* * * * *
Late December at Hogwarts meant delicate traceries of ice crystals that slowly grew together and spread across the window panes in the night, it meant mornings where the grass crunched and cracked beneath your feet on the way to Herbology, and when an anaemic sun finally burned away the dense Scottish mist it revealed a world rimed in hoar-frost.
It meant feet that froze on the ancient stone floors of the castle even inside two pairs of woollen socks, and breath that fogged and steamed the moment you stepped outside. Only the very daring relied on a single jumper and a warming charm, because the wind sliced through you like there was nothing between you and the North Pole except the occasional Yeti. Well, only the very daring and Morag MacDougall, the chirpy Shetland Islander who bounced around in a skirt and shirtsleeves all year long. Even Professor McGonagall, that hardiest of teachers and well-accustomed to the inclement Scottish weather, was overheard one morning, as she watched Morag skipping out to Hagrid’s hut for Care of Magical Creatures, muttering that the girl was clearly insane.
Two weeks had passed since the lifting of apparition restrictions in Hogwarts castle. Two weeks of students almost but not quite entirely mastering the art of magical transportation by means of apparition. Two weeks of shamefaced splinchings, humiliating hopping, and mortifying mergings. Two weeks that had reduced most of the staff to tears — tears of exhausted frustration from three-quarters of the Heads of House, and tears of malignant glee from Professor Snape at the carnage unfolding everywhere but Slytherin House. As for the visiting students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, their teachers still didn’t feel it was safe to emerge from their quarters, which was somewhat defeating the hands-across-the-borders, building-international-fellowship that was the whole point of recommencing the Triwizard Tournament.
It was also two weeks of bewilderment for Harry Potter of Gryffindor, not only at the antics of his housemates — who, despite all the odds, did seem to be slowly getting the hang of this apparition lark — but also at the way his relationship with his two best friends had suddenly and inexplicably splintered.
There was now a lot of awkward silences when the three of them were together, much more than there had been before and almost as bad as when Ron and Hermione had fought over the fate of Scabbers the previous year. Two days after Ron’s misadventures in magical movement — the gory details of which were reluctantly confided to Harry in an appalled whisper up in their dorm in the dead of night — Hermione had marched up to him in the common room with a determined look on her face and asked, “So, Ron… are you going to the Yule Ball with anyone?”
Ron had looked up from the Quidditch magazine hidden in his textbook and tried to focus. “Err… what?”
“You heard, Ronald.”
Even Ron realised that Hermione using his full name was the sort of warning signal that usually caused whole cities to flee to well-reinforced bunkers.
With a desperate glance at Harry, he’d wriggled and squirmed and finally mumbled, “No, actually. Not yet, anyw-”
“Good! In that case, you’re going with me,” she said decisively.
Ron blinked. “I am?”
“Yes. Now that that’s settled, you can take me to Hogsmeade this weekend, too. You’ll need the practice,” she added in a lower voice, almost to herself.
“Um… but we’re already going to Hogsmeade this weekend,” Ron pointed out, with a baffled glance at Harry. “You said you wanted to get your mum’s Christmas present from Scrivenshaft’s?”
“Then you’d better come and help me with it, hadn’t you?” said Hermione, her cheeks pinkening. “I’m glad we’ve got that sorted. Must dash, Arithmancy club’s starting soon.”
She’d bustled off at something close to a run, leaving a very confused Ron watching her go, and a very amused Harry trying not to laugh.
“What the hell was all that about?” Ron asked once he’d regained control of his higher thought processes.
“I think your problem of finding a date for the ball has just been solved,” Harry said, in a strangled voice. He didn’t dare take a deeper breath for fear of it coming out as raucous laughter and offending his friend.
“Yeah, well… she… but…” Ron threw his hands up in despair, “She’s mental!”
Oh, good grief, there are times when Ron sends himself up without even knowing it. “Yeah. Well done, mate. Sorry, I’ve got to, uh…”
With that, he’d dashed up to his dorm room, thrown himself onto his bed, and guffawed into his pillow. When he finally had it all out of his system, he’d rolled over to find Ron sitting sulkily on his own bed.
