Author's Note: Just a reminder - I know it's been a while, but this story was conceived before the glory that was The Half Blood Prince was released. So while I got a few things right, like the couples (woot!) and that Dumbledore would die (sniff), there are also a few things a bit off. You will notice that Snape still works at Hogwarts. And that Draco was never a Death Eater. I had always thought it was possible (and still do) that Draco might turn out to be a miserable, snobby, prejudiced git, but possibly not entirely, bloodthirsty evil – you know, kinda like Snape. Oh the irony! Also, Harry's relationship with the Ministry has not been quite as toxic as it turned out to be in HBP.

Finally, the dragon sequence in this chapter was scribbled out prior to the release of Goblet. Please keep in mind that my Horntail looks like the one described in the books – and not the movie. Since the movie version would be impossible to sit on – what with the giant impaling spikes and all. Also, the whole thing about breaking free of its bonds – totally MY idea. Those bloody industry bastards are reading my mind through the phone lines again.

So after far, far too many months – here it is. Hope it doesn't blow. Apologies to follow.

Wild Animal Kingdom

The big day had finally arrived. October thirty-first. Halloween. The Gryffindor house team's first Quidditch match of the season, captained by Ginny Weasley. The day Harry Potter would be awarded his Order of Merlin, First Class - and possibly be eaten, or burned, or at the very least squished, alive.

Twelve straight hours of fun and frivolity had been planned. First there was the game, followed by the medal presentation. Then, to make his life even better, a brief press conference where he would have to answer questions and have his picture taken.

The light at the end of all this was in the evening - there would be a dance to celebrate his glorious victory. People from the Ministry as well as the Order were invited. But Harry didn't care about them. What he cared about was that students in their senior years at Hogwarts were also invited to attend – which meant that he and Ginny would finally, blessedly, have some time together. And that was the only thing carrying him through.

Currently, Harry was sitting in the guest box with Ron and Hermione on either side, waiting for the start of the match. The three friends had arrived early as Harry wanted a chance to sit in peace and try to settle his nerves.

In approximately two hours, depending on how long the match would last, he would be riding a dragon. A promised docile dragon, hopefully aged and somewhat lame, but still, a DRAGON.

Harry was hunched over with his elbows resting on his knees and watching his miniature Horntail stomp savagely around his palm. He was trying to figure out exactly how he had ended up in this situation. He seemed to recall it having something to do with the idea that people would grow tired of him. But at this precise moment, he couldn't begin to remember how that made any sense.

Hermione was rambling on beside him, but he was barely listening. She had spent the last two months trying to research dragon riding. And even with all of her access to records and reference materials through her position in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, she hadn't had any success. Apparently there weren't any recommended dragon riding techniques - because no one before had ever been this stupid.

But then she finally said something which caught Harry's attention. "There was one fellow, a couple centuries back, who tried domesticating dragons. He had a bit of success with the more docile breeds and even managed to ride a few of them." On Harry's other side, Ron was snickering quietly. Harry could practically feel the glare Hermione cast over his bent form as she said, "His name was William Whiltshire."

Popping an Every Flavoured Bean into his mouth, Ron actually snorted out loud.

Harry sat up. "What?"

Hermione grabbed his arm in an attempt to bring his focus back to her. "It's nothing."

"No, it's not nothing," Harry said forcefully as he turned in her direction. "What aren't you telling me?"

"Well," Ron answered sardonically, "it's just that this bloke's gone down in history as William the Witless."

Harry sighed and slumped back in his seat. "Why? Was he eaten?"

"No!" Hermione insisted, if perhaps a little too aggressively. "He kept the dragons very well fed, that was part of his program. And I'm sure the dragon handlers today will have done the same."

Harry waited a beat for her to continue. When she didn't, he prodded. "Well then?"

Hermione looked dismayed. When it was clear she couldn't bear to give him the news herself, Ron filled in the blank. "So the well-fed dragons merely mauled him to death. Batted him around, kind of like how a cat plays with a mouse."

"Great," Harry muttered. A slow painful mauling, as opposed to a nice happy being swallowed all in one go.

Hermione fretted, Ron fiddled with his Omnioculars and Harry went back to watching his Horntail. The tiny creature now seemed to be mocking him as it settled down to a seated position and snarled.

Not able to take it any more, Harry turned to his so-called best friend. "You seem to be taking this whole thing very well. You act like you think it's funny."

Ron looked baffled. "It IS funny. There's no way you're actually going to go through with this nonsense. Buzzbee was mad to suggest it. And you were nutters to accept. You need to back out, mate."

