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Disclaimer: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling and Warner Bros. I in no way claim ownership of any rights to the Harry Potter Universe.

Author's Note:

Chapter 8: Red-Heads in all Shapes and Colors
Several punching bags that looked an awful lot like one of Harry’s best friends had the stuffing beaten out of them that day. Harry headed straight to the Room of Requirement after exiting the common room. After Harry reduced his anger to a manageable level, he sought out Ginny. Using the Marauder’s map, Harry found that she was in the library, sitting at a table with several other 5th years.

Ginny looked up as Harry walked over to the table and noticed his approach. “Hey Harry, what brings you here?”

“I need to talk to you about your brother,” Harry said as calmly as possible, “in private.”

Ginny looked into his eyes as he said this and must have seen something there, for her eyes widened momentarily. She closed the book she had been reading and collected her things, stuffing them into her bag. “I’ll see you guys later,” she said to her friends as she rose and walked out of the library with Harry. The two walked in silence up to Harry’s office. Once they were inside, Ginny immediately turned to Harry and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Your brother,” Harry started to say heatedly. He paused and took a deep breath before continuing in a slightly calmer voice. “Your brother turned my trunk inside out looking for the Marauder’s Map so that he could spy on you and find out who you’ve been snogging in broom cupboards.”

Ginny’s eyes bugged out at that. “I haven’t been snogging anybody in any broom cupboards. Never have, matter of fact.”

“That’s beside the point,” Harry began, then changed tact. “Weren’t you dating Michael Corner most of last year?”

“Yes, but we never did much. I mean we did kiss, of course, but we never really reached the full out snogging, groping stage that would require a broom cupboard,” Ginny explained somewhat uncomfortably.

“Oh, er, well that’s…” Harry stammered. “Right. Anyway, back on topic. Ron thinks that you’ve been sneaking around snogging some bloke throughout the castle, and he was determined to catch you in the act. So he went through all of my things looking for the Marauder’s Map so that he could catch you with the guy that he thinks you’ve been snogging.”

“That smarmy git,” Ginny shrieked. “I swear, he is the most…ugh, he is so frustrating. Just because he’s too much of a thick-headed prat to get a girlfriend, he thinks he can just go and dictate my life for me.”

“Yeah, I thought you might react like that,” Harry told her. “Then get this,” he continued, “when I was trying to yell at him for going through my stuff and trying to spy on you, he tells me it’s none of my business, that as your brother he has a right to look out for you, and that he didn’t expect me to understand.”

“He didn’t.”

“He did,” Harry said evenly. “I asked him what he meant by that. His reply was: ‘Well you don’t exactly have any family, do you?’”

Ginny’s reaction exactly mirrored Hermione’s. She gasped and raised a hand to cover her opened mouth. “No. Please tell me he didn’t say that.” The look in Harry’s eyes told her quite plainly that he did in fact say that. “Of all the insensitive…what did you say?”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t remember exactly. I was so angry at the time, I’m just happy I didn’t blow up the common room. I think I thanked him for reminding me of that fact, then told him that I’d give him detention with Filch if he ever went through my things again. And I warned him that he should stay out of your business if he knew what was good for him.”

“Damn straight he should,” Ginny stated emphatically. “But we can’t just let him get away with all of that.”

“No,” Harry replied, “we can’t, which is why I asked you here. We need to plan some revenge.”

Ginny’s lips twisted into an evil smirk. “That’s what I like to hear. But before we begin planning, what’s this Marauder’s Map you were talking about?”

Harry looked at her for a moment like she was completely crazy. Then he slapped himself on the forehead and said, “I keep forgetting that you haven’t exactly been around for all of our adventures. The way we get along now, it feels like we’ve been friends all along. Let me tell you a little story about the Marauders, a legend in Hogwarts history….”

And so Harry began the tale of the mischievous Marauders. He told her how his father and Sirius decided to become animagi to keep Remus company during the full moon and how they taught Peter as well. He fast-forwarded to the twins finding the map in Filch’s office in their first year, and how they gave the map to him during his third year. He then dug the map out of his new trunk to show her how it worked.

To say she was impressed would be an understatement. “We could go anywhere with this, so long as we didn’t get ambushed from both sides.”

“Well yeah, and in that case there’s always my invisibility cloak,” Harry offered. “I can’t believe Ron never mentioned anything about any of this.”

“Ron never tells me anything. Ever since he got back from his first year at Hogwarts, he’s wanted nothing to do with me. I guess that’s not true any more. Now he considers himself in charge of my love life,” Ginny explained bitterly.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said sincerely. “You know Hermione and I never meant to steal Ron away from you or make you feel left out. If I had known, I would’ve tried to include you….”

“Oh Harry, I don’t blame you,” Ginny hastily interrupted. “You have nothing to apologize for. I mean, I probably would have fainted if you were to come up to me and ask me to come hang out with you guys. I imagine half the reason he didn’t want me around is because I was so embarrassing with my crush. But even when we were at the Burrow during the summer after your first year, before you came along, he didn’t want anything to do with me. He was too grown up and cool for his little sister.”

“Well, all the more reason for some payback, right?” Harry asked in an attempt to change the subject.

“Right,” Ginny agreed with a smile. “What did you have in mind?”

They spent the rest of the day planning and plotting. They were so involved in their scheming that they missed the start of dinner, but they made it down to the Great Hall with plenty of time to spare and enjoyed their dinner sharing many knowing looks throughout the experience. They were both greatly looking forward to pulling this prank off. Their looks did not go unnoticed by Hermione, however, who was wondering just what was going on between the two. And wondering if maybe Ron didn’t have the right of it earlier, at least in his guess as to what activities Ginny was getting up to with “some bloke.”

The next day, Professor McGonagall put in an appearance during both of his HA classes. The BHA was learning stupefy, which caused the lesson to be a bit chaotic, with students collapsing left and right, sometimes onto the carefully laid out cushions and other times not. McGonagall did not interfere or help in any way. She simply observed unobtrusively as Harry went about his class. The class went by like normal, by Harry’s standards.

After lunch, he went straight back to the Room of Requirement, and he beat his Head of House there by ten minutes. And she beat the first of the IHA students by five. They spent those five private minutes chatting about Harry’s first class. McGonagall stressed how impressed she was at the way he handled his lesson, especially with such a large class. Harry thanked her modestly and insisted that he really didn’t do that much. The kids practically taught themselves, after all. But he was really very proud to have earned her praise. She didn’t give it out often, but when she did she always meant it.

She ducked into a corner before the first of the students arrived to stay out of the way. The class started without any of the students realizing she was even in the room. Harry ignored her presence and carried out his lessons as normal. They began working on the shielding charm where they had left off the previous class. He had the students separate into groups of three. They were to trade off between three different positions. One would do the casting of the shield spell on one partner while the other partner attempted to hex the one who was being shielded.

When Ron whispered something to Seamus and the two offered to team up with Blaise with mischievous smiles on their faces, Harry smelled trouble. So when he called for everyone to begin, he paid extra attention to that specific trio. Ron was starting off by casting the shield on Blaise, while Seamus would be attempting to hex the Slytherin. Ron nodded at Seamus, a smile on his face. Seamus mouthed a hex and waved his wand. A bright red light shot out from his wand towards Blaise, Harry thought it might be furnunculus based on the color, but he wasn’t entirely sure.

Ron half-heartedly waved his wand and spoke the incantation. Predictably, he did it all wrong, not even making it look like he was trying. What happened next took him by surprise, however. Instead of being hit by the boil inducing hex, Blaise cast his own shield and managed to deflect the curse into Ron. Harry was running over to their group as fast as he could.

Ron was cussing up a storm as boils began popping up on his face. Seamus looked about ready to cast another hex at Blaise, who was looking decidedly smug with the way things had turned out. Harry almost forgot to release his wand from his holster before he cast the first spell. He flicked his wrist and caught the wand as it popped out of his holster. Two paralyzing curses were headed towards the two Gryffindors in the blink of an eye.

“Hold it right there,” Harry called out, inadvertently calling the attention of the entire class. “Twenty points from Gryffindor for that display if idiocy. If I see one more stunt like that, I’ll throw you both out of this class before you can blink. Is that understood?” He realized belatedly that they were both still frozen, so he released them from the spell.

“What are you punishing us for?” Ron protested hotly. “He’s the one who hexed me.”

“I was watching you the entire time, Ron. It was a terribly planned and executed stunt, one that Blaise saw right through. You didn’t even try to make it look like you were actually casting contego. He just gave you what you deserved for trying to get in a free hex on him. Now, if I ever catch you trying to pull a stunt like that in my class ever again, I will not hesitate to throw you out. Is that understood?” Harry demanded authoritatively.

“Yes,” Ron mumbled so quietly that Harry had to strain to hear it.

“Seamus?” Harry asked, directing his gaze to the Scot.

“Got it,” he replied contritely.

“Good. Now apologize to Blaise and get back to work,” he told them. Then looking around and noticing that everybody was staring, he called out, “This isn’t some performance. All of you back to work now.”

The rest of the class passed by smoothly enough. At least there were no more incidents like the one he had just resolved. He had them working on their shielding for most of the class, but also made sure to include plenty of time for the dodging drills, still including the stipulation that they must pair off with a member of a different house than their own.

After the class ended, Ron stormed off angrily, the first one out the door. Hermione, Ginny, Neville, and Luna all remained behind again as the rest of the students all left at their own paces. Harry noticed that Professor McGonagall was still in the corner of the room she had retreated to earlier. When only the five students remained, she finally rose and walked out towards them. His four friends all had their back to the Professor, so Harry spoke up. “Why don’t you guys all head out? I think Professor McGonagall would like to talk to me about the lesson.”

Four heads whipped around at that pronouncement to find the Professor in question ten feet behind them, a rare smile twitching on her lips. “Indeed, I did wonder if I might have a word, Mr. Potter.”

His friends all nodded their acceptance and bid Harry goodbye. He watched them all go and turned back towards his Professor as the door closed behind them.

“That must have been very difficult for you, standing up to Mr. Weasley like that,” she offered. She drew her wand and conjured two stiff-backed wooden chairs. “Please, have a seat.”

Harry shrugged and complied, taking the seat opposite her and studying his professor carefully.

“I must say, I think you handled the situation quite well. I’m not sure the paralyzing hexes were necessary, but they were nonetheless effective at quickly diffusing the situation before it could escalate any further,” she told him honestly.

“Thank you,” he replied. “It’s frustrating that they won’t even try. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone is that bad, but there are only a few students who actually seem to accept Blaise and Daphne. Most just ignore them entirely, but then there are the more vocal few who adamantly oppose their presence. Ron is one of the most vocal.” He ran a hand through his hair, brushing it back out of his face.

“Mr. Weasley lives in a black and white world, Harry,” she explained to him. “He lives in a world where all Slytherins are evil. This world is of his own making, of course, but for him it is very real. You have to remember that he grew up in this world and all of its prejudices. He may not have anything against muggles or muggle-borns like many pure bloods, but that is because his parents taught him that muggles were just as good as wizards and witches, just different. They never stressed that not all Slytherins are bad. In fact, they have probably unknowingly encouraged that perception at times. But I have to say that I’m surprised at how quick you were to accept Slytherins into your classes. I had expected you to put up a bit of a fight about it.”

Harry shrugged. “I’ve never had a problem with Slytherins in general, just certain ones. If I hadn’t met Draco Malfoy before the sorting ceremony, I’d probably be in Slytherin myself, so it would be a bit hypocritical of me to judge them all.”

“What do you mean?” McGonagall asked, leaning forward in curiosity.

“Huh?” he asked. “Oh, right. The sorting hat wanted to put me in Slytherin. I had to talk it out of it. After two meetings with Malfoy, he managed to put both Hagrid and Ron down, who happened to be the first two people to really be nice to me, so you can imagine that I wasn’t all that impressed with his attitude. He wanted to see me and talk to me because I was famous. I could tell that right away. So when it got to the sorting, I wanted to be as far away from Malfoy as possible. Plus I had already been fed the stories from both Ron and Hagrid that Slytherin house was known for turning out dark wizards. But it was Malfoy that made me fight the hat so adamantly.”

She smiled at that pronouncement and didn’t even try to fight it. “I’ll just have to remember to thank him for that next time I see him.” Harry chuckled. After a moment she was stifling a giggle. Harry gazed at her sharply. He had never once seen her laugh before. It was somewhat unsettling but not unpleasant. It would take a little getting used to, seeing this human side to her. “Sorry,” she said after regaining control. “I was just imagining Severus’s reaction if he found out how close you were to ending up in his house.”

Harry cracked a wide grin and chuckled at the thought. The greasy git probably wouldn’t have known what to do. He would want to hate Harry and constantly belittle and take points from him, but he would also want to favor him because he was a member of his house, and Snape always favored Slytherins. Finally he said, “He wouldn’t have known whether to hate me or to coddle me like he does the rest of his house.” He clapped a hand over his mouth. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Nonsense,” she said with a smile. “I must have yelled at him over a hundred times for doing just that, but he refuses to even acknowledge the fact that the does it. And Albus refuses to get involved in the matter, so we all just have to live with it.”

“Mmhmm,” Harry mumbled noncommittally.

“But back to the matter at hand,” she said in her normal, serious tone. “I must say that I am impressed with how you handled both of your classes today. There were some members of staff who were hesitant to offer you the Assistant Professorship, and I am glad to see that their fears were entirely ungrounded, not that I expected any less from you.”

“Thank you,” he replied sheepishly, cheeks coloring slightly.

“There’s no need to get embarrassed,” she gently rebuked him. “You should be proud. Not only do you teach the material effectively, but you’ve managed to earn the respect of all of your peers. They listen to you and follow your directions without question or complaint. That’s a remarkable feat for anyone, but especially for someone your age. People don’t give out respect lightly. It’s something that has to be earned. And your students appear to think that you’ve earned it.”

Harry met her gaze this time as he said, “Thank you.”

“That’s better,” she replied with a smile.

“This is nice,” he told her. At her raised eyebrow he continued, “Being able to just talk normally. I never thought I’d have a conversation like this with you or see you laugh. It’s nice to see a more human side of you as opposed to the stern façade you always wear in class and around students.”

She laughed lightly again and answered, “Yes, well, as I said people do not give out respect lightly. After several years of teaching, I learned that the best way to ensure that your students didn’t act up on you was to make sure they knew that you would not tolerate any foolish behavior.”

“Well it works wonderfully,” Harry told her honestly. “After that first class where Ron and I showed up late, I knew that you were one teacher I did not want to get on the bad side of.”

“May I ask you a question, Harry?” McGonagall asked him, tone turning serious once again.

“Of course,” he replied evenly.

“What would you have done if Mr. Zabini had not managed to deflect Mr. Finnigan’s curse?”

Harry replied without hesitation. “Detention with Filch for the both of them.”

“Really?” she asked, surprised. Harry only nodded in reply. “And do you seriously intend to remove the two from your class should they act up again.”

“If they ever try something like that again, I won’t hesitate to throw them out,” he replied forcefully. “I’ve warned Ron enough times by now. He’s never tried anything like that before, but he’s let his mouth run too many times already. It puts me in a tough position because I don’t want to make an example of him just because he’s one of my best friends, but I also don’t want to cut him a break for that reason either. But what he tried to do today was inexcusable. He’s lucky I didn’t throw him out right then and there.”

