Chapter Thirty-Three

Author's Notes:

Oh my poor, poor readers. :shakes head: I've been away for so long and I feel absolutely dreadful about it. The only excuses I have is work and life dramas. Well, hopefully you'll all forgive me for that after you read this chapter. There's fumbles. There's deception. There's sex. Yes. And it's rough sex, too, so be forewarned. But who's shagging whom? Ahh . . . Well, you shall see. Forward on, gentle reader, forward on. (This chapter's Beta Reader shall be played by the ever kind and humble Mathaliel. Bless her.) FYI - FFnet's formatting is demonic!

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Ron generally hated attending wedding feasts with Muggle-born guests because of all the questions they asked. 'Why do wizarding feasts have this or that', etc. But the good thing about having Hermione 'Know-it-all' Granger about was that she could explain all the finer points of tradition to the Muggle-raised Harry Potter.

The downside of having her around was that she never stopped explaining.

"I suppose that those are the fig-wrapped almonds to symbolise . . ."

After roughly ten previous statements by Hermione that covered the history and preparation of almost everything Harry put in his mouth, Ron tuned her out.

Ron made designs with crumbs and bits of his elderberry flower fritter in the sweet cream. He pushed at the food on his plate half-heartedly. He'd never liked wedding food much anyway; everything always had bloody flowers in it. You couldn't even take a bite of something solid, like a nice beef roast, without encountering at least three types of brightly coloured flower petals.

Ron gulped down a goblet of broom bud wine before refilling it and downing two more. Ron found himself scanning the intimate crowd of friends and family for one particular face, even though he knew it was an improbability bordering on an absurdity that she would be here.

Pansy had made it abundantly clear after their shower interlude that she wanted nothing more to do with him. Ron couldn't understand why he longed to see her face, hold her slim body against his own, kiss her mouth . . .

He shook his head to clear his thoughts and gulped down another goblet of wine. The almond-flavour lingered in his mouth as he carefully found his feet. Harry stood as well, but Ron motioned for him to stay where he was.

Ron needed to be alone and think things through without the well-meaning chatter of his friends. If that meant he would have to miss having a slice of the wedding cake, he'd still risk it. Ron was terribly fond of rummy, plummy, moist fruitcake . . . crunchy marzipan . . . but he'd suffer like a man.

Perhaps he should have asked Harry to bring him a slice later.

Ginny was arguing with their mother as he passed them on his way to the door, so he stopped to listen for a moment.

"But where's my egg, Mum? Draco is supposed to crack an egg and give it to me before we eat the cake."

Mrs Weasley pursed her lips and paused before she bit into a thin slice of beef entombed in marigold petals. "I think Draco's cracked enough of your eggs, dear," she said with some asperity.

Ginny frowned and looked away. Ron felt a tiny smirk twist the flesh of his face. He opened the doors of the hall, already in a better mood. The cooler air of the corridor felt remarkable on Ron's flushed face. He took big gulps of it into his lungs, relieved to have escaped the people inside.

Ron wandered out of the corridor and found himself tramping down to the dungeons without much thought. Maybe Pansy'd be done with detention by now and he could find out whereoof!

He looked down and smiled cheerfully at Millicent Bulstrode.

"Millie Dear!" Ron cried happily. "It's such a pleasure to see you today. My, is that a new blouse? Here, let me help you up."

Millicent regarded him warily before accepting his hand up from the floor. "I don't know where she is, Weasley."

Ron blinked. Weren't Slytherins renowned for their subtlety and not their abilities as Seers? "Um. Where's who?"

She lifted one eyebrow at him. Why was it that all Slytherins seemed to be able to do that? Did Snape give eyebrow-lifting lessons or something? Ron grinned back at her and offered his arm. Girls were too easy sometimes, and Millicent Bulstrode was no exception. She dusted off her bum, slung her rucksack over her shoulder, and linked Ron's proffered arm through her own.

"She doesn't like you, Weasley. You're deluding yourself."

Ron furrowed his brow. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't lift just one of them. "Of course she likes me! Fancies me to death. Snogging. Everything."

Millicent rolled her eyes. "Why Pansy? Why not one of the other girls who chase after you? I heard you were dragged off into an unused Charms classroom by three Ravenclaw fifth-years just last week. That had to have been loads of fun for you."

Ron stopped and blew his fringe out of his eyes. "Well, they had fun. At least until I managed to body-bind them and run away."

