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Free Life Posted on 8/16/2014 1:03:46 AM
Chapter 7: 4000 words and counting
Hero Posted on 3/25/2012 7:32:33 PM
Chapter 6 Chance and Choice: 3,600 words and counting
Long Lost Brother Posted on 4/21/2010 2:57:30 PM
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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 16: A Dual-Pronged Attack
Ronald Weasley was sitting next to his date, Hermione Granger, at the Yule Ball. He rather liked the sound of that; Hermione Granger was his date. He had wanted to ask her the moment the ball had been announced, but her response concerned him. He was not sure she would want to go with him and worried that if he asked and she said no, it would have made their friendship awkward. Luckily, that had not been an issue. She had eagerly agreed to go with him and was now his date. He wondered if she was having a good time. He wished he had shown more interest when his mum had tried to teach him how to dance. At the time it had seemed a pointless waste of energy, but now that he was at the ball with Hermione, the idea did not seem quite so trivial.

Ron's eyes drifted across the dance floor and locked onto his little sister and best mate. He could not believe Harry had learned to dance, and from McGonagall at that. That had to be awkward. Still, he had learned to dance and was ruddy good at it too. Hermione had commented on his dancing several times throughout the night, and, while he could not deny Harry's ability, that did not mean she had to keep mentioning it.

His eyes narrowed slightly at the couple. Harry and Ginny had been dancing all night long, and, despite what Harry might have said, they looked anything but innocent. Harry was holding Ginny rather closely, and they had been looking at each other funnily all night. He really was not sure what to think. What if they became a couple? What if he saw them snogging? A shiver ran down his spine at the thought. Then again, they both looked so happy. Should he not be happy for them? His eyes followed them as they walked off the dance floor towards the double doors leading to the Entrance Hall. Where did they think they were going?

His thoughts were interrupted by his own date. Ron sighed. He really did not want to dance, but he knew Hermione did. After all, she had been asking him to dance all night. He had given in a couple times already and had hoped that would satisfy her, but he was not that lucky. Taking a deep breath, he turned to Hermione who was again trying to coax him onto the dance floor. “Alright, Hermione,” he relented.

She smiled gratefully and led him by the hand to the dance floor. He awkwardly placed one arm at her waist, the other Hermione kept cupped in her own hand. He did his best to keep up with her and not step on her toes from that part forward. Not really enjoying the actual dancing, he looked to his partner, the reason he was on the dance floor. He smiled; he supposed he could suffer through it if it made her happy. She returned his smile, causing his stomach to jolt.

Now that his eyes had left his feet and traveled to Hermione, he found he could not tear his eyes away. He felt he should say something but struggled to find an appropriate topic. He did not want to embarrass himself, first and foremost, so he tried to find something he could compliment her on that would not put himself out there too much. A moment later, he found his target. “That’s a pretty necklace,” he told her honestly. It was on a silver chain, with a silver pendant holding some sort of blue stone. Jewelry was not exactly his area of expertise, but the necklace looked beautiful on her.

Hermione blushed and stammered out, “Th-thanks.”

Something about her reaction puzzled Ron. She looked nervous and almost…guilty? It was a foreign look on Hermione because she hardly ever did anything to feel guilty about, but Ron had seen the look enough times on his siblings and other people to recognize it. He wondered why she should possibly feel guilty. After all, it was only a necklace. His curiosity began to get the better of him. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear it before. Was it a present?”

She nodded uncomfortably. “From your parents?” he assumed.

She hesitated a moment before shaking her head. “No.”

Ron puzzled over that for a moment. If not from her parents, then who? “Who gave it to you?” he asked curiously.

Hermione squirmed uncomfortably under Ron’s questions, only making him all the more curious. She did not respond right away. “Hermione?” Ron asked tentatively, wondering what was bothering her so much.

She sighed. “It was a present from Viktor,” she finally answered.

Ron froze, and Hermione had no choice but to stop dancing as well. Ron's face flushed a deep shade of red in anger and resentment. “So Vicky sends you presents then, does he?” he spat. He could just imagine that Bulgarian pillock slipping his arms around her neck to clasp the necklace.

“Most friends tend to do that for each other,” Hermione retorted, her face reddening in indignation.

“Oh yeah?” Ron returned, his voice rising. It felt like his face was on fire, and his chest felt constricted. Images of his fourth year flooded into his mind. Hermione and Krum were out on the dance floor. His arms were wrapped tightly around her waist; she wore a bright smile as she looked up into his eyes. Ron vigorously shook his head to clear the images. “And do all your friends give you jewelry?” he demanded. “I don’t know why you agreed to even come with me. You should have just asked Vicky to come with you. I’m sure he would have dropped everything to come be with you.”

He did not wait for her response but stormed off the dance floor and out of the Great Hall. Ron moved through the halls in a long stride. He was not particularly paying attention to where he was going. He went up several staircases, down several corridors. He eventually stopped in front of a suit of armour, turned, and punched the breast plate with all his might. The action did nothing to soothe his anger. In fact, the pain now throbbing through his hand only served to make him angrier and more frustrated.

Why did he ever let himself think he stood a chance with her? What could she possibly see in him, especially when she could have someone like Krum? What could he ever offer her? He was upset with Hermione and furious with Krum, but he was mostly just angry at himself. He should have known better. He did know better; he just let his feelings for Hermione cloud his better judgment. He paced back and forth in front of the suit of armour for a couple minutes before stopping and leaning against the wall across from the armour. He slowly sank down the wall until he was sitting on the cold, stone floor. He cradled his right hand in his lap, wincing at the pain. He remained sitting there for a while, he had no idea how long, before he finally stood up and trudged his way back up to Gryffindor Tower.

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

Dumbledore watched his students dancing and laughing and enjoying themselves and smiled to himself. The Yule Ball really had been an excellent idea. He would have to remember to thank Minerva for thinking of it. He had made a point to keep a close watch on Harry throughout the night to gauge how he was handling things. He was most happy to see that the boy was able to lay aside his worries and enjoy himself. Indeed, he and Miss Weasley seemed to be having quite a time together.

He had wondered where Harry had learned to dance like that. His relatives had obviously not taught him, and he had not danced during the last ball. He guessed that he had learned specifically for this night, perhaps to impress the young Miss Weasley. He had been dancing with Minerva during the first dance when Harry first showcased his newfound talent, and he did not miss the proud look his own dance partner shot the boy. He smiled, glad to see that Harry found himself comfortable enough to learn to dance from her. Most students were afraid of the stern head of Gryffindor, and not without good reason. But she really was a soft and kind-hearted woman underneath her exterior. Only a rare student ever cracked through it to see the real Minerva.

He noticed when Harry and Miss Weasley left the hall, but he was not worried. The two had been dancing most of the night and most likely desired some fresh air. If they desired privacy as well, he was not going to intrude on them. Indeed, he thought it might be good for Harry, for the both of them. Everyone could use an extra source of comfort in these times.

He also noticed with disappointment the argument and fallout between Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger. He sighed. He, like everyone else in the castle, knew that those two had been dancing around each other for years, figuratively speaking, of course. He chuckled to himself as he pictured them literally dancing around each other as they argued. He had hoped that the ball would serve to bring them closer together and had thought that it was working. Apparently he was mistaken. His eyes drifted around the rest of the hall, taking in all the dancing couples. He could see smiles and looks of affection being passed between friends and dates. But most of all, he could see the majority of his students all safe from the perils of the war raging outside the gates of Hogwarts.

He shifted his gaze upward as he saw the students start to shift their attentions to the ceiling and was as surprised as the rest of the school’s population, both student and faculty, when the night sky, mirrored on the ceiling of the Great Hall, lit up with the bright, colourful sparks of fireworks. He immediately recognized some of them as the work of Messrs. Fred and George Weasley. As he watched the show in unabashed enjoyment, he silently wondered whether the display had been their own initiative or a favour for another. Nevertheless, he was grateful for it. It did make the evening seem a little more magical.

As the last of the lights died down, he felt more than sensed Professor McGonagall approach. “Good evening, Minerva,” he greeted warmly. “Did you enjoy the show?”

“It was an unexpected but certainly pleasant touch,” she commented complimentarily. Her tone seemed to indicate that she assumed he was the one responsible for it.

“Indeed, I shall have to remember to thank the Weasley twins and whoever may have convinced them to do it,” he returned mildly.

“You mean you didn’t know?” the professor asked in surprise.
“I was as surprised and delighted as everyone else,” he told her.

“Hmm,” she answered noncommittally. After a moment of silence, she spoke. “Well I can easily narrow the number of candidates down to four,” she mused aloud. “Miss Granger seems the least likely. She has never been fond of the Weasley twins’ antics, and she would ask for permission first. Mr. Weasley doesn’t strike me as the type to set something like this up. Besides, as he stormed out of here in a fit of anger not long before they began, I think it is safe to count him out.”

She paused as she thought over the last two possibilities. “It’s hard to choose the more likely between Harry and Miss Weasley.” He did not miss her informal reference to the boy. “Last year, I would have easily chosen Miss Weasley as the more likely, but Mr. Potter went to great pains to make sure this would be a fun evening for both himself and his date. I’d be more inclined to think he set this up.”

“Indeed,” the Headmaster replied. “I think you might just be right. Harry has seemed much livelier and upbeat this term, wouldn’t you say?” he asked, genuinely interested in hearing her response. He was sure she had been the one to teach him to dance, especially after seeing Harry approach her and lead her out to the dance floor. He had not been aware that was going on, and he was curious as to what information he could garner from his trusted colleague and friend about the boy who was so important to their cause.

“I would have to agree,” she replied easily. “I must admit I had expected him to take the loss of Sirius hard. I had been fully prepared to find a depressed and sullen boy who was lost in the world. Instead I found a mature young man, confronting his loss and pain and stepping into his role as an adult. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve kept my eye on him. He has had his moments where things have gotten to him; in particular he seemed to have been at odds with Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger for a time. It is only natural that he would feel the loss as the distance grows between them. I fear that as he grows up, he is growing apart from his friends. Normally I wouldn’t be bothered as that happens often, but his friends are the only real family he has,” she said, and he noticed her eyes hardening at her last statement. He had hoped that she might one day see things from his point of view, but it appeared she would never quite forgive him for leaving Harry with his aunt and uncle.

She continued, “But I have also noticed him growing closer to Miss Weasley. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s already replaced Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger as his best friend. Mr. Longbottom seems to be much closer to him and the others as well.”

Dumbledore nodded absently. He already knew all of this. He was hoping he could glean something new from her. He was rather surprised that she had not been forthcoming with how much time she had been spending with Harry, with his dancing lessons and all. He would have to talk to her about that but knew that now was neither the time nor place for that conversation.

They stood together companionably, watching over their charges as they danced the night away. It was some time later, with only about fifteen minutes left until the end of the ball, when they heard loud noises coming from the entrance hall. The two professors glanced worriedly towards each other before setting off to investigate the commotion.

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

Ginny was frantic with worry. She had only once before seen Harry in the throes of a vision. She had not known what to do then and felt even more helpless now. Harry was thrashing around wildly as if trying to escape from something. One hand kept flying up to his scar which had turned a livid red, a stark contrast to his now pallid face. She tried to get close to him but had to back away to avoid his flailing limbs. She crawled behind him and approached him from his head. She was able to get close enough to reach his head and ran her fingers through his hair. She inched a little closer to make the action easier and sat directly above his head. She kept one hand in his hair and pressed the other over his scar.

She had to duck her head to avoid Harry's arm, but she remained firm, holding the one hand over his scar while the other alternated between running through his hair and brushing softly across his cheek. He slowly began to calm a little, and she lifted his head up off the ground and scooted underneath it, letting his head rest in her lap. She continued her ministrations as Harry occasionally kicked or jolted slightly. While his head shook from side to side, his motions were calmer, and she was in less danger of getting hit.

She lost track of time sitting there with him and was nearly startled out of her wits when Harry suddenly popped right up off her lap. He scrambled onto his knees with his back turned to her, and Ginny heard him start retching. She crawled behind him and knelt beside him. She reached out with her right hand and began rubbing his back in soothing circles, hoping the gesture would give him some comfort. She could feel the tears brimming in her eyes as she watched Harry continue to heave long after his stomach was emptied.

His stomach eventually settled down, and Harry turned to her. Tears were streaming down his face, and his normally bright, green eyes were dull and haunted. Their eyes connected for just a moment before a hard sob shook his body. She opened her arms to him, and he collapsed into her, sobbing openly now. Ginny absently noticed the tears now streaming down her own cheeks, but she ignored them. One arm rubbed Harry's back while the other cradled his head into her chest, her fingers absently running through his hair. She neither knew nor cared how long they stayed there.

As his tears finally began to slow and his body began to relax, she guided his head down to her lap, all the while still running her fingers through his hair comfortingly and cooing words of encouragement to him. She wanted to get a decent look at him. What she saw did not make her feel any better. Only two times before had she seen Harry anywhere near this distraught. The first time had been shortly after Voldemort’s resurrection in the hospital wing. The second time had been after Sirius had died. Whatever Harry had witnessed was obviously going to leave more scars. Now she would have to see what she could do to help him. She really wished she had some clue on how to comfort him.

Not knowing what else she could do, she continued to murmur softly to him, trying to tell him that he was safe, that everything would be all right. The words sounded hollow even to her own ears, but she hoped that he might find some comfort in them. While one hand continued its ministrations in his hair, the other sought out one of his own hands. When they made contact, she gave him a gentle squeeze, and that was all the invitation he needed to latch on. He held onto her hand tightly, though not painfully.

It was several more minutes before she even considered what to do next. They could not stay out there all night. Had they been in the common room, she would have been content to stay that way all night, providing whatever comfort she could. But Harry’s warming charms would give out eventually, and she knew people would grow worried if they did not return to Gryffindor Tower tonight.

Resigning herself, she chose to bring it up with Harry. “What do you say we get you back up to the Tower? We can stop by the hospital wing and pick up a dreamless sleep potion if you’d like,” she offered, knowing he would probably have trouble getting a decent night’s rest without the aid.

He nodded mutely in her lap, to which question she was not sure. He also did not seem in any hurry to get up. She sighed tiredly, wishing with all her heart there was something more she could do for him. Mustering up what little energy she had, she shifted Harry to sit him up so that they could begin making their way back to the castle.

After a couple minutes, she had him standing. As they began their trek, she kept an arm around his waist, both to steady and lead him. He did not seem aware of his surroundings. After a minute, she took his arm and slid it across her shoulders, making it much easier to keep him upright and on track. They lumbered across the lawn and back into the light of the entrance hall.

