he forced the memories to the back of his mind. He couldn’t dwell on them now.

“I realize it’ll be dangerous,” Hermione said as if reading his mind, “but we’re all entering this willingly. We know what we’re doing, Harry.”

Harry nodded, swallowing heavily. He knew he’d never be able to live with himself if something happened to any of them, no matter what Hermione said. He couldn’t lose anyone else…

“I still think it would be a good idea to postpone your appearance in the papers,” Hermione said, apparently unwilling to drop her point. Now that she’d finished her first cup of coffee and was working on her second, she was acting more like the Hermione he knew.

“No,” Harry said firmly. “I have another reason for wanting to do it today. It’s the first of September, and I suspect a lot of students might be doing the same thing Zacharias Smith is doing and going to school elsewhere. I want to show everyone that I’m still in England. It should keep Voldemort’s attention away from the other schools.”

Hermione averted her eyes, staring intently into her coffee cup. Harry thought he’d seen the beginning of tears before she’d looked away. He knew that not returning to school would be hardest on Hermione. She’d always been so dedicated to her academic pursuits, and Harry had to marvel at the depth of her sacrifice for him.

He reached over and gently squeezed her hand. “I’m going to miss it, too,” he whispered.

Hermione raised her eyes and smiled tremulously. “I still can’t believe there won’t be any classes at Hogwarts this term.”

“I know,” Ginny said, placing the bacon and eggs on the table and sitting down with them. “I keep wondering what all the teachers are going to do. I mean, they live there during the school year, don’t they? Where will they go? Will they come back when Hogwarts finally reopens, because it will.” Ginny stared at them fiercely, as if daring them to disagree with her.

“Of course it will,” Harry said with a confidence he didn’t feel. “It has to.”

“What happens if we run into Fred and George…or Mum while we’re in Diagon Alley?” Ginny asked, biting her lower lip.

“We can’t let that happen,” Harry said firmly, knowing Ginny half wanted to run into her family. “After we get the Horcrux — if there’s one there — then we’ll go back to Grimmauld Place. We’ll deal with the repercussions of our disappearance when we get there, but we can’t risk anyone getting in the way of our visit to the Smith Museum.”

“What if we don’t find a Horcrux?” Ginny asked, her gaze direct and unwavering.

Harry swallowed. He’d been thinking about that possibility for several days, although something kept telling him that they would find something there.

“I don’t know,” he said, sighing. “I don’t want to go back to headquarters without having made some progress — without having something to have made the trip worthwhile.”

“But you’re still not planning on telling them about the Horcruxes?” Hermione asked.

“No,” Harry said. “I have a feeling we’re in for a lot of shouting when we go back, but we are doing the right thing. Having found one will simply make me feel better while stonewalling them.”

“Mum is probably going spare. She’ll likely try and lock us up in chains,” Ginny said, groaning.

“I know,” Harry said, squeezing her hand. “But we’ve been gone all this time and we’ve done all right. It’s you that she’s going to be the hardest on. We’re all of age, so there really isn’t anything she can do, but you-”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ginny said, raising her chin in the air. “I’m not a little girl anymore, and I won’t go back to being treated like one. I love my mother dearly, but I’m her daughter through and through. I can be as stubborn as she can.”

Harry smiled fondly, rubbing his finger along her forearm. Lately, he’d felt the constant need to touch her whenever she was near. He’d noticed that she’d been doing the same to him, too. Just small caresses, holding hands, a light touch whenever they spoke. He’d never been one to crave much physical contact, so he wasn’t certain what was happening or why he found her touch so soothing, but he did.

“I don’t think Mum will be too bad about my accompanying you once she’s had the chance to calm down,” Ginny said, stirring some sugar into her coffee.

The other two looked at her doubtfully, and Hermione’s eyebrows rose so high they disappeared into her hairline.

“Ginny, we are talking about your mum here, right?” Hermione asked. “The same woman who refused to allow the Order to discuss so much as the weather within our hearing distance?”

Ginny shook her head. “She’s not as uptight as she was the last time we stayed at Grimmauld Place. After what happened at the Ministry, she…I dunno…she changed. She resigned herself to the fact she couldn’t keep us out of the war no matter what she did. It was right after that when she allowed the twins to fully join the Order. She might not like it, but she’s accepting it. She’ll blow up at first, mind, but then she calms down. Trust me.”

“If you say so,” Harry said, still feeling doubtful. He vividly remembered Mrs. Weasley’s despair the night Sirius allowed him to question what the Order was doing. She had even dragged Ginny out of the room and sent her off to bed so she wouldn’t hear anything she deemed inappropriate.

“You must have noticed the change in her,” Ginny said. “In the hospital wing the night Dumbledore died, she didn’t try to send any of us out of the room. She didn’t even act surprised that we’d all been involved in the fighting.”

Hermione’s eyes widened. “You’re right,” she said. “Ron told me she’d sent him outside to use his Patronus the night the Burrow was attacked, too.”

“Exactly. I’ve been thinking about her a lot since we’ve been here,” Ginny said, her eyes dipping to the table.

Harry took her hand, knowing that despite her bravado, she was missing her mum. Harry didn’t blame her; Mrs. Weasley was the best mum he knew.

“And I came to the realization that my mum is a tough lady,” Ginny said, her lip trembling slightly. “I’ve been rather hard on her, I think. She may not be the one getting involved in any battles with Death Eaters, but she didn’t hesitate when Professor Dumbledore asked her to join the Order. She got her whole family involved because it was the right thing to do. I should have given her credit for that.”

Hermione sniffed and suddenly threw her arms around Ginny. “I miss everyone, too, Ginny. You’re right. It’s going to be fine. We’re not

the same people we were when we left, and I think everyone will see it.”

“See what?” Ron asked groggily, stumbling into the kitchen and plopping down on the only empty chair.

“That we’re not children, and we made the right decision in hunting Voldemort alone,” Harry replied, grinning.

“Right,” Ron said, stuffing a piece an entire piece of bacon in his mouth. “Mum won’t have any problem with it. She’ll welcome us home with open arms right after she owls Percy to call him a git and gives the Burrow to the twins to wager on a Quidditch match.”

The others burst into laughter as they enjoyed their breakfast on their last day in Albania. They were going home.

**–**–

They Apparated into Diagon Alley near the Apothecary, reckoning it was far enough from the spots frequented by Fred, George, and the rest of the Weasleys to avoid detection.

“Mmm, it even smells like home,” Ron said, breathing deeply. The day was cloudy and not nearly as hot as it had been in Albania.

“I never thought I’d miss seeing robes so much, but I did,” Ginny said, spinning around and smiling widely.

Despite feeling the same joy as the others in returning to London, Harry also felt apprehensive. He hoped luck would be on their side and a reporter would spot them quickly. Now that he was this close to searching the museum, he could barely contain his eagerness.

“Let’s keep moving. Keep your eyes open for any familiar faces that we want to avoid,” he said.

They nodded and moved onto the main street. It didn’t take long for the familiar click of a flashbulb to mark their presence. Harry looked up to see a reporter hurrying towards him, a bloke with a camera following in her wake.

“That was quick,” Ron muttered as they turned and moved in the other direction.

“Mr. Potter! Mr. Potter, stop. Just a few questions, Harry,” the reporter shouted, alerting the shoppers on the street to his presence.

“Mum! It’s Harry Potter,” a small boy said, pointing.

“Run!” Harry said. It always amazed him how his mere presence could create such a mob.

“I wonder what’s been happening while we’ve been gone,” Hermione panted, struggling to keep up with them.

They dashed into an alley and thought they’d made an escape when another flash went off right in their faces.

“Harry, can you tell me what you think about the Inferi attacks? What are you planning to do about them?” a male reporter asked, his notebook and quill scribbling furiously as they hovered beside him.

Harry blinked uncomprehendingly.

Inferi? What Inferi attacks? Oh, no.

“Er,” Harry said, searching his mind for what Dumbledore had told him about the Inferi. If the Ministry wasn’t going to warn people how to defend themselves against an Inferius, then he would. “An Inferius, like most creatures that dwell in the darkness, fear the warmth and the light, so use fire against it. It’s your best protection.”

“Harry!” the first reporter shouted again, interrupting as she finally caught up with him.

Harry felt as if he’d been thrust into the lion’s den — and the lions were hungry.

“Move,” he hissed to the others, shoving Ron’s shoulder in the one direction where a reporter hadn’t yet appeared. They reached the end of the alley and quickly turned right, immersing themselves into a crowd of shoppers.

“We need to split up,” Harry said, panting. He kept his head low so as not to be recognized. “You three keep moving this way. I’m going to go in the opposite direction and slip under the Invisibility Cloak as soon as I find somewhere to do it inconspicuously. We’ll meet back where we first Apparated.”

Ron and Hermione nodded, but Ginny stubbornly shook her head. “I think we should go in pairs. I’ll double back with Harry.”

“Ginny-”

“Stop trying to protect us, Harry. We’re wasting time,” Ginny said, grabbing his hand and tugging him along.

Ron smirked and Hermione shrugged helplessly before turning and sprinting off in the opposite direction.

“Let’s go,” Harry said, disgruntled.

“Don’t be grumpy, Harry. How many times do we have to tell you that you aren’t in this alone? Besides, it’s only giving chase to some reporters. You must know I can handle this?” Ginny asked, arching her eyebrow.

Harry knew there was no way to answer that question that wouldn’t get him into trouble, so he kept his lips firmly sealed. They ducked around a corner as soon as they heard pounding feet. Harry pulled his Invisibility Cloak out of his pocket and swung it over both of them.

They remained still as the second reporter — the wizard — and his cameraman stopped directly in front of them.

“Which way did he go? I thought I saw him run this way with the red-haired girl,” the reporter demanded.

The cameraman shrugged. “I thought so, too.”

“Damn! I got a direct quote, though. That ought to be worth something,” the reporter said, reading over his notes.

“He said to use fire to fight the Inferi,” the cameraman said. “Is that true?”

“No idea,” the reporter replied, shrugging. “It doesn’t matter, though; it’ll make a great headline, and the public will eat it up. Come on. I’m certain he was headed in this direction.”

Harry swore violently as the two moved away. “Did you hear them? Fire is the way to fight an Inferius, but they didn’t even care,” Harry said, fuming.

“I know, Harry. They just wanted their story. Still, since it is the truth, they might be able to save themselves one day, and if they quote you directly, you’ve just done more than Scrimgeour has during his whole stint as Minister,” Ginny replied, patting him on the arm consolingly.

Harry sighed. There was no use getting frustrated. It wouldn’t help, and he had too many other things to accomplish this day.

“Let’s go back and rejoin Ron and Hermione,” he said, leading Ginny back towards the Apothecary.

“We should go around through that street there,” Ginny said, pointing. “It’s less crowded and no one will brush against the Cloak.”

Harry nodded and they began to move through the crowded streets, finding it very difficult not to jostle the many passersby. Several people turned with a start on more than one occasion when either Harry or Ginny brushed against them.

“I wish we could just Apparate,” Ginny whispered.

“I know. I thought the same thing when the reporters were chasing us. It’s too crowded though, and no telling if we’d appear in front of your family or the Order. I suspect word is out that we’re here by now, and I’m certain the area is crawling with Weasleys,” Harry replied.

“Hey! I resemble that remark,” she said, elbowing him in the ribs.

Harry grinned, rubbing his abdomen. “I never said the Weasleys weren’t some of my favorite people, I just don’t want to see most of them right now.”

“Smooth, Potter,” Ginny replied with a grin. “I see that living with Hermione and me for the past month has taught you a few things.”

“More than you could possibly imagine,” Harry replied, grinning as his mind traveled over the many scraps of information he’d learned from living in such close proximity with the girls.

Ginny cursed suddenly, shocking Harry out of his musings. He expected that kind of language from Ron, but hearing it from Ginny caught him off guard, and he desperately tried to control his urge to laugh.

“Ginny,” he admonished, failing to keep his face stern.

“Shhh,” Ginny hissed, tugging on his arm until they were backed against a brick wall. “There.”

He looked in the direction she was pointing and felt his breath hitch in his chest. On the other side of the street stood Mrs. Weasley, Bill, and Kingsley Shacklebolt. They were obviously searching for something…or someone. They were asking questions of various witches and wizards on the street. Shacklebolt flashed his Auror badge several times, and appeared rather put-out.

It was the expression on Mrs. Weasley’s face that made Harry’s stomach churn uncomfortably. She had that determined Weasley glint in her eye that Harry had come to know so well, but she looked tired and thin — as if she hadn’t been eating or sleeping well for the past month.

“Oh, Mum,” Ginny said, clutching Harry’s chest tightly. He forced himself not to wince as her nails dug into his flesh.

Kingsley said something that caused Mrs. Weasley to snarl at him, her words carrying across the street. “I’m not leaving until I find my babies. They’re here somewhere, and I will find them.”

She reminded Harry of a mother tiger protecting her young as she prowled up and down the street, her eyes absorbing every detail.

Bill placed his hands on his mother’s shoulders and whispered something soothing in her ear. Mrs. Weasley began to cry and buried her head in Bill’s shoulder.

Ginny stiffened in Harry’s arms and quickly turned her face away.

“We’d better hurry and find Ron and Hermione to warn them,” Harry said gruffly.

Ginny swallowed and they moved away, obscured beneath the Cloak. They fiercely clutched one another’s hands as they hurried along the street.

“We’ll be able to see her soon, Ginny,” Harry whispered, his throat raw. “I promise.”

Ginny nodded woodenly, her eyes remaining fixed in front of her, but her grip tightened.

As they reached the Apothecary, Harry momentarily panicked when he didn’t see Ron or Hermione. A mere second later, the two poked their heads around the corner. Harry and Ginny sprinted over to them.

“We’re here,” Harry whispered. “We have to get out of here quickly, though.”

“Where have you been?” Ron asked loudly. His eyes looked slightly wild.

“Be quiet, Ron,” Ginny hissed. “We saw Mum and Bill. The Order is here looking for us. Apparate to the Smith Museum, and we’ll tell you all about it.”

Harry and Ginny waited for Ron and Hermione to disappear before following. Right before he side-along Apparated Ginny to the museum, he saw Bill and Mrs. Weasley run around the corner, heading straight for the Apothecary.

**–**–

As nightfall finally blanketed the city, and insects began buzzing around the street lamps, Harry sat staring at the entrance of the Smith Museum. The late summer evening was warm, and many people roamed the street, choosing to walk rather than ride the tube. One Muggle in particular appeared to be simply out for an evening stroll, passing them every few minutes while on the opposite side of the street, as if he was circling the block.

They’d conjured sandwiches for supper — thank goodness Ron and Ginny were Weasleys and knew all the best food-conjuring spells — and eaten them on a bench across the street from the museum. Harry could hardly believe they’d finally reached this point. Tonight he’d know for certain if they’d managed to locate another Horcrux…With any luck, after tonight they’d be one step closer to the final confrontation and ending this thing. He shivered slightly, and Ginny put her arm around him and rubbed his arm, thinking he was cold.

Having her next to him felt nice, but the thought nagged at him that by letting her stay so close, it would make it all the harder to let her go and do what he had to do in the end. At night, when sleep wouldn’t come no matter how exhausting the day had been, Harry’s thoughts always turned to the fact that he didn’t think he would survive the final confrontation.

He still hoped that Hermione would come up with some brilliant plan, but as of yet they’d found nothing to change his mind. He found it profoundly ironic that now — at what was most likely the end of his life — he finally had such an intense desire to live. In the past, although he’d certainly never wanted to die, he’d never had any great passion for living. It had never mattered much either way to him.

Now, it mattered.

As he grew closer to Ginny, the more he thought that having to say goodbye to her would do him in without Voldemort ever getting involved. Still, he wouldn’t trade this time he’d spent with her. If he couldn’t give her forever, he could at least give her now, and he wanted to make every moment worth the memory.

“I don’t see why we didn’t just Apparate inside and wait there,” Ron moaned for about the hundredth time.

“Honestly, Ron,” said Ginny, exasperated. “For the last time, we don’t know if there is anyone still working inside. If there is, they should be going home now.”

“Besides, there are Anti-Apparation wards in place,” Harry said, running a hand through his hair.

“How do you know?” Hermione asked, suddenly looking up from her sandwich.

Harry stared at her, feeling slightly confused. “That humming sound, don’t you hear it? It’s the same sound I always heard at Privet Drive. I can hear it near the gates at Hogwarts, too. I reckon it’s the wards, right?”

All three pairs of eyes stared at him in astonishment.

“You…you can hear the wards?” Ron asked, finally.

A wave of apprehension went down Harry’s spine. Not again. “Can’t you?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

All three shook their heads, Hermione frowning.

“Look, we can discuss this later,” Ginny said finally, taking charge. “If there are anti-apparation wards in place, how do you propose we get inside?”

“Are you the sister of Fred and George Weasley or what?” Harry asked, grinning as he pulled a hairpin from his pocket. “They showed me how to do this after you lot rescued me from the Dursleys before second year.”

“Figures they’d show you and not me,” Ron grumbled.

The twins had done their job well, and it took Harry only a moment to pick the lock on the front door. The four quickly and quietly slipped inside the museum, closing the heavy door behind them.

“Well, here we are,” Ron whispered, staring around the room at all the old artifacts. The light from the street lamps cast long shadows on the walls, and the air was thick with tension.

Harry could understand Ron’s urge to whisper, he felt it, too and had to force himself to overcome it. A prickle of apprehension ran down his spine as he moved further into the room.

“Come on. Let’s spread out and start looking. Ron, you wear the Spell Detector again,” Harry said. “Hermione and Ginny, just keep your eyes open for anything out of the ordinary, and we can double check it with the Spell Detector.”

They all nodded and fanned out, although Hermione appeared doubtful. Harry shut his eyes, envisioning the scene from the Pensieve. Riddle had met Hepzibah Smith in a sitting room, and it couldn’t have been too

close to the entry hall since the little house-elf, Hokey, had taken a few minutes to retrieve Riddle when the doorbell had rung.

Harry wandered away from the other three, peeking into several rooms until finally entering a small room located off the main hallway. The hairs on the back of his neck rose the moment he entered. The room was much neater than in the Pensieve memory, but it was unmistakably the same. In fact, several of the polished display cases contained some of the orbs and celestial globes he remembered, and in one sat the jeweled mirror that Hepzibah had used repeatedly to check her appearance. Harry suspected the mirror didn’t reflect the whole truth, which is probably what had appealed to Hepzibah.

“Ron,” Harry called. “Bring that Spell Detector in here, would you?”

He stared around the room, an odd feeling of déjà vu overpowering him as he listened to Ron’s clomping footsteps moving closer toward the sitting room. Every instinct in Harry’s body told him there was something here. He was tense and alert, and he had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched.

“What is it?” Hermione asked, following Ron into the room. “Oh, this is the same room, isn’t it?”

“You can feel it too, then?” Harry asked, relieved.

“Feel what?” Hermione asked.

Harry furrowed his brow. “You knew this was the same room. I thought…” Harry mumbled, his words trailing.

Hermione shook her head. “No. I remember it. The architecture is the same even if it’s been painted. I recognize those windows, and the fireplace is slightly off-center.”

Harry blinked looking around the room. She was right; the fireplace was off-center. He was again amazed at Hermione’s ability to pick up obvious details that he somehow always overlooked.

“Where’s Ginny?” he asked.

“She said there was no point in all of us searching the same room, so she kept looking in the entry hall. She said to call her if we find anything,” Hermione replied.

“There is loads of magical energy here,” Ron said, looking around with the Spell Detectors, “but I don’t see anything Dark.”

“Keep looking,” Harry said grimly. “It’s here.” He knew it; he could feel it as certainly as if Felix Felicis was telling him.

Harry moved towards the center of the room, imagining the scene in his mind. He could see Hepzibah sitting at her table; Riddle moving towards the locket, drawing his wand. Hepzibah’s eyes widened in fear, perhaps realizing too late that she was in trouble. She tried to grab the cup and the locket, but Voldemort would have Banished them from her grasp. They would have flown off the table and landed….here.

Harry opened his eyes, the vision in his mind’s eye vanishing as he found himself standing in the corner of the room. A section of the wall was covered with a large, intricately carved wardrobe. He began to shiver, as if a strong, frigid gust of air had blown through him. He could hear Ron and Hermione speaking in the background, but he’d completely tuned out their words and was focused instead on the distinct hum he could hear around the wardrobe.

Using his wand, he moved the large piece of furniture away from the wall and began inspecting it, running his hands all along the rough, painted surface. Muttering to himself, talking through the same movements he’d seen Dumbledore make several months ago.

It was no use; the wall didn’t have that same energy. It had vanished the moment he’d moved the wardrobe. Again using his wand, he levitated the wardrobe back in place. Immediately, his shivering returned as his senses heightened.

“What is it, Harry?” Hermione asked, moving next to him.

Harry didn’t answer. He began running his hands along the outside of the wardrobe. The vibrations shook him to the core.

“Is there something inside?” Ron asked, putting his hand to the knob and trying to pull it open.

“Watch it,” Harry hissed, shoving Ron back.

“What did you do that for?” Ron asked, sounding irritated.

“Don’t just go putting your hands on it, Ron,” Harry said, firing up. “We have no idea what kinds of protective spells are here.”

“We don’t even know if it’s there,” Ron fired back. “Besides, nothing happened. It didn’t even open.” As if making his point, Ron tugged on the handle again. It still wouldn’t open.

Hermione and Harry each tried to tug on it, but it didn’t budge.

“Why would they keep an old wardrobe if they couldn’t even use it?” Ron asked, looking around the room at all the family artifacts.

“It’s really old and probably valuable, Ron. It has the Smith family crest engraved at the top. I assume it’s a family heirloom,” Hermione said, scowling. “They’re obviously are very proud of their heritage, and Riddle would have known this. If he hid something here, they’d keep it here forever.”

“How do you know that’s the Smith crest?” Ron asked, staring at the top of the wardrobe.

“Look around. It’s everywhere here,” Hermione replied, exasperated.

Harry ignored them. He ran his hand along the front of the wardrobe, feeling the heat emanating from it.

“It’s in here,” he whispered. “I bet he used a spell similar to the one Dumbledore used on the Mirror of Erised in our first year. I think that if someone wanted to open this door simply to use the wardrobe, it would open, no problem. But it somehow knows we want what’s hidden inside.”

Hermione withdrew her wand. “Should we try an unlocking charm?” she asked.

Harry didn’t think it could be that simple, but he remembered Dumbledore letting him try a Summoning charm before he tried anything trickier.

“Give it a try,” he said shrugging.

“Alohomora,” Hermione said firmly.

Something sparked, but the wardrobe remained firmly closed.

“Didn’t you say the entrance to the cave demanded payment in blood?” Ron asked, swallowing hard.

“Yeah, but I don’t think Voldemort would use the same protections twice. It’s something different,” Harry said, absently.

“The doorknob is off center, just like the fireplace,” Hermione said, twisting her lips from side to side.

“I wonder…” Harry said.

“What…” Ron asked.

Harry moved his wand to the center of the wardrobe, where he thought a knob should logically be.

“Aparecium,” he said.

Slowly, the blurry outline of a doorknob became visible. It was distorted and it shimmered, almost as if they were looking at it through intense heat.

“Whoa,” Ron said, breathing deeply. He put the Spell Detector back on his nose. “It’s covered in red, Harry. Loads of Dark Magic all over it.”

“We’d better not touch it directly then,” Hermione said. “I’ll use my wand to open it.” She waved her wand without using an incantation.

“Hermione!” Ron shouted, grabbing her arm as a jet of white-hot flames shot out from the knob. The blast hit Hermione on the side of her head, knocking her backwards as her hair ignited in a ball of flame. Hermione screamed and moved away, batting at the flames with her hands.

“Hermione!” Ron shouted again, panicked. His shoulder and arm had also been hit with some of the blast, and the flames quickly destroyed the sleeve of his shirt and began to spread. He waved his wand helplessly, as if he couldn’t remember the spell to douse the flames.

Harry’s primary school lessons popped into his head as he thought to push them to the ground and roll them to smother the flames, but his wand would be faster.

“Aguamenti,” he shouted. A spray of water issued from his wand, covering both Ron and Hermione.

Hermione lay on the floor, moaning and only half-conscious. The hair on the entire left side of her head was singed, and her scalp was covered with angry red burns that oozed painfully. Ron sat on the floor beside her, dazed and blinking slowly. The skin on his upper arm and shoulder was blackened and raw. He had inched toward Hermione before collapsing and sat gently stroking the uninjured side of her head.

“Hermione,” he whispered, his voice cracking.

Harry felt nausea rise within his chest as he stared back and forth between his two friends. He ran a hand through his mussed hair. He’d known this would happen. He hadn’t wanted them to come because he’d known they would end up getting hurt, but he was weak and allowed them to come because he’d wanted company.

He’d seen the terrible damage to Professor Dumbledore’s hand, and he’d let them walk in here anyway. He felt frozen on the spot, his hands shaking and his breath coming in painful gasps.

“Ron? Hermione?” he said, sinking to his knees beside them.

Pull it together. What’s wrong with me? I’ve never fallen apart under pressure like this.

“Episky,” he said, holding his wand to the burns on Ron’s arm. He knew it wasn’t the best choice of spells. There must be a healing spell specifically for burns, but this was the only one he knew. The wounds on Ron’s arm did heal slightly, enough to hold him until they could get help, anyway.

He was more concerned about trying it on Hermione, whose burns looked much worse.

“Harry, Ron,” Ginny’s voice sounded from the hallway. “Where are you?”

“Ginny!” Harry called desperately.

“Merlin’s Beard! What happened?” Ginny asked, rushing over to her brother and staring at his arm in horror.

“I’m okay,” Ron mumbled, brushing away her hands. “Hermione’s hurt.”

Harry held his wand next to one of the smaller burns on Hermione’s neck.

“Episky,” he whispered, grimacing when Hermione moaned. He felt a stinging behind his eyes and blinked rapidly. The wound healed, so he tentatively moved to her head. He continued to patch her up as best he could, desperately wishing Madam Pomfrey was here.

“I’m sorry,” Harry whispered when Hermione cried out as he tried to heal the largest of her burns. “It’s the only healing spell I know.”

“It’s all right, Harry,” Ginny whispered, gently rubbing his shoulders. She’d stood behind him the whole time, gently urging him on, and he was grateful for her calming presence.

“That’s something we’ll have to do later — learn more healing spells. For now, we’ve just got to do what we can to make them comfortable,” she said, her voice trembling slightly.

“There’re traces of Dark magic all over the wardrobe. We found the separate knob, but they got hurt when Hermione tried to open it,” Harry said gruffly.

Ginny nodded and moved towards the wardrobe before anyone could stop her. She pointed her wand at the strange knob, opening it with ease.

Harry’s jaw hung open. “How did you…? Ginny, what in Merlin’s name do you think you’re doing? That’s exactly how Ron and Hermione got hurt. I don’t know how you opened it, but we can’t keep taking stupid chances.”

“It wasn’t stupid if it worked,” she snapped back. “Professor Dumbledore told you that you were able to go along with him last time because you were underage, right? He said Voldemort was foolish enough to believe that someone underage and not fully qualified could never be a threat. Well, I’m still underage — as you’re all so fond of pointing out — so my magic shouldn’t register anymore than yours did.”

Harry gaped like a fish, knowing she was right and yet wishing she wasn’t. He needed help, and she was able to provide it. It should have been a simple choice, but despite the fact his head knew it, a more primitive part of him kept demanding to protect her from it all.

“We don’t have time for your caveman heroics, Harry,” Ginny said in a bored voice, almost as if she’d read his mind. “I’m going with you. I already told you that we’re not letting you do this alone, so just shut it and take all the reasons that are about to explode from your mouth and stick ‘em up your arse,” Ginny said, her eyes blazing.

“Ginny-”

“Are you coming or not?” she asked firmly.

“We can’t just go. We have to get some help for Ron and Hermione,” Harry said. He knew he was stalling, but she could be so infuriating that it was hard to think straight. “We’ll Apparate them back to Grimmauld Place and get Madam Pomfrey.”

“After we get the Horcrux,” Ginny said, swallowing hard. Her eyes flickered briefly to Ron, whose eyes had closed.

“What? No-” Harry said.

“Yes, Harry,” Ron said, opening his eyes and pulling himself up against the wall. “We didn’t get this far to turn back now.”

Harry stared at the steely determination in his friend’s pale face, knowing he was right, yet unable to move.

Ron gasped as he pulled himself closer to Hermione. “Bring back the damn Horcrux, Harry.”

“Use your Patronus if you need to call for help,” Harry said, looking right into Ron’s eyes. “Do you think you can Apparate?”

“Yeah,” Ron said, gasping. “If you’re not back in an hour, I’ll take Hermione back and bring some help. I need to stay with Hermione.”

He looked as if it pained him to say it, as if being asked to choose between his two best friends was tearing him apart.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Ron. You’re hurt, and you can’t leave Hermione here alone. We’ll be all right, and we’ll be back as soon as we can,” Harry said, staring intently in Ron’s eyes.

The two communicated silently for a moment, each knowing the other would easily give his own life to save his friend.

“Take care of each other,” Ron said. “Listen to Harry, Ginny. Don’t do anything stupid just to prove yourself.”

Ginny scowled, but nodded resolutely. She turned her back to him and stepped into the wardrobe, her hands splayed out in front of her as if she were blind.

Harry hurriedly joined her inside the wardrobe. It was pitch black and cavernous. He took several shuffling steps before realizing there was no way there should have been this much room inside.

“Ginny,” he whispered, knowing she was only a step ahead of him but unable to see her.

How am I supposed to protect her when I can’t even see her?

“Yeah?” she replied, sounding frightened for the first time.

He didn’t blame her. Although he’d never admit it, he was scared, too. The pitch dark was unnerving, and the nagging worry for Ron and Hermione nearly undid him. He reached out until he found her hand.

She clasped his tightly, threading his fingers with hers, and he thought it would take a bigger wizard than Voldemort to make her let go.

They shuffled in silence for what felt like an impossibly long time, although he knew it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Suddenly, the darkness ended and they stepped out into blazing sunlight.

“Where are we?” Ginny gasped in wonder as she looked around.

Harry’s mouth hung open as he spun around in circles. They were inside what looked to Harry like the Parthenon in Ancient Athens, except that it was intact rather than in ruins.

Ginny took a step backwards. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Harry,” she whispered.

A sliding sound caused them both to spin around. They were staring at a solid stone wall.

“What happened to the door?” Ginny asked, panicked.

The door had vanished completely, leaving only a small indentation in the shape of a cup.

“Obviously there’s no going back without the Horcrux as a key,” Harry said grimly. “But where is it?”

“And what’s guarding it?” Ginny asked, swallowing

A huge wooden gate at the other end of the Parthenon groaned as it slowly began to rise.

“You had to ask,” Harry said tonelessly, taking a step in front of Ginny.

The waited with bated breath as the gate fully opened. For a moment, nothing moved, and Harry and Ginny barely breathed. Suddenly, a great, thunderous roar echoed throughout the arena, shaking the stone and causing both teens to cover their ears.

Their eyes widened as a huge, monstrous beast lumbered from the cavern. It was greenish in color with a yellow head and enormous bluish wings. The claws on its feet were as sharp as knives, and its wings and tail were similarly tipped. The dragon raised its head, the irises in its glowing yellow eyes narrowing dangerously when it saw them. It roared again, emitting a blast of fire so intense it caused a fireball to fly across the Parthenon at them.

Harry and Ginny jumped over a wall and ducked in the stands as the flames soared over their heads and scorched the seats above them.

Harry cursed, breathing heavily. “I swore I’d never battle another dragon again as long as I lived.

“It’s a Serbian Scythe-tip,” Ginny said, clutching Harry’s arm and sounding awed.

“How do you know?” he asked incredulously.

“You couldn’t grow up in the same house with Charlie and not know something about dragons. The Serbian Scythe-tip and the Hungarian Horntail are the fiercest dragons, therefore the coolest as far as Charlie’s concerned,” Ginny said, tentatively peering over the ledge.

“Great,” Harry said, grumbling. “He sounds like Hagrid.”

“Yeah. Harry, I can see the Horcrux!” Ginny said, her voice rising.

“What? Where?” Harry asked, rising on his knees to peer over the stone next to her.

“There!” she cried, pointing.

Squinting, he could just make out a nest tucked inside the gate where the dragon had fully emerged. The Scythe-tip stalked to and fro in front of the opening as if daring them to try and pass.

“You can do this, Harry,” Ginny said. “It’s just like the First Task only now the Horcrux is your golden egg.”

“But, Ginny, I don’t have my Firebolt. It’s back in London, and somehow, I don’t think a Summoning charm is going to work through that stone wall,” he said, pointing to the now-hidden doorway that led back to the wardrobe.

“Harry, you’re a wizard with more experience than you had then. Conjure one! You don’t need it to last for long, just long enough,” Ginny cried, exasperated.

“Right,” Harry said, swallowing nervously. His palms were sweating, but he knew he could do this. Picturing his Firebolt in his mind, he conjured a nearly exact duplicate.

“You did it!” Ginny cried.

“Don’t get too excited. I still have to get the cup,” Harry said.

Ginny smiled tremulously and pulled the ribbon from her hair. She then knotted it around Harry’s upper arm.

“What’s that for?” he asked, staring at the yellow ribbon.

Ginny shrugged. “Well, I’m not Hermione, so I’m not certain I have my history right, but I think before a tournament battle, the lady is supposed to tie her colors around her Champion of choice to wish him luck.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled, feeling awkward. He stared at his shoes as he shuffled his feet.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Ginny said wryly. “For all I know, yellow is the color that will make a dragon charge.”

“Thanks, Gin. Your encouragement is overwhelming right now,” he replied, but he grinned when he said it. No matter what the circumstances, she could always make him feel better.

“You can do this, Harry,” she said earnestly before grabbing his face and pressing her lips to his.

He returned the kiss, enjoying the searing heat that filled his belly until another roar from the dragon grabbed his attention.

“Here goes nothing,” he said, before mounting the broom and soaring into the blue sky.

“Be careful, Harry,” Ginny called after him.

He rose well above the arena, circling it and trying to find his best angle. It only took a moment for the great beast to spot him. Roaring in fury, it spread its massive wings and took to the sky after him.

Despite his predicament, Harry couldn’t help but be awed by the creature. Its wingspan was so large that it nearly shadowed the entire width of the Parthenon. It soared gracefully into the sky before turning its voluminous yellow eyes on Harry.

He maneuvered the Firebolt in a steep dive, attempting to fly underneath the dragon before it could turn. He hadn’t counted on its tail, however. The dragon’s tail was long and thin, and the beast used it like a whip. It lashed out at Harry and the scythe-like tip ripped his shirt and cut into his chest, drawing blood.

The beast roared, and its nostrils flared at the scent of Harry’s blood. Harry dove again, but the tail whipped into his back this time. Twice more Harry attempted the dive, and twice more the dragon’s sharp tail sliced into him. His shirt hung in tatters and dripped with blood. His Firebolt was fast, but this dragon was faster.

Harry swung upward, climbing steeply. The dragon was confused and bellowed its ire. It followed Harry’s climb, gaining on him. It breathed out heavily, and Harry could feel the heat from the approaching fireball. He turned quickly, ducking low as he felt the hair on the back of his neck singe. He wrapped around the Parthenon wall and dove between two columns.

The dragon shrieked in rage when it realized it couldn’t follow Harry through the opening. It had to turn and fly up and over the top. Harry took the opportunity and dove towards the dragon’s lair. He had nearly reached it when that whip-like tail lashed out, slicing into him again.

He hissed in pain and had to pull up to avoid another blast of fire. He was growing frustrated and felt slightly lightheaded from the loss of blood. Something had to go his way soon, or he was a goner. He climbed steeply and once again looped over the top to fly back between the columns. He didn’t pause to check if the dragon followed, but instead aimed right for the nest as fast as his broom could carry him.

The dragon shrieked, enraged. Instead of turning this time, it crashed right through the columns. The force slowed the beast slightly. Harry sped towards the ground, pulling up just in time and aimed the broom into the entrance of the cavern. As he leaned down to grab the cup, his broom vanished.

He swore violently. He’d never claimed to be an expert on conjuring spells, but damn it, his timing couldn’t have been worse.

Before he had time to conjure another, he heard the piercing screech of the dragon, and it sounded as if it was approaching fast. He tucked the cup inside the waistband of his jeans and sprinted outside. He dove for the stands just as a fireball streaked overhead.

The dragon bellowed in fury as it clawed at the low wall separating the arena from Harry’s hiding place. He crouched low and tried to move away, but the wall collapsed, leaving him exposed. The dragon’s arm struck the wooden gate that had been sealing the entrance to the lair, shattering it effortlessly. Harry cried out as hundreds of sharp splinters rained down upon his back.

The dragon’s huge arm crashed down again, this time closer to him, and the scythe-tipped claw lanced his side beneath his ribs. The impact of the blow threw Harry in the air, knocking the wind from him. He crashed onto the dirt, panting and clawing at the ground as he tried to get away from the angry dragon.

Before he could move, before he could utter a sound, the dragon’s tail encircled his ankles, hog-tying him, and began to pull him closer. He was certain he could see victory reflected in the sickly yellow eyes. Harry forced himself to stay calm, although he was shaking all over.

The dragon’s tail jerked upward, leaving Harry hanging upside down near the dragon’s mouth. He could see tendrils of smoke spiraling away from the nostrils.

If that thing breathes a fire ball now…

Bruised and bloodied, Harry waited until he was as close the dragon’s face as he dared. He pulled out his wand, aimed it right at those malevolent yellow eyes, and blasted off the most intense Conjunctivitis curse he could manage.

The dragon reared its head and roared, sending out a wave of blistering heat. Harry was released from its hold and he dropped to the ground with a thud. His body ached, but he couldn’t find the strength to move away from the rampaging dragon. The beast was howling in pain, its huge arms clawing at its eyes, which were running and covered with a white slime.

If Harry couldn’t pull himself up, he’d be crushed under the tail or a massive foot. Panting heavily, he tried again to stand, but it was useless. What would happen to Ginny if Harry were killed here? He at least had to get the cup to her so she could escape. Groaning as he rolled to his side, he pulled the gleaming cup from the waistband of his jeans.

He was surprised to see how the gold shone, despite being unpolished for so long. Helga Hufflepuff’s golden crest glinted in the sun. As the dragon sent more flames towards him, Harry instinctively raised the cup like a shield and tossed it into the approaching fire. He rolled to the side to avoid being fried, crying out in pain as he did so.

When the cup made contact with the fire, a blast of bright white light filled the arena. Harry covered his face, feeling as if he’d got a

terrible sunburn. An unearthly scream rent the air, shaking the very foundation of the arena. The dragon howled in misery before crumpling to the ground and dissolving as if it had never been there.

A blaze of fiery red hair suddenly streaked across his face as Ginny landed next to him on a broom.

“What happened? Where did it go?” she shrieked. “Are you all right?”

“The cup,” Harry croaked weakly, pointing to where it lay on the ground.

Ginny scooped it up in her hand. The gold was scorched and blackened, but it remained intact.

“Just a cup now,” Harry muttered, feeling lightheaded. “Wonder if it still works as the key?”

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” she said, helping him off the ground and onto her conjured broom.

Harry slumped against her weakly as she rose in the air and flew them to the opposite end of the arena.

“I thought the lady was supposed to stay in the stands and shriek for her Champion to get up,” he said, smiling weakly.

“Who says I’m a lady?” Ginny shot back.

Harry grinned, feeling slightly delirious. “I love you, Ginny,” he whispered, his eyes failing to stay open.

He felt her body start. “I tried to get to you sooner to help, but it was like some kind of barrier held me in place. I wasn’t able to break past it until you were on the ground,” she said, sniffling.

“’S’okay,” he mumbled.

Ginny reached around to shake him fiercely. “Stay with me, Harry. Just a few minutes more. Here’s the entrance; fit the cup into the slot.”

Harry tried to lift his arm, but it felt like jelly, and he couldn’t make it cooperate.

“Here, I’ll do it,” Ginny said as she grabbed the cup and fit it into the slot. The door slid open, revealing that deep blackness once again.

Ginny flew the broom right into the archway, and moments later they flew right back into the sitting room at the Smith Museum. Ron and Hermione were still huddled together by the wall.

“Did you get it?” Ron asked anxiously.

Harry nodded towards the charred cup. “Found and destroyed,” he said weakly, his legs refusing to hold his weight as he stepped off the broom. Ginny grabbed onto him and eased him to the ground.

“Mate, what happened to you?” Ron asked, his eyes wide.

“We’ll discuss it back at Grimmauld Place,” Ginny said in a take-charge voice. “Ron, do you still think you can Apparate with Hermione?”

Ron nodded. Clutching an unconscious Hermione to his side, they Disapparated with a pop.

Ginny wrapped her arms around Harry. “Hold on tight to me, Harry,” she whispered.

“I can take us,” Harry said stubbornly.

“Thanks, but no. I don’t feel like being splinched today. I’ve had enough excitement for one day.”

With a cheeky grin, she kissed his cheek and brought them both back to headquarters…back to her family.

**–**–

Chapter Twelve

Repercussions

Ginny opened her eyes, steadied herself and stared at the gloomy outline of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place. She had just Apparated onto a small grassy patch of land shadowed by a large tree a short way from the house, and hoped she wouldn’t get a reprimand from the Ministry about underage magic since she was in the company of several of-age wizards.

The sun had set long ago, and the street was quiet and dark, not even a Muggle vehicle disturbing the stillness. She could see dim candlelight burning in several of the windows of headquarters and was relieved that it was still occupied. Harry slumped against her, finally losing his long battle to stay conscious. She struggled to let him down gently and ended up pinned beneath him. Merlin, for a thin bloke he was heavy. She shuddered at the stark purple bruises covering his pale face.

Ron sat on the ground next to Harry, cradling Hermione in his lap. He was listless and barely had the strength to speak.

“Sorry, Ginny,” he said, gasping. “I tried to fire sparks at the door, but I missed.”

“It’s okay. Everything’s going to be fine, Ron. How’s Hermione?” Ginny asked. The older girl was frighteningly still, and Ginny couldn’t bear to look at the awful wounds on her head.

“She won’t wake up, Ginny,” Ron said, sounding like the frightened little boy that Fred and George used to tease with spiders.

“She will,” Ginny said with a confidence she didn’t have. She suddenly didn’t feel very grown up, at all. “This isn’t finished yet, and

Hermione is way too tenacious to give up in the middle of a project. Stay with them a minute; I’ll be right back.”

She gently untangled herself from Harry’s limbs, wincing at the raw slashes across his chest. Her hands were slick with blood from gripping him so tightly when they Apparated.

He’d been magnificent against the dragon. Ginny had been awed watching him, despite her terror. After the dragon had first whipped him with its tail, she’d begun trying to conjure a broom to help him. Conjuring items was a sixth-year spell, and she’d never attempted it. All she had to go on was the memory of Harry conjuring his own broom. It had taken her several attempts to get it right, and she knew her own panic and frustration hadn’t helped. Once she’d finally had the broom, something in the magic of the place wouldn’t allow her to leave the stands to help him.

Still, despite knowing all he’d done and how much he’d been through in that arena, she couldn’t help the slight twinge of annoyance over being the only one conscious and unhurt and able to deal with the wrath that awaited her on the other side of the door. She knew she was in for a barrage of questions, and she wished she didn’t have to face it alone. It might be childish, but that’s how she felt.

She’d let the others recover, but once they were well again, she had every intention of pointing out that despite all their protests about her being underage, she was the last one standing. Steeling her resolve with a grim smile, Ginny climbed the steps of number twelve.

She tested the handle of the door and found it unlocked. Her heart gave a slight twinge knowing that her mum would have left it that way in case they returned. Biting her lip, she pushed open the door and stepped inside.

I have to be strong.

Directly inside the entrance hall, Bill, Remus Lupin and Alastor Moody were arguing heatedly, but Ginny was too tired to pay attention to their words. None of them noticed her straightaway. Remus looked up first and caught her standing uncertainly in the doorway.

“Ginny,” he said, startled.

Bill and Moody’s heads whipped around, but otherwise they were all frozen.

“Uhm…I need some help outside. We’ve got some injuries,” Ginny said finally, biting her lip.

It was as if her words unfroze them. Remus and Moody pushed past her and sprinted outside, but Bill caught her by the arm before she could follow.

“Oh no, squirt, you’re not going anywhere,” he said, and despite the old familiar nickname, she could tell he was angry.

His anger snapped something inside her and released her courage. There was no way she was going back to being treated like a baby — not by Bill — not by anyone.

“Let go of me, Bill,” she demanded, jerking her arm free. “Hermione is really hurt, and I know right where she is. I’ll answer your questions later, but I don’t have time for this right now.”

Ignoring the surprised look on her brother’s face, she turned and sprinted out the door, leading Lupin and Moody to the others.

“She’s been burned,” Ron said as Remus leaned over Hermione. “She needs Madam Pomfrey right now.”

“Let me take her inside, Ron,” Remus said, gently lifting her from Ron’s arms. “I’ll Floo Poppy, and she’ll be here in no time.”

Ron nodded, struggling to stand. Moody pulled him to his feet and grabbed him around his waist when Ron started to sway.

“Easy, lad. I’ve got you. Just lean on me, and we’ll get you inside,” the old Auror said, surprisingly gently.

Bill stared down at Harry’s crumpled form, an unreadable expression on his face. After waiting a moment, Ginny finally nudged him, and he leaned over to lift Harry. He pulled Harry to his feet and threw him over his shoulder none-too-gently. Ginny bit the inside of her cheeks, breathing through her nose, and followed them inside.

When they arrived in the entrance hall, they followed Remus and Moody into one of the smaller sitting rooms where Bill unceremoniously dropped Harry to the floor in a heap.

Ginny couldn’t control her temper any longer. She whirled on her brother in a rage, holding her wand on him.

“That’s enough,” she snarled.

“Ginny,” he said, his own temper rising.

“Not another word from you,” she spat. “You have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, and if you mishandle Harry one more time, I’m going to make certain you wish you’d never taught me the Bat Bogey Hex.”

“That’s enough,” Remus said sharply. “We’re not going to start fighting amongst ourselves. We’re going to tend these injuries before we sit down and calmly discuss what’s happened. I’m going to Floo Poppy. Bill, I think you should go and get your parents.”

Bill frowned at Ginny for a moment before turning on his heel and leaving the room without a word.

“Stay with Harry, Ginny. I’ll be right back,” Remus said, squeezing her shoulder gently.

Moody sat Ron on a chair, but he immediately moved to the floor next to the couch where Hermione lay. He held her hand tightly, gazing intently at her closed eyelids. Ginny imagined he was willing her to wake up from sheer desire alone.

Moody helped her move Harry to the empty chair, and she gently rested his head to the side. The floor where Bill had dropped him was smeared with his blood, and the fabric on the chair where they placed him was rapidly becoming stained.

“He’s going to need a Blood Replenishing Potion, but we’ll let Poppy look him over first,” Moody said, his good eye fixed on Ginny while his magical eye kept spinning to watch the other three.

A commotion in the doorway caused Ginny to look up to see her parents, Bill, Fred and George all staring back at her. Her mum was pale, although Ginny could see two bright spots of color growing rapidly on her cheeks.

That was never a good sign.

Ginny glanced at her father’s face. She could read relief there, but had to look away from the disappointment she saw reflected in his eyes. What was it about parents that could make you feel so small and unsure, no matter how strongly you believed in what you were doing?

She knew she’d been right to go along with Harry and the others. She knew what they were doing was important, and that they were following Professor Dumbledore’s instructions. She also knew the great burden Harry carried, and that he was stronger with her by his side. Why, then, could the simplest look from each of her parents make her feel as if she’d done something terribly wrong?

“Ronnie,” her mum wailed, finally noticing the burns on Ron’s arm. She ran across the room and grabbed his hand, trying to straighten out his arm and inspect the wounds.

Ron jerked his arm away roughly. “M’fine,” he slurred, letting them all know he was anything but. “’Erminee’s hurt.”

“I want to know what in the name of Merlin happened to all of you, and I want to know right now. I’m aware that you were in Diagon Alley earlier today, and now you show up here injured. Where have you been, and what have you been doing?” Molly demanded, drawing herself up to her full height. She glared at Ginny while keeping her hand on Ron’s shoulder. Molly Weasley wasn’t a tall woman, but when she was angry she appeared to grow before their eyes.

“The questions will keep, Molly,” Remus Lupin said mildly as he reentered the room followed closely by Madam Pomfrey. “Let’s get their injuries healed first.”

Madam Pomfrey’s expert gaze swept the room and each of the four teens before moving directly to Hermione. She set her bag on the floor and in a no-nonsense voice told Ron to move aside. Ron shifted back, although admittedly not very far.

“Are you injured, Ginevra?” her mother asked stiffly.

“No,” Ginny replied, knowing what was coming and steeling herself for it.

“Then I want you upstairs and in your room. I’ll be up to discuss this with you after I’m certain your brother will be all right,” her mum said in a shrill voice.

Ginny swallowed, clenching her fists so tightly her fingernails dug into her palms. “No, Mum. I’m staying.”

“Don’t you dare argue with me, young lady. I’m on my last nerve with you as it is, disappearing in the middle of the night without so much as a note. There’s a war going on out there. You could have been killed,” her mum shouted.

“Molly,” her dad said, placing a restraining arm on her mum’s shoulder.

“No, Arthur. I want her upstairs now,” her mum insisted, pointing at the door.

“No, Mum. I’m staying here until I know they’ll be all right,” Ginny said, swallowing hard. “Hermione and Harry are unconscious, and Ron’s nearly delirious. I’m the only one who can tell Madam Pomfrey anything she might need to know.”

She knew she was using the health of the others as her trump card, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t leaving the room. She felt this first battle of wills was pivotal in how the rest of the Order was to see them. Besides, she wasn’t about to leave Harry defenseless with her brothers in the room. Still, it was terrifying to defy her mother. There had been a time not all that long ago when she’d never have considered doing it.

“She’s right, Molly,” Remus said, and Ginny could have hugged him. She looked over at him gratefully, but he averted his eyes.

Her mother’s lips thinned, and she looked as if she might cry, causing Ginny’s heart to pinch again. What she really wanted to do was to fling her arms around her mum and just hang on, but she knew she couldn’t do that. If she wanted her family to see her as an adult, she was going to have to act like one. No matter how hard that proved to be.

“This is Dark magic,” Madam Pomfrey cried, pulling away from Hermione, her eyes wild. “This child is covered in Dark magic.”

“Does that mean you won’t be able to heal her?” Ginny asked, panicked. She could hear the tremble in her own voice, but couldn’t hide it. All she could remember was Professor Dumbledore’s blackened hand and how dead it had looked.

“I don’t know. It’s going to take me some time to see how bad the damage is,” Madam Pomfrey said, obviously shaken. “She’s stable for now, but I can’t heal these burns without some additional research.”

“How did Hermione get these burns, Ginny?” Remus asked. “Can you tell us that?”

“Hermione,” Ron said, his voice cracking as he attempted to move closer to her.

“Sit down, young man,” Madam Pomfrey demanded. “Let me take a look at you before you go anywhere. You,” she said, pointing at Bill and the twins, “begin Transfiguring this furniture into beds and make me an infirmary. I want all four of my patients in the same spot.”

“Ginny’s not hurt,” Bill said, staring at his sister with that same unfathomable expression.

“I’ll be the judge of that. Just do as I say,” Madam Pomfrey snapped, returning to tending Ron’s wounds.

“Ginny, who caused these injuries to the others?” Remus asked, attempting to stop the bleeding on Harry’s chest with the sleeve of his robe. “We haven’t had any reports of Death Eater activity tonight.”

“Voldemort,” Ginny said flatly.

There were several gasps, and her mother visibly flinched.

“Ginny!” she cried as if Ginny had cursed. “Don’t say the name.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. She was tired and stressed and the adrenaline from the night’s activities was beginning to wear off. She had no patience for this. “I will say the name. I’m not going to be a hypocrite about it.”

“Don’t talk to your mother that way, Ginny,” her father said sternly. It was so rare that her dad ever reprimanded them that it mollified her instantly.

“I’m sorry,” Ginny said. “It’s been a stressful night, and I’m worried about them.”

Her mother’s expression softened slightly, although she still hadn’t made a move to touch her. Ginny wished she would; she could use a hug.

Harry groaned slightly and shifted his position. Ginny immediately turned to him and brushed the hair from his eyes. “Harry?” she said.

She could see his eyes moving rapidly beneath his closed lids, but she suspected he was dreaming rather than trying to wake.

“I’ve healed most of his burns. They weren’t as severe as Miss Granger’s. Still, I need to do a little research before I can be certain,” Madam Pomfrey said. Ron was sleeping peacefully in the bed Fred and George had Transfigured. Ginny suspected that Madam Pomfrey had given him a sleeping draught. She wished she could get one in order to avoid the questions she knew were coming.

“I have some questions I need answered as well, but let me tend to Mr. Potter first,” Madam Pomfrey said.

“I think we all have a lot of questions,” her dad said, his gaze boring into Ginny and causing her to flinch.

When Madam Pomfrey reached Harry, she waved her wand over him once and jerked back. “These aren’t burns,” she said, nonplussed.