"Think that will work on you?" Millicent asked, her eyes glinting with suppressed amusement. "As much as I'm flattered, I really don't enjoy being followed everywhere I go in the hopes that you'll see Pansy."

Ron slumped over and let his back hit the wall. "But I really, really fancy her, Millie. You just don't know."

"I rather think I do. And don't call me Millie!" she warned, waving her beefy hands at him menacingly.

He cringed. "Sorry. I'll remember that next time." Ron cleared his throat. "Anyway, uh, Millicent, don't think you could sneak me into your common room, do you?"

She stared at him blankly.

"Erm, right. Suppose you wouldn't understand what it's like to be head-over-heels for someone who couldn't give a piss for you."

Millicent's mouth hardened and she punched Ron in the arm. "You think you can play on my sympathy? That won't work with me."

"Ow! I wasn't trying"

"You were."

"I suppose so. Um, so you know what I mean, then?" Ron smiled hopefully, keeping his expression purposefully open and adding just the smallest measure of puppy-dog entreaty.

Millicent pursed her thick lips and spun on her heel. She took firm strides back in the direction she came from and Ron slumped down even further until she called to him.

"Coming, Weasley? I haven't all day to desecrate the sanctity of my common room with your filth, you know."

Ron perked up immediately and ran to catch up with her. He could kiss her for this! That is, if she wasn't so repulsive and he wasn't hung up on Pansy.

"Thanks, Millie!"

"Don't call me Millie," she said firmly. "My name is Millicent."

Ron ruffled his hair. "Yeah, I know that."

She rolled her eyes and continued to lead him further into the dungeons. Condensation dripped down the walls and Ron had to watch his step so he didn't fall flat on his face. He wished that his memory wasn't such crap or he could have gone there himself. Getting inside might have been a problem, but Ron felt confident that he could have beat up a firstie or something.

He took the opportunity to study Millicent. She wasn't that bad, perhaps. Sleek-Easy would probably help tame her bushy, black hair. And Ron remembered coming across some sort of potion when he was rambling in Ginny's room one time that she used to take the hair off of her legs. Why did girls do that? Hmmn. Maybe it would work for Millie's upper lip. Then he could help her pull whatever bloke she had her eye on. It would be the nice thing to do for her after all the help she had been.

"So who's the lucky lad, anyway?" Ron nudged her slyly. "I'll help you bag him if you want."

Millicent kept walking, her podgy hand tightening on the strap of her rucksack. "I don't think so, Weasley."

"Aw, come on! After this, it's the least I can do." Ron blinked. "Unless it's Malfoy and then I just can't do because Mum and Ginny would kill me."

"S'not Malfoy," she muttered. "We're almost there, Weasley. Keep your trap shut or I can't get you in."

"Right," Ron agreed, narrowing his eyes in the gloom. He was quiet for a moment before his curiosity got the better of him. "So is it Harry, then? I mean, he's taken, too. That would explain your touchiness on the subject."

Millicent stopped and hit him with her rucksack. "I said shut up!"

"Okay, okay." Ron rubbed his shoulder and looked up. The tapestry to the Slytherin common room was just ahead. "There it is, I recognise it now. Give me the password and run so you don't get in trouble with your sister snakes."

She blew her hair out of her face and tugged at her rucksack. "I really shouldn't do this."

"Don't be such a baby."

Millicent shifted from foot to foot. "It's Serpens Cavea."

"That makes brilliant sense and I should have guessed, but thanks."

Ron was so giddily, drunkenly happy that he kissed her on the cheek and rushed off for the tapestry. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he thought that he'd have to send Pansy to check on Millicent later. She seemed sort of feverish.

Ginny, who had been up since dawn in preparation for her wedding, was thoroughly exhausted by the time she made it to her new room. Some detached part of her mind noticed that all of Draco's and her belongings were now neatly stored at the foot of an enormous four-poster bed that took up most of the small tower room.

The hangings on the bed were burnished gold velvet trimmed with cream satin and draped in thick puddles over the mahogany posts. The room itself was circular, with no corners in which creepy things might hide. It was safe, familiar, and welcoming.

Ginny set her lantern down on the bedside table and pulled the shade low. She sighed and turned to see Draco standing in front of a lead-paned window facing the lake, his hands were splayed on the glass and frost outlined his fingers.

