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.
Echoes in Time
Harry led the way as the four teens grimly walked down the corridor toward Professor McGonagall’s office. He watched dust motes dance in the sunlight that streamed in from the windows, wondering how his thoughts could feel so dark on such a bright day. When they were far enough away from the common room, Hermione grabbed his arm and stopped their progress. He’d been aware that she’d barely been containing her curiosity since he’d dragged her from the common room.
"Harry, what’s going on? What did you remember?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.
"I want to talk to Professor Dumbledore – I think it’s time," he said, taking a deep breath.
Ginny snaked her fingers through his own, and he gave them a quick, reassuring squeeze.
Hermione smiled, obviously pleased. "Well, I’ve been saying you should do that since we arrived here. I’m glad you’re finally listening, Harry."
Ignoring her reproach, Harry said, "Ron reminded me about the Riddle House. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. I want to go to Little Hangleton with the Spell Detector after we see the portrait."
"But I thought Voldemort hid a Horcrux at the Gaunt’s old house after he killed the Riddles," Hermione said, furrowing her brow.
Harry nodded. "He did. Professor Dumbledore found the ring there, but there were three murders committed that day, and Voldemort was drawn to the place enough to return while he waited to capture me during the Triwizard Tournament. I think it’s worth a look."
"He’s right, and it’ll feel good to go out and accomplish something instead of reading old books all day," Ron said, unaware of Hermione’s scowl.
Hoping to avoid a row, Harry began walking again, keeping Ginny’s hand tucked firmly within his own. "We have to try and speed up the search before Voldemort is able to sink his claws too deeply into the Ministry. At the rate he’s killing people and others are fleeing, there’ll be no one left to save."
"And we still have to talk about what we’re going to do about the Seventh Horcrux," Hermione said, glancing uneasily at Harry.
"Let’s just find this last one first," Harry said, brushing her off. He’d made up his mind. It wouldn’t do any of them any good to continue rehashing the alternatives. He knew what he had to do, and they’d come to realize it after the fact. They’d have to – it wasn’t as if he’d have allowed Remus to do what he did beforehand. Still, he had to admit that Remus’s sacrifice had allowed them all to escape.
Remus finally had had the chance to do what he’d always wanted – make a difference. Harry forced himself to slow his pace when he realized that Ginny – on her shorter legs – was nearly running to keep up with him.
When they reached the stone gargoyle that guarded the entrance to Professor McGonagall’s office, Harry’s heart lurched. He hadn’t been back here since the night Dumbledore had died. He swallowed heavily and gripped Ginny’s hand more tightly.
She gently caressed his hand with her thumb, soothing him.
"Three hundred and ten spread," Hermione said, and the gargoyle sprang aside, revealing the moving circular stairway.
Harry and his friends rode up in silence, none of them feeling any desire to rush into the office. Hermione pushed open the door, and Harry took a good look around.
The office was familiar, although all of Professor Dumbledore’s odd little trinkets and instruments were missing. Godric Gryffindor’s sword still hung in the display case, and Harry supposed that it was appropriate that it remain at the school. A tartan tin of biscuits had replaced the candy jar on the desk, and the Quidditch Cup was displayed prominently where Fawkes’ perch once stood. The game-winning Snitch sat beside it, gleaming in the sunlight. Harry supposed that a new head of Gryffindor House had never been named, so Professor McGonagall had been able to hold onto the trophy.
Harry studied the office carefully and only when he had nowhere else to look did he raise his eyes to the golden-framed portrait that hung above the desk. He inhaled sharply when he realized that Professor Dumbledore’s piercing blue eyes were open, twinkling with that familiar sparkle, as he watched the four friends approach.
"Good afternoon," Dumbledore said, clearing his throat. "It is lovely to see young people about the castle again. I am glad you convinced your friends to drop by, Miss Granger. I have been eagerly anticipating it."
"Hello, Professor," both Ginny and Hermione murmured.
Ron smiled halfheartedly, but Harry stood frozen, rooted to the spot, his heart hammering.
"Care for a lemon drop?" Professor Dumbledore asked pleasantly, raising a painted jar full of the sugary sweet and leaning it toward Hermione.
