Thanks, as always, to Chreechree, moshpit, Jonathan Avery, regdc, Parakletos, and Sherylyn.
21 July, 1997
It was brilliant seeing you earlier this month. You were right that it was just what we needed, and I'm honoured and relieved to be your boyfriend again. It was so hard to walk away from you at the funeral, but it was even harder to miss you for those first two weeks. I know that none of that was easy for you either, and I'm sorry that it had to happen at all. Now, I wish I could tell everyone that we're together again, because it's made me so happy, but that will have to come later. I keep telling myself the same thing, over and over — someday, 'later' will finally be here.
I know you'll worry about receiving a letter like this from Hedwig, but don't. I'm going to slip away from all of my minders so that I can Apparate to your shed again. Hedwig's agreed to let me Side-Along Apparate her, so she'll only be flying from the shed to the house and back, and no one will be able to intercept her in between. I wish I could wait for you to come out and see me in person. Being that close to you and not actually seeing you and touching you will be awful, but I just can't take the chance of getting caught any more often than is absolutely necessary.
I need your help, Ginny. You know that Ron, Hermione, and I are leaving to do something important. We both know why you can't come along, much as we'd both like that, but I need you to do a few other things for me. The three of us will need to live and travel in secret, and that's going to be difficult. I think I've found a way to do it, but I need help setting it up and testing it.
On Wednesday, Hedwig will bring you a package of Insta-Shrink Stickums and Lighter Than Air Stickups. I had to hunt through tons of catalogues to find them, but you probably know what they are already. Basically they're just adhesive patches that shrink anything they're stuck onto or make things nearly weightless. The charms only last for about eight hours, but that's enough. Hold on to those when they arrive, and keep them hidden from everyone else (including Ron and Hermione, for now).
Over the next week, packages will start to be delivered to that old shed at the far end of your paddock. They'll come from loads of different places, and all of the owls will be instructed to leave things there without waiting for someone to meet them. The biggest item will be a large trunk, and you can put the rest of the stuff inside. Please keep everything hidden somehow until my birthday. Then, on that day, Hedwig will come to The Burrow with a letter addressed to your whole family. It won't say anything very important, but that's not really the point.
Once Hedwig's there, use a set of the Stickums and Stickups to shrink the trunk with everything that's been delivered inside. Then give Hedwig the trunk, and she'll bring it to me as though it's a birthday present. If all goes well, I'll be in Ottery St. Catchpole that evening. Then I'll send Hedwig again to show you how to find me if you can get away, and that will be your real present to me.
I'd explain everything I'm doing, but it would take more parchment than I have right now. I promise you'll know everything about this arrangement once we can meet on my birthday. Don't tell anyone at all about this. I need to make sure it works before I decide who else I will trust with the secret.
Stay safe, Ginny. Please, stay safe.
Not long after two o'clock in the afternoon on Harry's seventeenth birthday, he spotted Hedwig soaring towards his bedroom window with a parcel dangling from her claws. As she flew into the room, she dropped the package into his waiting hands and then landed inside her open cage.
"Thanks, girl," he said as she snapped up one of the owl treats he had already put in the cage for her. "You've been fantastic today. That was the last of the long flights."
He unwrapped the paper around the parcel, and for just a moment he could smell the combination of flowers that his nose identified as Ginny. Shaking off a momentary stupor and idly scratching his jaw, he lifted the tiny chest out of the paper and set it in the middle of his floor.
He could not say why, but he had wanted this to be his first act of adult magic. For years, he had contemplated inflicting various petty torments on the Dursleys on his seventeenth birthday, but on that day he simply wanted to begin his journey. Un-Shrinking a package from Ginny seemed fitting.
When he was finished, an oversized grey trunk took up most of the available floor space in his cramped room. Spell-O-Taped to the front was a short note in familiar handwriting.
Everything is inside, and I took the liberty of arranging some of it. Consider yourself lucky (or unlucky) that I'm not in there, too. Once I saw what you had, I was sorely tempted.
I can't wait to see you again.
Smiling, he folded the note and pushed it into his pocket. The trunk's lid was latched but unlocked, and when he lifted it, he was faced with a shallow tray that matched the exterior. Resting in the tray, nestled in two precisely-sized indentations, were a set of keys and a scroll of parchment. Harry read that next.
Congratulations on purchasing a new, top-of-the-line Family Life 2010 travelling trunk! We're certain that you'll enjoy this fine product for many years to come.
Features on this model, in addition to the standard features of the Family Life line, include:
Comfort and Convenience options added at your request:
Chameleon option for exterior paint
Invisible, remote side-entrance
Convertible sliding ventilation panel in exterior lid
Security Options added at your request:
Confundus Charm with external on/off
Safe Life security chain with emergency homing Portkey
Details about all of the Family Life 2010's standard and optional features can be found in the User's Manual, which is located in the bedside table of the master bedroom.
Given the obscene cost of the trunk, the company had been happy to send Harry an extra copy of the user's manual via owl post, so he had already read it thoroughly. A quick scan of the key-ring let him know which key was which, and he inserted the residence key into the lock. When he closed the trunk and reopened it, he saw a ladder leading into the depths of the trunk.
Harry descended the ladder into an entryway containing several closed doors. He already knew which was which, so he reached for the door to the sitting room. Inside, he knew, he would find a small fireplace that did not require wood or produce smoke, a pair of identical sofas, an oak coffee table, and a matching set of bookcases.
Indeed, the room did contain those items as well as a few personal touches that were not options found in the catalogue. The two sofas had been moved from their default locations so that they formed a more open seating area in front of the fireplace. A vase of daisies rested on the coffee table next to a small stack of Quidditch Weekly magazines, and rectangles of cloth had been hung on the walls, suggesting the presence of nonexistent windows.
Shaking his head fondly, Harry went back to the entryway and quickly examined the two guest bedrooms. They were moderately sized, and each one contained a bed, a small desk with a chair, a bureau, and a large bookcase. One of the bedrooms already had a few small books on the shelves, and the other was decorated with slightly battered Quidditch posters.
Moving on, Harry found the kitchen well-stocked, though he knew that most of the supplies had been provided by Family Life. The large plate of biscuits on the counter, however, was surely a Weasley product. Next door, the main bathroom was clean and functional, and a small cupboard was filled with towels and spare linens.
The last door from the entryway led to the master bedroom, and Harry entered it eagerly, looking forward to the things he expected to find inside. A large four-poster bed dominated the room, and two armoires occupied one wall. Matching bedside tables stood on either side of the bed, and another vase of flowers decorated the table on the left. An old but serviceable owl perch stood in one corner, already stocked with a full bowl of water and a dish of bacon scraps. A hand-woven afghan was draped over the back of the nondescript armchair in the far corner.
Harry paused at the sight of the green and blue afghan. He did not know when or where Ginny had originally acquired it, but he remembered it from his very first visit to The Burrow, just after his twelfth birthday. During each of his visits since and even during their time at Grimmauld Place, he had spotted her curled up on the sofa after dinner a few times each week, wrapped in that afghan as she read or talked or fell asleep in front of the fire. At the end of every evening, she carried it back up to her room with her, and he had never seen it used by anyone but Ginny.
Resolving not to change that record, Harry opened the nearer armoire, and in the hanging space he found his immediate goal. A lurid suit, vertically striped in pink and white, hung inside. It was even more atrocious in person than he had expected. In a neat row next to it were six crisp, white shirts and a collection of empty hangers. On the shelf above was a bowler hat to match the suit, and in the bottom of the hanging area was a pair of odd white shoes. Another short note was pinned to the front of the suit jacket.
This explanation of yours had better be really good.
Chuckling, Harry closed the armoire. He started to leave the room, but when his eyes again fell on the afghan, he paused. Acting on a hunch, he pulled open the second armoire.
