Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all related terms and characters are the property of JK Rowling. The use of copyrighted material is for non-profit entertainment purposes only, and in no way constitutes a challenge to the existing copyright.

A/N: I took up this challenge from Ancient Werewolf, which comprised the following:

/\/\

Sixth or seventh year fic, obviously AU.

Earlier that summer, Ron, Harry, and Hermione lose a bet to Ginny (come up with something creative!) and are forced to take Muggle Studies.

Harry and Ron think it's pointless, but Hermione's studious side takes over and she takes it seriously. Aside from that, she and Harry are becoming more than friends. Ron is jealous (don't jerk!Ron him).

Anyway, the professor of Muggle Studies is new, an old lady who convinces Dumbledore to let her take the students to an old hotel that Muggles think it's haunted. She says "to study about group psychology".

Obviously, she gets what she wants, and they all go to a remote place where an old, huge, and battered hotel stands.

Being all magical and knowing about ghosts and all, students think it's very boring. Until students start going mad, killing each other, appearing dead (dismembered, etc.), and all the gory stuff that happens in good movies.

How are Harry, Hermione, and Ron going to get out of the hotel alive?

You can include any other characters in the class, also a year above or below.

REQUIREMENTS:

Must include a bet between Ginny and the trio, during summer.

Ron must be jealous of H/Hr, but given depth and not made into an idiot. Jealousy must last a lot, he can't suddenly be okay with H/Hr.

At least 30 students must go with the old lady to the hotel, and can be from the same year, or a year above, or a year below from the trio. Can be of all four houses.

Survivors must be few. I won't get mad if Ron doesn't make it.

The old lady must be discovered to be evil. lol, I know you saw it coming.

/\/\

Naturally, this story screams 'fun' to me. Not only does it allow for some sappy romance and character building, but I get to slaughter children for no other reason that pure sadistic entertainment! On top of that, I see a very interesting story twist coming out of this. Ah, the joys of being evil.

The setting is AU 6th year. Voldemort's return has been confirmed, attacks on Muggles have increased, and suspicious wizards in dark robes have been spotted with greater and greater frequency. The wizarding community has turned to its leaders for support, and the Ministry is hastily backtracking, solidifying its position behind Dumbledore.

This will be a 5-chapter story, with the intention of leading into a follow-up.

Thanks to Ancient Werewolf for the challenge!

TOW

The Burrow

---------------

The Nightmare is always the same:

"HARRY!"

Her cry of pain echoes in his head as the curse slices through her, tearing through skin, then muscle, then bone... Her face locks with his as she falls away, her eyes wide and uncomprehending. He valiantly locks his gaze to her face, willing himself not to look at her legs and waist, still standing while her torso falls away. It seems an eternity before the knees buckle, and the rest of her body falls. Blood sprays everywhere; the entire room seems red now.

Damn it. He looked.

She mouths words to him when he again stares at her face. 'I love...' Her voice fails, but he mouths the words back to her. Their eyes relay so much more than the words. The spark in her eyes fades, and his fill with tears. Panic; distress that he'd never known before now assaulted his senses. She can't be gone, don't let her be gone. Anger lends him strength; Rage gives him freedom and his legs begin to move.

He sprints now, after her assailant. They're running, a black, formless wraith ahead of him, running down a black, formless hall. He passes friends as he runs, both aware and unaware of their pain. He passes Ron, whose cries had faded to a gurgling noise as the brain-creature tears chunks away from his arms and chest, gorging itself. He passes Luna sprawled on the floor, her eyes wide and unfocused, her skirt and underwear ripped away, blood running from her mouth and pooling between her thighs. So much blood...

By his will, his speed increases, and the black form looms closer, though it still eludes him. He passes Ginny, pale and struggling; she tries desperately to stem the flow of blood from her left leg, where her foot used to be. The gashes across the rest of her body make such efforts futile; her eyes begin to flutter and close. He passes Neville, quivering and frothing at the mouth; his body bends inwards on itself, crumpled; his heart and lungs failing; his face nearly unidentifiable with the creases and folds. There are no bones in his body to support him; his nerves can feel nothing but pain now.

He is almost upon the wraith now. He throws his hands upon its white, flat face. He tears at it with his fingers, pulling away at the white. No masks; no shields. The white moves, comes away in his hands, and he stares up at the face of his enemy.

Sirius.

His Godfather stares back at him, surprise on his features. Harry pushes him forcefully and he falls backwards, tripping through an archway behind him. The tattered curtains flutter for a moment then fall deathly still...

"Either must die..."

The quiet, hissing voice turns him, and he has time to see a pair of eyes hanging in the blackness, the hateful crimson glow of two stars. Then there is only green; a curse he knows he cannot avoid, a curse he knows will end him.

The light wraps around him, enveloping, and constricting. He feels the scales as they brush across his skin, the enormous snake tightening, squeezing his life away, and cracking his bones as though they were twigs. Pain; absolute, glorious pain.

This is what it feels like to die...

The scream he has fought for so long erupts from his lips, crushed from him as his lungs implode.

He was still screaming, still writhing. His stomach heaved, but nothing would come up. Had he thrown up already? He couldn't see; were his eyes gone?

