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.
The next few weeks at Grimmauld Place were rather tense. Although the air had been cleared amongst them, everyone still walked on edge. Mrs. Weasley kept the foursome under close watch, as if she was afraid they’d disappear under her very eyes. Harry suspected that although she had resigned herself to their continued involvement in the war, she wasn’t happy about it. She appeared to be waiting with extreme apprehension for the announcement of their next departure.
Mr. Weasley had held true to his word and kept them apprised of Scrimgeour’s activities. He’d also told them how the press had reported their appearance in Diagon Alley in vivid detail. Harry’s instructions on how to fight the Inferi had been front-page news for a fortnight, and the Ministry had taken up the cause as if it had been their idea. There were now regular reminders and updates in each edition of the Daily Prophet.
Percy had returned to work without saying much to any of them, his upturned nose expressing his disapproval. Charlie, however, had remained behind, claiming to need a holiday. Harry suspected he was attempting to snap Bill out of his funk. Bill was the only one who apparently still held a grudge about their disappearance, although Harry still felt uneasy around Mr. Weasley, as well.
He had carefully stored Helga Hufflepuff’s charred cup in his trunk along with the diary and the ring. Three down, and he knew what the fourth one was, if not where. That left only himself and one other unknown item. The task still seemed overwhelming, but he was making progress.
Harry’s greatest concern at the moment, however, was Hermione. She wasn’t taking the loss of her hair well, but Merlin help anyone who tried to point that out to her. She was completely irrational on the subject, and refused to listen to anyone’s suggestions. Poor Ron had spent more time trying to dig out of a blunder he’d unwittingly caused than anything else. He’d been desperately trying to be sympathetic, but had only ended up getting on her nerves.
Hermione had virtually barricaded herself in the library, and was rarely seen elsewhere. She’d even skipped most meals, preferring to have a tray sent up to her. At first, this behavior didn’t seem out of the ordinary, but as the days passed, the others had become concerned. While it was true that Hermione was scouring the books, Harry suspected she was hiding more than working.
She spent as much time reading medical journals as she did anything related to Voldemort. Hermione was having a lot of trouble realizing that there was no solution to her hair loss other than to wait for nature to fix it. She couldn’t stand being let down by the library and apparently took it as a personal insult.
Whenever anyone offered to help her, she declined and retreated further behind her books. Ron’s expression waffled between hurt and bewilderment as Hermione most often released her pent-up aggression on him. Harry knew that she tended to act irrationally when she felt overwhelmed, but he was confident she’d pull it together when the logical side of her brain took control. Waiting for that to happen, however, was difficult to endure.
Hermione had kept her navy blue handkerchief wrapped tightly around her head, and she jerked away from anyone who attempted to touch it, particularly Ron. Harry had noticed how often she adjusted it and suspected her fidgeting was due to self-consciousness. He wished he could think of a way to help, but he was at a loss. He knew Ginny was concerned as well, since he’d caught her staring speculatively at the older girl on several occasions.
The one benefit to Hermione’s distress had been the thawing of Mrs. Weasley’s demeanor. She’d remained distant and aloof for several days after the Order meeting, but she’d obviously noticed Hermione’s increasing agitation. Ginny had finally approached her mother for help, and Mrs. Weasley had thrown herself to the task with her typical gusto. It was as if she’d been waiting for the opportunity to swing back into mother mode, and Harry was happy to see her bonding with Ginny again.
Harry was struck by the realization that Mrs. Weasley wanted to be needed. Somehow, he’d always assumed that being an adult meant you grew past that kind of insecurity. It was jarring for him to see otherwise. Still, it felt right to have her bestow warm smiles and fond hugs once again. Harry was startled to realize how much he’d missed it. Ron and Ginny, too – he’d noticed both of them were far more affectionate to their mum since their return. He hoped Mrs. Weasley could help reach Hermione.
Tonks had suggested getting Hermione a wig, and both Weasley women had stared at her blankly. Tonks had to explain how Muggle women sometimes lost their hair after certain medical treatments, and that a variety of stores carried wigs for them to wear in the meantime.
Although she knew exactly what a wig was, Hermione had absolutely refused to accompany them to look for one. She instead burst into tears and accused them of only wanting to make it easier for everyone to look at her. Fleur had joined the conversation, trying to convince Hermione to give it a try and told her not to be ridiculous, but a crying Hermione had fled the room. Surprisingly, Ron had shouted at Fleur – with whom he’d always been smitten– to leave her alone and went tearing after Hermione.
It was later that evening when Harry and Ginny were sitting in the library – supposedly doing research but actually spending more time studying one another – that Fred and George burst through the door. Harry and Ginny broke apart guiltily and moved to opposite ends of the couch.
“Why, brother, do you have the distinct impression we’re interrupting something?” Fred asked, leaping over the back of the couch in order to sit between Harry and Ginny. Disgruntled, Harry straightened the collar of his shirt while Ginny narrowed her eyes at her interfering brothers.
“I do, brother mine, but what could we possibly interrupt while these youngsters are holed up in here diligently working…behind closed doors…all alone…and so far from the prying eyes of our beloved mother, who only has their best interests at heart?” George asked, also wiggling his way onto the couch between the pair.
“What do you two want?” Ginny asked, rolling her eyes dramatically.
