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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Chapter Seven
 
A LESS-THAN-SHINING PARTY

Harry knew little about actual motorbikes.  It was obvious that helmets were required; Lupin had clearly been giving more than just advice.  He had no idea where to purchase an actual helmet, so he pulled discreetly into a secluded alleyway not far from Grimmauld Place and transfigured an empty milk jug from an open bin into something that passed for a helmet without a shield.  He wasn’t sure how long the faux helmet would hold up, so he quickly returned to the roadway. 

He quickly discovered that auto drivers weren’t merely intolerant of his riding, but of motorbikes in general.  A frustrated young driver raced past, cut him off, and then shouted out his open window, “Get over and milk it, scooter scum!” 

Harry  struggled with the explosion of road signs, and a copy of the Highway Code quickly joined a proper helmet on Harry’s mental list of purchases to be made.  He decided that the Bonneville’s clock didn’t work; the number of miles seemed to change randomly, and the indicated speed fluctuated wildly.

A few minutes into the ride, he was nearly found out.  Two other motorcyclists pulled alongside at a signalled intersection and gaped at him.  One rider managed to splutter, “Bloody amazing balance,” before the signal changed.  He watched carefully from behind at the next signal, and remembered that he should place at least one foot on the ground when the Bonneville was stopped. 

Harry eventually came to a motorway, which was at once better and worse than the urban streets and carriageways.  He could make better time and there was less manoeuvring required, but every time an 18-wheeled juggernaut would whip past, the Bonneville vibrated and its shudders shot up his spine.  By the time he reached the centre of London, he was tired and cold.  He’d worn his new aviator jacket, a shirt and denims, but the wind still tore through him. 

He walked briskly through the Leaky Cauldron, so that no one had the chance to acknowledge him.  After an impatient passage through the new security gate, he made his way down the Alley to Number 93.  One of the Weasleys – Harry was fairly certain it was Fred – opened the door. 

“Come in before someone thinks we’ve reopened,” the twin said briskly.

George emerged from the back room; he was clutching a towel half-covered in thick black goo.  “You don’t want to know,” he said to Harry with a grin.

“Lupin should be here soon,” Fred said.  “I see you have those amazing leather bags with you, Harry.”

“That means you’re carrying the amazing motorbike, Harry,” George chimed in.

“And that means we’ll have the chance to give it a thorough look-over,” Fred said.

“No disassembling, of course!” said George.

Fred shook his head instantly.  “Perish the thought, brother – didn’t mean a word of it this morning.”

“I hope so, brother,” George said, “because I’d rather not have our partner hex us from here to Hogsmeade.”

“Ixnay on the Ogsmeade-Hay, Eorge-Gay…” Fred muttered.

“Eorge-Gay?  How dare you address me by that foul name, Sir Knave?  I will have satisfaction!” George howled.  The twins launched into a loud and mostly harmless duel that Harry watched from the relative safety of the counter.  A tap at the door interrupted them.  Fred rushed across the sales floor; George strolled behind him.

As soon as Lupin entered, Fred bowed deeply.  “Welcome to our humble establishment, Your Grace!” he proclaimed.

George dropped to the floor and groveled at Lupin’s feet.  “We live to serve you, liege lord!” he said.

“Yes, yes… well… are you the court fools, then?” Lupin returned.

Fred dropped to his knees and begged, “We would hope to be your humble apprentices, Lord Moony… please?  Pretty please?  Pretty please with potion on it?”

“Merlin help me,” Lupin said under his breath.

“Alas, brother, we have our Annual Meeting to attend – remember?” said George.

Fred sprang to his feet.  “Of course, of course… to business, as our bankers say.  That is, if you’re ready to proceed, Your Eminence?”

“Are you planning to do this for the entire evening?” Lupin sighed.

“Absobloodylutely!” George said eagerly.

Lupin’s face fell into his hands.  “Let’s just get on with this, please?” he pleaded.

“It’s just the four of us, then?” Harry asked.

“Certainly not!” Fred gasped.

“We have to think of our future investors,” explained George.  “It wouldn’t be fair to expect you to fund all of our expansion.”

“Expansion?  You’ve just opened,” Harry said suspiciously.

Fred rolled his eyes.  “You’re missing the bigger view, Harry.  Think of the world out there, just waiting for proper pranksters to seize it by the –”

“Goodness, look at the time,” Lupin cut him off.  “Obviously the meeting’s not going to be held here, gentlemen, so what comes next?”

George held up the goo-stained towel.  “Portkey,” he said.

“I’m not touching that,” Harry said flatly.

“It’s not as if I planned it this way,” protested George.  “I should have set it aside first, but… look, I’ll even let you and Lupin have the clean end.”

“Oi, where do you expect me to hold it?” Fred shrieked.

George ignored him.  “Do you trust us, Harry?”

Harry crossed his arms and said, “I trust that when you kill me, you won’t mean to do it.”

“Point,” said Fred.  “Do you trust that we aren’t going to give you over to Lord Voldemuffin, at least?”  Lupin burst into choking laughter.

“Or to Minister Fudge and his bloody hench-hag?” George added.

Fred looked as if he’d swallowed a lemon whole.  “Minister… more like Right Honourable Arsemonger, if you ask me,” he grumbled. 

“That’s… rather harsh…” Lupin said between coughs.

“You’ve not filed to open a shop on Diagon Alley before, have you?” George said with disgust.

“So shall we take this portkey, or not?” Fred asked.

“If I die tonight, I’ll haunt you both,” said Harry.

“That’s the spirit!” Fred cheered as four hands took hold of the towel.

The spinning stopped, and Harry found himself sprawled on the floor of an empty entryway. The walls were rough-hewn wood but had been freshly whitewashed. The ceiling was dark and low, and the beams were exposed. Stairs led upward from the end of the hall. Instead of a door behind him, there was a hatch in the floor. There were two window frames, but they were boarded shut. Everything had a freshly repaired feel to it, he thought; there was an odd sense of anticipation in the air, as well. He had no idea where he was and he didn't like that at all.

“Up we go, then,” said Fred.  Harry followed the twins and Lupin to the stairs.  He put his wand at the ready as they climbed, ready to dispel prank hexes.

George turned the corner first, and Fred held Harry back.  Harry heard George say loudly, “I call this first Annual Meeting of Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes into session!  The first item of business is to announce the appointment of our former professor Remus Lupin as the company’s Chairman and Prankster Emeritus.  All those in favour signify by saying ‘aye’!”  Harry was startled by the thunderous cry of ‘aye’ from above; he wondered if the twins were taking the mickey out of him, or if there were actually dozens of people in the next room.

“Chairman Lupin, would you please take the gavel?” George called out.

Lupin grinned and disappeared into the room above.  Harry heard him clear his throat and he began, “Thank you for that vote of confidence, I think.”  He heard a number of snickers and could almost make out some voices.

