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 lumps in my antidote were the right colour. I saw him walk past out of the corner of my eye, and I thought I saw some sort of powder on the surface of my potion. I sat up just before the whole thing burst into flames. I got no marks for that potion, but I almost got my head set on fire."
He glanced at Ginny to find her staring at him in shock.
"Then, before Christmas last year, Malfoy found me in the corridors between classes," he continued. "I tried to just go around him, but he had a letter and said that McGonagall had told him to deliver it to me. I couldn't imagine why she would do such a thing, but, like an idiot, I took the letter anyway. When I opened it, a Galleon fell out. I tried to catch it, but for once I missed. It hit the feet of a suit of armour, and the coin and the armour both vanished."
"Another Portkey," Ginny whispered.
"Yeah. Malfoy's not too creative, I guess, but it would have worked if I hadn't dropped the coin and missed catching it. I don't have any doubt about where that suit of armour went. That night I had a nightmare as bad as any of the others."
Harry raked a hand through his hair and returned his gaze to Ginny. She was watching him carefully, her face showing concern mixed with increasing anger. Harry was glad to see her temper flare on his behalf. One way or another, she was a great friend to him. He smiled slightly in gratitude.
"Then, at the beginning of this year, I suppose he got really desperate. I passed him in the corridor one day, and I heard him cast a Banishing Charm from behind me. He'd used the charm to blow some sort of purple dust at me. I didn't know what it was, and I still don't, but I put on a Bubble-Head Charm and left as quickly as I could."
"Why didn't you tell us?" Ginny asked.
"I had no proof, and Hermione's convinced that I'll blame anything on Malfoy if I can. I think she believes I've become quite paranoid when it comes to him. She refuses to believe that he's all bad. Ron, too." Harry sighed despondently. "How would you know I wasn't making it up?"
"I would've known," she said with a firm nod. "I can always tell when you're hiding something, even if it I don't know what it is. But what about the powder?" she wondered. "We could have collected it somehow and shown it to Dumbledore."
He nodded. "I thought of that, but when I went back a half hour later, it was gone. There was no trace of it at all. Just a few dead bugs on the floor."
Ginny sighed and propped her elbows on the table in front of her. "Why'd you challenge him, then? Why not just tell McGonagall everything and let the professors handle it?"
Harry leaned forward. "Because I want him gone, Gin. For over five years, he's interfered in everything I did. I joined the Quidditch team, and the next year he was playing too and ruining it for me. I was forced into that bloody tournament, and he made the whole thing even more of a nightmare than it already was. Everything I do, he's made worse. Recently…." He dropped his eyes to the table, and he sagged as the weight of his emotions caught up with him. His voice became a whispered rasp. "It's got so bad that there are things I don't do at all just because I don't want to deal with him trying to ruin them."
"Harry," she said softly. He looked up to find her warm brown eyes wide open and pleading with him. "What things?"
He could not lie to those eyes. They drew him in and made him remember everything she had done for him in four and a half years, even when she did not know she was doing anything. Sadly, however, he could not yet afford to tell her the whole truth. "Good things," he said. "Important things." Harry looked away at one of the blank stone walls. "Things that would make me less of a prat."
Harry felt her eyes on him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her straighten in her chair and throw her shoulders back. After a long moment, she said, "You're going to win." She made it sound like the most natural and inevitable conclusion in the world.
"If I have to," he said, turning back to her.
Her eyes narrowed in calculation. "You're planning something more, Potter. What is it?"
"Do you trust me, Ginny?" Harry knew she realised that he was not going to tell her, and he watched as she stiffened and glared at him defiantly. Then her shoulders slumped, and she collapsed back into her chair.
"You know I do, Harry. How could I not?" Her gaze fell to her lap, where her fingers twisted together absently. "You saved my life," she whispered.
He smiled gently. "You did the hard work, Gin. I just killed a silly old snake."
She snorted loudly and looked up at him with a small grin. "And that's why I trust you."
"You'll stand up with me on Saturday, then?"
"You already know I will."
He nodded with a small grin of his own.
At noon on Saturday, Harry stood by the lake, facing Malfoy and Theodore Nott, with Ginny a few steps behind him on his right. At the very least, he reflected, Malfoy had learned to pick his second based on ability rather than sheer mass.
