The Awakening Power


Story Summary:
Complete! Challenges fill Harry's busy sixth year: growing powers, Snape becomes defense teacher (and Harry's not in the mood for abuse), a new Potions teacher, a girl with a new crush on him, Quidditch, Voldemort, and a certain redheaded girl named Ginny who may help him through all of it. What are the goblins up to? Will Ron win Hermione back? And what exactly is Voldemort's diabolical plan to kill Harry and plunge magical society into anarchy? Lots of romance, drama, action and humor! Voted Phoenix Song's Best Novel-Length Story (along with Best Harry and Best Kiss).

Chapter 29

Chapter Summary:
Harry’s powers are growing very strong, and Dumbledore is worried about his control. Meanwhile, Snape has become the new Defense teacher, and Harry resolves not to take his abuse this year… Will Harry notice Ginny? Will Ron win Hermione back? Who has a new crush on Harry? Who is the new Potions teacher? And what exactly is Voldemort’s diabolical plan to kill Harry and plunge magical society into anarchy? Lots of humor, drama, action and romance as all these questions are answered and much more in Harry’s busy sixth year.
Author's Note:
All right you lot. I had so many reviewers saying, ‘I can’t wait to see the reactions at the party!’ or words to that effect that I felt guilty for not having written anything. Originally my thought was, what can anyone say, except ‘Wow, Harry, you were great!’ which would be pretty dull. So I said that to my beta reader Allie Kiwi, and she joked that she could write some girls talking about Harry. Which she did. So go over and read her story. It’s short and very funny. Make sure you leave her reviews, too! [Sib wags finger at readers.] Because she’s cool and deserves lots of reviews.

Chapter 29: Changes

* * *

Harry eyed the food, wishing he could join everyone, but knew that he needed to let Madam Pomfrey heal him. He saw Ginny, Ron and Hermione heading over to the tables, chatting with the Weasleys and a few other Gryffindors.

He could see many of the students sneaking glances at him, making him feel a bit self-conscious about the whole thing now that it was starting to sink in. He had actually dueled Dumbledore to a draw.

"All right, Mr. Potter. Please remove your robe and your shirt," said Madam Pomfrey.

Harry hesitated, feeling incredibly exposed with all the people in the Great Hall. Under Madam Pomfrey's glare-of-obedience, however, he finally pulled his robe over his head, and then took his shirt off, draping them over his lap. Harry glanced around, feeling some heat in his face as he saw many girls around the room giggling and pointing at him.

Madam Pomfrey began healing his scrapes and bruises, as well as the puffy skin from the bee strings. She was just about finished when two girls walked up with plates of food.

"Ah, Miss Abbott and Miss Simpson! Are those for us?" asked Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling.

The two girls smiled nervously. Hannah Abbott handed a plate to Dumbledore, while a girl Harry vaguely recalled as a Hufflepuff named Amelia thrust the plate under his own nose. Harry took the plate, blinking at her, wondering why she was bringing him food. She was standing rather close, oddly kicking at his robe and putting her foot next to his.

Noticing the plate held a pumpkin pasty, one of his favorites, he decided not to ask questions as he took a bite. "Thanks," he mumbled through the mouthful, giving her a smile.

She looked extremely embarrassed as she rushed away back to her friends, her face showing a blush. Harry noticed Ginny across the room giving her a suspicious look, before turning back and continuing to talk to Hermione.

"All right, Mr. Potter. All fixed up, I'd say. Now, that didn't take long, did it?" Madam Pomfrey asked.

"No, Madam Pomfrey," Harry said, actually feeling as though it had taken an eternity as he hurriedly put back on his shirt and slipped his robe back over his head.

"Now, Professor, let's see about that arm," she said as Harry walked away, munching on his pumpkin pasty. He moved over to Ginny, Ron, Hermione and the Weasley brothers, who greeted him enthusiastically. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were off speaking with several of the professors.

"Ha! I knew you'd do well," Ron said, grinning at him.

Harry grinned back. "Well, except for the fact that you looked like you wanted to help me pick out coffins."

"So, Harry, who was that girl giving you the pumpkin pasty?" asked Fred with raised eyebrows. He wasn't smiling.

"I'd like to know that myself," Ginny said, crossing her arms.

"Just because you're our business partner doesn't mean you won't pay dearly if you break our sister's heart," said George with an even a greater frown. Bill and Charlie's eyes narrowed, looking like they were waiting for an answer as well. Even Ron's grin had fallen into a look of suspicion.

"Erm, I... I don't even know her! She just brought me over a plate... I don't know why... I mean, uh..." Harry said quickly, looking between all the Weasley brothers. Suddenly Ginny snickered, the first one to break, and all her brothers soon followed, all laughing loudly at Harry. Even Hermione giggled at him.

"Great Merlin, it was a wonderful day when we saw that Prophet article with you and Ginny," said Fred between laughs.

"I can see this is going to be a source of entertainment for years to come," said George with a grin.

Harry groaned. "All right, all right," He hoped they were done for the night on this subject.

"Oh, Harry, we're just teasing," Ginny said, still giggling. "Though I did notice some girls watching you when you had your shirt off."

Suddenly a drawling voice came up behind him. "Yes, Potter, I couldn't help but notice that you found another excuse to disrobe in front of the school."

Harry turned around and found Malfoy, with Crabbe and Goyle standing behind him like barely-animate slabs of meat.

"What do you want, Malfoy?" Harry said, already annoyed at the sight of him.