“Now, what kind of attitude is that from our wee wayward lass? I would think you’d be groveling at our feet after frightening us so,” Fred replied, holding his chest and batting his eyelashes.
Before Harry had the chance to explode, George laid a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Keep your knickers on, Harry.”
“And you keep yours on as well, by the way,” Fred added, waggling his eyebrows at Ginny.
She punched him in the shoulder – hard.
“I’m not here to give you a hard time. That’s Bill’s job,” George said.
“He’s being impossible,” Ginny said, scowling.
“He’ll get over it, Gin Gin. He still tends to see you as the spunky little sprite you were when he left for Hogwarts,” George said.
“I was only a year old when he left for Hogwarts. Certainly he’s noticed a difference,” Ginny said, mutinously crossing her arms across her chest.
“Exactly. You were a baby, Ginny, and just a little kid when he came home for summers. He’d already moved out on his own by the time you developed your attitude,” George continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
“Now, here you are out fighting the war he wants to fight, but he can’t because everyone keeps coddling him. He was the one left to console Mum after you disappeared, and she was even more adamant about protecting him after you were gone. He’s been unable to go back to work, and even on the Order missions it’s Fleur who gets the more dangerous assignments rather than him because no one wanted to upset Mum any more than she already was.”
“That’s not going to sit well with any self-respecting wizard,” Fred replied.
“And we really haven’t helped,” George admitted grudgingly.
“I suppose we’ve been taking the mickey out of him a bit,” Fred conceded. “But we thought we were helping.”
“When you and Ron came back, he’d just reached his breaking point. His baby brother and sister are smack in the middle of it, and it was too much for him,” George said. “And, lately, the full moons always seem to make him a bit grouchy.”
Ginny’s face had softened, but she still appeared unwilling to let it go completely. “Well, he’s going to have to get used to the idea, because I’m not a little girl.”
“Never said you were,” Fred said easily.
“Yeah, we’ve been on the receiving end of enough of your hexes to know better,” George said, sighing. “Maybe you should hex him a few times so he realizes it.”
Ginny giggled and lightly shoved George’s head.
“So, you’re okay with it. With Ginny helping me, I mean?” Harry asked, picking at a stray thread on the couch.
“’Course we are. We just wish you would’ve let us come with you, as well,” Fred said eagerly. When Harry opened his mouth to respond, Fred held up his hands in a defensive posture. “I know you can’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish it was different.”
“Or that you would at least let us help you,” George said, leaning forward.
“Yeah, but then we remembered that you did ask us for help. You asked us to locate Dung’s old flat. Which we did,” Fred said, his eyes sparkling.
“You did?” Harry asked, sitting up straight. “When? Where is it?”
“It’s in a really dodgy Muggle area of Birmingham. The building owner let us inside. He’s really hacked off that he hasn’t had any rent from Dung in months. He said he was going to let the place to someone else, but I don’t think there’s a long line of people who want to take it since it’s really close to where those fires burned over the summer,” George said.
“We went in and looked around, but there’s not much there. It’s filthy, and the stench drove us away before we could take a really good look,” Fred said, grimacing.
“Can you take us there?” Harry asked.
George shrugged. “Whenever you want to go.”
“Now,” Harry replied, standing up.
“Harry,” Ginny said, grabbing his arm. “Hermione’s not in any condition to do this.”
“I know,” Harry said, sighing. “But I need to check.”
“I understand, and she would too, if she was in a reasonable state of mind,” Ginny said.
Harry watched as she worried her lower lip, as if struggling with something. “Why don’t you and Ron go along with the twins this afternoon while I’m with Hermione?” she said at last.
Harry furrowed his brow. “You’re okay with not coming along?”
“Just this time. We have some plans this afternoon, and they’re important, too. Besides, it’ll be an added bonus to keep Hermione occupied and let Mum ease into letting us go. It might be easier for her if it’s just Ron the first time.”
“What are you doing with Hermione?” Harry asked.
“Never you mind about that,” Ginny said, standing up and kissing him on the cheek. “Fleur had an idea, and I think it’s a good one, so we’re going to try it.”
“You’re going along with one of Phlegm’s ideas?” Harry asked incredulously. He tried unsuccessfully to control the grin that spread across his face.
“Don’t call her that, Harry,” Ginny said reproachfully, as if she wasn’t the one to come up with the nickname in the first place. “It’s for Hermione.”
Harry bit the inside of his cheeks and nodded solemnly. After Ginny had left the library, he raised a speculative eye towards the twins.
“What do you reckon?” he asked.
“I reckon she’s got you right in her back pocket,” Fred said, grinning. “I think you would have agreed no matter what she said, mate.”
“Yeah, so when’s the wedding? That’s certainly a way to cheer up Mum,” George replied, his grin matching Fred’s.
Harry felt his face burn. “Her back pocket isn’t a bad place to be,” he said cheekily and quickly left in search of Ron before had they had time to comment – or smack him upside the head.
Since they’d previously been there, the twins were able to Side-Along-Apparate Ron and Harry right into Dung’s old flat. All four of them immediately gagged from the overpowering stench.
“Are you certain Dung doesn’t have a dead body in here somewhere?” Ron asked, gasping. He’d been worried about leaving Hermione in her depressed state, but Ginny had promised to stay with her. Ginny had remained very tightlipped about their plans for the afternoon, but both she and Fleur had been giggling like schoolgirls.
