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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 13: Queen of the Jungle
Following the success of their first prank, Harry and Ginny, along with the majority of the school, were in high spirits for the next few days. The pranks on Malfoy and, even better, his reactions to them were the talk of the school.

Harry and Ginny caught themselves rushing to Harry’s office several times each day to see which of the pranks would be triggered next. Malfoy had triggered several of the smaller pranks since then. To date his skin had changed coulors multiple times, and his hair had been Slytherin green for an afternoon. Harry had wanted to turn it Gryffindor colours, but Ginny had nixed the idea saying it would point suspicion onto their house. Harry could not help but agree with that logic.

There was one other prank that they did not actually get to witness, thankfully, but the map told them it had taken effect. This particular prank had been, in Harry’s opinion, a work of evil genius on Ginny’s part. Once the prank activated, it would cause Malfoy’s underwear to shrink at a gradual pace. He would not notice much at first, but after five or ten minutes, it would become rather restrictive. Given more time, Harry imagined it would grow to be quite painful. The two shared a good laugh over that one.

On Thursday after Transfiguration, operation “Make Malfoy’s life Hell” had landed a surprisingly successful blow when Malfoy triggered another one of their pranks. This one caused his robes to rapidly deteriorate until they were more worn and torn than any of the robes found in the second hand shops. It actually would not have been too terrible if Malfoy had not called so much attention to himself. He threw a tantrum the likes of which a two year old would be hard pressed to match in the middle of the Entrance Hall demanding to know who dared to play these pranks on him.

In doing so he caused everyone in the hallway to stop and stare at him. When Malfoy stopped screeching, Seamus loudly commented, “You’d think with all his money he could afford some decent robes. Or maybe when they threw his daddy in prison, they took all his wealth away as well.”

Malfoy threw a hex at Seamus. The boy was able to block it with his own shield, though it would not have mattered since Harry had thrown a shield in front of him as well. The icing on the cake was the fact that Professor McGonagall had just arrived on the scene to investigate what the commotion was about and gave Malfoy detention for a full week for attacking another student. The incident had many of the students, Harry and Ginny definitely included, in good spirits for the rest of the day.

It was now Friday, the day before the last Hogsmeade trip of the term, and Harry was just entering the Common Room after spending some time in his office reading, when he noticed Ron approaching him somewhat nervously. “Err – could I talk to you for a minute, Harry?”

“Sure, I guess,” Harry replied with a shrug. “What’s this about?” he asked as they headed towards a deserted corner of the Common Room.

“Well, we didn’t get a chance to talk after meeting with McGonagall earlier in the week,” Ron started. “I – err – thought we should figure out what we’re going to do with the team, how we’ll split up duties, and what we’ll tell the rest of the team.”

Harry sighed. “Honestly, I don’t really want to be captain. In the past I might have liked to, but I just have too much other stuff to work on. I don’t have the time to think up strategies or plays or anything like that. Besides, you’d be much better with that aspect anyway. You can continue running the team for the most part. If we have any problems with the players, I’ll talk to them. And Professor McGonagall wants me in charge during the games. Other than that, you can keep running the show.”

“Al – All right,” Ron said. “When should we tell the others?”

“Why don’t you schedule a meeting for Sunday before dinner? It shouldn’t take too long, and it would probably be best to get it done as soon as possible,” Harry stated.

“Okay,” Ron said. He opened and closed his mouth a couple times trying to say something before he finally managed, “Thanks, Harry.”

“For what?” Harry asked curiously.

“For letting me stay on as co-captain,” Ron replied sullenly.

Harry shrugged. “I don’t have the time or the drive to do this myself. I only agreed to come on as co-captain because Professor McGonagall didn’t leave me much choice.”

“Err – right, well, I just wanted to say that I’m looking forward to spending time with you. I feel like I’ve been missing my best friend for quite a while.” He paused nervously. “I’ll go spread the word about that meeting then,” Ron said as he headed back to the armchair he had previously been sitting in across from Hermione.

Harry sighed to himself hoping that this would provide an opportunity to begin mending fences. In the meantime, he sought the red hair of his other, favourite Weasley. He spotted her sitting at one of the tables with a book open in front of her. He headed over and sat across from her.

She looked up from her book and smiled in greeting. “Hi Harry.”

“Hey Ginny,” Harry returned. He had been meaning to ask her about her plans for the Hogsmeade trip all week long. Since most students were staying at Hogwarts for the holidays, this would be the only opportunity for them to do their Christmas shopping. As a result, instead of making plans to spend the day together, most friends were all only making plans to meet for lunch to free up time to take care of their shopping.

Harry was of a different mind. Much of his shopping could not be done in Hogsmeade, so he was looking for someone to spend the day with. “Do you have a lot of shopping to do tomorrow?”

“A bit,” she replied.

“Shopping for me?” he inquired further.

She cocked an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Actually I would,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“And why is that?” she asked him. “Trying to get a hint as to what you’re getting for Christmas?”

“No,” he told her honestly. “I’m just wondering if you’d like to go into town with me. I have very little shopping to do tomorrow, none of it for you, and thought it would be nice to hang out with you.”

“I’d love to,” she said. “To be honest, I’m not buying your present tomorrow either. I do have to try to get the rest of my shopping done tomorrow though. So if you don’t mind shopping with me, I’d love your company.”

“Great,” Harry replied. “Do you want to head over right after breakfast then?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

As he lay in bed that night, Harry found it difficult to fall asleep, as he was inexplicably excited about the trip into town the next day. It was nice having a chance to get out of the castle and walk around freely for a day. He was also looking forward to spending the day with Ginny. Sure they spent quite a bit of time together already, but there was always something else going on at the time.

Sometimes they would study together, or rather in each other’s presence since they were in different years and covering different topics. Most of the time they were others around. It was not that Harry minded those others; in fact, he very much enjoyed spending time with all his friends and Ginny’s friends for that matter. But there was something different about Ginny that drew him in, made him want to be with her and only her at times.

Sure, they did have some private time together, but there always seemed to be some agenda involved. Most of the time it was for her animagus training. They had also recently spent a lot of time planning out all Malfoy’s pranks. There would be some of that tomorrow as well, he supposed. She had said she needed to get most of her shopping done, and Harry planned to look around for gift ideas as well, but it was different in a way.

For one thing, there would be no need for sneaking around. Most of the time they spent alone together was spent doing something they wanted to keep secret. Sometimes that involved him spilling secrets; the other two prime examples were again the animagus training and Malfoy pranking. Tomorrow would be different. They would be able to relax and talk and just enjoy each other’s company. They would shop while they were at it, but Harry was more just looking forward to spending the day walking around the town with Ginny.

He eventually dozed off, and Sirius teased him mercilessly after guessing what had been occupying Harry’s mind so much to keep him awake for so long. Harry was able to temper down any reactions he may have had to the teasing, but when his godfather got particularly…creative with his teasing, Harry could not help the slight blush that suffused his cheeks. This spurred Sirius on, but Harry did his best to ignore the man.

He eventually resorted to resuming his training with his godfather to shut the man up. Harry made sure to keep his hexes harmless, but Sirius was not laughing so much after a couple rounds of dueling his godson.

Sirius’s nighttime torment did not dim Harry’s spirits nor his anticipation in the slightest. He was up bright and early for his morning run. He was gifted with a beautiful view of mist rolling across the lake as the sun began to rise into the clear sky. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day. The days were becoming cooler, but the weather was still somewhat pleasant.

He sped through his workout routine after he finished his jog. Finishing, he took a nice, relaxing shower before dressing and heading down to the Great Hall. He was a bit earlier than usual, but he was surprised to find that he was not the only one up early this morning as the Great Hall was already beginning to fill with students. Apparently he was not the only one anticipating the visit into town.

He scanned the Gryffindor table for that familiar patch of red hair and was slightly disappointed to find it absent as of yet. He sat down near the middle of the table and began piling the breakfast foods onto his plate. He had only taken a few bites when the seat next to him was filled. “Morning, Harry!”

“Good morning, Ginny,” Harry greeted smilingly after he swallowed his bite. He turned toward her and noticed that she was already wide-awake and looked excited to start the day. “You seem rather chipper this morning,” he commented dryly.

“Me and the whole castle,” she replied lightly with a roll of her eyes.

Harry looked around and found he couldn’t argue. “You got me there. I take it you’re excited about the trip into town?”

She nodded. “Duh.”

“Good,” Harry smiled. “Me too.”

They did not talk very much throughout the rest of the meal, both content to enjoy their meals in relative quiet. They were finishing up when Ron, Hermione, and Neville came down and sat around them. The three looked eager to get out of the castle and into Hogsmeade as well as they offered their standard greetings and immediately set into their food. Harry and Ginny finished up quickly and bid them goodbye.

“Well, we’re off,” Harry told them.

“Do you want to meet for lunch?” Hermione asked.

Harry turned to Ginny first, who nodded her consent, before focusing back on Hermione. “Sure, say the Three Broomsticks around noon?”

“Sounds good,” she agreed and the boys nodded their agreement.

Harry spun around to the exit and held his arm out to Ginny. “Shall we, milady?” he asked, giving her a mock bow.

“Lead on, good sir,” she said smilingly as she tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. After a couple steps she squeezed his arm and said, “Let’s invite Luna to lunch.” They changed course for the Ravenclaw table and quickly invited Luna to join them at the pub at noon. With that the two set out. They talked casually on their trek, covering a wide variety of topics from Quidditch and what the meeting would be about the next day to classes to the gorgeous scenery. Harry told her about the view he witnessed every morning during his jogs. She pouted jealously.

Before long they made it into town, and Harry let Ginny take the lead since she had the most shopping to do. He did not technically need to do any shopping today as he planned to do the majority of his shopping in Diagon Alley. Instead, he planned to just keep an eye open for anything that might make a good gift, and he could do that while Ginny got all her shopping done.

She dragged him off to Honeydukes first. They both had similar ideas on what to get Ron. The old saying that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach might as well have been written about Ron. Together they would be giving him quite a wide variety of sweets that he was sure to love.

They went to several different shops after that and did a fair bit of window-shopping as well. Ginny was continually directing Harry, grabbing his hand and pulling him along, or touching his arm as to get his attention to point out something she saw or a new place she wanted to go, and Harry found himself getting distracted. It was a foreign thing for him to experience.

He supposed it was probably a normal thing for most people, but he was not used to small touches like that. As he was growing up, the Dursleys tended to avoid touching him whenever possible unless it was to smack him or throw him into his cupboard. Normal kids probably got that kind of small affections from their parents all the time. As he watched her, he did not think she even noticed or paid it any mind.

Hermione acted that way too at times, though she was not nearly as openly friendly and affectionate as Ginny. Hermione was too proper for that. Throughout the early years of their friendship, he often got uncomfortable at the little touches she would give him. But as he thought about it, he found that he was not at all uncomfortable now. He did not know why exactly, but it did not bother him coming from Ginny.

He wondered at that. He had been close to Hermione the past five years, but he never really felt completely comfortable around her. They were too different, and he did not always know how to act with her. She always tried to be so proper, and he could always tell that Hermione was very interested in learning more details about him, particularly his life before Hogwarts, but he had always refrained from sharing anything with her or anyone else for that matter. It just did not feel right. He felt uncomfortable just at the thought.

But Ginny was different. He had already shared with her more about his time with the Dursleys than anyone else, and for some reason he had not been particularly nervous or uncomfortable about it at the time. He remembered commenting about his years spent in the cupboard under the stairs without really giving it a second thought until after he had said it. He had been shocked at his own candidness, but he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. It was nice to talk about it, to talk to her about it.

He supposed it was probably because Ginny and he were just more alike than he ever was with Hermione. They shared a lot of the same interests, and for whatever reason he was just comfortable with Ginny. He did not feel the need to be so quiet and reserved around her, to hide things. In fact, he often found himself wanting to tell her more, and he had to stop himself at times. She already knew more than was safe for either of them. He knew he would eventually have to come up with a solution to that, some way to protect her and what she knew about him, but that time was not now.

He shifted his attention back to his surroundings as Ginny pulled him into another store, Dervish and Banges. The store held an eclectic variety of items. In fact, you never knew what you were going to find there. Ginny shot him a couple surreptitious glances, and he figured she had noticed his earlier introspection and did not know quite what to make of it. He smiled at her reassuringly and resumed his search of the shop’s shelves for something of value.

