A/N: For the three of you out there who haven't given up on this story yet . . .
Harry avoided everyone except Ginny the following day; he was worried he'd let something slip about his upcoming trip with Dumbledore and he didn't want to talk about it until they were back, triumphant. It felt too odd – he was eager to find all the Horcruxes and yet, the end of Voldemort's life could not come without the end of his own. He didn't feel like dealing with the mixture of sympathy and strategizing his friends seemed to bring and so he spent the day taking a long, cold walk around the lake and then sitting in a corner of the library with Ginny, pretending to study.
As he got up to leave a little before six, Ginny gave him a kiss and then asked if she could use the Map and Invisibility Cloak while he was gone.
"For what?" he asked.
Ginny shrugged. "To check up on Malfoy, what else?"
Harry said "no" automatically, not even thinking about it. There was no way Ginny was going to roam around the castle after hours – all alone.
"Why not?" she asked. Her eyes narrowed as if she expected not to like his answer.
"Ginny, it's too dangerous." Harry couldn't keep the curtness out of his voice. "Dumbledore hasn't figured out who poisoned Slughorn's bottle of mead yet, but I know he suspects Malfoy."
Ginny stuck out her chin and began to respond but Harry held up his hand. "I mean it, Ginny. I don't want you wandering around the castle at night without me."
Ginny opened her mouth to respond and then closed it. "Fine," she said shortly. Two spots of color had risen in her cheeks. "You better go before you're late. I'll be safe in my room all night if you need me."
Harry hated the look on her face – a mixture of anger and hurt – but he couldn't stand the thought that Ginny might be in danger while he was gone. "Ginny," he began.
She was looking resolutely down at her Herbology text. "I'll talk to you later, Harry. Good luck," she said without raising her head.
Harry sighed. "Right," he responded. He walked out of the library with a sense of foreboding, but as he walked to Professor Dumbledore's office he forced himself not to think about the disagreement with Ginny. He would need all his concentration focused on the task at hand.
He reached Dumbledore's office promptly at 6. It had started to snow and the wind was whipping around the castle so hard the windows shook.
"Where are we going, sir?" he asked, watching as Dumbledore stood in front of one of his silver instruments and frowned. Behind him, the windows shook and Harry shivered. Somehow he doubted their destination was going to be anyplace warm and comfortable.
"To a cave at the seashore near Devon," replied the Headmaster absently, still frowning. "If I'm not mistaken, it's the location of one of the young Tom Riddle's more nefarious holidays."
"Holidays?" asked Harry. "Who would have taken him on a holiday?"
Dumbledore sighed. "I suppose you don't remember that day too well – when I showed you the memory of my first meeting with Tom and the matron at his orphanage. She told me a story about Tom terrorizing several of the other children when they were all on a seaside holiday – something happened in a cave, but no one involved ever said exactly what it was.
"And you've found the cave?" Harry asked. A thrill of dread ran through him. The seashore was not likely to be pleasant this time of year.
"I believe I have," said Dumbledore. "The matron who was in charge of the orphanage when Tom was there died almost ten years ago but I found another worker from that time period who remembers quite a few summer days at the beach on Lundy Island. There's a cave there that I believe is the one we are looking for."
"Why do you think Voldemort would have hidden one of the Horcruxes in that cave?" asked Harry. "Certainly it wasn't the only place in England where he acted like a bully."
"True," said Dumbledore. "But I think the cave is significant to that point in Voldemort's life for several reasons. I doubt he would have hidden anything at the orphanage – not only did he despise the place but retrieving an object from there later would be difficult. The cave is another matter entirely. The incident happened when Tom was ten – at the height of his pre-Hogwarts power. I suspect he was quite pleased with his accomplishment on that holiday – his depravity sunk to a new low, so to speak, even without knowing what his power meant." Dumbledore tapped the silver instrument he had been watching and it went immediately silent. He held out his arm to Harry. "Shall we go?"
Harry closed his eyes while they Apparated. Although all the Sixth Years had begun their Apparition lessons Harry had only been successful moving himself out of his starting circle once and he still hated the sensation of being squeezed through a tube.
He knew when they arrived even before he opened his eyes; although they were far south of Hogwarts' location in Scotland it was still quite cold and the spray of seawater that hit his face felt like tiny stinging hexes. When he looked around he could see they were standing on a small island; the mainland was about 200 metres across the tossing surf where Harry could see a number of boarded up buildings and faded signs advertising fish and chips and a souvenir shop. Across the sand from where they were standing was the mouth to a largish cave with a wooden pathway leading up to it.
"This is it?" he asked Dumbledore. Harry couldn't put his finger exactly on it, but something didn't feel quite right.
Dumbledore peered at him; the wind whipped the Headmaster's long hair and beard around in a frenzy but his eyes were still, searching Harry's. "I believe so," he said. His eyes grew even more serious. "Do you?"