A set of dark green women's robes hung in the precise centre of the space, and Harry immediately recognised Ginny's robes from the Yule Ball. They were almost antique, and he was quite certain that they would no longer fit her without magical modification, but Harry knew that they were still the nicest clothes Ginny owned. An even shorter note was tied to the hanger with a scrap of scarlet ribbon.
He reached out and ran his fingertips down the long sleeve of the dress. If he closed his eyes and concentrated on her smell lingering in the room, he could almost imagine that her arm was in that sleeve. Someday, he promised himself, it would be. Later.
Harry crossed to the bed out of a sense of thoroughness and pulled aside the burgundy curtains. The bed was covered with a duvet and matching decorative pillows. A split-second later, his gaze shifted to a contraption of crimson fabric and lace resting near the left-hand pillow.
The idea of Ginny's bra being anywhere near his bed, with or without its occupants, sent a variety of sensations flooding through his mind and body. All of them were quite pleasurable, but most of them were not entirely polite.
As he stared at the undergarment on his bed and tried not to let his imagination completely run away with him, he could not help laughing out loud. The notes and the decorations broadcast Ginny's influence for all to see, but her bra resting innocently on his bed was every bit as much a reflection of her as those more conventional touches.
He picked up the delicate garment and ran his thumb along the inside of one of the cups. Or, perhaps, he thought to himself, this is more of an impression than a reflection. Idly, he turned the bra around and studied the fastened clasp. After a moment's scrutiny, he opened it easily. Good to know.
Still chuckling, he opened 'his' armoire again and tucked Ginny's bra into a pocket of the striped suit. Then he walked into the en suite lavatory. The room was slightly larger than the other lavatory, with a longer counter and a matching mirror. When he opened the drawer next to the sink, he found a small, white box and lifted it out.
Harry still could not believe that it had taken him six years to realise that wizards and witches might have some equivalent to Muggle contacts. Once he had the idea, the product was easy to find, and they were precisely what he wanted. The contacts in his hand could be left transparent or changed to any of twenty colours with a simple twist of the canister, and they magically adjusted to give the wearer perfect vision.
This was the one step of his plan that he was not sure he would have time for later. Quickly, he changed the colour of the contacts to a medium brown, and then he began the arduous and slightly painful process of getting the contacts into his eyes properly. Fifteen minutes later, when he finally finished, he looked into the mirror. The brown lenses were closer to Hermione's cinnamon colour than Ginny's rich, dark brown, but his eyes were far from their normal distinctive green, and that was all he really cared about. Looking at Ginny's eyes staring out of his face might have been very distracting, anyway.
There were many other things he needed to do to complete his disguise, but he could do nothing else until he had escaped from Privet Drive and the eyes of his many watchers. Harry glanced at his watch. In another fifteen minutes, Mundungus Fletcher would begin his shift as Harry's minder from the Order. He had not been able to identify everyone who watched him, but the slimy thief, whose smell gave him away quite easily, was always on duty during weekday afternoons.
Harry left the bedroom and climbed back out of the trunk. Quickly, he checked the contents of the trunk's other compartments, finding everything he needed present and neatly arranged. He thanked Ginny once again in his mind. Leaving the trunk open to the living space, Harry gathered his clothes and other belongings, including the birthday presents that had arrived with Pigwidgeon that morning. Most things he simply dropped into the entryway, but some of the more precious or fragile items he carried by hand.
The last objects to go inside were Hedwig's cage and his old trunk. Now, the only unusual things left in the smallest bedroom were Hedwig, the huge grey trunk, and Harry himself. With a flick of his wand, Harry shrank the trunk back down to the size of a loaf of bread. "All right, Hedwig," he said. "You know where to take this. I'll meet you there in a while."
The owl clucked and carried the tiny trunk away in her talons. For the seventh time, Harry checked to make sure that his Invisibility Cloak was securely tucked into one of the oversized pockets of Dudley's old trousers.
At three fifteen, he rose from his bed and went downstairs. He had considered saying some sort of farewell to his relatives, but, in the end, he had decided that they would all be happiest if he simply left. So, without a glance into the living room, he strode out through the front door. Almost immediately, he detected Mundungus' uniquely stale aroma, and he suspected that the older wizard was following him. As he walked towards the play park, he spotted a few adults who looked vaguely out-of-place. Weeks ago, he had worked out that these were Aurors sent by the Ministry to watch his relatives' home. Whenever he left it on a walk, he did not see them move, but somehow the same people showed up ahead of him on whatever path he chose, still innocently reading a magazine or walking their dogs.
Harry walked past the park to a small café. The front door was open, so he walked in and chose a table near a window. He ordered a modest meal and ate it in silence. After leaving some of his Muggle money on the table, he rose and walked casually into the men's lavatory. The door shut behind him, and he sprang into action. Using the sink and his hands, Harry splashed water on the tile floor in front of the single stall in the lavatory. He crossed back to the door and waited there until he heard Dung's shuffling feet on the floor outside. Then, Harry flushed the toilet, ran the sink for a few moments, and pulled a few inches off of the roll of cheap paper towels.
As quietly as he could, Harry pulled the Invisibility Cloak out of his pocket and threw it over himself. He tiptoed to the side of the door and waited, hoping that his breathing was not as loud as he thought it was.
After a few minutes, the door opened slightly, but Harry could not see anyone moving it. A moment later, the door slowly opened fully. Grudgingly, Harry admitted to himself that Mundungus seemed to at least know how to move silently. Undoubtedly, he had plenty of practice from burgling magical homes.
The door began to swing shut, but Harry reached out and caught it. When the puddles of water in front of the toilet stall were disturbed by something unseen, he turned and slipped out through the lavatory door. As quietly and quickly as he could, Harry crossed the restaurant and went back out onto the street.
The Order knew that Harry had an Invisibility Cloak, but as far as he could determine, the Ministry did not. He walked past one of the Aurors he had seen before, and the stout man did not react at all. Satisfied for the moment, Harry picked up his pace and entered the wooded area at one end of the play park. Under a large tree with drooping branches, he found Hedwig standing on the ground next to his new trunk.
"Brilliant, Hedwig," Harry whispered. "Do you want to fly to Ottery St. Catchpole or Apparate with me?" Silently, the owl hopped towards him. "All right. You'll have to hide in the trunk for a while, but there's plenty of space. Ginny's made you a place in the bedroom."
Harry had considered Apparating directly to Devon after escaping his minders, but after much debate he had decided that it would be foolish to miss the opportunity to test his disguise with the Aurors in Little Whinging. With that thought in mind, he returned the trunk to its normal size and activated the chameleon feature. Over a period of a few seconds, the exterior colour shifted to a mixture of greens and browns that blended in with the surrounding trees. The trunk was not at all invisible, but it would be difficult to spot from more than a few yards away. The Confundus Charm automatically engaged with the camouflage, making the trunk subtly aversive to anyone who was not within a few feet of the trunk when the charm was activated.
Harry opened the living compartment and waved Hedwig inside. From the top of the ladder, he pulled the lid closed over his head and then went back into the master suite. Hedwig had found her perch and was happily snapping up bits of hours-old bacon. Smiling for two of the girls in his life, Harry returned to the lavatory.
The next step in his escape and concealment was the one he feared the most. If this did not work the way he thought it would, Ginny might very well strangle him herself, and he would be in no position to blame her. Sighing, he raised his wand.
Less than a minute later, Harry was completely bald. The newly-revealed skin of his scalp tingled in the cool air of the room, and it was several shades paler than the rest of him, but he hoped it would darken naturally before too long. Pushing aside his worry about Ginny's reaction, he turned his attention and his wand to his face. After three weeks without shaving, he had a respectable if unattractive growth of black hair all over his face and neck. Careful application of his wand rid him of most of the mess, leaving only a small goatee surrounding his mouth and chin. Finally, with a moment's concentration, Harry transfigured his eyebrows and beard to a honey colour. He was sure that Luna, at least, would approve.