Even Hermione’s spirits had appeared to improve. That alone had convinced Ron that some time with just the girls would be good for her. At lunch, he’d announced that he and Harry were running an errand with Fred and George.
Mrs. Weasley had fretted over both of them, following them right to the door and insisting the twins swear to protect them. She hugged them both fiercely before they left, but she held true to her word and allowed them to go.
“I think it’s coming from the refrigerator,” Harry said, attempting to breathe through his mouth while cursing Dung for living in a Muggle flat. He tried to ignore the overwhelming odor, but eventually pointed his wand at the refrigerator and muttered, “Scourgify.”
The stench evaporated instantly and was replaced with a fresh, lemony scent.
“Better than Dung deserves,” Fred said, taking in a deep breath.
“What about using magic in Muggle areas?” Ron asked, glancing uneasily at the window as if he expected a Ministry owl to appear any moment.
Harry shrugged. “There are no Muggles here now, and I couldn’t concentrate with that stench.”
“So, what are we looking for?” Fred asked.
“The last time we saw Dung, he had a suitcase full of trinkets that he’d nicked from headquarters. I need to see what’s in that suitcase,” Harry replied, looking at Ron significantly. They’d brought the Spell Detector, but he hoped to avoid having to explain to Fred and George what they were doing with it. Ron removed it from his pocket and quietly slipped into the bedroom.
Housecleaning spells were certainly something Dung hadn’t bothered with, for the flat was a mess. They found an abundance of empty Ogden’s Firewhisky bottles in addition to a variety of Muggle alcohol and little else.
When Fred located a stack of magazines stored inside a footstool, he whistled loudly. “Dung, you old dog. These PlayWizards date back to Dad’s Hogwarts days.”
Ron and George quickly peered over their brother’s shoulder as he flipped through the pages. Harry, who had been searching through Dung’s closet and had nothing to show for it but a nasty Doxy bite, was irritated. He was about to snap at them to get back to work when he caught a glimpse of the centerfold they were unfolding. Harry felt his skin coloring. He’d heard the blokes in his dormitory talking about that, but to see it…
After a fairly lengthy delay, they finally dragged their attention away from the magazines and went back to work. The four boys searched Dung’s flat as thoroughly as teenage boys were able to do. They’d found loads of questionable items, including a folded flying carpet tucked under Dung’s mattress, but no suitcase.
Fred and George confiscated the carpet, along with several various odds and ends that they had stuffed inside their pockets.
“It’s not like it was really Dung’s to begin with,” Fred said when Harry raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah, he just nicked it from someone else,” Ron added, admiring the carpet that Fred still held. “Besides, Harry, don’t tell me you don’t want a go on this thing. They’ve been illegal forever. Dad’s never even been able to sneak one home.”
Harry grinned. “The way I see it, Dung has a load of rubbish here that’s part of my inheritance. The carpet calls us even – he probably found it at headquarters anyway.”
“He did,” George said, examining the underside of the carpet. “It’s got the Black family crest embroidered on it.”
“Then I get first go,” Harry said, grinning.
Fred and George looked at one another, their facial expressions changing in that odd way of silent communication that Harry had seen them use previously.
“Fair enough,” Fred said, “but we get to keep the other stuff. Besides, Dung’s landlord is going to chuck it all out before Dung is released, anyway.”
“The suitcase isn’t here,” Harry said dejectedly. As one final idea occurred to him, he said, “Accio suitcase.”
“Accio locket,” he tried again, holding his breath. Still, nothing happened.
“What do we do now?” Ron asked, glancing around the messy apartment. “Where do we look next?”
Harry frowned, considering his options before an idea struck him. “Do any of you know what happens to your stuff when you get arrested? I mean, if Dung was hauled in by the Ministry, and the suitcase was with him, where would it be?”
“Considering they chucked him into Azkaban without benefit of a trial,” Fred said bitterly, “I’d expect it’d still be in a holding cell at the prison.”
“Then we’ll have to go out to Azkaban,” Harry said, failing to suppress a shudder. He knew most of the Dementors were gone, but even one was too many as far as he was concerned.
“Er…Harry. How exactly do you propose to do that?” George asked, stunned.
“And what’s so bloody important that you’d want to go?” Fred exclaimed incredulously. “Look, Harry, I know it’s your stuff that Dung nicked, but…what could be worth a trip to Azkaban? They’ll let Dung out eventually and then you can ask him for whatever it is you want back.”
Harry shook his head. “It’s not that simple. It’s…er…it’s something of personal significance” Harry said, coloring slightly. He hated lying to the twins. “And I’m not the only one who might be looking for it.”
George shrugged. “I still don’t see how you’re going to get out to Azkaban. It’s not like you can just stroll right in. Or maybe you can. Rufus Scrimgeour would love to have you owing him a favor.”
Harry shook his head. “I’d prefer to do this without Scrimgeour’s input, if possible. I’ll talk to Tonks. She’s been out there on guard duty, or at least she was before we left.”
“Yeah, she’s still been going, and looking a right mess whenever she returns. Are you certain about this, Harry? You haven’t always had an easy time with the Dementors,” Fred asked, ducking his head. His ears were bright red, something that Harry had seen in the past from Ron and various other Weasleys, but never the twins.
