Ginny Weasley/Harry Potter
Harry Potter
The Harry Potter at Hogwarts Years
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire
Published: 09/18/2001
Updated: 03/30/2002
Words: 425,244
Chapters: 21
Hits: 583,257

Harry Potter and the Time of Good Intentions


Story Summary:
During his fifth year, Trelawney did a Tarot reading for Harry. She told him he would have to make a choice that could "change the world as we know it." At the beginning of his sixth year, Harry chooses, and the world does change. Does it change for the better? If he wants, can Harry change it back? Or is giving Harry exactly what he wants Voldemort's ultimate revenge? The sequel to
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Chapter 11 - Down at the Quidditch Pitch

Chapter Summary:
During his fifth year, Trelawney did a Tarot reading for Harry. She told him he would have to make a choice that could "change the world as we know it." At the beginning of his sixth year, Harry chooses, and the world does change. Does it change for the better? If he wants, can Harry change it back? Or is giving Harry exactly what he wants Voldemort's ultimate revenge?

Harry Potter and the Time of Good Intentions

(or: The Last Temptation of Harry Potter)

Chapter Eleven

Down At The Quidditch Pitch

Harry looked in disbelief at the water, the ripples emanating out from where Ginny had been a moment ago. He knew he hadn't a moment to spare; his mind worked quickly. He knew exactly what he needed. He pictured the items he wanted very clearly, and especially their locations; then he raised his wand and shouted, "Accio!"

While he waited, hours seemed to pass, although he knew realistically that it was probably less than a minute; he counted to himself under his breath, and he hadn't reached "fifty" when he saw the item that would have been nearer hurtling toward him from the castle. Luckily, it was flying with the handle facing him; he put up his hand and deftly snatched the carving knife out of the air. He had pictured it very clearly in its rack in the kitchens; he hadn't taken much notice of the equipment the house-elves used when he'd passed through there on his way to the root cellars for the Dark Arts lesson on boggarts, but somehow he'd managed to remember the carving knives near the great stone sinks....

He hefted the knife in his hand, wishing it had some sort of thong on it so he could wrap it around his wrist. He looked up at the castle; the other item wasn't coming yet. He hoped no one had moved it....

Bending down, he took off his shoes, took out one of his shoelaces and put it through a hole at the bottom of the knife handle, and tied the shoelace around his wrist. Using the lace for the other shoe, he tied both shoes to his belt. He stuffed his socks in his pockets. Standing barefoot on the banks of the lake, he started to shiver, wondering whether the other necessary thing would ever arrive.

Finally, he saw it, and put up his hand to grab it from the air. It squished into his palm and he almost put it in his mouth before he remembered to raise his wand and say, "Lumos!" He wouldn't be able utter incantations after eating the Gillyweed. Then he remembered to keep out about one-third of it, and he shoved this into the pocket without the socks before putting the rest into his mouth.

It was as repulsive and slimy as he remembered, but he was grateful that he knew his mother had a supply of it in her office. As he chewed, he wondered whether she was there now, whether she would be curious about the Gillyweed flying out of its jar and down the corridors of the dungeons. He hoped she was; he no longer cared whether she and Sirius were together, what he desperately wanted was an adult to come help him, to know what was happening. As he chewed, he grew colder; the unseasonable warmth was long gone, the temperature had to have dropped forty degrees, and the heavy clouds that had been hovering low in the sky all day opened, dropping snow thickly on the castle, the grounds, the lake, and on Harry. It was coming down very fast, the wind was blowing faster still, and still he was chewing.

When he finally swallowed the Gillyweed, it was with a great effort, and still nothing had happened. Finally he felt it; the sensation of his lungs being squashed, of not being able to breathe, and he knew that if he felt the sides of his neck, he would find gills there; he glanced down and saw the webbing between his toes. Grasping his lit wand in his right hand and the carving knife in his left, he dove into the dark lake.

Under the water, it felt warmer, but he couldn't see very well as his wandlight didn't reach very far. The last time he'd been in the lake, there had been some daylight above to help light his way, until he'd gone so deep that the sunlight couldn't penetrate. This time he had nothing but the feeble wandlight, and no guarantee that Ginny would be all right, that Dumbledore wasn't going to let anything happen to her. And it was a huge lake; she could be anywhere. He'd had to wait several minutes before he was able to dive in....

He kept swimming forward, looking for any sign of movement. But all he saw was the underwater vegetation swaying gently, waving at him benignly. Then, something familiar; he wasn't sure how long he'd been swimming when he felt the Grindylows grab his ankles. Harry wasn't going to stand for this; he slashed at them with the knife, missing them, but they fell back, and he continued to swim forward, the weed growing from the lake bottom turning blacker and slimier, long tendrils curling up toward the surface.

At length, he came to the mervillage he remembered, and saw that in the middle of the open space that seemed like a town square, the creature that had taken Ginny had captured some mermaids and mermen as well. The entire population of merpeople seemed to be trying to fight it with tridents, sharpened sticks, and other weapons, but they dared not get too close. The creature looked like it might get away with its attack. Ginny's head was flopping on her neck in an alarming way.

He didn't know what the thing was; perhaps someone had recently put a very small version of it or an egg into the lake, and it had quickly grown into this monster. It was something like a cross between a kelpie, a squid and a basilisk, he thought, but it had long, strong tentacles that a kelpie never had, which grasped Ginny and three mermaids and two mermen. All six of its extremities thus busy, Harry knew it had nothing left to fight him but its mouth.

But what a mouth! The fangs were what reminded him of the basilisk, and he avoided them, fearing venom. He took a page from Fawkes' book and aimed for its eyes with the carving knife, while some mermen tried to distract it with their tridents. It worked, and when he was successful with one of the eyes, it started howling, the sound echoing eerily in the underwater environment. The mermen had seen what he'd done, and now they attacked the other eye, and the howling increased in pitch and volume, but the tentacles were curled around its victims as firmly as ever.

Harry kicked down through the water and hacked away at the nearest tentacle, not even bothering to see whether it was the one holding Ginny. A thin, silvery blood began to leak from the wound. Harry avoided the shining globules escaping from its body, as though it had mercury for blood. The monster started to collapse; Harry saw it release a young mermaid with greenish skin, her seaweed-like hair pulled into plaits like a human child's. A merman snatched her out of harm's way, nodding at Harry with appreciation, and Harry wondered whether he was her father.

Now that the creature was blinded and disoriented, the merpeople were attacking its tentacles one by one, freeing their people. Harry worked with an older plump mermaid to wound the tentacle holding Ginny, and finally, it relaxed its grip on her. Harry withdrew the rest of the Gillyweed from his pocket and forced it between her lips, moving her jaw for her, stroking her throat so she would swallow. He could feel her pulse still, in her throat, and took some hope from that. At length, he saw the gills sprout on her neck, and finally, she opened her eyes in amazement, but whether she was most amazed to be alive, to see Harry, or to be breathing underwater, he had no way of asking her. She threw her arms around him, and he held her tightly. They started to swim away, Ginny holding onto his right arm, which still held his lit wand, but the merpeople stopped them.

They gestured to the vanquished creature; Harry turned to see it lying in a heap on the floor of the lake, gashes on all of its tentacles, its eyes a destroyed mess. Harry turned back to the merman who seemed to be in charge. The merman bowed deeply to him, and Harry returned this sign of respect. A mermaid swam up with something in a string bag that seemed to be made of green waterweed and the ruler of the merpeople handed this to him. It was slightly heavy to Harry, and he bowed his thanks. He would have to wait until he was back on land to find out what the gift was.

He had dreaded passing the Grindylows again on the way back, but he needn't have worried; the merpeople gave them an honor guard. They waved goodbye to Harry and Ginny, who stood on the lake bottom, their heads just below the surface while they waited for the Gillyweed to wear off so they could breathe air again.

It happened for Ginny first; he must have given her much less that he'd thought, or the trip back had taken less time (he guessed it was the latter). She started to gasp, but Harry pushed her up out of the water onto the bank, throwing up the bag with the gift from the merpeople.

At last, he began to feel lightheaded, so he put his face above the water to try breathing some air. He was able to do so, but what he saw in the world above the lake shocked and dismayed him.

Not only was the warm weather really thoroughly gone by now, in its place was a blizzard of epic proportions. How long were we underwater? he wondered. When he'd pushed Ginny out of the lake, it was onto a bank covered in snow, and she lay there, soaking wet, quickly being covered in snow herself, her lips turning blue. He hauled himself out of the lake, amazed that he could even see Ginny. The snow was so thick and whirling that he couldn't see the castle, and he wasn't even completely certain that they were where they'd been when Ginny had been pulled into the lake by the creature.

He was shivering uncontrollably, standing barefoot in the whirling snow, and trying to keep the carving knife hanging from his wrist from cutting his leg. He took the knife off and threw it in the lake, then picked Ginny up in his arms and started staggering toward what he thought might be the castle. The whirling snow buffeted them, the winds filled his ears, and he found himself having to squint to avoid snow actually scouring his eyes, in spite of his glasses (which kept fogging up). He had no idea how long he'd been doing this, or whether he was going in circles, when his shoulder hit something very hard. He put Ginny down momentarily and felt it with both hands; it was a building of some sort, stone. Perhaps they had made it back to the castle! He picked her up again and, leaning against the wall, backing himself around the structure, he began searching for a door.

He finally banged into the doorknob, but when he tried to turn it, his hand couldn't get a grip. He pulled out his wand, crying "Alohomora!" with a hoarse, shaking voice. The door opened a crack, but it was enough. He put his shoulder to it and pushed it open wider, then picked up Ginny and carried her inside. He put her down on the floor so he could return to the door to close it. It wasn't easy; in the minute he had needed to carry her inside, enough snow had built up in the doorway that it was blocking the door from closing completely. He angrily kicked the snow out of the way and then slammed the door. He didn't bother with his wand because he was alarmed by the anemic response the door had given to his Unlocking Charm; when he'd discovered his mother and Sirius and had merely thought about that charm, and wasn't even using his wand, the door had been flung against the wall and cracked down the middle.

