The Great Hall was full of chatter at breakfast that morning. Festive Christmas decorations hung from the walls, and twelve gigantic Christmas trees lit with everlasting candles dwarfed the vast Hall. Live turtle doves fluttered around the trees, twittering joyfully as they swooped between the branches.
Ginny sat at the Gryffindor table, perplexed, as she absently added spoonful after spoonful of sugar to her porridge.
At a Slug Club meeting three nights before, Professor Slughorn had announced he’d be hosting a small Christmas party on the Friday before end of term, and members were allowed to bring guests. Hogwarts students had been aflutter with the news ever since. Older students remembered the one he’d held two years prior and how exclusive the invitation list had been. Younger students were fascinated by the idea of a party, and everyone was vying for an invitation.
The thought of asking Harry to be her date had crossed Ginny’s mind. Hermione had sent an owl to Ron straightaway, but Ginny felt reluctant. Harry hadn’t enjoyed the Slug Club when he’d been a student, and now there was even more fawning over him when he was in public. Even Professor Slughorn kept dropping sly hints that he’d hoped Harry would attend.
And, of course, there was Rita’s latest article about Harry harbouring Dark magic. She knew talking about it upset him, and she didn’t think it was fair to put him through it. She’d therefore decided to take her lead from him and invite Luna as her date. She’d arrived for breakfast early to await her Ravenclaw friend’s arrival.
She didn’t have to wait long to see Luna enter the Great Hall and join the Ravenclaw table. She didn’t look quite awake, and she blinked blankly when Ginny hurried over with her extra-sweet porridge to join her.
“Good morning, Luna,” Ginny said brightly.
“Good morning, Ginny. Are we supposed to be switching tables this morning?” Luna asked vaguely, scooping eggs onto her plate. “Perhaps I’ll be Slytherin today.”
“No, silly. I wanted to talk to you,” Ginny said, lowering her voice. She noticed some of the other Ravenclaws were straining their ears to hear them. “Did you hear about Professor Slughorn’s Christmas party?”
A wide smile spread across Luna’s face, seeming to light her eyes from within. “You’ve heard, then? I was looking forward to telling you.”
Ginny felt confused. Luna wasn’t part of the Slug Club, so how would she have told Ginny? “Er… told me what?” Ginny asked.
“That I’m going to the party again, too. Last time Harry took me, and this time Simon has invited me. It’s so nice to have friends who take you to parties,” Luna replied happily.
“Oh,” Ginny said, a little stunned. She felt ashamed for assuming no one else would’ve asked Luna. She pasted a smile on her face. “I’m so happy for you, Luna.”
“That stunned expression on your face tells me that you didn’t know. What was it you wanted to talk to me about, then?” Luna asked, blinking.
“Oh… it’s nothing… It’s just, I was going to ask you to come with me,” Ginny said honestly.
“Invited by another friend,” Luna said, delighted. “We could all go together. Do you want to have a threesome? I’m certain Simon wouldn’t mind.”
Ginny choked, uncertain if Luna realized what she’d actually said. “Er… no, that’s all right, Luna. You and Simon will have fun, and I’ll see you there,” Ginny replied, standing up quickly.
“Oh. All right, then,” Luna said, returning to her breakfast.
Feeling the intense heat on her cheeks, Ginny ducked her head and hurried from the Great Hall, certain she could hear stifled laughter coming from the Ravenclaw table. By the time she returned to her dormitory, feeling slightly disheartened, the rest of her roommates were awake and in various states of dress.
“Where were you?” Hermione asked, attempting to wrangle her hair into a plait.
“I just asked Luna to accompany me to the Slug Club Christmas party, but she turned me down,” Ginny said, flopping onto her bed dramatically. “She already has a date.”
“Oooh,” said Parvati, hurrying over to Ginny’s bed and sitting beside her. “Luna’s going to the party? Who’s she going with?”
“You asked Luna? Why aren’t you going with Harry?” Liz asked, pausing in pulling her jumper over her head.
“What do you mean you asked Luna?” Hermione asked, looking slightly panicked. She shared an odd glance with Siobhan.
As the other girls all huddled around Ginny’s bed, she raised herself up on her elbows, staring at their interest bemusedly. “I don’t want to put Harry through another Slug Club party. He never cared for them, so I asked Luna. Apparently, Simon Teevens already asked her.” After a pause, she added, “She did invite me to join a threesome with them, however.”
“Oh, she did not,” Liz said while the other girls shrieked with laughter.
“She did,” Ginny said, beginning to laugh herself. “Although, with Luna, I can’t be certain she intended it the way it came out. I think Simon asked her as a friend since she helped him with a potion, but for all I know, they could be shagging in every broom cupboard in the castle.”
“But… I thought you’d decided you were going alone,” Hermione said, still looking slightly distressed. She didn’t even flinch at the comment about Luna.
Ginny shrugged. “I know she enjoyed it when Harry took her a few years ago, and I thought she deserved some fun.”
“I’ll go with you,” Siobhan said suddenly, sharing another strange glance with Hermione.
Ginny looked around, slightly surprised.
“I mean, I have all these dresses, and I’d love to go to one. I’m a good date, really,” Siobhan said, laughing.
Hermione looked oddly relieved. “What do you mean you have all these dresses?” she asked.
Siobhan flung the lid of her trunk open and began pulling out dress after dress. Her trunk must’ve been half-filled with dresses she’d never had the opportunity to wear. By the time she was finished, her bed was nearly sagging with the weight of them.
“Well, you never know what you might need, so it’s best to bring everything,” Siobhan said defensively.
