Author's Note: I apologize for the lack of stories lately, but the muses just haven't been smiling, haha. I've actually had half this story finished for a while; I only recently found it again and realized I'd best get cracking if I want to get it out before the release of Book 6—because honestly, who's going to want to read fanfic when we've got that to sink our teeth into?

I also looked over all my old reviews from other stories, and right now I just want to shout a BIG thank you to everyone who reviewed. You've all been so sweet and I really appreciate it. And on that note, don't forget to review for this one! ;) Bit of a different take on things with a bit less fluff and a bit more angst, but I hope you'll like it.

Disclaimer: If I were JK Rowling, do you honestly think I'd be posting fanfiction?

Mrs. Weasley was upset. Everyone at the gray table of number twelve, Grimmauld Place could see it. The plump fingers fixed around her spoon's handle seemed to be in a death grip, their knuckles white, their movements jerky, so that she often slopped soup on herself. Her face was pale save for the faint pinkness of her eyes. Every once in a while, those eyes would dart in her youngest child's direction, who was doing everything she could to pretend she did not notice these sporadic glances. Ginny Weasley's usually lighthearted air was replaced by silence as she calmly ate her soup, with an expression of barely concealed annoyance. Everyone at the table—Hermione, Harry, and every Weasley save for Percy—was quiet. Occasionally the twins made a comment that inspired some grins, but never from Mrs. Weasley, and never from her only daughter.

Both remained dead-silent, Ginny's expression stoic, Mrs. Weasley's vaguely harassed. It was clear another argument was going to break out soon. According to Ron, who had filled Harry in on much of the happenings here since he had arrived that morning, mother and daughter had been having a series of rows over the past few weeks since the end of the school year. No one knew precisely what they were about, either; always Mrs. Weasley would send everyone out of the room and then place a soundproofing spell over everything to ensure she and Ginny had their privacy. Many times her brothers had attempted to bribe, persuade, beg, or physically coerce the information out of Ginny, the reason as to why she and Mrs. Weasley were at loggerheads; but always Ginny refused, claiming it was too silly a reason to even discuss.

Now Harry felt very awkward sitting there, coincidentally between Mrs. Weasley and Ginny. He didn't understand it at all. His impression was that Mrs. Weasley always doted on Ginny for being the youngest and only female. What had happened the three weeks he had been absent to cause this falling-out?

Meanwhile, Fred, George, Charlie, Bill, and Mr. Weasley were all wolfing down their soup and bread as fast as humanly possible, apparently wanting to be out of that tense atmosphere before either of their family members erupted. As Ron had put it earlier, it was hard to say who was more frightening when angered, his mother or his sister. Harry had seen both tempers in action, but always one at a time, never in close proximity to each other—having both tempers go off simultaneously would be quite an intimidating spectacle, one he wasn't keen to witness. Thinking this, he began speeding up his consumption of the food as well. Across from him he could see Ron and Hermione doing the same, Hermione eating as daintily as she could while still maintaining a decent speed.

The twins finished first, throwing down their spoons with clatters and chorusing, "Done, Mum! Thanks!" before Disapparating out of the kitchen with a crack. Mrs. Weasley said nothing, didn't even call them back to clean up their dishes, or reproach them for their rude departure. She simply sat and glared down unhappily at the bottom of her bowl.

A minute later Bill and Charlie were finished; this time they both gathered their plates and took them to the sink, both gingerly complimenting their mother on the exemplary meal before rushing out. Mr. Weasley soon followed, daubing sweat from his shiny balding head. Realizing they were lagging behind and had best leave soon, Ron, Hermione, and Harry increased their speed before jumping up from the table as well, mumbling thanks, and fleeing out the door without glancing at the two remaining redheads. Ron still had half a bread crust in his mouth; he chewed, cheeks bulging, before swallowing with difficulty and wiping his forehead.

"Oy. Glad we're out of there."

No sooner had he said it than there came the muffled sound of Mrs. Weasley's voice, darkly saying something, and then Ginny's shout of, "MUM! NOT AGAIN!"

"Oy. Very glad we're out of there. Just think—if we'd stayed one minute longer, we'd be smoldering ashes right now . . ."

"Oh don't exaggerate, Ron," said Hermione, who looked grim as she trudged up the moldy staircase, toward the bedroom Ron and Harry shared.

