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  1. #1
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Question harry potter 7. fake? real? u decide

    ill post some chapter from harry potter e-book i got. see if u think its real or fake
    Chapter One
    Secrets Unraveled
    Harry slowly raised his head and stared morosely at the familiar visage of number four, Privet Drive. What had already been a horrible day was rapidly getting worse. Not only did he have to appear unannounced on the Dursleys’ doorstep (something he knew they’d have no problem expressing their displeasure over), but he’d also have to tell them that two other freaks would be joining him this afternoon. The corner of Harry’s mouth twitched humorlessly as he envisioned how they’d take the news.
    He’d left Ron and Hermione at King’s Cross station a little over an hour ago. They were each going to make quick stops at their respective homes before Apparating to Privet Drive. Harry smiled fondly, remembering their show of solidarity. He hadn’t been expecting it; he’d thought he’d be going on alone. Although he was desperately worried about them and the remainder of their quest, he had to admit that the thought of some support while facing his relatives was quite nice indeed.
    Harry had thought it would be better – or at least less embarrassing – if he arrived at Privet Drive first and prepared his relatives for their arrival. He’d wanted to get away from the Hogwarts Express and the other students as quickly as possible…before he ran into Ginny.
    Ginny.
    Harry quickly shook his head – he couldn’t afford to think about Ginny. He still didn’t think his resolve was strong enough to hold.
    Since he wasn’t yet of age, he’d quickly slipped away without speaking to any of the crowd at King’s Cross and taken the train to Privet Drive. The long, hot journey had left him irritable. It didn’t bode well for the coming reunion. He’d considered just Apparating back from Hogsmeade to avoid the Hogwarts Express altogether. So what if the Ministry chucked him out of Hogwarts now? He wasn’t going back, anyway.
    Hermione, always the voice of reason, reminded him that there was no need to give the Ministry an excuse to break his wand, and Harry had to admit that she had a point.
    Rufus Scrimgeour wanted Harry under his control, and Harry wouldn’t put it past the man to make life difficult in an effort to force Harry to comply. Harry had no patience for the man or his politicking. Still, recklessly using underage magic for the sake of mere convenience was a risk not worth taking.
    He hated when Hermione was right.
    So, he’d sat in a compartment with Ron and Hermione and tried to ignore the hole in his heart that Ginny’s absence created. He hadn’t seen her the entire journey home and wondered which compartment she’d sat on the train. Neither Ron nor Hermione had asked him where she was, but he’d caught Hermione staring at him speculatively on several occasions.
    Harry had been steadfast in avoiding her gaze. He’d stared out the window miserably, his thoughts focused on happier days…
    Ginny.
    Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans and squaring his shoulders, Harry trudged across the street towards the immaculately pruned garden of number four, Privet Drive. He’d promised Dumbledore that he’d return one more time before his birthday, and he intended to keep that pledge. Harry’s chest tightened as he thought of his headmaster, but he blinked the moisture from his eyes and continued forward. This was what Dumbledore had wanted, and this was what he was going to do.
    Still, knowing what he had to do didn’t make doing it any easier. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with the Dursleys’ nonsense. He had no patience for their petty bigotry…he had bigger challenges to face. The days when Vernon Dursley’s purple face could make him cower were long past. He wondered what he could expect when they opened the door to find him standing there after his eventful departure last summer.
    All in all, he supposed it could be worse. He’d rather face the Dursleys’ ire than Molly Weasley’s fury when Ron informed her of his plans to ditch the Burrow this summer and head straight into the war that she’d been so adamantly attempting to shield him from.
    Oh, no, Harry mused, he got off far easier in only having to face the Dursleys.
    He wondered if Ron would have dropped his little bombshell while still at King’s Cross, or if he would have waited until arriving at the Burrow. Harry could picture Ron in the kitchen trying to reason with his mum, and Ginny would be there…
    Ginny.
    Harry’s heart constricted at the mere thought of her, and he pressed his eyelids together as if to squeeze her from his thoughts. Everything had seemed so simple and straightforward in his mind when he’d made his decision. He couldn’t put Ginny in danger. He’d never survive if he lost her, too.
    But he had something he had to do, and he couldn’t afford any distractions while he was searching for the Horcruxes. Breaking it off had been the right thing to do. There was no reason that she should have to put her life on hold just because he did. It could take years to find them all.
    At the time, it had seemed the perfectly logical thing to do. But now, away from Hogwarts and facing the unknown…now, nothing was clear. He didn’t know how he’d be able to function with this pain tearing such a hole in his heart. He felt as if he were bleeding continually from an invisible wound.
    One thing he did know for certain: she could distract him with a simple smile, and he couldn’t afford to be distracted. He had too much that he had to do.
    As for what did come next…that’s where Harry faltered. He knew what it was he had to do, he just wasn’t certain about how to do it. How could he find the remaining four Horcruxes? Where did he start? And how did he keep himself – or worse, Ron and Hermione – from suffering the same fate Dumbledore did when he’d located the last two Horcruxes? Or what he’d thought was a Horcrux, anyway…
    R.A.B. How was he to find R.A.B.? Where did he begin?
    The locket, the cup, the snake, and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw…
    It seemed hopeless and overwhelming as a whole, so he’d have to start in pieces and work from there. He fingered the cold, hard metal of the fake Horcrux that he still kept in his pocket. Harry had found himself using it as some sort of talisman, holding onto it whenever the stress started to build. There had to be a way, and he was going to find it.
    The first step would be Godric’s Hollow. He wasn’t certain what he expected to find there, it just seemed important that he go.
    Scratch that. The first step would be getting through his last confinement with the Dursleys, and the sooner he started enduring that, the sooner he could move forward.
    While he’d been lost in thought, Harry’s feet had carried him to the front door. Taking a deep breath, he tapped the knocker three times.
    Here we go.
    It took only a few moments before he heard footsteps approaching the door. It opened slightly, and Aunt Petunia’s horsy face peered through the crack. He watched as her eyes widened in surprise before the door swung open wide, and she yanked him inside by the collar of his shirt.
    “What are you doing here?” Aunt Petunia demanded, her long neck craning from side to side to ensure none of the neighbors were out and about and watching Harry being manhandled by his aunt. “Why are you back here so soon? Did those freaks at that school of yours finally decide they didn’t want you either and throw you out? Did you think you could just show up here unannounced?”
    “Hello, Aunt Petunia. It’s nice to see you, too,” Harry said pleasantly, pulling back from her grip and readjusting his collar. He spared a quick glance at the parlor, noting that nothing had really changed, although there were some crumpled sweet wrappers on an end table, which was unusual for Aunt Petunia.
    “Don’t you ‘hello’ me,” his aunt snapped, dragging his attention back to her aggravated face. “I asked you what you are doing here? Term still has several weeks remaining.”
    Harry shrugged and dropped his gaze to the floor. “We were released early this year,” he said vaguely, not wanting to discuss Dumbledore’s death with her quite so soon. He wasn’t ready.
    Before she could reply, the kitchen door swung open, and Harry’s cousin Dudley lumbered into the room. He was even larger than Harry remembered, and his face looked tired and drawn. His eyes opened wide with shock upon seeing Harry, and he began gaping like a fish.
    “What’s he doing here?” Dudley demanded, pointing a porky finger at Harry. Harry was pleased to notice the slight tremor in Dudley’s hand. After years of being the victim of Dudley’s bullying behavior, it was nice to have the shoe on the other foot, so to speak.
    “Hey, Duds,” Harry said, grinning widely. “You’re home from school early, too. Did they chuck you out?” Harry asked, throwing Aunt Petunia’s taunt back at his cousin.
    Harry was surprised when Dudley ignored Harry completely and turned his panic-stricken eyes upon his mother. “Thought you’d get him to look me over, did you? Trying to compare and see if he’s infected me? It’s all his fault, anyway. You know that. Him and that freak of an old man who took him the last time – they did this to me. You know they did something. He threatened you, I heard him.”
    “Now, now, Popkin,” Aunt Petunia said soothingly, but Harry couldn’t help but notice the tremor in her voice. “Don’t get yourself upset. You know what happens when you get too fussed.”
    Dudley’s eyes nearly bulged out of the sockets, and he grasped his mother’s forearms with enough force to leave red marks. “Mummy! Don’t let it happen again,” he whimpered.
    Aunt Petunia pulled her arm away and began patting Dudley on the back and cooing softly as she led him into the parlor. Once she sat him on the couch and calmed him down, she turned back towards Harry. Her eyes were filled with such intense loathing that Harry found himself taking a step back involuntarily. What was going on here?
    “Sit down and don’t dirty the sofa. I’m going to get Duddy a glass of lemonade,” she hissed, scurrying from the room. “Don’t upset him.”
    Harry looked over at Dudley and furrowed his eyebrows. “What’s got your knickers in such a twist, Dud?”
    “What are you doing here? Did they ask you to come look at me? I won’t have you or any of your freak friends pawing at me. Don’t think I can’t get that ruddy thing away from you, and when I do…” Dudley’s face matched the purple color that Harry usually associated with Uncle Vernon.
    “Take it easy, Dud. You’re going to burst something. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here? What is this all about?” Harry asked.
    His mind was racing, trying to remember all the details from his last trip to Privet Drive. It seemed like another lifetime ago. Professor Dumbledore had been pleasant, even though it was obvious to Harry that he had been upset by the way that the Dursleys had treated Harry. Still, he didn’t think that was something the Dursleys would have picked up. Harry’s comfort and well-being had never been one of their considerations.
    Dudley appeared to be under the impression that Professor Dumbledore had threatened them, however. How would Dudley’s mind have formed that idea? Of course, being the bully he was, Dudley probably assumed everyone was threatening him, since he spent most of his time threatening others. Still, Harry tried to recall the conversation from the previous year to work out what had wound up his relatives so much.
    Staring at Dudley sitting crouched into himself on the couch brought Dumbledore’s words back into Harry’s mind. He had said something about leaving a note for the Dursleys when he’d dropped Harry on their doorstep all those years ago.
    “You did not do as I asked. You have never treated Harry as a son. He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands. The best that can be said is that he has at least escaped the appalling damage you have inflicted upon the unfortunate boy sitting between you.”
    Was that what Dudley thought was a threat? How could it be, though? Another memory arose in Harry’s mind of a Howler sent to Aunt Petunia after the Dementor attack on Harry and Dudley in the alley before his fifth year.
    “Remember my last.”
    The last must have been this same letter. Harry was burning with curiosity to know exactly what the letter had said. He held little hope that Aunt Petunia would tell him, however. Why is she so worried about Dudley being upset, anyway? Not that she ever likes to see her little popkin upset, Harry thought with a grimace.
    Only one thing to do for it, then.
    “So what’s this about Professor Dumbledore doing something to you last time, Duds? Are you sprouting a tail again? I didn’t even see him do it. Of course, he has no problem with non-verbal spells, so you never know what he could have been up to,” Harry said casually, forcing down the painful lump that lodged itself in his throat when speaking as if Professor Dumbledore were still alive.
    Dudley cowered away from Harry and scrambled off the couch faster than his bulk should have allowed. His hands instinctively searching his massive behind for, Harry assumed, the return of a pig’s tail. “Stay away from me! I mean it…you stay away!”
    Harry stood up and began walking towards Dudley with a determined stride. “What’s wrong, Dud? Why are you so skittish all of a sudden? Lost your nerve, have you? Is this what’s got you acting like such a little girl?” Harry asked, drawing his wand from his sleeve.
    “Put it away,” Dudley screeched, backing into a corner. Harry would have laughed if it weren’t so pathetic. This was the great git of a bully who had regularly made Harry’s life a living hell when he was small?
    “I mean it, Potter, put that thing away,” Dudley growled.
    “Or what, Dud? What are you going to do?” Harry couldn’t help his morbid fascination, wondering how far he could push before Dudley would strike back.
    Before Dudley could answer him, however, the vase on the table next to him started shaking violently. It rattled on the table as it moved closer to the edge. Harry stared at it in surprise. He really wasn’t that upset, not about this, anyway. Why was his magic reacting so strongly?
    “Oh, no,” Dudley moaned before the vase flew from the table and went careening towards Harry’s head.
    Harry was so shocked that he never had time to move. The heavy ceramic vase slammed into the side of his face with enough force to knock him from his feet. The vase and Harry both landed on the floor with a heavy thud, the vase shattering in several large chunks.
    Alerted by the noise, Aunt Petunia hurried back into the room and screeched at the destruction. “What have you done?” she spat, stepping over Harry to retrieve the broken pieces of her vase.
    “It happened again, Mummy,” Dudley wailed. “He did it! I know he did.”
    Aunt Petunia leapt to her feet and hurried over to Dudley. “There, there, now, sweetums. Mummy’s here. Everything will be all right. Come into the kitchen, and I’ll make you a nice snack. I’ll take care of everything.”
    As she ushered Dudley from the room, she turned back towards Harry, who was still struggling to rise from the floor. “Stay here. I’ll be right back. I warned you not to upset him,” she hissed, her eyes nearly glowing with a burning intensity.
    Harry groaned as he sat up and put a hand to his throbbing cheekbone. What is going on here? He pulled himself to his feet unsteadily and shook his head in an attempt to clear it.
    Bad idea.
    The entire room swam before his eyes, and he had to grasp the arm of the couch to remain upright. He tentatively moved his jaw from side to side, testing how much damage had been done to his face. He didn’t think anything was broken, but the pain was enough to make him wish for one of Madam Pomfrey’s potions.
    This would be no ordinary stay at Privet Drive.
    He’d done accidental magic before, but not in a long time. He didn’t remember ever hurting himself with it before, either. Something wasn’t right. He glanced out the window apprehensively, wondering if he’d be receiving a reprimand from the Ministry.
    Great. That’s all I need.
    Still, he’d never got them when it had happened when he was younger, so maybe he’d get by this time, as well. Nothing to do for it; he’d have to wait and see.
    The more pressing matter was what was going on with Dudley. He’d acted almost as if he’d known what was going to happen. Almost as if…
    Aunt Petunia strode back into the room at that moment and sat down stiffly, glaring at Harry all the while. Harry wasn’t certain what she expected of him, but followed her lead and sat down at the other end of the couch, waiting. After a few moments spent in silence, Harry couldn’t take it anymore.
    “What’s happening here, Aunt Petunia?” he asked quietly. “I don’t think I did that. I think Dudley did. How is that possible?”
    “Of course my Dudley didn’t do it. You’re the freak here, not him,” she snapped, before her face crumpled, and she put her head in her hands.
    Harry was thunderstruck and at a loss for what to do. In all the years that Harry had spent with the Dursleys, she’d never once offered him a bit of comfort over anything, and he found it strange that he wanted to comfort her now.
    Tentatively, he raised his hand and gradually moved it towards her before quickly pulling it back again. Twice more he struggled with the urge to lay his hand on her back in an attempt to calm her. She’d never taken kindly to his touch before, and he was afraid that anything he might do would stop her from talking. He wanted answers more than he wanted to comfort her, so he clenched his fists and fought to remain in his spot.
    Aunt Petunia finally raised her head, and, although her lower lip trembled, she began to speak. “After you and your headmaster left here last year, odd things started to happen. These incidents grew more and more frequent until Dudley was finally asked to leave school. They suggested he needed counseling. As if we’d ever be able to talk about any of this. They thought he was acting out and being destructive on purpose. The nerve of some people.”
    Harry’s head was swimming with questions, but he was afraid she’d clam up if he interrupted, so he just let her continue to ramble.
    “What did your headmaster do?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “He removed the protection, didn’t he? He said we didn’t live up to our end of the bargain by not caring for you. We gave you food and shelter for all these years out of the goodness of our hearts. What more did he expect?
    “He wanted us to love you like our own. You’re not our own! You’re just a reminder of the sister I wished I’d never had. We gave you shelter, and that has supposedly kept you alive and safe all this time. That should have counted for something. We could have just chucked you in an orphanage like Vernon wanted to do. Sometimes, I think we all would have been better off if we had.”
