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.
Tightening of the Noose
Two days after Christmas, Harry informed the Order that he, Ron, Hermione and Ginny would be leaving for several days. As expected, no one was particularly pleased. They all wanted to know where the young people were going, and what they were planning to do. Harry could tell that Mrs. Weasley wanted to put them all in full Body-Binds and lock them in the attic, but to her credit, she restrained herself – if only just.
As promised, Harry gave the other half of the mirror that Remus had charmed to Mr. Weasley. He’d struggled with anxiety over having to give it to someone else. He’d always imagined it would be Remus with whom he’d keep in contact, but that was not to be. He’d considered giving it to Mrs. Weasley but suspected the temptation to check on them and ensure they were eating would be too much for her. He felt Mr. Weasley was the better option.
They departed in the morning, resolutely steeling themselves against Mrs. Weasley’s tear-stained face. Ron even hugged her twice as they said their goodbyes.
Hermione had done some research and found a small wizarding section in Canterbury around Rowena Ravenclaw’s ancestral home. She’d booked them a room in a local inn rather than having to pitch the tent in the snow, and they Apparated directly there.
Entering the establishment, they found a dimly lit pub similar to the Leaky Cauldron. This pub, however, appeared to cater to a more family-oriented clientele as there were several mothers chasing young children around a buffet breakfast. The tables were covered with paper tablecloths, and each held a container filled with child-sized colored quills.
Several of the patrons looked up as the teens entered, but the foursome kept their heads down as Hermione went to collect their room key. Despite her red wig, they’d reckoned she was the least recognizable of the four, so she’d be the one to have all contact with the innkeeper. Harry really didn’t want to be spotted immediately and have a crowd of reporters – or worse, Death Eaters – on his tail before he even began to search.
"I’ve got it," Hermione said under her breath, jerking her head towards the narrow wooden stairway beside the bar.
The others followed her upstairs where she stopped at room number three. She opened the door to find a comfortable-looking room with two full-sized beds and a long, dusty dresser. The blankets on the bed appeared clean, but rather old and faded.
"Well, it’s not much, but it’ll do," Hermione said, throwing her rucksack on one of the beds.
They’d only got the one room because they thought they’d be safer sticking together. Despite the fact they’d all shared a room when they’d used the tent over the summer, Harry felt apprehensive staring at the two beds. A burning warmth crept from his neck into his face, and he ducked his head so the others wouldn’t notice.
He and Ginny hadn’t done much more than some heavy petting – and he didn’t think Ron and Hermione had done more than that, either – but they’d been under constant supervision from the entire Weasley family. Ginny had way too many brothers, as far as Harry was concerned, and he’d always kept a wary eye on the door while he and Ginny were otherwise engaged. The prospect of Mrs. Weasley’s wrath had kept them all in line.
Still, he certainly didn’t plan on doing anything with Ron in the same room, but the knowledge that the opportunity was there caused his stomach to flutter. He stole a quick glance at Ron and noticed the perplexed frown on his mate’s face. Obviously, Ron’s train of thought had gone down the same track as Harry’s.
The girls, however, didn’t appear at all concerned. Hermione continued to remove items from her rucksack, while Ginny had jumped on the bed Hermione was using and proceeded to test which pillow she liked better.
"So…you’re both going to sleep there?" Ron asked, rubbing the back of his very red neck.
Hermione and Ginny looked up at him, blinking uncomprehendingly.
"Er…would you prefer this bed, Ron?" Ginny asked, her eyes suddenly sparkling. "Or would you just prefer my bed partner?"
"What? Of course not! Er…I mean…Hermione," Ron whined, staring at Hermione. "You know what I meant."
Her back ramrod straight, Hermione said, sniffing, "No, Ron, I don’t know what you mean. Perhaps you should explain yourself."
Harry struggled not to laugh as he sat down on the other bed and looked at Ron with the most innocent expression he could muster.
"Shut it, Harry," Ron said, glaring.
"I didn’t say anything," Harry yelped. Obviously his expression wasn’t innocent enough.
"Since you’ve apparently got issues with me," Hermione said waspishly. "You and Harry can share that bed, while Ginny and I take this one."
"I’m not sleeping with Harry," Ron said, spluttering. If possible, his ears had grown redder.
"Would you prefer I sleep with Harry then?" Hermione asked, her eyes narrowing.
Harry could barely control his grin. He bit the inside of his cheeks to keep a straight face.
"I’m used to sleeping in cramped quarters, so I don’t mind. Why don’t both Ginny and Hermione share with me, and Ron can have the other bed all to himself," he said, barely containing his glee over the expression on Ron’s face.
"Okay," Ginny said happily, leaping from her bed to Harry’s and snuggling down next to him. She twisted her new necklace in her fingers as she continued to wind up her brother. "Ron always did have problems sharing."
"I don’t have problems sharing," Ron said indignantly. "And you’re not sleeping with Harry…and neither is Hermione."
"There are two beds, and four of us, Ron. You make the choice. You have to sleep with one of us, who’s it going to be?" Hermione asked, her hands on her hips. Harry could hear the challenge in her voice and was very glad he wasn’t in his friend’s shoes at the moment. Of course, to Harry the answer seemed painfully obvious.
Apparently, Ron felt the same way. He looked between Hermione’s cross face and Harry and Ginny sitting on the bed together, failing miserably at hiding their grins.
"Fine," Ron said, throwing his hands in the air and glaring at Harry and Ginny. "You two had better behave yourselves. I’m sleeping on this side of the bed to keep my eye on you. Believe me, Harry, if you try anything with my baby sister, I’ll chuck you out the window."
"What I choose to do or not to do is no one’s business but mine and Harry’s, Ron Weasley," Ginny said, rising to her knees on the bed and glaring daggers at her brother. She reminded Harry of an angry sprite – beautiful and fiery, but dangerous to the touch.
"Not with me sleeping next to you, it isn’t," Ron said, furiously.
"So you’re sharing with me, then?" Hermione asked, her arms still folded across her chest.
Ron spun around to face her, perhaps detecting the frigid tone in her voice. "Of course I am. I’m not sleeping with Harry or my sister."
Harry shut his eyes, cringing. Ron never was very good at picking up subtle body signals.
