"Five minutes remain. You should all be nearly finished by now. Place your potion samples in the flasks in front of you and bring them to my desk as soon as the period has ended."
Harry looked up from his cauldron and saw that Snape was moving around the dungeon to inspect the class's progress. He stirred his Blood Replenishing Potion slowly, peripherally aware of the smoke wafting up from the flames below.
It was their last exam of the year. Just a few more minutes of this and he'd be done, free to do whatever he wanted, until it was time to take the train home. He felt a slight jolt of excitement at the thought.
He kept his head down as Snape approached, trying not to notice the characteristic sneer that crossed the professor's face. Already tense from nerves and the dull headache that had been building for the past hour, he could not suppress a stab of irritation. Just ignore him, Harry told himself firmly. The potion's fine; don't let him provoke you into making a mistake.
Finished, Harry placed a sample of the potion in a flask (to which he had surreptitiously added an Unbreakable Charm, lest Snape try to sabotage his work again) and sat back, glancing around the room. Next to him, Hermione had also finished, a look of satisfaction on her face. Ron appeared to be nearly done, though his potion seemed to be a slightly lighter shade of red than Harry's. His brow was furrowed in concentration. Harry noticed that Malfoy was making faces at him across the room, and turned quickly away in annoyance. His head gave a painful throb.
As the exam ended, they took their flasks up to Snape's desk for evaluation, and hastily departed from the dungeon. "Well, that wasn't as bad as I expected, I guess," said Ron as they left.
"It's a very difficult potion if you don't know what you're doing," said Hermione. "The theory behind replenishing blood is terribly complex. I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it properly--"
"That's why it's called NEWT-level Potions, isn't it," cut in Ron. "Hardest class we've ever had. Even if that stupid git wasn't the teacher it'd still be worse than Transfiguration."
They approached a staircase that would take them straight from the first floor to the Gryffindor common room on alternate Fridays. Harry didn't really want to think about exams anymore now they were finished, so he only half-listened as Hermione ruminated on all the ways she could have earned a less-than-perfect score in Transfiguration as they climbed.
" . . . and of course Conjuring is very difficult, so I suppose it's to be expected that we would have some trouble with it, but I was ever so pleased to see the extra credit questions on Human Transfiguration, maybe it'll help make up for some of the Conjured snails being dead when they appeared . . ."
The three of them arrived at the Fat Lady's portrait. Ron gave the password ("Waddiwasi") and they entered. After dumping his bag in the dormitory, Harry came back down to the common room and took a seat with his friends near the fireplace.
He felt a strong relief that the exams were finished. Strictly speaking, they had been more difficult than the OWLs, though considerably less stressful, as his marks would not determine his future to the extent that the OWLs did. He did not even want to imagine the NEWTs he would take next year, for they would be far more demanding than any level of work he had done so far. To become an Auror he had to earn no less than five marks of "E" or higher, Professor McGonagall had told him. That ambition had fuelled his desire to succeed this year. It was not always easy, however, to keep his mind on his studies, when he knew there was a very good chance he would not survive to complete them.
With an effort, Harry silenced that thought, aware of the dull throbbing in his head. He thought instead of the Hogsmeade visit tomorrow, and what he could do during the last week of term. He intended to make the most of the time, for he was dreading his return to the Dursleys for the summer. It would be the last time he had to stay there, as he would soon be turning seventeen and of age, but even this fact did little to make the prospect more bearable.
Hearing the portrait hole open behind him, Harry turned and saw a group of fifth-year girls entering the common room. His heart leapt when he saw Ginny among them, giggling with the others at a joke one of them had told. She looked so animated, so . . . full of life, he thought. Her long hair was pulled back behind her head, falling well beyond her shoulders. Harry found he very much wanted to talk to her, but he felt awkward when she was with her friends.
The sound of her laughter carried across the common room, and Harry's heartbeat quickened. He wanted to join in, to laugh along with her, to hear that wonderful sound again and know that he had caused it . . . As if sensing his thoughts, Ginny turned and looked in his direction. She saw him and smiled, and Harry felt suddenly, inexplicably, nervous. For Merlin's sake, just get over there, he berated himself.
Whether by accident or by design, Hermione chose that precise moment to call out, "Hi Ginny! How did you do with your OWLs?" Ginny's eyes met Harry's, and he knew they were thinking the same thing. He smiled to himself.
"Pretty well, I think," said Ginny, detaching herself from her friends and crossing the room to join them. "Defence Against the Dark Arts was no problem. I probably could have taken it last year, since we learned so much in the DA." She shot a grin at Harry, who felt a surge of pride in his efforts with Dumbledore's Army. With Umbridge gone it had not been necessary to continue the DA, but many of its members openly wore their Galleons in honour of what they had done the year before, much to the consternation of the former Inquisitorial Squad--and, Harry suspected, to the delight of the Headmaster.