    Harry had long ago stopped caring about or looking for the Dursleys’ approval, yet the coldness of the words stung.
    “What do you mean by remove the protection?” he asked stoically, refusing to give her the satisfaction of knowing her words had hurt him. “The blood protection from my mother remains as long as I can call this house my home…at least until my birthday. He told you I’d be returning one more time.”
    “Not the blood protection for you,” Aunt Petunia snapped. “This isn’t about you. I don’t care what happens to you or any of your freak world. As far as I’m concerned, we’d all be better off if you all just killed each other off. I want to know about the protections on Dudley. Dumbledore withdrew his part of the agreement, didn’t he?”
    Harry blinked, nonplussed. “What are you on about?” he asked coldly.
    “Oh, for heaven’s sake, you never were very bright, were you? The spell he cast on Dudley. It’s obviously not working, because he keeps making these freakish things happen.”
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  2. #2
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    “Dudley is a wizard?” Harry asked incredulously, the pieces all finally clicking into place. He felt as if the room was spinning, and he didn’t think it had anything to do with his throbbing temple. He knew magic ran in families – the Creevey brothers proved that. They were Muggleborn, and yet both were wizards…but Dudley. How could this have happened?
    “Of course he’s not a wi…a.wi… He’s not a freak,” Aunt Petunia snapped, her voice nothing more than a high-pitched whisper. “I made a deal with your headmaster. He would block this unnaturalness from Duddydums, and I would take you in. It was all arranged. Then, after last year, whatever it was he did stopped working, because Dudley started having instances of these oddities every few days, and I can’t stop them. I want you to fix it. You do whatever it was he had done before. You can fix this, and you owe us that much.”
    Harry’s mind was racing. How could this be? Would Dumbledore really have suppressed Dudley’s magic for all these years? It didn’t seem like something he would ever do. It didn’t make any sense.
    As if from a fog, Harry’s mind recalled the way Aunt Petunia had always catered to Dudley’s every whim. How she’d acted as if the world revolved around keeping him calm and not letting him get upset. Harry’s worst punishments always came as a direct result of Dudley getting upset. He wondered if Petunia’s obsessive need to clean was only a byproduct of her anxiety over cleaning up what she considered a huge mess.
    His mind continued to pick out little instances of times when Dudley had been upset. His thoughts again drifted to the night the Dementors had attacked, and Dudley had cowered in fear. Harry had wondered what Dudley could have been remembering. Could it have been some unexplained bits of magic that Dudley had fought to suppress? When Harry had found Dudley in the darkness, he’d had his hands clamped over his mouth. Harry had told him not to open his mouth, but when did Dudley ever listen to Harry? Could Dudley have actually seen the Dementors?
    Harry felt as if his world had just spun completely out of his control yet again.
    “Why would Dumbledore agree to hide Dudley’s magic? It doesn’t sound at all like Dumbledore,” he said slowly, his gaze boring into his aunt’s.
    “He didn’t want to do it. We argued for quite some time about it. I’d seen the strange things that happened from the time my Dudley was still in his cot. I knew what it meant; I remembered it from Lily. There was no way I would allow it to happen again, not after I’d worked so hard to make a normal life for my family.
    “It was the only way I would allow you to stay, and he was desperate for that to happen. I told him there was no way he’d ever get his hands on Dudley, anyway. Vernon and I would never allow him to go to that freak school. We raised him with a healthy loathing of all things so unnatural. Dudley is a good boy,” Aunt Petunia said, crossing her arms defiantly.
    Harry rolled his eyes. It all made sense. Certainly the Dursleys wouldn’t have allowed Dudley to attend Hogwarts, and Harry knew from Dudley’s reaction a moment ago that he never would have wanted to go, anyway.
    “So, what did Professor Dumbledore do, exactly?” Harry asked, unable to contain his curiosity. Aunt Petunia had never willingly told him anything in the past. Don’t ask questions had always been her standard response.
    “How am I supposed to know how all your nonsense works?” Aunt Petunia snapped. “We took you in, and he did something to take Dudley’s name off of a register or some such thing. For a time, Dudley stopped making strange things happen. The only time anything abnormal happened was when Dudley would get upset, and I could easily blame that on you so Vernon never had to know.”
    “Uncle Vernon doesn’t know his son is a wizard?” Harry asked, secretly appreciating the humor in that statement.
    “Of course he doesn’t know. And Dudley is NOT one of you. Your headmaster did something to control it, and I want you to do the same thing now,” Aunt Petunia said, crossing her bony arms across her chest.
    “I don’t even know how he could have done such a thing, never mind how do it,” Harry said, aghast.
    “Well, if you want to stay here, you’d better think of something,” she snapped.
    Harry’s mind clicked on a way to make this work to his advantage. “All right. I’ll try and find something. I’m going to need some help with it, though,” he said, rapidly changing gears.
    “What do you mean help?” she asked suspiciously.
    “My friends, Ron and Hermione – they’re brilliant with stuff like this. I’ll ask them to come and help me put it together. They’ll have to stay here for a while, though – while we research the correct spells to use. I’m certain it’s very complicated magic if Professor Dumbledore did it,” Harry said, his mind already plotting.
    Aunt Petunia frowned with disapproval. “I don’t know.”
    “All right, well…I can’t do it alone, so I suppose I’ll just be going,” he said, going so far as to turn around, rising and taking a step towards the door.
    “No!” Aunt Petunia screeched. “All right… Your friend can bunk in with you, and the girl can stay in the guestroom. I won’t have any funny business under my roof.”
    Harry smirked, envisioning the color Ron’s ears would have turned had he heard that remark. This was turning out better than he could have hoped. “All right, then.”
    “You have to promise me you’ll all stay out of Vernon and Dudley’s way. When Vernon is home, you must stay up in your room, and I want this done as quickly as possible.”
    “We’re agreed on that, then,” Harry mumbled.
    “Oh, and another thing. Your friends will have to provide their own food. I’m not feeding any extra of your freaky friends. Vernon would never have it. They can bring their own or you can share your portion, but I won’t be responsible for them,” Aunt Petunia said, her haughty demeanor returning.
    Harry had no choice but to agree. He hadn’t really thought about how they would eat. He could only hope that Hermione would be better prepared. She was certainly familiar enough with the Dursleys’ penchant for withholding nourishment. They’d just have to figure something out. Maybe if Mrs. Weasley wasn’t too upset with them she’d send something, or maybe Ginny would help…
    Ginny.
    On second thought, Harry decided that she couldn’t be involved with this in any way. It wasn’t fair to her, and he didn’t think he could stand to have her so close and yet so far. They’d have to come up with something else.
    But her presence here would certainly be a nice contrast to Aunt Petunia, his mind said, betraying him.
    Stop it, he told himself firmly. Ginny would not be involved.
    “I’m going to send an owl. I’m certain they’ll be able to arrive shortly – they’re both of age,” Harry said, watching the panic fill Aunt Petunia’s eyes once again.
    “What does that mean? They’re able to do…to…to use their things? I won’t have it in this house. You said they were coming here for research,” she said, a whine in her voice.
    “Aunt Petunia, they’re coming here to work out how to do a spell that you asked me to do. Are you telling me that they can’t use magic to do it?” Harry asked, thoroughly enjoying his aunt’s conundrum.
    Aunt Petunia’s lips thinned into a tiny sliver of a line. “One time and one time only. You owe me that much. You’re to help your cousin, and then you and your friends are to get out. I want nothing more to do with you or your kind. Vernon can see nothing unusual – he’s unhappy enough with you as it is.”
    “So what’s new about that?” Harry mumbled.
    “He’s been muttering about the fact that you came into an inheritance and didn’t bother to make us aware of that situation,” Aunt Petunia said with obvious disapproval. “We’ve provided you with house and board for sixteen years; certainly, if you’ve come into a house of your own, we deserve something for our trouble.”
    “You won’t get anything that belonged to Sirius,” Harry said hotly. He might not want anything to do with Grimmauld Place either, but he certainly wasn’t about to let them get their grubby paws on it. He owed Sirius that much. Taking a deep breath to control his temper, he said through gritted teeth, “It wouldn’t do you any good, anyway. It’s a wizarding house – Muggles can’t see it. Although I suppose Dudley might be able to see it, actually…”
    Aunt Petunia’s eyes widened with panic. “Enough. Diddyums most certainly will not be seeing any of your unnaturalness. Go and send your letter…and tell them to bring their own food,” she snapped before storming from the room.
    Harry smiled grimly. Whenever it was that he’d be leaving this house to start the search for the Horcruxes couldn’t be soon enough.
    The ringing of the doorbell startled Harry from his deep thoughts. He’d been up in his room, unpacking his few meager belongings from his school trunk. He reckoned that he and Ron would be quite cramped in his small bedroom, so a little organization couldn’t hurt. He wanted to be done with it before Hermione arrived and saw him doing it, however. There was no sense in letting her think she’d had any influence over him, or he’d never hear the end of it.
    He glanced at the clock and was relieved to note they still had a half-hour before Uncle Vernon was due home. That should be just enough time to get settled and give Aunt Petunia some space to let him know they would be here. Even if they stayed confined for the most part to Harry’s room, there was no way for Uncle Vernon not to notice three extra people using the bathroom.
    Hopefully, Aunt Petunia would think of something to placate him, and then Harry, Ron, and Hermione could just stay out of his way. It would be best for all of them to avoid a confrontation. Of course, having Ron
    attempting to live as a Muggle ought to be a task worthy of the TriWizard tournament itself, Harry thought with a chuckle.
    He was nearly gleeful with anticipation and was amused to realize that he’d never once before eagerly anticipated anything to do with the Dursleys as much as he was Ron’s presence in their very ordered life. It would be worth a few good telling-offs, actually.
    He shut the door to his bedroom and hurried down the stairs, quietly noting Aunt Petunia straining her neck in order to peer out from the kitchen. Dudley was nowhere in sight.
    Harry swung the door open wide just as the bell rang again.
    “…you know anyone heard it the first time?” Ron was asking.
    Hermione rolled her eyes. “Hi, Harry,” she said brightly before releasing a horrified gasp. “Harry! What happened to your face?”
    Harry put a hand to his cheek, wincing at the deep bruising. He’d been so lost in his musings that he hadn’t even paid attention. “Long story. I’ve got loads to tell you.”
    Hermione looked dubious. “Is everything settled?”
    “’Course it is,” Ron said, taking Hermione by the arm and firmly ushering her inside. He obviously wasn’t about to take any of the Dursleys’ excuses. “Just stop talking for a minute and let him tell us what’s happening…then we can decide what to do about it.”
    Harry stepped back, grinning, and allowed them to enter. “Everything’s fine, Hermione. Come on upstairs, and we can talk privately.”
    Neither Ron nor Hermione made any effort to move. They both stood in the hallway, looking around the house. He saw Hermione frowning at the abundance of pictures of Dudley adorning the walls and every spare bit of surface space in the parlor. Harry was amused to notice that there was now a new picture perched on top of the table that only hours ago had sported the broken vase.
    Ron grunted his displeasure, while Hermione’s brows knitted as she scowled. Harry couldn’t blame them; Dudley wasn’t much to look at, that was for certain. Harry was keen to get them out of the parlor and away from Aunt Petunia’s prying eyes before her nosiness might allow her to learn anything he didn’t want her to know.
    “Uncle Vernon will be home soon, so it’s better if we go upstairs. I’ve got loads to tell you,” Harry said, trying to steer his friends toward the stairway.
    Hermione, however, was peering over his shoulder with interest.
    “You must be Harry’s Aunt Petunia,” she said. “I’m Hermione Granger. You’ve probably heard Harry mention me. We’ve been friends since our first year.”
    Harry groaned inwardly. Too late.
    “Can you do it? Can you help my Dudley?” Aunt Petunia asked, ignoring Hermione’s outstretched hand and peering intently at her face.
    “Help him to do what?” she asked, startled.
    Aunt Petunia whirled on Harry. “I thought you said they’d know what to do,” she hissed. “I allowed them to come here, because you said they could help him. They’re in your year…why do they know how to do it if you can’t?” She pointed her bony finger at Ron disapprovingly. “I recognize that one from that family who came to collect you and destroyed our parlor a few years back.”
    “I said I’d need some assistance, and they’re it,” Harry said trying to placate her. “Unlike me, neither is underage. I only had time to tell them I needed some help – they don’t know all the details yet. Just give us a little time, and we’ll get it all set to rights.”
    “What’s going on here, Harry?” Ron asked, his eyes darting back and forth between Harry and Aunt Petunia.
    “Not now, Ron,” Harry said, glaring.
    “How long will all this take?” Aunt Petunia demanded. “I can only appease your uncle for so long. I want this done and you out of this house as quickly as possible.”
    “Nothing will please me more,” Harry said through clenched teeth. “Give us a fortnight, and we’ll never have to see each other again.”
    “Mrs. Dursley…” Hermione said, her eyes wide.
    “A fortnight? That long? Do you really expect me to keep you here that long?” Aunt Petunia screeched.
    “I assume you want it done right without any mistakes that might affect Dudley?” Harry asked.
    Aunt Petunia paled. “You better not do anything to hurt my Dudley. That would be just like you, wouldn’t it? I don’t know why I’m trusting the likes of you with this. You’ve always been jealous of Dudley, because you could never be like him.”
    “Now, wait a moment, Mrs. Dursley…” Hermione tried again, shocked.
    Neither Harry nor his aunt paused to look at her.
    Harry rolled his eyes. “That’s just what I’ve always wanted – to be more like Diddydinkums. You’re trusting it to me, because you really don’t have any choice, do you? Of course, if you’d rather we just leave now…”
    Aunt Petunia glared at him for several moments before her shoulders sagged in defeat. “Get upstairs and keep quiet until I can talk to your uncle. Under no circumstances are you to upset Dudley.”
    Before the words were even completely out of Aunt Petunia’s mouth, the front door swung open, revealing the startled face of Vernon Dursley. He stopped in his tracks and looked with confusion at the faces staring back at him.
    Slowly, his color turned a deeper and deeper shade of red before he started spluttering. “You! What the devil are you doing here? What is the meaning of this?” His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What have you done to my family this time, boy?”
    “Hello, Uncle Vernon,” Harry said dryly.
    “Don’t you take that tone with me. You are no longer welcome here – not that you ever were. Get out and take your damn friends with you,” Vernon snarled.
    Harry smirked. “I think Aunt Petunia might disagree with you.”
    Aunt Petunia glared at him viciously.
    Uncle Vernon turned an enraged expression from Harry towards Aunt Petunia, but seemed to whither a bit under her scrutiny. “Petunia?” he whined.
    “They need to stay, Vernon. They won’t be here long, and when they leave, we’ll be rid of him for good,” she said, waving her hand in Harry’s general direction.
    “But...but…but,” Vernon said, spluttering.
    “I’m not any happier about it than you are, Vernon, but this is how it’s going to be,” she said firmly.
    Uncle Vernon’s shoulders slumped momentarily before he turned back on Harry. “I won’t stand for any of your funny business, boy, and I want to talk to you about this inheritance you so neatly forgot to mention last summer. What was it? Your dead convict of a godfather leaving you a house. Thought you’d hoard that information all to yourself, did you?”
    Harry’s face remained impassive.
    “It won’t do us any good, Vernon. It’s a…a…unnatural house. We wouldn’t even be able to see it, and it’s full of freakish things,” Aunt Petunia said with a shudder. She turned on Harry. “Go upstairs and settle in for the night. You’ll have to provide for yourselves, as we’re going out to eat.”
    Harry turned towards his friends, who were staring at him in stunned silence. “Up the stairs, first door on the right,” he said, jerking his head toward the stairs.
    Ron and Hermione hurried up without another word.
