The new snows, drifting heavy and deep in areas unsheltered from the northeast, did not linger much after February's first week. From that point on, Harry's spirits were less oppressed and more tolerant of his two friends' views. The three of them were kept journeying and exploring mostly by Ron, investigating every location that might have been visited by Voldemort in his early past, and even Harry had to concede this plan was preferable to inactivity. He went along without criticism despite being unconvinced that anything but good morale might come from the exercise. It was a period where the hopeless scale of their task was masked by a feeling of useful enterprise.
Yet Harry's quiet moments were divided. Frequently he found himself digging out elusive tendrils of emotion within his darker feelings that might reveal Voldemort's plans - though without success. Just as often he was pondering how he and Ginny might see each other again. Despite their agreeing that the vicinity of Hogwarts was now an unsafe prospect, she always insisted they would 'find a way' whenever Harry expressed discouragement in the matter. But the fact remained that Ginny could not leave Hogwarts and Harry could not enter.
With the locket destroyed, his requests for Ginny's uplifting words dwindled and now he desired to spend more time supporting her instead. He plied her with positive messages and though she did not press him for them, they were a delight and a comfort to her. His thoughts often filled with imagined concerns about her safety at Hogwarts and when he fell asleep at night he was always still thinking of her. On awakening, his hand reached straight to his medallion to make sure it still survived and therefore she continued to live too.
"What is that, Harry?" asked Ron one day during an empty afternoon.
Harry looked up from the table upon which lay the Marauder's Map. He hadn't realised Ron was behind him. "This?" He began to fold it up.
"Not that, you wally - the trinket you keep fiddling with. I'd have thought you'd have had enough of lockets."
Hermione looked up from a book of magical locations she had purchased in Upper Flagley a few weeks earlier. She caught Harry's eye and gave him a knowing look.
"Nothing special," said Harry, speaking slowly but trying to think fast. "Just a friendship token that--"
"Ron, remember that old shop opposite Gambols in Diagon Alley? With half the letters faded away on its sign?" Hermione twisted her book sideways to entice Ron to come and have a look. Harry felt a wave of gratitude for Hermione's timely diversion and slipped the medallion away, resolving to be more careful in future.
"That empty one with the grey curtains? Raltgar's? Been abandoned for years." Ron was leaning over Hermione's shoulder, pretending to be interested in the book she had open on the tabletop.
"But why was it abandoned? Do you know?" she said.
"Went out of business I suppose. Probably too much competition."
"Says here it was a good luck charm place."
"Didn't have much luck then did they!" laughed Ron. He didn't care what point Hermione was trying to make so long as he had an excuse to stand close to her.
"What's exactly, Hermione?"
"Well, if they specialised in good fortune spells then you'd think they'd be the last shop to ever go out of business."
"But they did, didn't they?"
"Yes, but why?" persisted Hermione.
"Dunno. Maybe the owner died."
"No... Mr Raltgar just... disappeared. No one knows where. And the building's stood empty ever since."
"You think the place is cursed?"
"Look at this map." She turned the page to reveal a rough diagram of the alley's layout. "See what it backs on to behind the coal shed?"
Ron leaned over even closer to study the map but forgot what he was supposed to be looking for. He couldn't help but feel Hermione's hair pressed against his cheek and her arm warmly next to his.
It was Harry that answered, reading the map upside down from the other side of the table, "Borgin and Burkes' backyard! But we already agreed he couldn't risk leaving anything at Borgin's - Oh, you think that when You-know-who worked at Borgin's he cursed the lucky charm place to keep it empty so he could stash something inside?"
Hermione smiled. "I think we should put it on the list, don't you, Harry?"
"Why wait? Let's do it tonight for a quick search if it's only small." He was trying to show enthusiasm for their sakes when he really wanted to stay in the warm and share ideas with Ginny. Hopefully, Ron would put it off for a few days. "What do you think, Ron?"
"Definitely. Dig it over - see if anything's buried," said Ron dreamily.
"Not the backyard, for heaven's sake!" But Hermione laughed and her cheeks were a little pink. "Where's the list?" She pulled away to find her beaded bag.