People immediately took notice and began asking questions. She was not in the mood to deal with them and was just getting ready to start hexing her way through the crowd when a familiar voice parted its way through the crowd.

“What’s going on here? What’s all the commotion?” Hermione Granger demanded as she fought her way through the crowd gathered around Harry and Ginny. When she finally found her way through to the center and took in their wretched state, she turned to the students gathered around. “Alright, everybody move out! Nothing to see here!” When nobody seemed inclined to move, she reverted to her authority as a prefect. “Get out of here now before I start taking points and giving detentions!” she shouted forcefully.

The crowd listened. It did not occur to anyone that she lacked the authority to back up her entire threat. Satisfied, she turned her attention to her two friends. “What happened?” she asked in concern.

Ginny frowned. “He had a vision, I think. An awful one from the looks of it. I’m taking him up to the hospital wing to get a dreamless sleep potion,” she told the girl as she started to stride forward again.

“Oh no you’re not,” Hermione commanded, stepping into her way. “He needs to tell Professor Dumbledore first. Whatever happened, he’ll need to know about it.”

Harry shivered, the only indication that he heard what was being said. Ginny saw red, her eyes narrowing dangerously. “Get out of my way,” she demanded in a low, icy tone.

“No,” Hermione refused. “He needs to tell Professor Dumbledore what he saw. It could be important.”

“Harry is not going to be forced to relive whatever he just saw,” Ginny informed her in a deadly serious tone. “Not by you, Dumbledore, or anyone else.”

“I know how you feel, but…” Hermione maintained bravely, refusing to budge.

With her one free hand, Ginny whipped out her wand. “Move out of the way, Hermione.”

The girl’s eyes widened, but she stood her ground. “You wouldn’t hex me,” she stated. It was unclear who she was trying to convince.

It was at this moment that Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore strode through the double doors leading to the Great Hall. Professor McGonagall spoke first. “Miss Weasley, why do you have your wand trained on Miss Granger?” she demanded with conviction. Her tone changed entirely to one of concern as she added, “And what is wrong with Mr. Potter?”

Hermione was the first to respond. “Harry had a vision, and I was trying to explain to Ginny that Harry needed to tell Professor Dumbledore about it before she put him to bed and gave him a dreamless sleep potion.” Her tone of voice spoke of Ginny as though she were a simple child who needed reprimanding causing Ginny's grip on her wand to tighten and her eyes to narrow further.

McGonagall seemed to be trying to take in this piece of information, so it was Dumbledore that spoke next. “That does not explain why Miss Weasley has her wand trained on you.”

“Miss Weasley,” Ginny responded scathingly, “is not going to sit around and watch you force Harry to relive whatever nightmare he just went through. She is taking Harry up to bed to get some rest. Anybody who wants to stop me is welcome to try,” she bit out in righteous anger, already beginning to trudge towards the stairs leading to the hospital wing. Her only concern at the moment was Harry, and she had no patience for anyone else.

When Hermione moved to intercept her yet again, Dumbledore’s voice stopped her just in time to save her from the hex that was about to roll off Ginny's tongue. “I don’t believe it would be wise to detain Miss Weasley any further,” he suggested. Hermione froze in her tracks, and Ginny continued on her way barely paying them any heed.

She managed to guide Harry up the stairs to the hospital wing, where she convinced Madame Pomfrey to produce a goblet of the potion. Harry’s journey ended there, as Madame Pomfrey insisted he stay for the night.

She helped the matron manoeuvre Harry into a bed. As she watched Harry down the goblet offered to him by Madame Pomfrey, Ginny’s energy left her like air out of a popped balloon. She collapsed into a chair at his bedside and watched as Harry succumbed to the soporific effects of the potion.

After a minute Madame Pomfrey turned her attention to Ginny. “You look like you might be in need of some dreamless sleep as well, Miss Weasley.”

Ginny turned expressionless eyes to the matron. She considered protesting. She was so exhausted she doubted it was necessary. On the other hand, it was probably the only ticket she had for staying in the hospital wing with Harry. She did not want to leave anybody the opportunity to ambush him with questions when he woke up. Coming to a decision, Ginny nodded her head. “You’re probably right. Do you have something I can change into? I don’t want to sleep in these robes.”

Madame Pomfrey nodded affirmatively and left to gather some pyjamas and another goblet of potion. When she returned, Ginny took the offered garment and slipped behind a screen to change. A couple minutes later she emerged in the crisp hospital garments with her dress slung over her arm. She crawled into the bed next to Harry’s without being directed. Not two minutes later she was drifting into her own drug-induced sleep.

*******

“There you are,” he called out in exasperation. “Finally. I’ve been trying to reach you all night.” When his godson came into full view, Sirius took a good look at him; he did not like what he saw. Harry looked tired and drawn. His eyes were dull and refused to meet his own. The smile was absent from his face. “How’re you doing, kiddo?” Sirius asked worriedly.

“I’m fine,” Harry mumbled, gaze directed at Sirius’s feet.

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a rather distorted definition of ‘fine?’” Sirius retorted with just a hint of frustration.

Harry finally looked up to meet his eyes. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Once or twice.”

“Good.” He took a step towards Harry, unsure how to comfort him. He finally just opened his arms up and said, “Come here.” He watched Harry with trepidation, uncertain how he would react. Relief flooded through his body when, after a moment, Harry stepped forward. Sirius wrapped his arms around his godson, holding him tightly. He felt Harry stiffen momentarily at the embrace and wondered if this had been the best idea. Harry’s body soon relaxed and his arms slid around Sirius’s back.

They stood there for a long minute before Sirius began to loosen his grip on Harry, and the two took a step back from each other. “So how are you really doing?”

Harry shrugged, running a hand through his hair. Sirius was surprised as he noticed for the first time that Harry had cut it short again, but he knew now was not the time to comment on it. “I don’t know,” Harry answered after a moment. He met Sirius’s gaze squarely, and he knew Harry had answered honestly. “I just – I don’t know.”

Sirius nodded in understanding, his mind churning rapidly. He lacked experience at this sort of thing and was unsure how to comfort Harry. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked tentatively.

Harry heaved a weary sigh. “Not really,” he said, and Sirius felt some of his hopes crumbling. He did not want Harry to retreat into himself and begin brooding over this, but he could not exactly force him to talk about it. Harry’s eyes clouded over, his gaze becoming vacant. After a long moment of silence, Harry shook his head slightly and said, “There’s not really much to say, is there?” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled his feet. “It’s over and done with, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

Sirius nodded absently, racking his brain for some way to help Harry. Well, bluntness was always his specialty, and it tended to work on James. “That’s one way to look at it, but don’t think for one second I’m buying your blasé attitude. Are you okay with everything you saw?”

Sirius watched Harry’s eyes widen a fraction and his jaw set. “Am I okay with what I saw?” he asked incredulously. “No I am bloody-well-not okay with what I saw! Merlin, Sirius,” he cried out, running a frustrated hand through his hair. “They tortured and murdered entire families, women and children, and they laughed about it. It was fun for them. I am not okay with that; I never will be.”

Well, at least he had gotten a reaction, Sirius reflected. He took a step forward and gripped Harry’s shoulders firmly. “I don’t imagine most people would be okay after watching that, and I don’t expect you to be. But I don’t know what to do to help you.” He looked deep into Harry’s eyes and willed his godson to see his sincerity. “If you need to talk, I’m here. For as long as I can be, I’ll be here to lend an ear, and even after I’ve passed fully on to the other side, I’ll always be there with you, watching over you.”

He watched as Harry’s face fell and felt a pang in his heart. “You’re not going anywhere soon,” Harry said, the accusation evident in his tone. After a moment of silence he added beseechingly, “Are you?”

Sirius heaved a heavy sigh and squeezed Harry’s shoulders. “I’ve got a little bit of time left in me, I think. But the truth is, I have no idea exactly how much time I have. Lately I’ve begun to feel a bit of a pull, and, well, I just don’t know. I’ll be here for as long as I can be; I promise you that.”

Harry stepped forward and wrapped his arms around him, and Sirius immediately returned the gesture, holding onto his godson tightly. He wished he could be the one to be there for Harry in this tough time, but that was impossible. It was time for someone else to look after Harry; he would just have to make sure Harry let her in before he passed over to the other side.

******

Harry hugged his godfather tightly. For the first time in a long time, he fully acknowledged that Sirius was dead and that he would have to say goodbye. Realising that their time together was running short, Harry decided that he better make the best of the time they had. He pulled back from Sirius and asked, “Do you think you could just tell me some stories about my parents and the Marauders?”

Sirius smiled widely at him. “I think I can do that,” he said, a self-assured edge to his voice. They settled onto a sofa together as Sirius set into the task of relating the tales of the Marauders to Harry. Every so often Harry would interrupt with a question, but for the most part he was content to sit back and listen as his godfather exuberantly described all the trouble he used to get into with James, Remus, and Peter. He did not hold back on the stories of his father’s many failed attempts to land a date with one Lily Evans. Sirius spent the rest of the night regaling Harry with stories, assuring Harry that there was plenty more where that came from. Harry just smiled contentedly. His godfather’s stories had quite successfully taken his mind off the vision from the previous night and left him feeling fulfilled. He felt like he was finally getting to know his parents, even if indirectly.

Some time later Harry’s eyes blinked open for half a moment before clamping shut against the brightness. He groaned and tentatively opened his eyes again, squinting to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the light before opening them fully. When his brain registered where he was he groaned again. He thought he just might be able to escape the hospital wing this year. Apparently not.

He laid there for a minute trying to remember what had happened and how he had ended up in the hospital wing. Suddenly it all came rushing back to him. Voldemort…Death Eaters…families – children…murder, torture. He curled into himself and clamped his eyes shut on the tears that wanted to fall. He waged a desperate battle with himself for control over his emotions.

He reluctantly began to relax his mind as he had done every night since the summer. He imagined all the trunks in his mind and decided a new one might be in order. A trunk for things he never, under any circumstances, wanted to look at ever again. Dreading what he knew he needed to do, Harry decided to take care of the rest of his memories of the evening first. He could only hope that the happiness of the rest of the evening would be able to drown out the agony of his vision.

Unfortunately, it did not have quite the effect he had hoped for. It did cheer him up marginally. After all, he had been having an incredible time with Ginny. It was certainly worthy to be sorted in with the rest of his Patronus memories. The problem was that he could not stop thinking back to the vision, clouding over the good times he had had with Ginny. It only got worse the closer he came to the end of the night. By the time he made it to the fireworks, his mind was almost completely focused on what he knew was coming. And all too soon, he had come to the vision.

He remained unaware that tears leaked down his face as he began moving the memory into the new trunk. He whimpered which drew the attention of the witch sitting in the next bed. Harry, eyes closed and mind focused on other things, did not notice Ginny walk up to his bed. He did not feel it when she rubbed his cheek or curled his still short hair around her finger. He did not know it when she took his hand and gave it a slight squeeze, trying to offer him whatever small comfort she could.

He did not consciously know any of that. All he knew at the time was that the pain and sadness were suddenly slightly less terrible. He had been lost in the vision, but now he was able to focus back on the task at hand, and it was only a moment later when he finally locked the trunk, closing his mind off from the brunt of the memory. He sagged with relief.

“Oh, Harry,” a quiet female voice sniffled.

Harry’s eyes shot open. “Ginny!” he exclaimed upon seeing her. He noticed she was wearing a hospital gown. “Did you stay here too?” he asked worriedly. “Did something happen to you?”

Ginny nodded slowly. “I did stay here, but nothing happened to me. I was just exhausted and…didn’t want to leave you alone,” she trailed off at the last, but Harry was still able to hear her.

He gave her hand a squeeze. “Thanks,” he said in a whisper. Then, louder, “I suppose you’re the one who brought me up here then?”

She nodded. “You don’t remember?”

“It’s all kind of fuzzy after…” He could not bring himself to say it.

Ginny gave his hand another squeeze. “It’s understandable. I brought you straight up here and had Madame Pomfrey give you a dreamless sleep potion. After you fell asleep, she decided I looked a bit peaky as well, offered to give me some, and let me stay here. I didn’t feel much like walking back up to Gryffindor Tower and facing anybody.”

Harry nodded absently. “Thank you,” he told her. He sat up in bed and withdrew his hand from hers. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and dropped onto his feet. “I think I’m going to go to the Room of Requirement.”

Ginny’s face screwed up in thought for a moment. “To train?” she asked him.

Harry shrugged. “I need to do something.”

She nodded understandingly. “Do you want some company?”

Harry thought it over for a moment. He really was not opposed to her company at all, but he needed to train and relieve some of his anger and frustration. That was not exactly the ideal time for a visit. “I don’t imagine I’ll be too sociable.”

“I don’t mind,” she insisted.

He shrugged. “Come on, then.”

They made it to the corridor in short order, and Harry quickly paced in front of the appropriate blank stretch of wall. As soon as the door appeared, he flung it open and strode inside. Ginny followed him. Once she had taken a few steps into the room, Harry turned around and with an outstretched hand caused the door to slam behind her. He noticed her flinch slightly.

He did not pay it any mind, however. Instead, he turned back to the centre of the room as a dummy appeared before him. He strode towards it, and once he was within reach, punched it as hard as he could. As Harry’s hand made contact, the dummies head snapped back with a ripping sound. It did not spring back up. Harry then sent the dummy flying with a kick to its midsection.

He turned around to find two new dummies behind him. Not wasting any time, he started laying into the one on his right. After just three strikes it was torn asunder. Turning to the other dummy, he just jabbed his left hand, palm opened, towards it, causing a ball of fire to streak towards it, engulfing the dummy in flames. Three more dummies appeared behind him to take more of his abuse.

He continued on in that vain with the amount of new dummies steadily increasing every time he managed to vanquish them all until twelve appeared at once. He let out a primal cry and let his magic go, sending out a shockwave that brought down all of them at once. He immediately sank down to his knees in exhaustion. No new dummies materialized.

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

Ginny, who had watched the entire spectacle in amazement and dismay, walked slowly over to Harry’s crumpled form. She approached him carefully, making just enough noise to alert him of her presence so as not to startle him. She had been careful to keep her distance from him up until that point and even despite the wide berth had felt the last shockwave of raw, magical energy. She did not think it would be wise to give him reason to panic, even for a moment. When she reached him, she knelt down beside him and placed her hand comfortingly on his back. She inched her way up to his neck where she soothingly ran her fingers through his still shortened hair.