He looked down at himself, and at Ginny. They had both gone from being immersed in the lake to walking in a blizzard. As far as he knew, it wasn't advisable to wear soaking-wet clothes to do this. It isn't advisable to become a Death Eater, either, he thought ruefully. He knew that that creature being in the lake had to have something to do with Voldemort. Well, whatever it was, it was dead now.

The important thing was to make sure Ginny was going to be all right. She lay on the floor in a puddle, her wet hair splayed around her head, her skin frighteningly pale. He looked around, feeling a little less disoriented, and realized that they had entered the Quidditch changing rooms. They were in the anteroom now, which led to separate spaces for male and female players to change and shower, and further down the corridor, separate common areas for two teams to have pre-game discussions or strategizing sessions.

They were stuck, he realized. We should have gone the other way; if we'd reached Hagrid's old cabin, we could have gone up to the castle using the school Floo network....Damn! But then he thought of the showers, and hot water...that would help. That would help immensely.

"Ginny! Ginny wake up! You have to go to the girls' showers; get out of those wet things and get under some hot water. Ginny! Ginny!" He crouched next to her and tapped her cheeks lightly with his fingers, then he actually gave her a light slap to try to bring her round. Her head lolled back and forth, her lips still blue. Her eyelids fluttered slightly.

"Harry?" she said weakly. "Where--? So cold, so cold--"

His heart was in his throat. "I know, Ginny. But we're in the Quidditch changing rooms, see? We'll be all right; there are warm, dry towels and hot showers. But you have to get up; you have to go take a shower. You have ice in your clothes. Ginny, don't go away again!"

Her eyes closed once more and her head fell back to the floor. He slapped her face some more, not at all gently, but it did no good. His teeth clacking uncontrollably, he carried her instead into the boys' showers. After putting her down carefully on the white tile floor, he found some towels and stepped behind a partition to take off his wet things, shaking uncontrollably the entire time, although he felt that it was a huge improvement just to be out of the sodden ice-laced clothes. He wrapped the towel around his waist and returned to Ginny. He had no prurient thoughts about this, no illusions that this was for any other purpose than to save her life. Working quickly and methodically to remove her clothes, he wrapped a large towel around her when he was done and tried to get her to return to alertness again.

"Ginny! You're out of your wet clothes now. You need to get under some hot water. Can you walk to the girls' showers? Please Ginny, say something--"

She opened her eyes a little and he didn't want to show how alarmed he was by the vacant expression he saw there.

"Harry," she said feebly, trying to lift her arm and only succeeding for a split second. "You need to help me."

He swallowed. "Ginny, I don't think--"

"Please." She seemed to use her last ounce of strength to say this, her eyes closing again. I can do this, he thought, I can do this without thinking about, er, things I shouldn't think about....

He went to the furthest shower head and turned on the hot water full blast. Except that nothing came out of the shower head, neither hot nor cold water. He tried the next one, and the next. None of the shower heads worked. He decided that the pipes must be frozen, and he starting to pound on the tile wall with his fist, repeating, "Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger...."

"Language, Potter," he heard a soft amused voice from the corner; Ginny's eyes were open again. "What's wrong?" she whispered.

He tried not to panic her. "I guess the pipes are frozen. There's no water right now."

"Oh." She sounded so forlorn! he thought. He met her gaze, worried about her dreadful skin tone and blue lips. "Your lips are blue," she informed him softly. He forced himself to smile.

"Yours, too."

"What about--" she trailed off.


"The team rooms. There are couches in there. If we can't get hot water, we can at least be off the floor."

He nodded and started to help her stand. "Can you make it?"

She nodded and took a step, but her legs buckled under her, and he didn't wait for her to hit the floor painfully; he scooped her up in his arms and started staggering with her to one of the team rooms. He felt so weak he was afraid he would faint and take her down with him.

Hanging around the perimeter of the room were the banners for the four houses. He took her to a battered old leather couch under the Gryffindor banner and help her to lie down. "Are there more towels?" she asked, and he nodded, staggering back to the showers to get some. Unfortunately, there were only two left in the boys' showers. Searching the girls' showers only brought three more, but it was better than nothing. He also brought his wand.

"I have some towels," he whispered to her; he seemed to have no strength left to speak in a normal voice. "I'm going to heat them with my wand."

He draped two towels on top of her and aimed his wand at them, shivering, since he was only wearing a towel from his waist to his knees. "Calefacero," he croaked. Ginny looked back at him listlessly, then shrugged, still in her prone position. He touched the towels; they felt as cold as ever. He pointed his wand at the pile of towels on the floor. In a fit of frustration, he said, "Incendio!"

"No, Harry! Don't set them on fire! We need them!" It was the most energetic Harry had seen her since they'd been out of the lake. But then they both really looked at the towels which should have gone up in flames; a small wisp of smoke emanated from the pile, then floated whitely up to the ceiling and evaporated. Harry stared at his wand.

"I--I guess I have no focus right now. Nothing's working..." He swallowed; he felt helpless and alone, even with Ginny here. He looked down at his thin torso, not really much changed from September; his skin looked ghastly, and when he looked at his toes (he had been walking in the blizzard in his bare feet), he saw that they looked even worse. Ginny looked at him with concern.

"Harry," she said slowly, "take the banners down."

"What?" Why didn't she want the banners to be up anymore?

"We need as much coverage as possible. They're cloth."

He understood now, and ran around the room, yanking them down from the walls, including the Gryffindor banner above the couch where Ginny was. They were all woven of quite heavy woolen thread and would make excellent blankets. He spread one of them over one of the other couches, then ran to the other team room and came back with the banners that had been hanging there, as well.

"I'll take these, you take those and the towels..."

She raised her eyebrows at him. "It would be much more practical if we shared all of the coverings, rather than dividing them up. Especially since we don't know how long this storm is going to last." Their eyes went to the clerestory windows above where the Gryffindor banner had hung; nothing was visible except whirling white snow.

He swallowed and nodded; he picked her up and carried her to the other couch, with the banner on it, and then turned to get the other towels. When he turned back to her, she had removed the towel that had been wrapped around her, which she had draped over herself like a blanket instead. He tried not to think about this as he placed more towels on top of her, and then piled the seven remaining house banners on top. Finally, he looked at her; her eyes seemed to be very bright, and her hair was drying. Her skin and lips still looked slightly bluish, but she smiled at him.

"Take off the towel, Harry."

He nodded again, removing it quickly and climbing under the pile of towels and banners with her, feeling her clammy skin against his. She was probably right; it would be best to share the coverings and try to send their body heat into each other. But, he thought with a barely suppressed groan, in another way, this was going to be pure torture....

After some awkward maneuvering, they found a comfortable position; Harry lay prone, and Ginny, wedged between him and the back of the couch, lay on him half-way, one arm and one leg thrown across him. Her limbs still felt quite cold to him, but where her chest was pressed against his, there was a definite warmth. He wrapped his arms around her back, putting his cheek against her hair. Pulling the towels and banners up over them more securely, he began to feel some blood moving in his own body again (although he was worried about his toes).

I can do this, he thought. I can just hold her and we'll keep each other warm and wait out the storm and that's all that will happen.

But that was before he felt her lips on his neck and her hand stroking his arm, moving in lazy circles. And her knee...her knee was awfully close to....

"Um, Ginny?" he whispered to her.

"Mmm?" she muttered lazily, still moving her hand and mouth.

"Why--why don't we try to get some sleep?"

She stopped now and looked up at him. Her freckles stood out very clearly on the bridge of her nose, making her look very young. He tried to focus on that, instead of looking down at her body....

"All right," she said softly, obligingly, as though she hadn't been doing anything that implied they might do something else. She kissed him lightly, then put her head down again, this time snuggling into his chest in a manner that was more suggestive of preparing to sleep.

In a little while he heard her slow, regular breathing, and when he looked down at her pale eyelashes on her paler cheeks, they were fluttering slightly; she had moved swiftly into a dream state. She must have been very tired, he thought. Her nose whistled and he resisted the urge to laugh; it would probably wake her. Instead, he watched her sleep for a while, rather getting to like the whistle from her nose, until the feeling of her breath moving the light, downy hairs on his chest began to make him think the very thoughts he'd been trying to avoid in the boys' showers. Get control of yourself, Potter, he thought. This isn't the time. He only hoped she wouldn't notice the rather obvious physical manifestation of his thoughts....Good thing she seems to be a sound sleeper.

He closed his eyes at last and tried to drift off, but his dreams were not restful ones. He saw the heir's body again, but this time he was looking right at Harry, even with the gaping hole in his chest, asking how he could have let this happen....He was in the lake again, fighting the kelpie-squid-basilisk, but every time he cut through a tentacle, three sprouted in its place....Then he was in the infirmary, pulling the curtain from around a bed where a body lay, the sheet pulled up over the head. He cautiously reached out and pulled the sheet back, over and over again, each time seeing a different person: the heir, his twin brothers, his sister, his mother, his stepfather, once he even saw Hagrid.

And then he saw Ginny.

He awoke with a start, his heart thumping crazily, his breath catching in his chest. He looked down at the top of her head, amazed to see her, convinced that the dream was real and this was the dream. He caressed her back; the skin was smooth and dry now, instead of clammy, which encouraged him. Perhaps everything would be all right. Of course, they still had to find out who had put that thing in the lake, but they weren't going to freeze to death. They'd probably be a bit hungry, but even though the pipes were frozen, they could always drink melted snow, so they wouldn't dehydrate. In the morning, we can go back to the castle. I'll talk to my dad and Dumbledore about the creature in the lake; they'll understand....

He was getting distracted again; Ginny had moved in her sleep, brushing her left hand over his nipple in a way that was stimulating him unbearably. He sucked in breath between his teeth; oh Ginny, you're killing me....