"You do know that Dumbledore went easy on you, don't you?" Malfoy said with a smirk.

"What are you babbling on about, ferret head?" Ron said rudely.

"Come now. Dumbledore is one of the most powerful wizards in the world. Doesn't it seem a bit - suspicious - that he allowed the whole world to watch himself duel to a draw with Potter? It was simply a tactic to fool, well, certain elements into believing that Potter is more than he is."

"You know, Malfoy, we have some new products we've been dying to try out," said Fred maliciously.

"Yeah. We're always looking for new test subjects," said George.

"Ah, yes," said Malfoy arrogantly. "The weasel tradesman. And such an honorable profession, too. Purveyors of cheap gags and stunts. Your parents must be so proud."

"And you've accomplished so much on your own, haven't you, Malfoy?" Ron said. "I mean, you made certain you were born with money! You must share your secret of how you managed that."

Malfoy sneered at him. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, Weasley. What's important is that I was born into my position, and you - weren't."

"Bill, are you thinking what I'm thinking?" asked Charlie.

"Indeed I am, Charlie," Bill said, nodding.

They both moved on either side of Malfoy, who looked back and forth. Harry could see them surreptitiously pull their wands and mumble an incantation. Bill and Charlie began walking away, with Malfoy seeming to float between them.

"Is that so? You must show us, Malfoy," said Bill loudly. He winked at Harry.

Malfoy opened his mouth, but no sound came out. His eyes grew wide as he struggled, but apparently he was stuck between Bill and Charlie under a binding and silencing spell. Crabbe and Goyle looked confused, as if they were wondering what Malfoy was going to show the Weasley brothers.

Bill and Charlie nonchalantly exited the Great Hall with Malfoy struggling between them. Harry grinned, wondering briefly what they were going to do with him.

He turned to the food, finally planning on eating in earnest, but a succession of people began coming up to congratulate him. Tonks and a number of Aurors asked about some of the spells he had used, and many others came up as well, including Remus and Mad-Eye.

"Wow, I had never seen a Rickardian Glow before," Tonks said. "That was impressive."

"What's that?" Harry asked curiously.

"Did you notice the glow on the floor toward the end? Usually you only see that effect when you have a lot of powerful wizards throwing around big spells in a small area; the magic bleeds into the floor and causes it to glow temporarily. I've never heard of it happening with just two wizards in a duel, though."

They continued chatting. As Harry was talking to them all, he noticed Snape standing near a wall, talking to Professor Melanadray. She was talking to him excitedly, while Snape looked quite furious with the world in general, but occasionally forced a smile to his face in response to something she said. Harry wondered with amusement if they were talking about him.

"Uh oh," said Hermione, looking across the Great Hall. Harry looked where she was looking, and was shocked to see Rita Skeeter lurking in the shadows.

"How did Skeeter get in here?" Ron said, peering over as well.

"I think we know how she got in here, the question is why and what she plans on doing," Hermione said, infuriated. She began marching over, and after a few seconds, Harry, Ron and Ginny followed her.

"Hello, Rita," Hermione said sweetly.

"Well, well, well. If it isn't the little blackmailer herself," Skeeter said, her face pinching up as if she had just sucked on a lemon.

"Exactly what are you doing here?" Hermione demanded.

"None of your business," Skeeter replied rudely.

"Oh, but it is," Hermione said coldly. "I suggest you be a bit more polite if you want your little secret preserved. I warned you with that last article that if you write one negative word about Harry, you will regret it."

Skeeter suddenly decided to change tactics. "Look, this is all going to be in the Prophet tomorrow, anyway. If you want it to be accurate, why not give me an interview?"

Ginny snorted. "Yeah, because your interviews are always so accurate."

"Ah, Harry's new love," Skeeter said, smiling and pulling out her pen. "What did you think of Harry's duel? But never mind, you're probably just in it for the fame..."

Ginny's eyes burned. "I'm with Harry despite the fame, not because of it!"

"Great quote!" Rita said, chortling as her pen scribbled across the pad. "Do you ever worry for your safety? I'm certain you live in constant fear..."

Ginny opened her mouth angrily to respond, but Hermione cut her off.

"Stop bating us for quotes!" Hermione said to Rita. Ginny glanced at Hermione, then appeared to will herself to keep silent. "I'm telling you right now, you better not print one word about Harry or Ginny's private life," Hermione said threateningly.

"Ah, Rita," Dumbledore said kindly, walking up to them. "How delightful to see you."

"Dumbledore!" said Skeeter warmly, as though she couldn't think of anyone she would rather see, but her eyes darted around, like she was seeking an escape.

"You are looking as enchantingly sneaky as always," he said. "I seem to recall banning all Daily Prophet reporters from this event, and have to say that I'm curious to know how you circumvented my measures. Of course, now that you're here, I hope you have partaken of our humble hospitality." Dumbledore gestured toward the tables of food.

"Can I get a quote, Dumbledore? But I suppose you have nothing to say, as usual," Skeeter said.

"Ah, Mr. Potter," said a voice coming up to them. It was Fudge, the Minister of Magic, being followed by a group of official-looking men and women.

"Hello, Cornelius," said Dumbledore genially.

"Please allow me to introduce our distinguished guests," Fudge said smoothly. He proceeded to introduce a litany of older men and women with various titles from too many countries who all came up and shook Harry's hand importantly. Fudge went on to introduce Dumbledore as well.