“No,” Ginny replied, swallowing hard. She didn’t want to reveal anything she’d promised to keep quiet, but she had to make certain the others’ injuries were tended. She found herself wishing these weren’t her decisions to make and had a new respect for the burden that had been placed on Harry. No wonder he frequently appeared so on edge.

She desperately wanted to do the right thing, but what happened if what was the right thing wasn’t entirely clear? How was she supposed to know, let alone decide? Professor Dumbledore’s words from after the Third Task drifted back to her, something about choosing between what was right and what was easy. It would be easy to simply fall on her knees and confess everything to the Order, to place the burden of what to do on their heads. But that wasn’t what Harry would do. He’d choose the right path, no matter how much it cost him. Ginny had to choose to do what was right, as well.

“These injuries were caused by a magical creature, a dragon, if I had to hazard a guess,” Madam Pomfrey said, staring at Ginny intently.

“A dragon?” Fred and George both asked, speaking for the first time. Ginny thought they looked rather impressed.

“Where on earth did you find a dragon?” her mum shrieked, looking slightly deranged. Her hair had pulled from its bun, and her eyes were wild.

“Can you heal him?” Ginny asked, ignoring everyone else in the room. Nothing was as important as getting Harry well. She needed him well so she could give him hell for leaving her here with all of them.

“Of course I can,” Madam Pomfrey said indignantly. “He’ll need some Blood Replenishing Potions that will have to be taken in intervals over the next two days. He’ll probably sleep through most of it, but he’ll be fine. There won’t even be any scarring.”

Two days? Oh, that’s just great.

“I’ll help with giving him the potions,” Ginny said firmly.

“That won’t be necessary, Ginny,” her mother said. “We’ll make certain Harry gets his potions. You have some questions to answer.”

“I’m not going anywhere until I know they’re all going to be okay,” Ginny said, refusing to back down. “And I don’t trust any of you with Harry right now.”

“Ginevra Molly Weasley,” her mother said, scandalized. “We might be upset with all of you at the moment, but we certainly would never do anything to hinder Harry’s recovery.”

“Bill’s already dropped him on the floor, despite the fact he’s injured,” Ginny fired back mutinously. She glared at her eldest brother, still feeling unforgiving.

“He what?” her mother bellowed, turning towards Bill.

Despite being a fully qualified wizard, not to mention a grown and married man, Bill Weasley blanched. “I would have done the same to Ron, too, if he were the one I was carrying. They had no business dragging Ginny off on their little adventure.”

“’Little adventure,’” Ginny shrieked. “You have absolutely no idea what we’ve done, or what we’ve been through.”

“How about you enlighten us then,” Bill snarled. “Tell us why you nearly broke your mother’s heart. Do you have any idea how much you upset her? Madam Pomfrey had to be called to give her a Calming Draught that first morning. But you wouldn’t know about that since you never bothered to check or even write a note to let us know you were all right, never mind where you were. I knew Harry was up to something, but I never thought he’d drag the rest of you right into danger with him.”

“He didn’t drag us anywhere,” Ginny spat. “In fact, we had to force him to let us come. Professor Dumbledore left him a job to do. Completing his task is the only way Harry can beat Voldemort in the end. That’s exactly what he’s going to do, and we’re going to help him do it.”

Again, the others cringed when Ginny said the name, but she didn’t care.

“Ginny,” Remus began, but she didn’t let him finish.

“Look at you. All of you cringe just hearing the name. How can you possibly believe you can handle this better than us?” Ginny asked incredulously. “Professor Dumbledore trusted him; why can’t you?”

“You are just children,” her mum said stubbornly.

“We’re not children. Harry’s never even been allowed to be a child, and I haven’t been since I was eleven. I’ve been touched by this war more than any of you, even you, Bill,” she said, nodding towards her brother’s scars. “How any of you think you can keep us safe is beyond me. You couldn’t do it then, you can’t do it now.”

“That’s enough.” Madam Pomfrey said sternly. “Miss Weasley, climb into that bed.” She nodded towards the one empty bed left in the impromptu infirmary, the one next to Harry’s.

“We need to ask Ginny some questions, Poppy,” her dad said.

“Not right now you don’t,” Madam Pomfrey said indignantly. “Minerva isn’t even here, and this is developing into nothing more than a shouting match. These children have obviously been through a shock, and nobody is going to upset them until they have a good night’s sleep. I’ll return in the morning with more information on Miss Granger.”

She handed Ginny a phial of purple liquid that Ginny assumed was a sleep potion. She gratefully gulped it down before anyone could stop her.

“I don’t think anyone is going to get any clear answers tonight,” Moody said. “Why don’t we all get some sleep? We can talk about their return in the morning.”

The sleep potion was making Ginny warm and so very drowsy. Fog tinged the edges of her vision, and the voices became oddly distorted. Before the tide of sleep claimed her, however, she thought she saw Alastor Moody give Madam Pomfrey the briefest of winks. Her brain must have been addled, because she thought she saw the stern hospital matron actually blush.

**–**–

When Harry opened his eyes, the first thing he noticed was how stiff his body felt. The second thing he noticed was how bright the room was due to the sunlight streaming through the undraped windows.

What time is it? And how long have I been asleep?

His eyes scanned the room, noticing the four beds and bedside tables arranged in the otherwise bare room. He was obviously somewhere in Grimmauld Place, but he didn’t remember ever seeing an infirmary while there.

Hermione was sleeping across from him, her head wrapped in heavy white bandages. The other two beds were empty, however, causing Harry’s stomach to lurch with dread. He knew Ginny hadn’t been hurt, but why were both Weasleys missing? Had Mrs. Weasley spirited them away?

Harry half hoped it was true, half dreaded the idea. He didn’t think he had any hope of succeeding without them. Along with Hermione, they each were a part of him now; he needed them.

A small sigh distracted him, and he turned his head. Ginny was asleep on a chair beside his bed, her feet curled beneath her. Her head lolled to the side, and she clutched a tattered old book in her hand.

Harry smiled in relief; she hadn’t left him. He immediately noticed that she’d changed her clothes and wondered again how long he’d been unconscious. A tremendous wave of guilt washed over him. He’d left Ginny alone to deal with her parents’ wrath. Some boyfriend he made.

Standing up and stretching in an attempt to loosen his stiff muscles and joints, Harry watched Ginny sleep for a moment. A few stray wisps of hair covered her face and moved in and out as she breathed. He smiled, imagining it must tickle. He gently brushed the hair away and she stirred slightly, shifting in her seat and causing her book to fall from her grasp.

Harry leaned over to pick it up, wondering what she was reading and if it would help them with their mission. Turning the book over, he found a full-cover moving picture of a witch and wizard locked in a passionate embrace. The witch’s robes were hanging off her in a way

he’d never seen any witch dress, not even Madam Rosmerta. Curious, he flipped it open to a random page and began to read. He managed only a few words that consisted of a heaving bosom and a throbbing…

Harry slammed the book shut and dropped it on his bed, his face coloring brilliantly. He stared at Ginny incredulously. What on Earth was she was reading, and how in Merlin’s name had it put her to sleep? Harry shifted uncomfortably, suddenly feeling very worried about what Ginny might think of their private snogging sessions. Living in such close quarters with Ron and Hermione hadn’t afforded them the opportunity for much time alone, but they’d taken the opportunity whenever possible.

Harry thought their time together had been nothing short of brilliant, but now he was a bit worried. Exactly what was Ginny expecting? He wished he could talk to Ron about it, but he could just picture the look on his mate’s face if he even attempted to bring it up. Ron never shared anything about what was going on with him and Hermione — a fact for which Harry was eternally grateful — but he had been rather proud and forthright about his activities with Lavender.

Shaking his head, Harry decided he’d have to worry about it later. Right now he had to find out what had been happening while he’d slept. He desperately wanted a shower, but decided even that would have to wait. He was going to look for Ron.

He ran up the stairs to the room he and Ron had shared before they’d left but he didn’t see anyone. The fact the house appeared so empty left him uneasy. The bedroom was empty, not showing any sign that Ron had been there. Harry decided to try the kitchen but pulled up short in front of the door that led to Ginny and Hermione’s room.

Quietly opening the door, he immediately saw what he was seeking. Snot sat perched on Ginny’s bed looking sad and forlorn. Scooping up the bear, Harry shut the door behind him and turned, only to find Malfoy standing directly in front of him with a sardonic grin on his face.

“So, finally awake, Potter? What happened, you just couldn’t stand to lie there any longer without your teddy bear?” Malfoy asked, sneering.

Harry felt warmth flood his face. He struggled valiantly with the urge to shove the bear behind his back, despite the fact he knew it was too late for that. Of all the people that could have found him walking around with Snot, why did it have to be Malfoy? The only worse choice would have been the twins. Something Malfoy said finally penetrated Harry’s embarrassment.

“What do you mean ‘finally awake’? How long have I been here?” he demanded.

Malfoy raised an eyebrow. “Long enough to let your little girlfriend take all the heat for your disappearance. Smooth move, Potter. It’s exactly what I would have done, too, but I thought you’d somehow be too noble for that,” Malfoy said with a grimace.

Damn!

“Oh, there’s that Gryffindor pride. I knew it must be hiding in there somewhere,” Malfoy said, scoffing. “Don’t worry, Potter. Weaslette apparently can handle her family just fine without your protection. She does a better job than her pitiable brother, anyway. I hear Granger’s going hairless these days. I never would have suspected Weasley was harboring a fetish for bald birds.”

Harry angrily shoved Malfoy against the wall. The blonde boy’s eyes widened in surprise. “Shut it, Malfoy,” Harry said through clenched teeth. He was disturbed to realize how much attention Malfoy had been paying to his friends. If he were double crossing them somehow…

“Let go of me, Potter,” Malfoy said, angrily pushing Harry back a step and straightening his clothing. “Don’t take out your frustration on me simply because you’re unhappy you let your girlfriend down.”

“I said shut it. You don’t know what you’re saying,” Harry replied.

“Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t know a thing about leaving my girlfriend high and dry, would I, Potter?” Malfoy asked, sneering hatefully. “I’m certain Pansy is perfectly content sitting around wondering if I’m dead or alive. Only thing is, she’s smart enough not to expect me to put myself in any danger simply for her comfort.”

Harry blinked, surprised. It sounded almost as if Malfoy actually cared about Parkinson. Who’d have thought? Harry didn’t know why anything had the ability to surprise him anymore. Before he had a chance to contemplate it, or even respond, Ron’s voice echoed loudly in the deserted hallway.

“Harry! You’re awake. What’s going on here? What are you doing with him, Malfoy?”

“Relax, Weasel. If you keep making your face that color it’s going to stay that way,” Malfoy replied, lazily leaning against the wall.

“I’m fine, Ron,” Harry said, interrupting the other two before they could come to blows. “Are you all right?”

Ron shrugged. “I’m fine; Madam Pomfrey patched me up. What are you waiting on, Malfoy? Go on and scurry away like a good little ferret.”

Two bright spots of pink colored Malfoy’s cheeks, but otherwise he didn’t respond to Ron’s taunts. Instead, he turned towards Harry and asked, “So, I take it from all your injuries that you found whatever the Dark Lord is guarding? The only way you’d still be alive is if you came up against an idiot like Crabbe, Goyle or Simmons. What is it, Potter? What are you looking for, anyway?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Harry responded coolly. “You heard Ron, Malfoy. Shove off. I’ve got nothing to say to you.”

“Not until you need information again, anyway,” Malfoy said bitterly. “Fine. Have it your way, but don’t expect me to be so hospitable next time.”

Harry and Ron watched him walk away in silence until Ron finally muttered, “Git,” under his breath.

“How could I have been so stupid?” Harry hissed, slapping his hand to his head.

“Huh?” Ron asked, bewildered.

“The Muggle we saw outside the Smith Museum — the one who kept circling the block. That must have been Simmons. I would have recognized Crabbe or Goyle. He was guarding the museum,” Harry said.

“Didn’t do a very good job of it, did he?” Ron asked. “We got inside no problem.”

“No, but Malfoy did say he was stupid. Don’t you see, Ron? It’s a way to find the other Horcrux — the one we don’t know what it is. Either Crabbe or Goyle is guarding it. If we find them, we at least find where it’s hidden,” Harry exclaimed excitedly.

Ron’s expression brightened considerably. “What’s the other one guarding?” he asked.

“I reckon he’s probably at the cave where the amulet was hidden. No one besides the four of us knows it’s not there anymore. I’ll have to check on it,” Harry said, running his hand through his hair absently.

“Er, Harry. You do know you’re walking around talking to Malfoy with a teddy bear in your hand, right?” Ron asked, amused.

Snot! He’d completely forgotten he was holding Ginny’s bear. “Er…it’s Ginny’s,” he said lamely, ducking Ron’s gaze.

“I know what it is. What’re you doing with it?” Ron asked, obviously amused by Harry’s embarrassment.

Dammit! The lengths he’d go for Ginny Weasley.

He mumbled something undistinguishable as he pushed past Ron and headed towards the infirmary. Ron followed behind him, sniggering the entire way. Scowling, Harry pushed open the door to find Ginny still sleeping where he’d left her.

Ignoring Ron’s snickering presence, he tucked Snot under her arm and gently pulled the blanket around her. He moved towards Hermione, but Ron’s words stopped him in his tracks.

“You’re in love with my sister.”

Harry’s steps faltered. He swallowed heavily and continued towards Hermione, flustered by what Ron had said. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t considered himself, but hearing Ron say it out loud was intimidating. How was he supposed to know what love felt like? He had vague recollections of admitting to Ginny that he loved her in the Parthenon, but his memory at the end was slightly faulty. Even if he had, he didn’t want Ron calling him on it.

“Has Hermione awoken at all?” he asked, clearing his throat.

“I knew you fancied her, but you’re actually in love with her. You love my baby sister,” Ron repeated gleefully. He was prancing behind Harry and looking like a right pillock.

“Ron! I’m trying to be serious here,” Harry said, jerking his shoulder. Ron was really on his nerves.

“You’re trying to change the subject,” Ron said smugly.

“So let him,” a sleepy voice said from behind them.

Harry whirled around to see Ginny sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Finding Snot, she blinked in surprise before looking directly at Harry and flashing that brilliant smile.

Harry’s mouth went dry. Bollocks! How much did she overhear?

“It’s good to see you up and about,” she said, her eyes softening.

“Hi,” Harry said, knowing he sounded stupid but unable to think of anything else to say.

Ron had no such problem. “Snap out of it,” he said, snapping his fingers beneath Harry’s nose. “You can moon over her later.”

“As if you haven’t been the one sitting by Hermione’s bedside mooning for the past three days,” Ginny snapped.

“Three days?” Harry bellowed. “We’ve been here for three days?”

“Yes,” Ginny said, turning her attention back to Harry. “Nice of you to join us.”

“What’s happened while I was out?” he asked, feeling alarmed. “What happened when we got here?”

“Relax, mate,” Ron said, taking a seat in the chair next to Hermione’s bed. “When I woke up, Madam Pomfrey had already healed us all,” he said, wincing as he looked at Hermione. “It took you longer because you lost so much blood. Ginny’s been giving you a Blood Replenishing Potion. She wouldn’t let anyone else do it — put Mum in a right state, she did.”

Ginny shrugged. “I wanted you well, and Bill was a bit angry with you when we first arrived.”

Harry cringed. “Sorry to leave you with that, Ginny. What did you tell them?”

“Nothing important, although they have figured a few things out already,” Ginny replied.

“Like the fact you went up against another dragon,” Ron said.

“Yeah. Madam Pomfrey knew that from your injuries,” Ginny said.

“The cup!” Harry exclaimed. “Where is it?”

“Don’t worry. I put it in your nightstand along with your wand,” Ginny said calmly. “Things have been rather strained around here since we got back.”

“That’s an understatement,” Ron mumbled.

“How do you mean?” asked Harry.

Ginny shrugged. “Mum had her big blow up when we first arrived, but since then she’s been…distant. She seems sad, almost like she doesn’t know what to say to us,” Ginny said, her voice cracking slightly. “It’s so unlike her. Sometimes I think she’s angry but…”

“All the Order has been in an out. Shacklebolt and McGonagall have been the most demanding. They’re the ones who are the most put-out, I think. Moody’s been the best,” Ron said.

“Yeah, well. He knew we were up to something and was okay with it,” Harry said, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

“I know, but Remus knew too, and he definitely seems off,” Ron said. “And Dad just looks sad.”

Harry shifted uneasily.

“Don’t you dare start feeling guilty, Harry. We’ve no time for it, and there was nothing else you could have done,” Ginny said firmly.

“Besides, showing up here unconscious was the best thing that could have happened. It put Mum right in the ‘poor dear’ mode. I think it helped all of us,” Ron said, grinning.

“Great. What about Bill? You said he was upset,” Harry asked.

“Yeah, he’s definitely off,” Ron said.

“I think that might have more to do with the fact that we were out doing something important, and he’s feeling stifled. We’re just coming off the full moon, you know. His wounds have never healed completely, and Gringotts won’t let him come back to work until they do,” Ginny said.

“What? Why not?” Harry asked indignantly.

“They’re afraid,” Ginny said, sighing. “Werewolf contamination and all.”

“That’s rubbish,” Harry said.

“Tell it to the Goblins,” Ron said bitterly.

“I think I will,” Harry said furiously.

Hermione shifted on the bed, most likely disturbed by their loud voices.

“Madam Pomfrey was able to heal all Hermione’s burns, but she wasn’t able to save her hair,” Ginny said quietly. “The spell that hit her was Dark Magic, and the hair cells were completely destroyed. Madam Pomfrey said it would all have to grow back naturally. She’s pretty upset.”

“No, she’s not,” Ron said, his expression blank. “It’s just hair; it’ll grow back.”

Ginny shook her head. “I know it’s just hair, Ron, but trust me, it matters.”

Ron shook his head. “She could have been killed, Harry. Madam Pomfrey said the effects of the curse were most likely lessened because it was split between us. I think the fact we both tried to move away helped, as well. If it’s a choice between Hermione and some hair, I’ll take Hermione every time.”

“Of course you would. We all would, and she knows that, too. It doesn’t make the idea of losing all her hair less intimidating. I think you’d be hard put to find a witch that didn’t have some vanity about her hair,” Ginny replied, patting Hermione’s leg.

“How come she’s still unconscious, and you’ve been up for days?” Harry asked Ron.

“She’s been awake, too,” Ginny said, and Harry could tell she was trying not to laugh. “She found a bunch of medical books in the library, and she’s been consulting with Madam Pomfrey about all her options. I’ve noticed she takes a kip every time Madam Pomfrey gives her a Healing Potion. I think the Madam Pomfrey has been slipping her a Sleeping Draught.”

“Wish we had some of that when she starts going off on elf rights,” Ron said, whispering despite the fact Hermione was sound asleep.

Harry snickered. “Better not let her hear you say that.”

“I won’t,” Ron said adamantly.

“I suppose we should let everyone know you’re awake. They’ve been waiting to have a meeting,” Ginny said quietly.

Harry instinctively reached out and grasped her hand. “I suppose we should get it over with then.”

**–**–

A full meeting of the Order of the Phoenix was held the following evening. Harry had to force himself not to fidget as he waited for the others to file into the room. Ron and Ginny, naturally, were both attending the meeting, but he noticed Mrs. Weasley giving them furtive glances every few seconds, as if she longed to boot them from the room. She’d been as pleasant as always to Harry, and very concerned over his

health, but he could sense a distance, a barrier, that he’d never felt before. His chest constricted whenever he thought about it too much.

Hermione was also in attendance. She entered the room wearing a navy blue handkerchief on her head to hide the bandages and leaned heavily on Ron. He’d wrapped his arm protectively around her and hadn’t removed it even after they’d sat down. Hermione was much more subdued than normal, which disturbed Harry.

Both Bill and Lupin had been scarce since Harry had awoken, but they were here tonight, both casting disapproving looks in his direction. Only Mad-Eye Moody appeared happy to see him, and greeted him almost warmly. Well, as warmly as Mad-Eye ever was, anyway. Tonks sat beside Lupin, her hair a hideous shade of olive green. She winked at Harry and stuck her tongue out at Remus when he frowned.

Of all the Weasleys, only Fred, George, and, surprisingly Fleur had acted as if nothing was wrong. The twins were eager to tell him about business and ask loads of questions about the dragon. They also enjoyed teasing Harry and Ron about living unsupervised with the girls. That teasing had caused many disapproving glares from the elder Weasleys, and made Harry fear for the stability of the tentative truce they’d apparently reached.

Charlie and Percy arrived for the meeting, in addition to many other members Harry had only seen on occasion. Professor McGonagall and Kingsley Shacklebolt both sat at the head of the expanded kitchen table, each wearing a grim expression. Professor McGonagall’s lips were compressed so tightly they had lost their color. Harry had seen that expression from her before, and it was usually followed by a particularly foul detention.

He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. He wasn’t a kid called to task in front of a professor. He was an adult now with a greater responsibility than any of them knew. He would not be cowed, and he wouldn’t allow them to revert to treating him like a child.

“Good evening,” Professor McGonagall began. “I think it best if we call this meeting to order and get right to business. Mr. Potter, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Harry returned her stare, forcing his voice to remain calm. “What would you like to know?”

“What I’d like to know is where you’ve been over the past month,” she said sternly.

“And why my children went along with you, despite my express wishes that they not be involved,” Mrs. Weasley added, glaring at Ron and Ginny with tears in her eyes.

“Harry,” Remus Lupin said. “We’d like to know why you left the way you did, without leaving us any means of contacting you. Do you understand how worried we were? How helpless you made us all feel?”

“The Order was assigned the task of protecting you by Albus Dumbledore, someone you supposedly respected,” Shacklebolt said, apparently

impatient with the emotional turn the meeting had taken. “And yet you saw fit to ignore every measure of protection we had in place to go out on your own. I’d like to know why. What could possibly have been so important?”

Harry expected the barrage of questions, but he was slightly stung by the tone in Remus’s voice. He cleared his throat before speaking, and when he did, he looked directly at Remus.

“I appreciate your concern, and I’m sorry that you were worried, but I honestly didn’t see there being another way. If I’d told you my plans to leave, would you have stood aside and let us walk out that door?” he asked.

“Harry, we’re here to help you,” Remus said. “We want to help you.”

“You can’t,” Harry snapped.

“What do you mean we ‘can’t?’” Professor McGonagall demanded. “Of course, we can, Potter. That’s the entire purpose of the Order.”

“We are aware that you believe Albus left you with a job to do, but we can’t believe he meant for you to do this alone, Harry,” Mrs. Weasley said, resting a hand on his arm.

Harry pulled his arm away. “You still don’t get it, do you?” he demanded. “He didn’t leave me a job to do. It is my job to do — all of it. Everything the Daily Prophet has said about this ‘Chosen One’ business — well, it’s about the only thing they’ve ever got right. I know it, and Professor Dumbledore knew it. You all say you trusted him, that what you did came down to whether you trusted his judgment or not. Well, leaving this task to me was his judgment.”

“But he’s gone now, Harry,” Professor McGonagall said. “Things have changed.”

“Nothing’s changed; what has to be done remains the same,” Harry said vehemently. “Dumbledore once said that he will have only truly left when no one here is loyal to him. You have to decide if you still can be, even if what he’s asking isn’t easy.”

“You have to choose between what’s right and what’s easy,” Ginny whispered. “We all do.”

“How can we choose what’s right when we don’t even know what it is you’re doing?” Kingsley demanded. “You’ve obviously told your friends. Why can’t you tell us?”

“I told them because Professor Dumbledore told me I could. He thought I’d need some support, and they’re the ones I’m closest to,” Harry said, leaving out the fact Ginny had only been included later.

“I can’t believe Albus would do this,” Mrs. Weasley moaned. “Ginny isn’t even of age.”

“Neither was Ron when Professor Dumbledore told Harry he could share this,” Ginny snapped. “You have to stop dwelling on our ages and see

that what we’re doing is right. It’s working, and it’s the only thing that’s going to stop Voldemort.”

Again, there were several muffled gasps and shifting around the table. Members of the Order had become accustomed to Dumbledore using the name, but it still startled them to hear it from someone else.

“Look,” Harry said, making a decision. Something told him it was the right one to make. “I know you’re all as dedicated to stopping this war as I am, and I do need some help. If I concede to some stipulations of yours, can you agree to trust the fact that I can’t tell you everything?”

“Fair enough. Dumbledore never shared everything with us anyway,” Mad-Eye said before anyone else could agree or disagree. Looking around the table, Harry could tell by their expressions that not everyone was happy with Moody’s decision. Still, there were more that appeared ready to compromise than there had been at the beginning of the meeting.

“The next time you have to leave, we want to know. No more waking up and finding you missing,” Moody said, and Harry knew he was beginning with something Harry wouldn’t have a problem agreeing with. It wasn’t like sneaking out again would work, anyway.

“Agreed,” he said.

“And we want to know where you’re going and have a way to contact you should the need arise,” Remus said.

Harry shook his head. “I can’t tell you where we go. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

“Harry…” Mr. Weasley began.

“No. Not only would Voldemort kill you for that information, it would jeopardize everything if he finds out what we’re doing. I can’t tell you where we are, but I do think I have a way for you to contact us that would be safe,” Harry said.

“Which is?” Mr. Weasley asked.

Harry looked towards Remus. “Sirius once gave me a mirror. He said he used to use it to talk with my dad when they were in detention. D’you know what I’m talking about?”

A grin appeared on Remus’s face. “I do.”

“I— er…I broke the one I had. D’you think you could charm another couple of mirrors to act the same way? We’ll keep one, and you can keep another here,” Harry said.

Remus nodded. “Yes, I can do that. I think that will work nicely.”

“That seems to indicate that you think Ron and Ginny will be going with you again,” Bill said, frowning.

“Damn straight, we will,” Ron said hotly.

“We’re not letting Harry do this alone,” Hermione said, speaking for the first time.

“Ginny is not going anywhere,” Mrs. Weasley shouted, her face very red. “I won’t have it.”

“Oh yes I am,” Ginny said, firing right back at her mum. “The others never would have got out of there if it weren’t for me. They need me.”

“You’re underage,” Mrs. Weasley cried.

“It’s because I’m underage that my magic was undetected. Professor Dumbledore discovered it last year when Harry went with him. Voldemort is too arrogant to believe that anyone underage could be a threat to him. Don’t make the same mistake, Mum.” Ginny said, her eyes flashing.

“That’s enough, Ginny,” Mr. Weasley said firmly.

“Ginny is your baby sister,” Bill said, glaring at Ron. “You never should have allowed her to go along with you.”

“She’s not a baby anymore, Bill,” Ron said, raising his chin.

Ginny flushed with pleasure and cast a grateful smile at Ron.

“‘E usually ‘az much more common sense except when eet comes to ‘’iz leetle sister,” Fleur said, patting Bill on the back.

Fred, George and even Charlie had to cover their snickers. Bill whirled on them.

“You can’t tell me you’re all right with Ginny traipsing across the countryside and living with Harry,” he said incredulously.

Anger flooded Harry’s cheeks. How could they be worried about the impropriety of where Ginny might be sleeping when Voldemort had Inferi on the loose killing people? It was just too much.

“I don’t believe this,” Harry roared. “I wish the biggest concern in my life was hiding what Ginny and I got up to from all of you, but that’s just not the way it is. We’re fighting this war, the same as you.”

“We know that, Harry,” Mrs. Weasley said, placating him. She again rested her hand on his arm, and this time he didn’t pull it away. “But you have to understand that she’s our child. We won’t stop being parents simply because there is a war raging.”

Harry nodded, chastised. “I understand. You really have nothing to worry about; I’d protect Ginny with my life.”

“We know you would, dear. That’s partly what we’re afraid of,” Mrs. Weasley said tearfully.

“Look,” Harry said. “You all know the prophecy, or basically what it says. You know what I’m up against. I might not have a lot of time to give her-”

Shouts of disagreement and dismay met this statement, but Harry held his hands in the air, silencing them.

“Let’s be realistic, all right? There are no guarantees — for any of us. That’s been made painfully clear. This little bit of time might be all I have go give her, so I’m going to take it while its there,” Harry said, amazed by his own cheek.

“And what happens afterwards?” Bill asked. “When the war is finished, and you have managed to survive? What happens between you and Ginny then?”

Harry smiled, looking down into Ginny’s warm brown eyes. “Well, that’s the plan. If we manage it, anything that comes after is the whipped cream.”

Ginny beamed at him.

“All right, back to the Order,” Kingsley said, still scowling. “You won’t tell us where you go, but you will leave us a method to communicate.”

Harry nodded. “And what I could use from you is some information. How do you go about tracking a wizard?”

“There is no way to track You-Know-Who, Harry. Don’t you think we’ve tried?” Mr. Weasley asked softly.

“I’m not talking about him,” Harry said. “I want to find the location of the fathers of two of my former classmates. Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle’s fathers are both Death Eaters. I bet the guests upstairs know their first names. I need to know where they are, that’s all.”

Moody nodded. “I can look into that. Does this have something to do with whatever it is they’re guarding?”

“Yes,” Harry said shortly. He suspected he knew the location of one of them already, but he thought it best not to announce he was leaving again so soon to check it out. It would be better to let them think he was following one of their leads.

“There is something else I want you to do for us,” Kingsley Shacklebolt said, staring intently at Harry.

He saw Professor McGonagall shift slightly while Remus looked away. Tonks gripped his shoulder supportively. Harry knew instinctively that he wasn’t going to like this.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I would like you to resume Occlumency lessons,” Shacklebolt said evenly.

“What?” Harry exploded. “They were a disaster; Professor Dumbledore even agreed on that. Besides, Voldemort hasn’t tried to get into my head for over a year.”

“The reason they were a disaster could have been that Snape,” Shacklebolt fairly spat the name, “wasn’t doing his best to teach you. If you are hiding something as critical as you say, we cannot take the chance that You-Know-Who can find it without your knowing.”

“He couldn’t,” Harry said.

“He’s done it before,” Shacklebolt fired back, causing Harry to flinch.

“Harry,” Remus said gently. “I think this is a good idea. Dumbledore did believe it was a good idea before Snape convinced him otherwise. I think it’s worth the effort.”

Harry’s shoulders slumped in defeat. He couldn’t deny their words, but something inside him told him Occlumency wasn’t the answer. “Fine. Who’s to teach me though? You?”

“No. I’m not qualified to instruct you. We do have a couple of people here, however, who are qualified. If you agree to it, that is,” Remus said, his eyes shifting again.

“Here? Who? I thought the reason Snape had to teach me was that there wasn’t anyone else qualified?” Harry asked.

“They weren’t on our side then,” Remus replied.

“You can’t be serious,” Hermione shouted, looking back and forth wildly between Remus and Kingsley. “You can’t let them inside Harry’s head. No way.”

Harry blinked for a moment, trying to figure out what Hermione was saying. The answer hit him like a blow to the gut.

“No way! If you think for one minute I’m going to let Draco Malfoy inside my head-”

“He’s a capable Occlumens, Harry,” Remus said mildly. “Weren’t you the one who said he managed to keep Snape out last Christmas?”

“Yeah, but…” Harry stuttered, thunderstruck. “He’s Malfoy.”

“He learned from his mother and his aunt. Obviously we can’t trust them completely, but we can use them while they’re here. They’re using us for the same reason; it’s mutually beneficial to both sides,” Kingsley said. “Remus has agreed to monitor the situation at all times, so you won’t be alone with them.”

“I don’t believe this,” Ron shouted, unable to contain himself any further. “First you’re all over Harry about being too young and not trusting you with the answers to things he absolutely can’t tell you, and now you want to let Malfoy and his mother have free reign inside his head? Have you all gone mad?”

“That’s enough, Ron,” Mrs. Weasley snapped. “Of age or not, I won’t have you using that disrespectful tone.”

“You’re all barking,” Ron mumbled mutinously.

“It’s your decision, Harry. What do you say?” Remus asked.

Harry sighed, running his hands through his hair. “I told you I’m willing to make some compromises, but this is a big one. I’ll give it a try, but I’m not promising to stick with it if I think things are going badly. And I want you all to remember this the next time I have to do something that you’re not too happy about.”

Ginny clutched his hand beneath the table.

What had he just done?

Chapter Thirteen

Setting Things to Rights

The next few weeks at Grimmauld Place were rather tense. Although the air had been cleared amongst them, everyone still walked on edge. Mrs. Weasley kept the foursome under close watch, as if she was afraid they’d disappear under her very eyes. Harry suspected that although she had resigned herself to their continued involvement in the war, she wasn’t happy about it. She appeared to be waiting with extreme apprehension for the announcement of their next departure.

Mr. Weasley had held true to his word and kept them apprised of Scrimgeour’s activities. He’d also told them how the press had reported their appearance in Diagon Alley in vivid detail. Harry’s instructions on how to fight the Inferi had been front-page news for a fortnight, and the Ministry had taken up the cause as if it had been their idea. There were now regular reminders and updates in each edition of the Daily Prophet.

Percy had returned to work without saying much to any of them, his upturned nose expressing his disapproval. Charlie, however, had remained behind, claiming to need a holiday. Harry suspected he was attempting to snap Bill out of his funk. Bill was the only one who apparently still held a grudge about their disappearance, although Harry still felt uneasy around Mr. Weasley, as well.

He had carefully stored Helga Hufflepuff’s charred cup in his trunk along with the diary and the ring. Three down, and he knew what the fourth one was, if not where. That left only himself and one other unknown item. The task still seemed overwhelming, but he was making progress.

Harry’s greatest concern at the moment, however, was Hermione. She wasn’t taking the loss of her hair well, but Merlin help anyone who tried to point that out to her. She was completely irrational on the subject, and refused to listen to anyone’s suggestions. Poor Ron had spent more time trying to dig out of a blunder he’d unwittingly caused than anything else. He’d been desperately trying to be sympathetic, but had only ended up getting on her nerves.

Hermione had virtually barricaded herself in the library, and was rarely seen elsewhere. She’d even skipped most meals, preferring to have a tray sent up to her. At first, this behavior didn’t seem out of the ordinary, but as the days passed, the others had become concerned. While it was true that Hermione was scouring the books, Harry suspected she was hiding more than working.

She spent as much time reading medical journals as she did anything related to Voldemort. Hermione was having a lot of trouble realizing that there was no solution to her hair loss other than to wait for nature to fix it. She couldn’t stand being let down by the library and apparently took it as a personal insult.

Whenever anyone offered to help her, she declined and retreated further behind her books. Ron’s expression waffled between hurt and bewilderment as Hermione most often released her pent-up aggression on him. Harry knew that she tended to act irrationally when she felt overwhelmed, but he was confident she’d pull it together when the logical side of her brain took control. Waiting for that to happen, however, was difficult to endure.

Hermione had kept her navy blue handkerchief wrapped tightly around her head, and she jerked away from anyone who attempted to touch it, particularly Ron. Harry had noticed how often she adjusted it and suspected her fidgeting was due to self-consciousness. He wished he could think of a way to help, but he was at a loss. He knew Ginny was concerned as well, since he’d caught her staring speculatively at the older girl on several occasions.

The one benefit to Hermione’s distress had been the thawing of Mrs. Weasley’s demeanor. She’d remained distant and aloof for several days after the Order meeting, but she’d obviously noticed Hermione’s increasing agitation. Ginny had finally approached her mother for help, and Mrs. Weasley had thrown herself to the task with her typical gusto. It was as if she’d been waiting for the opportunity to swing back into mother mode, and Harry was happy to see her bonding with Ginny again.

Harry was struck by the realization that Mrs. Weasley wanted to be needed. Somehow, he’d always assumed that being an adult meant you grew past that kind of insecurity. It was jarring for him to see otherwise. Still, it felt right to have her bestow warm smiles and fond hugs once again. Harry was startled to realize how much he’d missed it. Ron and Ginny, too — he’d noticed both of them were far more affectionate to their mum since their return. He hoped Mrs. Weasley could help reach Hermione.

Tonks had suggested getting Hermione a wig, and both Weasley women had stared at her blankly. Tonks had to explain how Muggle women sometimes lost their hair after certain medical treatments, and that a variety of stores carried wigs for them to wear in the meantime.

Although she knew exactly what a wig was, Hermione had absolutely refused to accompany them to look for one. She instead burst into tears and accused them of only wanting to make it easier for everyone to look at her. Fleur had joined the conversation, trying to convince Hermione to give it a try and told her not to be ridiculous, but a crying Hermione had fled the room. Surprisingly, Ron had shouted at Fleur —

with whom he’d always been smitten— to leave her alone and went tearing after Hermione.

It was later that evening when Harry and Ginny were sitting in the library — supposedly doing research but actually spending more time studying one another — that Fred and George burst through the door. Harry and Ginny broke apart guiltily and moved to opposite ends of the couch.

“Why, brother, do you have the distinct impression we’re interrupting something?” Fred asked, leaping over the back of the couch in order to sit between Harry and Ginny. Disgruntled, Harry straightened the collar of his shirt while Ginny narrowed her eyes at her interfering brothers.

“I do, brother mine, but what could we possibly interrupt while these youngsters are holed up in here diligently working…behind closed doors…all alone…and so far from the prying eyes of our beloved mother, who only has their best interests at heart?” George asked, also wiggling his way onto the couch between the pair.

“What do you two want?” Ginny asked, rolling her eyes dramatically.

“Now, what kind of attitude is that from our wee wayward lass? I would think you’d be groveling at our feet after frightening us so,” Fred replied, holding his chest and batting his eyelashes.

Before Harry had the chance to explode, George laid a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Keep your knickers on, Harry.”

“And you keep yours on as well, by the way,” Fred added, waggling his eyebrows at Ginny.

She punched him in the shoulder — hard.

“I’m not here to give you a hard time. That’s Bill’s job,” George said.

“He’s being impossible,” Ginny said, scowling.

“He’ll get over it, Gin Gin. He still tends to see you as the spunky little sprite you were when he left for Hogwarts,” George said.

“I was only a year old when he left for Hogwarts. Certainly he’s noticed a difference,” Ginny said, mutinously crossing her arms across her chest.

“Exactly. You were a baby, Ginny, and just a little kid when he came home for summers. He’d already moved out on his own by the time you developed your attitude,” George continued as if she hadn’t spoken.

“Now, here you are out fighting the war he wants to fight, but he can’t because everyone keeps coddling him. He was the one left to console Mum after you disappeared, and she was even more adamant about protecting him after you were gone. He’s been unable to go back to work, and even on the Order missions it’s Fleur who gets the more dangerous assignments rather than him because no one wanted to upset Mum any more than she already was.”

“That’s not going to sit well with any self-respecting wizard,” Fred replied.

“And we really haven’t helped,” George admitted grudgingly.

“I suppose we’ve been taking the mickey out of him a bit,” Fred conceded. “But we thought we were helping.”

“When you and Ron came back, he’d just reached his breaking point. His baby brother and sister are smack in the middle of it, and it was too much for him,” George said. “And, lately, the full moons always seem to make him a bit grouchy.”

Ginny’s face had softened, but she still appeared unwilling to let it go completely. “Well, he’s going to have to get used to the idea, because I’m not a little girl.”

“Never said you were,” Fred said easily.

“Yeah, we’ve been on the receiving end of enough of your hexes to know better,” George said, sighing. “Maybe you should hex him a few times so he realizes it.”

Ginny giggled and lightly shoved George’s head.

“So, you’re okay with it. With Ginny helping me, I mean?” Harry asked, picking at a stray thread on the couch.

“’Course we are. We just wish you would’ve let us come with you, as well,” Fred said eagerly. When Harry opened his mouth to respond, Fred held up his hands in a defensive posture. “I know you can’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish it was different.”

“Or that you would at least let us help you,” George said, leaning forward.

“Yeah, but then we remembered that you did ask us for help. You asked us to locate Dung’s old flat. Which we did,” Fred said, his eyes sparkling.

“You did?” Harry asked, sitting up straight. “When? Where is it?”

“It’s in a really dodgy Muggle area of Birmingham. The building owner let us inside. He’s really hacked off that he hasn’t had any rent from Dung in months. He said he was going to let the place to someone else, but I don’t think there’s a long line of people who want to take it since it’s really close to where those fires burned over the summer,” George said.

“We went in and looked around, but there’s not much there. It’s filthy, and the stench drove us away before we could take a really good look,” Fred said, grimacing.

“Can you take us there?” Harry asked.

George shrugged. “Whenever you want to go.”

“Now,” Harry replied, standing up.

“Harry,” Ginny said, grabbing his arm. “Hermione’s not in any condition to do this.”

“I know,” Harry said, sighing. “But I need to check.”

“I understand, and she would too, if she was in a reasonable state of mind,” Ginny said.

Harry watched as she worried her lower lip, as if struggling with something. “Why don’t you and Ron go along with the twins this afternoon while I’m with Hermione?” she said at last.

Harry furrowed his brow. “You’re okay with not coming along?”

“Just this time. We have some plans this afternoon, and they’re important, too. Besides, it’ll be an added bonus to keep Hermione occupied and let Mum ease into letting us go. It might be easier for her if it’s just Ron the first time.”

“What are you doing with Hermione?” Harry asked.

“Never you mind about that,” Ginny said, standing up and kissing him on the cheek. “Fleur had an idea, and I think it’s a good one, so we’re going to try it.”

“You’re going along with one of Phlegm’s ideas?” Harry asked incredulously. He tried unsuccessfully to control the grin that spread across his face.

“Don’t call her that, Harry,” Ginny said reproachfully, as if she wasn’t the one to come up with the nickname in the first place. “It’s for Hermione.”

Harry bit the inside of his cheeks and nodded solemnly. After Ginny had left the library, he raised a speculative eye towards the twins.

“What do you reckon?” he asked.

“I reckon she’s got you right in her back pocket,” Fred said, grinning. “I think you would have agreed no matter what she said, mate.”

“Yeah, so when’s the wedding? That’s certainly a way to cheer up Mum,” George replied, his grin matching Fred’s.

Harry felt his face burn. “Her back pocket isn’t a bad place to be,” he said cheekily and quickly left in search of Ron before had they had time to comment — or smack him upside the head.

**–**–

Since they’d previously been there, the twins were able to Side-Along-Apparate Ron and Harry right into Dung’s old flat. All four of them immediately gagged from the overpowering stench.

“Are you certain Dung doesn’t have a dead body in here somewhere?” Ron asked, gasping. He’d been worried about leaving Hermione in her depressed state, but Ginny had promised to stay with her. Ginny had remained very tightlipped about their plans for the afternoon, but both she and Fleur had been giggling like schoolgirls.

Even Hermione’s spirits had appeared to improve. That alone had convinced Ron that some time with just the girls would be good for her. At lunch, he’d announced that he and Harry were running an errand with Fred and George.

Mrs. Weasley had fretted over both of them, following them right to the door and insisting the twins swear to protect them. She hugged them both fiercely before they left, but she held true to her word and allowed them to go.

“I think it’s coming from the refrigerator,” Harry said, attempting to breathe through his mouth while cursing Dung for living in a Muggle flat. He tried to ignore the overwhelming odor, but eventually pointed his wand at the refrigerator and muttered, “Scourgify.”

The stench evaporated instantly and was replaced with a fresh, lemony scent.

“Better than Dung deserves,” Fred said, taking in a deep breath.

“What about using magic in Muggle areas?” Ron asked, glancing uneasily at the window as if he expected a Ministry owl to appear any moment.

Harry shrugged. “There are no Muggles here now, and I couldn’t concentrate with that stench.”

“So, what are we looking for?” Fred asked.

“The last time we saw Dung, he had a suitcase full of trinkets that he’d nicked from headquarters. I need to see what’s in that suitcase,” Harry replied, looking at Ron significantly. They’d brought the Spell Detector, but he hoped to avoid having to explain to Fred and George what they were doing with it. Ron removed it from his pocket and quietly slipped into the bedroom.

Housecleaning spells were certainly something Dung hadn’t bothered with, for the flat was a mess. They found an abundance of empty Ogden’s Firewhisky bottles in addition to a variety of Muggle alcohol and little else.

When Fred located a stack of magazines stored inside a footstool, he whistled loudly. “Dung, you old dog. These PlayWizards date back to Dad’s Hogwarts days.”

Ron and George quickly peered over their brother’s shoulder as he flipped through the pages. Harry, who had been searching through Dung’s closet and had nothing to show for it but a nasty Doxy bite, was irritated. He was about to snap at them to get back to work when he caught a glimpse of the centerfold they were unfolding. Harry felt his skin coloring. He’d heard the blokes in his dormitory talking about that, but to see it…

After a fairly lengthy delay, they finally dragged their attention away from the magazines and went back to work. The four boys searched Dung’s flat as thoroughly as teenage boys were able to do. They’d found loads of questionable items, including a folded flying carpet tucked under Dung’s mattress, but no suitcase.

Fred and George confiscated the carpet, along with several various odds and ends that they had stuffed inside their pockets.

“It’s not like it was really Dung’s to begin with,” Fred said when Harry raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah, he just nicked it from someone else,” Ron added, admiring the carpet that Fred still held. “Besides, Harry, don’t tell me you don’t want a go on this thing. They’ve been illegal forever. Dad’s never even been able to sneak one home.”

Harry grinned. “The way I see it, Dung has a load of rubbish here that’s part of my inheritance. The carpet calls us even — he probably found it at headquarters anyway.”

“He did,” George said, examining the underside of the carpet. “It’s got the Black family crest embroidered on it.”

“Then I get first go,” Harry said, grinning.

Fred and George looked at one another, their facial expressions changing in that odd way of silent communication that Harry had seen them use previously.

“Fair enough,” Fred said, “but we get to keep the other stuff. Besides, Dung’s landlord is going to chuck it all out before Dung is released, anyway.”

“The suitcase isn’t here,” Harry said dejectedly. As one final idea occurred to him, he said, “Accio suitcase.”

Nothing happened.

“Accio locket,” he tried again, holding his breath. Still, nothing happened.

“What do we do now?” Ron asked, glancing around the messy apartment. “Where do we look next?”

Harry frowned, considering his options before an idea struck him. “Do any of you know what happens to your stuff when you get arrested? I mean, if Dung was hauled in by the Ministry, and the suitcase was with him, where would it be?”

“Considering they chucked him into Azkaban without benefit of a trial,” Fred said bitterly, “I’d expect it’d still be in a holding cell at the prison.”

“Then we’ll have to go out to Azkaban,” Harry said, failing to suppress a shudder. He knew most of the Dementors were gone, but even one was too many as far as he was concerned.

“Er…Harry. How exactly do you propose to do that?” George asked, stunned.

“And what’s so bloody important that you’d want to go?” Fred exclaimed incredulously. “Look, Harry, I know it’s your stuff that Dung nicked, but…what could be worth a trip to Azkaban? They’ll let Dung out eventually and then you can ask him for whatever it is you want back.”

Harry shook his head. “It’s not that simple. It’s…er…it’s something of personal significance” Harry said, coloring slightly. He hated lying to the twins. “And I’m not the only one who might be looking for it.”

George shrugged. “I still don’t see how you’re going to get out to Azkaban. It’s not like you can just stroll right in. Or maybe you can. Rufus Scrimgeour would love to have you owing him a favor.”

Harry shook his head. “I’d prefer to do this without Scrimgeour’s input, if possible. I’ll talk to Tonks. She’s been out there on guard duty, or at least she was before we left.”

“Yeah, she’s still been going, and looking a right mess whenever she returns. Are you certain about this, Harry? You haven’t always had an easy time with the Dementors,” Fred asked, ducking his head. His ears were bright red, something that Harry had seen in the past from Ron and various other Weasleys, but never the twins.

“I know. I’ll deal with it when I get there,” Harry said, nodding.

“We’ll deal with it,” Ron said, his eyes boring into Harry’s. “Don’t think you’re going out there alone, mate.”

“Ron, I don’t even know if I can get out there, never mind bring anyone else along,” Harry said, running a hand through his hair.

“You’ll just have to find a way,” Ron said firmly.

**–**–

Dinner that evening was a quiet affair. Harry had hoped to speak with Tonks about her duties at Azkaban, but neither she nor Remus was in attendance. Mrs. Weasley said they’d gone out on a date. Harry was pleased to hear it; Remus deserved to grab a little happiness when he could find it.

Mr. Weasley was working late, as he frequently did, and since returning from Dung’s place, Harry hadn’t seen any of the girls. Mrs. Weasley said they’d been holed up in Bill and Fleur’s room all day. They’d even kicked Bill out without telling him what they were doing. He and Charlie sat at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine between them.

“Care for some wine, Harry? Ron?” Charlie asked.

With their nods of consent, he poured two additional glasses.

“How did everything go for you lot today?” Charlie asked, and Harry noticed Bill listening intently, though trying to appear disinterested.

“It was a bust,” Harry said, sighing. He knew it was too much to hope that he’d find the locket that easily, but he’d still hoped anyway.

“I don’t suppose you want to share whatever it is you’re looking to find?” Bill asked casually.

“Not really,” Harry replied, sipping his wine.

The tension was broken by Mrs. Weasley’s startled gasp. Harry looked up quickly to find Ginny standing alone in the doorway. His attention was instantly drawn to her head where her glorious, waist-length hair had been cut so it barely reached her shoulders.

She stood still in the doorway, her eyes avidly searching the room until they rested on him and locked her gaze with his.

“Oh, Ginny! What have you done to your beautiful hair?” Mrs. Weasley moaned, moving toward her daughter and reaching out to pull at the shortened locks.

“What did’ya do that for?” Ron demanded with his mouth full. Bill and Charlie simply stared at her, awaiting her response.

Harry felt as if he’d been hit in the gut, and he swallowed heavily. Ginny’s hair had always attracted him, he hadn’t fully realized how much until he saw her without it. He felt frozen to the spot and simply stared back at her, blinking.

Everything suddenly became clear to him when a beaming Fleur and a hesitant Hermione followed Ginny into the room. Harry felt a bubble of warmth spread inside his belly. Hermione no longer wore the handkerchief that had become her talisman, but instead sported a short, pixyish haircut in the same shade of Weasley red as everyone else at the table, save Harry.

Hermione shyly watched everyone’s expressions, appearing as if she was ready to bolt from the room at the slightest provocation.

“Just what this place needs,” Charlie said, grinning. “Another redhead. I didn’t think we had enough of them here.”

“There could never be enough of them,” Bill said, beaming at Fleur with the first genuine smile Harry had seen on him since their return.

“Eezent eet magnifique? Who knew I’d be zo talented with ‘air? Eet was Ginny’s idea to copy ze Muggles and create a wig, but ‘Ermione deeden’t want to go shopping. Zat is very strange, no? Anyway, she agreed to let us try eet ourselves. I’ve never cut anyone’s ‘air before, but I zought I could do eet,” Fleur said, plopping down into Bill’s lap and kissing him soundly. “And I can.”

“Hermione,” Ron said, blinking, his glass of wine still frozen halfway to his mouth.

Hermione smiled tentatively before sitting down next to him. Ron leaned over and whispered something in her ear that caused her to blush and smile widely at the same time.

“What’s that, brother mine?” Fred asked. “Did I just hear you tell the fair lass that you knew she’d always wanted to be a Weasley?”

“And why wouldn’t she be?” George asked. “Of course, isn’t it really up to you to correct that situation?” George said, smiling smugly at the blushes that suffused both Ron’s and Hermione’s faces.

“Sod off,” Ron said, swatting George without ever taking his eyes off Hermione.

“Harry,” Ginny said softly. She’d moved from the door to the chair next to him, tentatively looking into his eyes. She worried her lower lip as she waited for his response.

Harry felt a large lump materialize in his throat over what she’d done for Hermione. He didn’t think he could ever be more proud. “You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” he whispered, running his hands through her new, shorter haircut and pulling her close so he could kiss her.

Ginny’s eyes filled with tears as she leaned into him. “You really think it’s okay? I know you liked it longer, but it’ll grow back,” she said, sniffling.

“It doesn’t matter. What you just did for Hermione makes you more beautiful than any hairdo ever could,” he said, kissing her again despite the presence of her family at the table.

“Harry’s right,” Bill said. Harry and Ginny both looked up to find Bill staring at them, his eyes suspiciously bright. “That was a wonderful thing to do, Ginny. You just reminded me how strong your bond of friendship is with each other. I’d let myself lose sight of that. Hold onto it, embrace it, and don’t let anyone — especially older brothers with chips on their shoulder — stand in the way of it. I don’t think V-V- Voldemort stands a chance against it.”

Ginny pushed back from the table and hurried over to Bill. She threw her arms around him and hugged him fiercely. “Thanks, Bill.”

“I’m sorry, Ginny,” he whispered into her hair. Releasing her, he looked up and stared intently at Harry, ” I owe you an apology, too.”

“Never mind,” Harry said, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s like you said, as long as we stick together, Voldemort can’t win.”

“Right, even if we sometimes act like prats,” Bill said, smiling.

“Don’t worry. Harry knows that even Weasleys can act like prats on occasion,” Ron said, joining the conversation.

“Well, he must be very well aware of that since he’s been stuck living with you for the past seven years,” Bill said, chuckling.

“And he’s been lucky to have him,” Hermione said, beaming at Ron with glistening eyes.

“Yes, I have,” Harry said, smiling. That annoying lump in this throat appeared determined to return. “I’ve been lucky to find all of you.”

“Except when we act like prats,” Ginny said, plopping a scoop of mashed potatoes on his plate.

“Yes,” Harry replied grinning. “Except then.”