She walked toward him hesitantly, but stopped when Draco turned his head slightly in her direction. The full moon chose that moment to reveal herself from behind a filmy mantle of clouds. Silver light flooded the room, casting Draco's profile into a sharp silhouette with oddly-illuminated edges.

"Come here," he whispered, his voice rough as if he hadn't just spoken a few minutes ago when they had left the remnants of the feast behind.

Ginny shivered and gripped the backs of her arms. There was something dangerous about Draco tonight; something lithe and prowling . . . a feral gleam in his eyes that made the tiny hairs all over her body prickle. Her spine tingling, Ginny edged back toward her trunk.

"I've been in these robes all day, Draco," she said, forcing her voice to sound slightly whiny, but still light and unaffected. "Let me change into my nightdress before we start bickering about sleeping arrangements again."

Ginny chanced a look at him from the corner of her eye, but Draco hadn't moved. He hunted her with his eyes, following the progress of her hands as she loosened the ties of her skirt and stepped out of it. She bent to pick it up and suddenly, he was there. No footfall had betrayed his movements, and Ginny gasped in the beginnings of true fear.

Draco's hands grasped her hips and pulled them tight against his own, his fingers trailed up Ginny's side and to her back to loosen the bodice she still wore.

"Let me help you with that."

His voice was still uneven and wild. Ginny shuddered and repressed a moan at the exquisite torment his slowly sliding fingers and heavy breathing on her neck were wreaking on her senses. She fought the hot ribbon of passion weaving itself around her belly and thighs.

"II thought that we weren't going to"

"Shh," Draco soothed. It rang strangely hollow to Ginny's ears, as if his mind was elsewhere. "You're mine tonight . . ." He moved his mouth to the side and nipped her earlobe. " . . . and every night for the rest of our lives."

Ginny's eyes widened as he slipped her bodice down over her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. She jerked away from him and crossed her arms over her chest. She was nearly naked now and there was no defence against him, only a thin barrier of white cotton to prevent

"We are not doing this, Draco," Ginny said firmly. "I told you that I would never sleep with you again and I meant it."

She turned and shoved his chest with her hands, pushing him away. He stumbled backwards and barely prevented himself from falling over by catching hold of the bedside table.

"I'm sure they can find another room for you tonight, Draco," Ginny said, boosting her confidence by imagining that her voice was a thick acid eating at his lust and dominance. "You're not staying here."

The lantern on the table had flickered out when Draco jostled it, so she couldn't see anything except his glittering eyes in the enfolding gloom. But she heard him as he moved closer now and closer, his breath hot on her face, the light stubble on his jaw grating the thin skin of her cheek.

Ginny fumbled for her wand on the bed behind her, her heart beating a sharp staccato against her breast, almost in time with Draco's, which was pressed against her chest. He wasn't speaking, he utterly ignored her squirms and physical protests.

"Stop it!" Ginny shouted, trying to sound indignant and failing in her own ears as his arms closed around her and his tongue darted out to lick her throat. "Merlin, please stop it," she cried. Her eyes stung and itched with tears but Draco didn't stop.

His fingers clamped the sides of her head and he kissed her on the mouth, biting her lips to gain entry. It was hardly pleasant at first, but Ginny found some perverse part of herself giving in to the raw hunger and animalistic lust that he exuded. Draco was the sun and she was spinning in his scorching orbit. Perhaps it was too bright or too hot, but God . . . it felt so good.

"It's much too late to get away, Ginny," he confided to her mouth, pressing urgent kisses to the juncture of her lips. "And I can't escape either."

Draco threaded his fingers in Ginny's hair, grasping thick handfuls of it and massaging her scalp lightly with his fingertips.

"So make the best of this then?" Ginny asked, revelling in the sparks that trailed in the wake of Draco's touch. This was almost like the first time, but he was the aggressor - the initiator - now. Tables turned. She closed her eyes. "This is all we have, I suppose. I don't think you could ever— "

"No," Draco cut her off. "I don't think I ever could." Ginny felt his lips twist down sharply against her cheek. "I wasn't made for such things, you know."

"Things like love?" Ginny ventured, gently breaking some agreement that she didn't remember making. "Everyone is made for love."

"Not me," Draco murmured.

The moon kept shifting behind her shroud, now light and now dark, fluctuating almost as swiftly as Draco's mood, but at that moment she chose to trickle into the room and illuminate his face. His fine, pale brows drew together and his eyes were dangerous again. With a snarl, Draco pushed Ginny back on the bed and climbed on top of her, pinning her wrists firmly to the eiderdown with his hands.

