Chapter Two

Ghosts and Phantoms

Ginny followed the massive group of returning students up the stone steps and into Hogwarts. She drew a deep breath as they headed toward the Great Hall, and a maelstrom of emotions assaulted her from all angles. Some of the best memories of her life originated in this place.

And some of the worst.

Her wary gaze scanned the interior of the castle. The walls had been repaired and strengthened, and most of the scorch marks had been scrubbed clean. Still, there were signs of the Battle that had taken place a mere four months ago. Chips and mars in the stone, a new portrait, suits of armor with pieces that didn't exactly match.

The sconces on the walls were lit brightly in an attempt to lend a festive atmosphere to the reopening of Hogwarts. The students, however, were somber and uncertain. Although there had been a lot of chattering on the train, most were now subdued. Some openly wept as they made their way toward their familiar House tables. Despite the fact that only the seventh years had remained in the castle to witness the Battle, all of them had lived here under the Carrows' cruel reign.

Hogwarts didn't feel nearly as secure as it once had.

Ginny could see a group of solemn-eyed second-years huddled together, walking in a group so they had each other's backs. Their lost innocence brought a lump to her throat. They'd never known Hogwarts the way she wanted to remember it. She hoped this year could bring back even a glimmer of what had been lost.

The magnificent ceiling of the Great Hall was grey, and a light rain had begun to fall, mirroring the increasing melancholy of the students. Hundreds of floating candles hovering above the tables couldn't diminish the gloom. Ginny's heart thumped uncomfortably as she followed Siobhan toward the Gryffindor table. She stopped abruptly in her tracks, causing Hermione to plough right into her.

"Ginny, what– oh," Hermione said, following Ginny's gaze.

Dennis Creevy sat alone at the long wooden table, staring with deadened eyes around the vast Great Hall. Although his fellow fifth years sat around him, they kept a somber, respectful distance from the obviously grieving boy.

Ginny braced herself and resumed her march toward the table. She approached Dennis cautiously, not knowing if he'd appreciate company. She felt a new kinship with the younger boy – he'd lost a brother, too.

"Hey, Dennis," she said quietly.

Dennis looked up, and a bit of warmth flooded his eyes. "Hey, Ginny. All right?"

Ginny shrugged. "You?"

Dennis paused a moment before answering. "The summer was hard. Mum's not handling things too well. She didn't want me to come back."

Ginny nodded. "I'm glad you did."

Dennis drew a deep breath, and released it slowly. "I am, too. It's hard to be here, but… it feels right."

"I know what you mean," Ginny said, sighing.

"How's Harry?" Dennis asked.

He'd never been quite as in awe of Harry as Colin had, but Dennis could still easily be classified as a fan. Still, Ginny thought he deserved the truth.

"About the same as the rest of us. We're all getting there," she said.

"I didn't go to the Order of Merlin ceremony, but they delivered our medals. Da was quite touched that Colin was awarded one. The Ministry worker said Harry insisted that all the DA get one."

Ginny felt that pesky lump forming in her throat again. She hadn't known he'd been the one behind it, but it was so like Harry, she felt foolish for not realizing. "Fred got one, too," she said.

Dennis nodded slowly. "Have you gone up to the spot where… it happened?" he asked, his voice husky and strained.

Ginny shook her head, but leaned down to tell him quietly. "I'm going to see it after the feast, before the corridors get too crowded."

Dennis squared his shoulders. "That's a good idea, perhaps I'll do the same."

Ginny felt she ought to offer him to come along, but she couldn't do it. She needed to do this alone, and didn't think she had it in her for company. She smiled sadly and moved further down the table to where her roommates were seated. Dean and Parvati had taken seats on Hermione's other side, and they seemed deeply involved in whatever they were discussing.

"How's Dennis?" Siobhan asked.

"He's holding up. He's stronger than he looks," she replied, glancing back down the table and watching Dennis begin to interact with the other fifth years.

"Have you noticed all the new faces at the teachers' table?" Hermione whispered, drawing Ginny's attention to the front of the hall.

She was right. All the chairs were filled, but Ginny didn't recognize any of the newcomers. Professor Slughorn sat chatting amiably with Professor Sinestra, and Hagrid held his traditional spot at the end of the table. Professor McGonagall sat in the center, her hat perched imperiously on her head. She wore her traditional black, but Ginny noticed the cuffs and neckline were lined with a soft velvet. A fitting tribute to the festivity of the welcoming feast.