The dinner resumed with much less tension than there had been on previous evenings. Mr. Weasley had joined them halfway through, and after the initial shock of seeing Ginny’s hair, he told her how proud he was of her. Harry felt almost as if they’d never left and thoroughly enjoyed himself in Grimmauld Place for the first time in a very long time. When dinner was over, a giggling Fleur led Ginny and Hermione from the kitchen.

Before he had a chance to follow the girls from the room, Mr. Weasley placed a gentle hand on Harry’s arm.

“Harry, could I have a word?” he asked.

His tone was gentle, almost conciliatory, but Harry still felt uneasy. He nodded stiffly and followed Mr. Weasley into the sitting room.

Mr. Weasley lit the fire in the grate and poured two glasses of brandy from a decanter on the desk. He handed one to Harry as he sat beside him on the couch. He swooshed the amber liquid around in his glass for several moments without speaking. Harry forced himself not to fidget, but the collar of his shirt was suddenly very tight.

“Well, Harry. I suppose you know why I wanted to speak with you,” Mr. Weasley said, his ears turning as red as Ron’s did when he was uncomfortable.

“Yes, sir,” Harry said, dribbling a bit of the brandy down his chin.

“I owe you an apology,” Mr. Weasley said suddenly, surprising Harry.

“Huh?” he asked. Oh, great. Really eloquent, Harry.

“As you know, I suspected you were going to pull a disappearing act. I also suspected Ron and Hermione would go with you. It was Ginny I was unprepared to find missing,” Mr. Weasley said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Weasley. I knew you weren’t expecting it, but I couldn’t say anything,” Harry said, feeling desperate.

“I know that, Harry. And unlike Kingsley or Minerva, I think you’re more than capable of handling yourself in most situations. The person I underestimated was Ginny. She’s my daughter-”

“And you wanted to keep her safe. I understand that, sir,” Harry said earnestly.

“No, Harry. You misunderstood my meaning. Of course, I want her to be safe. I want all of my children to be safe, and I’m including you in that statement,” Mr. Weasley said softly, causing Harry to swallow around the lump in his throat. “What I underestimated was my own daughter’s determination. I know Ginny. I raised her. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from her.”

Harry smiled fondly. “She’s special.”

“She certainly is. I’m not blind, Harry. I can see how much you care for each other, but it’s very hard to let go,” Mr. Weasley said.

“I understand, sir-”

“Let me finish, Harry. It’s very hard to let go, but if I had to chose the wizard who would win my only girl’s heart, I know I couldn’t have chosen any better than she did when she was ten years old. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather her fall in love with than you,” Mr. Weasley said, shifting in his seat and taking a long swallow of his brandy.

Harry couldn’t control his fidgeting any longer, and he shifted in his seat trying to decide where to look. He ended up taking a long swallow of the brandy, feeling his face burn. Harry didn’t understand why he felt like such a little kid sitting in front of Mr. Weasley.

“Thanks, Mr. Weasley,” he said, scuffing his feet on the worn carpet. “I want you to know that I’ll do everything within my power to keep her safe.”

“I know you will, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said, clearing his throat. “What say you? Shall we join the others in the drawing room? If my ears don’t deceive me, I think I can hear music drifting down from that direction. Merlin’s beard I hope Molly hasn’t broken out the Celestina Warbeck collection again.”

Harry grinned, remembering the previous Christmas, and followed Mr. Weasley from the room. They joined the others in the drawing room where Celestina was crooning from the old victrola in the corner of the room. Mrs. Weasley was sitting in front of it with misty eyes as she swayed to the music. Bill and Fleur sat in a corner, whispering to each other while Fleur mimed crude imitations of Celestina behind Mrs. Weasley’s back. Ginny was standing in a corner talking with Hermione and Fred, while Ron watched Charlie play against George in a game of chess.

Harry walked over to Ron and gently nudged him in the ribs.

“Hey. Where’ve you been?” Ron asked, turning away from the game.

Harry shrugged. “I just had a word with your dad. How’s Hermione?”

“Brilliant,” Ron said, a wide grin spreading across his face. “She’s back to herself.”

Harry failed to suppress the grin that spread on his face. “That’s good. Obviously things are better between the two of you.”

Ron looked at his trainers while he scuffed the floor. “I almost lost her, Harry. She could have died before I ever had the chance to tell her… Well, before I could set things to rights. I don’t care about her hair; it’ll grow back. Nearly losing her made me see what you meant about grabbing happiness while it’s there, that there are no guarantees,” Ron said gruffly, his ears turning a brilliant shade of red.

“So…you’re dating?” Harry asked, feeling awkward. He and Ron rarely talked about stuff like this, but sometimes he found the only way to get an answer from Ron was to be blunt.

“Yeah, we are. Are you okay with that?” Ron asked, looking suddenly nervous.

Harry watched as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley began dancing in the center of the room. Bill and Fleur quickly joined them, and Harry saw Bill wag his finger warningly at his wife, who laughed musically.

He was okay with Ron and Hermione dating. He’d worried about it in the past, wondering what would happen if things didn’t work or, or worse, if they left him behind. Now that he was with Ginny, however, having two couples completed them somehow. Besides, he could never deny their attempts to find some happiness in all this mess. They’d certainly helped him find his.

“Nah, I’m okay. I’m just glad you finally took your head out of your arse and asked her,” he said, laughing.

Ron shoved him. “Oh, you’re one to talk.”

“Hey! Why are you shoving Harry?” Ginny asked as she and Hermione joined them.

“For being a right git,” Ron said, taking Hermione’s hand.

“You look wonderful, Hermione” Harry said.

Hermione beamed. “Thanks, Harry. Ginny and Fleur really did a nice job. Now we’ll have to do something about turning your hair red,” she said, laughing and tugging on a lock of his hair.

He ducked, jerking his head away.

“Harry wants red hair?” Fred asked. “I think I have something that would take care of that.”

Harry’s eyes widened in alarm. Taking Ginny by the hand, he backed away. “That’s okay. My hair is fine, thanks.”

He quickly wrapped his arms around Ginny and joined the others on the dance floor. Resting his chin on the top of her head as they swayed, he watched Ron and Hermione join them on the floor. The music might not have been his first choice, and their location certainly left a lot to

be desired, but it didn’t matter. This, this is why he was fighting. Times like these, being with his friends…his family…this was worth anything Voldemort might throw at him. He’d fight with everything he had to make moments like this one possible.

**–**–

As September wound down and the weather turned markedly cooler, the event Harry had been dreading was scheduled. His first Occlumency lesson with the Malfoys had arrived. He met Remus in a small room off the second floor landing and sat down to await the arrival of Narcissa and Draco.

He and Remus greeted each other pleasantly, but an uncomfortable silence had descended upon the room once they sat down. Harry knew the Order felt these Occlumency lessons were important, but he also suspected that some of them might be trying to use the Malfoys in order to learn what Harry was doing. Harry couldn’t help but be disappointed in Remus for going along with them. He tried to be reasonable and see Remus’s point of view, as Hermione insisted he should, but when he allowed the darkness to enter his thoughts, his mind whispered that Sirius never would have done it.

“I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised you agreed to this, Harry. I didn’t think you would,” Remus said.

Harry shrugged. “I don’t think it’s the answer, but I’m willing to give it a go,” he said, not meeting Remus’s eyes.

“I understand your hesitancy, Harry,” Remus said gently.

“Do you really? Do you really understand what you’re asking of me, Remus? The same feelings that ran between the Marauders and Snape while you were in school now run between Malfoy and me. Would you have let Snape into your thoughts and memories back then? Would Sirius or my dad? Particularly if you had something specific you wanted to hide from him?” Harry demanded, his anger bubbling to the surface.

Remus sighed heavily, dropping his head. “Professor Dumbledore was certain that Occlumency would help you last year. He only changed his mind based on Severus’s opinion. We know now that Severus couldn’t be trusted. I don’t think he tried to teach you properly. If Severus didn’t want you able to do it, then it’s more than likely it can help protect you. It’s at least worth another effort. I understand your feelings, Harry, but I do believe this is for the best.”

“I know you do,” Harry said quietly, an uncomfortable churning in his belly. “I’m willing to make some considerations to appease the Order.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Remus asked sharply.

Harry finally raised his eyes to meet Remus’s gaze. “It means that I’ve taken some precautions of my own.”

Remus frowned, but the door swung open, cutting off their conversation. Draco Malfoy strode into the room confidently, shooting Harry an amused grin that instantly raised Harry’s hackles. Narcissa followed her son,

her nose arrogantly held in the air. She wore flowing midnight blue robes and dusted her chair with distaste before she sat.

“So, you want to learn the fine art of Occlumency, do you, Potter?” Malfoy asked, sneering yet still managing to keep that irritating grin in place. “I highly doubt you’ll have the necessary cunning to master it. After all, you Gryffindors tend to wear your hearts on your sleeves.”

“Now, now, Draco,” Narcissa said, “let’s not discourage him before we get started.” Although she apparently was scolding her son, Narcissa acted as if she was more amused than disapproving.

“Draco, Narcissa,” Remus said, nodding to each of them.

“That will be all,” Narcissa said, waving her hand without even sparing him a glance. “My son and I can take it from here.”

“Actually, I’ll be staying to observe,” Remus said pleasantly.

Narcissa’s nostrils flared. “Occlumency takes a great deal of effort and concentration. I won’t have my son worrying about a werewolf attack while he’s attempting it.”

“I understand your concerns, but we’re nowhere near the full moon,” Remus said mildly. “I assure you that you’re quite safe.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Harry asked, fuming. “Malfoy here is in far less danger from Remus than we are from him.”

“That’s enough, Harry,” Remus said. His casual acceptance of the way the Malfoys treated him infuriated Harry, and he clenched his fists to keep from shaking his father’s old friend.

“Oh, yes. Of course you would defend the creature,” Narcissa said, sitting down as far from Remus as she could.

“Don’t worry, Mother. I was forced to endure Lupin’s company for an entire year while he taught at Hogwarts, and I managed to avoid being attacked. I can handle him,” Malfoy said, smirking at Harry.

“Thank you for that, Draco,” Remus said, rolling his eyes. “Now, I believe it’s Occlumency that we’re here to discuss.”

Harry was pleased to see Remus finally letting his irritation show.

“Yes, it is. Draco is a superb Occlumens. I understand you’ve already had some instruction?” Narcissa asked, her icy blue eyes pinning Harry to his chair.

“Yeah, from Snape,” Harry spat. “He said I was hopeless at it, however.”

“That sounds like Severus,” Narcissa said, a ghost of a smile appearing on her lips.

“I gave up on it after my fifth year. I really don’t see the point,” Harry said.

“Yeah, well, you lot never were the best judge of Snape, were you?” Malfoy asked. “You actually thought he was on your side.”

“I didn’t. I never trusted him,” Harry said, clenching his jaw.

“Pity you were never able to expose him, then,” Malfoy said, grinning.

Harry’s blood boiled. It took all his self-restraint not to curse Malfoy where he stood. In fact, his wand was twitching in his hand.

“Both my mother and I are accomplished Occlumens. We’ll work together to see what you’re capable of, then we’ll let you know if there’s any hope to teach you,” Malfoy said, gloating. He was obviously enjoying being in a position of power over Harry.

Harry couldn’t wait to knock him down a few pegs, even if he had to suffer through Occlumency to do it.

“You and your mother only?” Harry asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. “What about your father? Is he accomplished, as well?”

Draco scowled, and Narcissa lowered her eyes. “No. He never felt the need to conceal any of his thoughts,” Draco said bitterly.

“Draco, that’s enough,” Narcissa said, and this time she did sound angry. “Why don’t you and Potter start? I’ll observe.”

Harry took a deep breath and moved into the center of the room, staring warily at Malfoy. His wand felt slick in his grasp from his sweaty hands, but he fought to control his nerves.

Malfoy’s gray eyes glittered dangerously.

“Deep breathing, Potter. Allow your physical body to relax while you envision a strong stone wall within your mind. Focus on nothing else but the stone wall,” Narcissa said, surprising Harry. It was the first actual instruction on how to clear his thoughts that he’d ever been given.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, picturing the cold stone of the hearth in the hut where Uncle Vernon had hid them all while trying to avoid Harry’s Hogwarts letters.

“Legilimens,” Malfoy cried.

Harry’s vision swam. The stone wall he’d so carefully constructed imploded in his mind.

He was inside the hut on the sea, lying on the floor and attempting to sleep despite the freezing cold while Dudley snored on the couch above him…

He was sitting in Dumbledore’s office after the Third Task, trembling with Fawkes perched on his knee. He was so tired; he wanted nothing more than to sleep and not think or feel anything for a time…

He and Professor Dumbledore sat with Professor Slughorn. The rotund retired Potions’ Master insisted he didn’t want to return to Hogwarts, that he was too old and broken to go back…

He was snogging Ginny on the couch inside their magical tent and getting caught up in the moment. His hand slipped beneath her shirt to feel the deliciously warm bare skin on her back…

“Enough!” Harry snarled, finally forcing Malfoy from his mind, enraged. “That’s private.” He was exhausted and panting heavily. It was all he could do to remain standing.

“Don’t worry, Potter. I couldn’t care less what you get up to with Weaslette, but it did make you finally fight back. Why did you let me see those other memories?” Malfoy asked, amused. A light sweat glistened on his brow, but otherwise he appeared unaffected.

“What happened, Draco? How did he do?” Narcissa asked, lazily drumming her fingers on her chair.

“I broke in without much resistance at all,” Draco replied gleefully. “His pitiful attempt at a wall crumpled almost instantly. I saw Potter as a child with some fat lout in a freezing little hovel. The next scene was in Dumbledore’s office, and things appeared rather tense. Potter looked a right mess, and Sirius Black was there.”

Remus’s head shot up at mention of Sirius’s name.

“Ah, yes. Your dearly departed godfather,” Narcissa said, her voice dripping with false sincerity. “How tragic. Did you recognize the memory, Potter?”

Harry nodded stiffly. “It was after the Third Task.”

“The other was a memory of him, Dumbledore, and Slughorn. It appeared as if Dumbledore was trying to convince Slughorn to return to Hogwarts, but why were you there, Potter?” Malfoy asked, his eyes narrowed.

Harry shrugged. “Professor Dumbledore said he had an errand to run while we were on our way somewhere else. Why were you so interested in my memories of Professor Dumbledore, anyway?” Harry asked, whirling on Malfoy.

Malfoy shrugged. “These were the first memories I stumbled across, Potter. Either they’ve been on your mind lately, or it was pure chance. Your mind is an open book, after all. The Dark Lord will make mince meat of you in no time.”

“That’s enough,” Remus said, snapping. For the first time that afternoon, there was a trace of anger in his voice, but Harry was uncertain as to the cause.

“Anything else, Draco?” Narcissa asked, obviously enjoying herself immensely.

“A snogging session between Potter and the Weasley girl. I don’t know where they were, but he looked as if he was enjoying himself. It was on that memory that he finally managed to push me out,” Malfoy drawled.

“This isn’t going to work if Potter is already worried about your finding things he doesn’t want you to see, Draco. Stay away from memories about his girlfriend. I most certainly don’t want you exposed to that, anyway,” Narcissa said disdainfully. “Try again and stick to thoughts when you were younger — your first year at Hogwarts, perhaps when you were both there together. Is that less threatening for you, Potter?”

Harry had to grit his teeth, not wanting Malfoy near any of his memories, but refusing to show his hesitancy. He wouldn’t allow Malfoy to think he was scaring him.

“Fine,” he bit out, his jaw aching, it was clenched so tight.

Remus appeared hesitant, but he retook his seat and allowed them to continue.

“Once again, work on that solid strong wall, Potter. Make it stronger this time, reinforce it. Use it as your shield,” Narcissa said. “Draco.”

“Legilimens,” Malfoy said.

He was inside Madam Malkin’s trying on robes for the first time with a nervous, sickly feeling in his stomach. Malfoy was standing on the stool next to him, questioning him on Houses and Quidditch and a variety of other things that Harry knew nothing about. He had the distinct impression that he didn’t like this boy very much…

They were at Hogwarts attending their first flying lesson. Malfoy had snatched Neville’s Remembrall and was taunting Harry, daring him to give chase. Harry had never been on a broom before, but he wasn’t about to let the blonde get away with it…

He was trapped inside his cupboard feeling bored and incredibly hungry. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been there, but knew he was cramped and uncomfortable and longing to stretch his legs. If only he could find something to eat…

Dudley and his pals Piers and Malcolm were chasing him home from school. They always thought a game of Harry hunting was the best way to burn off steam. Harry had twisted his ankle jumping over a fence, and his heart was beating loudly, fearing they’d catch him. They hadn’t been able to catch him once yet this month, and they’d be determined for some payback if they did…

Malfoy stumbled slightly as Harry finally pushed him from his mind. He dropped to his knees, sweating and panting and beyond humiliated that Malfoy had seen some of those memories. Merlin, I hate this. It’s a stupid idea.

“Harry, are you all right?” Remus asked, alarmed as he rushed over to assist Harry to his feet.

Harry felt shaky and ill, and his scar was burning hot. He rubbed it absently while trying to control his nausea.

“What happened, Draco?” Narcissa asked, perplexed.

Malfoy shrugged, staring at Harry with an odd expression on his face. “I don’t know. I only saw a bunch of childhood memories; I don’t know why it affected him so badly.”

“Does your head hurt, Harry?” Remus asked, glancing significantly at Harry’s scar.

Harry tried to nod but it made the room spin so he stopped. “Yeah,” he whispered. “First time in a long time.”

“I think that’s enough for today,” Remus said, watching Harry closely.

“I didn’t know Potter had migraines,” Malfoy drawled. “Of course Occlumency can trigger them. I’m surprised Snape didn’t tell you; it’s most likely the reason you were never able to master it. People who suffer migraines rarely can.”

“I don’t get migraines,” Harry said through clenched teeth, wishing they’d all shut up until his head stopped pounding.

“Whatever you say,” Malfoy said, smirking, although his expression seemed to lack its usual vindictiveness.

“Fine. If it isn’t a migraine, we can try again in a few days,” Narcissa said decisively. She turned on her heel and strode from the room, beckoning Malfoy to follow.

“Can I get you anything, Harry?” Remus asked, gently squeezing Harry’s shoulder.

“No. I’ll be fine after I lie down for a bit. Just tell the others I’ll be down later,” Harry whispered, trying not to heave all over Remus.

“Very well. At some point I would like to discuss what you meant by precautions, however,” Remus said, helping him to stand.

Harry grunted noncommittally.

He wearily climbed the stairs back to his bedroom, feeling old and tired. His head ached in a way that it hadn’t done in nearly a year, and he was alarmed by it. He opened the door and slipped inside, catching a glimpse of his pale face in the mirror on his door.

Opening his trunk, he carefully withdrew the Pensieve that Professor Dumbledore had given him. One by one, he carefully extracted gossamer white trails of memories from the Pensieve with his wand and restored them to his mind.

Neither Malfoy nor the Order had learned anything about the Horcruxes tonight. As long as he remained vigilant, they never would.

Chapter Fourteen

Azkaban

September melted into October without Harry even being aware of the passage of time. He felt as if he’d flipped through the pages of every book in the library and still come up with nothing on Horcruxes. He’d begun to understand Hermione’s dismay that the library had let her down. How could there be nothing written about something that obviously existed?

He’d continued his Occlumency lessons with the Malfoys, but hadn’t made any progress since that first lesson. While Harry’s head ached during practice and even for a short time afterwards, he hadn’t experienced any of the visions or flashes of Voldemort’s moods as he had during his fifth year. The sessions always left him feeling tired and drained, however.

A dismal, tense mood had settled over headquarters during the past week. The number of Dark creature attacks against Muggles had increased dramatically. In fact, Mr. Weasley said he couldn’t remember a time when there had been more vampire sightings within Britain. Several high-ranking Ministry officials had gone missing within a short span of time, leaving those left behind overworked and anxious. Some of the wealthier families had gone abroad, as far away from Britain as they could get.

Members of the Order were spread thin trying to clean up one mess after another, leaving headquarters virtually empty most of the time. While this allowed Harry to do his research unhindered, it also meant that no one had had the time to look for Crabbe and Goyle’s fathers.

The attacks on Muggles and Muggleborns had Hermione understandably worried for her own family. Mr. Weasley had promised that her family was being watched, but she still worried. She’d got a bee in her bonnet about returning to Albania, that they’d somehow missed something there.

Again, something in Harry’s gut told him what they were looking for wasn’t in Albania. Ginny had suggested that perhaps Voldemort hadn’t spent all his time there, after all. Greece bordered a large part of Albania and maybe that was what inspired his use of the Parthenon. Harry allowed that it was possible, but regardless, he didn’t think either place held any answers for him.

Of course, Hermione wouldn’t let it go and refused to accept his reasoning without a more sound explanation for his unwillingness to go back. The problem was Harry didn’t have a sound reason; he just knew it. A dark, underlying part of him wondered if it had something to do with the bit of Voldemort’s soul that he now knew resided within him.

He and Hermione had argued about it over breakfast, and now Harry was sitting in front of a fire in the drawing room with a large book on the Dark Arts in his lap. He wasn’t really seeing the words, however. His

eyes had glazed as his mind dwelled upon the fact that he was a Horcrux.

Locating and destroying the cup had been a huge victory, but it also brought him one step closer to doing what he feared he’d have to do. He couldn’t talk about it with any of the others because it seemed to distress them even more than it distressed him. So, Harry was left alone to contemplate his feelings, and the toll was wearing him down.

This was how Ginny found him when she entered the drawing room and sat down next to him. He took a moment to even acknowledge her presence, and when he did, it was with a start.

“What are you thinking about that’s making you frown that way?” she asked, smoothing the tense lines around his mouth with her fingers.

“I was just thinking about what we had to do next,” he replied.

“You’re worried,” she said.

The corner of Harry’s mouth quirked upwards — he could never fool her. “A bit,” he said. “Hermione wants to go back to Albania.”

Ginny nodded without response. Harry had the impression she’d already heard the other side of the argument and wondered if she’d sought him out to continue Hermione’s pleas.

When Ginny remained silent, he prodded her. “What d’you think?”

“Well,” she replied slowly, “I can see why Hermione feels the way she does, but I also think your instincts have been spot on so far. If you don’t think it’s what we should do, I’m willing to trust your judgment.”

Her words didn’t reassure him the way they should have. “Why?” he demanded. “Why do you trust me? How can you be so certain I’m making the right decisions?”

“Harry, I think it’s only human to second guess our decisions. The only time we can ever be certain if we’re doing right is after the fact. You have to make these decisions without hindsight and, so far, it’s working. You were right about the last Horcrux — not only where it was, but how to destroy it. I don’t know how you know, but you do. I trust you, Harry.”

Ginny’s eyes bored into him, and he turned away from the intense scrutiny, feeling exposed and utterly vulnerable. “You shouldn’t. I have a nasty habit of getting the people I care about killed,” he choked.

“That’s a Malfoy talking,” Ginny snapped. “Don’t listen to them, Harry. They’re trying to get under your skin. I hate this stupid Occlumency idea. Malfoy hates you because of his own inferiority complex. He’ll never be better than you, and inside he knows it, and it eats him alive.”

Despite his melancholy, he couldn’t help but smile at her fierce loyalty. “I love it when you’re fiery,” he said, grinning.

“Oh, you do, do you?” she asked, swaying her shoulders seductively. “I can show you fiery.”

Leaning over, she kissed him soundly. He ran his fingers through the shorter strands of her hair as every nerve ending in his body suddenly stood on end. After several minutes of pleasant but tame kissing, she pulled back, frowning.

“What’s bothering you, Harry?” she asked.

Harry averted his eyes again, wanting desperately to talk with her, but also worried about her reaction. Before he could second-guess it, the words burst from his throat. “I’m scared, Ginny. What if the reason I’m feeling this connection to these Horcruxes is because they’re part of me, too?”

Ginny nodded solemnly, as if she understood his fear. “It most likely is. That would make sense.”

It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted her to deny it and give him logical reasons why it couldn’t be so.

“But, Ginny! How can you say that and still trust me? I’ve got a bit of Voldemort in me,” he said, nearly choking on the words.

“Yes,” Ginny replied, nodding. “You have a bit inside you, but it’s not you. You’re in control, and you’re the one I trust.”

“How can you be certain?” he whispered, fighting the hope that flared in his heart.

“Is that what’s bothering you?” she asked, tracing the line of his face with her fingertips. “Are you worried that Tom has more control over you than you know? Don’t let him do that, Harry. He’s making you doubt yourself, that’s how he works. Don’t let him succeed. You’re going to beat him. You’ll find these other two Horcruxes, and then you’ll manage to defeat him while keeping yourself whole. I know you will.”

“Ginny-”

“Don’t doubt it, Harry.”

“I have to! Are you listening to yourself? Ginny, I have to destroy a part of myself to win,” Harry said, feeling utterly hopeless.

“No,” she replied firmly. “You don’t have to destroy part of yourself. He’s separate from you, and after all this time, he’s never been able to gain control.”

Harry looked up suddenly, her words jarring loose a memory.

“What?” she asked, perplexed.

“That instrument that I got from Professor Dumbledore,” Harry said, his mind racing. “When I saw him checking it after your father was hurt, remember how I told you the smoke formed a snake? Well, Professor Dumbledore said something about being divided and the one snake split into two. Do you suppose it was me that he was checking on — checking to see if he’d managed to take control?”

“It’s certainly plausible,” Ginny said slowly, “but didn’t you say Dumbledore wasn’t certain about the Horcruxes until he got the memory from Professor Slughorn?”

“Yeah…but he always had his secrets,” Harry replied, his brow furrowed.

Ginny shrugged. “Even if he suspected, that story proves it. You’ve been winning all along.”

Harry looked at her doubtfully.

Ginny sighed, exasperated. “Harry, do you think you can believe in something that you’ve never seen before?”

It was Harry’s turn to roll his eyes. “Ginny, I lived as Muggle for ten years before I was exposed to magic. I’d have to believe anything is possible after that, wouldn’t I? But Voldemort is still much stronger than me.”

“But you do have something just as wondrous that he doesn’t — it’s your ability to love, and the people who love you,” Ginny said, taking his shirt in her fists and shaking him slightly. “Don’t discount that. Dumbledore believed in you, I believe in you. You’re stronger than any bit of Tom ever could be.

“You’ve already beaten him if he’s been inside you all this time, and there is no trace. There was a trace with me, Harry. I have huge gaps in my memory that year, but I can remember walking outside, wondering why but doing it anyway. That was right before the roosters were killed. I went outside and then my memory just stops. You’re stronger than that. You’ve always been true to yourself, and he couldn’t bear to be inside you at the Department of Mysteries because you are so different from him. The piece of him that’s inside you hasn’t overtaken you, despite your tough childhood. Don’t underestimate the value of that strength.”

“Ginny, you were strong; you were only eleven,” Harry said adamantly.

Ginny waved her hand in the air. “I’m not saying I didn’t try to fight it eventually, but more than anyone else I know what you’re up against, and I can see from experience how different it is. Believe me, Harry.”

“I’m trying,” he whispered.

Ginny held him in silence for a few moments before saying, “When you tried to break up with me at the end of term, you said being with me was like something out of someone else’s life.”

“It is,” Harry said softly, not meeting her eyes.

Ginny grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. “That was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. What we had…what we have…is wonderful and special and it makes my heart dance, but I know it’s the way things are supposed to be. It breaks my heart that you don’t think you deserve that. You’re going to win, Harry, and I’m going to spend the rest of our lives showing you how good things are supposed to be.”

Harry looked up, startled. “You love me?” he asked, blinking.

Ginny’s face colored brightly, and her gaze looked everywhere but at him. “I’ve always loved you, Harry.”

Harry’s spirit suddenly soared. “You have? Say it,” he demanded.

Ginny giggled, embarrassed. When he continued to stare at her intently, he felt her tremble slightly before she whispered, “I love you, Harry.”

He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her shoulder. “That feels good,” he said, his voice muffled.

“What?” she asked, returning the embrace.

“Hearing those words.”

Ginny sniffled against his chest.

He took a deep breath, inhaling that sweet flowery scent that always made him feel as if he was home. She’d shown her Gryffindor courage and done as he asked. It wouldn’t be fair of him not to offer her the same reassurance.

“I love you, too,” he whispered into her shoulder, his body tense. He was surprised at how easily the words flowed once he’d decided to say them.

Ginny pulled back, blinking and biting her lip. Her eyes filled with moisture as they wandered over his face, as if trying to be certain she’d heard it.

“I love you, too,” he repeated, more confidently now. It wasn’t hard to say at all.

Ginny’s grin spread across her face, making her eyes shine. She pulled him tighter to her and whispered, “Now, this house is pretty much empty. Even Mum went out with some of the Order to clean up an attack in Cornwall. I think there are other things we could be discussing besides Voldemort while they’re away, don’t you?

Harry grinned and pulled her onto his lap. Indeed, there were much pleasanter ways to spend the unsupervised afternoon.

**–**–

Several days later, Harry was scheduled to have another go at Occlumency with the Malfoys. Remus had gone on an assignment for the Order and was unable to attend. Alastor Moody had agreed to take his place. He arrived first and instantly pulled Harry aside.

“Afternoon, Potter. Before we start here today, I thought I’d pass on a friendly warning,” Moody said gruffly.

“A warning?” Harry asked, perplexed.

“Be careful what information you allow to be seen in these sessions. Constant vigilance, Potter. Not only against the Malfoys — never a lot to be trusted as far as I’m concerned — but also against any information you don’t want leaked to other sources,” Moody replied.

“Other sources? Are you telling me the Malfoys are passing along information to the Order?” Harry asked, his anger rising. Even though he’d suspected it, he couldn’t help the wave of disappointment that swept over him.

“Kingsley always does what he believes to be the right thing. He tends to forget that he might not be the only one seeing the big picture — or might not be the one with all the facts. Narcissa will always do what suits her best. You’d do well to remember that,” Moody said, his magical eye swirling towards the door.

A moment later, Draco Malfoy strolled down the hallway. He smirked when he saw Moody and Harry watching his approach.

“Good, you’re both here. My mother asked me to inform you that she won’t be able to attend today’s lesson,” he drawled, sounding bored.

“What do you mean she’s unable to attend?” Moody snapped. “What’s she doing? Watching her hair grow?”

The color in Malfoy’s cheeks heightened slightly, but otherwise he showed no response. “She said she won’t be expected to make it a priority if others simply brush it off without a satisfactory explanation. If you people can’t give it the respect it is due, she certainly won’t either.”

“Stupid, stuck-up woman,” Moody muttered under his breath.

“Lupin couldn’t be here because of a situation with the war,” Harry said through gritted teeth. “She does remember there’s a war going on, doesn’t she?”

“How could she forget?” Malfoy asked, sneering. “It’s left us stuck here with you and your merry lot of bunglers.”

“Stay here both of you,” Moody barked. “I’ll go fetch her.”

He left both boys on the landing as he stormed up the stairs towards the wing where Narcissa stayed.

“Oh, Mother will love that,” Malfoy said, his lip twitching.

Despite his annoyance, Harry felt the corner of his mouth quirk as he envisioned the scene. When he and Malfoy realized how close they were

to sharing a laugh, both quickly wiped the smiles from their faces and shoved their hands into their pockets, scowling.

“So, Potter, what’s so important about learning Occlumency, anyway? You’re obviously not very good at it,” Malfoy asked.

Harry shrugged, averting his eyes. “Professor Dumbledore thought it was important. Do you think Moody will get your mother to come down?” Harry asked impatiently. If they weren’t going to have an Occlumency lesson, he had other things he’d rather do than stand around chatting with Malfoy.

“Not likely. Mother’s in a foul mood,” Malfoy replied.

“What’s she upset about now?” Harry asked, rolling his eyes.

Malfoy appeared thunderstruck. “What reason could she possibly have to be upset? I don’t know, Potter. Maybe those filthy Muggles you call relatives conditioned you to find being locked up acceptable, but I assure you, my mother and I do not,” he sneered.

Harry inhaled sharply; it was the first time Malfoy had made any reference to what he’d seen of the Dursleys.

“Why do they hate you so much? I thought you were everyone’s golden child,” Malfoy asked, his gray eyes puzzled.

“We’re not talking about the Dursleys,” Harry snapped, feeling slightly unstrung. “We’re talking about your mother’s diva antics.”

“My mother has been confined with your precious Order for months without even being allowed the simplest contact with my father. Her patience is wearing thin,” Malfoy shot back.

“I wonder why? It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact your father is a Death Eater and most likely would sell you out to his precious Dark Lord, does it?” Harry asked, scoffing. He was pleased to see Malfoy’s color fade slightly.

“My father would never betray my mother,” Malfoy said in a low, dangerous voice.

“No? How about you? Would he turn you over to Voldemort, Malfoy? His own son,” Harry asked. Malfoy cringed, a myriad of expressions crossing his face.

“You think you’re so tough tossing that name around, don’t you? He’s going to make you pay for it, you know,” Malfoy said, recovering his poise.

“Oh. We’re back on this again, are we?” Harry asked in a bored voice.

“Yes. We are. In fact, we’ve never got off it. The Dark Lord is going to kill you, and where does that leave us? The Order will be effectively wiped out once they’ve lost their only hope, and my mother and I will be left like sitting ducks,” Malfoy spat.

“You don’t know the Order at all if you think they’ll just roll over and let him do as he pleases, even without me,” Harry replied softly.

“But it won’t matter, will it? You’re their precious Chosen One, right? Without you, they’re all lost…and you certainly don’t present much of a threat,” Malfoy said.

“Time will tell,” said Harry, fighting not to show any emotion. Despite the fact he agreed with the git’s assessment, he wasn’t about to let Malfoy know it.

“Oh, there’s an understatement. Bravo,” Malfoy said, applauding.

Harry had grown weary of Malfoy’s taunts, and it didn’t appear that Moody was having any luck with Narcissa, either. “What is it you want, Malfoy? What does your mother expect from us?” Harry asked.

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed as he stared intently at Harry. “I want to speak with my father.”

“So write him a letter. I’m certain you could get Tonks to deliver it for you,” Harry said, carelessly waving his hand.

“I can’t put anything into writing, you idiot. My father more than likely has orders to pass on anything he receives from us, and he can’t go against a direct order,” Malfoy said.

“Can’t or won’t?” Harry asked belligerently.

“Can’t,” Malfoy replied through clenched teeth. “I need to speak to him in person.”

“Good luck,” Harry replied, rolling his eyes.

“He doesn’t know he has an option — that my mother and I are alive. I’m certain he believes you’ve killed us,” Malfoy said quietly.

Harry’s eyes widened. “We’re not the ones that go around killing people for sport,” he said incredulously.

“Oh, get over yourself, Potter. We’re your enemies; he’d expect nothing less. Dumbledore knew that. He offered us an escape, and he included my father in that offer,” Malfoy replied.

Harry’s mind raced. Malfoy’s request could prove the perfect cover that Harry needed to get into Azkaban. If Professor Dumbledore had made him the promise, the Order would feel obliged to keep it. It would suit Harry’s plans to check on Dung’s belongings if he could wrangle a way to go along.

“If I can convince the Order to allow you out to travel to Azkaban, I’m going with you.”

“What? There’s no way you’re listening to a private conversation between my father and me,” Malfoy said indignantly.

“Then you’re not going,” Harry replied, shrugging.

Malfoy scowled, but after considering his options, he eventually nodded. “I suppose I don’t have a choice. Very well, you can accompany me.”

“Gee, thanks, Malfoy. Will you wear your best dress robes for the occasion?” Harry asked, raising his eyebrow.

Malfoy flushed, turned on his heel and stormed from the room. Harry grinned. This might work out exactly the way he needed.

**–**–

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny had carefully reviewed their plans about requesting the trip to Azkaban. Hermione thought it was a risky idea for both Harry and Malfoy and didn’t think the Order would allow it. Harry thought he could persuade some members easily than others. The obstacle was narrowing down his choices.

The opportunity presented itself approximately a week later when Tonks and Remus burst into the sitting room where the teens were gathered.

“We did it, Harry,” Tonks said, grasping Remus’s robes after she tripped in the doorway. They hadn’t seen much of Tonks at all during the month of September. She was either stationed at Azkaban or recuperating from her visits there.

Remus deftly caught her, and they continued into the room as if nothing had happened. Harry and the others covered their grins.

“Did what?” Ron asked.

“You asked us if the Ministry had a way of locating someone and wanted us to track Octavius Crabbe and Busby Goyle. I haven’t spent a lot of time at the Ministry recently, but I was there tonight, and I finally located one of them,” Tonks said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

“Only one?” Hermione asked, frowning. “I thought magical imprints could be traced. The Ministry must have ways of watching a certain person?”

“It’s not as simple as that. I’m looking for specific people, but any magic done in the vicinity where that person is will show up on the record. If they’re in a place like Diagon Alley…well, the numbers can be staggering. The only reason I found Octavius Crabbe so quickly is that he performed a spell in a Muggle area — a flame charm,” Tonks replied.

“Where?” asked Harry, feeling an adrenaline rush beginning. He’d been cooped up too long and was eager to accomplish something.

“On a beach in Scotland. It’s very deserted this time of year, so I’m not certain what he’s doing there. Want to go take a look?” she asked.

Harry’s mind raced. He was certain it would be the same beach where he and Dumbledore had found the fake Horcrux, or at least above the rocky ledge where Tom Riddle had once lured two frightened children. Since autumn had begun, the weather was growing chillier. Harry imagined the

beach was cold after nightfall, and Crabbe might forget Voldemort’s instructions about not using magic in favor of comfort.

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go take a look and see what he’s doing.”

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny left with Remus and Tonks despite Mrs. Weasley’s worried face. Ginny kissed her on the cheek before Mr. Weasley wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and the two stood stoically as they watched their children depart.

The group Apparated to a spot on the roadside a fair distance from the rocky cliff. A crisp breeze blew, causing them to clench their jackets closer to their bodies. The smell of salty air greeted them as they glanced around, letting their eyes adjust to the darkness. Harry could hear the crashing of waves against the sharp rocks at the base of the cliff. The familiarity of the place, and the haunting memories of what had happened on his previous visit, sent a sharp pain through his heart.

He’d been here with Professor Dumbledore on the last night of his former headmaster’s life. He’d watched in awe as Dumbledore detected the hidden entrance below, and the magic surrounding it. He’d forced his mentor to drink poison because of a promise he’d hastily made when he’d been desperate to be allowed along on an adventure. Harry inhaled a deep breath of salty air. This time, he wouldn’t allow himself to be tricked.

Ginny must have sensed his inner turmoil, for she slipped her small hand into his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. He attempted to smile, but knew he’d failed miserably. Remus motioned for them to be quiet and to follow him as they moved down the road.

They hadn’t gone very far when Harry spotted Crabbe standing on the rocks beside a small campfire that was hovering in the air — and he wasn’t alone. Another man stood across from him, gesturing wildly at the fire.

Harry and the others cast Disillusionment Charms upon themselves and quietly crept closer towards the duo in order to hear what was being said. Harry couldn’t suppress a shudder as he glanced at the steep incline where he and Dumbledore had followed Riddle’s trail. It felt almost as if that had been another lifetime. Dumbledore had trusted him to bring him back to safety.

I am not worried, Harry…I am with you.

Harry shook his head. Now was not the time to dwell on memories; he had a job to do.

“Did you have some information to pass along to me, or is your only purpose here to complain that I decided to keep warm, Ferguson?” Crabbe asked his cohort, sounding disgruntled.

He appeared as thickset and solid as Harry remembered, although he thought he might have grown pudgier around the middle since that fateful night in the graveyard.

Death Eaters must be eating well these days, Harry thought sourly.

The other man, Ferguson, was leaner than Crabbe, although still rather stout. He had a thin mustache that curled slightly at the end, perhaps thinking it made him appear aristocratic. Harry thought it made him look like a ponce.

“I was asked to tell you to keep your eyes open for any of the Parkinson birds. If they come to you seeking aid, you’re to detain them and call the Dark Lord immediately,” Ferguson said, sounding as if he were repeating something he’d memorized.

“Parkinson? What’s Philip done to have the Dark Lord looking for his family?” Crabbe asked in a stunned whisper.

Ferguson shrugged, but lowered his voice and said, “Philip’s dead. His wife and kids have disappeared the same way the Malfoy bint and her brat did. Master believes one of them knows where the Malfoys are hiding.”

Crabbe whistled through his teeth. “My Lord must be very unhappy with the recent run of traitors. Why do you suppose that is? D’you think the Potter kid-”

“I wouldn’t finish that thought if I were you,” Ferguson said, glancing around nervously. “The Dark Lord always knows, and you wouldn’t want him to suspect that you’re questioning the loyalty of his servants.”

“No! No. I mean, that’s not what I meant. The Dark Lord will discipline his servants, and soon all will call him Master,” Crabbe said fervently.

“I still have to go and pass this information to Simmons. Mind your post and keep a lookout for any of the Parkinsons,” Ferguson said. He turned on his heel and began walking toward the road without waiting for a response.

Remus motioned for the others to follow him, and he led them in the opposite direction from where Ferguson had departed. When they were far enough away from Crabbe to ensure that he couldn’t overhear them, Remus reversed the Disillusionment Charms.

“Parkinson? As in Pansy Parkinson?” Ginny asked immediately.

“Yes,” Remus said, nodding. “Philip Parkinson is…was a Death Eater. Pansy and her older sister must be on the run. I vaguely remember both girls from when I taught at Hogwarts.”

“We’d better get back to Headquarters and inform the rest of the Order,” Tonks said, grimly compressing her lips.

“Yes,” Remus replied. “Does any of this mean anything to you, Harry? Do you know why Octavius Crabbe is stationed here?”

Harry nodded. “I have an idea,” he answered, avoiding the older man’s eyes. “Thanks for letting me know you’d found him, but he’s not the one

I need. It’s Goyle that I have to find. Can you keep trying, Tonks?” Harry asked.

Tonks nodded, glancing hesitantly at Remus. “Of course. I wish I knew why, though.”

Harry shifted his feet, hating lying to them. “I think he’s guarding something I need to find.”

“Need to find in order to find You-Know-Who?” she asked.

“Something like that,” Harry said, nodding. “Can you help me?”

“Of course. I’ll keep checking each time I go to the Ministry. I think Mad-Eye is trying to come up with some kind of tracking system, as well. It’s keeping him busy anyway,” Tonks said, smiling. “Of course, the Ministry has tried to track You-Know-Who for years and never had any luck with it.”

“I have one more request,” Harry said.

“What’s that?” Remus asked, his eyes narrowing.

“Harry-” Hermione said, and he knew she would try and warn him off.

“Malfoy wants to make a trip to Azkaban to speak with his father,” Harry said quickly. “It was something Dumbledore promised him that night on the Astronomy tower, and I’m going with him.”

“And me,” Ron said.

“And me,” both Hermione and Ginny said, glaring at both Ron and Harry.

Harry rolled his eyes in exasperation. “We can’t all go.”

“None of you are going,” Remus said, raising his voice over the complaints of the other three. “Have you all gone mad? I don’t think any of you has any idea what Azkaban is really like. Whatever you’re imagining, the reality is ten times worse.”

“Why does Draco want to see his father?” Tonks asked.

“Dumbledore promised Draco that he would protect Lucius when he got out of Azkaban if Draco switched sides. He wants to make certain his father knows he has a choice, and that Draco and his mother are okay. He says his father has orders to turn over anything in writing to Voldemort,” Harry said. “I need to see the belongings that Dung had with him when he was arrested. I think he has something of mine. If you arrange a visit for me, we can bring Malfoy under the Invisibility Cloak.”

“Invisibility Cloaks won’t work against Dementors,” Ginny said, scowling. “There are still some there, and you’re not going alone, anyway.”

“He can remove the Cloak once we’re inside,” Harry said, ignoring the second half of her statement. “Since this was the last promise Dumbledore made, we have to honor it.”

“I know we agreed to help you, Harry, but I don’t like this,” Remus said. “I don’t think you’re prepared for how difficult Azkaban will be, for you especially.”

Harry nodded. “Maybe you can help with that, then, but I need to do this, Remus. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”

“Let me talk to Mad-Eye,” Tonks said, watching Remus closely. “He has a knack for getting the others to agree to things they normally wouldn’t.”

“Good enough,” Harry said.

“For now, let’s go back,” Remus said, nodding to each as they Disapparated.

**–**–

A fortnight later, Harry sat on a couch inside Regulus Black’s former bedroom flipping through an ancient book on the Dark Arts. Hermione had discovered the room while seeking a quiet place to read and had stumbled across a book partially sealed into the wall.

Leave it to Hermione to sniff out a hidden book.

It described many hexes and curses so vile that they made Harry’s stomach churn just reading about them. But, hidden within the text of an entirely different matter was a small paragraph about Horcruxes and how they were made. The book was Romanian in origin — Ginny had recognized some of the writing as similar to things Charlie had sent her.

Hermione thought they should plan to leave for Romania posthaste to investigate any ties that Voldemort might have made there.

While Harry agreed it was a good lead in order to seek the remaining Horcrux, he was far more interested in finding a translation to the paragraph. He knew he could ask Charlie but didn’t want to involve him, if possible.

He glanced at his watch impatiently. Tomorrow was Halloween. It would mark the sixteenth anniversary of his parents’ death. It was also the day he was scheduled to go to Azkaban. He thought it strangely ironic.

Remus had given Malfoy and him the news several days ago at an Occlumency lesson. Malfoy appeared surprised but pleased and requested they keep the information from his mother. Harry wondered if anyone had told him about Pansy Parkinson but hadn’t brought it up with the blonde. He certainly had no fondness for the Slytherin girl — he remembered her as a bully, much the same as Malfoy — but no one deserved to be hunted like that.

Remus said Harry, Malfoy and Ron would accompany Tonks on her next trip to the prison. Kingsley had arranged the visit through Rufus Scrimgeour. Scrimgeour had been extremely eager to learn the details of Harry’s trip, and Harry suspected some Ministry interference before the

day was through. Remus had told him that no more than one of his friends could accompany him, and Mrs. Weasley had absolutely forbidden Ginny from going to Azkaban. She’d tried to stop Ron too, but Mr. Weasley had gently reminded her that Ron was of age.

Harry had chosen Ron, which meant Hermione hadn’t spoken to either of them in days. Ron had made the mistake of telling Hermione not to be stupid, that of course he’d be the one to go with Harry. Harry would swear he saw icicles form on Ron’s eyebrows from the glare Hermione gave him. And Ginny wasn’t too pleased, either.

Aside from the fact he didn’t want to push Mrs. Weasley any further than she’d been pushed already, the masculine side of his brain did want to protect Ginny from Azkaban. He remembered that she’d had difficulty with Dementors herself and wanted to spare her if he could. Hermione had just been through a serious and harrowing injury, and Harry thought it was a good idea for her to avoid the Dementors, too, if possible.

Of course, the girls saw things differently, but his decision had been made. Ron was just as intent to protect Hermione as he was Ginny, and Harry wasn’t going alone, so their arguments didn’t hold merit. When it came right down to it, this was something he thought Ron could handle better than Hermione, anyway. She had a tendency to panic if things went wrong.

Harry closed his book and was about to head off to bed when the door opened, and Ginny slipped inside.

“Hi,” she said, shuffling her feet and not looking at him.

“Hi,” Harry replied, aware of the hope flaring in his heart. She’d had very little to say to him in the past few days, and he wasn’t very keen to go to Azkaban while she was cross with him.

“Tonks said you’re leaving early tomorrow,” Ginny said.

“Yeah. We’re going on her regular shift.”

Ginny took a deep breath and flung her arms around him, squeezing him tight. “You’re not forgiven for ditching me, but I wanted to wish you luck. I hope you find what we’re looking for, and I hope it’s not too bad for you there.”

“It’ll be fine, Ginny. I’m sort of used to the Dementors now,” Harry said, running his hands along her back. It felt so good to have her in his arms again. He didn’t know how he could miss something so much that he really hadn’t had all that long to begin with.

“Quit being noble, Harry. No one ever gets used to Dementors. Just stay with Ron and no heroics,” Ginny said, holding his face between her hands.

Harry pulled a face. “I’ll be okay, Ginny. If we find it, I’ll bring it back so we can figure out how to destroy it safely.”

“You won’t be able to bring your wand inside, so a Patronus isn’t possible,” Ginny said, worry evident in her eyes.

“I know. But Tonks will have her wand, and we’ll stay with her the whole time. Don’t worry, Ginny,” he said, gently brushing a strand of hair from her face. It cheered his heart to see the concern shining in her warm brown eyes — concern for him. It was still such a novel concept to realize how much she cared about him. He enjoyed the way it made him feel inside and hoped he made her feel a bit like that, too.

Ginny leaned in and kissed him soundly on the lips, making Harry forget all about Dementors and prisons and everything else. In fact, he wasn’t thinking of anything but the slip of a girl in his arms and how soft her skin felt beneath his hands.

Although they’d promised each other not to get carried away, they were still teenagers and prone to all the raging hormones that went along with their ages. Their hands would roam curiously, and several articles of clothing had inexplicably gone missing on several occasions. Still, despite their minor slips, they’d managed to keep themselves in a reasonable semblance of control. The idea had crossed his mind however, that he didn’t know if those checks would remain in place the next time they were out on their own and away from the prying eyes of Ginny’s family.

“Good luck,” Ginny whispered when she finally pulled away. Her hair was disheveled, and she wore a slightly dazed expression.

Harry just wanted to get back to the kissing. He nodded fervently and pulled her back into his arms, feeling as if there was no way even a Dementor could dampen his spirits.

**–**–

Halloween morning dawned stormy and gray. There was a distinct chill in the air that Harry knew would only worsen on the open ocean. It was exactly the kind if dismal day that seemed appropriate for a trip to Azkaban. He’d dressed warmly but still felt goose bumps rise on his skin as he boarded the boat that would take him to Azkaban.

He, Ron, and Malfoy had met Tonks and Mad-Eye in the entrance hall. Harry reckoned Moody was only going along to keep an eye on Malfoy; he still suspected that Malfoy was up to something. Of course, Moody generally suspected that everyone was up to something.

They’d Apparated to the Ministry and taken a controlled Portkey to a small island not far from Azkaban where the Ministry ran a checkpoint. No one was allowed in or out of the prison without going through the island’s security. The wards at the prison prevented both Apparation and Portkeys, much like the wards at Hogwarts.

Malfoy had remained concealed beneath Harry’s Invisibility Cloak until they’d arrived at the checkpoint. There he’d had to register his wand and state his intent to visit his father. Harry was incredibly apprehensive about leaving his wand at the checkpoint. Tonks assured him it would be safe; there were precautions in place so that only he

could remove it. Besides, only the Aurors were permitted to bring wands inside the prison. If he wanted to go, he’d have to leave it.

Once they’d completed the registration, they were ushered outside to a small boat ramp. The icy wind blew off the North Sea in fierce gusts, causing Harry to pull his jacket more tightly around his body. His hair ruffled in the breeze as the clean, salty air filled his lungs.

Grim-faced Aurors stared suspiciously at them as they boarded. There were surprisingly few passengers, and Harry assumed the prisoners incarcerated within Azkaban didn’t receive many visitors. Along with Tonks, there were five other Aurors taking the journey to relieve those who had worked the night shift.

The boat was small and mostly open to the wind. Stiff wooden benches were aligned in rows behind an enclosure where the captain piloted the boat. Harry and Ron sat on one bench while Tonks and Mad-Eye took the bench behind them. Tonks left room for Malfoy to join them, but he purposefully took the bench opposite them and sat alone.

“Where do they put the prisoners?” Harry asked, wondering how it would feel to be making this journey knowing there was only pain and imprisonment at the end. This trip already appeared foreboding, and he was certain he’d be returning in only a few short hours.

“Prisoners don’t ride with passengers,” Tonks said, shaking her head. “There is a heavily secured ship that makes the trip once a day. Prisoners are Stunned while they go in and out on that one.”

“They’re Stunned even when they’re leaving?” Ron asked, his voice squeaking slightly.

Tonks smiled grimly. “There isn’t anything about this place that’s pleasant.”

“How long is this journey going to take?” Malfoy asked. He stood up and scowled at the crude seating. “These accommodations are barbaric.”

The boat jerked slightly as it left the dock, causing Malfoy to stumble and hit his knee against the bench. He winced painfully and grabbed onto his wounded knee. Ron sniggered loudly, causing Malfoy to glare at him as he retook his seat.

“What are you laughing at, Weasley? Just because a wooden bench is considered a step up from what your family is accustomed doesn’t mean-”

“Not one word about my family, Malfoy,” Ron said, standing up and towering over the blonde. In the cramped quarters of the launch, Ron had to hunch over so that his head wouldn’t hit the roof. “There’s no one on this boat who’d make a fuss if you suddenly found yourself overboard, so I’d keep quiet if I were you.”

“All right, that’s enough, lad,” Moody said, chuckling and motioning Ron back to his seat.

Harry turned away from their bickering to watch the waves crash against the side of the boat. He could feel the cold spray of the water and

pulled deeper into himself in an attempt to keep warm. The island from where they’d departed had rapidly become a distant speck upon the horizon. Nothing but the cold, gray sea surrounded them as far as the eye could see in any direction. He wasn’t certain how far they’d traveled, but it seemed as if they were exposed to the wind and icy surf for hours. A fog had rolled in, making visibility nearly non-existent. Harry strained his eyes, trying to see anything in the distance.

