The Seventh Horcrux


Story Summary:
The hunt for the Horcruxes begins. Harry has to decide who to trust as he moves closer to fulfilling his destiny. Will he be able to find and destroy all the Horcruxes? And at what price? Will he be able to find the strength within himself - the Power the Dark Lord Knows Not - in order to succeed in vanquishing Voldemort? And...can he do it and still get the girl? Join Harry and his faithful friends on their quest to finally defeat a Dark Lord.

Chapter 09 - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?



: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I’m just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.

Chapter Nine

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Harry awoke early on the morning of his birthday after a night mercifully unmarred by dreams. Lying in bed and luxuriating in the feel of the warm sunlight streaming though a crack in the curtains, he breathed deeply.

He was finally of age, finally a man.

The Dursleys briefly crossed his mind. The magic his mother invoked by giving her life for his would have ended at midnight. He wondered idly what that would mean for the Dursleys, if anything. He knew the Order was still keeping an eye on Privet Drive, and he also knew the Dursleys would never accept an offer to go into hiding. As far as they were concerned, they were done with him and his world. For their sake, Harry hoped that was true.

He suspected that before they had departed, Ron and Hermione had done something to let the Dursleys know they were unhappy with the treatment Harry had received through the years. He purposefully hadn’t asked them, however. If he didn’t know what they’d done, there was no way he could feel guilty about it. Besides, it wasn’t as if the Dursleys didn’t deserve a bit of torment, anyway.

Shaking his head, he tried to steer his thoughts away from his relatives. He never had to go back, and that felt good. He had a busy day ahead, and tomorrow…tomorrow his adventure would begin. Remus had supplied him with a magical tent, and it was now tucked away inside his rucksack. The four teens had packed lightly, uncertain how long they would be gone and not wanting to have to lug heavy bags with them.

He and Ron had an appointment at the Ministry at nine o’clock to take their Apparation tests. Mr. Weasley had agreed to accompany them to the testing center on his way to work. Harry was looking forward to it, although slightly apprehensive that Rufus Scrimgeour would try to take advantage of his appearance at the Ministry.

Harry glanced over at Ron’s bed and was surprised to find it empty. It was a rare occasion that Ron was up before Harry. He knew that Ron was feeling extremely nervous about the test, and he hoped that his friend wouldn’t let his nerves unhinge him. They had to be able to Apparate once they began their quest. Harry was nervous about the fact that Ginny would have to SideAlong for another year before she was of age, although she’d hinted at the fact that she already knew how to do it.

His door opened with a creak, startling him, and he squinted his unfocused eyes at the blur of red streaking towards him.

"Good morning, Harry! Happy Birthday," Ginny squealed, kissing him soundly as she sat on the edge of his bed.

Harry grinned widely, feeling inexplicably giddy all of a sudden. "Thanks, Ginny. I’d have turned seventeen sooner if I’d known I’d get a greeting like that," he said, smiling cheekily.

Ginny grinned and gently ran her hand along the side of his face. "Mum’s making an enormous birthday breakfast, so I hope you’re hungry."

"I am," he said, turning to kiss her hand. "I hope this test goes all right for both of us. I’ll be happy when it’s done and over with. Where is Ron? Have you seen him?"

"He’s in the kitchen. Mum’s trying to coax him to eat something, but he looks really nervous. When will the prat ever learn that he only mucks it up because he convinces himself that he’s going to do so?" she asked in exasperation.

"I know," Harry said, grimacing. "He’s not a prat though; he’s just nervous."

"He’s a prat," Ginny said firmly. "Everything is all set to go tomorrow. I hope Mum won’t be too upset."

"I know," Harry replied worriedly. He really didn’t want to hurt Mrs. Weasley, but he also knew that she’d never allow them to leave without knowing where they were going. Even if they’d come up with a plausible excuse, she’d most likely resist the idea of their leaving the safety of headquarters.

Hermione’s mum had found the name and address of the orphanage fairly quickly. Luckily, it was still open and hadn’t been torn down or converted into anything else. Its location wasn’t all that far from the Leaky Cauldron, although they’d decided it was safer to avoid the pub and travel as Muggles.

They planned to sneak out of Grimmauld Place at dawn, before the rest of the household had arisen. He was certain that they’d have to deal with the fallout upon their return, but he hoped by then to have one more Horcrux recovered. It would put him on firmer ground while holding off the Order.

"Hopefully, this little battle of wills she’s been having with Narcissa Malfoy will keep her occupied so she won’t fret too much," Ginny said, biting her lip.

Narcissa Malfoy had yet to make an appearance since they’d all arrived at Grimmauld Place. She’d remained sequestered in her rooms, requesting that meals be sent up to her. Mrs. Weasley had prepared the trays nicely enough, but she’d refused to deliver them to her, forcing Narcissa to either get them herself or have someone else do it. Mrs. Malfoy had also refused to return any of the trays to the kitchen after using them, and Mrs. Weasley was determined not to collect the growing pile that stood in the hallway. She wanted Mrs. Malfoy to return and clean them herself.

"I’ll be sorry to miss that row when it happens," Harry said, grinning.

"Yeah. I’ve noticed Fred and George have been hanging around a lot recently. I think they’re just hoping to be here when everything blows," Ginny replied.

"I hope your mum and dad won’t be too angry with me when they realize we’ve left," Harry said. "They’ve done a lot for me." Although he didn’t say it, the idea of the Weasleys’ disapproval troubled him greatly. They meant a lot to him.

"Don’t fret now, Harry. We’ll deal with things as they come, together. Actually, I think Dad might suspect we’re up to something. He’s not as unaware of what’s happening around him as he sometimes appears," Ginny said, smiling fondly. "He’ll help with Mum. He’s not having as hard a time admitting we’ve all grown up as she is."