Harry shed his normal clothes and pulled the pink-striped outfit out of the armoire. He was happy to find that everything fit properly, though the inch-high soles of the white shoes would take a while to get used to. Finally, he placed the striped bowler on his head and returned to the mirror in the lavatory.
No one, he decided, could possibly mistake him for Harry Potter. He was an inch taller and bald, with brown eyes and a blonde beard. The round hat hid his scar completely, and he was dressed in clothes that Harry Potter would never consider wearing. Well, perhaps almost never.
To complete the outfit, Harry put on a pair of thin white gloves from the pocket of his jacket. The soft garment in the other pocket was far more interesting, but it would have to wait a bit longer to see the light of day. He could not deny that the idea put a certain spring in his step as he exited the trunk.
Outside, he closed the lid on the living space and opened it on the empty storage area. Harry lifted out the convenience tray and set it on the grass at his feet. With a few taps and flicks of his wand, he deepened the tray and added a collection of partitions, so that it now resembled a very large and complex utensil tray. That done, he reopened the trunk to the freezer compartment. Inside were boxes containing ice-lollies of many flavours and colours. Quickly, he sorted a few of each into the modified tray, so that each flavour had its own place. Then he lifted the entire tray into the top of the freezer compartment, knowing that the charms below would keep the ice-cream frozen while the trunk was closed.
After lowering the lid, Harry tapped it with his wand to convert the plain lid into the two-part configuration with a sliding ventilation panel. Then he set to work on the trunk itself. The customisable paint was tricky, but after a few minutes he had the body of the trunk striped in pink and white to match his outfit. He chose a grey colour for the lid, though it did not look as metallic as he had hoped it would. Another tap of his wand deployed the picnic shade, which he also charmed to match his suit, though he did not unfurl it. Finally, he activated the Easy-Push kit, completing the trunk's transformation into a rolling, brightly-coloured cart.
Harry took a deep breath, steeling himself, and pushed the cart out from under the trees and onto a nearby path. He raised the umbrella-shaped shade by hand and then set out along the path with unhurried steps. "Ice-lollies!" he called, trying to sound more like Hagrid than Harry. "Come an' get yer ice-lollies!"
Almost immediately, a young brown-haired girl approached, pulling her mother along by the hand. "'Hello there, miss," Harry said cheerfully. "Wha' can I get fer yeh?"
"What flavours have you got?" the girl asked excitedly.
"Wha' haven' I got?" he replied, sliding open the panel in the lid of the trunk. "Have a look, then. Seventeen to choose from!"
The child stepped right up to the edge of the trunk so that she could see over the side, and her eyes widened at the array of sugary treasure displayed a few inches beneath her nose. After a few moments, she pointed firmly to a lolly in a red and white wrapper. "That one! I want that one!"
"Good choice, miss," Harry said. "Strawberries an' cream. Favourite o' mine, too." He glanced up at the girl's mother. "Is that alrigh' with yer mum?"
The woman nodded and pulled a pound coin out of her purse. Within minutes, the small girl was happily devouring her treat, and Harry was pushing his cart further along the path.
Over the next half hour, he made several sales to Muggle children and their parents. To his surprise, banana was the most popular flavour that day, rather than the chocolate he had expected. The money would never come close to offsetting the cost of the entire project, but the sales conveniently replenished his store of Muggle currency. As he worked, he watched the Aurors in the park become more agitated, walking around and peering behind benches, bins, and trees as though searching for something.
When he passed near one of the Aurors, he stopped his cart. "'Scuse me. You need help or summat?"
The blonde woman, whom he had never actually met, looked up and approached him. "Err… I'm looking for a friend, actually. He's seventeen with black hair and glasses. Around six feet tall."
"Dresses like he can't afford much?" Harry asked, stifling his own laughter. The Auror nodded. "Aye, I've seen th' lad a few times over th' years. I jus' got started fer the summer today, though, an' I haven' seen 'im yet."
"Oh. Well, if you see him, please let me know."
"Will do," Harry said, nodding. "Care fer a cold treat on a hot day? Seventeen to choose from."
"Err… no, thanks."
"Suit yerself, then."
Fighting a grin, Harry pushed his cart along the path again. If he could talk to a Ministry Auror face-to-face without raising any suspicion, then his disguise just might work.
When traffic began to pick up on the surrounding streets, Harry made his way to the edge of the park and back into the shade of the trees. When he was out of sight, he tapped his trunk to remove the shade, handle, and wheels. Then he took a deep breath, concentrated on the three D's, and turned sharply in place. When he opened his eyes, he recognised the back of the abandoned shed near The Burrow. Silently, he thanked the Aurors in Surrey for keeping the Ministry from noticing one more Apparition from the play park.
Using the proper key, Harry opened the living space in the trunk. "Hedwig!" he called softly. A few seconds later, his faithful owl flew out of the trunk and landed on the shed. "Bring Ginny for me, would you? Don't let anyone else see you."
Hedwig looked reproachfully down her beak at him, but she flew off towards The Burrow without further protest. Confident that he was out of sight, Harry redeployed the picnic shade and the Easy-Push kit. Then he sat on top of the closed trunk and waited.
Half an hour later, Hedwig reappeared on top of the shed. Harry heard cautious footsteps in the grass, and then Ginny walked around from the side of the old building with her wand drawn. An instant after she spotted him, that wand was centred on his heart, and Harry smiled.
She wore a pair of Fred's old jeans with the cuffs turned up. They had never really fit her properly, but Harry was quite fond of them. A green tank-top revealed the creamy skin of her shoulders and neck, and her hair was pulled back into one long, practical plait. This was definitely Ginny.
She looked him over for a few long moments, her wand never wavering, and then her eyes met his. Finally, she lowered her hand and spoke in a quiet, amused voice. "Harry, you are the ugliest, most wonderful thing I've ever seen."
Harry's smile widened, and he hopped off of the trunk. As soon as his feet touched the ground, Ginny rushed forward, and a moment later she was wrapped in his arms.
He had always been amazed by the things he felt when they embraced like this. He had expected to find himself focusing on the press of her breasts against his ribs or the curve of her waist under his hands. The first few times, he had certainly noticed those things, but after only two weeks as a couple at Hogwarts, he had found his attention wandering. Now, he appreciated the pressure of her cheek against his breastbone, the softness of her hair under his chin, and the welcoming feeling of her arms around his waist.
"Missed you," he said into her hair.
"You, too," she replied, not relaxing from their embrace in the slightest. After another minute, she shifted her body to lean up towards him, and he lowered his mouth to hers eagerly. Their kiss quickly became more heated, and his hands did find their way to her slim hips. For her part, Ginny slid her palms up his chest, over his shoulders, and around to the back of his neck. Her clever fingers were creeping further upwards when she jerked away from his lips.
Scowling, Ginny pulled the hat off of his head. "Harry James Potter! What on earth did you do to yourself?"
"Err… it's part of the disguise," he said, keeping his hands on her waist and noticing that she did not pull any further away. "I'm pretty sure I can grow it back overnight if I want to."
"You'd better be able to," she muttered. Then, tentatively, she reached up again and ran her fingers over his smooth scalp, causing gooseflesh to creep down his arms. Ginny rubbed his head and finally giggled. "I like your hair better, but I have to admit that this has its own appeal."
He smiled ruefully. "Different, isn't it? I decided that I had to do something drastic to complete the disguise."
"It worked," she said, nodding and replacing his hat. "I'm not sure I'd have recognised you except that I sent you that ridiculous outfit."
