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.
Lions and Tigers and…Dragons?
The first of September dawned hot and sunny over the Albanian forest. The search for clues as to where Voldemort had hidden his Horcruxes had thus far proved futile. While they had found what Harry suspected was Voldemort’s hideout during his years in exile, it hadn’t contained a trace of a Horcrux, nor a hint as to why Voldemort had felt safe there.
As they’d searched the hovel tucked deep in the forest; Hermione had stumbled upon a shallow grave containing several human bones. Harry suspected they were the remains of Bertha Jorkins. The foursome had hated the idea of leaving her there – unmarked and alone for eternity – but couldn’t draw attention to themselves by alerting anyone at the moment.
So, they had carved a small headstone and placed it on Bertha’s grave. They’d bowed their heads while Hermione said a few words in remembrance. Before they left, they placed a locator spell on the grave, so they could later alert the Order of the location of Bertha’s remains. It was the best they could do, but Harry’s conscience still nagged at him. He knew very well that his remains could be left lying on the ground in the not-so-distant future. If that was to be his fate, he at least wanted to be treated with dignity.
Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione had allowed themselves the luxury of a lie-in on the morning of the first. They’d planned to Apparate back to London late in the afternoon and make a few public stops in Diagon Alley before visiting the Smith Museum. Harry thought that Mr. Weasley’s suggestion of being seen in public on occasion was valid, but he wasn’t certain if the elder man would still want to help him accomplish this after his daughter had disappeared with Harry.
Harry’s eyes opened slowly as he lazily stretched and rolled over on his side. He could hear Ron’s snores drifting from the bunk beneath him. The room appeared fuzzy without his glasses. He squinted as he peered at Ginny’s bed, but didn’t see the familiar cascade of red that usually covered her pillow. He felt that familiar twinge of disappointment at her absence, but squelched it.
Sitting up and cracking his back, he put on his glasses and blearily looked around. Both of the girls’ beds were empty, and he thought he could smell the aroma of bacon coming from the other room. Harry swung his legs over the side of his bunk and jumped to the floor. Ron never twitched, so Harry left him to his slumber.
He found Ginny and Hermione in the kitchen. Ginny was frying some bacon on the stove while Hermione hunched over a cup of coffee. Harry had been surprised to learn how grumpy Hermione could be first thing in the morning. At Hogwarts, she always came downstairs bright and eager to start classes. While on this journey together, however, he’d discovered that until she had a shower, Hermione’s morning demeanor rather resembled Ron’s.
Ginny had told him that Hermione had always been that way; she usually didn’t come downstairs until she’d managed to fully wake herself. Hermione liked her routine, and part of that routine involved avoiding all human contact when she first awoke. Ginny said that on days when Hermione appeared at breakfast already very cross, Parvati and Lavender had insisted on speaking to her first thing.
"Morning, Harry," Ginny said, greeting him with a warm smile.
The creature that resided inside Harry’s chest purred. "Morning," he replied, unable to suppress the goofy smile that crossed his face.
"The breakfast isn’t quite ready, but there’s coffee in the pot if Hermione is willing to share," Ginny said, poking Hermione in the ribs with her spatula.
Hermione jerked away from Ginny’s prodding and silently pushed the coffeepot towards Harry.
"Good morning, Hermione," Harry said, pouring a cup and breathing in the freshly brewed scent.
"How did you sleep?" Ginny asked, gently ruffling his hair as she walked back towards the stove.
"Never better," Harry replied, watching her crack some eggs on the counter.
"I’ve been thinking about our plans to be seen in Diagon Alley, Harry," Hermione said, sitting up a bit straighter in her chair. She’d managed to open her eyes about halfway.
"What about it?" Harry asked warily. He felt a row brewing, and he knew disagreeing with Hermione in the morning was a bad idea all around.
"Do you really think it’s wise to be seen by anyone before we search for the Horcrux? I mean, what if we run into one of the Order or get detained by the Ministry? I think we ought to go straight to the museum and then go to Diagon Alley tomorrow," Hermione said.
Harry shook his head. "We’ve already discussed this, Hermione. I don’t know what will happen if we find a Horcrux. I’m not certain how we’ll destroy it, or…or if we’ll be injured in the process," Harry said, swallowing heavily. The image of Dumbledore’s withered hand arose unbidden in Harry’s mind, followed by the sound of Dumbledore’s pleading as Harry had forced him to continue drinking that foul liquid. Harry shuddered as he forced the memories to the back of his mind. He couldn’t dwell on them now.
"I realize it’ll be dangerous," Hermione said as if reading his mind, "but we’re all entering this willingly. We know what we’re doing, Harry."
Harry nodded, swallowing heavily. He knew he’d never be able to live with himself if something happened to any of them, no matter what Hermione said. He couldn’t lose anyone else…
"I still think it would be a good idea to postpone your appearance in the papers," Hermione said, apparently unwilling to drop her point. Now that she’d finished her first cup of coffee and was working on her second, she was acting more like the Hermione he knew.
"No," Harry said firmly. "I have another reason for wanting to do it today. It’s the first of September, and I suspect a lot of students might be doing the same thing Zacharias Smith is doing and going to school elsewhere. I want to show everyone that I’m still in England. It should keep Voldemort’s attention away from the other schools."
Hermione averted her eyes, staring intently into her coffee cup. Harry thought he’d seen the beginning of tears before she’d looked away. He knew that not returning to school would be hardest on Hermione. She’d always been so dedicated to her academic pursuits, and Harry had to marvel at the depth of her sacrifice for him.
He reached over and gently squeezed her hand. "I’m going to miss it, too," he whispered.
Hermione raised her eyes and smiled tremulously. "I still can’t believe there won’t be any classes at Hogwarts this term."
"I know," Ginny said, placing the bacon and eggs on the table and sitting down with them. "I keep wondering what all the teachers are going to do. I mean, they live there during the school year, don’t they? Where will they go? Will they come back when Hogwarts finally reopens, because it will." Ginny stared at them fiercely, as if daring them to disagree with her.