Slowly, the snake faded into his memories. The blankets, cocooned tightly around him, were stifling and hot, and the bed was soaked in his sweat and vomit. His body ached from his struggles, his chest and arms throbbed.

Heavy hands pulled the blankets away from him, nearly tearing them. Those hands sat him up, and a cold cloth covered his face, wiping sweat and sleep away. Fumbling around, Harry found and put on his glasses, and stared at the person standing above him, his eyes sharpening with comprehension.

"What the hell have those freaks done to you, boy?" his uncle whispered, wrapping the cloth behind Harry's shoulders. Harry bent his head back into the coolness, soaking it in.

"You should have listened when we told you there was no such thing as magic. You should have ignored it, ran away from it. Look at you now, you're barely sane!"

"Uncle Vernon, I can't." Harry's voice was still thick with sleep, he felt drunk from the potency of the nightmare. It had felt so real...

"Nonsense! Look at you! You say I've treated you poorly, but you... you're coming apart!"

"No thanks to you," Harry replied darkly.

Vernon bent over so that his face was right in front of him. "I hated the fact you were left with us, and I still do," he said, his breath hot and smelly. "I have tried the best I could to keep magic away from you, and I failed. Now, look at you; you're in their world, and you haven't slept a night without screaming the whole house awake!"

"And I'm sure you hate me for that, too."

"Damn it all, you ungrateful bastard! If I could do it all over again, somehow change things so that you never found out about that blasted school, I'd do it! Anything!"

"Uncle-"

"YOUR PARENTS DIED IN THEIR STUPID WORLD!" Vernon screamed, cutting Harry off. "I'll be damned if I've wasted almost fifteen years of my life just to see you die, too!"

For just a moment, Harry saw through the anger, saw a flicker of fear in Vernon's eyes; not fear of him, but for him... No words came to him, nothing that could express his shock.

Then the anger returned, and the moment was gone.

"Clean up this room," his uncle ordered. "And take a shower. It smells like you've shit yourself." Two large strides carried him out of the room, and the door slammed shut. Harry stared at the door, disbelieving. In some perverse way, his uncle cared.

The feel of hot water pounding against him made banished all traces of Harry's earlier distress. He was more than happy to clean his room, as he expected to be leaving today. The cheap calendar that hung on his wall read July 12; every time he looked at the date, he couldn't help but smile. When the doorbell rang, his grin nearly split his face, and he quickly gathered his things, including two rather detailed letters from Professor Dumbledore.

"BOY!" his uncle shouted. The sound of several feet pounding up the stairs interrupted his response. The door flew open, and a shaggy mass obscured his world.

"HARRY!"

His heart soared, even as he spat out a lock of wild, brown hair. Hermione was here; she was alive, and she was here. His arms tightened possessively, and he hoisted her up off her feet, holding her against him. She let out a startled yelp, but she tightened her grip on him, as well.

"Should I just close the door, then?" a voice said after a moment. Harry felt the heat rise in Hermione's cheeks and his own, and couldn't help but chuckle. He gently placed Hermione back on the floor, and turned to wrap his other best friend in the same hug. With a grunt of effort, Ron, too, he hoisted off the ground.

"Oi! Put me down, you git!" Ron spouted indignantly. He thumped Harry a couple times on the back, and the two broke away from each other.

Hermione pulled his trunk out of the closet; she seemed quite pleased that Harry had already packed. "Come on, boys, let's get out of here." Harry and Ron picked up the trunk and walked down the stairs, Hermione just ahead of them.

After quickly loading Harry's trunk, they sat comfortably in the back of the Ministry car, watching the buildings as they passed in a blur. Tonks and Remus were their chaperones, and the two of them carried on an animated discussion of their Hogwarts years in the front seats. Hermione kept Harry's hand between both of hers through the entire trip, and Harry noticed Ron trying desperately to look anywhere but at Hermione's lap. Part of him wanted to chuckle at his friend's predicament, but Harry held his tongue. There would be time enough to sort all this out at the Burrow.

"How are you feeling?" Hermione asked him softly, bringing his attention back to her. Using his free hand, Harry touched his thumb against her brow, rubbing away her concerned frown.

"I'm as good as I can be," he said heavily, squeezing Hermione's hand; Hermione squeezed back. "I still get nightmares about that night; everyone dies, of course."

"Oh, Harry."

"Yeah, well... I'm hoping they go away, soon."

"Are they bad?" Harry quirked an eyebrow incredulously, and Hermione blushed and smiled a bit. "I know that sounds silly, but I meant... well..."

"Do I just wake up and say 'Damn! That was a bad dream!' or do I wake up screaming, fighting and retching?" Hermione nodded, her concern beginning to return. "The latter. There hasn't been a night that I haven't thrown up on myself or nearly committed some clever form of suicide with my blankets; but I'm sure that you wanted to hear all that."

"I always want to hear what's wrong," she said, looking as serious as she could manage. "I want to be there for you as much as I can."

"You are." Harry brushed his hand across her cheek and Hermione closed her eyes, leaning into it. Her eyes snapped open as Ron cleared his throat from behind her, looking at the two of them meaningfully.