“I know. I’ll deal with it when I get there,” Harry said, nodding.
“We’ll deal with it,” Ron said, his eyes boring into Harry’s. “Don’t think you’re going out there alone, mate.”
“Ron, I don’t even know if I can get out there, never mind bring anyone else along,” Harry said, running a hand through his hair.
“You’ll just have to find a way,” Ron said firmly.
Dinner that evening was a quiet affair. Harry had hoped to speak with Tonks about her duties at Azkaban, but neither she nor Remus was in attendance. Mrs. Weasley said they’d gone out on a date. Harry was pleased to hear it; Remus deserved to grab a little happiness when he could find it.
Mr. Weasley was working late, as he frequently did, and since returning from Dung’s place, Harry hadn’t seen any of the girls. Mrs. Weasley said they’d been holed up in Bill and Fleur’s room all day. They’d even kicked Bill out without telling him what they were doing. He and Charlie sat at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine between them.
“Care for some wine, Harry? Ron?” Charlie asked.
With their nods of consent, he poured two additional glasses.
“How did everything go for you lot today?” Charlie asked, and Harry noticed Bill listening intently, though trying to appear disinterested.
“It was a bust,” Harry said, sighing. He knew it was too much to hope that he’d find the locket that easily, but he’d still hoped anyway.
“I don’t suppose you want to share whatever it is you’re looking to find?” Bill asked casually.
“Not really,” Harry replied, sipping his wine.
The tension was broken by Mrs. Weasley’s startled gasp. Harry looked up quickly to find Ginny standing alone in the doorway. His attention was instantly drawn to her head where her glorious, waist-length hair had been cut so it barely reached her shoulders.
She stood still in the doorway, her eyes avidly searching the room until they rested on him and locked her gaze with his.
“Oh, Ginny! What have you done to your beautiful hair?” Mrs. Weasley moaned, moving toward her daughter and reaching out to pull at the shortened locks.
“What did’ya do that for?” Ron demanded with his mouth full. Bill and Charlie simply stared at her, awaiting her response.
Harry felt as if he’d been hit in the gut, and he swallowed heavily. Ginny’s hair had always attracted him, he hadn’t fully realized how much until he saw her without it. He felt frozen to the spot and simply stared back at her, blinking.
Everything suddenly became clear to him when a beaming Fleur and a hesitant Hermione followed Ginny into the room. Harry felt a bubble of warmth spread inside his belly. Hermione no longer wore the handkerchief that had become her talisman, but instead sported a short, pixyish haircut in the same shade of Weasley red as everyone else at the table, save Harry.
Hermione shyly watched everyone’s expressions, appearing as if she was ready to bolt from the room at the slightest provocation.
“Just what this place needs,” Charlie said, grinning. “Another redhead. I didn’t think we had enough of them here.”
“There could never be enough of them,” Bill said, beaming at Fleur with the first genuine smile Harry had seen on him since their return.
“Eezent eet magnifique? Who knew I’d be zo talented with ‘air? Eet was Ginny’s idea to copy ze Muggles and create a wig, but ‘Ermione deeden’t want to go shopping. Zat is very strange, no? Anyway, she agreed to let us try eet ourselves. I’ve never cut anyone’s ‘air before, but I zought I could do eet,” Fleur said, plopping down into Bill’s lap and kissing him soundly. “And I can.”
“Hermione,” Ron said, blinking, his glass of wine still frozen halfway to his mouth.
Hermione smiled tentatively before sitting down next to him. Ron leaned over and whispered something in her ear that caused her to blush and smile widely at the same time.
“What’s that, brother mine?” Fred asked. “Did I just hear you tell the fair lass that you knew she’d always wanted to be a Weasley?”
“And why wouldn’t she be?” George asked. “Of course, isn’t it really up to you to correct that situation?” George said, smiling smugly at the blushes that suffused both Ron’s and Hermione’s faces.
“Sod off,” Ron said, swatting George without ever taking his eyes off Hermione.
“Harry,” Ginny said softly. She’d moved from the door to the chair next to him, tentatively looking into his eyes. She worried her lower lip as she waited for his response.
Harry felt a large lump materialize in his throat over what she’d done for Hermione. He didn’t think he could ever be more proud. “You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” he whispered, running his hands through her new, shorter haircut and pulling her close so he could kiss her.
Ginny’s eyes filled with tears as she leaned into him. “You really think it’s okay? I know you liked it longer, but it’ll grow back,” she said, sniffling.
“It doesn’t matter. What you just did for Hermione makes you more beautiful than any hairdo ever could,” he said, kissing her again despite the presence of her family at the table.
“Harry’s right,” Bill said. Harry and Ginny both looked up to find Bill staring at them, his eyes suspiciously bright. “That was a wonderful thing to do, Ginny. You just reminded me how strong your bond of friendship is with each other. I’d let myself lose sight of that. Hold onto it, embrace it, and don’t let anyone – especially older brothers with chips on their shoulder – stand in the way of it. I don’t think V-V- Voldemort stands a chance against it.”
Ginny pushed back from the table and hurried over to Bill. She threw her arms around him and hugged him fiercely. “Thanks, Bill.”
