lundi 11 février 2008

chapter 6

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 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

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

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,

"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

"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

"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."


"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

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

"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

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

"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

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,

"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

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

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,

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

"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 tooclose 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

Hermione withdrew her wand. "Should we try an unlocking charm?" she

Harry didn’t think it could be that simple, but he remembered
Dumbledore letting him try a Summoning charm before he tried anything

"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

"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

"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.


"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

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

"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

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

"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

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

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

"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


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

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, andHermione 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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

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

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.

"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
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

"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

"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

"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

"What? Why not?" Harry asked indignantly.

"They’re afraid," Ginny said, sighing. "Werewolf contamination and

"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

"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

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

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