“Moving to the second item of business,” Lupin went on, “the Directors of Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, His… are you certain about this?”

“Stick to the parchment,” George said.

Lupin resumed, “The Directors of Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes – His Infernal Prankness, Alfred the First, and His Eternal Explosiveness, George the Last – wish to acknowledge their first and most important investor –”

“Without whom none of us would be here –” George cut in.

“I shan’t read this aloud, boys,” Lupin groaned.

George let out a lengthy sigh.  Harry heard the crinkling of parchment and the clearing of George’s throat, who then intoned, “Our investor needs no introduction, which is why he’s getting one.  He is a Snitch-grabbing, dragon-slaying, maiden-rescuing school champion.  He's a smashing teacher and he’s too generous for his own good.  He gave us our start.  Ladies, gentlemen, scoundrels and other sorts, I give you a man who will save you even if you don’t deserve it; a two-time winner of Teen Witch Weekly’s ‘Most Shaggable’ Award –”

“GEORGE FABIAN WEASLEY!  There is no such thing!  I expect an apology to Harry this instant!” Mrs. Weasley shrieked, which ended the twins’ attempt at a surprise.

“Er… Harry Potter, everyone…” squeaked George.  Fred nudged Harry around the corner so firmly that he nearly stumbled.

Harry found himself faced by Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and all their children save Percy, Hermione and her parents, the Tonkses, most of Dumbledore’s Army, several Order members and a number of Hogwarts faculty waiting for them.  At the sight of him, they all shouted, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!”

Mrs. Weasley came to him after an earnest round of hugs and handshakes.  She stood with her hands on her hips.  “Harry Potter,” she said, “I understand that you were left that – that – thing, and have been riding it around London with no escort and no advance warning whatever –”

Harry wrapped her in the sort of hug that grown children reserve for their parents.  “I don’t want you to be angry at me,” he said. 

Mrs. Weasley shifted from indignance to indulgence.  “Harry, I’m not angry with you.  I haven’t been angry with you at all,” she insisted; “It’s simply too much to take in, all of it.”

Ron stood back a few steps, with a smile fixed on his face that Harry knew was forced.  “Happy birthday,” he said.  “So what’s this about a thing?”

Harry couldn’t resist the opportunity.  “Talking about my thing, are we?” he asked, but couldn’t get through it without a snort.

Mrs. Weasley rolled her eyes in long-suffering fashion.  “I need to see what sort of havoc Fred and George have planned,” she said, and disappeared into the crowd of well-wishers. 

“They said this thing was wicked, whatever it is,” said Ron.  “Let’s see it, then?”

“We’ll need a bit of room,” Harry said.  He led Ron to the side of the room, set down his saddlebags, palmed the motorbike and whispered the charm.  The sight of the Bonnie drew a collective gasp from most of the people present. 

Ron’s eyes went wide.  He clutched at his right forearm with his left hand.  “Get that away from me,” he said flatly.

“Ron, what is it?  Are you all right?” Harry asked. 

“Get it away, I said!” Ron shouted. 

Fred and George quickly flanked him.  “Where’s the fire, Ron?” Fred asked.

“What’s the problem?” George chimed in.  Ron covered his eyes with his hands and wailed. 

Harry quickly reduced the motorbike and thrust it back into one of the bags.  “It’s put away,” he promised; “It’s gone now.”

Ron was ghastly pale and his hands shook, but he still managed to brush away his mother.  George guided him to the stairs, where Madam Pomfrey – one of the many faces Harry hadn’t expected to see – descended upon him.

Harry looked to Mrs. Weasley for an indication.  “Should I go after him?  I don’t know what to do,” he admitted.

“I hope you’ll follow after him, Harry.  Perhaps you might get through to him somehow?  It’s been a very long summer,” said Mrs. Weasley.

Harry slipped the shrunken case for Ron’s broom from the saddlebags and handed the bags to Fred – with a quick admonishment to leave the motorbike alone – then headed for the stairs through the tight gathering.  He made quick greetings but made it obvious that he was moving on.  Ginny appeared beside him and politely fended people off.

George stood outside a closed door one flight up.  “He shook off Pomfrey and won’t tell me a thing,” he sighed.

Ginny scowled and rapped loudly on the door.  “Ron, Harry’s here to talk with you and you won’t make excuses!” she snapped.  After a few moments of silence, they heard the door unlock.

“I’ll be in the next room,” said Ginny.

“You don’t have to –” Harry started.

“I need a break from all of this,” she said.  “Help him, would you?”

Harry squeezed her hand in thanks, gave George a respectful nod, and opened the door.  One lamp was dimly lit in the corner.  As in the other rooms that Harry had seen, the windows were boarded.  Ron sat in the corner of the empty room, hugging his knees.  He looked blankly at Harry and then turned away.  “Come to look at the freak, did you?” he asked bitterly.

“That’s more my line,” Harry said, in a failed attempt to lighten the mood.

“Can’t even have that to myself, eh?” Ron fumed.  “We both have to be freaks… great… just effin’ great.”

“I brought you something,” said Harry.  He pulled the shrunken broom case from a pocket and returned it to its normal size.

“A gift for poor Ron, so the great Harry Potter can show everyone how generous he is… isn’t that smashing?” Ron snapped.

“Then why wouldn’t I give it to you down there, in front of everyone?” asked Harry.

Ron didn’t answer at first.  “So what is it – an apology gift?” he finally asked.

Harry decided that he wouldn’t be baited.  “There won’t be any apologies,” he said.  “It’s a gift so you remember that we’re mates.”

“It’s a very big package for that,” Ron said.

“What happened to you must have been really horrible.  It was my fault entirely; I shouldn’t have been there, and you shouldn’t have been there. That’s what I was trying to say last night before Malfoy showed up,” explained Harry.

Ron’s eyes squeezed tight and Harry could almost feel the pain.  “I was there because I wanted to be there, and I’d do it again.  I just – Sirius can bloody well sod off, you know?  I didn’t need him telling me how to be a friend, or how to choose between friends in a pinch!  He had no right to do that, Harry!  It was a horrible thing for him to do –”

“You’re right,” Harry cut in.

“And then he… what’d’ya mean, I’m right?” Ron asked.

“You’re right, Ron – Sirius had no business playing games with us,” Harry agreed.  “Besides, there was no need for it.”

“Er… I don’t understand…?” Ron said.

Harry pulled the broom case in front of Ron.  “There was no need for it,” he repeated.  “I’ve known where you stand since we were first-years.  You chose to take on that troll.  You chose to sacrifice yourself in that game of wizard’s chess.  Even when we were fighting, I knew that you'd be there when it counted.”

“I haven’t just resented Sirius,” Ron said.  “I’ve resented you too, especially for all the secrets.  I know I have a temper, but I can keep a secret, you know?  ‘Course, I didn’t really understand it until this summer.  Sometime it’s too hard to share; it took this to get it through my head.”  He held up his welt-covered forearms.

