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SIYE Time:14:43 on 17th August 2018


The Seventh Horcrux
By melindaleo

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Category: Post-HBP, Buried Gems
Characters:All
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, Fluff
Warnings: Death, Violence
Story is Complete
Rating: PG-13
Reviews: 860
Summary: The hunt for the Horcruxes begins. Harry has to decide who to trust as he moves closer to fulfilling his destiny. Will he be able to find and destroy all the Horcruxes? And at what price? Will he be able to find the strength within himself "the Power the Dark Lord Knows Not" in order to succeed in vanquishing Voldemort? And, can he do it and still get the girl? Join Harry and his faithful friends on their quest to finally defeat a Dark Lord.
Hitcount: Story Total: 200873; Chapter Total: 7874
Awards: View Trophy Room






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Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I’m just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.



Chapter Ten


Delays, Disappointment, and Dating



Harry awoke with a start, momentarily panicked because he didn’t recognize his surroundings. Slipping his glasses on his nose, he stared wildly at the bright yellow walls and abundance of flowers and cosmetics and well…girly stuff. Then he remembered switching rooms with Ginny and Hermione the night before. He’d set an alarm to wake him at dawn, then had cast a silencing charm around the bed so no one else would be alerted.


He could hear Ron snoring heavily, and he had to bite back a laugh seeing his tall friend’s feet sticking off the end of the other bed while the rest of his body was wrapped in a fluffy pink-flowered blanket. He wished he had a camera; Fred and George would pay a huge sum for that picture.


Harry lay back for a moment and stretched, breathing in the scent on his pillow…Ginny’s pillow. He let his eyes wander across the room, now alert and able to focus on his surroundings. It was easy to distinguish Ginny’s side of the room from Hermione’s. One half was neatly organized with everything in its place, large stacks of books precisely tucked in both corners. The floor on the other half was covered with clothing, gum wrappers, stray quills and several copies of Witch Weekly. Harry was disgruntled to see his own likeness winking from a picture in the top corner of one of the magazines.


He shifted uncomfortably, feeling something lumpy underneath his back. He reached down under the covers and pulled out a ragged stuffed animal. It looked as if it had once been a bear, but was now a sorry sight indeed. He grinned, knowing he’d have something to use to take the mickey out of Ginny later.


Yanking back the covers, he put his feet on the floor and immediately stepped on something. He reached down to lift it off the floor. His face flushed brilliantly when he realized he was holding Ginny’s bra.


"What’s that?" Ron mumbled, squinting at him across the room.


"Nothing," Harry squeaked, his voice sounding very high. He guiltily shoved the bra behind his back and tried to change the subject. "You’ve got to get up. We need to move quickly."


"What are you on about, Harry? What’s that behind your back?" Ron asked, fully rousing at the sight of a flustered Harry.


Harry tried to inconspicuously tuck the offending garment beneath Ginny’s covers. Despite his embarrassment, he couldn’t help but notice how soft and silky the material felt, and he rubbed his thumb along the edge as he tried to hide it.


Ron leaped out of bed and reached around to grab the bra from Harry. "What are you trying to hide?" he demanded.


"It’s nothing," Harry said, panicked and trying to get the evidence away from him.


At that moment, the bedroom door swung open revealing Hermione and Ginny. The two girls stood there, their faces a mixture of surprise and amusement, staring at Ron and Harry who were facing each other in the middle of the floor, Ginny’s bra stretched between them.


"Well," Ginny said at last. "I hadn’t realized you two had such pervy tendencies. I do have other bras, you know. You don’t have to fight over that one."


Hermione roared with laughter. "Do you have any of our knickers on, as well?" she asked, doubling over at the scarlet hues that suffused Ron and Harry’s faces.


"I- What- He- What are you doing with my sister’s bra?" Ron bellowed, glaring at Harry.


Harry’s eyes widened as all three of them turned to look at him. "Nothing," he stammered. "I stepped on it when I got up, and I tried to put it back, and that’s when you woke up."


"Will you two be quiet," Hermione hissed. "Do you want to wake up the whole house?"


Laughing, Ginny walked over and took her bra from Harry and Ron. She lightly pecked Harry on the nose. "You’re cute when you’re embarrassed," she said.


Suddenly realizing he was standing there in his boxers, Ron grabbed the pink flowery blanket and wrapped it around himself. "What are you two doing in here?" he asked. "We’re not dressed yet."


"I can see that," Ginny said dryly. "I wouldn’t suggest wearing that color though, Ron. It clashes with your hair. That’s why I gave it to Hermione."


Hermione giggled, her cheeks very pink. "We’ve got the stuff all ready. We’ll meet you downstairs in five minutes. Hurry up," she said, staring pointedly at Ron. "Your mother is usually the first one awake."


The girls went downstairs while Ron and Harry quickly dressed. They met Hermione and Ginny in the entrance hall.


"Are we ready to do this?" Hermione asked. Now that the time had come, she looked wary and uncertain.


"Yeah," Harry said, infusing his voice with a confidence he didn’t really feel. Hunting the Horcruxes would feel better than waiting to do it, he was certain. Putting his hand on the door, he took a deep breath, and the four of them stole quietly into the gray pre-dawn light.



They soon reached the address that Mrs. Granger had given them for the orphanage, but it was still too early to enter. They bought some muffins at a nearby café and sat down at a table on the sidewalk with a clear view of the orphanage. Harry narrowed his eyes, studying it. There was a vague resemblance to the building he remembered seeing in the Pensieve, but there was something different that he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.


"It’s definitely the right address," he said slowly, "those steps going in are the same, but-"


"It’s been renovated," Hermione said. "The article my mother forwarded to me said it was completely redone in 1972. They kept some of the old building and added that section over there." Hermione pointed to the other side of the building that stretched further down the block than Harry had realized.


"They’ve renovated it? How do we know they even kept the section where Riddle lived?" Harry asked, alarmed.


"We don’t," Hermione said, shrugging. "But we have to check anyway, don’t we? It’s not like there’s anything we can do about the fact they renovated, Harry. After all, it’s been ages since Riddle was here. There would have to be some changes for it still to be open."


