There was just one wizard now guarding the door. He looked bored. Draco Malfoy knew from a memory that did not belong to him that his name was Goode, that he was the son of a brainless girl who had once been infatuated with him and his position as a prefect. But not him, Malfoy had to remind himself: Tom Riddle - Voldemort - those were his memories trapped inside Malfoy's head.
Malfoy fought back a sudden rush of panic that rose unbidden inside his mind and concentrated on letting the now pleasantly familiar thrill of power run back through his veins. How could he have forgotten so easily that all his life had been despair until that fateful night mere weeks ago when the Dark Lord had come to him in the night, entered his thoughts, and given him power and knowledge he could never before have imagined.
Malfoy continued to edge toward Goode when he felt his body start to tremble again. It was not as bad as it had been in the days just after the Dark Lord had first entered his mind but he would still have episodes from time to time, especially when he allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the energies and powers flowing through his body and mind like a powerful current.
Malfoy felt the inside of his robes cling to his sweat-soaked body but he forced himself to remain still and calm. He couldn't afford to lose control now. Even the slightest movement and Goode might notice him. It had been very easy so far - so easy Malfoy had frightened himself at his power - but if he was discovered before he was ready, Goode might have the chance to raise an alarm and all would be lost.
Malfoy carefully cast a silencing charm on the gap in the wall just in front of him. He then leapt as quietly as a cat and flattened himself against the far wall of the corridor. Goode looked thoughtfully for a moment near the spot that Malfoy had just left but then returned to his bored pacing. Having become used to the dark playing tricks on him, Goode scarcely paused to suspect that a real life bogeyman might be dodging his movements this time.
Malfoy crept slowly forward along the wall, mere inches away from the spot where Goode stood but still out of his line of sight. A memory triggered his feet to move without making a sound. Finally, Malfoy ran out of wall. The impatience of the part of him that was still the youthful Slytherin compelled him to strike at once but the patient experience of Lord Voldemort caused him to wait.
Goode walked lazily back across the opening where Malfoy stood, his wand raised. He did not even see him there. Malfoy waited calmly until he had paced back the length of the corridor and turned around to face him. He would not be sure afterwards why he had waited, why he had not struck Goode in the back as he had walked past unawares, except that the memory of Lord Voldemort had in that moment been visited with a sudden prideful hunger that Goode spend the last half-second of his existence in this world knowing exactly where his arrogant boredom had left him.
Goode squealed like a pig as he turned around and saw Malfoy standing directly in front of him. The squealing sound died quickly, however, in a flash of green light.
Malfoy stepped over the body and hesitated. Before his encounter with Lord Voldemort, he had never developed the magic to make the killing curse work. Even the previous year when he had twirled Potter around on his broomstick and felt the intoxicating strength that came from holding another person's life in his hands, he still had not killed. But on this night, in his march into the sancta sanctorumof the wizarding world, he had taken the lives of half a dozen wizards. With each death, Malfoy had found himself even more overwhelmed by his power. Yet there was a fear that Malfoy was still conscious enough of himself to realize - that with each killing, he grew closer to the annihilation of what he had left of himself.
A moment later, Malfoy dismissed these thoughts and stepped over Goode's body to reach the doorway that had haunted him so long, the one that the Dark Lord had unwittingly planted into so many of Harry Potter's nightmares two years before, the door that marked the entrance to the Department of Mysteries.
Malfoy had wasted precious time in hesitation after his killing of Goode and he was already angry with himself because of it. What if, because of his vacillation, someone came sooner than later to sound the alarm? He resolved not to waste any more precious time on indecision when he was so close to taking the first great step to achieving what he had desired so deeply for so long.
The door opened in front of Malfoy and he found himself in a round room ringed by several dark, handle-less doors. Almost immediately after he had closed the door behind him, the doors began to move around in a circle. While many visitors to the room in which he now found himself would have been utterly bewildered at this, Malfoy himself took a sharp left, marched to the nearest door, and pushed it open. This led straight into a wide, deep, rectangular-shaped room.
It was a room that had been meant for trials, the most hideous of all trials, the trials of those who had committed treason against wizard-kind in the days before the treasoners themselves had come to power in the wizarding world. Malfoy felt a heightened sense of excitement as he could still almost smell the fear of the awed spectators and, of course, the accused, as he awaited his judgment and sentence. It had been a time before wizards and witches had become ignorant and weak, a time when the mysteries of death had not yet been closed to them.
Malfoy walked toward the center of the room. As he approached the dais on which stood a crumbling stone archway that held in place a tattered veil, he could not help but experience some of the awe of his forbearers. Already blowing as if directed by an unseen breeze, the veil began to flutter more insistently with every step that Malfoy took toward it, almost as though it could sense the shape of its new destiny. Malfoy imagined that he could hear the voices he had been told about calling to him from the other side but it was no matter that he couldn't. In the end, the fate of the veil and everything inside it was his.
Malfoy reached the foot of the dais. This was near enough. His face began to glisten with anxious perspiration again as he took out his wand and aimed it at the center of the veil, uttering an ancient charm from a language that had not been spoken aloud in hundreds of years.
At first, it seemed that nothing would happen and the part of Draco Malfoy that was very much himself began to feel a combination of impatience and despair. But then the veil started to flutter more urgently and the voices it had first denied to Malfoy began to emerge first as frightened whispers, then as contentious rebuke, and finally as terrified song. The veil began to blow harder and harder, buffeted about in a windless storm. A fiery orange triangle grew out from its center, hissed to its edges, and finally engulfed the veil and the archway completely. Fear began to rise up in Malfoy at what he had been made to unleash. He wanted desperately to step backwards, away from the searing heat of the triangle and the cacophony of voices now screaming at him from beyond the veil. But an even more demanding voice from inside Malfoy's head forced him to stay put, the voice that reminded him that he had made an agreement, one that would give him everything he had ever wanted. There was nothing that should make him step back now.
As soon as Malfoy had stomached himself to concur to the voice's wishes, however, agreement no longer seemed enough. The voice inside his head began to grow in pitch and fervor as though in synchrony with the chorus of voices surrounding him outside. Malfoy sensed its impatience: the voice did not only want him to follow its wishes; it wanted total and unflinching subservience; more than that, it wanted his will. Finally, just as Malfoy was sure the fiery triangle would singe every cell on his skin, Lord Voldemort opened his arms and cried homage to the god that would free him from the body of this impetuous child; the icon of his people's deliverance; the vehicle of his final flight from death itself...
Ronald Weasley shot a curious sidelong glance at the headline of the newspaper that his girlfriend Hermione Granger was reading on the seat beside him as they rode the Hogwarts Express together to school in their seventh and final year. He felt his impatience rise and fall in his chest like a rolling nausea. He fought hard to control himself; he did not want the rest of a very long train journey to become unpleasant and he knew that if he did not keep himself in check, it was a very real possibility. He just had to -
"'Six disappear at Ministry; Department of Magical Law Enforcement Refuses to Comment Further,'"read Hermione.
"Oh," said Ron, trying to sound surprised that Hermione had spoken up.
Hermione put down her paper and looked across from him with a shrewd expression that greatly disquieted Ron.
"You were looking a little anxious," she said diplomatically. "I was sure you weren't rushing me through my paper just so that we could play Exploding Snap sooner so I was forced to assume that you were merely curious about the article I was reading."