Harry nudged the package.  “Open it,” he said.  As Ron tore at the coarse paper, he added, “Now listen to me, right?  This isn’t about money, or trying to impress you or anyone else – understood?”

Ron whistled as he revealed the well-polished wooden case.  “Wow… you’re really trying to make your point, aren’t you?  I know what comes in a case like this,” he whispered, his voice cracking. 

Harry smiled.  “You don’t know the half of it,” he said.

Ron held up the Nimbus 2100-R.  “It’s a bloody racing broom,” he said in awe.  He traced his hand along the handle and then tested the bristles.  Harry stayed silent as Ron set the broom down and ordered it up into his grasp several times.  “I know this isn’t about money,” he said without taking his eyes off the broom.  “I don’t know why I acted that way last night.  I’m just – well, I think it’s clear that I’m not myself.”

“Don’t fret over it,” Harry said.

Ron turned the broom, admiring it from several angles.  “This is amazing, mate.  What’s the marking there – you didn't have it detailed, did you?”  Harry took out his wand and quietly cast a light spell.  Ron peered at the side of the handle and his jaw dropped.

“He saw you win the Cup, you know?” Harry explained.  Ron’s eyes widened and his breathing quickened.

“Say something,” Harry insisted.

“I don’t know...” Ron managed.  “When did you –?”

“This morning, when I picked up… the other thing,” Harry said.

Ron sighed and shook his head.  “After everything last night, you go and … thank you.  That’s what I should say.”  He turned his gaze back to the broom, and whispered, “Thank you, Harry.”

“You’re welcome.  He signed one for me, too,” Harry told him.

“What’d he write on yours, then?” Ron asked.  Harry recalled it for him, and Ron snorted.  When he told Ron what he’d said to the twins about Madam Hooch, Ron burst out laughing.  They sat and regaled each other with Hogwarts memories and Quidditch stories for a long time, and Harry felt a glimmer of old times.

“You can talk to me about anything – like what happened downstairs… when you’re ready for it,” Harry offered.

Ron cast his eyes down.  “Right, just as soon as you tell me why you needed to disappear this summer, and I don’t mean that rubbish about darkness and what-not.”

“We’ll be talking soon, then,” Harry promised.  “I’m almost ready.”

Ron said, surprised, “Seriously?  Well, when that happens, I’ll return the favour – I promise you.  It’s just… it feels like nothing will ever be right again if I do.”

“Now that’s something I understand,” Harry said knowingly.

Ron flashed a smile that Harry believed.  “So there’s this bash going on just down the stairs, and here I sit hiding in the dark with the guest of honour.  Let’s eat!”  He stood, clutching the racing broom.  “Actually, I can’t pass on the opportunity to gloat about this!  Bloody hell!”

Harry sighed, “I don’t mind sitting here a bit longer, honestly.  I wasn’t prepared for all of this.”

Ron smiled.  “Fred and George really got you, eh?  You should know better.”

“All these people, on practically no notice – can you blame me for being a little surprised?” Harry asked.

“Well, it wasn’t all for your birthday.  I mean, we’re also celebrating the Weasley’s good fortune.  We just boarded Ginny’s party train, that’s all,” Ron smirked.

Harry frowned.  “Ginny’s responsible for this, after what happened last night?  Maybe I should have a talk with her…”

Ron broke out into a satisfied grin.  “What,” he asked, “you’re going to face my little sister’s hopeless infatuation at last?”

“I thought she was tight with Dean Thomas,” Harry said.

Ron laughed.  “That was for my benefit.  I think she actually thought I bought it for a week or two.  I was pretty hard on her over Michael Corner so she wanted me off of her.”

Harry was caught off-guard.  “She's not over the crush?"

The grin on Ron’s face spread from ear to ear.  “She sure went to a lot of effort last year convincing herself.  Guess it didn’t take, eh?”

“There’s no need to be smug,” Harry complained.

Ron switched to a mock-frown.  “Harry, I’m disappointed.  A simple acceptance of your fate is all I ask.”

“Ron!” Harry warned.

“All right, all right,” Ron said, returning to an easy smile.  “I didn’t expect that the idea would make you squirm?”

“I’m not sure we should be having this conversation,” Harry grumbled.

“Why not?”

“Because she’s your sister, for Merlin’s sake!” Harry thundered.  “If I say I like her, you’ll want to give me a thumping.  If I say I don’t like her, you’ll want to give me a thumping.  I can’t win here!”

Ron crossed his arms.  “I had hoped we were making a fresh start here – you know, less secrecy and more honesty?”

Harry cringed.  “Could we start tomorrow?”

“Spill!” Ron demanded.

Harry laughed.  “You are going to thump me no matter what!”  Ron waved his new broom at Harry menacingly.  He started to say something, but heard a sound – an enticing sound – and stopped.

“Had enough, have you?” Ron taunted.  “There’s more where that came from, birthday boy!”

“Shh,” Harry said.  “What is that?”  When Ron continued to appear blank, he added, “That sound, Ron.  What is it?”

“What, that groaning?  It’s Ginny with that bloody violin again, that’s what it is,” Ron pouted.  “She won’t put it down for five minutes, I tell you.  Big party, lots of guests, her idea, and she brings that thing with her so she can hide out!”

“Groaning?  It sounds good to me,” Harry said.

“Makes my teeth rattle,” Ron groused.  “Let’s get her to knock off, and head down.”

Ron opened the door and quickly strode to Ginny’s door, Nimbus 2100-R in hand.  He pounded with his fist, and said loudly, “Enough of that racket – let’s eat!”

Ginny called out, “Are there survivors?  I hear one, at least.”

“We’re fine, Ginny,” Harry said.  “You don’t have to stop on our account.”

Ron’s grin came back in full force, as he tore open Ginny’s door.  “Put that blasted thing away, Ginny… Oh!  We were just talking about you,” he announced.  Harry felt his cheeks warm.

Ginny smiled.  “You’re all square, then?” she asked.

Ron nodded.  “Absolutely!  Get a load of the fig leaf he brought to patch things up,” he said, holding up the broom.

“I hope you mean the olive branch he brought,” she sniggered. 

“Yeah, whatever – check it out!” Ron exclaimed, and held out the broom.

Ginny carefully tucked the Black family violin into its case.  She reached for the broom, held it high, squinted one eye, and sighted down the handle with the other.  “Unbelievable,” she said in awe. 

“Read the handle,” Ron insisted.

Ginny lowered the 2100-R, and turned toward the light from the stairwell.  “'To Ron, hope you win' … Merlin!  How did you – I mean, he doesn’t – not ever, I thought.”  She handed the broom back to Ron, and smiled her curious smile at Harry.  “You’re something else, Harry Potter,” she said, standing too close to him.

“There you are,” George said through Ginny’s open door.

Fred announced, “Ginny, look what some poor deluded owl brought you this morning.”  He waved a paper in the air.