"Of course it will," Harry said with a confidence he didn’t feel. "It has to."
"What happens if we run into Fred and George…or Mum while we’re in Diagon Alley?" Ginny asked, biting her lower lip.
"We can’t let that happen," Harry said firmly, knowing Ginny half wanted to run into her family. "After we get the Horcrux – if there’s one there – then we’ll go back to Grimmauld Place. We’ll deal with the repercussions of our disappearance when we get there, but we can’t risk anyone getting in the way of our visit to the Smith Museum."
"What if we don’t find a Horcrux?" Ginny asked, her gaze direct and unwavering.
Harry swallowed. He’d been thinking about that possibility for several days, although something kept telling him that they would find something there.
"I don’t know," he said, sighing. "I don’t want to go back to headquarters without having made some progress – without having something to have made the trip worthwhile."
"But you’re still not planning on telling them about the Horcruxes?" Hermione asked.
"No," Harry said. "I have a feeling we’re in for a lot of shouting when we go back, but we are doing the right thing. Having found one will simply make me feel better while stonewalling them."
"Mum is probably going spare. She’ll likely try and lock us up in chains," Ginny said, groaning.
"I know," Harry said, squeezing her hand. "But we’ve been gone all this time and we’ve done all right. It’s you that she’s going to be the hardest on. We’re all of age, so there really isn’t anything she can do, but you-"
"It doesn’t matter," Ginny said, raising her chin in the air. "I’m not a little girl anymore, and I won’t go back to being treated like one. I love my mother dearly, but I’m her daughter through and through. I can be as stubborn as she can."
Harry smiled fondly, rubbing his finger along her forearm. Lately, he’d felt the constant need to touch her whenever she was near. He’d noticed that she’d been doing the same to him, too. Just small caresses, holding hands, a light touch whenever they spoke. He’d never been one to crave much physical contact, so he wasn’t certain what was happening or why he found her touch so soothing, but he did.
"I don’t think Mum will be too bad about my accompanying you once she’s had the chance to calm down," Ginny said, stirring some sugar into her coffee.
The other two looked at her doubtfully, and Hermione’s eyebrows rose so high they disappeared into her hairline.
"Ginny, we are talking about your mum here, right?" Hermione asked. "The same woman who refused to allow the Order to discuss so much as the weather within our hearing distance?"
Ginny shook her head. "She’s not as uptight as she was the last time we stayed at Grimmauld Place. After what happened at the Ministry, she…I dunno…she changed. She resigned herself to the fact she couldn’t keep us out of the war no matter what she did. It was right after that when she allowed the twins to fully join the Order. She might not like it, but she’s accepting it. She’ll blow up at first, mind, but then she calms down. Trust me."
"If you say so," Harry said, still feeling doubtful. He vividly remembered Mrs. Weasley’s despair the night Sirius allowed him to question what the Order was doing. She had even dragged Ginny out of the room and sent her off to bed so she wouldn’t hear anything she deemed inappropriate.
"You must have noticed the change in her," Ginny said. "In the hospital wing the night Dumbledore died, she didn’t try to send any of us out of the room. She didn’t even act surprised that we’d all been involved in the fighting."
Hermione’s eyes widened. "You’re right," she said. "Ron told me she’d sent him outside to use his Patronus the night the Burrow was attacked, too."
"Exactly. I’ve been thinking about her a lot since we’ve been here," Ginny said, her eyes dipping to the table.
Harry took her hand, knowing that despite her bravado, she was missing her mum. Harry didn’t blame her; Mrs. Weasley was the best mum he knew.
"And I came to the realization that my mum is a tough lady," Ginny said, her lip trembling slightly. "I’ve been rather hard on her, I think. She may not be the one getting involved in any battles with Death Eaters, but she didn’t hesitate when Professor Dumbledore asked her to join the Order. She got her whole family involved because it was the right thing to do. I should have given her credit for that."
Hermione sniffed and suddenly threw her arms around Ginny. "I miss everyone, too, Ginny. You’re right. It’s going to be fine. We’re not the same people we were when we left, and I think everyone will see it."
"See what?" Ron asked groggily, stumbling into the kitchen and plopping down on the only empty chair.
"That we’re not children, and we made the right decision in hunting Voldemort alone," Harry replied, grinning.
"Right," Ron said, stuffing a piece an entire piece of bacon in his mouth. "Mum won’t have any problem with it. She’ll welcome us home with open arms right after she owls Percy to call him a git and gives the Burrow to the twins to wager on a Quidditch match."
The others burst into laughter as they enjoyed their breakfast on their last day in Albania. They were going home.
They Apparated into Diagon Alley near the Apothecary, reckoning it was far enough from the spots frequented by Fred, George, and the rest of the Weasleys to avoid detection.
"Mmm, it even smells like home," Ron said, breathing deeply. The day was cloudy and not nearly as hot as it had been in Albania.
"I never thought I’d miss seeing robes so much, but I did," Ginny said, spinning around and smiling widely.
Despite feeling the same joy as the others in returning to London, Harry also felt apprehensive. He hoped luck would be on their side and a reporter would spot them quickly. Now that he was this close to searching the museum, he could barely contain his eagerness.
"Let’s keep moving. Keep your eyes open for any familiar faces that we want to avoid," he said.
They nodded and moved onto the main street. It didn’t take long for the familiar click of a flashbulb to mark their presence. Harry looked up to see a reporter hurrying towards him, a bloke with a camera following in her wake.
"That was quick," Ron muttered as they turned and moved in the other direction.
"Mr. Potter! Mr. Potter, stop. Just a few questions, Harry," the reporter shouted, alerting the shoppers on the street to his presence.
"Mum! It’s Harry Potter," a small boy said, pointing.