"Yeah, well, even the renovations were done before we were all born. They’re probably due for more," Ron said around a mouthful of muffin.


Harry shrugged. Hermione was right; he didn’t know why he hadn’t even considered the possibility. Riddle would have first been here over sixty years ago, everything couldn’t stay the same."


"How are we going to get in?" Ginny asked. "They’re Muggles, but they must have security."


"Yeah, but I think I can get past it," Harry said. "Dumbledore used a blank piece of paper to convince the headmistress that Tom Riddle was supposed to go to Hogwarts. I think I can do the same charm. Once I’m inside, I just need to find a secluded spot where we can Apparate later. I think it’ll be better if we go back tonight with the Invisibility Cloak."


"That’s a good idea," Hermione said. "We’ll go rent a couple of rooms for the night. It’ll give us a place to wait."


"All right," Harry said. "I’ll meet you back here in two hours, and you can show me where to go. I want to walk around the building and see if I can recognize anything before I go inside."


Hermione, Ron and Ginny departed, and Harry walked up and down the street in front of the orphanage. He had a strange sense of déjà vu as he passed the stone entrance. This was definitely the same place, and the brick front remained intact. He waited to enter the building until there was some activity on the street.


It had obviously been updated, but Harry found it recognizable. He could see the stone steps that led up to the offices behind a comfortable sitting area decorated in calming blues. A large wooden desk guarded the stairs, and a gray-haired receptionist sat flipping through some papers. She pursed her lips and lifted her reading glasses onto her nose. Something on the paper she held displeased her for she scowled as she pulled the page from the stack and placed it to the side.


Something in the woman’s face reminded Harry of his Aunt Petunia. She had the same disapproving look he remembered seeing so many times while growing up on Privet Drive. His aunt always assumed that everyone was out to take advantage of her.


Harry strode confidently up to the desk. Going with his instincts, he approached her as he would his aunt.


"Good morning, Mrs…Hatcher," Harry said, pretending to read from the paper he carried. He’d actually simply glanced at the nametag she wore affixed to her jacket. "I was sent to look at a problem you’re having with one of your computers. I understand you’ve been having a lot of trouble with it lately."


Mrs. Hatcher, who had looked at Harry with extreme suspicion when he first approached her, puffed out her chest. "Why, yes, we have, young man. Those infernal contraptions are always breaking down and making us lose all our data. I don’t know how you people get away with selling such inferior equipment."


"I’m sorry, ma’am," Harry said, nodding his head stiffly. "If you’ll just direct me to where the malfunctioning equipment is, I’ll be on my way without disturbing your work further."


Mrs. Hatcher appeared mollified that he considered her work important. "We have a family coming in for an adoption later today, and Mrs. Thompson will be quite upset if there is a problem getting all the paperwork ready. Now, which machine is it? Who put in the service call?" Mrs. Hatcher asked.


"I believe the name was Mrs. Thompson," Harry lied smoothly.


Mrs. Hatcher picked up one of the papers in front of her, frowning slightly. "You’re not on the Visitor List," she said, reading it again.


Harry schooled his features into a look of confusion. "I’m not?" he asked, leaning over the paper. Keeping his wand hidden beneath his hand, he wordlessly cast a spell.


"Oh! Here it is. It is Mrs. Thompson; you’d best hurry then. Her office is right up the stairs and to the right. I believe she’s here already," Mrs. Hatcher said, waving him through.


"Thank you," Harry replied, quickly hurrying up the stairs.


As he moved away, he heard Mrs. Hatcher mutter in a very disapproving voice, "They get younger every time."


He quickly walked down the corridor, taking in the sterile walls and worn carpeting. He could see some classrooms down one corridor, and assumed the living quarters were on the other side of the facility. The children inside the classroom again looked well cared for, but Harry thought the sadness and loneliness of the place was palpable.


Uncle Vernon had regularly threatened to send him to an orphanage, and he’d often thought he’d have been better off. Now, he knew he wouldn’t have enjoyed this life, either. He might have been better off physically, but he would have hated the forced conformity. He was certain he would have ended up in loads of trouble, and he shivered at the strange similarity he once again felt with a young Tom Riddle.


He didn’t like the place and wanted to get out as soon as possible. He needed to find a quiet spot that was likely to be unoccupied in the evening hours. Peering into one office, he saw a janitor fixing a broken shelf on a bookcase.


"You here to fix the computer?" the man asked, glancing only briefly at Harry. He was old and grizzled, reminding Harry slightly of Mad Eye Moody.


"Er…yeah," Harry said uncertainly.


"Ruth said she’d sent you along. This one just mucked up as well," the man said, banging on the bookcase. "Can you take a look at it, too?"


"That looks like a really old bookcase," Harry said, sitting at the desk and pretending to examine the computer. "I imagine they don’t get new furniture here very often."


"Nah, we make do with what we have. They stored a bunch of the old furniture from before they renovated the place downstairs in the storeroom. We bring it up whenever some of the new stuff breaks. They just don’t make furniture the way they used to. The old stuff might look rough, but it’s much sturdier than the crap they make nowadays," the man said.


Harry nodded in what he hoped was a sympathetic manner. "Do they keep any old computers down in that storeroom? Ones that could be used for spare parts?" Harry asked, thinking fast. "It might save you something on the invoice."


The man shrugged. "I dunno. You can check. The door at the end of the corridor leads down there. Can you fix that one?" he asked.


Harry looked at the computer, having no idea what was wrong with it or how to repair it. He glanced over at the janitor, whose back was to him. He discreetly waved his wand and wordlessly cast a Reparo spell.


The computer hummed almost happily.


"It’s all set," Harry said. "Nice to meet you."


The man nodded gruffly but didn’t reply. Harry hurried down the corridor and slipped inside the door to the storeroom. Thankfully, it was unlocked.


Harry was overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the underground storage space. Rows and rows of metal-framed beds and wardrobes were stacked over every bit of available space. Searching them would likely take all night.


Harry slipped the Spell Detectors out of his pocket and placed them on the end of his nose. He got lucky getting down here; maybe he’d be lucky again. He quickly perused the room, but could see no trace of red that would indicate Dark spells. They’d have to return tonight and look more carefully. For now, he had to get back to the others.