"Oh, I see. So, I get you by default? Lucky me," Hermione said, her eyes suddenly bright.
"Don’t be daft," Ron said. "If it were my choice, I’d always choose to sleep with you. I’d just rather they weren’t in the room. You’re always my choice, Hermione."
Hermione’s face softened as her eyes glowed warmly at Ron. Sniffling slightly, she waved a hand in front of her face as if she was warm.
"All right, now that the sleeping arrangements are settled, let’s get to work. We’ll have to split up to cover as much ground as possible."
Ron stared at her incredulously. "The entire Wizarding section only covers about two streets. How much information could there possibly be?" he asked.
"It is Ravenclaw’s hometown," Ginny said. "I imagine there’s some kind of museum, and the rest of the village probably contains lots of references to everything about her life."
"Exactly," Hermione said. "The same way Liverpool is devoted to the Beatles."
Ron stared at her blankly. "They’re devoted to bugs?"
Hermione rolled her eyes, huffing. "How you can be completely unaware of anything to do with Muggle history is beyond me."
"Yeah? Well, Muggles are completely unaware of stuff I know, too," Ron said, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Yes, but that’s only because they don’t know wizards exist," Hermione snapped waspishly. "We don’t have time to stand around arguing all morning. We need to get moving."
"What’s the rush, anyway?" Ron asked, and Harry suspected he was simply being obstinate. He and Ginny sat on their bed watching their friends row with weary expressions.
"Everyone in the pub has given us at least a curious stare. It won’t take long before someone recognizes Harry," Hermione said, jabbing her finger in Harry’s direction.
Harry suddenly sat up straight, alarmed. "You’re right. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voldemort has an informant here somewhere, anyway. He has no way of knowing how much Dumbledore knew about the Horcruxes, so it stands to reason he’s watching all of the possibilities."
"You’re right; we’ll have be wary. Constant vigilance," Ginny said, smiling weakly.
"Let’s search until we’re spotted, then we’ll make another public stop in Diagon Alley just in case anyone is tracking our movements. Your dad can help us alert the press there," Harry said, nodding at Ginny.
"You and Ron find out where the museum is," Hermione said bossily. "Ginny and I will do some deeper digging."
H arry and Ron spent the entire day in the Rowena Ravenclaw Museum. It hadn’t been difficult to find, and Harry suspected the entire village had been built around it. Still, Harry didn’t feel it had been a productive day. Perhaps because he really didn’t know much about any of the Hogwarts Founders, he felt as if he was searching for a needle in a haystack.
He didn’t notice any one particular item that was always with her in any of the portraits he’d seen, and none of the texts mentioned anything of great significance that might have been used as a Horcrux.
Running his hands through his very untidy hair – he’d been tugging at it all day – he slammed the book shut. This was a waste of time. It didn’t have to be anything significant, it just had to belong in Ravenclaw. He doubted he’d ever find any written mention of Hufflepuff’s cup, either, but that hadn’t stopped Voldemort from using it as a Horcrux.
"Any luck?" Ron asked, his eyes red and bleary.
"This is hopeless – it could be anything," Harry said, feeling discouraged.
"Even if we find what we think it might be, it still doesn’t tell us anything about where he’s hidden it," Ron said, moaning. "We’ve been at it all day, and it doesn’t help that I keep forgetting what I’m looking for in the first place. I’m starving."
Feeling his own stomach rumble, Harry decided to call it a day. Ron’s memory was continuing to improve, but there were still lapses, and Harry didn’t want to push it. "Come on. Let’s go back to the inn and order some food. Maybe the girls had better luck."
Harry followed Ron through the door, but just as they stepped outside, he grabbed Ron’s arm and pulled him back into a nearby alley.
"What the-" Ron started to complain, but Harry slapped his hand over Ron’s mouth and dragged him behind a group of rubbish bins.
"Shh," Harry whispered, nodding his head in the direction of the street.
He and Ron watched as an enormous blonde wizard with a hardened face slowly strolled into sight. He moved carefully, his small eyes roving and peering into storefronts and around corners, as if he was looking for something.
"Who’s that?" Ron asked, squinting his eyes. "I’ve seen him somewhere."
Harry nodded, motioning for Ron to keep his voice down. "He was with Malfoy the night…on the Astronomy tower," Harry replied, keeping his eyes fixed on the blonde Death Eater.
The brutal-faced man suddenly turned towards the open alleyway, as if he knew he was being watched.
Harry’s blood chilled and his body tensed. He clutched Ron’s shoulder tightly, prepared to fling him out of the way of any curses. He held his breath, hearing Ron’s ragged breathing beside him. He worried that it sounded so loud in the darkening alley that the Death Eater was certain to hear him. Dusk was spreading over the village, at least offering Ron and Harry more shadows in which to hide. If the man chose to walk into the alley, however, there was no way he could miss them. Harry cursed himself for leaving his Invisibility Cloak back at the inn.
The huge Death Eater drew his wand. "Lumos," he muttered, causing the tip to illuminate. "Who’s there? Show yourself or face the wrath of the Dark Lord."
Ron’s eyes widened as the man began walking down the alley, kicking at stray bins along the way.
Harry clutched his wand, knowing there was no way out. He wished he knew where Ginny and Hermione were before he called so much attention to them. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. He’d never been the best at wordless spells, but it was certainly worth a go, and he always performed better under pressure.
Covering both Ron and himself with his wand, Harry cast a Disillusionment Charm just as the blonde Death Eater reached their hiding spot. He felt a cold trickle down his back alerting him that he’d been successful. He waited a few more moments, letting the man continue a bit further into the alley, before grabbing Ron’s unseen arm and tugging him out of the alley.
Once they reached the inn, Harry wordlessly removed the spell.
"Harry, that was brilliant. Where’d you learn to do that? I thought you were still struggling with wordless magic," Ron said. "Feels a bit strange though, doesn’t it?"
Harry shrugged. "Practice. Let’s get upstairs and see if the girls are there. I hope they didn’t run into any trouble."
Both girls were already in the room, however, and from their anxious, angry expressions, Harry reckoned they’d been waiting for a while.
"Where have you been?" Ginny asked, stomping her foot in a remarkable impression of her mother.
"We’ve been worried sick," Hermione said, placing her hands on her hips. Harry thought she did a pretty good job of channeling Mrs. Weasley, too. "From now on, we have to set up times to check in with each other so we know when to worry."