“You were very quick to respond, I noticed,” she commented.

“When I saw the three of them partnering up, I figured something was up. Ron and Seamus were both grinning like mad as well, not exactly hiding the fact that they were up to something very well,” Harry explained. “I thought about stepping in before they could try anything, but I figured if it wasn’t today it would only be next time or the time after that. This was something we needed to get out of the way. And I didn’t want to alienate Blaise either.”

“That’s a very mature decision,” his professor extolled. “You’ve grown up a lot this past year.”

“You know, you’re not the first person to tell me that,” he replied wryly. “I guess when life keeps throwing obstacles at you, you’re left with little choice but to learn to tackle them.” Harry was reminded of when and why he had adopted that outlook on life. The prophecy had been weighing on his mind, and he had been fretting over the fact that he would have to face and defeat one of the most powerful wizards in the world. And he was only fifteen years old at the time, sixteen now, and was not receiving any type of additional training to help prepare him for the inevitable confrontation. So he had decided to take matters into his own hands. It seemed like a lifetime ago to Harry, but it had only been a few months since then. Harry had already come a long way, but he still had a long journey ahead of him.

“Well, I don’t want to keep you from your friends any longer. Keep up the good work,” she said, standing abruptly and vanishing her chair. Harry stood as well, and soon his seat was also gone. The two then walked towards the exit. As Harry reached for the doorknob, her voice stopped him. “Oh, and Harry?”


“Best of luck with Mr. Weasley,” she said earnestly. “I imagine he’ll be a bit put out for a while, but I’m sure he’ll come around eventually.”

“Thanks Pro– Minerva,” he told her, meeting her gaze. “I appreciate that.”

She gave him one last smile, then he turned and opened the door. The two parted ways, Harry headed toward Gryffindor Tower but doubled back to the Room of Requirement to get in some of his own training before dinner.

When he went down to dinner, he sat with Hermione, Neville, and Ginny. Ron, he noticed, was off sitting with Dean, Seamus, Parvati, and Lavender, looking as though nothing was bothering him. He was smiling and laughing with the rest of them as if he sat with them every day. But once Harry sat down, he put Ron out of his mind and concentrated on his food and the conversation around him.

His friends were all curious to know what he and McGonagall talked about. Harry kept his answers simple and vague. They talked about his classes. She observed both the BHA and IHA today. Yes, he knew she was there the whole time. No, that isn’t why he was so hard on Ron and Seamus; he would have done the same even if she was not there. She just told him that she was impressed with the way he handled his classes. They talked briefly, then left.

They were all curious as to why they didn’t see him until dinner if their meeting was that short, so Harry told them that he needed time to himself to gather his thoughts and to go over the progress they had made in their lessons that day. Hermione and Neville seemed to buy that, but Ginny looked skeptical. She cocked an eyebrow at him when the other two weren’t looking. He just shrugged in response.

The rest of the evening passed by quickly, spent mostly writing essays for the week ahead. Harry often smiled as he finished his essays, knowing that last year each would have taken him at least twice as long to write. He didn’t even need Hermione to look over them for him, nor did he need to look over her notes to verify any of the information. Oddly enough, Hermione actually seemed put out by that fact. She often offered to read through his essays or asked if he needed any help. He always thanked her for the offer, but politely declined, saying he was getting along fine.

At first, this behavior puzzled Harry. Hermione had been getting on his and Ron’s cases for the past five years to study more and to do their homework on their own. But now that he actually was, she seemed to want the old, lazy Harry back. He realized that while she may have sometimes felt like she was being taken advantage of in the past, it was probably comforting to know that they depended on her.

This was not the only behavior of Hermione’s that set him thinking. She had not dropped the issue of Sirius’s death. Every so often she would not so subtly open up a booklet entitled “The Dangers of Denial” or “Dealing With Loss” in front of him. This irked Harry to no end, but he chose to just pointedly ignore her any time she tried anything like that. Ginny seemed to notice what Hermione was trying to do and how it frustrated him, so she would often offer Harry an encouraging smile, for which he was always grateful.

Quidditch practices were going pretty well for Gryffindor. The members were starting to come together to play as a team rather than a bunch of individuals. Ginny and Katie had hit it off immediately and played like they had been teammates for years. It took a little longer for Stephanie to find that same rhythm, but she was starting to work her way into it. Jack and Andrew were getting better, but they were still a far cry from the Weasley twins in the beater position. Ron was on top of his game. Assuming his nerves didn’t overcome him come game time, the other teams would be hard pressed to get much of anything past him. And of course Harry was flying as well as he ever had, if not better.

Harry had always felt at home in the air. The first time he had taken to the air on a broom, it had been completely natural and instinctive. So it was unsurprising that one of his animagus forms was an owl. Flying through the air in owl form felt just as good. It was like coming home for him. It was where he belonged. And ever since then, he had felt even more at home in the air, whether in owl form or on a broom. And his flying abilities reflected that.

He was now much more attuned to air currents and thermals than he had ever been before making his transformation. Any time he needed to race across the pitch, he used this to his advantage by finding the path of least resistance. It also aided him in his maneuvering as well. He knew ahead of time what effect a sharp turn at any given moment would cause. There were spots where the action would be facilitated, while there were others that would hinder the change in movement. It took a little bit of learning to get his form down on his broom, since his instincts were geared more toward flying as an owl. But once he did, it was a sight to behold.

His teammates often complimented him on his flying after practice, none more so than Ginny. The first few times she had commented had left Harry slightly embarrassed and at a loss for words. After that, he always tried to pay a little attention to her own flying during practice so that he could have something to compliment her on in return. He was satisfied to see her cheeks fill with color the first couple times he did this, but eventually they were both comfortable with the other remarking on their abilities.

Practices became a little strained with Ron mad at Harry, but his anger faded after a few days. It returned that Friday, though not directed directly at Harry, when the prank Ginny and Harry had set up came into fruition. They had charmed his robes so that as soon as he sat down at Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, they would turn a shocking pink, with red hearts scattered throughout. In the middle of those hearts would be the initials H.G.

Ron didn’t notice the change at first; he was too focused on his breakfast. The snickering started small, with people trying to hide it behind their hands. But once the first person began laughing outright, the entire hall was soon filled with laughter. It didn’t take Ron too long to realize that everyone was looking at him. When he looked down and saw his robes, his eyes widened in horror, and a deep red color crept up his face and all the way to his ears. Needless to say, Ron flew out of their like a bat out of hell. Speaking of bats, Harry thought he might have seen Snape give off a ghost of a smirk, but it was gone before he could really tell. Knowing Snape, Harry probably just imagined it.

Ginny and Harry shared many looks over the table that morning, and every time their eyes met, they would both be overcome with laughter. After several times, Hermione caught on and questioned the two. “Was that your handiwork?” She at least had the decency to keep her voice down so as not to be overheard.

Their eyes met again, and Harry and Ginny again burst out in laughter, all but confirming Hermione’s suspicions. Eventually the two calmed down, and Harry managed to say, “Well after what he said in the common room last weekend, can you really blame us for wanting a little payback?”

Hermione looked back and forth between the two. “No, I guess I can’t. He did have it coming after that. I take it that means you told her what he said?” she asked Harry, cocking her head towards Ginny.

“Oh, he told me everything my dear brother said,” Ginny responded. “About his suspicions that I was snogging some guy in broom cupboards throughout the school and about his intentions to catch me in the act in some misguided attempt at protecting me. He also told me what the prat said to Harry about his family.” She added the last bit almost too quietly to hear.

Hermione’s eyes softened noticeably at the comment and looked towards Harry to make sure he was alright. “It was pretty funny,” she commented to lighten the mood. It succeeded in sending her two friends into another peal of laughter, and they finished their breakfasts chatting amicably.

Harry was thankful for the lightness of the morning and for the fact that Hermione didn’t ask about the H.G. in the hearts on Ron’s robes. He sorely needed something to smile and laugh about after the prior night. Thursday morning at breakfast he had received a short letter delivered by a school owl. On it was a short note written to him by the headmaster.

Dear Harry,

Please meet me in my office after dinner tonight. I shall give you a hint for the password. It is a muggle confection that is often referred to as everlasting. I look forward to seeing you there.

Albus Dumbledore

The note was not completely unexpected. He had actually been expecting a meeting with the Headmaster sooner than this. He had thought the man would take a more active interest in his life and in his classes, but he had not even spoken to the man since their meeting on September the first. They were now over a week into October.

He had to ask Hermione about the password, since he had very little knowledge of muggle sweets, not having had the privilege of being allowed them as a kid. His relatives, Dudley particularly, had always taken great pleasure in denying him such treats, while at the same time gorging themselves. When Halloween came around, Dudley always made a spectacle of himself, showing off all the candy he had received and stuffing his face with it in front of Harry.

Harry had spent the entire day in nervous anticipation. When dinner finally arrived, he ate hurriedly, but didn’t leave early because the Headmaster was still present. Once he had left, Harry waited a couple minutes before announcing his own departure. He walked quickly through the hallways and gave the password to the stone gargoyle as he approached. As predicted, the gargoyle sprung aside, revealing the familiar spiral staircase. Harry stepped on, and it spiraled upwards until he was standing in front of the door. As he lifted his hand to knock he heard the Headmaster call, “Come in, Harry.”

Harry pushed the door open and strode into the office. It looked more or less the same as it had every other time he had seen it. The former headmasters and headmistresses were all pretending to sleep in their portraits. The room was filled with various silver instruments that all seemed to be doing something, though what Harry could not say.

Fawkes was atop his elegant perch watching his progress into the room. “Good evening Headmaster, Fawkes,” Harry called as he strode into the room. He stopped to stroke the brightly plumed bird before proceeding to the chair which the Headmaster gestured him to.

“Good evening Harry,” he greeted. “I take it you had no difficulties determining the password?” His eyes twinkled in delight at the thought of the muggle sweet.

“Actually I have Hermione to thank for that,” Harry corrected. “I was never really allowed sweets growing up with the Dursley’s, so I’m only familiar with a few muggle candies.”

Dumbledore’s eyes dimmed slightly as he replied, “That’s too bad. I’ve always said that one should be allowed to rot one’s teeth to one’s own delight before your permanent ones sink in. To miss out on the opportunity is a travesty.”

“Yes, well there are a lot worse things to miss out on than candy,” Harry mumbled under his breath.

“Did you say something, Harry?” the old man questioned.

“No, sir,” Harry replied evenly. “I was wondering if you had any updates on what Voldemort is up to. I haven’t had a vision since over summer, and the papers haven’t had anything lately. I’m worried that he’s planning something big.”

“Alas, I fear you are correct,” the Headmaster replied with a sigh. “There has been very little movement to go off of, but I fear that the start of the war is quickly approaching.”

“What is the Order doing to prepare? Have you been able to recruit new members now that the Ministry has finally come around?” Harry asked eagerly.

“I’m sorry Harry, but I cannot discuss Order business with a non-member,” he replied gravely.

“How can you sit there and tell me that,” Harry demanded. “How am I supposed to prepare for the war if I don’t even know what’s happening?”

“You’re not,” the old wizard deadpanned.

That stopped Harry dead in his tracks. “What? But the prophecy….”

“The prophecy says that you must one day face Voldemort,” he interrupted gravely. “But you are sixteen years old, Harry, a student. You are nowhere near ready to confront him. For now it would be best if you enjoy your last two years here at Hogwarts before worrying about your role in the war.”

“How am I supposed to just sit back and do nothing when I know that I’m the only one who can stop him?” Harry challenged.

“I will not even consider including you in Order business until you have graduated, and even then I am reluctant to include one so young. Fred and George Weasley have been pleading their cases ever since they left the school last Spring, but they have yet to be inducted into the Order. You are all too young to be putting yourselves on the front lines.” His voice was tired but forceful.

“I’m not asking you to send me out on missions,” Harry amended. “But don’t you think I should at least know what’s going on. How am I supposed to make any decisions if I don’t have all the information I need?”

“Any decisions you have to make regarding Voldemort should not be made on your own, Harry,” Dumbledore intoned. “We are all here to help you.”

“And where were you all last June when I needed you,” Harry yelled. “If you had told me the truth back then, the whole mess at the Ministry would have been avoided and Sirius might still be alive. And now you’re repeating your same mistakes all over again.”

“Harry, I’m going to have to ask that you calm yourself,” Dumbledore replied evenly. “Had you not let your temper get the better of you last year, you would have remembered that Professor Snape was here to help you out. The school always has a member of the Order available should you need one, if only you would remember that. Now, I think it’s time we move onto the matter at hand.”

“Unbelievable,” Harry muttered.

“Professor Snape informs me that you have made some advancements in your Occlumency skills. I would like to test your abilities myself, if that is agreeable to you.”

“How can you expect me to be able to trust Snape?” Harry demanded, ignoring Dumbledore’s previous statement.

“Professor Snape, Harry,” he corrected. “And while he might not always show it, Professor Snape has your best interests at heart. Now, shall we begin?”

An idea formed in Harry’s mind as he nodded to the Headmaster. It wasn’t something he had really practiced before, but if he could get it to work, it would be worth it.

“Very well,” the Headmaster replied. “On my mark. Ready? Legilimens.”

And Harry felt the Headmaster probing at his outer barriers. Inside his own mind, he began digging through the trunk housing his memories of Snape. He found all of the Occlumency lessons he had last year as well as the rest of the memories he had of Snape. He took the Occlumency ones first, but ended up grabbing the rest as well.

He felt for the Headmaster’s presence and pinpointed exactly where he was outside his barrier. Making up his mind, Harry tore a hole in the barrier directly in front of the old codger and started forcing his memories of Snape through it, beginning with the Occlumency lessons he provided the year before. Once all the memories were through the barrier, he quickly fixed the hole and reinforced the whole barrier.

What seemed like hours later, but was actually only a couple minutes, Harry felt the Headmaster’s presence completely vacate his mind. He focused on the man in front of him, who he noticed was slumped in his chair, rubbing at his head. “My best interests?” Harry asked, as he rose from his seat and walked to the door. “Good night, Professor.” And that was how he had left the office that night. As he glanced back, the Headmaster had not moved from his position.

That night, Harry had to gather up all of the memories that he had released and store them back in the trunk, which was not a pleasant experience, as it forced him to relive many of them. As he laid in bed, he wondered if maybe he had been too hard on the Headmaster, subjecting him to all of those memories at once. But in the end, he decided that it was necessary. The old man refused to see Snape for what he really was. If that was what it took to give him some perspective, then it was a price he would have to pay.

Harry barely glanced at the Head Table all morning, but when he did, he noticed that the Headmaster’s usual joyful demeanor was subdued. The twinkle in his eyes was dimmed, though he did seem to enjoy the show somewhat, much to Professor McGonagall’s contempt.

Harry’s spirits were lifted considerably after breakfast. That morning he had spent the majority of his workout time with a punching bag, taking out his frustrations. He had planned on resuming the activity after breakfast, but now he was feeling well enough to continue with his usual training.

That afternoon, Professor Caldwell asked him to stay after DADA again. This time, the professor requested Harry’s help with some essays he was grading for his second year classes. He had graded a few of the essays complete with comments to give Harry something to go by. Harry told him he would be more than happy to help and asked when he needed them done by. He needed them by Tuesday morning at the latest, which was plenty of time by Harry’s standards, so he told the man it wouldn’t be a problem.