 


That night, Harry side-along Apparated with Hermione into the dusty storeroom, giving her a chance to look around and get familiar with the layout. Then they Apparated back to the small inn where they’d rented a couple of rooms and brought Ron and Ginny back with them.


"This place is kind of creepy," Ron said, glancing warily at all the old furniture stored in piles. The air was dank and musty, and the dim light from their wands cast long shadows on the walls. "I wonder why this room is so deep underground."


"I think it might have been used as a bomb shelter during the war," Hermione said absently, looking around.


"This is a Muggle building, Hermione. They didn’t know about the war," Ron said, puzzled.


"Not with Voldemort. Honestly, Ron, you should have been the one to take Muggle studies. Around the time Grindelwald was terrorizing wizarding Britain, the Muggles were involved in a huge war, as well. During the Blitz, when London was being heavily bombed, people used bomb shelters to try and protect themselves."


"They hid the children down here?" Ron asked, shuddering.


"I’d imagine," Hermione said.


"This place is kind of creepy," Ron said again.


"There’s a lot of sadness here," Harry said quietly. "Come on, I noticed some wardrobes over here."


He saw Hermione lock eyes with Ron for a moment before following him.


"You really think that if there is a Horcrux here, he would have hidden it in the wardrobe, Harry?" Hermione asked. "How can you be certain he would have been able to find the same one he used when he was here?"


Harry shrugged, feeling daunted by the large number of places to look. "If he came back to hide one here, I’m certain that’s where he would have put it. It’s just a hunch, but it’s all we’ve got. He would have been able to find the right wardrobe – I’m certain of it. But, the longer I’ve been here today, the less likely I think he would have left a Horcrux."


"Why?" Hermione asked, startled.


Her brows had knit at his words. Hermione always wanted solid reasons for doing things. Harry suspected much of this quest would involve simply going on gut instincts, and he wondered how she would cope. He knew she wouldn’t like his answer to this question, either.


"It doesn’t feel right; I can’t explain it," Harry said.


"Harry, you’re going to have to do better than that. We can’t base our entire search on your instincts," Hermione said.


"His instincts have got him out of sticky situations in the past," Ginny said, weakly smiling at Harry.


"His instincts have also got him into plenty of sticky situations," Hermione snapped. "We can’t afford any mistakes. We can’t simply act on gut feelings."


"We’re going to have to, Hermione," Harry said. "It’s exactly what Dumbledore did that night in the cave. It was more sensing something than knowing it."


"How did he know it, though?" Hermione demanded, stamping her foot.


Harry ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "Look, this place would hold bad memories for Riddle, not powerful ones. He was helpless here. That memory we saw in the Pensieve – where he stored the first tokens he took in that wardrobe, that’s what made me think he might put one back in there. But, I don’t think so. He likes power and the feeling of control. When he first learned he was a wizard…it was Dumbledore who held all the power. Dumbledore had all the answers, and Tom was at his mercy. Voldemort wouldn’t have liked that memory. He wouldn’t have liked feeling that way."


"So, you don’t think there’s anything here? Then what are we looking for?" Ron asked, unable to hide his eagerness at not having to search all the wardrobes.


"Just because that’s what I think doesn’t mean it’s true," Harry replied. "It’s certainly possible that he hid something here. Even if we don’t find anything, I’m certain it won’t be the last dead end we chase before this is over."


"It’ll give us some practice," Ginny said brightly. "Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky."


"You said you didn’t feel anything, Harry. What do you mean by that?" Hermione asked.


Harry sighed. "I can’t explain it exactly. With the diary and again when I was at the cave with Dumbledore… I could sense something. I hadn’t really given it much thought until Moody told me how to sense magic with these," Harry said, holding up the Spell Detectors. "I’m hoping that when we do manage to locate a Horcrux, it’ll happen again, and I’ll be able to explain it better."


Hermione frowned, obviously not satisfied with his answer, but she let it drop for the moment.


Standing in front of row after row of broken-down old wardrobes, Ron looked overwhelmed. "Are we supposed to go through every one of these? It’ll take ages. They’re all empty, anyway."


"Well, he’s not going to leave anything right where you can see it," Hermione said scathingly.


"Here, use these," Harry said, handing the Spell Detectors to Ron. "I don’t know if they’ll still be able to pick up any magic after sixty years, but look for a glowing color on any of them. If it’s red, it means Dark Magic."


"What are you going to do?" Ron asked


"I’m going to walk through the dormitories under the Cloak and see if I see any of the older-style wardrobes are still in use up there," he replied.


"I’ll go with you," Ginny said. "It’ll be quicker with two sets of eyes in each place.


Harry nodded and raised his arm so she could slip under the Cloak with him. All of his senses suddenly went on high alert once she was pressed so close to him. It was all he could do to focus on simply walking toward the stairs.


"Just looking for wardrobes," Ron said, disgruntled. "No snogging while you’re up there."


"Leave them alone, Ron," Hermione said. "Come on, let’s get started."


Harry and Ginny climbed the stairs and walked quietly towards the wing where the orphans slept. With a massive effort, Harry forced his body to calm down and his mind away from the thought of how nicely his hand fit in the curve of Ginny’s hip as they searched the rooms.


Several times they saw staff workers patrolling the corridors, but the Cloak kept them hidden, and they simply froze until the person had passed. It was during these ‘frozen’ spells that Harry’s mind would once again become overly aware of Ginny’s closeness. He’d have to drag his thoughts back to the present each time they began moving again.


It took a long time to search all the rooms, and they found no trace of any of the old wardrobes still in use. Several of the orphans were still awake and only pretending to sleep when the workers entered the rooms. Harry smiled, remembering doing the same thing to Aunt Petunia when he was younger. He’d frequently sneak out of his cupboard and prowl the house once the Dursleys went to bed, occasionally sneaking food from the kitchen.


"I don’t think there’s anything up here, Harry," Ginny said when they reached the end of the wing.


"No. It was unlikely anyway, but worth checking," Harry replied, feeling slightly discouraged.