Ginny, who had a very limited wardrobe, began to worry about what she would wear to the party. Finances were much better now that her dad had his new job, but she didn’t want to ask for anything extra so close to Christmas.
“Er, Siobhan… d’you have anything I could wear?” she asked, ducking her head so she didn’t have to meet the other girl’s eyes.
“Oh, I haven’t ordered anything, either,” Hermione said, frowning. Ginny knew Hermione planned to visit her parents at some point over break, but the relationship was still strained. Perhaps she didn’t want to ask for anything extra, either.
“Well, as you can see I don’t have much, but you’re welcome to wear anything you fancy. Except the red one. I’m going to wear the red one,” Siobhan said, pulling a velvet one from the large pile.
Hermione began sorting through the dresses, admiring several, but Ginny could already see a problem. Siobhan was so much taller than Ginny, anything she chose would have to be severely altered. Ginny was hesitant to try any alteration charms in case she caused permanent damage to Siobhan’s clothes.
Parvati opened her own wardrobe. “I don’t have nearly as many as Siobhan, but you’re welcome to borrow anything of mine, too. I wish I was going.”
“I’ve got a few, too,” Liz said. “Parvati, you and I can go up to the Room of Requirement that night and have our own Christmas party.”
“Ooh, that’s a great idea,” Parvati said, beaming.
“We could invite some of the blokes who weren’t invited to Slughorn’s party, too,” Siobhan said.
Liz stared at Siobhan pointedly, “Er… Siobhan, you’re going to Slughorn’s party, remember?”
Siobhan looked momentarily startled. “Oh. Right. I forgot.”
Ginny frowned at her roommates. Siobhan wasn’t usually a morning person, but she must’ve just rolled out of bed. Ginny began sorting through the many dresses. She’d never had so many to choose from. In the end, she realized that the bright colours Parvati fancied clashed horribly with her hair, but she found a lovely emerald green one that belonged to Liz. It reminded her of Harry’s eyes, and it would make her feel like he was with her in spirit.
She tried it on, but when she stared at her reflection, she was uncertain. It was very low-cut — even more than the gold one she’d worn for Bill and Fleur’s wedding. Still, it clinched in at her waist, and the skirt flared out, ending just above her knees.
“Oh, Ginny. You look lovely,” Hermione said, staring. She wore a black velvet dress of Siobhan’s with sheer sleeves and a sparkly material on her bust line.
“So do you,” Ginny said, wishing she had Hermione’s curves.
“I wonder what Luna will wear,” Parvati said. “Simon is fairly straight-laced.”
Ginny giggled. “I’m certain it will be something to talk about. Luna’s always good value.”
The night of the Christmas party found Ginny in the common room awaiting Hermione’s return. She’d gone down to the Entrance Hall to retrieve Ron, who’d been given special permission to enter the castle for the party. The common room was festively decorated, and students were milling around, chatting about their weekend plans and hoping to get a glimpse of those lucky enough to attend Slughorn’s party. Aside from Hermione and her, the only other Gryffindor with an invitation was Bailey McLaggen, whose family was apparently very well-connected at the Ministry. She didn’t see him in the common room, however.
“You look beautiful, Ginny,” Dean said from one of the good chairs by the fire.
Ginny hadn’t noticed him there when she’d entered the common room. He’d actually offered to accompany her to the party as they’d done in her fifth year, but she’d turned him down. He’d been gracious, but she’d felt bad all the same.
“Thank you, Dean,” she said, smiling. She did feel beautiful in Liz’s pretty green dress, despite the fact she kept fidgeting with the neckline, feeling exposed.
“Good night for a party. I’m joining Andrew, Jimmy, Siobhan and that crew for a party of our own in the Room of Requirement.”
Ginny stared at him blankly. “Siobhan is coming with me,” she said.
Dean’s eyes flew open, and he scuffed his toe sheepishly. “Oh. Right. I meant Parvati,” he said not looking at her.
“What’s going on?” Ginny asked, her eyes narrowed.
“Why are your knickers in a twist, Ginny?” Siobhan asked, coming down the stairs from the dormitory with Liz and Parvati. She wore her red velvet dress and had her hair styled in a knot on top of her head.
“Dean says you’re going with him to the Room of Requirement,” Ginny said bluntly.
Siobhan’s eyes strayed quickly to Dean before turning back to Ginny. “No, the others are all going up there. I’m going with you and Hermione. Where is she?”
Ginny frowned, tapping her foot. “She went down to fetch Ron.”
Liz walked over and began adjusting Ginny’s dress unnecessarily. “You look lovely, Ginny. That dress is really flattering on you.”
“You really do,” Parvati said, gushing. “And I love your hair up that way.”
Ginny’s nerves were frayed, and her temper, never far from the surface, had reached its limit. “All right, I want to know what’s going on with you lot, and I want to know right now,” she bellowed.
“Bloody hell. Is she always in such a temper? It’s a wonder you haven’t chucked her out,” a familiar voice said, coming from the portrait hole.
Ginny spun around to see Ron standing right inside the portrait hole with his arm around Hermione. She briefly registered that he looked extremely respectable in his Muggle clothes when her brain registered who had climbed in behind them.
Harry straightened up, grinning. He wore a striped grey button-down with black trousers, and Ginny thought she’d never seen anything more attractive in her life. She stood there, gaping and unable to move.
“Surprise,” he said, shrugging his shoulders timidly.
She bounded across the room and leaped into his arms, kissing him soundly. When she finally pulled back, he grinned.
