Disclaimer: I am not JKR, I don't own anything of value, unless you count a neat little ice-scoop in the shape of a penguin. I certainly don't own JKR's characters. I am not making any money from this fic – hopefully I am learning something.

"Merlin's Beard, Ginny!" Ronald Weasley exclaimed with a strained voice. It was evident that he was trying to sound jubilant, but the panic was painfully obvious. "Who'd you knick this from?" In his hands, he held a thick, gray and green scarf.

Virginia Weasley looked back at her older brother in horror. Her cheeks, normally pale, had flushed a sickly hue of red. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sounds came out.

"Come on, Gin," Ron went on pathetically, his voice insistent. "Let us in on the joke!"

Hermione Granger, de facto mother of the Gryffindor family, tried to intervene. "Oh, lay off it, Ron," she said hastily. "If she's up to some pranking, she's not going to let on now, is she?"

Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, looked on in horror at the scene unfolding in front of him. It was something like watching a car wreck, he thought idly. It was horrible to see; heartrending and tragic, but somehow he could not take his eyes away from it. Ten minutes earlier, he had been sitting by the fire in the Common Room, studiously avoiding his History of Magic essay. Ron and Hermione, his best friends in the world, had been rehashing the age-old argument; Ron wanted to use her notes, and Hermione was sticking to her ethical guns. It was a Friday night in the early part of their sixth year, and Hermione's nagging was getting progressively more insistent as the year went on. They were interrupted from this by the arrival of Ginny and the Colin Creevey, returning late from the library.

"Hey, there, guys," Hermione called out, summoning the weary fifth-years over to the fireside. "What's going on?"

Ginny walked over to the fire, and stood beside their couch. She merely glared at Hermione in answer.

"OWLS?" Harry guessed, giving a knowing glance to his best friends.

"I don't remember you guys having this hard a time of it," Ginny said darkly.

Harry laughed heartily. "Yeah, they never seem so bad until you're actually taking them."

"Why don't you join us?" Ron invited, gesturing to the couch nearest them. "Take a load off."

"Can't," Colin intoned breathlessly.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Ginny supplied. "If it isn't OWL preparations, it's Trelawney's dream diary, or some nasty assignment for Snape."

"I admire your efforts," Hermione said, her voice brimming with obvious and misplaced pride.

"Thanks," Colin said glumly.

"Surely you have a couple of minutes to spare?" Ron inquired, patting the seat next to him encouragingly.

Hermione shot him a look of something distinctly like anger.

"I think," Harry spoke up. "That a few minutes of relaxation could only serve to rejuvenate your efforts. With a little bit of rest, you can hit your studies again with renewed fervor."

""Kay," Colin sighed, evidently only capable of single syllables. He dropped his book sack to the hearth floor, where it landed with a deep thud. He plopped down on the couch and immediately gave a sigh of relief.

Ginny hesitated; then she dropped her own bag in suit. However, any opportunity for relaxation was dashed when the side of her bag tore loose, spilling her quills, parchment, books, and a narrow strip of gray and green fabric. "Oh no-" Ginny cried, the note of terror in her voice unmistakable.

It was inevitable that Ron would want to have a closer look; inevitable that he would recognize the significance of Ginny carrying a Slytherin scarf in secret; and inevitable that he would do anything not to accept that reality. 

Ron waved off Hermione's intrusion with a tremulous hand. "Ginny, why do you have this?" he asked imploringly. He was shaking perceptibly, his eyes locked on his sister's.

Colin chose the worst possible way to intercede. "She's not a little kid any more, Ron!" he blurted out passionately, sitting upright in his seat. "She can date whoever she wants, from whatever house! She-"

Ron turned on Colin with a furious look. Harry might have imagined it, but he thought Ron was going for his wand. "You… know about this? Who is she dating?" he asked, his voice deadly serious.

The next moment was choked by a terrible silence. Colin had rushed to the defense of Ginny, but now his righteous indignation was quailing under the burning rage in Ron's eyes.

"Ron, I…" Ginny started, and Harry realized suddenly that she was crying.

"Colin," Ron pronounced in a grave tone, as if he had not heard her. "I asked Colin a question."