"No, thank you, sir," she replied, smiling fondly.
Professor Dumbledore peered at Ron, and then Ginny, each of whom shook their heads mutely. Hermione wrung her hands while Ron nervously shifted from foot to foot. Ginny tried to melt back between the two. All of them kept casting anxious glances in Harry’s direction, but he maintained his silence. He knew it was making everyone else nervous, but he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t seem to find the words.
Dumbledore’s twinkling gaze finally reached Harry, and it took all the willpower he possessed not to shrink away. The Bludger-sized lump lodged in his throat prevented him from speaking, and he had to rapidly blink the mist from his eyes, hoping no one else would notice.
"Harry, dear boy, I had wondered when you would finally come around to call. I have been asking Miss Granger after you. I am delighted to see you are well. Unfortunately, you are the one person to whom I cannot offer a lemon drop," Dumbledore said, a sad smile crossing his face.
"Sir?" Harry choked, confused.
He felt Ginny’s hand on his back, reassuring him, and he leaned into her touch.
"For years I kept a jar on my desk, and I always offered sweets to my visitors, but no one ever accepted," Professor Dumbledore said wistfully. "I find it amusing to continue offering them, since now there is obviously no way I can really oblige. However, people still merely shake their heads at the offer, and I am certain they never really consider it. But you, Harry, you were the only one who always accepted my offer. I always enjoyed that about you."
Harry nodded, unable to speak.
"So, tell me, how far have you come in your quest to locate all of Tom’s Horcruxes?" Professor Dumbledore asked, folding his long fingers beneath his chin in a gesture that was so familiar it made Harry’s heart constrict.
"You know about them, then?" Ginny asked, unable to restrain herself. Realizing she’d interrupted, she blushed and tugged at a strand of hair. "I mean…we weren’t certain how much you’d be aware of since…"
"Not to worry, Miss Weasley. I regularly updated the enchantment to ensure my portrait would have full awareness of my activities up to the point of my demise. I was always rather clever with foresight, if I do say so myself," Professor Dumbledore said, smiling kindly.
"Do you know how you… How it happened?" Harry asked, unable to stop the hard edge that had crept into his voice once he finally found it.
The twinkle in Dumbledore’s eyes flickered and waned as he nodded solemnly. "I do. Professor McGonagall has been good enough to keep me apprised of current events. She told me about Severus."
"You…you didn’t have some sort of plan with him then, sir?" Hermione asked, wincing slightly under Harry’s fierce glare.
"Alas…no, Miss Granger, I did not. I believed Severus truly regretted his past misdeeds and was seeking redemption through his service to me. I was mistaken. I think I told you once before, Harry, did I not, that my mistakes in judgment tended to be larger than most?"
"But why? Why did you trust him so?" Harry asked, his throat tight.
Dumbledore smiled, his sad eyes drifting over each of them before answering. "Perhaps it was my own hope for his redemption. I wanted to believe he had changed – that I had managed to reach him. I wanted him to have a second chance to realize that his choices could be different – that walking a different path could change everything.
"I had always felt guilty for the life Severus led. I wished I could have done more for him. I wish I had realized sooner how close to the edge he was walking when he was a student here. Severus always felt persecuted – as if his teachers and all authority figures had it in for him. After so many years of the same complaints, it became so that the faculty – myself included – only listened to him with half an ear. When he turned to the Dark, I felt I had failed him."
Professor Dumbledore’s eyes dulled, taking on a faraway expression.
Harry compressed his lips, barely able to contain his fury that this echo, or imprint, or portrait – whatever it was – of Professor Dumbledore would feel guilty for failing Snape when Snape was the one who had forced Harry to have to talk to him in this way in the first place.
He glanced up to find Dumbledore’s intense blue eyes boring him into him. He held his hand in the air as if trying to reach out and touch Harry, but it was impossible.
"After Severus learned about Voldemort’s plans for your family, Harry, he came to me. Although the bitterness between he and your father ran deep, your mother had always been kind to him, and I don’t think he’d ever forgotten that. I believe hearing the plans for the brutal murder of people he knew – his classmates – stirred something in Severus. He tried to save them, but his warning came too late for me to affect a change," Dumbledore said, his eyes full of sorrow.