“I suppose I ought to do this properly for once. Would you like to go to Professor Slughorn’s party with me, Ginny?”
She reared back, gasping, her heart dropping to somewhere in the region of her stomach. It was like being back in third year when Ron had so casually offered her up as a consolation prize after Harry’s failed attempt to ask Cho Chang to the Yule Ball. She’d wanted to go with him more than anything, but she’d already promised Neville, and she couldn’t just ditch him. Her conscience wouldn’t allow it.
She glanced helplessly at Siobhan.
“Merlin’s Beard, Ginevra, don’t be daft,” Siobhan said rolling her eyes.
It was only then that she realized the rest of the occupants in the common room were all staring at her, beaming. Dean’s expression was a cross between a smile and a grimace.
“You all knew,” she said accusingly.
“Bit slow on the uptake, aren’t you?” Ron asked, grinning.
“Er… d’you not want to go?” Harry asked, looking rather worried.
“At least they’re equally daft,” Ron said, his arm draped casually around a smiling Hermione’s waist.
“Of course I want to go with you,” Ginny said, kissing him again. “I didn’t want to put you through it. There’s going to be a lot of fawning.”
“Never mind that. If it’s important to you, I’m going to do it,” Harry said, putting his hands on her shoulders and moving her back slightly so his arms were stretched taut. For a moment, she thought he was going to scold her for not telling him, but she quickly realized he was perusing her borrowed dress. From the appreciative gleam in his eyes, she knew he approved.
“You look brilliant,” he said, a little breathlessly.
Ginny beamed, immensely glad she let Liz talk her into wearing the dress. It suddenly didn’t feel daringly low-cut at all.
Ron shuddered. “All right, if you’re going to go all soppy, I think we should go to the party.”
Hermione slapped him on the shoulder. “Leave them alone, Ron.”
Ginny turned to Siobhan, reaching over to hug her friend. “Thanks, Siobhan. You’re certain you’re not too disappointed?”
Siobhan grinned. “I knew what I was doing. Besides, I’m still wearing this dress up to the Room of Requirement party, and bollocks to anyone who thinks I’m overdressed.”
“I think you’re dressed perfectly,” Andrew said appreciatively.
“We should go if we don’t want to be late,” Hermione said.
They bid the others farewell, and began the trek to Slughorn’s office. Harry held her hand, and Ginny was struck by how warm he felt, even in the chilly corridor.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” she murmured so that Ron and Hermione wouldn’t hear. It wouldn’t have mattered, the other two were caught up in their own whispered conversation.
“I’ll always be there for you, Ginny,” he said earnestly. “Look, no matter how much I complain about all the attention—”
“That’s just it, you don’t complain, but I know you hate it,” she said, interrupting.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, continuing undeterred. “I don’t want you to… to protect me or something. I want to be part of your life. I’m certain there will be stuffy old Ministry parties with a bunch of old toffs that you’ll have to endure, and I’ll have to make the sacrifice and attend all those dreadful Quidditch engagements.”
Ginny snorted. “You’ll make that sacrifice, huh?” she asked sarcastically, even though his words made her feel as if she were floating along the corridor beside him.
He put his hand over his heart. “I’ll fall on my sword and do it,” he said seriously, his eyes twinkling merrily.
“I love you,” Ginny blurted.
Harry’s entire face lit up as it always did when she said the words that she knew he’d waited so long to hear. He wrapped his arm around her snugly, shielding her from the cold. “I love you, too.”
“You said there’ll be food at this do, right?” Ron asked, his voice carrying. “I’m starving.”
“When aren’t you starving, Ron?” Hermione asked fondly.
“You clean up nice, Ron,” Ginny said, feeling generous.
She was so happy to have Harry here with her, she briefly considered blowing off the party and pulling him into an empty broom cupboard instead. Perhaps, if the party was lame, she could still do just that.
When they arrived at Professor’s Slughorn’s magically expanded office, it was decorated in the same manner as his previous party with crimson, emerald and gold cloths draped from floor to ceiling, giving it the appearance of a large tent. Holly and ivy were woven onto candelabras that gave a soft glow to the entire area. Ginny noticed pixies fluttering overhead with sprigs of mistletoe grasped in their claw-like hands.
The fireplace had also been expanded to take up an entire side of the tent, the fire blazed brightly, warming the area splendidly. The air was scented with mulled cider, and Ginny’s mouth began to water.
Ron immediately spotted a house-elf crouched low with a heavily laden tray, and he dragged Hermione toward it. Harry picked up two goblets of warm cider, and handed one to Ginny, who sipped in appreciatively.
Professor Slughorn had seen them enter, and he pushed his way through the crowd to greet them by the door. “Harry, m’boy, good to see you. Good to see you. Miss Weasley told me you were unable to attend,” he said, looking at Ginny with slight disapproval.
“Change of plans, and I knew Ginny wanted me to come,” Harry lied smoothly.
Professor Slughorn beamed, grasping Ginny’s shoulder. “This young lady is going places. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, either,” he said jovially. “Tell me, Harry. How are things at the Ministry?”
“Going well, sir. Thanks for asking,” Harry said politely.
“I understand Gawain Robards is heading up your department, these days. Wonderful bloke, Gawain, and an excellent student. Give him my best, won’t you?” Professor Slughorn said heartily.
Ginny had to give Harry credit for his patience. She could only tolerate Professor Slughorn’s boasting for so long. She noticed Luna and Simon sitting at a nearby table. As Professor Slughorn turned to greet another guest, Ginny grabbed Harry’s arm and steered him toward their table.