“That’s isn’t the Prophet…?” Harry gasped.

Fred indulged an evil grin.  “No, no, it’s even better.”

“That’s mine!” Ginny ordered as she tried to seize the paper from Fred, who quickly darted away.

George told Fred, “Put an end to the suspense – it’s just too good.”

Ron asked Harry, “What about the Prophet?”

Harry moaned, “I was on the front page yesterday.  I was sort of mobbed at Gringotts and someone took photos.  It was embarrassing.”

“How do you get ‘sort of mobbed’?” Ron asked crossly.

“Give it over!” Ginny bellowed, and snatched the paper roughly from Fred.  She glanced at the front page, and then threw it at George.

“Easy, sis,” George said.  He caught the paper and waved it at Harry.  “We could have sprung this on you downstairs, you know?”

Fred blocked Ginny from leaving the room.  “Let me out of this room now – there’s a party to manage,” Ginny insisted in a cracking voice.  Her cheeks burned red.

"What is it, Witch Weekly?” Harry asked.

“No, my naïve and poorly-read friend.  It’s Teen Witch Weekly.  To put it mildly: you’re done for,” Fred informed him.

Ron stole the paper from Harry.  “Let me see that … Merlin!  Will you look at this?”  Nearly the entire front page of the tabloid consisted of a single picture with a headline blasted across it.  The picture was a slightly grainy shot of Harry, in sleeveless boxing singlet and denims, as he prepared to fly Roger Davies’ sister on the racing broom at Diagon Alley.  At the top of the page right below the masthead, a small heading said:

 

Stop the presses… it’s…

 

Across the bottom half of the page, in the biggest letters Harry could possibly imagine, the headline read:

 

… A HOTTER HARRY POTTER!!


 

Harry’s stomach roiled.  He scanned Ron’s room for a waste can, a bucket, a bowl, something – anything to use when he spewed up.  Ron calmly looked over the picture, and then opened the tabloid. 

“Let’s see … two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… ten.  Ten pages, Harry.  That has to be a record of some kind, wouldn’t you think?” Ron smirked.  “Someone must be stalking you to get all these pictures… Fred!  Did you have anything to do with this?”

Fred held up his hands, palms forward.  “I’m innocent.  It’s not often I can say that, by the way.”

“Well, you’re not guilty at any rate,” George snorted. 

Ron suddenly smiled.  “Look at this,” he said, jabbing Harry with his elbow.  “Two pages of Harry Potter at Hogwarts… and here we are – my name’s included for once.  ‘Harry celebrates with close friend Ron Weasley, shortly after Weasley and the Gryffindor Quidditch team took the House Cup.’  I’ll be switched – here I am again…  and again!”

Harry forced a smile in return.  “That’s a good picture,” he managed.  “I’d like a copy of that.”

Fred frowned.  “You’re all missing the smashing part!” he moaned.  “Go to page nine, for Merlin’s sake!”

Ron flipped the pages.  “Page nine… oh, no.  Harry, you won’t like this…”

Harry ripped the paper from Ron’s hands.  A vertical box took up half the page, with the heading: Harry’s Love Life.  His shoulders slumped.  From the corner of his eye, he saw that Ginny was crouched in the corner of the room.

Fred picked up the paper, and started reading aloud.  “ ‘Right now, there’s one question on the mind of every teen witch: is Harry Potter available?  Harry’s not talking, of course, and his Hogwarts mates have remained silent on the subject.  He spends his summers with Muggles in the company of relatives.  If Harry’s found love, TWW puts its wager on Hogwarts as the source.  Some of the likely candidates include’…  There’s a small bit here on Harry’s ‘long-time gal pal’ Hermione Granger – it’s not the best photo of her… or there’s the, uh, ‘former girlfriend’ Cho Chang… oh, it could be the ‘enigmatic and misunderstood’ Luna Lovegood… how they came up with Lisa Turpin and Gretchen Hargrove, I can’t figure… Daphne Greengrass?  They’ve got to be kidding!  I mean, vavoom – but she’s Slytherin and cold as ice.  Ahh, here we are.  How could we overlook little Ginny Weasley?”

“Fred, stow it,” Ron said dangerously.

Fred ploughed on.  “Let’s see… this photo’s actually quite good.  It says here, ‘The spunky sister of Harry’s best mate and a close friend of Granger, Weasley’s also a brilliant Quidditch player – surely the quickest path to a Seeker’s heart.’ ”

George stole the paper from Fred.  “That’s enough, brother.”

Fred said, “Aw, but it’s so cute!  You just have to –” He stopped, having at last noticed his sister’s quiet sobs.  Harry barely kept a terrible wave of anger under control; he dimly realised just how terrible when Fred looked him in the eye and promptly took two steps backward. 

“When I find out who is responsible for this…” Harry began darkly.

“Ginny will get howlers for weeks,” Ron said sadly.  He glared at his brothers. “What were you thinking, rubbing her nose in this?”

Harry scowled.  “All of them are linked to me now.  These idiots haven’t a clue how dangerous that is!”

Ron stared into thin air for a moment before recognition set it.  “If a Death Eater sees this…?” he began.  Fred and George looked at each other, and then at Harry.

Harry said to Ron, “Take this down to your father, or to Dumbledore if he happens to be about.”

Ron nodded.  “I’m on it.”  He rushed down the stairs, paper in hand.

Harry turned on Fred and George.  “You two – get out.  Ginny and I need to talk.”

George asked meekly, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?  Perhaps we should stay?”

Harry glared at both of the twins, but particularly Fred.  “I think you’ve done quite enough already.  Get out.”

The twins walked out of the room, and hesitated at the top of the stairs.  Harry slammed the door, and shouted through it, “I’d better not catch an Extendable Ear, either.  Think about what I can do in return – I know that I will.”  He cast silencing charms on the door, all four walls, the floor and the ceiling. 

Ginny remained crouched in the corner of the room.  Harry knelt down beside her, and she muttered something that he couldn’t make out.

“What was that?” he asked.

“I – said – that I feel – so – stupid,” she managed between hesitant breaths.

“I could understand angry, but why do you feel stupid?” Harry asked, settling down onto the floor.

Ginny rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, and her voice quavered.  “Goodness, why would I feel stupid?  I made a complete arse of myself last night… I turn into a blubbering wreck tonight… stupid, stupid, stupid!”

“I feel badly about last night,” Harry said.  “You didn’t have to be quite so honest to avoid the hex.”

She let out a half-chuckle.  “Then I cursed the stupid git, and get hexed anyway.  I can’t seem to get anything right this summer.”

Harry tried to change the subject.  “I heard you playing the violin.  Where did you learn to do that?” he asked her.