"Run!" Harry said. It always amazed him how his mere presence could create such a mob.
"I wonder what’s been happening while we’ve been gone," Hermione panted, struggling to keep up with them.
They dashed into an alley and thought they’d made an escape when another flash went off right in their faces.
"Harry, can you tell me what you think about the Inferi attacks? What are you planning to do about them?" a male reporter asked, his notebook and quill scribbling furiously as they hovered beside him.
Harry blinked uncomprehendingly.
Inferi? What Inferi attacks? Oh, no.
"Er," Harry said, searching his mind for what Dumbledore had told him about the Inferi. If the Ministry wasn’t going to warn people how to defend themselves against an Inferius, then he would. "An Inferius, like most creatures that dwell in the darkness, fear the warmth and the light, so use fire against it. It’s your best protection."
"Harry!" the first reporter shouted again, interrupting as she finally caught up with him.
Harry felt as if he’d been thrust into the lion’s den – and the lions were hungry.
"Move," he hissed to the others, shoving Ron’s shoulder in the one direction where a reporter hadn’t yet appeared. They reached the end of the alley and quickly turned right, immersing themselves into a crowd of shoppers.
"We need to split up," Harry said, panting. He kept his head low so as not to be recognized. "You three keep moving this way. I’m going to go in the opposite direction and slip under the Invisibility Cloak as soon as I find somewhere to do it inconspicuously. We’ll meet back where we first Apparated."
Ron and Hermione nodded, but Ginny stubbornly shook her head. "I think we should go in pairs. I’ll double back with Harry."
"Stop trying to protect us, Harry. We’re wasting time," Ginny said, grabbing his hand and tugging him along.
Ron smirked and Hermione shrugged helplessly before turning and sprinting off in the opposite direction.
"Let’s go," Harry said, disgruntled.
"Don’t be grumpy, Harry. How many times do we have to tell you that you aren’t in this alone? Besides, it’s only giving chase to some reporters. You must know I can handle this?" Ginny asked, arching her eyebrow.
Harry knew there was no way to answer that question that wouldn’t get him into trouble, so he kept his lips firmly sealed. They ducked around a corner as soon as they heard pounding feet. Harry pulled his Invisibility Cloak out of his pocket and swung it over both of them. They remained still as the second reporter – the wizard – and his cameraman stopped directly in front of them.
"Which way did he go? I thought I saw him run this way with the red-haired girl," the reporter demanded.
The cameraman shrugged. "I thought so, too."
"Damn! I got a direct quote, though. That ought to be worth something," the reporter said, reading over his notes.
"He said to use fire to fight the Inferi," the cameraman said. "Is that true?"
"No idea," the reporter replied, shrugging. "It doesn’t matter, though; it’ll make a great headline, and the public will eat it up. Come on. I’m certain he was headed in this direction."
Harry swore violently as the two moved away. "Did you hear them? Fire is the way to fight an Inferius, but they didn’t even care," Harry said, fuming.
"I know, Harry. They just wanted their story. Still, since it is the truth, they might be able to save themselves one day, and if they quote you directly, you’ve just done more than Scrimgeour has during his whole stint as Minister," Ginny replied, patting him on the arm consolingly.
Harry sighed. There was no use getting frustrated. It wouldn’t help, and he had too many other things to accomplish this day.
"Let’s go back and rejoin Ron and Hermione," he said, leading Ginny back towards the Apothecary.
"We should go around through that street there," Ginny said, pointing. "It’s less crowded and no one will brush against the Cloak."
Harry nodded and they began to move through the crowded streets, finding it very difficult not to jostle the many passersby. Several people turned with a start on more than one occasion when either Harry or Ginny brushed against them.
"I wish we could just Apparate," Ginny whispered.
"I know. I thought the same thing when the reporters were chasing us. It’s too crowded though, and no telling if we’d appear in front of your family or the Order. I suspect word is out that we’re here by now, and I’m certain the area is crawling with Weasleys," Harry replied.
"Hey! I resemble that remark," she said, elbowing him in the ribs.
Harry grinned, rubbing his abdomen. "I never said the Weasleys weren’t some of my favorite people, I just don’t want to see most of them right now."
"Smooth, Potter," Ginny replied with a grin. "I see that living with Hermione and me for the past month has taught you a few things."
"More than you could possibly imagine," Harry replied, grinning as his mind traveled over the many scraps of information he’d learned from living in such close proximity with the girls.
Ginny cursed suddenly, shocking Harry out of his musings. He expected that kind of language from Ron, but hearing it from Ginny caught him off guard, and he desperately tried to control his urge to laugh.
"Ginny," he admonished, failing to keep his face stern.
"Shhh," Ginny hissed, tugging on his arm until they were backed against a brick wall. "There."
He looked in the direction she was pointing and felt his breath hitch in his chest. On the other side of the street stood Mrs. Weasley, Bill, and Kingsley Shacklebolt. They were obviously searching for something…or someone. They were asking questions of various witches and wizards on the street. Shacklebolt flashed his Auror badge several times, and appeared rather put-out.
It was the expression on Mrs. Weasley’s face that made Harry’s stomach churn uncomfortably. She had that determined Weasley glint in her eye that Harry had come to know so well, but she looked tired and thin – as if she hadn’t been eating or sleeping well for the past month.
"Oh, Mum," Ginny said, clutching Harry’s chest tightly. He forced himself not to wince as her nails dug into his flesh.
Kingsley said something that caused Mrs. Weasley to snarl at him, her words carrying across the street. "I’m not leaving until I find my babies. They’re here somewhere, and I will find them."
She reminded Harry of a mother tiger protecting her young as she prowled up and down the street, her eyes absorbing every detail.
Bill placed his hands on his mother’s shoulders and whispered something soothing in her ear. Mrs. Weasley began to cry and buried her head in Bill’s shoulder.
Ginny stiffened in Harry’s arms and quickly turned her face away.