Harry wondered if that were true for Ginny as well as her brothers. Somehow, he suspected that Mr. Weasley might have a much harder time accepting the idea that his little girl had grown up enough to run off with a boy in order to face an insane Dark wizard and a bunch of Death Eaters than the fact that one of his sons had done it.

When Harry remained silent, she reached out and gently caressed the side of his face. He leaned his head into her palm, relishing the comfort.

"How are you doing?" she asked, her expression grave. He knew at once exactly what she meant.

None of them had discussed the Seventh Horcrux with him since his startling revelation. It was as if the subject had become taboo, and they all tiptoed around it carefully while discussing anything to do with the search. On several occasions, he’d discovered Ginny, Ron and Hermione with their heads huddled together and whispering frantically, although they always broke apart when he’d entered the room.

He suspected they’d spent a lot of time discussing him and seeking a possible escape from his situation. The fact none of them had approached him didn’t bode well, and Harry didn’t have the heart to ask. He was only holding it all together by moving forward and keeping his eye on the prize.

One Horcrux at a time

had become his mantra.

"I’m okay," he whispered, shrugging. "Have to be, don’t I?"

"Not with me," she whispered gently. "I promised myself to be the one to prop you back up if you falter. You might be determined to save the wizarding world, but I’m determined to save you."

A lump rose in Harry’s throat as he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Speaking into her shoulder he said, "That might not be possible, Ginny."

Ginny’s grip tightened around him. "It is possible. Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve. I’ve told you that before, don’t you remember?"

"Yeah, I remember," Harry said, smiling. "You came to my rescue then, too."

"That’s me, Ginny Weasley: hero rescuer," she said, still clutching him tightly. He could feel rather than see her grin.

"I’m no hero," he said gruffly. "I don’t even know what I’m doing."

"It’ll be all right, Harry. I know it seems insurmountable when you look at what we’ve got to do as a whole, but if we take it a little at a time, sooner or later the puzzle pieces will come together and everything will fit," Ginny said. He couldn’t see her face, but her voice sounded confident, and it soothed him.

"You make me feel like I can do anything," he whispered.

"You can."

"I saw my mum and dad’s graves when I was in Godric’s Hollow," he said. He’d left that part of the story out when he’d told them all about Wormtail. He didn’t know why, but he suddenly had the urge to talk about it with her.

"That must have been hard for you," she said, running her fingers through his hair.

Harry shrugged, enjoying the sensation her fingers were creating. "It was strange. I’ve always wondered about them, but I thought when I finally saw their resting place that I’d feel some sort of connection to them or something. I dunno. It’s stupid really."

"It isn’t stupid, Harry."

"It was hard to be there; it made me think of how different things should have been, but I didn’t feel like they were there. I didn’t feel any different about them then I always had. Does that make any sense?" Harry asked.

"I suppose," Ginny said carefully, "that maybe it’s not the place where they are buried that connects us to the people we’ve lost, but the feelings we have inside for them. I’ve never lost anyone really close to me, so it’s not like I know what I’m talking about, but Mum lost a couple of her brothers in the last war. I never knew them because they died before I was born, but I know she still talks to them sometimes, particularly when she’s feeling stressed. Fred and George were named for them, well, their initials anyway.

"I don’t remember Mum ever going to their graves, but it doesn’t mean she loved them any less. Maybe some people need a grave as a place to grieve and others don’t. You never had a gravesite to go to, right? You’ve always just known they died, so you’ve found other ways to feel connected to them."

"I suppose," Harry said, burrowing his face into her hair and smelling that sweet floral scent he loved so much. Until he was eleven, he’d believed his parents had died in a car accident. He could remember lying in his cupboard and having imaginary conversations with them. He’d never considered that it was a form of grieving.

"So, what do you want to do for your birthday?" Ginny asked, and he knew she was trying to cheer him up. Feeling in the mood to actually celebrate his birthday for a change, he let her.

"I know exactly what I want to do," he said, nibbling on her ear, "but I think your mum might object if we spend the day up here — not to mention your army of brothers."

Ginny giggled, moving her head to give him better access to her neck. She moaned softly as he continued to plant kisses along the slender column of her throat, and he thought the sound might drive him mad.

Harry had just managed to relax and begin to enjoy himself when he heard Mrs. Weasley hollering to them that breakfast was ready. Harry and Ginny broke apart reluctantly, both panting and looking rather rumpled.

"Well," Ginny said, standing up and straightening her clothing. "It’s nice to see that my mum’s timing is as impeccable as always."

"Yeah," Harry replied grumpily, attempting unsuccessfully to flatten his extremely mussed up hair. "It’s just brilliant."

"Don’t worry, Harry. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to continue our activities once we’re out from under her eye," Ginny said with an impish wink. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she turned and left the room, leaving a gaping Harry to follow in her wake. Her words had sent his mind into overdrive, and he was suddenly very keen to begin their quest for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with Horcruxes.

When they entered the kitchen, they found it already crowded. Everyone turned to stare, causing both of them to blush brightly. Harry was surprised to see Ginny coloring; she was usually better at not letting her family get to her than he was.

"Appears as if our birthday boy might have already received one of his presents," Fred said innocently.

Harry felt heat flame in his face and neck and knew that he’d turned even redder, if that were possible.

"Shut it, you," Ginny said in a low voice, piling a scoop of scrambled eggs onto a plate. She handed the plate to Harry and filled another for herself.

"Yes, Ginny," George said, grinning mischievously. "What took you so long? Was it hard to get Harry to rise this morning?"

Harry choked on his eggs, looking around wildly to make certain Mrs. Weasley was still busy at the stove and hadn’t overheard their conversation.

Ginny appeared to have regained her composure. She casually cast her eyes downward at Harry and muttered, "Not really."

Fred and George sat motionless except for their eyes, which darted back and forth between Harry and Ginny. They wore identical stunned expressions before both broke out in hearty laughter.