Hermione raised her eyebrows, obviously irritated at the interruption. "Yes, Ron?" she asked, the arch her voice making it apparent that she was well aware of the issue.

Ron just stared.

Harry sighed; apparently, they couldn't wait until the Burrow. "Look Ron, I can do this mushy stuff here in front of you, or the two of us will take a walk once we get to your place. Your choice."

The back seat was silent for a moment, before Ron let out a deep breath. "I'd prefer later, if it's all the same to you," he muttered. "I'd rather not be ignored for the entire trip."

Hermione hunched her shoulders a little, slightly embarrassed. Harry shrugged, forcing away his reactions to Ron. Hermione had died enough times in his dreams; he would do this. He adjusted his seating to see Ron and Hermione, though he didn't release Hermione's hands. Ron tried to begin a more neutral conversation, but it was stilted and awkward. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, Harry decided to pull out the big guns, and discuss Umbridge. The topic caught the attention of Remus and Tonks as well, and the rest of the ride passed with the sharing of their favorite stories about the toad-like Professor.

When they arrived, Harry took a moment to rummage through his trunk, before snapping the lid shut, and turning to Ron. "Here," he said, handing his Firebolt to his surprised friend. "Peace offering; go fly, and we'll see you in a bit." A grin slowly worked its way onto Ron's face, and he nodded, his hands running reverently across the handle of the professional-grade broom.

"Later," he said, mounting the broom and rocketing off, his whoop of joy fading into the wind.

The Ministry car pulled away, creating an enormous cloud of dust as it sped down the gravel road, perfectly content without a driver. Remus carried Harry's trunk under one arm as he walked towards the tall home of the Weasleys, Tonks commenting on his strength as she followed. Harry took Hermione's hand and walked with her towards the tree line, the sprawling chaos that was the Burrow always in sight. Eventually choosing a tree, he leaned against it. Hermione leaned into his side, sighing lightly, and closing her eyes.

"I love you."

Hermione stiffened, and she nearly fell over as she stepped over to look Harry in the face. Harry's arm shot out to steady her, and Hermione's hands latched onto it with surprising strength. "W-What?"

"I love you," Harry repeated, smiling at Hermione's shock. "Surprised that I'd say that? Yeah, I guess I would've been, too." His smile slipped away as he continued; his struggle to keep calm was failing.

"When you fell at the Ministry, I couldn't even begin to think what I would do if you were dead. Now, I've had more than a month solid of watching you die in my dreams." Despite his best efforts to curb his emotions, a tear forced its way down his cheek. "Every time, we manage to say 'I love you,' or most of it, to each other just before you die. I figure that if I could say it then, I should be able to say it now, while you're still alive and smiling, and hope," Harry looked away for a moment, before forcing himself to look back, forcing himself to speak, "... and hope that you would feel the same."

Hermione smiled tremulously, her eyes bright and watery. "Of course I do," she whispered, before reaching forward to hug him. "I do love you, Harry."

"Love me enough to be my girlfriend?" he asked through her hair, wrapping her tightly with his arms and rocking her gently side to side. He felt her nod against his shoulder. "Love me enough to help me fix my mess of a life?"

"Of course."

"I have to kill him," he blurted, the need to tell Hermione overriding his caution. "One of us is going to die."

Hermione nodded against his chest. "The Prophet-"

"-Got it right," Harry finished for her; Hermione's breath hitched. "Dumbledore showed me the full prophecy, the one Neville broke. The exact wording is 'neither can live while the other survives.' I'll tell you the rest later, but I just wanted you to know that I'm in this until the end."

"...Me too," she said, her voice regaining strength. "I'll be right there with you."

"I know, and I love you for it."

A minute passed as they held each other, then another; the sound of birds chirping and leaves rustling provided a welcome completeness to their feelings.

"We should go and tell Ron," Hermione said, pulling away. "He should know about us, and about the prophecy. What about Ginny?"

"Sure," Harry said with a shrug. "She risked her life for it, so it's only fair. Maybe we can find a way to tell Neville and Luna, too."

Hermione smiled, and she leaned forward and kissed him; Harry pulled Hermione to him again, and they deepened the kiss, their first kiss. Blushing and giddy with happiness, they headed back to the Burrow, hand in hand.

It didn't take long to find Ron, and the redhead fidgeted and squirmed through their explanation, looking extremely uncomfortable.

"S'great, you two," Ron said, giving Harry and Hermione each a one-armed hug. "Hope it works out for the both of you."

"Thanks, mate," replied Harry, appreciative for Ron's show of loyalty. If he was a poor Occlumens, then Ron was useless. Harry could feel the pain radiating from Ron's eyes; Harry's heart was now as whole as he could remember, but Ron's had been shattered. Hermione looked so upset at Ron's expression that she seemed on the verge of apologizing several times, but she had held her tongue. Harry reminded himself to thank her later for staying strong.

Ron began to fidget as he sat on his bed, and he quickly got to his feet. "Look, I know you two probably want to be alone for a bit. Let me go find something else to do."