"We’d better hurry and find Ron and Hermione to warn them," Harry said gruffly.
Ginny swallowed and they moved away, obscured beneath the Cloak. They fiercely clutched one another’s hands as they hurried along the street.
"We’ll be able to see her soon, Ginny," Harry whispered, his throat raw. "I promise."
Ginny nodded woodenly, her eyes remaining fixed in front of her, but her grip tightened.
As they reached the Apothecary, Harry momentarily panicked when he didn’t see Ron or Hermione. A mere second later, the two poked their heads around the corner. Harry and Ginny sprinted over to them.
"We’re here," Harry whispered. "We have to get out of here quickly, though."
"Where have you been?" Ron asked loudly. His eyes looked slightly wild.
"Be quiet, Ron," Ginny hissed. "We saw Mum and Bill. The Order is here looking for us. Apparate to the Smith Museum, and we’ll tell you all about it."
Harry and Ginny waited for Ron and Hermione to disappear before following. Right before he side-along Apparated Ginny to the museum, he saw Bill and Mrs. Weasley run around the corner, heading straight for the Apothecary.
As nightfall finally blanketed the city, and insects began buzzing around the street lamps, Harry sat staring at the entrance of the Smith Museum. The late summer evening was warm, and many people roamed the street, choosing to walk rather than ride the tube. One Muggle in particular appeared to be simply out for an evening stroll, passing them every few minutes while on the opposite side of the street, as if he was circling the block.
They’d conjured sandwiches for supper – thank goodness Ron and Ginny were Weasleys and knew all the best food-conjuring spells – and eaten them on a bench across the street from the museum. Harry could hardly believe they’d finally reached this point. Tonight he’d know for certain if they’d managed to locate another Horcrux…With any luck, after tonight they’d be one step closer to the final confrontation and ending this thing. He shivered slightly, and Ginny put her arm around him and rubbed his arm, thinking he was cold.
Having her next to him felt nice, but the thought nagged at him that by letting her stay so close, it would make it all the harder to let her go and do what he had to do in the end. At night, when sleep wouldn’t come no matter how exhausting the day had been, Harry’s thoughts always turned to the fact that he didn’t think he would survive the final confrontation.
He still hoped that Hermione would come up with some brilliant plan, but as of yet they’d found nothing to change his mind. He found it profoundly ironic that now – at what was most likely the end of his life – he finally had such an intense desire to live. In the past, although he’d certainly never wanted to die, he’d never had any great passion for living. It had never mattered much either way to him.
Now, it mattered.
As he grew closer to Ginny, the more he thought that having to say goodbye to her would do him in without Voldemort ever getting involved. Still, he wouldn’t trade this time he’d spent with her. If he couldn’t give her forever, he could at least give her now, and he wanted to make every moment worth the memory.
"I don’t see why we didn’t just Apparate inside and wait there," Ron moaned for about the hundredth time.
"Honestly, Ron," said Ginny, exasperated. "For the last time, we don’t know if there is anyone still working inside. If there is, they should be going home now."
"Besides, there are Anti-Apparation wards in place," Harry said, running a hand through his hair.
"How do you know?" Hermione asked, suddenly looking up from her sandwich.
Harry stared at her, feeling slightly confused. "That humming sound, don’t you hear it? It’s the same sound I always heard at Privet Drive. I can hear it near the gates at Hogwarts, too. I reckon it’s the wards, right?"
All three pairs of eyes stared at him in astonishment.
"You…you can hear the wards?" Ron asked, finally.
A wave of apprehension went down Harry’s spine. Not again. "Can’t you?" he asked, already knowing the answer.
All three shook their heads, Hermione frowning.
"Look, we can discuss this later," Ginny said finally, taking charge. "If there are anti-apparation wards in place, how do you propose we get inside?"
"Are you the sister of Fred and George Weasley or what?" Harry asked, grinning as he pulled a hairpin from his pocket. "They showed me how to do this after you lot rescued me from the Dursleys before second year."
"Figures they’d show you and not me," Ron grumbled.
The twins had done their job well, and it took Harry only a moment to pick the lock on the front door. The four quickly and quietly slipped inside the museum, closing the heavy door behind them.
"Well, here we are," Ron whispered, staring around the room at all the old artifacts. The light from the street lamps cast long shadows on the walls, and the air was thick with tension.
Harry could understand Ron’s urge to whisper, he felt it, too and had to force himself to overcome it. A prickle of apprehension ran down his spine as he moved further into the room.
"Come on. Let’s spread out and start looking. Ron, you wear the Spell Detector again," Harry said. "Hermione and Ginny, just keep your eyes open for anything out of the ordinary, and we can double check it with the Spell Detector."
They all nodded and fanned out, although Hermione appeared doubtful. Harry shut his eyes, envisioning the scene from the Pensieve. Riddle had met Hepzibah Smith in a sitting room, and it couldn’t have been too close to the entry hall since the little house-elf, Hokey, had taken a few minutes to retrieve Riddle when the doorbell had rung.
Harry wandered away from the other three, peeking into several rooms until finally entering a small room located off the main hallway. The hairs on the back of his neck rose the moment he entered. The room was much neater than in the Pensieve memory, but it was unmistakably the same. In fact, several of the polished display cases contained some of the orbs and celestial globes he remembered, and in one sat the jeweled mirror that Hepzibah had used repeatedly to check her appearance. Harry suspected the mirror didn’t reflect the whole truth, which is probably what had appealed to Hepzibah.
"Ron," Harry called. "Bring that Spell Detector in here, would you?"
He stared around the room, an odd feeling of déjà vu overpowering him as he listened to Ron’s clomping footsteps moving closer toward the sitting room. Every instinct in Harry’s body told him there was something here. He was tense and alert, and he had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
"What is it?" Hermione asked, following Ron into the room. "Oh, this is the same room, isn’t it?"
"You can feel it too, then?" Harry asked, relieved.