For several minutes Harry made no sign that he even knew she was there. As she knelt there doing her best to comfort him, she noticed that he had worked up quite a sweat. And he was practically lying on the stone floor. When she felt him shiver, she decided that it was time to get him off the floor. She wished she had a sofa she could get him onto, and one appeared right before her.

She turned back to Harry. “Come on, Harry,” she said. “Let’s get you off the floor. There’s a sofa right here. Alright?” She put her arm under his and pulled him up and towards the sofa; he reluctantly followed suit. When she got him on the sofa, she sat beside him and guided his head into her lap where she continued to stroke the hair at the nape of his neck. When he shivered again, she thought a blanket might be nice, and one appeared thrown over the arm of the sofa right beside her. She lifted the blanket, unfolded it, and threw it over Harry, folding it back to his shoulders to reveal his head.

“Thanks,” he mumbled almost incoherently.

“You’re welcome, Harry,” she replied. She was glad to know that he was still with her. She had not been sure if he had gotten lost in his memories much as he had the night before. She was also happy to note that he was well aware of her attempts to provide him some comfort, and he was not pushing her away as he had done in the past. After a couple minutes of silence she softly asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Harry shook his head in her lap and murmured, “No.” She decided it was best not to push the issue. If he wanted to talk, he knew he could. Otherwise, she would just sit with him for as long as it took. It was Boxing Day; she had nowhere to be and nothing to do.

He was silent for several minutes, lying on his back with his head turned to the side to look out into the room. He shifted suddenly, rolling towards her onto his side so that he was staring into her robes and began to talk. He told her what he had seen. He avoided any details, wanting to spare her the nightmares they were likely to cause. She took his hand with one of hers as she continued to stroke his hair with the other.

“The most disgusting thing was the fact that they were all enjoying it,” Harry spat out. “It’s not just Voldemort; they all enjoyed it. The Death Eaters were laughing and playing. It was fun for them. They didn’t care about their victims at all; they treated them as if they were lower than animals with no thoughts or feelings.”

She did not know what to say to that. “I used to always think it was just Voldemort,” Harry continued after a moment. “I thought he was the evil one, and the rest just got caught up and things spiraled out of control. But that’s not the way it is. They’re all evil. They all enjoy causing pain and ruining lives. It’s sick.”

She racked her brain for something to say, anything to make him feel just the tiniest bit better, but there was nothing. How do you attempt to cheer up someone who has just been witness to murder, torture, and rape to that scale? How could she ever make him feel better about what he had witnessed? She knew that even after the war was over and the attacks stopped, these memories would likely haunt him for the rest of his life. Only once in her life had she ever felt so utterly helpless, and she had sworn she would never let it happen again if it was in her power to stop it. Unfortunately, it was not.

So she did the best thing she could do. She held him. She would be his anchor and listen, but she would not pretend like things were okay. She would not try to cheer him up or give him some false hope that things would be alright. She knew better, as Harry would hate such insincerity. It might be appropriate for a frightened child, but adults still attempted to soothe them with such patronizing techniques, and it always drove her nuts. Sometimes there was nothing you could do to make someone feel better, and you needed to recognize and accept it; otherwise, you just end up making things worse. Her parents might not listen, but she would learn from their mistakes.

She pondered how she had spent the last several months worrying about classes and tests and grades; all of that seemed trivial now. Then she looked at Harry who had spent the majority of the term training, preparing for war. The rest of the castle could pretend as if there was no war being waged outside the safety of the castle walls, but she could not. Not any more.

Ginny understood that the stakes had just been raised. Harry was already right in the middle of it. Her family would not be far behind. She was sick of sitting on the sidelines. She refused to sit back and watch as others fought this war for her. She would not stand idle as Harry suffered without actively trying to help. She could not erase the trauma he had lived through, but she could fight and help put an end to the war. She resolved to follow Harry’s example. School did not seem important anymore. OWLs meant nothing. War was upon them. It was time for her to start training.

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

They did not leave the Room of Requirement until lunch time. Ginny offered to go to the kitchens with him if he wanted to avoid the Great Hall, but he reluctantly turned down the offer knowing he would have to face everyone sooner or later. Harry had finally changed out of his dress robes into spare robes stored in his trunk. He had shrunk and leant Ginny one of his school robes to wear over her hospital gown. They entered the Great Hall side by side and walked to the Gryffindor table together. They sat down with their friends who seemed to be eating in relative silence. Ginny sat next to Ron and across from Hermione. Neville was across from Ron. Harry sat next to Ginny, the spots across from and on the other side of him were empty. It was nearing the end of the meal and much of the hall had already cleared out.

"Where the bloody hell have you two been?" Ron demanded hotly the second they sat on the bench. "You didn't come back to the tower last night. Stay out all night, did you? Oh, of course not, because you're just friends. If I hear you laid one finger on my sister..."

"Oh shut up, Ronald Weasley," Hermione cut in. “I came to visit you two in the hospital wing this morning, but you were both gone. Madame Pomfrey was furious. She said you left without even letting her know, never mind getting her permission. Just where have you been?” She looked at the two of them expectantly.

"Hospital wing?" Ron muttered in confusion, looking back and forth between Hermione and Harry.

Harry shrugged and looked to Ginny, so she spoke up. “We just needed to get out of there,” she said by way of explanation as she began to fill her plate. When she noticed Harry was not following suit, she proceeded to fill his plate as well.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Hermione retorted. “Where were you two?” Harry ignored her and stared at his food. He picked up his fork and began pushing things around. Ginny rolled her eyes and began eating, also pointedly ignoring the question. “Well?” Hermione demanded. “I can always take points and give you detentions for leaving the hospital wing without permission,” she threatened.

“Actually you can’t,” Harry finally spoke up.

“What’s to stop me?” Hermione fired back.

“You’re overstepping your authority,” Harry explained dispassionately, looking up from his plate to meet her gaze. “Madame Pomfrey is more than capable of taking points and assigning out detentions on her own. The final say in the matter is hers since we were under her discretion at the time. Beyond that, you’re only a prefect. You don’t have the authority to dole out punishments to professors. Nor do you have the authority to punish Ginny since she was with me.”

He turned back to his food and tentatively took a bite of his sandwich. He began chewing much more thoroughly than was necessary as Hermione huffed in indignation across the table. “Thank you Harry,” Ginny said beside him. His only response was to give her a small half-smile.

“Fine then, don’t tell us where you were,” Hermione shrilly conceded. “It’s not like you tell us anything anymore anyway.”

A loud thump shook the table as Neville slammed his hand down. “Would you knock it off already?” he demanded of Hermione. “Why do you think that Harry has to share every single thing that happens to him with you? Do you tell him every intimate detail of your life? I know for a fact you don’t. I seem to remember a certain event I stumbled upon after the last Yule Ball that you swore me to secrecy on, telling me I couldn’t talk to Harry or Ron or anybody else about it. So why don’t you climb on down from that pedestal you’ve built yourself and give the guy a break?”

Hermione began spluttering. “How could you? That - That’s completely different.”

“I fail to see the difference,” Neville commented tersely.

“What happened after the last Yule Ball?” Ron demanded hotly.

“That’s none of your business,” Hermione replied tensely. She was obviously uncomfortable at the shift in conversation.

“Bet it’s got something to do with Vicky,” Ron grumbled loudly. “What, did you snog him or something?”

Hermione’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly.

“You did, didn’t you?” Ron continued, rising from his seat. “You bloody well snogged your boyfriend Vicky. I knew it. And all this time you’ve told us he was just a friend, nothing more.”

Hermione turned back to Neville. “How could you? You promised!”

Neville held his hands out and shrugged. “For someone who is such an advocate of openness and honesty, you seem awfully upset about the truth coming out,” he answered back.

Ron, meanwhile, was not finished. “Un-bloody-believable! You really did want to go with Vicky last night. I don’t know why you didn’t just tell me no when I asked you.” And with that, Ron stormed out of the Great Hall without a backwards glance.

“Well I hope you’re happy,” Hermione said as she turned a withering gaze towards Neville.

“Oh would you just grow up already,” Harry unexpectedly input. “If you would just tell Ron the truth about how you really feel about him, you’d save yourself and the rest of us a lot of trouble.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hermione insisted, crossing her arms across her chest.

“Whatever,” Harry said, dismissing her reply. “Either you like Ron or you don’t. But if you do like him, you have to take him flaws and all. You can’t just take the good and forget the bad. I know what you’re trying to do, what you’re holding out for. You want Ron to grow up and face his feelings, his insecurities and all of that, and confess his feelings to you. But you’re unwilling to do the same. Either you like Ron and take him for what he is and tell him so, or stop stringing him along hoping that he’ll grow up and change into the man you want him to be.”

Hermione’s jaw hit the floor, and hers was not the only one. Neville and Ginny both turned incredulous stares to him as well. “What?” he asked them.

Ginny was the first one to shake herself out of her stupor. “Nothing. That was just really insightful Harry.”

“Yeah,” Neville agreed. “When you put things like that, all the arguing and everything makes so much more sense.”

Hermione looked like she was gearing up to argue with him, but she suddenly deflated before them and slumped down in her seat. She dropped her head into her hands and groaned.

“Do you like Ron?” Harry asked her. She nodded into her hands. “Can you accept him for who he is, faults and all?”

Hermione lifted her head. “I don’t know,” she cried in exasperation. “This would be so much easier if he’d just grow up.”

Harry, Ginny, and Neville all shared a look and silently agreed not to comment on that. “Well I think you should figure that out before the two of you drive each other and the rest of us barmy,” Ginny exasperatedly told her.

Hermione was contemplative and quiet after that. Neville finished his lunch and excused himself a few minutes later. When Neville started out of the hall, Harry looked at Ginny and cocked his head at Neville mouthing the words, "Be right back." She nodded in understanding and turned back to her meal as Harry rose and followed after Neville. He caught up with him just outside the entrance hall. "Neville," he called out, halting his friend.

"What's up?" Neville asked as he spun around.

Harry quickly closed the distance between them until they were only a meter apart. "I just wanted to say thanks for sticking up for me back there," he said, waving absently in the direction of the Great Hall.

Neville shrugged. "I heard about your vision," he said quietly. Harry nodded. "I have no idea what you saw, but it was obviously bad. Hermione means well, but she doesn't know when to back off. And she has a nasty habit of trying to make everything her business."

Harry cocked an eyebrow at Neville, surprised at his candidness.

"Last year, after I ran into you all in St. Mungo's, she cornered me and tried to make me talk about my parents," he answered Harry's unasked question. "She wouldn't let the matter drop no matter how much I protested."

"How'd you get her to stop?" Harry asked, curiously.

Neville smirked mischievously. It was a foreign, though not unflattering look for him. "I threatened to tell you and Ron about her and Krum."

Harry could not suppress a hearty guffaw. An image of Neville in his first year popped into his head, and trying to reconcile that boy with the Neville standing in front of him was too absurd. "You'll have to find some new blackmail material now," Harry commented after he had stopped laughing.

"What makes you think I don't already have other material?" Neville asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Harry just shook his head and chuckled lightly. "Remind me not to get on your bad side."

"That I can do," Neville remarked.

"Right, well, I'm going to get back to my lunch. Thanks again, Neville."

"See you later Harry," Neville said with a nod of his head.

Harry returned to the Great Hall and reclaimed his seat next to Ginny. Hermione had disappeared while he was gone. Ginny quirked an eyebrow at him, and he smiled in reply. "When did Neville become so devious and mischievous?" he asked her as he tucked back into his meal.

"When none of us were looking," she answered. "You know Hermione kept that a secret from me too? I can see why she wouldn't tell Ron and even you by a stretch since you were Ron's best friend, but why wouldn't she tell me about it?"

Harry shrugged. "I've never really understood Hermione, and I don't think that's going to change any time soon."

******

Professor McGonagall stepped onto the staircase and idly waited as it spiraled upwards to bring her to the doors of the Headmaster's office. While he had not informed her of this meeting’s topic, she had a feeling she knew at least whom this meeting was to be about. The staircase stopped moving, and she lifted the griffon knocker and was about to wrap lightly when the Headmaster's voice called out to her, "Come in, Minerva."

She dropped the knocker and opened the door, allowing herself a brief smile at her much esteemed colleague. She knew that he rather enjoyed trying to surprise his visitors in that way. After all her years working with him, she was rarely surprised by his antics, yet the man continued to play his games without fail. It was something that both endeared and exasperated the Gryffindor Head of House, depending on the circumstances.

She walked into the room and greeted the man warmly. "Hello, Albus."

"Good evening, Minerva. Sherbet Lemon?" he offered, holding out a tin filled with the tart candies.

"No, thank you," she declined politely. She ignored the squashy armchair in front of the Headmaster's desk and conjured herself a straight-backed wooden chair. She ignored his light chuckle and seated herself, waiting expectantly for him to start the conversation.

"It was quite an interesting evening last night, wouldn't you say?" he inquired conversationally. That was another thing about the Headmaster; he never cut straight to the point.

"It certainly was. Aside from the incident with Mr. Potter, the night went as well or better than expected. The fireworks were a nice touch that we must thank Harry for," she replied, trying to steer the conversation to the topic at hand.

"Ah yes, we most certainly will. Though it would have been nice to have been informed of his plans beforehand, it was certainly a pleasant surprise," Dumbledore replied.

"Indeed," Minerva agreed.

"But then again, Mr. Potter seems to be full of surprises lately," the Headmaster continued.

'And now we get to the heart of matters,' she thought to herself.

"I was quite surprised to find how well he fared on the dance floor last night," he said casually, as though that example were just pulled randomly from the top of his head. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

"Oh for Merlin's sake, Albus. You know very well that I taught Harry to dance," she scolded him. Sometimes his games could get on her nerves. She knew that he wanted something from her regarding Harry. She was both anxious and wary of finding out exactly what that could be.

The Headmaster chuckled lightly. "Direct as always," he commented warmly. "Yes, I was able to place you as his dance instructor. If the looks of pride you were sending him during the first dance were not enough, Harry asking you onto the dance floor certainly was." She nodded curtly in reply, hoping he would get to the point sooner rather than later. "And how were your lessons arranged?"

"He asked me after class one day," she replied a bit impatiently. She was tempted to stop there, but she knew the Headmaster would ask for more of the innocuous details. "We met twice a week for a little over a month. Judging by how well he did last night, I'm inclined to think he found some way to continue practicing without me after our lessons had ended."

"You don't say," the Headmaster responded. "Did Harry indicate why he chose you as his dance instructor?"