Ginny turned and glanced at the back of the hall. As expected, there stood a group of frightened first years peering in awe as they caught their first glimpse of the room. Ginny remembered her stomach threatening to regurgitate all the sweets she'd eaten on the train while she stared into the vast hall in her own first year.

"I know that man," she said suddenly, realizing the person at the front of the queue had a scraggly tuft of thin white hair protruding from his hat. Although even smaller in height than the first years he accompanied, he was obviously in charge and leading with a firm hand.

"That's Professor Tofty," Hermione gasped. "He's from the Wizarding Examinations Authority. He was here for our OWLs."

Ginny remembered him, too. She'd demonstrated her Bat Bogey Hex for him during her Defense examination.

"He's positively ancient!" Demelza said, her eyes wide.

"I wonder what he's doing here," Hermione said, frowning.

"Do you think he's staying?" Liz asked.

"We'll have to wait for Professor McGonagall's speech," Hermione said.

She was right. It wasn't until the new students had been Sorted and everyone's appetite sated before Professor McGonagall rose and stared down at them all expectantly, and complete silence soon overtook the Great Hall. Before she could begin speaking, however, from somewhere amongst the crowd of students, someone began a slow clap. It was rapidly joined by others until the entire Great Hall was giving the Acting Headmistress a somewhat somber but appreciative ovation.

Professor McGonagall had repeatedly stood up to the Carrows with grace and dignity during the previous year. She wasn't always able to stop them, but she always tried, and she frequently confused them with her sharp tongue and acerbic wit. Ginny suspected both Carrows had been fearful of the formidable witch.

It had been Professor McGonagall who had found Ginny after the Welcoming Feast last year… after the Carrows had sought her out… Ginny shuddered, pushing that thought from her mind.

Professor McGonagall stared at the applauding students, her lips pinching as her eyes glazed slightly. She only allowed the ovation for a short time before she cleared her throat and raised her hand to quiet them.

"Thank you for that welcome. I am pleased to have you all back, as well," she said. Her voice quavered slightly, but she pulled herself together so quickly, Ginny wasn't even certain if everyone had caught it. Ginny had always liked her Head of House, but it was only during the previous year that she realized how badass the intimidating witch truly was.

"I realize it is difficult for many of you to be back here after the war and the tragedies that occurred," Professor McGonagall said, her voice strong and resounding across the room. "Still, Hogwarts has always been our home and the best educational institute on the continent. We must carry on and not allow that to be taken from us. In trying to balance the need to regain normalcy with the understanding that this year is anything but normal, I have decided to hold off the start of classes."

The volume in the Great Hall grew as students began questioning each other and murmuring over this news. Hermione frowned, and stared at Professor McGonagall expectantly. The professor held up her hand to silence the students again.

"Tomorrow, we will hold a non-mandatory Memorial Ceremony for any student who would like to attend. A larger, more public ceremony is being planned, but tomorrow will be students only. Classes will begin the following day," Professor McGonagall said.

Ginny dug her nails into her palms. She knew how difficult a Memorial would be, but she also remembered how the students had drawn strength from banding together the previous year. She glanced up the length of the Gryffindor table, seeing housemates taking each other's hands. Perhaps the healing was already beginning. Ginny took Hermione and Siobhan's hands, squeezing each gently. Hermione's eyes were shining brightly.

After allowing them a moment, Professor McGonagall once again took control. "As you can see, there are several new additions to the staff table. First off, some of you may recognize Leonard Tofty from the Wizarding Examinations Authority." Tiny little Professor Tofty didn't leave his chair, but he waved his hand in greeting. "Professor Tofty has graciously agreed to take over the Transfiguration classes this year whilst I am acting as Headmistress."

Professor McGonagall indicated the witch sitting next to Professor Tofty. She was on the younger side compared to some of the professors, but her hair was cropped very short and her expression remained neutral. She wasn't dressed in robes but instead wore a fashionable Muggle suit.

"This is Jocylyn Wagstaff who will be teaching Muggle Studies," Professor McGonagall said. "Professor Wagstaff has vast experience in the Muggle world, and plans to give you all some pointers on how to go unnoticed during your interactions."

"That will be helpful," Hermione said, staring at Professor Wagstaff speculatively.

"She has a big job in front of her," Siobhan said. "Last year, the Carrows did their best to convince students that Muggles were useless but still a threat to our world."

