By March Madness
I am not an old man, familiar with the ways of the world and the treachery of human beings. I am young, sixteen summers. This is not easy for me. Friends. Enemies. Both have betrayed me.
My grandfather's warriors have captured them and locked them in a room without windows or doors. A ladder thrust down through a hole in the rood is the only way in or out. There are under constant guard.
My people demand that I kill them.
But some of the captives... I love.
People of the Silence, Kathleen O'Neal Gear and Michael Gear
"It's an obsession," Ginny repeated after her headmaster, tone dead and ringing dully even in her ears. Months ago, she never would have imagined herself in this position, in this helpless and sickly position. Months ago, she would have nightly basis. Now, she didn't care.
"It's an addiction," Dumbledore murmured, voice tired, drained ever, as if he himself no longer believed the words he spoke, the words that had once been thought to have the power to counsel and cure Ginny. It didn't really matter. She never believed the words anyway.
"It's an addiction."
"Ginny," Dumbledore turned his weary blue gaze towards the girl. "Ginny, this must stop."
She let her bottom lip tremble the slightest in time with the oncoming lecture while her real attention was noting the fact that Dumbledore had grown a few more worry lines, a few more gray hairs.
"This can't go on much longer, child."
She let her face mold into the sad, pitiful expression she'd practiced in the mirror.
"If you don't stop, this obsession will destroy you."
"I know," she whispered in her practiced voice, the one that made her out to sound truly strangled and broken, sound like she was truly sorry and they her words truly touched her. And as she spoke, she made a show of swallowing hard, forcing her eyes to water so that they seemed to shimmer with pain. It was an expression of a broken heart and though she made the expression perfect, played it so sincerely, behind the looks and the sounds she still felt nothing.
The headmaster sighed and she realized that despite all her hours spent practicing to deceive him, he could still tell that she felt no remorse, that the repeating exercise and lecture brought no results. "Ginny, you must listen to me," and his voice was sincerely strangled.
"But I am," Ginny insisted softly, though the words spoke to her meant nothing. Even if Dumbledore realized the truth behind her façade, he could do nothing while she still lied to him. Absently, she wondered if he felt any sense of déjà vu as he tried to reach her, if he felt anything like what he felt when trying to reach the young Tom Riddle. Thoughts of that nightmarish boy were instantly banished, getting replaced by thoughts of another boy, the savior of the world, and she caught herself just before she drifted off into a daydream.
As if sensing her wandering thoughts, he let out a weary breath and dismissed her, bidding her a goodnight as he handed her some Floo powder so that she could go back home before it became much later. She sniffed and seemed to manage a dainty smile before leaving his office as quickly as possible, slightly angry that her parents would waste her summer vacation by sending her back to school. She tossed the powder into the fireplace and left to return home to frantic parents trying to find out what was wrong with her, return home to oblivious brothers who had yet to notice the difference in her, and return home to a dark obsession that was killing her just as Dumbledore had predicted. She left no better off than when she had arrived.
Among the many presents Harry received that year, one stuck out as strange, as if it didn't belong.
After he opened Ron's gift (a dragon model like the one from the first task of last year's Tournament) and read the note from a traveling Hagrid, he noticed the small owl that had trailed in after the others. After he laughed at the few tricks from Fred and George, and after he sat mesmerized at the gift from Sirius (a hand-sized black dog that was remarkably lifelike) he warily approached the strange owl. And after he had put the many well-meaning books from Hermione away, read the salutations from Dumbledore, and skimmed through the year's new supply list, he removed the owl's package to hold in his hands for several moments before opening it with a strange apprehension.
For all the years he'd known Ginny, known of her crush on him, she'd never sent him anything before except for last year's ill-written Valentine. Now, holding the small bow in his hands, tone part of the letter from Dumbledore sounded stranger than ever:
"Harry, I must ask one more restriction with all the precautions I've already pleaded with you to follow, and that is that you show caution with everything given to you by Miss Virginia Weasley. Strange this request may be, it is vital that you please do as I ask...."