Harry wanted the floor to open up and swallow him whole. He was certain any one of her many brothers was about to curse him from existence. He was glad he’d at least come of age, so he could defend himself when they chose to attack. He glanced warily at Ron only to find that his friend wasn’t even paying attention to them. He was pushing food around on his plate and glancing at his watch every few seconds. Ron was impatient to leave.

Sensing Harry’s stare, Ron looked up. "Get moving, Harry. You don’t have time to eat. Dad’s ready to take us to the Ministry; he just went to grab his cloak."

"Ron," Ginny said, grabbing Harry’s arm as he went to stand. "This is his birthday breakfast; he should get to enjoy some of it."

"And he needs to have something in his stomach to do well on his test," Mrs. Weasley said, moving over to the table and placing a few more slices of toast on Harry’s plate. "Harry, you look flushed, dear. Are you feeling all right?"

Mrs. Weasley put the back of her hand on Harry’s forehead to check if it was warm.

"I’m fine, Mrs. Weasley," Harry murmured, feeling anything but fine. He’d completely lost his appetite and felt as eager as Ron to leave the kitchen and the dangerously smirking twins.

"Don’t let the test worry you, dear," Mrs. Weasley said, misinterpreting his unease. "I’m certain you’ll do fine. And even if you don’t, you can always take it again later."

"If Harry’s feeling peckish, Mum, I’m certain Ginny will be able to take care of him," Fred said with an evil grin. "She seems to know a lot about his needs these days."

Not wanting to hear anything more, Harry jumped from his chair and managed to spill his coffee all over the table in the process. Mrs. Weasley hurriedly grabbed a towel and began to sop up the mess.

"Sorry, Mrs. Weasley," Harry said, flustered. This only caused Fred and George to laugh harder.

Ginny glared at her brothers. "Ignore them, Harry," she whispered, kissing him lightly on the cheek. "Good luck. You too, Ron."

"Yeah," Ron said, barely acknowledging any of them as he dragged Harry from the kitchen.

They had to use the visitor’s entrance when they arrived at the Ministry, causing Harry’s stomach to churn unpleasantly. Mr. Weasley placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze while they were inside the telephone box. Harry was grateful for the support but was even more appreciative of Mr. Weasley’s silence. He couldn’t bear right then to talk about what had happened the last time he’d been there. The memories were all too close to the surface.

When the telephone box sprang open, they stepped out and into the atrium. Harry had only a moment to notice that the fountain in the center of the room had been replaced before a throng of reporters rushed forward towards them.

"There he is," one of them shouted. "Mr. Potter, could you look this way."

Flashbulbs began going off in all directions while so many questions were fired at Harry that he couldn’t hear any of them.

Surprised, he remained motionless for a moment, staring blankly at the number of reporters. Mr. Weasley grabbed his arm and began pushing him towards a glass doorway. Ron walked on his other side, attempting to shield him from view.

The doorway opened suddenly, and Percy Weasley stood motioning them inside. They sprinted through just as Percy slammed the door shut and sealed it with his wand. Harry could see the reporters banging on the glass while still shouting their questions and snapping pictures.

"This way," Percy said, leading them down a corridor and out of sight.

"What the devil was that all about?" Mr. Weasley asked, straightening his robes.

"That," Percy replied grimly, "was the Minister’s idea. He informed the press that you’d be arriving here this morning, Harry."

"Did he bother telling them I’m only here to get my Apparation license?" Harry asked, firing up at once.

"No. Although he never said you were meeting with him, he left the reason for your appearance very ambiguous," Percy replied, not meeting Harry’s eyes.

"What else aren’t you saying?" Harry asked instinctively.

"I was sent to get you away from the reporters and take you through security before you had time to answer any questions," Percy said, two bright spots of color appearing on his cheeks.

"You did what you had to do to keep your job," Harry said, waving his hand. "Besides, I didn’t really want to talk to those reporters, anyway."

Percy started for a moment, blinking behind his horn-rimmed spectacles. Finally, swallowing heavily, he said, "Thank you, Harry."

Harry again waved his hand in the air, "Bygones. We have more important worries at the moment."

"Still, I treated you very badly. I can see that now," Percy said, shifting uncomfortably. Harry could tell that apologizing was something Percy found very difficult to do.

"Percy, the best thing you can do now is to make things right with your family. These are dangerous times, and you don’t want to leave anything undone or unsaid until it’s too late. Take it from someone who knows," Harry said seriously.

Percy nodded gravely, his eyes shifted for a moment towards Ron who stood with his arms crossed across his chest and a scowl on his face.

"Your mother will be pleased to hear we spoke, Percy," Mr. Weasley said, his voice sounding slightly choked.

"I’ll visit her soon. You’d best head up to the testing center. They’re expecting you," he said before turning on his heel and hurrying down the corridor.

"I can’t believe you let him off that easily," Ron said, shaking his head.

"He’s your brother, Ron," Harry replied.

"All the more reason he shouldn’t have acted like such a git," Ron said, scowling. "It’ll take a bit more than that for me to forgive him."

Harry glanced at Mr. Weasley, expecting him to reprimand Ron. The older man didn’t, however, apparently accepting that Percy would have to mend his relationship with his siblings on his own.

"We’d best go upstairs," Mr. Weasley said brightly, pressing the button for the lift and wearing a wide grin that made him appear younger than he had in months.

When they reached the testing center, they found it empty except for a young witch who was sitting at the reception desk. She smiled engagingly and lowered her lashes, telling them to take a seat. They sat in comfortable chairs while the witch cast flirtatious smiles across the desk. Harry shifted uncomfortably while Ron perked up straightly in his chair. After several moments, the witch began to pout, sticking her heavily painted lip out dramatically. She obviously was seeking Harry’s attention, but he wasn’t heeding her advances.