That night, Harry told his godfather about the prank he and Ginny had pulled on Ron. Sirius got a kick out of the story, though he called Harry an amateur. “You’re going to have to do much better than that if you want to earn yourself a place among the marauders,” he had told Harry. He laughed along with his godfather, although the comment did get him thinking about something. He resolved to talk to Ginny about it when the time came.

The two had another animagus training session the next day. Harry tried changing tactics this time. Instead of having her just try to change one of her body parts into its feline counterpart, he had her perform simple spells with her wand. He told her to concentrate extra hard when she did it, to try to feel the magic within her at work. He performed some spells of his own and tried to describe the feeling that he wanted her to detect. After several attempts, she started to see what he was talking about.

She wanted to jump right back to trying to change her hand into a paw, but Harry stopped her. “Stick with one thing at a time, Gin,” he told her. “Right now you know how the magic feels for a levitation charm, so try to duplicate that without your wand.” And so their training took a bit of a detour. They were no longer really practicing the animagus transformation. He was teaching her wandless magic.

She struggled with that as well. She was unable to levitate anything that day, but she was close. She was attempting to lift a quill off of Harry’s desk in his office. The quill never fully left the desk, but it did move around a bit and the end of it lifted off the desk before falling back down. It wasn’t the results they were hoping for, but it was progress. And for the first time since they started the training, they both felt that they had finally accomplished something. They were one step closer to the end result.

Harry finished grading the DADA essays by early Sunday morning, though he didn’t manage to get them to the professor until Monday morning. Ron was more or less back to his old self by Sunday. He still grumbled a bit when people brought up the incident, but he was able to laugh about it a bit now as well. He had no idea who the culprit was. He was half convinced that the twins had found some way to get him despite the fact that they were no longer in Hogwarts. Harry and Ginny were both fine letting him believe whatever he wanted.

The two met again on Tuesday before lunch and picked up where they left off. This time Ginny was able to lift the quill completely off the desk by about an inch or two. She managed to hold it there for several second before it dropped back down. It still wasn’t that much, but both were absolutely thrilled at the progress.

That Thursday, Harry received another note from the Headmaster, nearly identical to the one from the week before. He learned from Hermione that Skittles encourage you to taste the rainbow. When Harry entered the office that evening, the tension was thick, and the greetings were strained.

The Headmaster began, “I must apologize, Harry. I often forget what it is like to be young. I should not have presumed to tell you that you could trust Professor Snape when you have no basis upon which to place that trust. I have my own reasons for trusting him, but I should not expect that to be enough for you. I’m afraid I did not realize just how strained your relationship was with him.”

“I have been telling you that for years, Professor,” Harry stated as calmly as he could. “You just didn’t want to believe it.”

“I’m afraid you are correct yet again,” he sighed tiredly. “I like to give others the benefit of the doubt, and I am reluctant to think ill of anyone whom I respect, despite the evidence available. I wanted to believe that you were exaggerating Professor Snape’s crimes against you, as he so often does with you. I am sorry for not taking you seriously.”

Harry was a bit taken aback at this candid apology but quickly recovered to respond. “I forgive you. And I’m sorry for what I did last week, but it was the only way I could think of to make you see….”

“No apology is necessary, Harry,” Dumbledore interrupted. “It was not a pleasant experience but one that I needed to see. I must say that I am surprised that you wanted to resume your lessons with Professor Snape after last year.”

Harry smiled at his Headmaster’s indirect way of asking a question. “Yes, well I had planned on doing some private studying on the subject over the summer. I knew that Professor Snape would not hold back in testing my progress, and I wasn’t disappointed. He assaulted my mind with everything he had, often struggling to remain standing afterwards. And it took all of my concentration to keep my barriers up. Voldemort will be just as vicious should he ever try to break into my mind, and I intend to be prepared.”

Dumbledore chuckled appreciatively. “I must say I am impressed with your foresight. I’m sure you didn’t mind the fact that you were showing Professor Snape up at the time either.”

“An added benefit,” Harry agreed jovially.

“Indeed,” he replied, eyes twinkling full force once again. “Now that we have that business behind us, I was wondering if I might test your Occlumency once again…without any distractions this time.”

Harry grinned back at him, “Very well.”

And so the Headmaster once again tested Harry’s mental barriers. He was methodic in his efforts. Where Snape used brute force to batter against his shields, Dumbledore poked around looking for weaknesses. Harry concentrated on the man’s presence and worked on reinforcing the barrier in front of the Headmaster’s position.

When the Headmaster finally struck, it wasn’t anything at all like the battering ram Snape seemed to employ. The Headmaster stabbed his barrier like a knife quite suddenly, and before Harry knew what was happening, he was tearing a hole big enough to enter through. Harry quickly rallied to the cause and met his presence at the breach. He concentrated with all of his might at expelling Dumbledore from his mind. He left without much of a fight.

After a couple minutes where both regained their breath and thoughts, the Headmaster spoke. “Your mental shields are strong, but as you could see they are not impenetrable. You did react quickly, however. I did not fight to stay in your mind, but even if I had, I don’t think I would have been able to remain for very long before you managed to expel me. I am rather impressed at your progress. It normally takes one over a year of study to achieve this level.”

Harry smiled appreciatively. “Thank you sir.”

“I would like to continue working with you,” the Headmaster continued. “If the date and time are agreeable to you, we could continue meeting Thursday nights after supper until you are able to withstand my assault.”

“That would be great,” Harry replied honestly.

“Excellent,” he returned warmly. “Now you best be off to enjoy some time with your friends. I daresay that by tomorrow evening there may be some divisions among the students.”

“Oh?” Harry questioned curiously.

His eyes were positively sparkling. “Yes, I have an announcement to make. I imagine about half the school will be delighted, while the other half may not be quite as excited at the prospect.”

“I see,” Harry replied carefully. “I don’t suppose you’ll give me any hints as to what that announcement might be….” He left the statement lingering in the air.

Dumbledore chuckled heartily. “I think you’ll have to wait and find out with the rest of your peers. You may be an Assistant Professor now, but I think this is one thing that you should hear with everyone else.”

Harry nodded his head. “Alright, I guess I can live with that. Good evening Headmaster.”

“A goodnight to you, my boy,” was the genial reply as Harry opened the door and left the Headmaster’s office.

Harry was pleased that their relationship was no longer as strained as it had been when he left the office last week. He was still upset with the Headmaster for not keeping him informed on the progress of the war and the Order, but that was a battle for another time. If the twins had not yet managed to infiltrate the Order, then he had little hope of doing so any time soon. It was too bad, really. The twins might be immature, but they were really brilliant. Given a little direction, they could use that creative genius of theirs to really further the war efforts. And that thought gave Harry one of his more brilliant ideas.

Oddly enough, Harry received an owl from the twins the next morning. It was an update on their shop, which seemed to have done quite well during its first month in existence. Harry was not a business man, but he knew numbers as well as the next person. The twins left out most of the business terms and just sent him the raw numbers of their costs versus their profits, and they were very much in favor of the latter. He resolved to write them back later that night both to congratulate them on their success and to let them in on the idea he had thought up the night before.

Professor Caldwell praised him after DADA that afternoon for his help in grading the essays. He said that he read through several of the essays and looked at the comments Harry gave and the grades he assigned and claimed that he couldn’t have done a better job himself. Harry blushed predictably at the acclaim but otherwise took it in stride. The professor promised that he would be requesting his help again in the future, to which Harry could only grin ruefully.

He really didn’t mind the grading that much. It was relatively easy to do; it just took him time to get through all of those essays. And by the time he had finished, he was entirely sick of the subject matter. He just hoped that the professor didn’t ask for that kind of help too often.

When dinner rolled around, Harry found himself becoming anxious. The Headmaster promised an announcement that day, and if he planned on making due of that promise, it would be coming at dinner. He was sitting with Hermione, Ron, and Neville who all noticed that he was preoccupied, so he let them in on the secret. They spent the rest of the meal discussing what it could be. None of them guessed correctly.

Shortly after the main course disappeared and the deserts took their place, the Headmaster stood from his central seat at the Head Table and tapped his glass with his fork. “If I could have everybody’s attention please.” The noise in the Great Hall abruptly died down to nothing. “Ah, thank you. I have an announcement to make.” Harry could make out the sparkle in the man’s eyes quite clearly even with the distance between them. “Your professors and I have been discussing this for awhile and it has been decided that over the holidays we will be hosting a Yule Ball for all students fourth year and above.”

Excited chatter broke out amongst the four house tables in the hall, mostly from the female population, while a less vocal grumbling could be heard from the male students. After a minute, Dumbledore raised his arms and the noise level tapered off. “Thank you. I see that many of you are quite excited at the announcement, and rightfully so. We encourage all students to remain at the castle over the holidays to celebrate. The ball will be held on Christmas day. We will also be providing many activities for our younger students to participate in as well which will include sledding and ice skating among other things. Any suggestions for additional activities should be provided to your heads of house. As before, any student below fourth year will only be allowed to attend the actual ball if invited by a student in fourth year or above.”

A lot of the younger students’ eyes lit up at the thoughts of activities being set up for them while the others got to have their ball. Chatter once again ran throughout the student body. The Headmaster continued again after a minute. “I would advise all the gentlemen out there not to dally in asking for a date, or you may find that your lady of choice has already been asked. Now enjoy your desserts.” And with that he sat back down and enjoyed himself watching his students.

Meanwhile, Ron was grumbling next to Harry. “Can you believe this mate?”

“It makes sense if you think about it,” Harry commented after a moment. “The war is going to be starting soon, so it makes sense that Dumbledore would do something to try to convince people to stay in the safety of Hogwarts.”

“That’s very perceptive Harry,” Hermione said with a smile.

Ron, on the other hand, continued on grumpily. “No, can you believe that we have to go through this again. I mean, it was bad enough having to find a date to the ball last time. Why does he have to go and make us do it again?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Harry said, much to the surprise of his three friends within earshot.

“If I remember correctly,” Hermione commented after she took a moment to recover from her shock, “you had quite the time of finding yourself a date last time, Harry.”

Harry looked up and met Hermione’s gaze unflinchingly with a smile on his face. “Yeah, and I was absolutely clueless at the time. Not to mention the fact that I was hung up on Cho. I’m not going to make the same mistakes again. This time I’m going to ask someone I know that I’ll have fun with, and I’m not going to wait to do it.” By the time he finished that statement, he had already decided who he planned to ask.

“Really?” Hermione asked interestedly.

“Yep,” Harry replied easily.

“Prove it,” Ron grouched.

“What was that?” Harry asked his friend.

“I said prove it,” Ron said grumpily. “If it’s so easy to get a date for the ball, then prove it. Get yourself a date.” Ron looked rather impressed with himself for throwing a wrench into Harry’s gears, not that Ron actually knew what either of those was.

Harry, on the other hand, looked completely nonplussed. “Alright, if you insist.” He turned his head and spotted her a few seats down, speaking excitedly to her dorm mates. “Hey Ginny,” he called.

She turned away from her giggling friends to spot who it was that was calling to her. Her eyes met Harry’s, and she smiled. “Yes Harry?” All of her friends turned their attention towards him at that point, making him pause.

“Um…” he shook himself a little. There was really nothing to be embarrassed about. “Do you want to go to the ball with me?”

Her eyes widened considerably, as did the eyes of all her friends and Harry’s friends as well. Ginny’s cheeks stained pink as she realized what he had just asked, and she smiled brilliantly, which prompted another burst of giggles from her friends. After she took a moment to stare at her friends reprovingly, she turned back to Harry. “I’d love to, Harry.”

“Great,” he called to her. Ginny turned back to her friends who all broke out in giggles once again, and they started gossiping excitedly. Harry turned back to his friends who were all staring at him, mouths gaping and eyes still wide. “See,” Harry said, “it wasn’t that hard at all.” He then dug into his dessert, ignoring the fact that their gazes were still on him.

Finally, after a full minute of silence, Ron broke out of his trance. “Bloody hell, mate,” he cried out. “Did you just ask my little sister to the ball?”

Harry looked up from his pudding. “Yes, I believe I did. Is there a problem?”

“She’s my sister,” Ron barked out, as if that explained everything.

“So I’ve noticed,” Harry replied dryly turning his attention back to his pudding.

“Just what are your intentions?” Ron questioned hotly, forcing Harry to turn back toward him.

“Excuse me?” Harry asked icily.

“What are your intentions toward my sister?” Ron repeated heatedly.

“I hardly think that’s any of your business,” Hermione interrupted irritably.

“Of course it’s my business,” Ron replied distractedly, never turning away from Harry. “She’s my little sister.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Ron” Neville piped up from across Ron, “but she is quite capable of looking after herself. And besides, you can hardly call her little any more.”

This was not the most conducive thing to say in regards to Ron’s temper, but Harry didn’t really care at this point. Ron really was being ridiculously overprotective, and someone had to do something about it sooner or later. It wasn’t fair to Ginny. “Too right, Neville,” he added in for good measure.

Predictably, Ron saw red. “It’s you, isn’t it?” he all but shouted, causing several heads at their table to turn towards them.

“Ron, keep your voice down,” Hermione reprimanded.

“What are you on about?” Harry asked civilly.

“You’re the one she’s been sneaking around with, aren’t you?” Ron asked hotly but more quietly. “That’s why you wouldn’t lend me your map. You’re snogging my sister in broom cupboards.” His tone was definitely accusatory, as though that was a heinous crime.

Harry laughed. It was probably the wrong thing to do at that moment, but he couldn’t help it. The situation was just too funny. He managed to calm himself down after a moment. He looked Ron right in the eye unflinchingly and stated very slowly and clearly, “I have never once snogged your sister. We’re just friends.”

Ron studied him intently for a full minute before he calmed down noticeably. “You’re not just saying that, are you mate?” he finally asked, the hope evident in his voice.

“No, I’m not just saying that,” Harry replied truthfully. “But you really do need to get over your overprotectiveness. Ginny’s old enough to make her own decisions, and she’s perfectly capable of looking after herself. If she wants to snog some guy, there’s nothing you can do to stop her. I highly suggest that you think long and hard about that before you do something stupid that strains your relationship with her any further.”

Ron didn’t look like he was paying much attention at this point. “Yeah, mate. Sorry for blowing up at you like that.”

Harry just shook his head somewhat dejectedly, sorry that Ron was totally missing the point. “It’s alright, I guess.” He looked around and noticed that half of the hall had cleared out during their argument. “What say we head back up to the common room?” His three friends agreed, and they all stood to exit the hall.

As they were walking through the giant doors and into the Entrance Hall, a voice called out, “Harry!” They all turned and spotted the source of the voice: Cho Chang. She walked over to them. “Hey Harry, hey everyone,” she greeted cheerfully.

“Hi,” was the collective response from his three friends.

“Hi Cho,” was Harry’s own response. “What’s up?”

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she asked, and then added “Alone,” as an afterthought.

Harry glanced at his friends then back to Cho. “Sure, I guess.” He turned back to his friends again. “I’ll meet you guys back up in the common room in a minute, alright?”

His friends all agreed and called their goodbyes as they strode up the stairway on their way to the seventh floor. Harry turned his attention back to the seventh year in front of him. “What can I do for you?”