"Exaggerate? That's not exaggeration, Hermione, that's fact. They're both bad enough separate when they get riled, but put them together and lightning bolts shoot out of their eyes, I swear—"

"I'd be a bit less playful about it if I were you," said Hermione acidly, entering the bedroom and shutting the door behind them with a click. "This seems serious."

Flopping on his rumpled bed and kicking off his shoes, Ron shrugged. "If it was really serious, Ginny would've told us, wouldn't she've? You girls love to chat it up about things like that, your feelings, and other such guff."

Hermione's eyes narrowed dangerously; unlike Ron and Harry (who had sank into an armchair with fading green upholstery), she had remained standing. "Actually, the fact that she won't tell anyone—not even me—anything is an even larger indicator that it is serious. But of course, you'd know that if you understood a speck about girls and their 'feelings, and other such stuff.'"

"'Feelings, and other such guff,'" corrected Ron, mostly to annoy her. Hermione didn't look amused.

"Has she said anything about it at all?" Harry asked, intrigued. "Any hint as to why she and Mrs. Weasley are fighting?"

"Not much, other than that Mum's being irrational and overemotional again," said Ron offhandedly. "But she's like that almost all the time, so there you go. Oh, and something about Mum 'smothering her' and—what was it? 'Trying to clip her wings'? Something girly like that."

Haughtily Hermione tossed her bushy hair. "Well, honestly, Ron, I think it's a bit of a shame you're not taking more of an interest in your sister's well-being."

Ron held his hand to his chest, as though offended. "Excuse me? No one takes a keener interest in how my sister's doing. And you weren't here at the beginning of the summer, were you? When it all started, I was hounding her all the time about it. Fred and George and me used to hatch plots to get her to out and tell us. But after we tried to ambush her the third time and it didn't work, Dad said we had better stop and leave her alone or else, that it's her and Mum's business and all that. Now I just figure it's about some woman thing. I dunno, maybe they're arguing about if she can be on the Quidditch team again next year or something; maybe Mum doesn't like the idea of her getting banged up on the pitch . . ."

Harry frowned. "That doesn't tally up. Most of their sons have been Quidditch players, and Mrs. Weasley knows Ginny can handle herself. And they seemed really proud of her last year when she was Seeker. . . ."

"I can't think of what else it could be," said Ron, slouching back on the bed; and then, as though struck by a new and decidedly horrifying thought, he sat back up again with amazing speed. "Wait. I—I know this is too horrible to even think about . . . actually I don't even want to say it out loud . . . but . . . what if it's about . . ." He paused, looking vaguely sick.

"Voldemort?" Hermione whispered through the fingers clapped over her mouth, and Harry leaned forward in worry.

"What? No, no, no, where'd you get that? No, what if it's about a boy?"

Hermione stared at Ron. For several seconds, she was motionless. Then she lunged at the bed, snatched up the nearest pillow, and whacked him soundly over the head with it.

"Hermione!" said Harry, shocked but rather entertained nonetheless.

"Ow!" Ron rubbed the spot the pillow had smacked. "What was that for!"

"For you being stupid. Even if it is about a boy—which I highly doubt—you shouldn't worry about it."

Ron mouthed at her soundlessly, then made several outraged noises. "You—you just told me I was being too relaxed about the whole thing! That I should worry some more! And now you're telling me not to? What is it with you?"

"Ginny's going to be a fifth year, she doesn't need you grumbling about what boys she sees or doesn't see. Don't pester her about if it's to do with a boy or not, or you'll only worsen her mood."

Wearing a sour expression, Ron was still rubbing the spot poutily. "Where did you get the idea you can just order me around, anyway?"

"I'm only trying to make life easier for the two of you."

"Yeah, well, you'd make it a whole lot easier by not sticking your nose into our—"

"There's already one pair of people in this household fighting," Harry intercepted briskly. "Let's not make a second, shall we? If Ginny wants to be left alone about it, leave her alone about it. Now, can someone please fill me in about Order happenings? I feel like I've been away forever. . . ."

For them the rest of the evening was spent deep in discussion about Voldemort, Death Eaters, and all that Hermione and Ron had seen or overheard over the course of the past three weeks. The subject of Ginny and Mrs. Weasley was not brought up again. Harry didn't even think about it until he turned a corner on his way from the bathroom much later that night, ramming headlong into a mane of scarlet hair, vibrant compared to the dull, chipped gray of the wall and its smattering of cobwebs. Ginny. Her eyes were as bright and hard as diamonds, glittering in the dim lighting. Her cheeks were flushed, though, for once, not from physical contact with Harry, but from about an hour of shouting and quarreling with her mother. When she stumbled back and saw whom she had bumped, her expression visibly softened. She even managed a smile, though it was a rather exhausted one.