After writing in her organiser notebook, she stood and surveyed the pages listing locations visited and those yet to visit in their search. She sighed and mused aloud, "I wonder if any are written here, just waiting to be discovered? Horcruxes, I mean."
"At worst, we might eliminate them all," said Harry, "then at least we know where they are not." He was going to add that only left a billion other places but he kept his mouth shut.
He went to put away his Marauder's Map, knowing he had found Ginny's position on the seventh floor just before she abruptly disappeared. That meant only one thing to Harry - she was in the unplottable Room of Requirement.
Ginny's plan to abstain from long-lasting graffiti in favour of other shows of resistance had achieved its aim. Before a week had passed there were no protest messages that survived to need cleaning and the hands of all Gryffindors were returning to their normal colour.
Terry Boot's affections and his developing relationship had produced another D.A. recruit in Eloise Midgen. She had a good imagination for new ideas but had always been too passive to express them without encouragement. Introducing sky writing into the Great Hall's magical ceiling had been her contribution. It was part of the enchanted life of the castle itself and neither Snape nor the Carrows could find any counter spell to remove it. Once it had been accomplished, Eloise became worried lest she were discovered as the cause of the accusations and denouncements written therein. But she felt compensated and rather excited by Terry's admiration of the feat.
"Gah!" Terry cried as he fell to Eloise's Jelly-legs curse. "Got me again!"
Ginny's whistle blew. "Terry, You can't keep letting Eloise beat you like that. She has to learn to take a tumble like the rest of us - that's what the cushions are for." She cast the counter-curse and he clambered awkwardly to his feet and took up position again.
"Right, sorry," mumbled Terry, but somehow dropped his wand.
"Don't wait for him, Eloise. He's off-guard," said Ginny.
"Expelliarmus!" cried Eloise, then put her hand over her mouth in alarm. "I mean... Accio wand! ... Does that count?"
"Yeah - I'll give you that one," said Terry with a smile.
Ginny shook her head. "Nice try, Eloise, but you can't disarm an unarmed wizard. In the unlikely event that a Death Eater conveniently drops their wand for you--" Terry looked rather sheepish at this remark but Ginny continued, "--Stupefy them because they might still use wandless magic while you're using a summoning charm - or even run for cover."
The D.A. were all practising their defensive skills - and practising hard. Neville's conviction that one day, Harry Potter would return to Hogwarts was contagious. Listening to people they knew - Fred and George and Lee - on Potterwatch was more and more persuasive to the view that the outcome of this war centred upon the Chosen One. After all, the argument went, he must be the Boy Who Lived for a reason. Everyone now agreed that Harry had survived You-know-who during the Triwizard Tournament, that he had fought Death Eaters at the Ministry, and there were even outrageous rumours that he had battled the Dark Lord several times and escaped to tell the tale. What better hero to rally around?
And duelling practice was put aside and they did rally round - whenever Potterwatch was broadcasting.
Do not forget, came the insistent message from Ernie's glowing, flickering wireless set, Harry is still out there working for the cause despite every effort of the Ministry and the Death Eaters to thwart him. His escape from the attack upon the Lovegood's home that we reported recently is now legend! Now, over to Royal...
Thank you River, for those words of encouragement. Now a cautionary appeal. We would ask those of you with Muggle neighbours to keep an eye out for them. In recent months we have received reports that very young supporters of He-who-must-not-be-named are being encouraged to regard our non-magical friends as targets for their abuse. Damage to property and harassment are commonplace but it doesn't stop there. Injuries, many of them serious, have been inflicted and we know of at least one fatality. We ask you all to not only stay safe - but help to protect others too. Together, we can one day, restore normality and end these barbaric practices.
"How do they get away with that!" cried Lavender.
"The Ministry detects all underage magic so they must know who it is!"
"You're joking, aren't you?" said Michael. "The Ministry are the ones who are encouraging these vandals to terrorise Muggles. Anyway, they've not been enforcing the underage law for months."
"Of course they have," said Ginny. "They probably use it to round up truants and--"
"Oh, come on, Ginny," said Michael. "You must have used magic now and again outside of Hogwarts perimeters - surely you've noticed?"