Ginny stopped walking, turned around and pressed him against the wall. There was a determined glint in her eyes that he’d never seen before, and a slow smile spread across her features. Harry became instantly aware of every part of her body that was pressed against his, and he wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her in place.


"What was it Ron said about snogging?" she asked huskily, her lips so close to his that he could feel her warm breath. The temperature in the corridor must have risen ten degrees, and he didn’t understand how his body could be so warm and yet still shivering.


"That we couldn’t do it," Harry whispered before crushing his lips to hers and kissing her thoroughly.


His hands moved up and down the length of her back, the need to touch every part of her was all consuming, and Harry lost himself in the passion of the kiss. Ginny wound her fingers through his hair, and her body seemed to mould against his as if she were liquid. His heart thrummed in his chest, and he felt his knees growing weak. Thankfully, he was still pressed against the wall. He thought it would be entirely unmanly if he collapsed from the intensity of her kisses.


He had no idea how long they kissed – morning could have dawned for all he knew – before Ginny pulled back, panting. She put her arm against the wall for support, resting her head on his chest. It took several minutes for both of them to calm down and catch their breath.


"I don’t think I’ve ever been kissed like that," Ginny said, raising her head and looking slightly dazed.


"Like what?" Harry asked, beginning to feel nervous. Didn’t she enjoy it? Because I certainly did…


"Like…like a woman," Ginny said, averting her eyes. Even in the limited light from their wands, he could see a pretty blush staining her cheeks.


Harry’s chest swelled with pride. "You should be kissed that way," he said. After a moment thinking about it, he frowned and clarified, "But only by me."


"Possessive now, are we?" she asked, grinning.


"Absolutely," Harry replied, beaming. Suddenly his heart lightened, and he was unworried about the fruitlessness of their search so far.


Threading his fingers with hers, he tugged slightly, and they began walking back towards the storeroom. Ginny caressed his hand with her thumb the whole way. He could smell her sweet floral scent, and it reminded him of something.


"Sorry to deprive you of your bed partner last night," he said, smirking.


Ginny’s brow furrowed. "My what?" she asked, peering up at him.


"I woke up this morning and felt a lump under the covers. I pulled out what I think was your teddy bear," he said, laughing at her confused expression.


"Oh! You found Snot," Ginny said, giggling.


"Snot? Your teddy bear is named Snot?" Harry asked incredulously.


"Do you have a problem with that?" Ginny asked, grinning.


"I may have never had one of my own, but I think the general idea behind a teddy bear is that you like them," Harry said, raising an eyebrow.


"But I love Snot," Ginny said, slapping him on the arm.


"Then why would you call him Snot?" he asked, laughing at her scandalized expression.


"I got him when I was really small, and he didn’t have a name. The boys used to tease me about him, saying he was babyish and such, and I would always say ‘he’s not’. Fred and George could make me so mad with their teasing, and I’d screech it at them. They picked right up on it and twisted it so they called him Snot. He’s been called that ever since," Ginny said, laughing. "Even though I was angry with them, it is a funny name, and it fits."


Harry laughed, imagining the scene of a younger group of Weasleys teasing each other. They all had the life every child who lived in this place would give anything to have, and he didn’t think they really had any idea how lucky they were.


"You didn’t pack him though. How come you left Snot behind?" Harry asked as they reached the door that led to the storeroom.


"I’ll just have to find something else to wrap my arms around and snuggle close," she said, impishly kissing him on the nose before she pulled out from under the Cloak and sprinted down the stairs.


Harry was left on the landing, gaping like a fish. Heat rose to his face and neck, and he had to take several deep, calming breaths before following her.


Ron and Hermione were still searching each of the old wardrobes with the Spell Detectors. Stray pieces of Hermione’s hair had pulled loose from her ponytail and hung limply around her face. Ron was sweating and had a smudge of dirt on his cheekbone.


"Where have you two been?" Ron asked grumpily. "You’ve been gone for ages."


"It’s a big place, Ron," Ginny said dryly.


"Did you find anything?" Hermione asked. Harry thought she sounded a bit desperate.


"No. We didn’t see any of the old wardrobes upstairs," Ginny said sighing. "How about you? Did you find anything?"


"No. Nothing," Ron said shortly. "It would be easier if we had more than one of these Spell Detectors. We could have cut our time in half."


"I’ll start at the other end of the room," Harry said. "I don’t know if I can sense anything, but it wouldn’t hurt to try."


They spent the next several hours painstakingly searching each row. Harry felt discouraged. He hadn’t sensed anything, but wasn’t confident enough that he actually could do it to consider the wardrobes he’d searched clean. Ron would have to continue with the Spell Detectors through the whole room.


"Harry!" Ron shouted suddenly, startling him. "I think I’ve got something. It’s faint, but I can definitely see red." Ron’s voice, which had sounded so exhausted only moments earlier, was suddenly filled with excitement.


Harry quickly moved to the wardrobe Ron had indicated. He shut his eyes and ran his hands over it, concentrating intently. He felt something, but he couldn’t quite name what it was. There was a very distant humming, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, almost like the wardrobe was electrically charged.


"Can you sense anything?" Ginny asked after several moments.


"Yeah…I can," Harry said, feeling slightly amazed.


"What do you mean? What do you feel?" Hermione demanded. She’d followed Harry’s example and was running her hands along the wardrobe just as he had.


"Can’t you feel an energy?" Harry asked. "It almost makes me shiver. I think if the traces were stronger, it would."


Hermione appeared extremely frustrated. "I don’t know what you’re talking about, Harry. I don’t feel anything."


"But he’s right, Hermione," Ron said, shoving the Spell Detector toward her. "Look."


Hermione put them on and gasped. "I can see faint red lines. They’re nearly transparent, but they are there."


Harry nodded. "I think they’re transparent because the magical energy is so old. There hasn’t been any magic done here recently, but I’d bet you galleons this was once Tom Riddle’s wardrobe."


Ginny involuntarily took a step away from the wardrobe.


"It’s not here," Harry said, running a hand through his hair and mussing it up further. "We’re not on the right trail."