"But certainly the students were smarter than that," Hermione said, appalled.

"I don't know," Siobhan replied, shrugging. "Everyone knew not to trust the Carrows, but there are a lot of students who know absolutely nothing else about Muggles, or how they live."

Ginny knew this was true. Her dad loved Muggles and everything about them, but it wasn't until Harry and Hermione had come into their lives that Ginny had realized how much he'd actually guessed wrong. His enthusiasm sometimes over-compensated for his facts.

At the head table, Professor McGonagall pointed toward a dignified-looking wizard wearing subdued, but well-cut, robes. His salt and pepper hair and goatee were trimmed and tidy, much like the rest of him. He made a dashing figure, and Ginny was intrigued.

"Allow me to introduce Teidian Nutcombe who has agreed to take over the History of Magic position," Professor McGonagall said. "Professor Nutcombe has worked as a barrister in London for the past several years and has an enduring love for history."

The volume in the Great Hall rose again with students craning their necks to get a better look at the handsome Professor Nutcombe.

"What happened to Binns?" Parvati asked the question on everyone's mind. He was a horrible teacher, but he'd been there forever.

"Oh! I know," Liz said, having trouble tearing her eyes away from Professor Nutcombe. "Professor McGonagall told me she'd convinced him to retire. She's not entirely certain he's actually left the castle, however. She thought that during the transition, it was time for a revamping."

"She's not wrong," Hermione said. "There is so much more to the History of Magic than just goblin rebellions. I can't wait to see the curriculum."

"Yeah…me either," Siobhan said sarcastically.

"I won't mind going to History class if I can stare at him every day," Romilda said rather loudly. Several of her classmates readily agreed.

Ginny knew she was being ridiculous, but she decided then and there that if Romilda was taken with the new professor, she was going to steer well clear of him.

"So the last new one must be the new Defense teacher," Ginny said, directing their attention to the last remaining unknown.

"And finally, in what we hope will begin a new, long-term tradition, your new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Ms. Catena Radford," Professor McGonagall said, indicating a mature witch with tight, curly blonde hair and an aristocratic chin. Professor Radford smiled tightly and nodded at the students.

"She didn't say where Professor Radford came from," Hermione said, still watching the new Defense teacher closely.

"Pardon?" Ginny asked.

"She told us a bit about all the other new teachers, but nothing about this one," Hermione said.

"Do you know anything, Liz?" Siobhan asked. By taking her exams so much later than the others, Liz was privy to more of the current changes.

"No. She never mentioned her," Liz replied.

"It's been a long day, and I daresay you must all be feeling it. Fifth-year prefects will escort your new Housemates, and I shall see you at the Memorial tomorrow," Professor McGonagall said. "Good night."

The sounds of benches scraping along the floor and the increase in chatter filled the Hall. Parvati and Hermione leaned their heads together, discussing the new teachers, no doubt. This was Ginny's chance to escape unnoticed. She allowed the crowd to swallow her as she made her way purposefully through the throng. She broke off on the fifth floor, and instead of heading toward Gryffindor Tower, she steeled her resolve as she headed for the corridor where she knew Fred had met his demise.

Her feet dragged as she slowly approached the castle wall. It had been repaired, and no sign of the destruction that had happened here remained. Ginny ran her hand along the cool stone, remembering the flashes and chaos of the battle that had reigned that night. Here, alone in the corridor where her brother had perished, Ginny finally allowed the tears that had been threatening all day to fall. They streamed silently down her cheeks as her mind filled with images of that fateful night.

She'd met up with George and Lee Jordan, exhilarated as they entered the Great Hall. Lee was sharing a story of how he'd completely disorientated a group of Death Eaters with products from the twins' shop. Her mum's agonized wail had echoed throughout the Hall. She and George both knew their mum wouldn't make that sound unless something truly awful had happened. Ginny's first thought had been her dad, and she clambered around people in a rush to reach her family. George's longer legs had allowed him to reach them first.

She watched his back stiffen as he stopped, dead still. It took Ginny's brain a moment to process what she was seeing. Two identical faces, one so vibrant and alive, the other so still and unnaturally pale. George had fallen apart beside his lost twin, but Ginny felt frozen. She'd been unable to move, unable to process the horrendous truth in front of her eyes.

She'd lost Harry later that night, too, or at least she'd thought she had. Tom had come so close to winning. She felt as she did then, uncertain whether to laugh or cry. Such mixed emotions wrapped into a tight ball.