"He didn't have a lot of other options," Professor McGonagall replied tersely. "He wanted to keep the lessons a secret from Miss Weasley, so she was obviously out of the question. The only other female he is close enough to ask would have been Miss Granger, but I understand the two of them have not been on the best of terms lately. Who else could he have asked? I was surprised when he approached me about it, but when I stopped to think about it, it made a lot of sense. It's something a boy should learn from his mum. Seeing as Harry has a rather poor substitute, I can imagine why nobody ever took the time to teach him." She had never forgiven the man for leaving Harry with the Dursley's. She had adamantly opposed the idea, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Minerva was not normally one to hold a grudge, and she had learned to move on. But she refused to relent in her opinion. "I only hope I was able to do Lily proud."

"I have no doubts that you have," Dumbledore sincerely told her. "She would have been quite proud of her son last night."

"Mmhmm," McGonagall agreed, losing herself in her thoughts of Lily and James.

After a long moment, the Headmaster interrupted her reverie. "How would you say Harry has been doing this term?"

Minerva shook herself out of her thoughts and took a moment to process the question. "Very well. He's been giving Miss Granger a run for her money in my classes. He's always among the first to master every spell, and his scores on his essays and tests have improved dramatically over previous years. All his other teachers have reported the same except for Severus. He insists that the OWL administrators must have been swayed by Harry's fame."

If anything, she thought his full potential was still left untapped. He was not always the first to get a spell right, but he did not appear to struggle like his classmates. In fact the spells seemed to take little to no effort for him to cast. All the motions were right, yet he remained calm and was not frustrated in the face of failure. It was as though he knew he could do it. In the past he never seemed to apply himself. Now it was as though he already had the ability to cast the spells, and it only took him a few tries to perfect it. She resolved to watch him more carefully this term and wondered what he might be capable of.

"So he's been taking his studies much more seriously this year?" Dumbledore asked, interrupting her thoughts and ignoring the comment on his Potions Master.

"It would appear that way," she remarked. "I've noticed he spends quite a bit of time in his office, and from what I've heard he's been spending much of his time reading." She was beginning to wonder if there was any real direction to these questions or if he was just trying to learn as much about Harry as possible. Why would the Headmaster arrange a meeting with no other purpose than to talk about Harry when he was not even in any trouble? Something felt amiss.

The Headmaster nodded thoughtfully. He steepled his hands in front of himself and stared into space over the tips of his fingers. After a moment he turned his gaze back to her. "Could his newfound focus on his studies have something to do with the problems between himself and Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger?"

She considered the possibility for a long minute before responding. "I suppose it is possible but unlikely. If that were the case, he would be more dejected over it. He's too upbeat for that to be the case. I can tell that he's bothered by what's been going on between the three of them, but from what I can tell he hasn't let it drag him down too much. Besides, he has other friends he's been able to rely on this term. He and Miss Weasley have become close, and I've noticed him spending much more time with Mr. Longbottom than in years past."

"Yes, he and Miss Weasley appeared very close last night," Dumbledore agreed. "And Miss Weasley's fierce protection of Harry last night should be proof enough of her feelings."

Minerva snorted. "She practically threatened us along with Miss Granger. Under any other circumstances she'd be in detention for the next month at least." Truth be told, she was rather proud of the girl. It was not always easy to stand up to your friends and even more difficult to stand up to figures of authority. That she was willing to do both on Harry's behalf showed Minerva quite clearly how she felt about Harry, and she already had an idea how Harry felt about her, though she wondered if he had acknowledged his feelings yet. If not, it was only a matter of time. She smiled at this thought; she remembered James and Lily when they finally got together. If anyone deserved that kind of happiness, it was Harry. Hopefully Miss Weasley would be able to provide it.

"Indeed," the Headmaster said behind his light laughter. "It's a shame Tom managed to ruin their night."

"Is his Occlumency still not strong enough to stop the visions?" she asked curiously. She had thought that Harry's skills with Occlumency were stronger than they had expected.

"I fear Occlumency may not be the answer to their connection," the Headmaster admitted. He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "The truth is that Harry is quite a skilled Occlumens, and it was mostly all self taught. But that doesn't seem to have an effect on their link. There has never been a connection like theirs in recorded history. I had hoped Occlumency would help shield Harry from it. Their link seemed similar enough to Legilimency that Occlumency might help, but it appears I was mistaken."

"So what now?" she inquired. "There must be other options available to counteract their link."

He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I sincerely hope so," he responded wearily. "I've been looking but have not yet found an alternative." He heaved a tired sigh. "So you think Harry is holding up pretty well?"

"Yes," she replied simply. "Given his behaviour and performance in class and all that we talked about during our dance lessons, I'd say he is handling everything remarkably well."

"And what did the two of you talk about in your lessons?" he asked seemingly casually.

Minerva began to grow tired of this interrogation. He was obviously trying to fish for information about Harry, and he did not have the decency to just come out and ask her outright. The fact that she was not even sure what he was looking for did not help her mood in the slightest. "A variety of things: classes, the HA, Sirius, the war. Let me ask you something; why did you push so hard for Harry to be made an Assistant Professor?"

The Headmaster quirked an eyebrow at her questioningly. "I believe I gave my reasons before the start of term."

"Are you telling me there was no other reason you pushed so hard to sell the idea to the staff?" she asked seriously, her eyes drilling into his. When he did not immediately respond, she continued. "It was more for Harry than his classes, wasn't it? You wanted to give him something to keep him busy and occupied."

The Headmaster's eyes pierced into hers for a moment before he responded. "There is some truth to that. Harry has time and again proven himself unwilling to sit on the sidelines while there is trouble. He has a drive to be involved and would be restless sitting cooped up in the castle while a war is being waged outside Hogwarts' walls."

"You were worried he'd find some way to get himself in trouble," she finished for him. His concern was valid. Harry did have a knack for finding himself in troubling circumstances, though she felt it was usually because the adults in his life failed to take him seriously. Had she taken his worries about the Philosopher’s Stone seriously, Harry and his friends never would have gone to save it. This past year, Harry had not been informed of his own situation which is why he was so easily led to the Ministry of Magic. She wondered if perhaps they were repeating their mistakes by continuing to treat Harry like a child.

"Yes," he admitted. "I thought that if I gave Harry the position, he would feel like he was accomplishing something. I had rather hoped he would take the lessons seriously, but even I was not prepared for just how much thought and preparation he put into it. He devised the magical contract on his own, researching, composing, and even casting the spells for it himself. He came prepared with a list of topics he was going to cover in each class. He took complete control of his classes, and I couldn't be prouder with the job he has done."

"I quite agree. You should see the way he teaches and the way the students respond to him," she remarked. "He's a natural."

"How many of his classes have you visited?" he asked.

"Just one of each, though I plan to do more this term. He raised an interesting point with me during our dancing lessons. He was given the title Assistant Professor and classes to teach but was left to his own devices. Nobody was ever set to monitor him or ensure he was handling things appropriately, and we never included him on anything that might be pertinent to his position as a member of the staff." She hesitated, uncertain of sharing this next bit of information, before continuing. "We've arranged to meet monthly this term in an effort to address those issues, and I plan to attend at least one of each of his classes every month as well."

"Hmm, and Harry was the one to raise the issue, you say?" the Headmaster inquired.

"Yes," she replied. "An oversight on our parts, I would say."

"Indeed," he replied. "I trust you will keep me informed on your discussions with Mr. Potter?"

It was phrased as a question, but she knew it was meant more as an order. "I will update you on anything of pertinence," she told him, choosing her words carefully. She would share anything relevant to the school, but she would not share anything that Harry divulged to her of a more private nature. Harry was her charge; he was a student in her House, and she would not betray his trust. If the Headmaster wanted to know more about Harry, he could ask him himself.

"I trust that you will."

******

Later that evening Harry lay in bed staring up at his canopy as thoughts flowed through his consciousness. It had been a long day but could have gone much worse. There was only one person he had to thank for that, and he was sure that he would never be able to repay her. He had not planned on sharing the contents of the vision with Ginny; he had never intended to share it with anyone. But lying with his head in her lap, he had felt compelled to open up to her. He was surprised at how much it had helped him. What had once seemed to be an insurmountable wall was reduced to just another hurdle in his path.

He could not help thinking, however, it was somehow inappropriate. Was it right for him to smile and act as if nothing was wrong? Was it disrespectful to the victims of the attack to just move on and put the events behind him? Harry pondered those questions as he lay in bed that night. He eventually forced the issue aside for the time being, unable to come to any sort of resolution. He decided he would think more on it another time and finally let himself drift off to sleep.

The next afternoon when Harry let Ginny know that he was heading to the Room of Requirement to train, he was quite surprised by her response. She appeared shy and nervous, two things he had not equated with Ginny for over a year. He watched a resolve wash over her features and wondered just what was going on with her.

"Would you mind if I joined you?" she asked a bit timidly.

Harry was caught off guard by the request, and it took a moment for him to even process what she had asked. When he did not immediately respond, her face fell and she started talking again. "Never mind. I don't know why I asked in the first place. I don't want to slow you down. I'd probably just get in the way anyway."

"Don't be silly," Harry interrupted. "Of course you can come. But - uh - why exactly?"

Ginny smiled in relief. "I was hoping you could show me how to use your training dummies and maybe give me a few pointers."

"You want to start training?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah, if you don't mind," she said.

"But what about when classes start up; won't you be too busy?" Harry questioned.

She shrugged. "I don't really care about classes or OWLs at this point. I think the things you could teach me are a lot more important, don't you?"

He had no choice but to nod. It was true. Good OWL scores would be nice, but they wouldn't do her any good when confronted with a Death Eater. "If you're sure...?"

She nodded enthusiastically.

"Well come on then," he said, offering his hand to her. When she took it, he tugged to help her up out of her seat. He reluctantly let go of her hand once she was standing, and they quickly made their way to the Room of Requirement. Once inside, Harry shut the door and put up wards to guarantee their privacy.

The first thing Harry did was show her how the training dummies work. He demonstrated how to set them up, casting the spells he wanted the dummies to use on him. Then he activated and deactivated the dummies, displaying the different skill levels they could be set at. "If you ever forget how to do it, just ask the room for the instruction booklet," he concluded.

Ginny nodded. "Right."

"Now, what kind of training were you looking to do exactly?" he asked. "The dummies should be sufficient to help your dueling abilities. I think you should focus the rest of your time building your wandless abilities."

"What about learning more spells?" she inquired.

"That's important as well, but I think developing your wandless magic is much more crucial," he patiently explained. "For one thing, you're not allowed to use your wand outside of Hogwarts. If you want to be able to make any sort of difference now, you'll need to be able to do it without a wand. Otherwise, you'll be waiting for your seventeenth birthday before you can really do anything." She nodded her understanding. "But more importantly, it gives you a weapon the Death Eaters can't take away. Let's say you're fighting with your wand, and you get disarmed; the average witch or wizard would be pretty much helpless. More importantly, the Death Eaters would assume you were completely helpless and might let their guard down. Even if you never manage the control you have with a wand, being able to cast even a weak stunner without a wand could one day save your life."

He paused to let that thought sink in. "That makes sense," Ginny agreed after a moment of silence.

"Well let's get started then," Harry said.

"Wait, aren't you going to go do your training?" Ginny asked in confusion.

"Right now I'm going to help you with your wandless magic," Harry said in a tone that brooked no arguments.

Ginny shook her head fervently. "No. I don't want to get in your way. You go do your thing; I'll practice on my own."

Harry rolled his eyes at her. "Ginny, I think I can spare a bit of time to help you. Besides, I want to help you. After I work with you for a little while, then I'll get some of my own training in. You're not in my way."

She stared straight into his eyes for a long moment before nodding her acceptance. "Thank you, Harry."

"You're welcome," he said with a smile. "Have you done any practicing since our Animagus lessons?"

She shook her head sheepishly. "No; I got caught up in school work and didn't have time."

"I figured as much," he said kindly, trying to convey that he was not upset by her admission. "So we'll start where we left off then."

"Right," she replied.

Harry thought about his need of a table and a quill, both of which appeared before them a moment later. "Okay, we'll start small. Levitate the quill and direct it around the room."

Harry watched as her face scrunched up in concentration. She bit down softly on her lip as she extended her hand towards the quill, and Harry found himself unable to tear his gaze away from her bottom lip as it was lightly pinched between her teeth. It was not until she huffed in frustration that his mind caught back up with the present. "Try casting the spell with your wand first. Get a feel for the magic again, and try it again."

She nodded and flicked her wand out of her wrist holster. She cast the spell a couple times before slipping the wand back into the holster. She was able to lift the quill up when she again extended her hand toward it, but it was shaky compared to the control she exerted with her wand. After she had levitated the quill several times, steadily improving her control, he had her levitate the table instead. She struggled with it this time and was only able to get the table a couple inches off the ground before it fell back down with a thud. She tried again to similar results. On her third try, the table only shook and never actually left the ground. She let out a huff of frustration, and Harry was reminded of when he had first learned the skill.

"Take a minute to calm down," he told her. "Then come back and give it another shot. The more frustrated you become, the harder it will be to control your magic. The table will either never leave the ground, or it'll fly up into the ceiling completely out of control. Your emotions are tied into your magic somehow - I don't know to what extent - and affect your ability to control spells. Our emotions don't affect most spells very much when using a wand for some reason. I think it's because the wand acts as a focus, but I'm not entirely sure."

She nodded her understanding. "When did you first learn?" she asked him after a moment of silence.

"A week or two into summer," he told her honestly.

"How did you find out about it or learn how to do it?" she asked. "I've heard of wizards doing it before, but I thought it took years of training and that only the most powerful wizards could ever manage it."

"I did wandless magic without realizing it the summer before my fifth year, when the Dementors attacked," he explained. "It was nothing big; I dropped my wand after my cousin hit me and was searching for it, but it was too dark to see anything and the Dementors were closing in fast. I didn't even consciously think about it, but I cast lumos and my wand lit right up. I didn't think about that for the longest time, but I was thinking about a lot of things this past summer and realised what I had done. I decided to see what else I could manage and eventually got to the point where I could cast as well without a wand as I can with one."

"Why don't you give the table another shot?" he asked tilting his head towards the offending object.

She nodded her head, took a deep breath, then extended her hand towards the table again. When her face again scrunched in concentration, Harry refused to allow himself to become distracted; instead, he spoke up. "You're trying too hard. You shouldn't have to put that much effort into calling your magic forth. Don't try to force it around, call it to you. Let it build up, then release it."