Ginny was the first to spot something. It was a necklace in a small display case. It looked like pearls, but Harry suspected they were not real based on the price. The necklace was not terribly expensive to begin with based on the card which had several previous prices crossed off before listing the current price, which looked like quite a steal. A small card explained that the necklace had some magical properties and to inquire at the desk about them, so Ginny did just that, and Harry followed, curious.

The store clerk told them that this type of necklace was popular many years back. It served as a warning of sorts. When someone you loved was in imminent danger, it would vibrate to alert the wearer that something was wrong. The necklaces fell out of favour after the family clocks were introduced. The clocks were far more accurate than the necklace, listing the status of each individual family member, while the necklace did nothing more than tell its wearer that something was wrong with someone they loved. All it inevitably caused was worry since there was not always a way to find out what exactly was wrong.

On the bright side, when everyone was safe, it warmed slightly, and the wearer of the necklace was often infused with a warm, calming, reassuring feeling, knowing that their loved ones were alright. Ginny considered it for a long moment, and Harry remembered back to a conversation they had shared about Mrs. Weasley a little while back. The Weasley matriarch was worried all the time with the war escalating, and over the summer she had even taking to carrying the clock around with her if she was going to be out of the kitchen for an extended period of time. He knew that Ginny was thinking this would provide her some comfort and eliminate the need to lug the clock around all the time. He also suspected that her only hesitation was the price. While not particularly expensive, it was not dirt-cheap either, and Harry knew that she was rather tight for money this year after purchasing her dress robes.

At length, Ginny let out a deep sigh and turned back to the proprietor. “It’s lovely, but I don’t think I’ll quite be able to afford it.”

Harry, meanwhile, had surreptitiously dug a galleon out of his money pouch. He held it up behind her back for the clerk to see and held a finger to his lips as he gestured towards Ginny. The man bowed his head a fraction in acknowledgement and turned to Ginny. “Well perhaps we can work something out,” he offered. “Why don’t you look around the shop some more, and if you find a couple other items you like, I may be able to drop the price down a bit for you. How does that sound?”

“That sounds brilliant,” she said quickly. “Thank you.”

As she set off back into the aisles to look for more items she could buy for people, Harry stepped up to the counter and slid the galleon towards the man. He whispered, “Thank you for that. Charge her the difference, and she should be able to afford it just fine. I’m sure she’ll find something else to make that deal of yours sound legitimate.”

“No, thank you,” the man said smilingly. “And might I just say that it’s a very nice thing you’re doing for her.”

Harry shrugged, mumbled a thank you, and moved to catch up with Ginny. She ended up finding a few knick-knacks to give to her roommates. They were just about ready to call off their search through the shop when something caught Harry’s eye. It looked like an ordinary child’s doll, but Harry could have sworn that he saw its hair colour change just a moment before. He lifted the female doll up and noticed a card underneath it that explained what the doll was: a metamorphmagus doll. The face shape, body structure, and hair colour all changed at random, creating quite a mix of appearances for the doll. Best of all was the shirt the female doll was wearing. It was black with a very prominent pink heart in the chest. He really hoped that Remus would be opening his presents with Tonks.

Ginny turned around when she realized that he had stopped and raised an eyebrow at him at his selection. “What could you possibly want with that?”

“It’s not for me,” Harry said as he rolled his eyes. “It’s a gift.”

“For whom?” she inquired.

A wide smile spread across Harry’s face. “Remus.”

“Remus?” she mouthed in confusion. She looked at the doll again, and Harry watched as recognition dawned on her face. “He likes Tonks?” she asked.

Harry’s eyes twinkled. “She likes him too, as far as I can tell. But I don’t think either has done anything about it yet. Maybe this will help give him a hint to get a move on.”

Ginny giggled at the thought. “I never knew you had such a wicked streak in you, Harry.”

“I just need the proper motivation,” Harry joked. “And teasing Remus is definitely a proper motivator. You should have seen him over the summer when I first confronted him about it. I got him so tongue tied he didn’t know what he was admitting to.”

“What do you mean?” she asked eagerly, her attention entirely riveted on him.

“Well it was on my birthday, and I managed to trick him into saying that he knew quite well what to do with his feelings for Tonks,” Harry impishly explained. “Though given the lack of development there, I’d say he was just blowing smoke.”

“How did you manage to get him to say that?”

“Now, now…can’t give away all my secrets,” Harry teased.

They went back up to the counter, and as promised, the man took a galleon off the price, leaving it at less than half of what he was originally asking. Ginny’s eyes bulged at that, not expecting such a large discount, and she quickly paid for everything with an exuberant, “Thank you!”

Harry paid for the doll afterwards and thanked the man yet again before the two left the shop. It was nearing noon, so they decided to head towards the pub. They arrived in short order, and Harry opened the door for Ginny and followed her inside. They scanned the semi-crowded pub for signs of their friends, but it appeared that they were the first of the group to arrive. Madame Rosmerta was currently busy with another table, so they helped themselves to a table along the sidewall and sat next to each other as they waited.

Madame Rosmerta strolled up to the table a moment later with a warm smile on her face. “Harry Potter,” she greeted cheerfully. “It’s good to see you again. And you as well, Ginny,” she added.

“Good to see you as well, Rosie,” Harry replied in kind. Ginny just nodded her greeting.

“What can I get you dears?” the barmaid asked.

“Two butterbeers,” he said half-questioningly with a glance at Ginny. She nodded, so he turned to Rosie and repeated, “Two butterbeers.”

“Coming right up,” she called out as she moved on, swaying her hips provocatively as she made her way back to the bar.

Harry chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” Ginny asked him.

“Just Madame Rosmerta,” Harry told her. “Only she could get away with flirting with guys well less than half her age, and minors to boot.”

“It is a bit odd,” she said thoughtfully.

Harry shrugged. “It’s how she makes her money.” Ginny quirked an eyebrow in question. “Well for one thing, it keeps guys coming back to the bar,” Harry answered the unspoken question. “Every guy who comes into Hogsmeade wants to stop by the Three Broomsticks for a drink and to see her. Not only that, but that’s also how she earns her tips. Believe me, as attractive as she is, most guys are eager to lay down a handsome tip after she’s been buttering up to them for their entire visit.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that before,” Ginny commented thoughtfully. “But it makes sense. So does that include you then?” she asked impishly.

Harry shrugged. “I’d tip her the same if she was ugly as a troll. She’s good at what she does and extremely friendly. That’s all that really matters to me. The fact that she’s easy on the eyes is just an added bonus.” After a moment he added, “A very nice bonus.” That earned him a playful smack on the arm.

“You’re terrible,” Ginny said. “She’s as old as my mum, at least.”

“She’s aged well,” Harry commented off-handedly.

“And you’re saying my mum hasn’t?” Ginny inquired.

“Now you’re putting words into my mouth,” Harry answered back easily. “You know I didn’t mean to imply that at all.”

Just then Neville strode up to the table, arms laden with bags. “Hey you two,” he greeted.

“Hey Neville,” they chorused.

“How’s your shopping going?” Ginny asked him.

“Not terribly,” he replied as he took the seat next to Harry. “It’s tiring, but I’m almost done. Just a couple people left to shop for. What about you two? Did you come into town together?”

“Yeah,” Harry replied. “Neither of us was planning to shop for the other today, so we decided to do our shopping together. It’s going alright I guess.”

Ginny nodded in agreement. “I’m getting there as well. Slowly but surely.”

Hermione, Luna, and Ron each joined them in turn. Madame Rosmerta smilingly strolled up to their table to take their orders. She circled the table as she took down their selections. Harry and Ginny shared secretive smiles as they both noticed the extra attention she paid to the guys, touching their arms or shoulders slightly flirtatiously. Reminded of his earlier thoughts on similar contact he was receiving from Ginny, Harry’s smile at her took on a somewhat double meaning of which only he was aware.

Rosmerta left for a moment, returning shortly thereafter with drinks for everyone else. An easy conversation passed among the six friends as they sat nursing their butterbeers. Their talk seemed to focus on the upcoming holidays. All the Christmas shopping everyone was doing was no doubt putting everyone in the holiday spirit.

The conversation continued on even after the food was served, shifting to their families and what they would be doing to celebrate. Hermione’s parents were planning a trip to the U.S., New York City to be exact. Hermione was a little jealous and wished she could be accompanying them, but she was also quite excited about spending the holidays at Hogwarts and was very much looking forward to the Yule Ball.

Neville admitted that he had absolutely no regrets over staying at Hogwarts for the duration of the holidays. His Gran apparently always dragged him around to “high society” parties where there were only a couple people his age around and none he got along with. He told them that they sometimes attended the same functions as the Malfoys and that the other kids his age were of that ilk. Harry could certainly understand Neville’s joy in getting to skip those parties this year.

Ron and Ginny were torn about staying at Hogwarts for the holidays. They both missed their family and would have liked the opportunity to visit with them, but at the same time, they were excited for the chance to hang out at school without lessons, homework, or exams looming over them taking up all their time. The Yule Ball was an added bonus.

Luna remarked that she would be missing out on an expedition her father was taking to the Netherlands to search for a pack of Plungies, which supposedly inhabited the swamplands in the area. The others could empathize on the time she was missing with her father; as for the hunt for Plungies… they preferred to ignore that part.

As soon as she finished her explanation, she turned to Harry expectantly. When Harry did not immediately speak up, she asked, “What about your family Harry?”

Harry noticed Ron and Hermione share a dark look that they tried to keep inconspicuous but failed miserably. Neville gave him a small half-smile in commiseration, while Ginny reached under the table and, taking his hand, gave it a small squeeze. Harry turned to give Ginny a small smile before turning back to the table at large.

“Well, I imagine the Dursleys will decorate the outside of the house and windows up nice for the neighbours’ benefit, but the interior will remain mostly the same. They’ll go to services on Christmas and act as though they’re the most pious Christians on Earth when they haven’t been to a mass since Easter. They’ll dote on Dudley and buy him a wealth of presents. Dudley will spend most of Christmas day opening and testing out his gifts, and then he’ll no doubt sneak off with his gang to terrorize the kids in the neighbourhood. My aunt and uncle will pointedly ignore it and accept his declarations of having tea at a friend’s house as fact. I think that about sums up their typical holidays,” Harry told the table at large but focusing most of his attention on Luna, though he would swear he had heard Ginny growl very softly.

She nodded, content with his answer, and Ginny tactfully shifted the topic away from families. “So did anyone else see Malfoy today?” She had not in fact seen Malfoy as of yet, but she and Harry had set up a prank to hit him as he walked through the gates at the end of Hogwarts’ grounds. There was no way for him to avoid it.

“No, what happened to him this time?” Ron asked eagerly.

“You won’t believe it,” Harry supplied. “He sprouted white fur all over his body: his face, arms and hands, everywhere the eye could see. Reminded me of his ferret days.”

This brought about a cacophony of laughter from the table at large, especially the two Weasleys. Even Hermione could not hold back her snort of laughter, though she sobered up long before any of the others.

“I’d like to know who’s behind it all,” Hermione said once the rest began to settle down.

“You and me both,” Harry agreed enthusiastically. “I’d like to shake their hands.”

“As would the majority of the castle,” Neville added for good measure. “I have to say my favourite so far would have to be the first, when Malfoy’s robes disappeared in the Great Hall. I sure am glad I had such good seats for that one,” he said, shooting a significant look towards Harry and Ginny.

Harry and Ginny exchanged a quick look as Hermione continued as if the others had not spoken, “They’ve been using some really advanced magic. All their spells have obviously been designed to specifically target Malfoy. That requires a rather thorough grasp of some branches of magic not even covered at Hogwarts, meaning a lot of outside research. I’d like to be able to ask how they managed it,” she said wonderingly. “Not that I condone what they’re doing,” she quickly amended herself. “But it is rather fascinating.”

Harry, Ginny, and Neville all laughed at Hermione’s confession while Ron stared at her, dumbfounded. “Fascinating?” he asked her incredulously. “Bloody brilliant is more like it.”

“Ronald, language,” she corrected automatically.

They had all finished their meals by now, but they remained in the pub for another half hour at least, chatting easily amongst themselves. They finally decided to separate again, everyone splitting up to resume their shopping. Harry and Ginny were the only exception as they set off together. Ginny led Harry by the arm down the street to continue their window-shopping. After a short while, Harry found his attention wandering away from the store windows. He was quickly losing interest in shopping. Instead, as Ginny would stop and peer into windows, Harry observed the people in the streets.