And then he opened his eyes and looked straight into hers; she had also woken up and was gazing at him with an unmistakable expression on her face that made it difficult for him to remember to breathe. He had no idea how long they'd slept. She put her left arm on his other side and raised herself over him, brought her face closer so that it was hovering not an inch from his. He moved his eyes down for a split second; her body was above his now, rather than being pressed against it, and he could see her quite clearly. He moved his eyes up to hers again, unable or unwilling, he didn't know which, to resist any longer. Framing her face with his hands, he pulled her mouth down to his, feeling her cold lips begin to warm, opening his mouth and hearing her inarticulate whimper of delight.

They kissed languidly while Harry caressed her back lightly, feeling her shiver under his touch; he moved his hands down to her waist, amazed by how thin she was. Had she been eating properly? He felt like he could count her ribs if he tried....

But then that thought subsided as she gently ended the kiss and softly moved her lips down his jaw to his throat. He brushed his fingers down her thighs under the towels and banners; her flesh there still felt cold, but it was at least dry. He traced the outside of her legs with his fingers while she moved her lips down his chest; he felt a tide rising in him that he fought against, but then she moved her body further down, and further--

"Aaah!" he cried out when she had reached him; she looked up at him, keeping eye contact with him the whole time while she thoroughly engulfed him. After that he had to squeeze his eyes shut. "Ginny," he whispered, "are you sure about this--?" His breathing was raspy; he could barely get the question out. In answer, she lowered her hips even more firmly, making him gasp. He opened his eyes, feeling sweat break out on his brow, and saw that above the well-known dark eyes burning with passion, beads of sweat had formed on her brow as well. She didn't speak, looking very serious now as she moved, every raising and lowering bringing Harry to a new level of sensation; it didn't hurt that he was able to see her very clearly this way, which was rather stimulating in and of itself....

He pulled her mouth down to his, then released her lips and nipped at her neck, making her moan, even as she continued to move. He helped her now, holding her hips, feeling her sharp bones so distinctly under his hands. It wasn't long before he was convulsing beneath her, his mouth against her neck muffling his cry.

When the zenith had passed, he released her neck and she collapsed on him. Her warmth still surrounded him, and he stroked her back slowly. But when she lifted her eyes to him...the disappointment he saw there made him feel that someone had reached into his chest and wrenched his heart out of its place. He caught his breath. "Ginny," he said softly. "Did you--"

"I'm fine," she said quickly, the quaver in her voice giving evidence to the contrary.

"Because I can, um, do some things to--"

"I'm fine," she said again, more firmly, and now Harry heard tears in her voice. He cupped her cheek in his hand. He felt like crying himself, when only a minute earlier he had been flying far above Hogwarts castle...

"I've heard--I've heard it's not usually, um, you know, the first time--"

"Don't worry about me. Are you all right?"

"All right? I'm--Ginny you were--I'm speechless--"

She shifted a little so that their bodies were no longer connected and moved into her previous position, one arm and one leg thrown over him. Harry couldn't get over how sad she looked. It wasn't supposed to be like this! he thought. He wished he hadn't let her do that; he couldn't bear the way she looked now. He should have had more control....

"Anyway," she said, trying to sound light, "it's like you said. First time. I've always heard the first time is supposed to be a sort of, um, practice run..."

His voice caught. "Well, yes, to a certain extent. But I--I--" He traced her face with his fingers. "I love you so much, Ginny, and I just wanted--I mean, I want--"

She smiled at him. "And I love you, Harry," she said, as thought it were ridiculous that this even needed to be said. "I'm fine, honestly. That was very--nice--"

He didn't like the shadow he still saw behind her eyes. "But Ginny, it's supposed to be more than nice--"

"Harry, stop it. I--I just thought--well, I've heard of people who are snowbound staying warm this way, and I thought--"

His heart dropped into his stomach. "Oh."

She saw the expression on his face and immediately looked remorseful. "Harry! I didn't mean--oh, that just came out all wrong..."

He kissed the tip of her nose. "Well, I definitely feel warmer..." He sighed; nothing ever seemed to go as he wanted it to in this world. She wrapped her arms around him and pillowed her head on his chest again; she was still lying on top of him, and he couldn't tell whether the sweat between them had come from his body or hers, but surely it was a good sign if either of them was sweating?

The storm still raged outside; they could hear the snow scouring the windows, and Harry shivered again from the thought of what it must be like out there.

"We should probably just get some more sleep right now, Harry. That storm isn't letting up any time soon."

He smoothed her hair down her back affectionately. "Yes. You're right, of course."

She laughed into his chest and then gave the skin there a smacking kiss. "There!" You already know how to be the perfect boyfriend. Just keep repeating that as much as possible when we're together and you'll be fine..."

Now he was the one laughing. "Oh, I see. I'm to be hen-pecked, is it?"

She laughed again, softer now, and moved her lips lightly over his skin in a way that sent an electric current down to his very toes. "Ginny-pecked. It's much nicer, I think. Hens are nasty creatures." He held her more tightly, laughing once more; they lay still and quiet for some time, and after a while he was remotely aware of her nose whistling again, which made him smile, as the wind whistled outdoors, accompanying her, and he let himself stop worrying for once and accepted the gift of sleep when it came.

* * * * *

Harry's eyes flew open in alarm. "Ginny!" he said urgently, shaking her shoulders to wake her.

"Wha--?" she started to say groggily, but he wouldn't let her speak.

"Ginny, have you been to see Madam Pomfrey? For Prophylaxis Potion?"

"Have I--is that why you're waking me up?"

"I just had this dream--and I just realized--oh, Ginny we really shouldn't have done that..."

She yawned hugely and put her head back down on his chest. "Don't worry, Harry. As soon as we get back I'll go to Madam Pomfrey. Ta--"

"Ginny, don't do that! I want you to swear you'll go see her--"

She lifted her head again, starting to look very annoyed indeed. "Harry, I'm tired..."

"Swear it."

She rolled her eyes and put her head down. "I swear it. Now can I sleep?"

He leaned back and closed his eyes again, hoping the dream wouldn't return. "Yes, now you can--"

"What's that noise?" she said abruptly, lifting her head again. She cocked her head to one side, with a look of intent listening on her face. Now Harry heard it too, and he closed his eyes, trying to think what it might be....

"The showers," he said. "When I turned on the showers to check for hot water, I must have left them on. The pipes aren't frozen anymore!"

She looked up at the clerestory windows. "Not only have the pipes warmed up, the storm is over and it's almost morning," she said, nodding at the windows; they could see a pale pink sky through the middle of the window, and the early light was making the rainbow of stained glass around the border glow like jewels.

He looked down at her; they'd never woken up together before. "Good morning, love," he murmured, lifting her chin with his finger. He'd only meant to give her a peck, but she opened her mouth, and he melted, softening into the kiss, feeling a warmth spreading down to his--

"Ginny!" he cried. He leapt out from under the layers of towels and banners; her hand had been surprisingly cold. Her eyes followed him appreciatively.

"Well," she said, "now that we've had our 'practice run,' perhaps we can--"

"No, Ginny! We--we can't. Not until you've seen Pomfrey. We can't--"

"Do you always look like that in the morning?" Her sly look was frankly lascivious; Harry glanced down, then reddened.

"That's--that's quite normal." He looked at her face again. "Stop that! Just hand me a bloody towel so I can turn off the showers before all the hot water is gone!"

Giggling, she handed him a towel, and he wrapped it around his waist, striding down the corridor to the boys' showers. He slipped in between the sprays of water, turning off each one he'd left on, then returning to the doorway of the showers so he could call to Ginny.

"I'm going to take a shower. Why don't you do the same?" He didn't hear a response; he went to the far shower and turned the water on again; he almost didn't want to add any cold to the hot, to temper it, but he decided that being scalded on top of almost freezing wasn't the best idea.

The water was pounding in his ears, so he was surprised when he turned and saw her under a spray of water at the far end, standing and letting the warm water flow over her...

He turned away, having trouble getting his breath once he had seen her like that. He grabbed some soap, putting his back to her so she wouldn't be able to make fun of him again. "You were supposed to use the girls' showers!" he said shakily, above the noise of the water.

"We don't know that the pipes over there are all right."

"You didn't even try," he said, a little irritably. She laughed and he glanced at her over his shoulder; she had tipped her head back and had her eyes closed as the water cascaded down her body....

He turned away from her again; this was not a good idea, he thought. No at all. He would have liked to spend more time under the warm spray, but he didn't want to stand showering in plain sight of Ginny any longer than absolutely necessary. He turned it off and wrapped the towel around himself, then left, averting his eyes from her as he passed. He had to be strong; he hadn't been earlier, when she'd maneuvered herself so that their bodies had joined....He hadn't the heart to push her away. He wanted this as much as her, and on top of that, he'd been celibate (despite Draco's and Mariah's best efforts) for all of this life, and for the last couple of months he spent in his other life. He was a normal, red-blooded teenage boy, and no one could possibly blame him for--

It was wrong, said an insistent voice in his head. Oh, fine; where were you earlier? He felt grouchy. Fine time for the old conscience to rear its head; it's all very well and good wagging fingers after the fact....

You were rationalizing.

I know, I know; but then, so was Ginny, talking about hearing about snowbound people keeping warm this way....

He shook his head to clear it, then dried himself off. He took out his wand and tried the warming charm he'd failed to execute the previous evening. This time it worked. He was definitely feeling more like his old self. He dressed in the warmed clothes, sighing as he drew the robes around his shoulders, then settling back on the couch, he spied Ginny's clothes, and performed the charm on those as well. He started to sit down to wait for her return, but then he realized that the last thing he needed was to see her without clothes again, and he crossed the corridor to the other team room, taking one of each of the house banners with him. He could always say he was hanging them up again as an excuse for why he wasn't in this room.

He closed the door to the other team room and tried to remember which wall had displayed which banner; he walked round the room, laying them on the couches, then started using his wand to make them fly up onto the wall again and reattach themselves to the long rods over which they'd been draped. When he was just about to re-hang the Gryffindor banner, he felt a wave of cold sweep through the room and he glanced up at the clerestory windows, wondering whether one was open slightly. The windows looked secure; the draft seemed to come from the direction of the door. Harry turned to see whether Ginny had opened it, but instead he saw that a ghost had entered the room through the door. Harry's jaw dropped and he staggered backward, falling onto the couch with the Gryffindor banner still draped over it.