She nodded. Her face still scrunched up slightly in concentration, but it was more relaxed than it had been. Harry watched as she took another deep breath and extended her hand. The table lifted several feet into the air and hovered for several seconds before slowly falling back to the floor. "I did it," Ginny exclaimed.

"Of course you did," Harry said. "Now do it again. Get it higher and hold it up for longer. Keep doing it over and over, each time push yourself a little harder and farther, and if you feel yourself start to get frustrated, concentrate on positive thoughts like you would when summoning a Patronus. I'm going to go train with the dummies. If you need me, just yell."

"Thank you," she said with a grateful smile.

"You're quite welcome," he replied. "Have fun!"

She stuck her tongue out at him, and he laughed as he made his way back over to the dummies. He worked for a good forty-five minutes to an hour before heading back over to Ginny. She had progressed from the table to a bed, and Harry was distinctly reminded of his own wandless training. He chuckled as the bed rose off the ground and disillusioned himself so that he could sneak up on her. He crept up to the bed and leapt onto it, canceling the disillusionment charm mid-leap. Ginny let out a squeak and pulled her hand away, causing the bed to crash to the ground, Harry with it. When the bed struck the ground, Harry bounced up and off the bed, landing on his feet in front of Ginny. "Hey, Gin!"

She smacked him on the arm as she scowled at him. "Watch what you're doing! I had it going fine until you screwed me up."

Harry smirked at her. "You'll need to learn to block out distractions, but I suppose that will be a lesson for another time. Come on, I want to see what you can do in a duel."

For forty-five minutes Harry had Ginny alternating between fighting dummies and himself. When dueling her, he refrained from using any wandless magic to make the situation more realistic. She was better than he had expected, but he was clearly the superior duelist and had to take it easy on her to see what she was really capable of. He made note of the time and decided they had better get cleaned up if they wanted to make it to dinner on time. He called a halt to the dummies Ginny was dueling and told her to hit the showers. Two shower rooms appeared for them this time, and they each entered their own respective rooms to wash up before heading down to the Great Hall for dinner.

On Saturday morning, shortly after Harry and Ginny had sat down for breakfast in the nearly deserted Great Hall, two owls arrived at nearly the same instant. One, which Harry recognized and mentally greeted, was bearing a letter for Ginny. The other, unfamiliar to Harry, held its leg out for him to remove the attached letter. He unfurled the roll of parchment and immediately discerned the script of Remus Lupin. Harry glanced over and saw that Ginny was already buried in her own letter, presumably from her parents, so Harry began reading.

Dear Harry,

You're lucky this isn't a Howler. If circumstances had been different, you'd be lucky if that's all I sent you. As it is I believe I owe you my thanks. Or rather, if I don't thank you, I'm liable to be hexed into next year.

Your rather mischievous gift was worthy of your father. It seems you are more than picking up where we left off. Any news on that front? Got a name picked out yet? What about your partner in crime? Don't think I haven't heard about Mr. Malfoy's unfortunate fate, nor figured out the culprits responsible for it.

Oh quit being such a wet blanket. Hiya Harry. I liked the doll. It was cute. And it got the old wolf off his arse to ask me out. Of course, after I saw the doll, I wasn't about to let the matter drop until he admitted why you had sent it. Then I had to convince him that he was more than worthy to be dating me, wolfishness be damned. Can you believe that?

Yes, that's lovely Dora, can I get back to my letter now? Thank you. Much as I think I deserve a little retaliation for your stunt, I'm much too happy right now to care. So you're getting off easy for now. Though you may want to take some of your own advice. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, then we really need to have a nice, long talk. Take my advice and don't wait too long. You never know how much time you might have, and you don't want to waste any of it. Hypocrite! Yes, well I've learned my lesson, and I hope you can learn from my mistakes, rather than making them yourself.

We heard about what happened at the end of the ball. I don't know exactly what you saw, but I can't imagine it was very pleasant. I know it sounds a bit hollow, but try not to let it bring you down. There is nothing you could have done to stop it. Don't let it get in the way of your life. If you do, then you're letting Voldemort win. I'm sorry I can't be there to help you, but if you ever want to talk, I'll make it happen regardless of the time of the month.

Thank you, again, and take care, Harry.

With warm regards,

Remus Lupin and Tonks

P.S. I mean it. Go tell her how you feel. And if you need help finding a good broom cupboard... Who am I kidding? You have the map with you. Put it to good use.


Harry had to fight down a blush at Remus’s postscript. He rolled up the parchment and slipped it into a pocket in his robes as he thought over Remus's message. He wondered how the man had pegged his feelings so well. Was he that obvious? At the time he probably could not have placed his own feelings, and knowing that Remus had figured it out in just that short time made Harry worried and just the slightest bit embarrassed. Then there was the advice Remus had given. He would have to think more about it, but now was not the time for that with Ginny sitting right next to him.

He thought of Remus and Tonks, and large smile spread across his lips. His gift had worked better than he had anticipated. He was happy for the two of them and sensed Tonks would be good for Remus. She was fun and would hopefully be able to bring out a more fun-loving side to Remus, the way Harry imagined the man was when the Marauders were in their prime.

Harry looked over to find Ginny absently stroking the owl that had delivered her post, shifting her gaze between the owl and Harry. "You bought my parents an owl for Christmas?" she asked him with an arched brow.

"Yeah," Harry said. "Errol is getting pretty old, and with Death Eaters intercepting post, a reliable owl is a necessity these days. Dievas there will do just fine, won't you?" he said, turning to the owl and stroking its feathers. His hand brushed against Ginny's in the process, causing Harry to turn and smile at her.

"Dievas?" Ginny inquired.

Harry shrugged. "He was already named."

"Oh. Well, that works I guess. He's a beautiful owl," she commented, turning her attention back to the owl.

"I told you you'd like her," Harry mentally said to the owl. The only response he received was a moan as Ginny stroked away at the owl's feathers. Then aloud he said, "I think you've made yourself a friend." Ginny just smiled at him. "So what did your parents have to say?"

"They wanted me to thank you for the owl and insist that you really shouldn't have." Ginny rolled her eyes as she continued, "But we both know that line isn't going to get them anywhere. Honestly they love the owl. Mum sounds quite ecstatic about it."

"I'm glad," Harry replied contentedly. "What did your mum think of the necklace? And how did your dad like the muggle electronics?"

"Mum says she loves the necklace. They were popular when she was much younger, and she had forgotten all about them. She says it's very comforting to have a constant assurance that we're all safe. Dad says she's stopped lugging the clock around," Ginny told him excitedly. "And Dad's thrilled he's got more muggle toys to play with, as always. Thank you, again, for picking out his gifts."

Harry smiled at her enthusiasm. Ginny seemed to get as much enjoyment at giving gifts as she did in receiving them. He found that he quite liked that about her. "You're welcome, Gin."

She smiled back. "So who was yours from?"

Harry grinned impishly. "Remus."

Ginny quirked an eyebrow. "Oh? What did he have to say?" As soon as she finished saying it, her eyes widened as she remembered something. "Did he like his gift?" she asked around a large smile.

"Yeah, not as much as Tonks though." Harry chuckled. "She made him explain why I would send him a metamorphmagus doll."

Ginny burst out into peals of laughter. "Oh, I wish I could have seen that," she said after she had calmed down some.

"Me too," Harry absently replied, his mind wandering to what the scene must have looked like.

"Well?" Ginny interrupted his musings. "What happened?"

"Well I don't know the full story, but the short of it is that Remus and Tonks are now an item," Harry told her smugly.

Ginny's smile widened. "Well aren't you quite the matchmaker," she commented, laughing lightly to herself. "We'll have to get you a bow and some arrows with heart-shaped tips. Oh, and we'll have to get you some wings as well. Our own little Cupid."

Harry nudged her with his arm. "Brat."

She stuck her tongue out at him. Harry mimicked her, then remembered something else Remus had brought up. "We need to pick out names," he told her quietly.

She frowned in confusion, but before she could even open her mouth to ask the question, realisation dawned across her face, her mouth forming the shape of an "oh" and her eyebrows rising.

"Remus asked if we had anything picked out yet," Harry told her.

She nodded. "I hadn't really thought about it since you first brought it up, and don't even think of suggesting that again," she said warningly.

Harry chuckled lightly. "Wouldn't dream of it. I don't fancy finding out what it feels like to have my bogeys grow wings and claw at my face."

Ginny's smile turned a bit wicked. "Too right."

"Keep it in mind and try to come up with suggestions; we'll talk more about it later," he said, his eyes drifting over to Hermione, who had just entered into the hall. Hermione had been very contemplative ever since their conversation on Boxing Day. An unexpected benefit of this was that she was so consumed by her thoughts that she hardly paid Harry any mind, freeing up his time to resume his training. Ron was likewise distracted, making it incredibly easy for he and Ginny to slip away without being accosted.

Ginny's eyes followed his gaze, and she turned back and nodded agreeably. They settled into their meals, greeting Hermione politely when she seated herself across from them. Not long afterwards they were joined by Neville, and finally Ron. The meal was awkward from then on with Ron pointedly ignoring Hermione. For her part, Hermione didn't actively try to engage Ron in conversation, though she at least acknowledged Ron's existence. Harry, Ginny, and Neville kept up a light conversation, and they all made it through the meal intact.

Harry spent most of the rest of the day training or reading, though he did manage to get in a game of chess with Ron after lunch. They talked a little about Quidditch during the game, but when Harry brought up Hermione, Ron closed up and refused to even discuss their friend. Harry turned down a second game in favor of returning to his books. He had put off looking for a solution to block his link to Voldemort for too long, and it was time he started searching in earnest. It was obvious that Occlumency was ineffective against it, but Harry was at a loss for other options. The problem was that he had no idea how he was even linked with Voldemort. Nobody did. Dumbledore had only suggested Occlumency because the link seemed similar to Legilimency. It was not similar enough, it would appear.

More than once he had asked the Headmaster if he had any other ideas on ways the link could be blocked, and each time he was disappointed. Either Dumbledore had no other ideas, or the man was hiding things from Harry again. Harry wanted to believe it was the former. Dumbledore had no reason to keep secret anything that could help block or maintain the link. He obviously wanted to help Harry contain it since he was giving him Occlumency lessons.

Harry scoured through every book on Legilimency and Occlumency that he could find. He exhausted the library's limited resources on the subject rather quickly. He had already read all the books in his own collection, so he made a quick trip to Diagon Alley to see if he could procure any additional books on the subjects. He found several advanced books that were sure to keep him busy for some time. He was not sure if any of the information in the books would help at all, but he had to try. At the least, the extra knowledge would probably help with Ginny’s upcoming lessons. She was still working through her own Occlumency book to learn the basic concept of what the discipline required.

Thursday evening rolled around before he realised it, and Harry was ascending the Headmaster's circular staircase for his weekly Occlumency lesson. He was not particularly looking forward to this lesson. He had not spoken to the Headmaster since he had experienced his vision one week prior, and he feared that the man would want to discuss it. Harry had faced the memory and did not intend to do so again.

Dumbledore called him into his office before Harry could knock, so Harry pushed the door open and strode into the circular room. "Good evening Professor," he greeted. "Hello Fawkes," he added, walking over to the phoenix to stroke his feathers a couple times. Fawkes trilled a greeting, leaning into Harry touch. The sound of phoenix song emboldened Harry and lightened his burden; he gave the phoenix an appreciative smile and an extra stroke through his feathers.

"Good evening to you as well. How are you, Harry?" Dumbledore asked.

Harry suspected the man meant more than just the standard greeting in his question. "As well as can be expected," he replied as he seated himself in front of the Headmaster's desk.

Dumbledore nodded wearily, staring over his steepled fingers. "Is there anything I should know from your vision?" he asked after a minute of silence.

"I don't think so," Harry replied carefully. "I didn't see anything helpful, just lots of torture and killing. I would've come to you if I had anything useful."

"I assumed as much, but I had to ask," he said. "I will not ask you to relay any part of the memory to me; I went to the scene of the attack later that night, and I daresay asking you to relive what you saw would be beyond cruel. But, if you should find yourself in need of someone to talk to, my door is always open to you," he offered kindly.

"Thank you, sir," Harry replied sincerely. And he meant it, both for not asking him to relive the memory and for the generous offer. He didn't plan to ever talk to him about the vision, but it was kind of him to offer. Few people in the world would be able to relate in any way to the horrors he had witnessed. Harry knew the Headmaster was one of them, and it comforted Harry a bit to know that the option was available.

"Now, shall we move on to your lesson?" the Headmaster asked.

Harry nodded confidently. Dumbledore had been unable to break into his mind at all over the last few sessions. It took all of his energy to keep the man out, but Harry was proud of himself for being able to stand up to one of the most powerful wizards in the world. He met the Headmaster's steady gaze and felt the man's presence probing around his mental barriers. He followed the man's progress, reinforcing the area in preparation for a sudden attack. Suddenly, he felt a presence on the other side of his mind; the problem was that the presence in front of him had not left. He felt both stab into his shields at once, and it was all he could do to stop the one attack that the other broke through his shield after only five or ten seconds of pressure.

Harry abandoned his current post to meet and expel the intruder only to find Dumbledore's presence. The Headmaster had been inside his shields longer than anyone else since he had first built them, and the experience troubled Harry. He had thought himself not immune, per se, but much more prepared than that. Harry expelled the Headmaster's presence without any struggle. After a moment, Harry shook his head and refocused on the twinkling blue eyes of his instructor.

"How did you do that?" he asked. He had read a vague mention of some master Legilimens being able to split their consciousness to attack in two places at once, but he had never come across any solid information on the technique.

"Attack in two places at once?" the man offered smilingly.

Harry nodded. "Yeah."

"It is an advanced technique that few ever master" Dumbledore replied. "It requires you to split your consciousness in two in order to pierce your prey's mind in two places at once."

Harry frowned in thought. "How do I protect myself against it?"

"There are two ways you can go about blocking the attack," the man explained in a kindly tone. "You must first learn to remove the limitations you place on yourself from your experiences in the physical world." He paused in his explanation to give Harry a chance to digest the idea.

Harry pondered over the cryptic explanation. Limitations from the physical world - what did that mean? What limits was he placing on himself? The answer hit him rather quickly. He was rather used to the notion that he could only exist in one place at any given time. It was physically impossible, with the exception of time travel, to exist in two places at once. But that was a physical limitation. The Headmaster had just proven that it was possible to simultaneously exist in two separate places mentally.

"So I have to learn how to split my consciousness into two separate entities?" Harry asked.

