The coldness of the stone floor penetrated through his bones; numbing ache bringing a welcome dullness to the torment which still raged through his frame. He lifted his head limply in the darkness; the total absence of daylight removed all hope. There was no escape. There was nothing: just the wish for oblivion. Death.
Sudden bright light was scorching through his brain, the beam making him wince, recoiling away from the black hooded figure. The pain intensified, jerking and twisting his body with involuntary spasms. The chanted repetition, hammering relentlessly:
"Tell us… tell us…"
Screaming. Wild uncontrolled shrieks of agony, blurred with merciless laughter. The sensation of a cold metal blade against his bare flesh, cutting through it with throbbing savagery. More hooded figures, swimming in and out of focus before his eyes.
"I will not!"
Ginny. He had to keep her safe. Blood dripped, splashing on the flags below. A dizzying sensation. Fighting, struggling against the bonds that confined him. He couldn't move, but he had to. He couldn't let them…The agony was back, worse than before. No air. He couldn't breathe. He had to…
Hands gently touched him. He flinched.
"Harry, you're safe. I promise," Ginny's voice calmly broke through the torment, offering him a lifeline. Her hand grasped his tightly.
He opened his eyes, trembling violently and drenched in the cold sweat of pure terror.
He was in Ron's room. The orange paint was oddly reassuring in the inky blueness of the night, as he tried to collect his breathing and reassure himself that these were memories, only one of those many visions that regularly haunted his sleep.
"It's OK," she whispered, smoothing his damp hair back from his forehead. "Everything's fine."
"Sorry," he mumbled shakily, his heart thumping heavily against his ribs. "I didn't mean to wake you again."
"I'm glad the scar woke me," she said softly, caressing her hand down his cheek. "That sounded like it was a bad one; I can't believe Ron slept through it." She nodded across the lump on the bed in the corner that was her brother, soft snores emanating from him in a regular soothing rhythm.
"Yeah," he responded, sitting up to wrap his arms around her, and leaning his forehead against hers. He gave her a wry smile. "Thanks," he muttered.
"Don't be silly," she whispered, hugging him tightly. "I'm hardly going to let you suffer through all that on your own, am I?" She sighed softly, and looked steadily into his eyes before voicing her question. "It was last March again, wasn't it?"
Harry nodded silently, the fear gripping his stomach again as little images burned into his mind. He closed his eyes, feeling himself still shaking in her embrace. She said nothing, but simply held him; her hair tickled against his nose, bringing with it a pleasing sense of the real world, rather than those nightmarish remembrances.
"I'm OK, Gin," he said at last, grinning a little at her. "You'd better get back; you'll be murdered if anyone finds you in here."
"Not if I can help it," she chuckled quietly, so as not to wake Ron. "Anyway, this is far easier than when you were having these dreams at Hogwarts. I had to get past four other people then, not just my brother, to make sure you were all right!"
"Ginny," Harry whispered, feeling horribly guilty. He couldn't articulate what he wanted to say, and had to resort to squeezing her fingers.
"Shove up," she said suddenly, with a warm smile on her face.
"W-what?" Harry stammered, obediently retreating towards the wall. "Gin?"
"Nothing like that," she chuckled, curling up beside him, and kissing him gently. "You need to talk this through, and I want to be with you. We could go downstairs if you want, but at least if we're caught here, we can point out that Ron's been with us the whole time."
Harry reached for her, and held her close, face buried in her sunshine scented hair, reminding him of the wildness of the fields and meadow. Very slowly he began to recount his dream, Ginny helping where he faltered and feared to continue.
"And the Constrictum spell?" she asked quietly.
"How did you know?" he whispered, his voice seeming hoarse as it caught in his throat.
"I had the same dream," she responded softly, her brown eyes fixed upon his own. "It wasn't just the scar that woke me tonight, Harry. It was your dream."