"Ginny," a quiet voice spoke, startling her. Ginny spun around, wand drawn, to find a pale, blonde Slytherin watching her closely. She never flinched under Ginny's fierce stare, and Ginny took note of the Head Girl badge attached to her robes.

"Astoria," she said, her voice husky. Lowering her wand, Ginny quickly swiped her eyes.

"Are you all right?" Astoria asked, surprisingly gentle.

Ginny cleared her throat. "Yeah," she said gruffly.

"Is this where… it happened?" Astoria asked. Although they'd never been friends – Gryffindors and Slytherins rarely were – Ginny had gained a grudging respect for the girl last year. She might look like a delicate flower, but Astoria Greengrass was fierce when standing up for what she believed in.

Ginny glanced at the wall again, a single sconce casting long shadows toward the window. The grounds were dark, and there was no light outside as there had been that night. No sounds of a raging battle, or Tom taunting them to hand over Harry. Time hadn't stood still, and neither could she.

"Yeah. I wasn't with him… but this is where it happened," she said, her throat tight.

Astoria put a hand on Ginny's shoulder and squeezed quickly before taking her hand away. "I'm supposed to clear the corridors, but I can give you a few minutes. I doubt you're the only one revisiting painful memories tonight."

Ginny shook her head. "I'm all right. This isn't where I can find Fred's memory. He'll be more in the spots where students are causing trouble."

He'd be on the Quidditch pitch, or in the fourth-floor corridor where a part of his swamp remained to this day. He'd be flying through the classrooms with Peeves causing disruption and mayhem. A spirit like Fred's could never truly be extinguished.

Astoria grinned. "If you call me on it, I'll never admit it, but he was a legend even in Slytherin. I'm glad I'm not the Head Girl who had to try and control any of your brothers."

"Ahh, but you do have me to contend with, and I'm a Weasley through and through," Ginny replied, feeling more cheerful than she had all day.

"I'll consider myself warned," Astoria said, bypassing Ginny to continue her rounds.

"Astoria," Ginny called.

The blonde Slytherin turned, her face in the shadows.

"Thanks," Ginny whispered.

Astoria nodded and continued on her way.

Ginny quietly headed toward Gryffindor Tower, not dawdling, per se, but not in any rush to get there, either. After enduring a disapproving scowl from the Fat Lady, she entered the common room, which was mercifully empty. The dying embers still glowed warmly, but the Tower was silent. As she was about to climb the stairs toward her dormitory, a scratching at the window caught her attention.

A regal-looking snowy owl was perched outside, pecking the window. She could see a scroll attached to his leg. Even this far from home, Harry always found a way to be there when she needed him.


Harry sank down onto his new leather sofa in the sitting room at Grimmauld Place. After a full day of intense training on Potions – his most challenging class – he'd just finished meeting with the decorator who was going to transform the old house into something more palatable. He'd be glad to have it look different and hoped she could accomplish even some of her claims. This house brought back so many distressful memories, he found it hard to be inside for long.

He didn't really know what to make of the decorator. She was brisk and forthright and had apparently translated Harry's many 'ers' and shrugs to mean a vast number of things. The one thing he'd insisted on was that he didn't want stuffy. He wanted a place to unwind and be comfortable.

Stuffy was the Dursleys. Comfortable was the Burrow – with more privacy.

The decorator… Harry'd already forgotten her name… paused every time he'd said that. She'd finally proposed that she make the entryway a grand room, something fitting his stature. Harry had actually cringed when she said it. Before he'd opened his mouth to argue, however, she'd promised the rest of the house would be private and casual. The grand entryway was simply a spot he could entertain any guests he needed to impress.

Harry rolled his eyes. He didn't want to impress anyone, but he supposed she might know more about it than he did. He'd never even had a room of his own, never mind his own house. Dudley's second bedroom was never really his.

As long as the decorator was handling all the details, he didn't have to do it, and he supposed it would be easier to change anything he really didn't like rather than start from scratch.

He reluctantly allowed his eyes to close. He was beat, but enjoying the moment of solitude. There was no privacy at the Burrow, and Mrs. Weasley still treated them all like children. A year ago, he was living on his own and hiding from Death Eaters. Now, a demon decorator was insisting he choose pillow fabrics and scorning his choices. He really wasn't certain which was worse, but at least no one had tried to kill him today.