Ginny took a deep breath that seemed to settle her.  Her eyes drifted closed and she managed a pained smile.  “I heard him playing, up in the attic.  He told me that it was to soothe Buckbeak.  He was quite good – did you know that?  After that, I would steal upstairs for a little while every day just to listen.  Then he asked me to try it.  I used to think I was musical, but I knew nothing would ever come of it.  It just, I don’t know – it just came out of me from somewhere.  He said I was born to play the violin – that it responded to me.  I told him that it wasn’t bloody likely I’d ever be playing again, seeing as musical instruments are expensive.  I guess that’s why he gave it to me.  I admit it – I’m hooked.  It almost makes up for what he put me through – almost.”

“You never gave me an opportunity to say anything – you know, about last night?” Harry offered.

Ginny pulled away from him.  “You’re Harry Potter,” she continued, “and there are thousands of witches chasing after you.  You know what I am… I’m a Weasley; I’m nothing.”

“That’s ridiculous.  Your family –” Harry began.

Ginny cut him off tersely.  “Ten pages in Teen Witch Weekly, Harry.  It wouldn’t be the first time, either.”

“Where do they get this stuff, anyway?  No one’s ever talked to me,” Harry fumed.

Ginny shrugged.  “I suppose they don’t think it’s necessary.  They’re just telling people what they want to hear.”

“Why do you subscribe, then, if it’s such a rag?” Harry asked.

Ginny rubbed at her eyes again, and then the corners of her mouth twitched upward mischievously.  “To see whether Malfoy tops the Hot Ten List, of course.”

Harry snorted, and then started to laugh.  “Malfoy… bleagh!  I don’t want to know any more about this List,” he managed between snorts.

Ginny’s grin faded.  “No… no, I don’t think you do,” she decided.

“I’m not letting you off the hook, right?” Harry said.  “The only reason anyone knows my name is because of something I didn’t mean to do.  I’m no different than you, really.  Why do you think that you’re nothing – that your family’s nothing?  It’s not true, of course.”

Ginny looked away.  “I shouldn’t have to explain it to you.  You know me.”

Harry hesitated, unsure what to say.  “Erm… I don’t know you as well as all that.  It seems like you confide in with Hermione, but you and me… we haven’t talked much, not really.  You used to have a bit of trouble with that, remember – talking around me, I mean.”

Ginny grimaced.  “Don’t remind me.”  She drew herself up, and locked eyes with him.  “Fine, I suppose I’m an acquaintance to you.  I thought we made up ground last year, even though you weren’t exactly sociable.  I suppose I just slipped your mind –”

“Ginny…” Harry chided.

“Just look at me, then.  You should be able to see the reasons for yourself,” Ginny said flatly.

“Is this about what you said last night?  Look, I think your ears are just fine, and I don’t think your nose is pointy at all,” Harry insisted.  “Now Ron… he has a pointy nose.”

Ginny buried her face in her hands.  “You remember exactly what I said, don’t you?” she groaned.

“This idea that you’re nothing – it’s rubbish,” Harry said firmly.  “You’re not just an acquaintance, either.  You were a good friend last year.  I mean, you came to the Ministry… you’re important to me, Ginny.”

“Not as important as her,” Ginny said.

“That’s not entirely fair,” Harry said.  “Hermione and I have known each other since our first train ride to Hogwarts.  We’ve been through so much together.  I just don’t know you the way I know her.  Maybe over time –”

“I didn’t even say her name and you knew who I meant, Harry,” Ginny said.  “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

“That’s not true.  Hermione and I are friends,” Harry said flatly.

“You’re in love with her,” Ginny declared.

“We’re friends, and I would never do anything that might interfere with that,” Harry declared.

“Just admit it,” Ginny demanded.

Harry said, “I can’t love anyone.”  His voice cracked, and he felt embarrassed.

“Why not?” Ginny said.

Harry sighed.  “When I love people, they die.”

“That’s not true, not always,” Ginny insisted.

“You know it is,” Harry said.  “You’ve seen enough to know.”

Ginny closed her eyes.  “I didn’t die in the Chamber, Harry.”

“No you didn’t, thank Merlin,” Harry agreed.

Ginny took his hand, and they sat there quietly for a long time.  With no warning, she said, “Kiss me.”

“Pardon?” gasped Harry.

“I said, 'kiss me',” Ginny repeated.  “You remembered what I said last night, so you must remember the part about making my stomach fly in loops.  I just… I need to know.”

“You need to know…?” Harry asked.

“I need to know where we stand,” she said.  “Are you going to kiss me, or what?”

Harry thought that the room suddenly felt very, very small.  “Erm… uh…”

Ginny sighed.  “Oh, for Merlin’s sake – fine, then,” she said.  She darted forward and kissed him full on the lips.

For a moment, Harry felt like everything was slowed.  Then his senses were assaulted.  He felt the wetness and softness of her lips, took in their taste.  He felt her breathing quicken, and her lips tremble – or were those his trembling? 

She broke off the kiss, and he kissed her in return; he hoped that it would tell her whatever she needed to know.  When he pulled away, she just sat there with her eyes closed.  Harry felt like this went on for something close to forever.

She opened her eyes, and said, “That was nice – very, very nice.”

He looked around, puzzled and uncertain how to respond; at length, he settled on, “I thought so too.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

“For what?”

Ginny sighed.  “For letting me know where we stand.  I don’t think you’re the one… at least I’m not certain if you are.”

Harry goggled at her.  “Wha…?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t think you’re the one, at least not right now.  It was nice… lovely, even.  Much nicer than Michael Corner; he was like kissing the Giant Squid –”

“I didn’t need to know that!” Harry spluttered.

Ginny pressed on, “ – but that’s not good enough, not from you.”

“Erm – I could try again?” Harry offered.

Ginny shook her head.  “I’m not getting tangled up with you or your type unless I’m thoroughly swept off my feet; that’s how it’s supposed to be,” she said.

“What do you mean, ‘my type’?” Harry asked; he was beginning to feel a bit annoyed.

“The serious type, Harry,” Ginny explained.  “You’re the ‘bring-him-home-to-Mum’ type.  Those stupid witches who burble over you in Teen Witch Weekly have no idea whatever about who you really are.  Don’t misunderstand – there’s not necessarily anything wrong with being the serious sort.”

“I can be fun,” Harry protested.

“I didn’t say that you aren’t fun,” Ginny explained; “I just can’t imagine you being casual with a girl.  You don’t do anything casually, other than joke with my brothers.  Tell me honestly, do you think you could snog a girl senseless if you just liked her – you know, if you weren’t in love?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never thought about it,” Harry fumed.

“The answer is ‘no’, and you just proved it to me.”  Ginny abruptly smiled at him.  It wasn’t the curious smile from the evening prior – it was excitable and a bit off, he thought.  He decided that he much preferred the curious smile.

Harry asked, “If I tell you something, will you promise not to laugh?”

The smile quickly faded from Ginny’s face.  “Of course I promise.”

“Well – er, it’s just that – ahem – you see… that was my first real kiss,” Harry stammered.

Ginny stared at him.  “What’s this?”