"And may I introduce Her Royal Highness, Princess Alexandra Mette-Marit of Norway." A beautiful young, blonde woman with fair skin came up to Harry, smiling at him warmly. She held her hand up and Harry took it politely. As she squeezed his hand, letting the touch linger much longer than necessary, she said, "Mr. Potter. May I say how impressive I found your performance." Her crystal blue, almost white, eyes gazed into his.

"Erm, thanks," Harry said, feeling his breath catch. He glanced at Ginny nervously, and saw her glaring at the princess. She then turned to Harry with an expectant frown. Harry thought frantically, wondering what he was supposed to do, when something mercifully clicked into place in his head.

"Um, this is my girlfriend, Ginny Weasley," he said to everyone, gesturing to Ginny. They all nodded their heads at Ginny politely as she gave her greetings, although he noticed the princess raising her nose slightly as she looked Ginny up and down. Harry then introduced Ron and Hermione.

"A brilliant display of magic tonight, Mr. Potter," said Fudge, looking at him with pride. "I always had you spotted as a special one." He gestured at Harry, looking at the delegation. "One of my protégés, you understand."

"Cornelius," Rita Skeeter said. "It's good to see you again."

"Ah, Rita. I'm delighted to see you," said Fudge with a charming smile.

"I hate to intrude on a man of your importance, but would you have a few moments to share your thoughts with the public?" Rita said. "I'm certain they'd love to hear how you've brought the young man along."

Fudge seemed to puff up as if he was inflatable. "Ahem. I suppose I can spare a minute or two. Must be available to the public, what? Keep them informed, that's the ticket."

"Oh, Cornelius. You are a generous leader to us all," Rita said smoothly, giving him a sly smile. "Why don't we find a quiet corner. I'm sure Professor Dumbledore can entertain your guests for a few minutes."

"Of course, of course. Dumbledore, old man, you don't mind, do you?" Fudge said. "Ladies and gentleman, if you will excuse me..."

As they walked away, Fudge whispered in Rita's ear and Harry could have sworn he heard Rita exclaim, "Fudgy!" and giggle. Harry shuddered at the sight and the revolting thought that went along with it.

Dumbledore led the European delegation away as they gave nods to Harry, leaving him alone with Ginny, Ron and Hermione.

"Well, tomorrow's Prophet should be interesting," Ron said with a smirk. "By the end of the article, Fudge will probably be Harry's second, and he'll say he planned out the whole duel strategy."

Harry laughed, but then gave a sigh. He hadn't considered that this evening was only going to get him more attention in the wizarding world.

"Oh, Harry, don't worry," said Hermione. "At least Fudge is keeping Rita busy. It will give her something to write."

"Hermione's right, Harry. Come on, let's go get some more food," Ginny said, grabbing his hand.

They all found a spot next to the tables; Harry concentrating on eating, despite many people continuing to come up and talk to him. Several hours, the party began to wind down somewhat, and the Weasleys joined them again.

As Harry saw Bill and Charlie, he abruptly remembered they had taken Malfoy away quite some time before. "Hey, come to think of it, what did you two do with Malfoy?"

They looked at each other, shocked, then started laughing. Charlie answered, "We forgot about him! I wonder if anyone found him..."

"Found him where?" Ginny asked.

"Well, we used a foot adhesion charm and hung him upside-down inside the owlery..." said Bill with a wide grin.

"...under a perch..." continued Charlie with a smirk.

"Unfortunately, his wand fell out of his pocket," Bill finished. "Quite a shame, really. As we were leaving, we saw Peeves heading into the room. We're certain ol' Peeves kept him company."

* * *

It was a week after the duel when Harry walked into Dumbledore's library, intending to do a bit of studying. He had been recently reading a fascinating book about large-scale castle defense, which contained many of the spells used at Hogwarts. They weren't particularly useful for combat, but he found that he enjoyed reviewing a lot of the obscure information. One could often discover interesting spells.

As he sat down, he noticed a rather thin book lying on the table that he hadn't seen before. Curious, he reached over, bringing it closer. A chill ran down his spine as he read the simple title: "The Unforgivable Curses."

He quickly pulled his hand back, just looking at the book, not wanting to even touch it. Obviously Dumbledore had left it here. Was it an accident, or did he want Harry to find it? It didn't seem like the sort of mistake Dumbledore would make, so Harry had to assume he'd wanted him to find it.

He slowly opened the book, curiosity overcoming his reticence. He began skimming the pages, curious about what it contained. He felt himself breathing a little heavier as he noticed that it gave full, detailed instructions on how to perform each one. Part of him didn't want to know, but he couldn't help reading with a morbid fascination as the book described exactly how each one worked.

Harry then came upon a very interesting section, which described the defense of each spell. He had already learned a considerable amount about the defense of Imperio, but it was interesting to see the information formalized. Moving onto Crucio, he discovered that the spell was extremely difficult to defend against, but the book gave some suggestions with a caveat that it was much better to not get hit with it at all.

As he opened the last part of the book that described Avada Kedavra defense, he expected a very small sentence saying it was indefensible. He was shocked when there was a fair amount more information about it.

DEFENSE AGAINST AVADA KEDAVRA It is commonly thought that the Avada Kedavra curse is indefensible, but in fact, this is only partially true. To be more accurate, it is magically indefensible. There is no known shield spell that can block Avada Kedavra. However, the curse may be physically blocked. The curse is rather brittle; it will generally destroy whatever it hits, but does not require a large mass to break up the curse. The quick and clever wizard can often use Summoning spells to pull various items at hand to act as a shield.