"How do you know he tried to save them? How do you know he wasn’t aiming to get in your good graces even then, giving you the information after it was already too late?" Harry snarled, breathing through his nose in an attempt not to lose control.
Dumbledore sighed, pinching the bridge of his long, crooked nose. "I do not know that for certain. If you had asked me that same question when I was still amongst the living, I would have adamantly denied the possibility. I would not have listened to a word against Severus. I wanted to believe him; I’d grown to care about him enough that I tended to overlook some of his more…unorthodox…teaching methods. You never trusted him, Harry. Perhaps that is the way it should be – that you were right, and I was wrong in the end, as the torch was passed to you."
Harry shut his eyes tightly, unwilling to hear anymore.
"I still wish I could have done more to save Severus, but it was not meant to be. Now, our challenge is to save everyone else," Professor Dumbledore said, his eyes finally clearing.
"And to save Harry," Ginny said, wiggling her hand in his. He’d been gripping her fingers so tightly that he’d probably cut off her circulation.
"Did you know?" Harry asked suddenly, his eyes piercing into Dumbledore’s, certain his old Headmaster would know exactly what he meant.
Dumbledore sighed heavily, looking down at his folded hands. "I suspected," he said, appearing to age before their very eyes.
Harry steeled himself against the stab of sympathy that struggled to arise. "Then why didn’t you tell me?" he bit out.
"I could not – not until I was certain," Dumbledore said wearily. "I could not bring myself to share my suspicions with you, particularly when I was fighting with my own desire to discount the mounting evidence. I kept seeking an alternative – any other possibility to satisfy my unease. I told you I thought Nagini was that Horcrux to alert you to the idea that although unadvisable, a living thing could become a Horcrux. I wanted you to be aware of that fact while I continued to seek another answer. Again – I made the mistake of allowing myself to care too much. I am sorry, Harry."
Harry clenched teeth, furious, and looked away.
"What does that silver instrument you left Harry do?" Hermione asked, her eyes darting nervously between Harry and the portrait.
"It is called a Soul Balance," Professor Dumbledore said, his eyes grave. "It is meant to aid in the decision-making process – to show which way your soul is leaning when a particularly hard choice needs to be made. However, instead, I have modified its use to indicate if the two souls that reside within Harry are separate or connected. The piece of Tom’s soul that resides within you, Harry is still separate from your own. It has never been absorbed into your own personality. It is very tricky to place a Horcrux inside a living thing, as there is always the chance that the soul of the living host becoming the dominant force and consuming it."
"What does it do to the host if that happens?" Hermione asked apprehensively.
"I cannot answer that succinctly since I could find no record of it ever being done. It is suspected, however, that although the fragment soul would essentially be destroyed, the host itself would be contaminated by it," Dumbledore said heavily.
Harry suddenly felt very sick as the color drained from his face.
"That has not, however, happened to you. Your soul remains quite separate and intact from the piece of Voldemort residing within your body, Harry," Dumbledore said, his own face very pale. "The fact speaks volumes about your strength of character."
Harry wanted to steer the conversation away from this topic. Professor Dumbledore had an uncanny knack for seeing through him and knowing his intentions. He couldn’t afford that discussion with the others still in the room. Besides, his stomach was churning so unpleasantly, he wanted to get away before he embarrassed himself by heaving on the floor.
"We’ve found all the Horcruxes but one. The cup was in Hepzibah Smith’s old home," he said, rubbing his belly. He didn’t mention the locket, unwilling to admit to Dumbledore that the ordeal he’d suffered on the night he died was all for naught.
"We’re planning on searching the Riddle House next," Ron said, nervously. Harry suddenly realized how quiet he’d been during the entire conversation. Glancing at his friend, Harry noticed that he didn’t appear well, either.
"The Riddle House?" Dumbledore asked, perplexed. "I suppose it is possible, but it seems unlikely Tom would have hidden two so close together."
"I thought about that, but I’m running out of ideas, and I thought it was worth a check," Harry replied, shrugging.
"Yes, it is certainly a possibility. Let me know how it goes, and I will ponder what artifact from Gryffindor or Ravenclaw might have fallen into Tom’s unclean hands," Dumbledore said.
