A/N: If you haven't read my fic "Exposure", you will not understand this story. It is the prologue of sorts to "The Year of Secrets", and before you continue with this, you must read "Exposure." Enjoy! ^_^
Ginny settled into a chair by the window as rain sprinkled lightly from the sky. The Hogwarts Express tooted and puffed, starting with a jerk from the platform. Ron was sitting in front of her, an arm draped across Hermione's shoulders, and they were conversing with Harry. It was September 1st, and they were on their way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for another year, the last one still weighing heavily on their minds.
The last weeks of summer had been peaceful enough for the Burrow; Hermione and Ron finally admitted that there was more than friendship to their feelings. Harry left them alone for the most part, amusing himself with flying, the twins' gags, and most importantly, Ginny.
Ginny felt a light blush on her cheeks, and she smiled to herself. By now, she and Harry were fairly familiar with the ‘path of sin' that she had suggested in Flourish and Botts, and they were successful in keeping it a complete secret from her nosy brothers. It was more than the fear of humiliation that kept them from informing her family and Hermione; Harry adamantly told her that as long as no one knew of their relationship, she couldn't be used against him. She just nodded and let him control that area of their relationship. Because of his guilt over Sirius' death, she didn't want to push him too far yet.
Despite his objections, Ginny insisted on telling her parents, so the night before they left for Hogwarts, they found her parents alone and informed them of their new relationship. Mrs. Weasley cried happily and Mr. Weasley just smiled, both promising not to tell anyone because Harry and Ginny said they didn't want her brothers to know.
It had been a very good holiday on the whole. Ginny hadn't really wanted to go back to Hogwarts. She worried that the little world she and Harry had created at the Burrow would fall apart, or that he would realize how little she deserved him and try to break from her. She never voiced that fear to him because she knew it was a silly one. Harry wasn't the type to have little flings and throw the girl away the next day; it just wasn't in him. Still, she worried just the same.
"Ginny? Are you all right?"
She turned her head to meet Hermione's concerned eyes. Ron was rolling his eyes, and Harry had a small grin on his face, his gaze speaking volumes to her. She smiled and raised an eyebrow at Hermione. "Sure! Why? Do I look ill?" she asked.
The concern faded, and Hermione settled back in her seat, swaying with the movement of the train. "No, not at all. You just seemed out of it for a moment."
"Probably reliving the closet incident," Harry teased lightly, earning a whack from Hermione, a flush from Ron, and a giggle from Ginny.
"Right in one, Potter. That was the best day of my whole summer." Ginny watched the couple across from her sink into their seats and grow red as the cushions. She laughed at their faces, seeing Ron's mock-outrage.
"In more ways than that one, I hope," Harry muttered for her ears alone as Ron started rattling on about the dirty trick they played on him and Hermione, and Ginny shot him a smirk.
"Keep hoping," she whispered lightly, making him grin, and turned back to Ron. "Ron, if Harry and I hadn't shoved you in that closet, you two would still be tip-toeing around each other, and you're too thick to realize it." She brushed her hair from her face.
Ron scowled as Harry choked back a bout of laughter. "Right, right. Laugh it up. How about a game of chess, Ginny? I'll show you a trick or two."
She shook her head, giggling. "I don't think so. I'm going find Neville and Luna and say hello." She slanted a meaningful gaze at the dark-haired boy next to her. "I'll be back in a bit."
Ron grimaced at her and turned to speak to Hermione. Ginny grinned and walked out of the compartment, steadying herself as the train puffed along. After passing through Neville's compartment for a quick hello, she went into another connecting hall, stopped, and leaned against the wall. She closed her eyes and waited.
It wasn't long until she heard the door slide open and shut just as quietly. Her heart sped up as footsteps neared, and an arm wrapped around her waist gently. Warmth blossomed in her, and she opened her eyes to look into Harry's soft gaze. A grin spread on her face, and she leaned her cheek against his shoulder. "Hi."
"Hey, Ginny. How are you doing?"