“I’m sorry, Ginny,” he whispered into her hair. Releasing her, he looked up and stared intently at Harry, “I owe you an apology, too.”
“Never mind,” Harry said, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s like you said, as long as we stick together, Voldemort can’t win.”
“Right, even if we sometimes act like prats,” Bill said, smiling.
“Don’t worry. Harry knows that even Weasleys can act like prats on occasion,” Ron said, joining the conversation.
“Well, he must be very well aware of that since he’s been stuck living with you for the past seven years,” Bill said, chuckling.
“And he’s been lucky to have him,” Hermione said, beaming at Ron with glistening eyes.
“Yes, I have,” Harry said, smiling. That annoying lump in this throat appeared determined to return. “I’ve been lucky to find all of you.”
“Except when we act like prats,” Ginny said, plopping a scoop of mashed potatoes on his plate.
“Yes,” Harry replied grinning. “Except then.”
The dinner resumed with much less tension than there had been on previous evenings. Mr. Weasley had joined them halfway through, and after the initial shock of seeing Ginny’s hair, he told her how proud he was of her. Harry felt almost as if they’d never left and thoroughly enjoyed himself in Grimmauld Place for the first time in a very long time. When dinner was over, a giggling Fleur led Ginny and Hermione from the kitchen.
Before he had a chance to follow the girls from the room, Mr. Weasley placed a gentle hand on Harry’s arm.
“Harry, could I have a word?” he asked.
His tone was gentle, almost conciliatory, but Harry still felt uneasy. He nodded stiffly and followed Mr. Weasley into the sitting room.
Mr. Weasley lit the fire in the grate and poured two glasses of brandy from a decanter on the desk. He handed one to Harry as he sat beside him on the couch. He swooshed the amber liquid around in his glass for several moments without speaking. Harry forced himself not to fidget, but the collar of his shirt was suddenly very tight.
“Well, Harry. I suppose you know why I wanted to speak with you,” Mr. Weasley said, his ears turning as red as Ron’s did when he was uncomfortable.
“Yes, sir,” Harry said, dribbling a bit of the brandy down his chin.
“I owe you an apology,” Mr. Weasley said suddenly, surprising Harry.
“Huh?” he asked. Oh, great. Really eloquent, Harry.
“As you know, I suspected you were going to pull a disappearing act. I also suspected Ron and Hermione would go with you. It was Ginny I was unprepared to find missing,” Mr. Weasley said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Weasley. I knew you weren’t expecting it, but I couldn’t say anything,” Harry said, feeling desperate.
“I know that, Harry. And unlike Kingsley or Minerva, I think you’re more than capable of handling yourself in most situations. The person I underestimated was Ginny. She’s my daughter–”
“And you wanted to keep her safe. I understand that, sir,” Harry said earnestly.
“No, Harry. You misunderstood my meaning. Of course, I want her to be safe. I want all of my children to be safe, and I’m including you in that statement,” Mr. Weasley said softly, causing Harry to swallow around the lump in his throat. “What I underestimated was my own daughter’s determination. I know Ginny. I raised her. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from her.”
Harry smiled fondly. “She’s special.”
“She certainly is. I’m not blind, Harry. I can see how much you care for each other, but it’s very hard to let go,” Mr. Weasley said.
“I understand, sir–”
“Let me finish, Harry. It’s very hard to let go, but if I had to chose the wizard who would win my only girl’s heart, I know I couldn’t have chosen any better than she did when she was ten years old. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather her fall in love with than you,” Mr. Weasley said, shifting in his seat and taking a long swallow of his brandy.
Harry couldn’t control his fidgeting any longer, and he shifted in his seat trying to decide where to look. He ended up taking a long swallow of the brandy, feeling his face burn. Harry didn’t understand why he felt like such a little kid sitting in front of Mr. Weasley.
“Thanks, Mr. Weasley,” he said, scuffing his feet on the worn carpet. “I want you to know that I’ll do everything within my power to keep her safe.”
“I know you will, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said, clearing his throat. “What say you? Shall we join the others in the drawing room? If my ears don’t deceive me, I think I can hear music drifting down from that direction. Merlin’s beard, I hope Molly hasn’t broken out the Celestina Warbeck collection again.”
Harry grinned, remembering the previous Christmas, and followed Mr. Weasley from the room. They joined the others in the drawing room where Celestina was crooning from the old victrola in the corner of the room. Mrs. Weasley was sitting in front of it with misty eyes as she swayed to the music. Bill and Fleur sat in a corner, whispering to each other while Fleur mimed crude imitations of Celestina behind Mrs. Weasley’s back. Ginny was standing in a corner talking with Hermione and Fred, while Ron watched Charlie play against George in a game of chess.
Harry walked over to Ron and gently nudged him in the ribs.
“Hey. Where’ve you been?” Ron asked, turning away from the game.
Harry shrugged. “I just had a word with your dad. How’s Hermione?”
“Brilliant,” Ron said, a wide grin spreading across his face. “She’s back to herself.”
Harry failed to suppress the grin that spread on his face. “That’s good. Obviously things are better between the two of you.”