He snuggled down deeper into the comfort of the sofa and, as if sensing he was alone, Ron and George's voices sounded from the front door.

"Harry! You here?" Ron called.

Harry sighed and pulled himself off the sofa. The leather made an odd, squeaking sort of sound as he stood.

"I'm in the sitting room," he shouted, staring in consternation at the new red sofa. His vision swam with the memory of what Ron and Hermione had been doing on this sofa the last time he was here…

Shuddering, Harry cast a quick 'Scourgify' over the entire thing. Perhaps it wasn't too late to get a refund.

Ron and George bounded into the room, arms laden with containers which Harry was certain were filled with leftovers from the Burrow.

"We brought food," Ron said unnecessarily, already taking a bite out of a large sandwich.

"How's your day?" George asked, sitting on the sofa and beginning to feast.

"Dull," Harry replied, giving in and filling a plate with some of the offerings. Forgoing the sofa, he leaned against the table as he ate.

"What?" George gasped in mock horror. "No Death Eater attacks? No Dark Lord attempting to poison you? No dragons or Dementors or death threats to set your pulse racing? Is life getting boring already, mate?"

"Heh. No Dursleys either," Ron said, his mouth full.

Harry smirked wryly. They could certainly be added to the list of D-words that had plagued him.

"No, but a cheeky decorator," he sighed. He had spent his afternoon being told how amazingly stupid all his ideas on the house were.

"Elin's sister is cheeky?" Ron asked, frowning. "That's weird since she's so straight and narrow."

"I know. They couldn't be more opposite," Harry agreed. "Although I wouldn't want to cross either of them."

"Sounds like a challenge," George said, waggling his eyebrows.

"Good luck," Harry said, snorting. "She'd gut you like a fish."

"She can be bloody scary, that one," Ron agreed.

"Speaking of scary, heard from the littlest Weasley yet?" George asked.

"Nah. I 'spect she's still settling in," Ron said, his mouth full.

George rolled his eyes. "I wasn't talking to you, you tosser. I meant lover boy, here."

Harry felt the color rising in his face despite the fact he knew George was only trying to wind him up. Doing his best to stifle his discomfort, he replied, "Yeah, I got an owl this morning."

"Of course you did," George said, smirking and making Harry want to hex him.

"She said they didn't have any classes today," he said instead, hoping to side-track Ginny's mischievous brother.

"How come?" Ron asked.

"Professor McGonagall held some kind of memorial – just for the students, you know?" he said softly. Ginny had told him she'd visited the spot where Fred had perished, and it had given her an odd sense of peace. He hoped she wasn't just saying that so he wouldn't worry. He was plenty worried, anyway.

"That must've been cheerful," George said, a bitter edge to his voice.

Harry felt a stab of panic. He hadn't meant to bring George back down when he finally appeared to be pulling himself together.

"She also said there were a bunch of new professors. One of the wizards from the OWL Examinations is teaching Transfiguration," he said quickly.

"Who'd they get for Defense?" George asked.

"Can't imagine anyone wants that job," Ron replied. "It's cursed."

"Not anymore," Harry replied firmly. It annoyed him how many people still refused to say Voldemort's name and appeared to fear him. What had they been fighting for if not to end all that? "She didn't say much about whoever took that one, anyway."

"I can't imagine anyone wanting any of the teaching jobs there this year. Instead of children, they're teaching a room full of war veterans," George said soberly.

Harry frowned. He'd never quite considered it that way, but George was absolutely right. Most of the seventh years had fought in the Battle, and the majority of the younger students had basically been prisoners of war. How do you go back to being treated like a child after that?

"Never mind Hogwarts. Back to this decorator. Did she say when she'd finish so we can move in?" Ron asked eagerly. He, too, was ready to flee the constraints of the Burrow.

"She said two weeks," Harry said, biting into his own sandwich.

George snorted derisively.

"What?' Harry asked, frowning.

"You have seen this place, right? I think two weeks is pushing it," he replied.

"Well, we really only the need the bedrooms and one bathroom done before we can move in. The rest of the renovations can continue while we're here," Harry said.

"Two weeks and I'm moving in whether it's done or not," Ron said, his mouth full.

George stuffed the last of his sandwich in his mouth. "So, what are we doing tonight?" he asked.

"I thought this is what we're doing," Harry replied, still feeling tired and hoping to go to bed early.