“Exciting news, with the ball, don’t you think?” she asked conversationally.

“Er, yeah, it should be fun, I guess,” he replied.

“You know, Michael and I recently broke up,” she told him suddenly.

Harry was unsure how to respond to a statement like that. She didn’t look all that upset about it, but he figured he should offer some condolences to be polite. “That’s too bad,” he responded uneasily. “But as I said, I’m sure you’ll find someone who’s more suited for you in no time.”

“That’s very sweet of you to say,” she replied, mimicking her earlier response to the same sentiment. She fluttered her eyelashes a bit as she said it.

Harry began feeling uncomfortable with the situation. “Listen, Cho, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got a letter to write that I need to get off to the owlery tonight, so I’ve got to run. But we’ll talk again soon, alright?”

Cho looked disgruntled but nodded anyway. “Okay,” she said dejectedly. Her voice then took on a more optimistic tone as she added, “I’ll see you in class on Sunday?”

“Of course,” Harry replied matter-of-factly. “Bye Cho.”

“Bye Harry.” And Harry beat a hasty retreat. When he made it back up to the common room, he found his three friends all sitting around the fire waiting for him. It was Hermione who spoke up first.

“So what did the lovely Miss Chang want?” she asked, grinning knowingly.

“Apparently she and Michael Corner have broken up,” Harry said as he slumped down in a chair near them.

“Oh?” Hermione continued. “And are you now finding yourself wishing that you didn’t already have a date?” she asked innocently.

“Are you kidding?” Harry asked incredulously. Hermione was grinning like the Cheshire cat until he spoke again. “I’m so glad I didn’t hesitate to ask Ginny. After she told me that, I told her that I had a letter to write and that I’d see her later. I’m hoping that by the time I see her again she’ll have heard that I’m going with Ginny so she won’t bother me again.”

All three friends were staring at him, once again openmouthed. “Can you believe the nerve of her?” Harry asked them. “She acted as though she expected me to fall at her feet and beg her to come with me to the ball as soon as I heard that she was free. As if I’d ever make that mistake again.”

Ron was grinning like mad now. Neville also had a small smile, while Hermione was looking more pensive. “You’re really completely over her, aren’t you?”

Harry snapped his attention to her. “Of course I am,” he stated like she was crazy for even thinking otherwise. “We have nothing in common. I fell for her before I knew her. She was just a cute girl who played Quidditch. In my mind I made her out to be something she wasn’t. No, I couldn’t be happier to be going to the ball with Ginny. I know we’ll have fun together.”

Hermione smiled winningly at him. “That’s good to hear. I always knew she was all wrong for you.”

“Well you could have shared that little tidbit with me a little sooner,” Harry grumbled good-naturedly. “Would have saved me a whole lot of trouble.”

“Aw, mate, what would be the fun of that?” Ron called out.

“Prat,” Harry retorted, chucking a pillow in his direction. Ron dodged and the pillow struck Neville.

“I hope you know, this means war,” Neville said as he chucked the pillow back at Harry. Harry managed to swat it away, where it hit Hermione. Not one to be throwing pillows around, Hermione pulled out her wand and sent the pillow to smack each of the boys in the heads until Neville called out, “We surrender. We surrender.”

Ginny and her friends entered the common room at that point. She left her friends and came over to join them in front of the fire, smiling broadly the entire time. “Hey guys.”

The five of them spent the evening talking, laughing, and playing games. It wasn’t until a couple hours later that Harry finally got around to writing his letter to the twins.

Dear Gred and Forge,

Congratulations on the shop. That’s great news to hear. I’m glad that you’re doing so well for yourselves and that my money helped you get where you are. I still say you’re nuts for giving me 10% of your profits, but who am I to complain? But anyway, listen, I heard that you two have run into some difficulties worming your way into the Order. I have a business proposition for you, which I will fund completely, that will not only put your creative geniuses to the test, but should also give you a strong case to present to Dumbledore as to why he should let you in.

This is what I have in mind…

Harry didn’t finish his letter until slightly after curfew. When Harry announced to his friends that he was off to the owlery to send it off, Hermione, ever the prefect, spoke up. “But Harry, it’s after curfew. You’re not allowed in the halls.”

Harry grinned knowingly at her. “Ah, but you are not quite correct there, Hermione.”

“What do you mean? It’s definitely after curfew…” she asked uncomprehendingly.

Harry’s smile grew wider. “Yes, it is after curfew. And students are definitely not allowed out in the halls after curfew.” Hermione nodded as if her point was proven. “I, however, am not an ordinary student; therefore, that rule does not apply to me. As an Assistant Professor, I am allowed out well after the usual curfew.”

Hermione considered that for a moment. “You really shouldn’t abuse your new privileges though….”

“I would hardly call this abusing them,” Harry interrupted lightly. “It’s been over a month, and I have yet to use that particular benefit. And it’s not like I’m just going for a nighttime stroll. I have a purpose for my trip.”

“Alright I guess,” she conceded. “Just don’t wander around. I know you’re technically allowed to be out, but I doubt that would stop Professor Snape or Filch from trying to give you detention or from taking points.”

“Fair enough,” he replied. “But I could always take my case to Dumbledore and get anything overturned, since they have no grounds to punish me.”

“Do you mind if I tag along,” Ginny piped up. “I need to owl Mum. I was just gonna wait and do it in the morning, but if you’re going there anyway….”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Hermione immediately spoke up.

“Nonsense,” Harry remarked. “Students are allowed out of the common room in the presence of a professor. Sure, you can come along, Gin.”

“I really don’t think you should push it,” Hermione insisted.

“Relax, Hermione,” Neville surprisingly spoke up. “Harry’s a big shot professor now. The normal rules don’t apply to him.”

“Right, now that that’s settled, I think we’ll be off,” Harry announced. “Ready, Gin?”

“Just a minute,” she replied, rifling through her bag. After a moment she pulled out an envelope and looked up. “Alright, I’m ready.”

“Well then,” he said as he held out a hand to help her up. He then gestured her forward. “After you.”

The two exited the portrait hole, only to be called after by the fat lady. “Where do you two think you’re going? It’s after curfew.”

Harry turned around. “We are headed to the owlery, and the curfew does not apply to me. In case you didn’t notice, you are speaking to an Assistant Professor.”

“So sorry, Professor Potter,” she replied unapologetically. “Don’t be stopping in any broom cupboards on the way.”

The two teens sniggered. It was Ginny who finally replied, “We’ll try not to, but we make no guarantees.” This renewed their laughter, and the two set off again.

After walking in comfortable silence for a couple minutes, Ginny spoke up. “Thanks for sticking up for me to Ron at dinner.”

“You heard?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at her smaller frame.

She turned her head toward him to meet his gaze. “It was kinda hard not to. I was ready to hex him to pieces, but you handled the situation well enough. It’s probably better that I didn’t hex him anyway…would’ve caused a scene,” she continued ponderingly.

“And landed you in detention,” Harry added.

“Right,” she said. “We don’t want that.”

“Of course not,” he agreed. “I was tempted to play with him a little when he accused me of snogging you in broom cupboards, but I figured it was best not to do that in such a public place. Ron’s voice was already starting to rise, and you never know what he might yell out when he gets worked up like that. I figured it was best to diffuse the situation before it got out of hand.”

“Good point,” she approved. They were both quiet for a moment before she blurted out, “Why did you ask me?”

He turned toward her again, “Huh?”

“Why did you ask me to the ball?” she repeated.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked in return. She raised an eyebrow at him in return, but remained silent, her gaze piercing. “I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather spend an entire evening with, to be honest. I knew that we’d have fun and enjoy ourselves no matter what.”

“Oh,” she replied distractedly as she thought over his words. “So it wasn’t just to prove your point to Ron?”

“Huh?” he asked, not understanding what she meant by that.

“Well Ron is the one who put you on the spot, forcing you to ask someone right away. I just wanted to make sure that you didn’t just ask me because I was convenient or just happened to be within earshot,” she replied carefully.

“Ginny,” he said, stopping in his tracks. He grabbed her hand and swung her around to face him. “I would think you knew me better than that. I was planning on asking you already. I was just going to wait until later tonight when we were in a less public setting.”

“Well good, as long as you didn’t just ask me because it was convenient,” she returned.

“Of course not. I’m actually kinda looking forward to the ball. I didn’t get to enjoy the last one at all because I spent the whole time wishing I was with someone else. This year I’m going with who I want to be with,” he told her earnestly. “And it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the prettiest witches in the castle.”

He wasn’t disappointed to see her cheeks stain red at his last remark. She slapped him on the arm then tugged on his hand. “Come on. If we take too long, we’ll incur Hermione’s wrath.”

“And don’t forget the fat lady’s inquisition about which broom cupboard we stopped in,” Harry added good-naturedly.

“And Ron’s,” she agreed, less cheerfully.

They reached the owlery shortly thereafter. Ginny called Pigwidgeon down from his perch and began tying the letter to his leg. Harry looked around for Hedwig but didn’t see her anywhere. And she wasn’t an owl you could miss, being the only white one in the school. He reached out with his consciousness to attempt to call her through mindspeak. “Hedwig, are you there? I have a letter I need you to deliver.”

She replied back immediately, “I’ll be right there human Harry.”

“Thanks girl,” Harry sent out as he turned his attention back to Ginny while he waited. She had finished attaching her message and now held Pig in her hands as she looked over at him.

“Aren’t you going to send out your letter?” she inquired.

“Of course, I’m just waiting for Hedwig,” he answered as if it were obvious.

“Um, Harry? You realize that you could be waiting all night, don’t you? Owls are nocturnal. She’s probably out hunting right now,” Ginny said as if he was slow.

Harry just smiled at her knowingly. “Not to worry, Gin. She’ll be back any minute now.”

As if on cue, a snowy white owl burst through one of the windows in the rafters. She soared gracefully down to the two of them and alighted on Harry’s outstretched arm. “There you are girl. Thanks for coming back. I need you to deliver this to the twins for me,” he told her as he tied the letter to her leg. He stroked her feathers appreciatively for a minute before she gently nipped at his ear and took off. Ginny had already released Pig and was staring at him openly.

“How did you know that she was on her way back?” she asked outright.

Harry shrugged, “I just know my owl is all. I knew she’d sense that I needed her. She’s incredibly intelligent, you know.”

“You seem really close to her,” Ginny returned unsurely.

“She was one of the first friends I ever had,” Harry replied candidly. “And she’s the only one who’s there for me all year round. We’ve been through a lot together, she and I.”

“What do you mean she’s the only one there for you year round?” she asked abruptly. “You know we’re always there for you, Harry. Ron, Hermione, and I. And Neville and Luna too. Not to mention the rest of my family.”

“Oh I know,” Harry hastily assured her. “I just meant that she’s the only one who’s actually there with me over the summer at the Dursley’s.” He shivered unconsciously as he remembered the first summer they had spent there together, when his Uncle Vernon had barred his window and locked Harry in his room. Hedwig had been locked in her cage, and the two had shared the meager helpings of soup and bread that his relatives provided him through a cat flap in his door.

“Is it really that bad there?” Ginny asked hesitantly, sensing Harry’s change in mood.

Harry looked at her incredulously. “Don’t you remember the summer before your first year when the twins and Ron stole me away halfway through the summer?”

“Of course I do,” she said, not sure where he was going.

“And don’t you remember what they said about my window being barred and the locks on my door?” he asked her straightforwardly.

She gasped and shot a hand to her mouth which had dropped open in disbelief. “I figured they were exaggerating to Mum so that she’d go easy on them. I never realized it was really that bad,” she told him earnestly as she reached out to give his arm a gentle squeeze. Harry just shrugged in response. “Have you told anybody? I’m sure Professor Dumbledore wouldn’t make you go back there if he knew….”

“He does know,” Harry interrupted tensely, shrugging out of her grasp and walking over to a nearby window. He gazed out into the darkness for a long moment before turning back to her. “He’s always known and has never done a thing about it. Did you know that my first Hogwarts letter was addressed to The Cupboard Under the Stairs, Number 4 Privet Drive?”

“Cu—Cupboard under the stairs?” she asked tentatively, afraid of what she was about to hear.

Harry nodded grimly and took a couple steps back toward her. “Yeah, that was my bedroom for ten years, until the letters began arriving. They took the letter away from me and saw the way it was addressed and thought that if they moved me into a real room that the letters might stop coming. So they moved me into Dudley’s spare bedroom, where they kept all of his broken toys.”

“Do you mean to tell me that your cousin had two whole bedrooms to himself, while you were stuffed into a cupboard under the stairs?” Ginny all but shrieked, her tiny fists clenched painfully at her sides.

Harry nodded. “And that’s not even taking into account the guest bedroom, which is almost twice as big as that room.”

“Unbelievable,” Ginny muttered. “How can they make you keep going back there knowing all this?” She asked this more to herself than to Harry.

“We really shouldn’t be talking about this here,” Harry interrupted. “I don’t even know why I told you so much. I usually try not to talk about it too much. People just get this look where they feel sorry for you. I can’t stand that look. The last thing I need is pity.” He was rambling to himself by this point.

“Harry,” Ginny interrupted.

He snapped out of his reverie and turned toward her. “Sorry, got lost in myself there. Listen, promise me you won’t tell the others anything that I told you. Ron and Hermione know about the summer after my first year obviously, but I’ve never told anyone about the cupboard under the stairs before. And I’d really rather people not know.”

She nodded, “Of course Harry. Your secrets are safe with me. You know that.” He nodded gratefully to her. After a moment, she voiced a question niggling in her brain. “Why’d you tell me?”

“What?” he asked, turning back toward her.

“You said that you’ve never told anyone about the cupboard before. So why me?”

“Oh,” he replied, scratching his head for a moment. “I don’t know, really. I wasn’t really thinking about it. Normally I don’t like to talk about the Dursleys. It makes me uncomfortable, so I just try to avoid any questions as best I can. But when it came up with you…” he spread his hands out in front of him in a helpless gesture. “I didn’t really feel the need to hide anything, I guess. I think I just find you easy to talk to. Like you won’t judge me or jump to conclusions or anything. And I know you won’t overreact or try to force me to open up and tell you more than I want to. I could never talk to Ron or Hermione about them because Ron would just get mad and blow up and Hermione would get analytical and want to dissect my life to help me move past it or some other such tripe.”

Harry looked up to find her staring at him. “I’m rambling again, aren’t I?”

She shook herself out of her stupor. “Maybe a little bit.” She smiled then, significantly lightening the mood. “Shall we head back then?”

“I suppose we should,” he agreed. “We’re probably already in for a lecture and some questioning for taking so long.”

She giggled and replied, “You’re probably right.” The return trip passed by with some light-hearted chatter. Harry was glad for the change in conversation, and Ginny was silently beaming that Harry had chosen to confide in her.

The rest of the night passed by relatively quickly. When the pair returned to Gryffindor Tower, the fat lady just raised her eyebrow at them, but didn’t comment. There was minimal comment about the length of their trek from their friends, for which they were both grateful. Before long, they were all heading up to their respective dormitories and to the realm of dreams. Harry endured an almost constant stream of teasing from Sirius that night when he told the man about the ball and who his date was. Harry barely reacted to any of Sirius’s comments, much to the man’s chagrin, but that didn’t deter him from his quest.

