Harry awoke with a start. The sun had risen. Someone was bustling about the room loading things into a travel locker. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he saw that the somebody was Dobby. The elf was loading the trunk with robes as Harry swung his feet to the floor.
Dobby stopped his robe folding and clapped his hands.
"Dobby is ever so pleased to see Harry Potter up and about. Harry Potter's friend Miz Wheezy asked Dobby to come to Harry Potter's room and help Harry Potter pack. Dobby did not mean to disturb Harry Potter..."
"You're all right Dobby," said Harry as he stretched. "It was time for me to get up and going anyway. You say you've seen Ginny this morning?"
"Not so, Harry Potter," corrected the elf. "Dobby talked to Miz Wheezy last night. She asked me to watch over Harry Potter while he slept. Dobby has been awake all night, watching and watching. Dobby has protected Harry Potter."
Harry could see that the elf's normally clean and pressed clothes were wrinkled. "Dobby thank you. I was dead tired last night. It had been a long day."
"Dobby is happy to be with the great and noble Harry Potter. Dobby has almost all Harry Potter's things packed for the trip..." Dobby choked.
"What's wrong Dobby?" asked Harry.
"Dobby d...does not want Harry Potter to leave. Dobby would like to travel with Harry Potter. Dobby would like to be Harry Potter's house elf. Dobby would give up clothes for Harry Potter." Dobby shuddered.
"Dobby I appreciate your willingness to be my house elf, really I do; but I would never put you under forced servitude in any case. I like a free Dobby. How else can you continue to save my life?" Harry smiled at the tiny elf.
"Harry Potter is too kind," said Dobby. "Can Dobby visit Harry Potter during the holiday?"
An idea struck Harry. "Dobby? Have you heard about a wedding at the Weasley's?"
"Indeed, Dobby has heard that matrimony is in the future for Master Wheezy. Dobby is ever so happy at the prospect."
"Dobby, you're a free elf...would you consider helping Ron's mum with some of the preparations for the wedding? I'd pay your wage as a gift to Bill and Fleur." Harry waited while Dobby considered the offer.
"Will Harry Potter be at the wedding," asked Dobby tentatively.
"I'll be back at Privet Drive for a bit. Dumbledore wanted it that way to maintain a protective spell, but I will be coming to the wedding."
"If Harry Potter will be coming, Dobby will gladly help."
Despite their apparent agreement, a cloud of concern crossed Dobby's face.
"What?" questioned Harry as he noted the look. "Are you afraid I'll not be able to take care of myself out in the world?"
"Harry Potter is a great wizard. Dobby does not fear for Harry Potter, but Dobby would prefer to be closer to Harry Potter."
"You could make sure that it's safe at the Weasley's in advance of my arrival," offered Harry.
"Dobby would do that most gladly. Dobby will assure Harry Potter's safety at the wedding." Dobby folded his arms across his bony chest. "No one will harm Harry Potter at the Wheezy home."
Harry patted Dobby on the shoulder and picked up his money pouch. He sorted out five fat golden galleons and passed them over to Dobby. "This is partial payment for the work you'll do at the Weasley's. I'll pay you the rest when I arrive. Just don't tell them I'm paying for your time. Say you just want to help, understand?"
"Dobby understands," said the elf as he looked at the coins in his hand. "But Harry Potter has paid Dobby too much!"
"Dobby, you're worth every knut. Help Mrs. Weasley and keep alert for any danger. I'll be along in a week and I'll expect a full report."
Dobby folded the last of the robes and placed them atop Harry's other belongings before looking up. "Dobby will meet Harry Potter at the Wheezy's home. Dobby will give a full report. Dobby will protect Harry Potter."
The elf held out the strap of Harry's haversack. "Dobby assumes Harry Potter will be wanting to take care of this himself."
A knowing look passed from the elf to Harry.
"You can tell what's inside?" asked Harry.
"Not in specific," replied Dobby. "But Dobby can tell there is magic and mystery in that bag. Dobby left the bag for last, so Harry Potter could decide for himself."
"Good idea," decided Harry as he considered Dobby's words. He fed Hedwig then released her with instructions to meet him at Ron's in a week's time. Then he locked the empty cage and placed it with the luggage. "Let's go see if Hermione or Ginny are in the common room. If they are, we can all go gather Ron to breakfast. We'll tell them about you helping at the Weasley's."
Dobby nodded as Harry shouldered the heavy pack. They made their way to the common room and had just reached the last step when Ginny and Hermione strode into view.