"Charms went well, too," continued Ginny, "although I think I mixed up the wand movements for the Cheering Charm, because the examiner started having some pretty strange mood swings a few minutes after I did it on her."
"How about Potions?" said Ron, before Harry could ask about these mood swings. "You need that to become an Auror, you know."
"I dunno," sighed Ginny. "It's definitely easier to brew a potion without Snape giving you that look that says he knows you'll screw it up. But I'm not sure about the written part of the test. Some of the theory questions were confusing, even with all the revising I did."
"It only gets worse," said Ron, nodding sympathetically.
"Thanks a lot," said Ginny, rolling her eyes. "But I don't think I want to be an Auror, anyway. I just don't know what I want to do, really."
"Didn't you have a career meeting with Professor McGonagall?" asked Hermione, sounding slightly concerned.
"Yeah," said Ginny, a wicked grin suddenly crossing her face. "I told her I want to train trolls for the ballet."
Harry and Ron guffawed at this; Hermione appeared shocked. "You what?" she asked, appalled. "Ginny--"
"I'm joking," said Ginny quickly. "I think she would have thrown me out of her office if I'd said that," she added.
"Oh," said Hermione. For a moment she was silent, eyebrows raised in an expression of incredulity; then a sudden giggle burst from her mouth as an amused smile broke out over her face. Harry, Ron and Ginny laughed harder.
As the chortling died down, Harry said, "I'm sure you did fine on your Potions. Do you think you'd take it next year if you could?"
"I'm not sure," answered Ginny slowly. "I don't like Snape at all, but it is an important subject. A lot of the work Fred and George do at the joke shop is based on Potions. And of course," she rolled her eyes again, "Mum thinks I ought to be a Healer, and you need the NEWT for that." She shook her head.
"Why does she say that?" asked Harry.
"Dunno. Probably because I'm the only girl in the family or something. But I'd be awful at it--I haven't got the patience. But I don't want to disappoint her, either, I just . . ." she broke off, looking uncertain. Harry looked at her questioningly, but after a moment, Ginny shrugged, her expression clearing. "Well, I should get going. Rose and Diane want me to go down to the lake with them this afternoon. See you later," she said. She smiled at Harry and the others, and went to rejoin her friends across the common room. Harry suppressed a sigh of disappointment.
* * *
The rest of the day passed slowly. Harry spent the afternoon with Ron and Hermione having tea at Hagrid's. He spoke little during dinner, grumpily chewing his food, scarcely noticing his friends talking next to him. Vaguely he wondered where his earlier cheerfulness had gone. Around him people were discussing their plans for the Hogsmeade visit tomorrow. Almost without realising it, he rested his gaze on Ginny, who was sitting a way down the table, chatting animatedly with her group of friends. He was slightly disconcerted to see that there was a boy sitting with them, a fifth-year whose name he did not know. Harry watched as Ginny laughed at something the boy said, and he turned away, scowling. His head throbbed painfully.
"Harry? You all right?" Ron asked. Apparently the less-than-pleased expression on his face had not gone unnoticed.
"Fine," said Harry, trying to sound as if nothing was wrong, hoping Ron would let it go. "Just a headache, that's all." The pain in his head had been growing steadily worse all day, setting him increasingly on edge. He tried to clear his mind with Occlumency, but was finding it difficult to concentrate.
"It's not your scar, is it?" Hermione asked quietly, in tones of concern. Harry could not help feeling irritated at this.
"No," he said shortly, shaking his head and glancing around the Great Hall. He could see Malfoy at the Slytherin table, apparently by himself--Crabbe and Goyle were nowhere to be seen. He seemed to be minding his own business, not talking to anyone. Something about this made Harry uneasy.
Ron noticed where he was looking. "You don't think Malfoy did something, do you?"
Hermione rolled her eyes impatiently. "Ron, don't be ridiculous. Not everything bad that happens is Malfoy's doing. We haven't seen him since Potions. You didn't have a headache in Potions, did you, Harry?"
"Er, I did, actually," said Harry slowly. "But it doesn't matter," he continued, seeing Ron's triumphant expression, "it's not like I've been poisoned or anything." He didn't want them making a fuss over a stupid headache, but in truth he was a bit worried. There was something flickering uncomfortably in the back of his mind . . . something about Malfoy . . . and his scar . . .
Get a grip, Harry told himself. It was nothing he could take to Dumbledore. He imagined what he would say if he went to the Headmaster: Sorry to bother you, Professor, but I've got a headache and Malfoy is minding his own business at the Slytherin table. Thought you ought to know. He shook his head in disgust.