"Let's go the Leaky Cauldron and see who's about," George said.

"Sounds good," Ron replied.

Harry groaned. "I think I'll pass–"

"No. Enough passing. You're coming, Harry," Ron insisted. "You can't keep avoiding the crowds forever. You're becoming a shut-in."

"'Sides," George said, "it's a Tuesday night. It won't be packed, and we'll be your bodyguards."

Harry groaned again. He wasn't in the mood to deal with reporters and endless well-wishers. He never knew what to say when people groveled, and they seemed intent on doing it.

Before he'd had too much time to consider a way out, Ron and George had bustled him out the door, and they'd all Apparated to the Leaky Cauldron. Despite it being only Tuesday, the pub was bustling and busy. It was dimly lit and Harry had to squint as his eyes adjusted to the smoky air.

The rumble of the many conversations and various shrieks of laughter intermingled with the music blaring from the wireless. Harry kept his head down, following Ron as he pushed their way quickly through the crowd. George followed closely behind, barring any escape that might cross Harry's mind.

"Owen!" Ron said suddenly, heading toward a booth along the back wall.

Harry recognized fellow Aurors Owen Savage and Ken Towler sharing a pint. Both men played on the same department Quidditch team as Harry and Ron. They grinned in greeting and shifted closer to the wall to make room in the booth. Harry quickly took a seat next to Owen while George sat opposite him, and Ron dragged over a stool. Harry hadn't been spotted by the crowd, and he hoped to keep it that way.

"Good to see you, George," Ken said warmly, reaching out to shake George's hand.

"Towler, you old sea dog," George replied. "How have you been?"

Harry had forgotten that the two had been roommates at Hogwarts. It seemed like another lifetime.

"Doing well, busy, but busy is good," Ken said easily. He nodded his head toward each as he made the introductions. "Owen Savage, George Weasley."

"Both of them play on our Quidditch team," Ron told his brother, obviously pleased with the group.

"Weasley, eh?" Owen asked gruffly, the scar on his chin prominent. "Another effin' ginger. Don't you have any friends that aren't bloody redheads, kid?"

Harry smirked. "Never gave it much thought."

"I s'pose that brainy one who helped on our last case wasn't ginger. There's one," Owen conceded.

Ron's brow furrowed. "Hermione? She's my girlfriend," he said proudly.

Owen peered at Harry closely over the rim of his pint. "And you're dating their sister, right? Bloody hell, you're a tight lot."

"I suppose saving the world will do that to you," Ken said loudly. It was then Harry noticed his glazed eyes and Owen's ruddy complexion. The pair had obviously been here a while.

"Well, I'll be damned! It's Harry Potter!" someone nearby shouted, and Harry's shoulders slumped. Ken had been a bit too loud, and Harry's luck remaining anonymous was at an end.

Shrieks and calls echoed throughout the bar as everyone craned their necks to get a better look. The barkeep dropped a tray and the shattering of glass pierced the cacophony of voices. Harry felt his face coloring when he caught snatches of the accolades and admiring pledges being shouted at him. He tried to melt into the booth.

"Stay sitting right there, Potter," George said menacingly. "You're not going to let them run you out again."

Harry frowned. "They're not going to leave us alone."

Owen stared intently at Harry, his brow furrowed. "Huh. You're not at all what I expected, kid," the older man said.

"What d'you mean?" Harry asked warily.

Owen took a long swallow from his pint. "When we first heard you were joining the Aurors, we all thought you'd demand special attention and be a ruddy stuck-up wanker. I always assumed you'd enjoy all the attention."

"I told you," Ken said smugly. "Even in school he was a shy one."

Harry scowled, but Ron grinned and nodded, obviously enjoying both the attention and Harry's discomfort.

Hannah Abbott approached their table appearing harried and put a tray of lagers down heavily. "Hello, boys. These are from the gentlemen by the door," she said hurriedly before bustling away.

George pushed one towards Harry before picking one up himself. Harry sighed, taking the bottle and raising it in salute to the anonymous gifters. He took a long swallow of the bitter brew.

"I heard you're behind the Quidditch viewer we saw over at Harry's place," Ken said to George.

George beamed. "Yeah. It's called an Action Twin. I can't wait for the start of the season. We're broadcasting it here."

"I can't wait for our season to start," Ron said. "I want to play in a real match again."