The Ministry battle came back to Harry as he recalled Dumbledore using these tactics. He nodded slowly, thinking that it might be useful to practice summoning objects to block spells. He read on.

Another tactic useful for Avada Kedavra defense is that it requires a clean hit to work fully. The casting wizard generally needs to hold his wand still; any sort of sweeping motion will dilute the spell and reduce its effectiveness. For this reason, it is recommended that when facing a wizard determined to use this curse, keep in constant motion and do not allow them to hold their wand motionless aimed at you.

One last item that is not generally known about Avada Kedavra is that not only does it take a substantial quantity of magic to make it operate, but it also has a draining effect on the wizard that casts it. Most powerful wizards can only cast it three to five times before a wait is required to recover. The wizard that casts it is more vulnerable during this time to attack.

Harry felt stunned that this information was not more widely known. The fake Mad-Eye had certainly not told them. It occurred to Harry that this might be why Dumbledore had left the book for him. He looked over at the door to Dumbledore's office. He slowly walked over and hesitated, then knocked on the door.

The door slid open and he saw Dumbledore seated at his desk, looking at him with a solemn expression. "Come in, Harry. I've been expecting you."

Harry moved through the door and took a seat in front of his desk. "I suppose you left me that book?"

"Yes. I felt you were ready for that, ah, information," Dumbledore said quietly. "You may wonder why you have access to that book at all. The first reason is obvious... there is valuable defensive information in there."

"Sir... that information about Avada Kedavra..." Harry started.

"Yes? You found that interesting, did you?" Dumbledore said, with a slight smile.

"We didn't learn any of those tactics in class..." Harry said.

"That's right. Much of that defense knowledge is not generally known, except at the highest Auror levels," said Dumbledore.

"But why?" Harry asked, a bit stunned. "A lot of that could save someone's life!"

"You're right, Harry," Dumbledore said quietly. "And I don't necessarily agree with the reasons for keeping it secret, particularly in extreme times of dark wizardry. But there are reasons that information was restricted."

"What possible reason could there be to restrict it?" Harry asked, growing angry.

"Avada Kedavra is an extremely powerful curse. Remember - it's magically indefensible. It was thought that it was enough that it was Unforgivable. If no one used it, then there was no reason anyone needed to defend against it. Long ago it was felt that if people thought it was defensible, then it might be more widely used.

"I'm certain you noticed that much of the information in my library was very useful, and you've probably wondered more than once why it was restricted," Dumbledore said. "You might even reasonably ask, why is Imperio an Unforgivable, whereas something like a memory erasure charm is not. Imperio doesn't actually harm the person, yet a memory charm is quite invasive, is it not?"

Harry nodded.

"Part of the Ministry's function is to ensure a stable magical society," Dumbledore explained. "Many of the decisions to restrict certain information were made long ago, for practical reasons. The Unforgivable curses didn't used to be Unforgivable, but their use undermined stability. Avada Kedavra was used in too many duels; both wizards would end up being killed. The Cruciatus Curse was used for prisoner interrogations, corrupting law enforcement. Imperio was possibly the worst for society; you could never trust whether anyone was acting under their own free will.

"So the decision was made to make their use a highly punishable offense. These curses are the most corrupting and damaging to civilization." Dumbledore paused, allowing the thoughts to sink in.

"Sir," Harry asked. "May I share this defensive information with... others?"

"I will leave that decision to you, Harry," Dumbledore said.

Harry resolved to himself that he would tell his DA members in the next meeting. As he was thinking this, Dumbledore seemed to grow very pensive.

"There is another reason I gave you that book, Harry," Dumbledore said and paused, looking uncharacteristically hesitant.

Harry looked at him curiously.

"As you know, the Unforgivable Curses were authorized for use by Aurors in the last war," Dumbledore said gravely.

Harry felt stunned at his implication. "You... you... want me to use them?" he asked in a hushed voice.

"No. I didn't say that, and I will never say that. I hope you will never use these curses, Harry. They are corrupting and potentially very damaging to the psyche of the wizard that uses them. However, I will tell you that I did not object to the authorization of their use in the last war.

"It is a very personal decision. No one doubts that these curses are very, very effective. You've felt the Cruciatus curse yourself and know how truly terrible it is. Myself, I have never used them and will never use them. However, I do not judge those who do use them for righteous purposes.

"Harry," Dumbledore said, taking on a grim tone. "The stakes are high, about as high as they can be. Someday you may be faced with a decision. The use of one of these curses may make a significant difference. War is never clean or easy. Do not use them rashly or recklessly... or do not use them at all, if that is your choice. But I felt it was important that you had the option."

Harry nodded slowly. A memory came back from the Ministry... of trying to do the Cruciatus curse on Bellatrix. He hadn't felt much guilt about it... the curse hadn't worked that well, after all. On the other hand, thinking about it, he realized he had been carefully thinking around it, not dwelling on it too much.

He looked at Dumbledore, abruptly needing some guidance - or perhaps, some absolution. "Sir..." Harry started, his emotions welling up within him, making it difficult to say.

"Yes, Harry?" Dumbledore said, his face unreadable.

"Sir... I... I... at the Ministry... Bellatrix..." Harry started, but was unable to continue.

"Just because I haven't done an Unforgivable, doesn't mean I haven't done magic that was very difficult for me to deal with afterward," Dumbledore said gently.

"I was so angry... I wanted to hurt her... but it only worked a little..." said Harry, his voice breaking.