    As Harry lay in his bed that night feeling much older than his sixteen years, he wished his mind was as tired as his body. He had filled Ron and Hermione in about everything that had happened with Dudley and Aunt
    Petunia’s explanations for it. He had to admit, he’d enjoyed listening to Ron and Hermione’s outraged indignation to the way Harry’s relatives spoke to him.
    Ron kept coming up with more and more names of the twins’ inventions to use on them, and even Hermione had suggested a curse or two. It warmed Harry’s heart to hear them, even if he would never allow them to get into trouble for doing something to the Dursleys. He enjoyed plotting it, nonetheless.
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  3. #3
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Hermione’s parents hadn’t wanted to let her go – they’d only seen her once during the whole year, at Christmastime – but Hermione had insisted that she was considered an adult in the Wizarding world now, and this was something she had to do.
    Ron had been much less forthcoming about how his big revelation went at the Burrow. After much needling and cajoling from Harry and Hermione, Ron had finally admitted that he’d only told his mum that he was staying at Privet Drive with Harry, not that he wasn’t planning on returning to school at all come September. Hermione had scowled her disapproval and uttered something that sounded distinctly like coward.
    They’d talked much more about Dudley and what Dumbledore could have done to mask Dudley’s magic. Harry still had trouble reconciling himself with the idea that Dudley was a wizard. It was mind-boggling. In the end, Hermione had promised to look into it while they were staying on Privet Drive. It would be something to pass the time, and if worse came to worse, she could simply cast a Cheering Charm before they left. That would keep Dudley happy for while.
    It had been very late when they’d finally crawled into bed. Harry had shown Hermione to the guestroom and suggested she add a lock to her door. Ron hadn’t wanted to leave her alone, but shut up quickly after Harry suggested he stay in there with her. Harry smiled in the darkness, remembering the expression on Ron’s face. Hermione had transfigured Harry’s desk into another bed for the night, with the promise to make some changes to Harry’s room in the morning.
    Harry hadn’t asked Ron or Hermione about Ginny, and neither had brought her up. He couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not. He knew he should just let her go, but he’d never expected how hard that was going to be. He was doing the right thing…wasn’t he? He had to keep her safe at all costs. If anything happened to her because of him…Harry didn’t think he’d ever be able to survive it.
    When he’d been with her these past weeks, it had felt like, for one brief shining moment in his life, he’d been normal. Nothing else had mattered. Not Voldemort, not the Horcruxes, not a prophecy. He was just Harry Potter, a sixteen-year old wizard falling in love with a beautiful, red-haired witch.
    Falling in love?
    Wait a minute… Where had that thought come from? Harry didn’t know whether he loved Ginny or not – he hadn’t even considered it before now. How was he supposed to know what love was? All he knew was the way
    she made him feel – so alive. She made him feel like he could do anything.
    Being with Ginny had made him want more out of life.
    He knew what the prophecy said, and half of him had always suspected that he was going to die, anyway. He’d just hoped he could take Voldemort with him. But she had to go and make him want more. She’d made him see the possibility of what life could be like, and, damn it, he wanted more.
    Harry groaned and rolled over, viciously punching his pillow.
    “Harry,” Ron’s voice called sleepily.
    Harry froze; he’d forgotten Ron was there.
    “Yeah?”
    “You okay?”
    “Yeah.”
    Ron was quiet for a moment, and Harry thought he’d gone back to sleep when Ron suddenly spoke again. “Ginny didn’t seem pleased that I was coming here with you,” he said, in a voice that was much too casual to be natural.
    Harry felt as if all the air had been compressed from his lungs. “Oh,” he replied in a choked voice.
    Ron fell silent again, as if waiting for Harry to say something more. When Harry didn’t respond, he said, “You broke up with her, didn’t you?”
    Harry took a deep shuddering breath. “Yeah,” he replied, bracing himself in case Ron leaped upon him.
    Ron sighed heavily. “I think you made the right choice,” he said. “It would be too dangerous for her to come with us. You’ll have a lot to make up to her when this is over, though.”
    To say he was surprised was a massive understatement. Still, he steeled himself for what he was about to say. “I didn’t ask her to wait for me, Ron. We have no idea how long this is going to take, or if I’ll even be around when it’s finished.”
    “Don’t talk like that, Harry,” Ron said fiercely. “Of course you will. And she’ll wait.”
    Ron fell silent again, and this time it was Harry who waited for him to say more. Finally, realizing that Ron wasn’t going to add anything to that statement, Harry couldn’t contain his curiosity. He wished he could control that hope that flared within his heart, but he couldn’t. He didn’t even know how to begin to try.
    “How do you know?” he asked tentatively.
    “She told me to take care of you,” Ron said. “As if that isn’t what I always do,” he added with a snort.
    Harry hastily swiped his eyes with the back of his hand. She does care.
    “Thanks, Ron,” he said, hating how gruff his voice sounded. He rolled back over on his side and listened to the sounds of insects flying outside the open window, his mind running over pleasant memories of the all-too-brief time he’d spent with Ginny.
    Ron’s voice once again broke the silence of the room.
    “Of course, after this is all over, if you ever break her heart again, I’ll have to beat you senseless.”
    Harry grinned into his pillow. “You could try.”
    “Don’t think I won’t.”
    “Night, Ron.”
    “Night, Harry.”

    end of chapter 1
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  4. #4
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Chapter Two
    When One Door Closes…
    The next morning, Harry was awakened by the sound of Ron’s snoring, which was causing the entire room to shake. Combined with Dudley’s snores coming from the room next door, it sounded as if a battle of the bands was taking place.
    Harry sniggered.
    Uncle Vernon must be loving this. Of course, he snored fairly loudly himself, so maybe he was missing it. The door to Harry’s bedroom creaked open, and a disgruntled Hermione stuck her face inside.
    “Does he always snore that loudly?” she asked testily.
    “Pretty much,” Harry replied, grinning. He pulled the covers up closely to his bare chest, suddenly becoming aware of his state of undress. “Er, what are you doing in here, Hermione?”
    Hermione’s cheeks turned pink, as if she just realized what she’d done. He noticed her gaze remained fixed on Ron’s bare chest as he lay uncovered on his bed, his arms flung open wide.
    “Hermione,” Harry repeated.
    She started. “Oh! I mean, erm…I just couldn’t sleep with all that racket. I’m going to Apparate into Diagon Alley and pick up some books at Flourish and Blotts that might help us with our search. I’ll get some breakfast while I’m out. Try and wake Sleeping Beauty there; we’ve got loads to do when I get back.”
    Hermione had, thankfully, thought to bring sandwiches and snacks with her when she’d arrived yesterday, and they’d feasted in Harry’s room. He was grateful that she’d offered to get breakfast and relieved him of the duty of having to explain that the Dursleys wouldn’t be feeding them.
    “All right. Be careful,” Harry said.
    “Honestly, Harry. I’m only going to Diagon Alley. I’ll be back before you know it. What do the Dursleys like to eat? I could pick something up for them while I’m out, too.”
    Harry just stared at her, mouth agape. “You…you…you want to get breakfast for the Dursleys?” he asked, unable to wrap his mind around the idea.
    “Well, if I’m getting something for us, it would be the polite thing to do. I think that if we just made an effort you all could come to an understanding. You’re her nephew, after all, and she’s raised you since you were a baby. She came to you for help, and I think you have the chance to really build a relationship here, Harry.”
    Harry’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly. Had his friend finally gone mad? He knew exactly what would happen if Hermione brought back food to the Dursleys – they’d sooner let it knock into their heads than touch it. They did as much last year with the wine Professor Dumbledore had offered them. He also knew Hermione well enough to understand that nothing he could say would dissuade her from her campaign.
    “Why don’t you just get a variety of pastries,” he said. He was amused with the idea that Hermione’s latest crusade appeared to be to enlighten the Dursleys. Harry knew she stood a better chance with the house-elves. In fact, he’d spent most of his life being treated like a house-elf by the Dursleys. Between Ron trying to live like a Muggle and Hermione trying to civilize the Dursleys, this would be the most entertainment he’d had on Privet Drive in his entire life
    After Hermione had left, Harry took a shower – a very long shower once he got distracted with thoughts of Ginny again – and then went to awaken Ron. He tried calling his friend’s name several times, and when that didn’t work, he lobbed a pillow at his head.
    “What the… Bloody hell, Harry. What’d you do that for?” Ron asked grumpily, throwing the offending pillow back at Harry and pulling the covers over his head.
    “Come on and get up. Hermione told me to have you up and dressed by the time she returned,” Harry said, grinning at Ron for jumping to attention at the mention of Hermione’s name.
    “What? Returns from where? Where is she?” Ron asked.
    “She went to Flourish and Blotts to get us some research material and also to pick us up some breakfast,” Harry replied, tossing Ron’s dressing gown at him.
    “The shower gets wonky with the hot water sometimes. If it gets too hot, just jiggle the handle, and it resets itself,” Harry said.
    “Jiggle the handle,” Ron repeated blankly.
    “Yeah,” Harry said absently, opening the window to let in the owl delivering the Daily Prophet. He paid for the paper and turned back to find Ron still sitting there.
    “What?”
    “I can’t just tell the shower how hot I want it to be?” Ron asked, although it sounded more like a whine.
    Harry remembered his first summer at the Burrow, when he was twelve and standing naked in Ron’s shower, completely perplexed over the lack of a handle to turn the water off and on. He’d broken out in goose bumps before it had finally occurred to him simply to ask the water to begin spraying.
    Taking pity on his friend, he grinned and said, “Come on. I’ll show you how the common folk live.”
    By the time Ron had finished with his shower and returned to Harry’s room (with the echo of Aunt Petunia huffing over the waste of water), Hermione had returned from her visit to Diagon Alley.
    She burst into the room in a foul temper, angrily swiping the hair from her face. She dropped a heavy load of books onto Harry’s rickety old desk and plopped a box full of more pastries than even Ron could eat onto the bed.
    “Your relatives weren’t hungry, so there’s plenty to eat,” she said stiffly.
    Harry really tried his best not to grin. Really.
    “What did they do? Throw them at you?” he asked.
    “They’re under the impression that I did something to the pastries. Honestly, Harry, I can’t believe that you ever tried to poison them, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” she sniffed.
    “They hate anything – and anyone – associated with magic. It has nothing to do with you, Hermione. It’s just how they are,” Harry replied, shrugging his shoulders.
    Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “Well, that’s just as bigoted and narrow-minded as the Malfoys’ view of Muggles.”
    Harry supposed she was right. “Yeah. Now that you mention it, I think Dudley and Malfoy could have actually been mates.”
    “There’s an unpleasant thought,” said Ron with a grimace. He’d already opened the box of pastries and held one in each hand. He took a bite of one, causing jam to squirt up on the side of his face. He slowly licked it off. “Mmmm, this is brilliant. I love you, Hermione.”
    Hermione’s cheeks turned pink as she hurriedly looked away and selected her own pastry.
    Harry wasn’t certain what was happening between his two best friends. He’d thought that maybe they’d come to some sort of an understanding at Dumbledore’s funeral, but they hadn’t said anything to him. In fact, they were acting pretty much the same as they always did – except for a lot more blushing.
    He didn’t know how he felt about it. He wanted his friends to be happy, but the idea of sitting on the sidelines and watching them fall in love while his own heart was aching was more than he could bear.
    Ginny.
    Things were different for Ron and Hermione, though. They were together on this quest for the Horcruxes. They were a team and worked much better with each other than apart. Harry watched his friends out of the corner of his eye as he ate his own pastry. Ron was doing a good job on both of his, but Harry noticed him pausing every once in a while to sneak a glance at Hermione. For her part, Hermione was much more discreet, but she was also copping her fair share of peeks at Ron. Harry thought there must be some powerful feelings between them if Hermione could distract Ron from food.
    It was different for Ginny and him, though, wasn’t it? He had to protect her…she was better off far away from him. Still, the battle raged within his mind. For those few weeks that they’d shared together, he’d felt as if he could conquer anything. He’d felt so much stronger when she’d been by his side.
    No! Stop!
    He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t even allow his traitorous heart to think it. Ginny shouldn’t be anywhere near him.
    He had to be the one to do this thing. Even if Ron and Hermione were with him on the hunt for the Horcruxes, he had absolutely no intention whatsoever of letting them get anywhere near Voldemort when the final battle raged. He’d take Voldemort out, and maybe die in the process, but he’d be certain that neither of his friends was anywhere near him when that happened. He could never allow any of them to become another spare. Especially Ginny.
    An image rose unbidden in his mind of Cedric’s lifeless eyes staring from his crumpled body in a graveyard. Harry shuddered as his mind played a trick and warped the body into Ginny. Her warm, brown eyes – eyes that could melt an iceberg – stared blankly, almost accusingly, through him. He couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t.
    He glanced up at Ron and Hermione in time to see Hermione use a napkin to wipe away the jam that still remained on the corner of Ron’s mouth.
    It would be wrong of Harry to begrudge them this happiness, no matter how much his heart ached to see it. Hadn’t Professor McGonagall said that Professor Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think there was a little more love in the world?
    He’d personally told Harry that love was his greatest strength, so why was he pushing it away?
    No!
    It was different for Ginny and him. Everything was always different for him, and he’d only end up getting her killed, or forcing her to watch as he died. No. It was better for her own sake to keep her away. He’d never want her to have to suffer the kind of horror and pain that he’d felt when he’d watched Sirius slip through that Veil.
    Harry shook his head, steeling his resolve. This was the way it had to be.
    “Okay.” Hermione’s voice dragged Harry out of his thoughts. “Let’s start with this room. It definitely needs some improvements.” She scowled as her gaze roamed around the stacks of broken toys cluttered in the corner and the rundown condition of Harry’s small bed. She withdrew her wand from her sleeve.
    “We can’t use magic,” Harry said quickly. “The Ministry can’t detect who is doing the magic, only that it’s being done here, and I’ll get another reprimand. Dumbledore told me that’s why I got the letter when Dobby levitated my aunt’s pudding.”
    “Not to worry, mate,” Ron said, his mouth still full of pastry. “My dad said he’d inform Matilda Hopkirk at the Ministry that Hermione and I were staying here this summer, and we’re both of age.”
    “So…then…they won’t do anything if I use my wand, either. Right?” Harry asked, furrowing his brow.
    “No, Harry,” Hermione said firmly. “You’re still underage, and we have to play by the rules if we want to avoid any trouble from the Ministry. They could still use a Priori Incantatum to see if your wand has been used. Let Ron and me handle the spells while we’re here.”
    Harry scowled, feeling that old, familiar resentment arise within his heart. Dumbledore had always tried to shield him, and look at how well that turned out in the end. “Yeah. I’ll just sit back and be a good little boy – like I always do.”
    “Right,” Ron said, choking slightly on a piece of his pastry. “You’re so good at staying out of trouble. It’s not our fault you’re such a young ‘un.”
    A reluctant smile spread across Harry’s face. “Shut it,” he mumbled, but it was no use. It was impossible to stay in a foul mood when he had Ron and Hermione here with him on Privet Drive.
    “So…what kind of changes do you have in mind?” he asked, looking back at Hermione.
    “Oh, something like this,” Hermione said much too casually, as if she’d been thinking of nothing else since she’d arrived. She waved her wand toward the mess of Dudley’s old things in the corner and vanished them completely.
    She turned towards Harry’s desk, and, with a brief flick of her wand, the chipped, sagging old wood transfigured into a polished cherry and doubled in size. Shiny brass knobs appeared on the drawers, and a small bookshelf formed on the top.
    Harry’s jaw dropped in amazement. “Nice transfiguration, Hermione.”
    She wasn’t finished. She turned her wand towards his bed – really, just a threadbare old mattress on top of a box spring that sagged in the middle. It immediately transformed into a replica of his beloved four-poster bed at Hogwarts, complete with a fluffy red duvet.
    Harry felt as if his face would burst from smiling so wildly. “Wicked,” he said.