"Yeah, timing our worry. That should be right high on the priority list," Ron said, rolling his eyes.
Harry cringed, knowing Ron was in trouble. Sometimes his friend just didn’t know when to hold his tongue.
Hermione’s face turned scarlet. "It is a high priority since we had no idea if you were in trouble or not, or if we should have gone for help. How would you like it if it was Ginny and me who’d been missing?"
"We would have just gone looking for you," Ron said, incredulously.
"All right, all right," Ginny said, moving in between the two of them. "Enough with the ‘he said, she said.’ You two can row later. I want to know what happened."
"We had a narrow escape from a Death Eater near the museum. I don’t think he knew it was us, but he definitely noticed someone," Harry said. "The area is obviously being watched."
"Which is a good sign, right? If Voldemort is worried you’ll find something here, maybe it is something of Ravenclaw’s we’re seeking," Hermione said, rubbing her chin.
"Maybe," Harry replied, shrugging. "I don’t see how we’re making any progress here, though. Ron and I spent all day in the museum, and we’ve got nothing."
"I don’t think so," Hermione said.
"Why? Did you find something?" Ron asked, still looking rather disgruntled.
"Nothing specific, but in every portrait or description that we found, she’s always wearing some kind of jewelry. Jewelry can be easily passed down and is strong enough to survive through the years. If there are Ravenclaw relics still around, I’d bet they’re pieces of jewelry," Hermione said,
Harry scratched his head. That made sense, but it really didn’t help them all that much. "I still think we’re better off searching the places connected to Voldemort that Dumbledore showed me. Once we figure out the place, then we can watch for any kind of jewelry."
"Give me one more day here, Harry," Hermione said. "There are a few more shops I’d like to go to, and if we can narrow down the piece at all, it would certainly help."
"All right," Harry said, nodding. "I’m going to contact Mr. Weasley and ask him to drop a hint to the press that I’ll be in Diagon Alley in two days. That way, even if the Death Eaters suspect that I’m here, it’ll throw them off."
Harry opened his rucksack and dug out the mirror. After breathing on it heavily enough to create a fog, he said, "Mr. Weasley."
Nothing happened for several moments, and Harry was about to try again when Mr. Weasley’s concerned face appeared.
"Harry? Are you all right?" he asked.
"We’re fine, Mr. Weasley. We’re all fine," Harry replied.
"Hi, Dad," Ginny said, peering over Harry’s shoulder.
Mr. Weasley’s face relaxed, his usual cheerfulness returning. "Glad to hear it. Hello, Ginny. Your mother will be so relieved. What can I do for you?"
"We’re going to be in Diagon Alley the day after tomorrow. D’you think you could let one of your press contacts know?" Harry asked.
Mr. Weasley’s face clouded. "Ah, I’ll see what I can do, Harry."
"What’s wrong, Mr. Weasley?" Harry asked, watching the older man shift uncomfortably.
"Several more reporters who’ve been critical of the Ministry and the idea of any kind of truce with You-Know-Who have gone missing. Most of those who’ve disappeared have been sympathetic to the Order," Mr. Weasley said, sighing heavily.
"Missing? D’you think Voldemort has had something to do with it?" Harry asked, his shoulders stiffening.
"No. I don’t think so. There hasn’t been a Dark Mark spotted over any of their homes, and the Death Eaters have been meticulous about using them all across Britain," Mr. Weasley replied.
"That could be intentional though," Hermione said, peering over Harry’s other shoulder so she could see Mr. Weasley’s reflection. "I mean, they could purposely not use it if they were doing something they wanted to keep quiet, right?"
"I suppose, but I don’t think so," Mr. Weasley said, scratching his head. "There have been several Ministry officials who’ve opposed Umbridge who have also gone missing. She’s tightening her grip on power and accusing anyone who disagrees with her of treason."
"The old bat," Ron said, scowling.
"Be careful of her, Dad," Ginny said, her brow knitting. "She’s sadistic – just look at what she did to Harry’s hand."
"I’m aware of her methods, pumpkin. Don’t worry about me; you watch out for yourselves. I’m afraid of what’s going to happen the next time there’s trouble, and I’d prefer it if you four weren’t anywhere in the vicinity," Mr. Weasley said sternly.
"Why, what else has happened?" Harry asked.
"There was another new Decree issued today detailing the rules Aurors must follow for engagement with Death Eaters. Umbridge is trying so hard to appease You-Know-Who that she’s created so much red tape it’s nearly impossible for the Aurors to act in a crisis. The first attack under these orders will be devastating," Mr. Weasley replied, his mouth set in a grim line.
"Great," Harry muttered under his breath. "All right, Mr. Weasley. Just see what you can do about alerting someone in the press that I’ll be in Diagon Alley in two days."
"Will do, Harry. Take care of yourselves," Mr. Weasley said before his image faded.
Harr y awoke on the morning of their planned trip to Diagon Alley feeling so warm and peaceful that he didn’t want to rise. He was spooned around Ginny and stray wisps of her hair were tickling his nose. They had been extremely chaste as they went to bed each night they’d been in the inn. Ron’s presence in the room cooled Harry’s ardor considerably. Still, sometime during each night his instincts would take over, and he’d awake to find himself wrapped in Ginny’s embrace. It was something he could easily get used to, and he worried about it.
The closer he got to finding the last hidden Horcrux, the closer Harry got to having to make some painful decisions. He sometimes wondered if he was subconsciously putting off finding information on Ravenclaw. He knew he had to do it, but the idea terrified him. This little glimpse of what a life with Ginny could be like – waking up each morning wrapped in her arms – was both painful and sweet. Life had never been exactly easy on him, but somehow, the idea of having to give up this newfound contentment was more than he could bear.
As if sensing his inner turmoil, Ginny shifted in her sleep, rolling over and snuggling up to him, her nose buried in his chest. Harry wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close and allowing his tension to abate. Professor Dumbledore had told him that his greatest strength was love. Harry didn’t really understand how that would help him defeat Voldemort, but he did know that she made him feel better than he ever had. Perhaps this feeling she gave him inside – this intense desire to live – was what would aid him in the end.