"But how did you feel it without the Spell Detectors, Harry? I don’t understand how you’re doing that," Hermione said, stamping her foot in frustration.


"I don’t know," Harry said. "I just can."


"So what’s next?" Ron asked, stifling a yawn.


"We should go back to the inn and get some sleep," Harry said. "Tomorrow we’ll see if we can find Hepzibah Smith’s former address. I bet it’s on file at Borgin and Burkes."


"How do you propose getting them to give it to us?" Hermione asked.


"A distraction and the Invisibility Cloak ought to work," Harry said with a grin. "Let’s get some sleep."


A sudden noise at the far end of the storeroom startled them all.


"Who’s there?" a child’s voice called into the darkness.


They extinguished their wands, and Harry raised the cloak in front of them like a curtain just as the boy flicked a switch. Ron flinched when the bright florescent lights lit the room.


"I know there’s someone in here," the child said shakily. Harry could see him now. He was young – eight or nine – and wearing pajamas two sizes too small. He strode through the storeroom with a confidence that hinted, despite the waver in his voice, this wasn’t his first time out of bounds after hours.


The boy began walking up the row, peering underneath some of the furniture. If he got too close, he’d be certain to see them.


Harry raised his wand and sent a spell in the other direction. A scurrying sound clearly emitted from a crack in the wall.


"Just rats," the boy mumbled. "Someone’s probably been sneaking food down here." He turned and quickly hurried up the stairs, dousing the lights as he left.


"That was close," Ron said. "Nice distraction, Harry."


"We can’t just leave him," Hermione said. "He’s wandering around on his own, and he could get hurt. I’m certain that’s against the rules."


"He’s not hurting anyone, Hermione. I don’t think this was the first time he’s done this. Didn’t you ever do some midnight prowling when you were younger?" Harry asked, again remembering the countless times he’d done the same thing. Sometimes, it was the only bit of freedom he’d managed to get.


"I still think we should ensure someone finds him," Hermione said, worriedly twisting her hands. "He was really young to be all alone."


"He’s fine; we’re not turning him in," Harry said, feeling a kinship with the rebellious boy. He Apparated out of the storeroom before anyone could argue with him about it.



 


The four returned to the inn and slept well into the afternoon the next day. Once they’d risen, they plotted how to discover the location of Hepzibah Smith’s former address. Harry and Ron went into Diagon Alley under the Invisibility Cloak, barely getting through the crowded streets without being seen. It wasn’t as easy for the two of them to fit beneath the Cloak as it had once been.


Harry felt a guilty pang when they passed Fred and George’s shop. There was quite a crowd gathered around it, but he didn’t spot either identical red head. He hoped the rest of the Weasleys weren’t in too much of a panic over their disappearance. Ron walked past the shop, keeping his eyes focused directly ahead, and Harry knew he was worried too.


When they reached Knockturn Alley, Ron slipped out from under the Cloak and entered Borgin and Burkes, holding the door open long enough for Harry to enter unnoticed. Ron poked around inside for several moments while Harry edged towards the desk. The shop had only one other customer, and the clerk kept a wary eye on Ron the entire time he was there.


When the other customer asked a question of the clerk, Ron took advantage of the distraction and knocked over a display of biting coins. The clerk hurried over, scowling at Ron and the two of them tried to pick up the coins without getting their fingers chomped off in the process.


Hidden beneath the Cloak, Harry easily slipped behind the desk and opened a file drawer. Quickly locating several files marked ‘Smith’, he perused each until he found the information he sought. There had been several executors of the Smith fortune since Hepzibah’s death. The current name on the file was a Sebastian Smith. Harry memorized the address and quickly returned the file.


He lightly tapped Ron on the shoulder before moving towards the door, distracting Ron from the biting coins for a moment. Ron immediately got bit and dropped the coin he was holding


"Err…sorry about that," Ron mumbled to the disgruntled clerk.


"Just take your business elsewhere and get out," the man snarled.


Ron didn’t need to be told twice. He hurried to the door and held it open wide so Harry could slip out before following him onto Knockturn Alley. They ducked into a side street so Ron could cover himself with the cloak.


"Did you get it?" Ron hissed once they were both concealed and moving.


"Yeah. I did. It’s here in London. We can go there in the morning – it’s too late now. Ginny and Hermione are probably wondering what’s keeping us," Harry said. They’d left the girls at the inn reckoning it would be easier with just two of them beneath the Cloak.


Ron suddenly slapped Harry on the shoulder. "Over there, look," he hissed.


Harry turned his head to see Dean Thomas and Parvati Patil strolling hand in hand and looking in the windows across the street.


"I thought Parvati’s parents pulled her and Padma out of Hogwarts because it was too dangerous. How come they’re letting her stroll through Diagon Alley, then?" Harry asked, shaking his head.


"Dunno. I want to know when she and Dean became an item. How come all of Ginny’s old boyfriends end up dating your old girlfriends?" Ron asked, smirking.


"Shut it," Harry said, disconcerted. "Parvati was never my girlfriend. We only went to the Yule Ball, and that wasn’t exactly a raving success as far as dates go."


Ron chuckled. "Yeah but, Harry, you didn’t exactly have a passionate relationship with Cho, either. She cried through most of it, remember? You had what, one decent snogging session? As I recall, she even cried through that. A smooth operator you obviously are not. Why else do you think I didn’t mind your dating my sister?" Ron asked, nearly doubling over in glee.


Harry knew Ron was winding him up, but he felt cross nonetheless. He shoved Ron’s shoulder with his own, nearly causing the red head to stumble out from under the Cloak. "If you don’t want to hear any details about your sister’s love life, I’d back off if I was you," Harry said irritably.


"Hit a sensitive spot, have I?" Ron asked, chuckling.


Harry wanted to hit him. He suddenly felt rather nervous about the idea of his kisses being compared to other kisses Ginny had received. What if she found him lacking and hadn’t wanted to say anything? He discarded this notion almost instantly; Ginny was never one to keep her opinion to herself. Never mind the searing kiss they’d shared the previous night. She’d responded with as much passion as he felt. His confidence slightly restored, he still couldn’t let Ron off without some comeuppance.