“I don’t know what you think’s so funny, Potter, you’re the one who still needs a date.”
“Err… yeah. About that.”
Ron had needed a lot of reassurance that his hearing hadn’t failed.
“Ginny? As in, my sister, Ginny? Red hair, short-arsed, kind of annoying? That one?”
“You do mean the one with the Harry Potter obsession, right? Merlin’s beard, she’s going to be absolutely sickening!”
“No, your other sister. What do you think?!”
“What do I think? I think that dragon must have hit you in the head during the first task, and we didn’t notice!”
“Oh, shut up!”
Ron shook his head and flopped back, grabbing another magazine off his bedside table. “Oh well, you got yourself into this mess, you can get yourself out of it, I suppose.”
“Gee, thanks! Git!”
Harry stalked out, and Ron watched him go.
* * * * *
Since then, everything had been… awkward. Even although he knew they didn’t mean to, now all of a sudden he’d catch his two best friends staring at each other and immediately feel like a third wheel. There were the pauses and sudden blushes, and he simply didn’t quite know what to do other than be somewhere else.
Fortunately, outside of class, that ‘somewhere else’ was increasingly with Ginny. What was great was that she was always happy to see him but didn’t make a big thing of it, and would simply include him in whatever she was doing. He could sit by her at lunch and she’d simply say something like, “Oh, hi Harry. You know Angus and Katherine, of course,” and carry on with her conversation, expanding it a little to include him.
He was also embarrassed to admit that he didn’t know Angus and Katherine, or quite a number of his fellow Gryffindors, as more than just names and faces. Through Ginny he was starting to get to know them and, after some initial awkwardness, the younger students were starting to loosen up a little around him, too.
That left the approaching horror of the Yule Ball. Once again, after his initial agonies at having to find somewhere to practice chewed up more than a week, Ginny simply took charge. He was stunned at the way she just walked up to Professor McGonagall at lunch and asked.
“Excuse me, Professor, but with the Ball coming up, Harry’s going to need some practice for the dance. I said I’d help him out, but we need somewhere to go and some music, and I was hoping you might be able to help?”
The stern professor simply raised an eyebrow slightly. “Indeed, Miss Weasley. You may have the use of my classroom in the evenings from seven until curfew. We can’t have Mr. Potter tripping over himself in front of the whole school, now, can we? Although I have to say, Mr. Potter, I’m a little disappointed you didn’t come to me about this yourself.”
Harry turned red and tried to think of a way to explain himself, but failed. After a moment, the professor took pity on him.
“Seven o’clock, Mr. Potter. Don’t be late.”
And so it was that after a dinner of sausage and mash and what felt like a whole swarm of lepidoptera, he was waiting in a corner of the common room, alternately watching the door to the common room and the stairs to the girls’ dorms for Ginny.
She appeared at maybe ten minutes to seven from the dorms, her face scrubbed and her long, red hair pulled back in a tail. Harry immediately felt like he should have made more of an effort. She had that effect on him, he noticed.
“Hi, Harry! Are you ready?”
“No!” The answer slipped out before he could stop it, and she laughed.
“Come on, it’s not that bad. You’ll be fine!”
They both looked around at Neville’s distracted greeting as he marched past them with a grim look on his face. They said, ‘Hi’ back, but he didn’t stop and headed out through the portrait hole.
Harry watched him go. “I don’t know what’s going on with Neville, but he’s been in a bit of a mood recently.”
“Have you asked?”
Harry just looked at her like she was mad, which earned him a patient sigh and an eye-roll.
“I think he’s worried about Luna. They’d been spending quite a bit of time together until.. well… that happened.”
Harry grimaced. “I can’t believe she’s still stuck like that. I mean it’s been, what, two weeks?”
“There’s not many things that Madam Pomfrey can’t fix, but she had to get the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad out — and when they couldn’t sort it out they called in the Department of Mysteries.”
“What worries me is that Dumbledore couldn’t fix it, either. I mean, maybe she really is stuck like that.”