He knew Voldemort feared death. He wanted to live simply because he dreaded the alternative, not because life was offering him something rewarding. Harry felt a brief flicker of sympathy for Tom Riddle, never having experienced the extraordinary fullness someone like Ginny could have made him feel.
Still, even if that would help Harry defeat Voldemort in the end, it didn’t solve the problem of the piece of Voldemort’s soul that still resided inside him. He knew Hermione was right – the objects containing Voldemort’s soul could be left intact after destroying the Horcrux. He still had all the artifacts to prove it, except the locket. It had sunk to the bottom of the lake with the Inferi whose neck it had been wrapped around. Still, Harry had seen it as the Inferi slipped beneath the water and knew it had remained whole.
So, the artifacts had all survived, battered and worn, but he couldn’t see a way to get a Horcrux out of him without taking his own life. He tugged at the rope bracelet he wore around his wrist. The aquamarine stone tucked inside was warm and comforting against his skin.
Harry sighed, the image of the Veil that had taken Sirius from him flickering in his mind. He wondered if it had been painless. The idea of using the Veil haunted his thoughts, but he was held back by the idea of leaving Ron, Hermione, and particularly Ginny behind with the same vivid nightmares he had of losing Sirius.
He glanced over at Ron and Hermione, both sleeping soundly in the other bed. Ron was sprawled with his arms open wide, taking up much more than his half of the bed. Hermione, wearing the blue kerchief she still used at night when she removed her wig, was snuggled next to him, using his arm as her pillow. Harry had watched her awake each morning, blindly reaching for her red wig the same way Harry reached for his glasses.
With time slipping away, Harry felt he really should write each of them a goodbye letter, explaining how much they all meant to him. It was something he would’ve liked to have had from Sirius, and he knew he’d never be able to vocalize his feelings for them. Still, putting his thoughts in writing made the whole thing so much more real and…close.
He shuddered involuntary, and Ginny’s eyes fluttered open. She blinked a few times, orienting herself to where she was, before looking up at him with sleepy eyes.
"Morning," she said, burrowing into the warmth of his body.
"Morning," Harry said, leaning over to kiss the crown of her head. "Did you sleep well?"
"Um-hmm. I like sleeping with you," she said.
Harry felt a flush of warmth fill his chest. "I like sleeping with you, too – even if we really are sleeping," he said cheekily.
He felt Ginny’s body tremble as she chuckled. "Don’t let Ron hear you, he’ll jump into this bed and lie between us."
"Eww," Harry said, screwing up his face. "Nice way to ruin a fantasy, Ginny."
"A fantasy," Ginny said, laughing. "Am I in your fantasies, Harry?"
"You’ve been starring in my fantasies since long before we even started dating," Harry said, chuckling as he remembered fervently hoping he hadn’t talked in his sleep while sharing a dormitory with Ron.
"Hmm," Ginny said, looking extraordinarily pleased. "Good."
"Good?" Harry asked. "Good? So, you like that, do you?" He rolled over so she was pinned beneath him and begin tickling her sides until she was gasping for breath.
"Harry!" she squealed, trying to squirm away. "Stop! I mean it, stop!"
"Not until you admit I won this round," Harry said, laughing at her protests.
"Stop it," Ginny shrieked. "Harry, get off me."
Harry was about to release her when felt himself being bodily flung through the air, his arms flailing. He landed on the floor in a heap and before he could even get his bearings, he was lifted up and pinned against the wall with an arm digging into his throat.
"What the bloody hell did you think you were doing?" Ron’s livid face loomed above his.
Dazed, Harry struggled to remove Ron’s arm, finding it impossible to catch his breath.
"Ron!" Ginny shouted. "Let him go right now."
"Ron, he can’t breathe," Hermione said, hastily adjusting the red wig on top of her head.
"Ron," Ginny said, reaching up to pinch Ron’s ear between her fingers and twisting it with a wrench.
"Ow!" Ron yelped, releasing Harry so suddenly he again fell to the floor.
Rubbing his neck, Harry struggled to regain his breath as he scowled at Ron.
"What are you doing?" Ginny asked, finally releasing Ron’s very red ear.
"Ginny, that hurt," Ron whinged, rubbing it.
"What are you on about?" Harry demanded, finally finding his voice. He pulled himself to his feet, clenching his fists.
"What were you doing to my sister?" Ron asked, as if suddenly remembering why he’d been angry.
"It’s called tickling, Ron, and most people don’t get flung across the room for it," Harry said, snapping. He’d had enough of Ron’s over-protectiveness, and quite frankly, was rather hurt. Certainly, by now, he’d proved his intentions towards Ginny were honorable.
"Tickling?" Ron said, dumbfounded. "I heard her shouting at you to stop."
"Of course I was shouting," Ginny said, exasperated. "He was winning."
"Oh," Ron said, deflating a bit as he glanced warily at Harry.
Harry grabbed his jeans and a t-shirt and stalked towards the door. "I’m going to have a shower. I’ll try not to accost anyone on my way," he said irritably.
"Harry," Hermione called, but he ignored her, slamming the door shut on his way out. He knew he was the one being irrational now, but he was on edge, and Ron’s assumption bothered him. The other Weasley brothers he could understand, but Ron should know him better than that.
They arrived in Diagon Alley later that afternoon. Their interaction had been stiff and uncomfortable all morning with each boy stubbornly nursing his own pride. Ginny and Ron also weren’t speaking, leaving Hermione acting as a go-between among all of them. Harry was just as happy to leave the inn; he was tired of feeling confined.
Diagon Alley was quieter than Harry remembered. Several more of the shops had been closed and boards covered more windows since the last time he’d been here. Fewer people were on the street, and those who had ventured out appeared wary and skittish, hurrying along with their errands without making eye contact.
Harry hadn’t given Mr. Weasley a specific location where he’d appear, and they’d decided to use this rare freedom to do some window-shopping. It was bitterly cold, however, causing Harry to wish he’d made a more specific plan. Pulling his cloak tightly around his body, he turned his back towards the wind.
"Let’s head towards Fred and George’s shop," Ginny said, raising her voice above the frigid blast of wind that suddenly gusted. "There’s usually a crowd there and you’ll probably be spotted fairly quickly."
"Brush your hair off your forehead," Ron said crossly, tugging Hermione’s arm as he began walking. "Your scar is barely visible. Don’t hide it if you want to be seen."