Suddenly, the captain called out above the wind, “Land, ho!”

Harry tried unsuccessfully to suppress a shudder as a massive stone structure emerged from the fog as if a curtain had been lifted. Jagged, seaweed-covered rocks poked out of the water surrounding the small island. The sharp, rough edges would be enough to make any stray boats hesitant to try and dock.

The walls of the prison arose steep and menacing from the icy cold sea, forcing Harry to crane his neck to see the top. He could see the water line that the tide had marked on the stone, making it appear smoother and darker than the remainder of the structure.

The captain maneuvered the boat into a small inlet that Harry hadn’t noticed at first. As he watched the boat make the treacherous journey up the channel, he saw several of the jagged stones move out of their way. Obviously the channel was controlled by magic.

When they reached the end, they docked on a simple wooden platform to debark. The moment Harry stepped off the boat, he felt a chill deeper than anything weather-related sink into his skin. He broke into a clammy sweat despite the cold, and his head felt suddenly woozy. He had no doubt there were Dementors nearby.

As the small party approached the stone wall, a doorway magically appeared several meters above their heads. A metal stairway was lowered, and they ascended into the prison. Tonks pressed her wand against the door, which emitted a series of soft pops before gliding open.

The blast of air coming from inside the prison was colder than the sea air in which they were standing. Harry followed Ron inside, his heart pounding and his head swimming. A bout of nausea churned his stomach, nearly causing him to gag.

A tall, thin, cloaked figure stood on the far side of the room, observing them as they entered. Harry vision blurred as a distant screaming began to echo in his head. Instinctively, he reached for his wand only to find it missing. He took deep breaths, trying to control his rising panic.

This is going to be harder than I thought.

He stumbled as Tonks quickly ushered them across the room and would have fallen if Ron hadn’t caught him.

“You all right, mate?” Ron whispered as they entered the long stone corridor outside the first room. Ron was very pale, making the freckles on his face stand out darkly.

Harry nodded, his world steadying again after they’d left the room where the Dementor still stood. His stomach roiled, and he was very glad he hadn’t eaten much for breakfast.

“That’s right, Potter,” Malfoy drawled, staring at Ron and him with amusement glinting in his steel gray eyes. “I’d forgotten you had problems with Dementors. They make you faint, don’t they?” Despite his taunts, Malfoy’s pallor had faded, as well.

“Back off, Malfoy,” Ron growled, staring at Harry with concern.

Harry didn’t even bother with a comment; it was taking all his effort to remain standing. He’d tried to put a hand on the cold stone of the wall in an effort to collect himself, but that had been a bad idea. There was something alive in the walls. Harry didn’t know how else to describe it. The stone was cold and slightly slimy from the damp chill, but there was also a deep agony that emanated from it. It was almost as if the stone had absorbed all the misery and torment from the people that had been imprisoned here through the years.

Harry watched as water dripped from the ceiling and ran in rivulets in certain spots along the massive corridor. It looked as if the walls were crying.

“Are you going to be able to do this, Harry?” Tonks asked. She’d moved to his side and lowered her voice. Her hair had been her traditional bubblegum pink when they’d left that morning, but since entering the prison the color had faded and become dull.

“I’m fine,” Harry replied, feeling anything but fine. “Let’s just get it over with.”

“What do you want to do first?” Tonks asked, her eyes showing concern.

It made Harry uncomfortable, and he grit his teeth as he tried to ignore it. It was hard enough dealing with the effects of the Dementors, never mind dealing with sympathy because of it.

“Let’s take Malfoy to see his father before we look through Dung’s things,” he replied. If the amulet was with Dung’s belongings, he didn’t want to bring it anywhere near Lucius Malfoy.

“The cells where the prisoners are located begin on level three. That’s where Dung’s cell is. Lucius is in the high-security wing on level five. The stairs are this way. I just want to warn you — there are Dementors on that level, so be prepared,” Tonks said grimly.

They climbed the stairs in silence. The presence of the Dementors had affected them all, and not even Malfoy had the energy to be difficult. Once they’d reached level five, Moody informed Malfoy that he wouldn’t be able to see his father alone. Moody said he was going with him.

“No way, Moody” Malfoy replied, some of his former bravado returning. “You’re not going to use anything my father says against him at a later date, not a chance.”

Moody shrugged as if it made no difference to him one way or the other. “Then you’re not going in, either, lad. You’re not entering his cell without an escort.”

“Tonks can go then,” Malfoy replied, sneering. “She’s sort of family. I’ll trust her over you.”

“Sorry, Draco,” Tonks said cheerfully. “I’m on duty. I have to go relieve my partner, so I really can’t sit with you. You can pick Moody, Ron or Harry, but one of them is going inside with you.”

Malfoy scowled. “Potter then,” he said, sneering

“Good enough,” Moody growled. “Potter, keep your ears open that these two aren’t plotting anything against the Order. Keep the Invisibility Cloak on so you won’t be seen.”

“I thought Invisibility Cloaks didn’t work against Dementors,” Harry asked, pulling the Cloak out of his pocket.

“The Cloak isn’t meant to fool the Dementors,” Tonks replied. “They don’t see the way we do. They’ll sense two people entering and two people leaving. The Cloak will only deceive Lucius.”

“As long as you keep your mouth shut,” Moody said, his magical eye staring menacingly at Draco.

“I don’t want my father to know Potter is there any more than Potter wants to be seen. I don’t even want him there at all,” Malfoy replied, turning his back on both Harry and Moody.

“What you want has never been one of my considerations, boy,” Moody replied, harshly. “Go on down the corridor. He’s in cell 5-J; it’ll be on your left. Ron and I will be waiting here.”

Ron looked extremely hesitant to let them go, but there was nothing to be done for it. Tonks pressed her wand to the heavy steel door and it slid open, stopping with a loud clang. Harry threw the Invisibility Cloak over his head and followed Malfoy down the long, dimly lit corridor.

The air was even heavier than it had been downstairs, and Harry knew the Dementors were close by the volume of the screaming in his head. He felt positively ill and hoped he wouldn’t alert Lucius Malfoy to his presence by vomiting all over the man’s feet.

Draco glanced at the numbers of the cells as they walked. Harry peered into each cell and felt a great wave of sympathy for the prisoners huddled inside each small hole. There was barely enough room to move inside, and most of the prisoners didn’t even have the energy to stir as they passed.

Sirius spent twelve years locked up here, probably on this level.

Harry shook his head. This wasn’t the time to dwell on that. Malfoy stopped walking and placed his hand on a silver disk located outside the cell. The disk flashed green, indicating it was safe to enter. There were no doors or bars to hold the prisoners but instead a ward ensured they were kept inside. Tonks had said the ward would allow them inside the cell, but they would be unable to leave until they again passed their hands over the disk. If Lucius attempted an escape, they would all be trapped within the wards.

Harry hadn’t bothered to ask exactly what that meant. He didn’t think he really wanted to know.

He followed Draco inside the cell, and it was a moment before he noticed Lucius sitting on the edge of his bed. He’d obviously been sleeping as his eyes were crusted, and he squinted at his son as if trying to process the fact he was there. Lucius was thinner than Harry remembered. His long blonde hair was matted and dirty, and he’d lost that haughty aristocratic demeanor that he’d always shown. He looked haunted. Harry couldn’t imagine trying to live for years under these conditions. It was a wonder anyone left Azkaban with his mind still intact.

“Father?” Malfoy asked tentatively. His voice shook slightly as his eyes roamed over his father’s broken form.

“Draco? What are you doing here?” Lucius asked. His voice was raspy from lack of use. “Everyone has been looking for you. Is your mother with you?”

“She’s safe, Father. She doesn’t even know I’m here,” Draco replied, swallowing heavily. “How are you?”

Lucius Malfoy shook his head as if to clear it. That ugly sneer that Harry remembered so well returned to his features. “What have you done, Draco? Have you made a bargain with the blood traitors? Where is your pride? I’m so disappointed in you.”

“Father, listen to me. I can help you. When you’re released from here, you can come into hiding with us,” Draco said, a pleading quality to his voice that Harry found painful. He knew from years of experience that Draco’s pleas would fall on deaf ears.

“A real Malfoy would never crawl on his belly with the slime and dregs of society,” Lucius spat, seething now. “I thought I’d raised you to know that. This is your mother’s influence, isn’t it?”

“Father, the Dark Lord will kill you when you’re released if you don’t do something to ensure your own survival,” Draco cried.

“Then I will die with honor, as you should have done,” Lucius replied.

“Father-”

“No, Draco. You can still salvage this,” Lucius said, moving closer to his son. His eyes began to shine with a demented light. “Go back to the Dark Lord. Kneel before him and beg his forgiveness. Prove your loyalty

to him by killing those who have given you aid. It might convince him to grant you some leniency.”

Draco threw his head back and snorted derisively “There is nothing lenient about him; you know that. He’ll have me beg and then kill me anyway.”

“Then you should die,” Lucius replied.

Draco blinked, clearly stunned. “Father, I’m your only son.”

“No son of mine would dishonor the Malfoy name in this way,” Lucius said, sneering. “I knew after we had you that you were a weakness to your mother’s loyalty. She’d do anything for you, to save you. She’s thrown away her own future to protect yours. It’s why we never had another child. I knew she was weak, but you… You, I thought had learned your proper place.”

“My proper place?” Draco asked. “What, to kneel in front of a Half-blood? I thought you said Malfoys were better than that.”

Lucius raised his hand and slapped Draco’s face before Harry could do anything to stop it. This was painful to witness, and Harry wished he were anywhere else. He suddenly wondered if this was how Draco had felt while watching scenes of Harry’s childhood with the Dursleys during Occlumency.

“That’s Potter talking,” Lucius spat. Harry’s head jerked upward at the sound of his own name.

“Is that who’s offering you protection?” Lucius asked incredulously. “Have you aligned yourself with Potter? Oh, Draco, how could you have sunk so low? Potter doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Of course he doesn’t. But there is a better chance of survival through his cohorts. I know at least that they won’t kill us,” Draco said, making one last attempt to sway his father.

“Until you stand up and take account for your actions, you are no son of mine. Think about what I’ve said, Draco. You need to turn back to the Dark Lord. You are near his enemies and can aid him greatly. It could earn you great honor and respect. You are nothing without it,” Lucius said, his voice silky smooth as he tried to entice his son.

Draco sighed heavily, but pulled away from his father’s caressing hand. “Then we really have nothing else to say. You were the one who taught me that a Malfoy is worth much more than any other wizard because of our heritage, and we should protect that lineage at all costs.”

“You are a coward,” Lucius spat, turning his back.

Draco’s shoulders slumped. “I’ll give Mother your best,” he said softly, placing his hand on the silver disk and stepping outside the moment the ward went down. Harry quickly followed.

As they strode up the corridor towards the room where the others had remained, Harry removed the Invisibility Cloak, feeling awkward. He

wondered what Malfoy was feeling. His own father had just told him that he should turn himself over to be killed. How could a father do that to his son? A new and powerful respect for what his own parents had done for him arose in his heart. It seemed not every parent would do such a thing after all. Harry was startled to realize how sorry he felt for Draco Malfoy.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, and he meant it.

“You should be, “Malfoy snapped, not breaking his stride. “This is entirely your fault.”

“My fault?” Harry asked, nonplussed.

“My father wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you and your blasted heroics,” Malfoy said, seething. “The Dark Lord would never have wanted to punish him by using me and none of this would have happened. It’s all your fault.”

Harry’s sympathy for Malfoy’s plight disappeared in a puff of smoke. “It’s not my fault your father chose to put a mask over his head and run around with a lunatic who thinks he’s better than everyone else. Your father did this to himself, Malfoy,” Harry snapped.

“It’s your fault you haven’t done what you’ve been supposedly chosen to do and got us all out of this mess. What are you waiting on, anyway? Trying to lap up as much of the glory and spotlight while you can, are you? Afraid the idiotic public who fawn at your feet will turn on you once they realize what a fraud you are?” Draco asked, his face turning pink.

“No, that’s more your style, Malfoy,” Harry said. Taking a deep breath, he tried to regain control. “Look, I know you’re angry about the way your father treated you. I would be too-”

“What do you know about it?” Malfoy asked bitterly. “You don’t even remember having a father. You think the way those miserable Muggles treated you gives you any right to say you understand how a family works? As far as I’m concerned, the Muggles had the right idea. They’re the only ones who saw you for what you really are.”

Harry was about to lash out when the room suddenly swam before him. He grabbed the wall for support but instantly pulled his hand back when the cold stone sent spasms up his arm. His mother’s voice began screaming in his head. He’d been so caught up in his spat with Malfoy that he hadn’t noticed the change. Now, he was aware of the drop in temperature and how clammy his skin had become.

Malfoy ignored him and continued his rant as he strode forward. Harry swayed on his feet. He shook his head to try and clear it, but only ended up dropping to his knees as his vision continued to blur.

Suddenly, Malfoy’s voice broke through the fog that had clouded Harry’s brain. “What do you want? Let us pass. We’ve got permission to be here,” he whined, sounding distinctly afraid. “What’s wrong with you, Potter? Get up. There are Dementors here.”

Harry could see them now, two Dementors gliding towards them in that insidious way they had of moving. One came from in front, one from behind. There was nowhere to run or hide. They seemed to move more slowly than Harry remembered. He knew that Tonks had said that only the old Dementors had stayed behind, which might be why they moved more slowly. It didn’t seem to make a difference to Harry, the effects were the same, only they lasted longer.

His last thought before his world went completely black was that Ginny was right. No one ever got used to the effects of Dementors.

A/N: Huge thanks to my beta, Sherylyn, for getting this done despite some pressing real life commitments. I really appreciate it.

Chapter Fifteen

Yet Still Miles to Go

A tense, grim mood settled over Grimmauld Place as everyone awaited word from Azkaban. They had tried to go about their daily business but found their attention wandering and their minds elsewhere. Everyone had quickly given up hope of getting anything done and instead gathered in the large sitting room to pass the time together.

Ginny sighed heavily as she struggled to sit still. She’d tried to wake up bright and early to see Harry before he left, but the alarm she’d set had never rung. She suspected her mum might have had something to do with that, but knew she was wound too tight to bring it up now. She’d only end up flying off the handle, anyway, and she couldn’t afford any more rows right now.

She and Harry had tentatively called a truce the night before, but she still felt annoyed by his constant desire to protect her. Hadn’t she proven herself capable of handling just as much as Ron or Hermione? Somewhere deep inside, she knew Harry couldn’t help it. His need to protect her was simply part of who he was, and she both loved and resented him for it.

Hermione, too, was angry with both Harry and Ron for leaving her behind. The logical side of Ginny’s brain understood that they all couldn’t go to Azkaban, but it was infuriating that Harry had chosen Ron without even thinking about it. Okay, so maybe Ron could handle Dementors better than either she or Hermione, but still… She shuddered, remembering the powerful memories of Tom that the Dementors had induced on the train in her second year.

No. It wasn’t as if she wanted to go near the Dementors, but Harry didn’t handle them so well, either, and he’d never considered just letting someone else go. Ginny bit her lip and had to blink to keep her eyes from filling. She had a terrible feeling about this. Somehow, she knew in her heart that something wasn’t right, and she felt utterly helpless sitting on the couch reading a magazine. She needed to do something.

She let her eyes wander around the room, focusing on the rest of her family as they tried for her sake to appear unconcerned. Her heart

filled to bursting for the lot of them. No matter that they drove her ‘round the bend on occasion, they were a wonderfully supportive bunch.

Her mum sat in a huge armchair in the corner, her eyes puffy and red-rimmed, furiously clicking her knitting needles. On her lap sat the Weasley family clock that she’d rescued from the Burrow. All the hands remained on Mortal Peril, so what she expected to see happen, no one knew. The expression on her face clearly said not to bother her, and the rest of the lot knew her well enough to respect that look.

Bill and Fleur shared a chair and cooed at each other incessantly while they teamed up in a game of chess against Remus. Remus removed a pocket watch from his faded robe every few minutes to check the time. A shadow would cross his features each time, and Ginny noticed Bill and Fleur pretending not to see moves that could have finished the game sooner.

Her dad and the twins had all abandoned work at different times during the morning and returned to headquarters to await news with everyone else. They now sat around a coffee table while the twins tried to explain the concept of Muggle poker to her dad. Mr. Weasley wasn’t nearly as interested in the card game as he was with the poker chips and kept trying to see if they would float in his drink, or how many he could suspend at a time with his wand. Ginny simply couldn’t understand her dad’s fascination with Muggles, although she knew it amused Harry and Hermione.

She and Hermione sat together on the couch. Ginny had tried to work on the schoolwork that her mother insisted she do, but she’d given it up as hopeless today. Instead, she flipped through the pages of a teen glamour magazine while Hermione held a seventh-year Transfiguration book in her lap. Ginny couldn’t understand how Hermione could use Transfiguration to keep her nerves calm when it had the complete opposite effect on Ginny.

Ginny kept nudging her friend in the ribs and dragging her attention to various articles in the magazine about rating your love life. It amused her to see Hermione’s identical red head next to her own while they flipped through the ridiculous questions. Ginny had always wanted a sister and thought Hermione could now pass for one. Despite the obvious worry in the air, every once in a while she and Hermione couldn’t help breaking into squeals of girlish laughter. Both would turn red when the attention of the others turned towards them, but it broke the tension, and Ginny thought it was good for Hermione to just let loose for a change.

Narcissa Malfoy hadn’t made an appearance all morning, not even to take some breakfast back to her room. As far as Ginny was concerned, no one had really missed her. She couldn’t help but wonder what Narcissa thought about her son traveling out to Azkaban to visit her husband, however.

The sound of the front doorway opening sent everyone running into the hallway. Ginny yet again cursed her height while she strained to see around her much taller brothers. Everyone gasped in surprise as Professor McGonagall, Hagrid and Kingsley Shacklebolt entered with three smaller figures hidden beneath black robes. Hermione nudged Ginny in the ribs, and nodded towards one of the strangers. Ginny squinted,

attempting to see what Hermione was trying to tell her. Her eyes flew open wide as she realized the person was wearing Hogwarts’ robes with a Slytherin crest on the left pocket.

Remus shouldered his way through her brothers. “Hagrid! Kingsley! You found them,” he said, ushering the guests towards the sitting room from where they’d all emerged. Remus obviously knew who the hidden strangers were, and Ginny peered at them curiously. She was surprised that her mother hadn’t yet tried to usher her from the landing. Maybe she really was coming around.

“Yes, the information proved reliable. We thought it best to bring them here to keep them all together and supervised,” Kingsley said, his deep voice echoing in the stillness.

The lead figure jerked and removed her cloak, revealing a middle-aged woman whose dark hair was streaked with gray. It was pulling loose from the bun she wore at the nape of her neck, and although she was dirty and rumpled, she had the aura of someone used to being waited upon.

The other two figures removed their cloaks as well, showing the faces of two teen-aged girls, both with upturned noses; while on the younger it was unattractive and gave her a hard face, it gave the older girl an aristocratic appearance. Both were disheveled and looked as if they hadn’t had a good meal in days. Ginny was well acquainted with the younger of the two, and from the expression on Hermione’s face, knew she had recognized the newcomer, as well.

“What do you mean by ‘supervised,’ Mr. Shacklebolt? I thought you had offered us sanctuary,” the elder witch asked formally, her brow knit in disapproval.

Kingsley bowed stiffly. “Of course we did, Mrs. Parkinson. However, you must understand the need for precautions in these dark times. Certainly you would expect the same of anyone else we allowed to take shelter here,” he said.

Mrs. Parkinson pursed her lips but remained silent.

“Molly, is there anything we can offer them to eat before they retire? We’ll put them on the same floor with the Malfoys for the time being,” Professor McGonagall said.

“Of course,” her mother replied, almost as if she was happy to finally have something productive to do. “Sit down and make yourselves comfortable. I’ll fix up a tray and bring it right up.”

“Granger!”

Hermione quickly turned her head, startled by the sound of her name. Pansy Parkinson stood behind them, staring contemptuously.

“What are you doing here?” the dark-haired girl asked. “And what the hell have you done to your hair?”

“I was about to ask you the same question,” Hermione replied coolly, her gaze raking Pansy’s tangled mop.

“Oh! I don’t believe this. Has Draco actually aligned himself with a Mudblood and a bunch of blood traitors? Next you’ll tell me Potter is here, too?” Pansy shrieked.

“That will be enough of that, young lady,” Mr. Weasley said firmly, anger flashing in his blue eyes. Her father’s anger — so rarely seen — silenced the room. Even the Parkinson women were stilled. “This house will offer sanctuary to any who needs it; however, we will not tolerate that language nor the hatred behind it. You’ll do well to remember that, Miss Parkinson.”

“Forgive my daughter’s lack of good taste,” Mrs. Parkinson said, glaring at Pansy. “We’ve had a difficult time these past few days, and I fear the strain is showing on all of us.”

“Of course it is, Anastasia,” Professor McGonagall said briskly. “We all sympathize with your loss. Perhaps you’d like to see Narcissa. Follow me. I’ll take you to her room.”

Professor McGonagall led Mrs. Parkinson from the room, casting a stern glare at the rest of the occupants, as if warning them to behave. While the adults moved to one side of the room and began a hushed discussion, the young people stared mistrustfully at one another.

Finally, George moved away from the table where he’d been sitting and walked over to the Parkinson girls. “Iris, it’s been a long time,” he said a bit stiffly, addressing the elder girl. “It’s nice to see you again.”

“Yeah, not since you flew out the front door our seventh year,” Iris said, smiling. She had the same features as her sister, but her face had a more oval shape that gave her a softer appearance. When she smiled, Ginny conceded that unlike Pansy, she was truly pretty.

“Yeah, yeah. Enough with the false pleasantries. Where’s Draco?” Pansy asked, scowling at both George and her sister.

Ginny had the distinct impression that a fierce rivalry existed between the two sisters, and that Pansy resented any attention given to Iris. Ginny tried to cover her grin — that knowledge just might prove useful.

“He and Harry took a trip to Azkaban,” she said smoothly, carefully watching the Slytherin’s reaction.

“He what?” Pansy shrieked, spinning around with wide eyes.

“He wanted to speak with his father. We’re waiting for them to return,” Hermione replied. Ginny was interested to note the coolness in Hermione’s voice. Usually Hermione advocated giving everyone a chance or the benefit of the doubt, but something told Ginny there was no love lost between these two.

“Is he crazy?” Pansy asked no one in particular. “Doesn’t he know there’s a standing order to bring his body back to the Dark Lord? He at least wants Potter alive, but Draco is in real danger.”

“Yeah, Harry’s so lucky,” Ginny replied, rolling her eyes.

“Still sniffing around after the Boy-Who-Lived, I see. Where’s your self-respect?” Pansy asked, sneering.

“Recognize the traits, do you, Pansy?” Ginny asked, gazing nonchalantly at her own nails.

Pansy scowled. “I can’t believe you cut your hair and gave it to Granger. I mean, I understand her wanting it. The idiotic males at Hogwarts all seem to have a thing for your hair, but I don’t think they’ll like you as much without it,” Pansy said, smirking triumphantly.

“You seem really focused on who pays attention to my hair, Pansy,” Ginny replied, amused. “You know, there are charms you can use to turn yours red, you’ll just have to stay on top of the roots.”

Pansy’s face flushed. “Don’t flatter yourself. I notice everything that goes on at that school.”

Fred and George’s heads were swinging back and forth between the girls as if they were watching a tennis match.

“Pansy, play nice,” Iris said, clearly amused. “We have to stay here until Mother comes to her senses, after all.”

“What is Draco thinking?” Pansy whined. “How long have they been gone, and when are they due back?”

“I already told you, we’re all waiting for them to return, Pansy. We’re worried about Harry and Ron, too,” Hermione said stiffly. Pansy’s question reminded them all how long the group had been gone, and Ginny felt that uneasiness return.

“Potter will probably pass out before they even enter the prison. Doesn’t he have problems with Dementors?” Pansy asked coldly.

“Any trouble they have is more likely to be caused by Malfoy panicking and giving them all away,” Ginny snapped, reaching for her wand.

“Don’t you dare blame Draco for any of this. I’m certain Potter somehow tricked him into going,” Pansy said, pulling her own wand from her pocket.

“Yeah, because he’s such an idiot anyone can trick him into anything,” Ginny said, her eyes blazing.

Fred deftly caught Ginny around the waist and pulled her away from the Slytherin girl. “Easy, Ginny. Don’t give Mum a reason to send you upstairs,” he whispered.

“You do have to admit, Pansy…” Iris said, sounding bored as she sat on an armchair and studied her broken nails. “…Draco was a bit of an idiot to get himself mixed up with a bunch of Gryffindors. Now, we’re stuck with them, too.”

“As I remember, there was once a time you didn’t mind being seen with a Gryffindor. Weren’t you one of the birds who used to follow Oliver around Hogwarts with your tongue lolling?” Fred asked, grinning.

Iris’s eyes flashed defiantly, but color flooded her cheeks. “I most certainly did no such thing.”

Pansy snorted and looked at her sister with disgust. “You did. Don’t you dare call Draco an idiot,” she said, narrowing her eyes.

“I’ll call him whatever I please,” Iris snapped. “It’s his fault Daddy’s dead.”

Pansy recoiled. Her eyes darkened before she drew back her hand and slapped her sister across the face.

George jumped over the back of the couch, crossed his feet on the coffee table, and conjured a bucket of popcorn. “Ooh, catfight,” he said, beaming. Fred immediately joined him, leaving Ginny snickering.

Mr. Weasley glanced over at the commotion, but when the argument ceased, he returned to his conversation.

Hermione stepped between the two sisters, holding up her arms. “Stop. Look, we heard about your father, and I’m sorry. This isn’t helping any of them, however. We’re all worried-”

“Oh, put a sock in it, Granger,” Pansy snarled. “Who asked you to stick your impossibly large nose into it, anyway? What makes you always think that anyone else is interested in what you have to say? You’re just upset because you know it’s most likely that stupid redheaded stooge of Potter’s who’ll mess up. Doesn’t he always? Go back to your books, you insignificant little Know-It-All.”

Hermione’s eyes flashed brightly. “Fine, Pansy. I’ll just let your sister hex you into a jelly. It’s not as if anyone here will miss your mouth, anyway.”

“What makes you think my sister has any chance against me?” Pansy asked, affronted.

Hermione rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen you duel, Pansy. Anyone could hex you into a jelly.”

“Is that so?” Pansy asked, reaching again for her wand.

Hermione was quicker. She had her wand pointed between the other girl’s eyes before Pansy had barely moved. “Put your hand any closer to that wand, Parkinson, and I’ll show you exactly what I’ve learned in those books.”

Pansy paled considerably while the Weasleys who were watching the spat howled in mirth.

“Sit down over there,” Hermione said, jerking her head to a chair set slightly apart from the others, “and shut your mouth, or I’ll be forced

to shut it for you. We’re all going to sit down like civilized people while we await news. I don’t want to hear another word out of your mouth.”

“You tell her, Hermione,” Fred said, tossing some popcorn.

Hermione turned her wand on Fred, her eyes glinting dangerously. “That goes for you, too. Not one word.”

Fred swallowed heavily, but he sat back on the couch.

Ginny sniggered; she loved seeing anyone get the best of one of the twins. Hermione could be downright scary when she was riled.

**–**–

Harry’s world spun. His vision kept fading in and out to black, and he couldn’t make sense of what was happening. He could hear screaming, but it was odd — distorted — as if it was coming from both inside his head and also somewhere nearby. He could feel cold stone beneath his hands. It felt dirty, but there was also something very strange and unnatural about it. It felt sinister somehow, and Harry didn’t like it. He suspected he was on the floor but couldn’t remember how he got there. He wished that screaming would stop — it was confusing, and he couldn’t think.

He moved his arm, searching for his wand but couldn’t find it. He needed a Patronus but couldn’t cast one without a wand. He tried anyway, to no avail.

He felt ill. He curled into a ball and continued to try and fight the darkness that wanted to claim him. Something warned him that giving in to it now would be very bad indeed. The screaming continued to grow louder, and other voices joined the chaos in his mind. He thought he could hear Malfoy, but that didn’t make any sense. Malfoy was never in Godric’s Hollow.

“Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him!”

There were footsteps; he could hear someone running and someone else was shouting, but he couldn’t make out the words. He could see colors flashing despite his closed eyelids and knew spells were being fired. Sirius fell through the Veil. A bright flash of green light connected with Professor Dumbledore and caused him to topple off the Astronomy tower.

Something cold and putrid came very near his face. His body convulsed with shivers as he tried to pull away. He knew he should be panicked, but he was so tired, and he just couldn’t get his mind to work…

“Not Harry! Not Harry! Please — I’ll do anything — ”

“Stand aside. Stand aside, girl!”

“Not Harry!”

“Harry! Harry!”

Someone was shaking him, slapping his face. He twisted and tried to pull away, but his body was simply too weak, and his head only lolled to the side. Someone shouted something — a woman’s voice that he couldn’t place but knew he recognized. Other voices responded, as if she were issuing orders.

Harry tried to cling to what he thought was real, but his thoughts kept slipping away as if they were water through his fingers. Someone bodily lifted him to his feet and wrapped an arm around his waist. His legs wouldn’t support his weight, however, and he nearly fell down again.

“Come on, Harry. I’m getting you out of here,” Ron said in his ear.

Ron’s got me — I should have known.

Ron barked something to someone else, but Harry couldn’t understand what he’d said. All the screaming had stopped, but his teeth were still chattering uncontrollably. He heard a drawling response before another person took his other arm and began to drag him, his legs uselessly trailing on the ground.

When they finally stopped moving, they placed Harry down somewhere not soft, but definitely more comfortable than the floor had been. Someone held his head and tried to shove something in his mouth. Harry clamped his jaws shut instinctively and tried to turn his head away.

“Relax, Harry; it’s chocolate,” Tonks said gently, swiping some of his hair off of his sweaty forehead. “It’ll make you feel better. Here, Draco. You eat some, too.”

Harry blearily opened his eyes and took a bite of the chocolate that Tonks was holding out to him. As his vision slowly focused, he realized he was back in the holding room where Moody and Ron had been waiting. The chocolate was doing its work, and Harry felt a little better. He took the chunk from Tonks and managed to sit up.

The chill was subsiding, although he still felt as if he were recovering from a nasty bout of flu. The palms of his hands were scraped and bleeding, and he thought his knees might be, as well. He had to adjust the chocolate to his fingertips so as not to smear it with his blood.

He could see Malfoy sitting next to him, looking waxy and pale, but still scowling. He, too, was eating a large hunk of chocolate. Tonks sat across from the two boys, her eyes moving rapidly between them. She had dirt smeared along the side of her face, and her hair now looked more gray than pink.

“What happened?” Harry tried to ask, although he couldn’t quite form the words. Ron lifted the chocolate in Harry’s limp hand and pushed it up towards his mouth, encouraging him to take another bite.

“I don’t know what would’ve made them behave that way. They’ve never attacked visitors in the past,” Tonks said, shakily. “I was on my way back down to check on you lot when I heard Draco screaming. The

supervisor on duty is going to inform the Ministry that the Dementors left behind here are unstable.”

“We’d just left my father’s cell when those things came at us. Don’t think the Ministry won’t hear about this from me, either. The security in this facility is deplorable,” Draco spat. “I could have been killed in the time it took you to get those things off of me.”

“Relax, boy. It wasn’t you they wanted,” Moody said, his magical eye focused on Harry. “They stepped right over you to get to Potter.”

Harry’s eyes widened; everything was still a blur to him. He watched as Malfoy leaned back and petulantly crossed his arms over his chest.

“Potter was useless,” Malfoy said, sneering. “Some hero you turned out to be; you passed out again as soon as they came at us. Obviously they’re unpleasant, but why do they affect you so much? What do you see?”

“I hear my parents screaming while Voldemort murders them,” Harry snapped, his head throbbing.

Even Malfoy had the good grace to look abashed.

Harry felt embarrassed and extremely irritated with both himself and Malfoy. He didn’t know what had made him say that; he wasn’t thinking clearly. He had to get his focus back if he was going to search for the Horcrux. He looked away from the sympathetic gazes of the others with a scowl and stuffed some more chocolate in his mouth.

“Why do the Dementors always go directly for Harry?” Ron asked, sounding anxious. Harry was grateful to him for diverting the attention.

“Most likely because he’s a walking feast to them with all the crap he’s been through,” Moody said shortly. “I don’t want to sit around here all day; we’re sitting ducks in this room. Let’s go to the holding facility and get what you want so we can get out of here.”

“I agree,” Harry said, using Ron’s arm to help him stand. “I want to get out of here, too.”

“Did you have any luck with your father, Draco?” Tonks asked, cocking her head to the side.

Malfoy averted his eyes, scowling. “No.”

Tonks stared at him for a moment, but decided to let it go. She patted Malfoy gently on the shoulder as she passed him. “All right then. Holding is located on Level two. Follow me.”

“Wait a minute,” Harry said, staring beyond the stairwell where Tonks stood. He felt very weak and tired, but he was still aware enough to know Tonks was trying to hurry him off the floor. “What’s that room down there?”

There was one other cell set apart from the others and located further down the hallway.

“It’s just a cell that’s no longer used,” Tonks replied, shifting her eyes.

“Why isn’t it used?” Ron asked.

“What difference does it make?” Draco asked, his eyes drifting nervously back towards the other cells. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“You said this is the high security wing, right? This is where they hold the most dangerous prisoners,” Harry said.

Tonks nodded. “Yes, which is why we should keep moving,” she replied, taking Harry’s arm and trying to steer him towards the stairwell.

Harry pulled his arm away and began walking down the hallway, using the wall for support. “And that’s the cell where one prisoner escaped. That’s why they don’t use it anymore,” he whispered.

“Harry, don’t do this to yourself,” Tonks said.

Ron’s eyes opened wide, finally realizing whose cell it had once been. “Harry, we’ve got other things to do,” he said quietly.

“I know,” Harry replied, still moving toward the cell, “but I just need to see it. He spent twelve years here, and if I don’t at least see it, no one will ever know.”

He’d reached the cell but stopped just before the door. His legs no longer appeared willing to carry him further. He swallowed heavily, staring at that opening and slowly shuffling his feet forward. The cell was dismally small and very dark — barren. There was a single camp bed against the wall, and Harry could just make out the rough sketching of a dog, a wolf and a stag etched into the stone.

A painful lump grew in Harry’s throat as he imagined how abandoned and utterly alone Sirius must have felt. He’d been kept prisoner in this small space — not much bigger than a broom cupboard, actually. The similarity didn’t amuse him at all. Twelve years. Twelve wasted years…

Ron’s hand on his shoulder brought Harry back to the present. He blinked his eyes to clear them and steeled his resolve. They followed Tonks back to the brightly lit stairwell, and Harry leaned heavily on Ron while they walked. He wanted nothing more than to get back on that cold little boat so he could shut his eyes and sleep for a while. He hoped Dung’s things would be easy to find.

“Potter, if you can’t move any faster at least get out of my way,” Malfoy said as he pushed past Harry and Ron. “I want to get out of this foul building.”

“Don’t worry about him. He’d nearly wet himself by the time Moody and I got there,” Ron said, scoffing. “Although, it is lucky he screams like a little girl or else we might’ve never known you were in trouble,” he added loudly enough for Malfoy to hear.

The blond ignored him and hurried down the stairs after Tonks.

“Leave him alone,” Harry muttered weakly. “He’s just lashing out because his father was a right git.”

Ron blinked. “Are you defending Malfoy?” he asked incredulously.

“No,” Harry said quickly. “I still think he’s a whiny little coward. He’s just had a rough morning.”

“Yeah, unlike you who finds this place a barrel of laughs, right?” Ron said, scowling.

“Don’t be a prat,” Harry mumbled. He wanted to smack that smug grin right off his mate’s face, but feared he wouldn’t make it to the holding unit without him.

When Tonks finally stopped walking, she stood in front of a thick steel door. She used her wand to unlock it, but then had to bodily push it open as it got stuck halfway open. Harry stared, agape. There was row after row of haphazard items — mostly clothing — all stuffed into boxes. There didn’t appear to be any order to the room at all.

“Mostly when people leave here, they don’t want to stop for anything and just go,” Tonks said, shrugging apologetically. “The boxes are labeled according to the cell number. “Dung’s is 3-R.”

“Are you mad? It’ll take us forever to search through here,” Ron said, aghast.

Tonks twisted her lips to the side. “It gets worse. I can only take one of you in here at a time.”

Harry’s heart sank. It didn’t look as if he’d be getting out of Azkaban any time soon.

**–**–

The dinner hour was rapidly approaching and there still had been no word from Azkaban. Ginny could feel the tension radiating off the adults, and it did nothing to ease her nerves. Hermione had gathered her books and planted herself on the landing above the entrance hall, refusing to speak to anyone.

Remus paced like a caged animal. Ginny had overheard him tell Bill that Tonks should have sent word by now, and he was worried. Tonks’ regular shift was almost at an end, and if they all didn’t turn up shortly thereafter, Remus was planning on going to look for them. Ginny hadn’t said as much, but if that happened, she planned on going with him. Neither her mother nor anyone else would stop her. She could see the same kind of determination glinting in Fred and George’s eyes.

After they had got Mrs. Parkinson settled in her room, her mother and Professor McGonagall had disappeared into the kitchen. One or the other would occasionally bring tea into the sitting room, but otherwise they’d remained out of sight. Ginny had the distinct impression that

they were complaining about Mrs. Malfoy and Mrs. Parkinson, and the other two women were most likely upstairs doing the same.

Iris had left the sitting room shortly after Hermione’s outburst, but Pansy remained in her chair. She’d dozed off and on, but otherwise appeared determined to stay until Draco returned. Her small black eyes shot daggers at everyone whenever she was awake.

Ginny’s nerves were wound tightly as a clock spring. Her brothers seemed to understand and gave her a wide berth. She kept envisioning all sorts of horrible scenarios, and she was both concerned and furious that none of the missing group had bothered with a simple owl to let them know what was happening. When Harry returned, she wanted both to kiss him and strangle him. Stupid, noble prat…

When the heavy front door finally opened, Ginny had been so lost in her own thoughts she hadn’t immediately heard it. Hermione had, however, and was halfway down the stairs before Ginny took off after her. Being the more athletic of the two, Ginny quickly caught up and overtook her friend, arriving in the entrance hall just as Moody shut and sealed the door.

Tonks led the weary and drained-looking group inside. Harry, especially looked positively ghastly. His eyes immediately sought her out, and some color reappeared in his cheeks when he found her. Ginny’s heart softened as she moved towards him. She wrapped her arm around him and helped him to a chair, alarmed by how heavily he leaned upon her. The mere fact that he accepted her assistance so meekly showed her how tired he truly was.

“Ron!” Hermione shouted, throwing her arms around him and causing him to stumble. “Where have you been? What happened? Are you all right?”

“Easy, Hermione,” Ron said, wrapping his long arms around her and hugging her close. He tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace. “We’re fine. Just happy to be out of there.”

Hermione refused to let go and guided Ron to the chair next to Harry.

“Draco!” Pansy shrieked from the top of the stairs. She sprinted towards them taking the stairs two at a time.

“Pansy?” Malfoy said blankly, confusion clearly written on his face. He was pale and his shoulders drooped, although Ginny could read genuine pleasure in his expression. Maybe he really did care for the rude Slytherin girl. Who’d have thought?

“Are you all right?” Pansy cooed, leading Draco away from the others.

“What are you doing here?” Draco asked, his voice scratchy and hoarse.

“It’s a long story. Mother and Iris are here, too. Come upstairs and join us, and I’ll explain everything,” Pansy said as they climbed the stairs. She turned and cast a victorious look over her shoulder, as if expecting that everyone else wished they’d been the ones to lead Draco away.

The rest of the Order emerged, and everyone gathered in the entrance hall. Remus hurriedly approached Tonks, wrapping her in a fierce embrace.

“What happened?” he asked, leading her towards a chair.

“Oh, Ron! Harry!” her mother cried, rushing towards the two boys. She stopped mid-stride, casting anxious glances at each of them. She looked lost and out of place realizing that Ginny and Hermione were already hovering over each of the boys, taking care of them as she usually did. Ginny’s heart momentarily constricted in sympathy for her mum, seeing the pain of letting go clearly written on her face.

“Scrimgeour happened,” Tonks said sourly.

“And Percy,” Ron replied, grimacing.

“Percy?” Mrs. Weasley asked, her eyes opening wide. “What does this have to do with Percy? Sweet, Merlin. They haven’t stationed him at Azkaban, have they?”

“He was there on Scrimgeour’s orders,” Moody said gruffly, lifting his wooden leg onto the footstool her dad had brought to him. “Scrimgeour sent along a stack of necessary paperwork that had to be filled out before we could leave. He’s just trying to learn what Potter was doing there.”

“Wouldn’t we all like to know,” Tonks said, shooting a glare in Harry’s direction. “We’ve got problems with the remaining Dementors; they’re unstable. They attacked Harry and Draco.”

“What do you mean ‘attacked’ them?” Remus asked, his eyes widening. He glanced at Harry, who still hadn’t spoken.

He’d rested his head on Ginny’s shoulder. His eyes were closed, but she could feel the tension in his body and knew he was still listening to every word they said.

“Two of them that were supposed to be on patrol cornered Harry and Draco after they’d left Lucius’s cell. It was only Draco’s shouts that alerted us that something was wrong. Neither Draco nor Harry had wands, so I hate to think what would have happened if I hadn’t got there when I did,” Tonks said, shuddering. She leaned into Remus’s chest and blissfully shut her eyes when he began to stroke her pink hair.

“We can use the kitchen fire to Floo Kingsley. He’s at the Ministry this evening,” Professor McGonagall said briskly.

“Dinner’s waiting, you must be famished,” her mum said as the adults moved towards the kitchen.

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny didn’t follow them, but instead retired to the room that Harry and Ron shared. Ginny led Harry gently to his bed where he collapsed without even removing his jacket.

“Was it horrible?” Hermione asked, biting her lip. She helped Ron to sit on his own bed and sat down beside him, gently brushing the hair from his face.

“It was bad,” Ron replied, cracking his neck and causing Hermione to wince. “After the Dementors attacked Harry and Malfoy, we had to search through the entire holding area. That place was stuffed to the ceiling with rubbish. It took forever, and we were only allowed in one at a time.”

“Did you find it?” Hermione asked, squeezing Ron’s hand.

Harry dug his hand into his pocket and removed the heavy gold locket that hung on a chain. “Got it,” he said without opening his eyes. He pulled himself into a seated position next to Ginny and laid his head back against the headboard.

They all stared silently at the Horcrux for a moment while listening to the sound of each other’s breathing.

“After we found it, we had to put up with Percy,” Ron said, finally continuing the story. “He brought all these extra forms and questionnaires for us to fill out. He made us each fill out one even though Harry was the only one who took anything. Tonks was right hacked off about that.”

“Tonks? What’s wrong with her? She did seem rather put out downstairs,” Ginny said.

“Once she saw the locket — Percy insisted we had to declare what we took — she got really upset. She thought Harry nearly got himself killed only to get a present for you,” Ron said, sniggering at Ginny although the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“So, now we have to figure out how to destroy it,” Ginny said, ignoring Ron’s jibes.

“Yeah. I suppose that’s the next step,” Ron said, shrugging.

“I found a Translation Charm while I was researching. I tried it on the Romanian book, but it wouldn’t work on the section on Horcruxes. It’s as if that part of the book didn’t even exist,” Hermione said, her frustration obvious. “It’s ridiculous. The only word I’ve been able to decipher is object, and that doesn’t help. It’s repeated several times, so I assume it’s referring to the object used to make a Horcrux.”

“I wish we could ask Professor Dumbledore,” Ron said glumly. “It would make this so much easier.”

“Perhaps we can,” Harry said, his eyes only half open. “His portrait is in McGonagall’s office at Hogwarts. I saw it there.”

Hermione shook her head. “It will depend on when the portrait was commissioned. If it was before Professor Dumbledore suspected Voldemort had made Horcruxes, the portrait will know nothing about them.”

“Didn’t you say Professor Dumbledore didn’t know about them until you got that memory from Slughorn, Harry?” Ginny asked in alarm. “That would mean the portrait would have had to have been done within the last few months of school.”

“No,” Harry said wearily. “Dumbledore suspected the Horcruxes existed since I brought him the diary — maybe even before that. He just didn’t know how many.”

“He would have had to have known there were more, right? I mean, Voldemort came back after the diary was found, and he went after the ring himself before you got that memory,” said Hermione.

Ginny felt Harry stiffen and she looked over at him, finding his eyes wide. “Dumbledore did go after that Horcrux long before we got that memory from Slughorn,” Harry said. “I’d forgotten that. So, he knew there was more than one, maybe he even knew I was one.”

“He suspected there was more than one, Harry. You said so yourself. Slughorn’s memory only confirmed the number,” Hermione said.

“He must have known,” Harry said, looking dazed. “He just didn’t tell me.”

“Harry, if it was something he only suspected, why would he have told you?” Hermione asked reasonably. “He must have known it would only upset you, and he obviously cared about you very much. If he knew at all, he probably wanted to be certain before he mentioned it. You believe that he hadn’t known Snape was going to betray him that night.”

Harry’s nostrils flared at the mention of Snape’s name, but he sank back against the headboard once again.

“I suppose it’s something we’ll never know,” he said, causing Ginny’s heart to ache. She placed her hand on top of his and squeezed it reassuringly.

“Blimey, I’m starving,” Ron groaned, breaking the tension. “We missed lunch while we were stuck out there,”

Hermione smiled. “I’ll run downstairs and bring up some of the sandwiches,” she said, causing Ron to smile in a self-satisfied way.

“Thanks, love,” Ron said softly. Hermione beamed and quickly left the room.

Ginny settled back with her head against the wall and listened as Harry’s breathing became deep and even. She watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest and knew he was already sleeping. His dark lashes showed starkly against the paleness of his face. Ginny always enjoyed watching him sleep because he looked so young and carefree. All the tension and worry that had lined his face so frequently over the past few months would disappear, and he was just Harry again.

She remembered overhearing her mother talking to a friend when Ginny was a child. Her dad had made a trip out to Azkaban for the Ministry, and he’d been really shaken when he’d returned. Her mother had told her

friend that Azkaban was a horrible place, and her dad was a sensitive bloke. She said the atmosphere always affected softhearted people worse.

Softhearted certainly fit Harry. He had more compassion than anyone she’d ever known. No wonder he’d had a difficult time of it.

By the time Hermione returned with some food, Harry was snoring lightly against Ginny’s shoulder. She found his weight oddly comforting. Ron, too, had nearly dozed, but started again when Hermione arrived with the food. Even that didn’t bring the color back to his face, and he poked and moved it around more than ate it. Ginny and Hermione kept casting worried glances at one another. It must have been really bad for Ron to be put off food. After they’d finished their dinner, Ron eventually dozed off again. She and Hermione tucked the boys in before returning to their own room for the night.

**–**–

It took several days for Harry and Ron to feel like themselves again, and they spent most of that recovery time sleeping. By week’s end, however, Harry once more felt that restless drive to move forward. He had another Horcrux in his hands — he was certain this locket was the correct one — and now all he needed to do was destroy it.

Exactly how to destroy it was another matter. He’d taken the locket into the basement of Grimmauld Place to see if he could open it. Unlike the fake Horcrux that easily opened, the golden trinket with Slytherin’s elaborate insignia remained tightly sealed. Ron reckoned that perhaps Regulus had been able to destroy the Horcrux trapped inside, but Harry wasn’t convinced. He could feel the power and evil emanating from it, and knew the piece of Voldemort’s soul still remained.

He wondered if he’d felt something from the real locket when they’d found it at Grimmauld Place the first time. Of course, he wouldn’t have known what the feeling meant then, and he supposed he’d been dealing with such a mess of raging feelings at the time, anyway, one more might not have made much of an impact.

Knowing this was it didn’t tell him what he needed to do to destroy it, however. He’d done the diary and the cup on sheer instinct; he’d been panicked each time. This time, however, sitting in a warm room with the cool object clasped in his hand and not a danger in sight, his task wasn’t as clear.

Malfoy had made his presence much more apparent in the house since Pansy’s arrival. The two could often be found in the kitchen sharing a snack, in the drawing room curled up by the fire, or sneaking out of any number of empty rooms. Harry didn’t even want to imagine what they were doing. The fact that it was his house made him shudder. It also irritated him that Malfoy was able to shove the war and all his problems away while Harry found it exceedingly difficult to do that.

It’s my house…it should be Ginny and me exploring all those rooms, he thought irritably.

Since her arrival, Pansy’s greatest pleasure appeared to be finding the right words to set either Hermione or Ginny off, which wasn’t difficult. Ginny, particularly, had a very short fuse when it came to the Slytherin. In fact, Pansy and Iris had apparently mended their rift and united under the common goal of needling the Gryffindor girls.

On more than one occasion, Harry had found himself sitting open-mouthed — Ron and Malfoy by his sides wearing identical gobsmacked expressions — as the girls sniped at each other. Harry was both fascinated and amazed by the low blows girls could zing at each other. Blokes usually came to blows much more quickly, but Harry also thought they got over things quicker, as well.

One afternoon about a week after he’d visited Azkaban, he was sitting in the library again trying to find some kind of a translation for his Romanian book when Remus joined him. Tonks had stopped glaring at him each time she saw him, but she hadn’t gone back to her usual joking manner, either.

“All right, Harry?” Remus asked, entering the library and taking the chair next to Harry.

“Yeah,” Harry said, stretching. “Just doing a little reading.”

“Your color is better,” Remus said, studying Harry’s face. He nodded towards Harry’s book. “What’s that you’re reading?”

“I found it up in that large bedroom beneath the attic. I can’t read it though, it’s not in English,” Harry said, not meeting Remus’s eyes.

“Ahh,” Remus said, his eyes clouding over. “That was Regulus’s room. The language is Romanian.”

Harry looked up sharply. “Yeah, Sirius told me he became a Death Eater. Do you read Romanian?”

“No,” Remus replied, shaking his head. “Sirius’s Uncle Alphard lived in Romania. Both he and Regulus were very fond of him. That book looks like it contains a lot of Dark Magic; no wonder Regulus had it. You’re not considering using anything in there, are you, Harry?” Remus asked, his brow furrowing.

“No, not using it,” Harry replied, averting his eyes.

“Exactly what does that mean?” Remus asked, slipping into that stern, teacher’s voice that Harry remembered from third year.

Harry’s mind raced. His relationship with Remus had been strained since he’d started his Occlumency sessions, and he didn’t like it. Remus was his last link to his parents, and he didn’t want to lose that. He knew he could trust Remus, and he did need some help. He was growing weary of walking this fine line of wondering whom to trust.

“Sirius said there was a rumor that Voldemort killed Regulus himself, but Sirius didn’t believe it,” Harry said, watching Remus closely.

Remus shrugged, still appearing perplexed. “It seems unlikely.”

“I’m not so sure,” Harry whispered, deciding to follow his instincts.

“Pardon?” Remus asked.

Harry shifted his position so he was facing Remus. He took a deep breath, steeling himself. “Regulus did something…something huge…and I think Voldemort might have found out about it, or at least found out that he was planning it. I don’t think he knows even now how far Regulus got with his plan. It would be just like Voldemort to underestimate him. I think Sirius said he was really young when he died.”

“Yes, he was only eighteen. I’m afraid you’ve lost me, Harry,” Remus said, shaking his head.

Harry licked his lips, which had gone very dry. “Remus. Can I ask you something and also ask you to swear not to repeat what we say to anyone?”

Remus shifted in his seat, and Harry knew he was struggling with his answer, but he nodded. “Go ahead.”

“What can you tell me about Horcruxes?” Harry whispered.

Remus inhaled sharply as he visibly paled. “Where did you learn about those?” he asked, his voice strained. “Harry, you can’t possibly be considering anything so vile-”

“I’m not,” Harry interrupted before Remus’s imagination could get carried away. “Professor Dumbledore and I had a discussion about them…but he’s not here to ask anymore.”

“Dumbledore told you…” Remus broke off suddenly, his eyes flying open wide. “Of course,” he breathed, his eyes darting to Harry’s scar. “That’s how he survived, isn’t it? That’s why he didn’t die.”

Harry nodded solemnly

“The necklace you took from Azkaban — Tonks was so angry that you risked your neck for it — is that it? Is that the Horcrux?” Remus asked, lowering his voice on the word ‘Horcrux’. “Do you think Regulus stole it? Is that why you’re asking about him?”

“I know he did,” Harry replied calmly “I know he stole that one, anyway.”

Remus gulped audibly. “That one?”

Again, Harry nodded solemnly, never breaking eye contact.

“This is what you were working on with Professor Dumbledore, wasn’t it? Remus asked.

“Yeah. Don’t ask me to tell you how many there are, or how many I’ve found. I shouldn’t even have said this much, but I need to know what

this book says about destroying them, or anything you might know,” Harry said.

Remus’ shoulders slumped as he rested his head in his hands. “I should have trusted you,” he whispered, his voice muffled.

“Why didn’t you?” Harry asked, unable to keep the bitterness from seeping into his voice completely.