Ginny made a face, “Maybe it’ll wear off, eventually? I’m sure they’ll come up with something. Although, there is good news; Dad tells me that the Ministry is taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
“Oh yeah. They’re going to make an amendment to the apparition regulations - ‘You must not apparate with a duck on your head. Just don’t. We’re not fooling around, here’. It should only take a few years to approve, apparently.”
“If that doesn’t straighten it out, I don’t know what will,” Harry said drily. “You know, as much as I don’t want to blame Luna in all this — what on earth was she thinking, anyway? She specifically caught a duck and stunned it to try this out. I mean, who does that?!”
“Not helping, Harry! She’s always been a lateral thinker.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” Other than she’s completely barking, he didn’t add. Or in this case — quackers. Oh, God, did I really just think that?
“Anyway, I don’t think Luna’s taking it very well,” Ginny continued, “All her house-mates are being horrible and she’s got no-one much to talk to, other than Grant Page.”
Harry had heard about the things some of the Ravenclaws did to their house-mate. None of it was kind. “What is it this time?”
“Well, just look at her. The Ravens are sick of everyone calling them the Ducks. It doesn’t help that every time she goes anywhere near the lake, Malfoy and his goons start throwing duck pellets. The Giant Squid has been very good about fishing her out, but-”
Harry was having trouble keeping a straight face.
“It’s not funny! There’s some sort of instinctive reaction that’s been imprinted on her and she can’t help it!”
“I know, I know.” He tried to hold it in, but couldn’t. “Still funny, though.”
Ginny glared at him and flounced out in a huff. Harry followed more slowly, suddenly and painfully aware that he’d just inserted both feet in his mouth. He caught up to her outside Professor McGonagall’s classroom and followed her inside.
The floor of the Transfiguration classroom had been cleared, all its desks and chairs neatly piled up against one wall, and Professor McGonagall was waiting for them behind her desk, her quill working its way through a pile of parchment. Harry thought guiltily back to the essay he hadn’t finished yet, hiding in the bottom of his bag. He didn’t have to take the end-of-year exams this year, but that was not an exemption from keeping up with his schoolwork.
The professor pushed aside the pile of marking and gave them a short nod. “Miss Weasley, Mr. Potter.”
“Hi, Professor,” they both said.
“Thanks for helping us,” Ginny added.
“I should have thought of this situation sooner. We tend to take it for granted that the social aspects of life are taught by your parents. Now, then, it is traditional for the dancing to begin with a waltz. You know what to do, Miss Weasley?”
“Yes, Professor. Mum taught me.” She made a face. “It’s one of those things every good girl should know, apparently,” she said, a little bitterly.
“In my day, it was something the bad girls needed to know even more,” Professor McGonagall said archly.
“I have a suitable selection of music,” the Professor continued, pointing to a small gramophone on the end of her desk. “Let me know when you are ready to begin. And I would suggest that your school robes will only complicate matters, especially for learners.”
Ginny quickly shrugged out of her robes, leaving her school skirt and jumper, while Harry followed suit rather more slowly. Feeling very awkward, he hung his robes on the leg of one of the upturned desks.
Ginny gave him a small, reassuring smile, and began to explain in that calm, straightforward style he was starting to recognise as her stop-Harry-from-overreacting manner.
“Right, this is dead easy if you ignore all the flowery bits. The waltz is very simple; three beats, three steps. Ignore everything else going on and just concentrate on that background beat and you’ll be fine. One-two-three, one-two three, one-two-three… can we have some music, please, Professor?”
The gramophone hissed briefly, and a single, prolonged note of many instruments rang out. There was a pause, and then that steady, three-beat procession that Ginny had described rang out, mainly driven by the lower-voiced strings and horns.
“You hear that?” Ginny asked softly, “One-two-three, one-two three...”
Violins took up the lead, soaring high and clear above the other instruments.
“The violins are making everything sound pretty, but the beat is still there. You hear it, Harry?”
“Then just move your feet in time with the music.” She stood back a little and went through the movements as she spoke. “In your case — left foot forward, right foot to the side, left foot joins it. Then right foot forward, left foot to the side, right foot joins it. One-two-three, one-two-three, left-side-close, right-side-close. Clear?”