"Harry? What are you doing?"

He opened his mouth and tried to talk, but nothing came out. He just stared and stared. It can't be. It isn't... his brain kept insisting. It's another trick of Voldemort's.

He drifted close to Harry, bringing more of the cold with him. "Are you all right, Harry?"

Finally, Harry found the power of speech. "Well--well you could say I look like I've seen a ghost," he said softly.

James Potter's ghost threw back his grey transparent head and laughed heartily. "Oh, that's wonderful, Harry. Good one, that...."

"You--you--you're a ghost!"

He looked down at his insubstantial image and back up at Harry. "Well as I'm dead, how else would you be able to talk to me?"

"It's just that--well, do you know about--"

"About you changing time? Yes, Harry."

"But--but you weren't a ghost in my other life, were you? If you were, I never ran into you here at the changing rooms. In fact, I'm surprised I haven't run into you down here before now. I was down here every morning until the weather turned cold."

"I know, Harry. I was avoiding you. I was afraid--well, I was afraid you wouldn't want to listen to what I had to say, and you'd think it was only self-interest...."

"What you had to say?"

"When I said, 'What are you doing?' I meant 'What are you doing getting even more firmly attached to this life instead of getting your arse out of it?'"

Harry bristled. "Now, see here, there's no call--"

"To use language? I beg to differ. It's gone on long enough, Harry."

"Don't you think I think that every day that I wake up and I'm in this life?"

"I somehow doubt that you thought it this morning..."

Harry grimaced. "We--we could have frozen to death, we were really cold, and the showers didn't work--"

His father frowned at him and raised his eyebrows. "I may be dead, Harry, but I'm not stupid. And the showers didn't work because I messed around with them. I was hoping you'd try to get to the castle if there weren't adequate creature comforts here. But at the same time, I didn't dare come near you; I didn't want to make you any colder than you already were. That's why I've waited until you were fully clothed again. I kept taking little peeks, and I finally found you dressed again."

Harry leapt to his feet. "Spying on us! Is that what you were doing?"

The ghost waved his hand. "Oh, don't worry. I didn't see the two of you doing anything...."

"Bloody hell," Harry muttered, pacing and running his hand through his hair. "Did you do that in my old life, too? Or was it both you and mum there?"

His father looked at him placidly. "Oh, I wasn't a ghost in your old life, Harry. Neither was your mother."

Harry stopped and sat down heavily on the couch, worrying the cloth of the Gryffindor banner between his fingers. "You weren't? Why?"

His father gave him a lopsided smile. "Happy people don't become ghosts, Harry. You know that. You've met Myrtle, and Nick."

Harry nodded. "That's true. They both had unfinished business..."

James Potter's ghost smiled. "Your mother and I didn't, not when we died on the same night....I went first. I tried defending myself against Voldemort, but I couldn't. I didn't leave right away; I saw him kill your mother, and then together, we watched him try to kill you. We thought that at least, if he did kill you, we'd be together always as a family....But then the strangest thing happened, and I've never understood why...."

"It was Mum," Harry said softly. "Her love. The way she told him to kill her instead of me....Her sacrifice put a kind of protective charm on me. Dumbledore called it the oldest, deepest magic. That's why the curse rebounded off me and hit him. If he hadn't done whatever strange things he did to make himself nearly immortal, it would have killed him...."

His father nodded. "We saw him leave, and we knew that we could rest in peace; that you would be all right, that everything would be all right. Hagrid came later, using Sirius' motorcycle, and we knew he'd never let anything happen to you. That's when we finally let go, when we released ourselves from this world....Before that, we'd seen Severus come and hold your mother's body...." The ghost gave a great sigh. "I never understood him, not really....I mean, I know why he let your mother go, but I still can't say I'd have done the same...."

"And now he's done it again," Harry said without thinking.

"Oh?" His father sounded surprised.

"Sirius." Harry needed only to say the one word.

"Hmm. Interesting. Although given Sirius and Severus' history, I have to wonder how much of that is because he's always carried a torch for your mother, and how much is because he's disliked Severus from the moment they met in our first year. They began hating each other on the train, if you can believe it..."

From his other life, Harry remembered Malfoy offering his hand in friendship (at the same time he was insulting Ron) on the Hogwarts express and Harry turning him down. "I can believe it," he told him. "But you haven't said why dad--I mean, why he broke up with Mum."

The apparition smiled gently. "That's fine, son. You can call him 'Dad;' you're used to it. He's been a good dad to you; you don't have to not call him that on my account. I've seen you all down here on the Quidditch pitch. It's a pity you didn't train to be a Chaser, but--oh well. Back to what I was saying: I was one of a gang of boys calling ourselves the Marauders..."

"Um, you can stop. I already know a lot of what you might be about to tell me." Harry went on to explain what happened in the Shrieking Shack in his third year in his other life, and going into Snape's Pensieve in his previous year in school and seeing him save Severus Snape from being stuck in the tunnel under the Whomping Willow with a slavering werewolf. And seeing his mother visiting both him and Severus Snape in the hospital wing afterward.

"Then--you and Mum were together. And I didn't find out until I was in this life that he was the one who broke up with her before the two of you got together, not the other way around."

James Potter nodded. "That's right. Oh, Sirius in particular gave him hell for it. Not because he wanted them to still be together. He gave him hell for being so colossally stupid, was how he put it. He said something along the lines of, 'If you think you're every going to get anybody even close to as wonderful as her ever again, you're either the vainest wizard on the planet or the stupidest.' Sirius has always been such a diplomat," he said with dry sarcasm.

Harry grimaced. "That still doesn't explain why he did it."

His father sighed and sat down in mid-air, crossing his legs. "After I saved him--things changed between them. I didn't really get the full gist at the time. I didn't find out, in fact, until we were planning the wedding and she was handing me the envelopes to tie to the owls' legs. When she handed me one with Severus Snape's name on it, you can imagine that I threw a bit of a wobbly."

"Did she explain why she wanted to invite him?"

"Yes, she finally did. Maybe she decided to let her guard down because we were about to join our lives together, or she was feeling particularly happy that day, I don't know. But the way she put it, after I saved his life, she started treating him horribly. I saw a little in the few classes we shared with the Slytherins; more than once, she made jokes at his expense. She told me it was worse than that; she discussed rather, er, intimate things around some of the other Slytherins when they were together, and they ribbed him mercilessly. The pattern continued for a while, until finally he told her that it wasn't working out and he broke up with her.

"The day we were sending out the invitations, she said that if it weren't for him, there wouldn't be any wedding. I'm terrible at admitting I'm wrong, James, you know that. I knew I should break up with him because I wasn't in love with him anymore... She said she'd fallen in love with me and thought about me all the time. But instead of breaking up with him and taking up with me, she lashed out at him with her passive aggressive behavior. All right, it was aggressive, but not so passive. If it weren't for the fact that he had some self-respect, she told me, I'd still be with him, making both of our lives miserable. She said that we should be grateful to him for refusing to be treated as horribly as she was treating him. I reminded her of how she had bawled her eyes out when he'd broken up with her, but she said that was her just her 'stupid ego.' He didn't want her? He was breaking up with her? Of course she was going to bawl."

"So she had kind of broken up with him by treating him horribly, but not really, so he did it the rest of the way?"

"That's right. And when I looked at it that way, I had to agree, and I can truthfully say that there wasn't an invitation I was gladder to be sending. She was probably right; if he hadn't done that, if he didn't have a healthy amount of self-respect--there wouldn't have been any wedding, any us."

"Um, if you don't mind my asking, after hearing why he broke up with her, why did you still want to marry her?"

He smiled. "She never treated me that way, Harry. Nor would she. Whether she knew it or not, she was trying to get him to do just what he did."

"And until I--I changed things, you two were together? Where--where were you?"

"If I told you it was heaven, I'm not sure you'd believe me. I'm not sure myself what it should be called, but since your mother was with me, I'm willing to call it heaven. If she were with me in hell, I'd probably call that heaven, too. When I was alive, I once heard hell defined as being thoroughly and irretrievably separated from God. Well, I was never very religious, which is why I was somewhat surprised by the afterlife...But I can legitimately say that being separated from your mother has been my hell."

"And I did that..." Harry whispered, his stomach lurching.

His father continued, "Last September, I suddenly found myself here, in the Quidditch changing rooms, and what's more, I remembered that I'd always been here, ever since the night I died. I also had a strange new memory of that night; after I died, I saw Voldemort go after you and your mother, just like before; but this time I sensed there were some other people nearby. I wasn't visible yet; ghosts have to learn to do that, you know. Being visible to living beings takes some practice, so I was--invisible, you could say. Which wasn't an altogether unfamiliar sensation; I had this Invisibility Cloak--"

"I know. It's mine now."

"Well, then. You know. At any rate, I couldn't believe what I saw. You were there, looking like you were about sixteen, and I could see a scar on your forehead. I don't know how I knew it was you; somehow, when you're dead, you see something and know much more than when you're alive. It was strange, like looking at myself, but your hair was cut differently....And you were with another Voldemort. I saw you point your wand at your mother, and the next thing I knew, she was promising you to the Voldemort who had killed me, and he put his wand on your head--and after he left, Severus came running into the garden and Lily--she just collapsed. He was comforting her...I couldn't bear to watch. I came here, where I'd felt so at home when I was in school, and I've been here ever since. But I still remember being with your mother's essence, I remember a different death, a different afterlife...I want to be with your mother again, Harry, it's true. But you know that's not the only reason you need to fix things, right?"

He nodded miserably. "Right," he whispered.

"This was never meant to be..." his father said, fading slowly from view. Harry watched him disappear, until he wasn't really sure he'd been there.

"Father!" he cried out, his voice catching and his unshed tears making the room appear blurry. "Come back! Does Dumbledore know? Have you talked to my mother? To Sirius? To my stepfather?"