"Thanks you, sir," Hermione said
"Do not mention it. It is not as if I am overwhelmed with things to do these days. Minerva is a good woman, but it is not as though she has a wild underside that would create a wonderful source of gossip and entertainment," Dumbledore said, his eyes twinkling once again.
"Yes, sir," Hermione said, blushing. Harry, Ron and Ginny all hid their sniggers.
"Come back to see me when you are not so pressed for time, Miss Granger, and I will inform you how the Soul Balance works," he said, peering intently at Hermione.
She nodded but remained silent. They bid their farewells and left the room in darkness.
T he following day, the four teens arose early and began the trek to Little Hangleton. They’d managed to avoid Mrs. Weasley and instead informed Mr. Weasley and Professor McGonagall that they’d be outside the gates for a while. Neither of the adults appeared pleased with the news, but they didn’t attempt to stop them, either.
Harry noticed Draco and Pansy watching them closely from atop the Astronomy tower as they traveled the road toward Hogsmeade. He would have preferred to have slipped away unseen, but he supposed it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t as if the Slytherins knew where the four were headed, anyway.
"So, here we go again," Ron said, kicking a stray stone as they walked.
It crossed into Harry’s path, and he absently kicked it back. "Yeah. Here’s hoping we find something, so we can get this done and over," he said, sighing.
Hermione and Ginny exchanged pointed looks.
"Still, this hasn’t been so bad," Ron said, continuing to kick the stone forward. "I mean, a lot more research time than I would have imagined, but we’ve done okay. When we first talked about starting this quest – I thought we’d, you know, have to live in caves and stuff."
"Why would we have to do that?" Harry asked curiously. "Dumbledore searched the whole time right from Hogwarts."
"I know," Ron replied, shrugging. "I suppose I just didn’t think of that. Figuring out what and where has just taken a lot more time than the actual destruction, is all."
"Destruction is generally done very quickly, Ron," Hermione said, pursing her lips. "It’s the building – the creation – the planning it all out that takes the time."
Ron scowled as his face began to turn an alarming shade of red. Ginny caught Harry’s eye and grinned.
"Race you to the gate," she said, beginning to sprint before Harry even had a chance to reply.
Grinning, he took off after her, leaving Ron and Hermione behind to either continue bickering or hurry to catch up. Harry’s long strides allowed him to overtake Ginny just as they reached the Hogwarts’ gates. They both put their hands out to stop their progress, slamming against the heavy iron bars and panting heavily.
"I won," Ginny said, gasping.
"How do you figure?" Harry asked, hunched over with his hands on his knees. "I touched the gate first."
"You did not," Ginny said indignantly.
"Did so," Harry said, laughing. He turned and rested his head on the gate.
Ginny narrowed her eyes and he could see her plotting behind the cinnamon color of her irises. Pasting what he hoped was a conciliatory expression on his face, he tried to control his smirk.
"Tie?" he suggested.
Ginny pursed her lips, considering. She nodded and punched him in the stomach lightly. "Tie works this time, but I’m not letting you off that easy again," she said primly.
"I’ll tread carefully," Harry said, cocking his eyebrow.
Ginny giggled, resting her head on his shoulder. "Think Ron and Hermione are done rowing yet?"
"I doubt it. Complaining about library time and research is never going to end well," Harry said, squinting his eyes to distinguish Ron and Hermione walking over a hill in the distance.
He and Ginny watched their friends’ progress until they all stood in front of the gates. Ron and Hermione weren’t speaking, and Hermione pointedly looked in the other direction. Harry sighed. Some things never changed.
"Let’s get going so we can still be back in time for dinner," Ron said. "I’m starving."
"You are?" Ginny asked in mock astonishment, blinking her wide eyes. "That’s so unlike you, Ron. Are you feeling all right?"
Harry grinned. "All right, once we’re outside the gates, I’ll Side-Along-Apparate Ginny with me. Ron and Hermione, you two can just lightly hold my arm so I’ll guide you. We’ll appear several meters away from the house, just in case it’s being watched," he said, taking Ginny’s hand.
He held out his arm for Ron and Hermione, but Hermione hesitated, a perplexed frown crossing her features.