    Hermione aimed her wand at the window. The bolts that had once held bars in place disappeared, and the window adjusted itself so the panes could swing outward, letting in a nice summer breeze. Heavy curtains in a shade of red that matched his bed linens appeared, tied back with gold braids.
    Harry had never had curtains in his room before, and honestly, he’d never really even noticed. He was stunned at the difference it made.
    “Oh, I know what I want to do with that,” Ron said, sounding disgusted.
    Harry turned to see him pointing towards the cat flap on the door.
    “What is it?” Hermione asked.
    Ron answered before Harry could change the subject. “They used to shove his food through there when they locked him up after first year.”
    Hermione’s lips thinned into slivers. “What did you have in mind, Ron?” she asked, her voice sounding extremely shrill.
    “Remember that drive-through place your parents took us to yesterday?” Ron asked, grinning.
    Hermione’s face lit up with a memory. “I know exactly what you have in mind,” she said.
    Harry frowned. He did want them together, but he wasn’t certain that he liked this secret language that only they appeared to understand. “Erm?”
    Hermione flicked her wand again, but the cat flap appeared unchanged.
    “Did it work?” asked Ron.
    “Try it,” replied Hermione.
    Ron lay down on his belly in front of the door.
    “What are you doing?” Harry asked, perplexed.
    “I’d like three cheeseburgers and some crisps, please,” Ron said, speaking to the cat flap.
    Before Harry even had the chance to ask Ron if he’d gone mad, the food Ron had requested slid from the flap on the door. Harry blinked in surprise.
    “Have a nice day,” a voice echoed from the cat flap.
    Hermione grinned, and Ron looked as if he’d died and went to heaven. He unwrapped a cheeseburger and took a bite. “Mmmm.”
    “What do you think, Harry?” Hermione asked.
    Harry had yet to remove his eyes from the cat flap. Slowly, a delighted grin spread across his face. “I think the smell of that food alone will drive Dudley mad.”
    “It’s cold down here on the floor, though,” Ron said, his voice muffled with burger. “Can you do something about that, Hermione?”
    Hermione flicked her wand yet again, and a lush soft carpet covered the floor. “It’s going to be a bit crowded in here, though,” Hermione said thoughtfully before closing her eyes.
    Harry’s eyes widened as the walls began to shift outward, enlarging the room to nearly double its original size. Quickly, Hermione transfigured Ron’s conjured camp bed into a duplicate of his bed at Hogwarts. “There,” Hermione said with an air of satisfaction.
    “My aunt is going to flip,” Harry said with glee.
    “The house won’t appear any different from the outside, so it’s only if they come in here that they’ll notice,” Hermione said.
    “Oh, believe me, Aunt Petunia will be sticking her head in. I’m certain the curiosity over what we’re doing up here is killing her,” Harry said grimly.
    Hermione bit her lip. “She won’t be angry, will she?”
    “Of course she will,” Harry said happily. “Not only did we perform magic, but now my room is nicer than Dudley’s. She’ll despise it.”
    Hermione frowned. “That certainly can’t be a reason, Harry. She doesn’t like the magic, but she’s coming around now because of Dudley.”
    “Okay,” he replied. He knew Hermione was only setting herself up for disappointment. He only hoped his relatives wouldn’t be too hard on her. He didn’t want to see them hurt her; she was truly trying to
    help. He could handle the snubs – he’d had loads of practice – but he wasn’t about to let them take out their prejudice on her.
    Their days at Privet Drive passed slowly, and Harry felt the stirrings of restlessness growing within him as they approached the day they would leave forever. He felt as if he were wound tight as a drum and plunged himself into the books that Hermione had brought back from Diagon Alley in an attempt at distraction.
    He’d been having trouble sleeping, and dark circles had appeared beneath his eyes. Each night when he’d try to settle down to sleep, thoughts and vague memories would churn in his head, and he couldn’t turn them off.
    The locket, the cup, the snake, and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw…
    At times, he felt confident and ready to rush out and begin the hunt. The forced confinement grated on his nerves, and he was certain he’d worn a layer off his teeth from grinding them. At other times, the task at hand appeared so overwhelming that he felt hopeless and full of despair. The fake Horcrux that he always kept in his pocket seemed to mock him.
    It was at these times that he’d retreat into himself, growing distant and increasingly quiet. He could see the concerned glances shared between Ron and Hermione when they thought he wasn’t looking, but he pretended not to notice and continued with his research.
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  5. #5
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Hermione had set him the task of writing down everything he could remember from the Pensieve memories that Professor Dumbledore had shown him, in addition to any comments that the headmaster might have made about Tom Riddle. They hoped for some clues that could help them narrow their search. He’d placed a charm on his notes similar to the Marauders map so that no one else would be able to read back what he’d written. The phrase he’d chosen as his password: I solemnly swear I’m up to some kick-arse good.
    Actually, the kick-arse part had been Ron’s idea, and the two boys had chuckled over it for so long that Hermione had left the room in a huff. Ron’s task had been to scour old Hogwarts lists in an attempt to locate the mysterious RAB, but he claimed it was hopeless.
    Hermione spent her time looking for references of Horcruxes, which thus far had proved futile. It seemed no one in the wizarding world wanted to discuss them. Harry had started referring to them as The-Items-That-Can’t-Be-Named, causing Ron to snort his fizzy soda. He’d been nicking it from Dudley’s stash since he’d arrived on Privet Drive. Harry had begun to wonder if maybe the library at Grimmuald Place would be a good place to find something on Horcruxes – it had been full of dark magic items – but he wasn’t certain if it had been completely cleaned out or not. He still didn’t have the heart to go there, so he pushed that thought to the back of his mind for the moment.
    Ron’s complete and utter cluelessness about normal Muggle life was comical, and Harry enjoyed having the shoe on the other foot. He remembered all too well the blunders he’d made when he’d first entered
    the wizarding world, and how Ron had enjoyed taking the mickey out of him for most of his mistakes. Payback was sweet.
    For several days, their paths and Dudley’s hadn’t crossed, but on a sunny afternoon when the trio had abandoned Harry’s room to sit in the back garden that all changed.
    “What’s this?” Ron asked, holding up a statue of a funny little man with a scrunched up face.
    “It’s a garden gnome,” Harry answered absently as he scribbled in his notebook.
    “No. It isn’t,” Ron said with disgust. “Don’t be stupid.”
    “It’s what Muggles call gnomes, Ron,” Hermione answered patiently, giving his book a gentle shove back in his direction. Ron had grown increasingly bored with all their revising and constantly looked for diversions.
    “Hey, Harry, think fast,” Ron said, tossing the ugly gnome towards Harry, who managed to catch it before it splattered dirt all over his notes.
    Harry tossed it back without comment, and it sailed over Ron’s head, just missing his reach. “I can see you’re out of practice. Good thing we’re not going back to school, or I’d probably have to throw you off the team,” Harry said, managing to keep a straight face. He, too, was feeling restless, and winding Ron up seemed like as good idea as any.
    “Throw me off the team, is it now?” Ron asked, drawing himself up to his full height. “Then who exactly would warn you about all those Bludgers that seem to follow you around all the time, Chosen Boy?”
    With that, Ron launched himself at Harry and pinned him to the ground. The two boys rolled on the ground, wrestling with each other for a few moments and ignoring Hermione’s huffs until Ron finally had Harry pinned with his forearm across Harry’s throat.
    “Yeah, you’ve got it right. The little runt never could stand to have anyone’s hands on his neck,” Dudley’s voice sounded from the corner of the garden. None of the three had noticed him standing there watching them
    Harry froze at the sound of Dudley’s voice, his mouth forming a slight “O”. Dudley had avoided them as if his life depended on it since their arrival, and he hadn’t so much as spoken to Harry since the incident with the vase.
    “What are you on about?” Ron asked, a hard edge to his voice.
    “That’s what he always used to hate the most when me and my mates used to chase him, too,” Dudley said, nodding his approval.
    Ron rolled off of Harry and stood up quickly, his ears growing redder by the minute. Harry raised himself up on his elbows, curious to see
    how Dudley and Ron interacted, yet ready to pounce if things got out of control.
    “I always wondered why you red-haired lot put up with him and had him come to stay at your house for summers. I can see now that he’s your target practice. I always used him for that, too. He always gives a good chase, but you can get him if you use your mates,” Dudley said with a self-satisfied smirk.
    “We don’t all gang up on Harry,” Ron said indignantly. He reached down and pulled Harry to his feet, as if trying to prove there were no hard feelings. “He’s our friend.”
    “Friend,” Dudley said, scoffing. “Who’d want to be friends with him?”
    “I do,” Ron said vehemently. “Just like my brothers, my sister, and anyone else who knows him. He’s the best friend anyone could ask for, and we’d all do anything for him. Could you say the same for your mates, Dudley?”
    Dudley appeared taken aback by Ron’s fierce loyalty. He stared back and forth between Ron and Harry several times, as if unable to wrap his small mind around the fact that someone would actually like Harry. “He…he knows how to do stuff with his stick-thing…but without that, he’s nothing but a pathetic little runt who messes up everything. He doesn’t have any real mates. My mates stick with me, because they know I’m the strongest.”
    “Dudley,” Hermione said gently, “Ron and Harry were just playing around. Certainly at some point while you were growing up you and Harry must have gotten on…once in a while.”
    “I’d never do anything with that freak,” Dudley said.
    “Freak,” Ron said in disgust. “You don’t even know him, do you?”
    “He is a lot like Malfoy, isn’t he? I’ve never noticed it before now, but Ron’s right. He never did much on his own, either – always had to have his little gang behind him. You should have come to Hogwarts when I went, Duds. Maybe you could have been one of Malfoy’s goons, too. I’m certain they would have placed you in Slytherin,” Harry said, unable to resist taunting his cousin back any longer.
    “I’m telling mum you said the name of that school of yours,” Dudley said, backing towards the door, apparently very confused over the loyalty amongst the trio.
    “What? Hogwarts? But Dudley, you should have gone there, too. You’re a wizard, after all,” Harry said.
    “Harry,” Hermione said, grabbing his arm, but Harry ignored her.
    “I never should have gone there. I’m not a freak like you lot,” Dudley said, taking a step towards them.
    “He’d have never been able to handle it, anyway, Harry,” Ron said. “He’d be just another Crabbe or Goyle, fumbling his way through.”
    “I’m not a wizard,” Dudley shouted, growing ever more enraged. His piggy eyes were flashing as he clenched and unclenched his massive fists.
    “I’m surprised you haven’t taken full advantage of it, though,” Ron mused casually, leaning back against a tree and crossing his arms over his chest. “I mean…being able to use magic and all. From what Harry tells me, your favorite pasttime is picking on little kids. I’m certain you could have really scared some little Muggle kids by using magic…or frighten your mates into doing whatever you wanted. That’s the way you work, right?”
    “What do you mean?” Dudley asked, his eyes narrowing.
    “Ron! Ignore him, Dudley. He knows you can’t use magic on Muggles without getting into trouble, and besides, you wouldn’t want to intimidate any of your friends. That’s not what magic is all about,” Hermione said, glaring at Ron.
    Dudley’s eyes gleamed, as if a light switch had just been turned. “I could make them do anything I wanted, couldn’t I?”
    Harry shivered. Dudley’s reaction had eerily reminded him of the memories he’d seen of a young Tom Riddle. “Stop it. You’ll never have the chance to go to Hogwarts now, so it’s a moot point. Aunt Petunia saw to that.”
    “I don’t need your stupid school, anyway. I can make this stuff happen just by getting angry. Things always happen when I’m angry…and you can’t do anything about it. She said it herself. You’re not allowed to use magic against Mubbles,” Dudley said, pointing at Hermione with a victorious glint in his eye.
    “Just one problem with that, Duds,” Harry replied. “You’re not a Muggle; you’re a wizard.”
    “Enough of this,” Aunt Petunia hissed, entering the back garden in a towering rage. “You were warned not to upset him and to stay away from him. I won’t have you corrupting him with your vile ways.” As she spoke, Aunt Petunia stood in front of Harry, with one hand on her hip and the other flicking a dishtowel at him.
    Dudley smirked as he stood behind his mother. He always enjoyed seeing Harry get told off. “He said I was one of them, Mummy…that I could do….mag-”
    “Don’t say it!” Aunt Petunia yelped, whipping around and slamming her hand over Dudley’s mouth. “Don’t even listen to them, popkin.”
    “But Mummy, if you’d have allowed me to go to that school, I could have got a thing, too. I would have been able to keep him in line around here,” Dudley whined.
    “Don’t speak of such things. I won’t have it. I’m not going through all that again. You are normal, Dudley. Never forget that,” Aunt
    Petunia said fervently. She’d grown increasingly paler as he spoke, and now appeared ready to faint away on the spot.
    “But that was my decision to make, not yours,” Dudley said, surprising Harry so much his jaw fell open. He’d never seen Dudley openly defy Aunt Petunia before; he usually only did it behind her back. Aunt Petunia was just as stunned, and she glared at Harry as if it were entirely his fault.
    “I won’t speak of it again, Dudley. You’re to have nothing to do with that hellhole of a school,” Aunt Petunia said, with that no-nonsense demeanor that Harry remembered so well.
    A sick, nauseous feeling arose within him as he fully realized the extent of Aunt Petunia’s hatred of the magical world – and everyone it. “You really hated her, didn’t you?” he asked quietly.
    He hadn’t expected her to answer; she never did when it pertained to his mother. He was shocked when she turned to face him, her eyes blazing. “I never hated her; I hated what she became. I thought when she was done with that devil of a school that she’d come to her senses and return to her family, but no. Your cretin of a father had her by then, and look how they ended up. Then you arrived on our doorstep, looking just like him. I had to look into her eyes and see his face.
    “I won’t have my Dudley meet the same end; I won’t have it.”
    Harry was stunned. He opened and closed his mouth several times but couldn’t form the words.
    “But, mum…I could be powerful,” Dudley said.
    Harry couldn’t contain his disbelief any longer. “Powerful? You’ve already had them jumping through hoops since you were born. What more did you want?” Harry’s mind was racing. Had magic played a part in the dominance that Dudley had always appeared to hold over his parents? Had he somehow influenced their decisions? Had he unintentionally been prodding them along to buy just one more gift all this time?
    As usual, the Dursleys ignored Harry’s outburst.
    “Popkin,” Aunt Petunia said, putting a hand to Dudley’s face. “Of course you don’t want anything to do with all his foul nonsense. You’re better than that. He’s just trying to bring you down to his level.”
    Dudley shuddered. “You’re right. I don’t want any of this touching me. I’m normal.” Dudley stormed over to Harry and poked his porky finger at Harry’s chest repeatedly. “I’m normal. You hear that, Potter? I’m normal.”
    “Could have fooled me,” Harry replied, finally recovering the use of his voice.
    Ron moved next to Harry and shoved Dudley’s hand away. “Keep your grubby, normal hands off him.”
    “I warned you to stay away from him,” Aunt Petunia hissed at Harry.
    “We were out here working on the project that you asked us to do. He was the one who came out here with us,” Harry replied.
    “Well, stay in your room, then,” Aunt Petunia snapped. “Heavens, if the neighbors have heard any of this you’ll be in for it. Do you hear me? Get inside and stay away from Dudley.”
    After Dudley and Aunt Petunia stormed inside the house, Ron turned towards Hermione. “Can you honestly think of any reason why Harry would want to continue a relationship with those people?”
    “Because they’re his family,” Hermione said stubbornly.
    “No, they’re not,” Harry said, shaking his head. “We share my mother’s blood, that’s all. You two have been my only family for a long time now.” Harry quickly picked up his books and headed inside without looking back at Ron and Hermione.
    Hermione’s attempts at striking up a friendship with Aunt Petunia had continued, but they had – of course – been futile. Harry had kept trying to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen. He’d wondered if his aunt might actually enjoy some female company for a change, but Aunt Petunia made it perfectly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Hermione. Oh, she’d let her help with chores – Aunt Petunia could never resist having someone else to boss around – but when it came to any kind of conversation, Hermione was rudely rebuffed.