Consciousness gradually came upon him, bringing with it the sense of being completely and totally happy. The warmth of his bed surrounded him, and he breathed deeply, feeling a smile playing across his lips. He dimly registered the sound of the swallow chirruping merrily from the eaves above them, whilst a light breath of warmth brushed against his cheek. His eyes slowly opened, to find Ginny slumbering beside him, her hair cascading all over his pillow and glinting in a shaft of early morning sunshine. His heart skipped a beat in a combination of pleasure and nervousness. How could they have fallen asleep like this? The Burrow was thankfully still silent, but Harry knew that it wouldn't remain thus for long. Ron could wake up at any second and if anyone found them like this…
"Ginny," he whispered, shaking her gently. She mumbled something incoherently in her sleep and shuffled against him with a contented sigh. "Ginny," he repeated, more urgently, kissing her cheek. "Come on, wake up."
"Mmm?" she murmured sleepily, eye lids flickering open a little, making Harry's heart melt. Suddenly her eyes snapped fully open as she realised where she was. "Harry!"
There was a brief moment of confusion, then realisation and she sat up rapidly. "What time is it?" she asked, anxiety clearly evident in her voice.
"No idea," Harry replied in an undertone. "But you've got to get out of here. I don't think we've got long."
At these very words there was a grunt from Ron, and the blankets on his bad shifted as he rolled over onto his back. They froze. An eternity later, his regular rhythmic breathing began again and Harry let out a long slow breath of his own.
"Watch the squeaking floorboard over by the wardrobe," he whispered, as she levered herself silently to her feet, and bent over to kiss him. "Thanks for the nightmare rescue."
"Any time," she grinned, squeezing his hand, before padding stealthily across the cluttered bedroom. Nervously Harry watched her picking her way through the obstacle course that was Ron's room, each noise amplified in the stillness. He'd never noticed that that other parts of the flooring creaked and groaned, each causing a lurch of the nerves currently surging in his stomach. She reached the wardrobe, and turned back to him, mouthing the words,
She gesticulated at the floorboards in front of her, and pulled a face at him. Despite the gravity of the situation, Harry had to fight back a laugh.
"On the left," he communicated silently with her. She nodded her understanding, and in a swirl of hair, reached out a tentative foot to continue. Harry held his breath.
"And just what do you think you're doing young lady?" came a shocked voice, seemingly out of nowhere. Harry almost jumped out of his skin and he heard Ginny give a surprised gasp. His heart was racing in his chest, as he looked around frantically for the speaker. What was going to happen to them now? Although nothing untoward had happened between them, if felt like he had betrayed the Weasley's trust, and that thought was not something Harry got any pleasure out of. Heart pounding, he glanced over at Ron, fearing the worst, but felt a surge of relief to see that his best friend was still sleeping.
"Nothing," Ginny hissed back at the mirror. "Honestly. I'm just going."
"And so you should," the mirror said sharply. "Really, the things going on these days. It was only yesterday that your brother and…"
"Shhh!" Ginny pleaded with the mirror. "I'll go now. You can watch me."
Carefully, she stepped across the squeaking floorboard and continued her cautious journey. Passing by Ron's trunk and then reaching the chest of drawers, Harry slowly began to grow more hopeful that she would make it.
Suddenly there was a solid thump of a noise, and Ginny's face contorted in anguish. He could see her biting down on her lips to avoid making a sound, but the tears flooded into her eyes. She stood on one leg and rubbed her stubbed big toe gingerly, moving slightly up and down with the pain. A tiny whimper escaped her lips. It took all of Harry's self restraint not to leap out of bed and rush over to her. Hobbling slightly, she moved awkwardly towards the door, reaching her hand for the doorknob. Slowly she twisted it: a gentle click and the door swung towards her, creaking noisily. Ron groaned, shifted onto his side, muttering beneath his breath and shuffled back under the covers. Ginny looked at Harry with tremulous eyes, and was about to take her final steps when something completely shattered the silence of the room.
Pigwidgeon, flapped his wings noisily and began to hoot, as he enthusiastically bounced around inside his cage.
"Will you shut up?" Ron yelled, half-sitting up to fling his pillow in the direction of the tiny owl. Ginny disappeared swiftly around the door in a flurry of hair, and swung it shut behind her.
"It's just Pig again," Harry said loudly, to cover up the noise of Ginny's departure. He was feeling rather as if he'd been playing the most gruelling Quidditch match of his career, and flopped back on his pillows in sheer relief.