"Not on my own. I've only used magic when I'm with someone who is of age. So long as it's supervised then it's okay." Ginny became thoughtful - struggling to try to remember. As far as she recalled she had always cast her warming charm before going out and had always been with Harry before using magic outside.
"He's right, Ginny," said Hannah, and Neville was nodding his head too. "When we went into Hogsmeade the other week we visited Madam Rosmerta. Emmy and Gylda are often on their own practising magic outside in the courtyard or even on one of the roofs of the outhouses."
"They're supposed to stay hidden!" said Ginny. "Can't they be seen?"
"Not round the back of the Three Broomsticks, no," said Neville. "Anyway, they had protective and muffling spells up when we saw them,"
"They can't!" scoffed Ernie. "The underage trace is old - been in place for a long time. They can't turn entrenched magic off like that so easily. It was established as part of the basic wizarding law that--"
"I'm telling you they have!" said Hannah. "We've seen it with our own eyes."
"No, Ernie's right in a way," said Michael. "They can't actually stop the underage trace but--"
"But you said--!" cried Ginny.
"They can't stop it but they ignore it!" persisted Michael, raising his voice. "Don't you think they've got other things to worry more about than a few kids playing with magic? Like searching for Muggle-borns and Muggle-sympathisers. They're not going to waste manpower on observing underage trace alerts. Have you got any idea how much effort that needs? It's likely they've closed that department."
"Typical!" said Seamus, abruptly.
"What up with you?" asked Romilda. "We're only--"
"I mean it's typical of power-seekers," he said. "We learned it in me Muggle school. They know youth is the future so they lure supporters by relaxing a few unimportant but unpopular rules. 'Hey look, aren't we wonderful? Not like them horrible Muggle-lovers.' Then, when they've fully taken power, laws become more strict than ever before."
"What d'you mean, Muggle school?" said Lavender.
"Before I came to Hogwarts, of course!" said Seamus. "You know me dad's a Muggle - I told you."
"Yeah, but... what can they teach?"
"Yeah but - Sherbet! What can they teach? Maths, and English, and geography, and science and--"
"What in Merlin's name for?" said Romilda. "What use are they?"
"Because Muggles can't do magic can they, you plonk-head!" cried Seamus. "They have to learn to read and write the hard way! Without wands they have to do arithmetic in their heads!"
"Alright, you two," said Ginny. "Save it for the duelling sessions. I'd like an underage volunteer to test this theory next Hogsmeade - away from adults. There's one in a couple of weeks."
Nigel Wolpert spoke up, "I'll do it - no problem. I already did some magic anyway last Hogsmeade."
"What!" said Ginny and several others.
"Sure, used Reparo to fix my broken shoelace."
Ginny said, "Yes, but Nige, you were with Leanne and Romilda and-- I saw you all going out!"
"No - we'd gone out the gate and rushing because it was wet and windy and my shoelace came undone. I stopped to tie it up and it broke. So I fixed it then ran after them."
Neville looked at Ginny and she nodded. He turned to the group. "Okay, let's continue the training session. We're running late but we've got half an hour before curfew."
There were groans all round but they were mostly good-humoured. Ginny left them to it and slipped away early. Harry had cautioned her he might be going into danger this evening and she wanted to keep watch. She arrived back at the common room rather weary. It had been a long day. She sat with her Charms homework but made little progress. Her attention was on her medallion - but not for long. She fell asleep before the warm fire.
"Ginny? Ginny?" It was very late and someone was shaking her awake.
"Ron?" She was hearing Ron's voice and in her sleepy state was wondering why she was sitting in an armchair. She heard him again. "Keep still, Harry!"
"No, it's me, Neville. You dozed off. It's really late."
Ginny came fully awake. Something felt terribly wrong but she was still disoriented. "Right, thanks, Neville - I'll get to bed."
"Sure you're alright, Ginny? You look a bit flushed," said Neville as she walked up to the girls' dormitory.
"Just the heat of the fire - see you tomorrow," she called back.
The other girls were already asleep. Ginny sat on her bed and stared at the dungeon on her medallion. Harry had warned her he might be in moderate danger and not to worry but this looked serious. Even without the medallion she could feel his fear. And she had heard Ron. No - she had heard Harry hearing Ron but he hadn't understood. What had Ron said?