Remus laughed humorlessly. “All my life, I’ve been a follower. When I was younger, I knew some of the things Sirius and your dad got up to were wrong, but I’d never voice it. Last Christmas, when you voiced your mistrust of Snape, I wouldn’t hear a word of it because Dumbledore insisted he was on our side. I wish I had a bit more of your backbone, Harry. I wish just once I could stand up for what I believe and just do the right thing.

“After you returned from your battle with the dragon, we were all so concerned. Minerva and Kingsley were insistent that we needed to learn what you were doing in order to protect and help you. I ignored my own misgivings and went along with them. You were right, Harry. The Occlumency hasn’t worked, and I wouldn’t blame you if you turned your nose at the lot of us.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Harry said, scuffing his toe on the ground. It was hard to remain angry with Remus when the older man looked so miserable. “You can make it up to me if you help me figure out how to destroy the locket.”

Remus shrugged, smiling sadly and opening his arms wide in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know a lot; the subject is considered taboo. I do know that in order to create one you need to commit an act of murder — a fully planned and intentional killing without mercy — and that you need to hold the object in your hand along with your wand when you do it.”

“You have to be holding it with your wand,” Harry repeated. That information was new.

“I don’t know the spell, but I think I can find out,” Remus said tentatively.

“How? I’ve looked everywhere and there’s virtually nothing written,” Harry replied.

“I have access to some of the more unsavory quarters than you do, Harry,” Remus replied, lowering his eyes. “Do you want my help?”

Harry felt torn, worrying that he was signing Remus’ death certificate by getting him involved. He had no choice, however. He needed some help.

“Please.”

“Consider it done,” Remus said, nodding.

“Do you know anything about destroying them?” Harry asked.

Remus shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t. I told you everything I know. I’ll see what I can find out, though.”

“That’s all right. I have one more idea to try,” Harry said, a plan already formulating in his mind. He didn’t know where the idea had come from, but he was suddenly convinced it was the right thing to do.

“What’s that?” Remus asked.

“I need to go back to that beach where we found Crabbe,” Harry said firmly.

“Why? What’s there?” Remus asked, perplexed.

“That’s where Professor Dumbledore and I went the night he died,” Harry said, swallowing heavily. “That’s where Voldemort originally placed the locket. I just have a feeling that it might need to be destroyed there.”

Remus’s eyes had flown open upon hearing Harry’s revelation. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Harry shook his head. “No, I need you to look into your sources. Ron, Hermione and Ginny will come with me.”

“Be careful, Harry,” Remus said, squeezing Harry’s shoulder.

“You, too,” Harry said, smiling tightly.

With a plan in his head, he shut the book firmly and went to look for his friends.

**–**–

Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny again Apparated to the spot Remus had brought them the last time. Their announcement that they were going out had startled Mrs. Weasley, and she’d wanted them to take an escort, but she’d relented under Mr. Weasley’s reassurances. The teens hadn’t been specific about their destination, and if Mrs. Weasley had any hunches, she didn’t share them.

When they arrived on the shore, a cold, gusty wind was blowing off the sea. It reminded Harry of the trip to Azkaban, and he shivered, steeling his shoulders against it. He could hear the distant clang of a lighthouse buoy ringing in the wind. The four teens could see firelight burning in the distance, and they crouched down low as they approached it.

Crabbe was still there and still using the fire to keep warm. Harry couldn’t blame him — the wind off the water was bitterly cold.

“The entrance to the cave is below, and it’s a steep climb down,” Harry whispered. “I’m going to Disillusion us all. Just keep your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you, and I’ll lead you to the spot where we have to go down. We’re going to have to walk fairly close in

order to get there, but once we’re at the bottom, we shouldn’t have to worry about Crabbe seeing us.”

“Why don’t we just Stun him, then we can revive him when we leave?” Ron asked.

“Then he’ll report to Voldemort that someone Stunned him, and he’ll know we were here,” Hermione replied.

“Right,” Harry said, nodding. “As of now, I think we got the cup undetected, so he doesn’t know we’re onto him. I’d like to keep it that way, if possible.”

Harry cast the spell on each of his friends and finally himself. He walked slowly and carefully along the beach and towards the cliff. His heart pounded in his chest, and he could taste the tangy, metallic taste in his mouth from an adrenaline rush. He was close enough to Crabbe to hear the man’s breathing. Crabbe sat on the rocks reading a tattered copy of the Daily Prophet. He really wasn’t much of a guard, but it had to get boring staying here day after day.

Harry reached the cliff and began the treacherous climb downward. Although he couldn’t see his friends, he could hear their breathing behind him. Ron cursed under his breath several times as the girls loosened rocks above him. Harry was below Ron, so he got hit with the additional rocks Ron was jarring loose in trying to avoid the other stones.

“Ron! Be still,” Harry hissed in exasperation after a particularly sharp rock bounced off his temple.

“Oh. Sorry, Harry,” Ron said, finally realizing he’d been raining debris down upon Harry’s head.

Harry finally reached the slippery rocks below. The tide was low, and the smell of decaying sea life was nearly overpowering. But thanks to the lower water line, more of the jetty was exposed than on his previous visit, and the rocks were much less slippery.

Hermione spoke, causing him to startle. “Where do we go next?”

Harry removed the Disillusionment charms and pointed toward the fissure in the rocks where he’d traveled once with Professor Dumbledore. “We have to swim over there,” he said.

“Swim?” Ron asked, staring at the water reluctantly. “It’ll be bloody freezing.”

Hermione, who appeared just as displeased, patted his arm bracingly. “Don’t worry, Ron. We’ll dry ourselves off and cast warming charms straightaway.”

They both stared at the water, taking deep breaths and preparing to jump. Ginny rolled her eyes and pushed them out of the way. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. The sooner we do it, the sooner it will be over,” she said, jumping straight into the chilly waves. Her head bobbed up quickly, and she brushed her newly shortened hair out of her eyes.

“It’s an eye opener,” she said, her teeth chattering as she began a graceful crawl stroke toward the fissure.

Harry jumped in after her and heard the splashes indicating that Ron and Hermione had followed. He was grateful for the splashing of the waves against the rocks, for he was certain it would muffle any additional splashes they made from Crabbe.

Harry quickly overtook Ginny as he led them to the tunnel in the rock and felt his fingers scrape against the seaweed-covered rock. His limbs felt numb by the time he’d reached the larger cave and heaved his body out of the water. His heavy winter clothing was drenched and made moving difficult.

He helped a shivering Ginny from the water, then turned to assist Hermione, and finally Ron.

“Bloody hell,” Ron said, shaking violently.

Businesslike as always, Hermione demanded that he stand still as she cast charms to dry his clothing.

The hair on the back of Harry’s neck prickled in warning, and he glanced around uneasily. Still shaking from the chill, his hand shot out, grasping Hermione’s wand before she could cast the drying spell on her own sodden clothes.

“Harry, what-”

“Shh,” Harry said, glancing around warily. “No more magic until we’re inside.”

“What’s the matter?” Ginny asked, rubbing her hands along her arms, trying to warm them.

“I don’t know,” Harry said, still looking around. “I’m worried Voldemort might have done something to warn him if magic is performed here — something like the Ministry uses. I don’t think it’ll work inside because there are so many spells in place already, but out here… Just hang on a few more minutes, okay?”

Hermione nodded, her eyes wide and fearful as she peered around each rock.

They waited several minutes, wands at the ready, to see if anyone would come. Eventually, Harry felt reassured that it had been his imagination. With the tension easing, the discomfort of being cold and wet returned with a vengeance.

He moved as quickly as he could towards the stone wall, trying to feel that now-familiar hum. He was again shivering so violently that he couldn’t be sure of what he felt. Removing a knife from his belt, he quickly cut a thin slice along his arm.

“What are you doing?” Ginny shrieked, pulling the knife away from his bleeding arm.

“It needs a sacrifice,” Harry said, hissing in pain as Ginny pulled the knife too quickly.

He let a few droplets of blood fall from his cut and smeared them along the wall of the cave. The bright white light of the archway flickered and formed the entrance. When the bloodstained wall disappeared, Harry quickly stepped through, beckoning the others to follow behind him. Ginny, Ron, and Hermione had all been stunned speechless, and they followed him with wide, wary eyes into the pitch-black darkness.

Once inside, Harry quickly healed the cut on his arm and dried his clothing while Hermione did the same for herself and Ginny.

“This is where you came that night,” Ron said, his voice unnaturally loud in the stillness.

“Yeah,” Harry said, grimacing as he looked at the motionless black lake. He was interested to see that its center still glowed eerily green. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water, or we’ll have to deal with the Inferi sooner than expected.”

“I don’t want to deal with them at all,” Ron said, shuddering as he looked at the lake. He had his arm wrapped around Hermione’s shoulders, and he pulled her closer.

“Me, either,” Harry said. Despite all the other horrors he’d seen thus far, there was just something about the Inferi that made his skin crawl. “I need to get out to that little island in the middle of the lake to try and destroy the locket. You’ll need to keep watch in case Crabbe comes in here. I don’t know if he regularly checks within the cave or not, but if he does, he’s certain to notice the arch has been opened. You’ll have to detain him.”

Hermione adamantly shook her head. “You’re not going alone, Harry. We’re all going to do this together this time.”

“We can’t,” Harry said flatly, his eyes already seeking out the spot where Dumbledore had summoned the boat. “The boat won’t hold us all; it’s too small.”

“You went with Dumbledore,” Ginny said. “It must be big enough to hold two, anyway.”

Harry shook his head. “Only because my magic didn’t register since I was underage and unqualified. Dumbledore said it’s not the weight that matters, but the magical power.”

“Technically, you’re still unqualified; we all are,” Hermione said.

“Do you want to take that chance by all of us getting into that boat and perhaps stirring up those Inferi if it doesn’t work?” Harry asked, frowning.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ginny replied, shrugging. “I can go with you. I’m underage, remember?”

It irritated him that his own reasoning for not wanting to take Ginny along in the first place kept coming back to bite him. Still, leaving her on the shore with Ron and Hermione didn’t mean she was any safer than if she came with him if those Inferi decided to attack.

“Okay,” he said. “Ginny and I will go out to the middle, Ron and Hermione, you’ll keep guard.”

“Why can’t you just destroy it here?” Ron asked, obviously uneasy with the decision.

Harry pulled the locket from his pocket and stared at it for a moment. Finally, he shrugged and said, “Something tells me it has to be destroyed out there. I just feel it. The Basilisk’s fang helped to destroy the diary. The dragon’s fire helped to destroy the cup. Something tells me that potion is needed to destroy the locket. It has to be done out there.”

“I don’t like this, Harry,” Hermione said, wringing her hands.

“I don’t either, but the quicker we get on with it, the quicker we can get out of here,” he replied, taking Ginny’s hand and leading her away

“Be careful,” Ron said, watching them walk.

Harry stopped, turned back and solemnly nodded. This place had started Dumbledore’s downfall, and he’d been the most powerful wizard of all. There was no guarantee here for any of them.

“You be careful, too. Watch out for each other. The archway should reseal on its own, although I don’t know how long it’ll take. Just stay alert. Once we destroy this thing, I have no idea what the Inferi will do.”

Hermione let go of Ron’s hand and sprinted towards them. She hugged Harry and then Ginny. “We can cover you here. Just be careful out there, and come back quickly.”

Harry nodded and tugged Ginny’s hand. They gingerly walked along the water’s edge until they’d reached the spot where he remembered Dumbledore had found the boat the last time.

Taking a deep breath, he shut his eyes and let his other senses heighten. He could hear Ginny’s rapid breathing and knew she was frightened even though she hadn’t shown it. He could smell the ocean and thought he could nearly taste the salt on his lips. Reaching out his hand, he waved in the air, seeking the cord to release the boat. It took several moments, but Ginny remained still and finally, Harry could hear that distant hum and felt warmth spread up his arm.

He tugged on the invisible cord, and the small boat was lowered in front of them. Ginny gasped as the chains set it in the water.

“I can’t believe you and Dumbledore both fit in this,” Ginny said, her voice trembling.

“It was a tight fit,” Harry said thickly. A painful lump had formed in the back of his throat, making speech difficult. He took Ginny’s hand and caressed it with his thumb as he led her towards the boat.

He climbed in first, steadying it before he spread his legs wide and allowed her room to settle between them, leaning her back against his chest. He could feel her slight body trembling and suspected it had nothing to do with the chill.

“Just keep your hands inside and never touch the water,” he whispered. “Everything will be all right.”

The boat began its trek across the eerily still black water. Harry kept his wand lit, but tried not to look too closely in the water, knowing what he would find.

“Don’t worry about me, Harry. It’s rather frightening, but I’m okay. I always feel okay when I’m with you,” Ginny said, resting her head back on his shoulder.

Her words were eerily familiar and reminded him of something Dumbledore had said that night. He shuddered and pulled her to him as the boat glided ever closer to the glowing green light. By the time they reached the small circle of rock that held the chalice, Ron and Hermione weren’t even visible. Only the two small pinpricks of light from their wands let Harry know where they were.

He and Ginny got out of the boat and moved swiftly towards the chalice. Harry was surprised to see it had been refilled. He supposed it made sense. Regulus must have once emptied it to retrieve the locket, and it had been refilled for Harry’s and Dumbledore’s arrival.

He removed the Horcrux from his pocket and stared at it, wondering what he should do next. Some of his recent decisions had been made as if he’d taken an incorrectly brewed Felix Felicis potion. He would know exactly what he had to do, but once he made the first step, the rest of the plan deserted him. Still, things could be worse. After all, he did have the Horcrux; he just needed to destroy it.

I can do this.

As Harry approached the chalice, he could feel Ginny’s eyes on the back of his neck. He appreciated her silence while he worked out this puzzle.

Suddenly, sound and light erupted from across the lake. Harry could recognize spells volleying back and forth, and he knew Ron and Hermione were in trouble. They’d been discovered.

“Ron and Hermione,” Ginny said, her face growing even paler than it already was. “That looks like more than just Crabbe they’re battling, Harry. He must have called for reinforcements.”

Harry felt panic rise in his chest. He didn’t know how many Death Eaters Ron and Hermione were up against, but it was obviously more than one. Could they hold them off until he and Ginny could get there, and

what would happen to the Horcrux if they were captured? He had to destroy it first, but how could he not help Ron and Hermione?

His decision was made for him when the lake around their rock island began to churn. Skeletal white hands, arms and skulls began rising from the lake. Ginny screamed as one brushed its hand against her leg. She moved closer to him, bracing her back against his so they could cover each other.

In the battle across the lake, someone had obviously touched the water.

The Inferi rose from the lake, their blank sightless eyes staring straight ahead as they jerkily reached for their prey.

Harry gulped as he watched them surround Ginny and him. There were so many of them. Things had just got a whole lot worse.

Chapter Sixteen

Chaos

Harry and Ginny stood back to back, brandishing their wands at the Inferi that were closing in on all sides. The water in the lake around them bubbled and churned as countless white heads broke the surface. Dead, vacant eyes stared out of sunken sockets, as more and more of the Inferi dragged themselves from the water. Harry could feel Ginny’s legs trembling against his and wished he could offer her some kind of reassurance.

Ginny screamed as an Inferius clamped its claw-like hand around her wrist and began dragging her towards the water.

“Incendio,” Harry shouted, causing a burst of flame to erupt from his wand. The Inferius immediately let go of Ginny and shrank from the flame. Ginny pulled her arm close to her body, backing up several steps as she did.

Harry waved his wand and created a ring of fire around Ginny and himself. The Inferi cowered and shuffled back towards the water, shielding their faces as they fled from the bright, hot flames.

“They’re afraid of the light,” Harry shouted over the roar of the fire.

She nodded, warily watching the Inferi. “We can’t stay inside here forever though, Harry. How are we going to get rid of them?” she asked.

She was right. Harry’s ring of flame had already begun to flicker and burn out. Several of the bolder Inferi pivoted and moved back towards them. Harry began to inch closer to Ginny but slipped as an icy hand grabbed his ankle and began tugging him toward the edge of the rock. He landed hard on his side, dropping the Horcrux in the process. It skidded away from him, landing near the bottom of the chalice. He jerked his foot away and scrambled back from the edge.

“Harry!” Ginny called, grabbing his shoulder. “Incendio,” she cried as another Inferius tried to grab him.

He could hear shouts and cries coming from the shore and knew the Inferi must have emerged from the water on that side of the lake, too. Judging from the sound of the screaming, the Inferi were indiscriminate in choosing their victims.

Harry stretched his arm and grabbed the locket just as a bony white hand reached out and grasped it, too. He felt a burst of icy cold energy emanate from the locket, traveling up his arm and momentarily freezing it. He dropped the locket in surprise, watching as the Inferius did the same. The Inferius’ arm hung uselessly by his side, dangling as if it was no longer part of his body. Without another glance towards Harry, he turned and crawled back into the water like a wounded animal.

“Harry, get up,” Ginny screeched, her eyes wild. He turned to see her brandishing her wand like some sort of Muggle machine gun. Bursts of flame shot out of it, as she aimed at anything near her that so much as moved. If the situation hadn’t been so dire, he would have laughed at her Rambo imitation, knowing she’d have no clue who Rambo was.

“Ginny, start moving back toward the boat,” Harry shouted, creating a wall of flame on the other side of the chalice. It at least cut the number of Inferi that could reach them in half.

“What about the locket?” Ginny asked.

“Trust me. We’ve got to get in the boat,” Harry said, urging her back as he kicked away another hand.

“But the boat’s made of wood. We won’t be able to use fire to keep them away from us,” Ginny said, glancing at him as if he’d gone mad.

Harry, who was desperately struggling to keep his limbs out of reach of the grasping Inferi, gritted his teeth. “Can we argue about this later, Ginny? Just get in the boat.”

“Fine,” Ginny snapped, sounding extremely put out. “Reducto,” she said, sending a particularly bold Inferius flying through the air and back into the water with a splash.

Once she’d reached the boat, Harry snuffed the flame wall and bolted back towards her. He leaped over several of the Inferi and scrambled inside next to her.

“What now?” Ginny asked, crouching low as a long white arm reached for her. “Petrificus Totalis.”

Once inside the boat, not only couldn’t they conjure fire, but they also couldn’t use any slicing or bludgeoning spells for fear of destroying the craft. The boat began to shift and rock as the Inferi returned to the water.

Harry could hear hands scraping along the bottom of the boat, and it began to tilt as several of the creatures tried to hoist themselves up on the side.

“Harry!” Ginny shouted, panicked. She grasped the side to try and steady it.

Harry removed the locket from his pocket, grasping the chain and holding it open like a noose. He’d only have one chance, and if he missed the locket would drop to the bottom of the lake. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to find it before being drowned by all the Inferi.

An Inferius gave the boat a nasty jolt, sending Ginny sprawling into Harry and nearly knocking him over the side. Harry tried to regain his balance and pull out from under Ginny but it was no use. There were too many of them, and the boat couldn’t support the weight. It leaned to the side and began to turn.

Both he and Ginny tried to push their bodies to the other side to rock it back, but it was hopeless. The Inferi kept pulling until the boat flipped over, sending both Harry and Ginny splashing into the black water.

Harry kicked hard, bringing his body back to the surface. He gripped the locket so tightly in his hand it made an imprint on his skin. The water felt slimy and alive. Harry didn’t even want to think about what else could be swimming in its depths. He gasped as he reached for the overturned boat.

A hand clutched his ankle beneath the cold water, pulling him down. He kicked, attempting to get away. He could see Ginny struggling not far from him.

“Ginny!” he gasped as her head went under. He reached out and grabbed her arm, tugging with all his strength. When she surfaced, he pulled her away from her captor and pushed her towards the boat.

“Hang on,” he said, giving her a boost so she could cling to the capsized underbelly. The Inferi kept trying to pull him under, but he continued to fight. Finally, when an Inferius was close enough for Harry to reach, he slammed the chain of the locket around the creature’s neck.

The Inferius threw his head back, writhing in a silent scream, twisting his body as if in agony. The amulet glowed a sinister red reminiscent of Voldemort’s eyes. As the Inferius sank back beneath the water, Harry aimed his wand at the locket.

“Apertum,” he cried. The locket sprang open. Suddenly, an unearthly scream filled the air as the inside of the locket exploded in a cacophony of color and light. Harry felt the wave of heat rushing towards him, and he flung his body over Ginny, feeling the blistering heat scorch his back.

For a moment, neither of them moved. They clung to the bottom of the upturned rowboat, breathing heavily and waiting for the next blow to fall.

“Are you all right?” Ginny asked, her voice muffled by Harry’s weight.

His back felt as if he’s spent too long in the sun, but otherwise was all right. He shifted his weight off Ginny and carefully raised his head. A sobering sight met his eyes: bodies lay everywhere. They were sprawled over the rock island, and floating aimlessly in the water. They were just that, however — bodies — no sign of animation remained.

“What happened?” Ginny whispered, horrorstruck. She shifted closer to Harry and buried her face in his shoulder so she was only half looking at the grotesque sight.

“I don’t know,” Harry whispered, stunned. “I think the sliver of Voldemort’s soul reacted negatively with the cold death of the Inferi. I noticed it when one of them touched the locket. Voldemort does have an unnatural fear of death.”

“What do we do now? We have to get back to the shore, but I’m not certain we can flip this boat back over — and I really don’t want to get back in that water,” Ginny said, her voice cracking slightly.

Harry shuddered, his drenched clothing now suddenly feeling very heavy and cold.

The boat jerked and suddenly began traveling across the water, back in the direction they’d come. Harry and Ginny clung to the bottom, their fingers aching as they tried to wriggle out of the water as much as possible. As they moved, they hit many floating corpses, causing the boat to rock and tilt. Ginny buried her face in Harry’s chest and clung, as he held her close, keeping his gaze fixed firmly above the water. The darkness and silence of the shore where they’d left Ron and Hermione caused Harry’s chest to constrict tightly. He prayed his friends had managed to subdue any Death Eaters and still managed to escape the Inferi.

The boat moved at a good clip, but it felt torturously slow to Harry, whose only thought was to get to the edge and aid his friends. He strained his eyes to see what was happening, but it was useless. The darkness was impenetrable.

**–**–

When they reached the edge of the lake, Harry slid off the boat into the knee-deep water and lifted Ginny onto the shore. They grasped hands and sprinted towards the archway.

As they moved closer, they slowed and crouched low so as not to be seen. Several corpses were sprawled on the beach, and Harry thought he recognized the unmoving form of Crabbe lying half in the water.

A mewling sound caught his attention, and he quickly moved towards the now-sealed archway. Ron stood towering above a crouching Wormtail, who huddled against the stone, his hands outstretched and pleading. The sleeve of Ron’s jacket was bloody and torn, and the expression on his face held such rage that Harry was surprised Wormtail was still alive.

Hermione knelt beside Wormtail, ensuring the ropes binding his hands were secure. She, too, appeared battered and bloodied but wore a hardened expression upon her face.

“Ron! Hermione!” Harry shouted, relief washing over him.

“Oh! You’re all right,” Hermione cried, leaping up and flinging her arms around Harry’s neck. She let go and did the same to Ginny. “We were so worried. We couldn’t see what happened to you.”

“The Inferi happened,” Harry said grimly.

“Yeah. After you left, Crabbe and a few more of his goons burst through the archway,” Ron replied, keeping his eyes fixed on the cowering Wormtail. “Fortunately, it sealed again after only a handful of them entered. Wormtail here tried to back away from the fighting and stepped right into the lake, unleashing the Inferi. He ran away, but his mates weren’t so lucky.”

“It was awful,” Hermione said, her lip quivering. “Those things just dragged the other two men right under the water. Ron and I managed to conceal ourselves behind the rocks, but they stood right on the shore.”

“We reckoned we were done for when all of a sudden we saw that big explosion over the water, then they all just collapsed. What happened?” Ron asked.

“I destroyed the Horcrux, and it somehow destroyed the Inferi. They were connected to it somehow, like the dragon was to the cup. It makes me wonder if the Basilisk in the Chamber would have died if I’d just stabbed the diary first,” Harry said, shrugging.

“We caught Wormtail trying to get the archway to reopen, so Hermione conjured the rope. I say we take him back to headquarters on the full moon and let Remus have a go,” Ron said, nodding towards Wormtail.

“We’ve still got a problem though,” Hermione said. “There are other Death Eaters outside, and I’m certain they’ll be waiting for us.”

“Can we Apparate from right here?” Ginny asked.

Harry shook his head. “Don’t even try. I’m certain Voldemort would have thought of that and not wanted any victim to be able to get away from the Inferi. It either wouldn’t work, or you’d end up horribly splinched.”

“Great, I suppose we could just use him as a hostage,” Ron said, nodding towards Wormtail.

“They won’t care,” Harry replied, shaking his head. “We’re going to have to fight our way out. We just have to reach the opening of the cave and get back on the rocks. We can Apparate right from there. That’s what I did with Professor Dumbledore.”

“It’s getting there that’ll be the hard part,” Ginny said, taking a deep breath as if steeling herself for what was to come.

“How many of them are there?” Harry asked. “Did you get a good look?”

Hermione shook her head. “I didn’t get a chance to count, but I’d say maybe half a dozen.” She bit her lip while looking directly at Harry. “Harry, there’s one more thing.”

“What’s that?” Harry asked, knowing he wouldn’t like the answer.

“Snape was leading them,” Ron spat.

Harry set his mouth in a grim line. A cold fury clenched at his heart whenever he heard the name of his former Potions Professor mentioned. The idea that he was here now — just outside the archway — filled Harry with a burning desire for revenge.

“Harry,” Hermione said, holding up her arms. “Don’t do anything stupid. You’ve destroyed the Horcrux, but there is still one more to find. We need to get out of here as quickly as possible. It’s the other Horcrux that matters now, not Professor Snape.”

Harry remembered the night he’d chased Snape across the Hogwarts’ grounds, feeling such rage and fury. He’d wanted nothing more than to take Snape’s life in return for the life Snape had just taken from Harry. He hadn’t cared about anything else, not the prophecy, not Voldemort, not anything; he’d only wanted revenge.

Now that some time had passed, he still felt that boiling anger toward his former Potions master, but he was calm enough to realize that he did have a job to do. Still, he wasn’t about to let Snape get away again if he could help it.

“I’m not going to do anything stupid, Hermione,” Harry said, his voice deadly calm. “But if I can get him, I’m going to do it.”

“Never mind Snape,” Ginny snapped, grabbing his arm and spinning him towards her. “There’s no guarantee that Voldemort isn’t out there by now.”

Harry’s eyes widened. Ginny was right. The reason Voldemort had assigned Wormtail, Crabbe, and the others to this task was because they weren’t bright enough to ask questions. Why, then, was Snape here at all? Voldemort would want to deal with anyone near his precious Horcruxes, personally.

Even if it weren’t for the fact one Horcrux remained unaccounted for, Harry didn’t feel ready to face Voldemort. He’d thought there would be more time — time to plan and strategize and to get his things in order — time to say goodbye.

“Ginny’s right,” Hermione said, her eyes widening. “Harry, what if Voldemort is out there?”

“Did you see him before the archway closed?” Harry asked, his eyes scanning the solid wall covering the arch.

“I don’t know,” Ron said, beginning to sound panicked. “I was focused on Snape. I didn’t pay attention to any of the others.”

Harry shook his head. “If Voldemort was there, you’d know. He’s unmistakable,” he said grimly.

“It doesn’t mean he couldn’t have arrived since the arch closed,” Hermione said.

“This is what we’re going to do. When I open that arch, I want everyone to stand clear just in case they cast spells first. If they do, we at least have better cover here. If not, we need to stick together and get out as fast as possible. Once you’re outside the perimeter of the cave, Apparate to headquarters. I’ll take Wormtail with me,” Harry replied.

Wormtail looked up at him fearfully. “Harry, what do you need with me? You know how this has to end. You’re both going to die,” he said, his voice dripping with false sorrow.

“Not until I’m ready,” Harry replied, “and you’re going to be my shield when I walk out that door.”

“What?” Wormtail asked, his face blanching.

“What’s the matter, Wormtail? You don’t trust your new friends not to sacrifice you? You should have stuck with your old ones, then. They never would have betrayed you,” Harry said, roughly dragging Wormtail to his feet.

He quickly cast a Silencing Charm so that Wormtail wouldn’t get the opportunity to give them away. He was about to slice his arm in order to open the archway when Ron stopped him.

“Harry, don’t! Crabbe got me with a Slicing Curse when they first entered, and my arm’s still bleeding. I’ll do it.”

Harry nodded. Pulling Wormtail to one side, he watched as Ron smeared his blood onto the stone. The white light around the archway shimmered for a moment before illuminating fully. The solid stone once again disappeared, leaving the arch open.

They weren’t immediately ambushed, although Harry could hear voices arguing ahead. He was startled when water began rushing through the now open archway. The tide was rising, and the floor of the outer cave was filling.

Shoving Wormtail ahead of him and holding his wand firmly, Harry moved through the arch. The moonlight outside illuminated the front of the cave where Snape stood with at least four other Death Eaters. The back of the cave was darker and allowed Harry and the others to remain hidden in the shadows.

Unmasked, Snape was arguing contemptuously with another Death Eater. Although the smaller figure remained hidden beneath her mask, the voice of Bellatrix Lestrange was unmistakable.

Harry felt a boiling anger rise in his heart. This was his chance to finally battle two of the people who’d each taken someone precious to him. He clenched his wand so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. Although the rage was

still there, he knew he had to be careful this time. He needed to plan this and not simply react to it, or all hope would be lost.

Harry moved into the interior of the cave, pushing Wormtail ahead of him with his wand. The floor was damp and slippery as rivulets of water rushed over his feet, pushed by the incoming tide. He could feel the water quickly soak through his trainers and hoped the squelching sound wouldn’t give them all away. He didn’t want to chance voicing a drying spell.

There was no way to get past Snape and the others unnoticed, but Harry hoped the element of surprise would be on their side.

Wormtail ruined that chance by stomping his foot, causing a loud splash that echoed throughout the chamber. The Death Eaters turned, surprised, before they began firing an assortment of spells.

Harry yanked Wormtail in front of him and slammed him into the wall. He aimed his wand at the nearest Death Eater, who was striding towards him with a malevolent expression on his haggard face, and fired a Stinging Hex straight at the man’s eyes. The Death Eater yelped, slapping his hand over his eye as he began to hop around madly. Harry quickly cast a Stunning spell, dropping him to the ground.

He scanned the cave, taking note of their escape route. He could now count a total of five Death Eaters, including the one he’d just Stunned. Ginny and Hermione were each engaged with other Death Eaters and from what Harry could see, they were doing a fair job of it. His eyes stopped moving when they locked on Snape’s cold black ones.

Snape scowled as he strode into the cave, his cape billowing behind him. “Potter,” he said, sneering. “I might have known it would be you. You’ve always tended to stick your nose where it didn’t belong.”

“And I might have known it’d be you that Voldemort sent to do his dirty work. How does it feel to still be the lackey, Snivellus?” Harry asked through gritted teeth.

Snape’s face screwed up with hate and rage. Raising his wand, he fired several curses in rapid succession. Thanks to his quick Quidditch reflexes, Harry managed to dodge most of them, and he raised a shield in time to block the last one. Wormtail tried to move away from him during this distraction, but Harry’s arm shot out and forced the cowering little man against the cave wall.

“Petrificus Totalis,” Harry snarled, freezing Wormtail where he stood.

“It appears that you’ve yet to learn your lesson about snooping into other people’s private affairs, Potter,” Snape said, his eyes glittering maliciously. “You’re no better than your poor excuse for a father. He never managed to learn his place, either. Of course, we all know where that left him.”

Snarling, Harry allowed his hatred to build as he cast the strongest Bludgeoning Hex he could master. Snape ducked and rolled to the side, but the spell hit another Death Eater who had just entered the cave

behind them. The man screamed in agony as his body was hurled through the air and plunged into the sea below.

Ignoring the interruption, Harry again tried to curse Snape. He first fired a Stunner and then a Cutting Spell as his anger grew. Snape continued to evade Harry’s curses, easily anticipating Harry’s every move.

“Sectumsempra,” Harry bellowed, but still Snape cast his shield in time.

“You’ll never be a true match for me until you learn to close off your mind, Potter. Obviously you’re not disciplined enough to do this,” Snape said, sneering. “Diffindo.”

Harry rolled to the side. His frustration mounted as his curses continued to be deflected. He heard a yelp and turned to see Ginny casting her Bat Bogey Hex at the Death Eater who’d cornered her. In that brief moment of distraction, Snape cast a spell that left a deep gash on Harry’s shoulder. It felt like an invisible whip coiling around his arm, pulling his wand hand forward.

Harry quickly grabbed his wand in his other hand and moved behind a rock, taking cover. Panting with exertion, he could hear the sound of spells being cast around him and knew the others were still on their feet.

He rounded the rock in time to see Snape attempting to move towards him.

“Relashio,” he shouted, sending an array of sparks towards Snape and forcing him to retreat. Harry fired a volley of spells as he slowly began to move forward. Snape managed to deflect the curses, but he was forced to take cover himself.

In the meantime, Hermione had managed to subdue her assailant. She ran towards Harry and crouched beside him, quickly casting a Healing Charm on his shoulder.

“Hermione, take Wormtail. There’s enough of an opening that you can get past if I keep Snape busy,” Harry said in a hushed whisper.

“Harry-”

“Just do it, Hermione,” he snapped, determined that they were taking Wormtail with them. “Sirius is going to finally be cleared for what Wormtail did, so help me.”

“Okay, Harry,” she said, nodding resolutely.

Hermione removed the spell from Wormtail and, using her wand, made him walk in front of her as a shield. Snape had no problem firing at Wormtail, however, and he Stunned him before aiming at Hermione.

“Stupefy,” Harry shouted, diverting Snape’s attention.

“Always playing the hero, aren’t you, Potter? You’re just as arrogant as your father, and you’re bound to meet the same end,” Snape said silkily. The contempt shone from his black eyes as he advanced on Harry.

“You’re not half the man my father was, and never will be. That’s where all this bitterness really comes from, isn’t it, Snape? You know you’ll never be as good. You’ve got a bit of an inferiority complex, I think,” Harry said, pleased with the flash of anger that showed on Snape’s face.

“Sectumsempra,” Snape hissed. The intensity of curses Snape fired at Harry intensified, and Harry knew he’d struck a nerve.

“Your inability to shield your mind will be your downfall, Potter. Your frustration is making you sloppy, and the Dark Lord will have an easy time of it with you,” Snape said, sneering. Harry could tell that Snape was enjoying the anticipation of that final confrontation.

“I don’t know,” Harry replied, panting. “He’s certainly made the effort, but hasn’t had much luck, yet.”

“Don’t mistake your good fortune for any measure of skill or talent,” Snape spat.

“Dumbledore gave you everything. He gave you a chance and believed in you when no one else ever thought you were worth the effort, and you betrayed him,” Harry said, sending a Blasting Hex Snape’s way.

Snape blocked it. “I gave him the best years of my life,” he said, snarling. “He wasted my talents by leaving me to child mind a bunch of sniveling idiots. I should have been so much more. I was the hero of the first war, but you got all the glory, and then I was expected to protect you. The Chosen One! If you are the only hope of the wizarding world, Potter, it wasn’t difficult to see which side would win. There’s no one left to protect you now.”

Overwhelmed with rage and frustration, Harry let loose a series of curses at the advancing Snape, but Snape remained one step ahead of him, able to deftly read Harry’s thoughts and plan his counter curses.

Harry stumbled and fell backwards, watching as Snape advanced toward him. His face was screwed up in an expression of intense loathing, and Harry was left without a doubt that Snape wanted to humiliate him and make him suffer simply for who he was. But Harry also realized his advantage. Snape wouldn’t truly do anything to harm him — he was still following Voldemort’s orders.

“That’s right, Potter. The Dark Lord wants the pleasure of killing you himself, but that doesn’t mean he’ll mind if I toy with you beforehand,” Snape said, answering Harry’s unspoken thoughts. “That’s the way your dear dead father liked to do things, after all. He never fought without his little gang backing him up and doing the dirty work for him. Never once did he face me in a fair fight. Oh, no, he was much too cowardly for that.”

Harry had heard enough. He’d had to fight his way away from bullies long before he’d ever learned to use a wand. In one smooth motion, he leaped to his feet, lunged forward, and delivered a strong right hook to his former Potion master’s jaw. He felt several of Snape’s teeth loosen on impact.

Barely registering the surprise on Snape’s face, Harry let his fists fly. He may have been born a half-blood himself, but Snape obviously had forgotten his Muggle roots, as he was unprepared for the physical attack. Harry had repressed six years of insults and abuse from this man, and he now had an outlet for that anger.

Blood flew from Snape’s split lip as he crumpled against the wall.

“Not so smart-mouthed when it comes to Muggle dueling, are you, Snape?” Harry snarled. “You’re not so glib when your students can actually fight back.”

He was interrupted when a piercing cry ripped the still air. He jerked his head in time to see Bellatrix Lestrange holding a writhing Ron under the Cruciatus curse. Ron screams cleared the rage-induced fog from Harry’s brain. He moved away from Snape and rounded his wand on Lestrange. She managed to dodge several curses, all the while keeping Ron under the intense agony of her spell.

Hermione turned from the opening at the front of the cave and began moving back towards Ron.

“No!” Harry shouted. “Just go while you can.”

Ginny, who had joined Hermione at the cave’s opening, grasped the older girl firmly round the arm and pulled her away. She shoved a still-Stunned Wormtail into the water, and jumped in after him, holding firmly to Hermione.

Harry aimed his wand and put all his energy into a Stunning Spell. The red light hit Bellatrix squarely in the chest, and she crumpled to the ground in a heap.

Using his wand, Harry levitated an unconscious Ron in the air and hovered his limp body towards the opening. He released the spell and watched as his friend plummeted into the cold water below.

Snape stirred and from the corner of his eye, Harry saw him reach for his wand. Swearing, Harry kicked Snape’s hand hard, sending the wand clattering. He desperately wanted to grab Snape and bring him into custody, too, but he was more concerned about Ron drowning while still unconscious. He leapt over Snape while the man was still trying to retrieve his wand. Taking a running head start, he dove into the icy water, feeling all the breath leave his lungs with the shock of cold.

He resurfaced quickly and frantically searched for Ron. The redhead was lying face down in the water. Harry grasped his shoulder and pulled with all his might until they’d reached the rocks. He saw Snape emerge from the cave — his face bruised and bloodied yet still livid with rage — a moment before he side-along Apparated Ron away.

**–**–

He reappeared outside Grimmauld Place in time to see Remus and Mr. Weasley hurrying down the stairs behind Ginny. Hermione held her wand pointed steadily at a still-Stunned Wormtail.

“Ron!” she screamed, dropping her wand and scrambling towards them.

Harry gently lowered Ron to the ground, feeling panicked and short of breath. Ron had been under the Cruciatus for a very long time. He shook his head, attempting to dislodge the images of Neville’s parents that had crept into his thoughts.

“What happened to him?” Mr. Weasley asked, dropping to his knees beside his son and aiming his wand at Ron’s temple. “Ennervate.”

Ron didn’t respond.

“Bellatrix Lestrange held him under the Cruciatus. He lost consciousness before I could get her away from him,” Harry replied, his voice cracking.

“Ginny, go inside and have someone Floo Madam Pomfrey. Don’t wake your mother if you can avoid it; I’ll tell her myself,” Mr. Weasley said.

Ginny, pale and wide-eyed, nodded before sprinting inside.

“Ron, wake up,” Hermione said, tears causing clean streaks to cut through the grime on her face. “Are you listening to me, Ron? I need you to do this.”

Mr. Weasley patted Hermione on the back. “Move aside for a moment, Hermione, so I can take him inside.”

Harry moved to help Mr. Weasley lift Ron’s comatose body, but it proved unnecessary. Mr. Weasley gently levitated Ron inside. Hermione remained in the same spot, staring numbly at the ground where Ron had just been laying.

Harry wrapped his arm around her and tugged her to her feet. “Come on, Hermione. He’s going to be okay,” he whispered into her hair. The color and texture of her wig still surprised him at times.

Hermione turned and buried her face into Harry’s chest. “He has to be, Harry. I didn’t see it happen. I was so focused on getting Wormtail outside.”

“You caught him,” Remus said, speaking for the first time. His voice had a deadened, hollow quality to it that made the hair on Harry’s forearms stand on end.

Remus stood motionless above his former friend, an expression of mingled scorn, rage, and disgust displayed on his face. Using his foot, he pushed the unconscious figure onto his back and continued to stare.

“What are we going to do with him?” Harry asked nervously. Remus’s demeanor alarmed him, and he didn’t trust what his former professor might do.

“Take Hermione inside and check on Ron. I’ll keep an eye on him until we can get someone to take him to the Ministry. I’m not exactly welcomed there,” Remus said. The bitterness he usually hid so well sounded clearly in his voice.

“Remus,” Harry said, staring between his father’s old friend and the front door. He was saved having to make the choice between Remus and Ron when Mad-Eye Moody limped toward them.

“You got one. Good work, boy,” he said, gruffly.

“It’s Peter Pettigrew,” Harry said. “He needs to be taken into custody to prove Sirius’s innocence once and for all.”

Although Fudge had conceded that Sirius was innocent, he’d never made a formal declaration about the Ministry’s mistake. It had all been shoved under the rug when the news that Voldemort had, indeed, returned had come to light.

Sirius deserved better than that.

“I need to check on Ron,” Hermione said, sniffling. She began tugging on Harry’s arm to move him inside.

“Go on. Madam Pomfrey is with Ron now. It’ll be my pleasure to take care of him,” Moody said, roughly grabbing Wormtail by the collar of his robes.

Inside headquarters, Harry and Hermione found Ginny pacing outside a closed door off the entrance hall. She sprinted towards them and threw her arms about them both. Harry could feel her trembling and wrapped his arm tightly around her slight frame.

“How is he?” Hermione asked.

“I don’t know. Madam Pomfrey is checking him over now, but she kicked Dad and me out. Dad went upstairs to get Mum,” Ginny replied.

“Alastor took Peter to the Ministry,” Remus said quietly as he entered the room behind them. Harry thought he looked older than he’d ever seen him, even after a full moon. “How’s Ron?”

“We don’t know yet,” Ginny said, pulling closer to Harry.

“At least come and sit down,” Remus said, guiding Harry towards some chairs. Harry kept his arms wrapped around both girls as he led them away from the door. They had just sat down when Mrs. Weasley ran down the stairs, Mr. Weasley right on her heels.

“Ron! Where is he?” she demanded frantically. She wore a dressing gown that she hadn’t bothered to fasten, and her hair was tousled from sleep. She had a frantic expression in her eyes that reminded Harry of a wild animal.

Mr. Weasley led her to the closed door, and the two of them slipped inside. Hermione stood as if to follow, but instead began wringing her hands as she sat back down. Ginny reached across Harry and took one of Hermione’s hands in her own, squeezing it tightly.

Hermione turned her watery gaze on the younger girl and smiled tremulously. She took a deep breath, and Harry felt her relax beneath his arm.

“He’ll be okay,” she whispered. “He has to be; he’s Ron.”

They waited in silence for several moments, the air laden with tension. Remus sat in a chair across from the three teens, his eyes scanning each of them.

“Did you destroy it?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

“Yeah,” Harry said, nodding. “It’s done. We were ambushed though…by Snape and some others.”

“Severus was there?” Remus asked, looking up sharply.

“Yeah. It was curious though. Crabbe obviously called for back up when he realized we were there, but I would have expected Voldemort to be the one to show up. I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t,” Harry said, feeling that sense of uneasiness return.

“That is odd,” Remus said, rubbing his chin. “We haven’t had a report of any Death Eater activity so far this evening, although we rarely know anything in advance these days. How did Severus react when he saw you?”

“Sneered a lot, then started throwing curses,” Harry replied.

“He tried to curse you?” Remus asked, color rising to his cheeks.

“Yeah. I tried to curse him, too, but I didn’t do so well. He can read me like a book,” Harry said, clenching his fists. It was galling how easily Snape could predict him. If he couldn’t manage against Snape, how was he ever going to battle Voldemort?

“One step at a time, Harry,” Remus said, as if reading his thoughts.

“I can’t master Occlumency, Remus. If I can’t clear my mind, they’ll both always know which curse I’m about to use. How can I beat that?” he asked. “Even when I tried to shield my eyes, he still blocked me.”

“Then how did you get away?” Remus asked mildly.

“Luck,” Harry spat, disgusted. “I got so frustrated that I hauled off and punched him in the mouth. He wasn’t expecting that, and I don’t think he ever learned to fight the Muggle way.”

“So, you didn’t think about it, you simply reacted,” Remus said, rubbing his temple.

Harry shrugged. “I suppose.”

“That’s what you need against Voldemort then, isn’t it? The element of surprise,” Hermione said. Her eyes remained fixed on the closed door where Ron had been taken, but she’d obviously been paying close attention.

“How can I surprise him when he can read my thoughts?” Harry asked, exasperated.

“You just did it with Severus,” Remus replied.

“So…you’re saying I have to go up against Voldemort without a plan. Oh, that’s just great. At least it takes awhile to say Avada Kedavra, because that’s about how long I’ll last,” Harry said, flinging his back against the couch.

“No. We’re saying the plan has to be adaptable,” Hermione replied patiently.

“Besides, we still have to find the oth-”

“The next Horcrux,” Harry said, interrupting Ginny. He still didn’t want Remus to know that there was only one remaining to find.

Ginny’s eyes were wide and round. “Right. We don’t even have a place to begin looking for the next one,” she said, her voice wavering.

Remus’s eyebrows had risen slightly, but he remained silent.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t start making some plans,” Hermione said, immediately switching into revising mode. Images of her pre-OWL hysteria flashed through Harry’s mind. She was interrupted mid-stride when the door opened, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley exited. Madam Pomfrey, who was levitating an unconscious Ron, followed them closely.

“How is he?” Hermione asked, rushing over to lift Ron’s limp hand into her own.

“We’re taking him to St. Mungo’s,” Mrs. Weasley said, sniffling into a handkerchief.

Mr. Weasley wrapped his arm around her. “We’ll send word as soon as we know anything.”

“I want to go with you,” Hermione said, her eyes wild.

“We do, too,” Ginny added, while Harry nodded. They’d jumped up off the couch and stood behind Hermione. All three looked into Mr. Weasley’s face with pleading eyes.

“We’re wasting time,” Madam Pomfrey said briskly, disengaging Ron’s hand from Hermione’s grip. “He has some severe spell damage that needs immediate attention, and it’s more than I can do here. Let the Healers do their work, and you can see him afterwards.”

Using her wand, she levitated Ron toward the front door with Mrs. Weasley scurrying behind her.

“I give you my word that we’ll Floo you as soon as we know anything,” Mr. Weasley said, locking his eyes on each of the teens. He then raised his gaze to Remus.

Remus put his hands on Hermione’s and Ginny’s shoulders. “Why don’t I make some tea while we wait,” he said calmly. “We’re all worried, but we don’t want to create any distractions at St. Mungo’s. We want their attention focused on Ron.”

Harry knew Remus was right. Harry’s appearance at St. Mungo’s was bound to create a scene — just look what had happened when he’d been spotted in Diagon Alley. Helping Remus, he tugged both girls’ hands.

“Come on, Remus is right. We can visit St. Mungo’s as soon as they’ve got Ron awake,” he said, leading the girls away while Remus went to start a pot of tea.

The night dragged unmercifully slowly. Harry, Ginny, and Hermione sat with Remus in the drawing room drinking their tea. They each dozed on occasion, but mostly just stared at the clock on the mantle that seemed to tick abnormally loudly in the still house. Harry absently wondered what happened when Mad-Eye had arrived at the Ministry with Wormtail, but the ex-Auror hadn’t yet returned, and Harry’s thoughts were too focused on Ron to ask Remus to check.

Remus had given Hermione a large, steaming cup of tea, and Harry suspected he’d laced it with some sort of Calming Draught because Hermione had been far more relaxed after drinking it. She sat curled on a chair with a hand-knit afghan across her legs, staring at the rapidly dwindling wick of the candle in front of her.

Remus sat in the chair beside her, holding a book in his hand that he had yet to open. He tried several times to initiate a conversation, but after receiving only grunts and one-word answers in reply, he’d finally given up and lapsed into the tense silence.

Harry and Ginny sat side by side on the couch, their hands tightly clasped. Ginny was white-faced as she stared into the fire, chewing on her lip. Harry desperately tried not to think about the possibility of Ron suffering permanent spell damage. He knew he was doing a shoddy job of it by the way his hands shook, rattling his cup against the saucer when he’d tried to take a sip of tea.

He must have finally dozed at some point, because he was startled awake when Mrs. Weasley entered the drawing room and tried to disentangle him and Ginny.

Ginny groggily pushed at her mother’s hands and tried to burrow her face back into Harry’s jumper.

“Mrs. Weasley!” Harry said, becoming fully alert. “What happened? How’s Ron?”

Ginny, too, jumped up, her eyes opening wide while Hermione and Remus sat bolt upright in their chairs.

“He hasn’t regained consciousness yet. They’ve got him in the Spell Damage ward at St. Mungo’s,” Mrs. Weasley replied, worry lines heavy around her eyes and mouth. “I left Fred with him while I came back to check on you. I want you all upstairs and in bed, right now. None of you are going to St. Mungo’s until you have a kip. Has your father returned?”

“Dad? I thought he was with you,” Ginny said, furrowing her brow.

“He was until we got an urgent owl from Percy that he needed to return to the Ministry,” Mrs. Weasley replied, wringing her hands.

“Sit down, Molly,” Remus said, guiding her to the chair he’d just vacated. “Let me pour you a cup of herbal tea. You need to have a rest before returning to St. Mungo’s, as well.”

“Oh, Remus,” Mrs. Weasley cried tearfully. “He’s just so still. I can’t bear the thought that my Ronnie might never return to me.”

“He will, Molly. You have to believe that,” Remus said, pouring her some tea.

Hermione had visibly paled at Mrs. Weasley’s words and silently sank back onto the couch. Harry moved to sit next to her while Ginny walked over to her mum.

“Percy sent an Owl? What’s so important that he had to drag Dad away from the hospital?” she demanded hotly.

“You don’t want to know,” Mr. Weasley replied, entering the drawing room with Mad-Eye following. Both had tired, grim expressions on their faces that caused Harry’s stomach to churn with dread. He’d seen that look too many times in the past, and knew it didn’t bode well.

Mr. Weasley walked across the room and planted a kiss on Mrs. Weasley’s head. He sank down on the chair next to her and smiled weakly as Remus offered him a cup of tea.

“Thanks, Remus. How’s Ron?” he asked.

“There hasn’t been any change since you left. Fred is with him, and he said he’d call if Ron wakes. The Healers don’t expect him to for quite some time yet because of all the potions in his system. We won’t know anything for certain until he’s awake,” Mrs. Weasley said, her lower lip trembling.

Mr. Weasley shut his eyes tightly as he patted her on the shoulder.

“What happened at the Ministry, Dad? What did Percy say?” Ginny asked. Her face was exceedingly pale, making her freckles stand out starkly. She sounded young and frightened, despite the determined cast of her chin.

Mr. Weasley sighed heavily and lifted his other arm, allowing his daughter to slide under. He pulled Ginny in close and kissed the crown of her head.

“The Ministry is in chaos,” he sighed wearily.

“Why? What happened?” Harry asked, his eyes volleying between Mr. Weasley and Moody, who remained with his back in the doorway. He had his arms folded across his chest as he stood scowling at everyone in general.

“Rufus Scrimgeour is dead,” Mr. Weasley said quietly.

“What?” Ginny asked, blinking.

“Murdered,” Moody said gruffly. “The Dark Mark was seen hanging above his home late last night. Rumor has it that You-Know-Who himself was the one who did it.”

Harry and Remus exchanged a meaningful glance.

“The Ministry is in chaos. They’re trying to keep it quiet at the moment so as not to create a panic, but I fear the Prophet already knows. I suspect it will be the morning’s headline,” Mr. Weasley said.

“Panic?” Ginny repeated numbly.

“If You-Know-Who can get to the Minister of Magic that easily, no one is safe, and nothing the Ministry can say will convince them that they are,” Mr. Weasley said, gently running his hand along Ginny’s cheek.

“Well, they aren’t,” Harry replied.

“I know that, Harry, and anyone who has been following this situation reasonably knows that, as well, but people like to fool themselves into believing someone else is in charge. That someone else is handling things. Now, the person they’d hoped was handling it has been murdered. I fear this is going to put more pressure on you, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said.

“I don’t care about that,” Harry replied.

“You should,” Moody said harshly. “You don’t need any additional attention right now.”

That was true; he certainly didn’t want to be under any more of a microscope than he usually was while he searched for the remaining Horcrux.

“There’s more,” Mr. Weasley said, rubbing the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “And you’re really not going to like it.”

“What’s that?” Remus asked, his grip on Harry’s shoulder tightening.

“The Wizengamot had to appoint an acting Minister until we can arrange an election,” Mr. Weasley said, his body stiffening.

“Yes,” Remus replied. “That’s standard protocol.”

“The atmosphere at the Ministry right now is tense and fearful. Everyone is looking over their shoulders. No one trusts anyone else,” Mr. Weasley said.

“Much the same as it was during Voldemort’s last reign of terror,” Remus replied, glancing at Harry.