"Hi, Harry," she said. "How's your summer been? Not the best, I'll guess."

"It's better now," he replied, smiling back and stuffing his hands into the pockets of his . . . it suddenly occurred to him he was in his white bathrobe, with his hair damp and even more incredibly mussed than normal from a recent shower. It was half after ten now; a yawning Hermione had retired to her and Ginny's room thirty minutes ago, and when Harry had left to shower a quarter hour after that Ron was already snuggled in bed and mumbling something about Snape being eaten alive by a spider. Harry could not have said why the fact that he was wearing a bathrobe and no doubt looked foolish occurred to him at that moment, but it did all the same.

"That's good. You're away from those stupid Muggles, at any rate. Things'll be a lot more interesting here. The twins have made improvements to their Extendable Ears; Imperturbable Charms don't bother them anymore. We've learned loads we're not supposed to, but I expect Ron and Hermione have told you. . . ."

Harry nodded. "Yeah, they told me a bit." Pause. Because Harry was curious, and he wasn't quite sure what else to say, he decided to break his own edict and do the opposite of what he had said to do, which was leave her alone and not pry. Awkwardly he said, "Erm, Ginny . . . you and your mum . . . are you all righ—"

"Yes, we're fine, Harry," she said simply, with a slight darkening in the color of her cheeks. "If you're thinking it's a rift like the one Dad and Percy had, you're wrong, it's nothing like that at all. She's just . . . a bit fretful about some things, that's all. It's really silly, and she's trying to protect me but I'm sick of being protected, I've been shielded all my life, by my dad, my mum, my brothers—I feel like I'll never get any sunlight if they don't keep trying to shadow me to protect me from sunburns, you know? I just . . . it's just . . . that sort of thing. And . . . you remember when . . . well, it doesn't matter. Because it's silly. It's just silly and I hope she'll get over it soon."

She said all this in a rush, but despite how jumbled and fragmented it was, Harry was quite sure this was the most she had ever said to anyone on the subject, and not even with anger or frustration in her tone. Indeed, she seemed somewhat embarrassed, and with a need to justify herself.

He nodded slowly and soberly. "Okay. And I didn't think it was like when Percy and your dad fought, I never thought that for a second. I know you'd never do that to your family."

Ginny nodded back, face relaxing slightly. "Well, it's late, and my throat's sore from all that prize-winning defensive action I just did back there."

"Were you two at it that whole time?"

"Yeah. Us Weasleys, we have very hardy lungs. Oh, and we're stubborn, too. Weasley-to-Weasley arguments are almost always long and nasty."

"And I thought Weasley-to-Granger arguments were bad enough," he said, and was pleased to see he had generated a real smile that time. "Well, goodnight."

"'Night."

They slipped past each other, Harry returning to his room with the full intention of notifying Ron of what tidbits he had learned; but Ron was still fast asleep, spread-eagled in bed and now drooling slightly on his yellowed pillow. With a sigh Harry stretched out on his cot and stared up at the grimy rafters crisscrossing overhead. Sleep was long in coming, and, perhaps another half hour later, as he was just dozing . . .

"MUM, I'M NOT A CHILD!"

Harry's eyes flew open, and he snuffled fully awake. Grabbing his glasses, he donned them and glanced at Ron; but the muffled shout hadn't disturbed him. It most likely hadn't disturbed Hermione or anyone else either, as their rooms were all a floor or more above his and Ron's. Well, it seemed as if Ginny and Mrs. Weasley were back at it.

This was ridiculous. What on earth could be so important that they'd bicker about it so? Ginny was an easygoing sort that wouldn't do that to her mother, not under these times of stress, not unless it was over something big. Well, he'd break it up, at least for the night. It was coming from the kitchen, by the sound of it; he would stroll in under the pretense of wanting a glass of water, and they would be so flustered they'd discontinue their fight, at least until a later date. And maybe he could learn more about the circumstances from Ginny. She seemed more willing to converse with him than anyone else, certainly.

Decided, he jumped up and left the room, closing the door gently behind him. As he was approaching the closed kitchen door a minute later, he could hear Ginny say softly, "Oh, Mum, I'm so sorry. Please don't cry . . . oh, Mum . . . want a cup of tea? Would that make you feel better?"