She groaned softly. "What are we going to do at school, Harry? I don't know if I can bear it."
"You've got to bear it, Ginny. I can't let you get hurt." He gave her a lopsided grin. "If it makes you feel better, I don't know how I'll bear it either."
"It doesn't," she grumbled, eliciting a chuckle from him that she could feel vibrating in his chest. "I don't see why you're laughing. This won't be fun."
"It will be fun, Ginny. Haven't you thought of any other paths of sin to lead me down?" he teased softly, brushing his lips across her forehead.
She reached her face up to his, and their mouths met briefly, drinking in the other as quickly as possible. The train went round a sharp curve and his weight crushed against her as they fell against the wall. She wrapped her arms around his neck and sighed as his mouth moved over hers gently. There wasn't anything better than having Harry in her arms; Merlin only knew how she would deal with not being able to have him publicly. She didn't want to hide this from the world, but she knew it was for the best.
Sighing, he reluctantly broke away from her and leaned his head in the crook of her neck. "Bloody hell, Ginny," he breathed. "Maybe this won't be so fun."
She smiled wistfully, playing with the hairs at the nape of his neck. "No, you're right, Harry. It will be fine. I promise."
There were the sounds of footsteps near the door to Neville's compartment, and the couple broke apart quickly, smoothing their mussed robes. Ginny grinned slightly at Harry. "This will work well." She reached out to touch his arm and eased the door open, waving at Neville and Luna as she passed through their compartment. As she slid the door to her compartment open, she heard Hermione give a muffled gasp, and out of the corner of her downcast eyes, she saw Ron and Hermione break away from each other much in the same fashion as she and Harry just had. She suppressed the growing grin on her face.
"Hello," she greeted cheerfully, watching with amusement as both their faces began to flush. "Neville says hi."
Hermione furtively smoothed her robes and looked at Ginny as she sat down opposite them. "Oh, good. I'm glad he's all right."
Ginny schooled her features to innocence. "Where's Harry?"
Ron looked around the compartment with interest. "He was here just a second ago," he said, confusion over his face.
Just then, the door slid open, and Harry stepped in, looking cool and collected as he made his way to his seat. "Needed to step out for some air." He plopped down next to Ginny. "It was getting a bit warm in here," he added, grinning at his two best friends.
Ron frowned as Hermione let out a squeal of embarrassment. "Shove it, Potter. Now, how about that chess?"
Harry was very relieved to be back at Hogwarts. He realized it as he walked into the Great Hall that night for the Welcoming Feast, flanked on both sides by Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. No matter who stared and whispered, he already felt at home and safe inside the castle walls. He even welcomed the usual sneer from Snape as they passed the staff table; some things were always constant. He needed things to be constant right now
They settled at their usual seats, and Harry looked across from his seat to see Ginny grinning at him, her dark eyes reassuring and insinuating at the same instant. He swallowed and grinned back. How would he bear this? He felt like he needed to pull her across the table and kiss the breath out of her.
Once that thought was visualized, he almost moaned. This would be a frustrating year.
The Sorting Hat began its song, but Harry didn't notice. A small foot nudged his ankle, and a shot of warmth traveled up his leg straight to his head. He shot a warning glance at Ginny, and she smirked. The foot edged up under the hems of his robe, rubbing at his skin.
A very frustrating year, indeed.
Finally, the Sorting Hat finished its song, and Harry joined in the applause weakly, wondering if the song had really been that good. He hadn't heard one word.
Professor McGonagall took out her scroll of first-years from the pocket of her robes and began calling out names. Ron groaned under his breath and leaned over to Harry. "This is murder. I'm so hungry," he groused, earning a poke in the side from Hermione.
Harry silently agreed as Ginny's foot nudged a bit higher up his calf. This was absolute murder.
After an eternity, the final child, Emma Yeager, was proclaimed a Ravenclaw, and McGonagall took the Sorting Hat to Dumbledore's office to wait until next year. In the middle of the impatient chatter, Professor Dumbledore stood and raised his hand for silence. It was given almost immediately, and he smiled amicably at the students before him.