Harry wasn't sure what to say. To admit his misgivings – based on nothing more than a feeling in his gut – would show mistrust. Professor Dumbledore had spent months looking for this location, he'd collected dozens of memories in his quest to find the Horcruxes, he was the most powerful wizard of all time. Harry felt like an idiot even considering to disagree. But still . . . he remained silent, not sure what to say.
"I don't think this location was quite as popular with tourists sixty years ago," Dumbledore said, guessing some of Harry's thoughts. "This beach was only created about twenty years ago and before that, the cave was more difficult to access. Tom and his victims would have had to climb through a number of tide pools and over rocks to get here."
Harry nodded. "Okay," he said finally. He wasn't completely mollified, but without being able to specify his concerns, he decided to just keep his mouth shut.
He followed the Headmaster up the sandy beach towards the mouth of the cave. The wooden walkway made the going easier but the closer they got to the entrance, the more something bothered Harry about the entire situation. He frowned, trying to figure out what it was when the wind disappeared.
They had entered the mouth of the cave. It was fairly large and showed signs of having been explored by years of curious families. Dumbledore began to wave his wand at various rock outcroppings when suddenly Harry realized what was bothering him.
"I don't feel anything," he said out loud. Dumbledore looked up at him. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean," said Harry, knowing he was right, "that there's no Horcrux here. I don't feel anything – not scared or angry or blank or any of those other things I felt in your office from just viewing old memories. If there was real Horcrux here, don't you think I'd know it?"
Dumbledore sighed. "You're right, of course. I can't find a single magical signature here. I guess the orphans must have had holidays at more than one beach." He looked severely at Harry. "You didn't think we were in the right place from the start, did you?"
Harry flushed. "No, sir," he mumbled. He was surprised when Dumbledore took him by the shoulders – the man almost never touched him – and looked him in the eye.
"Harry, this is very important," the Headmaster said solemnly. "You must always, always tell me what you are thinking and feeling while we are searching for Horcruxes. There may come a time when your intuition is the only thing you have to rely on."
Harry snorted. "I don't think I'll ever be able to trust myself as much as I trust you, sir."
Dumbledore smiled – a little sadly, Harry thought. "I hope you can trust your friends at least as much as you trust me, Harry," he said. "Let them help you whenever you can – you are going to need them more than ever as your search continues. Don't shut them out."
Abruptly, Harry was reminded of his earlier fight with Ginny. He wouldn't put it past the Headmaster to know all about it. "But sir, how can I ask my friends to put themselves in danger . . . for me?"
"Harry, do you really think any of your friends would sit back and let Voldemort and his Death Eaters take over if they didn't know you?" The Headmaster peered at Harry over the top of his spectacles. "The Weasleys have been known as blood traitors since the First War; Neville's parents were tortured only months after yours were killed. Your friends are your friends because of who they are, not who you are. And you do them a disservice if spend your efforts trying to protect them by forcing them to the sidelines."
Now Harry was certain the Headmaster knew about Ginny. He supposed he hadn't closed his mind to the fight as much as he thought. It made him appreciate Dumbledore's power all the more; Harry hadn't felt even the barest hint of Legilimency from the man. He squirmed a little under Dumbledore's gaze and finally nodded.
"I understand sir. And . . . I'll do better." He looked around at the cave. "Now what? Do you still think the Horcrux is hidden in a cave?"
"I do," replied Dumbledore. "Although, like most everything else having to do with the hunt, it is just an educated guess. And as you can plainly see from today's failure, my hunches are not infallible."
"I'm sure they're still better than most," said Harry. He shivered. They had walked back out of the cave and the wind was hitting them again with all its force. By the feel of it, some of the spray had become ice. It was possibly even sleet, but the sky above was too dark for Harry to know for certain. Dumbledore held out his arm.
"I think we have dallied long enough, Harry," he said. "I'm sure you would like to get back to Hogwarts and your warm common room, although things still may be a little chilly there as well."
Harry grimaced. "Yes sir," he said. "I think I have some apologizing to do."
It was an hour before curfew but Ginny was already lying on her bed listening to the wind howling in the darkness. Part of her was thinking about Harry, somewhere out in the cold with Dumbledore. She hoped he was safe and that they had been successful in finding a Horcrux. The rest of her still seethed over his earlier overprotective behavior. While she could understand Harry's worry – better than most, probably – it still irked her. He didn't treat Ron and Hermione that way, she thought petulantly to herself, and she was every bit as capable as they were.
She sighed and rolled over on her bed, thinking. She didn't want to fight with Harry but she didn't want him treating her like she was breakable either. Things had been going well between them – despite the death sentence hanging over Harry they had somehow managed to carve out some modicum of normalcy and Ginny didn't want to waste any of their time together on petty arguments. Even though this one wasn't exactly petty. Like it or not, they were going to have to have a talk.
"Uhh, Ginny?" Her roommate Demelza was standing in the doorway looking nervous.