"I don't think I can," Harry said glumly. "I made a deal."

Suddenly the crowd, which Harry hadn't even noticed gathering around him, broke into a cheer. The teams were making their way onto the pitch. Through his Omnioculars Harry watched Ginny shake the other Captain's hand and then move to her position as Seeker.

As she rose up into the air, bits of hair wisping about her face, Harry smiled. Despite everything else going on, Harry had been looking forward to the game for days. Aside from that one time in his fifth year, he had never really had a chance to sit back and admire Ginny in a real competitive setting. They had always played on the team together.

Watching his girlfriend shine seemed like the best thing to distract him from his impending doom.

Hermione, on the other hand, had other plans. "Look, Harry, if something goes wrong - remember their weak point is their eyes."

Harry groaned and looked away from Ginny long enough to reply, "I hope you're not suggesting the Conjunctivitis Curse. That's what Krum did, and the last thing I need is the thing thrashing about while I'm on its bloody back."

Ignoring his tone, Hermione carried on. "That's not what I meant. But if you need to do a stunning spell, your best bet would be its eyes. You will be close enough."

Right. Close enough to its eyes, which are right above its teeth. Harry knew the look he was giving her wasn't exactly gracious.

Hermione glared back at him. "I thought you wanted me to help you."

He had wanted help, but now he just wanted the ordeal to be over with so he could stop talking about it. "I did. I do. It's just, it seems like there's nothing for it, and I would rather spend my last hours thinking about something pleasant."

Hermione squeezed his arm in a way that implied she would, amazingly, concede the point and allow him to turn his attention back to the game.

Hermione's timing turned out to be near perfect - as soon as Harry managed to find Ginny, the snitch also entered his field of vision, hovering for a moment, mere inches in front of Ginny's face. The other team's Seeker was at the opposite end of the pitch, completely unaware. Appraising the situation, Ginny gave the golden ball a tiny smile and allowed it to fly away.

Beside him, Hermione gasped. "What is she doing?"

Harry smiled. "Waiting."


Harry tried to follow the path of the snitch – his insides now clenching in anticipation, happily from the game and not what would come after. "Something always goes wrong and we end up in the final, behind by an enormous margin. And we have to score an insane number of points to win the cup. Ginny's delaying the game as long as she can, so the Chasers can score as many points as possible."

As analytical as ever, Hermione replied, "It sounds risky."

"It is," Harry agreed. "It's also brilliant if she can pull it off." Beside him Ron moaned. He nudged his friend with his elbow. "It was Ron's idea." Harry spared a glance in Ron's direction, to see him sprawled out in his seat, head tilted back, eyes on the sky, apparently unable to look at the pitch. "Is this how you watch the Canons play?"

"No!" Ron barked, now clutching his stomach. "Then I get to participate. This, just sitting here watching, is an absolute nightmare."

Harry was about to point out that he used to manage just fine, but Hermione reached behind him and ruffled her fiancé's hair affectionately. "Poor Ron, his professional career has completely ruined him for being a spectator."

Chuckling, Harry once again turned back to the field. The Gryffindor Chasers seemed confident enough. As time passed, they managed to score several goals, pulling nicely ahead of the Hufflepuff team. That was good – this plan of Ron and Ginny's wouldn't work if the rest of the squad failed to do their part.

Starting to feel a crick in his neck, Harry sat back in his chair, leaning a bit to work out the kink, only to have the bottom of a traveling cloak suddenly land in his face. Brushing the offending garment aside, Harry turned to see who the late arrival was. Oh great. This day just got better and better. "Malfoy, what are you doing here?"

Settling into his seat, the pale-haired man mocked, "There's a rumour going around that you are about to get yourself eaten. It's not as though I could miss that."

Old habits really do die hard. Harry felt his hate for his old nemesis rise up just as strongly as ever. "You should be rotting in Azkaban, along with your parents."

Malfoy leaned forward and pulled up the sleeve of his robes to reveal pale bare skin. "You might want to pay closer attention, Potter, I wasn't a Death Eater."

To Harry this was a mere technicality. "Not because you didn't want to be."

Malfoy sneered. "Oh really? Well then, lucky for me you only get sent to prison for the crimes you actually commit, not the ones you only dream of."