Students were walking every which way across the street. Some were going into shops, others leaving. Some seemed to be mostly window-shopping, as Ginny and he were, while others were going into seemingly every shop they passed. But students were not the only ones in the streets. There were also some adults interspersed among the younger generation. And it was these adults that began to draw Harry’s attention, though he tried not to show it.

These adults were paying an abnormal amount of attention to the two of them. His first inclination was to ignore them as people often stared at Harry, but something did not seem quite right here. Normally people were rather unabashed in the attention they paid to him. Even when Harry caught them staring, the average witch or wizard would continue to stare and talk and sometimes even point as if they felt absolutely no shame in it. It was like they felt it was their right or privilege to treat him as if he was property of the public domain.

These adults were acting differently though. They were paying attention to him but were trying to hide the fact. Any time he turned towards one, the adult would suddenly turn away or pretend to be looking in a store window or reading from some map or booklet. It was all a little too suspicious for his liking, and he began thinking over how he wanted to handle the situation when Ginny dragged him inside a store.

It was Gladrags. There was a pair of hideously bright colored jackets in the window that were practically being given away. Ginny insisted they would be perfect for Fred and George. Given the twins’ tastes, Harry could not disagree, although the thought of having to actually see those jackets again was enough to deter him from even considering buying them for the twins. Ginny did not seem to have any such qualms.

After she pulled the two jackets off the display in the window, she began browsing through some t-shirts with various sayings on them. While Ginny was inspecting all the racks of clothing, Harry was evaluating their situation. There were at least three unknown witches and wizards, possibly Death Eaters, following them. He did not expect to have much trouble actually dealing with them on his own. The streets, however, were crowded, and one of his biggest advantages in a fight was his ability to dodge. He did not want a stray curse hurting or possibly killing an innocent bystander. He needed to lure these strangers away from the crowds before he could confront them, and he had to do this without tipping them off that he was onto them.

Finally deciding on his plan of action, he sidled up to Ginny and whispered. “Ginny, don’t react to what I’m about to tell you, but I think we might have some Death Eaters following us around town.” Ginny stiffened slightly. “There are a few people trying to follow us discreetly. They shouldn’t be a problem for me, but I can’t fight them in all these crowds. I need you to continue shopping and acting like nothing is wrong. When we leave the store, start dragging me off to a less populated area, but don’t make it look obvious. Stop and look in store windows like you have been, but don’t linger too long. I want to lure them out of the crowded areas before a confrontation breaks out. We can’t let them know we’re onto them until we’re already away from the crowds, alright?”

She nodded. “Alright, Harry.”

“Good,” he replied. ”Go ahead and finish your shopping.”

She continued looking through the racks for another few minutes before pulling a couple shirts which she explained were for Bill and Charlie. Harry couldn’t help but smile at her selections. One of the shirts said on the front, “I like my women fiery.” On the back was a dragon breathing fire; underneath that was the word, “Literally.” The other read: “I like to practice my wand movements in bed.” Harry couldn’t believe she was actually going to buy that one.

She quickly paid for the clothes, and a couple minutes later, she was leading Harry out the door by the arm. True to her word, Ginny acted like nothing had changed. She continued to pull Harry along from store window to store window, looking interestedly at all the bric-a-brac on display. Harry half paid attention to the stores and discretely devoted half his attention to keeping track of their stalkers.

After about five minutes they reached the end of the shopping district, and the crowds of people had severely thinned out. There were only a handful of other people in the streets. Harry turned to Ginny and loudly said, “It looks like we’ve hit the end. I think there’s a shortcut back to the main area through this alley here.”

“Alright,” she replied easily.

Harry linked his arm with hers and set them off at a leisurely pace. He wanted to give the attackers time to react. He had no doubt that they would attempt an ambush from both ends of the alley, and he was counting on just that.

He turned towards Ginny and said in a whisper, “They’ll likely ambush us from both sides. Keep alert. If they don’t attack right away, I’m going to try to taunt them into sending the first spell. When they do, wait until the last second, then drop to the ground. If we’re lucky, they’ll knock each other out. As we drop, you send a spell forward, and I’ll send one behind us. Hopefully that will take care of them. If we’re still surrounded after that, try to stay back to back. If you spot any Unforgivables, get out of the way and yell ‘Dive.’ I’ll do the same.”

She nodded her understanding.

When they were about halfway through the alley, two figures stepped into the entrance in front of them. Harry looked behind him and spotted two more at the other end. He tugged on Ginny’s arm signaling her to stop walking, and the two pairs moved in closer until each was only a few meters away.

“Not too smart wandering into an alley these days,” one of the men in front of them commented. “You never know who you might run into.”

“We’re just passing through,” Harry replied shortly.

“Not bloody likely,” a deep voice intoned from behind them.

“And just who is going to stop me?” Harry inquired. “You?” he asked with a snort.

“I’d watch my tongue if I were you,” a female voice warned from behind them. Harry turned around to face her.

“I’m not too worried,” Harry stated boldly, meeting her eyes. “You guys aren’t even Death Eaters. What’s the matter? Did old Voldie reject your applications? Do you think bringing down the big, bad Harry Potter is going to garner you some respect? Maybe then they’ll let you join up and lick their boots clean.”

This had the desired affect. “Why you little,” the woman screeched while they all whipped out their wands and cast their spells. Harry waited half a second before flicking his wrist to draw his wand as he dropped to the ground. The spells passed harmlessly over his head, and he cast two quick stunners towards the two who had approached from behind them. The man was hit with a cutting curse sent by one of his friends. Harry’s stunner also connected, and the man flew back a few meters and landed on his back unconscious. The woman was able to erect a shield in time and blocked Harry’s stunner. She was apparently not in the line of fire of the other curses.

Not wasting any time, Harry drew up his power and sent a strong everbero towards her. It cleaved her shield and sent her careening into the wall. She slammed into the bricks hard and dropped to the ground. Harry turned around to find out how Ginny was faring. He found one of the men unconscious. The other was clawing at his face trying to wipe off the winged bogies that were ravaging him.

Harry chuckled. “So that’s your infamous bat-bogey hex.”

Ginny turned to him with a smirk. “Yep. You like it?”

“It’s certainly effective,” Harry mused aloud. “But in a real fight I prefer to knock my opponents out rather than only temporarily incapacitating them; however, I’m sure it can be quite useful in other situations where the threat is not as imminent.”

Ginny shrugged in response. “To each his own.”

Harry smiled his agreement before turning his attention to their four fallen opponents. “Well, what do you think we should do with these guys?” he asked her.

“Beats me,” Ginny replied. “Do you really think that they’re not Death Eaters? Or were you just goading them into attacking?”

“Only one way to find out,” He said as he approached one of the unconscious bodies and lifted up the left sleeve. “No dark mark.” He checked the other three as well. None of them had a dark mark.

“This did seem a bit too easy. Well let’s tie them up and head back into town. Maybe we’ll find an auror or a professor or something,” Harry suggested.

Ginny nodded agreeably, and the two quickly had their four captives bound with magical ropes. Harry picked up one of their attacker’s wands and walked down to one entrance and cast a spell with it. “What was that?” Ginny asked.

“Notice-me-not charm,” Harry explained. “We don’t want anyone else stumbling upon them before we find someone to take care of them.”

“Why didn’t you just use your own wand?” she inquired as they turned to walk towards the other entrance.

“I don’t want it traced back to me. That’s not a charm I learned at Hogwarts. If they attempt to track where the spell came from, it’ll come back to this wand. They won’t know that I was the one using the wand at the time and will assume it was setup by our attackers.”

“How utterly devious of you. You’re getting rather good at this,” Ginny teased.

“What can I say? It’s the Slytherin in me,” Harry joked. He raised the wand to cast the spell on the other entrance when two more figured jumped out at them. Harry instinctively reached for Ginny and pulled her behind him as he threw up a shield. Ginny ducked around Harry’s side to cast two quick spells which both connected with their targets. Harry looked at her victims, both having fallen prey to the bat-bogey hex, then turned back to Ginny with a smile.

“Some might say you have a rather unhealthy obsession with that particular hex,” Harry commented.

“They’d probably be right,” she replied unabashedly.

Harry quickly stunned the two, which prompted Ginny to whinge, “You’re no fun.” Harry shrugged at her as he sent the two unconscious men over to lie next to their comrades. He turned back and finished casting the notice-me-not charm on that entrance. Afterwards, he summoned the other five wands to himself and stuffed them in his pocket.

He once again held out his arm for her to take and asked, “Shall we?” She nodded smilingly and slipped her arm through his. The two set off towards the main town keeping an eye open for any professors or Order members they could inform about what happened.

Neither had any more shopping to do, and, as they both figured that they would be directed back to the castle right away anyway, they set their course for the path to Hogwarts. As they were walking, Ginny squeezed his arm gently to gain his attention. “Hm?” he asked, looking down his right shoulder to meet her eyes.

“I just wanted to say thanks,” she said.

“What for?” Harry asked, baffled.

“For not acting like I’m a helpless little girl. For trusting me to be able to handle myself,” she told him earnestly.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about you or didn’t want to keep you out of those types of situations,” Harry admitted. “But I know you’re quite capable of handling it. Besides, it would be a bit hypocritical of me to tell you that you had to remain behind and stay safe while I went out to face the big bad danger, since that’s exactly what I’ve been fighting against with Dumbledore and the Order. This is our war too, and I know that extends beyond me to you and to the others.”

“Yeah, well that makes one of you,” Ginny muttered derisively. “You should have heard Mum, Bill, and Charlie last June after…” she trailed off slightly.

“After the Department of Mysteries,” Harry supplied easily enough.

“Right,” she agreed. “They treat me as if I’m still six years old and incapable of looking after myself let alone being of any help in a fight.”

“Well I know quite well how good you are in a fight,” Harry said. “Not only do I see you in action in my HA classes, but I got to see you last June and just now. You’re quick, both in your spell casting and in your movements. And you pack quite a bit of power for such a small package,” he teased, earning him a playful slap on the arm. But she was smiling widely at his praise.

They didn’t find anyone of help until they came to Hogwarts’ gates where Professor McGonagall was standing watch. They strode up to her. “Professor McGonagall,” Harry greeted.

“Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley,” she returned the greeting with a nod at each.

“Hello Professor,” Ginny said.

“What can I do for you two?” she asked in her no-nonsense tone of voice.

“Well, we had a bit of an incident in town we thought you should be aware of,” Harry explained.

“An incident?” she asked.

“Yes, there were six adults who cornered us in an alley at the end of the shopping district.” Harry gave her a brief summary of their short fight. “We stunned them all and tied them up, but we didn’t know what else to do with them. We checked them all, and none of them had the dark mark. They were pretty easy to defeat as well, so I highly doubt this was related to Voldemort or the Death Eaters in any way. In all likelihood, they were probably hoping that bringing me in would earn them a free ticket into Voldemort’s inner circle.”

McGonagall pursed her lips so tightly that they appeared as mere slits on her face. “Where exactly did you leave them?”

Harry listed off the two buildings they were in between at the time. “Very well. I want the two of you to head straight back to the castle. Don’t talk about what happened with anyone. If what you’ve said is true and this was not connected to You-Know-Who, then news of the attack would only cause unnecessary panic. I will insure that the matter is dealt with.”

The two nodded and turned to walk away when she stopped them. “Oh, and one other thing.” They turned back and looked at her expectantly. “It’s good to see that you two were able to handle the situation so well. Twenty points to Gryffindor for each of you.”

“Thanks,” they both replied. They turned back and finished their trek back to the castle.

***************

The next day, Harry and Ron met a few minutes early to get the room set up for their Quidditch meeting. As it was pointless to use the changing rooms at the pitch since they were not actually practicing, they wanted the meeting to be private, so they decided to hold it in the Room of Requirement. Since they were all used to treating Ron as their captain, they decided it would be best if he introduced the idea to them. Soon enough, the team members began appearing. Once everyone arrived and settled in, Ron began.

“I want to thank you all for coming,” Ron stated nervously as he paced in front of them. The room had provided them with a cosy sitting room with three sofas and four armchairs. Harry was standing in front of them but off to the side a little, leaning up against one of the unoccupied chairs. Ron was right in the center of the group, walking back and forth in front of a small fire.