Not feeling particularly hungry, Harry left the Great Hall ahead of the others, heading for the loo. He walked in silence, giving a friendly smile to Neville as he passed, and entered a boys' toilet on the fourth floor.
Twenty minutes later he emerged, his mood considerably worse than it had been upon entering. Apparently, someone, perhaps in a fit of post-exam high spirits, had taken it upon themselves to charm all the toilets to fire up a blast of cold water whenever he tried to sit down. Adding insult to injury, the toilet seats had been charmed to Vanish at the same instant, causing him to lose his balance and fall in--only to reappear mockingly when he had extracted himself, wet and embarrassed. Harry soon found that the other boys' loos on the floor were similarly unusable. Now disgruntled and fairly desperate (not to mention thoroughly soaked), he decided there was nothing else for it--he had to brave the girls' toilets. His head ached worse than ever.
After looking around to check that no one was watching, Harry stealthily approached the nearest girls' lavatory. Just as he reached the door, however, it opened and he was confronted by Ginny, who was coming out. "Harry!" she exclaimed in surprise. "What happened? You're sopping wet . . . Wait a minute, why are you trying to get into the girls' toilet?" she asked, eyes narrowed.
Thoroughly embarrassed, Harry could not reply for several seconds. Finally he managed to get out, "Somebody cursed the toilets in boys' room, and I really need to use the loo." He hung his head, wishing he could disappear into the floor.
"Really? Cursed them how?" asked Ginny brightly, as if this were an everyday occurrence.
"They, erm--the seats Vanish whenever I try to sit down, and I, er, fell in," he mumbled, not meeting her gaze. He could feel his cheeks colouring.
Ginny raised her eyebrows. "But how did you get so wet?" she asked. "You couldn't have fallen in that far--"
"It blasted me with water when I fell," he muttered. "Probably some idiot's idea of a joke."
"Sounds like something Fred and George would do," said Ginny, looking as though she were trying hard not to laugh. "Look, here--" She performed a drying charm on his robes, which began to steam. "Well, go ahead, no one else is in there, I'll keep anyone from coming in while you . . ."
Harry muttered a grateful thanks and ducked quickly into the toilet, as Ginny dissolved into a fit of giggles behind him.
* * *
If I ever find out Fred and George had anything to do with this, Harry thought irritably as he washed his hands, trying to ignore the pain in his head, I'm going to kill them.
There had been nothing wrong with the girls' loos, of course; he knew Ginny wouldn't have sent him in if there had. But the whole thing had been incredibly humiliating, and appreciation for the twins' sense of humour aside, Harry found himself giving serious contemplation to a suitable revenge for the incident. Maybe if he Transfigured the pair of them into toilets, and left them in the lavatory for someone to use . . .
Snorting aloud at the thought, he moved to dry his hands. A faint noise caught his attention, and he frowned, listening.
Indistinct voices could be heard from outside the lavatory. No doubt Ginny was warding someone off from coming into the room. But was that a man's voice he heard, cutting her off like that? It didn't sound friendly . . . what was going on?
Worried, he moved closer to the exit, but as he did so, the voices faded into silence. For a few seconds he stood frozen, listening cautiously to see whether it was safe to come out. His heart was beating rapidly, and he felt hot all over at the thought of being seen coming from the girls' toilet. But if Ginny was in some kind of trouble . . .
He had to check. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door--
"Well, well," came a sneering voice that Harry hated. "Off for a snog in the girls' toilets with Weasley, are we, Potter? I didn't think even you were that desperate. I don't know which is worse--that you can't find anywhere more private, or that you can't find another girl who's willing--"
Harry's face contorted in a snarl as a boiling anger erupted inside him, born of the frustration that had been building all day. "You take that back," he spat at Malfoy, who was standing a few feet away, a delighted smirk on his face.
Next to Harry, Ginny was regarding their antagonist with a look of utter disdain. "I don't know that too many girls are lining up for a snog with you, Malfoy," she said contemptuously. "Unless you count that troll Pansy Parkinson. Don't you have anything better to do than hang around the girls' toilets?"
"I could say the same about you, Weasley," said Malfoy gleefully. "On guard duty for Potter, were you? Making sure no one disturbed him while he . . . relieved himself? Maybe even listening in? I'm sure filth like the Weasleys do that sort of thing all the time at home."
Ginny rolled her eyes in disgust, but for Harry this was the last straw. Head pounding frightfully, his wand was in his hand almost before he realised what he was doing. "Shut up," he bit out, his voice trembling with barely suppressed fury. "Shut up, or I'll make you."