"Speaking of which…" Harry grinned and reached into his pocket to pull out her red bra. "I think you left something."
Her return smile was enough to make the blood pound through his veins. The alluring twist to Ginny's lips and the smouldering look in her eyes transformed her from a beautiful almost-sixteen-year-old girl into a mysterious, enchanting creature that could only be called a woman.
"Oops," she whispered throatily.
Harry smiled down at her, and he watched her nostrils flare as she inhaled sharply. "Is that for later, also, then?"
"Perhaps a bit later than later, but yes."
"I worked out the clasp."
With her bra still in her hand, Ginny leaned back up to kiss him again. Several minutes later, they broke apart breathlessly. Ginny re-tucked the back of her shirt, and Harry buttoned his collar properly.
"I feel a bit scandalous," Ginny said, smirking at him through her lashes. "It's like kissing a very familiar stranger. One who's wearing a ratty carpet glued to his chin."
Harry chuckled. "So long as you kiss him, he doesn't mind what you think of his chin. It itches, anyway."
Ginny stretched up to peck his lips again in affirmation, and then she stepped back to a more comfortable range for conversation. "So," she said, "you're a street vendor?"
"Yep." He turned and slid open the lid of the trunk to reveal the freezer compartment. "Care fer a treat, miss? Seventeen to choose from."
"Did you have to order the cola-flavoured ones, though? Those things are gross." Shaking her head and laughing, she pulled the lid closed again. "That explains almost everything I didn't understand already."
Harry chuckled. "I'd offer you a tour, but you've already seen it all, and…"
"And if I go in there one more time, I may not be able to force myself out again," she finished, her face becoming more serious.
"Yeah," he said quietly. He stared out into the trees for a moment and then turned back to meet her eyes. "Thanks, Ginny. For… everything." He could not find the words to tell her that she had added hope to his odd, rolling hideaway, but he suspected that she already knew.
"You're welcome, Harry. You only had to ask."
He nodded, smiling warmly. "I can hide in the village for a while, testing out the disguise. If it works there, it should be fine everywhere else."
"That's a good idea," she replied. "I think I may develop a renewed appreciation for ice-lollies. I'll bring along Ron and Hermione, so we can see how good the disguise really is."
"Perfect. I'll tell them as soon as we feel confident that the whole thing might work."
Ginny tilted her head thoughtfully. "This isn't going to fit in for more than another month or two, you know."
"You're right," he said, nodding. "The ice-cream is temporary, but it's the idea that really matters. There's always someone peddling something from a cart, isn't there? I just need different outfits and props for the trunk."
"Okay, as long as you've thought about it."
"Oh, speaking of which…" Harry leaned over and opened the side compartment that contained the trunk's Safe Life security chain. "I don't know if you had a chance to read all about the trunk, but this chain has a homing device. It's pretty stout all by itself, but if it's ever broken or removed from the trunk, a Portkey automatically sends the entire trunk to a different location."
He pulled out a single, separate link of the thick chain. "It goes wherever this link happens to be. Keep it safe for me?"
She took the heavy loop of metal and pushed it into one of the pockets in her jeans. "Of course."
"Keep yourself safe for me?" he asked again in a quiet voice, reaching out to hold her hands in his.
She nodded slowly. "I said I'd do my best."
"I know, Ginny. I just… it's reassuring to hear." He pulled her towards him, and she leaned against his shoulder as they both stared off into the woods, contemplating the past and the future. After several minutes of silence, Harry stopped rubbing her back and cleared his throat. "I should get going. I need to find a place in the village to park the trunk before it gets dark."
"All right," she said. "There's a delivery road between the grocer's and the next building. It's out of the way, but it's clean. That might be a good place."
"I'll try it. Thanks."
Ginny nodded and leaned up to kiss him again. "Be careful, Harry," she said when she had released his lips. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"I will, and I can't wait."
"If something goes wrong, can you get back to the house quickly?"
"Yeah," he said. "I can activate that Portkey from inside or outside the trunk."
"Good." She hugged him one more time. "Sweet dreams, Harry."
He grinned down at her. "See you there, Ginny."
Smiling, and with the faintest hint of colour in her cheeks, Ginny turned and began walking back towards The Burrow, still carrying her bra in one hand. Harry watched the sway of her hips until she was out of sight, and then he began pushing his cart over the rough ground between the shed and the path to the village so as to remain out of sight of the house.
He found the street next to the grocer's without much difficulty, and it was almost perfect for his purposes. The narrow street ran alongside the building, and halfway along its length there was a large bay where lorries could park while delivering goods to the store. He left the cart on the street next to a rubbish skip, a few yards from that bay, with the accessories retracted and the chameleon charm in place. He wrapped the security chain around a lamp post, and then he activated the remote entrance.
From the outside, the Family Life 2010's "side entrance" felt like nothing more than an invisible string with a large, invisible rectangular board at the far end. Harry carried it into the bay, where he could be positive he was unseen before entering or leaving the trunk. In the corner, he dropped the rectangular piece flat on the ground and felt along its invisible surface. With his fingertips, he could tell that what initially felt like a board was actually a trapdoor mounted in a frame. Hooking one finger into a small hole in the door, he pulled it away from the frame. The interior side of the door was plainly visible, and in the opening he saw the beginning of a small tunnel. The tunnel, he knew, was actually the inside of the invisible string.
A familiar clicking made him look up. Hedwig was perched on the side of the building above him, and when he stepped away from the door, she flew down and into the trunk. When she was safely inside, Harry dropped through the entrance and closed the door above his head. Then, by the light of the wand, he walked a few dozen yards until he reached a full-sized door which opened into the entryway of the trunk's living space.
"Home, sweet home," he said to Hedwig as they both went into the bedroom. After an evening of organising the things he had dropped into the entryway while at Privet Drive and making sure he was ready for the next day, Harry lay down on the right side of his bed and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, Harry pushed his cart through the middle of Ottery St. Catchpole until he found the local park. There, he began making circuits, selling a few items and learning the layout of the park and the surrounding portions of the village. Occasionally, he left the park and found a hidden place to replenish the supply of treats in the tray, though he never sold very many of the pineapple or blackcurrant lollies. Fortunately, he had ordered enough of all of the flavours to last for months, at the current rate, and he was sure that Ron would eat whatever was left when this particular guise was no longer useful.
He ate lunch at a small café, paying with some of the morning's earnings. Around mid-afternoon, he was once again walking the length of the park when he spotted Ginny, Ron, Hermione, and Bill strolling towards him. He stopped in the shade of a tree. "Ice-lollies, come an' get yer ice-lollies!"
His friends were too far away to hear him, but he was sure that Ginny had already spotted him, so he was giving himself a reason to stay in one place. As usual when he stopped and shouted, it did not take long for a child and his mother to approach for a purchase. By the time the two satisfied Muggles walked away, the witches and wizards were close enough for Harry to overhear Hermione's emphatic voice.
"Why aren't you worried?" she was asking Ginny. "He may be of age, but he can't just wander off on his own! There are…" the bushy-haired girl glanced around the park quickly. "There are all sorts of bad things that could happen to him."
Ginny stopped and faced her friend, and the two Weasley boys halted also. With an almost imperceptible glance in Harry's direction, Ginny addressed the older girl in a calm voice. "Hermione, I'm not worried because it's Harry. He's not stupid, and he's not nearly as reckless as he used to be. Can you honestly think of anyone we know who's better suited to survive on their own? I think he knows exactly what he's doing, and I'd bet Ron's broomstick that he's going to pull it off."
Harry turned away and smiled. Ginny amazed him, and her confidence only strengthened his own resolve.
"You really think so, Ginny?" Hermione asked. "You… I think you might know him better than we do these days, at least in some ways, and if you think he's all right…"
"I'm as sure of it as if I were looking at him right now," Ginny reassured her.