Ginny threw herself down onto her bed and kept her medallion to her lips while she focused with all her might.
Keep still, Harry!
"'Nigh', Tom! 'Night, my good friend!" The voice was cheery but only slightly slurred.
"Goodnight, John!" responded the weary landlord. "Take extra care."
Old John Minforth sniffed at the affront. He felt sure he did not need to take any additional precautions. His routine had been the same every Friday evening for the last twenty-odd years of his retirement and he could make his way home from the Leaky Cauldron blindfold. Not that he would wish to try. Natural caution and his wand had kept him alive thus far and he moved sensibly from lamplight to lamplight as he shuffled his way through the familiar shapes and sounds of Diagon Alley at night.
A patter of small footsteps sounded off in the darkness and he hugged his cloak more tightly about himself. "Rats. Just rats 'n cats," he muttered. In the distance, a familiar clock tried to strike the hour of midnight but tonight the sound grated to a metallic halt. Old John began to feel uncharacteristically ill at ease.
He quickened his pace slightly and directed himself towards the street lantern brightly swinging outside of the old charms shop. It was a welcome flood of colourful radiance for the late traveller yet it did not penetrate much inside through the filthy, pebble-glass windows and shabby curtain rags. Still less did it illuminate the shadowy Apparitions within as old John approached the grimy entrance. When he heard the shop's rusty doorbell tinkling tunelessly within, he stood completely still - but only until the eerie sound stopped. Then, heart racing, he pushed his crooked old legs to a hobbled run and for the first time in his life, crossed the road into the shadows before turning quickly for the next street light.
Hermione shuddered and it was not just because of the wintry, penetrating air. "We're not alone - I think something's come in the door!" she whispered hoarsely.
"No, it's us, of course," said Ron. "The bell knows we're inside."
"It seems wrong. I think we should leave immediately," said Hermione as the footsteps echoing along the cobblestones outside hurried away into the distance. She tried the yard door but it was locked and heavily chained.
Harry was ready to agree but Ron said, "I don't like it much either but we've only just arrived! Let's at least have a quick look round now we're here." He lit his wand.
"You're right, Hermione," Harry said. "There is something queer about this old place. I can feel it already."
"Keep your wand down, Ron!" Hermione rushed to cast obscuring charms at the window then lit her own wand and looked around. The scene did nothing to reduce her uneasiness. Grey and bare was the room save for the shop counter whose paint had long since flecked and peeled. She shivered again. "Do you think there'll be ghosts here?"
"I think..." said Ron, pulling a strange face in the gloom, "that what's here is... trying to drive us away, Hermione. I reckon you should use your revealing spell."
Hermione was still holding her wand defensively in front of her. "Homenum Revelio!"
The three held their breaths for a few seconds listening intently, then Ron started to fidget. "Nobody."
"Specialis Revelio!" whispered Hermione. For a while it seemed as if there was something very dark pressing against them and that they were unwelcome.
Hermione spoke again a little more firmly, "I think it's Repugnantia - a revulsion jinx." Now she knew what she was dealing with she seemed to relax a little and put away her wand. "Distracting, annoying, but harmless."
"So...?" said Ron.
"So Hermione was right," said Harry, slowly.
"May be right," said Hermione. "It certainly supports my theory that Riddle might have come here and wanted to keep others out."
"Could have been years later though," said Ron. He opened a door behind the counter at its furthest end and pushed his lit wand into a lower room. Without warning, a timbered step splintered and cracked under his foot and he stumbled forward into the space. Hermione frowned with exasperation at the noise and glared after him.
"I'm alright!" he beamed back at her.
"Oh, thank goodness," she muttered to herself, rolling her eyes.
"Empty shelves, just empty shelves in here," said Ron.
"Couldn't have been years," said Harry. "Dumbledore said that Riddle left Borgin's not long after he got Slytherin's locket and Hufflepuff's cup from Hepzibah Smith - I mean, if we're supposing he hopped over the backyard fence while he was still there."
"So it could be the cup here, you reckon?" said Ron, rejoining them in the shop. "One good thing though..."
"What?" said Hermione.