Seemingly enjoying himself, Draco opened a bag of pumpkin pasties and continued. "So I get to show up here and cheer on the dragon. Or hope that one day Weasley will end up so poor he'll have to walk around town in a tea towel, like those House Elves you're so fond of. Or have the occasional fantasy about a pretty Mudblood being smothered under a pile of library books. And I'm still not a bad person. And the real kicker is, you're just as bad as me. If I were about to get eaten, the three of you would all show up pitch-side with bags of sweets to watch the show."

"Nah, I'd stop it," Harry countered, "swallowing something that foul would be bad for the dragon."

Ron, his attention probably drawn out by the Mudblood comment, entered the argument. "We're not like you, Malfoy. You're nothing but a sad little racist."

Harry thought it was a huge testament to how much Ron had grown up that he wasn't lunging over his chair to pummel the idiot's face.

Draco, however, apparently wasn't as impressed. He scoffed, "Is that so? You only assume I was in the Dark Lord's inner circle because of who my parents are."

It might be partly true, but Harry would never forget the way Draco used to speak of his father. "Nice try, you worshipped Lucius."

The look on Malfoy's face became dangerously bitter. "A young boy, hoping to win the favour of his father. How utterly bizarre. But we all grow up sometime."

For her part, Hermione had been completely ignoring the old drama behind her and suddenly called out, "She caught it! Ginny got the snitch!"

Draco gave a derisive smile and took a bite from a pastie.

Harry swore violently and took up his Omnioculars. It was true – the game was over. Ginny had won, and once again he had missed it.

Harry stood up. He really wanted to punch Malfoy in his snide, ugly, ferrety face. And he might have done, if a Ministry Wizard hadn't appeared at precisely that moment and called his name. "Mr. Potter? They are ready for you now."

Hermione stood beside him and touched his elbow. "Good luck, Harry."

Still seated, Draco waved sarcastically. "Yes, Potter, good luck."

Using the last of his self-control, Harry reigned in his impulse to lash out and turned to follow the slim man down the stairs. He couldn't afford to think about Malfoy now – that could lead to his own untimely demise.

Trying to offset the sense of dread building in his stomach, Harry reminded himself for the hundredth time that he was the guest of honour. The Ministry wasn't about to make him do something that would actually get him killed - that would hardly work to buy back their reputation. This wasn't just an argument to keep himself calm – Harry knew it was actually the truth. After eight years he was starting to get used to the fact that things that would seem ridiculously dangerous in the Muggle world were merely commonplace to Wizards. Bludgers, for instance.

The Ministry Wizard led Harry down to a large area hidden beneath the stands. It was a picture of barely controlled chaos. Masses of people hurried about in all directions, carrying banners and parts of what Harry guessed was the podium, which was quickly being constructed on the pitch. In the centre of it all dozed an enormous black dragon, tied down with chains and surrounded by a dozen handlers.

As Harry moved towards the crowd, one man with bright red hair stepped forward – Charlie Weasley. "Alright there, Harry?"

Grateful to see a familiar and friendly face, Harry shook his hand. "I didn't know you were going to be here."

"I wasn't originally, but Ginny made me promise I would come up to oversee the operation." Before Harry had time to take in this information, Charlie continued, "Now, the dragon's been fed a lot calming potion to keep her docile. I also have ten wizards to lead her in on chains. And we're all standing by to stun her if necessary. All you have to do is hang on and go for a nice ride."

Charlie indicated the seat and harness that had been rigged up on the dragon's shoulders, but Harry's gaze was drawn instead to the shiny black scales and all-too-familiar bronze-coloured spikes along her tail. "Charlie, that's a Horntail."

"That's right," Charlie answered, nonplussed.

"It's supposed to be a Welsh Green," Harry muttered.

"Really?" he said, sounding a bit confused. "I'm sorry, Harry, I wasn't involved in the selection."

As Harry watched, the slumbering beast sniffed the air. Without any other movement, she opened one eye and focused it on Harry in such a way that gave the distinct impression that the dragon remembered him. "Charlie, you don't suppose that's the same dragon as from the tournament, do you?"

"I can check her papers if you…"

But Charlie was interrupted as Buzzbee abruptly appeared, rubbing his hands together, apparently delighted by the marvellous spectacle before him. "All ready to go then, Weasley?"

"Yes sir, but Harry was just asking about the dragon's origin."

"The origin?" He turned to Harry.

"That's the same Horntail," Harry stated, not trying to hide the accusation in his voice.

"That's right." Buzzbee nodded. "That's what we agreed to."

"It bloody well isn't what we agreed to," Harry shouted, getting angry.