“As I’m sure you all agree, I made a big mess of things with the team,” Ron said at length, stopping his pacing. “I blew things way out of proportion and let my personal issues get in the way of my duties as your captain. Harry and I met with Professor McGonagall, and we came to a decision that we all thought would be best for the team as a whole. Harry was her first choice for the captain and the best man for the job, but he turned down the offer because he didn’t have enough time for it. So we came up with a compromise.” He turned to Harry, “Do you want to explain it?”

“Sure,” Harry said, stepping forward. “Basically, Ron and I will be co-captains. I’ll technically be the one in charge, but Ron will continue to run practices and come up with our plays and strategies. I will only step in if I see a need. I also get the honor of giving speeches and pep-talks and things of the like,” Harry said sarcastically. “I’ll also be the one in charge come game time.”

He looked directly at each of his teammates in turn to gauge their reactions. Each and every one of them wore a bright smile on their faces. Ginny also winked at him slyly, to which he rolled his eyes in response. “Does anybody have any questions?” he asked.

“I do,” Katie said. Harry nodded at her to continue. “Let’s say one of us has a problem or an issue or something we feel needs to be brought up, who should we talk to?”

“A good question,” Harry said as he thought over his response. “I would say it depends on the nature of whatever it is you’re bringing up. If it relates directly to the way practice is run or to any of our plays or strategies, bring it to Ron. Otherwise, bring it to me. If you have any doubts, you can come talk to me about it, and if I feel it’s something that Ron should be answering, I’ll get him involved. Does that sound good to you, Ron?”

He nodded. “Yeah, sounds perfect.”

“Great,” Harry said. “Any more questions?” Nobody spoke up. “Alright, then you’re free to go. Thanks again for coming.”

Everyone rose from their seats, but nobody headed towards the door. Instead, they all gave Harry a congratulatory handshake, Katie and Ginny being the only exceptions. They gave him hugs instead. Harry thought Stephanie was going to offer him a hug as well, but at the last second she stuck her hand out and blushed brilliantly. He gave her what he hoped was a warm, comforting smile. When he looked up he saw Ginny shoving a fist in her mouth to stifle her giggles. He tried to give her a stern look, but he could not quite manage it. It really was funny.

The next day brought about yet another of Harry’s dancing lessons with Professor McGonagall. Not wasting any time, she immediately told him what had happened with the six adults who had attacked him, confirming his initial thoughts that the attack was in no way related to Voldemort. With that business out of the way, she started the music with a flick of her wand, and they began dancing. They talked about many things as they danced: his classes, his friends, Quidditch, his status as an Assistant Professor. On this occasion, Harry brought something up that he had been wondering about for almost the entire term.

“Pro – Minerva, what do you think about my being an Assistant Professor?” Harry asked her.

“To be honest I had some reservations about it at first,” she told him candidly. “You haven’t always been the best or most motivated student, and you do have a tendency to ignore school rules when they don’t suit you. But you do always have good intentions at heart when you break the rules, so I can’t fault you entirely. Sometimes it’s necessary to break a couple rules in order to do the right thing, especially when you have somebody like Fudge sitting in office making the laws.”

Harry nodded his understanding, so she continued. “I never got to see you teach the DA last year. I don’t think any of us did, except perhaps the Headmaster, but he won’t confirm my suspicions. But the evidence spoke for itself. Everybody in the DA who took a NEWT or an OWL exam outscored the vast majority of their classmates in DADA. It was obvious that you were doing something right in those meetings.”

“But I could have conducted the HA this year as just a student still,” Harry commented.

“That’s true. And that was discussed heavily in our meetings before the term began. Albus was persuasive in his arguments for you to be given the title. He talked about the fact that you wanted to open up the club to all houses, and he felt that you would need a position of authority to maintain control of your classes. The last thing we wanted was for some unruly students to disrupt your lessons without you being able to do anything to stop them, save for hexing them. And we didn’t want that,” she said with a little laugh.

“So you wanted to make sure that nobody else had the same authority I did in class,” Harry inserted. “Thus I couldn’t be made a prefect or anything like that because then some of the students would still be on equal footing with me.”

“Exactly,” Minerva agreed. “Your classes are important in teaching the students the skills they will need to survive. We didn’t want anything disrupting that.” She paused for a long moment before asking, “Why did you want to know?”

Harry thought over his response for a moment before answering. “I’ve been thinking about it for a little while, actually. I just found it odd that nobody has really spoken to me about it at all. I haven’t been included in any staff meetings or anything like that. I’ve basically just been treated as a regular student by the rest of the faculty. I didn’t expect to be included in the regular staff meetings or anything, but I had assumed that I’d at least receive updates or some feedback or something. It just seems odd to give me this position, then to leave me on my own.”

She regarded him for a long moment trying to think up a response to that. “You make an excellent point,” she finally conceded. “It was an oversight on our part to leave you to your own devices without ever officially checking up on you. Albus encouraged us all to look in on one of your classes to see what it was like, but he never requested that we discuss our findings with you. I remained after the lesson I visited because I wanted to talk over your performance with you, not because I was required to.”

“And I’ve only had two other visitors besides you. Professor Flitwick came to one of the advanced classes as did Professor Snape,” Harry commented. “He actually tried to sneak in under an invisibility cloak to watch my class unnoticed.”

“Tried?” she inquired with a smile tugging at her lips.

Harry nodded. “Yes. I set up that contract to show me anybody in my presence who had not signed it. It sees through polyjuice potion and invisibility cloaks. It makes the uninvited guest glow red, so when I saw a red glow in a corner of the room with no person attached, I summoned his invisibility cloak away from him.”

She let out a loud laugh at that, which sounded strange to Harry’s ears. He had never heard her really laugh out loud, unrestrained, before. “Oh I would have loved to see his face when you did that,” she finally managed to say.

“Yeah,” Harry mused reminiscently. “He wasn’t too happy about it.”

“I would imagine not,” she interjected.

Harry smiled back at her. “He did make one suggestion during class, which actually ended up being helpful. But after that, he didn’t speak a word to me. He left as soon as the lesson ended.”

“That sounds like Severus,” Minerva chuckled, “always trying to be sneaky. He was probably just upset that he was caught by a student, and a Potter at that.”

Harry laughed. “That must have been the ultimate insult to him with how incompetent he claims me to be.”

“Indeed,” she replied. “Tell you what, Harry. Starting next term, why don’t we meet once every month to go over anything important that you might need to know as a member of the staff, and you can bring up any questions or concerns that you might have at that time as well.”

“That sounds great, Minerva,” Harry said with a smile.

Harry was happy to note after the lesson that throughout their entire conversation, as involved as it was, he never once stepped on her toes. At the end of the lesson they decided to stop meeting since Harry was at a point where he could dance well while holding a conversation, and she was getting much busier with the end of term rapidly approaching. Though Harry did not quit his lessons entirely, he just changed the location to the Room of Requirement.

He was actually surprised with himself that he hadn’t thought to use the room earlier. It was the first place he went when he needed dueling training, so why not go there for dance training as well? He was glad for his lessons with his Head of House, though. First of all, he needed to know the basics before he would have been able to accomplish much in the Room of Requirement. Secondly, he felt like he had made a connection with his professor. They were no longer just student and professor but also colleagues, even friends, though only in private.

Malfoy was hit with another couple small pranks in the days that followed. One of which painted a pink heart on the back of Malfoy’s robes. Inside the heart in a fancy script was written “Draco Malfoy + Severus Snape.” That one had most of the school laughing behind Malfoy’s back for an entire day. Snape was furious when Malfoy strode into his class in the robes and after unsuccessfully trying to remove the charm, sent Malfoy to the Slytherin dorms to change.

Malfoy was becoming noticeably harried as a result of the constant yet seemingly random prankings. He was jumpy and twitchy, unable to sit still and always looking over his shoulder. On Wednesday Harry and Ginny had contracted Dobby to serve him some of Fred and George’s more special treats. At lunch he turned into a canary for a short while, and at dinner his tongue swelled to enormous proportions before one of his housemates had the decency to help him.

All this culminated in their afternoon meal on Thursday. Malfoy triggered one of their more subtle pranks, and neither Harry nor Ginny could have been happier with the results. While trying to enjoy his lunch, Malfoy caught his reflection in his goblet, and the sight caused him to yelp in shock and drop the goblet in his lap, drenching himself in pumpkin juice. But it did not stop there.

Malfoy stormed up to the Head Table directly in front of Snape, stomping his foot in frustration as he demanded, “This has gone too far. Look at what they’ve done to me! I demand that you find who’s doing this to me and have them expelled immediately!”

Snape fixed him with a level glare. “Is something the matter, Mr. Malfoy?” he asked in annoyance.

Malfoy spluttered for a few moments. “Something the matter?” he asked incredulously. “Something the matter?” he screamed hysterically. “Look at me! Look what they’ve done to my face!” He pawed at his face for emphasis. “There could be permanent damage done.”

Snape looked closely at the boy in front of him, leaning over the Head Table to get a better look. “I see nothing out of the ordinary.”

Malfoy froze in his tracks staring unbelievingly at the man. “Nothing out of the ordinary?” he shrieked. “How dare you? Do you propose that I always look this way?” he asked, gesturing at his face once again.

“Mr. Malfoy,” Snape said impatiently. “I suggest you drop whatever act you’re trying to put on and return to your seat immediately.”

Malfoy turned his head both directions, looking to the other professors for help. Surely one of them would step forward and help him. Their heads were nodding in agreement with Snape’s words. He turned cold eyes back to his Head of House. “When my father hears of this…”

“Need I remind you,” Snape interrupted, “that your father is an escaped convict. If you have any information on his current whereabouts, I highly suggest you contact the proper authorities,” Snape said pointedly.

Apparently the message was able to sink in through the boy’s hysteria for he did not proceed with his threat. He stood stock still for moment, staring at Snape, before turning on his heel and storming out of the hall. By that point, the entire hall was fighting to control their laughter. It was a useless effort. By the time Malfoy had made it halfway to the exit, the walls were echoing with the laughter of the students who had just witnessed Draco Malfoy in a full blown tantrum over what they saw as nothing.

Only Harry and Ginny knew what had spurred Malfoy to react in such a way. To everyone else in the world, Malfoy would appear perfectly normal. But to Draco, when he saw or touched his face, it appeared to be scaly. The scales would peel off as he pawed at his face leaving a disgusting pinkish skin underneath. Malfoy was not seen again until the next morning, and by then the prank had worn out. As far as they knew, no one else ever found out what he had been raving about, though that did not keep the Hogwarts rumor mill from trying to fill in that gap.

Later that night Harry ascended the stairs to the Headmaster’s office for their weekly Occlumency lesson. Dumbledore bid him to enter before he could even knock on the door, and Harry strode into the increasingly familiar office. He greeted the Headmaster and Fawkes as was his custom before settling into the armchair in front of Dumbledore’s desk.

“Good evening, Harry. I trust you are well?” the old man asked kindly.

“Yes, sir,” Harry replied easily.

“I was wondering if I might have a word with you about the incident Miss Weasley and you found yourselves in last weekend,” he said.

Harry nodded, not at all surprised at the turn of conversation.

“First let me say that I am rather proud of the both of you for the way you handled the situation. You both kept your heads and performed admirably in potentially dire circumstances.” He paused here as though to gather his thoughts and form his next remark, but Harry thought it was more for the effect. He had a feeling the Headmaster knew exactly what he was going to say next.

“However, it concerns me that you found yourselves in that situation in the first place,” he said rather condescendingly. “Knowing the dangers and the state of affairs in the Wizarding World, it troubles me to find that you wandered into a concealed alleyway so far out of the main town. We were lucky this time that your attackers were so inexperienced, but we may not be so lucky next time, which means we need to make sure there is no next time. I don’t want to have to take the Hogsmeade trips away from you or any of the students, but I must ask that you exercise greater caution in the future.”

Harry nodded, not trusting himself to speak at the moment. He wanted nothing more than to rage at the man for treating him like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He wanted to tell him that he had lured their attackers into the alley, not the other way around, and that he was trying to protect the rest of the students and townsfolk from the inevitable encounter. He seethed inwardly while he attempted to adopt a look of contrition.

“Excellent. I knew you’d understand,” the old man said genially. “Now, onto your lesson…”

Malfoy was hit yet again the next day. This prank succeeded in staining his teeth black. Harry almost missed that one as for once Malfoy tried to avoid opening his mouth. The charm lasted a full 24 hours, and Harry suspected it was the quietest Malfoy had ever been for a full day.