Ginny sat up quickly. "Yeah? Is something wrong?" Her stomach plummeted. They wouldn't have sent Demelza if something really bad happened.
"Harry asked me to come find you," the other girl said. "He wants to know if you'll go up to his room." At this, Demelza couldn't quite hold back her smirk.
"He did? Where was he?" Ginny asked. She was already pulling on her dressing gown and looking for her slippers.
"In the common room," said Demelza. "He looked upset about something.
"Really?" said Ginny with as much nonchalance as she could muster. She didn't want Demelza to get suspicious. "I guess I'd better go see what's wrong."
Ron and Hermione were both in the common room waiting for her when Ginny came down from the girls' dorm. It looked like they had been whispering to each other by the fireplace. Ginny intended to just nod to them and walk by – she hoped they'd understand – but Ron reached out and grabbed her arm before she could slip past them to the staircase.
"Ginny, what's with Harry? He came in here looking half frozen and completely depressed. We tried to find out what was going on but he just asked Demelza to find you and said he'd talk to us later."
"Well then, Ron. If Harry wanted to find me, maybe you should let me go see what he wants." Concern made Ginny speak sharper than usual to her brother as she shook off his grasp.
"You know something, don't you?" asked Hermione shrewdly. She suddenly looked excited. "Did he find one? Another Horcrux?"
"Shhh, Hermione, keep your voice down!" hissed Ginny. "I don't know what Harry found because the two of you are keeping me from going to see him."
"Fine," huffed Ron. "Go. But remember, we're on his side too you know."
Ginny's anger evaporated. "I know you are," she said. "And so does Harry. It's just . . . whatever happened tonight, I don't think he's ready to share it with everyone. He will be though. Soon." She gave her brother a quick hug. "I know you're just worried. We all are."
Ron nodded. "Just let us know if we can do anything, okay?"
Ginny walked slowly up the stairs, her thoughts swirling. She wasn't sure what she was going to find in Harry's dorm. As prepared as he tried to act for the destruction of the Horcruxes, she suspected that actually taking a step closer to his own death was more difficult than he imagined.
She didn't bother knocking on the half-opened door but she did shut it behind her and seal it with Colloportus. Harry was sitting quietly on his bed, looking down at his hands. He didn't look up when she walked in.
"Thanks for coming," he said quietly. "Even though I know you're mad at me."
He sounded so defeated that Ginny was immediately on alert. Something hadn't gone as planned. Maybe it hadn't been one Horcrux they'd found – maybe it had been two or even three and they were much closer to the end than any of them had suspected. She sat down next to him on the bed and took his hand, half expecting him to pull away. He didn't, but squeezed her hand tightly, as if he was holding onto a lifeline.
"I'm not mad at you," she said, and it was true. Looking at Harry's face, Ginny could suddenly feel some of the danger he was trying to keep away from her. She didn't blame him for not wanting her to go search for Draco by herself. Harry was right; it wasn't safe.
"I'm not mad," she said again. "I'm . . . worried. What happened tonight?"
Harry sighed. "We didn't find one."
Ginny hadn't been expecting this. "You . . . what? You didn't? Why? Where?"
"Dumbledore thinks Voldemort hid one of his Horcruxes in a cave at the sea – a cave he visited with the orphanage when he was about ten. He tortured some of the other children there.
Ginny shuddered. "And you went to a cave tonight?"
Harry nodded. "Near Devon. But it wasn't the right one. I knew it immediately." He dropped Ginny's hand and began rubbing his temples.
"Are you okay?" Ginny asked, concerned. "And how did you know it wasn't the right one?"
"Because I didn't feel anything when we got there. The . . . Horcrux inside me didn't react at all. Usually, I start to feel sick just talking about it . . . like now." He closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillow on his bed.
Ginny moved so that she was lying next to him. She didn't know what to say. Truth was, she was actually a little relieved. They hadn't found a Horcrux; Harry wasn't any closer to death, and they weren't disagreeing anymore. She wasn't certain Harry felt the same way, though.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Harry was quiet for a long minute. "I'm not," he finally said. He turned to look at her. "I didn't realize it until we got there, but I'm not ready. To die, I mean." Ginny shuddered and Harry took her hand. "I will be, I think. I mean, I have to be. But I think I've assuming that when the time came, I'd know it, and be okay. I'm not there yet."
"What if you still aren't ready when . . ." she couldn't finish the sentence.
"I don't know," said Harry quietly. "I guess I'll just have to go through with it not being ready." He looked at her. "That's probably what will happen. I'm starting to think there's no way I can get ready to die. No matter how much I've faced death already."
Ginny's heart broke a little more then. She wanted to scream at the unfairness of it. For lack of the right words she just cuddled a little closer to him and let her hand trace up and down Harry's side. He shuddered.
"Let's not think about it right now," she finally said.
Harry nodded, his eyes closed, and Ginny began trying to do everything she could to make him forget, even just for a little while.