“Hi, Luna!” she greeted her friend happily.
She felt Harry jerk beside her. Turning her head, she noticed who else was sitting at the table with Luna and Simon. Head Girl Astoria Greengrass sat quietly beside Simon with her date — Draco Malfoy, who was dressed in traditional wizard robes. It was only then that she realized the wide distance others were keeping from this table might not be people avoiding Luna. Ginny had heard through the grapevine that the Malfoys and made a match with the Greengrass family, as many of the old, pure-blood families did. She’d assumed the match had been with Daphne, and she and Siobhan had giggled how awkward that must be since Draco had dated Daphne’s friend, Pansy Parkinson, for so long. Obviously it had been Ginny and Siobhan who were mistaken on which sister the blond former Death Eater had been paired.
“Hello, Ginny. You look very nice. Hi, Harry. I’m very glad you were able to take my place as Ginny’s date,” Luna said, staring at Harry as if she’d never seen him before.
“Er… I asked Luna to come with me before I knew you were coming. She already had plans with Simon,” Ginny explained to Harry quickly in an attempt to derail Luna from mentioning anything about a threesome.
“Hi, Luna. You look very… wintry,” Harry said. Luna was dressed from head to toe in bright white, with large, sparkling silver snowflakes hanging from her ears. Ginny suspected the light layer of snow on her head was real.
Harry nodded to Simon, who reached across the table to shake his hand. “Nice to see you again, Harry.”
Harry covered well, but Ginny suspected he had no idea who Simon was. “Simon and Astoria,” Ginny said, nodding towards the Slytherin girl, “are our Head Boy and Girl.”
“Nice to meet you,” Harry said, nodding toward Astoria, who returned the gesture. “Draco,” he said simply.
“Potter,” Draco said with an obvious attempt to control his sneer. “I see your fan club is as vapid as ever.”
Ginny looked around and realized the eyes of nearly everyone in the room were glued on their table. Several people waved, and some of the braver ones were apparently getting over their aversion of a former Death Eater in order to get closer to Harry.
“Behave, Draco,” Astoria murmured. “He can’t help how they treat him any more than you can help how they treat you.”
“How’s your family, Draco?” Harry asked. “Your mother said you were all settling in.” Though his voice was pleasant, Ginny knew it was a slight dig. Judging by Astoria’s comment, the Malfoys were having as hard a time as other supporters of Voldemort.
Draco’s eyes narrowed malevolently. “Things are going well. My father and I have been making some investments on the continent that are paying off splendidly. How about you? Mother said they have you chasing Dementors. How are you managing to stay on your broom?”
Harry smiled tightly. “Broom handling has always come naturally, funnily enough,” he said blithely.
“Bloody hell! What are you doing here?” Ron had finally spotted whom they were sitting with when he and Hermione joined their table.
Astoria arched one perfect eyebrow, perusing Ron coolly. “He’s an invited guest, same as you.”
Hermione tugged on Ron’s arm. “Hello, Astoria, Draco,” Hermione said, nodding. Ginny noticed that Hermione didn’t meet Draco’s eyes, and she shifted closer to Ron.
“What are you doing with this buffoon, Granger?” Draco asked, sneering.
Hermione flinched. “I think I’d like to get a drink, Ron,” she said rather shrilly.
Ron glared at Draco, and wrapping his arm around Hermione, steered her away without a backward glance. Hermione leaned into him. A pregnant pause encompassed the table as the other occupants watched the couple move away.
“I think you bring uncomfortable memories of what happened to Hermione when she visited your home,” Luna said, as if starting an innocuous conversation.
Ginny’s stomach plummeted. Hermione had been tortured at Malfoy Manor, and although Harry had said that Draco hadn’t taken part, he’d still been there. Of course, he’d been part of many of the tortures that had taken place at Hogwarts, as well. It was no wonder people were hesitant to go near him. Ginny turned towards Luna, startled. Luna, too, had been imprisoned in Malfoy Manor for months, yet she appeared unaffected by Malfoy’s company.
Draco paled considerably, his eyes averting Luna’s wide ones. “We all have uncomfortable memories of what happened during the war,” he said shortly.
“Except that you caused a lot of them,” Harry said candidly.
Astoria laid a hand on Draco’s sleeve. “I’m certain we all have regrets, but the past can’t be undone. The best we can do is learn and move forward. I’d like something to eat, Draco. Would you care to try some of those salmon-filled vol au vents we saw earlier?” she asked, expertly pulling Draco to his feet and steering him away from their table.
“Are you all right, Luna?” Ginny asked at once.
“Of course,” Luna said, blinking. “I’ve already tried the vol au vents. They’re quite good.”
“Oh, yes. He wanted very badly to be one of them, but he was really just as much a prisoner as I was. He’s actually not very brave,” Luna said, taking a large sip of her Elderberry wine.
“That’s true,” Harry said, his body still tight. “I’ll concede that he could’ve told them it was me once I’d been captured, but he didn’t. I’m certain he knew.”
“And yet he still tried to hand you over to the Death Eaters during the Battle — twice,” Ginny said, glaring. She didn’t have it in her heart to forgive Draco Malfoy yet, even if Luna and Harry did.
The tension relaxed from Harry’s body, and he leaned over to kiss her, smiling contentedly.
“Harry seems to like it when Ginny defends him,” Luna told Simon, her whisper not at all quiet.