    At first, Aunt Petunia had merely been snippy, but as the days wore on and Hermione’s persistence refused to wane, Aunt Petunia’s comments had become increasingly rude and more biting. For Harry, it was basically what he’d expected to happen, but he was caught unprepared for Ron’s reaction.
    Ron had always been quick to stand up for Hermione; from a very early age, he’d always taken exception to anyone other than him giving her a hard time. But his fury over the Dursleys’ comments to Hermione appeared extreme – even for Ron standards. He’d already threatened them several times, and once Harry had even had to step in before Ron drew his wand on Uncle Vernon. He wouldn’t have much cared if Uncle Vernon got hexed, but he was afraid Ron would get in trouble for Muggle-baiting.
    The night before they were due to leave, Harry found his Aunt Petunia doing her nightly wipe-down in the kitchen. They hadn’t found any kind of spell that would subdue Dudley’s magic, although they hadn’t really had the time to look very hard. They’d decided simply to use Hermione’s original idea of a Cheering Charm. Harry wished someone had thought of that idea when he and Dudley were younger; it might have made Harry’s childhood a lot more pleasant.
    “Aunt Petunia,” Harry said quietly, hoping his uncle, who was watching the telly in the parlor, wouldn’t overhear him.
    “What?” snapped Aunt Petunia.
    “We’ve found something that should help Dudley. We’ll perform the spell tomorrow before we leave,” he said.
    Aunt Petunia froze, her hand shaking slightly as it held a sponge over the kitchen counter. “You’re certain this won’t hurt Dudley?”
    “Yeah. He won’t even be aware when it’s done,” Harry said.
    Aunt Petunia nodded and went back to her scrubbing.
    “I think we’re going to go to Godric’s Hollow. I want to see my parents’ graves,” Harry said, uncertain why he’d chosen to share this bit of information with her. There was something about knowing that he was leaving forever that felt strange. He certainly felt nothing for the Dursleys and knew they didn’t want him any more than he wanted them. Still, they were all he’d known for nearly sixteen years, his only living family; he couldn’t help but feel he should say something.
    Aunt Petunia hesitated again, although so briefly that Harry thought he must have imagined it. “Don’t leave a mess behind and take all your belongings with you – I won’t be handling anything strange to forward. And be certain not to take any of Dudley’s things.”
    Harry’s shoulders sagged. “Yes, Aunt Petunia,” he said softly, already regretting his efforts. As he turned around, he came face to face with a pale Hermione and a positively livid Ron standing in the entryway of the kitchen.
    “Hey,” Harry said uncertainly. “We’re all set for tomorrow. Let’s just go back upstairs and finish our packing. We’ll leave in the morning.”
    “What is the meaning of this?” Uncle Vernon asked loudly as he stomped into the kitchen, glaring at finding Harry, Ron and Hermione there.
    Before Harry could respond, Ron bit out, “I believe Harry just said that we’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
    “Good riddance to bad rubbish is what I always say,” Uncle Vernon muttered, his countenance visibly brightening.
    “Aren’t you even going to say goodbye and good luck to your nephew?” Ron asked, nearly snarling. “That’s certainly the very least you can do.”
    Uncle Vernon narrowed his piggy eyes at Harry. “That doddering old fool who was with you last year said you’d come of age this year. That means this is the last time we have to put up with all your nonsense, right?”
    “That’s right,” Harry said, smiling humorlessly. “I’ll be of age in a few weeks and a fully qualified wizard. I’m no longer in need of your services.” Harry enjoyed the shudder of revulsion the word wizard caused amongst all his relatives. He just wanted to be done with all of this. It was time to move onward.
    “Harry,” Hermione said pleadingly. Her eyes darted to and fro between Harry and his uncle. “You want to leave here on good-”
    “I don’t bloody well believe you lot,” Ron said, his ears flaming. “What is wrong with you people? Do you know that I always felt a bit embarrassed about my house after the first time I saw this place, even with the bars on Harry’s window? I was stupid enough to feel ashamed of my house, thinking that Harry was coming from something better. What an idiot! I really can’t believe how stupid I was. It’s only now, watching your behavior, that I understand why Harry always seemed over the moon to arrive at my house. It’s no wonder. You lot are pathetic.”
    Harry stared at Ron with wide eyes, visibly reminded of Mr. Weasley and a similar reaction when he’d come to collect Harry for the Quidditch Cup. Harry had never been so proud to have Ron for a friend.
    And Ron wasn’t done with Uncle Vernon. “My mum…my mum can holler with the best of them. She could probably even give a banshee a run for her money. But I know damn well that if I had been born a Squib, it would have changed nothing. She might have been disappointed, but she would have treated me the same, and expected the same from me as she did the rest of my siblings. And no matter how hard she was on me, she’d never allow anyone else to be.
    “That’s what families are supposed do. You pathetic wankers don’t even know Harry. How could you? You don’t even know the kind of person you’ve had here all the time and the lengths he would go for you if you asked. The sad part is that I don’t think you’ll realize it even after he’s gone.”
    Harry looked up sharply in time to see a grimace cross Ron’s face after he’d said the words, and Harry felt a chill run down his spine. Aunt Petunia’s face had paled slightly, glancing quickly at Harry before returning her eyes to the floor.
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  6. #6
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Ron had withdrawn his wand and was waving it jerkily beneath the Dursleys’ noses, causing them to cringe back against the counters. Ron didn’t make any indication that he was going to curse them, and Harry was enjoying the tongue-lashing they were receiving, so he didn’t make any move to stop it.
    “Damn it, if the Death Eaters only knew about you lot they’d have the best recruiting tool they’d ever come across, because I’ve never wanted to curse a Muggle as bad as I want to curse you. You know why I don’t? Because he—,” Ron jammed his finger at Harry, “he won’t let me. Why, I’ll never know. He certainly has never done anything to deserve the likes of you as family.
    “The funny thing is, those same Death Eaters who could use you wouldn’t do it because of the fact that you’re Muggles. And the only thing standing between you and them right now is him. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
    “Come on, Harry; we’re getting out of here,” Ron said, turning to leave the room. Hermione beamed at him, her eyes glowing with pride as she watched his retreating back.
    Uncle Vernon’s face had gone from red to maroon and now displayed a nearly purple hue. He became much braver as soon as Ron moved his wand away. “I will not be spoken to with such disrespect in my own home by the likes of…of…of someone like you. You will all take all of your belongings and get out of my house in the morning,” he raged, as if it had been his idea all along.
    “No problem, Uncle Vernon. We’ll be gone come morning. You can even redecorate my old room,” Harry said cheerfully, slapping the door to the cupboard under the stairs on his way past.
    Hermione, who was walking directly in front of him, stopped sharply, causing him to bump into her.
    “Herm-”
    “What did you just say?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
    Harry’s eyes widened, realizing his blunder. He’d never shared that particular story with Ron and Hermione. He’d always been a little embarrassed by it.
    “Er, nothing. Just forget about it,” Harry said, trying to hurry them along. Ron had now stopped, too, and was staring with curiosity at the series of locks and door jams along the cupboard entry.
    Hermione shoved Harry’s arm out of the way and forcefully opened the door, gasping at what she found inside.
    Harry’s eyes wandered over his old, familiar, cramped quarters. A lumpy old mattress with several springs poking out still rested on a wire camp bed. Several toy soldiers and broken chess pieces were scattered on a shelf. Spider webs had covered the slanted ceiling completely, and a heavy layer of dust covered everything inside. Harry vaguely wondered why Aunt Petunia hadn’t sanitized this spot like she did everywhere else. It was almost as if all the things that frightened her were hidden inside that cupboard.
    Harry recognized his childlike writing on the walls. Just scribbles, really, beside his name. He’d once confiscated some of Dudley’s crayons and made a habit of nicking more whenever he’d got the chance. He could see a crude drawing of a birthday cake with candles drawn in different colors with gradual improvement in the drawing. He remembered adding to it each year on his birthday.
    To say that Hermione exploded would be an understatement. She whirled toward the Dursleys, whipping Harry in the face with her hair as she spun around.
    “How could you?” she screeched, baring her teeth like a wild animal.
    Aunt Petunia averted her eyes to the floor, but Uncle Vernon puffed out his chest as if to defend himself. Hermione never gave him the chance.
    “What?” Ron asked blankly.
    “You loathsome, despicable cretins. To think I tried to tell him to be nicer to you. You actually kept him locked in a cupboard when he was just a little boy?” Hermione raged.
    “They what?” Ron exploded, his head swinging wildly from Hermione to the cupboard to the Dursleys and back to Harry again.
    Hermione ignored him. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” she hissed, raising her wand.
    Harry grabbed her hand and pulled it away from Uncle Vernon just as she gave it an upward flick. Unfortunately, as he’d pulled it away he’d pulled it towards himself. He suddenly found himself hanging upside down by his ankle in the entry hall of Privet Drive.
    Aunt Petunia shrieked and covered her eyes. Uncle Vernon shielded her with his body and pushed her back into the kitchen. The slamming of the kitchen door echoed in the silent hall for a moment.
    “Er, Hermione…can you let me down?” Harry asked with amusement.
    Hermione gasped and gently released Harry from the spell.
    “You used Levicorpus. I can’t believe you used one of the Half-Blood Prince’s spells,” Ron said in amazement. Harry could hear the delight in his voice.
    “Never mind trying to use it on a Muggle. Are you trying to get yourself arrested, Hermione?” Harry asked, beaming at his friend.
    “Ready to start living on the wild side?” Ron asked, grinning.
    “Oh, shut it, you two. I was just so angry with them. I can’t believe you never told us about this, Harry,” Hermione said, trying to maintain her dignity in the face of her laughing friends.
    Harry shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now; let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
    He could tell Hermione wanted to argue, but Harry didn’t give her the chance. He bolted up the stairs in front of them, leaving them to follow in his wake. Still, settling down in his bed that night, it was a very long time before he finally drifted off to sleep.
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  7. #7
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Chapter Three
    …And Another Door Opens
    The next morning, Harry awoke feeling groggy and disoriented. He blinked several times, trying to clear his head, but he just couldn’t manage to raise it from his pillow. He could hear raised voices coming from downstairs, and he dragged his pillow over his head in an attempt to drown out the noise. It had taken a long time for him finally to fall asleep the night before, and it felt as if he’d only dosed off a few moments ago. Vague recollections of a dream started to come back to him…
    He’d been on his Firebolt, racing through some dark tunnels in search of something. He’d felt a desperate panic rising within him that took nearly all his strength to clamp down.
    He’d kept hitting dead ends, no matter which way he turned.
    Dudley was there, stirring a potion, and he’d locked Harry in his cupboard where Harry soon fell asleep. His hair had kept growing while he slept and eventually grew so long it crept outside the cupboard door.
    Ginny had used his hair to find him and had to slay a dragon in order to reach him. He’d climbed behind Ginny on the Firebolt, and the two of them had sped off into the sunset.
    "Great," Harry mumbled into his pillow. "Now I’m dreaming about fairy tales, only I’m the damn Damsel in Distress." Harry knew he would never tell another living soul about that dream as long as he lived.
    His bedroom door banged open, and Ron and Hermione entered — wide-awake and already dressed. They both looked entirely too upbeat to suit his mood.
    "Come on, Harry. Get up; we’re leaving," Hermione said bossily.
    Still feeling groggy, Harry wiped his eyes. "What time is it?"
    "Time to go; Ron and I have taken care of everything. I’ve already shrunken our trunks and have them here in my bag. Let’s go," Hermione said, trying to pull his covers back. "You’ve been anxious to leave forever, and we’ve got loads to do."
    "Hermione, let me get dressed," Harry said, grabbing his bedcovers and feeling slightly panicked. He was only wearing boxers, after all. What was her hurry, anyway?
    "I’ve left your clothes right there," Hermione said, pointing to a pair of jeans and a T-shirt already laid out for him.
    "Thanks, Mum," he said, smirking.
    "Don’t get smart," Hermione said, frowning.
    "We’ll meet you downstairs, mate," Ron said, dragging a protesting Hermione from the room. He gave her a slight shove to walk in front of him and leaned back to say, "Just think; you’re finally free of this place. Mum will be going spare if we don’t arrive in time for her to feed you this morning. Hermione thinks there must be something going on with the Order, since she hasn’t noticed them keeping watch and no one is here to escort us to the Burrow."
    Harry hadn’t noticed any of the Order keeping watch at Privet Drive, either, but he knew that didn’t mean anything. With Ron and Hermione there to distract him, he hadn’t spent all his free time looking for Order members as he had in the past.
    As Harry dressed, he glanced at his nightstand and saw a folded piece of paper that he didn’t remember placing there. He picked it up and read the few words printed on the inside in Aunt Petunia’s small, tidy, script.
    Godric’s Hollow
    16 Hillside Lane
    Godre’r-graig, South Wales
    Harry swallowed heavily and stuffed the note in his pocket. This was it: a real and tangible address of where his parents had lived — where he had lived, once upon a time. Why was Aunt Petunia giving this to him now? Was it her way of saying goodbye?
    He’d have to think about it later. He stood up and took one long last look around his bedroom on Privet Drive. It felt strange, knowing he’d never see this room again. Not that he wanted to see it, but it felt strange, nonetheless. Although he hadn’t felt like a child in a very long time, this somehow felt as if he were really leaving his childhood behind. He was truly an adult and on his own now.
    Smiling slightly, he turned on his heel and followed his friends downstairs.
    "We have to put the charm on Dudley," he said as he came down the last few steps to meet Ron and Hermione, who were standing by the front door.
    "It’s already done," Hermione said briskly.
    "You did it already?" Harry asked, furrowing his brow. How long had they been awake?
    "Yes," Ron replied quickly, turning to open the door. Hermione shifted her eyes as Ron pushed Harry and her out the door ahead of him.
    Harry stopped walking. "What did you do?" he asked, narrowing his eyes at the two of them.
    "Nothing to worry about, mate; we took care of everything," Ron said, and something about the way he was smiling reminded Harry eerily of the twins.
    Harry decided that he really didn’t want to know. One task down — now it was time to face Ginny. That thought caused a slight shiver to run down his spine. Whether it was a thrill of dread or excitement, he wasn’t certain. Maybe it was a little of both.
    As Hermione continued to steer him towards a spot just outside the wards where they would be able to Apparate, he turned to glance back at the house one last time. For a moment, he thought he saw Aunt Petunia’s face in the doorway, watching their departure. When he looked again, the doorway was empty, and he was certain he must have imagined it. If she’d been there at all, she was most likely checking to be certain they left, rather than feeling any sorrow over his departure.
    They crossed the street in silence, Hermione nearly bouncing on the balls of her feet in her eagerness. "All right. Harry, hold on to my arm, and we’ll be at the Burrow in no time."
    Harry smiled and averted his eyes. Taking a deep, shuddering breath (refusing to admit that he was nervous to anyone), he grasped Hermione’s arm and felt the uncomfortable constriction in his chest as he was sped forward towards the Burrow…and towards Ginny.
    Harry opened his eyes and was met with the sight of the ramshackle home he loved above all others. Although somewhat the worse for wear, it was still there and still offering a bit of normalcy against the rising storm. Harry didn’t think he’d ever been so happy to be anywhere in his life. Despite his apprehension about seeing Ginny, being at the Burrow somehow warmed him from the inside.
    Chickens ran haphazardly around the coop, and Harry could see more than a handful of garden gnomes peeking out from behind a variety of lush green bushes, all of which were in full bloom. He inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma of baking scones mixed with the heady scent of summer.
    A sudden urge for treacle tart and a warm greeting from Mrs. Weasley filled Harry’s mind. He had to fight to control his instinct to sprint for the front door and hurl himself inside. Gritting his teeth, he stepped in behind Ron and forced himself to walk at the slower pace. He had no idea what he’d say to Ginny when he saw her, but just the thought of seeing her filled him with such hope that nothing else mattered.