Ron rubbed his finger along the counter and his moving wand light outlined his grin. "Dust but no cobwebs. I must see if I can learn that jinx for the future. Keep the bugs away"
"You will not!" snapped Hermione then dropped her voice to a more thought-out whisper, "I mean... You ought not to. Your... mum wouldn't get any visitors."
"Stairs over here," said Harry. He had found an open doorway in the darkest corner.
Ron and Hermione followed the bumps and scrapes of Harry's footsteps cautiously upwards but apart from an empty sack and discarded packaging the upper rooms were as desolate as those below. Ron looked down from a broken window at a lone spade in the small yard outside. "If he ever came here, where'd he likely--?"
"The ring in the Gaunts shack he put under the floorboards," said Harry.
"So, let's take a look," said Hermione, raising her wand.
"Hang on, do you notice something?" said Harry, looking at the other two.
Ron's and Hermione's eyes gleamed back nervously at him from the shadows.
"Either I'm getting used to it or... it's not so... repulsive up here."
"You're right," said Hermione after sniffing the air for a few seconds, as if to detect the strength of the jinx. "Which means the spell was most likely centred below."
They had as little success downstairs as before. Ron stood on the counter inspecting the overhead beams. Hermione searched the storeroom that Ron had looked in earlier.
"What about under the counter?" she called back on a sudden impulse.
Harry and Ron looked at one another at the same time but Harry was first to duck under. "Trapdoor!"
The only steps leading down were thick iron struts hammered into the brickwork. The tiny cellar below felt squashed under a joisted ceiling so low that it seemed to press down upon the visitors too; even Hermione had to stoop. The walls had been white-washed far too long ago and now corners and crevices were blackened with mould. Apart from their wands, the only light was filtering down from the outside street lantern through a recessed grating choked with foul wastes. The basement was empty except for some clothing flung across the stone floor like laundry hastily abandoned. Hermione frowned. There was a peculiarity about them and it took her a while to recognise what it was: the coat was all buttoned up and the boots neatly laced. Harry looked puzzled too and was tugging at his collar
"What is it, Harry?" asked Hermione.
"Why's it not so cold down here?"
To Harry, the air felt like cramming into a cool but muggy locker room after Quidditch practice. There was a pipe along one wall but it was icy to his touch. He frowned up at the long oak beams whose coarse splinters snagged at his hair, then down at the grubby blocks underfoot.
The cellar floor had only been half-paved - unless slabs had been removed later. Where it lay bare, the soil was utterly black, contrasting starkly with the dusty grey stones upon which the three crouched. It glistened oddly, like wet velvet. A damp, fetid smell hung over its uneven folds.
"It's been dug and spread," said Ron, with a swagger of authority. "Dug over and earthed back and composted - I can tell. Probably mushrooms."
Harry pushed past him to look more closely. He used his fingers to raise and shift the earth around to judge how easy it might be to dig. It felt too loose - not compacted at all. An unpleasant impression kept eluding his direct line of sight - like a dark ripple at the edge of his vision. The soil was squelchy and he began to wish he had brought his wellies as he crept across it. Another shimmer caught his eye and he whirled to look in its direction but could see nothing.
"Yes, it looks too recent, you mean?" said Hermione, wrinkling up her nose with Ron from the relative stability of the paved area. "You don't suppose--?" Hermione screamed, and as she did so everyone's wand lights dimmed. Only the dirt-obscured alley light faintly penetrated the blackness that now descended within the cellar but its illumination was fading, and their own magic was depleting too. "Harry! Your leg!"
Through the darkness, the sickly dirt was looking back at him where he knelt.There were eyes fleshed with black filth peering up from the swelling earth, stretching and twisting then slithering back beneath the surface. With nothing solid to grip or push against, he could not move fast enough. Hermione was shouting spells that failed. Ron was yelling at Hermione to keep back.
Whether the soil heaved up to engulf Harry's legs or whether he sank into it was unclear. Perhaps the rotted ceiling beams groaned down to impede him too, but his efforts to stand over-balanced Harry and he fell backwards to sit in the tacky black clay now beginning to slowly writhe about him. More eyeballs slimed to the surface like fattened slugs. They lengthened and twisted thickly into grotesque staring tendrils that ensnared Harry's limbs in the darkening trap that was Raltgar's cellar.