"That's your greatest dream, isn't it, Potter?" continued Malfoy as if Harry had not spoken, though he had his own wand out now. "To be a Weasley. I suppose they'll be glad to have you--glad to get their miserable hands on some gold for once, glad to get some Muggle blood into the family and pollute the line even more than it is already . . . and I guess after losing one son they'll be anxious to adopt another, since they've never heard of birth-control . . . otherwise this bitch wouldn't even exist--"
There was no thought, no conscious decision. One moment Malfoy was upright and sneering triumphantly, the next he was sprawled on the floor by the far wall, covered in hex marks and moaning in pain. The Bludgeoning Spell had burst from Harry's wand before he'd even known what he was saying, followed a split-second later by Ginny's Bat-Bogey Hex. Harry did not stop there: the Furnunculus Curse and the Jelly Legs Jinx struck Malfoy in rapid succession, the force of their impact slamming his head against the wall. Harry was shaking with rage; he raised his wand to fire another curse at Malfoy, to make him pay for what he had said . . .
"POTTER! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
Harry felt his insides turn to ice. Striding towards them was the very last person in the world he wanted to see, the one person who could make this situation even worse--Snape.
"I've always known you were arrogant, Potter, but this goes beyond even your usual escapades," said Snape coldly as he approached. "You and Weasley, ganging up on a student--a prefect, no less--and attacking him while he was defenceless and on the ground. Your behaviour is appalling!" He paused, his mouth twisting in a malicious sneer, and added, "Then again, considering who your father was, I shouldn't be surprised."
Harry glared at him hatefully. Snape continued, "This conduct is an outrage. Fifty points from Gryffindor, and a detention to both of you--to be served tomorrow. All day."
"Tomorrow?" gasped Harry. "But--that's the Hogsmeade visit!"
"Yes," said Snape softly, an unpleasant gleam in his eye. "It is. I suppose you should have thought of that before."
"Ginny didn't do anything!" protested Harry. "It was me, don't punish her for it--"
"Ten more points from Gryffindor for lying, Potter. Both of you had your wands out. Now, return to your common room at once, or I'll take another ten points. Come along, Draco," continued Snape briskly, turning to Malfoy and helping him to his feet. "Hospital wing." He led him away down the corridor, Malfoy managing a grin at them as he passed. Harry turned away, feeling a strong desire to kick something. A nearby suit of armour laughed wheezingly at him, and he obliged it, a loud clanging sound echoing down the corridor.
Ginny was staring at the wall, a dazed expression on her face. Harry felt hollow inside, completely drained. "Well, I guess you won't want to take Potions anymore after this, right?" he said bitterly. Ginny did not laugh.
"Harry . . . why did you do that?" she asked, slowly turning to face him. Something in her gaze made him feel wary.
"Do what? Curse Malfoy? I'd have thought that was--"
"No, I mean why did you tell Snape I didn't do anything?"
Harry opened his mouth, closed it again. "Well, I didn't want you to have a detention for something I did," he managed to say.
"Something you did? I didn't see you use the Bat-Bogey Hex." She was watching him with narrowed eyes, her arms folded across her chest. The tone of her voice had cooled noticeably.
"Well, I . . ." Harry paused, at a loss for what to say. Couldn't she see why he had done it? What was there to explain?
"Do you think for one minute that after what Malfoy said about me--after what he said about Percy--that I would just take that lying down? That I wouldn't take responsibility for my own actions?" Ginny demanded harshly, her voice rising. "I make my own choices, Harry, and I accept the consequences of what happens! I don't need you to try to protect me from that!" She was fairly shouting now.
"I wasn't trying to protect you--"
"Then what were you doing?" When he didn't answer, she continued, "I've made enough mistakes in the past that I can accept that responsibility. I would have thought you'd learned that by now! And if that means I have to tell a boy I can't meet him in Hogsmeade tomorrow because I have to serve a detention, then so be it!" She was breathing heavily, her cheeks flushed with anger.
Harry flinched. "Well, fine," he snapped, confused, hurt, and jealous all at once. "What should I have done then? Just left so you could say you earned a detention all on your own? I thought we were on the same side here." He could not repress the bitter sarcasm in his voice. "I suppose next you'll be telling me I should just sit idly by if another basilisk comes along, so you can deal with that by yourself too--"
The instant these words left his mouth he regretted them. Ginny blinked, her lip beginning to tremble as she stared at him in shock. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and Harry's heart was wrenched by guilt. The sight of her made him feel as if she had punched him in the gut. What awful force had possessed him to say that to her? No matter how hurt he felt, nothing gave him the right to speak to her that way.