Harry stood up with him, reaching out for his shoulder. "Hold up, Ron. We've got a couple things to talk about that concern the prophecy." Ron turned, almost all traces of his discomfort gone, replaced by concern. "Go get Ginny," Harry continued, "She deserves to hear this." Ron bounded out the door, shouting for his sister.

"He took that pretty well," Harry said, turning back to Hermione, who was playing with the hem of her shirt.

"He did," she allowed cautiously. "I'm worried, though; he looks so heartbroken..."

Harry reached down and cupped Hermione's face in his hand, raising it until their eyes met. "I can guarantee you that I would have felt the same," he said, looking at her from overtop his glasses. "I think that it was just a matter of time before you'd have to choose one or the other of us... or neither, I suppose, but that would make two brokenhearted blokes." Hermione snorted, and a small smile formed on her lips.

"I don't regret this," Harry said. "This last month, I was gearing up to fight whatever battles I would need to in order to be with you, even if that meant falling out with Ron. You're worth it to me."

"Aww, that's so sweet." Harry turned, startled at the voice from behind him. Ginny leaned against the doorframe, something between and smile and a smirk on her face. "I never thought you to be the strong, romantic type, Harry."

Ginny bounced away from the door and hugged Harry before plopping down on the bed beside Hermione, hugging her as well. Harry noticed Ron ease into the room, staying near the door.

"Alright," Harry said with a sigh, rubbing his face with his hands. "Let's get this over with, while I still feel brave. Ron, shut the door." With all his friends listening attentively, Harry slowly told his story.

Hermione leaned into Harry, offering what comfort she could, while Ginny and Ron sat on the opposite beds, each with a grimace of pain. Harry hastily wiped away his tears, and focused on getting his breathing back under control.

The discussion of the Prophecy had naturally led to talking about Sirius, and the pain was still too raw. Ginny had looked at him, her eyes crinkled in sadness, and Harry had broken like a dam. It was all he could do to keep his crying quiet enough not to bring Molly upstairs.

"S-so, yeah," he stuttered, struggling to continue, "Dumbledore handled it for me. S-Sirius left me pretty much everything. Dobby and Kreacher are cleaning the house."

"Bet that's rubbing Kreacher the wrong way," Ron quipped. Harry managed a small smile at the attempt to lighten the mood, and took in a deep breath, before exhaling slowly.

"I don't know what's going to happen now," Harry said, his voice stronger. "Voldemort's not sitting back, and Dumbledore's warned me that his main target's the Ministry. Enough people under his thumb in there..."

"...and it's pretty much over," Hermione finished, nodding against his shoulder.

"So, what can we do?" Ginny asked, her eyes lit like small fires. "I can't see us just sitting around, moping, while all of this goes on. There's got to be something that we can do!"

"They'll likely just shut us up in our rooms again," said Ron. "S'not like Mum's going to chuck us out and say 'go fight!' or anything."

"Of course not," Hermione scoffed, waving her hand at Ron. "We're just as likely to be used as lookouts for Hogwarts as anything. I mean, we've got two prefects, the map-"

"It won't happen," Harry said forcefully, interrupting her. "Don't any of you get your hopes up. Dumbledore's not going to roll over on this; to him, we're not useful yet. Anything we do, we'll be doing on our own."

"Just as well, then," Ginny said, jumping up and stretching. "If they don't think we're useful, we'll have to show them otherwise."

Several thumps on the door interrupted them. "Hey guys!" said a voice that Harry recognized as one of the twins, "your Hogwarts letters are here! Come down!"

Hermione was off the bed and to the door so fast that Harry fell sideways on the bed; Ginny ran after Hermione, while Ron helped Harry up. He and Ron shared a grin as they heard her muttering to herself all the way down the stairs, while they followed at a slower pace. Ginny and Hermione were talking about the results ahead of them, but Harry couldn't make out the conversation.

Hermione had one hand to her mouth, shifting her weight back and forth on her feet while she held the thick envelope in her other hand, making no move to open it. Deciding that it would be in poor taste to roll his eyes at his new girlfriend, Harry tore his own envelope open and glanced across his results. The events of June and the prophecy severely muted any anxiety he might have felt. He was unsurprised to see the Captain's badge for the Quidditch team in the envelope; he pocketed that for later, when he could talk to Ron.

What little worry he had faded as he took in his results. He had failed History and Divination, but he had expected no less. He managed an Acceptable in Astronomy, to his relief, and everything else was at least Exceeds Expectations. The one Outstanding on the sheet was in Defense. A hard smile came to his lips as he looked at the 'O' on the sheet. If only the examiners knew exactly how hard-won that particular mark was. No exam could begin to approximate what he'd endured in gaining those skills.

He glanced quickly over at Hermione, and saw her staring at her marks with her shoulders slumped. He moved over to stand behind her, and rested his head over her shoulder, looking down. Ten small 'O's stared back at him, except Defense, which sported an 'E.'

"Well done," he said softly, kissing her cheek. "I'm proud of you." A shuffling sound drew his eyes for an instant, long enough to see Ron turn away from them, fumbling with his own results.