Harry had thought that it would take hours to convince Ron that Ginny should be his second, but Ginny had lost patience quickly and told her brother what Malfoy had said in the corridor. After several minutes of swearing, Ron had said that it was almost a shame that Malfoy would never beat Harry, because he would have liked to see Ginny curse their old nemesis into a quivering puddle of goo.
Professor McGonagall had forbidden the first, second, and third years from attending the duel, but the rest of the school was there. They formed a thick ring around the duelling ground, which had been marked off with glowing lines in the dirt.
"The rules of a duel of honour are simple," Dumbledore called from the side of the open area. "The duel begins when I say 'begin,' and it ends when one duellist is disarmed or disabled. The laws set forth by the Ministry for a legal challenge are in effect, and you are expected to be familiar with them. You may not leave the marked area. Mr. Malfoy, do you have any questions?"
The smug Slytherin shook his head.
"Mr. Potter, do you have any questions?"
"No, Headmaster," Harry said clearly.
"Very well," Dumbledore said. "Begin!"
Immediately, Malfoy raised his wand and shouted the stunning spell. Harry cast Protego, and the red curse was absorbed by his shield. Malfoy snarled and tried the same spell again, but Harry blocked it.
The duel continued for more than ten minutes. Malfoy cast almost every hex, jinx, and curse he knew, but Harry simply blocked them all with Protego.
"I'm ready when you are, Malfoy," Harry shouted. "Start anytime you like."
The shield charm became increasingly difficult to cast as he got tired, but he fought to remain outwardly calm. Malfoy, however, became visibly frustrated. He screamed curses at the top of his lungs, and his wand motions became sharp and jerky. Once, he resorted to casting Serpensortia, and Harry heard a few people in the audience, including Ginny, chuckle at the sight. Rather than harm the snake, Harry complimented it and asked it to wait off to one side of the duelling area, and the large serpent was happy to comply. The spectators laughed loudly.
The crowd's reaction infuriated Draco, and he began casting Reducto over and over, as fast as he could, in an effort to break Harry's shield. It was a struggle, but Harry managed to keep his charm active throughout the onslaught.
"Try again, Ferret, you're doing quite well," he called. "That last one even tickled a bit."
Malfoy stepped forward as he continued hurling hexes. He abandoned the simpler, more common spells and focused on cutting, bludgeoning, and burning spells. Harry blocked them all, and when the grass at his feet caught fire, he simply sidestepped until he was clear of the flames.
"Thanks, Draco!" he cried. "It's a bit chilly out, you know."
Dumbledore extinguished the fire with a wave of his wand even as Malfoy continued his frantic assault. The blond boy's face screwed up into a rictus of rage and frustration as Harry cast his shield charm again.
"Damn you, Potter! Do you know more than that one bloody spell?" he shouted.
"I know lots, but why exert myself when this one works just fine against you, Malfoy?" Harry taunted, careful to keep the strain from his voice.
The Slytherin cast two more fast cutting hexes, and Harry blocked them with his shield. "I can't say I'm impressed, Malfoy. Is this really the best you can do? You purebloods are supposed to be the cream of society, but you can't even break the shield of a poor half-blood! Lucius and Voldemort will be so disappointed with you. At this rate, they won't even let you have that tattoo you've been begging for."
Completely enraged, Malfoy raised his wand and shouted, "Crucio!"
As agonizing pain burst through every inch of his body, Harry distantly heard a familiar voice snap out the stunning spell. The agony receded, leaving Harry lying in the mud and panting hard, but still clutching his wand. His jaw ached from clenching it in an effort not to scream, and his fingernails had gouged dark red furrows in his palms.
Ginny was already kneeling at his side. Her tear-filled, panicked eyes searched his face as her hand caressed his cheek. "Harry? Oh, dammit, Harry, are you okay?"
He smiled weakly at her. "Yeah, I'm alright." She supported his shoulders and kept her arm firmly wrapped around his back as he sat up. Draco lay in the dirt, unconscious, a few feet away. Harry looked around and spotted Cho Chang walking out of the crowd of Ravenclaws, still holding her wand on the prone Slytherin. When she reached him, Cho pulled his wand out of his hand, dropped it in the dirt at her feet, and stomped on it with the heel of her shoe. The crack of breaking wood carried clearly across the grounds, and several students gasped.
Cho looked up at Harry and grinned. As he and everyone else watched, her features shifted. Her hair shortened and faded from black to vivid purple, her skin lightened and acquired much less subtle makeup, and her arms and legs lengthened and hardened into muscular wiriness.