"Ginny, I'm sorry," he said desperately, terrified that she would leave. "Please--I'm sorry--that was a horrible thing to say--"
Ginny turned away and didn't answer. Harry looked down at his hands, noticed he was clenching his wand tightly, and stopped. These very hands had once held a sword, a sword he had wielded in trying to save her life . . . and he had just come very close to telling her that it wasn't worth it. How could she ever forgive him for that? How could he forgive himself?
"Ginny?" he said tentatively, moving to stand closer. He wanted to put his hand on her shoulder, but did not dare. Harry faltered, trying to find the right words. "Look--I'll . . . I'll go if you want me to," he said, in a very small voice.
For a long time she was silent. Then, very slowly, she turned to face him again. A minute passed while they simply looked at each other, not saying anything. Then Ginny did the very last thing Harry would have expected.
She hugged him.
Taken completely by surprise, Harry did not react immediately. Finally registering what was happening, he put his arms around her, feeling the warmth of her body against him. She was trembling uncontrollably, her hair, breath and tears creating strange sensations on his neck. "Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry," she sobbed, as he gently caressed her back with his hands.
"For what?" he asked, genuinely bewildered. Wasn't he the one who was supposed to be apologising?
"For losing my temper with you," Ginny said in a choked voice, pulling back slightly from his embrace. "I . . . I have a horrible temper sometimes. Probably got it from my mum. I try to keep it in check, but I just . . ." She trailed off, avoiding his eyes, and he realised how ashamed of herself she was. Her body shook with fresh sobs, and he pulled her fiercely to him as she threw her arms around his neck.
Slowly, her trembling subsided, and she pulled away, wiping a hand at her eyes to clear away the tears. She took several deep breaths, pushing stray hairs from her face. Harry watched her in silence, waiting for her to speak again.
"I wasn't really angry with you at all," Ginny said after a moment, sounding as though the words were costing her a great deal of effort. "It was Malfoy, he . . . t-taunted us about Percy, because his father killed him, and I was so angry, I wanted to hurt him, to make him pay for what he said . . ." Her voice was shaking. She paused, drew in a great shuddering breath, and continued. "And then you told Snape I hadn't done anything . . . it felt like you were saying it didn't matter, that you were the only one who was allowed to get angry--" She gave a little sniff.
"That's not what I--" Harry began, but Ginny cut him off.
"I know," she said, finally meeting his eyes again. Tentatively she took his hand in her own. "You were just trying to help me get out of trouble. And I--I took it out on you. Can you forgive me?" She looked so lost, so uncertain, that Harry thought his heart would burst.
"Of course I can!" he said, his own voice unsteady. "It's all right, Ginny, I understand. But--" He stopped. How should he say this? "I think what I said to you was a lot worse. I didn't have any right--"
Ginny swallowed and dropped her gaze to the floor. "No," she said quietly. "But it made me see . . . it made me realise . . ."
She trailed off again. Harry waited, but Ginny did not continue immediately. She seemed to be fighting some kind of battle with herself, clearly struggling to find the right words to say whatever it was.
"Realise what?" Harry prodded gently.
Ginny looked up at him--almost shyly, he thought--and gave him a watery smile. "I'm not sure yet, actually. I . . . I need some time to figure things out. I don't trust myself to talk about it right now."
Harry nodded slowly, trying to contain his disappointment. "Promise me you'll tell me when you're ready?"
Ginny hesitated. "All right."
Abruptly she wiped a hand at her face and cleared her throat. "I should go. It's been a long day; I need to go to bed. You know, the OWLs--I haven't slept properly in weeks." She stepped away and offered him a slight smile. "See you tomorrow, Harry." She walked away down the corridor.
Harry watched her go, a strange mixture of emotions running through him. Never in his life had he been so confused about another person. He was glad that they were still friends, that no irreparable damage had resulted from their argument, but he didn't feel that they'd resolved everything. His remark about the basilisk had been needlessly harsh, and he didn't understand how she could have forgiven him for it. And what had she been talking about at the end? She had realised . . . what? The look on her face had been almost shy, innocent, somehow--something he had never quite seen on her before. Not since--
He slumped against the wall, staring with unseeing eyes down the corridor where she'd disappeared, feeling strangely paralyzed by the turmoil of his thoughts. Was he merely grasping at straws? A wave of longing flooded through him, and the ache in his heart intensified painfully.
It was a long time before Harry began to walk back to the common room.
* * *
Midnight found Harry sitting alone in the empty common room, staring into the dying embers of the fire as though entranced. His headache, which had subsided a few hours before, had now returned in full force.
Harry felt a pang of loss. The last day of exams was over, marking a year since he'd gone off on a fool's errand to the Department of Mysteries. One year ago Sirius had died . . . It was hard to believe that so much time had passed since he'd last seen his godfather. He felt guilty for not thinking of him much lately. But then, he had been rather busy--a lot had happened in the past year. Voldemort was steadily gaining power in the wizarding world, striking fear into its inhabitants with attacks all over the country, fear that The Daily Prophet had played a large part in turning to outright hysteria. Nearly every week there was news of more death, more torture, more sightings of the Dark Mark. It's just like last time, Harry thought. What difference did it make that I stopped him before?