The pranks were a nice way to raise spirits in the castle, though they generally dropped right back down each morning as the Daily Prophet continued to report on the frequent Death Eater attacks throughout Great Britain. It became a regular morning ritual to open up the paper to see where the Death Eaters had struck the night before. Harry did not have visions of any attacks, but his scar was bothering him on a regular basis now. Voldemort was happy to be spreading fear and panic throughout the land once again.

As the attacks continued without any positive news to counteract it, the ministry and Fudge in particular began taking heavy fire from the news reporters. That Saturday morning after reading a particularly scathing article on Minister Fudge, Harry turned to his friends and said, “I don’t see how he’s kept the position as long as he has. I figured he’d be out of a job soon after the news came out that Voldemort had in fact been back for well over a year despite his claims to the contrary.” Harry shot a disgusted look at Ron who had flinched at Voldemort’s name. Even Neville had tempered his response down more than Ron had. Hermione did not make any response, and she even said his name consistently, though she often stumbled through it.

Hermione looked up from the paper, which she had immediately reclaimed once Harry set it down. “He might have if V-Voldemort hadn’t been so quiet for so long. Last June he went on and on about how easy it was to be mistaken because Voldemort was considerably weaker than he had been in the past. He said that they had everything under control and it would only be a matter of time before they had him safely tucked away in Azkaban.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Harry exclaimed.

“Well of course it is,” Hermione sharply retorted. “But Voldemort was being quiet at the time, so the threat wasn’t real to most people. They just took what he was saying at face value.” Hermione took a sip of pumpkin juice before continuing. “Then there was the attack at Diagon Alley this summer, and nobody was hurt, minimal damage was done…it only leant credence to Fudge’s claims.”

“And now, because Fudge and everybody else were content to just sit back and enjoy the fact that things were quiet for the moment, we’re still completely unprepared for war,” Harry surmised.

“You’re right about that,” Neville agreed. “I overheard my Gran over the summer saying that Professor Dumbledore was lobbying for the auror staff to be increased, more funding sent their way, and other measures to help prepare for the upcoming conflict, but Fudge insisted that the aurors were more than capable of handling the threat, as they already had been.”

“Did the aurors even make it to the Death Eater attack in Diagon Alley this summer?” Harry questioned vehemently.

Ron shook his head and answered that question. “No. By the time they arrived, the Death Eaters were all gone. If Professor Dumbledore hadn’t come when he did…” He left the statement hanging out in the air between them. “And he didn’t even make it in time to help Ginny. Nobody knows who it was that saved her, but thank Merlin for him, whoever he is.” Ron gave a little shiver as the implications of what had almost happened washed over him.

“Yes, I wonder if the Order ever found any information on him,” Hermione said casting a surreptitious glance at Ginny several seats down as she said it. “Ginny says he’s an animagus, but he’s not registered with the Ministry. I checked the records and none listed were in his age range nor were there any panthers or anything similar. The only registered feline is Professor McGonagall.”

“I wonder how many people who manage the transformation actually register,” Harry mused aloud. “If you think about it, we’ve met at least five animagi, and of them only Professor McGonagall is registered. My dad, Sirius, and Wormtail never registered. And Rita Skeeter is still unregistered as well.”

“That’s a good point,” Hermione admitted. “I guess those records probably aren’t of very much use since so few people have registered. And the Ministry must not have a way of tracking the magic if so many people have managed to get away without being caught. And Hogwarts students at that.”

“That’s true,” Ron interjected. “The Ministry can only track magic when used by a wand. I think they have very crude means of spotting accidental magic, but I’m not sure how. I heard Mum and Dad talking about it a while back.”

Harry laughed. “The Ministry is rather incapable of getting much of anything right, it seems.”

“You’ll hear no arguments here,” Neville agreed. “Even my Gran would probably agree with that.”

“Well all I can say is the sooner they get rid of Fudge, the better,” Harry grumbled.

“I wouldn’t hold your breath,” Hermione commented with a sigh, her shoulders slumping slightly.

“Why’s that?” Harry questioned her.

“It’s not easy to kick the minister out of office, and it has only happened once in recorded history. There is a very real chance that we could be stuck with him for the rest of his term,” Hermione lectured uneasily.

“And how long does he have left in his term?” Harry asked, already dreading the answer.

“About two and a half years,” Hermione told him after only a brief hesitation.

“Two and a half bloody years?” Harry asked incredulously. “The country’s bound to be in shambles by then. There’s no way…” Harry couldn’t articulate what he was feeling, so he just groaned and dropped his head into his hands, shaking it incessantly.

Meanwhile Ron griped a “Bloody hell,” which elicited a response from Hermione.

“Ron, language,” she scolded him.

Ron turned hurt eyes to her and accused, “How come you always correct me but never anyone else. Harry just cussed too, but you completely ignored it to yell at me.”

Harry had noticed the same thing, but he was not going to bring it up. He thought it was rather funny. Hermione opened and closed her mouth a few times before finding a suitable response and snapping back, “You’re a prefect, Ron. You should be setting a better example.” She seemed pretty pleased with her response and sat back on the bench giving Ron a smug smile.

Of course, Ron wiped the smirk off her face with his reply. “I may be a prefect, but Harry’s a professor.”

Hermione frowned for a long moment and looked back and forth between Ron and Harry. Finally, she sighed and said, “You’re right, Ron. I just forget, honestly. I’m sorry.” She then turned to Harry and said, “And shame on you for using that type of language in the Great Hall where anyone could hear you. Being a professor is a lot of responsibility, and you need to start taking it more seriously.”

“Unbelievable,” Harry muttered to himself, though it was loud enough for the others to hear. “You are just – ugh,” he groaned in frustration as he ran a hand through his hair. He knew that she had not said anything terrible to him; Hermione was like that all the time, but he found himself just getting frustrated with Hermione in general. And it really bugged him that she would pull his professorial status into it. She acted as if he regularly abused his privileges and did not take the role seriously. He knew that he needed to get out of there before he let himself get angry with her, so he rose up from his seat, gave his friends a curt nod, and strode out of the hall.

********************

Ginny had noticed their exchange, though she could not hear what was said, and shot Hermione a withering glance as she stood from the bench and followed Harry out of the hall. She was glad for the fact that it was a Saturday, so she would not have to worry about making it to class on time. In his frustration and anger, Harry’s stride was long and quick, too much for her to keep up with, let alone catch up to, without breaking into a jog. But she had a pretty good idea of where he was heading, so she followed at her own brisk walk.

She wondered whether or not he would even want her company but decided that the option should be left up to him. If he did not want her there, she had no doubt that he would not hesitate to tell her so. When Harry wanted to be left alone, he could be very vocal about it. He was a man who valued his privacy. But she was not going to let that deter her from trying. If she was turned away, she would go without complaint, stopping only long enough to assure him that she would be there for him if he needed her.

She headed up to the seventh floor into the corridor with the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy and found the door already in place. She strode toward it purposefully and twisted the doorknob unsuccessfully. She was unsurprised to find that it was locked. Harry was always careful about ensuring his privacy. She knocked loudly on the door as she called out, “Harry?” She took a couple steps back and waited. Nothing. She stepped forward and pounded her fist on the door as she shouted, “Harry!” A long moment passed, still nothing.

Had she been thinking more clearly, she would have expected this outcome. Any time she went to his office he always locked and warded the door, and she could only assume he did the same when he was training. She did not know exactly what spells he used, but she could only assume that they would ensure privacy. He would not be able to hear her calling for him, just as no sound would permeate out of the room.

She took a couple steps backward until her body rested against the stone wall opposite the door. What should she do now? She could stay in the hallway and wait for him to come out, but she quickly dismissed that idea. If anyone were to walk by, her presence was sure to raise some questions. It did not take a genius to know that Harry would not appreciate her drawing unneeded attention to the fact that he had locked himself in the Room of Requirement for one reason or another. Plus she did not fancy sitting on the cold, hard stone floor for who knows how long Harry would be in there doing Merlin knows what to alleviate his temper.

She did not want to return to the Common Room though. She did not much feel like being around her classmates at the moment, and she was sure to run across Hermione there as well. It was pretty sad to think that she dreaded running into one of her best friends, but there it was. Hermione had been the one girl that Ginny felt close to at Hogwarts, the one girl she could spill her secrets to. They had grown close over the past couple years, initially drawn together by their mutual frustration with one Ronald Weasley, though their frustrations were of entirely different veins, contrary to what Hermione might have thought at the time.

Their close friendship was rapidly unraveling before her very eyes. Ginny was not in any hurry to do anything about it, not with Hermione acting the way she was, even if she could understand why Hermione behaving in such a way. Harry was keeping a lot of secrets from both her and Ron. Hermione saw that and did not know what to make of it. For the past five years, Ron and she had been Harry’s two best friends, the only two people next to Sirius that he really trusted. Having Harry pull a one eighty on her really threw Hermione off, and she just assumed that something was not right with him. If Harry was not so secretive, she imagined Hermione would loosen up very quickly. This certainly did not excuse Hermione’s behaviour, but Harry had to know that he was at least partially at fault for the tension between them.

She did not blame Harry for that. She could certainly see why he was keeping things from Hermione. She completely agreed with his reasoning. He did not have to be so single-minded about it, however. She resolved to talk to him about that before things got any worse. Unfortunately, talking to Hermione was already proving to be useless. For being the cleverest witch in her age group, Hermione could be incredibly thick at times.

She relied too much on her books. Her books had told her how somebody should be dealing with grief over a lost loved one, and when reality played out differently, she was unable to cope. So what did she do? She tried to mould the world around her into her textbook wonderland. She tried to force Harry to grieve for Sirius the way the books told her he should be, and she lashed out at anybody who accepted Harry as he was. She was straining two of the most important friendships she had, and she did not show any signs of stopping. Ginny had tried to talk her out of her current course of action, but it was futile.

She was not even being particularly terrible to Ginny. It was more Ginny’s developing friendship with Harry that was causing the strain. Some people might think it wrong for Ginny to abandon her friendship with Hermione in that situation. After all, Hermione had technically been her friend for much longer. That was beside the point though. Harry needed her in a way that Hermione would probably never understand. She sure as hell would not figure it out in a book.

The fact that she was the only one that knew about his wandless magic, his animagus abilities (though Remus knew about the panther, he still did not know of the owl), the extent of his dueling abilities, and that bloody cupboard under the stairs…. Harry needed somebody he could trust. He never really had anybody he could place his absolute trust in, and Ginny was determined to be that person. Not only did she really want to be that person, but she felt she owed it to him as well. He had saved her life more than once now. She had learned the first of his secrets as a result of one of his rescues. And rather than trying to push her out or even obliviating her, he had welcomed her in, shared even more of himself with her. He was already beginning to trust her, and she was not about to blow that just because Hermione had a ruddy pole stuck up her arse.

Ginny shook her head clear of her thoughts. She needed someplace private where she would not be bothered by anyone. Gryffindor Tower was out of the question, and she did not want to risk an empty classroom. Anyone was liable to wander in. Then a thought struck her. There was one place she could go where only one other person could follow, and he was the one person whose company she would not mind at the moment. Quickly making her decision, Ginny made her way to the fifth floor and Harry’s office.

She shut the door behind her and plopped down into one of the chairs there as though this was her office and not Harry’s. With how much time she spent there, she was rather used to making herself comfortable and treating it as something of a private sitting room that she was always welcome to. She glanced over at the empty fireplace and lit a fire with a flick of her wand and a muttered “Incendio.”

Now that she was here and alone, she needed something to do. She thought of the essays she should be working on at the moment, but could not muster the motivation to return to her dorm room to retrieve them. This was her OWL year, and while her teachers seemed determined to cram in as much as they could before the break began, Ginny was not too worried just yet. She might have an extra busy day tomorrow as a result of her inactivity today, but she would not fall too far behind as a result.

She wracked her brain for something to do to pass the time, as she lifted her legs off the ground and curled them underneath herself. She thought back to the previous weekend which had been spent Christmas shopping in Hogsmeade. She went over the list of her closest friends and family to make sure she had not missed anybody. She had gotten presents for her mum, dad, all her brothers, her roommates, Hermione, Luna, and Neville. That left only one person, Harry, but she already knew what she was getting him.