"That is one approach," the Headmaster agreed with a smile. "But that is not the only method. The other requires you not to think of yourself as existing in any form or entity. I imagine it as the way most people perceive the concept of God to be. You exist everywhere all at once and have supreme control over the world. There has only ever been one reported example of an Occlumens managing this feat, and it is unclear whether the information was based on fact or myth. Most are simply unable to completely let go of their self-imposed limitations, myself included. I would encourage you to attempt the second method in the future, but for practical purposes I will ask you to focus on splitting your consciousness between more than one entity for now."

Harry nodded absently, his mind trying to process all he had just been told. The second method intrigued him greatly. The Headmaster's parallel to God particularly drew Harry's attention. It sounded like if he could manage that, he would never again have to worry about having his mind invaded. Splitting his consciousness would help him to stop the two-pronged assault, but what would happen if a third was introduced? He would have to learn to split his consciousness in three instead of two. He would not put it past the Headmaster to have managed just that. "Who managed it?" he asked after a few minutes.

"It is said that Merlin is the only wizard to have ever mastered the technique."

Harry leaned back in his chair. He would love to succeed, but if only Merlin had ever accomplished it, he held little hope for himself. That would not stop him from trying, however, but he would do as the Headmaster asked for now and concentrate on just splitting his consciousness in two. He focused internally and conjured up the image he crafted to represent his mind. He saw all his trunks, carefully locked and warded. He looked around at his barrier which was firmly back in place. Looking down, he found a physical representation of himself, but he knew it was not real. None of it was; it was all symbolic. Harry concentrated on himself and willed a copy of himself into existence. After a minute, he looked up to see his own face peering back at him. He smiled in triumph, and his clone smiled widely back at him.

Harry shook himself back into the present and realised he had just retreated into himself without giving any sort of indication or warning to the Headmaster. "Sorry about that, but I think I've got it now."

Dumbledore just smiled in reply. "Shall we try again?"

Harry nodded. He did not wait for the second presence before mentally conjuring his clone. He followed the Headmaster's presence along, paying no attention to the clone until he felt the second presence appear on the other side of his mind. He sent the other clone over, but the Headmaster struck quickly. While Harry was worried about getting his second self over to block the second presence, he was lax in his defense in front of the first presence, and Dumbledore was able to break through his shields for the second time that day. Harry quickly realized that it was much harder to concentrate on two things at once than he had imagined.

They practiced a couple more times before the lesson ended. Harry was still unable to block both attacks at the same time, but he was getting a little better at controlling both instances of himself at once. The Headmaster assured him that it would just take practice to get it down.

The holidays were almost over, and too soon classes would resume. Harry and Ginny had to devise a schedule that would allow Ginny to continue training with Harry on a nearly daily basis. They also set aside a couple hour-long sessions each week to work on Occlumency. Harry had expressed some concern over Ginny's cramped schedule, but she had waved his concern off. When he pressed her on it, she reaffirmed that OWL scores were inconsequential. She was much more concerned with training so that she could actually help in the war effort. The thought of Ginny involved in the fighting did not sit well with Harry, but he knew better than to say as much. She was a big girl and trying to shield her from the war would only make him a hypocrite. Instead, he resolved to make sure she was properly prepared.

Ginny also continued to work out with Harry in the mornings. It became a game of theirs to start off every morning by suggesting a possible Marauder name for the other person. Ginny had begun that one, and after the second straight morning of outrageous suggestions, Harry decided it was time to join in. After all, he could not let her get away with trying to call him Mid-Knight - because he is her "Knight in midnight armour" - without retaliating. The next morning he countered with Firefly. Every morning they would trade names, sometimes serious, other times ridiculous, but neither was able to find a suitable name. After their customary teasing and stretching, the two would set off at two different paces. Ginny, body not accustomed to the routine, was unable to keep up with Harry. He assured her that he started off in much the same shape. He had full confidence that she would start seeing improvements within a couple weeks.

The night before classes resumed, Harry experienced another vision. It appeared as though Voldemort was choosing to take a more active role in the war, and Harry was gifted with front row seats. The vision had not been as long or as terrible as the first, but it was enough to leave him quite shaken. He awoke biting his lip to keep from screaming. His scar was ablaze with pain, and Harry felt sick to his stomach. He stumbled out of his bed and over to the bathroom where he leaned over the sink for several minutes, breathing heavily as he tried unsuccessfully to wipe the images from his mind.

The only thing for which he was thankful was that he spent all his other nights with Sirius. Thanks to his godfather's presence, Harry was not plagued with nightmares; instead he listened as Sirius regaled him with stories of the Marauders. Only Voldemort’s visions were able to tear Harry away from his time with his godfather, though he feared what would happen when his godfather fully passed on. Deciding that was not a direction his thoughts needed to take at the moment, he turned on the tap and splashed some cold water on his face, then headed down to the common room. He did not think he would be able to sleep any more tonight. Instead, he dug a book, Legilimency: A Guide to Overcoming the Defenses of the Mind, out of his trunk and sat at one of the tables to read as he passed the time until morning.

He allowed himself to become fully engrossed in the pages of the book and became oblivious to his surroundings. It was easier that way, to let his brain focus so completely on the words. It kept his mind from wandering to less pleasant things. It had the added effect of making him lose track of time. He had no idea how long he had been sitting at the table reading, nor how long Ginny had been trying to gain his attention, but when he turned to her, she looked rather exasperated with him.

“Finally,” she cried. “What’s wrong with you? I’ve been trying to get your attention for a couple minutes now.”

“Sorry,” Harry replied softly as he turned his full attention to her. “I guess I got lost in my book." He indicated the book which was now lying open on the table.

“Harry, are you all right?” Ginny asked in concern. “How long have you been reading down here?”

Harry shrugged. He had absolutely no idea. “I’m okay,” he answered ignoring the second question.

“You sure don’t look it,” Ginny commented skeptically. Then comprehension dawned on her face. “You had another vision, didn’t you? Or a nightmare?”

“A vision,” Harry replied in a vacant voice as he temporarily lost himself to the memories. He quickly shook the thoughts out of his head; it would not do to dwell on that memory.

“We can skip this morning if you want,” Ginny suggested. “If you want to talk about it, I’m here for you.”

Harry shook his head adamantly. “Thanks, but I think I need the workout this morning much more than usual. Give me a minute to run upstairs and change, then we can head down.”

Ginny nodded in reply, and Harry quickly ran up to his dorm and changed into his workout clothes. He came back down shortly thereafter, and the two made their way out of the common room and down to the entrance hall. They strode out into the cold morning air. As soon as they reached the bottom of the stone steps, Harry immediately set off in a quick jog without any stretching or preamble.

***********

Ginny watched as Harry set off at a fast pace and sighed tiredly. She went through her usual stretching routine, all the while keeping an eye on Harry’s jogging form. He was maintaining a brutal pace, much faster than his usual, and Ginny had to wonder how he was managing it. She took off at her own slow jog and felt vaguely inferior. Harry had assured her that he started off in much the same shape back in the beginning of the summer, but watching him now, Ginny wondered if she would ever be able to keep up with him. Even on a regular day his pace far outmatched hers.

Today, she marveled at Harry's endurance. He was jogging at a breakneck pace, and his muscles were clearly straining from the effort. Ginny admired the view as he lapped her yet again, and her thoughts drifted back to the Yule Ball: the way she felt being held in his arms, how comfortable it felt to cuddle with him under the night sky, how he had looked deep into her eyes and leaned in to kiss her. But they had never kissed. Harry had been caught up in a vision, much like the previous night. She shook her head at her thoughts. Now was not the time for that. Despite how desirable Harry looked at the moment, she was worried about him. She wondered how healthy it was for him to push himself so hard, but she knew better than to press the issue with him. She ran her usual circuit, and went through another stretching routine afterwards. Harry finished his lap and jogged up to her as she was just finishing up. He did not say anything. He just stood there, breathing raggedly, waiting for her.

“You should stretch too, Harry,” she commented. “If I remember correctly, you’re the one who stressed the importance of it to me.”

Harry glowered at her slightly, but to his credit listened to her advice, though he did so rather half-heartedly. After a couple minutes, they walked back into the castle together. Harry walked with a long stride and a stiff gait, and Ginny struggled just to keep up with him. They had already made their way to the third floor when Ginny, thinking Harry needed to slow down and lighten up, decided to give Harry a playful little nudge with her shoulder, sending him lightly into the wall.

Harry turned to glare at her, and she winked at him behind her mischievous smirk. He turned his gaze back forward and did his best to ignore her. Not one to be cowed so easily, Ginny gave Harry another playful shove a moment later. Harry narrowed his eyes at her but did not respond. He continued striding forward at his quick pace. Ginny smirked from beside him as she went to shove him again, only this time Harry was prepared for her. He stopped, mid-stride, causing Ginny to cross in front of him. He stuck his left hand out in behind her and gave her a little push to help her momentum carry her into the wall.

She outstretched both arms to catch herself before colliding into the stone wall and turned to glare at Harry. She found him walking along with his gaze held forward, his face expressionless. Or nearly expressionless, at any rate. She could just see the corner of his mouth twitching upwards. She maintained her glare but could not hold back the smile that tugged at her own lips. Harry passed her by, and she fell into step behind him. She had to nearly jog to manage it, but she gained on him until she was almost touching him. She matched his gait and stepped on the backs of his heels.

Harry whirled around after the third time. “Can I help you, Professor Potter?” she inquired innocently when Harry remained quiet.

“You certainly can,” Harry replied. “You can stop stepping on my heels.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ginny feigned innocence, batting her eyelashes at him.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Harry said.

“I’m just trying to walk,” Ginny insisted with a smirk. “What’s the big hold up?”

“If you want to walk, you can walk in front of me then,” Harry told her. He looked pointedly at her and waited for her to move.

She smiled sweetly at him and walked around Harry down the hallway. She glanced behind her to see Harry only a step or two back. As she turned her head forward, she heard his footsteps speed up. She had a feeling he was looking to pay her back. Without looking back, she took one more step then stopped, planted her feet, and leaned back, cocking her head to the side to avoid hitting Harry with it. Instead, her shoulder connected with his chest with only minimal force. She didn’t want to hurt him.

Harry gave a startled “Oomph,” at the contact. “That’s it,” he said. Ginny felt his arms twist her around so she was facing him. He bent in front of her, stuck an arm around the back of her knees, then hefted her up onto his shoulder. “You asked for it.”

Ginny shrieked in surprise as she was slung unceremoniously over Harry’s shoulder. “Put me down,” she demanded through her laughter.

“I don’t think so,” Harry smugly replied as he began walking again. “You were obviously having trouble walking. I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself, so I thought I’d help out.”

“My hero,” Ginny mock swooned. “Now put me down.” She felt rather self-conscious being hoisted up in the air like that. The only consolation was that the halls were still empty. At least nobody was around to see her arse sticking up in the air.

“Nope,” Harry said. “Not gonna happen.”

“Please?” Ginny pleaded. She wondered if her weight was putting a strain on him.

“Nuh-uh.”

“I promise I’ll be a good girl,” Ginny vowed in her most innocent tone of voice.

“Right,” Harry fired back sarcastically. “That’ll be the day.”

“Hey!” Ginny protested, smacking Harry on his arse. She couldn't help but notice how firm it felt. She looked down and admired the feature momentarily.

“Ooh, cheeky little one, aren’t you?” Harry teased, earning himself another smack. “Again!”

“You’re sick, Potter,” Ginny instead scolded. She was happy he could not see her face because she could feel the heat flooding to it.

Harry came upon a staircase and slowly trudged up. He began breathing heavily as if he were under great strain, causing Ginny to again wonder at her weight. Then she remembered who she was dealing with and smacked him hard on his arse again. Hard.

“Hey, that one hurt,” Harry complained good-naturedly.

“You deserved it,” Ginny retorted.

“Okay, okay,” he admitted, dropping the act. “You really weigh practically nothing at all,” he commented. As if to prove his point, he sped his pace up and rushed the final stairs and jogged down the seventh floor hallways.

“Harry,” Ginny shrieked, then promptly broke out into peals of laughter. She was still laughing when they came upon the portrait of Barnabus the Barmy marking the entrance to the Room of Requirement. Harry paced back and forth with Ginny still on his shoulder. “Hey! Hero-boy! We’re here; you can put me down now.”

“Yes ma’am,” Harry replied as he dutifully crouched down and bent forward to allow Ginny’s feet to find the ground again.

“That’s more like it,” Ginny said as she straightened up. She moved to open the door that had appeared, but she was stopped when Harry grabbed her arm and tugged her back towards him. As she was spun around to face him, she found herself wrapped in his embrace. She slipped her arms around his waist to return the gesture.

“Thank you,” Harry whispered into her hair.

Ginny did not need him to clarify why he had thanked her. She squeezed him tightly as she replied, “You’re welcome, Harry.”

The two entered their workout room and began their usual morning routines. Ginny was quite pleased to see Harry turn her way with a smile on his face as he lifted himself up in a pull-up. It was a relief to see Harry smiling again and gratifying to know she was the one to put the smile on his face.

*********

Harry peered at himself in the mirror as he ran a comb through his hair. He set the comb down and shook his head slightly to lose the just-combed look his hair held. Smirking at his reflection, he strode out of the room. He sat on a bench and tapped his foot idly as his mind wandered. He was careful to control the direction of his thoughts, not wanting to revisit the horrors of the previous night.

Instead, he let his mind drift onto Ginny, the reason he was sitting on a bench waiting to head down to the Great Hall. Of course, she was also the reason he was doing so with a smile on his face. She had rather effectively turned his mood around, and Harry had no idea how she had managed it. Not that he was complaining.

Then again, Ginny did have a knack for distracting his thoughts lately. He had found himself thinking about her a lot lately and considered the advice Remus had given him. If only his life were that simple. There were many things in his life that she was not privy to, and Remus, well, had he known the prophecy or the training Harry was putting himself through, he probably would not have thought the situation so simple.

Ginny strolled into the room just then. “Ready?” she asked him.

“Yeah,” he responded. “Let’s head down.” Harry stood and took a step towards the door. He stopped when he realized that Ginny was not following his lead. He turned back towards her and cocked an eyebrow.

“What? You mean I have to walk down?” she asked incredulously. “Some hero you are.”

“I can carry you if you want,” Harry threatened, taking a step towards her.

“That’s okay,” she quickly responded. “I wouldn’t want you to put yourself out.”