Drawing a shaky breath, Harry closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands, blocking out the firelight. The great burden he carried seemed to weigh in on him more heavily than ever. Sirius used to appear in the fire to talk to him when he needed it . . . but Sirius was gone, and he would never see him again. What was the point of earning good marks on his exams when there was every chance he would die before he finished school? What did it matter if he was accepted into Auror training, if he was the only one who could vanquish Voldemort? Being an Auror wouldn't help him at all--he knew he couldn't possibly defeat Voldemort in a duel. Not even Dumbledore had been able to do that. Harry remembered the words of the Prophecy: He shall have power the Dark Lord knows not . . .
Harry still didn't know what this power he was supposed to have could possibly be. Dumbledore seemed to think he would discover it within himself, eventually, but Harry couldn't see how. There was that strange scar connection between himself and Voldemort, but that had only ever hurt him, never given him an advantage over his enemy. The connection seemed to have diminished somewhat with the improvement of his Occlumency skills, anyway, so he didn't see how that could help. He thought suddenly of how Voldemort had possessed him at the Ministry of Magic, and how he had left at Harry's wish to see Sirius. And he recalled Dumbledore's words about the locked room in the Department of Mysteries, the one that not even Sirius' knife could open . . . But how could love possibly help him? Love wasn't a destructive force. It had given him protection, yes, but how could he turn that into a weapon?
It didn't seem possible. Harry wasn't sure he even knew the meaning of the word. And what kind of love was Dumbledore referring to, anyway? His mother's love had shielded him from death when he was a baby. Voldemort had been reduced to a shadow of his former self, it was true, but it hadn't destroyed him. Did he mean love in the romantic sense? That would mean he had to have a girlfriend in order to save the world . . . He shook his head. The concept was absurd.
Harry's thoughts were irresistibly drawn back to her--Ginny. He'd been planning on asking her to Hogsmeade for tomorrow--not as a date, not overtly, but the thought of such a rendezvous had helped keep him going through the exams. But now, thanks to Snape, it was impossible. They had detention because of their fight with Malfoy--if indeed it could be called a fight. He realised with a shock of shame that Snape had been right--no matter the provocation, attacking Malfoy the way he did was unjustified. It frightened him how easily his anger had taken over . . . and now that he thought about it, his actions weren't entirely unlike what he'd seen his father and Sirius do to Snape in the Pensieve . . . Maybe I am just like my dad, Harry thought. Only not in the way everyone says.
He let out his breath angrily. Percy was dead, and Draco had taunted them about it. Ginny had been so upset . . . they'd lost control and given in to their anger . . . now they were banned from going to Hogsmeade . . . Ginny had implied she'd planned to go with someone else tomorrow . . . maybe that boy he'd seen at dinner . . .
Really, Harry told himself, what did going to Hogsmeade matter anyway, in the face of all that was happening in the world? He felt as if he were sinking into an abyss as depressing thoughts chased each other around in his head.
A soft voice cut across his thoughts. "Harry? What's wrong?" Strongly tempted to ignore it, he nonetheless looked up and saw Hermione standing over him, wearing a light blue nightgown and a worried expression on her face. Vaguely he wondered why he had not heard her approach.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in some surprise.
"Well, I couldn't sleep, so I was looking for my copy of Hogwarts, A History, but I seem to have misplaced it. I came to see if I left it here. Is something wrong, Harry? You seem really down."
When he only shrugged, she continued doggedly, "Ron and I have been wondering where you were tonight. We haven't seen you since dinner. Did something happen? Where did you go?"
Harry's first inclination was to tell her that no, nothing was wrong, but he knew she wouldn't believe him. He wanted to be alone, but he also knew that talking would help him feel better. His time with Ginny had taught him that . . .
"Here, sit down," he said, indicating a seat next to him. Hermione did so, looking at him expectantly. Harry hesitated, wondering where to begin.
"Today was the last day of exams," he said, staring into the fire again.
Hermione opened her mouth questioningly, then saw what he was looking at. "Oh," she said quietly, nodding her understanding.
"I've just been thinking about . . . about what happened last year. How I miss him. It's like it just hit me all over again that he's gone, even after all this time," Harry said, his gaze dropping to the floor.
Hermione was silent for a time. Then she said tentatively, "I saw a thestral tonight."
Harry looked at her. "You did?" he said, interested.