The door swung open. Ginny stood there, fully clothed again, including her robes and her cloak. "Harry? What's going on? Who were you talking to?"

He stared at her, trembling.

This was never meant to be...

He didn't answer her question. "Just help me hang the banners," he said tersely, standing and gesturing to the one on which he'd been sitting. He strode into the other team room and sent the banners flying up to their hanging rods with economical flourishes of his wand; he felt strong and able again, both physically and magically. He felt filled with purpose; his father had reminded him of what was important. He'd allowed himself to get sidetracked by too many things.

Harry went down the corridor to the outside door, waiting for Ginny. He tentatively opened the door, finding the opening heaped with snow. He blasted it away with his wand, then summoned his broomstick and a broomstick from the school supply. While he waited for the broomsticks, Ginny finally appeared.

"Oh, there you are," she said simply, running to the open doorway where he stood; she stopped abruptly when he turned his face to her and she saw the hard expression in his eyes.

"Hurry up; the broomsticks should be here any minute." His voice was harder than he'd intended and when he glanced at her briefly, she looked--oh, she looked so sad he almost relented, especially after...

"What have I done, Harry? We're still going to tell Charlie and Ron about us, aren't we?"

He took a deep breath and said, "There's nothing to tell."

"What do you mean 'nothing to tell.' I didn't mean we go into detail, for pete's sake, I meant--"

"I know what you meant. There's no 'us' to tell them about. After you were pulled into the lake--I've decided it's too dangerous for us to be together. Dangerous for you. We can't be a couple; I won't have you targeted. It's over, Ginny. If you're to be safe--"

He turned, afraid he would relent upon seeing her tear-streaked face, but he saw instead that she was furious.

"Oh, and you think you're the only one who has any say in all this? You think you can make love to me and then turn around and abandon me?"

"I didn't start that...."

"You certainly finished it!"

"I told you--" but he couldn't go on. It still gave him an ache in his chest to think that she hadn't been as over-the-moon about it as he was--at least, until he realized how it had been for her, and he also came crashing back to earth...

Harry turned away from her, not wanting to look at her while answering, but just at that moment, he saw his broom hurtling toward him. He reached up and grabbed it with one hand, then mounted it. The broom he'd summoned for her arrived a moment later, and she snatched it deftly from the air, glaring at him.

"There's nothing else to discuss, Ginny. It's better this way." He pushed off and flew toward the West Tower. He didn't look for her until he landed on the top of the tower. He saw her fly to the Astronomy Tower instead of where he was, looking like she was wiping tears from her face. She didn't look in his direction, but immediately disappeared through the trap door down into the Astronomy classroom. He turned with a heavy heart and descended the stairs of the West Tower, into the gloomy castle.

* * * * *

He saw her again all too soon, in the hospital wing; he remembered that he'd urged her to go to Madam Pomfrey as soon as she returned, and she'd done it. Madam Pomfrey had been out of the room when Harry came into the infirmary; Ginny was sitting on the edge of a bed, swinging her legs. Her robes were off, but she still wore the clothes she'd had on under them.

"She's getting me some potion," Ginny said, not looking at him. She sounded upset; Harry's heart turned over.

"I--I came because of my toes. They don't feel right. After walking in the blizzard barefoot."

She nodded, looking out a window. Nothing was right about this, he thought. When they were together--it should have been phoenix song and fireworks, and afterward they should have been competing to use the most superlatives in proclaiming their love for each other....What's wrong with me? he wondered. He was never able to tell Hermione he loved her, and he loved Ginny, but he couldn't make her happy....And he remembered the way Lucius Malfoy had tried to get at him through Hermione. Had Mr. Malfoy put that creature in the lake? he wondered. Had he seen him and Ginny walking on the grounds?

Madam Pomfrey brought a steaming beaker of some greyish potion into the room and had given it to Ginny to drink before she looked up and noticed Harry.

"Potter! It's about time! Miss Weasley told me what happened to the two of you."

He swallowed. "She did?"

"Yes. How the two of you were stuck in the blizzard. We had half the school out looking for you before the storm made it impossible--"

"Oh, right. I mean--I need you to look at my feet--"

She nodded briskly and had him climb onto a bed and remove his shoes and socks. She clucked when she saw his toes. "It's a good job you came when you did! Nasty thing, amputation..."


"Because of frostbite. Oh, I'm not saying you'll have to have any toes amputated. Not now that you've come in. If you'd waited much longer, though..."

He heaved a sigh of relief. "Then you can do something about it?"

She sniffed and had an offended air about her now; he'd questioned her professional ability. "Of course I can, Potter. What do you take me for?"

He apologized softly and leaned back on the pillows to wait while she went into the apothecary. He looked over at Ginny, on the other side of the infirmary, but she wouldn't meet his gaze. He remembered the warmth of her body pressed against him under the cozy house banners....

Madam Pomfrey bustled back into the infirmary; as she walked, she looked down at the watch she wore as a pendant around her neck; to anyone else this watch looked like it was upside down, but to Madam Pomfrey, it appeared right-side up.

"All right, Miss Weasley; that potion should have worked by now. You can leave. Give this note to your head-of-house. Professor Black was worried sick about you, and those brothers of yours...he'll have to call your parents, too, to let them know you're all right."

Ginny thanked her and donned her robes again, carrying her cloak draped over her arm; she passed by Harry, her eyes blazing with love and hate, and he had to turn away from her. As soon as Pomfrey released him, he had to go see so many people....

It took a while for the potion she'd concocted to work. It was topical, rather than internal, applied to his frozen toes and covered with bandages like a boneset. He pulled his shoes on over the bandages and was able to walk, although it was a little awkward. He carried a note for his head-of-house, but as that was also his step-father and he wanted to talk to both of his parents together, he went down to the Great Hall and used the hidden passage to reach his mother's office, grunting as he pushed the pivoting wall. He returned the wall to its original position (he didn't even know whether his mother was aware of the secret passage into her office). After lighting the fire, he threw some powder from a bowl on the mantel into the fire and said clearly, "Professors Evans and Snape."

He waited and waited; finally, he leaned down and shouted into the firebox, "Mum! Dad! Is anyone there?"

He pulled back when his stepfather's face suddenly appeared in the fire. "Harry! Where are you? When did you get back? We've been frantic; Draco said you'd gone walking around the lake, then the storm hit; we tried looking for you, but there was no sign of you down there, and then we had to fall back; the storm had become too severe...worst thing I've seen in my entire life..."

"I'll explain; can I come up to the staff wing? Where's Mum?"

"Still asleep; of course, come up; I'll let you in."

It was very early still and a Saturday to boot, so the castle was deathly quiet as Harry ran up the six flights to the tapestry hiding the staff quarters; he lifted the heavy woolen hanging and found that the passage was already open, his dad standing guard. He motioned Harry inside the hidden corridor and closed the entrance again; they proceeded to the Snape/Evans rooms without words.

When they were in the sitting room, Harry threw himself into a chair, panting from his run up the stairs. His stepfather thrust a mug of steaming tea into his hands, and Harry gulped it greedily, ignoring his burned tongue. When he had drained the mug, he looked up at his dad.

"There are--there are some things I should tell you. I should have, before, but--oh, I don't know what I was thinking--"

His dad sat down on the opposite side of the fire. "Tell me about it, Harry."

But suddenly, Harry sprung up. "I want Mum here. She should know too." He strode over to the room where his mother slept now, opening the door, then stopping short when he saw the neatly made-up bed; it was obvious that no one had slept there the previous night. He turned to his dad, incredulous.

"She spent last night with him? When you all didn't know where I was?"

"Harry, please, you don't understand--"

"Oh, I think I do! She--"

But he froze; his mother had appeared in the doorway of his stepfather's bedroom, wearing his dressing gown, and, judging by the way she held it closed at the throat, nothing else but the dressing gown. Harry averted his eyes from her, feeling a warmth spread over his face; he looked at his dad instead, but even the pale skin of Severus Snape was tinged with color, knowing that his stepson knew what had occurred the previous evening.

"I'll get dressed," his mother mumbled, zipping past him into her bedroom; her clothes were probably in the wardrobe in there, Harry realized. What did this mean? That she was cheating on Sirius with her husband? Could that even be called cheating? Did they just take comfort in each other for one night? Harry shook himself mentally; he should not be thinking about this. And his stepfather; why should he be so embarrassed about spending the night with his own wife? Then Harry wondered whether they might heal their rift; had his disappearing into the storm brought them back together? He sat down again near the fire, feeling hopeful, resisting the urge to check the bed where they'd slept to see whether it was relatively undisturbed or in complete disarray....

When she returned to the sitting room, she looked neat as a pin, as always, and her black robes swished imperiously while she walked. She took a mug of tea from her husband, smiling at him, and her face became flushed again when their fingers touched. She sat on the couch that faced the fire, looking to her left at her son and then to her right at her husband as she drank. When the mug was only half empty, she placed it on the low table before her and turned to look at Harry sternly.

"Suppose you tell us where you were last night, young man."

She was going to scold him?

"No. Suppose you let me talk and keep quiet until I'm done," he said in an authoritative voice. "I have quite a lot to say that you both should hear."

His mother tried to look offended, but mostly he thought she seemed hurt. She nodded, and he went on.

"First thing you need to know: when the Board of Governors came to Hogwarts to end the General Strike, Lucius Malfoy came to see me and Draco in our tent. He told us what Voldemort wants us to do." They looked at him, tenseness showing in their faces. "I was told to kill Ron Weasley, and Draco was told to take care of Ginny Weasley. Mr. Malfoy said Ron was to be killed for heading up the strike, and Ginny for helping him. Actually, he thinks she gave him the idea." He looked at his parents, puzzled; they were exchanging odd looks. Then something occurred to him. "Wait--the other person who met with the Board was Charlie, representing the staff. Professor McGonagall deferred all of the strike negotiations to him..." He stared at his stepfather, growing more and more alarmed and yet surer and surer with every passing second.

"Dad! Mr. Malfoy told you to do something too, didn't he? He told you to kill Charlie, didn't he?" His stepfather looked up, his eyes wild, then down at his hands, nodding. "Oh, Dad, you can't! You can't do it!"