"Er, right, yeah."
"What else does it say, Hermione?" asked Harry, who was sitting across from his two best friends playing a game of tarot cards with his girlfriend Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister, and looking far less impatient about the beginning of Exploding Snap.
Ignoring a rather nasty look that Ron had shot over in Harry's direction, Hermione began to recite the beginning paragraphs of the article:
"'The Department of Magical Law Enforcement now acknowledges that the disappearance of six wizards working within the Ministry of Magic early last month may have been the work of dark wizards or witches and not connected with an errant vanishing hex as was earlier claimed. When pressed on the matter, Department of Magical Law Enforcement spokeswitch Bettunia Bettles declined comment, saying thattheincident was an internal matter.Amelia Bones,recentlyretired head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, andThe Daily Prophet's newly appointed consultant on Ministry legal affairs suggests that this cover-up is likely another attempt by the scandal-ridden administration of Cornelius Fudge to conceal a potentially dangerous breach of security. Bones noted that the administration, which only last week saw the forced resignation of yet another of its senior members, UndersecretaryDolores Umbridge, has still yet to deliver on its promise of greater transparency. But Bettles insisted that "while it cannot be denied that several of You-Know-Who's followers might still be at large, it is far too early to jump to conclusions. And I for one believe that our jobs would be made far easier if theProphetrestrained itself from diverting attention away from much more urgent dangers facing the wizarding community."'"
"What - more urgent than the Death Eaters?" commented Ron.
Hermione continued to read.
"'Bettles was no doubt referring to the Ministry's recent "War onMiscreantCreatures" campaign, begun earlier this summer by Minister Fudge in response to allegations that goblins, werewolves, and giants may have developed close ties to You-Know-Who during his recent reappearance.'"
"Stop!" demanded Harry. "I'm getting a headache already."
"You're the one who asked." Hermione shrugged. "At least he doesn't seem to be leaning on the Prophet this time or not so successfully, at any rate."
"I reckon Fudge will be out of office soon," remarked Ron. "Still, this Bettles witch has got a bit of a point, can't go very well blaming every disappearance on Death Eaters; after all, there aren't many more of them left around, are there?"
"I don't know," said Hermione thoughtfully. "I don't think it would do to be completely off our guard, though."
"We've only just done in You-Know-Who," complained Ron. "And you want us to worry about more Death Eaters?"
"I didn't say that you should worry, Ron. I just hope that there are some people out there - such as in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement - who are worrying. You should be worrying about how you are going to pass a very difficult set of N.E.."
Ron shrugged. "That's easy. I'll copy your notes."
"And what if you are an auror in the field facing a dangerous opponent ill-prepared? Will you disapparate on the spot and come to find me?"
Harry and Ginny exchanged an old-fashioned look.
"I'll just lead them into your house-elf village," quipped Ron. "That'll put a stop to whatever they're doing."
"Excuse me, but I find the term 'house-elf' extremely offensive!"
"I'm sorry," said Ron in a tone that suggested he was anything but. "I keep forgetting what you want us to call them, a touch too long."
"Elfin domestic aid," said Hermione through gritted teeth.
"Like I said, house elves."
Hermione was gearing up for another rebuke when there was a knock on their compartment door and Pansy Parkinson poked her head in.
"You two," she said gruffly, pointing at Ron and Hermione. "In the prefect's carriage. Now."
Pansy reeved up her nose even higher than usual at Harry and Ginny who smiled pleasantly in response, then slammed the compartment door shut behind her.
"Dumbledore must be off his rocker making her head girl," declared Ron, reluctantly getting to his feet.
"Don't you understand?" asked Hermione with an air of forced patience. "He's trying to show some confidence in the Slytherins, mend bridges after everything that's happened. You could make a bit of an effort to be nice to her, Ron."
"All right," said Ron grudgingly as they left the compartment.
"That's the spirit," said Hermione, looking pleasantly surprised.
"I suppose her pig-shaped nose might grow on me."
Ginny and Harry were spared Hermione's retort as the compartment door closed behind them.
"How long do you think it will be before they get into a major row?" asked Ginny casually as she picked up another card from the top of Harry's pile.
Harry sighed. "I think we'll be lucky to survive the train ride. I really thought they'd gotten over all this; I thought it was just some kind of tension they shared because they couldn't express their real feelings to each other."
"Maybe it was," replied Ginny, studying her cards carefully, "but now I think it's just the way they communicate."
Harry looked up at Ginny suddenly. "D - do you think we'll ever y - you know - "
"Have a row?" Ginny smiled. "Let's put it this way, Harry. If we ever end up like them, I'll break up with you; you know that, don't you?"
Harry secretly doubted that Ginny would do anything of the sort but he found that the sentiment relieved him nonetheless.
This sense of relief did not last long, however. A few brief seconds later, a very loud cracking sound echoed throughout the closed space of the compartment. Harry and Ginny immediately put down their cards and turned toward the source of the noise. Moments later, the compartment door swung opened again and Ron and Hermione re-entered breathlessly to find out what had happened.
"Pardon me," drawled Draco Malfoy, who had apparated directly across from Ginny and Harry. "I didn't mean to take your seats."
There was another loud crack as Malfoy disapparated and re-apparated several inches to his right leaving room for Hermione and Ron to sit down next to him.
"There we are," he finished, smiling. "Don't let me stop you."
The incoming seventh-year students had passed their apparation tests during the last few weeks of the summer and were exploring their new-found abilities in fits and starts. Harry was secretly impressed that Malfoy was able to control his apparations so skillfully and wondered how he had been able to do so.
Unfortunately for Harry, however, he did not pursue this line of thinking any further for a split second later, his feeling of curiosity was overcome by a deep antipathy for Malfoy and disbelief that he had the gall to appear in their compartment after all he done to aid the Death Eaters the year before.
Ron and Ginny apparently felt the same way as their wands were out of their robes in an instant and pointed directly at Malfoy. Harry quickly followed suit. Hermione, however, simply folded her arms and stared at him.
"What do you want, Malfoy?" she demanded sharply.
"Why should I want anything?" he drawled in reply. "It wouldn't be the same if I didn't come round to your compartment each autumn. I remember Weasley here in particular missing me last year."
"Clear out, Malfoy!" ordered Harry.
"Patience, Potter." Malfoy got to his feet and walked over to Hermione. For a moment, Harry could have sworn that he saw an expression of pity on his face but a moment later, Malfoy's jaw hardened and Harry realized that he must have been mistaken. Whatever the case, Malfoy's path to Hermione was quickly blocked by Ron's wand pressing into his left temple. Malfoy stopped walking but otherwise ignored Ron completely, continuing to look at Hermione.
"If you must know," he said. "I came here to congratulate Granger."
"Congratulate me?" said Hermione suspiciously. "For what?"
"The world belongs to you now, doesn't it? And all the other mudbloods just like you. You can put that wand away, Weasley," Malfoy added, without turning to face Ron. "I have no interest in your filthy little girlfriend. Call me old-fashioned but I still prefer pure blood. Unfortunately, you and your friends have done a great deal to make sure that there is very little pure blood left. Except..."
Malfoy did not finish his sentence. Instead he turned around to look at Ginny with a very odd expression on his face.
"It's easy to forget sometimes," he said thoughtfully.
Harry took hold of Ginny's arm and instinctively pulled her closer.