"Me, either," Owen replied, toasting him. "Unfortunately, I think it's going to coincide with the Dementor round up so we might not all get to play. We have to do something, they're getting out of control. There was another attack up in York yesterday. You two are going to be pulled in on that, you know. Anyone who can cast a Patronus will be."

"You reckon?" Ron asked. "Before completing all the training?"

While Ron looked excited, Harry felt uncomfortable. He'd do whatever needed to be done, but he really hated Dementors and had hoped to avoid that particular assignment.

Hannah returned with another tray of beers, some of her hair loosened from her bun. "The group at the bar this time, with their appreciation," she said before hurrying away. Harry again toasted the gifters.

"You have amazing combat experience, and we're too effin' short-staffed not to bloody well use that. It doesn't mean you get a ruddy pass on the training, however. You need to work on the fundamentals, especially Potions," Owen said, glaring hard at Harry.

"I know," Harry said, cringing. He'd been struggling particularly hard in his Potions review. It had always been toiling for him, but it was embarrassing to be the worst one in the class, and Harry felt his cheeks flaming.

"Transfiguration could use work, too," Ken said unhelpfully.

"We never finished our last year," Ron grumbled as he took a swill from his pint.

Owen shrugged carelessly. "So you'll need to make up the work faster. Susan Bones finished her last year with high marks, but she was rubbish in the field. We all have strengths, but we need to strengthen our weaknesses."

"Have you heard from Susan?" Harry asked curiously. Susan Bones had been a member of his Auror class, but she'd taken a curse during their last raid.

"She's out," Ken replied. "Dropped before you were even out of hospital. Despite how short-handed we are, not everyone is made for this job."

"There's a new class of Aurors beginning next week," Ken said. "Instructor Pierce and I are going to try and manage both groups between the two of us. There's another classmate of yours among the newbies – Neville Longbottom."

"Neville?" Harry asked, startled.

"I didn't know Neville wanted to be an Auror," Ron said, equally surprised.

"He certainly rose to the occasion during the Battle," Harry said.

Owen nodded. "The Minister is heavily recruiting from your DA. You all did well during the whole mess."

Hannah appeared again with another round of drinks from yet another group. This was a round of shots, and Harry knew it was Firewhiskey by the tell-tale smoke rising from the glasses. "This is from the witches by the door," she said, scowling slightly.

Harry glanced over to see a large group of young witches waving frantically. He nodded toward them causing them to erupt into shrieks and giggles.

George distributed the shots, and they all tossed them back quickly. Harry felt the burn going down and realized he was far less tense and unbothered by the crowds clamoring for his attention. Still, he'd learned his lesson with the Firewhiskey already and decided he'd better stick to the beer.

"So, will the trained Aurors who were partnered with us stay or move on to the next class?" Harry asked.

Owen smirked. "Dunno. Why? Tired of Dawlish already?"

"He and I don't get on," Harry said, shrugging. "We never have done."

"He doesn't get on with anybody. He's always been a cock-up," Owen replied causing the table to erupt with laughter.

They continued nursing their drinks, all the while disparaging one another with barbs and insults. Harry began to relax and enjoy himself. The alcohol made his insides feel warm, and it was fun to be out in the festive pub. Perhaps he had let his guard down a bit too soon.

Starting when someone touched his shoulder, he quickly turned to the side and found himself staring directly into the cleavage of a very curvy witch. His heart was thundering because she'd managed to approach without his notice. His eyes shot up instantly, as he choked on his beer. He could hear the sniggers from his mates, but ignored them.

"Harry Potter," the witch sighed breathily. "I just couldn't resist coming over to say hello despite that bossy waitress discouraging it. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't take the chance."

She smiled widely and fluttered her eyes while her hand began rubbing his shoulder.

"Er… hello," Harry said warily, still trying to force down the flashbacks attempting to take over his mind.

"I'm just so grateful for all you've done for us. If there is any way I could repay you," she said, nudging his hip as she sat down on the thin sliver of the booth next to him. "Anything at all."

"That really isn't necessary," Harry replied, feeling nettled. The snorts from his mates were growing louder. He knew he was rubbish with girls, but the fact they were all sitting there watching and getting a laugh out of his discomfort really annoyed him.

The witch was very close, and Harry had to lean back slightly to keep their noses from touching.

"Your eyes are such an extraordinary shade of green. Have you enhanced them?" she asked, running her fingers along his face.

"All right. He appreciates your gratitude, but it's time you run along," George said aggressively from across the table.