"Feel what?" Hermione asked.
Harry furrowed his brow. "You knew this was the same room. I thought…" Harry mumbled, his words trailing.
Hermione shook her head. "No. I remember it. The architecture is the same even if it’s been painted. I recognize those windows, and the fireplace is slightly off-center."
Harry blinked looking around the room. She was right; the fireplace was off-center. He was again amazed at Hermione’s ability to pick up obvious details that he somehow always overlooked.
"Where’s Ginny?" he asked.
"She said there was no point in all of us searching the same room, so she kept looking in the entry hall. She said to call her if we find anything," Hermione replied.
"There is loads of magical energy here," Ron said, looking around with the Spell Detectors, "but I don’t see anything Dark."
"Keep looking," Harry said grimly. "It’s here." He knew it; he could feel it as certainly as if Felix Felicis was telling him.
Harry moved towards the center of the room, imagining the scene in his mind. He could see Hepzibah sitting at her table; Riddle moving towards the locket, drawing his wand. Hepzibah’s eyes widened in fear, perhaps realizing too late that she was in trouble. She tried to grab the cup and the locket, but Voldemort would have Banished them from her grasp. They would have flown off the table and landed….here.
Harry opened his eyes, the vision in his mind’s eye vanishing as he found himself standing in the corner of the room. A section of the wall was covered with a large, intricately carved wardrobe. He began to shiver, as if a strong, frigid gust of air had blown through him. He could hear Ron and Hermione speaking in the background, but he’d completely tuned out their words and was focused instead on the distinct hum he could hear around the wardrobe.
Using his wand, he moved the large piece of furniture away from the wall and began inspecting it, running his hands all along the rough, painted surface. Muttering to himself, talking through the same movements he’d seen Dumbledore make several months ago.
It was no use; the wall didn’t have that same energy. It had vanished the moment he’d moved the wardrobe. Again using his wand, he levitated the wardrobe back in place. Immediately, his shivering returned as his senses heightened.
"What is it, Harry?" Hermione asked, moving next to him.
Harry didn’t answer. He began running his hands along the outside of the wardrobe. The vibrations shook him to the core.
"Is there something inside?" Ron asked, putting his hand to the knob and trying to pull it open.
"Watch it," Harry hissed, shoving Ron back.
"What did you do that for?" Ron asked, sounding irritated.
"Don’t just go putting your hands on it, Ron," Harry said, firing up. "We have no idea what kinds of protective spells are here."
"We don’t even know if it’s there," Ron fired back. "Besides, nothing happened. It didn’t even open." As if making his point, Ron tugged on the handle again. It still wouldn’t open.
Hermione and Harry each tried to tug on it, but it didn’t budge.
"Why would they keep an old wardrobe if they couldn’t even use it?" Ron asked, looking around the room at all the family artifacts.
"It’s really old and probably valuable, Ron. It has the Smith family crest engraved at the top. I assume it’s a family heirloom," Hermione said, scowling. "They’re obviously are very proud of their heritage, and Riddle would have known this. If he hid something here, they’d keep it here forever."
"How do you know that’s the Smith crest?" Ron asked, staring at the top of the wardrobe.
"Look around. It’s everywhere here," Hermione replied, exasperated.
Harry ignored them. He ran his hand along the front of the wardrobe, feeling the heat emanating from it.
"It’s in here," he whispered. "I bet he used a spell similar to the one Dumbledore used on the Mirror of Erised in our first year. I think that if someone wanted to open this door simply to use the wardrobe, it would open, no problem. But it somehow knows we want what’s hidden inside."
Hermione withdrew her wand. "Should we try an unlocking charm?" she asked.
Harry didn’t think it could be that simple, but he remembered Dumbledore letting him try a Summoning charm before he tried anything trickier.
"Give it a try," he said shrugging.
"Alohomora," Hermione said firmly.
Something sparked, but the wardrobe remained firmly closed.
"Didn’t you say the entrance to the cave demanded payment in blood?" Ron asked, swallowing hard.
"Yeah, but I don’t think Voldemort would use the same protections twice. It’s something different," Harry said, absently.
"The doorknob is off center, just like the fireplace," Hermione said, twisting her lips from side to side.
"I wonder…" Harry said.
"What…" Ron asked.
Harry moved his wand to the center of the wardrobe, where he thought a knob should logically be.
"Aparecium," he said.
Slowly, the blurry outline of a doorknob became visible. It was distorted and it shimmered, almost as if they were looking at it through intense heat.
"Whoa," Ron said, breathing deeply. He put the Spell Detector back on his nose. "It’s covered in red, Harry. Loads of Dark Magic all over it."
"We’d better not touch it directly then," Hermione said. "I’ll use my wand to open it." She waved her wand without using an incantation.
"Hermione!" Ron shouted, grabbing her arm as a jet of white-hot flames shot out from the knob. The blast hit Hermione on the side of her head, knocking her backwards as her hair ignited in a ball of flame. Hermione screamed and moved away, batting at the flames with her hands.
"Hermione!" Ron shouted again, panicked. His shoulder and arm had also been hit with some of the blast, and the flames quickly destroyed the sleeve of his shirt and began to spread. He waved his wand helplessly, as if he couldn’t remember the spell to douse the flames.
Harry’s primary school lessons popped into his head as he thought to push them to the ground and roll them to smother the flames, but his wand would be faster.
"Aguamenti," he shouted. A spray of water issued from his wand, covering both Ron and Hermione.
Hermione lay on the floor, moaning and only half-conscious. The hair on the entire left side of her head was singed, and her scalp was covered with angry red burns that oozed painfully. Ron sat on the floor beside her, dazed and blinking slowly. The skin on his upper arm and shoulder was blackened and raw. He had inched toward Hermione before collapsing and sat gently stroking the uninjured side of her head.
"Hermione," he whispered, his voice cracking.