Harry woke up the next morning in high spirits. After completing his morning jog, instead of heading directly into the castle to work out in the Room of Requirement, he stopped by Hagrid’s hut to see if the friendly half-giant was up for some tea. Harry enjoyed catching up with his friend. Hagrid had jokingly asked him if he had managed to snag a date for the dance yet and was surprised when Harry told him that he had. Hagrid commended him on his good taste when Harry revealed who his date was to be.

The two spent half an hour catching up on each other’s lives. Hagrid told him that Grawp had moved out of the forest. He was now living in a cave in some nearby mountains. Hagrid assured him that his half brother was catching onto English very quickly now and was capable of simple conversation. Harry talked a bit about his HA classes and some of the problems that had cropped up, especially with Ron. Hagrid assured him that Ron would come around eventually. Harry could only hope that he was right.

After a short time, Harry excused himself and jogged back up to the castle. He headed directly to the Room of Requirement to put in his morning workout. After he finished up, he headed into the shower to clean himself up. He hoped that he wasn’t too late to stop down in the Great Hall to eat a quick breakfast before they stopped serving. But if nothing else he knew he could always stop by the kitchens to pick something up. He was surprised when he came out of the shower room to find a red-haired witch sitting on a bench waiting for him.

“Hey Harry, I figured you’d be in here,” she called out to him upon noticing his appearance.

Harry was glad that he had dressed fully before exiting the shower room. He wasn’t used to having company. “Hey Gin. What brings you here?” he asked her curiously.

“When you didn’t show up to breakfast, I figured you were running a little late on your workout routine, so I brought you some toast,” she said, producing said toast wrapped up in a napkin.

“Thanks,” he said, shooting her a bright smile. “I was worried that I might have missed breakfast.” He walked toward her and gratefully accepted the stack of toast.

“Any time,” she replied easily. “So how come you didn’t make it to breakfast on time? You’re not usually late. Did you sleep in?”

Harry swallowed his bite before replying, “No, I didn’t sleep in at all. I stopped by Hagrid’s after my jog. I thought about skipping the rest of my workout to go to breakfast, but I figured I could always swing by the kitchens if I did end up missing out.”

“That was nice of you,” she told him as he continued to devour his breakfast. “Hagrid absolutely adores you…talks about you all the time.”

Harry turned startled green eyes toward Ginny. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed another bite. “Really?”

“Uh huh,” she replied. “I know it means the world to him when you visit him. Ron and Hermione too,” she added as an afterthought.

“Huh,” Harry remarked eloquently. “You know Hagrid is the first friend I ever had. He rescued me from the Dursleys the summer before my first year.”

“What do you mean rescued?” Ginny interrupted with a dangerous glint in her eye.

Harry sat down beside her, his toast already devoured. “When letters began arriving from Hogwarts, the Dursleys never let me read them. They always destroyed them, usually in the fire, as soon as they came. Every day the amount of letters that came would increase. It drove my uncle crazy, literally. He boarded up the mail slot on our front door and bolted all the windows shut to prevent any from being delivered, but they always found a way into the house.

“He finally lost it one day and drove us all halfway across the country to escape the torrent of letters, but they followed everywhere we went. We finally ended up in this shack on an island in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing cold and in the middle of a bad storm, and the shack did little to protect us from the elements. I stayed awake that night because I was too cold to sleep, and I counted down to midnight, because the next day was my birthday. Shortly after the clock struck twelve, Hagrid knocked the door in.”

“I bet your relatives loved that,” she piped in with a giggle.

He smiled at her, grateful for her lightheartedness. “Of course. Uncle Vernon didn’t know whether to be angry or frightened, so he fluctuated between threatening him and cowering in a corner of the room. Hagrid brought me a birthday cake, the first cake I’d ever gotten. And when Dudley tried to eat it, Hagrid gave him a pig’s tail.”

She laughed outright at that and urged him to continue, so he did. “He had to get it surgically removed in a muggle hospital. Hagrid left him with it. Any time Dudley sees a wizard now, he tries to cover his bottom with his hands to prevent it happening again. Only problem is that his bottom is much too big that he couldn’t possibly cover the whole thing. But anyway, Hagrid whisked me away and took me to Diagon Alley to go shopping for my school supplies. And he bought me my first birthday present, Hedwig. I guess that’s another reason why I’m so closed to her. She was the first gift I ever remember receiving.”

Ginny reached a hand out to his knee and squeezed it reassuringly. “Hagrid was great. The only thing he forgot to do was explain to me how to get onto Platform 9 ¾. But it was because of that mistake that I met your family, so I can’t really hold it against him.”

“I remember that,” Ginny volunteered. “You were so shy, asking my mum how to get through. I remember wondering to myself why you were there all alone and where your family was. I thought you were the cutest thing.” They both blushed faintly, but she continued without interruption. “Then my brothers told me who you were, and it was all over for me. I was already quite taken with you, but to hear that you were the Harry Potter, that shy little boy who had asked my mum for help. I felt so bad that you were all alone, and I wished that you would come back out so I could have been the one to wish you off. I thought that everyone deserved to be wished off by someone when they get on the train.”

“I remember you, running after the train on the platform, laughing and crying as the twins told you they’d send you a toilet seat.” They both chuckled at the memory. “Did you know they sent me a toilet seat at the end of the year when I was in the Hospital Wing, after the ordeal with the Sorcerer’s Stone?”

“You’re kidding?” she asked, erupting into peals of laughter.

“Nope,” he replied honestly. “Dumbledore told me so when I woke up. He said that Madame Pomfrey confiscated it because she thought it wasn’t very hygienic.” They both got a good laugh out of that. “When I saw you running after the train, I remember wishing that I had someone like that, someone who would miss me that I could write to.”

“How ironic, that we were both wishing for such similar things,” she stated.

“Yep, life can be funny that way,” Harry agreed.

“Why did you need to write the twins?” Ginny asked abruptly. He cocked an eyebrow at the sudden change of topic. “I meant to ask you last night,” she explained. “When you brought up the twins sending you a toilet seat, it popped back into my mind.”

“Ah,” he said, mulling over something. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you. This doesn’t go beyond us though, right?” She nodded to him, so he continued, “Officially, it was just a reply about their shop. They sent me an update on their first month of business yesterday morning. They actually seem to have done really well, so I wanted to offer my congratulations first and foremost.”

“But the real meat of the letter had nothing to do with the shop,” Ginny continued.

“I wouldn’t say it had nothing to do with it,” Harry replied mysteriously. “I shared a business proposition with them. It’s not in their usual line of work, but it’s actually not that far off either.”

“And what did that entail?” she prodded, leaning forward eagerly.

“Nosy little bugger, aren’t you?” he teased. She slapped his arm playfully in reply. He rubbed the spot gingerly playing up his injury. “Ouch. You don’t have to be so violent.” When she raised her arm again he held up his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright, I’ll get on with it, just don’t hit me again.” She laughed appreciatively, and he continued.

“The idea came to me after a conversation I had with Dumbledore. He mentioned that the twins had been trying to get into the Order ever since they left school last Spring, but that he hadn’t let them in yet. He said he’s reluctant to let them in when they’re still so young. When I was leaving his office, I thought to myself that even though the twins can be really immature, that they’re really incredibly intelligent. If pushed in the right direction they could be a huge help to the war effort.”

“So because Dumbledore and the Order are ignoring them, you’re going to give them that push,” Ginny stated more than asked.

“Exactly,” Harry smiled at her. “I suggested that they put their creative genius to work creating items that could be useful for the Order. If their invisibility hats could be modified to make the whole body disappear, for example, that could be a huge advantage. Also, if they were able to create something similar to a firework, only instead of just shooting out colored lights, if they could shoot out spells, you could take out a room full of Death Eaters without putting anyone at risk.”

“Those are some really good ideas,” Ginny said approvingly.

“Thank you,” Harry replied gratefully. “I figured that would be a decent start for them. And once they get into the idea, I’m sure they’ll come up with some pretty useful inventions on their own. They could use their joke shop as a front of sorts. They’d still sell their existing product line, but instead of inventing new pranks, they could devote their time to coming up with items for the Order. And once they presented a couple of these items to members of the Order….”

“They’d have no choice but to let them in,” Ginny finished for him.

“Exactly,” Harry said brightly.

“That’s brilliant, Harry.”

“Nah, that was the easy part. The twins are the ones who will be stuck with the dirty work of actually creating this stuff,” Harry explained.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Harry,” Ginny insisted. “You may not be the one doing the actual inventing, but without you, the idea may never have even come up.”

“What do you say we head over to my office and start your training early today?” Harry asked suddenly. “We’re already together and alone, so we won’t need to make any excuses to anybody. On second thought, we can just do it in here today, then meet everybody for lunch.”

“Sounds good, Harry,” she replied, shaking her head at his inability to take a compliment.

Normally Harry would have spent this time training himself, but he decided that it wouldn’t hurt to break up the monotony of his schedule a little bit. They wanted to keep these sessions secret, so if anyone wised up to the fact that the two of them were always missing at the same time on certain days out of the week, they might get suspicious. Then again, they were probably more likely to think them snogging in a broom cupboard than training to be animagi, but that was beside the point.

Harry just decided to postpone his own training until later in the day. They started with wingardium leviosa, as they had been working on for the past two sessions. Ginny continued to improve in her abilities. She was nowhere near the control that she possessed with a wand, but after an hour of work she was able to make the quill levitate pretty steadily for as long as she liked.

Harry told her that she would still need to work on improving her control, but that they should move on to another spell. She could practice that one on her own now. They decided it was probably best to move onto Transfiguration material, since their ultimate goal was based heavily in Transfiguration. Harry conjured a needle and instructed Ginny to transfigure it into a thimble.

She did it with her wand first, as Harry ordered, to feel the difference between the two types of magic. And Ginny was actually surprised to feel that there was a noticeable difference. She figured that her magic would feel the same and that it was just her intent that would have to change to alter the spell, despite Harry’s explanation to the contrary. But there was a difference: slight, but definitely there.

Ginny’s progress on this project was a little quicker than it had been for her first wandless spell. At first she had called forth the magic to levitate the pin while telling it to change into a thimble. The result was that the pin just vibrated in its place. Harry guessed what she had done, and she sheepishly admitted that he was right. Her next attempt was a little more successful. The pin began to morph and change shape, but it never made it fully to a thimble. Somewhere along the way she lost her focus and was left with a deformed mess.

“And that’s why we start small and not on our bodies,” Harry had commented dryly, earning him another slap on the arm. She had a tendency to hit him in the exact same spot every time she did that, and it was actually starting to hurt a little, though he wasn’t about to admit that to anyone.

By the time lunch arrived and the two departed to meet their friends in the Great Hall, Ginny had managed to make the transformation from pin to thimble and back to pin again a couple of times. She asked him if that meant they could go back to practicing the animagus transformation. Harry wasn’t sure if she was being entirely serious, but he stressed to her the importance that she get a better understanding of how wandless magic works and the subtle differences in casting different spells before she tried anything on herself. He made her promise that she wouldn’t try to make any changes to herself until he deemed her ready, to which she reluctantly relented.

The next day brought with it Harry’s duo of double HA lessons. The BHA was picking up the pace. They were well on track to not only start, but probably finish Patronuses by the time the winter break set in. Harry would then basically repeat the lessons that he gave to the IHA this term to the BHA next term. He was glad that he had written up and organized his lessons for the IHA this term because it now saved him the trouble of doing it again next term for the BHA.

The IHA that day was primarily practicing the cutting curse, lacerus. It worked similarly to the severing charm, diffindo, but it was much more powerful. Used on a human, diffindo would leave only a thin, shallow wound. Lacerus, on the other hand, would penetrate more deeply, causing real damage to the victim. It was the first spell Harry had taught that could easily be considered lethal.

Harry did not take the curse lightly, and he made sure that none of his students did either. He had them each working in their own circle, protected by a shielding spell set to absorb the cutting curse should anybody misfire. He did not want any accidents in this class. Warding that many separate areas against a curse that powerful took something out of Harry, but he considered it a necessary precaution.

Even with that safeguard, Harry stressed to his class how dangerous the curse was. He impressed upon them the severity of the situation. This curse was not to be used lightly. One should only use it in a life or death situation, and even then you should be careful with it. You could intend to cut someone to injure them, maybe aim for their wand arm in an effort to essentially remove the threat of attack, but you could accidentally miss your mark and end up killing your target. You might even miss your target entirely, or they might dodge it, and if any innocent bystander was nearby, they could easily be maimed or killed. The atmosphere was grave after Harry’s stern warnings, but they all practiced the curse diligently.

The mood remained heavy as the class shuffled out of the room at the end of the lesson. He hated to leave them all like that, but he knew that he had to make sure that they all took his warnings seriously. He noticed, much to his consternation, that Cho was not among the crowd of students on their way out. She remained behind, standing by herself, waiting for the room to clear out. Harry sent a look over to his group of five friends, the same group that had fought with him in the Department of Mysteries last June, which Hermione interpreted as she ushered the rest of them all out of the room to leave Harry to deal with Cho on his own. He had actually been silently pleading with his friends not to abandon him, but he knew deep down that it was better to get this out of the way as soon as possible.

As the door closed behind Hermione, Cho moved toward him. “That was an interesting lesson, Harry,” she said softly and warmly.

“Thanks,” he replied earnestly. “I just hope they all took my warnings seriously.”

“I think that’s a safe bet,” she returned coyly.

“You think?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she assured him. “Couldn’t you tell?”

“I was worried that maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see,” he told her honestly.

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to just how serious you were.”

“Thanks,” he replied, slightly relieved. “I was reluctant to even teach that curse, but I knew that I had to. It’s useful to know in case you ever do get attacked and are forced to fight for your life. Sometimes stunning just isn’t enough, especially when you have several attackers. They can just keep reviving each other, and you never gain any ground.” He had learned that the hard way, but the only reason he was still even talking about it was to stall the inevitable. He knew why she was there and where she wanted the conversation to go; he just wasn’t looking forward to it.

But that didn’t stop her from going forward. “You did the right thing, Harry,” she reassured him cheerfully. “So cheer up. Besides, there are much better things you should be focusing on, like the upcoming ball.”

Harry groaned inwardly but maintained his polite exterior. “Yeah, I guess it doesn’t really do to dwell on things you can’t control.”

“Exactly,” she agreed brightly. “So is there anyone special you’re looking to go with?” she asked suggestively.

“Yes,” he answered tiredly.

“And?” she questioned with a wide smile.

“I’m going with Ginny Weasley,” Harry said frankly, hoping she’d just drop it if he came out and said it.

“Yes, I heard about that,” she admitted. “You asked her to the ball to prove to her brother how easy it was to get a date. But I’m sure she’d understand, you know, if….” she trailed off slightly.

“If what, Cho?” Harry questioned warningly.

“Well, I was kind of hoping you and I could go together,” she explained slowly, completely ignoring his warning tone. “I’m sure that she’d understand if you told her that you don’t really want to go with her. I mean, you were just proving a point by asking her, and you didn’t know that Michael and I had broken up at the time.”

Harry wearily ran a hand down his face, bracing himself for what he was about to say and how she would react. “Look, Cho,” he said sternly, “I’m going to the ball with Ginny because I want to go with her, not to prove a point, and not as just some substitute for you.”