Harry snorted. “Right.” He held his arm out to her, and she strolled up to him and hooked her arm through his. The two walked together out of the room and down the halls to the Great Hall. They walked casually across the hall to the Gryffindor table and took seats next to each other near the middle of the long table. The room was just starting to fill with students, so it was still only sparsely populated. The two began piling food onto their respective plates and dug into their breakfasts enthusiastically.

When they were halfway through their meals, Ron, Hermione, and Neville joined them at the table. “Good morning all,” Harry greeted the lot.

“What’s got you so chipper?” Ron sullenly asked as he sank onto the bench across from him.

Harry looked over at Ginny and gave her a small smile which she returned. “Nothing,” Harry replied, turning back to Ron. “Just had a good workout this morning.”

Ron ignored him and promptly dug into the food. Hermione looked at him quizzically for a moment as if trying to figure something out. She then methodically filled her plate and began eating her breakfast. The meal went on as it normally would with Ron complaining about classes starting up again until the morning post arrived.

When Hermione paid the owl delivering her Daily Prophet a Knut and began to unfurl the newspaper, Harry’s posture stiffened, and he stared stonily ahead. He heard Hermione gasp as her eyes took in the headlines on the cover. Harry did not need to read the heading to discern the article’s contents. He felt a soft squeeze on his left hand and looked over at Ginny, who was watching him in concern. He offered her a sad smile in reply, and she gave his hand another squeeze as Hermione flipped through the pages of the paper and began reading aloud.

Ginny held onto Harry’s hand as Hermione unknowingly and obliviously forced him to relive the terrible vision he had experienced only hours prior. He felt her thumb drawing circles over the knuckle of his own thumb and concentrated on the feeling as he tried to drown out the sound of Hermione’s voice. The time passed by with Harry barely taking in a word that was said around him. Soon enough Ginny poked him in the side to break him out of his reverie as Hermione was trying to get his attention.

“Come on Harry, or we’ll be late for Transfiguration.” Harry nodded to her and turned his head back to Ginny. “Thank you,” he mouthed to her, giving her hand a squeeze as he stood up from the bench.

She smiled warmly at him in response, also rising from her seat. “You have what, Double Potions now?” he asked rhetorically. He made a face. “Good luck with that.”

“Thanks, Harry,” she replied. The emotion in her voice was best described as a mix between gratefulness for his sympathy and dismay at her awaiting fate. He gave her a playful nudge as they walked towards the double doors leading into the entrance hall. She turned to look at him and broke out in a fit of giggles at the irony of the situation. “Thanks, Harry,” she repeated in a lively voice.

Harry smiled widely at her as they parted ways. He was happy and proud that he had been able to return the favour to her. Transfiguration class came and went. Hermione headed off to Arithmancy, and Harry begged off returning to the common room with Ron and Neville preferring to retire to his office and continue reading on Legilimency.

Harry ate lunch with Ginny and her friends before heading out onto the grounds with Ron for their Care of Magical Creatures class. They spent the class reviewing what they had done the previous term, but Hagrid mentioned that he had a “real treat” in store for them this term. Harry shared a worried glance with Ron as they both wondered what monstrosity Hagrid would bring in this time.

After class ended, Ron ascended to the North Tower for Divination while Harry retreated to the Room of Requirement. He had the room to himself for about two hours before he would be joined by Ginny. They would be focusing on wandless casting again today. She was not catching on as quickly as he had but was making definite progress; then again, when he was first learning, he had nothing to do but practice all day long.

The next morning, Harry had his first DADA and Potions lessons of the new term. The former went well, though it was a bit of a bore. Harry was not looking forward to Potions or, more specifically, class with Snape. As he was leaving the Defense classroom, Ron and Neville both bade him goodbye. Neville also said goodbye to Hermione, but Ron still was not feeling very charitable towards Hermione. He no longer completely ignored her, but he still tried to avoid talking to her when he could manage it. Harry was mildly surprised they had not argued more about it; he guessed it was due to a change in Hermione. She did not seem eager to make up with Ron, though Harry suspected it had more to do with her confusion.

He and Hermione were among the first to enter the classroom. As the start of class drew near, Draco Malfoy walked through the door, parchment in hand. Not having studied the map lately, Harry idly wondered of the charm he had put on the doorway was still in effect. He and Ginny had refrained from adding new pranks since the end of last term. While neither brought the subject up, Harry felt that it was best to slow things down before Malfoy got too angry, frustrated, and desperate. Desperate was dangerous. Harry expected him to follow the path of his father, but, even so, he did not care to be responsible for helping push Malfoy down that road.

As Malfoy sat at his desk and unfurled the parchment, Harry discovered that the charm was still in effect. He schooled his features as Malfoy strode up to Snape's desk, waving the parchment in front of the man's face. Snape's eyes narrowed, and he turned his head and locked his gaze on Harry. "Mr. Potter. Come here and give me your wand."

Harry turned to Hermione and found her staring at him with a calculating look on her face. She also looked a bit worried as if she thought he was about to be caught at some yet to be determined rule breaking. Harry shrugged at her, stood from his desk, and strode to the front of the room. He flicked his wand out of its holster and presented it to the man. "May I ask what this is about?"

"You will address me with the proper respect in my classroom," Snape sneered at him.

"Fine," Harry gritted out. "May I ask what this is about, sir?"

"Some individual has decided to play a prank on Mr. Malfoy," Snape spat out. "I checked his essay this morning to ensure that he completed it, and he has just shown me that his essay was erased, confirming my suspicion that someone must have erased it and his last essay. You always thought you were above the rules, but I'll have you expelled for sabotaging another student's hard work."

Harry had to hold back a snort of laughter. Expulsion for sabotaging another student's work? If that were the punishment, Slytherin would be a pretty small house, and Snape would not have a job at Hogwarts. Despite the hand he played in the prank, Harry was unconcerned. It could not be linked to him, especially not through his wand since the spells had all been cast wandlessly. Snape would find nothing to incriminate him. Harry doubted that would stop the man from trying to punish him, but he was prepared to fight him on it.

"Prior Incantato," Snape spoke, jabbing his wand at Harry's which was held in the man's left hand. All that showed in the wand were a couple basic hexes used in a duel at the end of DADA class. Snape scowled at the wand then shifted his gaze to Harry, and his scowl turned to a sneer. Undeterred, the man turned to Malfoy. "Where were you when the parchment was erased?"

"I checked it out in the hall before coming into class," Malfoy explained. "When I checked again at my desk, all the ink had disappeared."

Snape nodded and headed to Malfoy's desk. Harry stayed standing at the front of the room. Snape still held his wand in his left hand. The man waved his wand over Malfoy's desk, then frowned. He shook his head slightly then walked to the door. He waved his wand again, and this time a malevolent smirk spread across his face. He excitedly waved his wand over the doorway, then jabbed it at Harry's wand. His face fell, but in a flash an angry scowl spread across his features. He walked purposefully back to the front of the room and waved his wand over the blackboard. "Instructions for today's potion; there is no need for any of you to talk. Mr. Malfoy, return to your desk. Mr. Potter, follow me."

Why was he not surprised? Snape was clearly dragging Harry to the Headmaster's office, trying to enforce his threat regardless of the fact that he was unable to link Harry to the prank. As Snape stormed out of the classroom, Harry followed in his wake. Where Snape's gait spoke of his anger and frustration, Harry's was perfectly calm. For a man who was supposedly such a skilled Occlumens, Snape had a lot of issues with controlling his emotions which practically poured off of him.

When they arrived at the stone gargoyle guarding the entrance to the Headmaster's office, Snape spat the password, and Harry suppressed a snort of laughter. Harry didn't know the words "Jelly Bellies" could be spoken with such malice. Snape stomped up the stairs, unmindful of whether Harry was following or not. Harry stepped onto the stone stairs and allowed them to carry him up to the Headmaster's door. By the time Harry made it to the top, Snape had already barged inside and was pacing back and forth as he lambasted Harry's character. "...for the last time! The boy flouts the rules at every turn. He's even worse than his father and his mangy mutt of a godfather."

It took all Harry's self control not to hex the man right there, consequences be damned. If Snape had not confiscated his wand, he may have. Instead, he stepped into the room in two powerful strides and interrupted Snape's tirade. "I would be careful about what I say, if I were you."

Snape spun around on his heel, a manic gleam in his eye. His wand rose to point at Harry. "Oh really? And why is that?"

"You may live to regret your words; then again, you may not," Harry said calmly, meeting the man's gaze.

Harry could see Snape's knuckles whitening as they tightened around his wand. "Are you threatening me?"

Harry arched an eyebrow. "How could I threaten you? I don't even have a wand. It seems to me that you're the one with a wand pointed at me, ready to attack. Very threatening, I assure you," he stated conversationally.

Snape's face flushed, and he swept his right arm as if he was going to cast a spell.

"Enough!" Dumbledore's authoritative voice rang through the room.

Snape's arm fell to his side, but he continued staring maliciously at Harry. Harry turned his body towards the Headmaster, turning his back to Snape as he greeted the man. "Good morning, Professor Dumbledore."

"Good morning, Harry," the Professor greeted in return. "Perhaps you'd like to tell me what you are doing in my office at this time?"

"I'll do my best," Harry replied. "I was in Potions class setting up my workstation when Draco Malfoy walked into the room. After going to his desk, he went to the front of the room and started saying something about his parchment being erased. I'm not sure exactly what was said as I only caught snippets of their conversation." Harry could hear Snape pacing behind him, but he paid the man no mind and continued on with his story. "Sn -- Professor Snape called me to the front of the room and asked for my wand -- which he has yet to give back to me -- and cast Prior Incantato on it. He did not receive the results he had been hoping for. He asked Draco where he was when his parchment was erased, and Draco was not sure but thought it happened somewhere between the door and his desk."

Snape began muttering behind him, but Harry did his best to tune him out. He was sure the man was cursing his name, as well as his dad's and Sirius's, so there was no point in listening to him. "Professor Snape then walked over to Draco's desk and waved his wand over it a few times. I presume he was looking for any lingering traces of the magic. I don't think he found anything at the desk, so he strode to the door next. It looked like he found something there, though I can't be sure what he found. He tried another spell, one I'm unfamiliar with. It involved waving his wand over the doorway, then jabbing it at my wand. I don't think that gave him the results he was looking for either."

"That's because he's found some way to mask his magical signature," Snape shouted menacingly. "The boy is a troublemaker. He's ruined another student's work twice now and is interfering with Mr. Malfoy's ability to learn. I want him expelled immediately."

Harry did not even turn to acknowledge Snape's presence. He kept his gaze locked on the Headmaster, interested in how the man was going to handle the situation.

Dumbledore peered wearily over his half-moon spectacles at his Potions Master. Harry could feel no pity for the man over the situation despite the fact that he had in fact brought the situation about by pranking Malfoy. As far as he was concerned, Snape deserved anything and everything he got, and the Headmaster deserved to have to put up with Snape's crap. After all, he was the one to give Snape the job, no matter how unqualified Snape was to teach. And besides, he seemed to have little problem leaving Harry to deal with Snape's unjustified hatred of him on a daily basis. No, Harry felt no pity for the man at all.

"Harry," the Headmaster turned his head to address him. "Am I correct in stating that you have a free period before lunch?"

"Yes, sir," Harry replied, slightly surprised that Dumbledore had his schedule memorized. He wondered just how much attention did Dumbledore pay to him?

"Very well. Severus, return to your classroom. Harry and I shall be down at the end of class to investigate the matter," the Headmaster's tone was calm but brooked no room for disagreement.

"Yes, Headmaster," Snape ground out. He spun on his heel and had just reached it when Harry spoke up.

"My wand, sir," he said, holding his hand out.

Snape froze with has hand on the doorknob. He remained that way for several seconds before placing Harry's wand on a nearby table and storming out of the office. Harry calmly walked over to the table, picked up his wand, and slid it back into his holster. "Am I free to go, or do you want me to remain with you until class is over?" he asked, turning around to address the Headmaster. He kept his tone neutral, as though it did not matter to him either way.

The Headmaster sighed. "I think for appearances sake it would be best if you remained here. There is only," Dumbledore pulled a pocket watch out of his robes, "half an hour remaining in the current period."

Harry nodded and strode back into the room. He noticed Fawkes sitting on his perch gazing at him and walked over to the bird. He held his hand out for Fawkes to nuzzle before running his fingers through Fawkes's feathers. As he continued affectionately petting the Phoenix, Harry turned to the Headmaster. "How did you find Fawkes, sir? If you don't mind my asking."

"It was not I who found Fawkes," he replied after a moment's pause. He became withdrawn for a moment, as if caught in a memory. Harry could not tell by his expression whether it was a good one or not. "It was Fawkes who found me. Or saved me, rather."

"Saved you?" Harry asked, intrigued.

"Indeed. Fawkes is the only reason I am alive today," he soberly told Harry. There was no twinkle in the man's eyes. In fact, Harry thought, for just a moment, they looked haunted. "How much do you know about the great war in the 1940's with Grindelwald?"

"Err -- I know you defeated him," Harry said lamely, realising that was in fact all he knew on the subject.

"It was a very dark time," Dumbledore explained. "The main difference between Grindelwald and Voldemort is that Grindelwald declared open war and fought on a battleground. Tom prefers a more subtle war. He attacks in the dead of night against defenseless victims. Tom spreads terror, and that is why so many fear just his name. But make no mistake, Grindelwald was every bit as powerful, and many good wizards and witches perished in the great war."

Harry was unsure what to make of the story, nor the Headmaster's tone of voice, yet he couldn't help finding himself listening with rapt attention as the man continued.

"Grindelwald and I dueled on more than one occasion during the course of the war, and we were evenly matched. The difference between the two of us was that he was the only leader of his forces. I was more of an honorary leader at best. Grindelwald's army would have fallen apart without his leadership. My loss would have been felt by our army, but there were other leaders in place. I knew that if I had an opportunity to remove Grindelwald, I had to take it, no matter what the cost."

The Headmaster rose and strode over to his beloved phoenix. His eyes were twinkling, but it was not the twinkle that Harry was accustomed to. He realised that the Headmaster had tears in his eyes. He took half a step back and watched as Dumbledore held his arm out to Fawkes, who leaned into the man's touch and trilled a heartfelt note. The phoenix rose from its perch and alighted on Dumbledore's shoulder, crooning softly and peacefully.

"We met on the battlefield again, and my opportunity presented itself. He was off-balance, and when he began to cast the killing curse, I had a choice: I could have dove for cover, or I could eliminate the enemy, sacrificing myself in the process. I chose the latter."