"Wotcher, Harry," Tonks said cheerfully. She looked ridiculous in Cho's uniform, which was now noticeably too small for her, leaving her midriff exposed and showing an almost scandalous amount of her stockings beneath the too-short woollen skirt. Harry was sure that his friend appreciated looking that way, strange as it seemed to him.
"'lo, Tonks," he said.
"'Scuse me a mo', would ya?" Tonks turned back to Malfoy and woke him up with a spell. "Draco Malfoy, you're under arrest for casting an Unforgivable Curse on another person. I am sure that your daddy's solicitor won't be able to get you off the charge, given that we have several dozen witnesses." She looked up and scanned the gathered crowd. "Would anyone here like to be a witness?"
Ginny, Ron, and Hermione all put their hands in the air. The rest of the Gryffindors were quick to follow their example. Soon the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws also raised their hands.
"Brilliant!" Tonks said. "That's life in Azkaban for you, cousin, and it couldn't happen to a nicer bloke." Most of the students on the field broke into cheers and applause, and even a few of the Slytherins could not quite contain their satisfied smiles.
While Dumbledore told the rest of the students to disperse and give Harry some space, Tonks bound Malfoy in ropes and left him in the dirt as she crossed to kneel in front of Harry and Ginny. "Your friend, Ms. Chang, asked me to congratulate you, Harry. She wanted to be here herself, but she jumped at the chance to help you out. Don't forget to thank her, yeah?"
"I won't," he promised. Tonks and Ginny pulled him to his feet, and Ron stepped out of the crowd with a handful of chocolate frogs. Harry chewed them carefully as Hermione fussed over him, straightening his robes and admonishing him about taking foolish risks. Once he was able to stand on his own, Tonks waved at them all and levitated Malfoy's bound form towards the gates.
Dumbledore approached the four friends and leaned in towards Harry. "The price?" he asked.
"Worth it, I hope," Harry said.
"Ask me tomorrow."
The Headmaster's expression did not change, but his eyes twinkled madly. "I believe I will. I might even place a friendly wager in the meantime." As he searched Harry's face, the brightness of his eyes faded, and he suddenly looked much more imposing. "Never again, Mr. Potter. Not even for the right reasons."
"Never again, Headmaster," Harry agreed.
Dumbledore nodded and turned to herd the rest of the students back towards the castle. Ron and Hermione started to leave, also, but they stopped when they noticed that Harry was not following them. Ginny still held his arm, ensuring that he stayed on his feet.
"Coming, Harry?" Ron asked.
"In a bit," he answered, glancing quickly at Ginny. Ron missed the hint entirely, but Hermione did not. With a slight smile, she grabbed Ron and pulled him towards the castle. Ginny released Harry's arm and started to walk with them, but Harry caught her wrist. "Walk with me, Ginevra?"
She smiled softly, nodded, and then put her hand around his upper arm again. "I'm not sure you could walk alone anyway."
They strolled slowly along the edge of the lake until they reached the shelter of a tree, and then they settled to the ground beneath it. They sat side by side, an arm's length apart, with their knees pulled up to their chests and their heads resting on their crossed arms. Silence settled comfortably around them for several minutes.
"How long?" Ginny whispered, her eyes fixed on the sparkling water of the lake.
He was finished with deceiving her, even by omission. "It started at the Yule Ball."
Harry sighed as the images came back to him from nearly two years before. "There were all these girls there, but they all looked the same, somehow. Parvati, Padma, Cho, Fleur… all wore a pretty dress with no sleeves and… well, they looked like someone had used a crowbar to get them into their dresses. They all had their hair pinned up, and they all walked like they were about to fall over. Even Hermione was like that. They looked very nice, but they all made me think that they were playing dress-up."
He smiled dreamily. "Then you came in. Your hair was curled a bit, but you just let it fall down your back. It looked so vibrant next to that green dress…."
The picture was as clear in Harry's mind as it had been in the Great Hall that evening long ago. Ginny had been just starting to look like the young woman she would become. Her dress had been unadorned dark green velvet, with a scooped neck that showed her collarbones and half of her shoulders. The sleeves had covered her all the way to her wrists. The material had gathered just under her chest, and the long skirt had flowed straight from the high waist to the floor.