“Indeed. The Wizengamot felt they had to appoint someone who could reinstate order — to enforce the rules during this dark time. They needed someone to provide a systemized organized approach — someone who craves order and thrives on the rules.”

“Who did they appoint, Mr. Weasley?” Harry asked, his stomach knotting. He could feel a trickle of sweat rolling down his back despite the chill in the room.

“They felt they needed a determined bureaucrat,” Mr. Weasley replied, appearing apologetic.

“Who did they appoint?” Harry said again, more forcefully this time.

Mr. Weasley sighed heavily and glanced at the room. It was obvious he dreaded the answer.

“Dolores Umbridge.”

Chapter Seventeen

Dolores’s Decrees

November brought below-normal temperatures throughout the land, and the political climate matched the weather. Interim Minister Dolores Umbridge had imposed a strict curfew upon Great Britain. All witches and wizards not employed by the Ministry had to be in their homes by nightfall. Anyone wanting a special dispensation for work purposes had to request a waiver from the Ministry – in writing – in triplicate.

New laws and Ministry Decrees were issued daily, some directly contradicting others, although no one appeared to care. The wizarding public was desperate for someone to tell them what to do, no matter how inadequate those instructions might be. They were afraid, and the new Minister wasn’t above playing on that fact.

As Mr. Weasley had feared, the Daily Prophet had run a headline the morning after the murder of Rufus Scrimgeour with a full moving picture of the Dark Mark floating above the Minister’s handsome home. Although the details had been sketchy, the expected response had been exactly as Mr. Weasley had predicted. Witches and wizards took to the streets in mass hysteria. Some tried to flee the country, and the Ministry had to close its International Portkey office for several days after a riot had broken out in the lobby.

Despite Umbridge’s attempts to convince the public that Harry was merely an unqualified school boy and not critical to the defeat of Voldemort, the people held onto their hope that Harry would somehow stop the madness. Each day, the Daily Prophet ran a list of Harry-

spottings and had several reporters assigned to the task of tracking his comings and goings. Every day that went by saw an increase in the public’s demand that he break his silence and make a statement about his efforts to stop the war.

Mr. Weasley told them that Interim Minister Umbridge was growing increasingly frustrated by her failed attempts to tamp down interest in Harry. The public appeared ready for her to organize things, but it was Harry they expected to finally end Voldemort’s reign of terror. Umbridge quickly realized that her renewed smear campaign wouldn’t succeed. She’d pulled back from her public attacks on Harry and instead concentrated on more covert attempts to dislodge him from the public’s favor.

The Order already felt the strain of Umbridge’s reign. Kingsley Shacklebolt, who had been working for the Muggle Prime Minister, was ordered to relinquish his assignment. According to Umbridge, the wizarding population was in far more danger than the Muggles, and she didn’t have the resources to spare at the moment. She’d refused to listen to any arguments against leaving the Muggles defenseless, and told the Prime Minister she’d be in touch if there was anything he needed to know.

She’d left him without the slightest recourse for contacting anyone in the wizarding world for help in a war he didn’t understand. When several high-ranking Ministry officials attempted to point this out, she argued that since the Dark Lord loathed the intermingling between the wizarding and Muggle worlds, distancing the two factions would actually help the Muggle population. When Mr. Weasley and several others had continued to argue, she’d threatened them with charges of treason.

Attacks on Muggles had been rising steadily, and several London landmarks had suffered damage, including Tower Bridge and Big Ben. The destruction had left the Muggles so preoccupied, they’d barely noticed the other strange occurrences throughout the city.

While Harry was worried about the damage Dolores Umbridge was wreaking, his main concern was Ron. Three weeks had passed since he’d been cursed, and he’d yet to regain consciousness. He remained confined to the Spell Damage ward at St. Mungo’s. Hermione had visited each day and returned – pale and weary – to report there had been no change. The Healers still suspected he’d eventually come out of it, but none of them were willing to target a date – or if he’d suffer any permanent brain trauma as a result.

Harry had wanted to rush straight to the hospital that first day, but Mr. Weasley had gently pointed out the danger to Ron if word leaked out that Harry Potter was a regular visitor. So far, they’d been able to keep Ron’s injuries from the press, but Harry’s appearance would change that. Harry knew it was the truth, but it didn’t make him feel any better. He’d clenched his teeth and nodded stoically, having to settle for Hermione and Ginny’s reports on Ron.

Harry sat in the kitchen one morning, moodily stirring a cup of coffee when Mr. Weasley and Remus Lupin entered, each wearing grim expressions.

Harry’s heart lurched. “What happened?” he asked.

Mr. Weasley sat down, and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I think we need to remove Ron from St. Mungo’s, Harry,” he said, sighing.

“Why? What’s happened?” Harry asked, a thrill of fear bubbling in his chest.

“You explain. I’ll Floo Poppy and ask her if she can tend him here,” Remus said, squeezing Harry’s shoulder as he passed.

“Dolores Umbridge has obtained information that Ron is at St. Mungo’s, and she’s in the process of writing a Decree stating that any patient suffering spell damage from an Unforgiveable needs to be detained in a Ministry facility until the incident can be investigated,” Mr. Weasley said, clenching his teeth and twisting his coffee cup around in his hands.

“Detained how? Ron isn’t even conscious,” Harry said, jumping from his chair.

Mr. Weasley raised his hands, attempting to calm Harry. “I know that, Harry. She’s frustrated by her lack of ability to learn what you’re doing. She wants to make it appear that it’s the Ministry that’s in charge, and right now, the public is more enamored with you. Despite all her efforts, she hasn’t been able to convince them that you’re a dangerous threat to the peace that she’s trying to form. It’s infuriating her.

“She knows you, and she knows how close you are to Ron. I believe she’ll use him as a bargaining tool once he’s under her care. We need to get Ron out of St. Mungo’s before her Decree is passed.”

“How do you know about this?” Harry asked.

Mr. Weasley rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “Percy owled me early this morning. He’s dismayed by the Minister’s plans for Ron.”

Harry bit his lip, not entirely convinced it wasn’t Percy who told Umbridge about Ron in the first place. He wasn’t about to say that to Mr. Weasley, however. Some of his feelings must have shown on his face, because Mr. Weasley sighed heavily.

“I understand your mistrust of Percy, Harry, and I can’t say that I blame you, but I do believe that he loves his family. I think Percy had a rude awakening at Bill’s wedding, and he’s trying to make amends. I have to believe that,” he said.

His eyes looked so sad and almost pleading that Harry had to swallow a lump in his throat. If it turned out that Percy wasn’t on the right side of all this, Harry would make certain he paid for it.

“I’m going with you,” he said, not about to be swayed by any argument.

“Harry-”

“I’ve stayed away so as not to draw attention to Ron’s being there. He’s leaving now, anyway, and his connection to me might actually work in his favor for once. My presence at St. Mungo’s should cause enough of a distraction to get him out. I’ll bring my Invisibility Cloak, as well,” Harry said, his jaw set.

Mr. Weasley sat back in his chair, watching Harry closely. Finally, he nodded. “All right, Harry. You’ve done a lot of growing up this past year, haven’t you, son?”

Startled, Harry jerked his head toward Mr. Weasley.

The older man smiled fondly. “You were such a scrawny little thing when Ron first brought you home. Molly used to say that if you turned sideways you’d disappear, you were so thin. You were always polite and soft-spoken, but even then I could sense an underlying strength of character. You’ve grown into a remarkable young man, Harry. Your parents would be proud.”

Harry wasn’t certain how to respond, so he merely nodded, feeling a warm glow of pleasure flush his cheeks. When Remus returned, the three of them left Grimmauld Place and Apparated to an alley near St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.

London’s streets were being decorated for Christmas, and Harry was stunned to realize he’d been so caught up in the war that he hadn’t even been aware of the season. Boughs of holly and evergreens were wrapped upon the streetlights, and Harry could hear the distant clang of a bell from a department store Father Christmas. The streets were already packed with shoppers carrying bundles of brightly wrapped packages.

They’d managed to enter the apparently deserted department store that hid St. Mungo’s without attracting any attention. The reception area was filled with various witches and wizard seeking medical attention. Healers in lime green robes moved from person to person, assessing who was in the direst need of attention.

The witch sitting at the Inquiry desk was young with a pockmarked face and platinum blonde hair. She cracked her gum repeatedly and looked up with a bored expression on her face as they approached the desk. Her eyes zeroed in on Harry’s scar, and her jaw hung open, dropping her gum on the desk with a thump.

“Blimey, it’s Harry Potter,” she said, an annoying nasal twang to her voice.

All activity in the waiting area halted for a brief moment and a heavy silence filled the air. It lasted only a moment before whispering broke out amongst the people. They began pointing and moving closer toward Harry in order to hear him. Several of the Healers began elbowing each other and nodding in his direction.

Annoyed with the reception witch, Mr. Weasley grabbed the register and signed his name, handing the quill to Harry. “We know where we’re going,” he said coldly.

Grabbing Harry’s elbow, he moved quickly towards the lift. Remus followed behind them as the hum of voices in the lobby grew louder. They rode the lift to the fourth floor where the Spell Damage ward was located as quickly as possible, but news of Harry’s presence preceded them for the corridors filled with witches and wizards eager to catch a glimpse of the Chosen One. Several people asked him questions, but Harry kept his eyes focused firmly ahead of him and didn’t slow his stride.

The nurse sitting at the desk in front of the Spell Damage ward was a young, rather plump, star-struck girl who repeatedly fluttered her eyelashes at Harry.

“We’re here to see Ron Weasley,” he said, nodding pleasantly.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Potter,” the witch replied nervously, her eyes fixed on his face. “We’ve had a direct order from the Ministry that no one is allowed in the ward until further notice. We’ve got two visitors inside now, and we’re waiting to clear them out.”

Harry leaned over the desk, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Aw, come on. Certainly if there are already visitors inside a few more won’t hurt. I promise we’ll be in and out so quick that no one will know,” he said.

The witch opened and closed her mouth several times like a fish, apparently wanting to object but unable to find the words.

“I’d consider this a great personal favor,” Harry said, briefly scanning her nametag, “Sandy. Do you think you could let me see my friend?” He’d learned from experience that Ginny always tended to give him his way when he used that sappy, puppy-dog expression, and he only hoped it would work with the nurse, as well.

“All right, Mr. Potter,” Sandy said breathlessly, “but you’ll have to be quick. I’ll be in so much trouble if anyone finds out I let you in here.”

“Thank you, Sandy,” Harry said, feeling very pleased. He quickly hurried through the door to the closed ward. Remus and Mr. Weasley followed him, each wearing wide grins.

“I think I’ve seen both your father and Sirius pulling stunts like that, Harry. Well done,” Remus said, chuckling.

Harry’s face colored. “I hope I don’t get her sacked like the witch at the Apparation Testing Center,” he said. There was nothing to be done for it, however. They had to get Ron out of here.

“His room is this way,” Mr. Weasley said, leading Harry around the corner.

When they entered, they discovered the room wasn’t empty. A stout man sat in the chair by Ron’s bed, his back to the door. Harry drew his wand in a flash and aimed it at the man. “Move away from his bed and keep your hands where I can see them,” he said.

The man started and turned around, revealing the surprised face of Harry’s classmate, Neville Longbottom.

Harry felt his body deflate as the air and the tension left his lungs through his nose. “Neville. What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Harry,” Neville said brightly. His round face beamed as he recognized Harry. “Hello, Professor Lupin. How have you been? And you must be Mr. Weasley.”

“Nice to see you again, Neville,” Remus said warmly.

“Gran and I are here to visit my parents, but there’s something strange happening. They gave us a really hard time about getting in, and they tried to have us fill out all this extra paperwork. Gran went upstairs to give the Head Healer a piece of her mind. I don’t envy that bloke,” Neville replied, grimacing.

“How’s Ron?” Harry asked.

He moved cautiously toward the bed and got the first look at his friend in weeks. Ron’s skin was pale, making the freckles on his face stand out starkly. He looked peaceful, however, as if he was only sleeping. Somehow, Harry had expected him to look as if he was in pain. He was relieved that wasn’t the case. Still, it was strange and rather eerie to see Ron this way. He was used to a Ron who was lively and full of energy. He wanted his friend back.

“Gran told me he was here, so I cut of a sprig of my Mimbulus mimbletonia and planted it for him. It’s supposed to have healing properties, so I thought it might help,” Neville mumbled, kicking his foot against the bed.

Harry glanced at the small green plant resting on Ron’s bedside table and found it hard to swallow around the lump that had grown in his throat.

“It’s a lovely thought, Neville,” Hermione said, entering the room. Harry suddenly realized that Hermione’s coat was lying on the chair beside Ron’s bed.

“Hermione! When did you get here?” Harry asked, his eyes widening. He’d assumed she’d still been asleep when he’d left with Remus and Mr. Weasley.

“I’ve been here for a few hours. I couldn’t sleep,” she replied, not meeting his eyes. Her eyes had dark shadows beneath them, making them appear almost bruised. She moved towards Ron and gently brushed the hair on his forehead. “There hasn’t been any change. What are you all doing here? What’s happened?”

“Umbridge is making life difficult, and she’s about to try and take Ron into Ministry custody,” Harry replied, a tic working in his cheek.

“What? That’s ridiculous,” Hermione cried, her eyes seeking confirmation from the older two men in the room.

“So is Umbridge,” Harry replied.

“What are we going to do? We can’t let her do this, Harry. Mr. Weasley? She can’t just take him,” Hermione said, her voice growing shriller with each syllable.

“Calm down, Hermione,” Remus said, grasping her shoulders. “No one is going to take Ron anywhere.”

“We’re here to break him out. Even unconscious, Ron’s a rebel,” Harry said, smirking.

“How? They’re watching all the doors. How do you propose to get an unconscious body by them without anyone noticing? They’re counting who goes in and who goes out. They know Neville and I were the only two left in here,” Hermione said without taking a breath.

“Take Ron,” Neville said suddenly, a fierce, determined expression crossing his face. “You take Ron, and I’ll stay in his bed. It won’t fool them for long, but long enough to get you out of here.”

“Neville-” Hermione said.

“Do it. I can handle this,” Neville said, sticking out his chin.

“The Ministry will be all over you, asking you all sorts of questions,” Harry said. “It’s me they want, and they’re going to try and use Ron to get to me. They’ll use you, too.”

“It won’t matter,” Neville replied, squaring his shoulders. “I don’t know where you’re taking him and as long as you don’t tell me, even with Veritaserum there’s nothing I can give them.”

“Thank you, Neville,” said Mr. Weasley quietly, extending his hand to Neville.

“I want to help, in any way I can. If you need anything, Harry, you know where to find me,” Neville said, shaking each of the other men’s hands.

“Thanks, Neville,” Harry said, feeling extraordinarily proud to call Neville a friend.

When Neville reached Hermione, he pulled her into a hug rather than shaking her hand. He handed her the potted plant that resembled a pulsating cactus. “Take this, maybe it’ll help.”

“Thanks, Neville,” Hermione said, her eyes glistening.

Mr. Weasley removed his wand from his pocket and aimed it as his son. “Petrificus Totalis,” he said, causing Ron’s entire body to stiffen. “Levicorpus.”

Ron’s body rose in the air and hung eerily still, slightly in front of Mr. Weasley.

Remus moved next to him, attempting to block him from view. He turned to Harry, his eyes twinkling. “Now, Harry, if you can just work your charm on Sandy as we leave, hopefully she won’t give the rest of us a second glance.”

Hermione kissed Neville on the cheek before he climbed into Ron’s bed. She took her place in front of Ron, and they moved toward the door.

Harry hurried to the front desk, attempting to block the nurse’s view of the others. “Thank you for letting me see my friend, Sandy. I really appreciate it. We’ll all be leaving, now.”

Sandy blinked, staring dreamily at Harry. “Okay, Mr. Eyes…er… Potter….Mr. Potter. You…er…have very nice eyes… the color I mean. It’s striking.”

Harry felt his face flush. “Thank you, Sandy.”

“I have faith in you, Harry. I know you’ll beat him,” Sandy said, grabbing his hand.

Harry fervently hoped what he was doing wouldn’t get Sandy into trouble. “I’m going to try,” he told her sincerely, feeling his words were incredibly inadequate.

The rest of the group had made their way onto the lift. Harry joined them just as the door closed. Removing his Invisibility Cloak from his pocket, he shook it out and swung it over Ron’s head.

“I’m certain the reporters will be aware of my presence here by now. If we get held up, let me deal with them while you get Ron out of here,” he said to Remus and Mr. Weasley.

Neither of the two men looked particularly happy with the idea, but they both nodded their agreement, knowing he was probably right.

They emerged from the lift and rounded the corner into the lobby before all hell broke loose. Cameras flashed and a swarm of reporters swarmed toward them, firing questions so rapidly Harry couldn’t distinguish anything being said.

Blinking to clear the spots from his eyes, he shot a meaningful glance at Remus. Harry moved slightly away from the others to give them a chance to get away and raised his arms in the air, trying to quiet the crowd with a gesture. When that failed, he stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly.

He saw Remus and Mr. Weasley slip through the entrance unhindered, and breathed a sigh of relief. He was dismayed to realize Hermione had stayed with him, however.

“Mr. Potter, what is your opinion of our Interim Minister? I understand you were at odds with her when she briefly took charge at Hogwarts,” a male reporter with narrowed eyes and an oily face asked, shoving a recording quill and parchment beneath Harry’s nose.

“Yes. Dolores and I have had our differences in the past,” Harry replied, refusing to acknowledge her title, “but I hope she can leave all that behind us and concentrate on the situation at hand. Stopping Voldemort’s reign of terror should be everyone’s first priority.”

He rolled his eyes at the gasps and shrieks of dismay the name caused, finding them ridiculous. How could they report on Voldemort’s activities if they couldn’t even stand to hear his name?

“Do you think she’s capable of leading us?” a female reporter asked, her bright red nails caressing her quill.

Harry shrugged. “I don’t think Voldemort or his followers care much about any Decree the Ministry might issue. They’re not going to stop him.”

“What is going to stop him, Mr. Potter?” the witch asked eagerly.

Harry had to control a grin as he wondered if she might actually start drooling. “I am,” he replied, locking his eyes with hers.

The reporters’ quills scribbled madly as the buzz of conversation once again reached fever pitch.

“What are you doing at St. Mungo’s today?” another reporter shouted, quieting the crowd.

“I was visiting a good friend of mine who was hurt recently in a battle with some of Voldemort’s Death Eaters. During that battle, one of the Death Eaters was captured and is now in custody at the Ministry. That man’s name is Peter Pettigrew,” Harry said, clearly enunciating each word.

The room erupted into chaos yet again. Hermione glanced at Harry with wide eyes, but nodded for him to continue.

“As I told the Quibbler when I did my interview after Voldemort’s rebirth, Pettigrew was instrumental in his return. I haven’t seen much reported about his capture, but perhaps you can ask the Ministry if he’s revealed anything,” Harry said, ignoring their continued reactions to hearing Voldemort’s name.

News of Wormtail’s capture had been kept extremely quiet, and Mr. Weasley had learned that the rat still wasn’t being held in Azkaban, but was instead in the Ministry’s Holding Facility. Access to him had been given only to those Aurors hand-selected by Dolores Umbridge. Harry thought it was about time the public was given the full story. Hopefully, it would put some pressure on the Ministry.

“Where is Pettigrew now?” a reporter with a thin mustache asked.

“As far as I know, he’s at the Ministry, but I’d assume they’re preparing to send him to Azkaban” Harry replied, shrugging. “Maybe they’ve learned where Voldemort is hiding.”

“You think the Dark Lord is in hiding?” another reporter asked eagerly.

Harry shrugged again, holding his hands in the air. “Haven’t seen him lately.”

Questions about Pettigrew and his capture were flying fast and furious, and Harry couldn’t suppress the bubble of pleasure that gurgled in his chest. Dolores was going to be mightily hacked off about this.

“Look, there’s Interim Minister Umbridge, now,” Hermione said, grasping Harry’s arm so tightly that her nails dug into his skin. “Why don’t you ask her about Pettigrew’s fate?”

The crowd of reporters swarmed around a surprised Dolores Umbridge, her toad-like face growing red with fury when she realized what all the questions were about. She glared across the room at Harry, desperately trying to make her way toward him. He could hear her simpering voice trying to get the reporters out of her way. Hermione grabbed Harry’s hand, and they made their escape as quickly as they could.

**–**–

Although Christmas was rapidly approaching, the mood inside headquarters remained tense and somber. One of the guest rooms had been converted into a makeshift infirmary, and Madam Pomfrey had moved into the adjoining room. Despite her diligent care, Ron remained unresponsive. Hermione had set the plant Neville had given her on Ron’s bedside table, and as the little sprig grew, Ron’s coloring had also improved. Still, that slight change hadn’t brought him out of the coma, and everyone’s hopes were dwindling.

Harry refused to believe his best mate would spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. It simply couldn’t end up this way.

Harry’s statement to the press about Wormtail’s capture had forced the Ministry to admit that they indeed had him in custody. Any other details were sketchy, and the Daily Prophet had soon printed an article questioning Umbridge’s leadership ability. After two such articles appeared in rapid succession, they’d suddenly stopped. The Order’s attempts to locate the reporter who’d written the articles had, so far, fallen short. It appeared the reporter had fallen off the face of the earth.

Neville had sent an owl informing them that with all the commotion Harry’s announcement about Wormtail had caused, he was able to leave St. Mungo’s without being detained by the Ministry. When they’d come to his home to question him, his grandmother’s intimidating presence had quelled the two Aurors. It appeared that Dolores Umbridge was unprepared to go up against a respected pureblood family.

At headquarters, Harry, Hermione and Ginny were in the library comparing their notes on where each of the Horcruxes had been found, and how it was destroyed. None of them had the heart to suggest

continuing their search without Ron, although Harry feared it might come to just that sooner rather than later. He’d decided to hold off through the holidays and simply try and enjoy this time with the Weasleys while they all had the chance.

Unexpectedly, loud voices in the entrance hall caused the three teens to stick their heads outside the door to see what was happening. Tonks, Mad-Eye Moody, Bill, and Mr. Weasley were all standing around, and they appeared to be having a row with Remus.

Remus had his arms folded resolutely across his chest, and a resigned yet determined expression upon his face. The others appeared agitated, and Tonks looked as if she was holding back tears. Bill wore that angry, frustrated expression on his face once again, making the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck stand on end.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked, striding into the middle of the floor and looking at each of them in turn.

“Umbridge strikes again,” George said, scowling.

Harry started, not realizing George was there. He was hidden in the doorframe to the kitchen with Fred behind him wearing an identically sour expression.

“What has she done now?” Hermione asked, groaning.

“She’s issued a Decree stating that all persons suffering from Lycanthropy are to be confined to Ministry-approved Holding Facilities until the current crisis is over,” Remus said softly.

“What?” Harry asked, whirling to face his father’s old friend. “You must be joking.”

“Afraid not,” Remus replied, grimacing.

Harry looked briefly at Bill, who scowled. “It doesn’t mean me, since I’m not officially diagnosed with Lycanthropy…yet. I merely display some of the symptoms, but you’ve seen firsthand how my temper can become…irrational. Just give her some time. It won’t be long before she reclassifies the restrictions.”

“We’re not going to let it come to that, Bill,” Mr. Weasley said, grimacing. Harry knew it was a father’s promise to his son, one he desperately wanted to keep, but not necessarily one he could control.

“What do you mean? Confined for every full moon?” Hermione asked, her brow knitting. “They’re going to lock you up each month?”

“No. Confined as in permanently for an undetermined amount of time, regardless of whether it’s a full moon or not,” Mr. Weasley said, casting an anxious glance in Remus’s direction. Remus averted his eyes. “The penalty for disobeying the Decree is immediate termination.”

“She can’t do that,” Ginny cried, glancing desperately between her father and Remus. “You’re just like everyone else except at the full moon. She can’t just put you down like an animal.”

“Umbridge has always had a prejudice against ‘dangerous half-breeds’. Look at the anti-werewolf Legislation she passed four years ago,” Tonks said, her face twisting into an ugly scowl. She turned towards Remus, tugging on his arm imploringly. “This is her own personal and misguided campaign.”

“How does she propose to manage this facility?” Hermione asked, her arms crossed indignantly.

“She doesn’t, and quite frankly, people don’t care right now,” Remus said tiredly, taking a step away from Tonks. “Even those that might ordinarily take up the plight are too concerned with the war, right now. The vast number of those afflicted with Lycanthropy have already sided with Voldemort. People are afraid, and in desperate times, they’ll take desperate measures.”

“How does she propose to supply Wolfsbane to all those people?” Hermione asked, glaring at Mad-Eye as if it were all his fault.

“Who says she will?” Mad-Eye asked gruffly.

“She can’t just lock you all up together,” Hermione cried, staring at Remus scandalized.

“Why not? I don’t think the fate of anyone afflicted as I am is one of her concerns,” Remus said wearily. “Honestly, the only ones who are going to turn themselves in are the ones attempting to live a normal life amongst wizards. The majority of Voldemort’s followers won’t pay any heed to this Decree. The ones who do turn themselves in will most likely kill each other off during the full moons. By the time this is over, there won’t be anyone left to complain.”

“And Umbridge won’t stop there,” Bill said, firmly squaring his jaw. “She has it in for Centaurs, Merpeople and the Goblins, too. This is going to get ugly.”

“This is barbaric,” Ginny cried, her eyes glittering.

“This is war,” Moody snapped. “The sodding bint is using that to her advantage.”

“What do you plan on doing?” Fred asked Remus.

It was then that Harry noticed Remus had a small bag at his feet. Hermione must have noticed it at the same time.

“You’re not going to turn yourself over to them,” she said, panicked.

“Not bloody likely,” Harry said, feeling his anger beginning to boil. The thought of losing Remus now was clawing at his insides with fevered intensity. First Sirius, then Dumbledore, and now Remus…

“No. I’m not,” Remus said, squaring his shoulders. His eyes were very sad, and he looked at Harry as if there was no one else in the room. “I’m going to go underground like I did for Dumbledore. Perhaps I can learn something about what the others are planning. If anything, this

gives me an excellent cover for why I’m turning my back on wizarding society.”

“No,” Harry said, his breathing hard. He felt Ginny slip her hand into his and thread her fingers with his own. “There has to be another way.”

Remus placed his hands on Harry’s shoulders and squeezed them gently. “Harry, there is no choice.”

“It’s suicide, Remus,” Tonks said, her watery eyes finally starting to spill her tears. They rolled down her face in fat drops as her hair lost its pink color and turned a mousy brown. “They’ll kill you if they even suspect what you’re doing.”

“I’ll be all right, Nym,” he replied, gently brushing her cheek with the back on his hand. “We all have to do what we have to do.”

“No,” Harry said again, determined to Stun Remus if he had to in order to keep him from walking out that door.

“It’s my way to fight in this war. Certainly you, of all people, can understand that, Harry,” Remus said gently.

Harry looked away, desperately trying to think of an alternative. Vaguely, he wondered if this was how Ginny felt when he’d tried to leave her behind. Unable to come up with an answer, he briefly nodded, his throat closing.

Remus patted him on the shoulder, his voice choking. “Good boy. I’m very proud of everything you’ve accomplished, Harry. I’ve always been extraordinarily proud of you. Sirius and your father would be, too. I’ll be in touch as often as I can.”

Remus’s glanced at the others standing in the entrance hall and gave them all a brief nod. He took Tonks by the hand and led her towards the door to say his farewell in private. As he stepped by Ginny, he leaned down and whispered to her, loud enough for Harry to hear, “Take care of him.”

“I will,” Ginny murmured, a single tear making a silent track down her cheek.

Unmoving, Harry watched Remus lead Tonks out the front door, an aching hole growing in his chest. Rage bubbled inside, making his stomach roil. Voldemort had to be stopped before any more lives were ripped apart. He had to find the remaining Horcrux; and then he had to end this once and for all, regardless of what that meant for him.

**–**–

Harry sat in a chair beside Ron’s bed, staring out the window at the lightly falling snow. It had begun only minutes earlier, and he watched, lost in his own thoughts, as the swirling flakes appeared to dance on the windowpane. He’d fled the entrance hall after Remus’s departure, unable to face everyone’s concerned stares, or Hermione’s desire to discuss the decree in detail.

He wished Ron would get on with it and wake up, but his friend remained unresponsive. Harry idly kicked his foot against the leg of the bed, watching the rubber of his trainer as it peeled back each time his foot made contact.

“I wish you’d stop this and wake up, Ron. The girls are driving me mad with only me here to hassle,” he said, lightly snorting. “If you’re so bored with our company, maybe I’ll ask Lavender Brown to come and stay awhile. I’ll bet you’d love that.”

Harry grinned as he imagined the horrified expression on Ron’s face had he been awake to hear that comment. He absently wondered what Lavender and the others were doing now, without Hogwarts to occupy their time.

“We’ve been waiting for you to wake up before doing anything about finding the next Horcrux, but I can’t wait any longer, mate. Too much is happening. Umbridge is trying to take control and fix everything. I’m certain you can remember how well that worked the last time,” Harry said, rolling his eyes.

“Hermione is going to look through the Pensieve again. I don’t know what she’s hoping to find, but I suppose it gives her something to do.

“You’re going to have to wake up soon, mate. If I manage to find this last Horcrux in a reasonable amount of time, I’m not waiting to confront Voldemort. He has to be stopped, Ron, and I’m the only one who can do it. Ginny and Hermione don’t want to hear it, but I know you understand. I need you to keep them out of the way, so I can do what I have to do. When are you going to wake up, Ron?”

Harry’s throat was sore, and he had to stop talking to ease it. He continued absently kicking at the bed, staring at Ron’s pale face.

“Remus left,” he said, his voice sounding strange in the stillness of the room.

He watched the steady rise and fall of Ron’s chest. “He could have stayed hidden here, I suppose. He would have been trapped here like Sirius, though.”

Harry blinked, staring out the window again.

“We all know how badly that turned out, and I don’t think Remus wanted to be reminded of how miserable Sirius was at the end,” Harry said, his breath hitching. “I didn’t like it when they did it to me, so I suppose it wouldn’t have been right to try it with him.

“I need for it to end differently this time, Ron,” he whispered, dropping his head.

He was startled when a warm arm wrapped around his shoulders. “It will be different this time, Harry,” Ginny said gently.

He looked up into her warm brown eyes and opened his arms, shifting over and allowing her to snuggle onto the chair with him. He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair, feeling his heart rate slow as his breathing evened.

“How is he?” Ginny asked, nodding at Ron.

“The same,” Harry replied, shrugging. “I don’t know, I just felt I should keep him in the loop on stuff, you know?”

“Yeah, well, even when he’s conscious, Ron’s not usually aware he’s in the loop, anyway,” Ginny said, tucking the blanket over Ron’s shoulder.

Harry felt his lips start to twitch and although he tried to suppress it, he couldn’t help the chuckle in the pit of his belly that grew until he couldn’t contain it. Somehow, she always made him feel better.

“I miss him,” he said, his smile faltering.

“I know you do. I do, too. He’s certainly taking his own sweet time about waking up, isn’t he?” Ginny asked, a slight catch in her voice.

Harry pulled her closer. “Sorry,” he whispered. “You came in here to make me feel better, and now I’ve gone and made you sad.”

“Yeah. You’re a bit of wet blanket,” Ginny replied, nuzzling her nose into his cheek.

Harry snorted, slouching back on the chair and resting his feet on top of Ron’s bed.

“Here,” Ginny said, pulling a Chocolate Frog from her pocket. “I nicked this from Bill, and I think it’s the last bit of chocolate in this house. Remus always says it makes you feel better.”

Harry smiled, remembering how Remus would always have a supply of chocolate in his desk when he taught at Hogwarts. He took the frog from Ginny and snapped it in half.

“Share?” he asked.

“Thanks,” Ginny replied, popping the sweet into her mouth. She leaned back and placed her legs on top of Harry’s outstretched ones.

“I wish he could have stayed here, but I know he would have been miserable. I would be. I suppose it’s easier to feel as if you’re doing something rather than just sitting back and waiting for someone else to do it,” Harry replied, chewing his chocolate while not quite meeting her eyes.

“I know that’s how I feel,” Ginny said softly.

Harry nodded. “I’m sorry, Ginny.”

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault, it’s not Remus’s fault. It’s not anyone but bloody Tom Riddle’s fault,” Ginny said, grabbing his chin and forcing him to look at her. “Remus doesn’t want to hurt you any more than you wanted to hurt me. These circumstances are beyond our control, and everyone is doing what they have to do in order to survive it.”

“I know that. He’s doing exactly what I would do in his place,” Harry said, gritting his teeth. “But that doesn’t make me worry about him any less.”

“I know,” Ginny said, stroking his hair.

“We need to find that last Horcrux,” Harry said, throwing his back against the chair.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Hermione said, entering the room. She moved to the opposite side of Ron’s bed and leaned over to kiss his forehead before sitting down.

“Great! Where is it?” Ginny asked brightly.

“Ho, ho, very funny. Professor Dumbledore suspected that the other Horcrux would have some connection to either Ravenclaw or Gryffindor, so we need to begin researching the Founders,” Hermione said.

“Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. There’s loads printed about them,” Ginny said.

“Do you think we should go back and look at Hogwarts?” Harry asked.

“I don’t think so,” Hermione said, rubbing her chin. “I’ve already read everything about them in the library there, and I don’t remember seeing anything that couldn’t be bought at Flourish and Blotts. We need to find more random information, I think. Writing about just them and not their Hogwarts connections. Rowena Ravenclaw was born in England, while Godric Gryffindor came from Wales. I think we need to start in the libraries in the towns where they were born.”

“Gryffindor was Welsh?” Harry asked curiously.

“Of course he was Harry. You went to Godric’s Hollow,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes as if he was daft.

Maybe he was, because he hadn’t made the connection. “That’s where Godric Gryffindor was born?” he asked.

“Of course. Didn’t you know?” Hermione asked, sounding scandalizing that he’d even gone to Godric’s Hollow without knowing that information.

“No,” Harry replied, shaking his head. He did feel rather slow, now that he thought about it. Godric Gryffindor. Godric’s Hollow. It made perfect sense.

Hermione’s voice drew his attention back to the conversation. “Helga Hufflepuff was Irish, while Salazar Slytherin came from Scotland. Therefore, each of the Founders represented the four quarters of Great Britain.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” Harry asked.

Hermione threw her arms in the air, exasperated. “Simple. I read, Harry. You ought to try it sometime. If you’d ever taken the time to read Hogwarts: A History, you’d know this, too. It was all detailed in the first few chapters.”

Harry rolled his eyes this time and ignored Hermione completely. “So, where should we start? I’m not too keen to return to Godric’s Hollow, but I’ll be glad to get out of this house for a while.”

Hermione shrewdly narrowed her eyes. “What about your Occlumency lessons?” she asked.

“I haven’t really had any recently,” Harry replied, shrugging. “I think we all agree that they aren’t doing any good. I haven’t made any progress on blocking Malfoy, and I’m tired of his sneering over memories of Dudley chasing me around Little Whinging.”

“Have you been trying to clear your head at night?” Hermione asked, frowning.

Harry clenched his teeth. “I’ve done everything they’ve asked of me, Hermione. I can’t do Occlumency. I told them I’d try again, but if I thought it was still pointless I’d end it. It’s not working.”

Hermione opened her mouth as if to argue when Ginny interrupted. “Professor Dumbledore didn’t think it was imperative for you to learn, anyway. He said so last year. I can’t imagine it’s pleasant having Malfoy in your head and sneering about your childhood memories,” she said, rubbing Harry’s arm.

“No. The tosser can get really shirty about it, actually,” Harry said.

“I don’t know how you can stand even being civil to him,” Ginny said.

Harry shrugged. “I dunno. When I watched how Lucius treated him when we were at Azkaban, I felt kind of bad for him. It didn’t last long – he went right back to his normal git of a self quickly enough, but still…I don’t understand how a father can treat his son that way. I mean, I don’t like him, either, but he’s not related to me.”

“So, you’re not planning on getting the sod a Christmas gift, then?” Ginny asked, smirking.

Hermione huffed at the language, although Harry noticed her lip twitching as if she was fighting a grin.

“Heh, it’d be worth getting Malfoy a present just to see the expression on Ron’s face,” Harry said, envisioning the scene. “What are you supposed to get for a walking, talking ferret, though?”

“How about a lead?” Hermione said, snorting. “We could get a pink one with a little rhinestone collar and Pansy could parade him around like a show dog.”

“That’s not what she does already?” Ginny asked, and both girls shrieked with laughter.

Harry shook his head, grinning. He was still thinking about Draco’s and Lucius’s row, and it led him back to thoughts of his own so-called family. “D’you suppose that Cheering Charm is still working on Dudley?” he asked.

Hermione shifted her eyes to stare at the window. The snow had begun to pile against the glass.

“You did do one, right?” he asked, watching her closely.

“I did,” Hermione said, nodding.

Harry knew there was something she still wasn’t saying, but didn’t feel he needed to press the issue. If she and Ron had done something to torment the Dursleys after they’d all left, well, it couldn’t be more than they deserved. Harry’s thoughts often turned to Dudley, however. He wondered if Dudley had been thinking about his suppressed magical ability, and if he were at all curious. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia might have succeeded in making the idea so abhorrent to Dudley that he truly didn’t want to know any more. If it were Harry, though – he’d be curious.

He decided he was going to send Dudley a Christmas present this year. He still has his copy of First Year Spells. Dudley might just toss it in the bin, but he might be curious…

At the moment, there were more pressing matters, however.

“Where in England did Ravenclaw come from?” he asked.

“Canterbury,” Ginny answered promptly.

Both Harry and Hermione stared at her, surprised.

“How’d you know that?” Harry asked.

“What? I read, too, Harry,” Ginny said with a straight face. When Harry cocked his eyebrow, she giggled and said, “Well, Canterbury isn’t too far from Ottery St. Catchpole, is it? Some of my ancestors were around back then, too. In fact, Auntie Muriel’s tiara – the one Fleur wore at her wedding – is a replica of one Rowena Ravenclaw wore.”

“So, d’you think you’re a descendent of Ravenclaw?” Harry asked.

“No,” Ginny replied, shaking her head and making her hair swish around her shoulders. “Weasleys have been Gryffindors for as far back as I can remember. The Prewetts, too, on Mum’s side. I had a great-uncle several generations back who married someone from Ravenclaw, and she had the tiara made. It’s only a replica, not the real thing, but its Auntie Muriel’s pride and joy. Fred and George used to tease Ron with it when we were little by making him wear it whenever we visited.”

Both Harry and Hermione snorted. It always fascinated Harry to hear stories about the Weasleys’ childhoods.

“Ron thought the pattern of the gems looked liked spiders, and he’d throw a wobbly whenever they started chasing him with it,” Ginny said,

laughing. “He used to scowl and get all grumpy and say something like, ‘The ruddy thing looks like it’s got spiders all over it.’”

“Well, since it’s not too far, why don’t we start in Canterbury, then?” Harry asked, feeling pleased with having made a decision.

Hermione had wrinkled her brow and appeared in deep thought. “Ginny, that tiara…” she began, but was interrupted by a groggy voice that sounded scratchy and raw.

“I’m hungry,” Ron said, attempting to pull himself into a seated position.

“Ron!” Hermione squealed, jumping up and assisting him to straighten. She arranged the pillows behind his head, and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh, Ron! You’re awake. You’re finally awake.”

Ron’s eyes had widened in surprise, and he used his tongue to try and remove some of Hermione’s red hair from his mouth. “H’mione,” he said, grunting.

“Oh!” she cried, pulling back and pouring him some water from the bedside table.

Ginny had grasped Harry’s hand when Ron first spoke, and she now gave it a small squeeze before turning and running from the room.

Harry remained frozen on the spot, staring at Ron and resisting the urge to fling his arms around his mate the same way Hermione had done.

“Ron,” he said hoarsely.

“Hey,” Ron said, glancing around the room as if trying to make sense of his surroundings. “We’re back at headquarters, yeah?”

Harry nodded, not trusting his voice. Hermione clung to Ron’s hand, sniffling. She appeared unable to speak. Ron was confused by the reactions of the two of them.

“What day is it?” he asked.

The question was enough to push Hermione over the edge. She burst into tears, ranting incoherently in between great gulps of air. Ron’s expression became alarmed.

“Is it after Christmas? Have I missed presents?” he asked, horrified.

“No,” Harry replied, grinning – his amusement finally snapping him out of his daze. “You haven’t missed presents. Of course, now I’m going to have to go shopping again to get you something. Thanks, mate.”

Ron grinned sleepily. “We got out of Azkaban all right, then. What happened?” he asked.

“Azkaban? Ron…do you remember the Inferi? And getting cursed by Bellatrix Lestrange?” Harry asked, hoping Ron’s memories were just confused.

“Oh! Right…We got Wormtail, right?” Ron asked, although he appeared rather uncertain.

The door burst open and Mrs. Weasley came rushing through, followed closely by Ginny, Bill, and Fleur.

“Oh, Ron,” Mrs. Weasley said, throwing her arms around him. “When Ginny said you were awake, I felt as if all my Christmas prayers had been answered. Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again!”

Ron’s eyes widened as he was crushed within his mother’s tearful embrace.

“It’s good to see you back among the living, little brother,” Bill said, patting Ron’s arm affectionately. “I’ll Floo Dad and the twins. They’ll want to know.”

“Oui, and I will zend owls to Charlie and Percy,” Fleur said, smiling brilliantly at Ron before following Bill from the room.

Ron blinked dazedly before trying to extricate himself from Mrs. Weasley’s arm. “Erg, Mum, gerroff me. Are you trying to put me back into unconsciousness?”

Mrs. Weasley promptly burst into tears.

“Nice one, Ron,” Ginny said, scowling as she began patting her mother’s back. Harry could see amusement glistening in her eyes however, and he knew she was thrilled to have Ron back, whether she’d admit it or not. She stood there, rubbing her mother’s back while beaming at her brother. Harry stood and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

“It’s good to have you back, mate,” Harry said. “Are you all right, Hermione?”

Hermione remained in her chair, watching all the Weasleys with wide, tear-filled eyes and still sniffling on occasion.

“I think we should all give Ron and Hermione an early Christmas present by clearing out of here and giving them some privacy,” Ginny said, her eyes sparkling knowingly.

“I’ll go make you some soup, Ron. You must be starving. Poppy should return soon, and I’m going to send her right up here to take a look at you,” Mrs. Weasley said, bustling about the room as she shooed Harry and Ginny towards the door. A thoughtful expression crossed her face as she turned back to Ron and Hermione, who were staring silently into one another’s eyes. “I’ll be right downstairs…and I’d like you to leave this door open, just so I can hear if you call, mind.”

Harry and Ginny tried to cover their sniggers as they hurried down the corridor and away from Mrs. Weasley. They burst into the library and collapsed on the couch, laughing madly. Suddenly, everything seemed much brighter in the world. Ron’s recovery had brought some hope back when it had been desperately needed.

Chapter Eighteen

Christmas with the Malfoys

Harry stood on the landing at Grimmauld Place, enjoying the holiday activity buzzing around him. It was Christmas Eve, and for this night they had all decided to leave the war and their troubles on the other side of the door. The stair railing was wrapped in evergreen with ribbons of maroon and gold plaited into the pine. It looked festive and elegant as Harry ran his hand along it, breathing in the heady scent of Christmas.

Mrs. Weasley had been in high spirits ever since Ron had awoken. Madam Pomfrey had checked him over twice and declared him fit and healthy, although his short-term memory still had some lapses. She credited Neville’s Mimbulus Mimbletonia as having a lot to do with Ron’s recovery. She said that she’d detected his awareness right below the surface on several occasions while checking his vital signs, and each time she’d placed the plant next to his pillow. Every time she’d done this, his stats had grown stronger.

Mrs. Weasley had made a huge tin of fudge and sent it over to Neville as a Christmas gift. Headquarters had been decorated as cheerfully as could be managed, and Mrs. Weasley hadn’t left the kitchen for several days as she prepared a huge Christmas Eve feast. Harry had opened accounts with several of the domestic shops in Diagon Alley, so Mrs. Weasley was able to shop at will.

Harry felt torn between happiness about Ron’s recovery and sadness that Remus wasn’t with them to celebrate. He’d only seen Tonks once since Remus had left. She’d stopped at headquarters for an Order meeting, but she’d looked tired and sad, and her hair was still mousy brown. She and Harry had commiserated over the fact that neither of them had heard a word from Remus. They each tried to make the other feel better by saying it was a good sign, and it meant that Remus was working on infiltrating Greyback’s den, but worry gnawed at both of them.

Hagrid had brought an enormous evergreen from the Hogwarts grounds, and they’d decorated it in the entrance hall. Several Order members had joined them for the Christmas Eve feast, and Harry noticed Mad-Eye Moody and Madam Pomfrey admiring the tree together. Harry smirked, suspecting that Moody’s presence at headquarters had a lot to do with Madam Pomfrey’s quick decision to stay while Ron recovered.

He could see Hagrid wearing an enormous apron full of frilly ruffles while helping Mrs. Weasley to carry platters of delectable-looking food into the formal dining room. Harry hadn’t been aware that Grimmauld Place even had a formal dining room until Mrs. Weasley had told them they’d be eating in there since there was such a big crowd. The door to the dining room was located directly opposite the kitchen, but it had always been closed, and Harry had assumed in was a broom cupboard.

The doorbell rang, and Harry moved to answer it, wondering who it could be. As far as he knew, everyone who’d been invited had already arrived. Professor McGonagall had arrived with Hagrid, and Tonks had declined the invitation. The Weasleys were all staying in the house, and none of them ever used the bell, anyway. He cautiously opened the front door,

holding his wand tightly just in case, and found Percy Weasley standing there with an armload of gifts.

“Percy!” Harry said, surprised. He hadn’t seen much of Percy since they’d returned from Albania, and the prodigal Weasley son still kept a stiff distance from the Boy-Who-Lived. Harry knew that Percy and Mr. Weasley spoke frequently at the Ministry, and Percy had kept his father informed of any new decrees that might affect them all. Mrs. Weasley spoke often of Percy, but none of his siblings appeared too eager to mend fences. Harry supposed it was up to Percy to take that first step on his own.

He helped the stray Weasley brother inside, relieving some of his burden.

“Hello, Harry,” Percy said stiffly, adjusting his horn-rimmed glasses. “My father mentioned that everyone would be here tonight to celebrate the Yuletide, and that I was welcome to drop by.”

“Of course you are,” Harry said, sharing a grin with Ginny behind Percy’s head. She’d just come out of the kitchen, and Harry could clearly read her amusement about Percy’s formal tone.

“Hi, Percy,” Ginny said, walking over to the two. “Happy Christmas.”

“Happy Christmas,” Percy replied, leaning down to peck Ginny on the cheek. “Ah, I see Mother over by the tree. If you’ll excuse me.”

Ginny nodded, and they watched him hurry toward Mrs. Weasley.

“Glad to see he loosens up for the holidays,” Ginny said with a wry smirk. She was wearing a long black velvet skirt with a shimmering green blouse that that was lined with gold flecks. She’d pulled her hair back from her face with a shiny gold hairclip.

“You look very festive,” Harry said, kissing her lightly.

“Thanks. It’s my Christmas present from Hermione. She let me open it early so I could wear it tonight,” Ginny said, spinning around. “Do you like it?”

Harry ran his hand along the sleeve, enjoying the soft texture of the material. “I do,” he said, smiling. He leaned over and whispered so only she could hear, “but I’d like it even better on the floor.”

Ginny’s eyes widened in surprise and a pretty pink blush spread across her cheeks. Harry grinned cockily, feeling very bold. It wasn’t often he could make her blush anymore, and he enjoyed being the one to tease her for a change.

“Do you?” she asked, raising her eyebrow.

Harry grinned wolfishly.

“Exactly how happy a Christmas do you think you’re going to get, Mr. Potter?” she asked, walking away from him while sashaying her hips as she moved toward Ron and Hermione.

Harry gaped for a moment before shaking his head and following her. He loved their verbal sparring matches even if he didn’t ever get the best of her. He didn’t mind. Really.

Ron and Hermione sat by the fire, Ron propped comfortably in a big, overstuffed easy chair. He held a gift on his lap and was shaking the box enthusiastically. Hermione sat next to him with a fond smile playing on her lips. She appeared more relaxed than Harry had seen her in weeks, although he noticed that she kept irritably scratching her head.

“Come on, Hermione, just give me one little hint,” Ron said, shaking the box again.

“No, Ron,” Hermione said, giggling. “You’ll just have to wait until morning.”

“Oh, he’ll never last, Hermione. He’ll do what he did when we were kids and open up all the gifts once everyone goes to sleep and wrap them back up again before morning,” Ginny said, laughing.

“You knew?” Ron asked, his face dropping.

“Of course I knew,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes. “We all did. You never wrapped them back up very well.”

“Ron, you didn’t,” Hermione said, sounding scandalized while absently scratching the back of her head.

“Did Fred and George slip some itching powder in your wig, Hermione?” Ginny asked, watching the other girl fidget.

“No,” Hermione said, exasperated. “It’s my own hair starting to grow back, but it’s driving me mad.”

“You could always just shave it again,” Ron said, tossing a piece of chocolate in his mouth.

Hermione scowled while Ginny whacked her brother on the arm. “Oh, that’s real helpful, Ron. You know, the twins might actually be useful for something. They have tons of products that make you itch, and they test all their products on themselves. I bet they’ve got some powerful anti-itch remedies stocked by now.”

“Oh, Ginny, that’s a wonderful idea,” Hermione said, craning her neck in search of Fred or George.

“Yeah, if you can trust anything they give you,” Harry said warily.

All of their expressions sobered for a moment.

“Well, they did help me with that bruising remedy last year, and I have to do something. I’ll just have to risk it,” Hermione said, shrugging.

“That’s my girl — live on the edge, Hermione,” Ron said, grinning. His grin faded slowly as they all laughed, however. “Why did you need a bruising remedy?” he asked, clearly confused.

“A telescope of Fred and George’s punched me,” Hermione replied easily. She was the only one who didn’t constantly get disconcerted by Ron’s frequent memory lapses. She would gently explain and move on as if nothing unusual had happened.

“Why did it punch you?” Ron asked, struggling with the memory.

“Sirius!” Ron said suddenly.

Hermione glanced nervously at Harry. “That’s right, Ron. We were worried about Harry.”

Ron smiled, pleased, and Ginny squeezed Harry’s hand

Harry looked up as a sudden silence fell across the rest of the room. Slowly descending the stairs was the group of Slytherins in residence at Grimmauld Place. Narcissa Malfoy led the way, her nose held loftily in the air. Harry noticed that even Draco, Pansy and Iris were dressed in robes, while Harry, Hermione and the younger Weasleys were all dressed in Muggle attire. Only the adults wore robes.

Narcissa had Transfigured her robes into black velvet ones with a silvery thread running through them. All of the Slytherins robes appeared rather tattered and frayed, despite the Transfiguration. The Malfoys and the Parkinsons had left their wealth and the vast majority of their belongings behind when they’d gone into hiding, and their few remaining clothing items were beginning to show the strain.

“Narcissa, Anastasia,” Professor McGonagall said, walking towards them. She wore her traditional black robes, but Harry noticed a tartan scarf wrapped around her neck. “How nice of you to join us. Please come in and sit down. I believe Molly is about to serve dinner.”

“Thank you, Minerva,” Anastasia Parkinson said graciously. “I’ve always enjoyed socializing a bit at Christmastime.”

“Yes. We’ve always hosted a grand affair at Malfoy Manor each year,” Narcissa said, her eyes glazing slightly with nostalgia. “And we always made certain to visit little gatherings just like this one on Boxing Day. The Malfoy family has always been known for our charity.”

“Yeah, that’s always the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the name Malfoy,” Harry said under his breath, but still loud enough to be heard.

Narcissa turned toward Harry, her eyes glittering dangerously. “Mr. Potter, how nice you can keep your wit as sharp as ever. You’ll need a sense of humor in the coming days.”

“It’s always helps to keep laughing,” Harry said, smiling tightly. “With half your guest list either already imprisoned in Azkaban or soon

to be on their way there, it’s not looking bright for your future Christmas party guest list, is it?”

“I wouldn’t count on that. The Malfoys always land on their feet — most Slytherins do. Take Severus, for instance,” Narcissa said, raising a finely-arched eyebrow. “He’s very good at choosing which side suits his best interests. He’s a natural survivor.”

“Can I offer you a drink, Narcissa?” Professor McGonagall asked, moving to stand between Harry and Mrs. Malfoy. She shot Harry a stern look before taking the woman’s arm and steering her away from the teens.

Harry’s blood boiled. Natural survivor or not, there was no way he’d allow Snape to slip away the next time.

“I can’t believe she has the nerve to insult you about charity when she’s a guest in your home,” Hermione said, seething.

“Harry,” Ginny said, touching his arm, “it’s Christmas. Ignore her for tonight. Enjoy the fact that you can lavishly spend the Black family fortune while the Malfoys have no access to their funds.”

Harry looked at her, startled for a moment, before a slow grin crossed his face. She was right, and that fact must be eating Narcissa alive since she’d insisted the Black fortune rightfully belonged to her. Suddenly, the party seemed much more festive. Fred and George stood nearby, taking the mickey out of Percy from what he could see, while Bill and Fleur were tucked cozily in the corner. Mr. Weasley was happily fiddling with the wireless and making the volume of Christmas carols rise and fall dramatically at random intervals.