Simon’s face coloured, and he cleared his throat uncomfortably. Once Draco and Astoria had left the table, a long stream of students and guests began approaching, all seeking an audience with Harry. Ginny was growing annoyed that she wasn’t getting any time with her boyfriend, but she managed to curb her temper every time she noticed the disgruntled yet envious expression on Draco Malfoy’s face.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Harry said at last. “I think I’m ignoring my date.” He grasped Ginny’s arm and led her away from the ring of tables toward the exit. He stopped a short space away, mumbling, “Sorry about that.”
“S’not your fault,” Ginny said firmly.
“Oh, can I get a picture of the happy couple under the mistletoe,” a voice very near them said loudly.
They turned to see a curly-haired witch in a flowing teal dress with Daily Prophet credentials around her neck. Ginny didn’t remember there being any reporters at the last party, although she acknowledged it wouldn’t have been her they were interested in. She surmised that the witch was a former Slug Club member.
Harry glanced up towards the mistletoe hovering above them, clutched in the vise-like grip of a leering pixie. His hand automatically rubbed the back of his neck, alerting Ginny to his discomfort. She narrowed her eyes, wondering what Professor Slughorn would do if she hexed the intrusive witch.
“Don’t you want to kiss her, Potter?” Draco asked, smirking as he leaned against a nearby table, obviously delighting in Harry’s discomfort.
Harry smiled at her apologetically, leaned over and kissed her softly. It was neither a peck nor a snog, and Ginny was dimly aware of the burst of light from a flashbulb. At least she thought it was the camera — it could’ve been in her mind. Her legs felt weak, and now she really wanted to go find that broom cupboard.
A round of applause filled the room, and the reporter moved closer in an attempt to question Harry, but her route was blocked by a massive shape who suddenly obstructed her view.
“Harry!” Hagrid boomed, reaching over to pat Harry’s shoulder. Harry’s entire body shook with the force.
“Beatrice, I thought we agreed there would be no working here tonight,” Professor Slughorn said heartily, leading the reporter away. Many of the onlookers began to drift away rather than interrupt Hagrid.
“How are yeh, Ginny?” Hagrid asked, his dark, beetle-black eyes glowing warmly. “I’m glad to see this one,” he jerked his massive thumb in Harry’s direction, “got off his duff and came up here to escor’ yeh.”
“I have learned to see reason, on occasion,” Harry said good-naturedly. His whole demeanour had lightened, and his pleasure at seeing Hagrid was palpable. Ginny had been down for tea with the half-giant on several occasions, but she didn’t think Harry had seen him since the summer.
“O’course yeh do,” Hagrid boomed. “I hear you’re workin’ with those ruddy Dementors, Harry. I don’t like the idea of yeh being round them things.”
Harry shrugged. “I don’t much like being around them, either, Hagrid, but it has to be done.”
Hagrid shook his shaggy head, concern shining in his eyes. “I remember how they affected yeh. Think I’ll write Kingsley meself.”
Colour suffused Harry’s cheeks, and he kicked at the ground. “I’m fine, Hagrid. Besides, I’m on a broom with some distance, not stuck up with them in Azkaban like you were,” Harry said, shuddering slightly.
Hagrid shrugged. “Yeah, but my blood gives me some extra protection,” he said, lowering his voice and staring around to be certain no one could over hear.
“What do you mean?” Harry asked swiftly.
“I’m a bit tougher than most,” Hagrid said, mumbling and clearly uncomfortable. Attempting to change the subject, he said, “Professor Slughorn asked me to chaperone tonight. I’ve never been to such a fancy do.”
Ginny could see Harry’s mind was elsewhere, so she stepped in smoothly. “I’m certain he knew no one would put a toe out of line with you here, Hagrid.” In fact, she suspected the unlikely friendship that had sprung up between the two professors had more to do with Hagrid’s ready access to rare potions ingredients.
Hagrid blushed, grinning. “I bes’ make me rounds. Good ter see yeh, Harry, Ginny.”
Harry and Ginny rejoined the crowd, making small talk with friends and admirers. During the course of the evening, as the crowd thinned, Ginny realized that Draco and Astoria had disappeared. Scanning the room, she noticed that Ron and Hermione were also among the missing. She slipped her hand into Harry’s.
“D’you want to leave?” she asked quietly.
“Have you had enough?” Harry asked.
“Well, I thought we might nick a sprig of that mistletoe and make a more private stop on our way to the Entrance Hall,” she said coyly.
Harry didn’t have to be asked twice.
Harry stood in the Entrance Hall watching Ginny climb the stairs up to her dormitory and appreciating the gentle sway of her hips. Her dishevelled hair hung in loose ringlets down her back because he’d pulled out the fancy knot she’d done as soon as he was able. He liked when her hair hung down.
He’d lost track of time and had no idea where Ron had disappeared, so he decided to simply go home. They’d meet up back at Grimmauld Place, and it was less than a week before Ginny and Hermione would be home for the Christmas holidays. Ginny was staying at The Burrow, but he was certain they’d still get a lot of time to spend together. Their stolen moments in the broom cupboard after the party led his mind to all sorts of intriguing possibilities as to what they could do with that time.
“There you are,” Ron said, sounding annoyed as he emerged from a darkened corridor and strode across the Entrance Hall.
Harry turned around slowly, uncomfortably aware of his rumpled clothing and the swollen feeling of his lips.
“Where have you been?” Ron demanded, eyeing Harry suspiciously.
Harry cocked an eyebrow. “Your shirt is buttoned wrong, Ron. Has it been that way all night?” he asked innocently. “I don’t remember noticing it at the party.”