She grinned at him, her face flushing a little. “OK, let’s see what you’ve got, Mr. Potter. Just follow me and keep that beat in your mind.”
She stepped closer and took his hands, holding his left hand in her right away from them at shoulder height and putting his right hand on her waist before resting her left hand on top of his shoulder. Suddenly, that beat was the last thing on his mind. Flushing guiltily, he looked up and, as if she could read his mind, her grin widened, her bright, brown eyes sparkling with mischief. “Eyes on the prize, Harry. One-two-three, one-two three-”
She pulled him gently into movement and he lurched inelegantly after her. It took him a couple of bars to get himself approximately sorted out and his imitation of her movements became a little easier.
“Harry!” Ginny said sharply.
His head jerked up, and saw her grinning at him.
“Watch me, not my feet. You’re doing fine.”
“I’ll step on you!” he said, stumbling over his next step and nearly proving his point.
“No, you won’t, just feel that beat,” she said steadily. “You’ve got it now, don’t you? One-two-three, left-side-close...”
He had to admit, he sort of did. There were a few missteps, but other than a small flinch Ginny bore them without comment.
All too soon, it was over.
“See? Not that hard, is it? Let’s try that again.”
This time, the tune was different and the beat was a little faster, but the basic principle was the same. After a few dances, he was actually starting to enjoy himself. Ginny had a proud, challenging look in her eyes, and he found himself eager to meet that look. I can do this. I can do this, with your help.
They didn’t do anything challenging or fancy, just kept up the simple steps until Harry actually felt confident in what he was doing. All too soon, Professor McGonagall was lifting the needle on the gramophone. Ginny curtseyed mockingly, and Harry laughed and sketched a bow in return.
“Thank you for the honour of these dances, Lady Ginevra.”
“’Twas indeed an honour, Sir Harry,” Ginny replied. “But call me Ginevra again, and I’ll hex you, mister!”
He took a step backwards. “Professor? Help?”
Professor McGonagall gave him a stern look, the sides of her mouth twitching. “I’m afraid you’re on your own, Mr. Potter. You offend a lady at your peril,” she said gravely.
Harry took a deep breath and caught both of Ginny’s hands, looking straight into her eyes. “Thank you very much for teaching me, tonight,” he said humbly.
Ginny blushed violently, although her eyes didn’t leave his. “A-any time, Harry.”
To his surprise, Professor McGonagall actually laughed. “A fine recovery, Mr. Potter. Well done tonight to you both. You should have nothing to fear at the Ball, Mr. Potter, not with Miss Weasley by your side. Do you wish to repeat this exercise tomorrow night?”
“Um, if it’s OK with you, Ginny?”
She winked at him cheerfully. “Fine.”
“Then yes, please, Professor.”
“Very well. Good night to you both.”
“Good night, Professor,” they chorused.
Outside, Harry caught Ginny’s arm. “Hey, look… I meant what I said. Thanks for helping me with this.”
Ginny bit her lip for a moment, then looked up into his eyes. “It’s OK to ask for help, Harry,” she said very softly. “I know you don’t feel comfortable with it, but every one of us is happy to help where we can. OK?”
Harry shivered. How did I end up with friends like these? “Thanks, Gin.”
He was still in a thoughtful mood when they got back to the Gryffindor common room. He said good night to Ginny and headed up to his dorm. He was the only one in there, but while he was getting changed for bed, Neville walked in looking thoroughly beaten-down.
Harry thought for a moment, then decided to go for it. She’s been right about other stuff, tonight.
“Hey Neville, What’s up?”
Neville looked somewhat surprised at being addressed. “Oh, hiya, Harry.”
“Is everything OK? You’ve been looking a bit down recently.”
Neville sighed, and pulled off his jumper. “Yeah, I guess.”
Here’s where he either talks to me, or thumps me one, thought Harry. “You don’t look it.”
Neville puffed out his cheeks, and chewed the inside of his lip in thought. “It’s Luna,” he said eventually. “I feel really bad about what happened to her. I’ve been trying to find anything that might help her, but I’m not having much luck. Hermione was going to help me, but she’s had other things on her mind recently, if you know what I mean. I’ve been trying to go through the library, but it’s a big task.”