"You were fifteen, thrust into a situation that would be difficult for even an adult Auror," Dumbledore said. "No wizard has ever had to bear your burdens at such a young age. To be perfectly honest, I don't know what I would have done at fifteen in your place. Do you recall what I said was the most important thing you would learn here at Hogwarts?"

"Self control," Harry said quietly.

"Yes. Allow me to repeat myself again, Harry. Learn from this incident, but forgive yourself. They're called the Unforgivable curses, but as usual, there are exceptions to every rule," he said with a gentle smile.

Harry blew out a breath, gaining control over himself as a great burden seemed to lift from him. Now that he had told Dumbledore, he realized how much the incident had been eating at him below the surface.

"Thank you, sir," Harry said gratefully.

"You're welcome," Dumbledore said kindly.

Harry got up from his chair and prepared to leave.

"One more thing," Dumbledore said. Harry looked back at him curiously. "Your destiny is to face Voldemort, but that doesn't mean that the support in your life is not critical to all this. You can't do this all by yourself, Harry. Accept the love from your friends and let them help share your burden. And, of course, you know that my door is always open."

Harry stood for a moment before nodding silently, and then returned to Dumbledore's library to study.

* * *

Harry walked back from dinner feeling unusually reflective. As was usual these days, he had eaten dinner with Ginny, as well as Ron and Hermione, but somehow it hit him tonight how little he had seen Ron and Hermione lately. He generally saw them during meals and classes, and they often studied together, but...

It seemed as though, during a lot of their free time, Ron and Hermione were either off doing something together, or he and Ginny were doing something together. They still played the occasional game of chess or exploding snap, but it was much less frequent than in the past.

Somewhat disquieted without knowing quite why, he entered through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room. He saw Hermione across the room, working on some homework alone at a table.

"Hi, Hermione," Harry said, sitting down at her table.

"Hello, Harry," she said, pushing some books aside to make room.

"Where's Ron?" he asked.

"Oh, he had to finish some Prefect duties. I, of course, finished them yesterday, but he put them off until the last minute," she said, rolling her eyes. "Where's Ginny?"

"Study group. She was going to do some revision with her friends," Harry replied.

Harry pulled out his books as Hermione went back to her homework. He began reading his chapter for Potions, but soon found his mind wandering back to the subject that had been on his mind earlier. He looked over at her, wondering if she ever thought about all the changes that had happened between them this year.

"Hermione?" he started tentatively.

"Yes?" she said, looking up.

Harry found it difficult to find the words for exactly what he was feeling.

"Is something bothering you, Harry?" she asked, putting down her quill.

"I've just been thinking... you, Ron and I haven't been spending very much time together lately, have we? I mean, I love spending time with Ginny..." he said, trailing off.

"But things are different now?" Hermione said.

Harry nodded.

"You know that we haven't gone anywhere, Harry," Hermione said gently. "We're still here for you."

"I know. It's just that... I suppose I've just realized recently how much things have changed. It was always the three of us, and now... I mean, we're all still friends, but..." Harry said.

"...But now there are other things in our lives that are taking our time," Hermione finished. "I know. I thought about that myself, after Ron and I started going out, even before you got together with Ginny... that the relationship among ourselves was never going to be the same.

"I suppose this happens to all school friends, eventually," Hermione continued thoughtfully. "Even if nothing had changed, we would inevitably leave Hogwarts and start our separate lives. We can't stay the same forever."

"Do you ever... wish it wouldn't change?" Harry asked.

Hermione smiled at Harry compassionately. "Of course, Harry. The times I've spent here at Hogwarts have been the best times of my life. You and Ron are my best friends, and will always be my best friends, no matter where we go from here. What we've shared is extremely special.

"I suppose change is hard for you, isn't it? After the Dursleys, and with your life finally finding some order here, it would be hard for you to give that up. But everyone has to grow up."

Harry nodded slowly as a reflective silence grew between them. The future suddenly loomed very large; only one more year of Hogwarts, and the comfort and knowledge that he would live here would be gone. A year seemed like a long time... but the present year had flown by. Where were they all going to go after Hogwarts? War was coming... would he go to the Auror Academy? Where would Ron and Hermione be?

"Can I ask you a... personal question?" Harry asked, very hesitantly.

"Of course, Harry," Hermione said curiously.

"Do you think that you and Ron... will get married?" he asked.

Hermione chuckled. "Oh, Harry, I don't know. I know that I love him, and he says he loves me. It would be wonderful to be married to one of your best friends, wouldn't it? But we're all only sixteen. So much can happen between now and then."

"I suppose I feel a little selfish about it," Harry said. "If you both got married, then it's that much easier to stay in contact with you."

"Well, how about you, then?" Hermione asked, a bit mischievously.

"Me what?" Harry asked.

"Marriage, Harry. If you can ask me, then I should be able to ask you. If you married Ginny, then you would be part of the Weasley family - it makes it that much easier to stay in contact with you."

Harry gulped. He'd set himself up for that. The whole idea of marriage was just... weird. If it came down to it, he couldn't imagine his future with anyone but Ginny at this particular moment, but he had no idea what would happen in the future. For some reason, Hermione's question seemed impossibly difficult to answer.

"Do you love her?" Hermione asked at Harry's silence.

Harry breathing hitched. "Erm... um..." he started, then finally said in a low voice, his eyes looking down, "Yes, I think so."

Hermione cocked her head, as if a thought had just hit her. "Do you think she loves you?"