"Oh, come now, Potter. You needn't worry either. Everyone knows you're both great lovers now. You've made that sickeningly obvious. But you can't very well stop other blokes from looking, can you? Especially," he added, walking over to Ginny and running his eyes unabashedly up and down her body, "when there's so much to see."
Harry's wand quickly found its way into Malfoy's other temple.
"I'm going to count to three," he declared through pursed lips. "And when I'm finished, if you haven't left this compartment, I won't be responsible for the consequences."
Harry exchanged a knowing glance with Ron that told him Malfoy would be lucky to get that long.
"Stop it, both of you!"
Harry and Ron swung around in surprise to look at Hermione who was still staring defiantly at Malfoy.
"Can't you see that's exactly what he's trying to goad you into doing? He wants you in detention, or to lose your prefect badge again, Ron, or for both of you to be thrown off the Quidditch team, or whatever else. He's right. We've beaten him. It's the only small victory he has left and you both going to hand it right to him."
Before either Ron or Harry could respond, another voice called Harry's name. Harry swung his head around to Ginny, preparing to reserve his deepest expression of betrayal for her. But when their eyes met, a look of understanding passed between them. Only Ron noticed that Harry's eyes traveled briefly to something at Ginny's left hip that was blocked from the others' view. Harry then quickly looked up with a resigned smile on his face and said:
"You're right, Hermione. And he's not going to get away with it this time."
Ron watched in amazement as Harry pocketed his wand and sat back down again.
"Thank you, Ginny," said Hermione. "Now - "
But no sooner had Harry taken his seat when Ginny sprang to her feet, her wand in her hand pointed only inches away from Malfoy's face.
"Verspitilio Nasus Volare!"she cried.
Malfoy fell to the floor, clutching the side of his face as a flurry of large black gooey shapes sprung out from Ginny's wand. He threw his hands over his face but the bat bogeys continued to dance all around it, raining down snot over Malfoy's normally well kept hair and robes. It seemed that one especially large bogey had struck him clean in the forehead leaving a large red bat-shaped mark in its wake. Malfoy angrily swiped at the flying bogeys but this only seemed to encourage them to move in even closer. He tried to cast another spell but one of the bogeys swept up his wand in its fangs and passed it around to its fellows. Finally, with a particularly angry snarl and another loud crack, Malfoy disapparated from the compartment, taking the bat bogeys with him.
"He won't be able to steer clear of them that way," remarked Ginny with a satisfied smile. "The bogeys will follow him. A special addition I added after the twins learned to apparate."
Harry and Ron looked highly delighted but Hermione seemed more cross than ever.
"Ginny!" she cried. "I expected better of - "
But Hermione's words caught in her throat as Ginny's smile faded quickly from her face and she walked purposefully over to stand right in front of her. Even Ron and Harry stopped smiling, suddenly uncertain as to what was going to happen next.
Ginny moved her face very close to her extremely-surprised looking older friend.
"I want you to know I understand what you're doing, Hermione, but there's one thing I'd like to make clear."
Ginny's lower teeth became slightly visible as she added:
"If he ever looks at me that way again, there won't a big enough piece of him left for you to pick up from the floor!"
"Hurry up, mate!"
"J - just a minute, Harry," came Ron's voice from within a small curtain just above his wardrobe in their dormitory that had never been there before.
"We'll be late for the feast! What are you doing up there, anyway?"
"Just putting something away."
Ron's face and hands disappeared behind the curtain again, then reappeared after a few moments. Ron could tell from the heat on his face that he had probably just gone a slight shade of Weasley pink and that Harry would probably be wondering why. To make matters worse, Ginny was standing next to him holding his hand. Was she going to follow him everywhere he went now, even into their dormitory?
The ride in the Hogwarts Express had been somewhat subdued following Malfoy's visit and Ginny's outburst but once they had arrived on the platform at Hogsmeade, the altercation had been more or less forgotten. It was an unusually clear and warm day as they had arrived and the typically dark sky was brightened slightly with the fading embers of the sun which cast a reddening glow on the clouds above the mountains on the horizons. They had not run into Malfoy again after they had left the train nor on the ride to the castle. Hagrid had been there to greet them and had made a great fuss before taking the first years on their customary trip across the lake to the castle. As a result of their battle with Voldemort in the original room the previous year, Ron, Ginny, and Hermione could also see the thestrals guiding the carriages to the castle. Harry had known that they would and he could see that they did in the small gasps and surprised looks that moved quickly over their faces as they left the train. They had said nothing, however, obviously afraid that Harry would be reminded again of Sirius' death. But Harry, who was used to the disturbing memories that the thestrals had conjured since the beginning of his fifth year, had felt somewhat comforted by the thought that he was not alone in seeing the magical creatures this time.
As they had left the carriages and joined the other students on the way into the Great Hall, the four Gryffindors had found themselves quickly surrounded by many of their fellow students, some of whom had been congratulatory, and many more of whom had been curious to receive an eyewitness account of what exactly had gone on in the depths of the castle at the end of the previous spring. Though he usually shirked this kind of attention, Harry found that it was much less grating than usual. Once again, this was because he could share the center of attention with his friends who had shared the experience with him and were asked as many questions as he.
Ron's complaints about his empty stomach were now as persistent an annual ritual as the carriage ride to the school and they had not seemed to abate even when Hermione had remarked that she was amazed his stomach could seem empty when it was filled with chocolate frogs. It had come as surprise to all of them, therefore, when, as they were just about to enter the Great Hall for the feast, Ron had insisted that he had something to put away first. Before anyone could object, he had hurried up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower. Somewhat puzzled, the others had saved him a seat in the Great Hall. They had waited for what seemed like some time for him to return. Finally, when Hagrid returned to take his seat at the staff table meaning that the first years had arrived and the sorting ceremony was soon to begin, Harry and Ginny had decided to go upstairs to see what was the matter.
"I - I - it was important," insisted Ron, trying to ignore the curious looks on the faces of his best friend and little sister. "I'm ready now."
Fortunately, Ginny and Harry seemed in too much of a hurry to question Ron - for now. Ron thought he was safe when Harry made for the door handle but then he withdrew it and turned back to look at Ron, a perplexed look on his face.
"Are you sure things are all right, mate?" he said.
Ron drew in a breath. "I - I - I - "
"I mean with you and Hermione. You've gone back to quarreling now, I noticed. I don't want to stick my nose into your business but, you know, if there's anything - "
Ron was already shaking his head, a determined expression suddenly replacing the shocked look he had worn on being discovered hiding whatever it was he had placed on the top of the wardrobe.
"No, Harry. We have a bit of a spat now and then but it's no worries, really."
"If you're sure, mate."
Harry made for the door handle again followed by Ginny but Ron stayed put.
Harry and Ginny looked back, a little surprised.
Ron did not answer. He glanced between Ginny and Harry, now looking indecisive.
"If there's something you want to talk to Harry about, I can wait downstairs," Ginny offered.
Ron looked at Ginny for a moment, seeming almost on the point of agreeing, when he looked back between her and Harry one more time and shook his head. The three of them stood silently for another awkward moment before Ron said:
"Look - can you keep a secret?"
"Of course," replied Harry. "You don't have to ask that."
"And you?" Ron looked more suspiciously at Ginny but she only nodded guilelessly.