Ron looked at his trainers while he scuffed the floor. “I almost lost her, Harry. She could have died before I ever had the chance to tell her… Well, before I could set things to rights. I don’t care about her hair; it’ll grow back. Nearly losing her made me see what you meant about grabbing happiness while it’s there, that there are no guarantees,” Ron said gruffly, his ears turning a brilliant shade of red.
“So…you’re dating?” Harry asked, feeling awkward. He and Ron rarely talked about stuff like this, but sometimes he found the only way to get an answer from Ron was to be blunt.
“Yeah, we are. Are you okay with that?” Ron asked, looking suddenly nervous.
Harry watched as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley began dancing in the center of the room. Bill and Fleur quickly joined them, and Harry saw Bill wag his finger warningly at his wife, who laughed musically.
He was okay with Ron and Hermione dating. He’d worried about it in the past, wondering what would happen if things didn’t work or, or worse, if they left him behind. Now that he was with Ginny, however, having two couples completed them somehow. Besides, he could never deny their attempts to find some happiness in all this mess. They’d certainly helped him find his.
“Nah, I’m okay. I’m just glad you finally took your head out of your arse and asked her,” he said, laughing.
Ron shoved him. “Oh, you’re one to talk.”
“Hey! Why are you shoving Harry?” Ginny asked as she and Hermione joined them.
“For being a right git,” Ron said, taking Hermione’s hand.
“You look wonderful, Hermione” Harry said.
Hermione beamed. “Thanks, Harry. Ginny and Fleur really did a nice job. Now we’ll have to do something about turning your hair red,” she said, laughing and tugging on a lock of his hair.
He ducked, jerking his head away.
“Harry wants red hair?” Fred asked. “I think I have something that would take care of that.”
Harry’s eyes widened in alarm. Taking Ginny by the hand, he backed away. “That’s okay. My hair is fine, thanks.”
He quickly wrapped his arms around Ginny and joined the others on the dance floor. Resting his chin on the top of her head as they swayed, he watched Ron and Hermione join them on the floor. The music might not have been his first choice, and their location certainly left a lot to be desired, but it didn’t matter. This, this is why he was fighting. Times like these, being with his friends…his family…this was worth anything Voldemort might throw at him. He’d fight with everything he had to make moments like this one possible.
As September wound down and the weather turned markedly cooler, the event Harry had been dreading was scheduled. His first Occlumency lesson with the Malfoys had arrived. He met Remus in a small room off the second floor landing and sat down to await the arrival of Narcissa and Draco.
He and Remus greeted each other pleasantly, but an uncomfortable silence had descended upon the room once they sat down. Harry knew the Order felt these Occlumency lessons were important, but he also suspected that some of them might be trying to use the Malfoys in order to learn what Harry was doing. Harry couldn’t help but be disappointed in Remus for going along with them. He tried to be reasonable and see Remus’s point of view, as Hermione insisted he should, but when he allowed the darkness to enter his thoughts, his mind whispered that Sirius never would have done it.
“I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised you agreed to this, Harry. I didn’t think you would,” Remus said.
Harry shrugged. “I don’t think it’s the answer, but I’m willing to give it a go,” he said, not meeting Remus’s eyes.
“I understand your hesitancy, Harry,” Remus said gently.
“Do you really? Do you really understand what you’re asking of me, Remus? The same feelings that ran between the Marauders and Snape while you were in school now run between Malfoy and me. Would you have let Snape into your thoughts and memories back then? Would Sirius or my dad? Particularly if you had something specific you wanted to hide from him?” Harry demanded, his anger bubbling to the surface.
Remus sighed heavily, dropping his head. “Professor Dumbledore was certain that Occlumency would help you last year. He only changed his mind based on Severus’s opinion. We know now that Severus couldn’t be trusted. I don’t think he tried to teach you properly. If Severus didn’t want you able to do it, then it’s more than likely it can help protect you. It’s at least worth another effort. I understand your feelings, Harry, but I do believe this is for the best.”
“I know you do,” Harry said quietly, an uncomfortable churning in his belly. “I’m willing to make some considerations to appease the Order.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Remus asked sharply.
Harry finally raised his eyes to meet Remus’s gaze. “It means that I’ve taken some precautions of my own.”
Remus frowned, but the door swung open, cutting off their conversation. Draco Malfoy strode into the room confidently, shooting Harry an amused grin that instantly raised Harry’s hackles. Narcissa followed her son, her nose arrogantly held in the air. She wore flowing midnight blue robes and dusted her chair with distaste before she sat.
“So, you want to learn the fine art of Occlumency, do you, Potter?” Malfoy asked, sneering yet still managing to keep that irritating grin in place. “I highly doubt you’ll have the necessary cunning to master it. After all, you Gryffindors tend to wear your hearts on your sleeves.”
“Now, now, Draco,” Narcissa said, “let’s not discourage him before we get started.” Although she apparently was scolding her son, Narcissa acted as if she was more amused than disapproving.
“Draco, Narcissa,” Remus said, nodding to each of them.
“That will be all,” Narcissa said, waving her hand without even sparing him a glance. “My son and I can take it from here.”
“Actually, I’ll be staying to observe,” Remus said pleasantly.
Narcissa’s nostrils flared. “Occlumency takes a great deal of effort and concentration. I won’t have my son worrying about a werewolf attack while he’s attempting it.”
