The moment had to be just right. The plan might not work, otherwise. Harry waited until the Headmaster pushed away his suet pudding, and then the tall, lanky sixth year stood and turned to face across the Great Hall.
If he had left, he was sure that no one would have taken particular notice, but he stood there, staring intently at the Slytherin table. After a few moments, the hubbub of the Great Hall grew quiet as the other students looked at him expectantly. There were, in fact, a few advantages to being the Boy Who Lived.
Harry did not shout. He did not have to. The acoustics of the Hall allowed his voice to fill the room and resonate from the starry ceiling above. "Draco Malfoy, you have taunted me since our first day at Hogwarts," he said. "You have cursed me, sabotaged my schoolwork, tried to kidnap me for your murderous master, and attempted to kill me. After this afternoon, I will not stand for it anymore. I hereby challenge you to a duel to take place at noon, this coming Saturday, on the grounds by the lake."
"Duelling on school grounds is forbidden," Dumbledore said, raising his voice above the noise of startled students.
"In Hogsmeade, then. How do you answer, Malfoy?" Harry focused on his enemy on the other side of the hall.
"I am afraid that I cannot permit that, Mr. Potter," the Headmaster said. Malfoy smirked at Harry's apparent humiliation, and then he leaned over and whispered something to Theodore Nott which caused the whip-like Slytherin to snort in laughter.
Ignoring the blond boy, Harry turned to face the high table and locked eyes with Dumbledore. His gaze held an invitation, and he felt the Headmaster's Legilimency brush against his mind. Carefully, Harry thought of what he planned to do and why. When he was sure that the old wizard understood, Harry let his feelings boil to the surface. Dumbledore flinched, and from two seats ahead of him, Harry heard a girl mutter a startled expletive.
Harry knew that, even if Dumbledore accepted Harry's unspoken explanation, the Headmaster would never be able to publicly approve of the duel without some sort of legitimate justification. He had prepared for this, and he provided the formal words he had found in a dusty tome in the library. "Headmaster, I understand that, according to wizarding law dating from 1027, any witch or wizard of an established magical family may challenge another such witch or wizard to a duel of honour. Both parties must agree, but aside from that, such a duel is completely legal. I represent the Potter line, and I address a member of the Malfoy line. I claim that he has repeatedly and maliciously attacked my honour, and I challenge him to defend his slander with his person."
Now it was up to Dumbledore, and Harry fervently hoped that he would acquiesce. The old laws said that the Headmaster of Hogwarts could prevent any duel among Hogwarts students while school was in session, regardless of location, at his sole discretion. Dumbledore would know that, but no one else would.
The Headmaster tugged his beard and then sighed. "The law is ancient, but it is the law. Very well, Mr. Potter. You have permission to conduct your duel on Hogwarts' grounds if Mr. Malfoy accepts your challenge."
Several of the other professors turned to gape at Dumbledore. McGonagall opened her mouth to protest, but the most powerful wizard in the world stilled their objections with a glance.
"Well, Malfoy?" Harry asked, turning back to his nemesis, whose arrogance was now overlaid with surprise.
After a moment, the sallow boy's sneer returned in full force. "Alright, Potter," he spat. "I'll be there, and Nott will be my second. Who do I get to fight once you've finished humiliating yourself?"
Harry allowed himself to roll his eyes. "I'm so terrified," he said. Without looking around at his friends, he raised his voice. "Ginny Weasley will be my second."
Malfoy's sneer became a vicious smile. "Even better." Gesturing to Crabbe and Goyle to follow him, Malfoy turned and marched out of the hall. When he reached the doors, Harry called after him.
"Don't forget to show up this time, coward."
The Slytherin's steps faltered for a moment, but he did not respond as the doors swung closed behind him and the Great Hall erupted into noise.
"Mr. Potter," Dumbledore said, his voice audible over the din, "I would like to see you in my office at your earliest convenience."
"Very well, Headmaster," Harry agreed, and then he strode out of the hall before his friends could accost him.
Minutes later, the two wizards stepped off of the spiral staircase and sat in a pair of armchairs in front of the fire.
"What you are doing is very dangerous, Harry."
He nodded. "We're at war, Professor, as you've said yourself. If it's so vital that we keep a spy among the Death Eaters, then isn't it also useful to remove one of theirs?"
"Indeed, it is, but you can hardly believe that Mr. Malfoy is the only person in the castle who reports back to Voldemort."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure he's not."
Dumbledore sighed. This was a very old argument between them, and Harry knew the old man would not want to begin it anew. "That is not your only reason, Mr. Potter."
"No, it's not," Harry acknowledged. "But it's enough for your purposes."
"What if you lose, Harry?" the Headmaster asked. "There is more at stake here than a duel between students, even aside from your other… agenda."
"If I lose, then I have no business being anyone's 'Chosen One,'" Harry said. "Besides, I don't expect to lose."
"And the price of winning?"
Harry shrugged. "I'll pay it. It's nothing I haven't endured before."
"Let us hope it is not too high," Dumbledore said, shaking his head sadly.
Harry leaned forward. "You'll do your part and send the letter?" he asked.
The white-haired man nodded. "It is simple enough."
The two wizards said their goodbyes, and Harry descended the staircase. As he stepped out from behind the gargoyle, someone grabbed the front of his robes and pressed him against the wall of the corridor. Harry was not surprised to look down into a pair of blazing brown eyes framed by a cascade of fire.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ginny demanded harshly, her face inches from his.