Colin opened his mouth to say something, but whatever words he might have said were cut short by Ginny, who took the only recourse available to her at the time. She turned on her heel, and ran out of the portrait hole as quickly as she was capable. She left behind her torn bag, her books, and the contraband scarf.

Ron stared mutely after her, too stunned to speak.

"Some brother you are," Colin hissed and gathered up his things. He left quickly for his own dormitory. It was evident to all present that his continued presence would only lead to a severe hexing.

"I'm going to talk to her," Hermione said in a sigh. "Good night," she called over her shoulder, heading to the portrait hole.

Harry and Ron were left alone by the fireside in a state of deep puzzlement. "Now, what on earth-" Ron attempted, but that was as far as he got.

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Breakfast in the Great Hall the next morning was not a pleasant experience. The meal was tense enough on its own accord, being the day of the Slytherin vs. Gryffindor Quidditch match. Harry felt the familiar queasiness in his stomach, which had become habitual at game time. Ron, however, seemed oblivious to the prospect of a game.

Ginny did not come down for the meal at all, and Hermione had precious little to tell about her. Colin came in late, and took a seat at the far end of the Gryffindor table, putting as much distance between himself and Ron as he could. He sat huddled in a group of other fifth years, as if looking for safety in numbers. Harry watched him curiously – the youth leaned low over the table and engaged in serious conversation with his younger brother Dennis.

"Oh, Ron, just drop it, would you?" Hermione said at last, breaking the silence.

Ron did not seem to hear. Normally, he would have put away several full meals by this time, but today he was only halfway through his first serving. He craned his head away from his neglected eggs, peering intently at the Slytherin table. "That third year isn't wearing a scarf," he said lowly.

"Many of them aren't," Harry commented. "I don't imagine they wear them everyday."

"Pity," Ron muttered. He shoveled a heap of bacon into his mouth. "Otherwise," he went on, chewing thoughtfully, "We could pick out the culprit right away."

"Culprit?" Hermione exclaimed. "Ron!"

Harry was not sure if Ron even heard her. If the redhead were ignoring Hermione, he was doing a remarkable job of it. "Goyle's not wearing a scarf either," he added disgustedly. "I hope she has better taste than that."

"RON!" Hermione shrieked loudly.

He turned to look at her in wonder, as if only then noticing her presence. "What?" he snapped.

Hermione looked at him a moment silently, her face displaying flickering emotions. Finally, her hard features softened and she spoke sensitively. "Well, Ron, I know you don't want to hear it, but I think Colin may be right."

In Ron's right hand a boat of maple syrup hung, poised over his eggs. A thin trail of syrup began pouring down over his scrambled poultry, but he did not seem to notice. "How's that?" he asked, as if he had not heard her quite plainly.

"I think Colin was right," Hermione repeated. "Ginny should be able to make her own decisions about who she dates."

Harry was tempted to slide under the table to avoid whatever projectile Ron decided to launch, but to his immense relief, his friend answered with words. "Are you nutters?" he asked simply.

Hermione was obviously trying very hard not to get angry.

"Hermione," Ron went on, a tone of desperation creeping into his voice. "She's dating a, well, a Slytherin." He pronounced this last word very quietly, clearly hoping not to be overheard, and only after looking over both of his shoulders.

Hermione was a moment in answering. She scanned the Slytherin table with a philosophical look in her eyes. "I know that they are our big rivals, and many of them are real pricks; it's true. But we don't know everyone in the house, do we? I mean, you don't have to assume the worst. For all we know, she's found a very nice, sweet boy to date in the Slytherin House."
            "In Slytherin?" Ron echoed hollowly.

"That's what I said," Hermione replied.

"Have you met any Slytherins?" he asked incredulously.

Harry maintained his laconic observation of the event. He'd had very little to say on the topic the whole night, being somewhat baffled by the circumstances. He felt rather divided by the issue. He knew that Colin and Hermione were right; Ginny was old enough and mature enough to handle herself. At the same time, the notion of her dating a Slytherin made him unaccountably uneasy.

"Come on, mate," Harry said at last. "It's time."
            Ron looked up from his syrup-coated eggs in confusion. "Oh god," he breathed, realization dawning on him. "It's a game day."