He could hear Ron and Hermione yelling advice but low animal terror crawled through Harry and he panicked. Kicking out and wriggling did not help him at all but caused his slippery wand to be sucked from his grasp into the black, treacly mess. The last sight and sound he perceived was of being slurped into a gaping maw of hideous, squirming eyes. Yet as he was pulled down into this living slime and the writhing orbs covered his face, his medallion trembled and Ginny's kiss brought hope to fight his despair.
There was no need to read her message for he could feel it so clearly within himself. Harry had no will left so he drew upon hers. He numbed himself against the engulfing horror and put all his trust in her words: Harry held himself completely still.
It was probably only seconds but many dark minutes seemed to linger past while he kept to his trust, helplessly suffocating and with his skin crawling with eyes. Finally, he felt himself being drawn backwards, ever so slowly back and up. Abruptly he was lying on the cold slabs, gasping and puking and crying. Ron and Hermione were scrabbling the filthy, resentful eyeballs off from him. Hermione was sobbing her fear and disgust as the fleshy ropes clung to her arms and hands. "Th- that's... Abomination. I sh- should have known it instantly - it looks for m- movement."
Blind and near-deaf, Harry spluttered, "Cl- clean me - g- get it all!" His eyes were tight-shut, filled with sludge that seemed to stare into him from within his own eyelids. His ears were choked too but he sensed Hermione's muffled voice casting cleansing spells upon him. He prayed her magic was working now.
When his hearing finally popped clear, his head was abruptly filled with noise. Hermione was still shouting cleaning charms. Beyond her there was a slithering and sucking and a kind of mournful sound like a drain reluctantly surrendering its sewage. Ron was calling out frantically, "Accio wand. Accio glasses. Accio shoe."
Harry's fingers gratefully clawed the solidity of the cold stone slabs and he rolled away onto his side to face the wall - away from them both and the horror, clinging to the comforting memory of Ginny's kiss. He needed time. All his fears and flaws seemed exposed to the world. He didn't want them to see him like this. It relieved his sense of shame a little to hear Hermione finally vomiting her aftershock and Ron's voice was weak and badly frightened while trying to comfort her. He was glad of their revulsion but disgusted with himself for thinking it.
"What is th- that st- stuff?" choked Ron.
"Nothing th- there," wailed Harry. "Nothing b- but eyes. All eyes." He shuddered with loathing on the ground. "They could s- see right th-through me--" Right through my soul. he thought. "N- Not soil - nothing b- but a p- pit of s- shapeless f- flesh!" He wrapped his arms around himself and began shivering as if icy cold. How'd you g- get m- me out, anyw- way?"
"It drained away ... our magic while ... it held you," panted Ron. "We could ... hardly see anything."
"It was Ron," said Hermione tearfully. "He stepped in and pulled you out."
"I had to keep still as possible - Hermione told me," gasped Ron. "Then it was a real fight, mate, like pulling up eel slime - till you stopped struggling and went stiff - then it couldn't seem to hold you so well and I thought right: I used one long heave same as pulling a big spoon out of cold syrup."
Oh fine. Ron again - the great hero. Me, the limp fish who wet his nappy. thought Harry.
It was many minutes before they began to compose themselves a little but none of them could look at one another easily - least of all, Harry, who chose to stay crouched away from the other two, hating himself.
"Empty wrappings," said Ron from the foot of the steps. He held up some greaseproof brown paper and string and traced his fingers over the creases. "How big you reckon the cup might be?"
"There's a portrait at Hogwarts of Helga Hufflepuff holding it," said Hermione as she examined the wrappings with Ron. She looked over at Harry who was still sitting turned away from them. "This could be it, Harry!"
"Could h- have been you mean," mumbled Harry. Now anger took over to try to obscure his imagined disgrace. He swung about to assert himself and his head crashed against an overhead beam. He cursed loudly then stumbled over and took his glasses from Ron to look at the wrapping himself. After only a brief look, he snatched it from Hermione, noisily screwed it up and threw it across the basement at the now-still earth. "Eat that! Hope it chokes you!"
He seized his wand from Ron and pointed it at the morass. "What kills it, Hermione! What kills it!"