Ron scowled when he realized the witch wasn’t paying any attention to him, and he began to fidget. His leg quickly bounced up and down as he shifted in his seat.

"Don’t worry about it," Harry finally hissed. "You’ll do fine. You’ve done it before."

"I hate tests," Ron hissed back.

Mr. Weasley sat with his face behind a magazine pretending not to pay attention, although Harry could see his body twitching with suppressed chuckles. Thankfully, Harry’s name was called first, and he followed the stern-looking witch down the corridor and away from the receptionist and Ron’s nerves.

He emerged twenty minutes later sporting a huge grin with his Apparation license in his hand.

"Well done," Mr. Weasley said, patting him on the back. "Well done, indeed. Why don’t you have a seat while we wait for Ron?"

Harry had the distinct impression that Mr. Weasley had something particular that he wanted to discuss, and Harry’s stomach twisted with nerves.

"Now you’ve come of age, I imagine some things will change," Mr. Weasley said a bit too casually, while picking at a stray thread on the sleeve of his robes.

"Yes, sir," Harry replied, resisting the urge to tug at his collar. His neck suddenly felt very hot and prickly.

"I’m aware that you were working on something with Albus before he died, and I can only assume you intend to finish what you’ve started," Mr. Weasley said.

Harry forced himself not to fidget and to control his urge to blurt out everything. It was much harder to keep the truth from Mr. Weasley than it had been from Moody or Remus. "Yes, sir. I’m sorry, Mr. Weasley, but I really can’t-"

"I’m not asking you to tell me anything that you’re not comfortable in telling me, Harry. I do want you to know, however, that you can always come to me, or to anyone in the Order, for assistance if you feel you need it," Mr. Weasley said solemnly. "You can come to me at any time, Harry."

"Thank you," Harry said, surprised. He knew that Mrs. Weasley wouldn’t like his involvement in anything to do with the Order, but he’d never considered the possibility that Mr. Weasley might see things differently, more objectively.

"I’m not promising that everyone in the Order will feel this way," Mr. Weasley said, shifting his position. "I suspect there will be several people quite angry with you, actually. But I’ve watched you over the years as you’ve grown, Harry, and I know you are a more-than-capable wizard. You and Ron are adults now, and I can no longer expect to make decisions for you."

"And Mrs. Weasley?" Harry asked, fearing the answer. Harry dreaded her disapproval almost as much as he had Dumbledore’s.

"Molly will be angry, but I think you know that. You and Ron will always be her little boys. She doesn’t want to let go. She’s a strong witch, though; she’ll be all right. She loves you, Harry; she’ll forgive you," Mr. Weasley replied, his expression softening.

Harry noticed that although Mr. Weasley suspected that Ron would be leaving with Harry, he had no idea about Ginny. He wondered if his feelings would change when his daughter disappeared, as well. Somehow, he suspected it was easier for Mr. Weasley to see his sons as men than it was to see Ginny as a woman.

"I hope so," Harry replied earnestly.

"Might I suggest that you make a very public trip through Diagon Alley after you leave here?" Mr. Weasley asked cagily. His eyes gleamed slightly with mischief, reminding Harry of Fred and George.

"But...won’t that draw a lot of attention?" Harry asked, confused. The Order had always made such a point of keeping his movements secret and hidden.

"Precisely. And if every so often you’re seen publicly, those half-wits downstairs will be more than happy to report it. It would serve you well if You-Know-Who doesn’t suspect that you’re missing," Mr. Weasley replied.

"That’s a brilliant idea, Mr. Weasley," Harry said, grinning.

"I can use some contacts at the Ministry to ensure the press is alerted to where you’re going to be when you want them there. I think Percy might also be able to help us with that endeavor," Mr. Weasley said, smiling.

"Thank you," Harry replied, his throat feeling suddenly tight.

They were interrupted when Ron came through the door, beaming and carrying his own Apparition license.

"Eyebrows and everything," he said, grinning.

"Well done," Harry said, clapping him on the back.

"Congratulations, son. I knew you had it in you," Mr. Weasley said.

"Thanks, Dad," Ron replied, his ears turning bright red.

The receptionist rose from her chair and opened a door to the right of her desk. "Congratulations to both of you. There is an Apparation point located right outside this door you can use," she said, looking hopefully at Harry once again.

Mr. Weasley put an arm around each of the boys and began ushering them towards the door. Harry took a few steps before stopping.

"Isn’t there an Apparation point in the main lobby, Mr. Weasley?" he asked.

"Yes, there is," the witch answered before Mr. Weasley could open his mouth. She appeared suddenly nervous and unsure of herself. "We have this separate location since our testees are usually so anxious to use their new license. Right through this door."

She attempted to steer them through the exit, still smiling, but Harry detected a panicky look in her eyes.

"Thanks, but I think I’d like to take the walk," he said, stopping despite the pressure of her hand on his shoulder.

She grabbed his arm, trying to halt his progress. "Mr. Potter…Harry, there really is no need-"

"Oh, but I think there is," Harry said, pulling his arm free and leaving through the same door they’d arrived.

"What are you on about, Harry?" Ron asked, following him towards the lift.

Mr. Weasley smiled knowingly. "Boys, I need to get up to my office. I trust you can make it back on your own?"

"Yes, Mr. Weasley. We’re right as rain…and thank you," Harry replied.

"Think nothing of it," Mr. Weasley replied, heading in the opposite direction.

When Ron and Harry reached the main lobby there were a number of reporters still mulling around hoping to catch Harry’s exit. They spotted him almost instantly and began to move towards him. Harry raised his hand in the air, flashing his new license for all of them to see. Several flashbulbs snapped the pose.

"I did it," he cried jubilantly, knowing there would no longer be any questions as to why he was there.

He and Ron shared a smile as they sprinted to the Apparation point and Disapparated in time to escape the questioning reporters.