"What's wrong with taking things from Ginny?" he asked himself, staring at the box in his hands, the box that was perhaps the most powerful thing in the world at the moment, the only thing that would force him to consider disobeying one of Dumbledore's orders. The request in the letter seemed weird, strange, and a rather unreasonable restriction. "Why can't I open this? And since when does he have the right to tell me what I can and can't do." Any part of Harry's brain that became appalled at the almost violent reaction Harry was having was instantly quieted.
He paused and tilted his head to the side. "Now that's not fair, Harry," he chided himself as he weighed the box in one hand. "Dumbledore's only trying to do what's best for you."
Then his face crinkled. "I'm starting to sound like Hermione!" And then he blinked. "Since when do I have conversations with myself?"
The box in his hands sat tantalizingly still and Harry made his decision.
Slowly, almost as if he was frightened that Dumbledore would come in and yell at him, Harry began to open the box, sneaking glances to the left and right. The floor outside his door groaned with age, the attic above his head seemed to moan with a threat to fall down on him, and the whole house echoed with the enormously loud snores of his cousin, but otherwise things were quiet. No one else was awake to care for Harry's fifteenth birthday, and he doubted that his relatives wouldn't care even if they were awake. Maybe Dudley would try to steal the dragon model before realizing that the model would bite back, but otherwise they would treat his birthday as any other day and force him to do the chores.
If his friends were here, however, the noise would probably be loud enough to warrant a visit from the cops. He could just imagine Ron's loud cheers, Hermione's quick wit, the twins' jokes and tricks, and Sirius'... well, Sirius would do something, no doubt, something befitting a godfather. Set back a moment by realizing that he didn't know Sirius well at all, Harry turned his attention back to the box in his hands.
It was small but heavy which would explain why the small owl arrived so much later than the others and why it looked so tired. Untying the grand ribbons that tied the lid shut and glancing at the card, just a "-- From Ginny," he pulled the lid off and looked inside.
A small green snake was laying curled around a cup of smoking liquid.
Immediately, the dog from Sirius growled, a very light sound to Harry's ears, and set upon the snake, biting and barking and trying to strangle it. The snake hissed, curling out from the box and sliding away as fast as it could but the dog was faster and soon, the snake's head was clutched in the dog's fangs, getting tossed this way and that mercilessly. As soon as the battle began, though, it was over with the snake letting out one last hiss and disappearing in a fit of smoke. The dog, confused, whined a bit and sniffed around but eventually settled down, crawling back to a spot next to Harry's hand.
Startled and a bit shocked at the show of violence, Harry seriously wondered why he didn't just listen to Dumbledore and leave the box closed, but what's done is done and he looked curiously towards the smoking flask. At the bottom of the box was a letter and he picked both up, setting the drink on the floor while he read the letter. The dog raised its head and got up, walking to the flask and sniffing it suspiciously.
"Harry, I don't know what Ron's been telling you or if you've heard yourself, but there have been a lot of Death Eater attacks lately." The ink seemed to smear slightly and Harry realized with a start that he could see dried tear drops. "I don't know why I'm writing you or why I've really done this, but I had to do something--anything! Please don't be mad at me. I had just seen this potion and I knew you would need it. It's a dreamless sleep potion and it works. I've tried some and I didn't have any nightmares." More teardrops graced the parchment and Harry could almost see Ginny as she wrote this down and he knew what she had nightmares about.
He put the letter down. "Poor Ginny," he breathed softly, looking at the dreamless sleep potion with an ache. He remembered Madam Pomfrey giving it to him after the Tournament, could remember the wonderful uninterrupted sleep, and he could feel a desire for such a sleep to come again. Lately, his dreams had been filled with nightmares. He didn't need anyone to tell him about the Death Eater attacks. He usually saw them for himself.
The dog was barking at him and somewhere out in the house, Harry heard Vernon shift in bed.
"Shh!" he hushed, picking the small dog up. "You've got to be quiet or they'll hear you!" The dog, a bit surprised to feel the earth drop out from beneath its feet, whined and tried to curl into a ball then switched tactics and tried to bite Harry. "Ow!"
The bed shifted definitely this time and beneath Dudley's snores, he could hear Vernon grumbling loudly.