“I suppose it’s too much to hope that the school library can sort this out if Dumbledore can’t.”
Neville’s face fell even further. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Did you get anywhere? I mean, any leads or anything?”
“Not yet. Look, not to be rude, or anything, but why are you asking? Oh, Merlin, that didn’t come out right, but-”
“’Cos Ginny and I were talking about it earlier,” Harry said calmly. “She’s Luna’s friend, too.”
“She is, isn’t she?” Neville was quiet for a moment, apparently weighing up what to do next. “D’you reckon she might help?”
“For Luna? I’m sure she would. Why don’t we see if we can find her tomorrow after class?”
“Surely you’ve got the Tournament and stuff to be worrying about?”
Yes. Yes. Oh, damn it, the bloody Tournament and that stupid egg! But... “Luna needs help. If there’s anything I can do, then it’s worth it.”
Neville’s shoulders slumped in relief. “That’d… that’d be great.”
Harry gave him a reassuring smile and clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m knackered. Let’s see what we can do in the morning, eh?”
Neville returned his smile weakly, but looked a little happier as he headed for his own bed. “Yeah. ‘Night, Harry. And — thanks.”
* * * * *
Harry awoke early the next day and tried to get through the last-minute study for Charms that he hadn’t finished the previous night, but his eyes didn’t seem to want to focus, and he was glad when Ron stumbled down half an hour later, still yawning hugely. A quiet pop produced a freshly-scrubbed Hermione, and so they set off for the Great Hall and breakfast together.
Standing in the entrance hall, Crabbe and Goyle loomed like a pair of particularly-ugly gargoyles. There was no immediate sign of their usual ringleader, and from much experience the three friends immediately eased their hands onto their wands. Sure enough, there was the sharp crack! of apparition, and Draco Malfoy appeared between his lackeys, leaning nonchalantly against the wall. Or at least, he would have been, had the wall not been six inches further away that he’d expected, leaving him scrabbling to avoid falling on his face. Harry only narrowly avoided loosing off a stunning spell on instinct.
Good grief, I’ve been spending too much time around Professor Moody! The paranoid old bugger’s rubbing off on me.
“Ah, that’s better. There’s nothing like a little magic to get the juices flowing,” Malfoy said loudly, before sneering at the Gryffindors who were watching him warily. “Of course, it seems to be beyond you rag-tag charity cases in Gryffindor.”
Ron, true of heart and predictable as the sunrise, was the first to respond. “Piss off, Malfoy!”
Malfoy’s malicious smile only widened. “Oh yes, the entire school has heard what happens when borderline squibs like you try apparition. Is it a little draughty around here, Weasel?”
Hermione gripped Ron’s arm firmly. “You know, Malfoy, it’s really rather sad that you’ve made a special effort to show off for us. Well done. We’re all very impressed, I’m sure,” she said in a patient, rather patronising tone.
Harry, who had moments before been swallowing back his own anger, caught on to what Hermione was doing. “Yeah, whatever, Malfoy,” he said dismissively, half turning away and carrying on into the Great Hall. “Hey, did you guys manage to get anything more on that History of Magic essay? I was really struggling after Xxlotolagn the Unpronounceable in 1573.”
Hermione pulled Ron along with her. “Not after the defenestration of Mangodwana in 1591, no.”
Crossing the threshold, Harry noted with internal glee the look of indignant fury on Malfoy’s face, and that happy image buoyed his step to the Gryffindor table. Ron slumped into his seat and reached for the eggs, still glaring daggers across the room.
“One of these days, I’m going to give him an absolute twatting,” he snarled.
“You should have seen his face,” Harry chuckled. “Hermione, that was brilliant!”
“What was?” Ron said grumpily.
“There he was, desperate to sneer and show off and get attention, and instead he got ignored in favour of History of Magic!” Hermione said, struggling to contain her smile. Ron just grunted. “Although I’m sure you were making that up, Harry.”
“No I wasn’t.”