"Come on now, Harry," Buzzbee said, still jovial. "A deal's a deal. You can't walk out on this now. How has life been at the Weasleys for you? Nice and quiet?"

"You son of a bitch."

"Listen," he put a hand on Harry's shoulder, "you keep your word and pull this off, and I promise we won't bother you again for a year. How about that?"

Despite the rage coursing through him at the threat to his happy life at the Burrow, Harry suddenly had an epiphany about his power in the situation. "No, this is the deal. I ride this dragon, your lot never bothers me again. Ever. I'll decide what events I will and won't do and under what circumstances. And you will consider yourself very happy if that means I only show up to one dinner a decade."

"Let's not get carried away," Buzzbee said. "Remember what we talked about, not making yourself a mystery."

"I know what we talked about. I also know that THIS," he pointed at the dragon, "is bullshit. And I'm ready to walk away this second unless you agree." When Buzzbee didn't appear ready to respond, Harry added, "I don't think it will reflect too favourably on you if the guest of honour suddenly disappears."

Buzzbee shifted his stance, standing to his full height and crossing his arms. "Perhaps not. But it will also make you look like a spoilt prima donna. Not the image I think you had in mind."

"Maybe," Harry agreed, "but I'm not the one with a job to lose."

Buzzbee studied him for a moment. "Alright, agreed." He motioned to the waiting dragon. "Ready?"

Harry nodded and took a step forward. This was it.

As Charlie helped him up into his seat, he quietly assured, "Alright, Harry, just like I said – everything's taken care of. This should be easy."

Harry took hold of the reigns. "Let's do it."

The procession moved slowly into the stadium, a burst of triumphant music marking their entrance. The crowd cheered. It was ghastly.

"Smile and wave, Harry," Buzzbee called from somewhere behind him.

"Not on your life," Harry muttered. He would ride, but he wasn't about to look as though he were enjoying it.

Just as Harry was about to implode from embarrassment, the situation reaching the sublimely ridiculous, the beast beneath him let out a series of huffs of air that felt suspiciously like a giant chuckle.

It was laughter. The horrid dragon was laughing at him. A dark sinister laugh that seemed, to Harry at least, to indicate that the creature finally had Harry exactly where she wanted him.

On instinct, Harry leaned forward and clutched the reigns even tighter. Glancing to the side, he spotted two of his guard regarding the dragon warily – he wasn't the only who'd heard it. "That can't be good," Harry muttered.

The second the words were out his mouth, the Horntail lunged into the air. Harry looked down just in time to see her sweep out with her spiked tail. To his horror the handlers were flying in all directions, and the chains were breaking free.

As the dragon continued her assent into the sky, Harry had one thought - apparently calming potion in no way diminished a dragon's maternal instinct and thirst for revenge. And she was a very angry, very cunning mother – she was taking them so high no stunning spell from the ground would have a chance of reaching them. She wanted Harry on his own.

And she really wanted him off her back. The dragon plunged and turned severely – frantically trying to knock her rider free.

Harry held on for dear life. Instinctively he knew not to allow himself to fall, even if there were hundreds of Wizards available and able to cushion his landing. It wasn't the plummet to earth that would kill him, it would be the Horntail swooping down and swallowing him whole before he had a chance to hit the ground.

How in the hell was he going to get out of this?

He had to do something. Not having any clear plan, but knowing he needed his wand, Harry let go with one hand and reached towards his back pocket. Just as he grasped the thin wood the dragon wrenched her body and Harry lunged forward. Landing on one side of her head, he nearly fell, but managed to grab hold of one of her bronze horns.

He was dangling desperately – only inches from the creature's mouth and teeth. One flame spurt and he was done for.

Then Harry had a moment of clarity. As the dragon sucked in breath, preparing let loose her fire, he aimed in her mouth and screamed Ginny's flame-freezing charm.

And blessedly, for a moment, nothing happened. Confused and frustrated, the Horntail stopped dead in the air – and Harry used the chance to scramble back up onto her head. With only her horns to hold onto, Harry realized he had to do something now, before she started to twist and turn again.

Hermione's words about the eyes came back to him. But Stupify wouldn't be good enough – they would both plunge to the ground like a rock. Harry took his aim for the dragon's eyes and looked back towards her wings. And when they were stretched out to their fullest, he screamed a spell he had learned in first year: "Petrificus Totalus!"

The Horntail was frozen like an outrageously large dragon-shaped glider.

The wind whipping past him, Harry carefully slid back along her neck until he reached the harness. He would have to use his weight and the chains to try guide them back down to the ground.