“But— but I thought you liked me,” Cho pouted accusingly, her eyes beginning to glisten.

“I did like you,” Harry admitted, “last year. I had a crush on you. But we tried getting together, and it didn’t work out. You’re a really nice girl, and I hope we can still be friends, but….”

“But we barely even went on a date,” Cho interrupted, tears still threatening.

“And look how our one attempt turned out,” Harry pointed out. “Look, we don’t even have that much in common. And the fact that you think I would even consider ditching Ginny to go to the ball with you shows just how little you know me. Even if I did want to go with you, I would never just abandon someone like that, especially such a good friend. But the point is that I’m happy to be going with Ginny.” Harry paused to take a breath and collect himself before continuing softly, “I’m not the right guy for you, Cho.”

“Fine,” she spat at him, angry tears streaking down her face, upsetting her mascara. “Have fun with your little friend at the stupid ball.” She turned away from him and stormed toward the door. She stopped halfway to her destination, turned back to him, and yelled, “She probably can’t even afford decent dress robes. I hope you enjoy showing up with the only girl wearing rags.” With that said, she whirled back around and stomped out of the room. A loud boom echoed through the cavernous room as she slammed the door behind herself.

“Well, that went well,” Harry muttered to himself as he mentally asked the room for some training dummies.


Ginny let herself be shepherded out of the room with the others. The four Gryffindors bade goodbye to Luna as they turned toward Gryffindor Tower. After they rounded the first corner, Ginny stopped in her tracks. The others noticed and turned to see what was the matter. “Ginny, what’s wrong?” Hermione voiced the question on all their minds.

“I just remembered something I needed to ask Luna,” she told them. “You guys go on, I’m gonna go try to catch her before she makes it to her common room.” She turned and began jogging back the way they came.

“Ginny.” Neville’s voice stopper her as she was about to turn the corner. She looked back at her friends. “Do you want some company?”

“That’s okay, Neville,” she replied hastily. “It’s kind of personal,” she added when his face fell slightly.

“Oh,” he replied heavily. “Okay. See you later.”

“See you,” she called back over her shoulder as she hurried away.

She jogged down the corridor, but instead of running off to find Luna, she stopped in front of the door to the Room of Requirement and cracked it open a fraction, letting the voices carry out to her. It was Cho that she heard first. “You did the right thing, Harry. So cheer up. Besides, there are much better things you should be focusing on, like the upcoming ball.” Ginny rolled her eyes; apparently subtlety was not one of her strengths. She missed Harry’s reply, but she heard Cho’s next question quite clearly, “So is there anyone special you’re looking to go with?”

She listened as Harry replied quite shortly that there was someone he wanted to go with, only to have Cho try to weasel it out of him. Ginny smiled when he told her that he was going to the ball with her, but she could not believe what Cho said next. How dare she suggest that he just drop her? Ginny had been worried that Harry didn’t really want to go with her. She heard Friday evening that Cho and Michael had broken up, and that she had cornered him after dinner. She was concerned that he regretted his decision to ask her now that Cho was available again.

That was why she had questioned him about it on Friday night during their trip to the owlery. But even after he assured her that he wanted to go with her, Ginny still had lingering doubts that maybe she was just a second choice. She didn’t want him to feel like he had to go with her if he didn’t want to. But all of her doubts were expelled as she heard Harry’s response to Cho’s suggestion. Harry made it quite clear that he was going to the ball with whom he wanted to. He had admitted that even if that were not the case, he never would have ditched Ginny, which she had already guessed, but he insisted that he really did want to go to the ball with Ginny.

Satisfied, she began walking away. She did manage to catch Cho’s outbursts as they echoed through the hallway. She couldn’t believe what the girl said about her robes, but knew that there was at least some truth to the statement. She didn’t have money to buy the best robes out there. She just hoped that with the money she saved up and whatever her mum was able to send her, that she’d be able to find something decent in Hogsmeade.

She had written home about the ball to her mum. That was the letter she sent out Friday night when she and Harry went out after curfew. She had managed to earn herself several galleons from the twins over the summer, and she still had most of that, but it was nowhere near enough to buy any of the dress robes in Gladrags. She might be able to buy something if it were on sale once her mum’s money was added onto what she already had, but she had a feeling that she’d be looking around for a second-hand robe store come Hogsmeade weekend. She realized, as she walked back to the common room, that the Hogsmeade weekend was next weekend. It had really crept up on them.

She walked into the common room and had to endure Hermione’s knowing looks, but luckily neither boy seemed to be aware of her deception. She supposed that she’d have to talk to Hermione later, whether she wanted to or not. But she really didn’t mind all that much. There wasn’t really much to hide, at least not anything that Hermione had any clue about. She and Harry were just friends. They were often both missing at the same time, which was bound to arouse suspicion, but as long as no one guessed the actual reason for it, she was fine with it. And she imagined that Harry was alright with that as well. They could just continue to tell everyone the truth, while completely avoiding the actual issue.

Hermione never got a chance to talk to Ginny alone before dinner arrived because she spent most of that time working on a potions essay. And Hermione was not one to interrupt anyone’s studies. To her that was a sacred time. Harry never came back to the common room, but that was hardly a surprise. She assumed that he was either reading or doing his own training. The only actual training she had ever seen him at was his morning workout, but she knew that there was more to it than that, though he never actually said as much.

He disappeared for large periods of time, and she noticed that he didn’t seem to be going to his office all of those times. She had a feeling that he went to the Room of Requirement, but she never actually brought herself to follow him to find out. That was his business as far as she was concerned. She would know if he decided to tell her and not before. But that didn’t stop her from speculating.

She worried that Hermione would catch onto the same clues that she was finding, but the older girl seemed pretty preoccupied with her studies lately. She was almost always in the library, and when she wasn’t, she was still buried in a book. Ginny struggled to understand how Hermione could study so much without going crazy. But then again, studying was fun for Hermione, so maybe it was different.

And she figured as long as no one else noticed where he was going, they would all assume he was just studying. From what she heard, he was easily acing all of his classes, even giving Hermione a run for her money. She had seen Hermione offering help to Harry several times, only to have him politely refuse. She was surprised the first time this happened, but she figured that Harry was probably always smart enough to do well in his classes. He just never applied himself in the past. That seemed to have changed this year.

It puzzled her, really. Sometimes she felt like he was just throwing himself into everything, constantly keeping busy, just so he wouldn’t have to stop and think about his life or anything that was going on in the world. But then other times, she got the feeling that he thought a lot about it. And there had even been a couple moments where he revealed things to her that he said he hadn’t told anybody else. So it’s not like he was completely avoiding things. And he seemed to be happy, for the most part. Granted there were times when everything caught up with him, she could see it in his eyes at times. She saw it earlier that day during the HA class. They all saw it.

But by the time he met them all for dinner, he was back to his lively self. She, like Hermione, assumed that there was plenty that he was keeping secret from them, that he was carrying a burden much heavier than any of them had ever had to carry, but he carried it well as far as she was concerned. If it ever got to be too much for him, she would be there for him. But until then, she was content to let him keep his secrets.

Hermione was not as understanding. She constantly brought up the issue, trying to push Harry to open up. Sometimes Ginny just wanted to smack her upside the head and tell her to shut her damn mouth. Okay, so maybe that would be a little harsh, but Hermione really didn’t have a clue when to stop. All she was succeeding in doing was further isolating her friend and making him feel entirely uncomfortable. The more Hermione pushed, the more Harry pulled away.

It pained her to see their relationship suffering like that, but there was not much she could do about it. Hermione refused to relent. And she knew Harry would not cave in, and she respected him for that. He wouldn’t let anyone pressure him into doing anything he was uncomfortable doing. Ginny had tried on a couple of occasions to convince Hermione to let it be for the sake of her friendship with Harry, but the older girl had insisted that it was for his own good. So Ginny could only sit back and watch and give Harry her silent encouragement, a reassuring smile here and there. And most of all she would just be there for him to talk to whenever he was ready.

Hermione snagged her after dinner before she could get settled and whisked her up the girls’ dormitory and into the 6th years’ room. After verifying that the room was empty, Hermione dragged Ginny by the arm over to her bed and sat down, patting the space next to her for Ginny to fill. The second Ginny’s bottom hit the bed, Hermione started in on the interrogation.

“What’s going on between you and Harry?”

“What, no hello? No, how’s it going Ginny?” she returned teasingly. Hermione just arched an eyebrow in response. “We’re going to the ball together as friends.”

“Well everyone knows that,” Hermione replied condescendingly. “I want to know what’s really going on between you two.”

“What makes you think there’s anything going on?” Ginny fired back.

“Oh come on,” Hermione tutted, “I’m not stupid, you know. Ron’s not the only one who’s noticed that you’ve been disappearing a lot lately. And Harry’s always conveniently missing at the same time as well. I hardly think that’s coincidence.”

“Harry and I are just friends,” Ginny calmly explained to her bushy haired friend.

“But you’re not denying that you’re spending time with him,” she pointed out.

“Friends do tend to spend time together every so often,” Ginny retorted.

“Yes, but why is it that no one else ever seems to know where you are whenever you and Harry disappear together?” Hermione inquired. She really was a nosy bugger.

“I don’t know. Maybe nobody pays attention,” Ginny speculated.

“Oh come on,” Hermione exclaimed. “Listen Ginny, I know you’ve had a crush on Harry for like forever.” Ginny moved to interrupt, but Hermione held up a hand and pushed on. “Oh, I know you gave up waiting on him a long time ago, but that’s very different from getting over him now, isn’t it? I just don’t think now is the time to be starting up a relationship with him. He’s going through a fragile time right now and is likely to be extremely vulnerable. He might cling to you just because you treat him like nothing’s wrong, but it’s not healthy for him. He needs to come to terms with what happened with Sirius and what’s going on in the world around him. I don’t think now is the right time to get involved.”

“You are unbelievable,” Ginny returned hotly. “How dare you accuse me of any such thing?”

“I’m not trying to accuse you of anything,” Hermione attempted to soothe her red-haired friend. “I know that you care for Harry and that you want to be there for him, but you can’t coddle him and let him keep pretending like nothing is wrong. You either need to get him to open up or back off a little. Offering him another means of escape is just not healthy for him right now.”

“And trying to force your will upon others is not very conducive to your friendships,” Ginny retorted.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means exactly what I said,” Ginny explained fiercely. “You can’t force Harry to open up to you or to tell you all of his secrets. You need to let him come to you on his own terms. He needs to be able to trust that you won’t push him for more than he’s willing to give.”

“Harry would never open up to anybody if we didn’t push him,” Hermione protested ardently. “He’s a very private person. But he needs help dealing with this. He can’t do it alone, so we need to get him to open up. And it’s kind of hard to do when I’m the only one who’s trying while everyone else just pretends like everything is just peachy.”

“Maybe the rest of us just respect Harry enough to give him his privacy,” Ginny replied a bit more civilly. “Merlin, Hermione. You just keep pushing him and pushing him, and he keeps retreating further and further away from you. When are you going to get it? You’re ruining your friendship with him. He actually dreads having to talk to you because he knows it’s only a matter of time before you try to force him to talk. You may be trying to get him to open up, but all you’re succeeding in doing is closing him off to you.”

“That’s just because people like you and Ron let him just pretend like nothing’s wrong. You may think you’re helping him out by giving him space, but that’s not what he needs right now. He needs his friends to help him through these tough times. He’ll never let us help him unless we make him,” Hermione was pleading with her to see things her way.

“And what makes you an expert on what Harry needs?” Ginny asked.

“I’ve been his best friend for the last five years. I know as much about Harry as anyone else and more than most,” Hermione explained, trying to remain patient but failing slightly. “You may have been practically obsessed with him these past five years, but you’ve only recently started talking to him. He avoids talking about anything that makes him uncomfortable like it’s the plague. He’s hardly ever said anything about his relatives or his life before Hogwarts. The only reason we know half as much about his life there as we do is because Ron, Fred, and George went to pick him up that one time they locked him in his room all summer and the time that your dad and the three of them picked him up the summer before our fourth year.

“Any time any of us bring up his relatives, he avoids giving concrete answers and changes the subject as quickly as possible. He refuses to tell any of us anything about them or about his life outside of Hogwarts. He always just says things are fine. I’m fine. The Dursleys are treating me fine. But we know they don’t, and I know he’s not. So please, just listen to what I’ve said. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I either need you to help me or to back off, but you can’t keep coddling him,” Hermione finished with watery eyes.

“I’m sorry, Hermione. I know that you love Harry and that you mean well, but you’re going about this all wrong. I can’t support what you’re doing, and I’m not backing off,” Ginny replied honestly, wishing she could tell her friend what Harry had recently revealed to her about his life with the Dursleys before Hogwarts. “Harry needs someone who will offer him unconditional support, and he’s not getting it from you. He’s definitely not going to get it from Ron. I intend to be there for him for as long as he’ll have me. This isn’t about fulfilling some stupid childhood fantasy where I end up with Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived. Harry’s my friend, and I intend to help him in any way he needs me whenever he needs me. But I’m not going to force him to open up to me before he’s ready to. And I’m begging you to reconsider what you’re doing, before you ruin the friendship that you two have.”

“When he finally breaks down,” Hermione said, her frustration mounting, “you’ll know who to blame.”

“If he breaks down or needs to talk, I’ll be there for him, should he want me there,” Ginny said in a forced calm.

“How can you just sit back and wait for him to fall apart?” Hermione questioned heatedly.

“First of all, you’re assuming that he will fall apart, and I’m not so sure I agree with you on that account. Second of all, I’ve had someone else’s will forced upon me before,” Ginny replied frigidly, her eyes flashing dangerously, “and I’m not about to subject anyone else to that. Now if you’ll excuse me,” she continued, standing, “I’m heading back downstairs.” She strode to the door, exited, and returned to the common room, leaving Hermione alone, still sitting on her bed.


As the next week started up, the student population was chattering excitedly on two topics: the Yule Ball and the upcoming Hogsmeade weekend. Despite their distracted students, the professors continued to plow through their lessons, assigning out copious amounts of homework, especially to those who were struggling with the concepts, which, in Harry’s classes, was pretty much everyone except him and Hermione. But even they had their fair share of essays to write at this point in the term.

In Transfiguration, they were focusing on conjuring complex objects right now. Harry and Hermione were both ahead of the class, already progressing to conjuring multiple objects at the same time. After that, there was only permanent conjuration to cover before they moved on to the next subject. Most conjured objects would disappear or dissubstantiate after a period of time. It took a great deal of concentration and magical power to conjure something that would last for an extended period of time. It was unknown if anything could truly be conjured permanently, but it was possible to conjure something that would last for years, though the skill was not common. The average witch or wizard could conjure a moderately simple object that would last up to a couple months before it vanished.

Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures classes had actually been relatively tame thus far, for which Harry was eternally grateful. They had spent a couple weeks studying phoenixes, with Fawkes being a regular guest to the class. Harry took great interest in these lessons and was pleased when Fawkes spent as much time on his shoulder as he did on Hagrid’s. Harry wished he could talk to Fawkes the way he could Hedwig, but he remembered what she had told him about the magical creatures. She had explained to him that all magical creatures can mindspeak, but not all creatures understood human languages. She went on to say that phoenix’s had a language all their own, unknown to any other creature.