Harry scowled at Ron’s back, but moved his fringe aside, feeling suddenly vulnerable.
Ginny pulled her scarf up so she could bury her nose, and slipped her hand in his. "Come on," she murmured. "It’s just for a little while."
The four walked towards Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes hunched from the chill. The pit in Harry’s stomach grew as he noticed the abundance of closed shops. The combination of Voldemort and Umbridge was wreaking havoc on the Wizarding world, and the worse part was they were allowing Umbridge to do it.
"Harry, you’re hurting my hand," Ginny said, trying to pull her hand from the death grip he had on it.
"Oh!" he said, starting. "Sorry, Ginny. I wasn’t paying attention."
"Obviously," she said, working her fingers in and out inside her fuzzy yellow mittens. "What’re you so cheesed off about, anyway? Is it this nonsense of Ron’s? He’s just being Ron – it takes awhile for his brain to catch up with the rest of him sometimes."
Harry snorted. "Nah, I don’t know what’s bothering me. Something just doesn’t feel right-"
"Oi, Ron! Ginny!" Fred shouted, poking his head outside the door of his shop. "Dad said you lot might stop by this afternoon. What’s happening?"
Harry craned his neck to peer inside. There were a few scattered customers in the aisles, but nothing like the crowd he’d seen the last time he’d been here. "How’s business?" he asked.
Fred shrugged. "It’s been slow, but the mail order catalog is booming. People are afraid to go out."
"Probably a good thing or Um-bint might make a decree declaring it illegal to shop here next," George said, scowling.
Ron, Ginny, and Harry sniggered at the insult, and even the corner of Hermione’s mouth twitched.
"We’re not her favorite people," Fred said, scratching his chin. "I can’t imagine anyone not loving us, can you?"
"Pansy and Iris don’t seem to care for you much," Ginny said, sniggering. Fred scowled and looked away.
"Dad said you needed to be spotted somewhere public. The shop next door sells coffee and has a big open window. Care to take a stroll and grab a cuppa?" George asked.
"All right," Harry replied.
"Can you watch the store for a tic, Shannon?" George called to the pretty girl behind the counter. She nodded and the twins led them outside.
"Who’s she?" Ginny asked. "She’s new."
"Yeah. We keep losing employees. We suspect some of them are being pressured by the Ministry to disassociate themselves with us. Apparently, Um-bint holds a grudge," Fred replied. "Shannon can be a bit flaky, but George likes her."
George flushed and kept walking.
It wasn’t difficult to get a large table by the window because the shop was nearly deserted. They’d just placed their orders when the entire shop shook from the force of a blast somewhere down the street.
"What was that?" Hermione asked, alarmed.
"Dunno," Fred said, standing up to peer out the window. The second blast knocked him to his knees. Coffee cups rattled on the table, and Harry heard something shatter in the kitchen.
The few patrons in the shop glanced at each other warily, uncertain whether or not to flee. Harry helped Fred to his feet and looked outside. To his horror, he could see half the street in flames. Death Eaters were walking unhindered, blasting spells at various shops along the way. They appeared to be gathering around the shops near Gringotts.
Harry turned around. Their waitress had backed against the counter, a panicked expression on her face.
"Do you have a Floo connection here?" he asked.
The girl merely stared back at him, her eyes flicking to the chaos outside.
"Listen to me," Harry said, speaking softly but firmly. "Do you have a working Floo?"
The girl nodded, her eyes wide.
"I want you to go right now and make an emergency call to the Ministry. Have them send Aurors here straightaway," Harry said.
The girl nodded again but didn’t move.
"Now," Harry said, louder this time.
She jumped, casting Harry a terrified expression. Whimpering slightly, she turned and fled towards the kitchen. Harry turned back to the door where Hermione was standing, peering outside.
"Hermione, I need you to go back into the twins’ shop and use their Floo to alert the Order," he said, swallowing heavily. "Be careful and keep your eyes open. They haven’t come this way yet, but if they do, I’d expect Fred and George’s shop to be a prime target. Take Shannon and get out if they come this way."
Hermione nodded, her eyes meeting Ron’s briefly before she turned and slipped out the door.
"Be careful," Ron called after her.
"What do you want us to do, Harry?" George asked.
"We’ve got to try and slow them down until help arrives," Harry said, gripping his wand tightly. "Ginny, keep these people inside. Use the Floo or take them out the back if the Death Eaters move this way."
Hearing the words ‘Death Eaters’ confirmed to the handful of other patrons what was happening outside. There were several screams as people pushed back their chairs and started running towards the door.
Harry stood in front of it, blocking their exit. "Listen to me. You’re safer in here than out there right now. You have to remain calm. Help is on the way."
Grumbling, the patrons retook their seats, staring nervously between Harry and the window.
"I’m not staying behind here, Harry," Ginny said.
Harry turned his attention towards her and realized too late how livid she was. Her jaw was set in a determined scowl, and her eyes flashed brightly, daring him to argue with her.
"If you try and leave me behind, I’ll be out that door two steps behind you. I can handle myself, and the four of you are no match for all those Death Eaters. You need all the help you can get," she said fiercely.
Harry knew she was right. He did need the help, and she could handle herself. Knowing that didn’t help with the more primitive side of himself that wanted her safe and protected at all costs, however. He twisted his lips, struggling.
Finally, he turned toward the door and swore violently. "Fine, follow me and stay together."
"Harry!" Ron said. "You can’t let her come. She’ll get hurt."
"Shut it, Ron," Ginny said, pushing her brother aside. "I’ve helped carry you out the last two times we’ve had trouble."
The twins’ each covered a smirk as they moved out of the way, allowing Ginny to pass. Clutching their own wands, they followed Ginny out the door. Harry quickly joined them, leaving Ron to follow in their wake, spluttering.
"Harry!" he said.
"We don’t have time for this," Harry snapped. "We all stick together. We’re going to stay on the right side of the street, it’s more shadowed. The Death Eaters are focused on their destruction, and they don’t appear to expect any resistance. When we’re close enough for our spells to hit them, we need to take cover first. Understand?"
The others nodded, their faces grim but determined.