Ron hesitated for another moment and then reached with his lanky frame once again to the curtain on the top of his wardrobe. He caught hold of the object he had hidden there, brought it down, and showed it to Harry and Ginny.
"There," he said. "That should show you exactly how things are going with me and Hermione."
It was a perfectly square glass box that just about fit perfectly into Ron's two open palms. Inside was a small stand that looked to be made of some kind of red felt. Above the felt, apparently enchanted by a charm that Harry did not know, two identically-shaped gold rings spun around and around in the air. The gold of the rings caught the faint light from the lantern in their room with each spin. It seemed brighter and more brilliant than any gold Harry could ever recall having seen before. Beneath the dais, etched on a tiny, yet intricate strip of silver were written the words:
TO HERMIONE, LOVE FOREVER, FROM RON.
Harry took all of this in very quickly but not before he heard Ginny let out a gasp. He felt her hand clench and unclench nervously in his.
"B - but, Ron, are you sure?" she said. "You're so young!"
Ron only nodded, his face now a study in calm.
"But shouldn't you at least wait until you graduate!"
"I don't want to wait another moment longer," Ron said in a tone of voice that could make no one doubt his conviction. "Not after everything that's happened to us. Life doesn't last forever and I want to make sure that she knows I want to spend it with her."
"B - but I can't help but think what Mum and Dad will think."
"It doesn't matter what they think!" Ron raised his voice slightly. "They're not going to change my mind. No one is."
Ginny nodded very slightly.
"You're not going to tell them, are you?" Ron added, his eyes narrowing.
"No, of course not," replied Ginny, looking annoyed. "As if I'd want to be the one to deliver that news." She paused and then asked: "However did you get the gold to buy it?"
Ron lowered his head slightly. "Fred and George," he murmured sheepishly. "They said business had been good."
Ginny's eyes widened. "And you expect to keep this a secret?"
Ron shrugged. "I didn't have much other choice, did I?" he said, his eyes avoiding Harry's. "Actually, I've never seen them so serious."
Ginny nodded again and watched the spinning rings, mesmerized. "I don't doubt that somehow," she said softly.
Harry cleared his throat.
"I don't mean to be rude but perhaps someone would like to tell me what's going on. Ron, do I take it that you mean to propose to Hermione?"
It was Ginny who answered when Ron's mouth suddenly seemed incapable of forming words.
"It's a bit more complicated than that," she said.
Harry looked back and forth between Ron and Ginny wondering what could possibly be coming next.
"It's not really marriage, I mean not the way Muggles think of it," said Ginny, continuing to stare at the rings. "We have a separate ceremony for that. This is just between a couple; they put on the rings at a place and time when they are alone together. And not everyone who gets married chooses to take the rings, especially these days; our parents didn't: I think my Dad was too poor to afford them. The rings are of a pair and whenever they are apart they will sing the feelings of the other. The rings very quickly adapt to their wearers so that when they are separated, they can hear the other's feelings in their head."
"Sort of like telepathy?" said Harry, trying to understand.
"Empathy more, I suppose," replied Ginny. "If you're really in love with someone, it can be very comforting. But you wouldn't want to do it with just anyone. Once placed on the finger, the ring can never be taken off. And there's no counter charm so far as anyone knows. There are wizards and witches who have gotten divorced but still haven't been able to take off their rings. It's not very nice. Some people have tried to charm the rings, their heads, their ex-wives or husbands, and they've typically ended up in St. Mungo's."
Ron's eyes met Harry's for the first time.
"I'm not going to want to take it back," he said quietly. "Not ever."
Harry nodded slowly. "I take it she doesn't know."
"And when were you planning to give it to her?"
Ron hesitated for a moment then, as if he was deciding it for the first time, answered:
"Tonight. After the feast. I'm going to tell her tonight."
Harry heard Ginny draw in a breath next to him.
"All right, mate, you go for it," he said. "Don't put it off or drag it out this time, okay?"
"I told you I'm telling her tonight."
Harry nodded. "All right." He paused and swallowed. "We better get down to the feast then."
Harry could feel that Ginny's palm in his was wet with sweat though he was not sure if it was his or hers. Ron quickly put the ring stand away and they left for dinner, walking all the way down to the Great Hall in silence. Professor McGonagall did not look very pleased when they passed the nervous group of first years whom she was already talking to in front of the Great Hall, and looked even more sour when Ron, Harry, and Ginny offered only lukewarm apologies for their tardiness.
Harry did not have to guess that Ginny and Ron must be churning a great many things in their heads. He knew that he was. It was hard to believe that less than one year before Hermione and Ron had seemed to be struggling just to stay friends; now at least Ron was thinking about forever. But, of course, a lot had happened in that year and Ron and Hermione had nearly lost each other down in the original room. Harry wondered, not for the first time, what things might have been like if Voldemort hadn't filled their lives with a sometimes desperate and always nagging fear of their own mortality. Might Ron and Hermione have had more time to think things over? Would that have been good or bad?
Harry was so deep in thought that he did not realize at first that as he entered the Great Hall, everyone around him had started to applaud. When he did, he faced creased into an irritable frown and he rushed with Ginny to the seats they had vacated next to Hermione. Harry noticed that on the other side of Hermione now sat Ginny's roommates Amanda and Catherine along with Colin Creevey, whom Harry noticed with slight surprise was holding hands with Amanda. Harry paused only to consider that he would rather Colin hold hands with a girl than keep his fingers poised on the shutter release of a camera, especially the ways things were at the moment, then returned to his ruminations about his two best friends. He was interrupted again, however, when a voice said, apparently not for the first time:
Harry looked across at the slightly concerned but nonetheless buoyant face of Neville Longbottom. In doing so, however, he found himself doing a slight double-take: Neville seemed far less round than Harry had remembered him from previous years perhaps because he had grown quite tall. Neville's nervous manner also seemed to be much improved although Harry found himself pleased to see that his boyish enthusiasm had not changed:
"I got a new Remembrall over the summer!" he said cheerfully. "It's a good thing, too, as I lost my old one and then my Mimbulus mimbletonia died. It's much better than my old one. Want to see?"
Harry was surprised to find himself agreeing with Neville. Even though he had little interest in Remembralls, he could not help but think that Neville's enthusiasm had a way of rubbing off on him. He also found himself grateful for the distraction from what had been his more serious musings.
Neville reached down into a bag which had been resting on the seat beside him and took out a glass ball the size of a large grapefruit.
"See, it's much bigger!" he said. "And it's clear now because I haven't forgotten anything! But when I do, it goes all sorts of colors, not just red like the last one. You don't have to grab or turn it or anything; it does it automatically! Gran reckons it's sure to give me a few more N.E.! She got it for me over the summer holidays in Diagon Alley; she said the shopkeeper was willing to sell it to her for cheap; not many people buy them these days, apparently. Anyhow - "
Neville was beginning to ramble now and Harry found his attention wavering. His eyes rested briefly to the chair to Neville's immediate right where his girlfriend Luna Lovegood sat holding his hand. As they were all dressed in school uniform, it was difficult to know whether Luna's fashion sense had improved. Judging from her customary necklace of Butterbeer bottle caps and the non-matching orange and purple Bertie Botts' Every Flavor beans she wore as earrings, Harry suspected that it hadn't. Luna seemed to waver between gazing fondly at Neville and staring off into space. When Neville had finally finished talking, Luna took the Remembrall in her own hand, and studying it as if for the first time, said, sighing:
"It's very beautiful but I'm not sure it works very well."