"Great," Ron said grumpily. "As long as I know who it is making this racket, that's all right then." Harry grinned to himself, and ran a thoughtful hand over the still-warm spot where Ginny had been, sincerely hoping that she'd make it back past Hermione without being detected. Pig continued to twitter, outraged by this treatment, and Ron finally growled in exasperation. "Harry?"
"Yeah?" Harry replied, shifting onto his side so he could see Ron.
"You're nearer," Ron said emphatically.
Harry groaned, and sat up intent on sorting Pigwidgeon out, one way or another. These early morning wake-up calls were always a bit of a nuisance, and Harry, for one, was convinced that Pig had some cockerel genes in him somewhere.
"Not like that, you prat," Ron chuckled, sounding considerably more awake. "Make the most of your new-found talent as an adult wizard. Try a silencing charm or something. Means you don't have to get out of bed."
Harry grinned. He'd forgotten it was his birthday, never having really celebrated it in any shape or fashion with the Dursleys, but this one was special. He could now use magic outside school. He grabbed his wand from beneath his bed and pointed it at the tiny owl.
Pig was instantly and effectively silenced, and it was only as he settled back in bed that it slowly dawned on Harry; he could have used the same charm to help Ginny escape.
Breakfast was even more chaotic than usual in the cramped Weasley kitchen. It was Saturday, and if Harry had expected things to be calmer than a weekday, then he was very much mistaken.
"Molly, I've got to get into the office," Mr Weasley was saying frantically, fumbling as he buttoned his robes. "They need me to try and smooth over last night." He broke off as he saw Harry and Ron emerging from the shadowy hallway. "Happy birthday, Harry," he said smiling warmly at him, dark circles clearly visible beneath his eyes. "Sorry I can't stay, but I should be back later. I know there are some interesting plans afoot for this evening."
"What's happened now, Dad?" Ron asked curiously.
"Same old story," his father sighed, grabbing a book from the dresser. "Some of our defences are down, and they just can't resist showing off their power."
"Can we…?" Harry began, eager to at least do something.
"No," Mr Weasley responded slowly. "Thank you, Harry, but not just yet. Let's see how things go, shall we?"
"At least take some toast with you, Arthur," Mrs Weasley said, looking at him with concern. He smiled gratefully, and toast in hand he Disapparated to the Ministry with a small pop.
Before the kitchen had had a chance to draw breath, Fred and George crashed noisily into the room, laughing uncontrollably about something, and stopped immediately as they set eyes on Harry.
"It's the birthday boy," Fred said, grinning wickedly at George.
"Harry!" George exclaimed, sounding as delighted to see him as if Harry were a large sackful of Galleons. "We've got a little present for you."
"Here you go," Fred grinned, pushing a small gift-wrapped box across the table.
"I'd advise against touching that," came Ginny's sleepy voice, as she trudged into the kitchen in an old chequered dressing gown of Ron's and helped herself to toast and a mug of tea. "It'll only explode or something."
"Ginny!" George exclaimed, sounding rather hurt by the suggestion. "You know we only reserve such special treatment for our little sister."
"So you're going to turn him green, then?" she laughed.
"Not green…" Fred said with an air of mystery.
"OK, then," Harry chuckled unable to resist. He grinned quickly over at Ginny. "Let's see what it is." He unwrapped the box and slowly raised the lid. Sparkling fragments escaped, shooting into the air, and showering down on Harry like a form of fairy dust. Harry felt a strange tingling sensation in his limbs, and an irresistible urge to get to his feet. His chair suddenly crashed over backwards, bouncing slightly off the stone floor, and his feet began to perform a complicated tap dancing routine. Ron and Ginny burst out laughing, and after a second or two, Harry joined in.
"Dancing Dust," Fred chuckled, watching Harry's feet perform a complex triple time-step. "Hey, you're good at that Harry."
"Stop off at the shop later, and you can have a real present," George remarked.
"The shop?" Harry echoed, shuffling more slowly as the magic began to wear off.
"Well, we thought it'd be nice to go to Diagon Alley," Hermione remarked, leaning unobserved against the doorframe. She grinned and added, "Nice footwork, Harry."