“I understand your concerns, but we’re nowhere near the full moon,” Remus said mildly. “I assure you that you’re quite safe.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Harry asked, fuming. “Malfoy here is in far less danger from Remus than we are from him.”
“That’s enough, Harry,” Remus said. His casual acceptance of the way the Malfoys treated him infuriated Harry, and he clenched his fists to keep from shaking his father’s old friend.
“Oh, yes. Of course you would defend the creature,” Narcissa said, sitting down as far from Remus as she could.
“Don’t worry, Mother. I was forced to endure Lupin’s company for an entire year while he taught at Hogwarts, and I managed to avoid being attacked. I can handle him,” Malfoy said, smirking at Harry.
“Thank you for that, Draco,” Remus said, rolling his eyes. “Now, I believe it’s Occlumency that we’re here to discuss.”
Harry was pleased to see Remus finally letting his irritation show.
“Yes, it is. Draco is a superb Occlumens. I understand you’ve already had some instruction?” Narcissa asked, her icy blue eyes pinning Harry to his chair.
“Yeah, from Snape,” Harry spat. “He said I was hopeless at it, however.”
“That sounds like Severus,” Narcissa said, a ghost of a smile appearing on her lips.
“I gave up on it after my fifth year. I really don’t see the point,” Harry said.
“Yeah, well, you lot never were the best judge of Snape, were you?” Malfoy asked. “You actually thought he was on your side.”
“I didn’t. I never trusted him,” Harry said, clenching his jaw.
“Pity you were never able to expose him, then,” Malfoy said, grinning.
Harry’s blood boiled. It took all his self-restraint not to curse Malfoy where he stood. In fact, his wand was twitching in his hand.
“Both my mother and I are accomplished Occlumens. We’ll work together to see what you’re capable of, then we’ll let you know if there’s any hope to teach you,” Malfoy said, gloating. He was obviously enjoying being in a position of power over Harry.
Harry couldn’t wait to knock him down a few pegs, even if he had to suffer through Occlumency to do it.
“You and your mother only?” Harry asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. “What about your father? Is he accomplished, as well?”
Draco scowled, and Narcissa lowered her eyes. “No. He never felt the need to conceal any of his thoughts,” Draco said bitterly.
“Draco, that’s enough,” Narcissa said, and this time she did sound angry. “Why don’t you and Potter start? I’ll observe.”
Harry took a deep breath and moved into the center of the room, staring warily at Malfoy. His wand felt slick in his grasp from his sweaty hands, but he fought to control his nerves.
Malfoy’s gray eyes glittered dangerously.
“Deep breathing, Potter. Allow your physical body to relax while you envision a strong stone wall within your mind. Focus on nothing else but the stone wall,” Narcissa said, surprising Harry. It was the first actual instruction on how to clear his thoughts that he’d ever been given.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, picturing the cold stone of the hearth in the hut where Uncle Vernon had hid them all while trying to avoid Harry’s Hogwarts letters.
“Legilimens,” Malfoy cried.
Harry’s vision swam. The stone wall he’d so carefully constructed imploded in his mind.
He was inside the hut on the sea, lying on the floor and attempting to sleep despite the freezing cold while Dudley snored on the couch above him…
He was sitting in Dumbledore’s office after the Third Task, trembling with Fawkes perched on his knee. He was so tired; he wanted nothing more than to sleep and not think or feel anything for a time…
He and Professor Dumbledore sat with Professor Slughorn. The rotund retired Potions’ Master insisted he didn’t want to return to Hogwarts, that he was too old and broken to go back…
He was snogging Ginny on the couch inside their magical tent and getting caught up in the moment. His hand slipped beneath her shirt to feel the deliciously warm bare skin on her back…
“Enough!” Harry snarled, finally forcing Malfoy from his mind, enraged. “That’s private.” He was exhausted and panting heavily. It was all he could do to remain standing.
“Don’t worry, Potter. I couldn’t care less what you get up to with Weaslette, but it did make you finally fight back. Why did you let me see those other memories?” Malfoy asked, amused. A light sweat glistened on his brow, but otherwise he appeared unaffected.
“What happened, Draco? How did he do?” Narcissa asked, lazily drumming her fingers on her chair.
“I broke in without much resistance at all,” Draco replied gleefully. “His pitiful attempt at a wall crumpled almost instantly. I saw Potter as a child with some fat lout in a freezing little hovel. The next scene was in Dumbledore’s office, and things appeared rather tense. Potter looked a right mess, and Sirius Black was there.”
Remus’s head shot up at mention of Sirius’s name.
“Ah, yes. Your dearly departed godfather,” Narcissa said, her voice dripping with false sincerity. “How tragic. Did you recognize the memory, Potter?”
Harry nodded stiffly. “It was after the Third Task.”
“The other was a memory of him, Dumbledore, and Slughorn. It appeared as if Dumbledore was trying to convince Slughorn to return to Hogwarts, but why were you there, Potter?” Malfoy asked, his eyes narrowed.
Harry shrugged. “Professor Dumbledore said he had an errand to run while we were on our way somewhere else. Why were you so interested in my memories of Professor Dumbledore, anyway?” Harry asked, whirling on Malfoy.
Malfoy shrugged. “These were the first memories I stumbled across, Potter. Either they’ve been on your mind lately, or it was pure chance. Your mind is an open book, after all. The Dark Lord will make mince meat of you in no time.”