She nodded. "I'm sure that's what it was. It came flying out of the forest, and I saw it out my window. I just stared at it, for a long time. I'd never seen anything like it before. Before, I'd expected to be scared of them, or repulsed, but it was . . . beautiful, somehow." She shook her head. "Maybe I'm just being silly."
"No, you're not," Harry said. "I've thought the same thing about them. They helped us--you know, last year." He continued quietly, "Every time I see them I can't help but remember. But somehow I feel better from it. I'm not really sure why."
Hermione said, "I think it was because of Percy--why I could see it, I mean."
Harry nodded. They sat in silence, remembering. They had all been at the Burrow for Christmas, he and Hermione and all the Weasleys. Percy had shown up just as they were about to begin eating--the first time he had come home in over a year. Though Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had accepted him with open arms, the tension during the meal had been almost tangible, as they sat bracing themselves for the inevitable explosion. It never came.
Death Eaters had attacked the Burrow, taking them all completely by surprise. Percy had been put under the Imperius Curse by Lucius Malfoy, forced to torture his mother while the rest of them watched in horror. A hysterical Ron had leapt at Mr. Malfoy, and had been hit with the Cruciatus Curse himself. When he refused to beg for his life, Mr. Malfoy had then targeted Ron with the Killing Curse, but Percy, who had somehow managed to resist the Imperius Curse for a few crucial seconds, had leapt in front of him.
Moments later the members of the Order of the Phoenix had broken into the house, and the Death Eaters had fled to avoid capture. But they had been too late. Percy was dead. At the very moment he'd returned to his family, they'd lost him again.
Harry's memories of the remainder of the evening were something of a blur. He knew only vague impressions of hysterical sobs, stoic faces, flowing tears, and his own agony at being completely unable to do anything to comfort those around him. He had fled to his room, not knowing how to face the Weasleys in their grief, until a furious Ginny had pursued him. The blazing anger on her face had been unparalleled by anything he had seen before or since. The sight had genuinely frightened him . . . she'd shouted herself hoarse at him for even thinking that it was his fault, as she'd known he had been . . . minutes later she'd been crying in his arms . . .
Just as she had done tonight . . .
Hermione was looking at him oddly. Noticing her expression, Harry blurted out, "I ran into Malfoy tonight."
"What happened?" Hermione asked. He noticed that she looked worried again.
Harry told her about the encounter with Malfoy, and how Snape had banned them from going to Hogsmeade tomorrow. When he finished, Hermione looked shocked and angry.
"Well, to be honest I don't blame you one bit for cursing him!" she said with surprising vehemence. "That foul, disgusting, evil . . ." She broke off.
Harry gave a bitter chuckle, then sobered.
"Snape was right, though," he said, his voice guilty.
Hermione looked at him in confusion. "What do you mean?"
Harry hesitated. "I . . . I sort of lost control when I cursed him," he said in a low voice, not meeting her eyes. "Ginny only hit him once, but I . . . I kept cursing him when he was on the ground. And I probably wouldn't have stopped if Snape hadn't shown up when he did." His voice caught in his throat. "How does that make me any better? I wanted to hurt him--it felt good doing it. I mean, it's not as bad as using the Cruciatus Curse, but . . ." He broke off, remembering how he had attempted that very curse on Bellatrix Lestrange the year before. What was it Dumbledore had said?
It means you didn't hate enough, Harry, the Headmaster had told him, when Harry had finally confessed what he'd done, and asked why the spell hadn't worked. Had you truly wanted to torture her, to enjoy her suffering, you could have done so, but you didn't. You were simply lashing out in pain and grief--and hatred, yes, that too--but you didn't feel it strongly enough to work the spell properly. That's the reason the curses are called Unforgivable--in order to use them to their full effect, the person casting the spell must be so completely immersed in their own hatred, so hopelessly beyond recall of compassion, that they are considered by society to be irredeemably evil. I personally do not think that anyone--no, not even Voldemort himself--is beyond redemption. But the passage of time and the build-up of such reckless hatred have made that outcome, in his case, exceedingly unlikely.
He looked at Hermione, and knew they were thinking the same thing. "I think you're right, Harry, it is something to think about," she said slowly. "Losing control like that is never a good thing. But at the same time, it's important to keep some perspective. And, you know, everyone makes mistakes," she said, glancing away from him. "We have to learn from them and move on, instead of beating ourselves up about everything all the time." Harry laughed softly.
"Interesting advice, coming from you," he said, raising an eyebrow at her. "You never used to admit you were wrong about anything."
"I was young then," retorted Hermione, blushing, but Harry was sure he had noticed the corners of her mouth twitching.
"Ginny always told me that about mistakes," said Harry thoughtfully. "Because--you know--she knows all about guilt and stuff," he finished, a bit awkwardly. Hermione nodded.