"Thanks," she said, turning her head to kiss him properly. "How did you do?" Harry handed her his marks, and she kissed him again as she read them. "You did so well," she said, turning around to hug him tightly. "I bet your Defense mark beat everyone else's," she said. "I'm so happy for you!"

"Here mate, let's see!" said Ron as he came up beside him, taking their papers and handing them his own, while still managing not to look at them. "Yep, I expected as much!" he said, looking at both sets of marks. "You guys did great!" Ginny moved over to Ron to look at the sheets.

"You did pretty well yourself," Harry said, looking at Ron's grades. Ron had passed the same classes that he had, but the marks were generally a grade lower, a mass of 'A's with an 'E' in Defense, which Harry felt particular pride in. The sound of an evil-sounding cackle from Ginny drew his attention away from the sheet.

"Something going on?" he asked, wary of the way that Ginny was looking at Hermione from around Ron's shoulder, the way a cat might look at its prey.

"Right, then. So, I bet Hermione that my fourth year exams would beat out her OWLs," Ginny said, a smug smile firmly in place, "and what should I see but an 'E' in Defense. Read'em and weep, Granger!" With that, Ginny presented her exam marks, an unblemished row of 'O's. Hermione hung her head, her cheeks slightly pink, and Harry bit his lip to keep from laughing. Ginny had beaten Hermione at her own game.

"So, what does the bet entail?" Harry asked, the amusement in his voice drawing a half-hearted glare from Hermione.

"Hermione's going to take the NEWT Muggle Studies class with me," Ginny explained. "That way, she can correct the professor, and we can actually learn something. In fact..." Ginny trailed off as she regarded Harry and Ron. "I want to bet you two, as well. Since the Ministry's offering the OWLs again to whomever wants to take them over the summer to make up for Umbitch, I'm going to be taking the Muggle Studies OWL to qualify for the NEWT classes. If I pass, you're all going to take the NEWT class with me."

There were three very different reactions to Ginny's statement: Harry snorted, contorting his face into a mask of disdain; Hermione smiled at the possibility of company; and Ron crossed his arms, shook his head, and said "No way."

"Come on, Ron!" Ginny teased. "Don't be such a stick in the mud. I have to pass an OWL exam a whole year early, after all."

"Not good enough," Harry said firmly. "You acing a muggle studies OWL is not enough to make me waste my time on the NEWT, since Ron and I would have to take the OWL, too." Ginny deflated slightly, and Hermione looked slightly disappointed. Ron, however, looked relieved. "I see that my opinion isn't popular with the ladies," Harry panned, nudging Ron with an elbow.

"Harry, come on!" Ginny pleaded. "I know I can do this, and I want the company! Besides, you could help out just as much as Hermione!" Harry studied her for a moment, before smiling as the most brilliant idea came to mind.

"Alright then, I'm in," he said, ignoring the muttered curse from Ron. "But we're upping the ante a little, Gin: I want you to take two OWLs, not just Muggle Studies."

"Two?" she echoed incredulously. "You're barking! What else could I possibly take that I'd have a hope of passing?"

"Defense."

Harry watched as Ginny's face showed surprise, skepticism, and finally, comprehension. "You all took the OWL," she said slowly, and Harry and the others nodded. "You all did this on Harry's tutoring alone," she stated, tilting her head in a silent request for confirmation, and Hermione and Ron both nodded. "I was right there with you..." A smile began to form on her face. "You think I can take the OWL?"

"I expect at least an 'E' on both Muggle Studies and Defense," said Harry, smiling. "If you can do that, I'll help Hermione mind the NEWT Muggle Studies professor for you."

"Harry!"

Harry shrugged, smiling at Hermione's mock scowl. "Sad but true, Hermione."

"Come on, mate!" whined Ron, looking appalled at the situation. "We just ditched Divination! You can't seriously want to take up more of your year with a crap class. You're the bloody captain of the team, we'll need time!"

"Always Quidditch," Hermione muttered. Ginny, however, gained a positively maniacal gleam in her eye. "Quidditch, Ron? Is that what you're worried about? How about if I bet you that I could whip you good in a back yard game, then? Think you can win against ickle Gin-Gin?" Ron's face went beat red, and Harry knew that Ron's brain had just shut off.

"You're on!" he shouted, before Harry could get a word in edgewise. "Hey guys!" he called loudly. "Pickup game in the back!"

"Yes!" Ginny said, pumping her fist. "I get first pick!"

Ron froze at Ginny's words, his thought processes re-engaging. "I just challenged her, not the other way around, didn't I?" he asked quietly. Parsing together what he knew about the convoluted Quidditch code of the Weasleys, Harry nodded, and Ron groaned. "Bugger."

What started as a simple Quidditch game quickly became a serious competition. Ginny and Ron captained opposite teams, each taking turns at choosing players. Harry was first pick, Ginny's trickery assuring her the best Seeker, while Charlie took the Seeker position for Ron. The twins split up, Fred playing Beater for Ginny while George played for Ron. Ron was Keeper, and Hermione, cajoled by Harry, played Keeper for Ginny. Ginny was Chaser, and Bill played Chaser for Ron.