He hung back. If Mrs. Weasley was crying, he didn't want to barge in and embarrass her. Besides that, it seemed as if they were getting along; Ginny seemed to be beside her mother, hugging and comforting.

"No, Ginevra," said Mrs. Weasley's heavy voice, and Harry gave a start, thinking for a second, Who's Ginevra? Then he realized that Ginny could hardly be Ginny's real name. He cut short his surprise over this revelation as Mrs. Weasley continued, "No, what would make me feel better is if you promise, is if you swear, to cease this foolishness. Once and for all."

"What? Mum, I can't, you can't tell me to do things like th—"

"Oh Ginny, I know there are bad times, terrible times ahead, and they'll call on all of us to be brave, but you already are brave, dear, I know that, everyone knows it; Ginevra, you've nothing to prove. Stop this. Don't repeat the ordeal of last term and rush head-on into—"

There was a clatter as Ginny jumped to her feet. "Mum, do you know what you're asking of me? You're asking me to be a coward. You're asking me to stay behind while everyone else goes off doing something they know is right, because I'm too young, too fragile, the youngest, a girl."

"No, Ginny, it's not like that—it's not cowardice, oh, my dear, it's sense, sense. I don't want anything happening to—"

"Mum, Ron was there too. So was Hermione. So were Luna and Neville. So was Harry. And did you take any of them aside and forbid them ever to 'pull such a dangerous stunt' ever again? No, it's only me. Ron's been in dozens of far more dodgy situations than I, and it's me that gets punished for something five others did as well, something right, something to help another—"

"Ginny," said Mrs. Weasley, her tone suddenly sharp, "you know as well as I it was a scam, a setup, that you flew blindly to what very well could've been—and nearly was—your and your friends' and your brother's deaths."

Harry, hovering outside the kitchen door, felt a painful plunge of guilt and self-disgust in the bottom of his stomach. It was what he knew to be true, but hearing it verbalized aloud was still so hurtful.

"That's not the point, Mum—it was for Sirius—"

"Sirius wasn't there, Ginny. You didn't think about it before agreeing, did you? You thought, 'He's in trouble, he's panicking, he needs me,' and you went, you went right to him, didn't you? Didn't give a thought to your own well-being or what—what—wh-what your mother would do if she lost you . . ."

There was a moment of agonizing silence.

"Mum, it was Sirius, Sirius. And Harry, you should've seen him, Mum, his eyes were crazed, his hair was standing on end—he was . . . more scared than I'd ever seen him. Even in the Chamber, standing over me covered in blood, he wasn't half as scared as then. I had to help, Mum. I had to. What was I supposed to do? Come in, see him in a state like that, with Hermione near tears and Ron the color of milk, and say, 'Well it's dinnertime and there's a shepherd's pie with my name on it, 'scuse me . . .' No, Mum, I couldn't. I had to help them."

"Had to help him."

"Yes. Sirius."

Harry could almost see Mrs. Weasley shake her head emphatically, frizzy tendrils dripping down from her usually neat tomato-red bun. "No, dear. Not Sirius. Him. Harry."

Harry went very still.

Ginny's voice was low when she spoke. "What do you mean?"

"Harry, dear. You did it for Sirius, because you and he were very fond of each other, and you did it because you wanted to prove yourself. But, most of all, you did it . . . for Harry. To me, that is as plain as day. My dear, it has been clear to me for some time that you would follow him to the ends of the earth were he set on going there."

Harry's brain was jammed. He couldn't think. His breath came out slow and shallow.

Harry expected a typical girl's reaction from Ginny—denial of her mother's words, insistences that this was quite wrong. But Ginny, as Ginny was wont to do, surprised him.

"It's true," she said simply, and without abashment. "You're right. For the past year I've hid it from everybody—my friends, my brothers, Harry . . . I even managed to fool Hermione. But I couldn't fool you."

"Oh, Ginny."

There was a rustle of cloth on cloth—mother and daughter were embracing. A muffled sob came from one of them—Harry thought Mrs. Weasley. Somehow, he couldn't picture Ginny crying. He hadn't seen her do so since when she had broken down in the Chamber, just after being awoken. That was the little girl he had known back then, though. Ginny was so different now.