The smell of bacon and eggs gradually faded from the cosy kitchen, and Harry enjoyed the chatter of the morning. Presents seemed to engulf him, and he was a little embarrassed by the fuss. Hermione had got him his own copy of "Quirks with Quaffles," and Ron had laughingly given him some Chudley Cannons socks, explaining that they were really to keep his sister's feet warm. Ginny, however, pulled him into the living room when Ron and Hermione were getting ready for their trip to Diagon Alley.
"I did this for you," she said quietly, passing him a circular flat package. "I read about the idea in a Muggle book of Dad's, and got Ron to do some magic on it for me. I thought it might help. "
He tore apart the bright purple wrapping quickly, and was intrigued to see something that looked like the finest silken spider's web stretched across a circular hoop, beads and feathers suspended from it.
"What is it?" he asked curiously, revolving the object in his hands.
"The original idea is a Muggle dream catcher," Ginny explained, smiling gently up at him. "You hang it over your bed to keep good thoughts near you when you're sleeping. The circle represents your life, and the hole in the centre there is to let the nightmares escape. I've added a bit of magic to it, though."
"What does that do?" Harry asked hugging her closely.
"Keeps me right beside you when you're sleeping," she said, blushing rather pink, and biting her lip. "See those strands of hair? That's right where the magic is."
"It's perfect," he said simply, noticing that the long wisps of hair were exactly the same shades of red as those running through her head. "Thanks Ginny."
"Well, I think it's going to save more embarrassing moments," she chuckled wickedly. "I can't believe we fell asleep last night."
"I can't believe we didn't get caught," he said fervently.
The day in Diagon Alley was a very pleasant one; and they eventually settled down to eat ice cream in the sunshine outside Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour. Despite being forcibly dragged away from Flourish and Blotts on more than one occasion, Hermione had still managed to acquire two new books: "Dark Magic: A History," and "Advanced Astronomy."
"Honestly, I don't know why you've got these," Ron sighed, picking up the weighty history tome. "They're not even on the booklist for next year."
"They look interesting," Hermione smiled at him, then her face quickly became more serious. "And with the way things are going, I thought the Dark Arts one might be useful. The more we know about that side of things the better."
"Yeah, I suppose so," Ron agreed reluctantly, flicking through the pages. He laughed suddenly. "Hey, you're in this one, Harry!"
"Let me see," Ginny said, scrambling onto the chair beside her brother and vying for the volume. They tussled briefly for a few seconds, and Ginny emerged victorious.
"Cheat!" Ron protested, still giggling from her tickles.
"Now where is it?" Ginny grinned, searching down the page with her finger. "Ah yes. 'Harry Potter, the sole known survivor of…'"
"Put it away," Harry interrupted her, groaning loudly and burying his head in his hands.
"Just thank your lucky stars they don't know about you, Ginny."
"I suppose so," she said, closing the book a little unwillingly and passing it back to Hermione. "Good teasing material, though."
"We'd better get going," Hermione said, checking her watch. "It's after five and your mum will be worrying."
There was a murmur of reluctant agreement, and gathering together their assorted parcels and packages, they headed through to the fireplace in the joke shop. Weasley's Wizard Wheezes was faring very well as a business, and the formally painted exterior of the shop was rather deceptive. Upon setting foot within, you never quite knew what was going to happen next. Quills disintegrated in your hands before you could use them, little piles of knuts turned you purple when you picked them up, and explosions regularly shook the little shop violently. Crowds of small excited children were perpetually thronging in the shop, or grouping round the window, laughing at the effects of Canary Creams and other such inventions. Sickles and Galleons changed hands rapidly.
Straightening up in The Burrow's hearth after a particularly unpleasant Floo Powder journey, Harry was stunned to see a distinctive figure with a long white beard sitting at the kitchen table speaking seriously to Mr and Mrs Weasley. Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, regarded the four of them with affection and nodded.
"Birthday greetings are in order, I believe, Harry," he said, his bright blue eyes twinkling the way they always did.
"P-Professor," Harry stammered.
"Why are you here?" Ron asked curiously, then blushed bright red. "Sorry," he muttered. "I didn't mean that to sound quite like that."
"Things have a habit of just coming out, I find," Dumbledore said, smiling at Ron. "I remember one of my students… Dear me, this seems like such a long time ago… but I digress. Harry," he said calmly. "I need to speak with you about something, and Ginny, this undoubtedly concerns you too."