She was determined to get the perfect gift for Harry. Not only had they become very close this term, but he had given her the best birthday present she had ever received back in August, and she was determined to repay the favor. Emerald, her pure black cat – she could not be called a kitten anymore as she had grown so much the past few months – was rather precious to Ginny. Not only did Ginny absolutely love cats to begin with, but she had always wanted a pet of her own.

That is exactly what Em was for her, a pet all her own. She was not just a family pet, or somebody else’s pet that she happened to get along well with, like Crookshanks. Emerald was her cat. Em seemed to enjoy being Ginny’s as well because the black cat was very particular about the company she kept. There was only one person besides Ginny that Em would ever approach and seek attention from, and Ginny approved of her choice.

Em was the absolutely most perfect gift anybody had ever given her. She did not hold it against her family that they had never given her anything as wonderful as Emerald. Her family did not have much money, so her parents normally resorted to homemade gifts. Ginny loved her Weasley jumpers and would not trade them for the world. And she appreciated every gift she received, even Ron’s chocolate frogs and other assorted candy. She laughed as she remembered something Harry had written to her over the summer.

Ron sent him Chudley Cannons memorabilia. It was so typically Ron. He bought for others what he wanted for himself. It was incredibly sweet but so misguided that she did not know whether to laugh or to smack her brother upside the head. She was just glad that he did not buy her anything of the Cannons. Candy was always put to good use.

She had thought long and hard about what she could possibly get Harry before the answer hit her like a ton of bricks. It was such an obvious gift in many ways, but she was sure that no one else would think to get it for him, nor would they pay the money for it. It had set her back a pretty galleon, and she had been forced to ask Fred and George to loan her some money, promising to work it off in some way. When she told them what the money was for, they told her not to worry about it. They owed Harry so much that they were glad to contribute to his gift, but she still insisted that she would find some way to pay them back.

She could not purchase it in Hogsmeade; the only place she knew of to go to was in Diagon Alley. She convinced Fred and George to put the order in for her as well, since they were conveniently in the neighbourhood with their own shop. It would arrive in plenty of time for Christmas. She hoped that he would like it as much as she thought he would. In the end she knew it was the thought that counted. She had seen the way Harry reacted to any gift he was given; he would love it if for no other reason than the fact that she had thought to give it to him. As much as he might joke about Ron giving him a Chudley Cannons poster, Ginny knew that he still appreciated the gift, not for itself but for the friendship and thought behind it.

Ginny still had a lot of time on her hands to kill and did not know what to do with herself. She let her eyes wander around his office as she slid her legs out from under herself and back to the ground. She saw his Firebolt hanging on the wall and stifled a grimace knowing she was the reason it was there and unusable. There were several books on a shelf against the wall, and she was tempted to look through them for anything of interest, but she felt that would be invading his privacy. She had not exactly been invited into his office, after all. She had let herself in, and she did not want to invade his privacy any more by going through his belongings without his permission, so she held back.

In the end, she decided to do what she almost always did when she was in Harry’s office. She let her magic flow within her and concentrated on her hand. She willed it into a golden paw, and moments later she was met with success. She had gotten better and better with her partial transformations over the past month since she had made the first change. She had also read several books that she found in the library to go along with her animagus training. Harry’s methods were completely unorthodox, but she could not deny the results. According to the books, it should take an experienced person months, possibly years, of intensive study and training to manage the transformation.

It should have been months of daily training to get to the point she was at now. After Harry had given her that boost by letting her feel his magic when he was geared up to transform, she had quickly caught on; the fact that she had been practicing wandless magic for the past couple months helped out in a lot of ways. She was now able to call her magic up with ease, and even if she could not cast spells at will the way Harry could, she could transform virtually every part of her body into that of a lioness.

She had yet to try a full transformation. She knew that it was a dangerous leap to make, but she felt that she was ready for it. She could change each hand, each foot into paws. She could change her head. She could change her back. What was stopping her from making the whole change? Nothing really. She had been discussing it with Harry recently, and they had decided that she was ready to give it a try soon.

She continued changing parts of her body back and forth. She changed her hand back and forth, then she included her full arm in it. She did the same with the other, then both at the same time. She repeated this process with her legs. She changed her left foot back and forth, then the whole leg. She did the same with the right, before doing both legs at the same time. She reverted back to human form, then changed all four limbs at once.

Bolstered by her continued success, Ginny got up from her seat and onto all fours on the ground. She changed everything but her head into a lioness, and had the odd sensation of being almost a full lion. With a small amount of effort, she returned to fully human form. Taking a deep breath and steeling herself, she made the full change. She felt her body changing, stretching in some places, shrinking in others, pulling and pushing. After a long moment, she was on all fours ready to pounce.

She experimented with expanding and retracting her claws for a moment. She had done this before when she had been experimenting with partial transformations, but she still marveled at the feeling and at the sight of her deadly claws. She gave a growl as she stalked around his office for a moment. She sat in front of the fire before she got into position to pounce yet again.

She jumped up onto the chair she had occupied only a couple minutes before and curled up into a ball as she purred to herself contentedly. She imagined Harry’s face as he walked into his office to find a lioness waiting for him and grinned as well as a feline could at the thought, her purring increasing in volume. Before she got carried away with herself, Ginny changed back into human form to be sure that she could. She was not nearly as quick or fluid with the transformation as Harry was. It took a long moment to complete, but she managed it just fine.

Ginny smiled to herself and changed back. She was beginning to grow fatigued with all the exercise she was putting her magic through, so she hopped up onto the sofa to lounge and rest until Harry arrived. She allowed her eyes to close and her body to relax in the warmth and softness of the cushions on the sofa.

Some time later, she was awakened by the sound of footsteps approaching in the hallway outside. Her ears perked up at the noise, and she sat up from the sofa. She jumped down onto the ground and crouched low, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. She watched the door avidly as she heard the footsteps just outside. The handle turned with a little click, and the door swung open.

Harry stood silhouetted in the doorway for a moment before he took a step inside. He did not notice her right away. He shut the door behind himself and turned toward his desk. With a low growl, she sprang towards him. With the minimal warning, Harry was beginning to move, but he did not get very far before Ginny was upon him. She knocked him to the floor and held him down with her paws on his chest as she looked deeply into his eyes and leaned forward to lick his cheek.

“Ginny?” he asked incredulously.

Ginny purred her response and rubbed her nose against his cheek.

“You did it,” Harry excitedly exclaimed. “That’s amazing. Congratulations.” He was beaming at her, yet still trapped underneath her weight. Then his face darkened a fraction. “Why didn’t you wait for me? The transformation is dangerous. Something could have happened.”

Ginny did her best to look repentant as she sunk her face down into his chest and put a paw over her eyes. Harry could not help the laugh that escaped him at her action. It was cute and incredibly funny. She gave him another lick on the cheek in appreciation. Harry looked down at her and lifted a hand to stroke her fur. She leaned into his hand, and Harry smiled as he scratched behind her ear. She purred into his chest as he continued to scratch.

Finally Harry set his hand back down at his side and asked, “You going to let me up sometime soon, or were you planning on pinning me to the floor all night? Not that that’s an altogether unappealing prospect,” Harry added with a teasing wink. With that said, Harry transformed into a panther and quickly freed himself out from underneath her grip. Before she had a chance to recover, he pounced on top of her and wrestled her to the ground playfully. He swatted his paws at her, careful to make sure that his claws were retracted so as not to injure her.

He had her on her back quickly, with his front paws pinning her chest to the ground. She lashed at him with her own front paw and her claws slashed across his face. He leapt away from her in pain, and quickly changed back to human form. “Merlin, Ginny!” he shouted as he clutched a hand to his bleeding face. He took his hand away from his face and saw that it was covered in his own blood.

In a moment, Ginny was back to her human self hurrying towards him. “I’m so sorry, Harry. I didn’t mean to,” she frantically gushed out in apology. “I’m not used to being in animal form. I just let my instincts take over for a second and…” she waved her hands in front of her gesturing towards Harry’s face.

“It’s alright,” he relented with a sigh. “I probably shouldn’t have tackled you like that, especially so soon after you had managed to transform. I just thought it would be fun to have another cat to play with.”

She took a step towards him and held her hand out to his face. “Let me take a look at that,” she said in a soft voice.

“No, that’s alright,” Harry replied. He was already beginning to call up his magic to heal the wound. He slowly dragged his hand across the slash marks marring his face as he let his magic loose on the wound. He could feel the skin mending beneath his fingertips.

Ginny marveled at Harry’s healing touch, as it appeared to her eyes, though her brain knew that he was casting spells through his hand. She took another step forward as his hand fell from his face, and she carefully reached out her own two hands to take a look at his newly healed features. “It looks much better, though you can still see a faint trace of the claw marks,” she remarked as she trailed her fingers down the pink lines that marked his skin. She looked into his eyes to find him staring back at her. “We need something to clean you off with, Mr. Potter. We can’t have you walking the halls with your face covered in blood, can we?”

Ginny tried to think of something she could do to help, but she was coming up blank. “The only thing I can think of is a scourgify, but I don’t think that’s the best solution for cleaning your face,” she finally told him.

He chuckled at her and said, “No, I don’t think that would be too comfortable.” With a wave of his hand he conjured a bowl and another flick had it filled with water. His last trick was to conjure a flannel, which he dunked into the bowl of water and lifted up to his face.

“Let me,” she said, reaching out for the towel. He hesitated as he looked back up into her eyes. After a short moment, when he still hadn’t made a move, she snapped, “You’ll have a rough time cleaning yourself with no mirror to look in. Besides, I’m the one responsible for this mess anyway. The least I can do is clean you up.”

He handed over the flannel to her and lifted up his chin. “Come over here,” she said, dragging him over to one of the armchairs. She forced him down as she perched on the arm of the chair, flannel still in hand. She turned his head away from her so she could get a better view of the offended cheek. Slowly, she reached up with the flannel and began to wipe at the blood staining his tanned skin. She noticed that all the time he spent outside running and flying had been kind to him. He was no longer as pale as he had been.

Ginny began with gentle wipes, but as some of the red staining his skin refused to budge, she began increasing in pressure slightly. Eventually, all traces of blood were gone. She turned his head this way and that, searching for more evidence. She found some more blood underneath his jaw bone and quickly cleaned it off. After giving him another once over, she deemed him clean and deposited the blood-stained flannel back into the conjured basin. “All better,” she declared, rising from her perch, suddenly aware of how close she was to him.

“Thank you,” he told her, only briefly glancing up to her before his gaze settled across the room. “So what were you doing in my office, anyway? And why did you change without me here?” he finally broke the silence that had settled between them.

“After you stormed out of breakfast, I followed you up to the Room of Requirement,” she told him as she deposited herself in the chair across from him. “By the time I got there, you had already locked the door and didn’t hear me calling for you. I didn’t feel like going to the Common Room and decided I wanted some privacy, and this was the best place I could think of. After I came here, I realized I had nothing to occupy myself with, so I started doing partial transformations, then decided to go for the full transformation. I didn’t plan on trying it, it just happened. I felt confident that I could do it, and it worked. I did it.” By the end she was marveling at her own achievement.

“I’m proud of you,” Harry told her honestly, his green gaze meeting her brown eyes. “Though I can’t say I’m surprised. I knew you’d get it in no time.”

“Thanks to you,” she replied. Harry scoffed at the idea, but she persisted. “I mean it, Harry. I’ve read a couple books on the animagus transformation, and there’s no way I should have progressed this far so fast. Even if I was training daily, I still shouldn’t have managed the full transformation so quickly.”

“That just proves that you’re no ordinary witch,” Harry replied, sitting back in his chair. “That’s got nothing to do with me.”

“Then who was the one teaching me,” Ginny inquired. “Who was the one who came up with the idea to teach me wandless magic first? That’s not in any of the books; that was your idea, Harry. And who was it that thought to show me what the magic felt like to make it easier on me? I didn’t even know something like that was possible before you did it.” Ginny’s tone was insistent; she wasn’t going to give this up.

“Neither did I,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “I just tried that on a whim.”

“And it helped me immensely,” she persisted. “I never would have managed this without you. Thank you, Harry.”

Harry waved away her comment. “There’s nothing to thank me for. I enjoyed our training, and I learned more about the transformation and my magic in the process.”

“Why can’t you just accept my thanks?” Ginny huffed. “Honestly, all I want is to thank you for your help, and you’re determined not to let me for some reason.”

Harry held his hand up in a placating gesture. “Alright, alright. I know I’m difficult. You don’t need to tell me, but if it makes you happy, then you are quite welcome. It’s really been fun to teach you.”