"You’re certain you have a spot in mind, Harry? Somewhere specific?" she asked, appearing rather nervous.
Harry rolled his eyes impatiently. "I’ve been there before, Hermione," he snapped.
She didn’t look pleased, but she took hold of his arm. Harry envisioned the dirt road leading towards the Riddle House. He remembered how it curved and rolled past the graveyard…
Harry’s vision briefly swam before he felt the uncomfortable squeezing sensation of Apparation. His mind’s eye flashed on the image of that graveyard on a starry night, remembering how long shadows appeared as if rising from the graves themselves…
With a start, he realized he was standing in the middle of that very graveyard rather than on the road that curved alongside it. Piles of melting snow had left the ground slick and muddy beneath his feet. The bright, early afternoon sun on this chilly day was in stark contrast to the warm June night he often relived in his nightmares. His palms began to sweat, and his heart hammered in his chest as terrifying memories assaulted all his senses.
Phantom images of Death Eaters appearing from nowhere, the sound of cold, cruel laughter, the acrid smell of smoke as it rose into the night, the feeling of his body being ripped apart…
"Ow!" Ron yelped, hopping around on one foot and holding his knee with the other. "Bloody hell, Harry. I didn’t think you’d set us down right in the graveyard. I slammed right into that tombstone."
"I didn’t mean it," Harry said quietly, his eyes glued to the tall marble headstone directly in front of him. Try as he might, he couldn’t seem to pull his gaze away from the name engraved on the stone.
"I was afraid this might happen. I told you to envision the spot carefully, Harry," Hermione said, her lips puckering. "It’s a wonder we all didn’t get Splinched." She looked torn between concern, annoyance and frustration – the expression on her face rapidly alternating between the three.
"Harry?" Ginny said tentatively, resting her hand on his bicep.
"Yeah," Harry said, shaking his head to clear it. Sheepishly, he admitted, "At the last minute, my mind drifted. Sorry about that. We’re only a few meters from where we should have been. That’s the Riddle House there, on the hill." He pointed towards it, but once again his eyes traveled to the marble gravestone and moved along the length of the grave. The large stone cauldron had since been removed, but he could picture it there, churning and bubbling, remembering the stark terror of watching the smoke rise into the night…
Ron clapped him on the back, his eyes shifting between Harry and Hermione. "We can’t afford to get Splinched, mate," he said, looking around the graveyard uncomfortably. "It’s a right mess, and I don’t know how to undo it."
"And we can’t get the Ministry Reversal Squad involved, Harry. We don’t even know if they still exist," Hermione said, her eyes wide and apologetic. She wrung her hands nervously. "You need to slow down and think a bit first."
"All right," Harry said, feeling nettled. The memories were assaulting him fast and furious, and he felt his breath coming quicker as he recalled what easily had to be the scariest night of his life. "What’s done is done, and we’re okay."
"That’s not the point," Hermione said indignantly. "I know this must be hard for you, Harry, but we can’t be impulsive. We can’t afford any mistakes." Her eyes softened, and she rested her hand on his arm. "I do want to help, Harry, and I know this must be traumatic, but I can’t assist you if you won’t let me. You have to trust that we can handle something if you can’t once in a while."
"Is this where it happened, Harry?" Ginny asked quietly. She’d wrapped her arms around herself and was staring at the stones apprehensively. Harry thought she looked ready to sprint for the road at any moment.
"Yeah," he said, turning his attention away from Ron and Hermione and focusing solely on her. "That’s the grave where I was tied. Wormtail did it before I even knew what was happening." He silently traced his hand along his cheekbone, remembering the blow Wormtail had used to still him.
He didn’t know why, but he suddenly felt the desperate need to talk about it – a need like he’d never felt in the past. "The cauldron was there, and Wormtail stood between us, carrying the thing Voldemort was. He looked like some kind of grotesque baby. When Wormtail dropped him into the cauldron, I kept hoping he would drown," Harry whispered, swallowing thickly.
Again, Ron clamped his hand on Harry’s shoulder. "Let’s get out of here, mate. We’ve got a house to search."
Ron was obviously nervous. Harry knew that Ron wanted to move away from the emotional events that happened here, both for Harry’s sake and his own.