Harry tensed up at this. He simply didn't know the answer to that. Ginny had said that she had feelings for him... for now, anyway. He had no idea how strong they were, or if they would last. "I... don't... know. I mean, maybe..." Harry said finally.

"Harry, Ginny is mad about you," Hermione said.

"It's all so new... I mean, right now, I guess she, er, likes me..." Harry said.

"New? Great Merlin," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. She then looked at him piercingly. "Harry, are you afraid that she'll suddenly wake up one day and realize you're not worth it?" she asked.

His heart seized up. He hadn't wanted to think about it in those terms, but Hermione had scored a direct hit. He stayed silent, looking away a little.

"Do you really think there's anything she doesn't know, that she hasn't considered? Do you think she doesn't know the risks?" Hermione asked.

"I suppose she knows that... but... I know how I feel, but I... erm, I don't totally know what she feels... she's said some things..." Harry said, feeling a bit like a trapped animal.

"Have you told her how you feel? I mean, really told her?" Hermione asked.

"Well... a little..." Harry said nervously. "I mean, doesn't she already, er, know?"

"Think about the history, here. She can't know how you really feel, and for a long time she had feelings that weren't returned. How does she know that you haven't changed your mind? She needs to hear you say it once in a while."

"You mean... say it... erm, straight out?" Harry asked, knowing that was exactly what she meant.

Hermione chuckled. "Honestly, Harry. I think you'd rather face a hoard of Death Eaters rather than tell the girl you claim to love how you feel."

Harry felt a bit shameful at that. She was right; it shouldn't be this difficult if Ginny really was important to him. He nodded at her with a sigh. "Thanks, Hermione. I'll... think about it. Think about... something... to say."

She smiled back at him. "Good. Just say it honestly, and the rest will take care of itself."

Hermione paused, looking reflective, then fixed Harry with a steady look. "And Harry, about the changes between us all... never doubt that, no matter what happens with Ron and me, or Ginny, or leaving Hogwarts, we will all be with you... to the end."

* * *

Harry wandered around his dormitory, glancing at the clock as he waited impatiently for eleven o'clock, but feeling very happy. It was his new favorite part of the week. It was late morning Saturday, and in the last month, he and Ginny had taken to eating their lunch outside. It almost felt like a little weekly anniversary gift to themselves, from the first time they had found a quiet spot after the Chamber.

The weather had mostly cooperated with their new ritual, but last week it had drizzled, so they went to the effort of conjuring a large umbrella, and then drying the ground. It would have been a lot easier to stay in the castle, but neither one of them wanted to deny themselves their time together.

Ginny was extremely busy these days, since OWLs were coming up fast, but they gave themselves these hours together. They had sneaked in a few visits to the kitchens, but it was difficult to squeeze those in. Harry missed her desperately during the week, mostly seeing her at the odd meals and sometimes in the common room while studying.

Harry smiled to himself; they had found time to be alone with each other between studying. He actually felt a little guilty; she appeared very tired sometimes. Still, she seemed very enthusiastic to find those times with him.

He had been thinking a lot about his conversation with Hermione. It felt incredibly difficult to give a voice to his feelings for Ginny. He wanted to believe it was somehow enough that he wanted to spend time with her, and that he... well, hopefully demonstrated how he felt when they were alone.

But ultimately, he knew that Hermione was right. Ginny did need to hear him say... something. He had rehearsed a lot of things in his head... but they all seemed impossibly difficult. Almost... corny. Did blokes really say those... sort of things... to girls?

He couldn't help but imagine himself saying... something... and then getting some sort of vague response, or perhaps even laughing at him. She had implied in the Chamber that this all meant a lot to her, but what did that really mean... what if he was pushing it along too fast. What if she wasn't ready to hear how he really felt? What if his feelings were much deeper than hers, and then he made her uncomfortable...

Harry groaned. This was all driving him mad. But somehow, he needed to give her something. She was so important to him; he owed her that much. He would just have to see how it went today.

Finally, at about ten minutes to eleven, he headed down to the common room. He saw Ginny waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs with a big smile. He smiled back, feeling good just seeing her there.

"All set? Dobby heard that we've been having picnics and insisted on packing the lunch today," she said, giggling. "It's huge." She gestured toward an enormous picnic basket, looking large enough for ten people.

"Wow," Harry said, opening up a side panel and peeking in. "I'm going to have to find a smelly sock for him."

"That won't be difficult, if you're anything like my precious brothers," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Mine are even worse," Harry replied, grinning. "Remember, a lot of my socks came from Uncle Vernon. I should keep some around to throw at Death Eaters; they wouldn't stand a chance."

Ginny snickered. "Maybe we should let the Dursleys guard Azkaban now that the Dementors are gone."

"Nah, Dementors are one thing, but subjecting the inmates to the Dursleys would be far too cruel," Harry said, picking up the picnic basket.

Ginny laughed as they exited out the portrait hole, making Harry feel good. Since they had started going out, he felt so much better about life in general. He'd noticed that he was joking around more, not only with Ginny, but with Ron and Hermione, too.

All of his problems were still there, and he was painfully aware of the approaching war, but somehow things felt a lot easier to deal with. Ginny never tried to pry his feelings out of him, but she always made it clear in a low-key way that he could talk to her, and he had slowly started to share more of his thoughts. It felt so good to unburden himself, and he tried to be a receptive audience to her problems as well, mostly about her school pressures.

He actually felt a little guilty about that. It appeared that she was shouldering much more of a burden from him than he helped with her, but she actually seemed to welcome him sharing his thoughts.