"And why is that?" asked Harry, suddenly finding himself slightly annoyed by Luna.
"Well, Neville came with father and I to visit the lair of the Crumple-Horned Snorkack this summer."
"Let me guess," said Hermione acidly. "You still didn't find any."
"Oh, but we did," replied Luna smiling. "But, of course, we don't remember. The Crumple Horned Snorkack wish to remain undiscovered so they made us perform memory charms on ourselves to preserve their secret location."
"And if you performed a memory charm on yourself, how is it you still remember this?" asked Ginny.
Luna held up her left wrist to reveal a watch in the shape of an eagle resting on top of a lion whose two wings formed the hour and minute hands.
"Missing time!" she declared. "I looked at my watch just as we were nearing their nest and the eagle hand was pointing straight up. But when I checked it again just a few seconds later, it was right down near the lion's bottom. Do you know what that means?"
"Perhaps you need to buy a new watch?" suggested Ron.
Luna's eyes narrowed severely at Ron.
"You may not realize it, Ronald Weasley, but I know that underneath your defensive wit burns a passionate, jealous heart. Don't worry, dear," she added, running her fingers affectionately through Neville's hair. "I only have eyes for you."
Ron showed little reaction to this pronouncement but Ginny giggled and Harry was amused to see Hermione turn red and shoot a very severe glance at Luna who seemed not to notice.
"It means," Luna went on, "that during that time, we came across one or more Crumple- Horned Snorkack but our memories were erased of the event. Unfortunately, it seems the Remembrall did not remind us." She sighed and patted Neville on the shoulder. "Never mind, dear, I'm sure it's fine for ordinary occasions."
Harry had spotted McGonagall entering the hall followed by the line of nervous-looking first years. Luna had noticed her, too, for she planted a very sloppy kiss on Neville's face and then hurried over to reluctantly sit with her own housemates.
Neville turned around to look back at the others, a slightly lopsided grin on his face and a generous quantity of Luna's lipstick on his cheek. Dean and Seamus, who were sitting on Ginny's right side across from Amanda and Colin, began to snicker. Hermione turned Neville's face toward hers and gently performed a scourgification charm on his cheek, flashing a final glare at Luna who had now reached the Ravenclaw table.
Harry had resolved to give his full attention to the final sorting ceremony he would see as a Hogwarts student but he discovered that, freed from the fleeting distraction of hearing about Neville and Luna's summer adventures, his mind seemed to return to the possibility of a magical union between his two friends. It seemed to Harry that the ceremony had barely begun when McGonagall was putting the hat away and Dumbledore was standing up from his chair.
"I would like to welcome everyone to another year at Hogwarts," he announced, his eyes once again full of a sparkle that been absent during the war of the past two years. "It has been a very long time since I've felt in the mood to say this but tonight I think I'll give it another try: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!"
Dumbledore sat back down in his chair again and the feast unfolded itself before the eyes of the assembled students, something that never failed to cause shouts of amazement even from many of the returning pupils. Harry wondered whether Ron's stomach would be too full of butterflies - not to mention chocolate frogs - for him to eat the supper, but on the appearance of the food, he let out something of a victory cry and dug right in. Harry also found that the feast seemed to be especially delicious this year and managed to consume quite a bit despite his other vexations. As the meal wore on, he began to talk with the others about the changes at the staff table.
"Snape doesn't look very happy," remarked Ginny.
"Never does," said Ron.
It was true that their Potions Master, who looked even gaunter than usual, if such a thing were possible, looked particularly displeased and seemed to only be picking at his food. Once or twice, Harry was sure he caught him eyeing the headmaster's chair as if he thought it should still belong to him. Harry, for his part, was very happy to see Dumbledore eating away merrily and talking in an animated manner to Professor Flitwick who sat to his left. It was as if the last two years had been nothing but a horrible dream.
"I can't see anyone new," said Hermione. "I wonder who the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is."
"Not Snape, by the look of things," remarked Harry.
It was following a delicious helping of custard pie that Dumbledore got to his feet once again with a typical list of start of term announcements. There were the usual admonitions to stay away from the Forbidden Forest and to observe the ever-increasing list of prohibitions posted on the door to Filch's office. Finally, Dumbledore got to matters of greater interest to the curious Gryffindors.
"We are pleased to have back our Potions Master, Professor Snape, who has kindly volunteered to step down from his post as acting headmaster to return to his regular duties."
Snape got up from his chair with what appeared to be great reluctance as the hall filled with applause from all four of the house tables, though Harry suspected it was for different reasons.
"I would also like to welcome back into service Professor Grubbly-Plank who, on this occasion, will be substituting for the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts while we continue to search for a permanent replacement for Professor Nevins who has returned this year to attend to his rather unruly garden."
There was polite applause as Grubbly-Plank rose from the right end of the table and gave a curt nod before sitting back down again.
"I'm surprised this hasn't happened before," remarked Ginny. "I doubt they'll ever find someone who'll take that job now."
"No wonder Snape seems so unhappy," said Hermione. "They couldn't find anyone to take the job and Dumbledore still didn't give it to him."
"Should have asked you, mate," said Ron to Harry.
"Don't be ridiculous."
McGonagall cleared her throat slightly which caused all of the similar whispered speculations that had been traveling across the room to stop.
Dumbledore smiled engagingly. "I am also pleased to make another special announcement. Last year, as many as you know, saw the defeat of Lord Voldemort."
Whatever the students had thought of Dumbledore once again saying Voldemort's name out loud was lost in the thunderous applause and cheers that rang throughout the Great Hall at his pronouncement. Many students got to their feet and Harry was quick to join them although he could not ignore the fact that many of the faces seemed to be applauding to him. He was determined not to make things worse by rubbing it into the face of the Slytherins but he could not help looking over at Malfoy and was surprised to find that he had also stood to his feet to applaud, a slightly bemused smirk on his face that led Harry to believe that his cheering was largely sarcastic. He seemed to have cleaned up his face from the Bat Bogey attack although Harry was pleased to see that he had been as yet unable to remove the red bat-shaped indentation on his forehead.
This time, McGonagall waited for the applause to die down slightly before banging her spoon impatiently on the side of her cup.
The room finally fell silent and Dumbledore continued:
"The prefects urged me to make this a celebration dinner. However, since I suspect that most of you are tired from the days' train journey, and since, after all, tomorrow is a school day," Dumbledore paused briefly as a series of groans echoed throughout the hall, "I have decided to postpone things until this Friday when we will have what they have asked me to call a 'liberation ball.' There will be no minimum age requirement: all students are welcome to attend!"
Dumbledore sat back down to indulge in a second slice of custard pie as the room buzzed again, this time uninterrupted.
Harry squeezed Ginny's hand and looked up into her face.
"I hope you don't have any other plans?"
"You have to say wangoballwime, Harry."
Ginny giggled as Harry's mouth dropped.
"H - how - how do you know?"
Hermione turned to Ron with an expression of mock severity.
"I'll go with you to the ball if you promise not to take me on any walks to the Astronomy Tower afterward."
"I'm sorry to break this to you, Hermione, but I was rather thinking of asking Eloise Midgen."
Hermione flicked a stray orange peel in Ron's face as he grinned goofily.