"You know, I saw Ginny tonight," she said suddenly. "She looked like she'd been crying, but she wouldn't tell me why. Was it because of Malfoy?"
"Well, yes and no," said Harry, wondering how much he should tell her. "Ginny and I, we sort of . . . had an argument."
He explained how Ginny had been angry with him for lying to Snape about her involvement, how he'd snarled back at her in frustration (though he was deliberately vague on this point), and how they'd made up. After he finished, Hermione looked thoughtful.
"Harry, can I ask you something?" she asked, a bit hesitantly.
"Sure," he said. Something in her tone seemed vaguely ominous, he thought.
"Do you think you fancy her?"
Harry was taken aback at the directness of her question. He cleared his throat, not meeting her eyes.
"Yes," he said, feeling his cheeks heat up. He did not want to talk about this.
What kind of question is that? "Well, I dunno why, really--" Harry paused, blushing harder and feeling very awkward. "She's practically all I ever think about. I always like talking with her about stuff. She's just . . . brilliant, really." He glanced at Hermione. "What?"
There was a very strange expression on Hermione's face, an odd mix of emotions. He could see happiness there, happiness for him, but there was also doubt, along with something else--pity? The sight annoyed him, just slightly.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" he asked, trying to hide his irritation. Hermione did not reply immediately.
"Well, you see, Harry," she said slowly, taking a deep breath as though bracing herself for something unpleasant, "It doesn't seem like a very good time to start liking her. She doesn't, you know--fancy you anymore." She had the grace to look ashamed of herself for saying this.
Damn it, Harry thought. Thanks a lot. "Well, I can hardly help my timing, can I?" he grumbled moodily. "I barely even knew her until last year, and I was making a bloody fuss over Cho then--" He shook his head. "So what do you say I should do? Try to use Occlumency to shut off how I feel about her?" Shades of bitterness were creeping into his voice.
"No, of course not!" said Hermione, sounding shocked. "I didn't say it was a bad thing! Have you told her about--about how you feel?"
"No," said Harry shortly. "Haven't had a chance."
Hermione seemed nervous. "Look, I didn't mean to discourage you," she said quietly. "I'm just saying the timing could make things difficult. Ginny gave up on you two years ago. I know it's not your fault," she said quickly, seeing the expression on his face. "She never talked much in front of you at all until then. But she got frustrated when you never really noticed her, and decided she didn't want to mope around the rest of her life. It's going to be hard for her to start thinking about you like that again." She sighed.
Harry grimaced. He'd told himself the same thing countless times. And Ginny seemed to be interested in someone else now . . .
"A lot's happened since then, though," he said, trying to hold on to whatever hope he could. "Maybe . . . maybe it's a good thing she gave up on me. Otherwise I might never have noticed her at all. And we would never have become such good friends as we are."
"You really are good friends, aren't you?" said Hermione with a smile. "Your face just lights up every time you see her. Hers too, actually," she added thoughtfully. "I wonder . . ."
Harry waited, but Hermione did not say more.
"I suppose I should go to bed," said Harry, standing up, as his head gave a painful twinge. Stupid headache . . .
"Yes," said Hermione, as if snapping herself out of a trance. "Yes. Look, I think it might be best if you tell Ginny directly how you feel about her. She's probably not going to come to you, and nothing will ever happen if the two of you keep beating around the bush. Even if she does have feelings for you, she's going to be afraid of acting on them if she thinks you don't feel the same way, and since she's already been disappointed once it makes it more difficult." There was an odd look on her face as she said this, as though she were thinking about something completely different at the same time. Harry nodded.
"All right. And--thanks," he said, and he meant it.
As he lay in bed that night, Harry thought of all the time he and Ginny had spent together over the past months, feeling more hopeful than he had before. He remembered chasing her on his broom in the Forbidden Forest, and the look on her face when he'd caught her . . . Tomorrow--tomorrow he would tell her how he felt, detention or no detention. There was nothing else for it. He was at once terribly excited and deadly afraid of what she would say, but he was resolved, determined to see this through. Voldemort himself couldn't stop me, he thought, grinning slightly in the darkness. Then he frowned, and quickly put the thought out of his head.
Such was his excitement that he barely noticed when the scar on his forehead began to ache, ever so slightly. Stupid headache, he thought again idly, as he drifted off into sleep.
Note: Special thanks to St. Margarets for helping me understand Ginny's anger, and for her ideas about Hermione. We menfolk sometimes have trouble penetrating the female psyche (I'm sure you all knew that!), but her advice helped me immensely. Once again I thank Helen for doing a superb job of beta-reading, for the expression of this chapter benefited enormously from her critical eye and attention to detail. Kudos!