Colour suffused Ron’s ears, and he quickly ducked his head to adjust the buttons on his shirt. “Let’s get out of here,” he mumbled, striding toward the front doors and pulling them open. The temperature outside had dropped dramatically, and a light snow was falling. Harry and Ron quickly pulled their shrunken cloaks from their pockets and resized them for the cold walk back to the gates.
“Bloody hell, I’m freezing my balls off,” Ron said, grumbling. “You’d think they’d have allowed Apparition inside the castle for one night.”
Harry grinned, imagining Hermione’s response to that statement. “There was likely a carriage to transport guests after the party, but… we’re a bit late,” he said, not meeting Ron’s eyes. He knew as soon as he’d started speaking that he should’ve kept his mouth shut, but it was too late at that point.
Ron’s entire body appeared to swell. “Exactly where did you and my sister go after the party anyway?” he demanded.
Harry rolled his eyes. “Ron, don’t even think about lecturing me when it’s obvious you were off shagging Hermione.”
“Seriously? Granger let you shag her?” a drawling voice asked incredulously.
Harry and Ron looked around to see Draco Malfoy descending the front stone stairs, his hands still working on the buttons of his dark travelling cloak.
“Piss off, Malfoy,” Ron said, his embarrassed colouring even darker than it had been when Harry confronted him.
“And inside the castle, too? I never would’ve expected she had that in her,” Draco said, ignoring Ron’s mounting fury — or perhaps he was winding him up. That seemed more his style.
“Don’t you even utter her name,” Ron snarled, his fists clenched.
“If you keep it up, he’s going to attack you, and I’m not going to stop him,” Harry said lightly, beginning to walk across the castle grounds.
Draco kept pace with him, leaving a spluttering Ron standing where he was as snow gathered in his hair.
“And of course, everyone knows you already got it from the Weaslette. I’m certain they’re all surprised to see you back around,” Draco said, pulling on a pair of dark gloves. “You’re ruining that love ‘em and leave ‘em reputation.”
Harry stopped walking, spinning toward him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, his own temper rising.
Ron had caught up with them. “What did you say about my sister?”
Draco’s grey eyes widened in surprise, a delighted grin spreading across his face as if he’d just stumbled upon hidden treasure. He casually began to walk again, savouring the moment. “Didn’t you know? Wasn’t that all part of your plan?” he asked, drawing out the reveal because it was obvious he was delighting in their perplexed frowns.
“What are you talking about, Malfoy?” Harry asked.
Draco smirked. “Last year, the rumour around the castle was that you broke up with her after she gave you what you were after. Earned her quite a reputation that did.”
Harry scowled, stuffing his hands deeper into his pockets and quickening his pace. Anger licked at his insides, and he was struggling not to act rashly.
“What are you on about?” Ron asked. “Harry broke up with her to protect her.”
“Naturally, anyone who really knows Potter’s penchant for saving people expected that, but the ruse did work amongst the masses,” Draco conceded. “Loads of blokes spent the year trying to get into her robes. I’m not certain who succeeded.”
Harry grabbed Draco’s cloak and pushed him hard against a tree along the path, his words ringing in Harry’s ears. The similar words about his ‘saving-people thing’, always cut him deeply, but the thought Ginny suffered because of his effort to keep her safe was maddening. He should’ve been the slag in that scenario, not her.
Draco’s eyes widened in panic, pain crossing his features as he slammed into the tree. Ron pulled Harry back, but kept a secure hold on him just in case. It was a testament to their long-standing friendship that Ron was controlling his own temper in order to focus on Harry’s.
“If anyone is going to get to hit him, it’s me,” Ron said firmly.
Draco made a show out of shaking out his robes and again began walking toward the gates at a slightly quicker pace.
“You know Ginny can take care of herself, mate. And it’s always been you,” Ron said to Harry under his breath. “Even I can see that. She wouldn’t have given the time of day to anyone else — except maybe to hex them.”
Harry pressed his lips together, his insides clenched painfully. He had a physical ache inside him that he was powerless to stop. Malfoy’s words kept replaying in his mind, churning in his gut. He wanted to hit something. It seemed he failed no matter who he tried to protect.
“Touch a nerve, did I, Potter?” Malfoy drawled. The distance between them giving him back some of his swagger.
Harry didn’t feel he had enough control of his temper to respond, but he didn’t have to as Ron jumped in for him.
“Of course you touched a nerve,” he said scathingly. “See, Malfoy, when you love someone, you get upset over them being hurt. A concept I know you have trouble with since you’ve never actually cared about anyone but yourself, and because you’re usually the one doing the hurting.”
An image of Ron’s desperation while Hermione screamed at Malfoy Manor flashed across Harry’s mind, and he braced himself in case Ron would need him to intervene this time.
Even in the dim moonlight, Harry could see colour suffuse Draco’s pale cheeks. “You don’t know a damn thing about me, Weasley. You harp on and on about protecting each other. You’re not the only ones in the bloody war who had people they wanted to protect,” he snarled heatedly.
“Right,” Ron said, scoffing. “You were all about protecting others. How could I have missed that?”
Draco’s lip curled in derision. “I never claimed to have Potter’s ridiculous nobility, but if you’re suggesting I didn’t to everything in my power to protect my own family—”
“And it didn’t matter if everyone else perished along the way, right, Malfoy?” Ron asked bitterly. “I didn’t save my family by torturing anyone else.”
“I wasn’t the one who tortured her,” Draco said hotly.
“No, you just stood by and watched while the family you were trying to protect did it. You might have got away with it, but I’ll never forget,” Ron said bitterly.
“I’ll never be able to forget either,” Draco said, unconsciously rubbing his forearm as they walked.