Ginny's head was still spinning from the sudden movement when Draco reached between them to pull her knickers down over her thighs. They tangled and caught half-way down, even with Ginny lifting her hips to help, and the way he shoved them over her legs scraped the skin off in places. Ginny's breath caught in her throat. Draco's face was so intense - concentrating solely on what he was doing - but it was also almost as if he wasn't actually there and had no control over the movements of his body.

"Slow down," Ginny whispered shakily. "We have time."

He didn't speak, but he made a grumbling sound somewhat like a purr and quickly shed his robes, the buttons of his trousers popped off and fell on the floor like rain.

"Talk to me, Draco," Ginny implored him, the raw spots on her legs burning. "Please talk to me."

Ginny had passed the point where she cared about maintaining her protests against reopening their physical relationship, but this didn't seem at all right. Yes, she wanted him. Merlin, did she ever want Draco in her arms, his touch and his breath in her ear. What had come over him?

Draco stilled and blinked down at her for a moment, his body tense, then he leant down to sniff at her neck, trailing down over her breasts and belly with his hands and nose, parting her legs to . . . Ginny arched up and clutched at the bedclothes. Draco had neverhe'd never done this before.

His slender, devilish tongue was working all sorts of magic in a place that he'd clearly stated over a month ago he would never go again. He wrapped his hands around her thighs and squeezed. While Draco's tongue lapped circles and darted quickly in and out of intricate pockets of flesh, exploring every fold and crease, his teeth just barely grazed the heart of it all. They were only slightly too rough, but Ginny liked it that way. If she'd had higher brain function, she would have admonished herself.

Somehow, Ginny's hands wandered from the bedclothes to Draco's hair. She wove her fingers deep and plucked at his scalp with her fingertips, soft sighs and moans escaping her lips. The time she'd shocked herself with one of her father's Muggle plugs leapt to her mind, but with the knowledge that this was infinitely more pleasurable than that had been.

As if Draco had perversely read her thoughts, he stopped and crawled back up over her body, settling his weight heavily between her thighs. Ginny could smell his sweat and musk clinging to her fingers and she explored his chest, lightly biting his nipples and sucking his skin into her mouth.

Draco tossed his head and growled low and deep in the back of his throat. Ginny glanced up at him and slid her hands around to cup his bottom, squeezing his flesh rhythmically in invitation. He pushed her thighs wider apart and hardly positioned himself at all before thrusting into her. His hips crashed to hers with a savage cadence, like a drumbeat or a heathen dance. It was base and earthy and timeless.

Ginny's back bowed involuntarily and her body melted into the bedclothes as Draco pressed on, burying himself inside of her again and again, filling her. That luscious feeling was building like a slow, steady crescendo, pulsing through her veins.

She bucked her hips against him, trying to find a measure when there was none. Draco's fingers skated up her ribs and twirled her nipples with his deft touch, lighting her skin on fire.

Draco didn't ask Ginny if she liked that or this, he somehow knew and moved instinctively. And so did she. Ginny wrapped her legs around his waist, pushing her hips closer to his, meeting his thrusts with a swivel of her pelvis. Her arms went round his neck and suddenly her entire body was off the bed, clinging completely to Draco and pressing herself as close to him as she could get.

His pearl-coloured ear was near her mouth and she bit it lightly with her canines, summoning forth a growl from Draco. He shoved her back onto the bed again and pushed her knees to her chest. Ginny groaned as he went deeper into her body than before, hitting shivering spots that she'd never knew existed.

When Ginny felt herself peaking, she could barely move for Draco's weight on top of her, pressing her into the bedclothes. She writhed and twitched and moaned her pleasure, Draco's answer a soft roar in her ears.

Ginny's legs slipped free from Draco's tight grasp and slid around his chest. She rested her heels on his back and he dropped his head to her breast, panting. They laid still for a few minutes before Ginny weakly lifted a hand to stroke his hair back from his face, twining the soft strands between her fingers. Ginny didn't know what had come over him so suddenly, but she quite liked it, even though she knew that she shouldn't.

Draco was still inside of her and he moved his face slightly to the side and started sucking leisurely on her nipple. He nibbled at the soft underside of her breast and roughly tongued the crease. Ginny closed her eyes, her head spinning at the pleasure that was slowly building all over her body. Though it seemed impossible, Draco was hardening and undulating his hips against hers again. It must be some magic from the wedding because this was hardly normal.

