A/N – Imagine my surprise when I returned home from work the other night and discovered the Plot Development Bunnies sitting on my couch in my living room. After the initial shock of seeing them wore off, I was happy to learn that they had a few suggestions for furthering this story. However, after a couple of days of collaborating had passed, they developed some rather annoying habits. They hogged the TV remote, drank all my Dr. Pepper, and left their dirty socks on my coffee table. All that aside, I do owe them a debt of thanks and hope that they return to help with Chapter Three. I promise I will re-stock the fridge with Dr. Pepper. And maybe even some Dove Bars.
THE FIRST OF FOUR
Chapter Two – Four Heads Are Better Than Three
Harry and Ron stood in the hallway outside Ginny's bedroom, frozen in indecision.
"Okay. You go in and wake Hermione," Harry whispered as he indicated the bedroom door with a nod.
"Me? This was your idea, not mine. She'll kill me."
"Come on. We haven't got all night. Get in there."
"I'm not doing it."
"Neither am I."
They both stared at the doorknob, as if hoping it would turn by itself.
Harry sighed. "How are we going to fight Death Eaters together when we can't even decide who should wake Hermione?"
"I'll take the Death Eaters."
More doorknob staring ensued. Harry reached for the door and then hesitated.
"I can't go in there. I would, but – Ginny's in there, and - well, I know it sounds stupid, but I have to keep my distance. We can't risk waking Ginny as well. You need to do it."
Ron rolled his eyes and sighed. "Alright then, 'Moral Fiber'. But if I'm not back in sixty seconds – "
"Right. I'll go on without you."
"Thanks a lot."
Harry waited in the hallway for several silent seconds. He considered the fact that he didn't hear any sounds from within, such as objects being thrown, as a good sign. He checked his watch after about a minute. Finally the doorknob turned slowly again and a dressing gown-clad Hermione appeared. Her bushy hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and thick, stray tendrils hung down over her half-opened eyes. Ron followed, his hands kneading her shoulders in a gentle backrub as if she were a prizefighter. He turned and closed the door carefully behind him.
"Tea," Hermione whispered. "Tea. Now."
The three of them padded down the stairs and into the kitchen. Hermione conjured up one of her special soft blue flames and placed it in a drinking glass on the center of the kitchen table. It created a small, pleasant dome of azure light, leaving the adjoining sitting room and stairway curtained in darkness. The kettle hissed on the stove as they waited for it to boil. Ron straddled a chair and buried his head in his folded arms next to Hermione, who sat huddled beside him, her cheek pressed flat against the tabletop.
Harry's restlessness finally got the better of him. He began to pace in front of the stove, drawing mugs from pegs on the wall and tea from a tin in the cupboard. He talked animatedly as he poured hot water into the pot and over the fragrant tealeaves, watching them scatter and swirl as he filled it.
"You guys won't believe this," he said, trying to keep his voice low. "You will not believe this. It was right in front of us the whole time. If only I'd known then what it really was."
"Tea, Harry," Hermione reminded him weakly. "Tea first."
"Right," said Harry, pouring out and then handing them both steaming mugs. He pulled up a chair and joined them, trying to scoot across the floor as quietly as possible. "Okay. First, there's the Horcruxes. There are four of them left, and I've got to find them. Second, remember all the stuff we uncovered at Sirius' house when we were cleaning it?"
Ron sipped his tea and shrugged. "Yeah, I remember."
"You think something in the house was a Horcrux?" Hermione asked, a light beginning to shimmer in her eyes. "Wait, Harry – didn't we find a locket?"
"Yeah. Exactly. I think that's the one that was originally in the cave. And I don't think Voldemort knows it's gone yet, because Dumbledore and I got to the fake locket first."
The three of them tipped their mugs and gulped together. The Weasley family clock, although all hands pointed towards Mortal Peril, kept a soothing tick-tock rhythm in the background.
"What about the note?" Ron whispered. "Didn't somebody leave a note in the fake one?"
"Yeah," Harry answered solemnly as he looked from one to the other of them. "R.A.B."
"R.A.B. – " Hermione repeated rhythmically. "R.A.B. . . . R.A.B. . . . Regulus Black? Sirius' brother?"