His dad wrung his hands. "Don't you think I know that, Harry? I've spoken to Albus about it. I do wish you'd told me about you and Draco, though..."

Harry thrust out his jaw. "Well, I'm not going to do it of course. And neither is Draco--" But he stopped, uncertain now. How did someone know he and Ginny would be walking down by the lake? Who was already at the school, who was chums with the Care of Magical Creatures teacher and might be able to smuggle an exotic egg out of his office, not even knowing what it might hatch into? Who might be able to put Imperius on the creature, to get it to grab Ginny? Harry remembered his dad saying that he thought Lucius Malfoy might have taught Draco some "extra" things. When he'd occasionally asked Draco what he did during the summers, he was more than a little cagey. Could his best friend have set the creature on Ginny?

Harry swallowed. "I--I think another Death Eater went after Ginny last night. A creature pulled her into the lake, and I went in and got her out. That was probably why you didn't find us down there; we must have been under the water still. It took a while."

His parents looked confused. "How could you have been underwater all that long, Harry?" his mother said shakily. He explained to them about summoning the knife and the Gillyweed, and his mother put her hand over her mouth.

"You can do a summoning charm from that distance? That's very advanced magic, Harry..." Harry winced, hearing the echo of Hermione saying the same thing about his Patronus.

"Then, when we got out, the storm was so bad; I had to carry her. We tried to head for the castle, but when we banged into the Quidditch changing rooms, we took shelter in there. This morning, I summoned brooms for us and we came back to the castle."

His parents were silent; his mother drained her tea mug, then stood, pacing. "Whatever is necessary...whatever is necessary..." she mumbled, wringing her hands while she walked back and forth.

"What?" he ask his mother. She stopped and turned to them.

"Listen; until you two do what's being asked of you, neither of you will have any peace. Ron and Charlie Weasley--and probably Ginny Weasley--need to go into hiding. Although the best thing really would be to fake their deaths...." she mumbled, trailing off, staring into space with narrowed eyes.

Her husband nodded. "Yes, but faking their deaths so that the Death Eaters think we did it, but the authorities don't. That's a rather delicate balancing act. And the governors need to reinstate the ban; otherwise, bad things will start to happen, in order to make it seem unwise to bring Muggle-born students back into the school."

Harry frowned. "But that's just what they want! We can't let that happen!"

His mother glared at him. "I don't care about them. And don't go on about my being Muggle-born; what I care most about is you, Harry, and I will do whatever is necessary to keep you safe."

He looked at his mother, who was at least as fierce as any mother bear protecting her young. "I can handle it, Mum. I'll talk to the three of them about the hiding. If they disappear, can't we just contact Mr. Malfoy and claim to have killed them? Say that we covered our tracks really well, no one will ever find the bodies?"

His father looked grim. "I'll consider all our options. If we say that--that we killed them--and they turn up perfectly healthy and alive--"

Harry nodded. "We have to make sure that doesn't happen."

He stood to go, then abruptly sat down again.

"Oh, there's one more thing, I almost forgot: why didn't you ever tell me?"

His parents looked at each other, bewildered. "Tell you what?" his dad asked innocently.

"That my father's ghost is haunting the Quidditch changing rooms."

They looked at each other, flabbergasted. "We thought you knew!" his mother exclaimed. "You mean--"

"I only just found out. Last night. This morning, actually. Who else knows?"

His dad shrugged. "I'm not sure I can think of anyone who doesn't know. We all thought you did."

"Does Jamie?"

"She might, but she doesn't like Quidditch, so I don't know; she doesn't ever have a reason to go down to the changing rooms..."

Harry jerked his head up. He remembered something; when his sister had started at Hogwarts, she had visited him once after a match, but when Harry had gone to meet her in one of the team rooms after his post-game shower, before he could even talk to her, she ran out crying, and said she would never return....

She must have seen their father's ghost. Perhaps he had told her she should never have been born...? No, that would be too cruel. Perhaps it was just that she took it very hard, her father dying before she was even born. He remembered other times when she'd been very sensitive about this. Even her reaction to him cutting his hair. It all made sense now....

"Well," he said shakily. "I want to find Draco. I have a thing or two to discuss with him...." Like whether he'd tried to kill Ginny.

"Harry," his stepfather said, "you and Draco come to the caretaker's office in an hour. We need to talk all together."

Harry nodded. He left the staff wing and ran down to the dungeons, to the Slytherin common room. When he went into the sixth-year boys' dorm, he found Draco still in bed, fast asleep. Harry whipped the covers off him abruptly and started bellowing at him, "Get up, Malfoy! We need to talk!"

Draco turned over sleepily, rubbing his eyes. Norman Nott looked up as well, a frown on his face; Blaise Zabini was already gone. "Harry?" Draco mumbled sleepily, then sat up abruptly, staring at his best friend with round eyes.

"Harry! You're all right!"

"Yeah, if someone can be all right who's gone from swimming in the lake to walking in a blizzard. I have to say, I've felt better," he snarled at the blond boy. His friend edged subtly away from Harry, looking frightened.

"What's wrong, Harry?" Draco's voice shook.

"Just go take your shower and get dressed. We're to be in the caretaker's office in less than an hour. We both have detention with him this morning."

"Detention! What did I do?"

"What? Don't you have a guilty conscience?" Harry said between clenched teeth. Draco's eyebrows flew up.

"You're mental, Harry, that's what you are. I think being out in the storm has iced your brain."

"And don't go up to the prefects' bathroom; do it down here. We don't have time to waste."

Draco rose, grabbing his dressing gown and some clean boxers (black, with Welsh green dragons) and heading toward the boys' showers grumbling about being a prefect and being able to do as he damn well pleased--but he still didn't leave Slytherin house.

Harry sat on the edge of his bed, looking down at his hands, shaking. If Draco was responsible for that thing in the lake....

Nott looked at him apprehensively until Harry barked at him, "What are you looking at?"

The other boy didn't move. "My dad," he said softly, "saw you. He said he saw you on the night of the solstice." Harry stared back at him; Nott knew! Oh, this was not good....

"Can I--" Nott whispered tentatively "--can I see it?"

See it? He wanted to see the Dark Mark. Harry swallowed, then rose and walked over to the other bed, sitting at the foot. He looked toward the door, then slowly pulled up his sleeve. It looked oddly small now, no more than an inch-and-a-half in diameter. Nott looked down at Harry's arm, his expression unreadable.

"Did it--did it hurt?"

Harry nodded, trying to look like a very grim Death Eater. "It hurt like hell. As bad as or worse than Cruciatus. He did that, too."

Nott sat back, awed. "When you say he, you mean--"


Nott looked at Harry's arm again, then up at his face; he looked frightened to Harry. Was he dreading being initiated? Had his father threatened it for years? Harry couldn't take the chance that he was sympathetic; he had to assume that Nott was hostile and likely to rat him out to his father.

Harry rose and came closer to the shaking, round-eyed boy. "Remember," he hissed through his teeth menacingly, "don't mess with me, Nott."

The other boy nodded, and Harry wished he could be honest with him. He probably wasn't a bad bloke. He wished he could say, I'm really a spy. I've hidden Voldemort's wand. I kept him from benefiting from killing his grandson. I'm a golden griffin Animagus.

But he didn't dare tell any of these things to someone whose loyalties were uncertain. He went to the common room to wait for Draco. I should have reminded Draco not to mess with me either, he thought. Finally, his best friend strode into the room in fresh robes, his pale hair shining from his shower, his silver prefect badge reflecting the flames from the snake sconces on the walls.

"Let's go," Harry said to him shortly, opening the doorway to the corridor. He walked briskly toward the caretaker's office, not bothering to see whether Draco was keeping pace with him, but when he stopped to knock on the door, the other boy was indeed by his side.

An unseen hand opened the door, and they entered to find the caretaker and Severus Snape waiting for them. The door swung shut behind them and with a wave of his wand, Harry's stepfather produced a tray of tea and scones. The boys sat on one side of the desk, the adults on the other. Draco looked around, frowning.

"What did I do to get detention?"

Harry made a face at him. "You prat! We're not really here for detention. This is a spy meeting!"

Draco looked alarmed, then motioned to Dumbledore with his head. "Harry," he said softly through clenched teeth, "he's here...."

Then Harry hit himself on the forehead and realized there was a rather important thing he'd neglected to do. "Bloody hell! I forgot to tell you--Mr. White is actually Dumbledore. We're working for him."

Draco's jaw dropped as Dumbledore, appearing every inch like an amiable old caretaker, smiled at him, the edges of his eyes crinkling.

"Dumbledore! But--but I heard you left the school years ago!"

Dumbledore nodded in a bored fashion, helping himself to a scone and some clotted cream. "Yes, yes. That was the impression we wished to give. But I have been here all along." He narrowed his eyes, looking at Draco more directly now. "I have quite a file on you, Mr. Malfoy--"

Draco squirmed in his chair; knowing his friend's history with girls, Harry could imagine what was in the file.

"--and when I learned that you were going to work for me, I was gratified that someone with so much covert experience was finally going to put it to good use." Draco stared at him incredulously as Dumbledore's face lost its grim expression and his bright blue eyes twinkled at him and Harry. Harry almost laughed, but then he remembered the little problem he was having with Draco just now.

"That's if you really have decided to work on the right side," Harry said, looking at Draco through slitted eyes. "I'm not completely convinced."

His best friend stared at him, his face blank and guileless. "What are you on about, Harry? Of course I have."

"Oh really? Then tell me who was responsible for putting a kelpie-squid-snake hybrid into the lake and hexing it so it would pull Ginny in?"

Draco opened his mouth, but no sound came out for a good minute. "I don't know! How should I know?"

Harry stared at him. "You were told to kill her. How do I know you didn't decided to do it after all, to protect yourself?"

"Because--because I didn't! You have to believe me, Harry! A what hybrid? I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm not trying to kill Ginny. She's my girlfriend's friend, and your girlfriend! You think I would do that?"