Harry crossed quickly to Ginny and kissed her. "Thanks for sending Dobby to help me pack. I slept like the dead and I don't think I would have gotten things rounded up in time on my own. As it is, Dobby has it all under control. Let's go retrieve Ron. Dobby has an offer when we get there."
Neither Ginny nor Hermione asked Harry about the cryptic remark and they all followed the elf to hospital. Hermione was quietly reserved as she walked behind the hand-in-hand Harry and Ginny.
Ron was up and dressed. In fact he was pacing back and forth when the foursome entered the hospital ward.
Ron rushed to Hermione and swept her from the ground. "I'm so glad to see you!" he gushed. Hermione blushed and kissed him.
"Everyone sit down for a moment," suggested Harry. "Dobby has some good news for us."
"Harry Potter is correct," said Dobby. "Holiday time around Hogwarts is not very productive for a house elf. Without students, we has very little to do around the castle. There is even been fighting over who is getting to sweep the chimneys. What Dobby was wondering, what Dobby was hoping, was that the Wheezys would allow Dobby to spend his holiday at their home. Dobby has heard plans for a wedding and Dobby would like to help."
Hermione looked instantly at Ron who had turned crimson. "I didn't say a word!" blurted Ron.
"What do you mean?" asked Harry immediately. "You were there when the formal owls arrived with the invitations. You didn't have to say a word."
Ron relaxed noticeably. "Mum could probably use some help," he mumbled, looking at his feet.
"Then it's settled," said Harry. "Dobby will come to your house and help with the wedding. I'll join you in a week, and we'll make plans for the rest of the holiday."
"Do you have to wait an entire week?" asked Ginny.
"That's what Dumbledore wanted," explained Harry. "I'll humor him this one last time."
Dobby looked up at Harry, winked and said, "Dobby has trunks to get aboard the carriages. Dobby will see the Wheezys as soon as holiday begins." The elf disappeared with a pop.
"Let's not stand about the hospital all day! Let's go eat!" said Ron. "I'm as hungry this morning as I was tired last night."
They followed Harry to the Great Hall where the tables were piled high with kippers, bacon, pancakes, jugs of pumpkin juice and milk, great silver decanters of thick maple syrup, sausages, toast, powdered strawberries, and cold cereals. Ron made a pig of himself, but Harry noticed that they all downed more than he would have been willing to bet they could eat.
When the eating slowed, it was Ginny who ventured first. She leaned in so no one around them could hear. "Harry, what about the things you've left to do?"
"What things?" asked Harry innocently.
"See I told you he wasn't himself," said Ginny to Hermione.
She asked Harry for the D.A. sign, which he gave. She sighed and began, "Last night you seemed...less than focused," confessed Ginny. "I was concerned that you might be an imposter until I held your hand. Then I knew you had just pushed yourself too far again, so I let the details slide."
"Details?" asked Harry.
Ginny leaned in close, pulled out her wand, and kissed Harry. After a long minute, she released Harry and put away her wand. "It's him. He must have had a really hard day."
Hermione put her fingers to her lips and smiled. Ron looked away as Ginny started her interrogation.
"You still have Snape's diary, Riddle's diary, the papers from Grimmauld Place, an adamant crucible, and two very dangerous artifacts, and a d-r-a-g-o-n to deal with. What are your plans?"
"Oh that!" said Harry as he finally understood Ginny's aim. "We could always use the Time-Tur..."
"NO!" said the other three in unison. They had spoken so loudly that several of those nearby turned to the fuss.
Hermione settled, smoothed her robes, and softly restated, "No."
"I don't think we have enough time this morning to take care of the..." and he whispered, "...Horcruxes"
"I didn't think you were even ready to attempt that," whispered Hermione urgently.
"We have an empty crucible, we don't know how to transfer the Horcruxes, and we still don't know how to destroy them without a huge offsetting spell. Let's go talk with Dumbledore's Porcrux. I owe him one last visit anyway. He may have an idea."
As no one seemed to have a better solution, they got up from the table and headed to the tower office. When they were inside the circular room, Harry explained the dilemma to Dumbledore's portrait.
Dumbledore listened intently and then considered a long while. "The destruction of a body is relatively easy, we are fragile beings. The destruction of a soul, however, is impossible."
"Not so quick to despair," responded the portrait. "The bits of soul entrapped in the artifacts can not be destroyed, but they can be released. It is very intricate magic. It takes ultimate concentration and purpose. Few even know of the magic's existence."
As Dumbledore talked the school clock boomed out eight times.
"Eight o'clock!" exclaimed Ginny in exasperation. "We have to be at the carriages in an hour. We'll have to use the Time-Turner."
"No!" said Hermione unequivocally. "We'll find a different way."