Harry nodded. "I think so. I don't know why, and I don't know how, but I think Regulus is the one that swapped the lockets and brought the real one back to Grimmauld Place. No one would be suspicious of them having another enchanted heirloom lying about, with all the junk they had. And it's not unusual for Voldemort's followers to keep dark mementos in their houses. Just look at the Malfoys."
"Whoa," Ron exclaimed, sounding impressed. "Harry, there's your first Horcrux! It's right there waiting for you. All we've got to do is go and find it."
"Shh! Ron, you'll wake everyone," Hermione hissed. "There's got to be all sorts of spells and enchantments on the locket, not to mention the complications of just getting to Grimmauld Place and back. And then there's the business of how to destroy it." She looked at Harry with her most "this-won't-be-easy" expression. "It's going to be extremely difficult. And dangerous."
"Knowing where the thing's at is half the battle," Ron said encouragingly. "You're one step ahead of You-Know-Who already."
"Yeah. That's what I'm counting on. That's why I want to go there right away. The sooner the better."
Hermione coughed and spluttered on her gulp of tea. Her eyes bulged with disbelief. "Ha-Harry, we can't leave now! You should talk this over with Lupin first. We need a plan. "
"I've already got a plan. I figure we'll get there by Floo powder. After that all we have to do is find the locket. We can bring it back here and show it to Lupin."
"Oh, right. Mum will love having that in the house," Ron snorted. "Let's just go and get something that contains little bits of You-Know-Who in it and carry it home. That's bloody brilliant."
Harry jumped up anxiously, shoving the chair behind him with a loud scrape. He began to pace again. "I just can't sit here while there's a chance I could be one up on Voldemort. I can't even get any sleep thinking about it. Don't you see? This isn't only about getting to Grimmauld Place. Snape was only pretending to be a member of the Order the whole time, and now he's got information on the location of the headquarters, and maybe even knows all about the locket. If we don't get there first, there may not even be a Horcrux to find."
"Harry, calm down," whispered Hermione. "We know – "
"Are you with me, or not? I thought the three of us were doing this together."
"Doing what together?"
Harry, Ron and Hermione turned in unison to see Ginny standing at the bottom of the stairs. Her sleepy face was lit by the soft blue glow of Hermione's fireball. She stood with her fists on her hips, reminding Harry very much of a miniature version of her mother.
"Ginny – " Harry began, but the words stuck in his throat. He felt as if his heart was shrinking two sizes in his chest. He sat back down slowly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."
"I can see that," Ginny yawned, surveying their tea mugs. "Water still hot?" She moved slowly towards the stove, her slippers making scuffling sounds. As she turned her back to them and helped herself to tea and sugar, Ron and Hermione exchanged anxious glances. Ginny carried her mug to the table and joined them, stirring and slopping tea over the rim as she sat down. "The three of you going somewhere?"
Ron stared down into his tea and Hermione began to twirl an errant strand of hair with her index finger. Harry paused for a moment, and then decided that the truth was best.
"Yeah. Look, Ginny, I don't like this any more than you do. But something's come up, and it's really important, and – " Harry's voice trailed off. He was struggling to make it sound right; however, he knew Ginny well enough to know that he didn't have to try. She was the one person who understood. It was another thing entirely trying to say it in front of Ron and Hermione. If the agreement he'd made with Ginny at Dumbledore's funeral hadn't been out in the open before, it most certainly was now.
There was a terrifying pause as Ron scrunched his eyes shut, apparently waiting for his sister to explode. When she merely sat there and sipped her tea thoughtfully, he opened his eyes again and looked incredulously at Hermione.
Harry gritted his teeth and forged ahead. "You know - I need you - not to - be involved in this."
"Well, obvious again," said Ginny calmly between swallows. "Maybe I don't want to be involved."
"Watch it Harry," Ron said warily. "It's a trap."
Ginny gave Ron a scathing look. "What I mean is, I know you're going somewhere by Floo powder, I heard you as I was coming down the stairs. And I also know that if I go with you, my being – wherever - might get you into more trouble without meaning to, than if I don't go." She stared down at her hands. "And I don't want that to happen. So at this point, I don't want to be involved if it's going to make things worse."