Hermione’s smile fell off abruptly, and she reached quickly for her bag, and only stopped when Harry laughed. “Of course I was, Hermione! You know that!”
She puffed indignantly, “I wish you wouldn’t do that to me, Harry!”
They enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in companionable silence, listening to the general hum of conversation around them, punctuated by the sounds of apparition — and the occasional scream as someone got it wrong. Several times, Harry nearly asked his friends about helping Neville in his project, but he wanted Ginny to be there as well. After all, she was the one who had pushed him into asking, and she would be eager to help, too.
He had nearly given up on her when Ginny walked into the Hall, deep in conversation with two of her room-mates. Harry caught her eye and waved her over, and she changed course to join them, dropping into the seat beside him with a groan as her bulging bag slid off her shoulder. Her room-mates took seats further down, giving the four of them curious looks.
“All right, Ginny?”
“Double Potions first up. Snape’s setting a test,” she moaned, grabbing a bowl and ladling out some porridge.
The three winced in sympathy.
“Now? Three days before the end of term? If there was any doubt, that proves the man is evil,” said Ron.
“As if there was any doubt. Anyway, what was it you wanted, Harry?”
He nearly told her not to worry and he’d bring it up later, but she raised her eyebrows when he hesitated, and he decided he may as well get it over with. “I spoke to Neville last night. You were right.”
“Oh. Thought so.”
“What’s this?” asked Ron, pouring her some orange juice.
Harry pushed away his empty plate and leaned forward, keeping his voice low. “Neville’s trying to find something that will help Luna. He’s been going through the library and stuff, but I think he could do with some help.”
“That’s very thoughtful of him, but I’m sure Professor Dumbledore will come up with something soon,” said Hermione. “I thought he was looking a bit frazzled recently, but the way Professor Snape picks on him, well...”
“Yeah, Snape’s a git. Hardly news, is it? Still, you think we ought to give him a hand?” said Ron.
“Yeah. We’d be helping Neville and Luna. It can’t be much fun, being stuck like she is. Ravenclaw have pretty much disowned her,” said Ginny.
“Too many books and no sense of humour, that lot,” said Ron. “Although, to be fair, she’s always been a bit bonkers, and the ‘duck’ thing is taking it to a new level.”
“That’s not very nice, Ron! I gather she’s very clever, she just looks at things… differently.” Hermione protested.
“That’s one way of putting it! I dunno, maybe she’s got, what’s it… erm… Asparagus Syndrome, or something?”
“She’s got what?”
“You know. Hermione, you were talking about it once. Someone who doesn’t relate well to other people or-”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ron!” Hermione threw her hands up in disgust and stormed off.
Harry and Ron watched her go.
“You did that on purpose,” Ginny said accusingly, fighting back a smile.
Ron grinned, “Yeah. Well, not quite, I couldn’t remember exactly what it was called, but it’s something like that. Hermione can’t resist biting, though, can she?”
“You are so going to pay for that later, though!”
Ron just gave her a great, big grin. “Yep!”
Harry and Ginny exchanged a look, and pushed back from the table in unison. “I don’t even want to know!”
* * * * *
If they had thought the teachers might be winding down to Christmas and the end of term — they were wrong. Professors McGonagall and Moody worked them hard, setting homework as well, and as for History of Magic, if Professor Binns hadn’t let death stop him, then there was no way that something as trivial as Christmas would be permitted to interrupt his regimented lesson plan. The only ray of light was Professor Flitwick, picking up on the general mood and level of pre-Ball excitement, letting them have a free-for-all revision session. That glimmer of light was firmly extinguished by Professor Snape, who announced with malicious pleasure that there would be a test on poison antidotes on the last day of term.
Harry was feeling overwhelmed and the faintest bit panicky by the time classes ended for the day. He let Ron and Hermione go ahead and took the long way back to Gryffindor Tower, catching up with Ginny on the third floor by the main stairs, and she was looking much the same.
She grunted eloquently and fell in beside him.
“I won’t ask how the Potions test went, then. Now we’ve got one, too — on Friday.”