The banter had set a relaxed tone for the rest of the evening, however, which picked up further when they returned to Gryffindor Tower where Harry's fellow housemates did not seem in the mood to wait for Friday night to begin their celebrations. He had to answer a great many more questions about what had happened down in the original room but at least this took his mind off Ron's impending gift to Hermione. There was much Butterbeer and after putting up an initial protest, Hermione finally agreed to let students from other houses make their way inside as news spread fast that the Gryffindor common room was the place to be. She even let Luna in despite the fact that she had traded in her robes for a pair of bright pink trousers and a low-cut black T-shirt which sported a moving picture of a masked Death Eater trying in vain to escape from an Azkaban cell with the words: EAT THIS printed in a caption below. Finally, it was getting late and Hermione and Ron shooed the revelers back to their dormitories and most of their fellow classmates up to bed until only they, he, and Ginny remained in the common room.
"I'm going up, too," Ginny declared. "My head hurts a bit."
Harry looked suddenly concerned. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine," said Ginny. "A bit too much Butterbeer, I think," she added, as a burp escaped her lips.
"Well, good night then." Harry smiled and kissed her on the cheek.
"Good night." Ginny smiled back but did not make a move for her dormitory. Her head was lifted up looking into Harry's and both she and Harry's smiles seemed to take on a slightly deranged look. Finally, Ginny turned around and made a reluctant move for the staircase to the girls' dormitories only to return after a few steps to rush into his arms again. After a slightly more meaningful kiss, Ginny walked back up the steps again and, despite pausing twice to wave back at Harry, managed to make it into her room and close the door behind her.
Harry reluctantly turned back around and went immediately red as he saw that Ron and Hermione had been watching the whole exchange.
"You know, Harry," said Ron seriously. "When a girl says her head hurts, it means she's avoiding you."
Harry's smile began to fade until Hermione burst into giggles. He then threw one of the pillows from the sofa next to him into Ron's face and sat down next to his two friends, his cheeks burning.
"Honestly, mate," said Ron smirking. "You should see the pair of you."
"Yeah, well, the pot's called the kettle black now, hasn't it?" said Harry.
He was pleased to see that Ron and Hermione had gone red at this, too. It was obvious that none of them felt much like going up to sleep themselves. More Butterbeer was poured and the conversation quickly turned to the reminiscences of six years of close friendship. They joked about Fleur Delacour asking Ron to the ball; Hermione's petrification of Neville; and even Harry's narrow escapes from the Dursleys. Things that had seemed deadly serious at the time now seemed mostly just funny, particularly when it concerned Harry and Ron's comical early attempts at dating. It did not escape Harry's notice, however, that Ron did not seem like someone who was about to offer Hermione a set of wizard rings. He suspected that he had forgotten his resolve to ask her that night and imagined that this was the only the beginning of a long and painful process of putting off the inevitable.
Finally, after it was well past midnight and the trio of friends were still deep in rib-tickling conversation, Ron said:
"You know what this conversation needs?"
Harry and Hermione shook their heads.
"Something better than one of these kiddie drinks. What's say we get ourselves a bottle of fire whisky?"
"Oh, no, Ron, you can't!" protested Hermione.
"Oh, come on, Hermione," came the reply. "We're almost of age!"
"B - but you can't bring it into the common room and wherever would you find one?"
"I think the staff's been known to have the occasional nip or two," said Harry, catching Ron's eye.
"And I wonder where they got it from?" said Ron, his eyes twinkling.
"What - where - No!" said Hermione as she finally realized what Harry and Ron were driving at. "You can't! I absolutely forbid it!"
"Relax, Hermione," said Harry. "You can't deny the house-elves the joy of serving us."
"I've told you it's - "
"Elfin domestic labor!" chorused Harry and Ron.
"Yes, and it's - it's exploitation what you're planning!"
"What, after all you've done to liberate them?" asked Ron. "And Harry here, helping Winky take an extra day off work after she'd saved his life. They'll be sobbing with happiness!"
"No, no, I forbid it! If you take one bottle - "
Harry and Ron began to groan loudly.
"Ssssh! Both of you! You'll wake the whole house up!"
But the groaning only increased in volume. Both Ron and Harry began to smile mischievously.
"I said stop it! Do you want Professor McGonagall - "
But Hermione did not finish her sentence as her face, too, settled into a reluctant smile.
"Oh, all right," she said. "We'd all better go then. Oh, I can't believe what I've just agreed to!"
"I think Ron's had a good influence on you," said Harry smiling. "But I think I'll go alone. It'll be harder to get caught and who knows," he added nonchalantly, "perhaps you two have something to talk about."
Harry grinned evilly at Ron whose own smile faded along with the color from his cheeks.
Harry went back to their dormitory. Quietly, so as not to wake any of his already sleeping roommates, he took his invisibility cloak out of his trunk and made his way back downstairs. Hermione was still smiling, albeit somewhat reluctantly, but she hadn't seemed to notice that Ron was fidgeting nervously with his hands.
"I won't be long," Harry said, looking meaningfully at Ron and with that, he was out of the portrait hole.
Harry made his way carefully through the corridors, grateful to hear the sounds of Filch's hoarse yells and Peeves' cackling laughter from a different direction than his planned route to the kitchens. He still took care to tread lightly, however, so as not to give either Filch or Mrs. Norris, should she happen to be around, any cause to break off pursuit of Peeves for a much less elusive target. Harry had not strayed far from the entrance to the common room, however, when he realized he was not alone. Another set of voices, speaking not in the frazzled cries of Peeves and Filch but the hushed whispers of two people that do not want to be discovered, had reached his ears.
Harry forced down his curiosity at who could be talking so close to the common room at this time of night. He had resolved to keep walking quietly when he distinctly heard a female voice end her sentence with his name.
At this, Harry stopped walking and, for a moment, the voices stopped talking. Just when he was sure he must have been imagining things, however, a very familiar male voice said:
"I'm not comparing myself to him."
It was Dean. Harry was sure of it. Not pausing to consider further whether this was something to which he ought to be listening, Harry edged his way in the direction of the voices. Finally, he passed a corner of the corridor and the dark but recognizable figures of Dean and Lavender Brown came into view right in front of him.
"It sounded like you were!" snapped Lavender in a harsh whisper.
"And why would I want to do that?"
There was another pause, then Lavender said quietly:
Dean sighed. "So that's what this is about. You still think I'm mad about her, don't you?"
Harry's heart began beating so fast he was sure Dean and Lavender would hear it. Her? Who was her? Not - not Ginny?
If Harry was seeking to reassure himself that his two fellow seventh-years were talking about someone and something different, Lavender's next assertion did little to help.
"Oh, come on, Dean, stop trying to fool me; at least stop trying to fool yourself. I saw the way you stayed around last year when she was in the hospital wing, how you wouldn't leave until she'd been released!"
"I was worried about her! She nearly died down there; I was worried about Harry, too. It wasn't anything else!"
Harry felt a wave of righteous anger spring up in Dean's defense. Lavender had never gotten grown out of her habit of gossip and now it had seemed to grow spiteful. What business was it of hers whether Dean had stayed anyway?
"I saw the way you sat next to her tonight, too, at the feast. And the way you would turn around to look at her whenever you didn't think Harry was paying attention. Parvati saw it, too. Even one of Ginny's roommates did!"