"I’ve got no worries, mate," Harry said, elbowing Ron in the ribs for good measure. "It’s not like Ginny has ever dated anyone older or more experienced, anyway. Both Michael and Dean were only Hogwarts students, too."


Harry slyly glanced at Ron out of the corner of his eye. His friend had paled slightly as the implication of Harry’s words hit him. Harry smirked, feeling vindicated.


"Shut it," Ron said, grumbling. He shoved Harry forward a bit more roughly than necessary.



 


The next morning, they arrived at the address Harry had seen on the card at Borgin and Burkes. At some point in the last decade, the Smith family had converted the house into a museum. According to the card, part of the house had been kept as living accommodations, while another portion was open to the wizarding public.


The sign on the door read ‘open’, so the four simply walked inside.


It no longer resembled anything Harry remembered in the Pensieve. Gone were all the fussy old lady furnishings, replaced by display cases and slick leather chairs.


"Potter! What in blazes are you doing here?" cried an annoyingly familiar voice.


Harry turned to see a tall, skinny blonde boy striding towards him. Zacharias Smith was a fellow Hogwarts student who made a habit of being an annoying thorn in Harry’s side.


"Smith," he said, nodding.


"I would have thought you’d have gone into hiding somewhere. It can’t be hard to find you if you’re out strolling in public. If You-Know-Who really is trying to kill you, that is," Smith said, sounding as if it didn’t really matter either way.


Harry shrugged, refusing to be baited. "I’ve had things to do."


"Yes. I saw your picture in the Prophet the other day after you got your License to Apparate. It must have been a slow news day," Smith replied.


"What do you want?" Ginny asked angrily. She’d never forgiven Smith for his derogatory commentary during their Quidditch match against Slytherin the previous year.


"What do I want?" Smith asked incredulously. "I think you’re confused. You’re the ones who came in here, remember, dear?" he asked condescendingly.


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


"Zacharias Smith, of course," Hermione said. "Your family runs the museum. I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection."


Smith stared at her, blinking. "You mean you didn’t come in here to see me? You’re here to see the artifacts. I can understand your interest, Granger. You always were an over-achiever, but the rest of you lot never appeared overly interested in the Hufflepuff lineage. What are you on about?"


"Nothing," Harry said, shaking his head. "It was Hermione’s idea to come, and we didn’t have anything better to do. We didn’t know you’d be here."


Smith nodded, although he still appeared slightly suspicious. "Well, take a look around then, but don’t touch anything. You’re lucky you came when you did; we’ll be shutting down for a fortnight in September."


"Really? Why?" Hermione asked.


"I assume you’ve heard that Hogwarts isn’t reopening. I’m spending my last year at Beauxbatons. My parents are traveling with me until I’m settled. I’m surprised you’re not doing the same, Granger. How are you going to complete your studies?" Smith demanded.


"My mum is home schooling all of us," Ron said, his ears turning only slightly pink.


"I see," Smith said disdainfully, looking down his upturned nose at them. "I’m certain that will be adequate if you can’t afford to go to France. I’ll leave you to admire the treasures."


"’I’ll leave you to admire the treasures,’" Ron mimicked, prancing after Smith. "Why the little-"


"Ron," Hermione said reproachfully. "Just be quiet and look around a bit so we can Apparate back when we’re ready."


They spent a little time looking over some of the antiques and reading a bit about the known information on Helga Hufflepuff so they wouldn’t further arouse Zacharias’ suspicions. When they gathered back outside, Harry made a decision.


"Okay. If the museum will be empty after September the first, we’ll have to come back then for our search," Harry said.


"Did you feel anything while we were inside, Harry?" Ginny asked.


"No, but I was kind of distracted. We’ll have to do a thorough search when we return," he replied.


"So, where do we look in the meantime?" Ron asked.


"The only other place I know for certain Voldemort spent some time. Albania," Harry replied grimly.


"Albania?" Ron repeated, wide-eyed.


"I know that in fourth year, Wormtail went to look for Voldemort and found him living in the forest in Albania. I can only assume that’s where he went after he lost his powers because he felt safe there for some reason. Dumbledore said that he disappeared for awhile after leaving Borgin and Burkes, so I thought maybe he spent some time there," Harry said.


"I suppose it’s as logical a choice as anywhere," Ginny replied, her eyes betraying the fact she felt overwhelmed.


"What about Borgin and Burkes though?" Ron said. "You just said he worked there. Maybe he hid one there. We should have looked while we were there yesterday."


"I don’t think so," Harry replied, shaking his head. "He was only a clerk, and he likes being the one in control. Besides, there would be too much chance of a hidden object being found and sold. I think he didn’t choose the orphanage because he didn’t feel powerful there. By the same token, he hid the ring right in the Gaunt house after he killed Morphin. I think the killing makes him feel powerful. He killed Hepzibah right in the Smith House, that’s why I think he would have hidden the Horcrux right inside."


"So, we go to Albania. Any idea where we should Apparate?" Ron asked. "I assume Albania is a big place."


"Well," Hermione said, adopting the tone she always used when she was about to spout a mind-numbing amount of facts on them. "About thirty percent of Albania is covered by forest. The Black Pines are mostly centrally located. I think we should start there since it seems like the kind of place Voldemort might hide. There’s an Apparation checkpoint in Elbasan. We could start there, and then move into less populated areas."


"What are you, a walking atlas?" Ron asked incredulously.


"Did you think Ginny and I spent yesterday skiving off while you were in Diagon Alley? I suppose that’s what you would have done. We went to the Muggle library. I assumed our next location would be Albania," Hermione sniffed.


"So you think Elbasan is the best place to start?" Harry asked quickly, trying to head off the brewing row.


"Well, I assume Voldemort would have chosen an area that was sparsely populated, but we know Wormtail ran into Bertha Jorkins at a nearby inn, so he couldn’t have been completely secluded," Hermione said.


"Good point. It looks like we’re heading on a road trip," Harry said, sniggering. He remembered Uncle Vernon cursing about the riff raff youth backpacking across the continent and took pleasure in the idea he was adding one more thing to the list of things his uncle disliked about him.