“Are you using that Dark Mark as a symbol to remind you of your mistakes during the war?” Harry asked astutely. “Is that why you haven’t had it removed?”
Draco scoffed. “Your Muggle upbringing is showing, Potter,” he said derisively. “The Dark Mark isn’t a tattoo that can be removed. It’s faded to a red prickle now, but it’s there if you know where to look. It will never be gone — it’s permanent magic. I know because many have tried to rid themselves of it. Even if you cut off the skin, it still comes back.”
Harry squirmed uncomfortably at the idea of cutting off his own skin. His mind flashed on Wormtail slicing off his own hand in the graveyard in Little Hangleton. These Death Eaters were mad.
“I’ve heard it’s been rough for the families of your lot since the Battle,” Harry said, still uncertain how much sympathy to feel. While the families hadn’t done anything against the law, a lot of them had still supported Voldemort’s actions. There was a distinct difference between forgiving and forgetting.
“If you’re looking for sympathy, look elsewhere,” Ron said, apparently not struggling with the dilemma at all. Harry thought it would take a long time for Ron to be capable of moving past what had happened to Hermione at Malfoy Manor — never mind the fact it was down to Malfoy that Ron had been poisoned in sixth year.
“I didn’t expect you to understand, Weasley,” Draco said coolly.
“You had your chance at redemption during the Battle, Malfoy. Even then you decided one last time to side with Voldemort, and you still tried to hand Harry over. You chose the easy route, so don’t go looking for sympathy now,” Ron said, his expression resolute.
“Look,” Harry said, sighing. He was weary of the entire conversation. “We’ve all made decisions we regret after the fact. If we’re going to rebuild a better place now that the war is over, we’ve all got to let go.”
He glanced sideways at Ron, meeting his eyes. Even in the darkness, Harry could see Ron shift his gaze, no doubt remembering a night he stormed from their tent in anger. For his part, Harry would give anything to rethink a rash decision to storm the Ministry on a so-called rescue mission. “The past can’t be undone,” he said, suddenly exhausted, “no matter how much we wish we could.”
All three were quiet for several moments. The only sound disturbing the night air was the crunching of the newly fallen snow beneath their feet. Harry could see the dim outline of the gates now, they were nearly there. Clearly, the conversation was playing in all their heads. They were all living with the legacies their parents left them, but now the future was wide open, and Harry couldn’t help but wonder which direction they would go from here.
At least the conversation had distracted him from the cold. He was certain Ginny would already be snuggled in her warm four-poster. He desperately wanted to talk to her about what Malfoy had said. She’d told him his plan had worked, but she’d conveniently left out some significant details.
“Any leads on who murdered Agnes Heatherton?” Draco asked suddenly, clearly changing the subject. There hadn’t been many leads on the murdered witch in Knockturn Alley.
“How did you know about that?” he asked.
Draco shrugged. “My family has known her for years. She ran that shop with her brother, although it’s been just her recently. He’s a bit of a tosser, but Agnes was all right.”
“D’you know where we can find her brother?” Harry asked. As of yet, the Ministry had been unable to track him down.
“Haven’t seen him in years. He generally made himself scarce when there was work to be done. He and Agnes didn’t get on, but not enough for him to kill her,” Draco replied indifferently.
“Were her difficulties with her brother common knowledge?” Harry asked.
“Of course, amongst a select group, anyway,” Draco said, the haughtiness finally having returned to his voice.
They’d reached the gates at last, and Ron pushed them open, allowing Harry and Draco through before closing them once again.
“It’s been… an interesting evening,” Draco said, eyeing them coolly. He pulled a pristine crystal decanter top from his pocket and closed his gloved fingers around it, vanishing without another word.
The use of a Portkey startled Harry for a moment, but of course, Draco wasn’t allowed a wand during his probationary period. He wondered if the Slytherin had walked to the Apparition point so no one inside the castle would realize this. As Aurors, he and Ron were already aware.
“Git,” Ron said. “I’ll see you at home.”
Perhaps hoping people were ready to move on was too much to ask this quickly. Harry had so many thoughts running through his head, he wasn’t certain which to concentrate on first. Despite this, he knew once he was home, his exhaustion would win the battle. He was knackered.
Harry was awoken from a deep sleep by the sound of Teddy crying. Terrified, agonized wails that caused Harry’s heart to pound uncomfortably. He leapt from his bed and scrambled for the door, his feet getting tangled in his sheets, tripping him up. He pulled his bedroom door open and found himself in an impossibly long, black corridor at the Department of Mysteries. Teddy’s door was all the way at the end. The faster he tried to run toward it, the longer the corridor stretched, and the louder Teddy shrieked.
It took an age for him to reach Teddy’s door, and when at last he did, the wall that held it spun, revealing several more doors. Harry couldn’t decipher which one was Teddy’s. His lungs ached as he took deep, icy breaths, the sound rattling in the black corridor. He madly kept flinging doors open, but he couldn’t find his crying godson. His panic increased every time he wrenched open the wrong door.
The first one led to a vault at Gringotts, and Harry’s hand burned when he touched the doorknob. The next one appeared empty, and only the sound of a cold, high-pitched laugh emanated from within. Harry shut the door tightly, shuddering.
As he flung open the next one, a scabbed, scaly hand reached from within, grasping the collar of his pyjama jacket. He pulled back, repulsed, and forced the hand back inside, slamming the door shut.
Teddy’s terrified screams forced him to continue. He had to find the baby.