    In his mind’s eye, he could picture her hair all windblown from a morning fly in the meadow and a spot of flour on her otherwise flawless face from helping her mother bake the scones that Harry was now certain were awaiting their arrival.
    He forced down the uncomfortable thought that she might not even want to see him and wouldn’t be anywhere near him when his presence became known. He wasn’t certain which would be worse — her rejection or her welcoming arms that he’d have to avoid — but he couldn’t stop his own feet from hurrying to find out.
    Ron pulled the door open, and they stepped into the chaos that was the Burrow. There were boxes and stacks of paper everywhere. Robes hung inside clothes bags from hooks on the ceiling, and Harry could make out a line of high-heeled shoes resting on the windowsill. Gaily wrapped packages were piled in every spare bit of space in the room, which admittedly hadn’t been generous to begin with. Voices could be heard shouting from upstairs, as well as in the kitchen.
    The sudden vibration from a small explosion in another room knocked Hermione into Harry’s shoulder, and he barely caught the both of them before they tumbled to the floor.
    "Bloody hell," Ron said, craning his neck to see if there was any damage.
    Harry set Hermione back on her feet just as Mrs. Weasley began shouting at Fred.
    "Welcome home," Ron said, grinning sheepishly.
    A wide, delighted grin spread across Harry’s face. "Can’t think of any place I’d rather be," he said honestly.
    "Come on," Hermione said, grabbing each of them by the hand. "Let’s see what that was and if your mum needs any help cleaning it up."
    Hermione pulled them into the kitchen, where they found a frazzled-looking Mrs. Weasley using her wand both to cut vegetables and stir several pots, while simultaneously berating the twins for their careless antics.
    Bill sat calmly at the table, shuffling through what appeared to be a list of names, while Charlie Weasley sat across from him with a somewhat dazed expression on his face. Sitting next to Charlie was the reason for his dazed look — Fleur was instructing him on the proper pace to keep as he walked down the aisle.
    Harry wasn’t certain if Charlie’s blank look was because of the topic or just Fleur in general. Ron still reacted the same way to the beautiful part-Veela. Hermione stiffened next to him and scowled at both Charlie and Fleur. Hermione had never warmed up to the French girl, and Harry wondered how Ginny was faring with her future sister-in-law. Ginny hadn’t liked Fleur any better than Hermione did.
    Harry’s gaze lingered for a moment on Bill’s scarred face. The wounds inflicted by Fenrir Greyback were plainly visible and still looked quite painful. On Bill, though, they somehow gave him a rugged, manly sort of look. While Harry thought his own scar just drew unwanted attention, like the star attraction in a freak show; Bill’s gave the older man an aura of mystery. Bill appeared to be someone in control of the situation, and the scars added a bit of daring to his story.
    Hermione had apparently been struck dumb by the lack of order in the kitchen and hung back slightly in the doorway, while Ron simply slipped into his customary seat at the table and tried to remain unnoticed. Harry wasn’t quick enough to follow suit.
    "’Arry!" Fleur shrieked, gracefully moving away from Charlie and towards Harry. She took him in her arms and kissed him on each cheek. "I am zo ‘appy to ‘ave you here."
    Fleur’s shout had alerted the rest of the Weasley family to their arrival, and Harry shifted uncomfortably beneath all the attention.
    "Hi, Fleur. Hello, everyone," he mumbled, feeling the heat rise to his face.
    "Oh! You’re all here," Mrs. Weasley cried, rushing over to crush Ron in her embrace before pulling back to look him over carefully. Finding no apparent cause for concern, she turned around and treated Harry and then Hermione to the same treatment.
    "We’re here, and we’re fine, Mum. Nothing to get so worked up about," Ron grumbled, wiping his face of his mother’s kisses.
    Harry pulled away slightly and stood with his back against the wall as Ron greeted the rest of his family. He scanned the room yet again, cursing his traitorous heart for its pathetic hopefulness. How was his resolve ever to hold if he’d trade the world for the mere sight of her at the first chance he got? His breath caught in his throat as Ginny came down the stairs and stopped at the bottom, her eyes taking in the happy welcome.
    She looked like an angel as she floated down the stairs, and Harry thought his heart would burst from simply seeing her again. The morning sun streaming in from the kitchen window lit her hair with a fiery brilliance that Harry longed to run his fingers through. Her hair had always been so sinfully soft, and he loved to touch it.
    Time lost all meaning and, for a brief moment, he was back at Hogwarts, and she was still his. He knew he was staring, but he couldn’t seem to drag his eyes away. It took all the force of will he possessed not to cross the room and take her in his arms. Suddenly and for a moment that seemed to last an eternity, nothing and no one else mattered to him.
    Her eyes locked on his, and while time stood still their fierce gazes raked over one another as if each were committing every detail to memory to reexamine on lonely nights apart.
    Dear God, she’s beautiful.
    Gripping the amulet in his pocket fiercely, Harry forced himself to breathe and drag his eyes away. That was exactly why he had to stay away from Ginny. He was powerless against her charm, but there were things that had to be done, and he had to be the one to do them.
    If anyone else had noticed his brief lapse of resolve, they didn’t say anything, although he was certain he could feel the heat from Hermione’s stare on the back of his neck.
    Ginny entered the room and walked towards Ron, gently nudging him on the shoulder. "Welcome home, Ron. I’m so glad you managed to get here in time to do some of these chores. The family that works together shares in the joy together," she said in a singsong voice.
    "Great," Ron grumbled, pulling an apple off the table and biting into it.
    "Hi, Harry. Hi, Hermione," Ginny said brightly.
    Harry’s heart nearly broke in two. Leave it to Ginny to act as if nothing had changed and there wasn’t this huge wall of tension between them. He was certain she sounded casual to everyone else in the room, but he could hear the strain in her voice…and he knew he was the one who had placed it there.
    He tried to open his mouth and return the greeting, but he couldn’t form the words. When did she become such a skilled actress?
    "Hello, Ginny," Hermione said. "Thanks for sending me those books. They were just what I needed, and they really came in handy."
    Harry’s head shot up, his eyes flickering between the two girls. He’d had no idea Hermione had been in contact with Ginny, or that Ginny had been helping. Damn! So much for keeping her out of it.
    "How did everything go with the Muggles?" Mrs. Weasley asked. "They didn’t give you any trouble, did they?"
    "Nothing we couldn’t handle," Ron replied with a self-satisfied smirk, "and they’ll be finding little reminders of our stay for years to come."
    Fred and George grinned maniacally. "Ooh, do tell. It sounds like our ickle Ronniekins has been paying attention all along," Fred said, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye.
    "It’s so gratifying to see all our hard work come to its fruition," George replied, sighing heavily.
    "Oh, sit down and finish making those arrangements for the international portkeys. If the guests have any trouble getting here on the big day, I’m going to hold you both fully responsible," Mrs. Weasley snapped.
    "Never fear, Mother, dear. All the guests will arrive safely and promptly in time to see our dear eldest brother tie the shackle around his leg," Fred said, batting his eyelashes dramatically.
    "What do you mean wiz zis shackle buziness?" Fleur asked, frowning. "You two should be zo lucky to find zomeone willing to zettle down wiz ze likes of you."
    "Exactly!" Mrs. Weasley jumped right in. "That’s exactly what I’ve been telling them for years, Fleur dear. Maybe they’ll meet some nice friends of yours at the wedding."
    "Ho, ho," George said, grinning. "We’ll take that as our mission. To meet and talk with each one of Fleur’s single friends who comes to the wedding."
    "Oh, pleaze. My friends are completely out of your league, little men," Fleur replied dismissively, causing Bill and Charlie to howl with mirth.
    "Seriously though, boys. Ron, Harry…did everything go all right at Privet Drive? Harry, did you move all your belongings out?" Mrs. Weasley asked kindly.
    "Yeah, we got it all," Ron answered. "Harry’s seen the last of that place, and good riddance. Those Muggles are mental. He’s just a homeless, orphan waif now, mum, so I suppose we’ll have to take him in."
    Ron grinned at Harry when he said it, but the sudden realization hit Harry like a punch to the gut.
    He was homeless.
    Realistically, he knew that he’d always have a spot at the Weasleys’, there for the asking, but the fact remained that he was truly on his own. He really didn’t belong anywhere. Not that he’d ever really belonged at the Dursleys, either, but at least it was an address. A place to hang his hat, as it were.
    As if sensing his sudden unease, Ginny placed her warm hand on Harry’s forearm and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Don’t worry, Harry," she whispered. "You’ll always belong here, no matter what else has happened."
    Harry raised his eyes to meet hers and was nearly lost in their depth. How did she know? She’d always been able to see through whatever it was he was feeling and get to the heart of things.
    Damn, this will be harder than I’d even anticipated.
    He nodded slightly and saw the brief flash of pain in her eyes before she covered it up again. Smiling brightly, she turned her attention to Hermione and began chatting about bridesmaid dresses. Her dismissal allowed Harry to breathe again, but the pit he felt in his stomach would make eating impossible. He felt nauseous and needed to regroup. He hated feeling so wrong-footed and uncertain about everything.
    "Of course, I suppose you could always go to Grimmauld Place," Ron said, oblivious to the startled and aggravated looks he was receiving from the rest of his family. "You do own that now, don’t you, Harry?"
    Harry’s insides went cold. He’d forgotten about Grimmauld Place, but it would never be home. "Yeah," he said, finally finding his voice. "I’m going to go put my trunk up in your room. I’ll take yours up, too."
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  8. #8
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    He grabbed all the shrunken trunks from Hermione and nearly sprinted from the room. He knew they’d all be talking about him, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t stay there with her so close for one minute longer. He needed to breathe. And he’d thought it was bad at the Dursleys’. Somehow, he suspected that this would be the longest week of his life.
    It wasn’t until he’d reached the brightness of Ron’s orange room that he remembered he couldn’t use magic to enlarge the trunks. He left both Ron and Hermione’s miniature trunks on Ron’s bed and sat down on the camp bed with his own. He’d stayed in Fred and George’s old room when he was here last summer, but he suspected that with so many people staying at the Burrow for the wedding, he’d be bunking with Ron. That’s what he’d done last Christmas when they’d had a crowd.
    He stretched out on the camp bed and let his thoughts drift to the previous Christmas. Things had been so much simpler then. He grinned as he remembered the sweetheart necklace that Lavender had sent to Ron. He wondered what his friend had done with it. Chucked it out the window of the Gryffindor dormitory, most likely.
    He relaxed and allowed his mind to wander as he drifted off to sleep. He really hadn’t slept well the previous night and was feeling quite drained. He wasn’t certain how long he’d dozed, but he awoke to Hermione sitting on his bed, making a "Harumff" sound.
    Harry jerked and looked around wildly.
    "Sorry, Harry," Hermione said. "Mrs. Weasley put Ron to work with the twins, but I couldn’t stand listening to them for one more minute. They can be so insufferably condescending sometimes."
    Harry shook his head and tried to clear it. "Yeah," he mumbled.
    "Are you all right?" Hermione asked, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.
    Harry shrugged.
    "Ginny looks good," Hermione ventured, letting her sentence hang in the open. Harry refused to respond.
    Hermione huffed but continued prodding. "Fleur is driving her crazy with these wedding plans. Ginny says she’s done nothing but attend engagements and make plans for this wedding and will be just as happy when it’s over and done. She hates the dress robes she has to wear. Says they’re made for a ten-year old. I’m supposed to help her with them tonight."
    Harry fought the smile that threatened to crack his impassive expression. He could just imagine Ginny’s tirades against wearing anything that would make her look younger than she was. She hated being treated like a child.
    "Why are you telling me this, Hermione?" he asked.
    Hermione shrugged. "I thought you’d want to know, since you avoided talking with her at all."
    Harry frowned. "I-I- I didn’t avoid talking…I just–"
    "Just what?"
    "I just didn’t know what to say," Harry whispered.
    Hermione smiled sadly. "She misses you, Harry, and I know you miss her. No matter how well you think you’re hiding it."
    Harry swallowed against the thickness in his throat. "It’s even harder than I thought it would be."
    "Harry, if Professor Dumbledore said this great power you possess is love, do you really think it’s a good idea to be pushing her away?" Hermione asked, picking at a loose thread on the blanket on Harry’s bed.
    Harry stiffened, closing off his emotions. "It has to be this way, Hermione. I won’t put her in danger."
    "She’s already in danger, Harry. We all are. Didn’t you see the hands on that clock downstairs? Ginny’s hand is still pointed to Mortal Peril, whether you’re with her or not. I think she could help us."
    "No."
    "Harry– "
    "Don’t push it, Hermione. I can’t let her die because of me, and I don’t want her to have to watch if it’s me that’s going to go," Harry said, refusing too look at her.
    "Don’t say that," Hermione hissed, grabbing him around the waist and hugging him fiercely. "Don’t even think it. We can’t lose you, Harry."
    "Don’t be stupid, Hermione," Harry said, finally looking at her directly. "We both know it’s a very real possibility. Look at what happened to Dumbledore’s hand while he was after these things. This isn’t a game, and I’m not nearly the wizard he was. It’s more than likely I’m going to die, but so help me God, I’m taking him with me when I do."
    "Don’t!" Hermione pleaded, her voice choked.
    "Hermione," Harry said gently, hating the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. He never did well with crying girls. "Let’s just take this one step at a time. It’s the only way I’m able to keep going forward. Ginny is a distraction — a very pleasant distraction — that I can’t afford."
    "Then you at least enjoy yourself at this wedding. Dance with her, drink and be merry and have a good snog if that’s what you want to do," Hermione said, crossing her arms across her chest.
    "Hermione!"
    "What?"
    "I can’t believe you, of all people, just said that," Harry replied, unable to contain his laughter.
    She shrugged. "If you don’t, you’ll have no right to complain if someone else does."
    "What does that mean?" Harry asked warily. The beast within his chest that had curled up in misery at the end of term suddenly raised its head and breathed fire.
    "Well, Ginny told me that the two groomsmen are Charlie and Fleur’s cousin, Jean-Luc. Fleur has been making no secret of the fact that she wants to pair Ginny up with Jean-Luc," Hermione said, her nose slightly in the air.
    "What? What does Ginny think about this?" Harry asked indignantly. His monster was snarling. No prancing Frenchman was getting anywhere near his Ginny without her permission.
    Unless…Harry’s insides suddenly went cold. What if Ginny wanted the attention? He felt the beast whimper and curl its tail inward.
    "Oh, Harry. You know Ginny. She won’t be pushed into doing anything she doesn’t want to do, especially by Fleur. But she’s hurting, too, and…well…Ginny has been known to be spiteful on occasion," Hermione said, somewhat apologetically.
    Harry’s heart constricted so tightly that he thought he might asphyxiate himself. He clenched his fists, knowing there was nothing he could do. He’d brought this on himself, and if he thought a girl like Ginny wouldn’t have a string of other suitors waiting in line, then he was being foolish. He felt as if all the air had been let out of his wings.
    Harry shut his eyes, his head slumping forward.
    "It gets worse," Hermione said, shifting as she made herself more comfortable.
    He opened his eyes wearily. "How could it possibly get any worse, Hermione? Unless you’re about to tell me there is some wizarding custom that all the attendants in a bridal party have to snog each other in front of witnesses, as well."
    Hermione sniggered. "Actually, this concerns you. Ginny said that Fleur plans on having you entertain Gabrielle during the reception."
    Harry blinked several times, nonplussed. "Huh?"
    "You know, her little sister?"
    "I know who she is Hermione, but isn’t she around ten?" Harry asked.
    "Eleven, actually. I wonder if she’ll be starting at Beauxbatons in September. I read that other wizarding schools–"
    "Hermione!"
    "What? Oh…right, Gabrielle."
    "Eleven. Do I really come off as being that desperate?" Harry asked, cringing.