Had Dean been looking at Ginny? Certainly Harry hadn't noticed. But then if he had been doing it when Harry was looking away... Harry started to feel a bit unnerved but it nothing to what he felt after he heard Dean's halting response.
"A - all right," he said, a little nervously. "Maybe I still have a bit of a thing about her. I - it was a tough break-up, okay? At least for me," he added a little sadly. "I wouldn't do anything to get in the way of their relationship, though!"
Lavender sighed. When she spoke again, her voice was much softer.
"No one said you would, Dean, but you've got it to face it: she's had her eye on him since before she ever set foot in this school and now that he likes her back, they've as good as sent out invitations to their wedding. If you keep on like this, you're only going to get yourself hurt!"
"I'm not doing anything!"
Lavender sighed again.
"Look, you're an awfully nice chap, all right? And a bit dishy as well, I admit - "
More to the point, thought Harry.
" - I'm not offering you rings or anything. It's just that this is our last year here and I thought maybe we could have some fun together. If you're not interested, fine, but don't waste your last days here pining after someone you can never have."
Without waiting for Dean's response, Lavender turned and headed back toward the entrance to the common room. Harry leapt quickly out of the way as she strode directly at where he'd been standing. They barely missed each other but as Harry watched her retreat, he could see that she obviously hadn't noticed him there.
Dean continued to stand where he was and Harry found he could still hear the sound of his heart beating rapidly in his chest as his roommate and friend did not move. He found himself deciding it was fortunate that Dean's head was slightly obscured by the shadows of the wall in front of which he was standing so that Harry could not see the expression on his face. Harry did not move for fear that Dean would hear him although he also found himself doubting that Dean was in a state of mind to pay much attention to what was going on around him. Finally, after what must have been several minutes, Dean let out a long sigh and walked past Harry back to the common room.
Hermione and Ron were still awake when Harry returned although he could tell at once that this was more out of loyalty than interest. After being delayed by Dean and Lavender's midnight conversation; several appearances by Mrs. Norris, who seemed to have realized better than her master that chasing Peeves was pointless; and an eager but loquacious Dobby, it was some while before he returned to the common room with the fire whisky in hand. It was also apparent to Harry from the sleepy expressions on Ron and Hermione's faces that no conversation about wizard rings had been shared between them.
"What happened?" asked Ron lazily.
"Er - I - I - Filch," Harry decided. "I had to go the long way round a few times." He quickly realized that Ron was the last person who should be told about the conversation he had overheard.
"The portrait hole kept opening," said Hermione drowsily. "Each time we thought it was you."
"But it was only Lavender and then Dean," said Ron.
"You didn't tell them I was out there, did you?" asked Harry, trying unsuccessfully to conceal the note of alarm in his voice.
Fortunately for Harry, however, his two friends seemed too sleepy to wonder why he was so concerned.
Ron shook his head. "They didn't seem in much of a mood to talk about anything, actually."
There was a pause in the conversation and Harry looked between Ron and Hermione.
"Look," he said, "you're not really in the mood, anymore, are you?"
"Sorry, Harry," said Hermione.
"You went to all that trouble, mate," added Ron. "And you did get it." He looked at the bottle in Harry's hand. "Never mind, we'll save it for another time, all right?"
Hermione seemed to wake up slightly at this.
"Ron, you can't just stow a bottle of fire whisky in your room!"
"Why not? None of the teachers ever go in there and we can wrap it in Harry's invisibility cloak just to be sure."
Hermione looked to Harry for support but he just nodded. She groaned.
"Come on, Hermione, you're not going to make him give it back, are you?"
By way of a response, Hermione reached up and kissed Ron on the cheek.
"I'm going to bed. Be it on your own heads."
The boys exchanged good nights with Hermione and then went up to their own beds, grinning. Harry took off his invisibility cloak and cast a sideways glance to see that Dean was now in his bed, though Harry felt himself doubting he was asleep. They wrapped the bottle of whisky in the cloak as they had planned. Harry was going to place it back into his trunk but at the last minute, he handed the cloak-wrapped bottle to Ron and asked him to place it next to the ring stand behind the curtain at the top of his wardrobe.
"That way it's handy to celebrate when you give her the rings," he whispered. "You didn't give them to her yet, did you?"
Ron shook his head a little guiltily but he gratefully took the package and carefully placed it behind the curtain, making that sure that it was not visible by anyone in the room. Both he and Harry then got into bed.
"You are going to tell her soon, mate, aren't you?" Harry asked.
There was no reply.
"I just don't want you to give yourself an ulcer, that's all."
And me, Harry thought.
Ron sighed audibly. "I know, Harry. I - I just couldn't do it tonight. I'll tell her tomorrow, I promise."
Harry didn't want to push it further. "All right, Ron. Good luck."
"Thanks, Harry. Good night."
The sounds of an exhausted Ron sleeping could be heard almost immediately but Harry could not fall asleep so easily in spite of his mental and physical exhaustion. After spending most of the early evening agonizing about Ron and Hermione's impending engagement, he now found himself stewing over the conversation he had overheard in the corridor. He wanted to feel angry with Dean and felt sure that if he could find some reason to be so, he would feel much better. But while he felt a renewed disgust at Lavender, he could only feel pity and even a little guilt toward his roommate and not only because of Dean's assertion that he would do nothing to interfere with Harry's relationship with Ginny, but also because he knew exactly how he would feel if someone as wonderful as Ginny were to break up with him. A fresh worry sprung up in Harry's mind as he wondered whether he should tell Ginny what he had overheard. He was sure that this was the last thing Dean would want but he couldn't imagine Ginny being very happy if she found out he had known and told her nothing. Harry was still undecided when his fatigue finally overcame him and he fell asleep.
In his restless dream, Harry was sitting in a theater. His mother and father sat on either side of him, a wizard ring in each of the hands that held his. Harry felt a sudden fear seize himas the lights in the theater darkened and the thick velvet curtains that covered the stage began to open. But he felt the reassuring squeeze of his parents' hands in his and the fear subsided.
The stage was empty at first but then a single spotlight shone on a small grey triangle at the center. Harry saw a flutter of movement behind the light and then a figure stepped onto the triangle.He was wearing a black cloak that covered everything but his face which wasconcealed behinda white mask. Exaggerated black linesmarkedits eyebrows, moustache, and a long, sinister-looking beard.
Harry clutched his mother's hand again protectively.
"It's a Death Eater!" he said in a child's voice.
"Relax, Harry," said Lily. "It's not. See, the face is completely different. And there aren't any Death Eaters now, remember?"
She squeezed Harry's hand again and Harry felt himself calm a little. But he still could not take his eyes away from the figure at the triangle's center.
The tapping of a small drum was heard somewhere in the darkness. The figure sprang to life and began to move his body to a martial dance as if realizing movement for the first time. He looked around as if expecting something to come to him from out of the darkness. Another light shone on agreyrectangle across from the masked dancer and another figure appeared wearing a green mask with deep red lines for its eyebrows. The dancerleaptback in alarm. Helooked across at the other figure for a moment and then suddenly swungback tofacethe audience. As it didso, the mask on hisface changedinto a deep blue.
Harry tensed again but the audience clapped appreciatively. The other figure's mask changed as well to a canaryyellow.The dancer turned to face the other figure and reached into its robes, taking out hiswand. The other figure followed suit. Harry turnedto his father to see what hisreaction wasbut James only seemed to smile.