"Who are you, his keeper?" she shot back, her expression hardening instantly.

"If you don't mind, we were having a private discussion. It was nice to meet you," Harry said firmly, shifting in his seat so she was forced to stand.

Her expression soured as she flounced away. "I'll see you around, Harry."

"You're all a bunch of wankers," Harry snapped, disgruntled. He took a long draught from his pint.

"She would've done anything you wanted," Owen said appreciatively, leaning over to watch her backside as she walked away.

"Hey, he's dating our sister," George said indignantly. "And he'd better never do anything to hurt her."

"Ginny and I can handle things just fine without any interference from you lot," Harry said, narrowing his eyes at both Weasley brothers.

"Tough luck being mates with your girl's brothers," Owen said sympathetically, still watching the witch across the bar.

"Harry wouldn't know what to do with her anyway," George said, slurring his words. His eyes were very glassy. His manner always became more biting when he'd had too much to drink. "Ginny will be the one having her way with him before Harry makes a move. If she hasn't already, that is."

Harry choked on his beer, looking at George in shock.

"George!" Ron gasped. "Don't talk about Ginny like that."

"What? She's a Weasley, isn't she? She's as randy as the rest of us," George replied, unfazed.

Hannah appeared with yet another round looking distinctly overwhelmed. "From the group sitting next to the Floo," she said, grimacing sympathetically at Harry.

Harry was ready to die. He knew coming here would be a mistake. Why hadn't he insisted on going back to the Burrow and making it an early night like he'd wanted? Yeah, he was rubbish with girls, but it wasn't like he'd had a lot of time or opportunity to refine any moves. He'd had other things on his mind. Besides, the fact he and Ginny hadn't really done anything yet wasn't due to lack of trying on his part.

"Hang on," Owen said loudly. "Back up just one effin' minute. Do you mean to tell me that Harry Potter, the savior of the wizarding world who could have any witch he desired with the snap of his fingers, is a bloody virgin?!"

Harry slammed his elbow into Owen's ribs, his face flaming as he tried to bolt from the table.

Ron pushed him back down, grinning manically.

"I could solve that problem for yeh, Harry," a heavily made-up witch who happened to be walking past their table said throatily before winking at him.

His mates roared with laughter as Harry thumped his head into table hoping it would open up and swallow him. This couldn't get any worse.

"What about after the Battle?" Owen asked incredulously. "Who would've turned you down then?"

"I was half-dead at the time," Harry shouted, exasperated.

Hannah once again hurried over to their table, this time appearing much more alert and concerned. She leaned in rather urgently. "Thought I'd best warn you, several reporters are coming in through the Floo."

Harry sat up quickly, not about to let the question of his virginity make tomorrow's headlines. The room spun, and he had to grasp the table to remain upright.

"I'm going," he said quickly, blinking to clear the spots that appeared in front of his eyes.

They all rose and surrounded him, shielding him from view as they walked out the front door just as the reporters rounded the corner and headed toward the booth where they'd been sitting. Harry wobbled and swayed slightly, but Ron and George kept righting him between them. He might've been ready to throttle them, but they'd all had his back when he needed it.

"That was close," Ron said.

"None of you should probably Apparate," George said. "Why don't you come to my shop and use the Floo from there?"

"I'm parked on the Muggle side," Ken said. "Owen, can you cast a Sobering Charm so I can drive?"

Owen quickly complied, and Ken shook his head as the charm took effect.

Harry looked at him questioningly.

"I'm Muggle-born, and my family still lives in the Muggle world, so I need a method of travel that works there," he explained.

"So you have a car?" Harry asked, realizing his words were slightly slurred.

"Not a car. A motorcycle – closest thing to flying you'll ever experience," Ken said with a grin.

Harry knew that Sirius had a motorbike. He wondered if that's how Sirius had felt, too.

"See you tomorrow, Ken," Owen called, following the others to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.

"Can you do one of those Sobering Charms on us, too?" Ron asked, wobbling a bit himself.

Owen shrugged. "I could if you'd rather Apparate. It only lasts a couple hours though. You still need to get the alcohol out of your system."

"Oh," Ron said glumly.

"I hope none of that is in the papers tomorrow," Harry said, still wondering what the reporters knew.

Owen and Ron laughed loudly, and George leaned over to Harry. "Do you need a hug?"

Harry shoved George away and kept walking unevenly. He really should've just gone home.