    Hermione giggled. "Of course not, Harry, but evidently Gabrielle has had a major crush on you since the Second Task. Fleur wants to make her dream come true by having you be her dance partner."
    "Great. I don’t suppose it occurred to her to ask me how I felt about this?" Harry asked, feeling nettled
    "You know how it is with Fleur. How other people feel about anything has never been one of her top priorities," Hermione said, sniffling slightly.
    Harry rubbed his forehead roughly. He could feel a headache beginning in his temples. "Well, she can forget it. I’m not jumping because Fleur says jump."
    Hermione snorted. "Oh, ho. Now you sound just like Ginny. Besides, Harry, you can get as angry as you want. We all know you’ll never hurt that little girl’s feelings. So, if you really don’t want to spend the evening as her escort, I suggest you get it straightened out with Fleur straightaway."
    "Oh, I can see that conversation. I know it’s your wedding day and all, but I really don’t want to child-mind your sister, so please make other arrangements. As if I’m not already high on the list of cads to the Weasleys, anyway," Harry said, rolling his eyes dramatically.
    "No one thinks you’re a cad, Harry. Although Fred and George do find the idea of you being Gabrielle’s date highly amusing," Hermione replied, sniggering.
    "I’ll just bet they do. Did Ginny have any other little bombshells to drop, or is that enough for one day?" Harry asked, in a right foul mood now.
    "Other than her complete misery of being apart from you, you mean?" Hermione asked, blinking innocently.
    "Hermione," Harry said, irritated.
    "Okay, okay. She did say she thinks there is something dodgy going on at Grimmauld Place. Her mum has been very secretive about it, of course, but the Order seems to have come into a lot of information recently. She’s heard fragments of several conversations about a guest staying there."
    "A guest at Grimmauld Place? Who do you suppose it could be?" Harry asked, leaning forward with interest.
    "I don’t know, Harry. Why don’t you ask? It is your house, after all," Hermione said, frowning slightly.
    "Yeah. Yeah, it’s my house. If I want to know who is staying there, they should tell me. I have every right to know," Harry said, warming to the idea
    "Of course you do, but since when has that ever stopped them?"
    Harry set his mouth grimly. "Well, that all changes now."
    "I know you don’t want to tell the Order about the Horcruxes, Harry, but don’t alienate them, either. There might come a time when we need their help. You know you can trust Remus and Professor McGonagall and all the Weasleys, at least," Hermione said.
    Harry knew that Hermione’s first instinct was always to go to someone in a position of authority, but Harry felt that if Dumbledore hadn’t told the Order about the Horcruxes then there must have been a reason. He wasn’t about to second-guess that decision.
    "I’ll work with the Order, but I’m not telling them anything about our mission. They had no problem stringing me along for the past few years; let’s see how they enjoy having the shoe on the other foot."
    Hermione frowned and bit the corner of her lip but didn’t argue with him for once.
    "Don’t worry, Hermione. If Dumbledore didn’t tell them, he must have had a good reason."
    This seemed to make Hermione feel better about the situation. "Let’s go downstairs and see about dinner. Ron should be done with his work by now and will be wondering where we’ve gone.
    "You go on down. I’m going to take a shower, and I’ll meet you in the kitchen."
    "Harry — "
    "I just need a few minutes to steady myself before seeing her, all right, Hermione?" he said, looking at his feet.
    "I wish it didn’t have to be this way," Hermione said quietly.
    "I do, too. Believe me; I do, too."
    When Harry came downstairs a good while later, he headed straight for the kitchen, certain he’d find a crowd of Weasleys there. What he hadn’t anticipated was hearing the low murmur of voices coming from the sitting room as he walked past. The sound of his own name caught his attention, and he stopped to hear what was being said.
    He had to squint against the dimness of the room, but he could just make out Ron and Hermione sitting on the couch at the far end of the room and speaking in hushed tones. Ron had his arm draped casually over the back of the couch, and Hermione was nestled in the crook. They were stuffing little gift boxes with chocolates — for the wedding, Harry assumed — but it looked as if they were eating more than they were packaging. Harry had to grin, watching them.
    "So, he’s upset, and she’s upset. How is that different from anyone else in this bloody house? Someone is always upset." Ron said, scowling moodily.
    "It’s more than being upset, Ron. They’re both miserable, and I don’t know what to do about it," Hermione replied, gently swiping a bit of chocolate from Ron’s mouth with her finger.
    "Maybe it isn’t up to you to do something," Ron said, his voice strained.
    "I know you think he’s right to keep her out of it, Ron…but what if he’s wrong?" Hermione said, resting her head on the back of the couch.
    "What do you mean? How is trying to keep her safe wrong?" Ron asked, perplexed.
    "Because she’s not safe, no matter what he does. And he might be the one who’s in more danger without her. You saw how happy he was when they were together. How long has it been since you’ve seen Harry that way? Even his marks improved."
    Ron shrugged. "Not everything is about marks, Hermione."
    "I didn’t say it was," she snapped, sounding a little hurt. "Ron, don’t you see what’s going on?"
    "What?"
    "Harry’s had a tough life, and not many things have truly gone right for him. Ginny is just about the best thing that ever happened to him. She made him happy, and he’s willing to give her and all that up in order to rid the world of Voldemort so all the rest of us can be safe.
    "Ginny has loved Harry since before she even knew what love was. She stood on the sidelines and watched him struggle, even moving on herself rather than forcing her feelings on him. When they finally came together and acknowledged their feelings for each other, it was like every dream Ginny ever had coming true. Now, she’s willingly giving him and all her dreams up, because she knows the rest of our lives depend on his success, and he’d never be able to live with himself if he didn’t try.
    "Don’t you see? They are so alike it’s painful. It’s like that Christmas story," Hermione cried.
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  9. #9
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Ron wore a stunned expression. "What?"
    "You know, that old Christmas story about the man who wanted to buy a present for his wife, and he sold the only thing of value he owned — his father’s pocket watch — to buy her a hair clip for her long beautiful hair. Meanwhile, the wife cut her hair and sold it in order to earn enough money to buy a gold chain for the man’s watch.
    "It’s beautiful and so romantic in a bittersweet sort of way," Hermione said, smiling sadly.
    "You mean they both ended up with a present they couldn’t use?" Ron asked, horrified.
    "Oh, Ron. That’s not the point," Hermione snapped. "They ended up with each other."
    Harry pulled back sharply and blindly stumbled for the kitchen. He sat down on a stool, breathing heavily. Was that what he and Ginny were doing? Each one sacrificing what was most important to them for the greater good? And would both of them end up with nothing in the end?
    He had never wanted to make Ginny suffer. He put his head down and ran his fingers through his hair.
    I don’t know.
    He’d never considered it as any sort of noble act; he just wanted to keep her safe. Harry was beginning to think there was no way to do that.
    "Harry?"
    He looked up to find Mrs. Weasley standing in the doorway. She was looking at him with concern over finding him sitting alone in the dark.
    "Are you all right, dear?" she asked kindly.
    "Yes, Mrs. Weasley. I’m fine."
    "Well, I suppose you’d say that even if you weren’t fine."
    Harry grinned sheepishly. "Guilty as charged."
    Mrs. Weasley poured a glass of cold pumpkin juice and placed in front of him. She sat down in the seat next to him and took his hand in her own. "The one thing in this world that always seems to be in short supply is love, yet it’s the one thing that grows and multiplies the most when shared. We should never throw away a chance to have more of it in our lives. "
    Harry looked up into Mrs. Weasley’s eyes and found only warmth and compassion there. He felt his own eyes fill and blinked furiously in order to hold back the tears that suddenly wanted to fall. "I’m just trying to do what’s right, Mrs. Weasley."
    "I know you are, dear," she said gently, rising up from the table and kissing him on the head. "She knows it, too."
    Harry nodded silently as Mrs. Weasley pushed a piece of warm bread into his hands. "That should hold you until dinner. We’ll be eating out in the garden tonight. There will be more room out there. Be a love and go ahead and start setting the table for me, would you, dear?"
    As soon as he went outside, Harry knew he’d been set up. Ginny was already there, placing napkins next to each of the plates. Harry gathered the silverware and began helping her to set the table.
    "Let me guess — Mum sent you out here?" she asked without raising her eyes from the table. The low, husky quality in her voice sent a shiver up his spine.
    "Yeah," he replied.
    They worked in silence for a few moments, working in tandem to set each place setting. Finally, Harry couldn’t take the strained silence anymore. "It’s good to see you, Ginny."
    "Is it?" Ginny asked dully.
    Harry swallowed. "You have no idea."
    "Why did you allow Ron and Hermione to go with you? They’re going with you again, aren’t they? When you go off to do the thing you’re going to do," Ginny said, turning to face him and placing her hands on her hips.
    "What?"
    "You said you had things to do alone now. Ron and Hermione being with you isn’t actually alone."
    "No. They never listen to me."
    "Maybe I shouldn’t have listened, either," Ginny said, her eyes glistening brightly.
    "Ginny– "
    "No. I shouldn’t have said that. I know you’re only doing what you have to do, and I know it isn’t any easier on you. That doesn’t always help," she said, her shoulders slumping.
    "I know," he replied, his heart aching. She was absolutely right, but he had no idea what he could say to make it better for her, aside from the one thing she wanted to hear. And that was the one thing he couldn’t — shouldn’t — do.
    "So, what happens now? With us, I mean. Do we just go on and pretend nothing has ever changed?" Ginny asked.
    "I dunno. Can you do that? ‘Cause I really don’t think I can," Harry said honestly.
    Ginny shrugged her shoulders. "I’ll do what I have to do."
    "You always do," he said, trying to smile.
    "Yeah. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck."
    Harry snorted. "No. It does that."
    They were interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the Weasley clan, along with Fleur, Hermione, and Ekaterina, Charlie’s Romanian girlfriend. She had long, straight dark hair that hung well below her waist and dark eyes that appeared to study them all intently. She was as opposite to Fleur in coloring as she could be, yet equally beautiful.
    "You are Harry Potter," she said in a thick accent, reaching out to shake his hand.
    "Yes, I am," Harry said, lowering his eyes.
    "I am honored to meet you. I have heard stories of you since I was a little girl," she said.
    Harry felt his face burn, and he longed to be anywhere else. He noticed Ginny biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
    "Come on, Katia. You’re embarrassing the kid. Leave him alone," Charlie said, chuckling and tugging on his girlfriend’s hand.
    Ginny giggled. "You’ve never got used to that, have you?"
    Harry shrugged. "I wish just once someone would say, ‘Hullo, Harry. Nice to meet you,’ and leave it at that."
    Ginny grinned and stuck out her hand. "Hullo, Harry. Nice to meet you."
    "Ha, ha."
    "Oh, ‘Arry. ‘E iz still zo ‘umble," Fleur said, increasing Harry’s embarrassment. "’Ee weel ‘ave all ze girls lining up to dance wiz ‘im at ze reception."
    "As long as he saves one for me," Ginny said, and Harry could hear the hard edge in her voice. She was challenging him.
    "I can do that," he said, locking his eyes on hers and raising an eyebrow.
    "But, Ginny. Don’t go promising all your dances before ze wedding. Jean-Luc is zo anxious to meet you. You may find yourself wishing you had a free dance card," Fleur said, waggling her finely arched eyebrows.
    "I think I can manage my own dance partners, thank you, Fleur," Ginny said through gritted teeth.
    "But of course you can," Fleur replied, waving her hand dismissively. "I just zink you will be pleazed when you meet ‘im."
    "I’m certain I’ll be happy to meet all your family, Fleur," Ginny said sweetly.
    Harry had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting into laughter. She sounded so sincere, yet he could hear the snide quality in her voice. His inner monster was dancing an intricate waltz with the knowledge that she wasn’t going to let herself be set up with Jean-Luc. Harry hated his name just on principle.
    Of course, that same monster had been snarling in fury just moments ago when Fleur had been attempting to play matchmaker for his Ginny.
    He had to stop thinking like that. She wasn’t his Ginny anymore.
    "Fleur, my love, you have to stop worrying about everyone else’s dance partners," Bill said, wrapping his arms around Fleur’s waist and nuzzling her neck. "You only have to think about sharing all your dances with me."
    Fleur’s eyes softened as she turned to rub her nose against Bill’s. Harry turned away in embarrassment and walked towards the other end of the table.
    "They’re sicky sweet, aren’t they? I hope they cool off after they’ve had a honeymoon," Ginny said, wrinkling her nose. "Maybe regular shagging will help."
    "Ginny!"
    "What? Come on, Harry. They’ve been living here with Mum, who has impropriety detectors hooked up in every room. All that sexual tension has to be released somewhere," Ginny said.
    Harry didn’t know if she was joking or not, and he stared at her uncertainly. "Er."
    "Oh, I’ll be so happy when this wedding is finally over," she exclaimed.
    He didn’t know what possessed him, but he couldn’t stop the words from coming out. "Yeah, and maybe you and Jean-Luc will hit it off splendidly and dance the night away. You’d better keep your mum’s detectors in mind then."
    He knew he was in trouble before the words had even finished leaving his mouth.
    "Don’t worry, I know my way around them," Ginny said, her voice rising angrily. "What’s it to you, anyway? The idea is to not let anyone know there was ever anything between us, right? Maybe kicking up my heels with a handsome Frenchman is a good way to get that rumor moving."
    "Wouldn’t know. Why don’t you try it?" Harry replied, his own anger mounting.
    "Maybe I will," Ginny snapped, her eyes suspiciously bright.
    "Fine."
    "Fine."
    Harry turned on his heel and stomped away from the table. He knew his and Ginny’s raised voices had attracted the attention of several of the others, but he didn’t really care at the moment. He stopped at the front of the Burrow and took several deep breaths. None of the Dursleys had managed to get this much of a rise out of him in the entire fortnight he’d spent there. How did she manage to do it three times in the space of a few short hours?
    Damn, she can get under my skin.
    Harry noticed a fat little garden gnome munching on one of Mrs. Weasley’s prize rose bushes right out in the open without even making an attempt at concealment. With his Seeker reflexes, Harry’s hand shot out and grabbed the little gnome around its middle. Winding up and releasing some of his anger and frustration as he did, Harry flung the creature and watched as it sailed over the fence, screaming all the way.
    That felt good.
    Harry began searching for gnomes in earnest and releasing some of his pent up frustration by cleaning them out of the garden. He wasn’t certain how long he’d been there — long enough to work up quite a sweat — when Ron joined him. His ears were a deep magenta, and he was a scowling fiercely.
    Harry silently handed him a struggling gnome. Ron looked at the ugly little creature for a moment without saying a word, then, with a snarl, he tossed it well past the garden gate.
    "Nice one," Harry said appreciatively.
    They tossed a few more gnomes in silence before Harry finally asked. "What set you off?"
    "Have you seen the guest list for this wedding?" Ron asked, tossing another gnome.
    "Er, yeah, Ron. It was the first thing I did when I got here," Harry said sarcastically. "How was I supposed to have seen the guest list? Why? What’s wrong with the guest list?"
    "Turns out you and Fleur aren’t the only former Tri-wizard champions who will be attending," Ron said, viciously swinging a gnome in the air.
    "Huh?"
    "Viktor Krum, Harry. Vicky was invited, and he responded that of course he’d be here and looked forward to catching up with old friends. I’ll just bet I know who he’s really looking forward to catching," Ron spat.
    "Ron. Fleur and Viktor competed together in a grueling competition. We bonded in a weird sort of way. It only makes sense that we’d all be here together when one gets married," Harry said, not quite believing he was actually saying it.
    "Cedric won’t be here," Ron said testily.
    Harry flinched.
    "Sorry," Ron said quickly. "It’s not your fault. It just hacks me off."
    "Yeah, I noticed."
    "You’re one to talk. I saw you go storming out of the back garden. Ginny looked like she was about to cry," Ron said, crossing his arms across his chest.
    Harry flinched again. If he’d felt bad before, he felt ruddy awful now. Maybe letting Ron and his brothers clobber him would help.