The dancer swung around again and flicked his wand at hisopponent. The drum struck again in the background and the face of the opponent changed. It was white now with no other makeupsave for a blood red lightning-bolt scar which started from its forehead and ran like a waterfall down the front of its mask in rivulets of painted-on blood. There was another crack of a drum as the be-scarred figure flicked its wand in return and then the dancer's face changed, too.
Hismaskalsobecamewhite. Therewas no space for its nose. The eyes on the mask werewide and redand its painted-onmouth looked thin and hungry.
Harry's scarerupted in pain. Heseized the hands of bothofhis parents but found himself clutching nothing but the arms of his chair. He looked around frantically but bothhis mother and fatherwere gone. In fact there was no one in the theater at all save for himself and the two very familiar masked wizards on the stage.His heart racing, Harry saw the masked figure without the scar turn to face him.
"Oh no, Harry," it said in afamiliarvoice. "We can't have an audience anymore. This show is only for you."
The scar-less figure waved his arm quickly in front of his face and his mask changed again. This time it was green. Two yellow and red striped snakes were painted on the sides of its cheeks.
"I can make anything disappear, Harry. I can make anything change. But nothing can change me."
He flicked his wand again towardhis would-be opponent whose mask alsochanged again. It was still white but now there was no scar, only a clown's mouth drawn orange in a circle of surprise.
The pain from Harry's scar vanished just as quickly as the mask on the face of the clown had changed. He watched as the clown reached up to his forehead, confusion still painted on his face. Without knowing how he had willed himself to follow, Harry's own hand reached up to the same spot and he discovered that his scar not only did not hurt, it was no longer there.
"Contradictionconfuses us, Harry," said the voice of the snake-masked figure, growing louder and more confident. "ButI can take that surprise away in exchange for a little forgetfulness."
The figure snappedhiswand again and the light over the clown-masked figure disappeared. He waved his hand in front of hisface again and the mask fell away entirely. The face that now looked back at Harry was the wearer's own.
And it belonged to Draco Malfoy.
A satisfiedsmile crested Malfoy's lips as he pointed his wandtoward Harry. He flickeditone last time and the whole scene disappeared before Harry's eyes. He sank into a deep, dreamless sleep. And when he awoke, he remembered nothing.
When Ginny woke up, she found that most of her roommates had already left for breakfast. She felt slightly miffed that they hadn't woken her, then vaguely remembered that they had tried. She quickly dressed and then made her way down through an empty common room and out toward the Great Hall.
As Ginny moved down through the castle, it was with the slightly groggy but nonetheless fresh feeling that came from having had a little too much sleep. She was not sure what had tired her so but she found that her headache of the previous night was now gone.
It was apparent to Ginny as she entered the hall that it seemed slightly emptier than usual, the Gryffindor table in particular. Perhaps many of her fellow students had gotten a head start on breakfast - or perhaps they were still asleep in their beds. Without pausing to give it too much thought and fearing she might be late for her first class, Ginny quickly hurried over to sit next to Harry and Ron who seemed to be just finishing their breakfast. Neville and Luna were sitting on the other side of them and all four were gazing into the depths of Neville's Remembrall which was now glowing from a rainbow of changing colors which emanated from a cloud-like shape at its center.
"The trouble is," Neville was saying. "I still can't remember what it is I've forgotten."
Ginny sat down quickly and gave a Harry a quick kiss.
"Hi," said Harry, putting his arm around her. "I'm sorry we didn't wait for you. Amanda said she tried to wake you up. Only we've just found out we've got double N.E.W.T. Potions this morning with You-Know-Who."
"The other You-Know-Who," Ron quickly added.
Ginny nodded her understanding.
"Didn't you sleep well?" asked Harry, running his fingers over a stray strand of Ginny's hair that had fallen in front of her eyes.
Ginny shook her head. "Fine. I suppose I must have been really exhausted but I feel much better now. Which is more than I can say for the pair of you." She looked at Harry and Ron properly. "You stayed up a bit too late last night, didn't you?"
"Talking about old times," admitted Harry.
"Seemed like a good idea then," moaned Ron, looking as if death had come to visit in the night and had been turned away only very reluctantly.
"I expect Hermione's already finished," Ginny said briskly, buttering herself a piece of toast.
"Sorry?" said Harry blankly.
"Her mind?" said Ron lazily. "Who minds? Minds what?"
"Oh, dear," said Ginny. "It must be worse than I thought." She leaned over and whispered so that only Ron and Harry could hear.
"Did you give her the rings?"
Both Harry and Ron had now stopped eating. They exchanged a quick frown and then turned back to look at Ginny, apparently baffled.
"Her - mi - o - ne,"said Ginny slowly as if addressing a pair of remedial learners. "Your," she looked at Ron and paused, "girlfriend?"
"Sorry," said Ron. "I'm sure if I had a girlfriend, I'd remember her."
"Something's happened, hasn't it? Have you two had a real tiff?"
Ginny looked across at Harry but he seemed just as confused.
"I'm sorry, Ginny," he said, looking at her very oddly. "I'm not quite clear who you're talking about."
Ginny looked back and forth between Harry and Ron whose expressions remained unchanged.
"Tell me you're pulling my leg," she said finally.
But Ginny could see right away that if this was a joke, it was a very odd one. A strange fear seemed to rise within her. She quickly found that she would give anything for Harry or Ron's face to break into a smirk and the prank to be confessed but nothing like that happened. They continued to look at each other saying nothing for several more moments when another voice rang out behind them:
"Good morning, Pottie, Weasel Face," drawled Malfoy. "Not started lessons yet and already looking stumped."
"You must be used to that standing between Crabbe and Goyle all the time," remarked Ron.
"Get back to your own table, Malfoy," said Harry.
"Why so uncivil, Potter? Has my little bit of teasing gotten to you? Though I suppose that growing up as a Muggle punching bag, any little thing is bound to make you crack."
Ron's wand was out quickly.
"There's no need for you to humiliate yourself in front of the whole school, Weasley. I'm leaving."
Malfoy strode purposefully past the seated Gryffindors and down to the exit to the hall. He walked right behind Harry and then Ginny. At first, he did not acknowledge her at all but then, after he had almost past her chair completely, he swung around and without warning, grabbed Ginny's shoulders, and whispered something into her ear.
Both Harry and Ron stood up and aimed their wands at Malfoy. What was left of the students in the Great Hall had now all turned around to watch.
"Stay away from her!" barked Harry.
Malfoy merely smirked, shrugged, and continued to walk briskly toward the exit.
Ron continued to point his wand at Malfoy's retreating back, his face scarlet with rage but Harry had already turned toward Ginny. He had not failed to notice that she had made no move to defend herself against Malfoy despite showing the previous day that she was perfectly capable of doing so. Worse, her face had gone very pale. Harry quickly grabbed hold of her hands only to find they were pale and trembling.
"What is it?" he asked urgently. "What did he tell you? What did he say?"
For a moment, Ginny stared listlessly ahead as though she could see and hear nothing.
"Ginny?" whispered Harry, looking straight into her eyes. "Please tell me what's wrong. Did he - "
Harry stopped talking as Ginny opened her mouth and in a frightened, quivering voice murmured:
"He said 'I told him to enjoy her while he could.'"