"That gown has been in my family for generations," Ginny mused. "It's lovely, but it's awfully old-fashioned. It was meant for someone a bit older, so I couldn't even fill it out properly." She grimaced and muttered, "I'm not sure I could now."
Harry blushed and coughed slightly in surprise. "Err… how about I just disagree with you on that last bit, alright?" He shook his head to regain his train of thought as her face reddened. "Anyway, it covered you from head to toe, but you looked incredible in it. You were so… graceful, I suppose. Poised. You stood out from the other girls because you looked… comfortable. In retrospect, I think that you looked like yourself in a nice dress, while the others all looked like they were trying to turn themselves into someone else.
"I remember thinking how pretty you were, and I wondered why I hadn't noticed all summer. That got me thinking about how nice you'd always been, even if you didn't say much when I was around. I spent most of that ball watching Cho, but I found myself watching you, too, when I could." He paused as something occurred to him. "Has anyone ever told you that you have really nice collarbones?"
Her eyes widened, and she shook her head.
"Well, you do."
"After the ball," he continued, "I kept noticing you. You never talked to me that year, really, but I learned to keep track of where you were and when I could catch a glimpse of you. It just… made me feel good."
Ginny's soft smile bent into a scowl. "You spent the rest of that year, and most of the next, mooning over Cho. You can't be trying to tell me that you wanted to go out with me instead of her. I saw you."
"You're right. I wanted to go out with her." He averted his eyes and felt colour flooding to his cheeks. "I'd been obsessed with her for quite some time by then, and I suppose I'd… well, I'd got into the habit of liking Cho, you know? It never occurred to me to go out with anyone else, even though I was starting to realise just how much I liked you in lots of ways."
She sighed. "Yeah, alright. I understand that much."
Harry blushed more deeply and pushed on before the conversation shifted into even more embarrassing topics for her. "Well, you know that we finally went to Hogsmeade together, right? Cho and I, that is."
"The whole bloody school knows that, Harry," she said. He heard her tone of voice and could easily picture her rolling eyes.
"Yeah, well… you remember what I said about Malfoy?" Harry saw her hair shift out of the corner of his eye as she nodded. "He caught up with us in the middle of the street that day, and he said some awful things to her. Not too different from what he said to you, actually, so you can imagine how it affected Cho. I know, now, that she and I would never have really got along, even without, you know… Cedric. She's nice, but she's not right for me. I think that even if we could have somehow got past… everything else… Malfoy still would've tried to ruin things for me whenever he saw the chance."
He sighed heavily. "Anyway, a while after that fiasco with Marietta and the D.A., I realised I wasn't interested in Cho at all anymore. The whole time I'd been with her, I'd still been noticing you and coming to like you, even though I couldn't really think about more than one girl in that way at a time. And then, suddenly, it was okay for me to want to go out with you. I thought that I could probably work up the courage to ask you, but there were still two reasons I couldn't do it."
"Malfoy," she whispered.
Harry nodded. "That's one. When he said those things to Cho, I realised that he'd keep on ruining things for me and for whoever I was with if he could. I didn't want that for you."
He glanced over at the beautiful young woman next to him. Ginny's eyes had fallen closed as she listened, but her lips moved in a way that captured his attention. "What's the other reason?" she whispered.
"You were going out with Michael Corner," Harry said, pulling his eyes away and gazing out across the lake. "I couldn't… I couldn't interfere if you thought he was good enough for you to spend time with. If he made you happy, then I would just be glad of that. Then, as soon as I found out you'd dumped him, you said you were interested in Dean, and it started all over again. Over the summer, I couldn't help but fall harder for you despite the fact that I believed you liked Dean, not me."
"I thought Dean was nice," she said without opening her eyes. "He is nice. But not nice enough for me to really like him in… that way."
"You deserved a chance to find out."
"Thanks for that, I suppose." Ginny opened her eyes and turned her head to look at him, resting her right cheek on her arms. The brown of her eyes had softened, but she looked almost sad. "Two years, Harry. Two years. If you'd asked me to go out with you at any time, I would have said yes. I know you would never have asked while you were chasing Cho, but I would never have hesitated. I would have regretted possibly hurting Michael, but I'd have done it. But you – stupid, noble Harry Potter – you wouldn't let me make that choice, even after you and Cho called it quits.