Once they were over the certre of the pitch, Harry leaned forward, aiming her down. Air screaming in his ears, he knew they were approaching fast, but there was nothing he could do. At the last moment Harry pulled on the chains with everything he had, forcing the Horntail's head up and her belly down.

They landed with a crash, ripping up the ground and finally, mercifully, coming to a screeching halt almost directly in front of the podium.

Everything was silent.

Minister Whitmyre stood aghast, holding Harry's medal. Beside him Professor McGonagall looked as close to tears as Harry had ever seen her. Also on the stage were several other wizards Harry didn't immediately recognize, all looking equally stunned.

Coughing a little, Harry climbed off the now motionless Horntail, dusted himself off and walked up to the Minister of Magic. Apparently unsure of what else to do, the gentleman silently placed the medal around Harry's neck.

The crowd roared.

After the presentation, Harry made his way back under the stands. There had been speeches and even embarrassing poetry in his honour, but he didn't care. The adrenaline pulsing through his body made him feel unbelievably fantastic. It was brilliant to be alive.

He had one thought – Ginny. He wanted to find her. He wanted to snog her senseless. Or maybe push her up against a wall and do something really scandalous. At the very least, running to her, sweeping her up in his arms and whooping for joy seemed like a very plausible idea.

Instead he found Charlie, rushing towards him and full of apologies. "Harry! Thank God you're okay. I've never seen a dragon behave like that before. She must really remember…"

Psh tosh! On to more important things. "Where's Ginny?"

"Oh." Charlie blanched a little. "Actually, Fred and George are sitting on her."


Charlie shook his head and looked a little awed. "Just after you landed, she walked up to Buzzbee, as sweet as I've ever seen her. Then she punched him square on the nose."

Harry laughed. "Excellent." He couldn't remember hearing better news in his life. The wanker totally deserved it.

At that moment Buzzbee came stumbling up, a handkerchief pressed against his face in an attempt to stop the blood flow. "Ah, Harry. The reporters will be ready for you in a few minutes. The staging area got a bit destroyed, but I have people on that. And I need to get this looked at obviously. I can't very well introduce you while I'm bleeding from the face."

For a moment Harry couldn't believe how good-natured the man was being about the situation, until Charlie's uneasy look made something click in place. Harry decided to test his theory. "What happened to your nose?"

"The damnedest thing," Buzzbee chuckled, adjusting his handkerchief. "In all the confusion of your landing I must have fallen and broken it. Not to worry, I've suffered worse." And he ambled off.

Beside Harry, Charlie coughed uncomfortably. The Weasley family really were an extraordinary lot.

Ducking further under the stands, Harry quickly found the spot where the twins had hauled Ginny off to keep her from doing any further harm. It was an amazing thing, really – having a girlfriend who happily punched people in the face on his behalf occasionally.

Harry could barely see Ginny, as she was buried under the twins' robes, one sitting on her legs, the other just below her shoulders. "Gerrof me!"

George snorted. "I don't think so."

"We're a bit disappointed in you, little sister," Fred added.

"You would think, after years under our tutelage, you would have learned something about subtlety."

Ginny was barely able to lift her head off the ground. "Subtlety… ha! Because engorged… tongues and giant… indoor swamps… are subtle."

"Maybe not," George agreed. "But humour as a weapon is fine art form."

"Not to mention," Fred said cheekily, "it's very hard to prove we're responsible."

"Having to resort to physical violence shows a distinct lack of concentration that worries us."

At this point, Harry felt the need to step in. "To be fair, I seem to recall all three of us getting kicked off the Quidditch team for fighting."

"True," George acknowledged him. "But we didn't have our wands."

"She should have at least hexed him," Fred said airily.

"I didn't want… to hex him!" Ginny attempted to screech. "I wanted to… kill him… with my bare… hands! Harry… get these idiots… off of me."

"We'll let you up, but only if you promise to play nice," Fred offered.

"And," George amended, "let us come up with a nice untraceable plan for revenge, together."

"As a team."

"That won't end up in you losing your place as Captain."

"Ugh." Ginny gave up her struggle and rested her forehead on the ground. "Fine."

The twins were off her in an instant, and Harry immediately offered his hand, helping her up. She looked exhausted, filthy, and beautiful. He was about to pull her into a fierce hug when she placed a hand on his arm, effectively putting him off. "I need to go up to the castle to get ready for tonight."

Harry was at a loss. "What?"

Already turning to go, Ginny said, "The dance. I need to get ready. I'll see you later." And she was gone.