The next door revealed his cupboard, a few broken toy soldiers lay scattered on the small bed. A spider scurried across the pillow. Harry slammed the door.
When at last he found the right room, he flung himself inside, panting. Teddy was standing up in his cot, clutching the rails and wailing while blood oozed from a lightning bolt-shaped cut on his forehead. The blood trickled down his small face, smearing with his terrified tears. Harry reared back in shock, staring around the room in confusion. He caught sight of his own reflection in a mirror hanging on the wall. His eyes glowed back at him — merciless red eyes. Harry looked away in horror, and realized he was the one holding his wand on the screaming baby…
Harry awoke, screaming in terror, his throat raw in the pitch black room. He was drenched in sweat, and his entire body shook as he searched vainly for his wand on his bedside table. He knocked his glasses to the floor as another scream died on his lips, still frantically seeking his wand. Heart racing, he was desperate to dispel the darkness. His bedroom door burst open and light from the hallway flooded into the space around the doorway, revealing a solitary figure.
“Lumos,” Ron said, illuminating the room.
He appeared as only a blurry mass to Harry, whose heart continued to pound as his stomach roiled. He shut his eyes, leaning back against his headboard, trying to master himself. He was unable to stop shaking.
“All right?” Ron asked, sounding rather shaky himself.
Harry nodded, again blindly reaching around on his bedside table. Without his glasses, he couldn’t see anyway, so he didn’t see the point in opening his eyes. Ron must’ve seen his glasses on the floor, because the next thing Harry felt was them being slipped onto his nose.
“Thanks,” he muttered. “Couldn’t find my wand for the light.”
“I was making hot chocolate when I heard you scream. Want some?” Ron asked, his voice still sounding oddly hollow.
Now that he had his glasses, Harry opened his eyes and took a good look at Ron. His friend looked ill and pale, and he was much more subdued than usual. “Why were you up?” he asked, his voice raspy.
“Same reason as you,” Ron said, rubbing his eyes. “Malfoy could give anybody nightmares.”
Harry tried to snort, but it came out more like a whimper. Truly, Malfoy hadn’t featured in Harry’s dreams, but he supposed it was rehashing the war that stirred the memories. He was certain he knew exactly what it was that Ron had dreamed about.
“D’you want me to bring you some chocolate or not? I want mine, so I’m going back,” Ron said, turning toward the door.
Hot chocolate didn’t sound like a bad idea at all. Professor Lupin had always recommended it when he was feeling low.
“I’ll come, too. I need to get out of this room and get some air,” Harry said, swinging his legs off the side of the bed. He had to sit still a moment before he felt strong enough to stand, but he eventually managed it, albeit shakily. Harry was grateful Ron had remained patient and without comment.
The two slowly headed down into the kitchen where Ron already had his supplies out on the counter. His mug was overturned, most likely from when he’d heard Harry’s shout. Harry took another cup from the cupboard while Ron used his wand to boil the cocoa. They prepared their drinks in silence, each still processing the horrors in their own minds. Harry’s hands weren’t quite steady, but the chocolate helped, and he sipped in gratefully.
“It’s been an effin’ long day,” Ron said wearily.
“You sound like Owen,” Harry said, snorting. Despite the humour, it didn’t make Ron’s words untrue. They’d started early that morning — or perhaps it was yesterday morning now — riding over the Forest of Dean.
“At least we have tomorrow off so we can have a lie-in,” Ron said, his countenance lightening.
Harry wasn’t certain he’d be able to get back to sleep at all. The prospect wasn’t at all appealing, anyway. From the look on Ron’s face, he thought his friend might’ve just made the same realization.
“It was good to see Hermione and Ginny. I think they enjoyed the party,” Harry said, remembering the shocked look on Ginny’s face when he’d surprised her in the common room. She’d looked fantastic in her green dress.
“Yeah, I think so, too. Hermione said it was more fun than the first one,” Ron said, his expression telling Harry that he was most likely remembering Hermione’s dress, too.
“Yeah, well, she spent the first one ducking McLaggen, so I’m not surprised,” Harry said, chuckling. “She’ll be here for Christmas, yeah?” Ginny had told him that both girls were taking the train, although Hermione was coming to Grimmauld Place while Ginny was going to The Burrow.
Ron nodded. “She’ll be here, but she’s leaving Christmas night to visit with her parents. She said she’d try and be back in time for our New Year’s Eve party, though.”
“I talked to Fleur about that the other day. She’s helping me make arrangements, so I think it might be fancier than we’d anticipated,” Harry said, grimacing.
“Did she tell you their news?” Ron asked.
Harry shook his head. “What news?”
“Apparently, my brother knocked her up,” Ron replied. “We’re going to be uncles.”
Harry shook his head, noting the plurality of Ron’s statement with pleasure. “She didn’t say anything.”
Ron shrugged. “George told me, but he reckons they want to make some big announcement at Christmas.”
“So, naturally you’re sharing it with me, anyway,” Harry said wryly.
Ron waved his hand in the air dismissively. “Everyone knows. We can all just pretend to be surprised for Bill and Fleur.”
Harry would never understand the inner workings of Ron’s family. He was immensely pleased to be considered one of them, however.
A/N: Sometimes while writing, a character completely takes over and the scene sort of writes itself. It happened with Draco Malfoy in this one. I recently joined a Facebook group called Home Away From Hogwarts. I like the group, even though I don’t really fit in. They’re all very fond of Malfoy, and I’m just not. Anyway, someone I met there helped me to make sure I had Malfoy right, so thanks very much to Miss Bonnie Devine for looking over the characterization for me.