They walked out the great front doors of Hogwarts into warm sunshine. There was a slight breeze blowing with large, white puffy clouds in the brilliant blue sky. The spring rains had caused the mountains in the distance to explode in green flora, and he could see fields of bright, colorful flowers in bloom around them. Harry almost felt stunned at how beautiful everything was today. He looked over Ginny, his heart filling with feeling, happy to be able to share this kind of day with her.

They strolled down the path toward the lake, Harry enjoying the walk as the sun reflected brightly off the blue water, the wind causing ripples across the surface. He could see birds diving down into the water, catching fish and enjoying their lunch as well. Harry saw an odd thing floating in the lake... and then realized that it was the Giant Squid floating on the surface, apparently enjoying the sunshine. He pointed out the squid to Ginny.

"Well, he seems to have the right idea," she said, smiling.

"Yeah, that looks nice. One of these days we should take a boat out on the lake," Harry said.

They finally reached a spot far from the castle, a very nice location next to some trees. Ginny conjured a blanket to sit on, and Harry put down the picnic basket. She dug through and pulled out a couple of Butterbeers.

"Dobby really outdid himself with this basket," she said appreciatively.

"That looks good," Harry said, reaching out for his, but Ginny pulled it away teasingly.

"Oh, that's what you want, is it?" she said mischievously, putting it behind her back.

Harry laughed as he tried reach around and get it, but Ginny began running into the trees, carrying the Butterbeers and laughing. He immediately chased her, reaching out and almost getting her as she screamed, but lost her as she abruptly rounded a tree. She circled back out of the forest, running down the bank next to the lake. Harry noticed that the riverbank turned in sharply up ahead. He angled slightly away, intending to head her off when she had to turn.

Ginny turned and saw Harry heading her off. She stopped, keeping the Butterbeers behind her back.

"Well, Mr. Potter. Now what are you going to do?" she said challengingly, out of breath.

Impulsively, he quickly reached down, picked her up, and threw her into the water. Ginny screamed as she hit the water with the Butterbeers. Harry stood on the bank, laughing at her. Ginny appeared back above the surface.

"Oh, think this is funny, do you?" Ginny said angrily, with narrowed eyes. She pulled her wand. "Tractum!"

Harry felt a strong pulling force. He tried to stop but was pulled into the lake next to her, falling into the water face-first with a loud splash. He stood up in the shallow lake, just in time to hear Ginny shout, "Petrificus Totalus!" Harry's body went stiff as a board as he bobbed in the water. Ginny then levitated him above the lake.

"Erm, Ginny..." Harry said quickly, before being dunked hard into the water and pulled back out.

"Yes, Harry?" she asked sweetly. She dunked him again.

"I'm..." Harry said, as he was dunked again and again between words. "Sorry... I'm... really... really... sorry..."

"Hmm. Have you suffered enough yet?" Ginny asked musingly, as she dunked him a few more times. "I suppose so."

She released the petrification spell and finally let him fall into the water one last time. Harry stood up again warily, feeling like a drowned rat, shivering in the cold water. Ginny began laughing at him, Harry soon joining her, very glad she was now laughing about it.

"I see now why Fred and George fear you," he said, grinning. "Brrr. This water is cold."

"Really?" Ginny said, moving toward him. "I think I can take care of that..."

She wrapped her arms around him, and they began kissing in the water, the warmth of her body creating a very exciting contrast with the cold water. They finally broke away, smiling at each other.

As they stepped out of the water, Harry actually felt very refreshed after all the running in the warm sun. Noticing that Ginny lost the Butterbeers, Harry pulled out his wand. "Accio Butterbeer!" The bottles flew out of the lake and came to Harry, who grinned at Ginny.

They cast drying spells on themselves, then walked back to the blanket, holding hands and drinking their Butterbeers, the bright sunshine feeling good on his cool skin. He glanced over at Ginny, her hair blowing in the light breeze.

They sat down on the blanket, Harry feeling very peaceful and contented. Ginny began spreading out their lunch on the blanket. She hummed a little tune as she pulled out a seemingly endless variety of lunch items.

Harry felt himself growing a bit more nervous as he considered what he could say to express his feelings. "It's... a really nice day today, isn't it?" Harry said.

"Yes, it's gorgeous," Ginny said, taking a bite from a sandwich.

How does someone say these things? Harry thought anxiously. He had no idea what to say, how to put his feelings into words. He decided to try and sneak up on the idea, if that was possible.

"Remember over the summer when we flew through the forest? I really... really... had fun that day," Harry said, hoping she would somehow make the leap that it was she who made it special.

Ginny giggled. "Well, frustrating and fun."

"Frustrating?" Harry said, blinking at her.

"You don't know how I wanted to grab you and kiss you when you... well, fell on me," Ginny said, looking at him with a smile.

"I... don't think I would have objected," Harry said with a small smile in return.

"Well, now you tell me," she said, chuckling. "We could have saved a lot of time."

Harry looked out over the lake, seeing an owl flying into the sky carrying some sort of package. He idly wondered where it was going as he tried to think of some way to give voice to his feelings...

"It's going to be summer again, soon," Harry said, thinking of the previous summer

"Yeah... this year has been busy, hasn't it?" said Ginny, looking reflective.

"I 'spose I'll have to go to the Dursley's one last time," he said glumly. "I'm... really, really going to miss you." That was good, Potter. That tells her how you feel a little bit, he thought, proud of himself.