"What, no wand?" Harry asked with a slight grin.
"I don't need a wand to deal with you, Harry Potter."
"I've noticed that," he said, meeting her eyes.
Ginny's expression grew even more frustrated. "Why are you so bloody calm?"
"I knew you'd be angry, even before I heard you swearing in the Great Hall. So I had a chance to prepare myself."
"Damn right I'm angry!" she shouted, but her expression softened for a moment. "But that's not why I swore. Not that time, anyway," she muttered.
"Why, then?" Harry asked, genuinely confused by the abrupt shift in the conversation.
Ginny sighed and turned her head to stare at the wall, though Harry thought her focus was much further away. "I saw the expression on your face, Harry," she said. "I could see your determination, and I knew you would make certain this duel happened, no matter what anyone tried to say or what the risk might be."
She blinked once, and then the fury was back in her eyes as she glared up at him once more. She spoke slowly, pronouncing each word as though addressing a toddler. "So, what are you doing?"
"Fixing something," Harry said, his equilibrium restored now that Ginny was reacting the way he expected.
"'Fixing something'? Who said it was yours to fix?"
Harry reached up and put his fingers around her slender wrist, pulling her hand away from his robes. Ginny dropped her arm to her side as though she had forgotten where it was. "I did," he said. "Did you hear what he said this afternoon?"
She balled her hands into fists. "Yes, of course I bloody well heard him. The arrogant toe-rag was talking to me, wasn't he?" she fumed.
"Fine, you heard him," Harry said, struggling to keep his cool in the face of Ginny's temper. "Did you listen?"
The scene had been replaying in Harry's mind for several hours, and it had not stopped until he had issued his challenge in the Great Hall. That afternoon, just after lunch, he had been on his way to class when he had turned a corner to find Malfoy looming over Ginny's smaller form, bouncing his money bag casually in one palm.
"What do you say, Weasley?" Malfoy asked with a leer. "Potter must pay you well to spread your legs for him, but we all know that he doesn't give a toss about you, don't we? Potter's in love with himself. Shouldn't you at least get more Galleons for your… efforts? Plus, I could show you how a real man handles a woman and pleasure you in ways that Potter could never imagine."
Without breaking eye contact with the tall Slytherin, Ginny rammed her knee forcefully into Malfoy's groin. As Malfoy doubled over in agony, clutching himself, Ginny looked around and spotted Harry. She narrowed her eyes at him and then spun around to continue on her way to class.
The look in her eyes had not been much different from the look she was giving him now. "What do you mean, did I listen? Of course I listened. He was saying things about me that only he is enough of a bastard to say."
Harry nodded. "Yes, he said horrid things about you, and that's more than enough of a reason for me to want to kick his sorry arse."
"I can bloody well take care of myself!" Ginny said hotly.
"Of course you can," he agreed. "If you were going to fight him, I'd gladly watch. I might even sell tickets. I'd definitely buy you a whole barrel of butterbeer at the victory party."
Ginny blinked a few times, her brow creasing. "Why did you challenge him, then?"
Harry looked up and down the corridor. "Walk with me, Ginevra. This isn't the place to talk."
She stiffened and glared at him again. "How do you know my name?"
"I pay attention."
"I hate that name."
Ginny took a deep breath, released it sharply, and then turned to walk down the corridor. Accepting the unspoken invitation, Harry caught up with her and walked on her left. After a few staircases and several twisting corridors, they emerged on the seventh floor, and Ginny paced back and forth in front of the entrance to the Room of Requirement. The door appeared, and she pulled it open. Harry stepped inside the room behind her and found a small chamber, furnished only with a table and two chairs. They sat down and stared across the table at each other.
"Bloody hell," she said under her breath after a minute.
"I know that look, Harry. That's the look you get when you're about to say something that the rest of us should have already figured out. Once you tell us what it is, we're going to agree with you because it's going to be so bloody right. I can't stand getting that look from you."
One corner of his mouth curled up slightly. "I'm not too fond of getting it from you, either," he said.
Ginny's lips curved into a small smile.
"I challenged him because of what he said about me, not what he said about you," Harry said after a moment.
"What did he…." she trailed off. "Oh. The bit about you paying –"
Harry nodded. "Yeah. For five years, he's been saying things like that about me. Making me sound like him, whether he realises it or not. And that's the nicest he's been."
He leaned back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. There were things he wanted to confess to Ginny that he had never said to anyone else, but he felt that now might be the right time. Over the last year, and especially over the summer after their trip to the Department of Mysteries, Ginny had become nearly as close to him as Ron and Hermione. As often as not this year, Ginny joined the other three in the common room when they studied, played games, or just talked. Over time, they had told her about all the things they had done in the last five years, and Harry would never regret sharing those experiences with her.
At last, he sighed. "You remember my fourth year, when he made all of those badges?" She nodded. "I loathed those badges. I didn't care what they said, really, but the looks people gave me when they wore them… they were all thinking exactly what Malfoy wanted them to think. I know that's why he made them. I'm sure of it. He wanted everyone to think of me the way he did. He milked the bad feelings and used them, so that every face I saw would make me feel like I was less than dirt. Less than him."
Harry scowled as he remembered the year of the Triwizard Tournament. "Later that year, after the second task, I was leaning over my cauldron in Potions to make sure the