Ginny flashed him a bright smile. “Thank you, Harry. It’s too bad I learned so quickly, now we won’t have any excuses to get together so often,” she boldly teased.

“Oh, I’m sure I could come up with something,” Harry deadpanned.

“You do, do you?” Ginny inquired.

“Of course,” Harry replied. “I have quite an extensive knowledge of magic and defense. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find something I can teach you.”

“You know, Professor Potter, your ego seems to be inflating at a dangerous rate,” Ginny said quite seriously. “Perhaps it’s best if you have the extra time to come up with some spell to deflate yourself before all the hot air in your head has you floating away.”

Harry studied her for a moment, noticing the mischievous glint in her eye. “I don’t know, Miss Weasley, I think it might be a little too late for that,” Harry said as he stood up from his seat. He then tried something that he had never even thought to try before. He levitated himself several inches off the ground. “If only you had finished your transformation and thought up this plan sooner, I might have had the time to save myself. But alas, I fear we are too late.” Harry held a hand up to his forehead in a mock swoon.

“Oi, knock it off Potter,” Ginny fired as she rose from her seat and gave Harry a playful shove.

“Watch it, Weasley. I’m floating here,” Harry scolded.

“Which makes you all the more easy to push around,” Ginny retorted as she gave him another shove, pushing him a good meter back before Harry was able to stop himself.

“You’re in for it now,” Harry warned her as he dropped himself to the ground and instead levitated Ginny several inches into the air.

“Harry!” she shrieked. “What are you doing? Put me down.” She was waving her arms around trying to get her bearings, but she was not in any danger of falling. Harry had her steady in the air.

“The tables have turned, Miss Weasley,” Harry lectured as he slowly paced back and forth in front of her. “Next time you might think twice before you try pushing around your wise and powerful teacher.”

“Forgive me, oh wise one,” Ginny playfully begged. “I do not know what came over me. Please, I will do anything you ask of me.”

Harry smirked. “Careful what you promise, Miss Weasley. You never know what I might ask.” He waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively, and her face flooded with heat at the implication. “But you don’t have to worry about that. I think I can settle for you bowing down before me to ask for my forgiveness.”

Harry lowered Ginny to the ground and watched her expectantly. Ginny took a moment to regain her bearings on her feet before she turned to Harry and met his gaze. “If you think I’m just going to bow down before you, Harry, you’ve got another think coming.”

“I believe you promised that you would do anything I asked of you,” Harry returned. “I don’t think that is too much to ask.” When Ginny did not make a move but continued to challengingly meet his gaze, Harry took matters into his own hands. “I said, bow,” Harry commanded as he again reached out with his magic to force Ginny into a bow.

************

An overwhelming sense of déjà vu flashed through Harry’s mind, and his playful smirk was wiped clean off his face. Suddenly, he was picturing himself in a graveyard surrounded by figures in dark robes and masks. Harry’s leg was throbbing painfully from his encounter with the spider guarding the Triwizard Tournament Cup. He was resigning himself to his own death but refusing to give in without a fight, refusing to let Voldemort play with him.

Voldemort wanted a duel, a formal duel. He instructed Harry to bow, but Harry refused to give him the satisfaction. Voldemort’s high pitched voice pierced the chilly air, “I said, bow.” And Harry’s spine was bent forward as though an invisible hand had ruthlessly forced it forward. He was surrounded by the laughter of the Death Eaters.

And suddenly Harry was back in his office again. Ginny was lifting her head up with a grin. “That’s a neat little trick there, Potter. If I didn’t know any better I’d say you had prac–tice.”

**********

Ginny’s teasing tone left her as she noticed Harry’s complete change in demeanor. Her smile vanished as she rushed forward to close the distance between them. “Harry? Harry, what’s wrong?” she asked him softly and urgently, reaching out a hand to squeeze his shoulder.

Harry’s eyes flicked to hers, and she was caught completely off guard by the intensity of his gaze. His green eyes were like a window into his haunted soul. His pain was laid bare before her, and she felt a heavy pressure descend upon her chest making it hard for her to breathe. The only coherent thought she could manage was ‘What happened?’ He had been completely fine and playful one second, and the next he was bereft.

Harry cast his eyes downward and began mumbling rapidly and almost incoherently. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m so sorry. I’m really not like him at all, I swear it.” He was shaking his head repeatedly.

“Shh, Harry,” Ginny cooed soothingly, at a complete loss as to what was going on. She gripped his shoulders and guided him to the sofa. She forced him to sit down, then for lack of a better idea climbed right onto his lap. She braced herself with one knee on either side of him and tilted his face up to meet hers. “Tell me what’s wrong, Harry.”

He just stared vacantly, as if he did not even see her there right in front of him. He made no indication that he had even heard her question, but the expression on his face was very telling. There was horror there and shame. She had no idea what could cause him to react in such a way, all she knew was that he needed some comfort.

“It’s okay, Harry. I’m not mad at you,” Ginny told him sincerely as she brushed a hand across his cheek and through his hair, hoping to allay his fears. Honestly, she had no idea what she would even be upset about. He had apologized for something though, so she hoped that he would calm down once he realized she was not upset about anything. After a moment she leaned forward and pulled him into a hug, one of her hands continued to softly stroke his hair, the other was gently caressing his back. Harry slowly brought his arms up around her and tucked his head down into her shoulder. He seemed to be holding on as if for dear life.

Eventually he began to relax his hold on her. When she felt his body start to loosen up, she leaned back and asked him again, “What’s wrong, Harry?”

His ghostly green eyes met her warm brown ones yet again as he answered hesitantly, “Voldemort. He – I didn’t mean – I’m not like him. I’m sorry I…”

“Well of course you’re not like him,” Ginny blurted out, completely taken aback at his response. She had jumped back slightly in surprise at his statement, nearly overbalancing herself. Once she had righted herself she asked, “Why would you ever think otherwise? Even better, why are you worried that I would ever think so?”

“I…made you bow – you didn’t want to, but I made you do it. I didn’t really mean it. I’m sorry,” Harry told her with an alarming sincerity.

“Shh. It was just a joke, Harry. We were just playing around. I’m not mad at you. Why has this shaken you up?” She spoke softly and soothingly, hoping to find out whatever it was that was troubling him so much. She was feeling uneasy herself, seeing Harry, the epitome of strength, crumble so quickly before her eyes, and she was determined to find out what had caused it and to help him move past it.

“It was just like in the graveyard,” Harry answered in a haunted voice that she could not associate with him. “He made me. I didn’t want to do it, but he made me. There was nothing I could do to stop him, and I did the same thing to you. But I didn’t mean to; I wasn’t thinking.” His eyes were beseeching her own for forgiveness for his assumed transgressions.

“Graveyard?” she questioned. “You mean when Voldemort was reborn?” He nodded in response. “He made you bow to him?” she continued to prod. Another nod. “And now you think that because you made me bow to you, that you’re no better than him?” she asked, cottoning on. Another dejected nod. “Oh Harry,” she cried, scooting further forward on his lap and taking his face into her hands, bringing her own so close that their noses nearly bumped. She left him little choice but to meet her gaze dead on. “You are nothing like him. I could never think that of you, and you should never think that of yourself. Voldemort made you bow to him because he wanted to exalt himself while demeaning you. You are not like that. You made me bow to be playful and have fun. Right?”

Harry nodded in her hands as he searched her face for any signs of insincerity. She must have passed his test for he offered her a small smile as he said, “You said his name.”

She stared at him for a full minute before comprehending what he had just said. “So I did,” she admitted, surprised at herself.

“Thanks, Ginny,” he told her earnestly He dropped his head to her shoulder and wrapped both of his arms around her again, pulling her into a tight hug. “What would I ever do without you?” he murmured near her ear.

As he released her from the hug, she slid off of him onto her knees and offered him a small smirk. “Wallow in self pity, no doubt.”

“You’re probably right,” Harry admitted. “I guess it’s a good thing I’ve got you around to set me straight.”

“I don’t know how you ever got on without me,” she teased, giving him a playful pat on his knees as she stood up.

Harry stuck his tongue out at her. “Let me see you transform again,” Harry said to her.

“If you insist,” Ginny said with a fraudulent sigh, happy for the excuse to move past that topic. A moment later a beautiful, golden furred lioness stood in front of the sofa.

************

Harry studied her for a long moment. When the firelight caught her just right, he could see a reddish tint to her fur, no doubt in honour of her fiery red hair.

He took her face in his hands to look more closely, scratching behind her ears while he was at it. He smirked amusedly when she began purring in response. To his surprise he discovered what he guessed were her identifying marks. There were a series of brown flecks across the fur on her face. It appeared that even in lion form she could not escape her freckles. He let out a bellow of a laugh. “You’ve got freckles,” he told her once he recovered from his laughing fit.

Ginny pulled her head out of his hands and reverted back into human form. “What do you mean? And why are you laughing?” she demanded. She was standing in front of him with her hands on her hips looking every bit as intimidating as her mother.

Harry was not cowed. He knew that she was all bark. She would only bite if he gave her plenty reason to, and he liked to think that he was not foolish enough to push her that far. “You have brown specks in the fur on your face. I think they’re your identifying marks.” He studied her face for a long moment. “They match the freckles on your face,” Harry added with a smug grin.

“Harry James Potter,” Ginny shouted. Harry continued to look entirely unrepentant. “I manage to transform into a lioness, and all you can do is tease me about my freckles?”

“Well, it was just a thought I had that was funny,” Harry replied, still grinning like an idiot.

“Oh, and what thought was that?” Ginny demanded.

“Well with all the pranking we’ve been doing I thought that it would be cool to follow in my father’s and Sirius’s footsteps,” Harry explained. “With Fred and George gone, this school is short on mischief, and I thought that it was about time the Marauders made a return. I was planning on bringing it up with you as soon as you managed the transformation since the Marauders were all animagi.”

Ginny’s face softened immediately. “Oh Harry, that’s so sweet. I’d love to be a Marauder with you.” As quick as her face had softened, it changed again to a look of suspicion. “That still doesn’t explain why you were laughing at me.”

“Well, I knew that we would eventually have to pick out Marauder names for ourselves to go along with our animals. When I saw your freckles, I immediately thought of how funny it would be to call you Freckles,” Harry told her while struggling to control his mirth.

“Harry James Potter!” Ginny shrieked for the second time in as many minutes. “You will wipe that thought out of your head, or I’ll do it for you. You are not going to call me Freckles.” Her hands were again on her hips, and she stamped her foot down for emphasis. Harry knew that she was getting close to the point where she would hex first and ask questions later.

He held up his hands in front of himself in a placating gesture. “I wouldn’t actually try to name you that,” Harry assured her. “But it just popped into my head, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Freckles would hardly be a proper name for a Marauder.”

“Yeah, well let’s see you transform again. Maybe I can find something to make fun of you for,” Ginny grumbled, though most of her fire seemed to have died out.

“You’ve already seen me transformed,” Harry told her.

“Yes, but I didn’t get a chance to take a good look at you. You were a little busy saving my life at the time, remember?”

“Oh. Right.” Harry shook his head at himself. That was an obvious one, really. Sometimes he wondered why he spoke without thinking first. “All right then.” Harry transformed into a panther and trotted over to Ginny for inspection.

Ginny plopped into the nearest armchair and took his face into her hands to examine his panther form. “Well the green eyes are the most obvious thing. That’s the first thing I noticed when I first saw you.” She looked closely at his fur. “Hmm,” she murmured as she was looking at his forehead. Harry backed up a little and looked into her face with what he hoped was a curious expression. He never knew what he would look like while in animal form. It must have come across somewhat successfully, for Ginny explained herself. “Oh, it’s nothing Harry. I just kind of expected there to be a mark or something where your scar would be, but there’s nothing. I suppose you’ll be happy to hear that.”

She took another moment to look at him. She smirked as she noticed one other peculiarity of his form. “Well, you look pretty normal overall. Except…your fur sticks up at an odd angle up here,” she said as she reached to the back of his head.

After a short moment, Harry was again standing before her. “No! Really? I thought I had finally rid myself of that problem when I grew my hair out. It figures that it would come back to haunt me in animal form,” Harry said disgustedly.

“Now, now,” Ginny soothed. “It’s nothing to get worked up about. I always liked your hair before,” she said with a far away look in her eyes. “Not that I don’t like your hair now. It’s just not you. It looks good the way it is now, but before it was just uniquely you. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.”