Quickly, Harry pushed all his gifts into the small hiding place beneath the loose floor panel except for the small pup who'd thankfully stopped barking once Harry put it back down on the floor. When he looked at the flask from Ginny, he hesitated only a minute before swallowing the drink down whole. He was about to put the dragon away too when it bit at him and stalked away under the bed, growling happily as it made a nest of one of Vernon's old socks.
The floor reverberated with the sounds of heavy footsteps as Vernon got out of bed and made his way towards the small bedroom.
Panicked, Harry grabbed the small dog and flipped the light off, jumping into bed. The many owls watched him, too busy eating and drinking much to Hedwig's annoyance as her food supplied dwindled, but all of them wisely stayed quiet as a sort of tension rose in the room.
The footsteps grew louder and closer, and just when Harry was about to kiss his birthday goodbye, the footsteps turned from his room. Vernon walked into the bathroom and after five minutes, the toilet flushed and the footsteps walked back to bed.
Harry sighed in relief and, as the small dog licked his finger before curling up on the pillow, he fell asleep into a restive and dreamless sleep. When he woke up in the morning, the only thing he could remember was a weird shade of pink.
"Mum, can Harry come over for a bit?" Ron asked eagerly, glancing at the calendar in the kitchen. Beneath the dueling knights of August, he could see that the month was almost up. "I know Dumbledore doesn't want him to come over this year, but summer's almost over and nothing's happened so far!"
"Well..." his mum hesitated as she paused in her cooking. "I'll... I'll ask Dumbledore--but just once! If he says no, then it's no, understand?"
Ron ducked his head. "Yes, mum."
She moved to the fireplace with a speed that gave away her own desire to have Harry in her home's safety. When she'd disappeared, the pots and pans kept on bubbling and boiling without her assistance, fixing up the family's dinner. Ron wandered outside, hands in his pockets and a single wish running over and over in his mind.
An explosion drew his attention. He pulled his wand out of his pocket warily and headed towards the noise.
Just outside of view and behind some bushes, he could hear the voices of his brothers grumbling angrily.
"I told you it wouldn't work, Fred."
"You didn't tell me anything, mate, so don't go blaming me if you head's gone purple." There was some tussling noise and Ron sneaked closer. "Don't worry too much. I don't think it'll last long."
"I say we add the coloring spell at the end. Remember back in Hogwarts, what old broken nose said about adding spells to a potion."
Fred laughed and Ron was now close enough to peer past the bushes to see the twins sitting in front of an elaborate potion-making set, cauldrons boiling and fires burning, looking eerily similar to the kitchen. Fred had his back turned and was adding some things to one cauldron, snorting as he did so.
"Who'd ever think that class would come in handy? Especially at something like this?"
"I bet snakey Snape would cut his head off if he knew we were doing potions on our own free will."
"He would until he found out what we were making, and then he'd take our heads off."
George took that moment to come into view and Ron couldn't help it. His eyes widened and try as he might, he couldn't' keep the laugh from escaping.
His brother's head had been turned purple. From the tip of his nose to ever freckle on his cheek, everything was purple.
George and Fred looked up at the sound in surprise. "Who's there?"
"Me." Ron walked out from behind the bushes, letting his wand go into a pocket out of sight. He stared at George before laughing again. "Never knew you hated the red so much."
"Shut up, you," George said, rolling his eyes and going back to his work with no concern to Ron's mocking.
"Why don't you scat," Fred suggested. "Unless you want to help us. We could always use a willing test subject."
Ron backed away, hands up. "You keep away from me." The twin shrugged and, like George, dismissed Ron and went back to work. Curious at his brothers' attitudes, Ron crept up slowly behind the two's shoulders. "Er, what exactly are you two doing out here? Aren't we all supposed to be inside or at least near the house?"
"You are," George said forcefully, not even sparing Ron a glance as he measured something out and dumped it into a cauldron, stirring the smoking liquid that changed from a dark blue to a light red. At the same time, his own purple coloring faded back to its normal hues but the teen didn't even notice. "Mum's going to have a fit when she finds out you're gone."
"Yea. You and Ginny can't stray far. You aren't old enough to take care of yourselves, lest not at your own house." Fred turned the flame beneath his own cauldron up a bit and stirred it counterclockwise.