After twenty minutes of play, neither Ron nor Hermione had faced any shots, and Fred and George amused themselves by knocking the Bludgers back and forth between them as fast as they could. Above, below, and around them, two personal duels raged. Ginny and Bill dove, twirled and danced as they stole the Quaffle from each other, neither maintaining possession for more than a few heartbeats.

Above them all, Harry and Charlie waged a war of aerobatics that reminded the other players strongly of the World Cup. Sometimes in complete synchronization, sometimes mirror opposites, Harry and Charlie both strained their brooms to their limit keeping each other from the Snitch while not letting the pesky ball get more than ten feet away.

As though fate had decreed it, both pairs broke apart at the same time: Above, Harry shot upwards while Charlie, only a few degrees too wide to copy the motion, spiraled out of control for a moment and lost height. No longer troubled by his counterpart, Harry put on a burst of speed, reaching out to claim the Snitch and end the game.

At the same time, Ginny found herself ahead of Bill by less than a foot and slightly higher in altitude, just far enough for her to plant her boot on his broom while she plucked the Quaffle from his arms. While Bill descended in a stream of curses, Ginny shot off towards Ron, who tensed, suddenly realizing that Ginny was unopposed. With a fake to the left and a casual underhanded lob under Ron's broom as he moved to intercept, Ginny scored the one goal of the game. Harry's victory shout above secured it, the final score being 160-0.

Mrs. Weasley kept a furious Ron outside while the others went in, telling Harry she needed a few words with her son about the language he had picked up recently. Harry smiled and headed for his room, grabbing several textbooks from his trunk, and then disappeared to Ginny's room to find Hermione.

"What's with all the books?" Ron asked as he walked into the living room. Harry barely heard the question, immersed in his fifth year notes from several classes. "Divination? History? Mate, what's going on?"

"What?" Hermione's voice caused Harry to look up. She, too, eyed his books with concern. "You should be studying the notes I gave you for Muggle Studies," she said. "What's all of this? Transfiguration? Potions, too? Harry, you did well on that. What are you doing?"

"While we were playing Quidditch, I asked Mr. Weasley to do some poking around for me," Harry said, going back to his book. "The Ministry's offering re-takes of OWLs, no questions asked. Well, as long as you're willing to pay up for the exams, anyway. What's better is that they're willing to keep whichever mark was higher, so I'm going to take everything except Defense over again." He stopped, suddenly, snapping his fingers. "Oh, that reminds me. Do you have your Arithmancy and Runes work handy, Hermione? I know I don't have a hope in hell of passing the OWLs, but since I'm doing the other OWLs, I want to take a shot at them anyways."

Ron stood gaping; Hermione was shocked, though a smile began to work its way onto her face before she turned and dashed off to her room.

"Did I just hear right?" asked Ginny as she walked up behind Ron. "You're doing all your OWLs over again?"

Harry nodded. "After what happened in June, and the prophecy, I want to stay busy; it helps keep my mind off things. No offense to either of you, but the amount they're charging for the exams is just pocket money for me, so it's worth a shot. If either of you want to give it a go, I'll spot you."

Ron shook his head immediately, but Ginny thought hard for a moment. She, too, shook her head. "I'm a year behind on everything else," she said sadly. "There's no way I could catch up in time."

"Fair enough," Harry conceded, scratching down notes in the margins of his book. "I just wanted to put it out there."

"Here are your notes, Harry," said Hermione as she unloaded several thick books and scrolls in front of him. Harry looked at the size of the pile and closed his eyes, willing away the headache that was beginning to form. "It's not so bad," Hermione soothed, seeing Harry's expression. "Arithmancy builds on itself, so all you really need to know is the fifth-year material for the OWL, you just need to speed through the basics. Runes is all memory-work and a little bit of problem solving; it's really quite simple."

"Simple," Harry repeated under his breath, looking at the notes. "Your idea of simple is my idea of impossible. Still, as long as you help me, I have some small hope of scraping an Acceptable," Harry said. "But I'm going to need a lot of help."

Hermione beamed at him. "No worries," she chirped. "I'll set up a schedule for you."

"How about you?" asked Harry, motioning towards his Divination books. "Care to grab the one OWL you missed, or maybe touch up Defense?"

Hermione hesitated, telling Harry in the plainest language possible how little she cared for Divination. It was a whole ten seconds before she reached for the first book, opened it, and began reading. Harry chuckled to himself and turned back to his own studies, while Ginny dragged Ron away, promising to help him prepare for the Muggle Studies OWL.

Studying, Harry found, was a good way to use his time. After a day spent studying and playing Quidditch, he was too exhausted to dream.

A mind-jarring month and a half later, Harry left the Ministry's examination room for the final time, resolving never to think about school again. Muggle Studies had been his final exam, and he had passed, of that, he was certain; how well was irrelevant to him. Given how flippantly he had written, it was likely an 'E,' but he couldn't rule out the possibility of an 'O.' Ron looked up at him from where he sat on the bench outside the room, and then looked away. Harry received the message loud and clear: Ron thought he had failed. He clapped his friend on the shoulder, and slowly the two of them walked back to the lobby, where Mr. Weasley was waiting.