Harry continued to excel in Potions class, much to Snape’s consternation. The man had backed off his snide comments during class slightly, seeming to lose interest at Harry’s lack of response. The Slytherins in class still occasionally tried to ruin his potions, but they had yet to succeed. His potions weren’t usually up to the standard of a potion’s master like Snape, but they were more than adequate for the class. Harry usually managed an Acceptable, which by Snape’s exacting standards combined with his bias against Gryffindors in general and Harry in particular, he took to be somewhere between and Exceeds Expectations and Outstanding. Harry was just glad that Snape had no part in the actual grading for NEWTs.

They rarely covered anything new in DADA. Most of the stuff he had already covered in his HA classes, and almost all of the rest he had learned on his own at some point. But Harry understood that not everyone had all the extra training that he and his friends received, so he couldn’t hold it against his professor. The class was just a cake walk for him.

That left just Charms class left. Right now they were going over animating charms. Each student was given a little toy doll, much like a muggle action figure, that they were to animate to walk across their desks. Most people in the class were struggling to get their dolls to move at all. Hermione’s doll was able to walk back and forth relatively smoothly. When no one else was looking, Harry’s doll would tiptoe across the edge of his desk or else run laps. He kept such theatrics private though, and kept the doll simply walking about whenever eyes turned upon him.

Harry seemed to have a sixth sense about that. He could always tell whenever someone was looking at him. It was an ability he had always had, but it seemed to have become more pronounced in the past year. It had other uses than allowing him to play around with dolls during classes. It had kicked in several times when Draco Malfoy had been lingering nearby, and he had a feeling that the blonde haired boy was keeping an extremely close eye on him, closer than was normal for him. He had a feeling that the blonde had been ordered to keep an eye on him, but there wasn’t much Harry could do about it except be careful about what he did or said in his presence.

Harry met with his Headmaster on Thursday once again to practice Occlumency. It went to similar results as the last time. The Headmaster poked around his barriers for an inordinate amount of time, then attacked rapidly and precisely, tearing a whole and entering his mind. He once again allowed himself to be pushed out without a fight. The two talked for a little while, and the Headmaster explained that Harry must reinforce his shields against pinpoint assaults, not just general battering. His shield was only as strong as its weakest point.

Before Harry left his office, Dumbledore informed Harry that there would be several aurors and Order members in Hogsmeade over the weekend. He warned Harry that if he noticed anything suspicious, he was to notify one of them immediately and not do anything dangerous. Harry only nodded his agreement before exiting.

The next day, Harry was recruited by Professor Caldwell yet again to help grade essays. This time they were third years’ essays that he needed by Wednesday morning. Harry told him it would not be a problem. That night, after dinner, Harry was walking back to Gryffindor Tower and spotted Ginny ahead of him, talking to one of her dorm mates whom he thought was named Melissa. He could just barely make out their conversation.

“…Gladrags tomorrow?” asked Melissa.

“I guess…have enough. I’ll just have to hope something’s on sale. I only have 10 galleons….” Ginny said back somewhat dejectedly.

“I’m sure we’ll find something,” her friend encouraged.

Harry hung back and thought about it, Cho’s departing words ringing in his ears. It wasn’t that he minded what Ginny wore to the ball. He could really care less whether she was wearing the latest fashion or if she was wearing something ten years out of date. He didn’t even know what was in fashion. But he didn’t want Ginny to have to worry about it. He knew she probably wouldn’t accept any “charity” from him, and he would never dare to offer to buy her robes, because he didn’t want her to think that it mattered to him. That would just be a disaster waiting to happen.

An idea slowly started to form in his head. He already planned to head to town early the next day to make certain arrangements. One quick stop along the way couldn’t hurt. And so Harry’s friends were all surprised the next morning, when he inhaled a quick breakfast and told them he’d meet them in town, before beating a hasty retreat.

Harry covered the sunny grounds quickly, barely taking the effort to notice the changing color of the leaves adorning the trees and lining the path. He had to squint as he walked swiftly towards the gates as the morning sun was still somewhat low in the sky. It was a brisk morning, the fall weather beginning to settle in. If not for warming charms, Harry would have dreaded his morning time runs. He didn’t have a pair of pants to work out in, though he suspected he could get away with a pair of jeans if push came to shove. He had almost slapped himself when he began fretting over that predicament, only to realize that a warming charm made the change in clothing unnecessary.

Harry’s hair fanned out behind him as a gust of wind picked up. It was still a bit chilly, but not uncomfortably so. He covered the distance to the town in very little time. His first stop was Gladrags Wizardwear. He noticed that the shop was advertising dress robes heavily in its windows. Apparently they had heard about the upcoming ball and were looking to do some business this weekend.

Harry entered the shop and looked around for the proprietor, but the store looked to be empty. He walked through the different racks of robes and came to a section of footwear, more specifically socks. Figuring it was never too early to begin Christmas shopping, Harry looked for the most outrageous socks he could find. He found some lewd orange and brown swirled socks and a pair of shockingly yellow socks with magenta polka dots. Before he walked away, he remembered something Dumbledore had once told him in his first year, and grabbed a couple pairs of thick woolen socks as well.

When he turned around, he noticed that the shop owner had appeared while he was distracted. Harry walked determinedly up to the older witch. She looked over at him and smiled, “You’re here early. Can I help you, dear?”

“Yes,” Harry replied politely, nodding his head as he stopped several feet in front of her. “I would like to purchase these socks, and I was hoping you might be able to do me a favor.”

“Well the first part shouldn’t be a problem,” she said easily. “But I’m afraid I’ll have to hear what you need before I agree to do you any favors, Mr…?”

“Potter,” Harry hastily inserted. “Harry Potter.”

Her eyes did the usual flick to his scar, as if she needed confirmation that he was indeed who he claimed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Potter,” she finally said, somewhat flustered.

“Please, just Harry,” Harry insisted.

“Very well then, Harry. What was that favor you were asking about?”

“Well, it’s like this,” he began. “I’m sure you know about the ball that’s coming up.” She nodded affirmative. “Well I have a date for the ball. Her family isn’t the wealthiest, and I overheard her talking with one of her friends, saying she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to afford decent robes. I could care less what robes she wears; she could show up in her school robes for all I care. But I don’t want her to have to worry about it, so I was trying to think of a way I could help her.

“I don’t think she’d let me buy her robes,” Harry explained. “And I think even suggesting it would land me in a spot of trouble. So I thought you might be able to help me out. Sometime today, Ginny Weasley is going to come into this shop looking at robes. She said that she only had about 10 galleons to spend, so when she finds something she likes, I was wondering if you could just tell her that it’s on sale and charge her around 9 galleons for it. I’ll pay the remaining cost, of course.”

The older woman seemed to be thinking over what he had told her. She held her hand to her chin and was looking above Harry’s right shoulder. Her gaze focused back onto him as she asked, “What does she look like?”

Harry smiled. “She has long red hair, lots of freckles, and is probably about this tall,” he informed her holding his hand somewhere around the level of his chin. “So does that mean you’ll help me?”

“I think I’ll require some insurance, just to make sure that you don’t forget to stop back in and pay the rest of the cost,” she said.

“Oh, of course,” Harry hastily replied. “That’s not a problem. How much do you want? How much is your most expensive robe here?”

She thought it over for a minute. “Well our most expensive dress robes for this type of occasion cost about 55 galleons, but….”

“No problem,” Harry interrupted. He took out his money bag, spoke “50 galleons,” and dumped the contents on the nearby counter. “That should more than cover the cost of whatever robes she picks out, with her 9 galleons added, and you can keep the rest for your trouble and your kindness in helping me out.”

“That’s really not necessary, Mr. Potter,” she blurted out, wide eyed.

“It’s Harry,” he corrected. “And it’s really not a problem. I have more money than I know what to do with, and I really do appreciate your help. She’s a very good friend of mine, and I’d just hate to see her worrying needlessly over something like this.”

“It’s my pleasure. Now you can consider those socks of yours on the house.” Harry was about to speak up when she held up a hand to silence him. “I won’t have any complaints. Together they wouldn’t set you back much more than a galleon, and even if your lady friend picked out the most expensive robes here, you’ve still given me enough that with her 9 galleons, I’d still make out better than I should be. Now I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Thanks,” he told her sincerely, with a smile firmly planted across his face, distinctly satisfied with how this visit was playing out.

“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” she sang cheerfully.

“Likewise,” Harry called over his shoulder, already reaching for the door. He exited the shop and headed further into town. His next stop was to be the Three Broomsticks. When he entered the familiar pub, he was almost surprised to find it nearly empty. It’s not that he had been expecting a large crowd or anything. In fact, he knew that there wouldn’t be many people there. But he was not used to seeing it without a crowd of students filling it.

He had looked into the pub briefly over the summer when he was first exploring in his owl form, but he had not actually entered the bar at the time, and he had only briefly glanced inside the one time. After the first time, he had mostly steered clear of the town, not wanting to risk being spotted. He didn’t know if it was possible to tell if an animal was actually an animagus, but he guessed that if it was possible, somebody like Dumbledore or Moody would probably be able to do it. With Hogwarts close by, running into Dumbledore could always be a risk in the town. And Harry didn’t know where Moody might be, considering that he worked for the Order. He could theoretically be anywhere.

Harry shook himself out of his thoughts and strode up to the bar. Madame Rosmerta, the barmaid and owner of the tavern, was currently serving one of the two men who were sitting at the bar. Harry hopped up onto one of the bar stools to wait, his eyes wandering the room idly. He hadn’t been waiting long when a melodious voice broke him out of his reverie. “What can I get you, sweetie?”

Harry turned to find Rosmerta leaning slightly over the bar directly in front of him. He caught an eyeful of…some of her assets and realized that she must’ve been drop dead gorgeous when she was younger. Heck, she was still gorgeous, he admitted to himself, even though she was well older than his parents. He didn’t allow his eyes to linger as he brought them up to her round face and locked with her honey colored eyes.

“I was wondering if you sold butterbeer in bulk,” Harry asked her.

“What did you have in mind?” she replied, pushing herself up and off the bar. She grabbed a dish rag and began wiping a glass lazily as she observed him.

“Well, we have a Quidditch match coming up,” Harry explained to her, eyes never leaving her warm face, “and it is customary to have a party afterwards, assuming we win of course.” The last was added on almost as though he thought it somewhat unnecessary. “In the past, the Weasley twins— I’m sure you remember them—“he smirked at her and she chuckled in response as he continued. “They have always provided Gryffindor with plenty of butterbeer and a variety of food. I’m sure I can get the house elves to provide some food for us, but I’m at a loss for the butterbeer.”

“Well, I might be able to set you up with a couple kegs,” she began, setting the glass and rag down on the bar. “Mind you that they’re not exactly cheap….”

“I’ve got plenty of money,” Harry interrupted.

She smiled at him warmly. “And I’m guessing you’re trying to keep this a secret…?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?” he asked curiously.

“Well, I usually don’t see students in here quite so early,” she explained. “And when I do they’re usually not alone,” she added mischievously.

“Oh,” Harry blushed faintly. “Right, I guess it is kind of obvious.”

“Just a bit,” she teased. “I’m not sure how you’ll get them into the castle without all your friends seeing. I can’t exactly owl them to you, so you’ll have to take them up on your own.”

“That’s not a problem,” Harry waved away her concern. “I can just stick the kegs in my trunk.”

She raised an eyebrow at him at that. So he took out his trunk from his pocket and nonchalantly removed the shrinking charm. It expanded to its full size in front of them. “I’ve got plenty of room in here, and it’ll never get too heavy.”

“That’s an impressive piece of wood,” she said suggestively, winking at Harry.

Harry turned a beet red, not missing the not so hidden meaning. “Madame Rosmerta. If I didn’t know better,” he commented in as normal a voice as he could manage, “I’d swear you were flirting with me.”

She chuckled appreciatively, her laughter taking on an almost musical quality. “So how many kegs will it be then, Mr. Potter?”

“I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “How many do you think I’ll need for all of Gryffindor Tower?”

She thought about it for half a minute. “You might be able to get by with two. But if you want to be safe, you should go with three. Even if you don’t use it all, I doubt you’d complain at having extra butterbeer left over.”

“Good point,” Harry agreed. “Three it is, then.”

She smiled at him and disappeared into a back room for a moment. A minute later, she walked back out with three kegs trailing behind her. “It’s normally 20 galleons a keg, but you look so cute, I’ll let you have them for 50 galleons.”

“You’ll find that flattery gets you everywhere,” Harry replied flirtatiously, surprised at his own daring. He took out his money bag and spoke “Sixty galleons,” then dumped the contents in front of her.

“I think I said 50, Harry,” she scolded playfully.

“I know what you said,” Harry said back mischievously. “But if you’re going to drop the price ten galleons because I’m cute, it’s only fair that I raise it at least as much to account for your beauty.”

“You little charmer,” she smirked at him. “What happened to the shy little boy that was coming in here just a couple years ago?”

“He grew up,” Harry shrugged.

“So he has,” she purred at him, giggling slightly.

Harry managed to control his blush relatively well. “You must drive all the boys crazy,” he told her.

“Well, I try,” she said with a wink.

Harry laughed outright. “I better take these kegs and get out before you corrupt me any more.”

“Hey,” she pouted, picking up her discarded rag and slapping him on the arm with it. “I am not corrupting you. I’m just teaching you to flirt properly.”

“My mistake,” Harry relented, still grinning widely. He loaded the three kegs into his trunk before turning back to the matron. “It was a pleasure doing business with you,” Harry told her, mimicking the line he had heard not a half an hour earlier.

“The pleasure was all mine, Harry,” she returned.

“I’m sure I’ll see you later today,” Harry told her, as he shrunk his trunk and returned it to his pocket while walking toward the door.

“I’ll look forward to it,” he heard as he left the tavern.

Shaking his head and with a smile on his face, Harry headed back in the general direction of Hogwarts hoping to meet up with his friends. He caught up with Hermione, Ron, and Neville as they were walking into the town. They told him that Ginny was off with some of her friends from her year shopping for dress robes. Harry smirked but didn’t comment.

“Where’s Luna?” he then asked, noticing that she too was absent from the group. The three friends all looked at each other for a moment, then looked back at Harry sheepishly. Apparently none of them had thought to ask the sole Ravenclaw of their group what she was doing during the visit. Harry hoped that perhaps Ginny had thought to ask the blonde Ravenclaw what her plans were. “We’ll just have to keep an eye out for her,” Harry commented.

The four of them set off to enjoy their day away from the castle. Harry received several questions about his odd behavior and why he had wanted to get into town so early, but he dodged all the questions. They would find out about his dealings at the Three Broomsticks in due time, and he hoped that no one ever found out about the deal he struck with the Gladrags owner.

Hermione insisted on visiting Scrivenshaft’s to replenish her supply of quills and parchment. Harry also purchased some extra equipment, figuring it didn’t hurt to have spare supplies. Ron overruled Hermione’s next choice of stops, the bookstore, claiming that since Hermione chose their last stop, it was only fair that someone else choose the next one. So the quartet headed into Honeydukes to stock up on sweets. Harry didn’t buy much candy. He never acquired much of a sweet tooth, never having been exposed to candy until he entered the Wizarding World.