Ron groaned, settling up against a tree. "Enough with the baby jokes. I've been in worse scraps than either of you two."
This time the two paused and looked up, expression strangely serious. "I know," George said first. "But that doesn't mean you can go and do whatever."
"Yea, all it means is that you're a trouble-magnet--or else that you're hanging out with one--and we'll have to watch you all the more." Fred gave Ron a hard look. "And you still are a baby."
"What are you doing out here anyway?" George asked, attention slipping back to his potion as he added more ingredients. "And where's mum? She wouldn't let you out of her sight if she was still here."
Sighing at the twins' strange behavior, Ron picked up a tree branch and started peeling the bark off. "She went over to Hogwarts to ask if Harry can come over."
"Think she'll bring Ginny back home?" Fred asked, but Ron realized after a moment that he'd been talking to George.
George shook his head. "No, not until they figure out a way to stop her nightmares without getting her addicted to that dreamless potion."
Ron sighed again, feeling like an outsider as the two went back to murmuring about potion ingredients and carelessly flicked the peeled branch out before him. His brothers had been acting strange all summer, first buying him new dress robes, then new cauldron sets and whatever else they kept hidden in the room. The whole family had been acting strange, actually. Dad would come home looking terrible and mum would send everyone to bed, but sometimes Ron would wake up in the middle of the night to hear voices only to find his parents and older brothers in deep discussions, all looking very sober about something. He hated that, hated being left out. He was old enough to know what was going on because he had no doubt that they were talking about the latest string of attacks. He should know what was going on because by the time school started, his best friend would most likely be deeply involved in the world's problems, just like Harry always was.
It wouldn't have been so bad if Ginny had also been left out, but she'd had her own piece in it all: her nightmares. Nothing like Harry's, where Harry could see actual things happening, but just memories of her first year. It had started when Dumbledore, knowing Ginny would find out anyway, told her that the Tom Riddle she'd met was none other than Voldemort, and the knowledge had been more terrible than anyone would've guessed.
At first, it had just been a nightmare, then she'd withdrawn and started this... this obsession of finding out everything she could about Tom Riddle. She'd gone through entire tomes before anyone realized what was happening, had already soaked up all the knowledge she could before anyone stopped her. Ginny unquestionably knew more about Tom Riddle than anyone else alive save Dumbledore. After she'd been stopped, the nightmares had come back and her parents had sent her to Hogwarts to see if a solution could be found, but so far nothing helped. She still had her nightmares and it looked like the only solution was to...
Ron blinked. The only solution was to let her have things her way. What a coincidence, Ginny's nightmares starting up just when she was forbidden to do any more research, stopping when she was allowed to continue doing what she wanted.
Hermione had once told him that during her first year when she'd had no friends, she'd spent almost all her time in the library, so much so that McGonagall had threatened to restrict how much time she could go. In return, the feisty first year had purposely done horrible on the next few tests in the class, always doing enough extra credit to keep her grades way up but making her teachers believe that she needed to be in the library to do good, and the restrictions were lifted. She'd gotten her way by making the others believe it was the only option.
Was Ginny doing the same thing?
Naw, Ron shook the notion away. Ginny wasn't like that. Ginny was still a little girl, incapable of such acting. She wouldn't put their parents through so much just to get her way--she just wasn't like that. But still...
"Hey guys," Ron started uncertainly, not sure he should reveal his suspicions. The twins barely glanced at him, but George asked what he wanted. "You think that maybe... maybe Ginny's just acting? You know, to keep going to the library?"
"Ginny?" Fred snorted. "Keep dreaming. That little girl couldn't act to save her life."
"You saw how she was with Harry, falling all over herself when he came around," George reminded, leaning back away from his potion and letting the liquid settle. "If she couldn't keep that a secret, how could she fool Dumbledore?"
"Right," Ron forced a smile to appear on his face, "I didn't really think... but it's kind of strange how she keeps getting those headaches, you know, and how they leave when she gets to do what she wants?"
Fred snorted but George looked up thoughtfully. "It's strange," he agreed slowly, "but maybe it's connected like what Pomfrey says."