** ** **



After nearly a fortnight in Albania, they had no more to show for it then when they’d arrived. They were all feeling discouraged and had grown short-tempered with one another.


They’d traveled through village after village asking questions and seeking anything they thought might be related to Voldemort’s presence. All they’d gained was the growing suspicion of the local Muggles. They used the tent for shelter along the way, and although the weather had cooperated, they were growing restless from being cooped up together.


The tent had two rooms, one a sitting area with a small kitchen, the other a bedroom equipped with two sets of bunk beds. The first night, Ron and Harry took the bottom bunks, but Hermione, who’d never cared much for heights, didn’t like being on top so she switched with Harry. Ron was simply too tall to fit on the top bunk, he’d hit his head on the ceiling.


Ron and Hermione’s bickering had resumed with new vigor as the days passed. Harry decided he and Ginny needed a break from them, if just for a little while. On August eleventh, Ginny’s sixteenth birthday, Harry told Ron and Hermione he was taking her out on a proper date. He told them to go out and enjoy themselves, too, just go to a different restaurant. They needed to lighten the mood and this seemed the perfect opportunity.


Ginny, who’d been feeling a little homesick about being away on her birthday, was delighted. She’d squealed with delight, throwing her arms around Harry’s neck when he made his announcement and kissed him repeatedly.


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


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


Hermione smacked Ron on the arm, frowning in disapproval. "Honestly, Ron. Leave them alone; it’s her birthday."


"Just be sure not to let the celebrating get out of hand," Ron said darkly.


"Yes, Mum," Ginny replied, rolling her eyes.


Neither of them brought any clothes suitable for an evening out, so they decided to do a little Transfiguration. Harry dressed in black trousers and a white button-down shirt, while Ginny wore a sage green sundress that flared out from her waist and fluttered around her legs as she walked.


Harry decided he liked watching her walk.


"You look amazing," he said when he’d finally regained the ability to speak.


"Oh, Ginny. You do look really nice," Hermione said, quickly Transfiguring Ginny’s jacket into a light shawl.


Ginny blushed; her eyes still locked on Harry’s as she took the shawl. "Thanks, Hermione."


"You do look nice when you decide to dress like a girl for a change, Ginny," Ron said. "Better than what you wore to Bill’s wedding."


Hermione rolled her eyes in annoyance. "Ron! Can’t you even say something nice on her birthday?"


Ron blinked incredulously. "I just did. I said-"


"I know what you said. You’d do better to keep your mouth shut once in a while," Hermione said, turning her back in a huff.


Harry decided to make their escape while they could. Grabbing Ginny’s hand, he pulled her away from Ron and Hermione. "We’re leaving. Have a good night," he called after them.


"Don’t wait up," Ginny shouted, giggling at Harry’s raised eyebrows.


There was a small pub in the center of the village, the kind of pub every village seemed to have, Harry had noticed. They’d spent some time there on their first evening in town. Those kinds of places were always good for striking up a conversation with the locals and getting small details it would be otherwise hard to find.


Harry purposely didn’t choose this spot for his date with Ginny. He’d noticed a small inn not too far from it, however, that had a nice restaurant and a quieter atmosphere. When they arrived, Harry was pleased with his choice. The restaurant was dimly lit with candles glowing on each table. Soft music played in the background, and a small portion of the floor space was set aside for dancing.


Harry swallowed hard when he saw the dance floor. He hadn’t considered that and didn’t know if Ginny liked to dance. He remembered her complaining about Neville stepping on her feet during the Yule Ball and didn’t expect that he could do much better. Maybe Ginny didn’t like to dance.


"Oh, Harry. This is lovely," Ginny said, her eyes sparkling brightly.


Harry thought the way the candlelight made her eyes glow was breathtaking, and he decided that birthday or not, he could put up with dancing if that was what she wanted to do.


The waiter sat them at a quiet, romantic table in the corner with a gorgeous view of the mountains. They’d been conjuring most of their food back in the tent, so they hadn’t sampled much of the local fare.


Ginny perused the menu thoughtfully before making her selection. Harry had never been very picky with food; he usually had just been happy to get some, so he was a bit more adventurous than she was.


When a waitress who repeatedly beamed at them served the food, they shared the selections off each other’s plates. Mostly, however, they had eyes only for each other. If asked later what he’d had for dinner that night, Harry couldn’t have answered, but he could describe exactly how her dress clung to her form and the way the firelight streaked her hair with gold.


Ginny was obviously conscious of his stare, for a pretty blush stained her cheeks and the column of her neck. Harry’s traitorous mind wondered if she blushed like that all over, and he was exceedingly glad she couldn’t do Legilimency to hear that thought. The more time they spent together, the less he’d been able to control the direction his mind wanted to take.


Over dessert – a decadent chocolate creation that made his mouth water merely looking at it – Harry handed Ginny a small box wrapped in gold paper with a green bow perched on top. Ginny squealed in delight and immediately began tearing off the paper. Harry laughed, reminded of Ron on every Christmas morning since he’d known his red-haired friend.


Ginny’s smile faltered slightly when she pulled out a long velvet jewelry box. Her eyes sought out Harry uncertainly, biting her lip in what Harry thought was an extremely kissable way.


"Harry," she said hesitantly.


"Just open it," he said, knowing she was worried about the cost. He felt slightly nervous about giving it to her now.


Ginny flipped open the lid and pulled out a bracelet comprised of a delicate gold chain with a thick charm of a golden heart. The heart appeared to almost float on the chain. Ginny’s small fingers played with the heart, examining it closely.


Harry swallowed. "You told me that it was my responsibility to protect everyone from Voldemort, but that it was your job to protect me," Harry whispered. "I just wanted you to know – no matter what happens – that you’ve done that. You’ll always have my heart, Ginny."


He had seen the bracelet in a local shop after he’d realized how close it was to her birthday, and the saleslady had insisted that Ginny would love it. Sitting with her now, he suddenly thought the words sounded stupid and very corny – like something Bill would say to Fleur. He wished he’d chosen something else.


Ginny looked up at him with tears sparkling in her eyes. "Oh, Harry," she said, reaching across the table to take his hand. "It’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve owned. Would you put it on for me?"