Harry was celebrating Christmas with his friends and family, and he’d be damned if he’d let Narcissa Malfoy spoil it.

Draco moved toward the fire, Pansy and Iris draped on each arm. Iris had coiffed her hair in an elaborate knot. It appeared as if Pansy had tried to imitate the style, but it hadn’t quite worked, leaving stray tendrils to pop out in various locations.

“This is quaint,” Draco drawled. “Is this usually how you celebrate Christmas, Potter? I suppose that family of yours doesn’t have any desire to see you, not that they could enter an entirely magical home such as this one, anyway.”

“His cousin could if he wanted,” Ron snarled without thinking. A sharp glare from Harry caused him to snap his mouth shut, his eyes wide.

“You have a magical cousin?” Iris asked. “I thought your family was Muggle.” She sounded bored, as if she was only looking for a topic of conversation. Pansy, however, had narrowed her eyes shrewdly, listening intently to the conversation. Draco, too, appeared keenly interested.

“They are,” Harry replied tersely, noticing that Percy had also turned toward their conversation. “Since this is my home now, I suppose I’ll have to find a way to allow Muggle access.”

Harry was desperate to switch the subject the topic away from the Dursleys, and if he could infuriate Malfoy in the process, that was all the better.

“I’ve got loads of plans for this place after the war. I think there is a lot that could be done to improve Wizard/Muggle relations.”

“Ooh, Harry, that’s a great idea,” Hermione said, sitting up straighter. Harry wasn’t certain if she was playing along, or he’d really set her up on yet another campaign. “I have some ideas on what we could do.”

“You must be joking,” Malfoy said, his face growing pink. “This home has housed one of the most distinguished pureblood lines in all of Britain. My mother will never stand for it.”

“Your mummy really doesn’t get a vote,” Harry said cheekily.

“You’re a disgrace to your heritage,” Pansy said, glaring at Ginny. “How can you lower yourself to his level?”

“The Weasleys have long been blood traitors, Pansy,” Iris said in that same bored voice. “You know that.”

“I’d take him and all the people in this room over you and your prejudiced, narrow-minded view any day, Pansy. You’re a cow — always have been, always will be,” Ginny said, lifting her nose in the air.

“A cow?” Pansy shrieked, causing several in the room to turn and stare at them. “How dare you?”

“Oh,” Ginny said, smiling sweetly. “Happy Christmas.”

Pansy reached for her wand, but apparently thought better of it, perhaps remembering Ginny’s fondness for the Bat-Bogey Hex.

“Dinner is served,” Mrs. Weasley said, sticking her head out of the kitchen. Harry expected this would be the longest Christmas dinner of his life.

**–**–

Harry entered the dining room with Ginny on his arm, and they both took seats at the massive table. Candles glowed softly within glass candelabras ensconced on the walls. The centerpiece on the table was an elaborate floral arrangement amidst several more glowing candles. Harry paused a moment to happily take in all the decorations. They were beautiful and festive, and he enjoyed seeing Grimmauld Place looking so nice for once. This was what Christmas was supposed to be, and he thought Sirius would be proud.

He struggled against the dark thoughts that fought to turn to the idea that this would probably be his last Christmas. He was truly happy with the progress they’d made in finding the Horcruxes, but he couldn’t help feeling that each one destroyed was yet another nail in his coffin.

He swallowed heavily, the creamy eggnog suddenly not tasting as sweet.

“Are you all right?” Ginny asked, leaning close to whisper in his ear. Her warm breath caused a shiver to run up his spine. He looked up to find her concerned brown eyes watching him intently.

“I’m all right,” he replied, nodding resolutely. If it truly was to be his last Christmas, he’d better make it one worth remembering. “Happy Christmas,” he said, leaning over and kissing Ginny on the cheek.

“I saw Fred and George enchanting some mistletoe earlier. If we’re lucky we can find it after dinner,” Ginny said, grinning.

Harry waggled his eyebrows. “Yeah, but with my luck they enchanted it to stay away from you.”

Ginny giggled. “Nah, that’s more the kind of prank they’d play on Ron.”

“Who’s playing a prank on Ron?” Fred asked, taking the seat across from Ginny.

“Yeah, and how come they didn’t let us help?” asked George, seating himself across from Harry.

“And why are they bothering with Ron when Percy is here and makes a perfectly delightful target?” Fred asked, nodding toward Percy who was seated next to Mrs. Weasley.

“He only sat there because he thinks we wouldn’t dare do anything while he’s so close to Mum,” George said, grumbling.

“Well, he’s right, isn’t he?” Ginny asked, raising an eyebrow at her brothers.

“Aww, come on now, Ginny. Do you really think we’d let a little thing like Mum’s temper get in the way of our pranking abilities? This is serious business,” Fred said, his eyes sparkling.

“A little thing?” Ginny asked incredulously.

“Okay, so maybe a formidable thing, but still, there are always ways around it. You know the secret to Mum is to never let her build up her rant, right? Well, there are a few other little tricks we’ve learned through the years,” George replied, folding his arms behind his head.

“Tricks such as knowing the moment to strike with something really good is right when she’s the most pleased with us,” said Fred.

“Such as right after you gift her with a bright blue traveling cloak that she’s been fancying at Gladrags for several months,” George said with a wink.

“Uh oh,” Ginny said, grinning. “So, Percy can expect it right after presents, I suppose?”

Harry leaned back in his chair, grinning while he watched the siblings interact. He was eager to see what they had in store for Percy come

present time. Harry wasn’t certain he’d take Mrs. Weasley’s wrath so cavalierly. She was downright scary when she was upset.

“You two certainly spend a lot of time on your little tricks, don’t you?” Iris asked, entering the dining room behind Fred and George. She was dressed in red, and her eyes were sparkling. Harry thought she looked rather festive.

Fred started, taken aback, as if it had never occurred to him that someone might not find him truly funny.

“Did you get cornered by our mistletoe?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows. “Better not let your sister know if you were standing with Malfoy.”

Iris rolled her eyes. “I prefer my men a little bit…older,” she said, tossing her head and taking a seat with her family.

Fred watched her, mouth agape. Giggling, Ginny leaned across the table and pushed his chin upward to close it. Fred swatted her hand away.

“Better not let Mum see that,” Ginny said, chuckling.

A tinkling of laughter from the other end of the table caught Harry’s attention. He could see Pansy Parkinson giggling as Draco kept scooping up his green beans and transferring them to her plate.

Harry shook his head, feeling disconcerted seeing Draco act so…well, so normal. He didn’t like it. His ears perked up as he overheard the conversation taking place at that end of the table.

“You work at the Ministry, don’t you, young man?” Mrs. Parkinson asked, nodding at Percy. She was seated between her daughters, but Harry gave her credit for at least attempting to make conversation with the other dinner guests. As usual, Narcissa Malfoy was ignoring everyone but the Parkinsons and her son. Aside from Professor McGonagall, she rarely spoke to anyone else at headquarters.

“I do,” Percy replied, sitting up straighter. His gaze briefly flickered to his father, and Harry knew he was perplexed about what the Slytherins were doing there. Obviously, Percy hadn’t been included in everything going on at headquarters.

“How is Dolores managing? I know she had quite a traumatic time during her stint at Hogwarts. It’s nice to see how well she’s done for herself. She’s always been ambitious,” Mrs. Parkinson said, sipping her wine.

“Yes, some nasty business with the centaurs, wasn’t it?” Mrs. Malfoy asked, her nose held high in the air. “Dreadful creatures.”

“Yes, it was,” Mrs. Parkinson said. “I always thought Hogwarts allowed more leniency about certain things than they ought. I’d wanted to send Iris and Pansy to my own Durmstrang, but their father didn’t want them so far away.”

“And a good thing that was, too,” Iris said, her eyes filling as she dropped her fork on her plate, “or else we wouldn’t have had the time with Daddy when he was here. Excuse me.” Her voice choked up on her last few words. Covering her face with her hands, Iris stood and fled the table.

Fred watched her departure, frowning.

Mrs. Parkinson stood, nodding apologetically. “If you’ll excuse me. She’s having a difficult time without her father this year.”

“Of course,” Professor McGonagall said, nodding understandingly.

Pansy watched her mother and sister leave the room with a hardened expression upon her face. Draco leaned over and whispered something in her ear, but she shook her head emphatically.

Harry looked back at his own plate, his appetite suddenly gone. He certainly could understand how Iris felt. She’d only lost her father a few months ago, and she’d had loads of Christmas memories with him to haunt her. Harry only had the one here with Sirius and a few with Dumbledore at school, but somehow, both their losses seemed more painful at Christmastime.

The conversation became more subdued after Iris’s abrupt departure, but gradually, the remaining guests recovered. Harry could hear Hagrid telling Bill and Fleur a story of his adventures with Madam Maxime. Fleur laughed heartily, obviously sharing Hagrid’s fondness for her former Headmistress.

At the other end of the table, Percy continued to cast curious glances at Narcissa, Draco and Pansy, but he appeared unable to catch his father’s eye.

Narcissa placed another scoop of vegetables on her plate, then daintily shifted them around without actually eating them. “Tell me, how is Dolores handling the pressure? She’s always been one to have a plan. How does she propose Wizarding society deal with the Dark Lord?” she asked, addressing Percy.

Harry snorted angrily, but he held his silence, pushing his plate away.

Percy looked uncomfortable. He kept adjusting his glasses and tugging at the collar of his robes as he shifted in his chair.

“She’s ah…she’s attempting to come up with a compromise,” he said, pushing his glasses up so tightly that Harry could see a red indent on his skin.

“What does that mean, exactly?” Mr. Weasley asked, looking up sharply.

“She hasn’t done anything yet, but she’s compiling a list of compromises the Ministry would find acceptable,” Percy said, his voice dropping.

“Comprises to Voldemort?” Harry asked loudly, dropping his silverware to the table with a clang and causing several other conversations to stop as they looked toward him. To their credit, none at the table save the Slytherins cringed at the name. Harry watched as Moody’s eyes narrowed with disgust as he folded his arms across his chest.

“She says his problem is with Muggles, and that he feels their influence is contaminating the wizarding population. She’s hoping to come up with some guidelines that he’ll find acceptable,” Percy said, undoing the top button on his shirt collar.

“The only thing he’ll find acceptable is his word being made the ultimate authority and being able to kill anyone who stands in his way. She can’t be serious,” Harry said incredulously.

“She’s very serious,” Percy said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Some of the procedures she’s put in place are fantastic and a long time in coming. I think she’s capable of getting some things in order that have really been let go, but this… I’m not certain this is a good idea. She’s not listening to anyone who’s arguing against it, however. She even accused the current Head of the MLE division of treason when he voiced his concerns.”

“I’m not surprised that she’s looking into ways to strike a compromise. She’s always been partial to the purebloods, despite the fact she’s only a half-blood herself,” Narcissa said with a slight sneer.

“What kind of compromises does she feel are acceptable? Blocking Muggleborns from attending Hogwarts when it reopens or getting jobs at the Ministry?” Hermione asked, scowling. “More oppression and elitist attitudes, no doubt. It appears the Wizarding world can’t get enough of them.”

Percy winced. “I haven’t been privy to her list,” he said stiffly.

“I don’t believe this,” Hermione said, fuming. “She’s deemed herself some kind of modern day Neville Chaimberlain.”

The vast majority of witches and wizards at the table stared at Hermione blankly, but Harry saw Professor McGonagall nodding, a pleased expression crossing her stern features.

“Who?” Pansy asked scornfully, jabbing her mashed potatoes with her fork.

Hermione waved her hand in the air. “He was a Muggle Prime Minister who tried to peacefully negotiate with a madman. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.”

“A Muggle, you say?” asked Mr. Weasley eagerly.

“Yes,” Professor McGonagall said, nodding. “Miss Granger is correct . The Muggle to whom she’s referring was called Adolph Hitler, I believe. Prime Minister Chaimberlain tried to forge a peace treaty, but it ended up in tragedy with the loss of many lives.”

“Fascinating,” Mr. Weasley replied.

“Oh, really now, Arthur. We’re all aware of your odd obsession with Muggles, but this really has nothing to do with them,” Narcissa said disdainfully.

“There is nothing odd about my husband’s fondness for Muggles,” Mrs. Weasley said, her face growing alarmingly red. “It’s called compassion. Maybe you ought to try it sometime.”

Narcissa’s eyes narrowed. “Why should I have compassion for the Muggles? They mean nothing to me. Let them handle their own business.”

“It’s that kind of attitude that causes all the problems,” Hermione insisted. “Chaimberlain couldn’t negotiate a compromise because Hitler was uncompromising in his hatred.”

“What’s madness is your assumption that Wizarding matters have any similarity to Muggle politics,” Narcissa sniffed.

“I see tremendous similarities all the time,” Hermione said, firing up. “In fact, Hitler bore a striking resemblance to another Dark Wizard who was terrorizing the Wizarding world at the same time. I’m certain you remember the story of Grindelwald.”

“Grindelwald was a pureblood,” Narcissa snapped

“Or so he said,” Harry remarked lazily. “Voldemort likes to pretend he’s a pureblood, as well, but we all know he’s not.”

“Don’t speak such blasphemy,” Narcissa said, clutching her chest.

“It’s the truth; he’s a half-blood. His mum was a witch, but his dad was a Muggle who abandoned him before he was born,” Harry replied, noticing that several Weasleys looked up in surprise by that statement.

“How do you know that, Harry?” Mr. Weasley asked. “Did Dumbledore tell you?”

“Well, we talked about it, but it was Voldemort himself who told me. He went on and on about it both that night in the graveyard and when we were in the Chamber. His real name is Tom Riddle. I am Lord Voldemort is an anagram for Tom Marvolo Riddle. That’s his full name,” Harry said, shrugging.

“He won’t like you spreading that story around,” Draco drawled.

“Since when have I cared what he likes?” Harry asked.

Using her wand, Mrs. Weasley made all the empty dishes float into the air and begin hovering in a line towards the sink, which begun washing them with assembly-line precision. Several platters of pudding suddenly appeared on the table, with a large treacle tart placed directly in front of Harry. Harry could tell that she was upset by the jerky movements of her wand, and he felt bad for bringing talk of war to her Christmas dinner. He knew she’d worked so hard on it.

“Thanks, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, beaming at the treacle tart.

“Don’t you eat all of that in one sitting, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. “Errol was supposed to have delivered me another batch of vanilla extract, but he never arrived, so I could only make the one. Poor old thing, probably lying exhausted somewhere.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Is she trying to make up for your lack of mothering when you actually were six?” he asked, causing Pansy to snigger loudly.

“It’s Christmas, Malfoy. Certainly even you have heard of doing something nice for someone you care about just because you can,” Harry said, scooping up a large piece of the treacle tart.

“I would have loved to have done something nice for my mother or Pansy this Christmas, Potter, but since I’m stuck here with you and cut off from all my family’s funds, it’ll be a rather meager Christmas for us all this year,” Draco said, his lip curled.

“There are worse things than no presents,” Harry said quietly.

He noticed Ginny look up, her piercing gaze attempting to penetrate his very soul. He quickly looked away.

“Easy for you to say. You’re spending the Black family fortune like water through a sieve,” Malfoy spat.

“And I notice you’re enjoying some of that generosity, as well, Malfoy,” Ginny said, nodding toward his plate that was overflowing with different puddings. “You seem quick to scoff at Harry’s spending, but I don’t notice you feeling strongly enough to make a point and go hungry.”

“Of course not,” Draco said, sneering. “Why should I go hungry when there’s perfectly good food here? Besides, rightfully it should all belong to me anyway.”

“Oh, we’re back on this again, are we?” Ron asked, his mouth full of bread pudding.

“Shut it, Weasel. You’ve got no right to say anything about me accepting Potter’s charity since you’ve been living off it for years,” Malfoy said.

“And giving it in return,” Harry shot back, “seeing that it was his mum who made the treacle tart that started all this in the first place. It’s called friendship, Malfoy. You ought to try it sometime. A few real mates might do you some good.”

“I’ve got mates,” Draco said, puffing out his chest. “More than I need and plenty more than you’ve got.”

“Oh, ho, now that’s mature,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes.

“Ignore them, Draco,” Pansy said, cooing. “Let’s retire upstairs and have our own Christmas Eve celebration. We don’t need the likes of them.”

“Oh, that just spoiled my appetite,” Ron said, pushing away his half-eaten bowl of bread pudding.

“Why don’t we all move into the drawing room,” Mr. Weasley said, rising. “There’s a trio of wizards giving a performance of Christmas carols on the wireless. We can listen whilst we sip our cordials.”

Harry rose and followed the others into the drawing room, noticing Mrs. Malfoy had latched onto Draco’s arm and steered him into the room with her, despite Pansy’s irritated scowl. He and Ginny had hung back slightly, and Ginny stopped him at the dining room door beneath a sprig of Fred and George’s roaming mistletoe.

“I was hoping we’d find one of those,” Ginny said, grinning impishly.

“Hmm,” Harry said. “This is turning into a Happy Christmas after all.”

Before he could kiss her, however, Ginny placed her hands on his chest, a perplexed frown crossing her pretty face.

“Harry, what were you thinking when you said there were worse things than no presents?” she asked.

Harry shrugged, not certain where she was headed and really wanting to get back to the kissing.

“Just that I never had presents for Christmas before coming to Hogwarts, and it never really mattered all that much. I learned at a fairly young age not to expect them. What was worse was knowing there was no one to give them. D’you know what I mean?” he asked, feeling that old, familiar melancholy beginning to seep back into his thoughts.

“I think I do,” Ginny said sadly, running her fingers through his hair.

“I mean, here, Malfoy might not have access to all his money, but his mum is here, and Pansy and her family, too. He’s not alone,” Harry said, trying to put his thoughts into words.

Ginny watched him quietly, her fingers continuing to play with his hair. It was soothing; her presence always made him feel better.

“That mistletoe hasn’t run away yet, but we’d best make use of it before it finds another target,” Ginny said, looking up at the ceiling.

Harry leaned in again and wrapped Ginny in his arms. He’d no sooner begun to deepen the kiss when the mistletoe began bellowing in a high-pitched shriek.

“Snogging! There’s snogging going on here! This is a snogging alert, all persons engaged in snogging please keep your lips to yourself.”

Harry’s face turned scarlet as laughter erupted from the drawing room.

“Get on in here, Harry and Ginny,” Fred shouted.

“We all know what you’re doing down there, anyway,” George said.

“One of these days, I’m going to strangle those two,” Harry muttered, leaning his forehead against Ginny’s.

“One of these days,” Ginny said, sighing, “I’m going to help you do it. I think we could take them if we do it together.”

Harry grinned against her forehead. “It’s a plan, then.”

“Oh, Harrikins, Gin Gin,” George shouted, poking his head out the drawing room door. “We’re all waiting.”

“Harry, you’re coloring is perfect for this festive occasion. However did you manage that shade? We’ll have to bottle it and sell it for the holidays,” Fred said, taking the mickey out of Harry.

“Eau de Mortification,” George said.

“Does Ginny always have this effect on you, mate? Perhaps you should look into it. See a Healer, maybe. Does that color affect your entire body?” Fred asked, waggling his eyebrows.

Abashed, Harry kept his eyes fixed firmly on his feet, preferring to face Voldemort than look at either Mr. or Mrs. Weasley at that moment.

“Leave him alone,” Ginny snapped, cuffing each of her brother’s on the side of the head. She lowered her voice so only Fred, George, and Harry could hear her. “Or I’ll give you a description of the exact effects on his body in minute detail.”

“Oi, Ginny. That’s not funny,” George said, scowling.

“What’s happened to you, squirt? You’ve lost your sense of humor,” Fred said, aiming a withering look in Harry’s direction.

Ginny took Harry’s hand and led him away from the far less-exuberant twins. “One of these days,” Harry said, “you’re going to push them too far and get me beat up by the whole lot of your brothers. And I haven’t even really done anything yet.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” Ginny said, batting her lashes.

“My hero,” Harry muttered, rolling his eyes.

“Besides, by then maybe you really will have done something worthy of getting beaten up over,” she said, giggling as he choked on his drink.

Once again, Harry thought how much he enjoyed this verbal bantering with her; she could always make him smile. He briefly felt bad that he was enjoying himself while Remus was out there on his own somewhere, but he forced the guilt away. More than anyone, Remus would want Harry to enjoy his holiday and not spend it agonizing over things he couldn’t control. He owed it to Remus to make the most it.

Mr. Weasley turned on the wireless, and the conversations droned in the room as they all enjoyed the holiday cheer.

Ginny curled up next to Harry and pillowed her head on his shoulder as they listened to the music. Harry traced his hand along the gold threads of her blouse. Partially hidden by the immense Christmas tree, they had a small measure of privacy but could still hear the various conversations taking place within the room.

“Do you want your present early?” he asked quietly so that only she could hear.

Ginny sat up quickly, looking him up and down. “Do you have it with you?”

“Maybe,” Harry replied, grinning. “You’ll have to search for it.”

Ginny’s eyes widened. “Is that so? You’re feeling rather cheeky tonight, aren’t you, Mr. Potter? Do you think I won’t just because the rest of my family is so close?” Ginny asked.

Harry cocked his eyebrow. “Will you?”

When Ginny made a move to search his pockets, Harry laughed and pulled out the small gold box. “All right, all right. You win. You’re worse with presents than Ron,” he said.

Ginny grabbed the box and shook it. “No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are,” he replied, laughing as he watched her tear open the paper.

She crumpled the wrapping and tossed it at him. He ducked out of the way, and watched her closely as she unwrapped her gift, holding his breath slightly. She gasped as she opened the small velvet box. It contained a silver chain holding a circular pendant. Inside the circle rested an emerald-cut clear blue stone, appearing as if it was suspended there on its own.

“Harry,” Ginny said, breathing heavily. “It’s fantastic.”

“Do you like it?” he asked, feeling unreasonably nervous. He’d never picked out jewelry for anyone before.

“I love it,” Ginny said, sounding awestruck. “I’ve never owned anything so beautiful. Can you put it on me?” She sat forward and lifted her hair off her neck.

Harry clasped it for her, gently pulling some strands of her hair out of the way and kissing her neck before releasing her.

“The stone is an Aquamarine. I think the blue looks like the sea. According to Merpeople legend, it’s a lucky stone that represents a love so big, it fills the entire ocean,” he said, feeling his face heat as he recited the words the clerk at the jewelry store in Diagon Alley had told him. “I have the matching stone, and it’s supposed to help me find you if we’re separated.”

Harry liked that part of the story best. He didn’t really believe the folklore, but he liked the stone and thought it couldn’t hurt to have a way to find her if he ever needed it.

“It’s lovely, Harry,” Ginny said, looking down to admire the stone. “Where is your stone?”

“It’s in my pocket,” Harry said. “I’ll have to find a place to keep it safe.”

Ginny jumped up and sprinted over to the tree. She dug underneath it for a few moments before returning to him with a thin, straight box. She handed it to Harry, biting her lip.

“Open this,” she said.

Harry took the gift and began tearing at the paper at one end. Growing impatient, Ginny reached in and helped him to tear the paper away.

“Do you want to do this?” Harry asked, amused.

“You take so long to unwrap your gifts,” Ginny said, pulling off the last of the wrapping.

Harry lifted the box to reveal a braided rope bracelet. Its colors were red and gold and it was plaited several times over making an intricate pattern.

“Did you make this?” Harry asked, admiring the handiwork.

“Uh, huh,” Ginny said, still chewing on her lip. “I wasn’t certain if you’d wear something like it.”

“This must have taken you a long time,” Harry said, running his fingers over the details.

“I’ve been working on it for awhile,” Ginny said, nodding. “Here, look, the threads pull apart and you can keep your stone inside. That way, no one will know it’s there, but you’ll still feel its presence.”

Harry removed his Aquamarine stone and tucked it inside the bracelet. Holding his wrist out to Ginny, he allowed her to secure it for him.

“Thank you, Ginny. Happy Christmas,” he said, leaning over to kiss her.

“Happy Christmas, Harry,” Ginny said, smiling happily. She played with necklace, admiring the way it reflected the lights from the tree.

“Was this terribly expensive?” she asked, in a small hesitant voice.

“It really wasn’t,” Harry said, shaking his head. He wasn’t certain if Ginny would be as sensitive as Ron about Harry’s money. “They called it a semi-precious stone. Besides, I wanted to give it to you, Ginny. It took me a long time to find it.”

She continued to look at it. “I’m glad you took the time. That makes it mean even more. I’m never going to take it off, and you keep yours on, as well. Okay?”

“Whatever you say,” he said, not really listening. He tugged her closer to share another kiss, wishing the rest of the family wasn’t so near.

She curled back up beneath his arm, and Harry could swear she was almost purring. He enjoyed the time with her, snuggled together while they listened to the music and watched the twinkling of the Christmas lights, laughing at some of the others on occasion.

All too soon, midnight approached, and Percy said he had to go.

“Oh, must you leave?” Mrs. Weasley asked, disappointed. “It’s so dangerous to go out at night. Why don’t you just stay here until morning?”

“Actually, I have to work tomorrow,” Percy replied. “The Ministry is keeping a skeletal staff on duty just in case. Besides, I have a waiver for the curfew.”

Percy’s words had a sobering effect on everyone, reminding them all that the war was closer than anyone would like. The room was silent for a moment before Fred began singing along with the wireless to the tune of Silent Night.

George joined him, their voices surprisingly good — soulful and sad, yet full of hope at the same time, somehow. One by one, all the others in the room joined in, clasping hands and staying together through the haunting melody.

Harry’s chest filled with emotion as he held both Ginny’s and Hermione’s hands and sang carols with this rag tag group he called family. His gaze swept by Ron, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, and everyone else in this room, and he knew that no matter what happened in the coming year, if he found the last Horcrux or not, if he lived or died, this same group of people would be here next year, still fighting, still struggling to go on. That, more than anything, gave him a renewed determination to move forward. Gatherings like this one must be allowed to continue. For the first time, Harry began to understand the power that Dumbledore had told him was his greatest strength. This feeling inside him was more intense than anything he’d ever experienced — more intense even that the Cruciatus — and it was something Voldemort had never known.

Chapter Nineteen

Tightening of the Noose

Two days after Christmas, Harry informed the Order that he, Ron, Hermione and Ginny would be leaving for several days. As expected, no one was particularly pleased. They all wanted to know where the young people were going, and what they were planning to do. Harry could tell that Mrs. Weasley wanted to put them all in full Body-Binds and lock them in the attic, but to her credit, she restrained herself — if only just.

As promised, Harry gave the other half of the mirror that Remus had charmed to Mr. Weasley. He’d struggled with anxiety over having to give it to someone else. He’d always imagined it would be Remus with whom he’d keep in contact, but that was not to be. He’d considered giving it to Mrs. Weasley but suspected the temptation to check on them and ensure they were eating would be too much for her. He felt Mr. Weasley was the better option.

They departed in the morning, resolutely steeling themselves against Mrs. Weasley’s tear-stained face. Ron even hugged her twice as they said their goodbyes.

Hermione had done some research and found a small wizarding section in Canterbury around Rowena Ravenclaw’s ancestral home. She’d booked them a room in a local inn rather than having to pitch the tent in the snow, and they Apparated directly there.

Entering the establishment, they found a dimly lit pub similar to the Leaky Cauldron. This pub, however, appeared to cater to a more family-oriented clientele as there were several mothers chasing young children around a buffet breakfast. The tables were covered with paper tablecloths, and each held a container filled with child-sized colored quills.

Several of the patrons looked up as the teens entered, but the foursome kept their heads down as Hermione went to collect their room key. Despite her red wig, they’d reckoned she was the least recognizable of the four, so she’d be the one to have all contact with the innkeeper. Harry really didn’t want to be spotted immediately and have a crowd of reporters — or worse, Death Eaters — on his tail before he even began to search.

“I’ve got it,” Hermione said under her breath, jerking her head towards the narrow wooden stairway beside the bar.

The others followed her upstairs where she stopped at room number three. She opened the door to find a comfortable-looking room with two full-sized beds and a long, dusty dresser. The blankets on the bed appeared clean, but rather old and faded.

“Well, it’s not much, but it’ll do,” Hermione said, throwing her rucksack on one of the beds.

They’d only got the one room because they thought they’d be safer sticking together. Despite the fact they’d all shared a room when they’d used the tent over the summer, Harry felt apprehensive staring at the two beds. A burning warmth crept from his neck into his face, and he ducked his head so the others wouldn’t notice.

He and Ginny hadn’t done much more than some heavy petting — and he didn’t think Ron and Hermione had done more than that, either — but they’d been under constant supervision from the entire Weasley family. Ginny had way too many brothers, as far as Harry was concerned, and he’d always kept a wary eye on the door while he and Ginny were otherwise engaged. The prospect of Mrs. Weasley’s wrath had kept them all in line.

Still, he certainly didn’t plan on doing anything with Ron in the same room, but the knowledge that the opportunity was there caused his stomach to flutter. He stole a quick glance at Ron and noticed the perplexed frown on his mate’s face. Obviously, Ron’s train of thought had gone down the same track as Harry’s.

The girls, however, didn’t appear at all concerned. Hermione continued to remove items from her rucksack, while Ginny had jumped on the bed Hermione was using and proceeded to test which pillow she liked better.

“So…you’re both going to sleep there?” Ron asked, rubbing the back of his very red neck.

Hermione and Ginny looked up at him, blinking uncomprehendingly.

“Er…would you prefer this bed, Ron?” Ginny asked, her eyes suddenly sparkling. “Or would you just prefer my bed partner?”

“What? Of course not! Er…I mean…Hermione,” Ron whined, staring at Hermione. “You know what I meant.”

Her back ramrod straight, Hermione said, sniffing, “No, Ron, I don’t know what you mean. Perhaps you should explain yourself.”

Harry struggled not to laugh as he sat down on the other bed and looked at Ron with the most innocent expression he could muster.

“Shut it, Harry,” Ron said, glaring.

“I didn’t say anything,” Harry yelped. Obviously his expression wasn’t innocent enough.

“Since you’ve apparently got issues with me,” Hermione said waspishly. “You and Harry can share that bed, while Ginny and I take this one.”

“I’m not sleeping with Harry,” Ron said, spluttering. If possible, his ears had grown redder.

“Would you prefer I sleep with Harry then?” Hermione asked, her eyes narrowing.

Harry could barely control his grin. He bit the inside of his cheeks to keep a straight face.

“I’m used to sleeping in cramped quarters, so I don’t mind. Why don’t both Ginny and Hermione share with me, and Ron can have the other bed all to himself,” he said, barely containing his glee over the expression on Ron’s face.

“Okay,” Ginny said happily, leaping from her bed to Harry’s and snuggling down next to him. She twisted her new necklace in her fingers as she continued to wind up her brother. “Ron always did have problems sharing.”

“I don’t have problems sharing,” Ron said indignantly. “And you’re not sleeping with Harry…and neither is Hermione.”

“There are two beds, and four of us, Ron. You make the choice. You have to sleep with one of us, who’s it going to be?” Hermione asked, her hands on her hips. Harry could hear the challenge in her voice and was very glad he wasn’t in his friend’s shoes at the moment. Of course, to Harry the answer seemed painfully obvious.

Apparently, Ron felt the same way. He looked between Hermione’s cross face and Harry and Ginny sitting on the bed together, failing miserably at hiding their grins.

“Fine,” Ron said, throwing his hands in the air and glaring at Harry and Ginny. “You two had better behave yourselves. I’m sleeping on this side of the bed to keep my eye on you. Believe me, Harry, if you try anything with my baby sister, I’ll chuck you out the window.”

“What I choose to do or not to do is no one’s business but mine and Harry’s, Ron Weasley,” Ginny said, rising to her knees on the bed and glaring daggers at her brother. She reminded Harry of an angry sprite — beautiful and fiery, but dangerous to the touch.

“Not with me sleeping next to you, it isn’t,” Ron said, furiously.

“So you’re sharing with me, then?” Hermione asked, her arms still folded across her chest.

Ron spun around to face her, perhaps detecting the frigid tone in her voice. “Of course I am. I’m not sleeping with Harry or my sister.”

Harry shut his eyes, cringing. Ron never was very good at picking up subtle body signals.

“Oh, I see. So, I get you by default? Lucky me,” Hermione said, her eyes suddenly bright.

“Don’t be daft,” Ron said. “If it were my choice, I’d always choose to sleep with you. I’d just rather they weren’t in the room. You’re always my choice, Hermione.”

Hermione’s face softened as her eyes glowed warmly at Ron. Sniffling slightly, she waved a hand in front of her face as if she was warm.

“All right, now that the sleeping arrangements are settled, let’s get to work. We’ll have to split up to cover as much ground as possible.”

Ron stared at her incredulously. “The entire Wizarding section only covers about two streets. How much information could there possibly be?” he asked.

“It is Ravenclaw’s hometown,” Ginny said. “I imagine there’s some kind of museum, and the rest of the village probably contains lots of references to everything about her life.”

“Exactly,” Hermione said. “The same way Liverpool is devoted to the Beatles.”

Ron stared at her blankly. “They’re devoted to bugs?”

Hermione rolled her eyes, huffing. “How you can be completely unaware of anything to do with Muggle history is beyond me.”

“Yeah? Well, Muggles are completely unaware of stuff I know, too,” Ron said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Yes, but that’s only because they don’t know wizards exist,” Hermione snapped waspishly. “We don’t have time to stand around arguing all morning. We need to get moving.”

“What’s the rush, anyway?” Ron asked, and Harry suspected he was simply being obstinate. He and Ginny sat on their bed watching their friends row with weary expressions.

“Everyone in the pub has given us at least a curious stare. It won’t take long before someone recognizes Harry,” Hermione said, jabbing her finger in Harry’s direction.

Harry suddenly sat up straight, alarmed. “You’re right. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voldemort has an informant here somewhere, anyway. He has no way of knowing how much Dumbledore knew about the Horcruxes, so it stands to reason he’s watching all of the possibilities.”

“You’re right; we’ll have be wary. Constant vigilance,” Ginny said, smiling weakly.

“Let’s search until we’re spotted, then we’ll make another public stop in Diagon Alley just in case anyone is tracking our movements. Your dad can help us alert the press there,” Harry said, nodding at Ginny.

“You and Ron find out where the museum is,” Hermione said bossily. “Ginny and I will do some deeper digging.”

**–**–

Harry and Ron spent the entire day in the Rowena Ravenclaw Museum. It hadn’t been difficult to find, and Harry suspected the entire village had been built around it. Still, Harry didn’t feel it had been a productive day. Perhaps because he really didn’t know much about any of the Hogwarts Founders, he felt as if he was searching for a needle in a haystack.

He didn’t notice any one particular item that was always with her in any of the portraits he’d seen, and none of the texts mentioned anything of great significance that might have been used as a Horcrux.

Running his hands through his very untidy hair — he’d been tugging at it all day — he slammed the book shut. This was a waste of time. It didn’t have to be anything significant, it just had to belong in Ravenclaw. He doubted he’d ever find any written mention of Hufflepuff’s cup, either, but that hadn’t stopped Voldemort from using it as a Horcrux.

“Any luck?” Ron asked, his eyes red and bleary.

“This is hopeless — it could be anything,” Harry said, feeling discouraged.

“Even if we find what we think it might be, it still doesn’t tell us anything about where he’s hidden it,” Ron said, moaning. “We’ve been at it all day, and it doesn’t help that I keep forgetting what I’m looking for in the first place. I’m starving.”

Feeling his own stomach rumble, Harry decided to call it a day. Ron’s memory was continuing to improve, but there were still lapses, and Harry didn’t want to push it. “Come on. Let’s go back to the inn and order some food. Maybe the girls had better luck.”

Harry followed Ron through the door, but just as they stepped outside, he grabbed Ron’s arm and pulled him back into a nearby alley.

“What the-” Ron started to complain, but Harry slapped his hand over Ron’s mouth and dragged him behind a group of rubbish bins.

“Shh,” Harry whispered, nodding his head in the direction of the street.

He and Ron watched as an enormous blonde wizard with a hardened face slowly strolled into sight. He moved carefully, his small eyes roving and peering into storefronts and around corners, as if he was looking for something.

“Who’s that?” Ron asked, squinting his eyes. “I’ve seen him somewhere.”

Harry nodded, motioning for Ron to keep his voice down. “He was with Malfoy the night…on the Astronomy tower,” Harry replied, keeping his eyes fixed on the blonde Death Eater.

The brutal-faced man suddenly turned towards the open alleyway, as if he knew he was being watched.

Harry’s blood chilled and his body tensed. He clutched Ron’s shoulder tightly, prepared to fling him out of the way of any curses. He held his breath, hearing Ron’s ragged breathing beside him. He worried that it sounded so loud in the darkening alley that the Death Eater was certain to hear him. Dusk was spreading over the village, at least offering Ron and Harry more shadows in which to hide. If the man chose to walk into the alley, however, there was no way he could miss them. Harry cursed himself for leaving his Invisibility Cloak back at the inn.

The huge Death Eater drew his wand. “Lumos,” he muttered, causing the tip to illuminate. “Who’s there? Show yourself or face the wrath of the Dark Lord.”

Ron’s eyes widened as the man began walking down the alley, kicking at stray bins along the way.

Harry clutched his wand, knowing there was no way out. He wished he knew where Ginny and Hermione were before he called so much attention to them. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. He’d never been the best at wordless spells, but it was certainly worth a go, and he always performed better under pressure.

Covering both Ron and himself with his wand, Harry cast a Disillusionment Charm just as the blonde Death Eater reached their hiding spot. He felt a cold trickle down his back alerting him that he’d been successful. He waited a few more moments, letting the man continue a bit further into the alley, before grabbing Ron’s unseen arm and tugging him out of the alley.

Once they reached the inn, Harry wordlessly removed the spell.

“Harry, that was brilliant. Where’d you learn to do that? I thought you were still struggling with wordless magic,” Ron said. “Feels a bit strange though, doesn’t it?”

Harry shrugged. “Practice. Let’s get upstairs and see if the girls are there. I hope they didn’t run into any trouble.”

Both girls were already in the room, however, and from their anxious, angry expressions, Harry reckoned they’d been waiting for a while.

“Where have you been?” Ginny asked, stomping her foot in a remarkable impression of her mother.

“We’ve been worried sick,” Hermione said, placing her hands on her hips. Harry thought she did a pretty good job of channeling Mrs. Weasley, too. “From now on, we have to set up times to check in with each other so we know when to worry.”

“Yeah, timing our worry. That should be right high on the priority list,” Ron said, rolling his eyes.

Harry cringed, knowing Ron was in trouble. Sometimes his friend just didn’t know when to hold his tongue.

Hermione’s face turned scarlet. “It is a high priority since we had no idea if you were in trouble or not, or if we should have gone for help. How would you like it if it was Ginny and me who’d been missing?”

“We would have just gone looking for you,” Ron said, incredulously.

“All right, all right,” Ginny said, moving in between the two of them. “Enough with the ‘he said, she said.’ You two can row later. I want to know what happened.”

“We had a narrow escape from a Death Eater near the museum. I don’t think he knew it was us, but he definitely noticed someone,” Harry said. “The area is obviously being watched.”

“Which is a good sign, right? If Voldemort is worried you’ll find something here, maybe it is something of Ravenclaw’s we’re seeking,” Hermione said, rubbing her chin.

“Maybe,” Harry replied, shrugging. “I don’t see how we’re making any progress here, though. Ron and I spent all day in the museum, and we’ve got nothing.”

“I don’t think so,” Hermione said.

“Why? Did you find something?” Ron asked, still looking rather disgruntled.

“Nothing specific, but in every portrait or description that we found, she’s always wearing some kind of jewelry. Jewelry can be easily passed down and is strong enough to survive through the years. If there are Ravenclaw relics still around, I’d bet they’re pieces of jewelry,” Hermione said,

Harry scratched his head. That made sense, but it really didn’t help them all that much. “I still think we’re better off searching the places connected to Voldemort that Dumbledore showed me. Once we figure out the place, then we can watch for any kind of jewelry.”

“Give me one more day here, Harry,” Hermione said. “There are a few more shops I’d like to go to, and if we can narrow down the piece at all, it would certainly help.”

“All right,” Harry said, nodding. “I’m going to contact Mr. Weasley and ask him to drop a hint to the press that I’ll be in Diagon Alley in two days. That way, even if the Death Eaters suspect that I’m here, it’ll throw them off.”

Harry opened his rucksack and dug out the mirror. After breathing on it heavily enough to create a fog, he said, “Mr. Weasley.”

Nothing happened for several moments, and Harry was about to try again when Mr. Weasley’s concerned face appeared.

“Harry? Are you all right?” he asked.

“We’re fine, Mr. Weasley. We’re all fine,” Harry replied.

“Hi, Dad,” Ginny said, peering over Harry’s shoulder.

Mr. Weasley’s face relaxed, his usual cheerfulness returning. “Glad to hear it. Hello, Ginny. Your mother will be so relieved. What can I do for you?”

“We’re going to be in Diagon Alley the day after tomorrow. D’you think you could let one of your press contacts know?” Harry asked.

Mr. Weasley’s face clouded. “Ah, I’ll see what I can do, Harry.”

“What’s wrong, Mr. Weasley?” Harry asked, watching the older man shift uncomfortably.

“Several more reporters who’ve been critical of the Ministry and the idea of any kind of truce with You-Know-Who have gone missing. Most of those who’ve disappeared have been sympathetic to the Order,” Mr. Weasley said, sighing heavily.

“Missing? D’you think Voldemort has had something to do with it?” Harry asked, his shoulders stiffening.

“No. I don’t think so. There hasn’t been a Dark Mark spotted over any of their homes, and the Death Eaters have been meticulous about using them all across Britain,” Mr. Weasley replied.

“That could be intentional though,” Hermione said, peering over Harry’s other shoulder so she could see Mr. Weasley’s reflection. “I mean, they could purposely not use it if they were doing something they wanted to keep quiet, right?”

“I suppose, but I don’t think so,” Mr. Weasley said, scratching his head. “There have been several Ministry officials who’ve opposed Umbridge who have also gone missing. She’s tightening her grip on power and accusing anyone who disagrees with her of treason.”

“The old bat,” Ron said, scowling.

“Be careful of her, Dad,” Ginny said, her brow knitting. “She’s sadistic — just look at what she did to Harry’s hand.”

“I’m aware of her methods, pumpkin. Don’t worry about me; you watch out for yourselves. I’m afraid of what’s going to happen the next time there’s trouble, and I’d prefer it if you four weren’t anywhere in the vicinity,” Mr. Weasley said sternly.

“Why, what else has happened?” Harry asked.

“There was another new Decree issued today detailing the rules Aurors must follow for engagement with Death Eaters. Umbridge is trying so hard to appease You-Know-Who that she’s created so much red tape it’s nearly impossible for the Aurors to act in a crisis. The first attack under these orders will be devastating,” Mr. Weasley replied, his mouth set in a grim line.

“Great,” Harry muttered under his breath. “All right, Mr. Weasley. Just see what you can do about alerting someone in the press that I’ll be in Diagon Alley in two days.”

“Will do, Harry. Take care of yourselves,” Mr. Weasley said before his image faded.

**–**–

Harry awoke on the morning of their planned trip to Diagon Alley feeling so warm and peaceful that he didn’t want to rise. He was spooned around Ginny and stray wisps of her hair were tickling his nose. They had been extremely chaste as they went to bed each night they’d been in the inn. Ron’s presence in the room cooled Harry’s ardor considerably. Still, sometime during each night his instincts would take over, and he’d awake to find himself wrapped in Ginny’s embrace. It was something he could easily get used to, and he worried about it.

The closer he got to finding the last hidden Horcrux, the closer Harry got to having to make some painful decisions. He sometimes wondered if he was subconsciously putting off finding information on Ravenclaw. He knew he had to do it, but the idea terrified him. This little glimpse of what a life with Ginny could be like — waking up each morning wrapped in her arms — was both painful and sweet. Life had never been

exactly easy on him, but somehow, the idea of having to give up this newfound contentment was more than he could bear.

As if sensing his inner turmoil, Ginny shifted in her sleep, rolling over and snuggling up to him, her nose buried in his chest. Harry wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close and allowing his tension to abate. Professor Dumbledore had told him that his greatest strength was love. Harry didn’t really understand how that would help him defeat Voldemort, but he did know that she made him feel better than he ever had. Perhaps this feeling she gave him inside — this intense desire to live — was what would aid him in the end.

He knew Voldemort feared death. He wanted to live simply because he dreaded the alternative, not because life was offering him something rewarding. Harry felt a brief flicker of sympathy for Tom Riddle, never having experienced the extraordinary fullness someone like Ginny could have made him feel.

Still, even if that would help Harry defeat Voldemort in the end, it didn’t solve the problem of the piece of Voldemort’s soul that still resided inside him. He knew Hermione was right — the objects containing Voldemort’s soul could be left intact after destroying the Horcrux. He still had all the artifacts to prove it, except the locket. It had sunk to the bottom of the lake with the Inferi whose neck it had been wrapped around. Still, Harry had seen it as the Inferi slipped beneath the water and knew it had remained whole.

So, the artifacts had all survived, battered and worn, but he couldn’t see a way to get a Horcrux out of him without taking his own life. He tugged at the rope bracelet he wore around his wrist. The aquamarine stone tucked inside was warm and comforting against his skin.

Harry sighed, the image of the Veil that had taken Sirius from him flickering in his mind. He wondered if it had been painless. The idea of using the Veil haunted his thoughts, but he was held back by the idea of leaving Ron, Hermione, and particularly Ginny behind with the same vivid nightmares he had of losing Sirius.

He glanced over at Ron and Hermione, both sleeping soundly in the other bed. Ron was sprawled with his arms open wide, taking up much more than his half of the bed. Hermione, wearing the blue kerchief she still used at night when she removed her wig, was snuggled next to him, using his arm as her pillow. Harry had watched her awake each morning, blindly reaching for her red wig the same way Harry reached for his glasses.

With time slipping away, Harry felt he really should write each of them a goodbye letter, explaining how much they all meant to him. It was something he would’ve liked to have had from Sirius, and he knew he’d never be able to vocalize his feelings for them. Still, putting his thoughts in writing made the whole thing so much more real and…close.

He shuddered involuntary, and Ginny’s eyes fluttered open. She blinked a few times, orienting herself to where she was, before looking up at him with sleepy eyes.

“Morning,” she said, burrowing into the warmth of his body.

“Morning,” Harry said, leaning over to kiss the crown of her head. “Did you sleep well?”

“Um-hmm. I like sleeping with you,” she said.

Harry felt a flush of warmth fill his chest. “I like sleeping with you, too — even if we really are sleeping,” he said cheekily.

He felt Ginny’s body tremble as she chuckled. “Don’t let Ron hear you, he’ll jump into this bed and lie between us.”

“Eww,” Harry said, screwing up his face. “Nice way to ruin a fantasy, Ginny.”

“A fantasy,” Ginny said, laughing. “Am I in your fantasies, Harry?”

“You’ve been starring in my fantasies since long before we even started dating,” Harry said, chuckling as he remembered fervently hoping he hadn’t talked in his sleep while sharing a dormitory with Ron.

“Hmm,” Ginny said, looking extraordinarily pleased. “Good.”

“Good?” Harry asked. “Good? So, you like that, do you?” He rolled over so she was pinned beneath him and begin tickling her sides until she was gasping for breath.

“Harry!” she squealed, trying to squirm away. “Stop! I mean it, stop!”

“Not until you admit I won this round,” Harry said, laughing at her protests.

“Stop it,” Ginny shrieked. “Harry, get off me.”

Harry was about to release her when felt himself being bodily flung through the air, his arms flailing. He landed on the floor in a heap and before he could even get his bearings, he was lifted up and pinned against the wall with an arm digging into his throat.

“What the bloody hell did you think you were doing?” Ron’s livid face loomed above his.

Dazed, Harry struggled to remove Ron’s arm, finding it impossible to catch his breath.

“Ron!” Ginny shouted. “Let him go right now.”

“Ron, he can’t breathe,” Hermione said, hastily adjusting the red wig on top of her head.

“Ron,” Ginny said, reaching up to pinch Ron’s ear between her fingers and twisting it with a wrench.

“Ow!” Ron yelped, releasing Harry so suddenly he again fell to the floor.

Rubbing his neck, Harry struggled to regain his breath as he scowled at Ron.

“What are you doing?” Ginny asked, finally releasing Ron’s very red ear.

“Ginny, that hurt,” Ron whinged, rubbing it.

“What are you on about?” Harry demanded, finally finding his voice. He pulled himself to his feet, clenching his fists.

“What were you doing to my sister?” Ron asked, as if suddenly remembering why he’d been angry.

“It’s called tickling, Ron, and most people don’t get flung across the room for it,” Harry said, snapping. He’d had enough of Ron’s over-protectiveness, and quite frankly, was rather hurt. Certainly, by now, he’d proved his intentions towards Ginny were honorable.

“Tickling?” Ron said, dumbfounded. “I heard her shouting at you to stop.”

“Of course I was shouting,” Ginny said, exasperated. “He was winning.”

“Oh,” Ron said, deflating a bit as he glanced warily at Harry.

Harry grabbed his jeans and a t-shirt and stalked towards the door. “I’m going to have a shower. I’ll try not to accost anyone on my way,” he said irritably.

“Harry,” Hermione called, but he ignored her, slamming the door shut on his way out. He knew he was the one being irrational now, but he was on edge, and Ron’s assumption bothered him. The other Weasley brothers he could understand, but Ron should know him better than that.

**–**–

They arrived in Diagon Alley later that afternoon. Their interaction had been stiff and uncomfortable all morning with each boy stubbornly nursing his own pride. Ginny and Ron also weren’t speaking, leaving Hermione acting as a go-between among all of them. Harry was just as happy to leave the inn; he was tired of feeling confined.

Diagon Alley was quieter than Harry remembered. Several more of the shops had been closed and boards covered more windows since the last time he’d been here. Fewer people were on the street, and those who had ventured out appeared wary and skittish, hurrying along with their errands without making eye contact.

Harry hadn’t given Mr. Weasley a specific location where he’d appear, and they’d decided to use this rare freedom to do some window-shopping. It was bitterly cold, however, causing Harry to wish he’d made a more specific plan. Pulling his cloak tightly around his body, he turned his back towards the wind.

“Let’s head towards Fred and George’s shop,” Ginny said, raising her voice above the frigid blast of wind that suddenly gusted. “There’s usually a crowd there and you’ll probably be spotted fairly quickly.”

“Brush your hair off your forehead,” Ron said crossly, tugging Hermione’s arm as he began walking. “Your scar is barely visible. Don’t hide it if you want to be seen.”

Harry scowled at Ron’s back, but moved his fringe aside, feeling suddenly vulnerable.

Ginny pulled her scarf up so she could bury her nose, and slipped her hand in his. “Come on,” she murmured. “It’s just for a little while.”

The four walked towards Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes hunched from the chill. The pit in Harry’s stomach grew as he noticed the abundance of closed shops. The combination of Voldemort and Umbridge was wreaking havoc on the Wizarding world, and the worse part was they were allowing Umbridge to do it.

“Harry, you’re hurting my hand,” Ginny said, trying to pull her hand from the death grip he had on it.

“Oh!” he said, starting. “Sorry, Ginny. I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Obviously,” she said, working her fingers in and out inside her fuzzy yellow mittens. “What’re you so cheesed off about, anyway? Is it this nonsense of Ron’s? He’s just being Ron — it takes awhile for his brain to catch up with the rest of him sometimes.”

Harry snorted. “Nah, I don’t know what’s bothering me. Something just doesn’t feel right-”

“Oi, Ron! Ginny!” Fred shouted, poking his head outside the door of his shop. “Dad said you lot might stop by this afternoon. What’s happening?”

Harry craned his neck to peer inside. There were a few scattered customers in the aisles, but nothing like the crowd he’d seen the last time he’d been here. “How’s business?” he asked.

Fred shrugged. “It’s been slow, but the mail order catalog is booming. People are afraid to go out.”

“Probably a good thing or Um-bint might make a decree declaring it illegal to shop here next,” George said, scowling.

Ron, Ginny, and Harry sniggered at the insult, and even the corner of Hermione’s mouth twitched.

“We’re not her favorite people,” Fred said, scratching his chin. “I can’t imagine anyone not loving us, can you?”

“Pansy and Iris don’t seem to care for you much,” Ginny said, sniggering. Fred scowled and looked away.

“Dad said you needed to be spotted somewhere public. The shop next door sells coffee and has a big open window. Care to take a stroll and grab a cuppa?” George asked.

“All right,” Harry replied.

“Can you watch the store for a tic, Shannon?” George called to the pretty girl behind the counter. She nodded and the twins led them outside.

“Who’s she?” Ginny asked. “She’s new.”

“Yeah. We keep losing employees. We suspect some of them are being pressured by the Ministry to disassociate themselves with us. Apparently, Um-bint holds a grudge,” Fred replied. “Shannon can be a bit flaky, but George likes her.”

George flushed and kept walking.

It wasn’t difficult to get a large table by the window because the shop was nearly deserted. They’d just placed their orders when the entire shop shook from the force of a blast somewhere down the street.

“What was that?” Hermione asked, alarmed.