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Harry urged his broom upward in a burst of speed that caught Draco Malfoy completely by surprise. The Quidditch pitch faded quickly below as he rushed upwards, the handle of his broom vibrating slightly under the strain. Harry did not have to look over his shoulder to know that his green-clad rival was giving quick pursuit. Lucious Malfoy, father of the Slytherin Seeker and Captain, had been generous enough to purchase sleek, new Firebolt 2.0 brooms for the entire team. Harry's broom, from the original Firebolt series, was not as fast, but he was not the only one who thought he had the advantage of flying skill in this match up.

Harry leveled out his broom suddenly, and laughed a little as Draco rocketed past him into the clouds above. If he tried hard enough, he could use Draco's own speed against him. He made a giant, graceful arc over the north goal hoop, using the moment of solidarity to look for the Golden Snitch in earnest. He sighed resignedly; there was no sign of the tiny fluttering ball. Nor, in fact, had there been any sight of it in the past six hours that this Quidditch match dragged on. At the last time out, the score was tied at forty, which was remarkably low. Ron had blossomed into an excellent keeper this season, and had not allowed a single score in the season opener against Hufflepuff. Regrettably, his skills as keeper were matched only by the incompetence of the Gryffindor chasers, a position that had been severely depleted by graduations the year before.

"Get over it, scar head," a cool voice sounded from behind him, startling him a little. "You don't have a chance of catching the snitch while I'm here."

Harry did not look behind him, but maintained his vigil on the pitch below, scanning furiously with his eyes. "Somehow, Malfoy," he remarked dryly, "I don't think your broom is going to make that great a difference. It is curious to say that I don't have a chance when you've never beaten me to the snitch yet."

Draco appeared at Harry's left elbow, smirking slightly, the dim sunlight glinting off his greased hair. "I daresay, Potter, that my broom isn't the only thing that's changed this year."

Harry laughed out loud. "Did you get your father to magically stretch your arms or something? It's a wonder he has time, what with all of his court appearances and all."

For a split second, Draco seemed to lose his cool. He fidgeted visibly in the periphery of Harry's vision, but then regained control. Harry knew he had hit a tender spot there; it was largely on account of Harry that the older Malfoy had been arrested the previous summer. Somehow, Mr. Malfoy had managed to slither his way out of trouble, and Harry suspected that gold had changed hands in the process.

"I wasn't talking about my arms," Draco said mildly. "Just, y'know, in general."

"Oh?" Harry was hardly paying attention to the conversation at this point. He began drifting slowly back toward the pitch, and to his annoyance Draco followed.

"Things aren't what they once were, Potter. Even Taboos aren't the same. Can you imagine? Just last night, one of my pets came to visit me. A Gryffindor, in the Slytherin common room! Can you imagine that? Poor thing, she was rather upset, too… She told me about it, of course, but I wasn't listening."
            Harry took his eyes off of the field for the first time, turning venomously upon Draco. "What are you talking about?" he hissed.

"Oh?" Draco asked, feigning innocence. "Tell Ginny I want my scarf back."

Harry briefly considered pulling out his wand, but then caught something out of the corner of his eyes. Far below, almost on the ground, he caught a glimmer of gold, right in front of the student seats. Without a further word, Harry turned his broom down and rocketed toward the ground. He had lost sight of the illustrious snitch, and glanced around furiously to find it again. He wasted a split second to check on the progress of Draco, but was surprised to see that the Slytherin seeker was not in pursuit. Harry felt a sense of panic run through him, but that was set right when he spotted the Snitch again, hovering in front of the southern goalposts, directly behind Ron.