"Where did the Priori Incantatum take place?" Hermione asked, her anger over their near-Apparation accident dissolving beneath her curiosity.
"There," Harry said, pointing, his eyes faraway. He stared at the small clearing where he and Voldemort had dueled – where he’d seen the shades of his parents for the first time. Some of the gravestones were chipped and broken, and he could detect spell burns on the edges of several of them. He shuddered, remembering.
"But you did get away," Ginny whispered, slipping her small hand into his. "Thank Merlin."
"It was terrifying to sit in the stands that night, not knowing what had happened," Hermione said, her eyes taking on that same, distant expression he knew was in his own. "The rumors spread like wildfire that one of the champions was dead."
"We were so afraid it was you," Ron said, briefly glancing at Harry. His voice was low and gruff with suppressed emotion.
Harry shook his head solemnly.
"Cedric died right there," he said, pointing a shaky finger towards the spot. The image was still burned into his memory.
They stood in silence for a moment, remembering their fallen schoolmate before Ginny tugged on Harry’s hand. "Come on. We can’t change anything that happened in the past by standing here."
"Ginny’s right," Hermione said, taking a deep breath. "It’s the future we have some control over. Let’s go search the Riddle House."
Harry allowed the girls to lead him away, feeling bolstered by their confidence. They were right. He did have some control over the future for the rest of them. For once, he wasn’t completely dependant on anyone else.
As they approached the house, Harry kept a wary eye out for Goyle or any of Voldemort’s followers who might be watching the place. There was nothing. Traces of unblemished snow still surrounded the walkway up to the house. No one had entered this way, at least not since the last snowfall.
"It doesn’t look as if anyone’s been here in ages, Harry," Hermione said, sounding both relieved and disappointed.
"I know. We’ll check inside, anyway, but I don’t think it’s here," he replied.
Hermione raised her eyebrow but refrained from commenting.
Bracing his shoulder against the door, Harry shoved, and it easily opened as if it had been forced open many times in the past. Examining the doorjamb, he could see where it was splintered and frayed. It had obviously been repaired several times already. He could vaguely sense some kind of wards surrounding the house and instinctively knew they’d be unable to Disapparate from inside.
They entered to find the inside of the house nearly void of light. Dark wallpaper and heavy drapes completely dampened the afternoon sun and added to the creepy…haunted…feel of the place. Had they been innocent children, it was exactly the kind of house they would have hastily crossed the street to avoid walking past.
"Lumos," Hermione said, and the glow from the tip of her wand cast a shadow across the room. She crossed toward the light switch on the wall and flicked it upward, but nothing happened. "The power must have been turned off."
"Perfect," Ron said, his eyes quickly darting from side to side, seeking out any threat.
The others all lit their wands and fanned out across the room. A thick layer of dust covered the floor and furniture, and Harry absently wondered why the place hadn’t been sold. There was obviously no one still caring for it. He moved assuredly towards the stairs.
"Voldemort used a room upstairs," he whispered, uncertain why he felt the need to keep his voice so low.
"How do you know?" Ginny asked, also whispering.
"I saw it in a dream," he replied curtly. He found it rather unsettling to feel as if he was somehow returning to this house, even though he knew he’d never actually physically been there before.
Upstairs, the dust also thickly covered the floor, but Harry could distinguish vague, slithering strips where it wasn’t as thick – traces of Nagini’s presence. Memories of Voldemort murdering the Muggle who’d discovered him here filled Harry’s mind, and he suddenly didn’t want Ron to follow him into that room.
"Take the Spell Detector and look around downstairs. I’ll check the room up here," he said, placing his hand on Ron’s chest and handing him the glasses.
Ron shrugged, but took the Spell Detector and turned around. Hermione glanced at him suspiciously before following Ron down the stairs. Ginny, however, stayed with him.
"Why don’t you start at that end of the hall, and I’ll go this way?" he suggested, already knowing her answer.
"What good is that going to do? I can’t sense anything the way you can, and we’ve only got the one Spell Detector. It’s better to stay in pairs," Ginny said, frowning slightly.