"Well, all right, then. If you're not worried, then I suppose I don't have any right to worry, either."
"Sure you do, Hermione," Ron said. "If you didn't, we'd know you were an impostor."
The group began moving again, and Harry repeated his call. "Ice-lollies, come an' get yer ice-lollies!"
Ginny's head snapped around almost comically, and her face lit up when she looked at him. "Ice-cream!" she said excitedly, suddenly every inch a fifteen-year-old. "I'm glad I brought the right sort of money." Ginny practically skipped down the path towards Harry and his garish cart.
"What'll yeh have, miss? Raspberry? Maybe orange?" Harry asked, sliding open the top of his trunk to reveal the sweets arrayed inside.
Ron, Bill, and Hermione caught up with Ginny, but none of them seemed to pay much attention to Harry. Bill wore a comfortable grin, Ron was rolling his eyes, and Hermione joined Ginny in peering at the treats.
"What's this brown and green one?" Ginny asked. "I like brown and green."
"Mint choc'late, miss," Harry said. "It's my favourite, actually."
"That sounds wonderful," she said rapturously. "How much?"
Harry grinned. "No charge fer th' prettiest girl in th' village."
Bill and Ron stiffened simultaneously, and both men turned a wary eye on Harry. Hermione noticed their reaction and huffed loudly.
"Oh, I couldn't just take it," Ginny said, rolling her eyes when she knew the others could not see her face.
"Well, to tell th' truth, miss, it's almos' time fer me to go an' restock, y'see, and tha' one's gettin' close to meltin'. So it's no loss to me."
"Well, thank you," she replied, picking up the treat and removing the wrapper. She closed her eyes and slowly licked the ice-lolly from one end to the other. "Oh, my," she said breathily. "That's amazing."
Harry swallowed heavily and tore his gaze away from Ginny. Bill and Ron each looked even more hostile, but Hermione merely looked puzzled. To Harry's surprise, as soon as his gaze landed on Hermione, Ron moved over to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her. The youngest Weasley boy was several inches taller than Harry, even with his special shoes, and Harry had to admit that his best friend was truly intimidating with his arms folded across his chest. A few feet away, Bill was less physically imposing, but the look in his eyes was even more dangerous.
Restraining his mirth, Harry looked up at Ron. "Somethin' fer yer luverly girlfriend, sir? She looks like she could use somethin' sweet, an' all."
Ron's stern expression collapsed, and his eyes darted to Hermione, who was studying the grass at her feet. A quick glance at Ginny told Harry that the redhead was hiding her smile behind the wrapper of her ice-lolly.
"Err… she's not…" Ron began. Then he straightened and turned to Hermione. "Want anything, Hermione?"
The brunette's eyes widened for a moment, but she reached out and pointed to a cherry lolly. "Those look quite good."
Harry handed her the treat and looked expectantly at Ron.
"Is that one melting, too?" his friend asked.
"Nope. Sorry, mate," Harry said, smirking. "Cherry lasts a bit longer. One quid."
"Err…" Ron floundered, and Harry knew that he did not have any Muggle money, nor did he even know the slang term for pounds sterling.
Bill reached into his pocket and stepped forward. With a loud smack, he slapped the money down on the edge of Harry's cart. "We'll settle up later, Ron," the long-haired man said. "C'mon, Ginny, let's go."
Still scowling faintly, Bill walked away down the path. Hermione followed him, unwrapping her ice-lolly, and Ron walked behind her.
"Good luck with your restocking," Ginny said, giving him another sly smile and a tiny wave before she jogged away to catch up with Bill. Harry knuckled the brim of his hat in return before pushing his cart down the street in the other direction.
For the next two days, Ginny somehow managed to get Ron, Hermione, and Bill to accompany her to the village. She always found Harry, and she always ordered the same mint chocolate treat. Harry never let her pay, which infuriated Bill and Ron more and more each day. Harry knew that it did not help that he and Ginny flirted shamelessly. Still, neither of them was inclined to stop, and none of their three friends seemed to suspect who Harry was at all. In fact, they always seemed to be talking about finding him, which made it much harder to maintain his expression.
As the quartet prepared to leave on the fourth day, Ginny leaned over the cart to whisper to him. "Go to the grocer's to restock at three tomorrow afternoon?" Harry wrenched his eyes up from the v-neck of her shirt in time to catch her smirk, and then he nodded.
At the appointed time, Harry pushed his cart along the street in front of the grocer's. Just as he was about to turn into the narrow side-street, he heard Ginny's voice from behind him.
"Look! It's the ice-cream man!" she cried happily.
Harry stopped and turned around. Ginny was striding quickly towards him, and the other three were trailing behind her by some distance. Bill and Ron were already scowling thunderously, and Hermione was wearing a very familiar look of patience.
"Are you restocking now?" Ginny asked when she reached him. With her back to the others, she smiled broadly and winked.
"Yes, miss," Harry said as the rest of the group caught up with her.
"We'll come with you," she announced. "I want a mint chocolate lolly that isn't about to melt."
Without allowing any time for objections, Ginny led the way down the footpath.
"Ginny —" Bill began.
"Come on, Bill. It's just ice-cream."
Harry did not turn to see the Weasley brothers and Hermione, but he heard them all follow as he and Ginny started down the side-street. When they reached the alcove, Harry and Ginny stopped and turned to face their friends.
"What do you need to restock back here?" Bill asked, putting his hand into his pocket. Beside him, Ron did the same, and even Hermione scowled suspiciously.
"Oh, come on, Bill," Ginny said. "Ron's supposed to be the thick one, not you. Even he's not that thick."
"What are you talking about?" Ron asked.
"Six years at Hogwarts, dozens of classes, hours of Charms, Transfiguration, and Defence… even the same ruddy tower. Didn't you learn anything?"
"Ginny!" Hermione hissed. "You shouldn't talk about… those things!"
The younger girl rolled her eyes. "Hermione, stop. You're the smartest person I've ever met. Think. Do you honestly believe that I would discuss magic in front of a Muggle? Does that sound like me at all?"
Hermione scowled slightly, but she shook her head.
"Right," Ginny said firmly. "So what does that mean?"
"He's not a Muggle," Hermione said.
"Now you're on the right track. Same idea again… you know me. You know precisely what my life has been like for the last three months. Do you think I would act this way around anyone, Muggle or magical, if I didn't have absolute trust in him?"
Hermione's eyes widened, and she began looking back and forth between Ginny and Harry. "No, definitely not."
"And, therefore… ?"
"Incredible," Hermione breathed, staring directly at Harry.
"Hermione?" Ron said. "What the hell is going on?"
Next to him, Bill looked as though he was finally figuring things out, but Ron was clearly still clueless.
"Oh, for Merlin's sake, Ron," Ginny said in exasperation. Then she sighed. "Since I was ten years old, one thing has been constant. One thing, in spite of everything else that's happened. Watch closely."
Ginny turned, wrapped her arms around Harry's neck, and kissed him fervently. He was more than willing to reciprocate, and they spent the better part of a minute completely ignoring the rest of the world.
"Oi! Get your bloody hands off my sister's bum, Potter!" Ron cried.
Harry tried to ignore his friend's shout and continue kissing Ginny, but within moments they were both laughing too hard to keep their lips in contact. They broke apart, gasping for breath, with tears of mirth pooling in their eyes.
Ron wore the expression of pleased outrage that he had invented and mastered during their last month at Hogwarts, and Bill's grin was a welcome sight. Hermione smiled broadly, shook her head, and stepped forward to give Harry a tight hug.
"You're insane, you know," she said fondly. Backing up a step, she looked him over and sighed. "I can't even ask how you've been, because I've seen you every day since you disappeared."
Harry nodded. "Surprise."