“Er, thank you?” Harry said uncertainly. “I can always change it back.”

“Don’t be silly,” Ginny dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand. “You shouldn’t change your appearance for me. Keep your hair however you like it. Honestly, it does look good the way it is now.”

“You sure?” Harry asked in a rare moment of insecurity. He worried that maybe his hair really did not look as good as he thought. What if he had been walking around for the past few months looking like an idiot?

“Are you blind, Harry?” Ginny asked him in response, completely confusing Harry.

“What do you mean?”

“Honestly, don’t you notice the way half the girls in this castle stare at you?” Ginny asked in exasperation.

Harry just gave a half-hearted shrug as he sat back onto the sofa. “People always stare at me. When I was little it was because I was always wearing Dudley’s giant cast-offs and my aunt and uncle told everyone I was a miscreant. When I entered the Wizarding World it was because some dark wizard failed to kill me as a baby. Since then I’ve been stared at for being the Heir of Slytherin, the Champion who cheated his way into the Triwizard Tournament, the boy who lived while Cedric died, and the crazy, attention-seeking, lie-spreading kid the Daily Prophet painted me as last year. I know that people stare at me; I just stopped paying attention.”

Ginny heaved a great sigh. “Seriously Harry, you look great. You look so much different than last year that I was startled when I first saw you. And you know that Ron and Hermione had even worse reactions. It’s not for bad reasons, either. You look great, more mature. You look like a man, Harry. You’re a man among boys, and the girls have noticed.”

“And changing my hair did that?” Harry asked thickly.

Ginny let out a snort of laughter. “Hardly. But the hair adds to the change. There’s so much that changed that I don’t even know where to start. You grew some over the summer, in height a little bit, but mostly just in your frame. You were always such a scrawny little thing, no offense, but you were. You’ve filled out though. All that time running and working out has done wonders for you. But more than that, you carry yourself differently. You’re no longer the boy who was nervous and insecure, always shying away from the spotlight. You’re confident, self-assured. You’re indifferent to the attention people pay to you; you even admitted so yourself. It all adds up to paint a very different picture than the Harry Potter we’re all used to seeing.”

“I never really thought about any of that,” Harry said honestly.

“That’s part of the appeal, Harry. You’re this great, good looking guy, and you don’t even realize it. You don’t play yourself up like most guys try to, and you have plenty more to brag about than any other student here. And Merlin, Harry, you’re powerful. People are naturally attracted to power, and you’ve got it in spades. When you let me watch you fight that mock duel in the Room of Requirement, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve never seen anybody duel like that, and you do it all without a wand as well.”

“But nobody else knows that or has seen that,” Harry objected. “Nobody knows what I can do except for you.”

Ginny gave him a sympathetic look that was tinged with a bit of frustration. Harry just could not seem to understand the way other people saw him. “They don’t need to see that to know you’re powerful. A good chunk of them see it every time you step forward to teach the D – HA. Everybody saw you in the Triwizard Tournament. You were years younger than everybody else, but you still managed to keep up and even surpass the rest of them. People see it in your classes. From what I hear you’ve been giving Hermione a run for her money, and that’s saying something.”

Ginny leaned forward in her chair. “I want you to really listen to me when I say this, Harry. You’re a great guy. You’re a great leader. You’re powerful and strong, yet kind and compassionate. You’re self-confident, yet modest almost to a fault. And you are without a doubt one of the most attractive guys at Hogwarts. Someday you’re going to make some girl extremely happy, Harry.”

‘And I wish it was me.’ The thought came unbidden to Ginny’s mind, and she sat back as the full reality of everything she had said came back to her. It was true; she did wish it could be her. She had long ago given up her crush on Harry Potter, if you consider two years to be a long time anyway. At the end of her third year she had officially given it up and began to concentrate more on herself. She still cared for Harry – she could never deny that – but she let go of any romantic notions. If he was to be a part of her life, it would be as a friend.

Since she made that decision, she had not really allowed herself to give much thought to anything beyond friendship with Harry. She was eventually able to convince herself that she was indeed over Harry Potter for good, and she may very well have been. Then she just went and fell for him all over again, but it was different this time. She was not a little star struck fan girl, and Harry was not a twelve-year-old boy who was very easily embarrassed and had no clue when it came to girls.

This time they were friends. To be perfectly honest, he had quickly become her best friend. They got along very well. They never lacked for conversation, and they always had fun with each other. She had never seen Harry have so much fun in any of her previous four years at Hogwarts, and she had been watching, though she would never admit that to anyone. She knew she could not take the full credit for Harry’s enjoyment that year, but she could not help but think that she had at least played an important part in it.

Over the past several months, she had gotten to know the real Harry Potter, not the romanticized version of him she had kept in her head in her earlier years. The funny thing was that the two were hardly different. The real Harry had all of the same qualities that her dream Harry had, but he came with so much more depth. This Harry had a tragic past that went way beyond the death of his parents. The real Harry had the worst life of anybody she knew, yet he was a good person in spite of it. The reality of it only made Harry more appealing.

She could hardly believe it, but her imaginary Harry failed to live up to the real thing. Harry was not perfect by any means. Last year had been a true testament to that, with his broodiness and temper. She had been expecting a lot more of the same this year, but Harry had other things in mind. He bounced back from yet another tragedy in his life far better than anybody could have hoped. He was rash as well, never willing to sit back and let others handle things. The fact that he insisted on sneaking out of the castle to help the Order fight on Halloween was tribute to that,. but that was also one of the things she loved about him. He was unwilling to stand aside while others were hurt or in danger. He never stopped to consider his own safety when he saw others in need of help.

Ginny was broken out of her thoughts when Harry cleared his throat a little uneasily and said, “Well what about you?”

Ginny stared at him for a long minute, trying to figure out just what in the name of Merlin he was talking about. She gave up and asked, “What about me?”

“If you’re so keen to pick up on the way people have been looking at me, then surely you’ve noticed the amount of attention you’ve been receiving,” Harry answered with a smirk.

Ginny laughed somewhat uncomfortably. “Me? Yeah right. You don’t have to say that, Harry.”

“If you can key me in, why can’t I do the same for you? You know, I had quite a few death glares sent my way after I asked you to the ball right away before anybody else even had a chance. I was watching my back for days half expecting to be hexed every time I turned a corner,” Harry told her only slightly jokingly.

“Ha ha, Harry,” Ginny shot back. “Very funny. But I was being serious.”

“And what makes you think I wasn’t?” Harry asked right back. “Okay, so I didn’t actually fear for my life or anything, but I did receive quite a few nasty glares in the days following the announcement of the ball. And that doesn’t even count your brother.”

“I think you’re embellishing a little bit, Harry. I can believe a couple,” Ginny replied self-consciously.

“And there’s that modesty,” Harry retorted with a grin. “Seriously, Gin. You’ve grown up a bit yourself. Sure, you’re still tiny, but if you don’t mind my saying so, you’ve grown up in all the right places,” Harry told her with a waggle of his eyebrows. “You’re gorgeous, Gin. I know I’ll be the envy of many guys at the ball in a couple weeks.”

“So is that all I am then,” Ginny asked him, “a hot body for guys to leer at and parade around?”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Harry scolded. “You are one of the strongest people I know.”

“How am I strong?” Ginny asked, thinking back to the weakness she had showed in her first year.

“Did I ever tell you about what happened after I chased Bellatrix Lestrange that night we went to the Department of Mysteries?” Harry asked suddenly.

“Umm…no, I don’t think so,” Ginny hesitantly replied.

“Well a lot happened, actually, but Voldemort showed up, and he and Dumbledore dueled. Then, after a bit, Voldemort disappeared and possessed me,” Harry told her, watching her closely.

Her eyes snapped to his at his last statement, sparkling fiercely, but she said nothing. “I cannot even begin to describe what that feels like, nor would I need to describe it to you. He possessed me for not a couple minutes, and I couldn’t take it. I was ready to beg Dumbledore to just kill me and be done with it after those short minutes, but you fought him off for months, Ginny. Months. You want to talk about strength. That is strength. I wouldn’t have had the strength to go through that, especially not alone. You don’t give yourself nearly enough credit.” Ginny looked away from Harry as he began talking again, but he refused to avert his gaze and was still watching her, waiting for her reaction.

Ginny was silent for a long time, her gaze plastered to the floor in front of her. After several long, silent minutes she finally looked up to meet his gaze, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears. “I was weak,” she proclaimed softly. “I was afraid to tell anybody about it. If I hadn’t been so stupid and weak, I never would have fallen into that trap in the first place, and I would have gone for help before it escalated so much.”

“Bollocks!” Harry interrupted standing from the sofa to pace around his office. “Yes, you made some mistakes. You were naïve and a little foolish, understandable in an eleven year old girl away from her home for the first time. You fell for a trick set up by one of the cleverest wizards in the world, but you were never weak. You were stubborn and foolish not to seek help, but you fought him off for months, Ginny. A weaker person would have given up long before you.”

“But that’s not where your real strength is showcased,” Harry continued before she had a chance to respond. “You’ve shown your real strength every day since. Look at you. You have every reason to hate the world, to lash out at it for what happened to you, but you haven’t. You spent months in his clutches, and you didn’t let it destroy you. If there’s anybody else that can understand what you went through, it’s me. And frankly, I don’t know how you’ve managed to cope, yet you have. You managed to get through that ordeal without losing your spirit, and I’m amazed every day I see you by that strength. So don’t you dare try to tell me that you’re weak.”

Ginny rose from her chair and stopped Harry’s pacing as she encircled him in her arms, laying her head against his chest. Harry returned the hug, squeezing her tightly. They stood that way just holding each other for a long minute before Ginny leaned up and whispered into his ear, “Thank you.”

Harry shivered slightly as he felt her warm breath on his ear. They broke apart a moment later. Ginny looked up at him a little nervously. “As long as we’re having these serious discussions, there was something else I wanted to bring up with you.”

“What’s that?” Harry asked her in a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

“Well, it’s about Hermione,” Ginny began, “and Ron to a lesser extent. I know that you’ve been having issues with the two of them all term, and I know it’s not necessarily my place to get involved, but I hate watching you continue to grow further and further apart. I think you’re being a little too hard on them.”

Harry moved to interrupt, but Ginny held up a hand. “Wait, just let me clarify that. They’ve both been acting unreasonable all term long, but they’ve had some reason to react in that way. You made a conscious decision to keep secrets from them. I know why you did it, and I fully agree with your reasoning and your decision, but they don’t know what’s going on with you or why you’ve put that distance between them. That doesn’t excuse how they’ve both been acting, but you can’t lay all the blame on them. You did start all of this in motion.”

“Well what do you propose I do?” Harry asked her a bit testily.

“There’s no need to get snippy,” Ginny scolded gently.

Harry sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m just so frustrated with them right now.”

“I know,” Ginny commiserated. “Truth is, so am I. But if you don’t do something, things will just keep deteriorating until you can’t even stand spending time with them, and I know you don’t want that.”

“So what can I do?” Harry asked.

“You have to find something to share with them. It can be something insignificant to you, but it needs to seem like something more important to them. Especially Hermione. You need to make them feel like you still trust them and you’re still confiding in them. They need that reassurance that you’re not just abandoning them.”

Harry nodded thoughtfully. “You really think that will work?”

Ginny smiled reassuringly at him. “I do.”

Harry stepped forward and wrapped his arms back around her in a tight hug. “Thank you,” he said emotionally. He felt lighter somehow, as if his burden just lessened slightly now that he had some idea how to make things better with his two former best friends. He had not realized just how much their fallout had affected him until that moment.

“You’re welcome, Harry,” Ginny replied as she returned the hug in kind.

They broke apart, and Harry grinned at her. “Right, now that we got all that mushiness out of the way. You want to go for a romp in the forest?”

“What? Now?” Ginny asked him as she perched on the arm of the chair she had only recently vacated.

“Why not? Unless you’re afraid of getting caught,” Harry suggested, cocking an eyebrow at her.

“I wouldn’t make a very good Marauder if I was,” Ginny said.

“That’s what I like to hear. Let me grab my invisibility cloak, then we can sneak down into the forest. Once we’re inside, we should be fine to drop the cloak and transform. From there it’s all fun and games.”

“You sound like you’ve done this before,” Ginny replied playfully.

“You might say that,” Harry returned with a grin. “Let’s go.”

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