Fawkes trilled a sad note and rubbed his head affectionately against Dumbledore's cheek. "It was the first time and last time I ever cast an Unforgivable," he said after a minute of silence. "My only comfort at the time was that I knew my sacrifice would not have been in vain." Harry was not sure whether he was referring to sacrificing his life or his principles in using the curse. He had a feeling it was both. "Just as the green light was about to strike me, a burst of flames erupted in front of me, and Fawkes intercepted the curse."

He walked back behind his desk and slowly lowered himself back into his seat. Harry seated himself in the armchair before in front of his desk. "The battle was still being waged around me, but I was oblivious to it. I looked down and saw a naked, baby bird emerging from the ashes at my feet. I bent down and scooped him up, holding him against my robes. I walked over to Grindelwald's fallen form and knelt next to his body." The Headmaster paused in his story yet again, and Harry felt frozen in place, watching the tired, old man battle his inner demons even fifty years later.

Dumbledore shook himself out of his reverie. "I left the battlefield shortly thereafter, taking Fawkes with me. I took care of him until he grew back to his adult size; it was the least I could do to repay him. I expected Fawkes would leave as soon as he was able, but he never did. He helped guide me through the aftermath of the war, and he's been a constant source of comfort and guidance ever since," he said affectionately, reaching up to scratch just underneath Fawkes's beak, earning him a short burst of song.

Harry found himself curious at the last statement. Comfort he understood; phoenix song always soothed his worries and left him feeling better, content. Guidance, on the other hand, he was not so clear on. "Guidance, sir?"

"That's right, Harry," the Headmaster replied, turning his gaze back to him.

"Can you communicate with Fawkes then?" he asked.

"It is not as simple as that, I'm afraid," Dumbledore explained. "I believe Fawkes can understand everything we are saying." As if to confirm this, the phoenix trilled a short note. There were no words in his song, but Harry got the impression that Fawkes was signaling his agreement. "I think Fawkes just answered your question better than I could ever explain it." Harry quirked a quizzical eyebrow at the man. "Did you not feel it?"

Harry paused half a moment before answering. "I felt -- it felt like Fawkes was agreeing with you, but I don't know why exactly."

Dumbledore's beard twitched as a smile spread across his face. "Yes, I remember it was quite an odd experience at first. As far as I know, Fawkes has no way of actually speaking to humans, but he has his own method of communication, as you just witnessed. When I have a difficult decision before me, I will often turn to Fawkes for advice, to make sure I am making the right decision. I could not ask for a better confidante or advisor; I only wish that I listened to him more often."

"Sir?" Harry asked. He felt like he was prying, but then again, the Headmaster probably would not have brought it up if he did not want him to know.

"Fawkes has been disappointed a lot over the past year and a half," Dumbledore explained cryptically. "At the time, I told myself that Fawkes was only upset at the turn the war was taking, but even then it sounded a little hollow. I believe that Fawkes disagreed with many of my actions last year, and I should have listened to him."

Harry wondered at the source of Fawkes’s disagreement. He suspected he might have a pretty good idea, but why the Headmaster was bringing this up again now? "And what does he say now?" Harry asked him. He found himself waiting with baited breath for the answer.

The Headmaster sighed tiredly. "I am headed back in the right direction, but there is still a long road ahead of me," he admitted wearily.

As Fawkes rubbed his beak across Dumbledore's cheek, Harry looked down at his hands in his lap. Never before that moment had he felt guilty over deceiving the Headmaster or his friends. He wondered what Fawkes would have to say to him if given the chance. Harry looked back up to meet the man's gaze. "I'm sure he understands that it's not easy to change and that he's glad you're trying."

Dumbledore smiled a little more brightly, some of the twinkle returning to his eyes. "I don't doubt that he is." He pulled his pocket watch out of his robes again. "I think we best head down to the Potions classroom; class should be ending soon."

Harry nodded in reply and rose from his seat. As Dumbledore did the same, Fawkes flew back to his perch. The two wizards left the room in silence. Harry had a lot to think about after that last conversation, and the Headmaster seemed content to give Harry the time to process things. Harry turned the Headmaster's story over in his mind as they walked through the halls. The experience obviously still haunted him; Harry wondered with how many people Dumbledore had shared that story. He somehow doubted very many people knew the full story behind how Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald, and he felt privileged to be one of them.

But he knew there was a reason Dumbledore decided to share the story with him. He was obviously trying to show where he was coming from in trying to shield Harry from his fate, but he thought it was more than just that. Was the Headmaster trying to prepare him for his role in the war? To prepare him for how it would feel to be responsible for taking a life? The thought made Harry shiver. There was no doubt in Harry's mind that Voldemort needed to be killed, for good this time, but he preferred not to think too much on it. He would do what was needed and worry about any repercussions afterwards.

They arrived outside the Potions classroom just as the students began filing out. Harry nodded his greetings to all but a couple of the Slytherins and gave a half-smile and shrug to Hermione's inquisitive glance. By the look on her face, she assumed he was in pretty serious trouble. They waited until the room was empty of all students before entering. Snape was standing impatiently in front of his desk with a malevolent glare fixed in place. Harry kept his expression neutral as he walked into the room.

"Ah, Severus, how was the rest of your class?" Dumbledore asked in his usual manner.

"Fine," Snape spat impatiently. "Can we get on with this?"

"Certainly, certainly," Dumbledore absently replied. "I imagine you have classes to prepare for. Now, you said the spell was on the doorway?"

"Yes," Snape responded icily. "Potter put it on the door to erase Draco's parchment whenever he walked through it."

The Headmaster ignored Snape's comment as he turned to the doorway. He swept his wand in a high arc, his brow furrowing in thought. He remained that way, with his wand still held out at the ending point of the arc, for a full minute before he turned around to face them. "A brilliant charm. It is, as you said, keyed directly to Mr. Malfoy, only it is set to clear ink off any parchment he is touching with his skin. Anything stored in his robes or bag would not be affected. Rather ingenious." Harry had to fight down the proud smile that tugged at the corner of his lips.

"Yes, well, clever as I'm sure he is," Snape said, voice dripping with sarcasm, "Mr. Potter sabotaged one of my student's works on at least two occasions. I want him expelled."

"That has yet to be seen," Dumbledore calmly replied. "Harry, your wand please," he said, holding out his hand.

Harry flicked his wrist and caught the wand in his hand. He tossed it lightly in the air and caught it at the tip, handing the handle to the Headmaster.

"Thank you," the Headmaster said. He turned back around and made another wave over the archway, followed by a jab at Harry's wand, mimicking Snape's earlier action. He paused a moment as he studied the tip of Harry's wand, then switched Harry's wand to his right hand. He drew a complicated pattern over the doorway and paused to study something Harry could not see. After a moment he shook his head. "The spells were not cast with this wand, though you may very well be correct that a signature masking charm was used here. Without the wand that cast the spell, I'm afraid I will not be able to determine the culprit."

Snape's face fell. "What?" he demanded, his face again flushed with anger. "Do you mean to tell me that my student has lost several days worth of work, and Potter is going unpunished for it?" He took two steps toward Harry and whipped his wand out. "If you won't punish him, I will!"

Dumbledore moved to intercept the Potions Master before a curse could be uttered, but it proved unnecessary. As Snape stuck the wand in his face, Harry sprang into action. He ducked his body as he stepped forward, bringing his heel down hard on Snape's toes. He pushed upwards, hand darting out and snatching the wand out of the man's hand as he howled in pain. Harry ducked and took several steps back, pointing Snape's own wand at him poised to attack if necessary.

Snape cursed with a wide ranging vocabulary as rage overtook him. He let his wounded foot fall to the ground and stared into Harry's eyes. "How dare you? Attacking a teacher, you'll be expelled for sure this time, you spoiled, attention-seeking..."

"That is enough!" Dumbledore bellowed, silencing Snape's tirade. Snape turned to the Headmaster and, noticing the look of anger and disappointment in the man's eyes, smirked smugly. Dumbledore shook his head and turned to Harry, taking a step towards him. He held his hand out for Snape's wand. Harry met the Headmaster's kindly blue eyes and nodded, handing the wand over. "Thank you," he responded, handing Harry's own wand back to him. "You are free to go, Harry."

Harry nodded. He turned to give Snape one last look to find the man spluttering, at a complete loss for words. Harry turned back to the door and calmly walked through it. Just before the door shut, he could hear a clearly displeased Dumbledore rounding on Snape. Harry smiled widely; maybe Dumbledore really was trying, but he still had a long way to go.

******

The next two days were much less eventful for Harry. He was forced to relate his fate to his friends at lunchtime on Tuesday. He and Ginny shared a secretive smile as he told them all that the Headmaster confirmed that he had not cast the spell. Harry left out the conversation he had had with Dumbledore in his office and the confrontation with Snape after class. The first was not his secret to tell, and he guessed that the second was not something the Headmaster would want him spreading around, though he planned to tell Ginny as soon as he could get her alone. Since she was his partner in crime, she had every right to know the added bonus to the prank.

He didn't get a chance to do so until the following morning during their workout. They shared a good laugh over Snape's inability to control his temper. Harry had Potions again that afternoon, a double session. Snape resolutely ignored him, which suited Harry just fine; it sure beat his usual treatment in Potions class.

The next morning Ginny confided that she had finished the Occlumency book he had given her and was going to begin organizing her mind that evening. Harry was both proud of and nervous for her. It had been a tough and grueling process for him to go through, and he wished there was some way he could spare her the trouble. Instead, he told her the following: "I just want you to know that I'm here for you if you need me. You don't have to share anything with me, though you're certainly free to, but if you just want me to sit with you while you're sorting memories, I'd be more than happy to help."

Ginny smiled in reply and told Harry she might just take him up on the offer. Harry sincerely hoped that she did, though he had difficulty placing exactly why it was. His logical reply was that he knew how hard the process would be and did not want her to go through it alone, but another, increasingly vocal side of him insisted that it was because he wanted to be the one she turned to when she needed someone to trust and confide in. Harry could not deny the validity of either argument, though the latter provided some additional food for thought.

He was not so naive to miss what was happening to him. Ginny was very important to him, and he cared for her greatly -- more than anyone else in his life. He also realised that he cared for Ginny in a different way than any of his other friends. Then again, he would not say it was all that similar to how he used to feel for Cho or even Jessica. It was more a combination of the two. Ginny was his best friend, but she was also so much more than that.

The Yule Ball had been a major wake-up call for him. He had not grasped the true extent of his feelings for Ginny until that night when it had hit him upside the head - repeatedly. When sorting his memories the following morning, he had largely glossed over the rest of the evening because his mind had been so focused on the vision. He had revisited his memories of the ball since then - more than once - and was able to take a good look at himself and several good looks at Ginny.

He recognized the fact that he had been rather caught up in Ginny the entire evening. He would have to be blind to miss the fact that he was incredibly attracted to her; then again, he would have to be blind not to be attracted to her in the first place. The question was not how he felt about Ginny. Simply thinking about her made the answer painfully obvious. No, the question was what to do about it.

He knew what he wanted to do about it. He wanted to finish what Voldemort interrupted on the night of the ball. And if he was not mistaken, and he fervently hoped that he was not, Ginny wanted the same thing. While examining his memory, he was not merely admiring the way Ginny looked in her dress robes which, incidentally, was a constant and rather enjoyable distraction; rather, he had been attempting to discern her feelings. When he successfully maintained his focus, Harry found several signs that Ginny felt the same way.

Her small sighs of pleasure that he had brushed off as figments of his imagination gave him pause. Had he imagined them? Reassessing his memory, he was no longer convinced that her quiet exhales had been wishful thinking, especially if her emotions mirrored his own at the time. There was something to be said about holding Ginny so close in his arms, but Harry could not verbalize it. The sensation of the bare skin of her back against his hands shot a tingle down his spine. The touch of her arms wrapped around his neck made him feel warm inside. When he looked at his dances with Hannah, Hermione, and Minerva, the difference astonished him. He was surprised he had not been outwardly sighing in pleasure upon returning to Ginny's embrace.

Her smile was another indicator. Harry could not believe he had not noticed it before, but she smiled differently for him. He watched her during the meal as she talked and laughed with their friends. She was smiling nearly the whole time, but when she turned to look at him, her smile became brighter, and the cutest little dimple formed on her right cheek. That dimple had distracted him on more than one occasion. He saw the same thing throughout the evening; her smile was brighter when it was aimed at him.

What really gave her away, though, were her eyes. Harry tried to find the words to express what he saw in her eyes but failed spectacularly. When her beautiful brown eyes were directed at him, they seemed to shine with emotion. They were warm, inviting, and deep. Harry lost himself in her eyes more times than he cared to admit. He also caught her surreptitiously checking him out a few times which left Harry quite smug.

Despite these encouraging signs, some doubt still lingered in his mind. Then he came to the end of the evening when they cuddled up together to watch the fireworks. He found himself reveling in the feeling of having her pressed up against him, but he had to shake himself out of it to concentrate. Ginny seemed to enjoy the contact as well. Indeed, from the start of the fireworks to the end, she had burrowed closer to Harry a few times. Then the fireworks finished, and Harry found himself leaning in to kiss her. What mattered most was seeing that Ginny had closed her eyes and leaned toward him, lips parted slightly. She had wanted the kiss.

It should have been an easy decision for him, he realised, but it wasn't. Despite the rather vocal part of him that was urging him to get off his arse and kiss her, another part held him back. What would happen if things did not work out? What if he had misread the situation, and Ginny did not feel the same way? What if she had just been caught up in the magic of the evening? Or what if she did feel the same, but their relationship did not work out?

Harry understood his relationship track record was pretty abysmal. The only person he had properly dated even for a short period of time was Cho, and that had been disastrous. He had been so sure it was what he wanted, that she was what he wanted. But when they actually went out, they had nothing to talk about, no common ground, and things had quickly gone from bad to worse. His situation with Ginny was quite different from the one with Cho, he speculated. He knew that he and Ginny had a lot in common, but there was still the possibility that the relationship would fail. Could their friendship survive?

Harry relied heavily on Ginny. She was his best friend and only confidante. If things went sour and he lost her in his life... Harry did not want to think about it. Ron and Hermione were still his friends, but there was so much distance between them at the moment. He was becoming much better friends with Neville, but he doubted anyone would be able to fill the void that would be left by Ginny's absence. Then there were all his secrets and her training to consider. Would they be able to keep working together? He did not fear Ginny revealing his secrets, but he depended on her. He enjoyed that he could share things with her that he had never intimated to anyone else. He dreaded losing that.

He wanted more from his relationship with Ginny, but he was terrified of losing what they already had. Was it worth the risk?

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