“That’s enough,” Remus said, snapping. For the first time that afternoon, there was a trace of anger in his voice, but Harry was uncertain as to the cause.
“A snogging session between Potter and the Weasley girl. I don’t know where they were, but he looked as if he was enjoying himself. It was on that memory that he finally managed to push me out,” Malfoy drawled.
“This isn’t going to work if Potter is already worried about your finding things he doesn’t want you to see, Draco. Stay away from memories about his girlfriend. I most certainly don’t want you exposed to that, anyway,” Narcissa said disdainfully. “Try again and stick to thoughts when you were younger – your first year at Hogwarts, perhaps when you were both there together. Is that less threatening for you, Potter?”
Harry had to grit his teeth, not wanting Malfoy near any of his memories, but refusing to show his hesitancy. He wouldn’t allow Malfoy to think he was scaring him.
“Fine,” he bit out, his jaw aching, it was clenched so tight.
Remus appeared hesitant, but he retook his seat and allowed them to continue.
“Once again, work on that solid strong wall, Potter. Make it stronger this time, reinforce it. Use it as your shield,” Narcissa said. “Draco.”
“Legilimens,” Malfoy said.
He was inside Madam Malkin’s trying on robes for the first time with a nervous, sickly feeling in his stomach. Malfoy was standing on the stool next to him, questioning him on Houses and Quidditch and a variety of other things that Harry knew nothing about. He had the distinct impression that he didn’t like this boy very much…
They were at Hogwarts attending their first flying lesson. Malfoy had snatched Neville’s Remembrall and was taunting Harry, daring him to give chase. Harry had never been on a broom before, but he wasn’t about to let the blonde get away with it…
He was trapped inside his cupboard feeling bored and incredibly hungry. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been there, but knew he was cramped and uncomfortable and longing to stretch his legs. If only he could find something to eat…
Dudley and his pals Piers and Malcolm were chasing him home from school. They always thought a game of Harry hunting was the best way to burn off steam. Harry had twisted his ankle jumping over a fence, and his heart was beating loudly, fearing they’d catch him. They hadn’t been able to catch him once yet this month, and they’d be determined for some payback if they did…
Malfoy stumbled slightly as Harry finally pushed him from his mind. He dropped to his knees, sweating and panting and beyond humiliated that Malfoy had seen some of those memories. Merlin, I hate this. It’s a stupid idea.
“Harry, are you all right?” Remus asked, alarmed as he rushed over to assist Harry to his feet.
Harry felt shaky and ill, and his scar was burning hot. He rubbed it absently while trying to control his nausea.
Malfoy shrugged, staring at Harry with an odd expression on his face. “I don’t know. I only saw a bunch of childhood memories; I don’t know why it affected him so badly.”
“Does your head hurt, Harry?” Remus asked, glancing significantly at Harry’s scar.
Harry tried to nod but it made the room spin so he stopped. “Yeah,” he whispered. “First time in a long time.”
“I think that’s enough for today,” Remus said, watching Harry closely.
“I didn’t know Potter had migraines,” Malfoy drawled. “Of course Occlumency can trigger them. I’m surprised Snape didn’t tell you; it’s most likely the reason you were never able to master it. People who suffer migraines rarely can.”
“I don’t get migraines,” Harry said through clenched teeth, wishing they’d all shut up until his head stopped pounding.
“Whatever you say,” Malfoy said, smirking, although his expression seemed to lack its usual vindictiveness.
“Fine. If it isn’t a migraine, we can try again in a few days,” Narcissa said decisively. She turned on her heel and strode from the room, beckoning Malfoy to follow.
“Can I get you anything, Harry?” Remus asked, gently squeezing Harry’s shoulder.
“No. I’ll be fine after I lie down for a bit. Just tell the others I’ll be down later,” Harry whispered, trying not to heave all over Remus.
“Very well. At some point I would like to discuss what you meant by precautions, however,” Remus said, helping him to stand.
Harry grunted noncommittally.
He wearily climbed the stairs back to his bedroom, feeling old and tired. His head ached in a way that it hadn’t done in nearly a year, and he was alarmed by it. He opened the door and slipped inside, catching a glimpse of his pale face in the mirror on his door.
Opening his trunk, he carefully withdrew the Pensieve that Professor Dumbledore had given him. One by one, he carefully extracted gossamer white trails of memories from the Pensieve with his wand and restored them to his mind.
Neither Malfoy nor the Order had learned anything about the Horcruxes tonight. As long as he remained vigilant, they never would.
A/N: My goodness, Malfoy really riles up all your emotions, doesn’t he? I have a few of you who like him, but the vast majority seems to want a similar end to PoE, lol. I got quite a kick out of reading the reviews, so thanks for taking the time to comment. Also, thanks to my SIYE readers for again voting for me in the Silver Trinket Awards. I’m delighted; although now I think I have to speed up the action. It’s coming back soon.
Thanks to Sherylyn and my wonderful beta team for all their help. I got the chance to meet Sherylyn this past week when she visited Boston. We went out to lunch and walked around the marketplace. I had a great time, and it was so much fun to actually meet someone I talk to all the time. This Internet is strange, isn’t it? I have online friends I talk to more than people I see in real life, lol.