Ginny smiled at him and squeezed his hand. "I'll write to you every day. I'm positive Professor Dumbledore will let us see each other soon."

"I'll write to you, too," he said. "Not that I have much else to do at the Dursleys, unless Uncle Vernon tries to give me another summer job."

"Summer job?" she said suspiciously.

"I guess I never told anyone... just before I was about to leave, he tried to make me take a Muggle job cleaning these huge smelting pots. Knowing him, there was probably a good chance of the job being fatal."

Ginny snickered and looked at him affectionately. "I'm really going to miss you, too," she said.

Harry smiled, not believing that he'd really said enough, but happy that he'd said something. He felt so peaceful today; it was hard to get really anxious about anything.

Glancing at her hair on her shoulder, Ginny noticed that it was a bit stringy from being in the water. She pulled out a brush from the basket and began brushing her hair. Harry watched the process, her long, red hair gleaming in the sunshine...

Harry gazed at her, mesmerized, the scene was so idyllic... the wind blew through the trees, rustling the branches and leaves, cooling his skin against the warm contrast of the sun... time seemed to slow as his mind drifted away... her hair looked so lovely, being brushed like that... a flock of birds flew across the sky... he could see her freckles on her face, also running along her neck... she was so beautiful...

"I love you, Ginny..." Harry whispered.

Ginny froze. She turned to him and blinked, her hair brush falling out of her hand. "What did you say?" she asked in a whisper.

Harry breathing suddenly seized up as he realized what he'd said... he hardly even meant to say it out loud... somehow it had just slipped out, he didn't think...

"I'm sorry!" he said, feeling panicked and looking away. "I... I... I..."

Ginny moved closer to him, looking utterly shocked as she sat next to him on the blanket. She raised her hand, cupping Harry's face. "Please don't be sorry..." she said with a smile, some tears in her eyes.

Harry looked down. "I'm... not really sorry," he responded in a low voice, unable to look at her.

She turned his face back to her and gazed deeply into his eyes. "I love you so much, Harry."

Harry heart began thudding as a shiver went down his spine at those words. "Really?" he whispered. "I mean, you don't have to say it, just because I said it..."

"I love you, Harry," she said again, with emphasis.

Harry closed his eyes, feeling emotional, letting her words echo in his head. Could she really mean it? It seemed so odd hearing those words...

He felt Ginny embrace him tightly, stroking his back and hair. "I've wanted to tell you that," she whispered. "but... I didn't know, you know, how you really felt... and I didn't want to put that kind of pressure on you..."

They pulled back and gazed into each other's eyes. He loved her eyes; they were so bright and expressive. They came together for a long, slow kiss, and then broke apart. He sighed, feeling a burden released. Somehow he had managed to say what he needed to say, and miraculously, Ginny had returned all his feelings and them some.

He laid down on the blanket, pulling Ginny alongside of him as she rested her head on his shoulder, cradled by his arm. They looked up into the sky as small, puffy clouds floated in the deep blue. Everything was so quiet; he could hear birds chirping in the trees and water lapping on the bank of the lake.

"It's so nice here," he whispered, feeling loved and at peace.

Ginny turned and kissed his cheek, burrowing closer to him as she sighed in agreement.

"I wish... my parents could have known you. I wish I could bring you home to them..." he said. "I know they would have loved you, too."

Ginny pulled his hand into hers, holding it on her stomach, stroking the top as she just listened.

"I'm glad that Sirius knew you, at least, even if we weren't... together then. I know he would be happy for us. And Remus knows... I guess I didn't really tell you this, but..." Harry stopped, feeling a little embarrassed. Ginny stayed silent, letting him find the words. Harry was grateful that he wasn't looking directly at her; somehow that made it easier, looking up at the sky. "Well, after the Daily Prophet story... he's the closest thing to my family now... and... I guess I wanted to tell someone... connected... to my parents.

"I've been writing to him this year... anyway, he owled back and said... my parents would be very proud of, erm, my choice in girlfriends." Harry stopped again. "I guess... I should have told you this before... I don't know why I didn't."

Ginny continued stroking his hand.

"I suppose I'm just not used to... sharing things like that, at least before, but now... I don't... want to, erm, hide... those sort of things... from you anymore," he finished awkwardly.

"It's all right, Harry," Ginny said gently. "I don't expect you to overcome a lifetime of holding everything inside overnight. But I want you to know that I appreciate that you've been sharing more things lately."

Harry nodded. "And... did you know that Dumbledore has a secret library? Well, of course you don't... nobody knows. Ron, Hermione and I have been studying in there this year. There is a lot of... information in there. Important information. I want you to come, too... so you'll be... prepared."

Ginny nodded. "I'd been wondering where you three disappeared to so much of the time this year."

There was a long silence as they both watched clouds float by in the sky. Harry's thoughts drifted, remembering Sirius... he idly wondered what had happened with the inheritance. He presumed that Lucius Malfoy must have been unsuccessful, otherwise Remus would have mentioned something. He hadn't thought about that since his birthday party... suddenly, another thought rose in his mind, causing excitement to build in him...

"Ginny!" he said. The thought seemed to fill every corner of his head. It was so obvious...

"What?" she said, a little startled at his suddenness.

Harry felt stunned as he replied, "I think I know where Sirius's diary is."

Author notes: New, improved thanks to my beta readers Allie Kiwi and DM. Now with crackling thankful goodness! Reviewers are unbelievably cool people, aren’t they?

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