Crouching low, Harry led them down the suddenly deserted street, ducking his head against the icy wind. New explosions shook the ground every few moments with alarming frequency. He could hear the laughter and crude jokes from the Death Eaters, but the street itself was eerily deserted. When they’d walked this way less than an hour ago, there had been a few scattered shoppers and several open shops, now it resembled a ghost town. Harry imagined everyone was inside, seeking cover.
As they neared the first burning shop, Harry could feel the heat on his face from the burning buildings. The temperature outside seemed to rise the closer they got to the bank. Heavy smoke filled the air, making it difficult to see what was happening. He jerked his head towards an alleyway where several rubbish bins lay scattered. The Weasleys took cover behind them.
"Back in the rubbish again," Ron muttered.
"Ron, get down," Fred shouted, pushing Ron to the ground as a jet of green light came speeding down the alley.
Muffled shouts and curses sounded from the street ahead. Fred dragged Ron behind the bins.
"Bloody hell. Thanks, Fred," Ron said, looking slightly dazed.
"I saw someone go this way," a harsh voice sounded ahead.
The air was suddenly filled with the sounds of Apparition. Multiple cracks and pops filled the air as witches and wizards dressed in Ministry uniforms arrived on the scene. The flashes from curses being fired became brighter and more intense.
"Stupefy," Harry shouted.
A beam of red light shot from his wand and Stunned the Death Eater who had followed them into the alley. Peering around the corner of a building, Harry could see Ministry Aurors fanning out and taking cover all along the street. The Death Eaters were casting spells at them with fierce intensity, and it took a moment for Harry to comprehend that the Aurors weren’t returning spells at all.
"What are they on about?" he asked no one in particular, horrified to see the Aurors being slaughtered.
"What’s happening?" Ginny whispered behind him.
"The Aurors have arrived, but they aren’t casting any spells. The Death Eaters are making it look like child’s play," Harry said, stunned.
He watched as the lead Auror made several attempts to negotiate with the Death Eaters, the majority of which were holed up on the steps of Gringotts. He felt his stomach clench in disgust as several of the Death Eaters used the Levicorpus spell to dangle the bodies of dead Aurors in the air.
"Stupefy," George yelled, his face contorted in rage.
One of the Death Eaters who’d been desecrating the bodies slumped over, but his victim fell to the ground in a heap as well. George’s Stunning spell alerted the others to their location, and a barrage of curses began pelting off the walls and against the bins in the alleyway.
"Back, move back," Harry shouted, pushing Ginny out of the way.
Ron, Fred and George took one side of the alley, while he and Ginny backed against the other. If the Death Eaters swarmed, they were trapped. Harry’s eyes scanned frantically, finally settling on a rusty, metal fire escape located several meters above their heads. He was startled by a loud crack not far from where he and Ginny were standing. Several more cracks followed in rapid succession.
"Potter," Mad-Eye Moody said, appearing suddenly alongside Hestia Jones. "What’s the situation?"
Moody and Jones volleyed several spells back and forth with the attacking Death Eaters. They were the first spells to be aimed at the Death Eaters directly since Harry had arrived on the scene. He saw Bill and another witch he didn’t recognize joining Ron and the twins. They all began aiming spells towards the steps of Gringotts. Several other Order members had also joined the fray.
"Those Aurors aren’t using any spells. They’re trying to negotiate with them," Harry said, ducking as a stream of purple light was shot near his head.
Moody returned fire, taking out two Death Eaters before lowering his wand again.
"What do you think you’re doing?" an Auror asked, crouching low as he ran up to them.
"We’re saving your arses," Moody snapped. "Why aren’t you trying to stop them? They’re using Unforgiveables."
As if to prove his point, the screams of an Auror obviously being subjected to the Cruciatus filled the air.
The Auror eyes flickered before his stony expression returned. "We’re following new Ministry guidelines to attempt to achieve a peaceful settlement to the crisis," he said in a monotone.
"Bollocks," Moody replied. "This is more of Umbridge’s mess."
The Auror clenched his jaw tightly. "We have our orders. There are strict, Ministry-sanctioned guidelines that must be followed. There is to be no spell-use until we receive the appropriate signal from our commander."
"And who is your commander?" Moody asked, growling. "Can’t he see that your people are being devastated?"
"Dawlish," Kingsley Shacklebolt said, approaching them. His eyes briefly glanced at Harry, but he gave no sign of recognition. He turned to the Auror standing with Moody. "Sir, Bradford and Hennessey are down, leaving you the next in command. What do you want to do?"
Kingsley’s jaw was tense, as if he were barely restraining himself. His hand clenched his wand tightly, as if forcing himself not to use it. Harry could see reflections of color from various spells reflected in the gold of Kingsley’s earring.
"You want to protect yourselves from those Death Eaters," Harry said when the Auror hesitated. "Dolores’s decree obviously isn’t working."
The man’s gaze flickered to Harry, freezing when he noticed the scar. He swore under his breath. "We haven’t been given the order to engage from Dawlish," he said through clenched teeth. "The bigwigs at the Ministry were adamant that we follow procedure."
"We don’t know that Dawlish is still alive," Kingsley said stiffly. "And our people are dying, sir."
When the Auror still hesitated, Moody swore in disgust. "Look, you do whatever you have to do, and we’ll do what we have to do. Harry, get up on that roof and see if you can get a good aim at the Death Eaters on the top step at Gringotts. They appear to be the ones in charge."
Harry nodded. Using his wand to lower the ladder, he took Ginny by the arm and maneuvered her to climb ahead of him. The metal was very cold, and it stung his hands each time he grasped a wrung. As they ascended, he could hear Moody and Shacklebolt still arguing with the Auror. The smoke grew heavier, and he lost sight of them, but he heard the Auror finally agree to Moody’s demands.
Harry sighed in relief; at least that was something.
As the Aurors finally began battling the Death Eaters in earnest, the sky burst with a symphony of colors from various spells. Just as Harry and Ginny reached the roof and climbed off the fire escape ladder, a spell was fired into the air. Harry gaped as the Dark Mark filled the sky above Gringotts. A cold thrill of dread ran down his back. That spell hadn’t been fired from the ground. Turing around slowly, he stared into cold dark eyes behind a Death Eater mask. The wizard held a wand aimed directly at Harry’s chest.