"Ginny," Mrs. Weasley snuffled, "please . . . I can't stop Ron from doing exactly as he pleases, I know I can't . . . but you . . . please don't go face-to-face with danger, don't go into a situation where you know that You-Know-Who will be there. And if you can try to stop the others, just do it—I don't care, Stun them if you have to, I just—d-don't want to lose any family members to You-Know-Who. It's not worth it, and you're all so young. . . . Promise me, Ginny. Promise me."

There was a long, emotionally charged silence, before—

"I wish I could, Mother," Ginny whispered, and she seemed to be embracing her mother again, speaking into her shoulder. "I wish I could, with all my heart. But even if I did, I know I'd end up breaking that promise. Because—you're right, Mum. I would follow Harry to the ends of the world. I'd do it in a heartbeat. If I thought I could help him and protect him and keep him safe—I would. No matter the dangers. And I wouldn't do it because I love you less and him more—I'd do it because it's right. Mum, I love you, and I know you love me; but you have to let go, you have to step back. I am your youngest child, Mum, but I'm not your baby anymore. Please, just accept it, and don't worry about me; I can handle myself. I'm my mother's daughter, after all." There was the sound of her kissing Mrs. Weasley's tearstained cheek. "I love you."

Mrs. Weasley knew she had lost the argument. She did not tell Ginny she must no longer endanger herself, or try to make her pledge never to try heroics. She merely said brokenly, "I love you too, Ginny. And I'm sorry for all this, but I don't want to lose you or anybody else."

"I'm sorry, too, Mum. But I . . . I have to do what I think is right. And I think . . . you'd do the same for Dad, wouldn't you? Or any of your other loved ones?"

Mrs. Weasley's voice was very soft and croaky, but she said, "I would. Maybe . . . maybe it's unfair of me to ask you not do the same. But . . . Ginevra, promise me just this one thing: you'll be careful. As careful as you possibly can be while doing the right thing, I mean."

"That I can promise you."

They hugged once more, and then Mrs. Weasley murmured, "We'd better get to bed. And we better let everyone else go to bed. Reckon we've kept up the whole household with our yelling?"

"Possible. Let's go. Love you, Mum."

"Love you too, Ginny." Mrs. Weasley kissed Ginny's cheek and together they began toward the door; horrified, Harry cast around, then spied a cupboard, which he hastily stashed himself into. It was dark and close in there, and smelled of stale cornflakes and spoiled milk; he remained still and listened as the two Weasleys' footsteps passed the cupboard and then continued down the hall. They paused by the stairwell, and Ginny said something indistinguishable to Mrs. Weasley; then footsteps proceeded creakily up the stairs. When he was sure both were gone, he opened the cupboard and stepped stiffly out of it, brushing a spider web from his pajama sleeve . . .

"What're you doing up?"

"Aaaaaaargh!" Mortally startled, Harry leapt three feet into the air and saw Ginny there, padding silently toward him from the staircase with a concerned expression. Gibbering a moment, he finally managed out, "What're—what're you doing up?"

Ginny gave him a withering look. "Unless you were unconscious in that cupboard, you were there during Mum's and my talk. Were you there for all of it?" She didn't look as though it would be mortifying if he were, though she had all be professed her love for him in that kitchen; she simply looked at him calmly and expectantly, head cocked to one side.

"N-no—me? No, 'course not. Just the last bit. When you two were saying goodnight. I just came down for hot chocolate."

"Oh. Well you're in luck, because that's exactly what I came back for. Come on, you can help me make it."

He could feel his face reddening as he followed her back into the kitchen. He was fairly sure his feeble lie hadn't held any water with her, that she knew full well he had heard it all. Even more disconcertingly, she didn't seem to mind. Things would've been so much easier had she been as ill at ease as he. Perhaps she was just glad everything was out in the open now.

The hot chocolate was made quickly, and before long they were sitting down at the table, blowing the steam from the thick, rich drinks. Harry's face was practically on fire. He couldn't look at her face, afraid of what he might find there. But her expression was perfectly neutral, serene. She closed her eyes briefly when sampling the hot chocolate, as though savoring an excellent taste, but that was it. Harry noticed what long eyelashes she had.

"Harry," she said, setting down her mug with a tap of silver on wood, "however much you did hear tonight, I just want you to know . . . I meant every word."

Harry took a particularly large swig of the steaming-hot liquid and nearly singed his tongue off. Swallowing with an audible gulp, he muttered, "Thank you." What else could he say? He had never known such devotion. Well, Ron and Hermione had it, he knew, but to hear it expressed that way, so firmly, so surely . . . he felt so wrong-footed and lightheaded he could scarcely breathe.