Ginny suspected that it was going to be a very, very long night.

"I see that you have reconciled."

Harry nodded at the Headmaster as he let them into his office. "Yes, in a way."

He wasn't about to say anymore on the matter, it was private and come hell or high water, he was keeping it that way. But Dumbledore only moved his head slowly up and down in acknowledgement.

"Ah," he hummed. "I'm glad for you all." Dumbledore waved his hand over a low table set in the midst of four, squashy armchairs gathered together in a rough semi-circle. "Take tea with me? To celebrate your friendship."

Hermione plucked at Harry's sleeve, but he ignored her silent warning. If DuGrindlwho ever it was wanted them dead, they wouldn't have survived long enough to make it to his office, much less be offered tea.

All around them the portraits were watching keenly. Phineas Nigellus kept a shrewd, steady watch from the corner of his eye as he pretended to ignore the scene taking place below. Harry squinted up at him before leading Hermione to a chair and settling into the one beside her. Ron came up to flank her other side, which left Dumbledore to take the chair opposite.

Harry pulled out his wand and flicked it at the table, summoning a tea service for four. Then he realised just how weak and clumsy the gesture really was. He shrugged apologetically at Dumbledore.

"Hope you don't mind, sir. Hermione prefers a rose blend, you see, and I wasn't certain . . ."

Dumbledore leant back in his chair and sighed audibly at the thinly-veiled message that he was no longer trusted by Gryffindor's famous - and now reunited - Trio.

"This won't do, Harry. Perhaps you should tell me what I can say or do to make you trust me again."

Hermione lifted a tea cup and precisely measured in a single spoonful of sugar from a crystal bowl Harry was particularly proud of conjuring up. "With all respect, sir, there is little that you can say which will change our opinion, I think."

"Then to show you may be the way, is that it?"

She thoughtfully licked her lips, weighing and measuring her words. "Again, sir, I don't think"

"The Mirror of Erised." Dumbledore laid his proverbial card on the table and took a sip of tea from a cup that wasn't part of Harry's service. "It's what you've been looking for."

"I, well, that is to say wewe've been looking for it to tell us"

"To show you the past, which is infinitely preferable to listening to an old man's ramblings. Just so, Miss Granger?"

"Aye, sir," Ron muttered whilst Hermione was busy gaping like a fish at the Headmaster. "But we have to make a sacrifice for it to work that way."

Harry suddenly shoved his way into the conversation as a thought occurred to him. "That's really why you hid the Mirror in second year, isn't it?" he accused. "You didn't want us to know anything before now; worried that we'd figure you out!"

Dumbledore set his cup aside and regarded him attentively. "Yes and no. The Mirror has many strange and wonderful properties." He groomed the tip of his beard with his fingers, pulling at the tiny knots with his fingernails. "I had planned on telling you my story eventually, Harry, but as I said in your fifth year, I" He pressed his lips together. "I didn't think you needed to be burdened anymore than you were already."

"You never cared about burdening me!" Harry sneered. "You've never cared about anyone who got in the way of your plans. People like Hagrid."

"On the contrary, I care a great deal," Dumbledore said, wearily contemplating his fingers. "Too much, at times, for the comfort of my conscience." He shifted in his chair. "You see, I once was like young Mr Malfoy in the sense that I was . . . cursed with perfection of form." Dumbledore chuckled, even though Harry found nothing amusing about the conversation thus far. "Though it may be hard to believe now, I once was a handsome, strapping youth."

The lights in the room seemed to flicker for a moment, shifting shadows over Dumbledore's face and Harry could suddenly see someone who looked nothing at all like the Headmaster before it was gone. He wasn't ready to credit it entirely to his imagination, but he wondered all the same.

"Draco Malfoy has been cursed for the entire time you've known him, until the beginning of this year, when it broken by a good friend of mine." Dumbledore's eyes suddenly lost their twinkle entirely, becoming two deep blue pools of depression. "I am the one who created and introduced what is now a family curse to the Malfoy line." He sighed and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, completely ignoring the effect his words had on his audience.

"I took the idea from old Irish legends about a land of no pain and no sorrow, but also no happiness and no growth. People never aged or died, but they never really lived either." Dumbledore let his hand float up over the arm of his chair and waved it back and forth like wheat in a field, a gentle swaying motion. "Constantly stuck in a state of perfection that they couldn't enjoy.