When they returned to Grimmauld Place, after a long and very public walk through Diagon Alley, they found a birthday feast fit for a king awaiting them. They’d made several stops along the way, including a visit to Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Fred and George had gifted Harry with his birthday present while they were there, claiming it was better opened away from Mrs. Weasley’s prying eyes.

Harry opened the package to reveal two bottles of Ogden’s Firewhiskey.

"Those are Everlasting Party bottles," Fred said.

"Guaranteed to last for the length of any single party," replied George.

"Or at least until you pass out," said Fred with a grin.

As they traveled along the busy street, they’d run into several classmates and had their photographs taken several times. All in all, Harry thought it was a very successful outing.

Upon their return, he was overwhelmed by the amount of food Mrs. Weasley had prepared. A knot of guilt twisted in his stomach over his planned deception, and he attempted to impress upon Mrs. Weasley how grateful he was for her kindness.

She brushed him off as if it was nothing, but Harry thought he saw a look of understanding in Mr. Weasley’s eyes.

"Mmm, roasted lamb," Ron said, sitting down and pulling a plate towards him.

"Never mind the food, Ron. How did you do?" Hermione asked, biting her lip anxiously.

"How’d I do with what?" Ron asked through a mouthful of potatoes.

Hermione was flabbergasted. "With what? With your test, of course. Honestly, Ron. Where have you been all this time?" Hermione asked.

"Oh. Passed," Ron said, shoveling another forkful into his mouth.

"I knew you could do it," Hermione exclaimed, throwing her arms around him.

Ron’s eyes flew open wide before a very self-satisfied smile crossed his face, causing Fred and George to snigger.

"And you, Harry? How did you do?" Ginny asked, sidling up next to him and taking the chair next to his.

"Got my license," Harry said, grinning.

"I knew you’d do it," she replied, leaning over and pecking him on the cheek. Harry felt his face burn.

"They did it despite Rufus Scrimgeour’s attempts to distract them," Mr. Weasley said, serving himself some of the dinner.

"What do you mean?" Remus Lupin asked, looking up in alarm.

"It was nothing," Harry said, shaking his head.

"What was nothing?" Remus asked.

"Scrimgeour had a bunch of reporters waiting to ambush Harry," Ron replied. "You know how he’s been after Harry to make appearances at the Ministry. He wanted them all to see him there. They tried to shoo us out after we finished our tests, too, but Harry wouldn’t let them do it. He strode right through the lobby flashing his new Apparation license so they’d all know why he was there. I’d love to see Scrimgeour’s face when he hears about it."

"He already did," Mr. Weasley said grimly.

"What happened?" Harry asked, alarmed by Mr. Weasley’s expression.

"He wasn’t happy. The evening edition of the Daily Prophet is already out and filled with your picture and several stories. Absolutely nothing about your support for the Ministry as he hoped, however. He sacked the witch who worked in reception at the testing center," Mr. Weasley replied.

Harry felt dreadful. He’d wanted to upset Scrimgeour’s plans, but he hadn’t meant to get the receptionist in trouble.

"Not your fault, Harry," Ginny said firmly, correctly reading his expression. "You can’t control what everyone else does. What you did was right, and you can’t help that Scrimgeour acted like a prat."

Mr. Weasley smiled fondly. "Although I won’t go so far as calling the Minister for Magic a prat," he said, his lips twitching, "Ginny’s right. It wasn’t your fault so don’t let him make you feel guilty."

"Enough of this," Mrs. Weasley said, frowning. "This is Harry’s birthday dinner. Let’s talk about something pleasant."

Harry remembered how upset she’d been the previous year when news of the war interrupted his birthday celebration. He knew she meant well, but she still wasn’t accepting the fact that he was part of this war, whether she liked it or not.

He was startled from his thoughts when Tonks entered the room looking pale and exhausted. Her mint green hair hung limply on her shoulders. "Sorry I’m late," she said, sinking wearily into the chair Remus had pulled out for her.

"You look terrible, Tonks," Mrs. Weasley said, alarmed.

"Rough day," Tonks replied with an attempt at a smile.

"Did they have you out at Azkaban again?" Remus asked, handing her a glass of wine and fixing her a plate of food.

Tonks nodded, sipping the wine gratefully. "That place is horrible."

"Azkaban?" Harry asked. "What are you doing at Azkaban?"

"The Ministry has had Aurors guarding the prisoners there since most of the Dementors fled," Tonks replied.

"Most of them?" Harry asked. "There are still some there?"

"A few of the older, more infirm ones," Tonks replied heavily. "Miserable creatures. I suspect some of the ones that stayed did so simply for the easy prey. They didn’t want to have to go and look for their own food. Doesn’t matter that there aren’t many left, however. The walls of Azkaban are nearly alive with their scent because they’ve been there so long. It’s a horrid place."

Mrs. Weasley shuddered. "I can’t believe they send you there. I remember when Arthur had to go out there once. It took him days to recover," she said tearfully.

Mr. Weasley comfortingly squeezed her hand. "Now, Molly. Someone has to guard the prisoners, don’t they? There really isn’t another option."

"I think the Ministry should consider building an entirely new prison, away from the effect the Dementors have had on Azkaban," Bill said. He and Fleur had recently returned from their honeymoon and both were tanned and appeared well-rested. "We could use charms to keep them incarcerated and house-elves to supply the food."

"Zat is what we do in France," Fleur said, staring at Bill adoringly. "Eet eez a much better way, I zink."

"Maybe after the war, something like that will be done here. Right now, all the Ministry’s resources are focused on You-Know-Who and the destruction he’s causing," Mr. Weasley said heavily.

The paper had reported new Dementor attacks almost daily while the Dark Mark had been seen more and more often in Muggle areas. During the past week, several buildings had caught fire in Birmingham and despite their best efforts, Ministry officials had been unable to extinguish the flames.

