lundi 11 février 2008

chapter 5

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

“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

“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,

“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

“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

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

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

"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

"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

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

"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

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

Harry’s stomach clenched as Narcissa raised her nose in the air without
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

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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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
"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

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

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

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 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

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

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 theevening 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

"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

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 sixtyyears, 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

"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

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,

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

"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

"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

"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 confidentenough 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

"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

"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 didnidentical 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

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

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

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.
’t spot either"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,

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

"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

Harry saw Ginny reach for her wand, and he quickly stood in front of

"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

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

"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
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

"Oi," Ron shouted. "I don’t want to see that."

"Then don’t look," Harry said, grinning and accepting more of Ginny’s

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

"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

"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 kindsgood 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

"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.
of places were always "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

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

"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

"I think," Ginny whispered, giggling again.

"About that, Harry," she said, biting her lip.
"What?" Harry asked, feeling the temperature in the room drop

"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

"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

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

"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

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