"It was a bartering curse, you see. For one wish granted, a price was taken." Dumbledore's eyes were suddenly quite keen and penetrating again. "It was the price I sought, not the vain glory of physical beauty and eternal youth. I had already found ways to prolong my life, so that held little draw for me. But a curse which blunts one's passions comes in useful when one must make concessions that may go against one's conscience and nature."

"Or yours," Hermione pointed out quietly.

"Quite, Miss Granger," Dumbledore agreed. "But the time for discussion has ended, I think. I could explain myself all night and you still wouldn't understand." He rose from his chair and walked to the door. "Better to show you."

Hermione caught Harry's eye and leaned in to whisper: "This seems too easy, Harry. It's not right."

"Yeah," Ron agreed, his clear blue eyes shifting about nervously. "It could be a trap or something; we don't know what we're walking into."

Harry straightened and turned his head to see Dumbledore regarding them with the half-formed parody of a smile on his face. Then he acknowledged their desire for privacy and stepped through the door and into the stairwell.

"What else can we do?" Harry asked them seriously, binding their attention to him. "We can sit here like three suspicious sheep, or we can prepare ourselves and follow him."

"Prepare ourselves to be right buggered like sheep, you mean," Ron muttered.

Harry stared.

"What?" Ron asked defensively. "S'true."

"We have reason to be suspicious, Harry," Hermione said, primly ignoring Ron's last statement entirely. "What we don't have is reason to follow him."

"Except to find the Mirror," Ron added with a quiet insistence that made Harry paranoid.

Hermione threw her hands in the air and stood suddenly to hover over them. "Gryffindor isn't a synonym for incredibly thick lunkhead!"

"What does syn?"

Harry shook his head at Ron. "Don't."

Hermione flung her hair behind her shoulder, the brown fuzz moving in one great mass, and regarded them patronisingly, her hands on her hips. "We have to be cautious, boys. This isn't a game."

"When has it ever been a game?" Harry asked heatedly. "Never, that's when. Not when Sirius died, not when my parents died, and certainly not when Hagrid died!"

Blood rushed to his face and his wand shivered in his grip, red sparks poured from his pocket where it was kept.

"We're doing it again," Ron said sharply. "How are we supposed to do anything, much less find the Mirror, if we can't go five minutes without arguing amongst ourselves?"

The new, adult set of Ron's face, coupled with the fact that he'd actually made sense, made Harry's flesh creep. He would have asked who had taken Polyjuice to impersonate Ron, but decided that it was an insulting question, so he kept his peace.

A glance at Hermione showed that she was seriously considering Ron's statement, the situation as a whole, and their conversation so far. She always did think of everything. Harry could almost see all the words whirring around in her mind like trousers and t-shirts in his Aunt Petunia's tumble dryer. He anticipated the wisdom that usually came out of her mouth after such long contemplation.

"Why are you so keen on that Mirror, Ron?" she asked suddenly.

Ron opened his mouth to reply a few times, his cheeks colouring stubbornly. "Well," he finally croaked. "I thought that I could be the one to . . . sacrifice a desire."

Harry goggled at him. "Why?"

Ron shifted uncomfortably and Harry expected many different answers - half of them to do with Hermione or time turning - but not what he heard instead.

"Pansy," Ron whispered. "I— I ," he cleared his throat and turned to look at Harry. "I really fancy her, Harry. You couldn't possibly understand how hard it is. I mean," Ron licked his lips and ducked his head to avoid Hermione's inquiring stare, huddling into himself. "I don't care that she's a Slytherin, or even that she tried to kill me a few times. Pansy isshe's just . . ." he trailed off, helplessly spreading his hands and at an utter loss for words.

"Special," Harry finished for him, glancing at Hermione.

Ron nodded gratefully. "But even the thought of dating her is mad. It's impossible. I mean, I had to beg Millicent Bulstrode to let me into the Slytherin common room earlier and she wasn't even there! You see what I mean? It's mad to think it. They could have hexed me into next week, but I risked it just to see her face!"

Something in his tone made Harry's eyes burn, so he shifted his attention to the side quickly. There was no way he was going to let Ron give up the potential for happiness, even if it was utterly insane. But they still needed a sacrifice . . .

"Don't worry about the sacrifice, Ron," Harry said, bracing a hand against his friend's shoulder, resolved as to what he had to do. "We'll find another way." He slowly looked up into Hermione's eyes. "But we really should get going now. Dumbledore won't wait forever."

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