"When we’re finished with dinner, I’ve made a treacle tart for pudding. That one is your favorite, isn’t it, dear?" Mrs. Weasley asked, glaring at both Bill and Mr. Weasley.

"Yes, Mrs. Weasley," Harry replied. Despite wanting to hear more about what was happening at Azkaban, he couldn’t help but be pleased with the prospect of Mrs. Weasley’s treacle tart.

Conceding to Mrs. Weasley’s desire for a happier subject, the rest of the guests let talk of the war rest for the moment. The remainder of the dinner was spent pleasantly with laughter and the twins’ teasing of Ron about his first failed attempt at gaining an Apparation license.

All of them were so immersed in the festivities that no one noticed the kitchen door opening once again. Narcissa Malfoy stepped into the kitchen with a wary expression, carrying a stack of empty trays. She walked towards the sink and placed them next to it, glancing with distaste at the countertop.

"Narcissa," Mrs. Weasley said pleasantly. "Would you care for something to eat?" Harry noticed that Mrs. Weasley didn’t jump up to serve her as she usually did when someone entered the kitchen.

Ginny leaned over and whispered in Harry’s ear. "I don’t believe it. She brought the trays down. She must be hungry; she hasn’t eaten all day."

Mrs. Malfoy appeared affronted by the invitation. "I’d prefer to take a tray upstairs," she said stiffly.

"Well, there’s plenty of food, and I see you’ve brought down some trays. You’ll just have to clean them up since there aren’t any clean ones left, and then you can help yourself," Mrs. Weasley said, smiling. She turned towards her own dinner without a backward glance.

Mrs. Malfoy stood slack jawed, staring with revulsion at Mrs. Weasley. Her long, bony white fingers gripped a tray in shock. "Certainly, there are house-elves to do such things," she said, aghast.

Mrs. Weasley smiled and shook her head. "Oh, not since Kreacher left for Hogwarts. Not that he was ever much help anyway. No, we all have to pitch in with the chores around here if we want anything to get done."

"Malfoy Manor has a full staff of house-elves. Certainly it won’t cause any difficulties if I have one of them come to work here," Mrs. Malfoy said haughtily.

"No," Remus said harshly, sounding angry. "We discussed this when you arrived. You proved it yourself that a house-elf’s loyalty cannot be guaranteed."

Harry’s stomach clenched as Narcissa raised her nose in the air without apology.

Hermione folded her arms across her chest and scowled at the mention of the house-elves. Harry knew it was taking all her self-restraint not to start arguing over elfish welfare. She had to know her pleas would fall on deaf ears. Still, he knew Hermione well enough to realize she’d be unable to stay silent for long.

"I’m expected to prepare my own food?" Mrs. Malfoy asked incredulously, her pale blue eyes widening in disbelief.

"Only if you want to eat," Mrs. Weasley said, still smiling although her tone had turned frosty.

Harry leaned back in his chair and grinned, feeling this was one of the best birthday gifts he could have received. Still stung over the reminder of Kreacher’s betrayal, Harry didn’t think Mrs. Weasley was making the Malfoys’ stay nearly as unpleasant as it should be. Narcissa Malfoy had met her match in Molly Weasley, however, and Harry didn’t think the arrogant woman had any idea with whom she was dealing.

He glanced over at Fred and George, who were leaning back in their chairs sipping wine and swinging their heads back and forth as if watching a net ball tournament. Ginny was biting her lip to keep from laughing. No one said a word.

Narcissa was furious. She glared daggers at the entire party. Harry thought she would turn on her heel and storm from the kitchen, but her hunger must have overridden her pride. She grabbed a tray and slammed in into the sink, disdainfully wiping it off.

Walking stiffly towards the table with her head held high, Narcissa’s cold gaze roamed over the many delectable items, finally resting on the cake with the words Happy Birthday, Harry written on top.

Her ice blue eyes locked on Harry. "This is your birthday dinner," she said arrogantly. It wasn’t a question.

"It is," Harry said, smirking.

Narcissa put the tray back on the counter. "I’ve lost my appetite," she said, her gaze sweeping over the Weasleys and the other guests. "I’m surprised there are so many willing to get so close to you. The people who do have a nasty habit of ending up dead."

Harry gritted his teeth and forced himself not to flinch. His face must have paled, however, for Ginny immediately grabbed his hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

She turned towards Narcissa and said, "While those nearest you have the nasty habit of ending up in prison."

Narcissa’s eyes narrowed, but before she could retort Mrs. Weasley sharply said, "That’s enough."

Narcissa turned on her heel and left the room with her nose in the air.

Harry let a breath out through his nose.

The kitchen was silent for a moment after her departure. Finally, Ron leaned across the table and whispered dramatically, "I wonder if she keeps her nose stuck so high in the air after living with Lucius and Draco for so many years? She started looking up just so she wouldn’t have to look at them."

Ginny snorted and angrily blew a stray piece of hair from her face. "Never mind her, Harry. Don’t let her spoil your party."

Conversations resumed around the table, and Narcissa’s presence was soon forgotten. Despite his best efforts, Harry’s mood was dampened, however. Said in anger or not, Narcissa’s words were true, and they renewed Harry’s worries for those closest to him. He pasted a smile on his face as he opened his gifts, but was eager to escape and clear his head.

When the dinner was finished, Mrs. Weasley shooed them all from the kitchen and insisted that she would clear the dishes. Harry tried to break away and sprint up to the room he shared with Ron, but his friends apparently knew he was feeling low, and they all followed him.

Ginny sat on his bed beside him, while Ron and Hermione sat on Ron’s bed. Fred and George plopped down on the floor and began rummaging through Harry’s pile of birthday presents.

"Here it is," Fred exclaimed at last, pulling out one of the bottles of Firewhiskey that he and George had given him earlier that day.

"Harry, mate, I think you’re in need of this," George said, handing the open bottle to Harry.