Harry felt nausea rise within his chest as he stared back and forth between his two friends. He ran a hand through his mussed hair. He’d known this would happen. He hadn’t wanted them to come because he’d known they would end up getting hurt, but he was weak and allowed them to come because he’d wanted company.
He’d seen the terrible damage to Professor Dumbledore’s hand, and he’d let them walk in here anyway. He felt frozen on the spot, his hands shaking and his breath coming in painful gasps.
"Ron? Hermione?" he said, sinking to his knees beside them.
Pull it together. What’s wrong with me? I’ve never fallen apart under pressure like this.
"Episky," he said, holding his wand to the burns on Ron’s arm. He knew it wasn’t the best choice of spells. There must be a healing spell specifically for burns, but this was the only one he knew. The wounds on Ron’s arm did heal slightly, enough to hold him until they could get help, anyway.
He was more concerned about trying it on Hermione, whose burns looked much worse.
"Harry, Ron," Ginny’s voice sounded from the hallway. "Where are you?"
"Ginny!" Harry called desperately.
"Merlin’s Beard! What happened?" Ginny asked, rushing over to her brother and staring at his arm in horror.
"I’m okay," Ron mumbled, brushing away her hands. "Hermione’s hurt."
Harry held his wand next to one of the smaller burns on Hermione’s neck.
"Episky," he whispered, grimacing when Hermione moaned. He felt a stinging behind his eyes and blinked rapidly. The wound healed, so he tentatively moved to her head. He continued to patch her up as best he could, desperately wishing Madam Pomfrey was here.
"I’m sorry," Harry whispered when Hermione cried out as he tried to heal the largest of her burns. "It’s the only healing spell I know."
"It’s all right, Harry," Ginny whispered, gently rubbing his shoulders. She’d stood behind him the whole time, gently urging him on, and he was grateful for her calming presence.
"That’s something we’ll have to do later – learn more healing spells. For now, we’ve just got to do what we can to make them comfortable," she said, her voice trembling slightly.
"There’re traces of Dark magic all over the wardrobe. We found the separate knob, but they got hurt when Hermione tried to open it," Harry said gruffly.
Ginny nodded and moved towards the wardrobe before anyone could stop her. She pointed her wand at the strange knob, opening it with ease.
Harry’s jaw hung open. "How did you…? Ginny, what in Merlin’s name do you think you’re doing? That’s exactly how Ron and Hermione got hurt. I don’t know how you opened it, but we can’t keep taking stupid chances."
"It wasn’t stupid if it worked," she snapped back. "Professor Dumbledore told you that you were able to go along with him last time because you were underage, right? He said Voldemort was foolish enough to believe that someone underage and not fully qualified could never be a threat. Well, I’m still underage – as you’re all so fond of pointing out – so my magic shouldn’t register anymore than yours did."
Harry gaped like a fish, knowing she was right and yet wishing she wasn’t. He needed help, and she was able to provide it. It should have been a simple choice, but despite the fact his head knew it, a more primitive part of him kept demanding to protect her from it all.
"We don’t have time for your caveman heroics, Harry," Ginny said in a bored voice, almost as if she’d read his mind. "I’m going with you. I already told you that we’re not letting you do this alone, so just shut it and take all the reasons that are about to explode from your mouth and stick ‘em up your arse," Ginny said, her eyes blazing.
"Are you coming or not?" she asked firmly.
"We can’t just go. We have to get some help for Ron and Hermione," Harry said. He knew he was stalling, but she could be so infuriating that it was hard to think straight. "We’ll Apparate them back to Grimmauld Place and get Madam Pomfrey."
"After we get the Horcrux," Ginny said, swallowing hard. Her eyes flickered briefly to Ron, whose eyes had closed.
"What? No-" Harry said.
"Yes, Harry," Ron said, opening his eyes and pulling himself up against the wall. "We didn’t get this far to turn back now."
Harry stared at the steely determination in his friend’s pale face, knowing he was right, yet unable to move.
Ron gasped as he pulled himself closer to Hermione. "Bring back the damn Horcrux, Harry."
"Use your Patronus if you need to call for help," Harry said, looking right into Ron’s eyes. "Do you think you can Apparate?"
"Yeah," Ron said, gasping. "If you’re not back in an hour, I’ll take Hermione back and bring some help. I need to stay with Hermione."
He looked as if it pained him to say it, as if being asked to choose between his two best friends was tearing him apart.
"Don’t be ridiculous, Ron. You’re hurt, and you can’t leave Hermione here alone. We’ll be all right, and we’ll be back as soon as we can," Harry said, staring intently in Ron’s eyes.
The two communicated silently for a moment, each knowing the other would easily give his own life to save his friend.
"Take care of each other," Ron said. "Listen to Harry, Ginny. Don’t do anything stupid just to prove yourself."
Ginny scowled, but nodded resolutely. She turned her back to him and stepped into the wardrobe, her hands splayed out in front of her as if she were blind.
Harry hurriedly joined her inside the wardrobe. It was pitch black and cavernous. He took several shuffling steps before realizing there was no way there should have been this much room inside.
"Ginny," he whispered, knowing she was only a step ahead of him but unable to see her.
How am I supposed to protect her when I can’t even see her?
"Yeah?" she replied, sounding frightened for the first time.
He didn’t blame her. Although he’d never admit it, he was scared, too. The pitch dark was unnerving, and the nagging worry for Ron and Hermione nearly undid him. He reached out until he found her hand.
She clasped his tightly, threading his fingers with hers, and he thought it would take a bigger wizard than Voldemort to make her let go.
They shuffled in silence for what felt like an impossibly long time, although he knew it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Suddenly, the darkness ended and they stepped out into blazing sunlight.
"Where are we?" Ginny gasped in wonder as she looked around.
Harry’s mouth hung open as he spun around in circles. They were inside what looked to Harry like the Parthenon in Ancient Athens, except that it was intact rather than in ruins.