Harry still stammered.  “That was – erm – my first real kiss.  I mean, uh… Cho hardly counts.  There was – well – there was no comparison.”

She said testily, “There’s something for my journal: half the witches in Europe are brushing up on entrancements and love potions, and I’m your first kiss.”

“There’s no need to mock me,” Harry snapped.

“I’m not mocking,” Ginny said.  “Can I offer you some advice?”

“What for?” he asked.

“Because you’re thick and you need advice,” she answered.  “If you plan to do anything about Hermione, do it tonight.  I think ickle Ronniekins is planning to make an arse of himself.”

Harry sighed and looked away.  “I hope you’re planning to let that go.”

Ginny stood up, and brushed dust from her denims.  “I need to let a lot of things go,” she muttered.

Harry said, “I’m sorry?”

“Never mind,” Ginny snapped.  “We should go downstairs.  It’s not good form to miss your own party.”

Harry ended the silencing charms and Ginny abruptly slammed open the door.  She nearly sent Fred and George flying. 

“Coming?” she asked.

“In a minute,” Harry said.  “Erm… thanks for the advice.”  Ginny grunted something and headed down the stairs.

“Ahem – ‘advice’, was it?” Fred asked, nudging George with his elbow.

“Never heard it called that before,” George admitted.

The twins turned toward the stairs as one, calling out, “Oh, Ginny…?”

Harry let out a slow breath.  He thought through everything he’d just said or done, and thought through it again until he decided that he was thinking far too much.  Why did I kiss her in return? he wondered.     

Ron darted back into Ginny’s room, breathing hard.  “Dad took a look at the list,” he panted.  “The Turpins are pure, apparently.  It goes without saying for the Greengrasses, of course.  The Hargroves are like your parents – one was Muggle-born – and so are the Changs.  Hermione’s the only Muggle-born on the list.”

“What about Luna?” Harry asked. 

“Her dad’s a wizard and so was her mum, so she’s not Muggle-born.  I guess Dad doesn’t know their family’s history beyond that,” Ron admitted.

“Thanks for talking to your dad,” Harry said, sighing.  “It shouldn’t be necessary, though.  Why does everyone around me get hurt?”

Ron hesitated before recognizing the implication.  “What – you mean us?  It’s a bit late for worries, mate.  Like it or not this family’s dripping with Harry Potter, excepting Percy – the git.  Oi, speaking of you and the family, Fred and George are tossing Ginny like a Quaffle down there.  So…?”

“So - what?” Harry responded, cringing.

“Do I have to smack you with my broom?” Ron threatened.  “I hate to do it with such an excellent broom, but if it has to be done…”

“Enough!” Harry moaned.  “I tried to calm her down after the thrashing she took from Fred, right?  Then she kissed me –”

“What?”

“– and I kissed her back, and I think she’s over me now, but I’m not really sure,” Harry finished.

Ron gaped at Harry.  “I don’t – wha…?” he started, before burying his face in his hands.  “Let me see if I’m getting this,” he muttered through his fingers, “she kissed you, you kissed her, and she’s over you?  If that’s what you said, then I’m not getting it.”

“You’ve got it right – and thank Merlin I’m done with that,” Harry said.

Ron dropped his hands.  “Hold up there – that’s my sister you’re talking about!”

Harry wagged his finger at Ron.  “See, I told you!  If I like her, you’re stirred up.  If I don’t like her that way, you’re stirred up!”

Ron frowned.  “So she’s over you, eh?  You must be a pathetic snogger.”

“Ron!”

“What was it?” Ron demanded.  “Did you do something awful to her?  I mean, no one goes from a crush like hers to ‘over you’ that fast – not without a push.”

“Ron, I would never do anything awful to Ginny,” Harry insisted.  “She’s a wonderful girl – and I mean that – but I’m not what she wants.”

Ron eyed him suspiciously.  “She doesn’t want you, she’s over you.  What do you want?”

Harry frowned.  “I’m sorry, Ron.  I…I guess I tried, you know, when I kissed her back.  I didn’t think anything was there – not really – and now…?”

Ron appeared stung.  “I see.  Well…well, I see… as long as you didn’t hurt her… I suppose…” he stammered.

“We should head down,” Harry offered.  “Maybe we can distract Fred and George?”

Ron drew himself up in very Percy-like fashion.  “Yes – well – I do suppose that would be the right thing.  They oughtn’t to hound her like that.”

Ginny scrambled away from Fred and George, bumping into people as she moved around the crowded room.  She went back and forth between apologies to bystanders and shouts at her brothers.  It was a measure of the size of the gathering that the three Weasleys weren’t the centre of attention.

Ron implored Harry, “What are you waiting for?  Put a stop to this!”  Harry strode into the crowd and was steps from George when Ginny careened into Neville Longbottom.  Neville broke her fall and scowled at Fred and George. 

“Haven’t you had enough?” Neville asked them.

George smirked, “Only when we find out what we want to know.”

“Look here,” Neville said, moving between Ginny and the twins, “you’ve been round and round five times – that’s right, I’ve been listening – and Ginny’s had one answer for you.  Give it a rest!”

“Neville, don’t get in the middle of official Weasley business,” Fred growled. 

“You know that we don’t play fair,” George said with a frown.

Neville walked straight at Fred until they were almost nose-to-nose.  “B-bugger off, you” he said.  Ginny started to chuckle but stifled it with her hand.

George smiled.  “Could this be the timid young thing we used to victimise?”

Fred shook his head vigorously from side to side.  “No, this can’t be our ickle Neville-poo.  This fellow’s more bulldog than, say, canary.”

George peered closely at Neville.  “Say, those aren’t feathers popping out there?”

Fred feigned horror.  “Neville, you didn’t sample anything from those trays of snacks… did you?”

Neville stood firm.  “I said, ‘bugger off’.” 

Ginny took him by the arm.  “I think they’ve had enough,” she said, and led Neville toward the other side of the room.  She stuck out her tongue at the twins on the way.

“Looks as if my work is done,” Harry said to Ron.  He fled before the twins could set after him.  His path to the kitchen was blocked by a pack of schoolmates.

“Happy birthday, Harry!” Dean Thomas said, pumping Harry’s hand.  “I can’t believe they declared you an adult – that’s… well, that’s so cool!”

“Thanks, Dean, nice of you to come,” Harry managed.  “Seen Seamus this summer?”

Dean frowned.  “His mum packed him off to his aunt in Canada for the summer.  I’ll be a bit surprised to see him back.”

“That’s strange.  It’s not as if he’s Muggle-born,” Harry said.

“Consider his mum,” Dean pointed out with a shrug.  Harry nodded; Mrs. Finnigan had nearly pulled Seamus from Hogwarts the year before.