"Ginny Weasley is your girlfriend?" Harry's stepfather cried in surprise. Then he looked at Draco. "And you have a girlfriend? I mean, just one?"

Harry looked sheepishly at his dad. "Yeah. Jamie," he said softly.

Harry's stepfather was now livid, rising and leaning over the desk in Draco's direction, bellowing so that Harry was worried that all of the school would hear. "My daughter? Harry, you've let him near Jamie?"

"Stepdaughter!" Draco exclaimed defensively, shrinking into his chair and looking far more afraid now of Harry's stepfather than he had of Voldemort during the initiation.

"Whatever!" Severus Snape bellowed, looking like he was going to hex Draco into the middle of next week. Harry gave him no help.

"Nice going," Harry said sarcastically to his best friend. "First you told the twins about me and Ginny, now this--"

"Yeah, any time you need me to be your best friend for fourteen years, just let me know....

Harry calmed down, looking back and forth between his dad and Draco. Dumbledore had put a hand on Severus Snape's wand arm; Harry just now noticed the wand held in his white-knuckled fist. He reluctantly pocketed the wand and sat at Dumbledore's silent behest, but he didn't take his eyes off the boy who presumed to lay a finger on his little girl; Harry remembered him saying that he had helped Madam Pomfrey with Jamie's delivery. He really thinks of her as his actual daughter, Harry realized.

He turned back to his friend, trying to overcome his suspicion and paranoia. "I'm sorry, Draco. It's just that--it seemed too coincidental, with you being told to kill her and all...."

Draco sniffed. "It's all right," he said quietly and a little resentfully, sounding like it was anything but. "Shows what a lot of faith you have in me..."

"Draco! I said I'm sorry!" Harry was frustrated; rather than bickering about this, they should be getting Ron, Ginny and Charlie out of harm's way as soon as possible. He looked up at Dumbledore.

"Did Dad tell you everything?"

Dumbledore nodded and put his hands together. "Of course, while it may have been a Malfoy who put the egg that produced that creature in the lake, I don't think it was the Malfoy in this room..."

Draco's eyes opened very wide. "You think it was my dad?"

"He may have wished to protect you from Voldemort's wrath, I think. If he did it. It is one possibility."

The boys digested this information thoroughly; Harry was glad no one was dwelling on the fact that he and Ginny had spent the night alone together in the Quidditch changing rooms.

"Harry, Draco--we already sent owls to Ron, Ginny and Charlie. They should be down here any minute," Harry's dad said. "And they should probably know about the three of us."

"About us being spies," Harry said softly. His stepfather nodded.

But he'd no sooner said this than there was a tap at the door. Dumbledore clapped his hands and it swung open, revealing the three Weasleys; Ron's and Ginny's prefect badges glittered in the candlelight. Ginny stopped short when she saw Harry, and she bristled. Her brothers didn't notice. Ron was frowning.

"What's going on here? Professor Snape? Mr. White? Why were we told to come here?"

Dumbledore urged them to come in and shut the door. "Charlie, Ron, Ginny--I'm afraid you will need to go into hiding."

The three of them looked at each other, then at him. "What?" Ron and Ginny said together.

"Because of your instrumental roles in the General Strike, you are being targeted by Voldemort and his followers and you are not be safe, even here. I have--contacts that can help you--"

"What?" Ron said alone this time, his voice rising in pitch. "We're to go into hiding? Just like that? Because of the General Strike?" He turned to face Harry angrily. "This is all your fault! It was your idea to have me head up the strike! And now look where it's got me; with a price on my head!"

"Harry?" his stepfather said, his brow furrowed. "Is this true?"

Harry grimaced and nodded. "Why do you think I want to make sure nothing happens to them? I can't have them taking the blame for what I planned and organized...."

"Except we are!" Ron insisted. "Well, I, for one, refuse to go. I've always felt safe at Hogwarts, and at Hogwarts I'll stay!"

Charlie looked at him fondly and put his hand on Ron's shoulder. "And so will I."

Ginny straightened up and said, "Me too," in a voice that was probably softer and more frightened-sounding than she'd intended. Harry stared at the three of them, incredulous.

"Are you mad? On the night of the solstice, I saw--" but he stopped. Ginny was the only one of the three of them who knew about the initiation, and their being spies. How could he explain that there was a Death Eater working as a teacher? Maybe that was who had put the hybrid egg in the lake...unless that teacher was actually an operative. He wished he dared ask Dumbledore the names of all of his operatives, but he wasn't sure whether the old wizard would divulge this; he might think it safer for them if fewer people knew who they were. Charlie and Ron were staring at Harry, perplexed. He cleared his throat and turned to Dumbledore, his eyes pleading for help. Dumbledore gestured for them all to sit; suddenly, chairs had appeared behind the three of them, and they settled into them nervously.

Dumbledore explained it all to them; the Prophecy, the promise Harry's mother made to Voldemort, the way Draco had also been spared and promised to the dark wizard.

"And now," Ron said, an edge to his voice, "you two are supposed to kill us?" He pointed at himself and Ginny. Charlie looked back and forth between his siblings and his friends, swallowing; then he appeared to think of something else.

"And why do I need to go into hiding? Is someone supposed to kill me, too?"

Severus Snape, who'd always gotten along well with his colleague, slowly raised his hand, looking the younger man in the eye, an expression of remorse twisting his features. Harry could see Charlie swallow again.

Ron shook his head. "But why are you telling us this, Mr. White? You're just the caretaker..."

Dumbledore sighed and stood up. "I am. But I will no longer hide from you that I am also the former headmaster. Let me take this annoying engorgement charm off my nose..." With a flick of his wand, he did, and Dumbledore's characteristic long, crooked nose appeared at last. He reached into his desk drawer and withdrew a pair of half-moon spectacles and then looked over them at Ginny, Ron and Charlie. Except for his shabby robes and short hair, he looked as Harry was accustomed to seeing him--if a bit tired from patrolling the corridors of the castle all night.

Charlie sprung to his feet. "Professor!" he cried. Harry remembered that Dumbledore would have been headmaster still when Charlie finished school. Ron and Ginny probably had no idea what Albus Dumbledore should look like, but Charlie knew perfectly well.

"Sit, Charlie, sit. Yes, it is me. I have been working here for many reasons; to assist Minerva, to make sure Hogwarts remains safe from Voldemort, especially as there are even those on the staff who--well never mind that now. I am also here because this is a safe place from which to coordinate the operatives who work for me against the Death Eaters and against Voldemort, and who do not always operate, shall we say, strictly within the confines of wizarding law. Harry, Draco and Severus are three who work for me. That is why I am concerned with protecting them. Putting you into hiding isn't just for your benefit, although I believe you will be safer by doing this. If they can claim to have carried out the instructions they were given, they and their loved ones will be safe. If not--certain things may begin to occur to 'convince' them to carry out their orders. Which they never will, of course..."

Charlie stared at him. "You're telling me that the three of them are spies?"

Dumbledore nodded. Charlie looked at Harry and Draco as if seeing the boys he'd known for more than five years for the first time. Ron looked like he could be knocked over with a feather.

"Slytherins? Spies?" he said in derision. "You have got to be kidding..."

But then Harry saw his dad catch Ron's eye, and Ron stopped talking, his ears turning red.

"Yes," Dumbledore assured him. "Slytherins. Spies. In these troubled times, Ron, we need to stop basing our expectations of people on archaic criteria such as their Hogwarts house."

"Do we actually have to disappear? I have a job to do here; it's only the beginning of February. There are five more months of school left," Charlie said.

Dumbledore looked at him sadly. He opened his mouth to speak, but an urgent knock was heard at the door, and then Harry heard his mother's voice.

"Severus! Are you in there?" She sounded frantic. Harry leaped to his feet and flung open the door.

"Mum! What is it?"

"Lily!" his stepfather cried. "Get in here and close the door! Before someone sees us all together!"

She slammed the door behind her, then turned and looked at the gathering, perplexed. "What are you all doing here?" She stared at the Weasleys. "And Albus! Your nose!"

Dumbledore rubbed his tender nose again. "It's such a relief to take that charm off sometimes, Lily. Besides, I was explaining to Charlie who I really am..."

"And we were discussing the three of them," Harry nodded at Ginny and her brothers, "going into hiding."

She glared at him, suddenly belligerent. Harry was utterly confused.

"Well, it's too damn late!" she cried.

Her husband was on his feet and at her side in a trice. He held her upper arms tightly. "Tell me what happened!" he hissed between his teeth. Harry realized he was clenching his jaw painfully. Oh no, oh no, oh no, he thought. If anything's happened to Jamie....

"It's Stuart," his mother finally sobbed, collapsing against her husband, who enfolded her in his arms. Harry and Draco looked at each other; this they were not expecting. "Simon found the note this morning..." They saw Harry's mother remove a piece of parchment from her pocket and hand it to her husband; he glanced at it, and grew paler than pale, then handed it to Harry.

To Stuart Snape's father and brother--

If you want to see him alive again, you know what you must do.

It was unsigned. Harry's heart was beating frantically; he handed the note to Dumbledore, who read it aloud. Ginny leapt up and threw her arms around Harry.

"Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry! We should go away--of course we should--"

"Ginny!" her brothers said simultaneously, shocked by this display.

Harry and Ginny separated, but he said to her, "No, Ginny, I'm sorry. I was being stupid this morning; I didn't want to hurt you, you know, only protect you--"

Now Ron was on his feet, glaring at Harry. "This morning! You mean--it was you?"

Harry frowned at him. Had Ginny said something? "What was me?"

"The other lost student!" Ron ran his fingers through his hair repeatedly until it seemed that every last hair was standing upright. "The headmistress had just about everyone in fifth, sixth and seventh years out looking for two students who were lost out in the storm--and she came to me and Charlie and told us that Ginny was one of them. We were forced to come back to the castle when it got too bad...I didn't sleep at all last night! I thought she was dead. Then she comes waltzing in this morning..." He glared at his sister. "You never said the other student was Potter!"

"You didn't ask!" she answered, helplessly.