"And so we begin a new year. I would like to remind all of you that the Forbidden Forest is, well, forbidden to all students. Mr. Filch has added another twenty-five items to the list of unacceptable items, so if you have a need to, check the list to make sure you aren't carrying any. Hogsmeade is off-limits to anyone under third year."
He paused, eyes twinkling gently as he gazed across the room. His eyes met Harry's, and a soft smile creased his face. "I also would like to welcome back Remus Lupin as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher." He motioned towards the end of the staff table.
Harry's eyes widened as he saw his father's close friend wave at the students cheerfully, smiling tiredly at Harry when he met his gaze. Lupin looked weary but stronger since the last time Harry saw him. He wondered why no one told him Lupin was coming back, but let that thought go as wild applause echoed in the hall from every table except the Slytherins'. Harry let a nasty smirk cross his face when he glimpsed Draco Malfoy looking fairly uncomfortable at his seat.
Dumbledore waited for the applause to die down before finishing his speech. "That's all from me. Tuck in!"
Ron let out one of many whoops for joy as food appeared on the tables, and students dug in hungrily. "The food here is bloody wonderful," he mumbled through his roast beef.
Hermione frowned in a way that reminded Harry very much of their Head of House. "Watch your language, Ron. You're a prefect." He just shrugged at her, smiling as she huffed.
Harry grinned. Some things never change.
"Mr. Potter, the headmaster would like to see you in his office after the feast this evening."
Harry quickly looked up at Professor McGonagall, a light frown creasing his lips. "Why?"
His Head of House pursed her lips and shifted her stance at his side. "I am not privy to that information, Potter. Just make you way to his office once the feast is over. Is that clear?"
Harry nodded, and she swept off towards the staff table, black robes billowing behind her. He frowned and turned back to his food, trying to ignore the curious stares coming from Hermione and Ron. He hadn't even been here one night, and Dumbledore already wanted to see him. Given his behavior in his office those dreadful hours after Sirius' death, he would have thought the headmaster would want to keep him at a distance.
His stomach clenched, and he set his fork down abruptly. He didn't want to think of his behavior towards Dumbledore. He might have been overwhelmed with grief, but that was no excuse for his actions and words. In his solitary hours over the summer, Harry realized this many times over, and each time made him feel even worse than before.
"Harry? What did McGonagall want?"
"Just have to go talk to Dumbledore for a minute after the feast. Nothing important," he replied with forced cheer and picked up his fork once more.
Ron eyed him for a moment then turned to his sister. "Who do you think will be the Quidditch captain this year?" he asked through a mouthful of potato.
"Ron, that's disgusting." Ginny wrinkled her nose at him as Hermione smacked him on the arm. "I don't know, in answer to your question. Angelina and Alicia are both gone. You and Harry are the oldest ones on the team, other than Katie Bell." She glanced at Harry.
"I was suspended, remember?"
She rolled her eyes. "Umbridge isn't here anymore, Harry. Dumbledore will lift your suspension by the week's end."
"And anyway, I'm not Captain material. I know nothing about strategy. I can't even win a chess game!"
Ron snickered. "Very true, mate."
Harry elbowed Ron, smirking. Hermione rolled her eyes, muttered something about boys being idiots, and went back to her meal. Ginny giggled and leaned over to speak to Colin. Harry watched her mouth move for a bit, forgetting the cooling food on his plate, his focus completely on the girl laughing across from him.
He felt a knot tighten in his chest. She had no idea the secrets he had. Would she still want him if she knew what he had to do? What he had to be? She knew so little of his connection with Voldemort; she didn't fully understand how close he was at all times. That's why the secret of their relationship was so important; if Voldemort knew how close she was to him, she would be used against him. Did she want him anyway, regardless of the danger?
Why did she want him in the first place?