Harry gritted his teeth; he could see the Snitch, but his path to it was cut off by the majority of the Quidditch players. The mediocre performance by the Chasers on his team meant that the Quaffle had spent most of the game in front of the Gryffindor goal posts. All the other players, excepting only the Slytherin Seeker and Keeper, were clustered around Ron, and none of them seemed aware of the Snitch. Harry put on a burst of speed, and cut between two of the Slytherin Chasers on the left flank. A red blur filled his vision, and Harry ducked his head just in time to deflect the Quaffle off of his forehead, instead of his nose. Startled cries followed him as he raced toward Ron, whose eyes were growing very large indeed. The Snitch whirled in and out of the central hoop, mere inches from Ron's right ankle. Harry turned sharply right, stretched his body as far as it would go, and reached out his hands for the Snitch…

Harry felt a powerful blow to his exposed ribs on the left side of his body as a well-aimed Bludger caromed off of him. The force of the unexpected strike was enough to disentangle Harry's legs from the broom, and before he knew it, he was airborne, flying freely. Harry's Firebolt twirled away into emptiness. After what seemed the better part of an hour, Harry's left arm crooked around the forward tip of Ron's broom, and, to his immense relief, he was able to cling to it one-armed. Ron sputtered a bit, trying to speak, as the broom began to drift downward under the increased weight.

"Harry?" he managed.

Harry said nothing, but merely held up his right fist, in which was clutched the Golden Snitch.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Ron took Harry's right arm and slung it over his own shoulder, guiding the heroic Seeker away from the Quidditch pitch. Harry's ribs were severely bruised, if not cracked, from the Bludger attack he had suffered.

"How bad is it?" Ron asked, sounding more curious than concerned. Over the years, he had seen Harry suffer a lot worse.

"Eh," Harry said, shrugging. This turned out to be a painful gesture, so he made a mental note to discontinue its use, at least until he had been to see Madame Pomfrey.

"Do you feel so bad that you don't want to use this?" Ron asked, pulling something out of his pocket and showing it to Harry. He gestured with his head toward the small building where the Slytherins were changing out of their Quidditch robes.

Harry laughed, recognizing the Extendable Ears manufactured by Ron's older brothers. They took one a piece, and found a secluded spot to huddle outside the green tent.

"What happened?" came the angry voice of Draco Malfoy.

A gruff voice responded. "What happened? Potter beat you to the Snitch again."

Ron gave Harry a smile, and they both stifled laughs.

"I wasn't talking to you, Goyle," Draco said coolly. "If you ever imply that this was my fault again, I'll make sure you're sorry for it. Understand?"

"Yeah," Goyle answered quietly.

"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" Draco said loudly, his voice scolding.

"I don't know," replied a female voice they did not immediately recognize.

Harry frowned; there were no women on the Slytherin Quidditch team.

The girl went on. "I sent the signal out, just like you told me to-"

"Yeah, right when the real Snitch appeared."

"Honestly, I didn't see it!" she protested.

"Pansy. Were you trying to help Potter? What are you playing at?"

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Harry's mind was turning furiously. Up in the sky, when he had been talking to Draco, he had seen the Snitch down on the field. In fact, it had been right in front of the Slytherin stands. Suddenly, Harry understood why Draco had not followed him. It had all been a trick to send him chasing after a fake Snitch, only he happened to see the real thing on his way after it. It was a clever trick, really: he never would have seen it coming. He could have spent the entire game chasing after an imaginary snitch, leaving Draco to find the real one at his leisure.

"Draco, you know me better than that," the girl answered, sounding angry. "You know that I have just as much reason to hate Potty as-"

"Don't you say it," Draco said quietly, but Harry could sense the threat in his voice. "I don't think your miserable story can even compare to-"

"Screw you, Malfoy," Pansy said coldly. "I'm out of here."

"Come back here!" Draco's voice boomed.
            Clambering noises inside the tent told Harry and Ron that it was a good time to leave. They stowed the Extendable Ears into their robes, and began hobbling away from the tent as quickly as Harry could manage.

It was not quick enough. Harry was knocked off of his feet when Pansy Parkinson, full of rage, stormed out of the Slytherin tent and collided with him. Harry said nothing, but merely looked up at her from his position on the ground, trying not to look guilty.

Pansy towered over the fallen Gryffindor and his shocked companion, narrowing her dark eyes at Harry sinisterly. Even if she did not see the Ears, it must have been evident to her that they had been eavesdropping. Her gaunt frame was shaking in rage as she seized a lock of her dark hair that had gone astray, and tucked it behind her pale ears.  The look on her face suggested that she was preparing to spit on him. Harry was just beginning to think of something to say when she snarled savagely and stalked off the other direction without a word.