"And now… you took the Cruciatus curse for me." He raised his head, but she continued before he could stop her. "You can't fool me, Harry. I've been watching you for longer than you've been watching me, and I even noticed you noticing me. It was bloody confusing, but it makes sense now. You set up that entire duel, from start to finish, to get Malfoy sent to Azkaban. You did it because I told you, Ron, and Hermione that I wasn't going to date Dean after all, and you wanted a chance for us without Malfoy around to mess it up."
"You're worth it," Harry said, "but that's not the only reason."
"I know, Harry," she nodded. "But can you honestly tell me that you'd have set up that duel only to get Malfoy into prison?"
He smiled ruefully. "I won't lie to you about that, Gin. I don't ever want to lie to you again. Still, I wouldn't have done it if he didn't deserve it anyway. Malfoy was dangerous, and I knew that given enough time he might be successful in getting to me… or you."
She turned her head to look out across the lake again, and a few of her fiery tresses fell forward to cover her cheek. Slowly, carefully, Harry reached out and lifted the glowing strands. He tucked them neatly behind her ear, and then he let his hand run through the length of her hair as he withdrew. The texture was like silk, and he treasured the soft, flowing feel of it between his fingers.
Ginny glanced over at him, blushing slightly, as he returned his hand to his knees. "I've wanted to do that for years," he whispered.
Her grin became mischievous as she raised an eyebrow at him. "Is that all you've wanted to do?"
It was his turn to blush as he looked down at his knees. "No, but it's first on the list."
Ginny's grin shifted into a smile, and her eyes brightened. "What's second, then?"
"Well, you'd need to be a bit closer," Harry said, wanting to make absolutely sure that she was interested in the same way he was.
Her eyes answered his unspoken question even as her grin widened mischievously. She put her hands on the ground and shifted her body a few inches closer to his right side. "How about this?"
Pivoting, he turned to face her and crossed his legs in the space between them. "Better, but not quite close enough."
She bit her bottom lip even as she smiled at him, and in one smooth motion, she shifted sideways again so that her hip pressed against his lap. "And now?"
The warmth of her body seemed to reach him even through their jeans and her winter cloak, and he swallowed hastily. His eyes were caught by her hair as it swung gently back and forth behind her, hanging freely but not quite touching the ground. "Yeah, that's… that's close enough."
She straightened her legs in front of her and twisted her shoulders towards him, supporting her weight with her left arm braced on the ground behind her and resting her right hand lightly on his knee. When he did not move any further towards her, she arched an elegant auburn eyebrow. "Well?"
"Ginny… can I… I mean, may I…" He took a deep breath, trying to suppress his nerves and excitement. "May I kiss you?"
Her laugh, low and slightly nervous, sent a shiver up his spine. "Yes, Harry. You may kiss me."
Harry released the breath he had been unconsciously holding. After dreaming about this for so long, he could not fathom that he was here, that Ginny was here, and that it was finally real. Slowly, he leaned forward. His right hand reached up, first to caress her hair where it fell behind her ear, and then to cradle her head and gently pull her near. As she leaned willingly into him, their eyes met.
Time seemed to slow for Harry. He continued to lean closer to her, but he felt like he spent an eternity enraptured by her shining brown eyes. Who could have imagined that a simple colour like brown could be so bright, so warm, and so alive?
Ginny's eyes drifted shut, and she tilted her head slightly in apparent expectation as the last inch between their faces faded away. Harry closed his own eyes and gently pressed his mouth to hers. Her lips were soft and supple as they brushed his rougher skin, and he rejoiced that she was kissing him just as eagerly as he was kissing her. That she would want to kiss him was surely one of the greatest things he could ever hope to claim for himself.
Her hand left his knee and drifted up his arm to his shoulder. Slowly, her slender fingers slid across the side of his neck and threaded into his hair. She pulled his head towards hers slightly, encouraging him, and he responded with firmer, warmer kisses. He uncrossed his legs and let them fall around her, leaving her sitting sideways between his knees.
Moving slowly to give her the opportunity to object, Harry eased his left forearm under her knees and moved her until she sat sideways in his lap. She accepted the change eagerly, using the space he offered her to slide even closer to him. Ginny draped her arm across his neck, and he thoroughly enjoyed feeling all ten of her small fingers tangled in his hair. He wrapped his arm around her waist, hugging her tightly against him.