Watching her leave, Harry couldn't believe it. He felt stunted. He had been imagining this ecstatic reunion and she had just walked away. Like it was nothing.

And what the hell? Wasn't she supposed to stay? Wasn't that part of the whole relationship gig? Supporting each other through awkward and potentially embarrassing situations that they knew the other hated doing? And for what? To do her hair? HER HAIR! Alright, and maybe a shower, she did smell a bit off. But still!

Harry hated doing interviews. Ginny knew that. He had survived the Triwizard Tournament on his own, but this time he was supposed to have somebody by his side. He had prepared for this moment, picturing himself being peppered with annoying intrusive questions, but also seeing her friendly face, just off to the side. Smiling at him. Possibly making faces.

And she just left?

Feeling terribly nettled, Harry found himself being led off to the group of journalists that had now assembled. And the questions didn't help. Harry had thought they would ask about Voldemort – about the final battle. But instead all the group seemed to care about was him. Over and over they asked about his plans and his future – where he was going to go, what about his career, what adventure would he concur next. And he kept having to answer that he didn't know, he hadn't decided anything yet. All the while wondering what business it was of theirs anyway.

He was sinking deeper and deeper into a foul mood. Until one voice rang out above the others. "Is it true that you plan to marry Ginny Weasley?"

Harry frowned and muttered, "That's the basic idea, yeah."

A few more obnoxious inquires later and he was finally done with that lot. Harry stormed off the stage and went back under the stands to find his friends.

They were all gathered together: Ron, Hermione, Fred and George, staring at him as though he had suddenly sprouted a new appendage – possibly in a highly uncomfortable location. "What?" Harry demanded.

George spoke first. "That's the basic idea?"

Fred stepped forward and patted Harry on the arm. "It was nice knowing you, mate."

Ron looked concerned. "Harry, I know girls are confusing and all, but have you gone completely nutters?"

As usual, Hermione was the one with the most helpful comment. "You really ought to tell Ginny what you said, before she reads in tomorrow's paper that the two of you are engaged."

The words were out of Harry's mouth before he even had a chance to think about them. "If she'd been here I wouldn't have to tell her anything, would I?"

Hermione looked stung.

Ron groaned, "Oh, so that's what you're mad about."

"Who says I'm mad about anything?" Harry snapped.

Ron just shook his head wearily. "Some reporter asks if marrying my sister - an idea that should make you ecstatically happy – is what you're planning, and instead of going on about how wonderful she is, you mutter some lame answer like a miserable git. You're lucky she wasn't here, she might have ditched you on the spot after hearing that."

Harry bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from telling Ron what he was really thinking about his sister at that moment.

Damn it all, he was angry. And it only made him even more furious to realize it, because this wasn't how he was supposed to be feeling at all. Right now he should be enjoying his reward for surviving the rest of this horrid day.

Harry glowered and moved away from Ron and the others. He was being given access to the Quidditch change rooms to shower and switch into his dress robes. But the whole time heated thoughts swirled and built inside him.

The first part of this mess had been doomed to be terrible – dragon, reporters. But then the whole point of the night, as far as Harry was concerned, was to make up for it. It had been two months since he had spent any time with Ginny at all – and tonight they were actually going to be allowed hours together. It was supposed to be happy and wonderful.

Attempting to pat down his hair, Harry fumed over what his imaginings for this dance had been.

Recently, Harry had been thinking it was hugely unfair that there had only been one dance during his seven years at Hogwarts. He realized that if someone had told his fourteen-year-old self that he would never again have to contend with another ball, he would have found it an enormous relief. In retrospect, however, it seemed a great injustice that, considering how miserable the infamous Yule Ball had been, he hadn't been given a second chance – once he'd found someone he would actually enjoy spending the night with, dancing. And maybe sneaking away to the rose garden.

Harry stomped across the grounds. He had been seriously looking forward to this night. It had been the balm to get over his anxiety about the rest of the day. And here Ginny was, deciding to choose this moment to ruddy well pick a fight with him? Ha! Well, then a fight she would have. Bring. It. On.

Harry strode into the Entrance Hall, dress robes billowing behind him. He was a man with a purpose and he quickly found Ginny, standing off to the side. He marched up to her. Oh, he was so ready. Itching to start the battle.

Right up until the moment he saw her face. "You've been crying."

She glared at him defensively. "No I haven't."

Ginny may not be one to cry often, but the last two years had taught Harry that when she did, she didn't recover easily. Even with charms, her pale skin could stay blotchy for almost an hour. "Yes you have."