"Fire - but Harry, no!"
"Expelliarmus!" shrieked Hermione.
Harry whirled around in a fury. "Give me my wand, Hermione!"
"You'll set fire to the place, mate," cried Ron.
"I don't care! Let it all burn down! Give me my wand, Hermione!"
"Harry... He'll know." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "You-know-who. He'll know what we're looking for."
Harry stared at her for a while, his face livid. Then his shoulders slumped and, still with one shoe missing, he stomped, stiff-legged back up the metal rungs to the shop. He knew he looked foolish and it burned inside him.
"Harry - I'm sorry--" called Hermione after him.
He could hear her cautioning Ron never, ever to tell anyone about what happened to Harry and Ron saying of course not. They were discussing him like he was a spoilt little boy who'd had a tantrum. They couldn't possibly know what it had been like. He could hear Ron's strained whisper clearly, "But what's it...? It eats eyeballs?"and Hermione's reply, "No, Ron - everything else."
Harry remembered the buttoned-up clothing and Raltgar's disappearance. A series of violent shudders seized him again. He pressed his fist over his mouth and fought himself by ridiculously stamping his one remaining shoe and shouting over and over, "NO! NO! NO!" He could hear Hermione climbing up after him.
"It's gone, Hermione! Alright? It's done! We were just too late." He turned away from her
Why doesn't she shout at me? Tell me what a pathetic leader I am? The Chosen Prat.
Hermione looked forlornly at the back of his hunched shoulders. He was standing rigid, stomach clenched and hands gripping the wide ledge of the shop window trying to stare out through the muck that encrusted the thick glass. She and Ron went cautiously across to join him. "Probably somewhere more secure," Harry said. "We'll never find it now." Inside he was thinking, Like a grave full of slime-eyes was not safe enough for you Riddle? Where then?
He rubbed at the panes with his sleeve and looked to the shadows across the street. "Could be anywhere."
Hermione and Ron looked out with him at the buildings opposite: The book shop, Gambol and Japes, Twilfits, Gringotts.
"You think he might have moved the cup somewhere local?" said Ron.
"How do I know!" snapped Harry. "Apart from searching every building in Diagon and Nocturne Alley, I don't see what more we can do."
"Let's get out of here, Harry," said Hermione, offering her arm then she withdrew it and grasped his arm instead. "You take us out, Harry. I've got nothing left."
Ron stepped up and took Harry's other arm. "I never had enough anyway. It has to be you, mate. We're relying on you." In his other hand he held Harry's left shoe out of sight. He knew this wasn't the right moment to return it.
The soft light of the street lantern swinging outside flickered momentarily as a sudden draught was drawn into the old charms shop - then Diagon Alley was normal again.
Harry and Ginny communed late into the small hours that night for Harry needed her badly and was puzzled she had known how to help him. Ginny explained to him their growing magical empathy and how she had heard Ron through his ears while he himself was consumed by terror. Remember u heard Luna through my ears in hospital wing?
He steered well clear of telling her exactly what had happened but Ginny knew there was something within him that was still hurting.
More than u could endure today, wasn't it, Harry?
Harry was about to snarl back at her that he didn't want to talk about it. Within his chest there was still a painfully-tight knot of anguish ready to shout at her to leave him be - but before he could tell her, Ginny's own feelings burst through his defences so powerfully she overwhelmed him. He was utterly engulfed by her love - and was not being judged at all. Harry let go completely. He sank back deeply onto his bunk as her acceptance no-matter-what flooded through him, washing away all of his self-reproach and every sense of failure with it.
She waited patiently, feeling with him as he cried out his doubts, then, You'll be even stronger for this, Harry.
Their feelings stayed embraced for a long time that night and their relationship was enriched ever after. In the days following, they discovered a deeper trust and loyalty with fewer barriers. A wordless understanding was being shared between the couple that empowered them both, not just Harry.
Yet, no matter how close they were in spirit, they still yearned to meet physically. No solution presented itself during this time. Ginny consoled Harry with the reminder that the winter term was the shortest and there were less than two months to Easter. They tried to think of it as six weeks and that didn't seem so bad. Even Snape could not hold back time. If only it was to be that simple.
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