Harry looked at him nervously; there seemed to be an awful lot of people in the room. "We--we just took shelter in the Quidditch changing rooms--I summoned broomsticks for us and we flew back to the castle this morning," he said quietly.

Ginny linked her arm through his. "Are we all right now?" she whispered up at him. He stared down at her tenderly. How could he ever have considered separating from her?

"Yes," he said quietly, looking into her eyes. "Always."

Ron was as red as his hair now, and even though Charlie had a good hold on Ron's robes, he didn't look any happier with Harry. "The two of you. All night. In the Quidditch changing rooms." He looked like a volcano getting ready to erupt. Ginny held Harry's arm even more tightly.

"Well, better my boyfriend than a perfect stranger!" she said hotly to her brothers. Oh boy, Harry thought; we get a triple dose of the Weasley temper.

"Boyfriend!" Charlie exclaimed, an unmistakable look of betrayal on his face; he could probably understand Harry not telling Ron, but not telling him, his favorite teacher and good friend? Harry winced; Charlie looked so hurt.

"Do you mean to say you were with Potter all night and he's your boyfriend?" Ron demanded. Ginny huddled closer to Harry now, and nodded. Harry couldn't meet Ron's eyes. Then he wished he had, for he might have seen Ron coming. Suddenly, Charlie lost his grip on his youngest brother's robes as Ron flew across the room, grasping Harry by the front of his robes and pulling up, making him stand on tiptoe and look into the very angry face of Ronald Weasley.

"Potter!" he shouted in Harry's face. "Did you shag my sister?"

Harry looked at him helplessly and moved his jaw, but nothing came out. There was no graceful way around this. But then Ginny pushed between them and shoved Ron backward, as though she'd done this many times in her life (and maybe she had). She stood in front of Harry, reaching behind her to pull his hands forward and wrap them around her waist. She held them there, so that Harry had to stand right against her back and look at the others over her shoulder, his Ginny-shield.

"I'll have you know," she said proudly, her chin lifted into the air, "that I seduced him."

Harry closed his eyes, groaning; great, just great, he thought. Let's just announce it to a whole room of people, including my parents...

"All right, Harry!" Draco said suddenly, slapping Harry on the back and grinning; he immediately froze as everyone in the room but Ginny, Harry and Dumbledore glared at him menacingly. Draco colored slightly and sat again.

"And I'll have you know that I was pulled into the lake by some bewitched creature and would have died if Harry hadn't gone in and pulled me out, so before you complain about us--"

"Frankly, I don't give a damn if Harry is shagging a goat!" his mother cried out suddenly, her voice harsh. "I want my son back!"

Harry felt Ginny bristle, and he whispered to her, "She's not calling you a goat." Ron still looked like he might kill Harry, and Charlie didn't look like Harry was his favorite person either, just now. Dumbledore, Harry thought, looked far too amused.

"Everyone, please sit. I think I have a plan of action." He conjured up a chair for Harry's mother, and the rest of them returned to the chairs they'd been using previously. When they were all seated again, Dumbledore looked very seriously at Ron. "How many people saw you this morning?"

Ron shrugged, still frowning at Harry and Ginny. "I dunno--I was in a chair by the fire in the Gryffindor common room, and then Ginny came in and this owl started pecking at the window all at the same time. It was from you, telling us to get down here."

"So none of your housemates saw you? Did you meet anyone on the way to my office?" Ron shook his head. Dumbledore nodded. "Good, very good..." he muttered, putting his hands together lightly and staring at his fingertips. They all waited what seemed an interminable time before he spoke again. "As caretaker," he said in a musing sort of voice, "I have learned much more about this castle than I ever knew as headmaster....

"You can go into hiding and still remain here, within the walls of Hogwarts and the protection that offers. I know just the place for you. You will write out a note addressed to Professor Black, explaining that you left the castle during the night to look for your sister out in the storm. It will be assumed that you were both lost. Draco and Harry will no longer be able to kill you since it will seem that you are already dead. You will not go into hiding at this time, Charlie, because that would seem to be too much of a coincidence following on the heels of Ron's and Ginny's disappearances. That will have to do for now. We must hope that even though you have clearly come to no harm," he nodded at Charlie, "Professors Snape and Evans may be able to recover their son."

They all stared around, unsure about this solution. "What about our parents?" Ron asked, his voice raspy. "They'll know we're all right, of course?"

Dumbledore shook his head. "That is too risky. They will know eventually, but for now, I think--"

"No!" Charlie exclaimed, standing again. "You can't do this to my mum! We've only just found Maggie again--"

Dumbledore looked utterly bewildered. "Maggie?"

"Margaret," Ginny said quietly. "We've found Margaret. One of our lost sisters."

Dumbledore looked shocked, then smiled. "I had no idea. How wonderful!"

"No! This is not wonderful! You can't ask me to not tell my mother that Ron and Ginny are all right--you just can't!" Charlie looked the most distraught Harry had ever seen him.

Dumbledore looked sadly at Charlie. "I don't want to put a memory charm on you, my boy, but if I must, I will. Your parents must plan a funeral; a double funeral. Why don't we say--afterward, you can tell them the truth. That they are alive. But you cannot tell them where. Will that do?"

Charlie thought about this, and turned to Ron and Ginny. "It's your fake deaths we're talking about here. What do you think?"

Ginny looked at Harry with a dreadful expression. "I hate to think of Mum not knowing--"

"She will know soon, Ginny, she will know soon," Dumbledore said to her gently. Ron was still giving Harry the evil eye. Charlie turned to Dumbledore again.

"All right," he sighed resignedly. "And you're sure they'll be safe? No one will be able to find them? And they'll be looked after?"

"Not only that," the former headmaster said, standing, "I will expect them to keep up with their studies. As caretaker, I can go anyplace I want at any time; I will obtain your lessons and set you examinations myself," he said sternly to Ron and Ginny. "Since you will not have any opportunity for socializing, I expect both of you to excel, is that understood?"

Harry could tell it felt strange to them to be receiving orders such as these from the caretaker, but they both looked at him solemnly and said, "Yes, sir."

He turned toward the blank wall behind him and said, "All right. Let's go." With a wave of his wand, the gigantic blocks of stone dissolved, leaving a doorway in the shape of a pointed Gothic arch; Harry could clearly see stone steps ascending just beyond the opening, and flickering light, probably from torches on the walls.

Ron and Ginny looked at each other uncertainly. "Now? We have to go into hiding right now?"

"But--but--I went to see Madam Pomfrey!" Ginny suddenly remembered. "She knows I didn't die in the storm!"

Dumbledore turned, taking in this information. "Oh? Oh my...that's too bad. I suppose I shall have to put a memory charm on poor Poppy before she says anything..."

Harry's stepfather rose. "I'll take care of it, Albus," he said, before opening the door quickly and striding out.

"I'll go with him," his mother said, also leaving, throwing a disturbing look over her shoulder at her eldest son. Harry had no opportunity to analyze that look before she was gone.

Ron and Ginny looked to the old man, who nodded sadly to them. "Yes, I'm afraid it must be now. We cannot risk anyone else seeing either one of you."

They were all standing now, Dumbledore at the arched opening, Ron and Ginny about to go through, but hesitating. Charlie stepped over to them and pulled Ron into a rough hug, then threw his arms around Ginny, squeezing her tightly; Harry could see his eyes glistening with tears.

"You two will be safe," he said thickly. "I trust Dumbledore to take care of you. Too bad you never knew what it was like to have him for a headmaster..."

Dumbledore nodded to him and said, "Why don't you go call your parents? You need to tell them the news that Ron and Ginny are missing. And I will tell Minerva the truth, but remind her that we need to behave as though Ron and Ginny are still out there to be found. We will continue to have the teachers and students search. Tell your parents that will be happening." Charlie swallowed and nodded before he left.

Dumbledore turned to Draco. "And why don't you send an owl to your father, telling him about the disappearances of Ron and Ginny and perhaps suggesting subtly that you and Harry might be responsible--?" Draco looked confused at first, then understanding slowly dawned on him.

"Oh! Right, right!" He practically ran from the room. Dumbledore said to Ron, "Up with you now! We've a long climb. Best to get started."

Ron looked uncertainly at Harry and Ginny, anger and resentment still etched in his freckled features. "What about them?"

Dumbledore looked at the two of them and smiled benignly. "I think we need to give them a few moments alone. Come!" He nudged Ron through the doorway; his gangly limbs seemed to be all over the place and he looked like he might launch himself at Harry again, but finally, he let himself be led docilely to his hiding place. Before Dumbledore went through the opening, Harry saw his blue eyes twinkling at him, and he smiled at the old man gratefully.

When they were both gone, Harry turned to Ginny, but he didn't have a chance to say anything before she had launched herself at Harry, throwing her arms around his neck and pulling his mouth down to hers. He opened his lips and drank her in, holding her face up with one hand, bringing his other hand around to press against the small of her back; he kissed her as though he never would again, feeling her fingers entwined in his hair, her warm body pressed again him. He saw a million images of her in his mind; as a little girl at the World Cup; the first time she walked in the doors of the Great Hall, nervous about being sorted; catching the Snitch during a Quidditch match, her face radiant as she took her victory lap; her distraught expression when he realized she'd kissed him because she'd lost a bet....

He broke the kiss and pulled her to him even more closely, pressing his face into her hair, trying not to cry. He pulled back and looked at her, his hands framing her face. "I love you, Ginny. I love you so much...."

She nodded. "I love you, too," she whispered hoarsely; she sounded as though her throat were too constricted to function. She started crying first; he tasted the saltiness as he lavished kisses on her forehead, her cheeks, the orbits beneath her brows, her chin, her nose....Finally, he realized that he had to make her go, before he started to weep as well. We'll be together again, he told himself. We will....

"Good bye, Ginny," he said softly.

She moved toward the opening. "Good bye, Harry," she whispered over her shoulder. Ginny turned and walked slowly through the archway, and as soon as she was through, the stones reappeared, and Harry found himself staring at a blank, grey stone wall.

* * * * *

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