She reached her arm across the table so he could fasten the clasp around her wrist, both sniffling and beaming at him at the same time.


Harry’s heart swelled as he realized how much Ginny truly liked the gift. He suddenly thought that Bill might be onto something about girls, after all.


His world came crashing back down to earth when Ginny asked, "Do you want to dance?"


The expression on his face must have shown his true feeling before he could hide them because she laughed, rising from her chair and tugging on his arm. "Come on. You danced at the wedding and it was fine, remember? It was the dance that actually set everything to rights for us," she said.


Harry followed her to the dance floor and wrapped his arms around her, swaying to the music. Every few minutes, Ginny would stretch her arm out straight so she could admire the sparkle of her birthday present. Her appreciation made Harry feel as if he could do anything. He had to admit, dancing had its advantages. He liked the freedom of being able to hold her close and run his fingers along the fabric of her dress without censure.


Later that evening, after more dancing than Harry had ever done in his life, Ginny whispered, "This has been the best birthday I’ve ever had. Thank you, Harry."


"It’s not over yet," he replied, grinning cheekily. "What say we head back to our tent?"


When they reached the tent, Harry was pleased to note that Ron and Hermione still hadn’t returned from their date. He sat on the couch and pulled Ginny onto his lap. She curled her legs over his and rested her head on his shoulder.


He leaned his cheek onto the top of her head, enjoying the softness of her hair. "We’ll have to have nights like this more often," he said, closing his eyes. "Doing something fun and enjoyable takes the tension away and brings everything back into clear focus."


Ginny shifted so she could start trailing kisses along his neck and ear. "Harry," she whispered huskily. "It’s still my birthday for another hour, so Voldemort and his Horcruxes can just sod off until it’s over."


Harry grinned, leaning his head to the side to give her better access. He groaned at the sensations she was creating. It suddenly didn’t matter where or who he was. All that mattered was this slip of a girl in his arms and what she was doing to him. His stomach was fluttering madly as he shifted their position so he could capture her lips.


Time lost all meaning to them, but Harry had somehow ended up sprawled on top of Ginny as they lay back on the couch, their hands moving and exploring as if all on their own. Harry’s breathing caught in his throat as his hand touched the bare skin on Ginny’s well-muscled leg. Voices outside the door snapped them back into reality and they jumped off the couch, desperately straightening their rumpled hair and clothing.


Ron and Hermione had returned.


Harry and Ginny dashed into the bedroom they all shared just as the flap to the tent opened. Ginny sprinted inside the bathroom to change into her nightclothes while Harry used the bedroom. He was already lying in his bunk when Ginny returned. She quickly climbed into her own bunk across from him, and the two of them lay still waiting for Ron and Hermione to enter.


They each lay quietly, prepared to feign sleep when the door opened. Harry’s heart hammered in his chest, his adrenaline pumping. He could see Ginny’s profile in the darkness, and he grinned at her. She returned the smile, lying on her side and facing him across the gap between the two beds. Several long minutes passed, but the door never opened.


"Reckon they’re not coming right to bed?" Harry finally whispered.


"I suppose they’re probably doing exactly what we were doing," Ginny said, giggling.


Harry’s eyes widened. "Do you think?"


He listened closely, but couldn’t hear any sounds coming from the main room.


"I think," Ginny whispered, giggling again.


"About that, Harry," she said, biting her lip.


"What?" Harry asked, feeling the temperature in the room drop alarmingly.


"Uhm…I had a really good time tonight. It was the best birthday I ever had," she said.


"But?" Harry asked, knowing there was more.


Ginny swallowed. "But…I think it was a good thing Ron and Hermione came back when they did. We were getting a bit…carried away," she said haltingly.


"I’m sorry," Harry said, feeling deflated. He hadn’t meant to scare her, but she was right. He hadn’t felt in control.


"No! It’s not your fault. I was just as involved as you were. When my head is clear like this, I know I’m not ready for the next step yet. But when I’m in your arms and kissing you, all I want is more," Ginny said, her eyes pleading with him to understand.


Harry knew exactly what she meant. She made him reckless. "You take away my thinking ability," he said, nodding.


"Good," Ginny replied, smirking. "I’m glad it’s not just me who feels that way. We’ll just have to try to take things slow."


"But we don’t have to stop kissing, do we?" Harry asked, a shiver of apprehension running down his spine.


"Absolutely not… Just try and get rid of me, Potter," Ginny said, grinning impishly. "Besides, I like the kissing."


"Good," Harry mumbled.



 


It was quite some time later when Ron stormed into the bedroom, fuming and determined to go out looking for Harry and his little sister in order to pound Harry to a pulp. He pulled up short when he found the two of them sound asleep in their beds, both wearing contented smiles across their faces.



 


A/N: Well, we’re home from Disney World, and we had a fantastic time. The night before we left I had all three very overtired children in tears because they didn’t want to go home. My middle son said, "The last day of vacation is even worse than the day we go back to school after summer!" LOL. Poor kid – only six, and he’s already got the post-vacation blues. Thanks for all your recommendations. We loved the Philharmagic show, and Buzz Lightyear was a huge hit. My personal favorite was Soarin’ in Epcot.



Thanks much to Sherylyn for working on this while I was away, and to KEDme, Dianne and GhostWriter for all the prebeta help and early reactions. I really appreciate them. Most of all, thanks to those of you who take the time to review. The feedback is really motivating, and I always appreciate it.



Thank you SO much to all those SIYE readers who nominated and voted for me in the Dumbledore Silver Trinket Awards. I'm delighted and honored to be listed among such a stellar crew, and I really, really appreciate it. Thanks!



We got home last night, and I only briefly read some emails about JKRs recent comments about the possibility of Harry being a Horcrux. Gulp. It alarmed me, so I’m choosing to ignore it for a while. I’ll never survive the wait if I have to stress about Harry the whole time. Honestly, I could see everything in that letter as being more than possible except for the idea of Harry dying, and Neville killing Voldemort. That doesn’t seem to fit the prophecy to me, but we shall see. Gulp.


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