As his mouth brushed across hers again, he found her lips open to him. Her tongue slipped out to slide, warm and moist, across his mouth. He parted his lips for her, and they began exploring each others' mouths, gently brushing tongues and lips as they learned the wonders of their new intimacy.
A breathless eternity passed, but at last Ginny pulled her lips away from him and laid her head on his shoulder, wrapping her arms around his neck. Her breath was quick and shallow as it brushed his skin, and he leaned his head down to rest his cheek on the softness of her hair.
He wondered what he could tell her to make sure she knew how he felt about her. That she was beautiful? Surely, if she looked in a mirror each day, she knew that already. How could she not? Should he tell her how much she amazed him? What words could capture the heat in his chest, the hammering of his heart, and the delicious, disbelieving nervousness of his hands?
Harry gave up on finding words, and they sat for a few minutes, letting their breathing settle and simply holding each other in a warm, uncomplicated embrace. At last, Harry felt Ginny take a breath, and she whispered against his neck. "Two."
"When I was younger, I told myself that if I got the chance, I would count every time you held me in your arms, so that I could treasure each of those moments for my whole life. This makes two."
"I hope you can count really high, then."
Her cheek pressed against his shoulder as she smiled. "I hope so, too."
Ginny lifted her head and looked up at him, her eyes glowing with happiness and affection. He could only hope that she could see the same emotions reflected in his own eyes.
"Were there any more items on that list of yours, Harry?" she asked, her grin returning in full force.
"Err… I'm sure there must have been," he said. "But if you could just agree to go to Hogsmeade with me, we could get back to the second one. I need to be sure I've got that down before I can think about number three."
She smiled, but then she sat up and pulled away from him a few inches, so that their eyes were level with each other. She kept her hands clasped at the back of his neck, and she did not move so far that he could not encircle her waist with his arms, but her smile faded into a more serious expression. Her hair slid around her face and shoulders as she shook her head. "No, Harry," she said. "I won't just agree to go to Hogsmeade with you." His face fell in confusion, but she pushed on. "I want to go everywhere else, too."
"What do you mean?" he asked, puzzled.
Ginny looked steadily into his eyes, and her intense gaze kept him from getting lost in her beauty again. "Someday, you'll go off to find Tom. When that time comes, I want to go with you. I want… I need a chance to do my part against him."
Harry stiffened at the mention of Voldemort, and he gaped at her as she spoke. "How… how did you know?"
"About… my having to fight him," he stammered. "About the prophecy."
"Is that what it said?" she asked. "It's not a difficult deduction, Harry. If anyone else could have beaten him, I think they'd have done it already. You did it when you were a baby, and you'll do it again. Does the prophecy say anything else?"
Harry had never thought about it that way before. "Well, no, not really. It just says that one of us will kill the other."
Her eyes held no pity and no fear. "That's not news, Harry. He's been trying to kill you for years, and I can't imagine that you won't do your best to keep all of us safe from him."
"I will," he agreed. "But dragging you…."
"It's not dragging, Harry," she argued. "I can help you, and I want to help you. I deserve a chance to take back some of what he took from me four years ago."
He sighed deeply. "You do, Ginny. I know you do. When it's time…."
She raised her hand and gently pressed two fingers across his lips, silencing him. "Don't make any promises," she said. "Just remember that he's hurt other people, too, and that they want to help you."
"Thanks, Ginny," he said, kissing her fingers briefly. "So, would you go to Hogsmeade with me?"
"Yes," she said readily, and then she looked at him with one eyebrow raised and a half-smile on her lips.
"And would you…" he summoned his courage, though he hoped he would not need it. "Would you be my girlfriend, Ginevra?"
She smiled broadly again. "Yes, Harry. I'd love to be your girlfriend."
He smiled in return, his heart soaring, and warmth flooded him as he looked at her glowing face. He studied the arch of her eyebrows, the slight point of her nose, and the freckles scattered across her cheeks. Then his eyes fell to her lips, full and pink and shining slightly in the sunlight.
He grinned. "Ginny, may I…?"
"Stop asking, Harry."
Emboldened, he pulled her back towards him and captured her mouth with his. This time, he did not hesitate to part his lips, and he found her mouth open and her soft tongue waiting for his touch.
For months, Harry had been in awe of Ginny and had yearned so desperately to be near her. He was a bit stunned to realise that, after waiting for so long, she wanted him to begin exploring their new relationship. There would be scores of new ways to savour her, to show her how much he adored her and how utterly devoted to her he already was. He would find every one of those ways, and he planned to take his time doing it.