Herm ione turned from the fireplace after making the emergency call to headquarters to find Shannon, the clerk at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, standing nearly on top of her. The girl was a few years older than Hermione, but appeared much younger at the moment. Tears leaked from her pretty, bright blue eyes, and she wrung her hands while waiting for Hermione to tell her what to do.
Hermione instinctively straightened her wig, rolling some of the hair between her fingers, absently noting how different it felt from her own hair. Her heart thudded in her chest now that she didn’t have a specific task to do.
"It’s going to be all right, Shannon," Hermione said, hoping it was true. "Help is on the way."
Shannon sniffed. "Where are Fred and George?" she asked tremulously.
Hermione’s eyes drifted to the door, and she had to take a deep breath to control her own rising panic. "They went to see if they could help."
"Why?" Shannon moaned. "Those are his followers down there. They’ll be killed."
"They can handle themselves. They’ve done this before," Hermione said firmly. Something about Shannon’s terror settled Hermione’s nerves. She could handle this. She had to keep Shannon calm and that would help her remain calm, as well.
"But what if You-Know-Who is there, too?" Shannon asked, her eyes nearly bugging out of her head.
Hermione bit her lip, praying that wasn’t true. They weren’t ready. They needed more time. There was still one more Horcrux to find, and Hermione still hadn’t completely worked out her plan to save Harry.
She was close, but she wasn’t there yet. The hardest part would be getting Harry to agree to it, but she thought Ginny might be the better choice to do that. Although she hated to admit it, Hermione knew Harry tended to listen to Ginny more than he did to her. It irritated the older Gryffindor to no end, but that’s the way it was. Still, if Voldemort was among the Death Eaters attacking, all her careful plans might be for naught. They weren’t ready.
Hermione’s thoughts turned toward Ron. They’d been bickering all morning and hadn’t really settled anything when he’d left with the others. She’d been angry over the way he’d treated Harry that morning. He really could be such an insufferable prat sometimes. He meant well, though. He was only trying to protect his sister. His infuriatingly male brain simply hadn’t caught on to the fact that Ginny neither needed nor wanted his protection.
Hermione had noticed the hurt that had flashed in Harry’s eyes, even if Ron hadn’t. She knew Ginny had seen it, too. Ron might have obliviously stomped all over Harry’s feelings that morning, but if it came down to it this afternoon, Ron would give his life for Harry. Hermione knew it, and it terrified her. She had to find a way for both her boys to come out of this – whole and intact – no matter what she had to do.
Another blast shook the shop, knocking various items off the shelves and sending them crashing to the floor. Hermione grabbed onto the fireplace in the back of the shop to steady herself.
Shannon screamed and began to lunge for the door, but Hermione grabbed her arm, stopping her. "We’re safer in here," she hissed.
The sound of the door at the front of the shop opening caused both girls to freeze. They stared at one another warily, clutching each other’s arms.
"Lookee, lookee at all the toys," a sinister, singsong voice sounded at the front of the shop. "Is anybody home? Come out, come out wherever you are."
Hermione slapped her hand over Shannon’s mouth before the girl could scream. The shop was no longer safer than the street.
Ron stood with his brothers and watched as Harry and Ginny climbed the fire escape to the rooftop. He could see Mad-Eye Moody shouting something to them, but the noise from the battle drowned his words. After the Order had arrived, Bill led Ron and the twins through a door in the building opposite the one Harry was now climbing, and they’d remerged onto the street.
"Where’re Harry and Ginny going?" George asked, covering Bill as he moved closer to a group of Death Eaters.
"Dunno," Ron shrugged. He really wasn’t all that concerned about it. He knew Harry would protect Ginny with his life, and he could get out of just about anything. He’d proved that many times in the past. Ron suddenly felt guilty for the way he’d treated Harry that morning. Ron knew that Harry would give his life for any one of the Weasleys – even Percy. He should’ve known that.
Suddenly, the Aurors finally started to do what they’d arrived to do and began casting spells back at the attacking Death Eaters.
"’s about time," Fred said, shaking his head in disgust. "The Aurors finally quit yakking and have decided to join the fight." He ducked as a red beam of light zoomed alarmingly close to his ear.
"Bugger!" Ron shouted as the ground shook beneath his feet. Raising his eyes, he could see a massive green skull forming in the sky with a hideous green snake slowly oozing out its mouth.
"That spell came from the rooftop," George said uneasily.
Ron swallowed resolutely. "Harry can take care of himself, and he’ll take care of Ginny, too."
They continued moving forward until they joined a group of Aurors huddled together.
"Wotcher, Ron," a familiar voice said.
"Tonks!" Ron said, startled.
"Bloody mess, innit?" Tonks said, tossing her head. "Umbridge is a daft idiot. We must have lost close to twenty Aurors before Kingsley got Melanson to agree to stuff her orders."
"Have they got control of the bank?" Ron asked.
"Nah. They’ll never get inside. The Goblins have their own kind of protection. This is a form of intimidation. People will panic when they hear about it. It’s Voldemort’s way of showing everyone exactly who’s in charge," Tonks said, shaking her head.
Ron aimed his wand, firing repeatedly at the Death Eaters, who were now pulling back and taking cover.
"Some of them got past us, so some of the shops further down could still be in trouble," Tonks said. "We’ll have to worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got to try and get to the top steps of Gringotts. The Death Eaters calling the shots are holed up there."
"How are we supposed to do that?" Fred asked incredulously. "There’s no cover."
"That’s why they chose it," Ron snapped. "It’s good strategy."
Ron watched as Bill attempted to get closer, his ravaged face covered in soot and grime. Suddenly, something bright and enormous illuminated the sky overhead, moving toward Gringotts.
"What was that?" George asked, but there wasn’t time to contemplate as the Death Eaters began attacking with renewed intensity. The fighting was fierce, and Ron struggled to focus on the battle at hand and not on what might have happened to Hermione.
From the corner of his eye, Ron saw a large, masked Death Eater emerge from an adjacent building. He watched curiously as the man barked something at his cohorts standing nearby. The other Death Eaters began moving away from the building while the one who’d emerged and aimed his wand directly at the door.
"What the-" Bill never finished his sentence.
"Morsmordre," the man cried.
"Bloody hell, he fired that inside the building," Fred shouted.