Harry had not stepped two feet into the Burrow before Hermione descended on him anxiously, and Ron made himself as invisible as possible across from them in the kitchen. "How'd it go? Did you pass? What did you think of the test? Do you think you did well?" Her questions went on and on, and Harry swallowed the urge to cut her off; what once he saw as slightly irritating had overnight become an endearing quality. He thought that perhaps knowing that someone loves you could turn something irritating into an endearing quality. He'd have to think about that.

"It went fine," said Harry once Hermione had gone silent. "Don't know if I managed an Outstanding or anything, but it's done, and more than good enough for Hogwarts standards."

"That's wonderful!" she squealed, wrapping him in a hug. "I knew you could do it!" She released him and turned to Ron. "How about you? Did it go well? Did you remember everything?"

Ron shrugged his shoulders and quickly looked away again, conveying the same message to Hermione that he had to Harry. Not waiting for Hermione to interpret his actions, Ron mumbled an excuse and disappeared upstairs to his room.

"I wouldn't put it past him to pass the OWL," Harry said quietly, "but I wouldn't bank on it."

"So, what's the verdict?" Ginny asked as she walked up. "Do I have classmates next year, or what?"

"Depends on Ron," Harry said. "I'm good for it; the other OWLs worry me more."

"Well, you're a nut-job for taking eleven exams," she said dryly. "Still, you did most of them once already, so I reckon you'll do well."

"Can't do worse than I already have," he said. "That actually made it easier, you know? No pressure at all, except for Arithmancy and Runes."

"Do you think-?" Hermione started, but stopped halfway, seeming to rethink her question.

Harry scoffed. "If I pass them, it'll be a miracle," he said bluntly. "I think I might, might, scrape the barest of 'A's on those, and that's if the examiner takes pity on me."

"Well, we'll know tomorrow," said Hermione, pulling Harry further into the kitchen. For now, let's find some coffee and something to eat. I can't believe that it's the 30th tomorrow. I can't wait to get back, and unpack for the year."

"Me, too," Harry said, visions of the common room and the fireplace in his mind, "me, too."

Dinner evolved into Quidditch, which evolved into hot chocolate before bed, and 'tomorrow' became 'today.' As Hermione gushed over her two missing 'O's, Harry ripped open a new envelope to read his results.

ORDINARY WIZARDING LEVELS

HARRY JAMES POTTER, HOGWARTS (GRYFFINDOR)

Harry skipped along, ignoring the pointless introduction to his marks. "God, don't they think students know all that already?" he muttered. "We bloody wrote the godforsaken things..." Somewhere behind him, he heard sighs of relief, indicating that Ron had passed his Muggle Studies OWL. Smiling, he perused his own marks...

COURSE OF STUDY (First Attempt) (Second Attempt) FINAL SCORE

ANCIENT RUNES(--) (A) A

ARITHMANCY (--) (A) A

ASTRONOMY (A) (E) E

CARE OF MAGICAL CREATURES (E) (E) E

CHARMS (E) (O) O

DEFENSE AGAINST THE DARK ARTS (O) (--) O

DIVINATION (P) (A) A

HERBOLOGY (E) (E) E

HISTORY OF MAGIC (D) (A) A

MUGGLE STUDIES (--) (O) O

POTIONS (E) (O) O

TRANSFIGURATION (E) (O) O

"How the fuck..." he trailed off as he looked at his marks, his smile vanishing into a look of shock. He registered the reactions of Hermione and Mrs. Weasley to his choice of words, but was in no position to vocalize a response; his brain locked, staring at the two black 'A's at the top of the mark list.

"Harry?" prompted Hermione. "How did you do?"

"I passed," he said numbly, unable to believe the words he was speaking. "Arithmancy and Runes, I passed them. I can't believe I passed them." Happiness was quickly overtaking the shock, and he surged forward to embrace a startled Hermione. "I did it!" he laughed. "Thank you! Thank you! I did it!"

"Damn, Harry, that's impressive," Ron said as he took the mark sheet from the celebrating couple. "Figure I should hand over my Prefect's badge now? It should've been yours, anyways."

"Don't say that, Ron!" Hermione interjected, breaking away from Harry to smack the redhead lightly on the arm. "Being a prefect is an honor! You shouldn't be looking to give it away-"

"But you'd be able to patrol with Harry!" Ron said with a grin. "Wouldn't you like to be with your boyfriend in the evening?" Though it was a playful line, Harry heard the subtle tone of sarcasm veiled beneath it. Harry turned to look at Ron's eyes, and bit back a sigh. The pain was still there, and it wasn't going away. Maybe he's doing this to avoid Hermione, he thought.

"Ron-"

"Tell you what," Harry cut in, needing to change the subject quickly before a fight broke out, "why don't you owl McGonagall and tell her I'll trade you Prefect for Captain. That way you can run the team, I can just coast as a Seeker, and I'll pick up the Prefect duties with Hermione. Katie and I will help you with the team. Sound fair?"

Ron was gone without giving a response, chasing after an excited Pigwidgeon with a scrap of parchment and a quill. Harry and Ginny shared a heartfelt laugh while Hermione shook her head ruefully.

"I don't know if this is such a good idea," she said.