Thoughtfully, Ginny drank a little more of her hot chocolate. "You know whenever you're in trouble, Harry, or just troubled, you can always come to me. I'll help you however I can. Please remember that."

Harry nodded. "I will."

"And . . . about the Department of Mysteries . . . no one blames you for anything that happened. We all did it because we love you and want to help you. Never think anything else."

Harry's throat was growing too tight for speech. He managed a second dumb nod. It was hard to express how much this meant to him, hearing these words. He drank in everything Ginny said, savoring it more than the contents of the mug in front of him. He wished he could be as articulate as she, and thank her, and tell her the same; but his tight throat and his numb tongue and jumbled brain and swimming stomach wouldn't allow for anything but nodding as of now. He realized this was an intensified version of how he had felt around Cho all those times. If he had had such strong butterflies around Cho, and that had merely been an infatuation, and this was an even deeper and scarier version of those feelings, then this must be . . .

He didn't let his brain complete that particular train of thought. It was far too bewildering and frightening to examine now.

Solemn but unruffled, Ginny sipped from her mug again. The ticking of a distant grandfather clock, along with the faint scuffling of a mouse in the corner, were the only sounds to be heard. Harry studied her face without appearing to know what he was doing. She fascinated him now, every aspect of her. The way her dazzlingly red hair contrasted with her pale skin; how bright it looked compared to the white of her nightdress. Every time she moved her head, little highlights of gold and orange would catch the light and wink at him, exactly like fire in a grate. A tendril of hair had escape its loose braid and was hugging against her left cheek. His fingers had halfway elevated themselves from the tabletop before he caught himself and faintly flushed—he'd been about to sweep the tendril back behind her ear, unthinking moron he was.

He noticed the way her eyelashes folded downwards just so when she blinked, displaying their length and fullness. And he'd never quite thoroughly looked into her eyes before—glanced, maybe, but never actually looked. They weren't just brown—they were a stunning shade, a rich, liquid milk-chocolate hue near the pupil, then darkening into coffee at the edges. In fact, he was fast coming to realize he'd never actually looked at any part of Ginny. For the duration of his Hogwarts career she had been there, sometimes lurking just beneath the surface of his consciousness, other times—like when she told him off, or stood up to him, or caught his eye to share a joke, or gave him advice, or, like now, when she just simply amazed him—she burst to front center of his mind. No, she definitely wasn't just that stuttering little girl anymore—maybe elements of that girl remained, but she was different now, so different. . . .

Tracing the rim of her cup, Ginny cleared her throat slightly, perhaps to subtly alert him to the fact that he was gawping at her like she was the first human being he'd ever seen.

"Oh—er—" Tearing his gaze away, Harry instead focused on the scuffed wood of the table. It seemed easier than having to explain himself to her. Anyway, how could he? He no longer had a complete grasp on what their relationship had become. There had been a time—not long ago, admittedly—when the name Ginny Weasley coincided with the label "Ron's little sister" popping into his head. Not now. Now that label seemed so unreasonable, so unable to do justice to the person that was Ginny Weasley. Since the Department of Mysteries incident he'd more come to think of her as a friend, but now, after tonight, after what he had just overheard . . . was that really how he viewed her? Was that title really accurate anymore? Even thinking the words "Ginny Weasley" and "friend" in the same sentence put a dissatisfied taste on his tongue. No, she wasn't his friend's sister, and she wasn't his friend. . . .

Ginny took another sip from her mug, then peered into the quarter-inch or so of hot chocolate remaining at the bottom, as though they were tea leaves and she was trying to divine their meaning. Slowly she lifted her gaze to his; their eyes met and locked, and Ginny smiled a small, secretive smile, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking.

"Well," she said at last, hoisting up her cup and taking it to the sink, "I s'ppose it's a bit late for all these introspective thoughts. Goodnight, Harry. I'll see you in the morning."

Speaking was a chore for Harry, or a part of a distant past he'd half-forgotten. His jaw worked up and down a few times, then he managed out, "Goodnight, Ginny." He winced. It seemed so inadequate a parting after all the wonderful things she had just said, how she had pledged to always protect him, that indescribable way she had made him feel. . . .