He understood his own feelings. After Sirius' death, she was the only one who understood the space he needed, and she gave it to him. She was the only one who could make him laugh, make him feel anything other than the grief and guilt that had overwhelmed him. She was the only one who had seen past all his barriers and still accepted him as a person.
He looked down at his food, suddenly not very hungry. His life was full of whys. And some of them had nothing to do with Voldemort.
The feast went on for a bit longer, and Harry was almost sick as the time to see Dumbledore drew near. Hermione was the first one up as the dishes were cleared away. She dragged Ron with her as she set about leading the Gryffindors to the towers and guiding the awed first-years about. Harry hung back, taking his time to exit the Great Hall. He found Ginny tapping her foot outside the doors. He stopped about two feet in front of her and watched her eyebrows rise.
"Aren't you coming, Harry?"
He shook his head. "I have to meet with Dumbledore. It'll only take a few minutes."
She nodded, and there was silence between them as the Hall emptied. When they were alone, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll wait for you outside his office, all right?"
She grinned and pushed him in the direction of Dumbledore's office. "Go on, then. Can't keep a girl waiting too long." She turned on her heel and walked after the Gryffindor students.
Harry watched her leave and started out slowly for the headmaster's office, feet dragging in apprehension. He didn't want to keep Dumbledore waiting, but he didn't want to see the man just yet. Memories of that night flooded over him as he traced the familiar path, and he shut his eyes, leaning against the wall for a moment. He didn't want to think about it. It was all so raw and painful for him right now. Impulsively, he wished that Ginny was with him. She could always make him forget...
"Mr. Potter! Potter!"
His eyes shot open, and he straightened, seeing Professor McGonagall standing at the gargoyle that led to Dumbledore's office. She looked impatiently at him and raised an eyebrow. "Come along. The headmaster is a very busy man."
Harry walked quickly to her and waited as she gave the password (Cauldron Cake), and the statue sprang to life, revealing the stairway up to the office door. McGonagall watched him silently for a moment, and when he still didn't move, prodded him gently with her walking stick.
"Go on. Don't waste any time," she said, poking him again.
He swallowed and started up the stairway, heart pounding painfully in his chest. The door was open a crack, and a thin beam of light slipped onto his feet as he stopped on the last step. He thought about turning around and running, but the quiet, tired voice from inside the room stopped him.
"Please come in, Harry."
There was nothing to be done. Harry pushed the door open and walked in, feeling the eyes of all the portraits boring into him.
"It looks like he's grown a bit since June," one woman commented.
"The pillager is back, I see. Is he going to have another go at the office, Dumbledore?" queried another tartly.
Harry kept his eyes on the floor, feeling the shame sweep over him. He heard Dumbledore sigh and speak to the murmuring portraits: "Harry is always welcome to break as many of my things as he likes. But do not speak of something you may not understand. Do sit down Harry."
The pictures fell silent, and Harry looked up. Albus Dumbledore sat behind his cluttered desk serenely, fingering his snow-white beard and watching Harry with his clear blue gaze. Harry exhaled and sat down, not able to meet the other man's eyes.
"I wanted to inquire after your holiday. Did the Dursleys treat you well?"
Harry grimaced. "I left them after about a month, sir. They treated me with silence. I didn't really do much for them."
"And, how was the Burrow? I'm sure the Weasleys treated you well?"
Harry held back a blush, thinking immediately of Ginny. "I had a good time with them, sir. They were very kind to me."
"I have had a letter from the Weasleys just this morning, Harry. They tell me that you and Miss Weasley are...attached?"
At this, Harry's head shot up to meet the knowing eyes of the headmaster. His heart did a jig against his ribs, and he swallowed hard. "Professor, I...well..." He fumbled for words. "Ginny and I..."
The corners of Dumbledore's mouth crinkled, and he cut Harry off gently. "It is a secret that will be hard to keep, Harry. I understand your use of caution; it is very wise. I will tell no one. Do not worry. Miss Weasley's parents just thought it would be wise for me to know."