She hissed and looked away. "Don't be stupid."

And as quickly as it had come, Harry's sympathy disappeared. "Yeah, because clearly I'm the one being stupid."

She rounded on him and spat, "Have you got it out of your system?"

Harry was at an utter loss. "What?"

"Playing the conquering hero."

Now that actually hurt – like a blow. Of everyone, Ginny was the one who was supposed to know better. "That wasn't what this was about."

"Enlighten me." She tilted her head. "What was it about?"

Damn it, saying it out loud now just made him feel like an idiot. "Making people get bored of me," Harry muttered.

Ginny sniffed. "So that worked out well for you, then."

Harry was at his end. "Look, this thing with the dragon was a one shot deal. I accept the award, I ride the dragon, the Ministry leaves me alone. For good."

Never easily put off, Ginny seethed, "Buzzbee is an insane lunatic, toying with your life to make himself look good."

"Agreed," Harry relented. "And I'm done with him. But he did have a point in the beginning. If I try to hide myself away like a hermit, people will only be more curious about me. If I put myself out there a bit, be approachable, normal, people will get over this whole hero crap. I just need to figure out a way to find a balance."

She eyed him warily. "A balance with no more dragons?"

"No more dragons," Harry stated with sincere conviction.

The two of them stood there staring at each other. Harry wasn't sure how he felt about this – it seemed too easy. The blood in his veins still rallied for more of a fight. But then Ginny stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, tucking her head under his chin, and he realized he really didn't want to spend the night fighting with her at all. "Can we dance now?" She nodded against him.

This event was to be much less formal than the Yule Ball had been. Rather than a full dinner, there were tables along the sides of the Great Hall filled with food and drink. Harry's award ceremony that afternoon had served as the official part of the day, the night was to be the party to finally celebrate the freedom he had won. And Harry couldn't have been more grateful for the reprieve – he and Ginny found it very easy to lose themselves in the dark.

Ginny stayed quietly by his side the whole night. They took slow turns on the dance floor and spent the faster songs sitting off to the side together. Harry really didn't feel like talking to anybody. He was a little surprised when Ginny didn't try to pull him into the crowd for at least one fast dance, but he was exhausted and she looked just as tired. She held his hand the entire time. If she were being more clingy than usual, Harry didn't really notice – he was simply glad of the chance to be close to her.

It was late into the night before Harry remembered he had something else he had to tell her. Without saying a word, Harry stood up and led her from the hall, out the doors and deep into the rose garden.

"What are we doing?" Ginny asked, as they found a spot away from the castle.

Harry grinned, "Fulfilling one of my boyhood fantasies."

Ginny looked around at the privacy the bushes offered and bit her lip, impishly. "Oh yes, I remember this."

Harry felt scandalized. "How do you remember this?"

Ginny giggled at him. "I'm teasing you. Neville wouldn't have had the nerve. But we did come out here for some air at one point, and stumbled across a few people who came out for a bit more than air." She rubbed her arms. "It is a bit cold though, what exactly did you have in mind?"

First things first. "I need to tell you something, actually." Harry swallowed. "Look, at the press conference today, I might have given people the impression that we were engaged."

Ginny's mouth dropped a little. "And how did you do that?"

"Well, someone asked if we were going to get married and I said," Harry scratched his head, "something like, 'That's the basic idea.'"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "This had better not be your version of a proposal."

"No! Of course not." Harry tried for a joke. "Hence the lack of a ring and a string quartet."

Ginny seemed to mull it over. "I suppose we ought to warn Mum. She'll be furious if she thinks I didn't tell her straight off."

Just to be absolutely clear, Harry asked, "So you're not mad at me, then?"

"Why would I be mad at you?"

"Well, your brothers seemed to think it was a rather lame response."

Ginny frowned. "It was, but I would've had to hex you if you'd said no."

Harry nodded and grinned – he was quite pleased to remain the resident Ginny expert. At the same time though, he was a little anxious to move the topic off his lack of an actual proposal. "So, how's your Animagus training going?" It was awkward, but it at least it was something.

Ginny crossed her arms, glanced away and mumbled something he couldn't quite catch.

"What was that?" Harry asked.

Ginny looked at him a bit defensively and huffed, "A tail! I can do a tail, alright?"

Images that Harry wasn't sure were entirely appropriate flooded his brain. Maybe it was his slightly vacant, glazed-over expression, or the way his mouth was hanging open, complete with a trickle of drool, that did it - something must have given away the exact direction of his thoughts, because Ginny eyed him appraisingly and said, "I knew it."