Harry looked at it silently for a moment before tossing it back and taking a long swig.

"Harry!" Hermione cried, scandalized.

"What? He’s of age," Ron said, taking the bottle from Harry, and downing his own swig. Ron handed the bottle to Fred. Each of the twins took a drink before passing the bottle to Ginny.

"Ginny’s not of age," Hermione said, warily watching the bottle. Harry suspected she was more nervous about the fact that her turn would be next rather than Ginny’s age.

Ginny rolled her eyes and took a deep swallow. She looked at them all triumphantly for a moment before her eyes began to water, and she started to cough and splutter.

Harry patted her on the back, grinning. "Have you had Firewhiskey before, Ginny?" he asked.

Still unable to speak, Ginny shook her head, her eyes streaming.

"I had it for the first time on Bill’s stag night. Speaking of which…I felt bloody awful the next morning," Harry said, still rubbing Ginny’s back.

"Ahh, yes, we’ve taken care of everything," George said, rummaging in the box that still held another bottle of Firewhiskey. He removed a phial of murky gray liquid and took a sip.

"Guaranteed to avoid a hangover," Fred said, taking his own sip and handing the phial to Harry.

Ginny handed the bottle to Hermione, who glanced warily at them all. "I really don’t think this is a very good idea. Your mother could be up here at any minute," Hermione said.

Fred lazily waved his hand at the open door. "We’ll hear her on the stairs if she comes this way. She won’t anyway. Tonks is here, and Mum was making tea. Once those two get chatting, it’ll be hours before they’re done. Bottoms up, Hermione," he said, grinning.

Hermione set her shoulders, breathed deeply and took a very dainty sip of the Firewhiskey.

"You can do better than that," Ron said when Hermione had finished coughing. "Think of it as an experiment. You can’t truly tell Harry and me off for drinking if you don’t have first hand knowledge of the full effects."

Hermione’s eyes narrowed as she glared at Ron. Without breaking eye contact, she tipped the bottle back again, this time taking a long draught and making the twins whoop with glee.

"You show him, Hermione," Fred said, delighted.

"I always thought there was more to you than that prim and proper exterior," George said, taking the bottle from her.

Hermione frowned and Ron wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Lay off," he said to George in a low voice.

"Don’t get your knickers in a twist, little bro," Fred said, taking the bottle from Harry. "No one is picking on your Hermione."

Ron’s ears turned red, matching the color in Hermione’s cheeks.

As they passed the bottle around and listened to the twins’ amusing stories of events from their shop, Harry tried to shake his unease. The Firewhiskey felt warm in his belly, but he wasn’t as relaxed and carefree as he had the last time he’d drunk it. Narcissa’s words kept ringing in his head.

The people that get close to you have a nasty habit of ending up dead…

Harry angrily took the bottle from Ginny and took another drink, desperately trying to block the implication of the words.

Ron, Hermione and Ginny are the people closest to me now…

Ron had begun slurring his words, while Ginny had developed an uncontrollable case of the giggles. Despite his morose thoughts, Harry couldn’t help but be amused seeing her this way. At first, she’d laugh at any nonsensical thing the twins’ would say but gradually would giggle if anyone so much as looked at her.

Surprisingly, Hermione appeared to hold it better than either of the Weasleys. She kept right up with the others, but hadn’t started acting silly. She had grown much quieter than usual, however.

Ginny turned towards Harry, frowning slightly as she studied him intently.

"What?" he demanded finally, slightly unnerved by her intense gaze.

"I don’t know where I came up with fresh pickled toad; they’re really more emerald in color. I suppose it was harder to rhyme emerald," she said, giggling so hard she couldn’t catch her breath.

The others roared with laughter, as Harry felt color flame to his cheeks, remembering that horribly embarrassing Valentine from second year.

"Er…right," he said, shifting his position so he could lean back against the wall. "Maybe you’ve had enough of that Ginny." He’d begun to worry what else she might blurt out in her drunken state. He was sitting in a small room with three of her brothers.

"Bloody Hell, Harry, lighten up," Hermione said, shocking them all. Ron’s mouth gaped open.

"Hermione," he said. "You just cursed."

"I’ve spent the last six years practically living with you, Ron. Did you think I hadn’t picked up some of your ruddy habits?" Hermione asked, taking another drink.

Fred and George forgot all about Harry’s Valentine as they turned towards Hermione with calculating expressions.

"Which of his other habits have you picked up on, Hermione?" Fred asked eagerly.

"Well, I haven’t learned how he stuffs an entire potato into his mouth at one time, but I really don’t think I want to know that," she said seriously causing the others to laugh. "But I have picked up a load of curse words and can make my face appear as if I’m listening to you intently when I’m really plotting out an entire assignment in my head. Of course, I don’t think Ron’s really thinking about assignments when he does that, more like a Quidditch roster. I’ve never seen anyone so obsessed with ruddy Quidditch. Back when we were younger — before he was on the team — he used to quote facts and records about every match in history while we watched Harry play."

"I never thought you were really listening," Ron said, stunned.

"Oh, I wasn’t paying attention, but I did like to listen to your voice. You have a very pleasant-sounding voice when it’s not cursing or shouting about something. You do tend to shout a lot," she said seriously.

The gleeful expressions on the faces of Fred and George told Harry that they would never let Ron live this down.

The people that get close to you have a nasty habit of ending up dead… If they’re going to insist upon following me, it was more than likely that one or all could…

Harry shuddered, knowing he’d never survive their loss. Voldemort could never know that the surest way to destroy Harry would be to hurt any of them. He couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t.

"Harry," Ginny said softly, taking his hand. Her eyes were glazed and slightly vacant, but she still appeared to sense his inner turmoil.

His head was spinning, and he suddenly felt very old and tired. He may have only just turned seventeen, but he felt as if he’d already lived several lifetimes.