Harry nodded dumbly, not knowing what to say. Inwardly, he heaved a sigh of relief. As long as Dumbledore knew, Ginny would be safe, no matter what.
The older man continued. "In light of this new development, I would like to continue your Occlumancy lessons." At the grimace on Harry's face, he chuckled. "There is no need to take them with Professor Snape. I am confident that I can teach you just as well. As long as you have no problems with the arrangement..."
Harry shook his head. "None at all, sir. Thank you." The portraits murmured in approval.
"I hope that you harbor no ill will towards me for my secrecy over the last five years. As I have explained, I felt that every time was ill to tell you about the connections you have with Voldemort."
"No sir. In fact, I did want to apologize for ripping your office apart that morning."
Dumbledore smiled. "Think nothing of it, Harry. It's just an office. I can always get new furniture if necessary." He sighed thoughtfully and stood. "Now, I believe you should be getting back to the common room. In the morning, I will tell you the schedule for the Occlumancy lessons."
"Thank you, Professor."
"No trouble, Harry. Go on. I believe Miss Weasley is waiting patiently for you outside my office," Dumbledore replied, a bright sparkle in his eye.
Harry turned a light red as he bid the headmaster good night and left the office, wondering how Dumbledore always seemed to know things like that. He had no sooner come out from the gargoyle's shadow than he saw Ginny leaning against the stone wall across from the statue, eyes bright with anticipation. A warm sensation spilled from the pit of his stomach when he saw her, and he glimpsed around quickly to ensure solitude before going up to her.
"Are you all right, Harry? I think we're alone." A light blush suffused her cheeks.
He looked down at her for a moment, watching the lights dance through her crimson hair, the emotions fly through her dark gaze, and again could only wonder why she wanted him. Abruptly, he realized that she was fidgeting nervously. His silence must have been longer than he thought. "We are. I was just thinking."
"First time for everything."
He grinned and wrapped his arms loosely around her waist. "You won't get away with that one, you know."
"I'd like to see you try and retaliate," she challenged, looking up at him from beneath smoky lashes.
He was just about to lower his mouth to hers when footsteps and the sound of a grumpy cat's purring echoed from around the corner. They jumped apart quickly, flattening to either side of the hall.
"Are there little beasties around the headmaster's office, darling? Where are they?" Filch asked his cat.
"Damn." Ginny grabbed Harry's hand and raced down the hall. "I hate that man."
"I hate him a lot more right now then I did five minutes ago," Harry said sourly.
Ginny giggled and squeezed his hand. "You're not in trouble with Dumbledore, are you? You were in there a while," she commented as they headed towards the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.
Harry shook his head. "No. He just needed to talk to me."
Panting from their sprint, they headed up the stairs slowly, hands loosely intertwined. Breathing deeply, Harry watched her brush hair from her eyes, smiling brightly at him. His heart sped up, and suddenly he stopped. She halted a bit in front of him and looked back. "Harry? What is it?"
He pulled her against him, and buried his face in her hair, inhaling her scent quickly. She curled up to him, wrapping her arms around him and sighing. "This is impossible," she mumbled into his robes.
"It can't be impossible. I hear the Room of Requirement is available a lot." He kissed the top of her head.
She lifted her head, rolling her eyes at him. "You're terrible."
He grinned. "I know. You go in first, all right?"
She sighed and kissed him on the cheek quickly. "All right. See you in there." She released him and climbed up the last bit to the portrait hole.
The Fat Lady looked her over appraisingly and clucked. "You're mussed, dear. Who are you with now?"
Ginny smiled. "No one. Toad's Foot," she said and climbed inside when the portrait swung open.
Harry stood on the steps for a bit, looking at the spot where Ginny last stood. Secrets everywhere. Would she still want him when the secrets were revealed?
"I must find out what Potter is up to, Draco."
"I understand, Master."
"Set to it. Give me anything. The boy must have a weakness. You must find it for me."
"It is done, My Lord."
A/N: Harry Potter is not mine. Please read and review. ^_^