“Dunno,” Fred said, standing up to peer out the window. The second blast knocked him to his knees. Coffee cups rattled on the table, and Harry heard something shatter in the kitchen.

The few patrons in the shop glanced at each other warily, uncertain whether or not to flee. Harry helped Fred to his feet and looked outside. To his horror, he could see half the street in flames. Death Eaters were walking unhindered, blasting spells at various shops along the way. They appeared to be gathering around the shops near Gringotts.

Harry turned around. Their waitress had backed against the counter, a panicked expression on her face.

“Do you have a Floo connection here?” he asked.

The girl merely stared back at him, her eyes flicking to the chaos outside.

“Listen to me,” Harry said, speaking softly but firmly. “Do you have a working Floo?”

The girl nodded, her eyes wide.

“I want you to go right now and make an emergency call to the Ministry. Have them send Aurors here straightaway,” Harry said.

The girl nodded again but didn’t move.

“Now,” Harry said, louder this time.

She jumped, casting Harry a terrified expression. Whimpering slightly, she turned and fled towards the kitchen. Harry turned back to the door where Hermione was standing, peering outside.

“Hermione, I need you to go back into the twins’ shop and use their Floo to alert the Order,” he said, swallowing heavily. “Be careful and keep your eyes open. They haven’t come this way yet, but if they do, I’d expect Fred and George’s shop to be a prime target. Take Shannon and get out if they come this way.”

Hermione nodded, her eyes meeting Ron’s briefly before she turned and slipped out the door.

“Be careful,” Ron called after her.

“What do you want us to do, Harry?” George asked.

“We’ve got to try and slow them down until help arrives,” Harry said, gripping his wand tightly. “Ginny, keep these people inside. Use the Floo or take them out the back if the Death Eaters move this way.”

Hearing the words ‘Death Eaters’ confirmed to the handful of other patrons what was happening outside. There were several screams as people pushed back their chairs and started running towards the door.

Harry stood in front of it, blocking their exit. “Listen to me. You’re safer in here than out there right now. You have to remain calm. Help is on the way.”

Grumbling, the patrons retook their seats, staring nervously between Harry and the window.

“I’m not staying behind here, Harry,” Ginny said.

Harry turned his attention towards her and realized too late how livid she was. Her jaw was set in a determined scowl, and her eyes flashed brightly, daring him to argue with her.

“If you try and leave me behind, I’ll be out that door two steps behind you. I can handle myself, and the four of you are no match for all those Death Eaters. You need all the help you can get,” she said fiercely.

Harry knew she was right. He did need the help, and she could handle herself. Knowing that didn’t help with the more primitive side of himself that wanted her safe and protected at all costs, however. He twisted his lips, struggling.

Finally, he turned toward the door and swore violently. “Fine, follow me and stay together.”

“Harry!” Ron said. “You can’t let her come. She’ll get hurt.”

“Shut it, Ron,” Ginny said, pushing her brother aside. “I’ve helped carry you out the last two times we’ve had trouble.”

The twins’ each covered a smirk as they moved out of the way, allowing Ginny to pass. Clutching their own wands, they followed Ginny out the door. Harry quickly joined them, leaving Ron to follow in their wake, spluttering.

“Harry!” he said.

“We don’t have time for this,” Harry snapped. “We all stick together. We’re going to stay on the right side of the street, it’s more shadowed. The Death Eaters are focused on their destruction, and they don’t appear to expect any resistance. When we’re close enough for our spells to hit them, we need to take cover first. Understand?”

The others nodded, their faces grim but determined.

Crouching low, Harry led them down the suddenly deserted street, ducking his head against the icy wind. New explosions shook the ground every few moments with alarming frequency. He could hear the laughter and crude jokes from the Death Eaters, but the street itself was eerily deserted. When they’d walked this way less than an hour ago, there had been a few scattered shoppers and several open shops, now it resembled a ghost town. Harry imagined everyone was inside, seeking cover.

As they neared the first burning shop, Harry could feel the heat on his face from the burning buildings. The temperature outside seemed to rise the closer they got to the bank. Heavy smoke filled the air, making it difficult to see what was happening. He jerked his head towards an alleyway where several rubbish bins lay scattered. The Weasleys took cover behind them.

“Back in the rubbish again,” Ron muttered.

“Ron, get down,” Fred shouted, pushing Ron to the ground as a jet of green light came speeding down the alley.

Muffled shouts and curses sounded from the street ahead. Fred dragged Ron behind the bins.

“Bloody hell. Thanks, Fred,” Ron said, looking slightly dazed.

“I saw someone go this way,” a harsh voice sounded ahead.

The air was suddenly filled with the sounds of Apparition. Multiple cracks and pops filled the air as witches and wizards dressed in Ministry uniforms arrived on the scene. The flashes from curses being fired became brighter and more intense.

“Stupefy,” Harry shouted.

A beam of red light shot from his wand and Stunned the Death Eater who had followed them into the alley. Peering around the corner of a building, Harry could see Ministry Aurors fanning out and taking cover all along the street. The Death Eaters were casting spells at them with fierce intensity, and it took a moment for Harry to comprehend that the Aurors weren’t returning spells at all.

“What are they on about?” he asked no one in particular, horrified to see the Aurors being slaughtered.

“What’s happening?” Ginny whispered behind him.

“The Aurors have arrived, but they aren’t casting any spells. The Death Eaters are making it look like child’s play,” Harry said, stunned.

He watched as the lead Auror made several attempts to negotiate with the Death Eaters, the majority of which were holed up on the steps of Gringotts. He felt his stomach clench in disgust as several of the Death Eaters used the Levicorpus spell to dangle the bodies of dead Aurors in the air.

“Stupefy,” George yelled, his face contorted in rage.

One of the Death Eaters who’d been desecrating the bodies slumped over, but his victim fell to the ground in a heap as well. George’s Stunning spell alerted the others to their location, and a barrage of curses began pelting off the walls and against the bins in the alleyway.

“Back, move back,” Harry shouted, pushing Ginny out of the way.

Ron, Fred and George took one side of the alley, while he and Ginny backed against the other. If the Death Eaters swarmed, they were trapped. Harry’s eyes scanned frantically, finally settling on a rusty, metal fire escape located several meters above their heads. He was startled by a loud crack not far from where he and Ginny were standing. Several more cracks followed in rapid succession.

“Potter,” Mad-Eye Moody said, appearing suddenly alongside Hestia Jones. “What’s the situation?”

Moody and Jones volleyed several spells back and forth with the attacking Death Eaters. They were the first spells to be aimed at the Death Eaters directly since Harry had arrived on the scene. He saw Bill and another witch he didn’t recognize joining Ron and the twins. They all began aiming spells towards the steps of Gringotts. Several other Order members had also joined the fray.

“Those Aurors aren’t using any spells. They’re trying to negotiate with them,” Harry said, ducking as a stream of purple light was shot near his head.

Moody returned fire, taking out two Death Eaters before lowering his wand again.

“What do you think you’re doing?” an Auror asked, crouching low as he ran up to them.

“We’re saving your arses,” Moody snapped. “Why aren’t you trying to stop them? They’re using Unforgiveables.”

As if to prove his point, the screams of an Auror obviously being subjected to the Cruciatus filled the air.

The Auror eyes flickered before his stony expression returned. “We’re following new Ministry guidelines to attempt to achieve a peaceful settlement to the crisis,” he said in a monotone.

“Bollocks,” Moody replied. “This is more of Umbridge’s mess.”

The Auror clenched his jaw tightly. “We have our orders. There are strict, Ministry-sanctioned guidelines that must be followed. There is to be no spell-use until we receive the appropriate signal from our commander.”

“And who is your commander?” Moody asked, growling. “Can’t he see that your people are being devastated?”

“Dawlish,” Kingsley Shacklebolt said, approaching them. His eyes briefly glanced at Harry, but he gave no sign of recognition. He turned to the Auror standing with Moody. “Sir, Bradford and Hennessey are down, leaving you the next in command. What do you want to do?”

Kingsley’s jaw was tense, as if he were barely restraining himself. His hand clenched his wand tightly, as if forcing himself not to use it. Harry could see reflections of color from various spells reflected in the gold of Kingsley’s earring.

“You want to protect yourselves from those Death Eaters,” Harry said when the Auror hesitated. “Dolores’s decree obviously isn’t working.”

The man’s gaze flickered to Harry, freezing when he noticed the scar. He swore under his breath. “We haven’t been given the order to engage from Dawlish,” he said through clenched teeth. “The bigwigs at the Ministry were adamant that we follow procedure.”

“We don’t know that Dawlish is still alive,” Kingsley said stiffly. “And our people are dying, sir.”

When the Auror still hesitated, Moody swore in disgust. “Look, you do whatever you have to do, and we’ll do what we have to do. Harry, get up on that roof and see if you can get a good aim at the Death Eaters on the top step at Gringotts. They appear to be the ones in charge.”

Harry nodded. Using his wand to lower the ladder, he took Ginny by the arm and maneuvered her to climb ahead of him. The metal was very cold, and it stung his hands each time he grasped a wrung. As they ascended, he could hear Moody and Shacklebolt still arguing with the Auror. The smoke grew heavier, and he lost sight of them, but he heard the Auror finally agree to Moody’s demands.

Harry sighed in relief; at least that was something.

As the Aurors finally began battling the Death Eaters in earnest, the sky burst with a symphony of colors from various spells. Just as Harry and Ginny reached the roof and climbed off the fire escape ladder, a spell was fired into the air. Harry gaped as the Dark Mark filled the sky above Gringotts. A cold thrill of dread ran down his back. That spell hadn’t been fired from the ground. Turing around slowly, he stared into cold dark eyes behind a Death Eater mask. The wizard held a wand aimed directly at Harry’s chest.

**–**–

Hermione turned from the fireplace after making the emergency call to headquarters to find Shannon, the clerk at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, standing nearly on top of her. The girl was a few years older than Hermione, but appeared much younger at the moment. Tears leaked from her pretty, bright blue eyes, and she wrung her hands while waiting for Hermione to tell her what to do.

Hermione instinctively straightened her wig, rolling some of the hair between her fingers, absently noting how different it felt from her own hair. Her heart thudded in her chest now that she didn’t have a specific task to do.

“It’s going to be all right, Shannon,” Hermione said, hoping it was true. “Help is on the way.”

Shannon sniffed. “Where are Fred and George?” she asked tremulously.

Hermione’s eyes drifted to the door, and she had to take a deep breath to control her own rising panic. “They went to see if they could help.”

“Why?” Shannon moaned. “Those are his followers down there. They’ll be killed.”

“They can handle themselves. They’ve done this before,” Hermione said firmly. Something about Shannon’s terror settled Hermione’s nerves. She could handle this. She had to keep Shannon calm and that would help her remain calm, as well.

“But what if You-Know-Who is there, too?” Shannon asked, her eyes nearly bugging out of her head.

Hermione bit her lip, praying that wasn’t true. They weren’t ready. They needed more time. There was still one more Horcrux to find, and Hermione still hadn’t completely worked out her plan to save Harry.

She was close, but she wasn’t there yet. The hardest part would be getting Harry to agree to it, but she thought Ginny might be the better choice to do that. Although she hated to admit it, Hermione knew Harry tended to listen to Ginny more than he did to her. It irritated the older Gryffindor to no end, but that’s the way it was. Still, if Voldemort was among the Death Eaters attacking, all her careful plans might be for naught. They weren’t ready.

Hermione’s thoughts turned toward Ron. They’d been bickering all morning and hadn’t really settled anything when he’d left with the others. She’d been angry over the way he’d treated Harry that morning. He really could be such an insufferable prat sometimes. He meant well, though. He was only trying to protect his sister. His infuriatingly male brain simply hadn’t caught on to the fact that Ginny neither needed nor wanted his protection.

Hermione had noticed the hurt that had flashed in Harry’s eyes, even if Ron hadn’t. She knew Ginny had seen it, too. Ron might have obliviously stomped all over Harry’s feelings that morning, but if it came down to

it this afternoon, Ron would give his life for Harry. Hermione knew it, and it terrified her. She had to find a way for both her boys to come out of this — whole and intact — no matter what she had to do.

Another blast shook the shop, knocking various items off the shelves and sending them crashing to the floor. Hermione grabbed onto the fireplace in the back of the shop to steady herself.

Shannon screamed and began to lunge for the door, but Hermione grabbed her arm, stopping her. “We’re safer in here,” she hissed.

The sound of the door at the front of the shop opening caused both girls to freeze. They stared at one another warily, clutching each other’s arms.

“Lookee, lookee at all the toys,” a sinister, singsong voice sounded at the front of the shop. “Is anybody home? Come out, come out wherever you are.”

Hermione slapped her hand over Shannon’s mouth before the girl could scream. The shop was no longer safer than the street.

**–**–

Ron stood with his brothers and watched as Harry and Ginny climbed the fire escape to the rooftop. He could see Mad-Eye Moody shouting something to them, but the noise from the battle drowned his words. After the Order had arrived, Bill led Ron and the twins through a door in the building opposite the one Harry was now climbing, and they’d remerged onto the street.

“Where’re Harry and Ginny going?” George asked, covering Bill as he moved closer to a group of Death Eaters.

“Dunno,” Ron shrugged. He really wasn’t all that concerned about it. He knew Harry would protect Ginny with his life, and he could get out of just about anything. He’d proved that many times in the past. Ron suddenly felt guilty for the way he’d treated Harry that morning. Ron knew that Harry would give his life for any one of the Weasleys — even Percy. He should’ve known that.

Suddenly, the Aurors finally started to do what they’d arrived to do and began casting spells back at the attacking Death Eaters.

“’s about time,” Fred said, shaking his head in disgust. “The Aurors finally quit yakking and have decided to join the fight.” He ducked as a red beam of light zoomed alarmingly close to his ear.

“Bugger!” Ron shouted as the ground shook beneath his feet. Raising his eyes, he could see a massive green skull forming in the sky with a hideous green snake slowly oozing out its mouth.

“That spell came from the rooftop,” George said uneasily.

Ron swallowed resolutely. “Harry can take care of himself, and he’ll take care of Ginny, too.”

They continued moving forward until they joined a group of Aurors huddled together.

“Wotcher, Ron,” a familiar voice said.

“Tonks!” Ron said, startled.

“Bloody mess, innit?” Tonks said, tossing her head. “Umbridge is a daft idiot. We must have lost close to twenty Aurors before Kingsley got Melanson to agree to stuff her orders.”

“Have they got control of the bank?” Ron asked.

“Nah. They’ll never get inside. The Goblins have their own kind of protection. This is a form of intimidation. People will panic when they hear about it. It’s Voldemort’s way of showing everyone exactly who’s in charge,” Tonks said, shaking her head.

Ron aimed his wand, firing repeatedly at the Death Eaters, who were now pulling back and taking cover.

“Some of them got past us, so some of the shops further down could still be in trouble,” Tonks said. “We’ll have to worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got to try and get to the top steps of Gringotts. The Death Eaters calling the shots are holed up there.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Fred asked incredulously. “There’s no cover.”

“That’s why they chose it,” Ron snapped. “It’s good strategy.”

Ron watched as Bill attempted to get closer, his ravaged face covered in soot and grime. Suddenly, something bright and enormous illuminated the sky overhead, moving toward Gringotts.

“What was that?” George asked, but there wasn’t time to contemplate as the Death Eaters began attacking with renewed intensity. The fighting was fierce, and Ron struggled to focus on the battle at hand and not on what might have happened to Hermione.

From the corner of his eye, Ron saw a large, masked Death Eater emerge from an adjacent building. He watched curiously as the man barked something at his cohorts standing nearby. The other Death Eaters began moving away from the building while the one who’d emerged and aimed his wand directly at the door.

“What the-” Bill never finished his sentence.

“Morsmordre,” the man cried.

“Bloody hell, he fired that inside the building,” Fred shouted.

“Fleur!” Bill shouted, suddenly moving out from behind his cover and running towards his wife, who was standing directly across from the building.

Fleur turned, her beautiful face contorted in concentration. Her eyes widened in surprise seeing Bill barreling towards her before the world began to shake.

**–**–

On the rooftop, Harry froze, swallowing nervously as he faced the Death Eater holding him at wandpoint.

“Well, look who we have here,” the Death Eater said. Harry didn’t recognize the voice. “My master will be so pleased with this added bonus.”

Before Harry could respond, Ginny spun out from behind Harry’s back, brandishing her wand. “Stupefy,” she shouted.

The Death Eater took the spell directly in the chest and slumped to the ground. Harry had no time to congratulate her before two other Death Eaters emerged from the stairwell onto the roof.

Harry and Ginny both fired several spells, but the Death Eaters had the door to the stairwell to use as cover while they were out in the open. Harry took Ginny’s hand and pulled her towards the building’s ledge.

“Come on,” he shouted.

He sprinted toward the ledge with Ginny on his heels, dodging spells the whole way.

“What are you doing?” Ginny asked, breathless.

“Don’t think, just jump,” he shouted.

As he neared the ledge, he took a deep breath and simply leaped across to the rooftop of the next building. There was a moment while in the air that gave him that heady rush flying always did. He landed with a thud, but bounced back up, exhilarated and prepared to catch Ginny.

She stood on the other side, fixed in one spot and wide-eyed while the Death Eaters ran towards her.

Harry felt panic rising in his chest. Aiming his wand, he shouted,” Stupefy!”

The Death Eaters were still too far away, and he missed. “Ginny, you have to jump,” he said, holding out his hand. “I promise I’ll catch you.”

Ginny stared at the gap between the buildings then turned to see the Death Eaters running towards her. “Harry,” she cried, her lip trembling. “Your legs are longer than mine.”

“You can do this, Ginny. Do it, now,” Harry demanded.

Ginny nodded resolutely, keeping her watery eyes on Harry. She backed up a few steps, took a running start, and bolted towards the ledge. She

would have cleared it fine if she hadn’t faltered slightly before jumping. That fraction of hesitation caused her to fall just short of the mark.

Harry leaned over and grabbed her around the waist before she slipped off the edge. His shoulder took the brunt of the strain, and he heard an awful popping sound before an unbearable agony swept down his arm. The pain was nauseating, and he had to clamp down on his teeth to keep from crying out.

Ginny screamed as his right arm dropped limply, releasing his hold on her. He leaned from the waist, keeping a tight grip on her with his left arm, straining to pull her up. They were out of the field of vision of the Death Eaters at the moment, but it wouldn’t take them long to reach the edge.

Ginny wrapped her arms around his neck, clingingly tightly as he pulled her back onto the ledge. He could feel her nails digging into his skin and knew she wouldn’t let go for anything. She was trembling violently and could barely catch her breath through her tears. He dragged her away from the edge and behind a half wall, shielding them from the Death Eaters spells.

Leaning against the wall, he gasped in pain, holding Ginny’s shaking body close to his. “Ginny,” he said softy. “You’re okay. We’re okay.”

Ginny took a deep breath, pulling herself together. Her eyes widened, as if realizing Harry was in pain. Swiping her eyes, she leaned over him to peer around the wall.

“Petrificus Totalis,” she shouted.

Harry watched as a Death Eater dropped, immobilized, onto the rooftop they now occupied.

“Take one more step and you’ll get the same thing, only I promise you, it’ll be while you’re still in the air,” Ginny snarled at the other Death Eater, who was preparing to jump.

The man’s determination wavered. He hesitated a moment before backing away from the ledge.

“Wise decision,” Ginny mumbled, turning back towards Harry. “Are you all right?”

Harry wiped a trickle of blood from his lip. He’d bitten threw it when he’d hurt his shoulder. “Yeah,” he gasped clenching his teeth. “We need to help the others.”

Ginny nodded, helping him to stand. They moved quickly towards the opposite ledge where they had a clear view of Gringotts. The steps were littered with fallen Death Eaters, while many Aurors lay prone in the street. Fires burned uncontrolled in several of the buildings and thick smoke filled the air.

Harry could see two Death Eaters on the top steps of Gringotts, issuing orders to the others. The door to the bank must have sealed against the attack, for no one even bothered trying to open them.

Harry had to grasp his wand in his left hand because his right was dangling uselessly at his side. Focusing all his energy on the two huddled Death Eaters creating all this destruction, he aimed his wand and shouted, “Expecto Patronum.”

Prongs sprang from his wand and floated gracefully through the air and landed on the steps of Gringotts. Lowering its head, the stag charged the Death Eaters. Startled, they jumped out of the way, leaving their cover and giving Harry a clear aim. With his wand in the wrong hand, he felt some uncertainty about the success of the spells, but he aimed and concentrated anyway.

“Stupefy! Stupefy!”

The two Death Eaters stopped, their bodies jerking violently before collapsing on the steps. Ginny aimed at several of the masked attackers on the street.

As if realized their numbers were dwindling, the remaining Death Eaters began Disapparating, leaving only the Order and a group of unorganized Aurors on the street below.

Before he had time to speak, a great rumbling shook the building where Harry and Ginny were standing. The tremble forced each of them to their knees, causing Harry to cry out as his shoulder jerked in a painful spasm. Their eyes widened as the building next to them — the one from which they’d jumped — suddenly collapsed in a swirling cloud of dust and smoke. Clenching his eyes shut, Harry threw his body over Ginny’s and tried to shield her from the debris flying through the air.

Chapter Twenty

Treason

Ginny gasped, struggling to catch her breath with Harry’s weight pinning her to the ground. The roar from the destruction of the building was so loud that she wanted to clasp her hands over her ears to block it out. Her body was covered with cuts and bruises from the falling debris, and she felt sore and abused.

“Harry,” she said, shifting beneath him. “Are you all right?”

He groaned, but rolled off of her and lay panting on the rooftop. She pushed herself to her knees to take a good look at him. He’d shielded her from most of the blast, and he bore the marks to prove it. He was bleeding from several spots, although nothing appeared life-threatening. The worst wound still appeared to be his shoulder. Ginny could see the ball joint sticking out grotesquely while his arm dangled limply at his side. He’d obviously dislocated it when he caught her.

Ginny’s heart had dropped to her shoes when she’d watched him leap across the gap between the buildings. She’d seen his face — the jump had exhilarated him. She liked flying as much as the next person — probably more — but she preferred to have a broom under her when she

did it. The jump had terrified her, although she had to admit that she was proud of herself now that she’d done it.

“’m fine,” Harry said, barely able to get the words out.

Ginny rolled her eyes. He was anything but fine. Honestly, what was his problem admitting something hurt, anyway? His vivid green eyes were clouded with pain, and she knew he was holding his breath to silence his groans. Letting the air out through her nose, she tried to relax.

“My brothers!” she gasped, pushing onto her feet, suddenly remembering that most of them had been involved in the fight. They’d been on the street below the collapsed building. The air was still thick from smoke, making it impossible to see the ground properly. She could hear voices, but no sign of spells, indicating the fight was over. Ginny fought her rising panic. She couldn’t see any of her brothers and couldn’t even distinguish which side had won.

Her chest felt tight as the fear clawed at her heart. They had to be all right. They just had to be. She didn’t know what she’d do if she ever lost one of them. Overbearing or not — they were still hers.

“We’ve got to get back down and see what happened,” Harry said, gasping as he rose to his feet.

“Harry, you’re hurt. At least let me go first,” Ginny said, annoyed by the few stray tears that leaked from her eyes.

Harry shook his head. “We can Apparate to a spot up the street a bit to take a look,” he said. “Just give me a minute.”

Stumbling over to the brick wall, he took a deep breath. Before Ginny had even realized what he was going to do, he slammed his shoulder into the wall with brutal force. Ginny heard a sickening ‘pop’ as his shoulder was forced back into the socket. He screamed, dropping to his knees.

“That’s better,” he said shakily before his eyes rolled back in his head, Ginny managed to catch him before his head hit the ground.

“Oh, Harry,” she said, cringing. Merlin, that had to hurt. She ran her fingers through his soft hair, shaking him gently and trying to rouse him. She knew she should go and check on the situation below, but she couldn’t just leave him here like this. “Come on, love. Wake up.”

She tapped the side of his face lightly, hating herself for doing this to him. He moaned, but his eyes didn’t flicker.

“Okay, Harry. I’m going to go down and get some help,” she said, sniffling. “I’ll be right back.”

Harry eyes flew open wide as if she’d doused him with cold water. “Ginny,” he croaked.

“I’m here,” she said, shaking her head slightly. Was there no end to that boy’s stubbornness? “Can you stand?”

“Yeah,” Harry replied automatically. He tried to rise, but only managed a sitting position before groaning as he cradled his arm. “Erm…maybe with a little help,” he said sheepishly.

Ginny snorted and slung his left arm over her shoulder, straining to help him to his feet. He wobbled and for a brief instant Ginny thought he was going to go back down, but he managed to steady himself.

“Can you Apparate?” she asked, worried he’d end up splinching the two of them together. “My long-term goal is definitely to merge with you, Harry, but I don’t fancy having your arm sticking through my forehead.”

Harry chuckled. “Ha, ha, very funny. Just grab my arm, and we’ll see if the only part we leave behind is your smart mouth.”

Ginny grinned and grabbed hold of his good arm, keeping her eyes fixed on his face as she felt the tight squeeze of Apparation. He looked tired and bloodstained, but magnificent all the same. That quiet power was emanating from him again. It always happened whenever they were in a dangerous situation, and she didn’t think he was even aware of it.

She knew she wasn’t some sort of scarlet woman, but she couldn’t help that she felt incredibly attracted to him when he was like this. That odd mixture of quiet confidence with a hint of insecurity was intoxicating. It was all she could do not to grab his face and snog him senseless whenever he took control of a situation. He was really good at it, too. He’d make a remarkable Auror one day.

Ginny’s feet slammed to the ground mere centimeters from one of the burning buildings. She stepped back from the heat, steadying Harry as she did. Glancing at his face, she realized he’d grown alarmingly pale during their Apparation.

“All right, Harry?” she asked, wrapping her arm around his waist and pressing her body close. She knew he’d allow her to help him more easily if he thought he was the one actually comforting her. Boys were so silly.

“Yeah. Is that Ron up ahead?” he asked, straining his eyes to see through the smoke.

Ginny turned in the direction he was pointing. She could distinguish Ron’s shock of red hair towering above the others a short distance away. There were several Death Eaters being gathered together, but most of them had apparently Disapparated. She and Harry moved towards her brother.

“Ron,” she called when they were close enough for him to hear her.

“Harry! Ginny!” Ron said, obvious relief washing over his dirty face. “Are you two all right?”

“Harry’s hurt,” Ginny said at the same time Harry answered that he was fine.

Ron wasn’t really listening to either of them. “Was that your Patronus I saw before the building came down?” he asked.

Harry nodded.

“I thought so. I didn’t realize what it was at first. Everything happened so fast. Most of the Order are trying to clear out of here since the Ministry officials are arriving now that it’s all over,” Ron said, shaking his head.

“Are Fred and George okay?” Ginny asked.

“Yeah. They were trying to convince Moody to leave before anyone wanted to take him in for questioning. Bill and Fleur both got pretty banged up, but they’ve already been sent back to headquarters. You should go and get that arm looked at, mate,” Ron said, nodding at Harry, who was still cradling his arm.

Ginny barely listened to Ron and Harry as she watched a delegation of Ministry officials march down the street led by a squat, toad-faced woman. Ginny groaned inwardly. Her heart gave a sudden lurch as she recognized the lanky redheaded wizard who was walking behind her, a notebook clutched in his hands. Percy looked extremely uncomfortable, but he followed Umbridge’s orders just the same.

“Harry, let’s just Apparate back to headquarters, now. Umbridge is here, and we don’t need to deal with her,” Ginny hissed, jerking her head in Umbridge’s direction.

“You two go ahead,” Ron said, standing with his back to Umbridge, thus blocking Harry from her view. “I need to check on Hermione.”

Ginny could see Umbridge shouting at Kingsley Shacklebolt, her face red with fury as she shook her fist in the air. Harry didn’t need further prompting. Taking her by the arm, he Apparated them both back to headquarters.

**–**–

Harry groaned as he slowly drifted back to consciousness. His body felt stiff and achy, and his mind struggled to hold on to the last vestiges of sleep. He blinked several times, attempting to remember where he was. Finally giving up, he reached out and fumbled on the nightstand for his glasses. Finding them at last, he put them on and his room at Grimmauld Place came into focus, He furrowed his brow in concentration, but it was futile; his memory was foggy at best.

He and Ginny had arrived back at headquarters to find Madam Pomfrey treating a wide array of injuries. He’d seen Bill and Fleur, both heavily bandaged but sitting up and talking while Mrs. Weasley fussed over them. Madam Pomfrey had fixed up Harry’s arm in no time, but she must have slipped him some kind of sleep potion because the next thing he remembered was waking up here.

Sitting up and throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he stretched and reached for some clothes. He had no idea how much time had passed since his return, but he wanted to find out what had happened after he’d left Diagon Alley, and exactly how many Aurors had been lost. He

remembered that Umbridge had been in a fury, and she usually lashed out when she felt cornered. All in all, not a good situation for anybody.

He walked slowly down the stairs, craning his neck from side to side, attempting to work out the kinks. He could smell a delicious aroma wafting up from the kitchen and knew it must be around suppertime. He couldn’t have slept for very long.

Pushing open the kitchen door, he found the table crowded with many sober faces. Ginny sat next to her dad, her hand clasped tightly on his arm. Tonks was next to her, looking very pale as she worried her lip with her bottom teeth. Mrs. Weasley muttered under her breath as she continually poured tea for everyone, whether their cups were empty or not.

Hagrid, Moody, Professor McGonagall and the twins were also at the table, but there was no sign of Ron or Hermione.

“Harry!” Ginny said, noticing him standing in the doorway. She jumped up and grasped his arm, leading him to a chair.

“Oh, Harry, dear. How are you?” Mrs. Weasley asked, placing her hand gently on the side of his head. “I thought you’d sleep longer.”

“What happened?” Harry asked, unconsciously leaning into her hand.

“Kingsley Shacklebolt’s been sacked,” Fred replied grimly.

“It’s worse than that,” Mr. Weasley said. “He and Peter Melanson, the Auror in command of the troop in Diagon Alley have been accused of treason. They’re awaiting trial in Azkaban.”

“What? Why?” Harry asked, spluttering.

“Because they listened to me and didn’t wait for Dawlish to give the orders,” Moody said, taking a liberal draught from his flask. “I knew I should’ve stayed behind and taken the heat instead of him.”

“No. You did the right thing, Alastor,” Professor McGonagall said wearily. “If you’d stayed, Dolores would’ve had an excuse to blame the entire thing on the Order immediately. This gives us time to prepare.”

“Prepare for what?” Harry asked. “What do you mean? How can she blame the Order for this? Dawlish wasn’t even around, and if he was, he certainly should’ve seen the negotiations weren’t working.”

“Ezriah Dawlish doesn’t care if it was working or not; he only cares that his authority was usurped. He’s a bully, Potter. You know the type,” Moody replied. “He’s risen through the ranks riding on other people’s success and taking credit where credit wasn’t due. He likes being in charge and is convinced everyone is trying to take that power from him, because he’s trying to take it from everyone else.”

“The Daily Prophet released an evening edition detailing the attack,” Tonks said sourly. “In it, they quote Interim Minister Umbridge as saying the Aurors were killed because a vigilante group took control of the negotiations and tried to subdue the Death Eaters on their own.

According to the article, the Death Eaters had been working with the Ministry up until that point.”

“What?” Harry shouted, jumping from his chair and looking at the group wildly. “That’s rubbish.”

“It’s true. I’m afraid she’s going to pin the blame for the death of the Aurors on the Order’s ‘interference’,” Professor McGonagall said, sighing.

“I’m worried for Percy, as well,” Mr. Weasley said. “Someone is bound to report the number of redheads that were involved today. Even Umbridge can make the connection, and she’ll lean on Percy for information. It’s an awful position for him.”

Mrs. Weasley sniffed loudly as she continued to pour the tea. “Do you think I should send him a note?” she asked, looking towards the empty perch near the window. “Oh, that foolish owl is gone again. We’re really going to have to invest in a new one. Errol has just become so unreliable in his old age.”

“You can use Hedwig, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said.

“Oh, thank you, Harry, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said, standing between Harry and Ginny and crushing both of their heads to her bosom in a bone-crunching hug. “I just want all my children to be safe.”

Harry’s face reddened as he felt his glasses tilt sideways. He was crushed against Mrs. Weasley’s breast, and he had no idea where he was supposed to look. He could see Ginny in the same predicament on Mrs. Weasley’s other side, but she was struggling to control her laughter at Harry’s obvious embarrassment.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea right now, Molly,” Mr. Weasley said, clearing his throat. “Hedwig is very distinctive, and I think it might be better for Percy if we separate ourselves at the moment.”

Mrs. Weasley released Harry and Ginny, and her face paled. She nodded solemnly and returned to her seat, her lower lip trembling.

“She’s going to try and disband the Order,” Professor McGonagall said.

“Well, she can’t do that, can she?” Hagrid asked, slamming his meaty fist on the table. “Won’t matter if she do. Dumbledore created the Order, an’ I’m stayin’ with it. The Order’s fought You-Know-Who in both wars. She can’t just break it apart.”

“Maybe not in actuality, but she can make it extremely difficult for us to operate,” Mr. Weasley said, sighing.

“Codswallop!” Hagrid roared.

“Take it easy, Hagrid,” George said, patting Hagrid’s massive shoulder. “None of us want this.”

“Where are Ron and Hermione?” Harry asked.

“They haven’t returned yet,” Tonks said. Then, noticing the alarm on Harry’s face, she waved her hand in the air. “It’s nothing to worry about, though. The Ministry detained everyone and is conducting interviews. I’ve got a contact that will let me know if there’s any trouble. For now, they’re probably just awaiting their turn to be questioned.”

“So, what happens when Umbridge does try and disband the Order?” Harry asked. “She can make us illegal, but she can’t find us, right? I mean, headquarters is still under a Fidelius Charm, isn’t it?”

Professor McGonagall pursed her lips, her cheeks reddening slightly. “It is, and it will protect us for the moment, but not forever,” she said. “The Department of Mysteries keeps a register of all Fidelius Charms in place and has a way to dismantle any that are used without proper authorization. Ordinarily, anyone performing the charm has to register it with the Ministry, otherwise anyone hiding from the law would use it. Since our relations with Rufus Scrimgeour were shaky at best, I performed the charm without the proper authorization. From what I understand, it’s very complicated to undo, but with time it can be done.”

“Sounds as useless as it ever was,” Harry mumbled.

A disturbance at the front door caught everyone’s attention, and Professor McGonagall waved to Mrs. Weasley to continue what she was doing, while she went to check what it was.

“We all should pack a getaway bag of our personal items in case we’re forced to flee,” Mr. Weasley said, adjusting his glasses. “My contacts should be able to give me some advance notice if headquarters is to be raided, but I can’t guarantee a lot of time. I suspect Umbridge will be keeping her eye on me, as well.”

“You might lose your job, Arthur,” Mrs. Weasley said tremulously.

“Yes,” Mr. Weasley said, patting Mrs. Weasley’s hand, “but if the Minister gets any solid proof of our involvement in the Order of the Phoenix, I think we’ll have bigger worries than my job.”

Before anyone had time to respond to that ominous statement, the kitchen door swung open and Professor McGonagall returned, followed closely by Ron, Hermione and Shannon, the clerk at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. All three of the new arrivals looked cold, tired and windblown, as if they’d been outside for a very long time.

“Shannon!” George shouted, pushing out his chair with so much force it scraped across the floor, causing everyone to cringe.

Shannon’s face burst into a wide grin, and she threw herself into George’s arms. He lifted her off her feet and swung her around in a circle. “Oh, I’m so happy you’re all right,” she said breathlessly.

“What are you doing here?” George asked, his usual buoyant grin replaced with a soft smile that Harry had never seen on the exuberant twin.

Apparently, most of the other Weasleys hadn’t ever seen it, either. They sat motionless, gaping at George, who appeared oblivious to their stares. Everyone but Fred, that was. Fred rolled his eyes in disgust, as if he alone had seen this coming long ago. He ignored the whole display and proceeded to slather his bread with an obscene amount of butter.

“Ahem,” Mr. Weasley said, clearing his throat.

Professor McGonagall retook her seat, the side of her lips twitching suspiciously. Harry caught Ginny’s eye, and she shrugged imperceptibly.

As if just realizing everyone else was still there, George pulled away from Shannon, running a hand through his hair as he quickly glanced at Fred.

“Er…everyone, this is Shannon Larkin. Shannon, meet the family,” George said, beaming.

Shannon’s cheeks colored, but she smiled engagingly at the Weasleys. “Hello, everyone,” she said, pushing a strand of chestnut brown hair behind her ear.

“Hello, Shannon,” Mrs. Weasley said, as if awakening from a fog. A bright smile spread across her face as she led Shannon to a chair. “Sit down, dear, you must be tired. I’ll fix you up something to eat.”

“Hi, Mum,” Ron said, guiding Hermione to an empty chair across from Harry and sitting down next to her. “We’re fine. Don’t worry about us.”

Mrs. Weasley’s eyes widened. “Sorry, Ron…Hermione, dear. I’ll get you something to eat, as well,” she said, blushing furiously. She handed plates to both of them, but her eyes remained fixed on Shannon, who cast sly glances back and forth with George every few moments.

“What happened?” Harry asked. “What took you so long?”

“What didn’t?” Ron asked, scowling as he shoveled a huge mound of mashed potatoes into his mouth. “First, I went back to Fred and George’s shop to find Hermione, but she wasn’t there when I got there.”

Harry looked over at Hermione as she took a long draught of her pumpkin juice, nodding all the while. “Where was she?” he asked, noticing her torn clothing and a scratch on the side of her face that he hadn’t seen when she’d first sat down.

“Shannon and I had an unexpected caller at the shop after I’d Flooed the Order,” Hermione said, glancing at Shannon.

“It was really scary,” Shannon said, shuddering, “but Hermione was brilliant.”

“What did you do?” Ginny asked, leaning toward Hermione.

“Well, we were too far from the door to escape without being seen, and the Death Eater knew there was someone there. He started knocking

things over and making a right mess of the shop, taunting us the whole time,” Hermione said with a disapproving frown.

“So Hermione created a window,” Shannon said, beaming at George. “It’s right above your desk and it’s fantastic. You’ll probably want to keep it there.”

“A window?” Harry said, looking askance at Hermione.

“Well, I thought I could do it, but I wasn’t really certain. I read about the spell in this redecorating book that I found in one of the rooms upstairs. I’m certain the Order used it when they were fixing up this place-”

“Hermione,” Ron said, smiling fondly, “the Death Eater…”

She waved her hands in the air. “Oh! Right! Well, we opened the window, and Shannon climbed outside-”

“But before Hermione could get out, the Death Eater entered the back room,” Shannon said.

Hermione frowned, derailed. “Right. Well…at first I couldn’t think what to do, and I rather panicked.”

“You?” Ron asked, nudging her shoulder playfully. “I can’t imagine that.”

Hermione glared at him. “No, it’s true. I had my wand aimed right at him, but for the life of me, I couldn’t think of the spell I wanted.”

Harry shook his head, able to appreciate the humor since she was obviously all right. Leave it to Hermione to be in a life threatening situation and being delayed because she wanted a particular spell.

“So, what did you do?” Ginny asked.

“Shannon did, actually,” Hermione said.

“I leaned in the window and stuffed a Puking Pastille in his mouth,” Shannon said, nodding. “It was the first thing I could reach on the desk.”

“Ha!” George said. “That’s a girl! Way to use those Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes products, too, eh, Fred?”

Fred rolled his eyes, although a grin had spread across his face.

Shannon nodded, obviously pleased. “And while he was retching, Hermione kicked him where it counted and scrambled out the window.”

All the males in the room cringed, twisting in their chairs.

“Hermione!” Fred said, shocked. “I’m impressed.”

Hermione’s cheeks pinkened, but she defiantly stuck out her chin. “I had to get away, didn’t I?”

“She got him good, too,” Shannon said, smiling approvingly at Hermione. “He doubled over and went down like a rock, clutching his bits.”

Harry winced again, but noticed Ron beaming with pride at Hermione. He’d obviously heard this story already.

Mrs. Weasley coughed delicately. “More potatoes, dear?” she asked Shannon.

“Good work,” Moody growled. “But you shouldn’t have allowed him to sneak up on you. Constant vigilance! These are dangerous times, and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”

“Alastor,” Professor McGonagall said, smiling at Hermione and Shannon. “Everyone in Diagon Alley was ‘sneaked up on’, today. These witches did an admiral job of escaping.”

“Not only that,” Ron said, pulling a wand from his robes. “Hermione took the Death Eater’s wand before she climbed out the window. We thought it would be better for you to trace it rather than give it to the Ministry.”

He handed the wand to Tonks. “I can do that,” she said, examining the wood with her fingertips. “As far as I know, I haven’t been sacked yet. Once the Minister realizes how often I’ve been partnered with Kingsley, however, I think my number will be up.”

This sobered the table again. Everyone stared at each other warily.

“We stayed until we’d given a statement to the Ministry. Of course, you must have seen the Prophet by now, and how they’ve twisted everything,” Ron said, his lip curling.

“Yes. We’ve seen it,” Professor McGonagall said briskly.

“Load of rubbish, that’s what it is,” Hagrid said, grumbling.

“I managed to avoid Umbridge, but I heard her questioning Percy,” Ron said hesitantly.

“What did she say?” Mr. Weasley asked, concerned.

“She asked him about the rest of us. Why there were so many Weasleys in Diagon Alley this afternoon,” Ron said. “He told her that two of his brothers own a shop there, and the rest of us were probably all helping them out. She was still suspicious, though. She asked a lot of questions about Bill and how the wounds Fenrir Greyback gave him were affecting him. It didn’t sound good.”

Hermione shook her head. “Percy really tried to convince her that Bill was fine, but I could see the wheels turning in that evil bat’s head. I think she’s going to try and go after Bill next.”

“Damn it,” Mr. Weasley said.

“Arthur!” Mrs. Weasley cried, glancing toward the door. Harry assumed Bill and Fleur had been given sedatives the same way he had.

“Don’t worry, Molly,” Mr. Weasley said, patting Mrs. Weasley’s hand once again. “It’ll be all right.”

“What’s comin’ will come, an’, we’ll meet it when it does,” Hagrid said.

“So, I reckon you’re the vigilante group Minister Umbridge is complaining about, right?” Shannon asked, looking around the table at the various faces.

Professor McGonagall nodded. “Yes, Shannon. We’re the Order of the Phoenix, or what’s left of it, anyway. Professor Dumbledore started this group during the last war.”

“So, how do I join?” she asked.

“Shannon,” George said, standing up straight. “There’s no guarantee there will even be an Order after Umbridge gets through with us.”

“I don’t care. I was there today; I saw what happened. You lot were the only ones doing anything, and I saw how the Ministry twisted that. I want to help,” Shannon said, her blue eyes flashing.

“It’s dangerous work,” George said, looking to Fred for support. Fred was steadfastly ignoring them both.

Shannon pulled herself up to full height. “Just because I’m a Hufflepuff doesn’t mean I run from danger, George Weasley, and don’t you forget it. I left the Ministry because I didn’t like what they were doing, and I’m joining the Order because it appears the right thing to do. We all have to do our part.”

“Well said, Miss Larkin,” Professor McGonagall said, her lips twitching again. “I always thought you had a bit of Gryffindor in you.”

Shannon flushed, pleased, although she shook her head. “No. I’m loyal to the core — just like all Hufflepuffs.”

“You were at Hogwarts, then?” Harry asked, curious. She wasn’t at all familiar to him.

Shannon nodded. “I was in Fred and George’s year, but I remember you. I’m sorry to say I wore one of those awful badges during the Triwizard Tournament until Cedric asked me not to do it,” she said, staring directly at Harry. “Sorry about that.”

Harry grinned, remembering how much those badges had bothered him at the time. “No problem. Everyone wore them.”

“That’s because they were amusing, and everyone enjoyed being able to admit that Potter stinks,” Draco Malfoy said, entering the kitchen with a swagger.

Harry noticed that Mrs. Weasley didn’t jump up to make him a plate as she had done for the others. She sat at the table, scowling, with her arms folded across her chest. His heart swelled with affection for Mrs. Weasley just then.

“Shut it, Malfoy,” Ron said, growling.

“You’re in the Order?” Shannon asked, stunned. “Weren’t you the one who made those badges?”

“I did,” Draco said proudly as he began putting food on his plate.

“He’s not in the Order,” George said. “He’s just hiding here until it’s over.”

“I’m not hiding,” Draco said, his face flushing.

“No? What do you call it, then?” Fred asked.

“I call it protecting my best interests,” Draco replied, sneering. “I have a bright future ahead of me. I do, that is, if Potter can ever get his act together and end this thing.”

A chorus of angry voices met this response, all of which Draco ignored as he began eating his meal.

“Enough!” Hagrid boomed, startling everyone into silence.

“My mother and the Parkinsons are reading the evening edition of the Daily Prophet,” Draco drawled, as if there hadn’t been any interruption. “We’re concerned about what this means. If the Order is arrested and chucked in Azkaban, what’s to happen to us? You know that there are ways to find this place.”

“The Malfoys and the Parkinsons — you might remember Iris — are staying here as well,” George said, clarifying for Shannon.

“I do remember Iris. She was all right, I suppose…for a Slytherin,” Shannon said.

“Iris is all right. Nothing like this one,” Fred said, glaring at Draco.

“We’re working on a contingency plan, Mr. Malfoy,” Professor McGonagall said, glaring at the others to keep their silence. “No one is going to Azkaban.”

“That doesn’t appear to be Minister Umbridge’s plan,” Draco said lazily.

“Be that as it may,” Professor McGonagall replied, peering over the top of her glasses. “We shall see to it that you and your family are protected.”

“What do you think Voldemort will do next?” Moody asked, his magical eye zeroing in on Draco, who flinched at the use of the name.

“He’ll use the Minister’s desire for a truce to his advantage,” Draco replied. “He’ll plant the seed in her head about dismantling the Fidelius Charm and make her think it was her idea. Then he’ll have people testing the wards to see if they’re weakening.”

“How will he do that?” Harry asked. “How will he test the wards if no one can reveal where headquarters is located.”

Malfoy rolled his eyes and spoke slowly, as if to a very small child. “He’ll find someone whom he believes knows the location and torture them until they can tell. When they start to give answers, he’ll know the wards are failing.”

Harry swallowed, his anxiety for Remus increasing. If either Voldemort or the Ministry caught him now, neither would hesitate to use him.

“We’re seeking an alternative safe house. I’ll let you all know when we’ve found something suitable,” Professor McGonagall said, adjourning the meeting. “We might have to split up for a time. Perhaps it’ll be better that way.”

The conversation at the dinner table was extremely subdued after that, particularly for Weasley standards.

**–**–

Dear, Ron

Well, I suppose if you’re reading this it means I’m dead not there. I hope I took him with me. I want you to keep my Firebolt — I know you’ll put it to good use. Get the carpet to Fred and George, perhaps they can invent their own line of trick ones, or something…

I don’t really know what to say. I wanted to write this letter to be able to say goodbye, but that’s hard to do when I know you’re just downstairs with Hermione. I’m glad you two finally worked things out. Take care of each other for me.

I hope the Cannons are playing well.

Crumpling up his parchment, Harry tossed it in the bin with several other rolled-up pieces. This was impossible. It was much harder to write a goodbye letter than he’d originally thought. As if the Cannons would ever play well, anyway…

He pulled out another piece and decided to try again. He sat on his bed, leaning on a book and trying to collect his thoughts. Mrs. Weasley had noticed him rubbing his arm after dinner and frog-marched him up the stairs, insisting he wasn’t to get up again until morning. Honestly, he’d been too tired to argue with her.

He looked up as his bedroom door creaked open, and Ginny slipped inside, wearing a frayed yellow dressing gown. Harry’s eyes were immediately drawn to the worn spots and the faint glimpse of flimsy blue material he could see beneath the thinning fabric.

“Hi,” she whispered, nudging him aside with her hip so she could sit down. “Ron and Hermione are saying goodnight in my room, and they kicked me out.”

Harry obliged by shifting over, gathering his parchment so she wouldn’t see what he’d been doing.

“What are you writing?” she asked.

Harry shrugged. “Just some notes,” he replied vaguely. “So, they gave you the boot, huh? Lucky me.”

Ginny grinned. “Why aren’t you asleep? I thought I was just going to come in here and make certain you were snug and covered.”

“You were going to tuck me in?” he asked, quirking his eyebrow, a pleasant warmth spreading through his body. He couldn’t remember anyone ever doing that unless he was in hospital.

Ginny kissed his forehead softly, a somewhat sad smile playing on her lips. “You’re supposed to be sleeping. Mum will have kittens if she knows you’re in here working.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Harry said. “My body’s tired, but my mind’s still racing. You were fantastic today, you know.”

“I was?” Ginny asked, staring at him blankly. “Harry, was that a compliment?”

Harry poked her in the ribs. “You were! I was so proud of you when you jumped across that ledge despite your fear. You were brilliant. Do I not compliment you enough, Ginny?”

“Here’s a newsflash for you, Harry. You do tend to be a bit…reserved,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes.

Harry pulled a face. “Let me make up for that, then,” he said, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her back so she was lying alongside him. “I think you’re beautiful.”

Ginny’s hand instinctively reached for her shorter hair, a pretty pink blush spreading across her freckled cheeks. Harry grabbed her hand and pulled it away, playing with her hair. “I think all of you is beautiful, Ginny — inside and out. I think you’re fun, and fiery, and you can always make me laugh.”

“Great!” Ginny said. “I can tell a good joke. Just what I want my boyfriend to feel when he thinks of me.”

“No,” Harry said, continuing to play with her hair. “Laughing is good. Sometimes, it’s the only way I can cope, and you’re always there with a ready smile. You show me a different life — what I want my life to be. When I wake up in the morning, I get this funny feeling in my stomach just because I know I’m going to see you.”

Harry looked away, embarrassed.

Ginny grabbed his chin and pulled it back. “Tell me more,” she whispered huskily, a soft yet blazing look in her eyes that made Harry swallow heavily.

“You don’t try and make me talk when I’m not ready, but when I am ready, you’re always the first person I want to talk to,” he said, suddenly finding it very hard to concentrate.

His every nerve ending was tingling, and he kept being distracted by the column of her throat and a thin trail of freckles that disappeared beneath her dressing gown. Suddenly, the urge to count those freckles seemed of the utmost importance.

He felt his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed again, his mouth very dry. He could smell that sweet, flowery scent that hinted of lazy summer days in the sunshine.

“Ginny,” he whispered.

“Harry.”

Suddenly, they were in each other’s arms and rolling around his bed as if there were no tomorrow. The war, the battle, his sore shoulder, Umbridge and the Ministry’s shenanigans all melted away as Harry allowed himself the moment. This was what he’d promised after he’d learned about The Seventh Horcrux — that he’d take the time to live while he could, and give Ginny as much time as possible.

After several moments of sheer, unchecked bliss, Ginny pulled back, panting. “Harry, we have to stop. Ron will be in here in any minute.”

Harry didn’t want to stop, and he moved to continue blazing a trail of wet kisses down Ginny’s throat. Ron could just sod off as far as he was concerned.

“Harry!” Ginny said, laughing as she pushed him back and slid off the bed, moving to take a seat on Ron’s empty bed. “I’m serious. Ron will be here any minute, not to mention Mum. I’m certain she’ll peek in to check on you, too.”

Harry scowled, disgruntled. “Fine.”

Ginny giggled, attempting to straighten her impossibly tangled hair. Her dressing gown had come loose, and Harry appreciated the view of a very short blue nightgown before she wrapped it around herself again.

“You need to keep your rucksack packed. Expand the inside so you can keep Dumbledore’s Pensieve inside it, too. You never know if we’ll have to leave in a hurry, and you’ll want to keep that with you,” she said. “Put all your most important things in there.”

Harry patted the bed next to him where she’d been sitting. “Okay. Why don’t you come back over here, and we can discuss it,” he said as innocently as he could.

“Don’t be such a cad,” Ginny said, scowling in mock disapproval just as the bedroom door banged open, and Mrs. Weasley escorted Ron inside with a firm grip on his earlobe.

Harry noticed a distinctive red mark on the front of Ron’s neck and had a hard time schooling his features. Ginny shot him a triumphant look as if to say I told you so.

“Ginny! What are you doing in here?” Mrs. Weasley asked, glancing from Ginny to Harry in alarm, but appearing to relax when she realized they were sitting on separate beds.

“I just came in to say goodnight to Harry, Mum. I was surprised to find him still awake. He was working,” Ginny said, frowning her disapproval. When Mrs. Weasley turned to look at Harry with the same disapproving expression, Ginny gleefully stuck her tongue out at Harry behind her mother’s back.

Mrs. Weasley released Ron, her attention now fully focused on Harry. “Harry! I told you I wanted you to get a full night’s rest. You’ll make yourself sick if you don’t get some decent sleep, particularly after an injury. I want you in bed with the lights out this instant, young man.

“Ginny, I want you back in your own room and in your own bed, now, please. Ronald…get to bed. I’m going to have your father speak to you tomorrow.”

Ginny scrambled from the room, blowing a quick kiss to Harry while Ron stomped to his own bed, a furious tic in his cheek. Mrs. Weasley put