"Sure it is; I'm in a very good mood, and it's my idea. Besides, the chance to trade in flying time for time with you? No contest."

"Good line, Potter," mumbled a grinning Ginny. Hermione smiled ear to ear and kissed him solidly.

"You're very sweet," she said. "You know that Prefects do have some work to do, though."

"You tell me what needs to be done, and I'll do it," Harry said. "Some of it I understand well enough. Still, though," he said, indicating his marks. "I can't believe this. This is amazing!"

Hermione glanced down at the sheet, and then crushed him into another hug. "These results are wonderful!" she cried. "Oh, why couldn't you have worked like this before? You'd have matched me for marks every year!"

Harry's happiness dimmed slightly as he considered his response. "Do you want the honest answer?" he asked, giving Hermione a meaningful look. Hermione nodded, her expression betraying a hint of confusion at Harry's sudden mood change. "While I've been so busy, I haven't had any nightmares. Now that I'm done... well, hopefully six weeks is long enough to banish them."

"Oh, Harry..."

"Well, we'll see tonight," he said, tabling the conversation. "If all goes well, there will be no more nighttime fatalities."

"You'll be in Hogwarts, soon," Hermione soothed. "The dorm beds are comfortable and familiar. They'll help you sleep."

"I hope so," said Harry wistfully, before shaking his head. "Anyways, the final order of business is at hand. Ginny, let's see your marks."

With a victorious smile, Ginny passed her sheet over to Harry, who immediately saw the two 'O's. "Congratulations," he said warmly. "We'll see you in NEWT Muggle Studies."

"Success!" she cried, throwing her hands in the air. "No more boring classmates! No more idiotic professor!" Laughter echoed through the kitchen, and the three turned to discuss what classes they would take in the coming year.

-----

The Nightmare is always the same:

"I'm sorry," Hermione gurgles, as blood pours from her mouth, spilling across his chest. The sword of Gryffindor gleams crimson, protruding from her back. He holds it firmly in place with his right hand, against her weakening heart, where he had plunged it forcefully only seconds ago. His other hand wraps around her waist, holding her to him. She doesn't resist, and leans against him. With her failing strength, she tilts her head up, and he presses her lips to hers.

Blood; iron. Sweet nectar of life, yet bitter. Her mouth opens, and they taste each other. Blood. He lowers himself so that she leans over him, and blood pours into his mouth from hers. He drinks greedily, relishing the heavy feeling as it reaches his stomach. Hermione's very life is his.

"I love you," she says, though the words are barely recognizable against his lips. So much blood...

"Love you, too," he responds, and he kisses her harder. He can feel her arms fall to the side as her strength gives out. He relishes the feeling as she shudders, and the flow of blood from her mouth slows.

Pull harder. Just one more drop. Just one more... With a final pull, it is his. Her heart stops beating, and his thumps forcefully, triumphantly, against his chest.

Her life is his. Never apart. Never again.

Her body falls away; he is soaked in her blood. Crimson power coats his skin, stains his clothes, and fills his being.

Her life is his.

-----

"HARRY!"

The high-pitched shriek pierced through the dream, and Harry's eyes snapped open. He felt warm and disoriented, and his eyes felt slow and stiff, as though something restrained them.

"Oh my God," Hermione muttered, reaching out a hand but pulling back. Worried at her hesitation, he sat up.

"Hermione? What-No."

Blood was everywhere. The sheets, his pajamas, his hair; everything on his bed was coated. The vivid scene of his nightmare played again and again in his mind. The feelings of power and comfort were gone, replaced by nausea and revulsion, and Harry shot out of bed, tearing out of the room to the washroom, his stomach rebelling against him. He made it to the door of the washroom before he gave in; an explosion of unnatural warmth, and the taste of iron filled his senses as his stomach surged, voiding itself.

"Are you okay?" Hermione asked shakily. "That's... that's not your blood is it? It's just a prank or something, right? I mean... you'd be dead if you'd lost that much. You're okay, aren't you?"

"M'fine," Harry muttered, struggling to control his heaving insides as he knelt in front of the toilet. He absently ran his hands up and down himself, checking for injuries. "Not hurt," he said. "S'not mine." He once again heaved into the toilet, the shock of vomiting temporarily wiping the nightmare from his thoughts. Cries from the hall indicated the Mrs. Weasley had found the room, and would be here soon.

"If it's not your blood," Hermione asked fearfully, "whose is it, then?"

Harry coughed violently, spitting what remained in his mouth into the toilet, before turning to regard Hermione fully. Before he could answer, she gasped and stepped towards the toilet.

"God, Harry. What-?"

Blood pooled in the toilet, mingling with the water; the same blood he had so willingly drank.

"Yours," he said quietly, beginning to shiver as the scene replayed in front of him again. "It's your blood." A fresh bout of nausea and panic forced him to turn away from Hermione, dizzily. Harry again emptied himself into the toilet, spattering the white porcelain with crimson, and swayed on his knees before falling sideways losing himself to the welcoming darkness, Hermione's voice fading into oblivion as she called his name.

-----

A/N: Please review! Seeing your reactions and talking with you makes this all worthwhile.

TOW