"What, a spell?" Fred asked, looking aghast. "Someone's hexed our sister?"
Ron's stomach churned at the thought of someone getting passed all the defenses of the Weasley home to get a shot at Ginny, the youngest of them all, and his hand clenched into a fist. But George shook his head, dismissing the idea. "Naw, not that. They'd have noticed a hex right off. Must be something else."
Ron's heart plummeted even as his hands unclenched. He could see Fred visibly relaxing too with the realization that no one had cursed Ginny. "So," and he tried to keep his voice casual, "you don't think Ginny's faking it?"
"Naw," Fred said right off and George nodded in agreement a moment after.
Ron let out a deep breath and shook his head as if forcing the suspicions out of his head. Of course Ginny isn't faking, she's still too innocent. Ginny doesn't know anything about all that stuff. Trying to lift the mood, he smiled and said, "You should really watch it. I could hear your explosions from the house."
"It was an accident, really," Fred chuckled. "We thought something was wrong with one of the cauldrons so George sticks his head in it and it blows."
"What happened was that Fred thought something was in that cauldron and suggested that I take a look because he was busy with the other stuff," George cleared the matter up, grinning. He touched a hand to his hair. "Luckily, we got the recipe down. We'll just have to change a few things and maybe we can market it as color bombs."
Ron looked at the many potions curiously, eyes also glancing at the stack of labeled containers off to the side in the grass. "What exactly are you doing?"
"Opening up the shop," Fred grinned. He waved an arm majestically. "Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes, at your service."
"Where'd you get all the money to pay for this?"
George shook a finger. "All summer, everyone's asked us, and all summer, it's been the same: a patron who recognized our skills in the art of laughter."
"Yea, yea," Ron muttered darkly. He pointed at a labeled flask at random. "What's that?"
Fred grinned evilly, lifting the flask up. "Well, I don't know, how about you take a sip and find out?"
At that moment, their mum's voice could be heard yelling Ron's name. Ron gulped and chose the lesser of the evils. As he ran back to the house, he turned to see that the twins had already gone back to their potion making, forgetting all about their diabolical plans to test their potions on him and wondered for the thousandth time when the two had grown up.
"Ronald Weasley, what were you doing outside?" his mum screeched as he came running into the house. "You know perfectly well you're not allowed out unless you're with someone."
"But Fred and George are out there," Ron protested weakly, keeping his head ducked under her angry eye.
She snorted then dusted the ash from her hair and clothing. For the first time, he noticed that his little sister was home and he smiled brightly. "Hey, Ginny. How's it been at Hogwarts?"
She had been looking down, eyes pasted to her shoes, and when she looked up Ron fought the urge to take a step back. Ginny was terrifying! Dark circles formed beneath her eyes and her skin was pasty white, almost as white as Snape's. Her breathing was way off, slow and deep one second then fast and light the next as if she was constantly having panic attacks. Her hair was limp and mussed and her eyes were haunted.
Forcing a bright grin on his face, Ron hid his horror and silently cursed himself for suspecting Ginny for even a second. This was the face of a tortured soul. She hadn't been lying about her nightmares, and by the looks of it they were some nightmares.
Seeing his smile, Ginny smiled softly too, her grin looking as forced as his own. "Fine," she croaked dryly.
Their mum looked at Ginny worriedly. "I think you better get to bed, sweetheart. The headmaster says you need all the sleep you can get." In her normal health, Ginny would protest any such orders to the death but now she simply nodded and limply made her way upstairs.
Ron gulped and looked at his mother, eyes wide in shock. "What happened to her, mum?"
His mum sighed and took a break, sliding down into a chair. "Last night was the worst nightmare yet," the mother of seven answered softly, voice shaking. "You weren't there so you don't know, dear, but Ginny's been having a hard time." Her eyes opened. "I want you to see if you can help her."
"Course, mum," Ron answered quickly, firm enough to sound like she was accusing him of thinking that he was going to let his sister suffer alone.
He turned to go upstairs and do just that when him mum softly added, "Oh, and Ron, the headmaster said Harry can come over next week until school starts."
Ron grinned a real grin and headed upstairs a lot happier, the owl he was to send already forming in his mind.