Ginny winced in sympathy. “Unlucky. And, if you’re like us, you’ve got masses of homework to do before then,” she said disconsolately.
“Yeah I’ve got some stuff I have to have done for tomorrow, too.”
“Me, too. I’ve got a group project for Charms due on Friday, so I’m meeting up with Katherine and Colin in the library. I just need to offload some stuff,” she said, hoisting her bag higher on her shoulder. “Ursae Majoris.”
“Thank you, dear,” said the Fat Lady, as the portrait swung open.
The Gryffindor common room was crammed with students of all years in a sort of breathless hush as they bent over their homework, broken only by the slow crackle of the fire, the busy scratch of quill nibs, and Dean Thomas complaining from his position stuck spread-eagled to the ceiling.
The twins were clustered together with Oliver Wood and the rest of the Quidditch team, watching the show with evident enjoyment.
“Oh, come on, one of you!” Dean moaned. “Jeez, don’t all rush at once, will you. Guys? Guys?”
He was roundly ignored by everyone except by Fred and George.
“Can’t, old boy. We don’t want to get on the wrong side of a lady.”
“Especially one who can do that.”
“I hate you all!”
Harry walked closer. “Hey, Dean. What happened?”
“Yeah, what’s up?” Ginny asked, far too innocently.
Dean glared at her from the ceiling. “Yeah, very funny, ‘cos I haven’t heard that one at all before now!”
There were a few giggles from the peanut gallery.
“What happened?” Harry repeated.
“Oh, he said something to Lavender in front of Seamus,” said Fred.
“What was it?”
“Never you mind!” Dean said hurriedly.
“And Seamus did this?” Harry asked incredulously. Seamus and Dean had been best mates since first year, and he couldn’t think of anything that could make one hex the other.
“No, Lavender did,” Katie said, laughing gleefully, “Splatted him with something and stormed up to her dorm. I think Parvati’s in there with her, trying to calm her down.”
“Harry! Come on, mate, get me down!”
Harry looked around uncertainly, only to be stared down by Angelina Johnson and about half the Gryffindor girls.
“Don’t even think about it, Potter!”
“Don’t listen to-” A silencing spell flew up and Dean’s protests were cut off.
“Oh-kay,” said Harry. “Right. Sorry, Dean,” he added, with an apologetic glance upwards.
“Look, I need to be going,” said Ginny. “Meet you back here just before seven?”
“Sure. Look, are you sure you want to do this, if you’ve got loads on?”
She gave him a small smile, “I will if you will. I’ll see how we get on with our Charms project, and if we’re not done then maybe we’ll have to cut it short a little.”
Harry looked around the room. “If you run into Neville, tell him we’ll help, but it might have to wait a few days until the end of term.”
With that, they headed up to their dorms. Harry offloaded most of his textbooks from his bag and instead grabbed his half-finished Herbology essay and the reference book he’d picked up from the library. Ginny had gone by the time he returned downstairs, but Ron waved to him from a small table in the corner next to the Quidditch team.
“All right, Ron? Where’s Hermione?”
“Library, where else?” he grunted. “Herbology?”
“Yeah. I’ve still got another eighteen inches on the habitat and uses of St. John’s Wort.”
Ron winced. “Oof! You should have gone with the Dragon’s Breath Lily.”
They set to work. Harry was making decent progress when there came a brief yodel of terror and Dean Thomas fell off the ceiling, landing in a bean bag that had been handily left underneath him. Fred clicked a stopwatch and nodded approvingly.
“Nice! We’re going to have to speak to Lavender about that sticking charm.”
“You’re all bastards!” Dean snapped sulkily, before slinking off to the dorms.
“Indeed.” Fred noticed Harry watching, and his eyes lit up. “Now, to broach a delicate subject, Harry, old boy, we can’t help but notice that you’ve taken to disappearing off with our favourite sister on an alarmingly-regular basis. Anything you’d care to share?”
“Not really, no. And she’s your only sister,” Harry pointed out.
“She still got the vote from five out of six Weasley brothers,” said George.
George scowled. “Percy’s a git.”
“Yeah, we didn’t ask him. Because he’s a git,” Fred added.