Harry snapped back to life. "Show me."

"No way."



"Why not?" Harry was vaguely aware he might sound as though he were begging, but he really didn't care.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "You know perfectly well why not. It doesn't go through my robes, you git."

Seeing an opportunity, Harry decided to try a different tactic. He leaned towards her and said in a low voice, "I've seen your bum before, I'm quite fond of it actually."

"Well, you're not seeing it now."

"Come on," he raised his eyebrows suggestively, "I'll show you mine."

She poked a finger at his chest. "You know, I'm not sure how I feel about you using my very serious training to become an Animagus as an opportunity to act like a big perv." She glared at him, but there was also just enough of a grin to give him a little hope.

Harry wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. Running his hands up and down her back, he trailed a series of wet kisses along her jaw, up to her ear and whispered as seductively as he could muster, "Ginevra, I want to see your lovely bum and your magnificent tail." She let out a tiny moan and melted against him, turning to meet his mouth with hers. Thinking he had won, Harry carefully eased one hand down to her thigh and slowly started pulling the silky robes up.

Rather forcefully, Ginny put her hands on his chest and pushed him away. "Stop!" At least she was giggling now.

Harry heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Why?"

Before she had a chance to answer, the rosebush behind them was suddenly blasted away to reveal an evilly triumphant looking Snape.

Ginny pointed dramatically and said, "That's why!"

Harry thanked God, the heavens and anybody else who might be listening that Dumbledore had completed his Occlumency training. Forget Voldemort – Harry would never be more grateful than right now, when his former vile professor did not know he'd just been begging his girlfriend to show him her lovely bum. He assumed the way Snape was staring him down, his attention was solely focused on him – some things never changed.

"Mr. Potter," Snape sneered in his usually sarcastic tone.

"Snape," Harry grunted.

"Hogwarts is so supremely flattered to host the celebration recognizing your remarkable heroism," Snape simpered. "It would be such a shame to have the evening spoiled with the revelation you were thanking the school by attempting to corrupt one of its students."

Now that just wasn't fair. Aside from this one incident, it had always been Ginny who had corrupted him. Unfortunately, Harry couldn't think of a suitable comeback that wouldn't give Snape endless amusement.

"Perhaps it would be best if you returned inside." Snape turned to the castle, clearly indicating they were to follow. And while Harry was feeling mutinous – very much aware of the fact that he no longer had to do anything Snape said ever again - he also knew that Ginny still fell under the school's jurisdiction.

One lone man, lingering by the door with a camera, noticed who was approaching him and leapt to the opportunity. "Miss Weasley! How does it feel to be marrying the hero of the Wizarding World?"

The pop of the flash momentarily blinded them. But as the puff of smoke cleared, Ginny ignored the question and instead turned to Harry. "I'm tired. I'm going to go upstairs to bed." And with a quick kiss on the cheek, she was walking through the doors.

Watching her walk away from him for the second time, Harry did the only thing that made sense – he took his disappointment out on the man who had given him years of grief. "I figured it out. No girl ever wanted to sneak away from a dance with you, did they, Snivellus? That's why you're such miserable sod, spoiling everyone else's fun."

Snape looked furious. At least that was something.

Author's Note: Before anyone starts yelling at me for making Ginny a heinous bitch - please be patient. There is actually something going on with her that she hasn't told you about yet. I think I laced the first chapter with enough clues that if you read it very carefully, you might be able to guess. No, it's not something complicated like a kidnapping – rather something a little more simple. Hilariously, I realize that because I'm throwing red herrings at you I am inviting the upset, which might be good creatively speaking. But personally I just want everyone to love me. LOVE ME!

Okay, on to the grovelling. I am deeply, DEEPLY sorry! Bringing this chapter into the world was the emotional equivalent of getting forty whiny three-year-olds trussed up into their snowsuits, complete with lace up boots and double mittens. I knew it would be a challenge, but I had no idea it would take this long and I greatly underestimated just how exhausting it would be.

The good news – this was the hardest chapter of the entire story. And I had been dreading it from the beginning. On the flip side, I am very excited about what is to come – so you will not have to wait anywhere near this long again. I promise.

HUGE THANKS – to my betas Loony Phoenix and Kjirstyn for their gentle encouragement over the last few months. Also to anyone who sent either a polite enquiry or an outright threat. Seriously, if people hadn't still been expressing interest, there was a chance I might have just said, "Sod it!"