"Everything will be okay," Ginny whispered, shifting so she could burrow her head under his arm. "Try not to worry so much."

"Oh, isn’t this a sight," a drawling voice said from the doorway.

Harry looked up to see Draco Malfoy leaning against the doorframe, an undecipherable expression upon his pale face. His blond hair was unkempt, hanging over his eyes in a very un-Malfoyish way.

"What do you want?" Ron asked, jumping to his feet and wavering slightly.

"I came to investigate the cause of all the noise. I hadn’t realized I was interrupting your pathetic little party," Malfoy sneered.

Ginny started to laugh, wrapping her arms around her waist to try and control her giggles.

Harry smiled at her, amused, while she caught her breath.

"He really does look like a ferret," she said, gasping.

"Shut it, Weaslette," Malfoy said, his gray eyes flashing. "You pathetic little blood traitor. Consorting with Potter and the Mudblood — you’re a disgrace to your heritage. Of course, you always had a thing for Potty anyway, didn’t you?"

"Watch your mouth," Ron snarled, clenching his fists.

"Leave her out of it, Malfoy," Harry snarled, jumping off the bed and raising his wand. He’d been looking for an outlet for his tension all evening, and the blonde represented the perfect opportunity. "Don’t let me ever hear you speak to her that way again."

Ginny had stopped giggling and was desperately trying to focus on what was happening.

"Leave her out of it? She’s already at the center of it, Potter. God, you really are naïve, aren’t you? Snape already told the Dark Lord all about your little girlfriend. It’s no more likely she’ll survive this war than you will," Malfoy said.

The people that get close to you have a nasty habit of ending up dead…

"What do you want, Malfoy?" Harry demanded through clenched teeth, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing that his words had any effect on Harry. "I’m certain you were only too happy to confirm that before Voldemort turned on you."

"I was just wondering why the Light’s precious Chosen One is holed up in a bedroom getting pissed with his little band of cronies while everyone is waiting for him to save the world. I don’t think their faith would be that strong if they could see you now, Potter."

"Why not?" Ron asked belligerently, moving to stand in front of Harry. "I think it would do everyone some good to see that Harry isn’t letting V-Voldemort interfere with him living his life."

Malfoy flinched at the name, his eyes widening slightly that Ron had said it. Harry thought it was the first time he’d ever heard Ron actually say it, and wondered how much of that was the Firewhiskey talking.

"In these dark times, everyone needs a few laughs," Fred said, standing up next to Harry.

"Harry told us that a few years back, and he was right. He will win, and he’ll survive. And we’re all going to be right there alongside him making certain he does," George said, flanking Harry’s other side.

Harry’s heart swelled with pride. Looking over at Malfoy, he could see the uncertainty on the blonde’s face. It occurred to Harry how similar his and Malfoy’s situations were. Each was assigned the impossible task of destroying the powerful leader of an opposing force. But their choices had differed greatly. Now, Harry was surrounded by a fiercely loyal group of friends prepared to die with him if they had to, while Malfoy was alone and in hiding from the very people to whom he had sworn his allegiance. Their choices and consequences were so very different.

"Then you’re all going to die," Malfoy spat. "You prats have no idea what you’re getting into. The Dark Lord doesn’t fool around, he won’t tolerate your little jokes."

"Maybe that’s his problem," Fred said.

"Everyone needs a good joke," said George.

Harry spied Ginny out of the corner of his eye. Scowling, she’d stood up on the bed and wavered precariously while holding her wand on Malfoy.

"Ginny, don’t," he said, reaching toward her. He was afraid that in her inebriated state, she’d only end up cursing herself. She fell back, and he managed to catch her before she landed. In the distraction, Harry heard the distinctive whoosh of a spell being cast, although he knew it hadn’t come from Ginny’s wand.

He turned around to see Ron, Fred and George staring in shock at the doorway where a white ferret squealed and scurried up the hallway.

They looked at each other, stunned speechless before turning as one to face Hermione. She sat on Ron’s bed, calmly polishing her wand. "Ginny was right," she said simply. "The bloody wanker does look like a ferret."

The twins roared with laughter, as Ron dropped to his knees in front of her. "I love you, Hermione," he said.

"It’d be nice if you could say that once in awhile when I hadn’t done your homework for you or performed a brilliant piece of Transfiguration," Hermione said primly.

Ron’s ears burned. "I’ll work on it," he said in a low voice.

"On that note, brother dear, I think it’s time we bade them farewell," George said.

"Yeah. Mum should be up here any minute now, and I don’t want her to think we had anything to do with the condition this lot is in," Fred said.

They wished Harry a Happy Birthday and bade them all farewell.

Harry turned to see Ginny curled up on his bed like a cat, sleeping soundly. He covered her with a blanket and softly kissed her head.

"Come on, Ron. Let the girls sleep in here, and we’ll bunk in their room. We’ve got to get an early start," Harry said.

"Right," Ron replied, still staring at Hermione with a curious expression.

Harry snuggled into Ginny’s bed that night, taking a deep breath and smelling that intoxicating floral smell that was all Ginny. Their quest would begin tomorrow, but lying here now, he felt strangely comforted.

A/N: Okay, so I lied, lol. I told several of you that you wouldn’t see Malfoy or Narcissa until after the Horcrux hunt had begun, but I forgot about their appearances at Harry’s birthday. Oops. I’m a bit ahead of you on the chapters, so I forget exactly what happened in each, sometimes.

I’d like to express a huge thanks to those readers over at SIYE who nominated and voted for me in the Dumbledore Silver Trinket Awards for April. I’m so pumped! Thanks so much.

As always, I owe a huge thanks to Sherylyn for taking on the beta work for this story. I love those little comments you insert inside your initials. It’s like finding little hidden treasures.

Thanks to KEDme, Dianne, and GhostWriter for their prebeta help. You lot rock.