Ginny took a step backwards. "I don’t have a good feeling about this, Harry," she whispered.
A sliding sound caused them both to spin around. They were staring at a solid stone wall.
"What happened to the door?" Ginny asked, panicked.
The door had vanished completely, leaving only a small indentation in the shape of a cup.
"Obviously there’s no going back without the Horcrux as a key," Harry said grimly. "But where is it?"
"And what’s guarding it?" Ginny asked, swallowing
A huge wooden gate at the other end of the Parthenon groaned as it slowly began to rise.
"You had to ask," Harry said tonelessly, taking a step in front of Ginny.
The waited with bated breath as the gate fully opened. For a moment, nothing moved, and Harry and Ginny barely breathed. Suddenly, a great, thunderous roar echoed throughout the arena, shaking the stone and causing both teens to cover their ears.
Their eyes widened as a huge, monstrous beast lumbered from the cavern. It was greenish in color with a yellow head and enormous bluish wings. The claws on its feet were as sharp as knives, and its wings and tail were similarly tipped. The dragon raised its head, the irises in its glowing yellow eyes narrowing dangerously when it saw them. It roared again, emitting a blast of fire so intense it caused a fireball to fly across the Parthenon at them.
Harry and Ginny jumped over a wall and ducked in the stands as the flames soared over their heads and scorched the seats above them.
Harry cursed, breathing heavily. "I swore I’d never battle another dragon again as long as I lived.
"It’s a Serbian Scythe-tip," Ginny said, clutching Harry’s arm and sounding awed.
"How do you know?" he asked incredulously.
"You couldn’t grow up in the same house with Charlie and not know something about dragons. The Serbian Scythe-tip and the Hungarian Horntail are the fiercest dragons, therefore the coolest as far as Charlie’s concerned," Ginny said, tentatively peering over the ledge.
"Great," Harry said, grumbling. "He sounds like Hagrid."
"Yeah. Harry, I can see the Horcrux!" Ginny said, her voice rising.
"What? Where?" Harry asked, rising on his knees to peer over the stone next to her.
"There!" she cried, pointing.
Squinting, he could just make out a nest tucked inside the gate where the dragon had fully emerged. The Scythe-tip stalked to and fro in front of the opening as if daring them to try and pass.
"You can do this, Harry," Ginny said. "It’s just like the First Task only now the Horcrux is your golden egg."
"But, Ginny, I don’t have my Firebolt. It’s back in London, and somehow, I don’t think a Summoning charm is going to work through that stone wall," he said, pointing to the now-hidden doorway that led back to the wardrobe.
"Harry, you’re a wizard with more experience than you had then. Conjure one! You don’t need it to last for long, just long enough," Ginny cried, exasperated.
"Right," Harry said, swallowing nervously. His palms were sweating, but he knew he could do this. Picturing his Firebolt in his mind, he conjured a nearly exact duplicate.
"You did it!" Ginny cried.
"Don’t get too excited. I still have to get the cup," Harry said.
Ginny smiled tremulously and pulled the ribbon from her hair. She then knotted it around Harry’s upper arm.
"What’s that for?" he asked, staring at the yellow ribbon.
Ginny shrugged. "Well, I’m not Hermione, so I’m not certain I have my history right, but I think before a tournament battle, the lady is supposed to tie her colors around her Champion of choice to wish him luck."
"Thanks," he mumbled, feeling awkward. He stared at his shoes as he shuffled his feet.
"Don’t thank me yet," Ginny said wryly. "For all I know, yellow is the color that will make a dragon charge."
"Thanks, Gin. Your encouragement is overwhelming right now," he replied, but he grinned when he said it. No matter what the circumstances, she could always make him feel better.
"You can do this, Harry," she said earnestly before grabbing his face and pressing her lips to his.
He returned the kiss, enjoying the searing heat that filled his belly until another roar from the dragon grabbed his attention.
"Here goes nothing," he said, before mounting the broom and soaring into the blue sky.
"Be careful, Harry," Ginny called after him.
He rose well above the arena, circling it and trying to find his best angle. It only took a moment for the great beast to spot him. Roaring in fury, it spread its massive wings and took to the sky after him.
Despite his predicament, Harry couldn’t help but be awed by the creature. Its wingspan was so large that it nearly shadowed the entire width of the Parthenon. It soared gracefully into the sky before turning its voluminous yellow eyes on Harry.
He maneuvered the Firebolt in a steep dive, attempting to fly underneath the dragon before it could turn. He hadn’t counted on its tail, however. The dragon’s tail was long and thin, and the beast used it like a whip. It lashed out at Harry and the scythe-like tip ripped his shirt and cut into his chest, drawing blood.
The beast roared, and its nostrils flared at the scent of Harry’s blood. Harry dove again, but the tail whipped into his back this time. Twice more Harry attempted the dive, and twice more the dragon’s sharp tail sliced into him. His shirt hung in tatters and dripped with blood. His Firebolt was fast, but this dragon was faster.
Harry swung upward, climbing steeply. The dragon was confused and bellowed its ire. It followed Harry’s climb, gaining on him. It breathed out heavily, and Harry could feel the heat from the approaching fireball. He turned quickly, ducking low as he felt the hair on the back of his neck singe. He wrapped around the Parthenon wall and dove between two columns.
The dragon shrieked in rage when it realized it couldn’t follow Harry through the opening. It had to turn and fly up and over the top. Harry took the opportunity and dove towards the dragon’s lair. He had nearly reached it when that whip-like tail lashed out, slicing into him again.
He hissed in pain and had to pull up to avoid another blast of fire. He was growing frustrated and felt slightly lightheaded from the loss of blood. Something had to go his way soon, or he was a goner. He climbed steeply and once again looped over the top to fly back between the columns. He didn’t pause to check if the dragon followed, but instead aimed right for the nest as fast as his broom could carry him.