"I'm with Hermione on this," said Ron. "After the way I felt yesterday...never again."
"I may have a solution," offered a sly voice. Phineas Nigellus Black strode into his portrait. "While it is true you do not possess the ability to release a Horcrux, you can be taught. And while you cannot do magic of that sort outside school bounds without raising the Ministry's ire, you can learn and perform that same magic within the walls of the castle with relative impunity." He let the words sink in before proceeding. "I suggest that you take the train back to your respective homes, rest, prepare yourselves mentally, and return together by floo powder. An owl to Headmistress McGonagall with the time of your arrival will allow her to circumvent the castle's magic long enough for you to arrive undetected."
"You said you expected Voldemort to attack at the first opportunity," countered Harry. "Do you now think we can afford to wait?"
"I have spoken with Albus,' responded Nigellus. "He has told me of the protection you are afforded in your relative's keeping."
Nigellus pulled at his white gloves until they were tight on his fingers before continuing, "Go your separate ways. Tom Riddle will focus on Harry but he will be unable to thwart the protective magic. Pick a time and date known only to yourselves and meet back here in this office. Take time to be prepared. Rushed magic is bad magic."
The four friends considered Nigellus' words. Ron took the fore. "It's a good plan. It keeps Hermione and Ginny safe. It throws off the Ministry and the Death Eaters. It allows us time to prepare, and we've no other plan that would work in the short time we have remaining here."
Harry paced the office muttering to himself, "...should have done this yesterday when I had the chance..."
"Not likely!" exclaimed Ginny. "You could barely manage yourself last night and you didn't even know it. This would have done you in."
She stood like a miniature Colossus of Rhodes, halting Harry's pacing.
Harry stopped, saw the determined look on Ginny's face, and took out his pocket watch. As if receiving confirmation of Ginny's assessment, he said, "Fine. The plan will work. We'll set the details during the train ride back to London."
In verification of his acceptance of the plan, Harry went to the huge desk and removed the ornate wooden box. He opened it wordlessly and placed the crucible inside. He also left off the diaries and sheets of parchment from Grimmauld place. Finally, he held his hand out to Ginny. She did not ask his intent, she merely handed him the Time-Turner. Harry added it to the box. Resealing the box, Harry slid it back into the desk drawer.
"That's that," he said and then turned to the portraits lining the walls. "Thank you for all your advice and training. Together we will defeat Voldemort. I promise you."
"Maudlin," sneered Nigellus.
"I'll miss you too," said Harry with a sly smile.
Each in turn said goodbye to Dumbledore and the other portraits. They left quietly and made their way to the entrance hall.
"I need to get Capricio," said Harry. "I think I should do that on my own. I need to talk to him before we leave...make sure everything will be OK."
"Just leave the bloody little menace here," injected Ron. "He'll only be trouble if you take him off the grounds."
"I'll talk with him," said Harry hesitantly. "We'll see."
Ron turned from Harry. "Hermione, let's go for a walk around the grounds. We have a half hour before the carriages."
Hermione said nothing, she smiled and took Ron's hand, leading him off toward the Quidditch pitch.
Ginny looked at Harry and said quickly, "Will they be safe unescorted?"
"With Ron's unicorn jumper and Hermione's abilities, they should be fine." Harry looked to his right. Students were starting to arrive in the entrance, hugging and saying goodbye.
Ginny pushed Harry's shoulder. "Go to Hagrid's. I've some friends to say goodbye to."
Harry kissed her lightly and left for Hagrid's hut. The grounds were spectacular in the morning sunlight. Harry step was light, but his heart was heavy as he made his way to Hagrid's. He rehearsed over and over what he was going to say to Capricio, and he wasn't sure how the dragon was going to react.
Hagrid was sitting outside his hut straightening a bolt for his crossbow. He looked up as Harry approached. "'ello 'arry," said the giant man. "I was 'opin' yeh might not come after yer friend." He choked down a sob.
"I still have to come to an understanding with Capricio before I can safely take him among the muggles," said Harry. "It all depends on his attitude."
"Then I'll not give up 'ope. 'e's out back," said Hagrid, thumbing at his garden.
Harry walked around the hut and found Capricio savaging one of Hagrid's old boots. He had torn it nearly to shreds. Harry sighed.
"Capricio!" called Harry gaining the dragon's attention. "The dragon looked up from his shredding and waited.
"Cap it's time to decide where you'll spend the summer holiday. Hagrid has offered to keep you here at Hogwarts if you want to stay."
Capricio growled menacingly.