"Where have you been living?" Hermione asked.
"Well, that's why you're here, actually," Harry said. He parked the trunk in its usual spot and reconfigured it to be as hidden as possible. Then he carried the remote entrance around the corner, opened it, and waved the group into the tunnel. "Come on in."
Ron stepped forward, eager and curious, and started into the tunnel. After a reassuring nod from Harry, Hermione followed the red-haired boy.
Bill moved to the edge of the trapdoor, but he stopped and looked up at Ginny, who was biting her lip as she looked at the entrance. "Coming, Ginny?"
After a moment's hesitation, she nodded. "Just this once," she said, her eyes flicking to Harry. He nodded his understanding.
When they reached the parlour, Hermione stopped and stared around the room. "This is amazing. How did you do all of this?"
"Ginny did most of it, actually," Harry said. "I ordered everything, and she gathered it and set it up. Then she sent it to me with Hedwig on my birthday."
They went back out to the entryway, and Harry gestured at the various doors. "Those two are spare bedrooms. They came with the trunk. That's the ladder to the lid, and that's the bathroom. Here, this is the kitchen."
They filed into the kitchen, and Ron immediately pulled open the icebox. "Let's see… ugh, Harry. Pre-packaged meals?"
"It beats nothing, but they're really only there in case I don't have other options. I usually eat at a café or at the pub."
Ron nodded. "So, that's two weeks of food, a case of Butterbeer, and… what the hell is this?"
He held up a wine bottle to examine the label, and Hermione glanced around his shoulder. "Merlin's Muscadine Merlot?" she asked. "That doesn't sound like something you'd like, Harry."
"It isn't," he replied. "That came with the trunk, too."
Harry led them into the master bedroom next, and Ron, Hermione, and Bill wandered around looking at the furnishings. When they were all occupied, Ginny caught Harry's attention and then looked meaningfully at the second armoire, raising her eyebrows in question. 'Locking charm,' he mouthed. She smiled slightly and nodded.
"This is really impressive, Harry," Hermione said, returning from the bathroom. "I have to ask, though… if the only other rooms are spare bedrooms, where do you do the washing? The sinks are rather small, and I haven't seen a washtub anywhere."
"Oh, err… well, I haven't… that is…" Harry trailed off, and his eyes inadvertently flicked to the space under the bed.
"You haven't done any washing at all, have you?" Ginny asked pointedly.
"Just Scourgify on the suit," he said with a slight blush.
Ginny sighed and rolled her eyes. She dropped to her hands and knees, and then she swept four days' worth of clothes out from under the bed. "Shrink them, Harry," she ordered, picking up one sock and holding it away from the pile.
Blushing, Harry did as he was told. Once his clothes had been reduced to the size of playing cards, Ginny picked them all up and stuffed them into the sock she was holding. "Hedwig," she said, looking over at the perch in the corner. "Could you take this to my room at The Burrow, please? You can bring it back tomorrow."
Hedwig clicked her beak twice and flew across the room to snatch the stuffed sock out of Ginny's hand with her beak. When the owl had settled onto Ginny's shoulder, she turned to face her brothers and Hermione. The bushy-haired witch was smiling gently, and the two Weasleys were watching Ginny with expressions that Harry could not interpret.
"Well?" Ginny asked them. "Do you have something to say?"
Bill's face shifted into a grin that was only slightly marred by his scarring. "Nope. Not a word. Right, Ron?"
"Good. I need to go open the lid for Hedwig. Want to come along, Bill? I can show you the other compartments."
The eldest Weasley nodded, and the two siblings and Hedwig left the room. As she passed through the doorway, Ginny looked over her shoulder, met Harry's eyes, and tilted her head slightly in Ron and Hermione's direction.
Harry waited until he heard the exterior lid close, and then he turned to his friends. "C'mon, you two. Ginny won't be able to keep Bill out of here for long before she'll need us to talk to him." He led them into the parlour and fell onto one of the sofas. It did not escape his notice that Hermione and Ron sat a bit closer together on the other sofa than they might have in the past.
"How much have you told her, Harry?" Hermione asked, concern plain on her features.
"Nothing, actually. All she knows about is this trunk, and now you know that, too."
"Bet she hates that," Ron said.
"No, not really," Harry said, shaking his head slightly. "We understand each other."
"It is, isn't it? That's not what we need to talk about, though. The spare bedrooms are for the two of you. Assuming I can keep the Order from finding me for another nine days, this is where we'll live while we're tracking down the Horcruxes. The ice-cream thing won't work all the time, but we can use all sorts of variations of a person with a cart. That will let us blend in with crowds or scout out populated places if we need to, even if we don't actually use the disguises on a daily basis."
"That should work," Hermione said. "If worse comes to worst, we can simply pass one of us off as a tramp. There are plenty of them with carts of all kinds, and they're quite common in the cities."
"Why nine days?" Ron asked.
"Mostly it's arbitrary. I decided that two weeks would be a good test for the idea. We'll probably never need a disguise for that long, so if I can hide for two weeks, we shouldn't have to worry about getting caught in just a few days."
The tall boy nodded. "Fair enough. You fooled me and Hermione, which is pretty impressive. Since the Order is already looking for you, though, it'd probably be smart to use them to make the test more realistic without making it dangerous."
Hermione glanced at Ron, looking very pleased and only slightly surprised.
"You're right," Harry said. "I actually talked to one of the Aurors in Surrey. She didn't recognise me, but she wasn't an Order member. So that's where you two and Ginny come in. Assuming she can convince Bill, which I suspect she's doing right now, the four of you will mention that you saw someone who looked a bit like me from a distance here in the village, but then you couldn't find where I'd gone. That will probably be enough to bring the Order here to search. If they don't find me when they know where to look, then we're ready. If they do, we start over."
Ron and Hermione nodded, but then the inquisitive witch spoke again. "Harry, what happened? I mean… I never would have doubted that you could do something like this, but it surprises me that you planned all of this out so far ahead of time. What changed?"
Harry sighed and pushed away the feelings that had nearly overwhelmed him for the first two weeks of the summer. "I realised that there was no one left to do my planning for me, Hermione, and I realised that I needed to be doing it myself anyway."
The young woman nodded, her eyes misting.
"You know we'll help, right?" Ron asked.
"Yeah." Harry grinned ruefully. "If I thought I could stop you, I would have tried already." He rose from the sofa and gestured to his friends. "Let's go outside and see how Ginny's doing with Bill."
They left through the side entrance to avoid interfering with Bill's tour of the trunk's other compartments. When they rounded the corner to the street, they saw Ginny and Bill waiting quietly and watching both ends of the street. Ginny was facing them, and she straightened as they approached. Her movement attracted Bill's attention, and he turned towards them also.
"Well, Bill?" Harry asked without preamble.
"I don't like it, Harry," the tall Curse-Breaker said. "You three running off to do Merlin knows what without telling anyone makes me really nervous. Frankly, though, the Order hasn't accomplished much of anything since Dumbledore died. If you three know of something that needs doing, and if you think that it's best done without our help, then I won't stand in your way."
Ginny smiled and patted her oldest brother's arm. "I knew he was the right one to bring along," she said to Harry.
"I never doubted you," he said, shrugging. "Lucky for us he's not working this summer."
"You two…" Hermione began, waving at Harry and Ginny. "You may not be able to see it, but the way you interact is just… brilliantly harmonious."
"We're working towards the same goal, Hermione," Ginny said seriously.
"It has nothing to do with You-Know-Who, does it?" Hermione asked.
"Not much, no," Harry answered. He turned back to Bill. "Are you participating in the cover-up or just staying out of the way?"
"I'm watching and keeping my mouth shut," he said. "Not because I truly disapprove, but because I have different loyalties to manage. If you need my help, you'll get it, but otherwise I'll let it all go by."