The dragon shrieked, enraged. Instead of turning this time, it crashed right through the columns. The force slowed the beast slightly. Harry sped towards the ground, pulling up just in time and aimed the broom into the entrance of the cavern. As he leaned down to grab the cup, his broom vanished.
He swore violently. He’d never claimed to be an expert on conjuring spells, but damn it, his timing couldn’t have been worse.
Before he had time to conjure another, he heard the piercing screech of the dragon, and it sounded as if it was approaching fast. He tucked the cup inside the waistband of his jeans and sprinted outside. He dove for the stands just as a fireball streaked overhead.
The dragon bellowed in fury as it clawed at the low wall separating the arena from Harry’s hiding place. He crouched low and tried to move away, but the wall collapsed, leaving him exposed. The dragon’s arm struck the wooden gate that had been sealing the entrance to the lair, shattering it effortlessly. Harry cried out as hundreds of sharp splinters rained down upon his back.
The dragon’s huge arm crashed down again, this time closer to him, and the scythe-tipped claw lanced his side beneath his ribs. The impact of the blow threw Harry in the air, knocking the wind from him. He crashed onto the dirt, panting and clawing at the ground as he tried to get away from the angry dragon.
Before he could move, before he could utter a sound, the dragon’s tail encircled his ankles, hog-tying him, and began to pull him closer. He was certain he could see victory reflected in the sickly yellow eyes. Harry forced himself to stay calm, although he was shaking all over.
The dragon’s tail jerked upward, leaving Harry hanging upside down near the dragon’s mouth. He could see tendrils of smoke spiraling away from the nostrils.
If that thing breathes a fire ball now…
Bruised and bloodied, Harry waited until he was as close the dragon’s face as he dared. He pulled out his wand, aimed it right at those malevolent yellow eyes, and blasted off the most intense Conjunctivitis curse he could manage.
The dragon reared its head and roared, sending out a wave of blistering heat. Harry was released from its hold and he dropped to the ground with a thud. His body ached, but he couldn’t find the strength to move away from the rampaging dragon. The beast was howling in pain, its huge arms clawing at its eyes, which were running and covered with a white slime.
If Harry couldn’t pull himself up, he’d be crushed under the tail or a massive foot. Panting heavily, he tried again to stand, but it was useless. What would happen to Ginny if Harry were killed here? He at least had to get the cup to her so she could escape. Groaning as he rolled to his side, he pulled the gleaming cup from the waistband of his jeans.
He was surprised to see how the gold shone, despite being unpolished for so long. Helga Hufflepuff’s golden crest glinted in the sun. As the dragon sent more flames towards him, Harry instinctively raised the cup like a shield and tossed it into the approaching fire. He rolled to the side to avoid being fried, crying out in pain as he did so.
When the cup made contact with the fire, a blast of bright white light filled the arena. Harry covered his face, feeling as if he’d got a terrible sunburn. An unearthly scream rent the air, shaking the very foundation of the arena. The dragon howled in misery before crumpling to the ground and dissolving as if it had never been there.
A blaze of fiery red hair suddenly streaked across his face as Ginny landed next to him on a broom.
"What happened? Where did it go?" she shrieked. "Are you all right?"
"The cup," Harry croaked weakly, pointing to where it lay on the ground.
Ginny scooped it up in her hand. The gold was scorched and blackened, but it remained intact.
"Just a cup now," Harry muttered, feeling lightheaded. "Wonder if it still works as the key?"
"Come on, let’s get out of here," she said, helping him off the ground and onto her conjured broom.
Harry slumped against her weakly as she rose in the air and flew them to the opposite end of the arena.
"I thought the lady was supposed to stay in the stands and shriek for her Champion to get up," he said, smiling weakly.
"Who says I’m a lady?" Ginny shot back.
Harry grinned, feeling slightly delirious. "I love you, Ginny," he whispered, his eyes failing to stay open.
He felt her body start. "I tried to get to you sooner to help, but it was like some kind of barrier held me in place. I wasn’t able to break past it until you were on the ground," she said, sniffling.
"’S’okay," he mumbled.
Ginny reached around to shake him fiercely. "Stay with me, Harry. Just a few minutes more. Here’s the entrance; fit the cup into the slot."
Harry tried to lift his arm, but it felt like jelly, and he couldn’t make it cooperate.
"Here, I’ll do it," Ginny said as she grabbed the cup and fit it into the slot. The door slid open, revealing that deep blackness once again.
Ginny flew the broom right into the archway, and moments later they flew right back into the sitting room at the Smith Museum. Ron and Hermione were still huddled together by the wall.
"Did you get it?" Ron asked anxiously.
Harry nodded towards the charred cup. "Found and destroyed," he said weakly, his legs refusing to hold his weight as he stepped off the broom. Ginny grabbed onto him and eased him to the ground.
"Mate, what happened to you?" Ron asked, his eyes wide.
"We’ll discuss it back at Grimmauld Place," Ginny said in a take-charge voice. "Ron, do you still think you can Apparate with Hermione?"
Ron nodded. Clutching an unconscious Hermione to his side, they Disapparated with a pop.
Ginny wrapped her arms around Harry. "Hold on tight to me, Harry," she whispered.
"I can take us," Harry said stubbornly.
"Thanks, but no. I don’t feel like being splinched today. I’ve had enough excitement for one day."
With a cheeky grin, she kissed his cheek and brought them both back to headquarters…back to her family.
A/N: Again, a huge thanks to Sherylyn who has so graciously taken on my comma problems. I swear the rules keep changing, because every time I think I’ve got it, I’ve messed up something else. Also thanks to my wonderfully supportive pre-beta team, KEDme, Dianne and GhostWriter. You’ve been great.
I’d also like to thank those voters over at SIYE for the Dumbledore Silver Trinket. May is just about over, so go and make some nominations for ALL of your favorite stories. I know they’re looking for May nominations, so if you’ve read a story there that you really enjoy – go on and give it a nod.