"I know," said Harry, but hear me out. "If you come with me, you'll be among muggles almost exclusively. After that, we'll be going to a wedding. Ron will be there and I can't allow any hostilities. He's my friend. You're my friend. Can we call a truce until we figure out what it is about him that bothers you?"
Capricio considered momentarily, then he flew to Harry and held open his wing.
"You're serious?" asked Harry.
In answer the dragon drew a claw across his less-armored inner wing. Blood welled in the scratch. Harry held out his hand. Capricio made a small scratch on Harry's left hand and pressed the two wounds together. Harry healed the scratches leaving a second gold line on his hand.
"I couldn't ask for more," said Harry. "You'd better say goodbye to Hagrid here, we can't have you seen on the train platform, or anywhere else for that matter."
Harry carried Capricio to Hagrid. "Cap has made up his mind to behave himself and come with me," said Harry hesitantly. "He wants to say goodbye."
Harry turned to give them privacy as Capricio flew to Hagrid. When he turned back, Hagid was streaming silent tears.
Hagrid pulled a bag from beneath a table. "'ere's some dragon treats I made fer 'im. Off with yeh! I'll see yeh at the train," he said with a great sniff.
"Thanks Hagrid. See you at the train then," said Harry as he slipped the treats into his bag and Capricio into the protected pocket of his robe. He left the cabin and hurried toward the castle without looking back.
Harry arrived at the front of the castle barely in time to say goodbye to his friends. He noticed that Ginny was talking quietly to the two Slytherin students. There were handshakes and hugs, promises to write, and tears all around. Then the thestrals arrived pulling the carriages.
There were stifled cries of fear and expressions of shock as the thestrals came into view. "Dumbledore," thought Harry sadly.
The crowd broke up, finding carriages for the ride to Hogsmeade train station. Harry, Hermione, Ginny and Ron found a coach to themselves.
"So," asked Ron. "Do you have him?"
"Yes, and he has promised to be nice," said Harry.
"You play nicely too," commanded Ginny, raking Ron with her eyes. "A promise from a dragon is not a light thing."
They settled into silence as the coach bumped along.
Ron sniffed theatrically.
"What?" asked Harry.
"The smell of these carriages," explained Ron. "I hated the musty smell from my second year on. Now I may never get the chance to hate it again."
Harry slapped him on the shoulder. "If you miss musty smells, maybe we could plan a day trip to Grimmauld Place."
The laughter was abbreviated and then the quartet settled back into quiet observation of the grounds they might never walk again. When they arrived at Hogsmeade train station, Hagrid and the other professors were already there. The adults said goodbye to students, who then filed onto the waiting train.
Harry saw the engineer begin to check steam gauges and he knew departure was near. He caught Hagrid's attention. "Hagrid! Don't forget, you can finish your schooling. Talk to Headmistress McGonagall, she'll see to it, I'm sure!"
Hagrid said nothing. Tears were streaming from his eyes and into his beard.
They boarded the train and in moments it had lurched into motion. Harry watched the platform with some of his most beloved teachers slip from view. Within minutes, the town had disappeared, replaced by alpine forest. Harry settled back into his seat. Ginny leaned heavily into his shoulder. Ron and Hermione were holding each other, eyes closed, not braving the disappearing scene of familiar places and associated memories. It was over an hour before anyone moved. When the plump witch with the food trolley came by, the others declined, but Harry bought a treat for Capricio. Ron recoiled as the dragon was withdrawn from Harry's protective pocket. Capricio growled but did nothing more overt. Harry relaxed in a measure.
Hermione looked from the dragon to Ron and motioned. Ron shook his head. Hermione fixed a look of determination on her face and said, "Ronald has a suggestion."
Ron looked shocked at his volunteer into the conversation. "I'd...I'd just said to Hermione, that rather than trying to coordinate our timing from different locations, how about leaving from the Burrow after the wedding? We'll all be there. We can play it close to the vest and go at a moment's notice."
"Will McGonagall be at the wedding?" asked Ginny.
"What difference does...oh!" said Hermione. "We need someone in the castle to remove the restrictive magic on a fireplace."
"Exactly,' said Ginny. "I don't' know who has been invited, but we can still send an owl after the wedding. No real need to worry yet, we have some time."
Harry reached absentmindedly beneath his robes for a gold chain that wasn't there. "That should work," he said.
"We could change so as not to wait until the last minute," suggested Hermione closing the subject.
They took turns changing inside the compartment while the others guarded the door. When they had finished, they settled back into their quiet considerations. The rocking motion of the train lulled them. Hermione, Ron, and Ginny were soon asleep. Harry watched out the window and ran scenes of future plans through his mind.