"Fleur!" Bill shouted, suddenly moving out from behind his cover and running towards his wife, who was standing directly across from the building.
Fleur turned, her beautiful face contorted in concentration. Her eyes widened in surprise seeing Bill barreling towards her before the world began to shake.
On the rooftop, Harry froze, swallowing nervously as he faced the Death Eater holding him at wandpoint.
"Well, look who we have here," the Death Eater said. Harry didn’t recognize the voice. "My master will be so pleased with this added bonus."
Before Harry could respond, Ginny spun out from behind Harry’s back, brandishing her wand. "Stupefy," she shouted.
The Death Eater took the spell directly in the chest and slumped to the ground. Harry had no time to congratulate her before two other Death Eaters emerged from the stairwell onto the roof.
Harry and Ginny both fired several spells, but the Death Eaters had the door to the stairwell to use as cover while they were out in the open. Harry took Ginny’s hand and pulled her towards the building’s ledge.
"Come on," he shouted.
He sprinted toward the ledge with Ginny on his heels, dodging spells the whole way.
"What are you doing?" Ginny asked, breathless.
"Don’t think, just jump," he shouted.
As he neared the ledge, he took a deep breath and simply leaped across to the rooftop of the next building. There was a moment while in the air that gave him that heady rush flying always did. He landed with a thud, but bounced back up, exhilarated and prepared to catch Ginny.
She stood on the other side, fixed in one spot and wide-eyed while the Death Eaters ran towards her.
Harry felt panic rising in his chest. Aiming his wand, he shouted," Stupefy!"
The Death Eaters were still too far away, and he missed. "Ginny, you have to jump," he said, holding out his hand. "I promise I’ll catch you."
Ginny stared at the gap between the buildings then turned to see the Death Eaters running towards her. "Harry," she cried, her lip trembling. "Your legs are longer than mine."
"You can do this, Ginny. Do it, now," Harry demanded.
Ginny nodded resolutely, keeping her watery eyes on Harry. She backed up a few steps, took a running start, and bolted towards the ledge. She would have cleared it fine if she hadn’t faltered slightly before jumping. That fraction of hesitation caused her to fall just short of the mark.
Harry leaned over and grabbed her around the waist before she slipped off the edge. His shoulder took the brunt of the strain, and he heard an awful popping sound before an unbearable agony swept down his arm. The pain was nauseating, and he had to clamp down on his teeth to keep from crying out.
Ginny screamed as his right arm dropped limply, releasing his hold on her. He leaned from the waist, keeping a tight grip on her with his left arm, straining to pull her up. They were out of the field of vision of the Death Eaters at the moment, but it wouldn’t take them long to reach the edge.
Ginny wrapped her arms around his neck, clingingly tightly as he pulled her back onto the ledge. He could feel her nails digging into his skin and knew she wouldn’t let go for anything. She was trembling violently and could barely catch her breath through her tears. He dragged her away from the edge and behind a half wall, shielding them from the Death Eaters spells.
Leaning against the wall, he gasped in pain, holding Ginny’s shaking body close to his. "Ginny," he said softy. "You’re okay. We’re okay."
Ginny took a deep breath, pulling herself together. Her eyes widened, as if realizing Harry was in pain. Swiping her eyes, she leaned over him to peer around the wall.
"Petrificus Totalis," she shouted.
Harry watched as a Death Eater dropped, immobilized, onto the rooftop they now occupied.
"Take one more step and you’ll get the same thing, only I promise you, it’ll be while you’re still in the air," Ginny snarled at the other Death Eater, who was preparing to jump.
The man’s determination wavered. He hesitated a moment before backing away from the ledge.
"Wise decision," Ginny mumbled, turning back towards Harry. "Are you all right?"
Harry wiped a trickle of blood from his lip. He’d bitten threw it when he’d hurt his shoulder. "Yeah," he gasped clenching his teeth. "We need to help the others."
Ginny nodded, helping him to stand. They moved quickly towards the opposite ledge where they had a clear view of Gringotts. The steps were littered with fallen Death Eaters, while many Aurors lay prone in the street. Fires burned uncontrolled in several of the buildings and thick smoke filled the air.
Harry could see two Death Eaters on the top steps of Gringotts, issuing orders to the others. The door to the bank must have sealed against the attack, for no one even bothered trying to open them.
Harry had to grasp his wand in his left hand because his right was dangling uselessly at his side. Focusing all his energy on the two huddled Death Eaters creating all this destruction, he aimed his wand and shouted, "Expecto Patronum."
Prongs sprang from his wand and floated gracefully through the air and landed on the steps of Gringotts. Lowering its head, the stag charged the Death Eaters. Startled, they jumped out of the way, leaving their cover and giving Harry a clear aim. With his wand in the wrong hand, he felt some uncertainty about the success of the spells, but he aimed and concentrated anyway.
The two Death Eaters stopped, their bodies jerking violently before collapsing on the steps. Ginny aimed at several of the masked attackers on the street.
As if realized their numbers were dwindling, the remaining Death Eaters began Disapparating, leaving only the Order and a group of unorganized Aurors on the street below.
Before he had time to speak, a great rumbling shook the building where Harry and Ginny were standing. The tremble forced each of them to their knees, causing Harry to cry out as his shoulder jerked in a painful spasm. Their eyes widened as the building next to them – the one from which they’d jumped – suddenly collapsed in a swirling cloud of dust and smoke. Clenching his eyes shut, Harry threw his body over Ginny’s and tried to shield her from the debris flying through the air.
A/N: I know, I know another cliffy. What can I say? I like them J
I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks much to Sherylyn for doing such a speedy beta job before she left on her vacation so you all wouldn’t have to wait. I’m aware that Shannon isn’t a very British-sounding name, but it was my chance to finally name a girl, so I kept it!
Thanks also to KEDme, Dianne and GhostWriter for all the feedback and suggestions.
I had a few reviewers last chapter who said they’d been reading along but had never commented in the past. Thanks very much for taking the time to do so – it really is very motivating.
Now, Sherry says I have to be quick about getting 20 to you – so I’m off to work on it.
I want to thank all of you very loyal SIYE reviewers for the nominations and votes on the Trinket awards. I know there has been some controversy over the same authors winning, but I do want you all to know that the nods are very appreciated. Thank you.