He bought a package of chocolate frogs, but that was all. He didn’t get the appeal of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. More than half of the beans turned out to be something Harry would never willingly eat. Sugar quills weren’t bad. They were pure, flavored sugar, but Harry wasn’t accustomed to such a high amount of sugar intake. It was too rich for him. He preferred to just have a little bit of chocolate around in case he had a taste for some.

Hermione was more or less in the same boat as Harry. Her parents were dentists, so it made sense that she would also avoid sugary treats. Neville picked out a couple different treats, but he didn’t overdo it. Ron, on the other hand, seemed determined to walk out of the store with as much candy as he could afford, while still saving a little bit for some dung bombs from Zonko’s. He had chocolate frogs, every flavor beans, ice mice, sugar quills, licorice wands, chocoballs, and pepper imps. That’s only taking into account what Harry noticed of Ron’s purchases. Harry was actually mildly surprised that Ron had enough money for all of it.

When they left, Hermione got her wish, and they headed toward the bookshop. Harry found that he didn’t mind the stop as much as he had in the past, given his new taste for reading. He didn’t even really need any more books. He still had several books of his own collection he had yet to touch, and the library at Hogwarts held a wealth of knowledge in it. But he wasn’t averse to browsing the shelves to see if anything caught his eye. And indeed, a couple books did manage to tickle his fancy: one on wards that he had never seen before, another on battle field healing, and yet another on Legilimency. Harry hadn’t really considered studying that art in the past, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to at least read about the basics. It might even help him better understand Occlumency by understanding how Legilimency works.

Harry almost pulled out his trunk and stuffed his purchases inside it without thinking. He wasn’t sure why he was keeping that particular secret, but he just didn’t want to let his friends know about that acquisition, so he settled for carrying everything in bags like everyone else. When they eventually managed to drag Hermione out, their next stop was Zonko’s so that Ron could stockpile on dung bombs. Harry didn’t understand his friend’s fascination with the smelly balls, but every time they went to Hogsmeade, Ron would buy some.

Nobody had anywhere else they needed to go, so the group headed to the Three Broomsticks to get a butterbeer and some lunch. The four friends grabbed a table in the middle of the pub and placed their orders with Madame Rosmerta, who continued to be extra friendly with Harry, much to his amusement. The looks on his friends’ faces as the two flirted was priceless.

Their food had just been served when the doors to the pub burst open, revealing a beaming Ginny highlighted by the sunlight filtering in behind her. She glanced around the room, locked her eyes on their table, and bounded her way over to them. She pulled up a chair between Harry and Neville. “Hey guys,” she hailed as she reached over to snag some crisps from Harry’s as yet untouched plate of food.

“Hey.” “Hi Ginny.” “Hi.” Three voices greeted in return all at once.

“Hey Gin,” Harry added. “How’s it going?”

She turned and beamed at him. “Great, Harry. How about you?”

“I’m doing pretty well, myself,” he replied cheerfully, watching as Ginny grabbed another handful of crisps from his plate. “Little hungry there?”

“A bit,” she admitted unrepentantly in between bites.

“Well I’m glad I could be of some help,” Harry retorted, arching an eyebrow and grinning at her.

“Good,” she returned. “I’m glad you don’t mind.” She reached over and grabbed some more.

“You shouldn’t just snack on crisps,” Harry informed her. “You’ll want to eat something a little more substantial.” Harry glanced over Ginny’s shoulder to Madame Rosmerta, whom he noticed had been watching their exchange. He signaled to her to bring him another plate as he slid his own in front of Ginny, knowing that she probably did not have enough money left to buy herself a full meal.

Ginny continued to glow as she gave Harry a smile in thanks. She then began to eat in earnest. Harry took that moment to glance around the table and realized that they were the center of attention. His friends all looked amused. Not a full minute later, Rosmerta was leaning over Harry, one hand on his shoulder, the other placing a fresh plate before him. “There you are, Harry,” she said smilingly, giving his shoulder a slight squeeze.

“Thanks Rosie,” Harry returned with a lopsided smile. She gave him a wink before turning and tending to another table full of patrons.

“Rosie?” Hermione repeated incredulously. Ron held a pained and almost wistful expression, his eyes remaining on Rosmerta’s backside. Neville just looked like he was enjoying a show. Ginny remained eating, showing only a casual interest in what was going on around her.

“What?” Harry asked, as he began eating from his new plate.

“What’s with you?” Hermione continued. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were just flirting with her.”

“And so what if I was?” Harry returned.

“She’s old enough to be your mother,” she retorted indignantly, waving her hands in front of her face. “She’s even older than your mother would be…” she trailed off as she realized what she was saying and clapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she hastily apologized. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Probably not,” Neville agreed with her.

Harry just shrugged at her. “I’m just having fun,” Harry explained himself half heartedly, ignoring the comment about his mother. “It’s not like either of us is taking it seriously.”

“But you don’t flirt,” Hermione commented, mostly to herself.

“That’s not true,” Ginny inserted. She turned and winked at Harry, who laughed at the gesture.

“Well I’ve never seen you flirt before,” Hermione continued.

“Well I’m not about to flirt with you,” Harry remarked unconsciously.

Hermione’s face took on a hurtful expression and Ron’s looked a little indignant as his gaze shifted onto Harry. “And just why not?” Hermione demanded.

Harry quickly realized his mistake. “Hermione,” he said as he held up a placating hand, “you’re more like a sister to me than anything else.”

That was all it took. Ron smirked widely as he transferred his attention to Hermione. Her features made a rapid conversion from hurt to touched. Unshed tears sprang into her eyes as she almost whimpered, “Oh Harry,” before launching out of her chair to hug him.

Harry, after hesitating a moment, tentatively returned the gesture, perhaps a bit stiffly. He had to casually spit out a piece of Hermione’s bushy hair that had managed to make its way into his open mouth in his surprise at her reaction to his statement. He looked over her shoulder at his three other friends. Ron’s wistful expression seemed to have returned, though he was smiling behind it. Neville gave him a thumbs up to go with his smirk. When he met Ginny’s eyes, she winked again and mouthed “smooth.”

Harry mouthed a “thank you” in return. He then patted Hermione a couple times on the back and slowly extricated himself from her embrace. She smiled at him, her eyes still sparkling, as she pulled away.

The rest of the meal went pretty smoothly. Luna wandered in not long afterwards, and the group welcomed her to their table wholeheartedly. They spent a good hour just sitting around chatting over butterbeers before making their leave. Madame Rosmerta had conveniently left his second plate of food off his bill, but Harry paid the cost anyway. He winked at Madame Rosmerta on his way out, wondering what her reaction would be when she noticed the extra money he had left behind.

They wandered around town for a little longer, but didn’t make any more stops. Soon enough, they were making their way back up to Hogwarts. As they traversed the weathered path, Hermione and Ron were in the middle of one of their typical arguments. Harry didn’t even know what this one was about, nor did he really think it mattered. Luna was telling Neville about some creature of her own imagination. The expression on his face as he listened was hilarious.

Harry was watching Neville’s facial expressions in open amusement as he felt a nudge at his side. He looked over and found the disturbance to be none other than Ginny Weasley, her mane of red hair flowing behind her in the gentle afternoon breeze. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey Gin, did you have fun in town today?” he asked her, already knowing the answer. She had not exactly hidden her enjoyment. Indeed, she had not stopped smiling since she first entered the Three Broomsticks.

“Uh huh,” she replied. “You?”

“Yep, I had a great time,” Harry replied. “Good company,” he added, giving her a playful nudge.

“Oh I’m sure,” she retorted. “Although I’m sure you were sad to leave behind your precious Rosie.”

“Well, now that you mention it….” Harry played along.

“You know, if you wanted to take her to the ball, I wouldn’t hold it against you,” she teased. “I don’t want to stand in the way of anything.”

“Aww,” Harry laughed, “that’s sweet of you, really. But you’re not weaseling out of our date that easily. I’m afraid you’re quite stuck with me.”

“Pity,” she mock pouted. Then she abruptly changed the subject. “I don’t think I ever really thanked you for lunch today.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Harry replied automatically, waving the matter off. “It was nothing.”

“It wasn’t nothing,” she insisted. “It was very sweet of you, especially to just give up your own plate of food without any fanfare. Most guys would try to draw attention to the fact to take credit for their generosity or whatever, but you just do it without even thinking about it. In truth, I didn’t have enough money to cover lunch. I found some dress robes at Gladrags that I was barely able to afford, and I didn’t really think about what I would do for lunch at the time. You saved me from going on in hunger, so thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry replied. “So you found some dress robes, huh?” Harry was surprised to find that he was actually curious about what her robes looked like.

“Uh huh, I really like them a lot,” she practically gushed. “It’s lucky they were on sale; otherwise I never would have been able to get them.”

“So what color are they?” Harry asked her.

She opened her mouth as though she were about to reply, then closed it and glanced sharply at him. “You’ll find out at the ball, Mr. Potter. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise for you.”

“Awww,” Harry pouted. “Please? I am your date, after all. Don’t I get some sort of special privileges for that?”

She arched an eyebrow at him. “I would have thought taking me to the ball would be privilege enough.” She adopted an air of superiority that Harry thought would have been fitting on a princess.

He grasped her hand, dropped onto one knee and looked up into her face. He was struck momentarily by the sight that beheld him. The sun was shining behind her, beginning its decent, creating a halo-like aura around her. His breath hitched at the beauty of it. His words that were initially meant to be entirely playful came out much more seriously than he had originally intended. “Forgive me, my lady. I never meant to imply otherwise. I am deeply honored to be taking you to the ball.” He capped off the performance by holding her hand to his lips and planting a small kiss just below her knuckles.

She brought her other hand up to her mouth as she swooned playfully, then she began giggling as she tugged Harry back up off the ground. “When did you get so sweet, Harry? Before this year I couldn’t imagine you ever acting like this.”

Harry shrugged at her as they began walking again. He noticed that they were now far behind the rest of their friends but didn’t seem to mind much. He slid his wand out of its holster and waved it in front of them, creating a sound barrier around them before answering. She gave him an enquiring look. “Silencing charm,” he offered by way of explanation before responding. “I don’t know what it is, really. I think part of it has to do with my Occlumency training. I have better control over my emotions now. Before I would have been much too embarrassed to say half the things I say now. But I think a lot of it is just the new outlook I’ve taken with my life. It feels so good to be doing something. I felt so restless and guilty last year, knowing that a war was brewing and that I wasn’t really doing anything about it. The only time that feeling dissipated was when I was teaching the DA. But now I know that every day I’m working hard to become more powerful so that when the time comes I can help make a difference. I feel good about myself. I don’t feel guilty about having a little fun because I know that I’m doing everything I can for right now.”

Ginny nodded beside him, looking forward. “That makes sense.” She then turned toward him. “I’m really glad to see you so happy, Harry. I…well we were all worried about how you were going to take the loss of Sirius.” Ginny studied Harry closely as she said this. She noticed that his eyes glanced downward momentarily, and he let out an almost inaudible sigh. Other than that, he did not react to her mention of his dead godfather. “I don’t think any of us thought you could ever bounce back so quickly or thoroughly. Have you talked to Ron and Hermione at all about this or about your new outlook on life?”

Harry studied Ginny for a minute before responding. “No, not really. For one thing, neither has asked me about it. Hermione seems to assume that I’m just avoiding the issue entirely and keeps trying to convince me to talk about my grief and to stop denying my feelings and pretending that nothing’s wrong. Ron has ignored the situation entirely, and he spends half the time angry at me about one thing or another anyway.”

“Yeah, well, Ron is a prat. I can vouch for that,” Ginny admitted ruefully. “And I know what you mean about Hermione as well. We actually had a talk about that recently.” Harry looked at her sharply, almost accusingly. “Oh don’t give me that look. I defended you and tried to convince her to back off, but she won’t listen to reason.”

Harry had the grace to look contrite. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to jump to conclusions. I just don’t like people talking about me….”

“It’s alright, Harry,” she interrupted. “Given your circumstances it’s entirely understandable. You have people constantly talking about you behind your back and pointing at you and everything. It’s only natural that you’d get a little defensive about it.”

“Well thank you for sticking up for me,” Harry told her sincerely, “but I really don’t think anything will convince Hermione. Once she has her mind set on something, it’s almost impossible to deter her. Just look at the house elves; she continues on with spew for the sake of the house elves, completely ignoring their pleas for her to stop. It’s not that I disagree with her. She always means well, but she goes about things the wrong way.”

“I know what you mean,” Ginny agreed. “Have you considered telling the two of them?” She didn’t need to specify what she was talking about.

“Of course,” Harry replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Believe it or not, I hate having to keep secrets from you guys. But it’s too dangerous to tell anybody. Hermione is too likely to turn me in to Dumbledore or another adult, and Ron’s temper is much too unstable for him to be trusted with this type of information. He’s liable to just shout everything out in a fit of anger. I’m skating on thin ice right now. If Dumbledore or anyone else were to find out about half of what I can do, it would make my life much more difficult. I wouldn’t be able to train freely. I’d be watched like a hawk. The only reason I’m not being watched right now is because they assume I’m incapable of getting into too much trouble at Hogwarts and that I’m incapable of leaving the grounds.

“Back at Privet Drive, they have Order members watching the house all day and night. Any time I leave the house, they follow. They don’t bother paying too close attention to me inside the house because they assume that I can’t apparate. But if they found out that I was capable of all these things, I’d be tailed nonstop. I wouldn’t have a moment of privacy, and my training would be impeded. Dumbledore is intent on keeping me in the dark right now. I think he only gave me the Assistant Professorship to appease me, to keep me busy, so that I wouldn’t get too restless and do something stupid this year.”

“So why do you trust me then?” she asked. She couldn’t get around the fact that he didn’t seem to have any problem with her knowing all that she did, when he refused to tell anybody else, even his closest friends, the smallest of details.

“Well, you know what you do because you figured me out,” Harry replied truthfully.

“Right,” Ginny nodded. “But you don’t seem too bothered that I know.”

“That’s because I’m not bothered,” Harry returned automatically.

“Why not?” she asked.

“I trust you,” he replied simply.

“But why?” she demanded.

Harry shrugged at her helplessly. “I don’t know. I just know that I don’t have to worry with you. I know that you would never willingly tell anybody anything that I’ve asked you to keep secret. I know that you’re not going to blurt it out in a fit of anger. I’m actually kind of glad you found out. It’s nice having someone to talk to, even though you don’t know everything yet.”

“Yet?” Ginny asked coyly, a large grin spreading across her face.

Harry gave her a small smile in return and shrugged his shoulders again. “I’m not ready to tell you everything yet. But I trust you. I have little doubt that you’ll be hearing more of my secrets as time goes by. And we’ve already created some secrets of our own that we share, like your special training.”

“Thank you for trusting me,” she told him earnestly.

“You have nothing to thank me for. You’ve earned it,” Harry told her sincerely. “Thanks for being so understanding.”

“Any time, Harry. Any time.”

Harry spent the majority of that night working on essays, both his own and ones Professor Caldwell had given him to grade. The next night was another full moon, meaning another long night with his werewolf friend. Harry claimed a headache and went to bed early that night, setting up the illusion charm yet again. He once again only managed a couple hours of total sleep that night, but he had thankfully been thinking ahead, having brewed an Invigoration Draught to get him through the day.

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