The four of them sat for a moment in uncomfortable silence. Hermione reached across the table and put her hand on Ginny's arm. Harry felt momentarily numbed by this turn of events. "So – " Ginny continued, "can you at least tell me what it is you're doing?"
"I wish I could," Harry admitted, and then quickly added, "but I don't think it's a good idea."
"Why not, Harry?" Hermione asked. "She's our friend. You know we can trust her."
"This is becoming way too complicated," Harry said in frustration. "I say we just get dressed, get our wands and go."
"Go where?" Ginny persisted.
"C'mon, Harry," Ron said, giving him a nudge. "Go ahead and tell her. It won't hurt, not if she's going to stay behind. You owe her that much."
"Alright. All right." Harry sighed. "We're going to Grimmauld Place. There's something there that we have to find."
"But we're not sure about the enchantments placed on the entrance," Hermione explained quickly, giving a glance in Harry's direction. "And we don't know where to find what it is we're looking for, either. We don't even know if it's still there."
"Hermione – " growled Harry.
"Why don't you ask Lupin about the enchantments?" asked Ginny.
"That's what I said!" exclaimed Hermione. "Harry, you know it doesn't hurt to ask for help. Not when it's something as serious as this."
Harry pulled at his hair. "Can we just get on with it please? Look. The three of us just finished our sixth year at Hogwarts. If we can't get past a few enchantments, then we're pretty pathetic."
"We're also supposed to be older and wiser, Harry. We don't have to go flying off at the drop of a hat anymore, getting ourselves into trouble the way we used to."
"What are you looking for?" Ginny pressed on.
"A locket." Hermione continued as if Harry wasn't in the room. "Remember the one we found when we were cleaning two summers ago? The one everyone had a turn at trying to open, and nobody could?"
"Why don't you just ask Kreacher where it is?" asked Ginny, matter-of-factly.
The three of them looked at each other wide-eyed. "Of course!" Hermione exclaimed hoarsely. "Why didn't we think of that?"
"Who can think at this hour of the morning?" Ginny said smugly.
Harry couldn't help feeling guilty. Ginny's involvement was important to him in more ways than one, but he was determined for now that their relationship be either all or nothing. He had to force himself to sustain an emotional distance between the two of them. That was not always easily achieved. If only there was a form of Occlumency that could be used to ward off emotional invasions, he thought with a sigh. Harry reminded himself it was for Ginny's protection as well, but at the moment he was having difficulty convincing himself.
Harry was also hit by a wave of longing as he overlapped Ginny's words with Dumbledore's admonition to "take good care of Kreacher." It was as if Dumbledore had been trying to hand him his next assignment. He believed he would give almost anything to be able to talk with the Headmaster again, if only for a few minutes.
Ginny rose from her chair and placed her half-empty mug on the counter by the sink. "Goodnight," she yawned as she headed towards the stairs. She turned and gave Harry a meaningful look that both released him and held him before taking the bottom step. He smiled at her, and she gave him back a little grin. "Good luck, Harry."
"'Moral Fiber,'" Ron muttered towards Harry, once Ginny was out of earshot.
"What'd you say?" asked Harry, although he'd heard him quite well.
"Nothing," said Ron quickly.
"Ron, don't," moaned Hermione.
"Not me. I'm neutral on the subject. I have no opinion.”
Hermione rolled her eyes and sighed.
The three of them stared for a while into the blue glow on the table. "Finding the Horcrux is important to us too, you know, mate," said Ron after a bit, sounding apologetic. He rubbed his eyes and gave way to a cavernous yawn. "But it's also worth doing it right. It wouldn't hurt to wait a few more hours, just until after breakfast." He arched his back and made a wide, fisted stretch. "I'm going back to bed."
Harry had to admit that he was finally feeling tired. He paused at the table while Ron ascended the stairs ahead of him, torn between taking off and going to Grimmauld Place by himself on the one hand, and following their advice on the other.
"It'll be alright, Harry," said Hermione reassuringly. "Whenever we had to face something at Hogwarts, we always went to the library first and looked things up. Waiting to talk to Lupin about this is no different." She gently took Harry by the arm. "Come on." She led him toward the stairs, then turned and extinguished the blue light.
A/N - Thanks to my beta reader, Suburban House Elf. The Plot Bunnies told me she's one of their very favorites.