“Hello, Harry,” Parvati Patil cooed.  “I like your hair that way.  It makes you look so mature.”  Lavender Brown nodded in agreement.  Parvati had a strange look in her eyes and a curious smile on her face; Harry moved on quickly.  He thought of the look in Parvati’s eyes, and then thought of the Imperius Curse; he quickly scanned the area for Order members, and cursed himself for jumping immediately to suspicion.  He was still reeling when he nearly trod over Ernie Macmillan.

“Happy birthday, old man,” Ernie said brightly.  “Bit scruffy but looking well, eh?”

Harry ran his hands through his hair.  “A bit uncombed, I imagine.’

“That was quite a contraption you had there,” Ernie said.  He leaned in, and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “I imagine you could get in trouble with an enchanted Muggle artefact like that.”

Harry returned a wicked grin and whispered, “Special permit.  You know how it is… gratitude for services rendered – that sort of thing.”

Ernie said, “Ah, yes – of course,” and nodded knowingly.

“Hello, Harry.  Happy birthday!” Colin Creevey gushed.

“Happy birthday, Harry!” his brother Dennis added.

Harry frowned.  He put one arm around the shoulders of each brother, and led them toward the doorway to an adjacent room, which turned out to be a kitchen with a large hearth.  “Boys, we need to talk,” he said calmly.

“Sure, Harry.  What can we do for you?” Colin asked.

“What is it, Harry?” asked Dennis.

As soon as they were clear of the crowd, Harry let go of them and whirled around.  “Which one of you is responsible for all the photos of me popping up lately?”

“W-what photos would those be?” Colin asked nervously.

“Oh!  He must mean the Teen Witch Weekly bit!” Dennis said.  “They must use really smashing paper to be so –”

Colin cut him off.   “Dennis, I don’t think Harry’s interested in –”

Harry in turn cut off Colin.  “Harry’s very bloody interested when ten-page articles turn up in Teen Witch Weekly,” he snarled.

“I told you he’d be displeased,” Colin said to Dennis.

“You thought it would be flattering,” Dennis insisted.

“What about the Daily Prophet yesterday?” Harry demanded.

Dennis shrugged.  “Dunno,” he said, “there must have been a staff photographer at Gringotts by accident.”

Harry trembled and his voice quaked as he asked, “Did either of you read it?” 

The Creevey brothers instinctively moved backward.  “Teen Witch Weekly?  Erm – most of it,” Colin admitted.

“Come off it, Colin; you gave the sign-off,” Dennis said.

“Are you responsible for the portion on my love life?” Harry seethed.

Dennis shook his head.  “They cook up that stuff on their own – the editor said it keeps the readers’ interest.  Besides, you know that we take better photos than that.”

“You’re both very lucky,” Harry told them.  He felt his jaw twitching.  “If you were responsible for that part, I’d hex you into next Christmas!  Think on it!  How dangerous do you suppose it is for a girl to be connected with me that way?” 

Both Creeveys looked at Harry blankly.  Harry loomed over them menacingly.  “Don’t you think that Death Eaters can read?” he asked in an icy voice.

Colin’s eyes bulged.  “Oh, bugger!  I never gave any thought to… oh!  Harry, I’m so sorry.  I mean, really sorry!”  Dennis’ face slumped down to his chest, and he shook his head balefully.

“I expect you’ll clear these sort of things with me in the future,” Harry ordered.  He walked back into the larger room and conjured a rough-looking bench in one corner.

Ron was regaling anyone who would listen with an increasingly exaggerated version of Gryffindor’s most recent House Cup victory.  Ginny sat on the floor between Neville and Lavender Brown, and egged Ron on.  Harry grinned at each version, pleased to see a flash of the Ron that he knew and relieved to see that Ginny seemed all right.  It was almost enough to push aside the dark thoughts – until Harry started to think about why the Weasleys were celebrating their good fortune, and why he was free to ride the Bonneville in the first place, and why he felt so empty. 

“Hullo, Harry.  Happy birthday.”  The familiar gruff voice brought Harry out of his thoughts.  He found himself almost eye-to-eye with Rubeus Hagrid, who had sprawled on the floor beside the bench.

“Thanks, Hagrid,” Harry said mechanically.  

“I, er, brought yeh a little gift,” Hagrid told him, as he fished through the pockets of his overcoat.  “Don’ worry, it can’t bite and it don’ need feeding.  Here.”  He held out a roughly wrapped box.  Harry tore at the paper, and gingerly opened the box.  Inside was a pair of fitted dragon-hide gloves. 

“Thought yeh might like ter have those when yer ridin’ the Bonnie,” Hagrid explained.

Harry’s brow furrowed.  “How – you weren’t here when I – were you?”

Hagrid smiled, his dark eyes almost disappearing.  “’Fraid I missed tha’ part.  She’d bin hiding under the cottage for years.  When Sirius tol’ me what he had in mind I was happy about it, ter tell yeh the truth. ‘Course yeh shouldn’t be tellin’ that ta McGonagall or Dumbledore.  They’re both right angry wit’ yeh.”

Harry didn’t want to hurt Hagrid, and knew he’d do exactly that if he betrayed his feelings toward Dumbledore.  He chose to avoid eye contact.  “What about you?” he asked. 

“Angry wit’ yeh, Harry?  I don’ think so.  Bit sad, really,” Hagrid answered.

“Sad?  About what?”

Hagrid sighed.  “ ’Bout Sirius doin’ wha’ he did, yeh know – the will an’ all?  ’Bout yeh bein’ drawn into all this so young.  ’Bout wha’s comin’, Harry.”  Harry said nothing, just stared intently at his own feet.

“Righ’ then,” Hagrid said quietly.  He shuffled to his feet, careful not to strike the ceiling with his head, and started to move away.

“Hagrid?”

Hagrid turned and looked at Harry expectantly.  “You – er – needin’ ter say somethin’, are yeh?”

Harry said, “I miss him.  I miss him, and I don’t know what to do about it.  It’s tearing me apart.”

Hagrid drew close, and asked, “Talk ter someone. Tha’s all yer can do.”

“I can’t,” Harry groaned, “it’s too dangerous.”

“Naw, Harry; keepin’ all this inside yer belly’s no good.  Talk ter someone.  Give Ron a go,” Hagrid said.

“I think he’s had enough for now,” Harry decided.

“How ‘bout Ginny?” Hagrid suggested, “Fond of yeh, but yeh must know tha’.”

“I can’t do it, I can’t,” Harry said distantly, “She’s in enough danger because of me.  I just can’t.”

“She don’ look in danger to me,” Hagrid said, pointing toward Ginny and Neville.  He pulled on the end of his beard for a few moments, before he said knowingly, “Ah, yer talkin’ about Hermione.  Should have seen tha’ comin’.  Harry, she can handle ‘bout anythin’ yeh can dish out; give ‘er credit fer tha’.”

“You might not think so, if you knew what I had to say,” Harry said, a lump slowly forming in his throat.  “I want to tell her everything, Hagrid, but she’s – she’s safer not knowing.”