At this Ginny's smile faltered the tiniest bit; then, dragging one hand along the rough grain of the table as she approached, she stopped directly in front of him, several inches taller than he as he was still sitting in his chair. Normally he would've stood up too, but he was beginning to realize he'd lost feeling in his legs.

She paused there, appearing to be waiting for something—probably a more satisfactory response, or a thank-you, or just some kind of reaction, Harry thought, furious at himself for his slowwitted behavior. He worked and failed to dislodge the lump in his throat. So badly did he want to say something to her, but his efforts proved wasted. Nothing came out.

Harry felt an odd sense of loss as Ginny wordlessly turned away; and maybe he was only imagining it, but he thought her expression was rather sad, too, and regretful, as though she'd been yearning to say or do something but hadn't had the courage. She trudged toward the door at a subdued pace. He watched her cross the small room; her long scarlet hair was in a braid down to her hips, her nightgown was long and white and rustled like little plumes of smoke around her knees. . . . He couldn't recall when he'd started to notice such details about her. Maybe it had just been that night.

It took him a moment to perceive Ginny had stopped dead in the doorway, halfway in and halfway out of the room, propping the swinging-door open with one hand. Her back was rigid, her entire body motionless. Harry frowned at the back of her head, nonplussed, and was about to ask what was the matter when—

"Oh, bugger!" The shout that tore from Ginny's lips was loud enough to wake the dead, and filled with a wild recklessness Harry had never heard in her before. Whipping around like a whirlwind, she launched herself at him, going full-pelt—for one wild second Harry thought he was going to be tackled. Until she actually reached him. There she all but jumped on him, throwing her arms around his neck and ramming her lips onto his.

Harry's entire body went numb as she kissed him, hard and long. He couldn't move or think or react in any way. Throughout his sixteen years he'd undergone many surprises, but this was indisputably the one that rattled him most. His brain didn't just jam; it went haywire. He merely sat and gripped the arms of the chair hard enough to leave indentions where his fingers had been, until slowly, slowly she pulled away.

"That, Harry Potter," she whispered, her face inches from his own, "is exactly what I think of you." With a tiny half-smile she lifted her chin up and kissed his forehead, then turned and retreated out the door, this time not sluggish and trudging, but with a defined bounce to her stride. "Goodnight." At the threshold she paused and smiled a somehow victorious smile, then vanished into the blackness of the hall beyond.

Between the moment she'd pulled away and the moment she'd left, Harry's expression hadn't changed in the least. He sat, looking to be carved of stone, eyes glazed over behind his askew glasses. His heart thudded frantically in his chest, his cheeks burned. What had just happened? Had that been a daydream? A hallucination? It couldn't have just happened. . . . But yet it had. It definitely had. A daydream or hallucination surely couldn't have affected him so strongly.

Harry slumped back in his chair, winded and strangely exhilarated. Part of him was in shock over what had just occurred, and part of him was celebrating it.

"That . . ." said Harry softly to himself, staring into space, "was . . . not—wet." An insipid observation, but a valid point nonetheless.

Thinking hard, Harry tried to more deeply examine how he felt about being kissed by Ginny. He didn't have to search his feelings far for the answer. The conclusion was that he liked it—or not even just liked it. He'd enjoyed it, something he couldn't say about when Cho had cried all over him last Christmas. The aftermath of that had been mostly shock . . . now he did feel shocked . . . but happy, too. Like he'd just scored two hundred and fifty points for Gryffindor and won the game. Or, moreover, the way he'd felt that day years ago when he had first ridden a broomstick. It had been that same rush, that same tingling excitement and wave of exhilaration . . . and the same glee that, while this was the first time, many more like it, if not better, were in store for him.

Nearly a half-hour after Ginny herself had gone, Harry snuffed the candles in the kitchen and left, climbing the stairs, taking them one at a time. His brain was saturated with thoughts, all of them centered around Ginny. . . .

He didn't know what was in store for them, didn't know what she would say or do to him tomorrow when they saw each other at the breakfast table, didn't know how he could look at her without going scarlet or grinning from ear to ear. . . . All he knew was, he couldn't wait to find out.

THE END

This ending has caused me more trouble than you can imagine. Originally my idea was to end it simply with Ginny walking away and Harry pondering over their changing relationship; but then, ahem, my fluffy and romantic side really wanted a kiss, and I can just picture Ginny making the first (and rather aggressive, LOL) move. Please tell me what you think of this, as I am not sure I like it. Thanks very much!