"I understand completely, Bill. Tell Fleur if you need to."
"Thanks, Harry. She won't say anything."
Harry smiled. "Strangely enough, I suspected that already."
Bill chuckled and glanced at his watch. "All right. The four of us need to get back to the house before Mum gets worried and suspicious. Ginny…" He took a deep breath, glanced at Ron and Hermione, and then continued in a quieter voice. "Stay out of that trunk if at all possible. The more time you spend in there, the better the chances are that Mum's clock will start saying you're 'home' there and 'visiting' when you're at The Burrow. After it comes off of 'mortal peril,' anyway. Trust me, you don't want Mum to notice that the clock's getting it backwards."
Ginny's face paled visibly. "I set up the whole thing, Bill. I spent hours in there."
"Don't worry," he reassured her, "I suspect it wasn't quite like home at that time." He cleared his throat loudly. "So. Tomorrow, we're all going to come back, and you three are going to catch a glimpse of a teenager with black hair and glasses. What you do from there is up to you. I know nothing, but I'll keep volunteering to be Ginny's bodyguard. Sound good?"
"Perfect," Harry replied, holding out his hand to Ginny's brother. "Thank you, Bill."
"No need for thanks, Harry," he said, shaking Harry's hand firmly. "Just get your part done, and then we can move on to the next step, whatever that may be."
Inspired by Bill's behaviour so far, Harry felt that it was safe to share one crucial bit of information. "If we get my part done, there won't be any more steps."
The long-haired man froze. "Seriously?"
"Mother of Merlin." Bill shook himself visibly before continuing. "All right, Harry. Even more luck to you, then. You know where to find me if you need me."
Harry's grin spread slowly across his face. "Just keep doing what you're doing, Bill. Get your part done, and we'll take care of the rest of the steps."
After a long embrace with Ginny, a hug from Hermione, and firm handshakes from the two Weasley boys, the quartet left to return to The Burrow. Harry decided against taking the cart out again for the remainder of the afternoon, so he went back inside to relax. When he reached his bedroom and began removing the ridiculous pink suit, he opened his bed curtains expectantly.
Sure enough, Ginny had somehow managed to leave the same red bra on 'her' side of the bed. Laughing, Harry left the garment in its place and went to Hermione's room to see if Ginny had provided them with any interesting books that might occupy him for the rest of the evening.
The next day, Hermione and the three Weasleys visited Harry in the park again, and they were able to talk almost freely. The four visitors had decided to take turns buying treats from Harry's cart, and Ron volunteered for that day.
"Thank goodness," Ginny said as her brother unwrapped a lemonade lolly. "I was afraid I'd end up looking like Professor Sprout if I kept eating one of those things every day."
"Not a chance, Gin," Bill said. She smiled until he added, "Her hair's much shorter."
When they left again, Harry noted the time. A mere twenty-four minutes later, he spotted Tonks and Remus strolling around the park. Her bright pink hair was easy to spot, even from a distance. Harry could tell that the two Order members were methodically searching the area, but they were much closer together than partners or friends might be.
When they passed nearby, Harry took a deep, steadying breath. "Ice-lollies! Get yer ice-lollies!" His two friends both turned to look directly at him. "Buy one fer yer daughter, sir? I've got bubblegum-flavoured."
Tonks immediately stopped walking and doubled over laughing, clutching her stomach and almost literally howling with mirth. Standing above her, Remus scowled briefly at Harry and then hauled Tonks upright. "No, thank you," he said clearly. "Sweets make her hyperactive, and she's more than silly enough as it is."
That statement merely made the pink-haired Auror laugh harder, and Harry's old professor had to lead her away down the footpath.
The following morning, the Order of the Phoenix arrived in force. Remus and Tonks were the first members Harry spotted, but shortly thereafter he saw Kingsley, Mundungus, Dedalus Diggle, Sturgis Podmore, and three other members he recognised from glimpses of them at Grimmauld Place but whose names he did not know. Around mid-morning, he even saw Ginny's parents walking together along one side of the park.
When his usual visitors showed up that afternoon, they lingered around his cart until the Weasley parents, Kingsley, and Tonks found them there. "Any luck, Dad?" Ron asked.
The older man shook his head. "Not a trace. Even if he was here yesterday, he could be somewhere else by now."
"Who's it yer lookin' fer?" Harry asked idly. "I see a lot o' folk 'round here."
Mrs. Weasley provided a very accurate description of Harry's usual appearance, and he nodded. "Oh, yeah. Saw 'im jus' this mornin', round eight. 'E stopped to eat 'is breakfast on tha' bench, an' then he took off tha' way. Have yeh lot looked over there?" Harry waved across town in the direction of The Burrow. Unbeknownst to anyone in his audience, everything Harry had said was precisely correct.
Kingsley immediately strode off into the trees while the other adults chattered excitedly. When the big Auror returned, he turned his flat gaze on Harry. "Will you be in this spot for another hour or two?"
Harry shrugged. "Will yeh be buyin' lollies fer another hour or two?"
Kingsley snorted. "If you don't leave, the eight of us and seven more will each buy one."
"Mighty gen'rous with yer friends' money, aren't yeh?" Harry asked, frowning suspiciously. "What if they don't?"
"Then I'll buy fifteen myself," the dark-skinned man growled.
"Alrigh', then. I'll be here."
The Auror nodded and turned to the group. "I've alerted the others and asked them all to check in with you, Bill, near this fellow's cart. If you three youngsters stay in one place long enough, maybe he'll spot you and come by. Send me a message if he does."
Bill nodded solemnly, and the other adults quickly divided the village up into segments for them each to search.
"Damn, Harry," Bill said quietly when they had left. "I've never heard anyone talk to Shacklebolt that way."
"Chat with Voldemort sometime," Harry said, shrugging. "Kingsley's not so bad."
Hermione bought a vanilla ice-lolly and began eating it daintily. Harry and Ginny stood as close together as they could without looking strange to the Order members, and all five of them kept watch for any witches or wizards.
After a few minutes, Hermione dug a few more coins out of her pocket. "Let's go sit down on that bench," she said, pointing with her ice-cream. "Ginny, you stay here and pick out something for yourself. My treat." Hermione pressed the money into Ginny's hand, and then she pulled Ron away towards the bench. Winking at Ginny, Bill followed them.
Ginny stood at the end of the cart, less than a foot away from Harry, and pretended to scrutinise the different flavours. "She's the best, isn't she?"
"Yeah." Glancing over at his friends, Harry asked, "Any progress for her and Ron?"
"Shockingly, yes. All thanks to you."
She nodded. "Ever since you made him buy her that lolly, he's been getting braver. Last night, he 'casually' put his arm behind her on the sofa."
"You're kidding! That might actually be the oldest, most obvious trick in the book."
Ginny looked up at him with a wry smile. "You did it, and I'd kissed you in front of the entire house not three hours before."
"Well… I was… I mean…" Harry trailed off and started over. "That's not the point at all."
"Of course not," she said, smiling and turning back to the ice-cream. "Anyway, within a few more days, he might actually work up the courage to say something to her."
"Good on him, then."
"I still miss you," she whispered after a quiet moment. "This is almost worse than nothing."
"I know. I miss you, too."
Ginny took a deep breath, released it sharply, and pointed at a green ice-lolly. "What's this one, again? I can't remember which is lime and which is apple."
"That's apple. Lime's the lighter green."
"Right." She picked up the lime lolly and handed Hermione's money to Harry, letting her fingers brush along his palm momentarily. "Thank you, ice-cream man."
"Yer welcome, gorgeous."