Sighing, he began moving forward again, trying to shield her with his body. He didn’t know if she was aware of what he was trying to do, but suspected she was because she kept moving in different directions to examine various paintings on the wall, or peek inside an open room. He was practically bouncing off the walls, trying to stay in front of her. He gritted his teeth in frustration.
When they finally reached the room at the end of the hall, Harry was struck with a massive sense of déjà vu. It looked exactly how it had appeared in his dreams, right down to the large wing-backed chair in the center of the room.
Harry glanced around, peering into cracks, crevices and each corner and, although he found nothing, his nerves refused to settle. He suspected his apprehension had more to do with what had happened here in the past than any threat now, but he couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling. It made him very edgy, and he suspected his tenseness only increased Ginny’s anxiety. She stayed with him as he searched each room, although she walked around, peering behind portraits and moving trinkets on the shelves.
Neither of them spoke as they moved from room to room, and the hair on the back of Harry’s neck stood on end. There was something wrong about this house.
Finally, in the last room they searched, Harry tried to lighten the mood and ease Ginny’s tension by repeatedly poking her in the ribs each time he walked by. He could tell she was growing annoyed, but he could also see the laughter in her eyes.
"Harry, you’re being a prat," she said at last.
Harry grinned, blowing on a tabletop so a cloud of dust arose in their faces. "Am not," he replied childishly.
Shaking her head, Ginny returned to what she was doing, smiling lightly. The continued their search in silence once again.
"Find anything up there?" Ron’s voice shouted from the floor below, causing both Harry and Ginny to jump.
They grinned at each other self-consciously, silently promising never to let Ron know he’d startled them.
"Nah. There’s nothing," Harry called.
"This place gives me the creeps," Ron said,
Although Ron couldn’t see him, Harry nodded in agreement. He watched Ginny peering at several items atop an antique desk. Quietly slipping back into the room, he ducked behind the other side of the desk and poked his head up suddenly.
"Good evening," he said in his best imitation of a vampire voice that he’d heard on the Dursleys’ telly.
Ginny shrieked, jumping back and aiming her wand. "Sternumentum," she shouted, and Harry barely had time to raise a shield before a mass of fluttering winged creatures covered in slime slammed into the wall.
"Reducto," Ginny hissed, scrambling away as the desk blasted into pits, sending shards into the air.
Harry had to roll across the floor to escape injury.
"Ginny!" he shouted when she raised her wand again.
Wild-eyed and panting heavily, Ginny turned toward his voice, blinking in confusion. "Harry," she said weakly, slumping against the wall.
Harry stood up gingerly, brushing the dirt and debris off his clothing. "You tried to hex me," he said, dumbfounded.
He could hear Ron and Hermione’s pounding footsteps on the stairs. They entered the room, panicked, just as Ginny’s shock gave way to fury.
"What in Merlin’s name did you think you were doing? You scared me to death, Harry!" she shouted, once again brandishing her wand at him.
"You tried to hex me," he repeated, blinking.
"Do that again, and I’ll do more than try," Ginny snapped, finally putting her wand back in her pocket.
"What did you do?" Ron asked, uncertain whether he should be angry on Ginny’s behalf or outright laugh at Harry.
"He sneaked up on me and spoke in a different voice," Ginny said, scowling. "Nearly frightened me to death."
"Harry!" Hermione said reproachfully, wrapping her arm around Ginny’s shoulder.
"It was supposed to be a vampire voice," Harry whined.
Apparently unable to contain himself any longer, Ron threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"It isn’t funny, Ron," Ginny said, slapping him on the arm.
"Is so," Ron said when he was finally able to catch his breath, tears streaming from his eyes. "Ginny Weasley admits she was scared, and Harry Potter nearly gets done in by his own girlfriend on the same day. What’s not funny about that?" Ron asked, doubling over with laughter again.
Although she tried to hide it, Harry saw Hermione’s lips twitch.
"I wasn’t scared," Ginny said, color finally returning to her face. She raised her chin defiantly in the air. "He startled me, that’s all."
"That’s all," Harry said, biting the inside of his cheeks.
Hermione finally lost the battle, and she leaned against Ron as she giggled. "Merlin, Ginny. If you could have seen your face."
"Are we done here?" Ginny asked, scowling, two high points of color staining her cheeks.