    "Don’t worry. She’ll be all right; Mum will see to it. A few of my brothers might be ready to hex you, though, so I’d watch your back," Ron said.
    Harry looked at Ron with some apprehension. He raised an eyebrow but didn’t voice the question.
    "No, I’m not angry with you. You’re just as upset as she is; you just hide it better. Hermione told me," Ron said, smirking.
    "Remind me to tell Hermione I owe her one," Harry said, tossing another gnome.
    "You’ll work it out. Both you and Ginny are more resilient than most people are. You’re more resilient than me, anyway. Hermione told me that, too. It’ll all work out in the end, though; I’m certain of it. Maybe we can hex Vicky and Jean-Lucifer into fancying each other," Ron said, only half-joking.
    "Maybe Jean-Lucifer is just what Ginny needs," Harry said despondently, unable to resist using Ron’s nickname.
    "Don’t be stupid. What Ginny needs is you, same as you need her. I know my little sister, Harry. She didn’t spend how many years waiting for you only to give up now that you’re finally paying attention. Ginny’s way more tenacious than that," Ron said, shaking his head.
    Harry smiled, feeling a little better.
    "What’s going on between you and Hermione, Ron? Are you together or not?" Harry asked, not entirely certain he wanted to know. Still, Ron had made him feel better; he should at least try to do the same.
    Ron was quiet for a few minutes. "I think so. I mean…we never actually said anything, but…after Dumbledore’s funeral…it just all sort of clicked, you know? We didn’t have to say anything."
    "Er, Ron. I think maybe you do have to say something. This is Hermione we’re talking about. She likes words," Harry said, grimacing.
    "You think?" Ron asked, looking dumbfounded.
    "Yeah, I do," Harry replied confidently.
    "Bloody Hell."
    Harry snorted. "After all this time, you’d think we would have figured out what we’re doing."
    "You’d think so, wouldn’t you?" Ron asked, handing Harry another gnome.
    "Prat."
    "Git."
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  10. #10
    genocidegrand is offline Senior Member Regular
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    Chapter Four
    Until Death Do Us Part
    The day of the wedding dawned bright and glorious. Harry was awoken at what felt to him to be an ungodly hour by the chirping of birds. The
    sun streaming in from the cracks of the blinds in Ron’s attic bedroom pierced his skull with a fierce, unforgiving intensity. The ruddy twittering was driving him mad.
    Harry had been to his first stag party the previous evening, and even the sobering charm that Mrs. Weasley had performed on them all before ushering them off to bed hadn’t stopped the pounding of his head this morning. He had a vague feeling of unease, but he wasn’t certain if it was only due to the nauseating headache.
    It had been one of the strangest weeks in Harry’s life, and that was saying something. The Burrow – a hub for chaos and activity under normal circumstances – was the center of operations for the upcoming nuptials. If Mrs. Weasley had appeared frazzled to Harry over the previous years while working with the Order, it was nothing to her state while preparing this wedding.
    The Delacour family had arrived two days ago with more trunks and belongings than a small army should rightfully own. The ceremony itself was to take place in the meadow where Harry had played Quidditch with Ron and his family on many occasions. Therefore, the Delacour family took over the other side of the garden, where they had erected a large tent surrounded by lush flowerbeds.
    Harry had never seen anything quite like it, even at the Quidditch World Cup. The tent was more like a castle – with peaks and turrets – and bore the French flag on the top. The area surrounding the tent blossomed with an array of exotic plants and flowers, and a small fountain appeared in a newly formed pond.
    If Mrs. Weasley was stressed, it was nothing compared to the state of Mrs. Delacour. Harry had yet to hear her speak in anything but a shout, and he’d noticed Mr. Delacour liberally filling her tea with some oak-matured mead on more than one occasion.
    Bill and Fleur appeared oblivious to all the fuss and merely floated in and out of the chaos with the sappiest expressions upon their faces. Fleur had moved out of the Burrow, where she’d been staying, and in with her own family, leaving Ginny, Hermione and Ekaterina sharing one room. Harry supposed that Ginny liked Ekaterina better than Fleur, because the tautness in her face had lessened considerably after the French girl’s departure.
    Since their blow up in the back garden nearly a week ago, the tension between Ginny and him had been so thick it could be cut with a knife. They had taken great pains either to act overly civil to one another or to avoid each other entirely. Ginny again proved her accomplished acting ability by easily pretending that nothing was wrong, treating Harry as no more and no less than Ron’s visiting friend. She was civil, polite and frustratingly distant. It was only on brief, rare occasions that Harry thought he caught a glimmer of something in her eyes, but when he looked closely, it was gone.
    Harry, on the other hand, was failing miserably at playing along. He couldn’t just close off his feelings and pretend there was nothing wrong, no matter how hard he tried, and the effort was making him increasingly bad-tempered. It occurred to him that while he had failed
    dismally at mastering Occlumency during his fifth year, Ginny would probably be very good at it.
    The presence of Jean-Luc Delacour certainly hadn’t helped matters. Suave and debonair, Jean-Luc was everything Harry wasn’t. He was only a year older, but he somehow managed to appear vastly more sophisticated. He had dark hair that he wore slicked back and robes that not only fit impeccably, but also were made of the finest material.
    It gave Harry a new determination to go shopping for some Muggle clothes of his very own and in his own size for the first time in his life.
    Jean-Luc had kissed Ginny’s hand when he first met her, and always seemed to know the right thing to say or had some witty response to everything said to him.
    Harry felt as if he were tongue-tied in comparison.
    All the women in the house were fawning over Jean-Luc, and Harry had memories of being back in fourth year and trying to compete against Cedric to get a date to the Yule Ball. The only consolation was that none of the other Weasley brothers cared much for Jean-Luc, either. Ron acted out overly exaggerated imitations of his prancing ways, and Harry suspected the twins were devising a major prank.
    Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke, Harry thought savagely.
    Despite her brothers’ obvious disapproval – or maybe because of it – Ginny appeared quite enamoured with the dashing Frenchman. Every time Harry saw her, she was with him, laughing at his stupid jokes or listening intently to whatever it was he had to say. Harry had seen her take his arm on several occasions, and he appeared to take every opportunity to place his ruddy hands upon her waist.
    The monster in Harry’s chest had been roaring with such intensity that Harry was shocked no one else could hear it. He’d been in a right foul mood, and most of the Weasleys had been giving him a wide berth because of it. The only one who apparently wasn’t bothered at all by his foul disposition was Gabrielle Delacour. She’d become Harry’s shadow, following him nearly everywhere and helping him with whichever task Mrs. Weasley or Mrs. Delacour assigned to him.
    Gabrielle chatted incessantly as they worked, and Harry hadn’t yet found a way to disengage himself from her presence. She followed him, laughed at nothing, and then blushed the deepest shade of Weasley red if he happened to answer one of her endless questions. He remembered when Ginny had a crush on him, back in his second year, but that had been different somehow. Ginny had never been this annoying.
    It was as if he were assigned Colin Creevey as a Potions partner, only with more giggling. The only slight positive to the whole situation was that Fleur had stopped pushing Harry to entertain Gabrielle. It was as if ever since Harry and Ginny’s shouting match in the back garden, Fleur had a new pet project. She purposely arranged tasks and insisted that both he and Ginny needed to work on them together.
    Harry would have been eternally grateful to her if the circumstances been different, but spending time with Ginny while she was acting coolly polite and detached was nearly driving him to distraction.
    Hence the reason he’d imbibed so much at the stag party the previous evening.
    It had started innocently enough. Charlie had gathered all the Weasley brothers (minus Percy), Harry, Jean-Luc, Mr. Weasley and Mr. Delacour, and they had Apparated to a private room at the Leaky Cauldron. Remus, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt and several other members of the Order had met them there, along with some of Bill’s co-workers and old friends.
    Harry had taken a seat with Ron in a corner, somewhat distanced from the rest of the crowd. He’d been happy enough with his cold Butterbeer when Charlie approached their table with a bottle of Firewhiskey and added a shot to his and Ron’s drinks. Harry hadn’t yet tried the legendary drink and was quite keen to oblige. It burned going down, and he spluttered and coughed until he got used to it.
    He’d only intended on trying it and leaving it at that, but he’d ended up taking a fair share of ribbing over being the only bloke there still underage. He felt he had something to prove, particularly to Jean-Lucifer, whom the alcohol didn’t appear to be affecting at all.
    He had soon found it very difficult to string words together clearly – more difficult even than he normally did – and he wasn’t quite certain how he’d got back to the Burrow at the end of the night.
    Which was how he’d ended up lying here on the camp bed in Ron’s sickeningly orange room, trying to decide if he had the energy to cast a Reducto spell on the sun.
    “Bloody hell,” Ron groaned from beneath the covers on his bed.
    Harry tried to sit up but ended up falling back onto his pillow and swearing. “I am never drinking Firewhiskey again as long as I live,” he moaned. “Whose brilliant idea was that, anyway?”
    “I think it was yours, mate,” Ron replied, and his voice sounded abnormally loud in the stillness of the room.
    “Good morning, boys,” Hermione’s voice trilled as she pushed open the door and entered Ron’s room, grinning merrily. Both boys cringed and pulled away.
    “Oh, it’s a perfect day for a wedding. Mrs. Weasley has breakfast ready. Come on, get up. The guests will be arriving soon, and you need to be dressed in order to greet them.”
    “Hermione,” Ron groaned, rolling over and pulling the covers up over his head. “It’s only the crack of dawn.”
    “Nonsense,” Hermione said, pulling the covers off him completely and then turning and doing the same to Harry. “It’s almost ten o’clock.
    Everyone else is up and has been for quite some time. Ginny, Fleur and Gabrielle have already left to have their hair done.”
    “Left where?” Harry asked, suddenly interested. He grabbed his blanket back from Hermione to cover his bare chest.
    “Oh. They Apparated to some cousin of Fleur’s in London. Ron, your mother is going to be up here in a minute if you don’t get up,” Hermione said.
    “My head,” Ron moaned.
    “Oh!” Hermione said, starting. She pulled two phials from the pocket of her dressing gown. “Here. Your mum said to give these to you to help clear your heads.”
    Harry took the phial eagerly and downed the contents, wincing at the taste. His mind cleared instantly, and the throbbing in his temples receded.
    “Why didn’t you say that bit first?” he asked irritably. Now that he could think, he realized he still had that distinctly uneasy feeling. He suspected it had something to do with his hangover, along with his apprehension over having to spend the day watching Jean-Luc fawning over Ginny. Still, the prickling on the back of his neck caused him some concern. He’d have to remain alert. He wasn’t about to let anything spoil this wedding for the Weasleys.
    ***
    Several hours later, Harry found himself dressed in his stylish gray dress robes and helping Ron and the twins escort guests to their seats out in the meadow. Rows and rows of white chairs were set up in a semicircle around a white gazebo adorned with more white roses than Harry had ever seen. Aunt Petunia would have been beside herself at the lushness of the blooms.
    Viktor Krum’s arrival caused Ron’s eyes to narrow and his ears to grow red, despite the fact that Viktor arrived with a stunning blonde beauty on his arm. Harry hurried over to greet them and escort them to their seats before Ron could make a scene. Viktor did ask about Hermione, but Harry chose not to mention that fact to Ron.
    When the wedding began, Harry went to take a seat towards the back of all the rows, but Ron grabbed him and dragged him to sit with him and Hermione in one of the rows reserved for all the Weasleys. Harry felt oddly touched.
    He honestly didn’t remember much of the ceremony after Ginny walked down the aisle. Gabrielle had walked down first, wearing gold dress robes with a bit of a ruffle and lacing up the front. The sleeves rested on her shoulders, and she wore a gold shawl draped across the top. Her golden curls were piled heavily atop her head, and even Harry had to admit she looked thoroughly charming.
    Ginny followed next, and Harry felt his mouth go dry. He couldn’t even manage to swallow. The gold robes, while pretty on Gabrielle, looked
    stunning on Ginny. They appeared to hug every curve, and Harry would have been hard pressed to drag his eyes away if Voldemort had chosen that moment to attack. Her hair was curled softly and piled into an intricate pattern of plaits atop her head with thin wisps surrounding her face. She’d tied the shawl more closely around her than Gabrielle had done, but even with it there Harry could tell the sleeves on the robes bared her shoulders completely.
    She was stunning, and he was lost.
    The ceremony commenced, and he supposed Bill and Fleur had said their I do’s at some point. Honestly, however, Harry hadn’t been aware of anything else but the shine of the sun on Ginny’s fiery hair, and the pink lipstick she wore on her softly smiling lips. He watched several times in fascination as Ginny’s small tongue darted out to moisten them, making the lipstick shine.
    Before he knew what was happening, Bill and Fleur were kissing one another, and small white doves flew from all the trees surrounding the gazebo.
    “Now, let’s get this party started,” Fred said, slapping George on the back.
    “Right, brother mine. We promised to dance with each and every one of Fleur’s friends. I, for one, took that promise as a personal oath,” George replied.
    Harry rolled his eyes and followed them to the area where tents had been set up holding tables of food and drink. He took a seat with Ron and Hermione and wasn’t surprised to find Gabrielle at his elbow almost instantly.
    “Oh, there iz an empty zeat right next to me, ‘Arry,” the young girl said eagerly, patting the chair beside her.
    Gritting his teeth and ignoring Ron’s snigger, Harry sat down. Ron and Hermione sat across from him, looking extremely cozy. Fred and George were up and already instructing the band by the dance floor in the middle of the tent.
    Bill and Fleur were seated at a table for two at the front of the tent, with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and Mr. and Mrs. Delacour occupying a table to their right. Harry sat with the other Weasley siblings and Gabrielle at a table on the left of the happy couple. Harry looked up in time to see Ginny and Jean-Luc taking the remaining seats at his table.
    Harry’s eyes locked on Ginny’s for a moment as she sat down, and he was unable to pull them away. She was wearing make-up on her eyes that made them look kind of smoky and unbelievably sexy. He didn’t remember ever seeing her wearing more than lipstick at school.
    “Let me pour you zome of zis wine, Ginny,” Jean-Luc said, and it sounded like he was caressing her name.
    Harry’s beast snarled crossly.
    “Thank you, Jean-Luc,” Ginny replied sweetly.
    Scowling, Harry took a liberal drink of his own wine.
    Despite all the delectable food that was offered, the dinner dragged excruciatingly slow for Harry. Between Gabrielle’s hints about how much she wanted to dance and Jean-Luc’s constant attentiveness to Ginny, Harry was ready to leap on his Firebolt and dive bomb the whole affair.
    The only upside was the wine that had made him pleasantly warm. He’d quickly forgotten his promise of just that morning never to imbibe again. Even a hangover would feel better than the way he felt at the moment.
    When he finished his dessert, he thought he’d managed to make it through the evening. He’d planned on slipping away from the festivities quietly and making it an early night. They were leaving for Godric’s Hollow in the morning, and he wanted to be well rested.
    That plan changed when Jean-Luc asked Ginny to dance. She nodded brightly and turned around. Looking directly into Harry’s eyes with something he thought looked like a challenge, she allowed the shawl that she’d been wearing to drop from her shoulders.
    Harry gulped as his mouth went dry. He felt as if all the air in his lungs had been forced out of him. The neckline of Ginny’s dress suddenly appeared much lower than the modest cut of Gabrielle’s, and Ginny’s bosom looked as if it were barely being contained. Her robes no longer looked as if they had been made for a little girl at all.
    Harry’s jaw dropped open, and he wasn’t even been aware of it until Hermione elbowed him sharply in the ribs. Ginny’s eyes sparkled with triumph.
    Jean-Luc, of course, handled the situation with much more grace than Harry had managed. He leaned over and whispered something in Ginny’s ear, causing her to blush and look toward her feet. In doing so, she missed the appreciative look the Frenchman cast down her cleavage.
    Harry didn’t miss it, however, and jumped to his feet.
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