“Wha’d’yeh think she’ll do if she don’ know somethin’ important an’ finds out later from somebody besides yeh?” Hagrid asked.  “Best yeh think on tha' before it happens, Harry.”

“She can be as cross with me as she likes, provided she’s alive.  Thanks for the gloves, Hagrid,” Harry said


 

“Hermione!” Ron shouted.  Harry whirled around; he had nearly forgotten that she was present, amidst all the commotion.  She and her parents had just reentered the room along with Shacklebolt and Bill Weasley.  By the time Harry crossed to the stairs, Ron had already led Hermione away.

“Sorry, Harry,” Ginny said as Harry approached.  “I’d hoped you would get to her before Ron.”

Harry snapped, “Why does this seem like some kind of game, where I don’t know the rules?”

Ginny’s eyes narrowed.  “Pardon me?”

“What are you playing at?” Harry said.  “You’ve gone from snogging me to being over me to tossing me at Hermione in less than half an hour.”

Ginny frowned.  “That wasn’t snogging – it was one kiss,” she said.  “I needed to know where you stood; you were loud and clear, thank you.”

“Loud and clear?  I didn’t say a word,” Harry insisted.

Ginny snorted.  “You kissed me like I’m your sister.  It’s not as though I was left with doubts.”

Harry lowered his head.  “I didn’t want to hurt you – I mean, I hope I didn’t manage to –”

Ginny laughed; the laughter was raw and edgy.  “I’m not hurt – I’m glad for it.  It should have happened sooner, if I’d had the courage!  I’m free,” she said loudly.  Harry was acutely aware of being watched by Hermione’s mother and a gaggle of Hogwarts schoolmates.

“Ginny, I’m really sorry,” Harry said quietly.

“Stop being sorry, right?  There’s nothing to be sorry about!  You’ve had my advice – talk to Hermione if Ron ever takes his mitts off her.  No one should waste as much time pining away as I have!” Ginny told him.  Harry was sure that she was shouting.  To make matters worse, he spotted Mrs. Weasley standing near the door to the kitchen.

“I’ll be going now,” he croaked.

“You do that,” Ginny boomed.  “Go and get over each other, for goodness’ sake!”

Harry scooted away.  His schoolmates gawked at him whilst attempting to appear casual.  Neville’s eyes shone with pity, a sure sign that the situation couldn’t worsen.  He was wrong.  Mrs. Weasley’s hands were on her hips, and Mrs. Granger wore a predatory expression.  Don’t show fear, he thought.

Before Mrs. Granger could get in a word, Mrs. Weasley said calmly, “Cordelia, I need a word with Harry.  Would you excuse us?”

Mrs. Granger managed a strained smile.  “Harry, I trust you’ll make time for me as well?  I believe we have a conversation to finish.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he squeaked as Mrs. Granger drifted away.

Mrs. Weasley’s eyes bored through him.  “Well?”

Harry hesitated.  “I’m sorry –”

“I heard that much.  Would you care to explain the rest?”  As he watched her hands on hips and tapping foot, Harry fought the urge to squirm.

“I’m not clear on what needs explaining,” he offered, as he struggled with an impulse to cringe.

“Who is pining for whom, exactly?” she asked firmly.

“I’m not sure,” he said.  “Ginny seems to think I’m pining for Hermione.”

“I take it that you’re not pining for Ginny,” Mrs. Weasley said.

“No, ma’am,” Harry said as he stared at his shoes, “and she doesn’t doubt that.”

“Fred and George were running about like fools, chasing after Ginny’s story,” Mrs. Weasley said.  “Let’s come to the point – tell me what’s happened.”

Harry sighed.  He found it easier to tell with his eyes closed.  “Fred was stirring up Ginny with the new Teen Witch Weekly.  I’m on the cover, with a big article besides.  Ron understood that part of the article could be dangerous for –”

“Arthur showed me the article,” Mrs. Weasley interrupted him.

Harry continued, his eyes tightly shut.  “Ron brought it downstairs.  I tossed Fred and George so that I could talk to Ginny.  She seemed very upset.  I talked to her for a bit, and she – she, erm, kissed me.”  He ignored Mrs. Weasley’s sudden coughing, and continued, “Apparently I didn’t sweep her off her feet.  She told me I’d helped her get over me.  You heard most of the rest, I think.”

“I see,” Mrs. Weasley said.  Harry peeked.  Her lips were pursed and her jaw was tight.  “Ginny said for you to ‘get over each other’.  Who is pining for you, Harry?”

“I’m not pining for anyone,” Harry said flatly.  “Ginny must think that Hermione has… has feelings for me.  I really can’t imagine why she would think that.”

Mrs. Weasley looked crestfallen.  “I do hope she’s mistaken.  Ron…” she trailed off.

“I don’t want to hurt him anymore than I already have,” Harry said.  “I should just go back to Grimmauld Place.”

“Absolutely not,” Mrs. Weasley decreed.  “You can return to the Burrow with us at the end of the party, and spend the night in a proper home.”

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Harry ventured.

Mr. Weasley seemed to appear from nowhere.  “Harry, there you are!  I’ve been looking for you.  Some of us in the rooms below have an interest in seeing that motorbike of yours.  I have a professional responsibility in these matters, of course.”  He smiled warmly, and Mrs. Weasley frowned immediately.

“Cordelia wanted to speak with Harry,” Mrs. Weasley said.

“Well, Tom Granger’s one of the people with an interest in the motorbike,” Mr. Weasley said.  “I’m sure she won’t mind.  Don’t worry; I’ll be sure to send Harry back after a while.”  He smiled at Harry again.  “Shall we?”  Harry didn’t have to be asked twice.

Mr. Weasley led him away from the kitchen and toward the stairs.  As soon as they were out of earshot, he slowed his pace and said casually, “Ron explained to me what happened between you and Ginny.”

“What did he say?” Harry asked timidly.

Mr. Weasley put his hand on Harry’s shoulder.  “Relax, Harry.  Molly’s thought of you as a suitor for Ginny since… goodness, I don’t know when.  She can be a bit, er, unreasonable when she sets her mind.  I wondered if you might need saving sometime this evening.”

Harry smiled.  “Thank you,” he said.

“Don’t mention it – please!,” Mr. Weasley said.  “If you did, then I’d be in quite a pickle with her.  Let’s hide out with the lads; it’s the safest course of action, I dare say?”

"May I ask a question?" said Harry.

"Certainly - ask away," Mr. Weasley offered.

"Er... where are we, exactly?" Harry asked sheepishly.

Mr. Weasley let out a loud bark of a laugh.  "You haven't sussed it out yet?  Well, I dare say you'll answer your own question shortly."

The room downstairs had two large doors that opened to the outside.  A barricade had been built and Harry was certain that it was obscured from view by wards or the like.  With one look over the barricade, he knew where the party was being held: the Weasleys had somehow commandeered the Shrieking Shack.

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