Ginny flashed him a smile and sashayed over to join the others. Over the next two hours, every adult member of the Order who was in the village came by to purchase ice-lollies, though some of them did not bother eating the frozen treats. Mr. Weasley, however, seemed genuinely excited by his grape lolly, and he persuaded Mrs. Weasley to sample the fruit punch flavour. Neither of them looked twice at Harry.
The next three days were much the same, though the number of Order members in the area dropped as time went by. On Sunday, when Hermione had dragged the two Weasley men away again, Harry glanced at Ginny apologetically. "I don't think I can come to The Burrow tomorrow, Ginny. There'd be too many questions and too many hints."
"I know," she said sadly. "We're not really having a party or anything, anyway. Don't worry about it."
"It's your sixteenth birthday, Gin. I hate not being able to celebrate with you."
She bit her lip for a moment. "You stop selling lollies around six, right?" He nodded. "Okay. Be on the last street at the far side of the village at eight. Mum would think it strange if I wanted to come to the village in the afternoon on my birthday, but I'll see if I can find a way to come down here after dinner. I can't promise anything, though."
Harry smiled broadly. "I'll take the chance. I have an idea on how to get you out for a bit, too."
The following morning, Harry visited one of the shops he had discovered during his wanderings. There, he bought a very soft cashmere jumper, but he deliberately picked one that was pink and size medium. Back inside his trunk, he put it in a box and wrapped it in the gift-wrap he had selected. By ten o'clock, Hedwig was carrying the parcel to The Burrow.
For the moment, Harry was certain that no one but he and Ginny would recognise that the hanger he had put the jumper on perfectly matched the armoires in the master bedroom of the trunk.
He missed seeing Ginny and his friends that afternoon, but by eight o'clock he had hidden his trunk behind a wheelie bin at the edge of the village. Wearing normal Muggle clothes and a baseball cap, he leaned against a lamp-post and waited. Fifteen minutes later, he saw Ginny and Bill walking towards him, and Ginny was carrying a bag from the shop he had visited that morning.
Bill sat down at a bus stop and pulled a book out of his pocket. Ginny kept walking and, seconds later, stepped directly into Harry's arms.
"Happy birthday, Ginny," he whispered to her hair.
"Thanks. We have to stay where Bill can see us, but he promised not to be actually looking at us at all times. We have fifteen minutes."
"D'you suppose he's looking right now?"
"I'm almost positive he's not."
What started as a kiss progressed quickly into a full-fledged snog, and they only broke apart when a passing motorist honked at them. Ginny took Harry's hand as they began strolling along the footpath. "Thank you for the present. It was brilliant."
"You liked it, then?" he asked hopefully.
Her smile was bright in the darkness. "Yeah, once I exchanged it. I got a small, green one instead. It's lovely."
"Oh, good. That's the one I'd have actually bought for you."
"I think Hermione nearly had a fit, though," Ginny said, laughing softly. "With one little purchase, you gave me a perfect excuse to visit you tonight, convinced everyone that you are irretrievably male, and got the Order to start scouring the village again. Watching her try to keep a straight face was priceless."
"Those were bonuses, I admit, but I really did want to get you something you'd like."
"I love it, Harry. Honestly." She looked up at him, and one corner of her lips curled. "I can't keep it in my closet at home for long, though. The hanger doesn't match, and it would drive me nuts eventually. Maybe, once you're finished with all of this, you can help me find a better place."
"I suppose I could probably do that. I hope you won't suffer too much from hanger-related distress in the meantime."
"Oh, I'll survive," she said, with a vaguely sad grin. "I'll probably wear it every day, anyway."
At the end of the street, they turned and walked back towards Bill. Ginny shifted closer to Harry, and they slipped their arms around each other's waists. "You're leaving on Friday?" she asked softly.
"Yeah. We'll Apparate back for the wedding on the twenty-third, but we'll only be able to stay one night afterwards, and we need to get started in the meantime."
"We won't be alone again before then."
"No, probably not."
Ginny stopped and turned to face him. After putting her bag on the ground, she reached up to put both of her hands on his shoulders. "I know this won't be easy for either of us, but I'll do my part. Be as careful as you possibly can, all right? I love you, and I want you to bring our first home back to me when this is all over."
The understanding had lain between them since their meeting in July, but neither of them had ever said the words. To his surprise, they were easy, comfortable words that merely acknowledged the understanding rather than creating or changing it. "I love you, too, Ginny. I'll do my very best."
They kissed again, gently, in the moonlight. Then Ginny laid her head against Harry's chest, and they stood together in silence until Bill approached and cleared his throat.
"I'm so sorry, Ginny, but we have to get back."
"All right, Bill," she whispered, not moving at all. "Thank you."
Harry took a deep breath and ran his hand down Ginny's hair. At his touch, she raised her head, and they shared one more kiss. "Goodnight, Ginny," he whispered.
"Goodnight." Ginny picked up her bag and turned away resolutely. She looped her arm through Bill's, and together they walked towards the middle of the village.
The Order redoubled its efforts in the vicinity of the park over the next few days, and many of its members walked by or bought something from Harry's cart, but none of them did more than glance at him. Ginny, Ron, Hermione, and Bill still stopped by in the afternoons, but the tone of their visits was different. Harry and Ginny did not speak as much. Instead, Bill and Ginny waited nearby while Harry, Ron, and Hermione discussed the last-minute details of their departure in hurried whispers.
On Friday, the group from The Burrow met Harry behind the grocer's again. Ron and Hermione had knapsacks shrunken and stowed in the pockets of his light jacket. Out of sight in the alcove, Harry sealed his trunk and shrank it, also.
"I admit it, Harry," Bill said. "I'm shocked that not one member of the Order worked out who you are."
"It's a hangup wizarding folk have, Bill," he replied. "They just don't look at people who are obviously Muggles, especially silly-looking Muggles. Add that to the disguise itself, and I might as well have been in another country."
"Mum's going spare over you already, you know, and it'll only get worse now."
"I know," Harry said, nodding. "I'm sorry for that, but it's necessary."
"I'm going to tell her what I can," Ginny said. "I'll pretend I got a letter from Harry while we were here today, after Ron and Hermione had disappeared."
"You're amazing, Ginny," Harry said quietly. "Utterly amazing."
She grinned with a trace of sadness. "I'm just trying to keep up with you, dearest."
They embraced briefly, but their real goodbyes had already been spoken. The rest of the group exchanged farewells in all directions, and then Harry, Ron, and Hermione stepped into the farthest corner of the alcove.
Harry locked his gaze with Ginny's as he prepared to Apparate away. In their final moments together, she was somehow smirking again, and her eyes flicked to the pocket of the jumper he had put on for travelling.
Puzzled, he put his hand into his pocket. His questing fingers encountered familiar cotton and lace, but the fabric was not the right shape or size to be one of Ginny's bras, and he still had the red one in his trunk, anyway.
The last thing he saw before he vanished from Ottery St. Catchpole was Ginny's alluring smile, and he arrived in Godric's Hollow blushing and laughing. He sincerely hoped that this Horcrux business would not take very long. After all, he was seventeen, and he had other things to do with his life.
A/N: I am aware that ice-cream carts (and carts in general, it seems) are not common in the UK. Trucks spewing annoying music are much more likely. What a shame. In addition, for the purposes of this story, Mundungus wheedled his way out of Azkaban. I accept that this story is AU in those small ways. The plot idea was just too much fun to pass up.
I borrowed the idea of Insta-Shrink Stickums from Kokopelli's "The Letters of Summer," though he called them something else. To the best of my knowledge, they are his invention.
Also, for the sake of my own conscience, I must acknowledge the influence of St Margarets and _kb_. I did not directly borrow or even reference anything in their works, but some of the ideas in this story are somewhat similar to those in theirs. They are welcome to any credit they'd like, though I'm not sure the ideas are concrete enough to stamp. Regardless, I recommend their stories.