Her fingers wound into his hair again, and he slid one hand up and down her back as they kissed. His other hand fell to her waist, and he was entranced by the feel of her soft, gentle curves beneath his palm. As lightly as he could, he caressed her side and down to her hip. She sighed contentedly, so he turned his hand over and fitted his palm and fingers around her hip. He slid his hand up to her ribcage, moving as slowly as he could and moulding his hand to her contours as he touched her.
Ginny's small hand drifted down from his neck, across his collarbone, and onto his chest. Her palm rested for a moment, warm and soft, over his heart before stroking up and down across his chest and shoulders. Harry had never imagined that something as simple as a hand on his shoulder could feel so amazing. Her small fingers left a trail of tingles as they brushed his skin, and her touch transformed the mundane muscle and bone into a private source of indescribable joy.
Her mouth moved off of his, and she kissed her way up his jaw towards his ear. Her lips were parted slightly, and he felt her tongue brush lightly against his skin. Harry caught on to the idea and could not resist pressing his lips against her neck, just below her ear.
Ginny gasped softly, and Harry was elated to feel her tremble as his lips and tongue brushed her neck. She tilted her head back to allow him more access to her skin. He trailed kisses under her jaw to her other ear, where he pulled her earlobe gently between his lips. Then he caressed his way down the slender column of her neck. When his chin met the collar of her jumper, he tugged it gently aside, exposing the gentle slope where her neck met her shoulder. He pressed his lips as far along that fascinating curve as he could without distorting her jumper, and then he swept his kisses down and across her collarbone. He ran his tongue languidly across the hollow at the base of her neck and then continued his path around her collar.
Whether she knew it or not, he had to tell her. The words exploded from his mind and heart. "You are so beautiful… so utterly amazing," he whispered reverently to the soft skin of her neck. Her only answer was a soft intake of breath and a long, slow sigh as she exhaled.
His mouth approached her ear again, but Ginny tightened her grip in his hair to keep his head in place. Pulling away from his lips and looking into his eyes with a fierce, burning expression he would always cherish, she shifted her legs to straddle him and rested her weight on his thighs. She leaned forward, pressing herself against him and resuming her trail of kisses along his jaw.
The softness of her body pressed firmly against him from his belly to his shoulders, and the mere presence of her gentle curves left Harry breathless. One arm encircled her waist, his hand resting in the small of her back where curve met curve met curve. His other hand stroked her fiery tresses, simultaneously sliding up and down her back, and she made a low noise of satisfaction as she nibbled at his neck.
At last, her lips reached their destination, and her tongue darted quickly along the rim of his ear.
"Worth it, Harry?" she whispered. Her breath tickled his ear and caused a pleasurable shiver to slide down his spine.
He smiled in a way that would always belong to her alone. "Absolutely," he whispered. He pulled her mouth back to his, and their lips spoke softly to each other for the rest of the golden afternoon.
A/N: The title and some of the inspiration for this story come from Langston Hughes' magnificent poem Harlem, which is more commonly called A Dream Deferred. I do not own it, and I would never presume to have a tenth of his incredible talent for words. Nor do I make any claim that my topic is anything like as vital and moving as his is. Because I cannot resist sharing a masterpiece, here's the poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The true title of the poem tells me that Hughes intended it as a warning. I believe he was saying that the people of Harlem could rise up against their oppressors in a direct and violent fashion. In that sense, the poem matches my story in several ways. The most obvious one is that Harry is the oppressed, Malfoy is the oppressor, and Harry has finally chosen to take direct and decisive action. At the same time, there is another, more subtle meaning for the poem which Hughes probably did not intend and might not like. I leave it to you to find all of the remaining deferred dreams in the story. One dried up, one festered, and one most certainly stank. Sugaring over is, perhaps, debatable, but one dream most certainly did sag like a heavy load. And, of course, one or two exploded.
Additionally...I can't possibly express my thanks to Chreechree, who beta'd this for me. She was very patient with me as I explored something completely different from my normal writing, and she contributed heavily to the quality of this story. Jonathan Avery, regdc, moshpit, and Sherylyn also lent their talents to the beta process. Just to make the group complete, this fic is dedicated to cwarbeck, for reasons she will understand. Thanks, everyone.