"Yeah, there’s nothing here," Harry replied, schooling his features. "We’re back to square one."
"We’d better get back, then," Ginny said coldly. Turning on her heel, she left the room with her head high in the air.
"Damn. You’re in trouble now, mate," Ron said, still sniggering.
"Don’t I know it?" Harry mumbled, following behind Ginny.
Still giggling, Hermione said, "It really was a nasty trick, Harry."
As he descended the stairs, Harry was brought to his knees as a blinding pain suddenly shot through his head. His vision swam, and he doubled over, falling down the last half dozen stairs and crashing into Ginny at the bottom. He gripped the sides of his head in agony, unable to suppress his screams.
The pain in his head was intense; it felt as if the roots of his hair were on fire, burning from his scalp outward. He clawed at it, tugging out tufts of hair in an effort to stop the scorching intensity.
He could hear his friends shouting his name in the distance, but couldn’t get past the intense pressure in his skull. He felt a Dark presence within his mind, coiling around his thoughts and seeing through his own eyes. He tired to fight, to push the presence back, but it was too strong. Icy drops swirled in his head, clouding his thoughts and confusing him. He was so cold.
The snake in his mind flicked his eyes methodically on his location, intently studying the door and the surrounding room. Harry felt cold, calculating recognition dawn as a sickening sense of accomplishment filled his senses. With cold dispassion, he turned his slit-like eyes onto Ron, Hermione and Ginny’s panicked faces. It was the terror in his friends’ expressions, added to the feeling of the evil in his soul thrilling at their presence, that finally enabled Harry to push the Darkness from his mind. He felt it swirl in a whirlpool, receding slowly as if sliding down a drain.
The pain diminished slowly until only a dull headache remained, leaving Harry gasping on the floor. The palms of his hands were scraped and bleeding from trying to stop his fall, and his ankle felt strained beneath him.
"Harry," Ron said, shaking him slightly. "Wake up, Harry. Can you hear me?"
Harry groaned, his body aching. He wanted to drift into the sleep that beckoned, but Ron just wouldn’t let him. Dark shadows encroached upon the edge of his vision, threatening to overtake him completely.
"Harry, wake up," Hermione said slapping his face.
Groaning again, he pulled his face away and tried to open his eyes. They didn’t want to cooperate, and it took him several moments.
Blinking, he realized he was lying on the floor propped against Ron’s chest as his friend cradled him tightly. As if realizing Harry’s new awareness, Ron released his grip, although he continued to support Harry’s weight.
"You were thrashing like mad. I thought you were having a seizure," Ron said, sounding panicked.
"What happened, Harry?" Ginny asked, her face pale and tear-stained.
Harry furrowed his brow, confused. Suddenly, memory crashed over him like a tidal wave. "We have to get out of here," he cried, attempting to rise. He would have fallen again if Ron hadn’t caught him.
"Easy, mate. We’re going. Just catch your breath," Ron said.
"No! You don’t understand. He knows we’re here. Voldemort!" Harry gasped, scrambling for the door again. He had to get them out of here. He couldn’t lose anyone else.
Finally catching on to his urgency, Hermione jumped to her feet, pulling Ginny up beside her.
"Let’s go," she said, yanking open the door.
Ron pulled Harry to his feet and wrapped his arm around him.
"Hurry," Harry moaned.
When they were out on the porch, and Harry could see the graveyard at the bottom of the hill, the popping sounds of Apparation began to fill the air.
Both girls stood on the porch, their wands at the ready.
"Go! What are you waiting for?" he shouted.
He tried to clear his mind, to concentrate on the hills surrounding the gates at Hogwarts just outside of Hogsmeade, but he couldn’t get his mind to focus. A swirling mass of gray clouded his vision, darkening the sky.
He felt his knees give out, and his last thought before losing conscious was the fact he really would die in that God-forsaken graveyard after all.
A/N: Thanks so much to my beta, Sherylyn for keeping me focused and moving on this story. I’m in the midst of packing for a move in real life, so it’s nice to have this story for a bit of escapism.
To all my SIYE readers, my heartfelt thanks for the nominations and votes on the DSTA. They really do mean the world to me - and have let me know that I need more romance in this story ;)