“Anyway, stop changing the subject,” said Fred.
“Yeah, Percy’s git-dom is well-known and established,” said George.
“Apparently he’s taking Ginny to the ball,” Ron said idly, turning another page in his text book and inadvertently scratching the end of his nose with the wrong end of his quill. “As if we needed any more proof that he’s lost his mind over this Triwizard Tournament thing.”
The twins’ heads turned slowly to leer at him with unholy glee. “Reeeeeeeally?”
There were a few ‘Aww’s from the girls and some good-natured grins. The twins, of course, went for a more cringe-inducing reaction.
“Oh, goody!” said George, sniffing back fake tears. “I’ll tell Mum to start planning the wedding.”
“I love a good wedding, me,” said Fred, clasping his hands to his bosom and looking heavenward, “Especially if there’s cake.”
“Now now, Harry, there’s no need for that. We just want you to take good care of our darling, cutesy-wutesy wittle pwincess of a sister, that’s all,” said George, fluttering his eyelashes outrageously.
“If she heard you say that, she’d hex your wobbly bits off.”
“Hiding behind her skirts, Mr. Potter? For shame!”
“Wouldn’t you? I’ve seen her Bat-Bogey hex, and it’s not a pretty sight.”
“He’s not wrong, she would hex you so hard for that,” Katie pointed out.
“Give him a rest, you two,” Ron sighed, “I’m sure the fit of insanity will pass soon.”
“Gee, thanks, Ron.”
“There is a certain form to these things, Harry. You can’t just walk in and sweep her off her feet, you know,” George said pompously.
Angelina snorted loudly. “Like you’d know, you plonker!”
“Hey, let Harry learn from our sage advice,” said Fred.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t want Ginny not to benefit from your suffering, would you?” added George.
Fred made a rude gesture to his twin in reply, and Angelina just rolled her eyes.
“You have to make sure that you bring her flowers and chocolates, young Harry-kins, to worship at the temple of her beauty. Red roses and Honeyduke’s Reserve Cauldron Selection, if you want my advice,” George said, resuming his unwanted commentary.
“But not too many chocolates, or she’ll end up with a big bum.”
There was a slight pause while George considered this. “Are you sure you should be asking him to think about our sister’s bum, dear brother?”
Harry immediately started to think about the recent subject of the conversation. Trying not to was a bit like trying not to think about the pink hippogriff. The poorly-stifled laughter from Katie and Alicia wasn’t helping, either.
“Hmm… yes, good point. Red roses and Honeyduke’s No-fat, No-sugar Daydream Bon-bons, then. You can’t go wrong there, I think.”
“You want to shut up about now, or you’ll be going to the Ball on your own!” Angelina said firmly.
“Shutting up now,” Fred said hastily, drawing a finger across his lips.
Harry growled in frustration and thrust his nose deeper into his books, hoping they’d go away if he ignored them hard enough. And… and… oh, God… Professor Trelawney on a cold day! Professor Trelawney on a cold day! Damn it, stop thinking about it! Professor Trelawney on a cold day!
He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he missed Hermione coming back in until she leaned over and peered at the textbook in front of him.
“Herbology homework, Harry? What have you got there?”
“Hmm?” He looked up guiltily, his head full of biology instead.
Hermione nodded approvingly. “Oh yes, that does look very pert-”
He let out a startled whimper and bolted for the dorms.
“-inent?” Hermione trailed off, watching him go. “Was it something I said?”
* * * * *
After dinner, Harry cautiously crept back into the common room about quarter to seven. Ginny was already there and waiting, talking to Colin Creevey, but the twins were also camped on one of the sofas with Katie, Angelina and Alicia. When they caught sight of him, there was some poorly-stifled laughter, and Fred batted his eyelashes and blew kisses at him. Flushing, Harry put his head down and ignored them. Colin saw him coming and sidled off, leaving him with Ginny.
“Hi, Harry!” she said brightly. “Ready to go?”
“Yeah,” he muttered, not quite looking at her.
There was a louder burst of laughter from behind him, and he didn’t dare turn around. Ginny looked up, though, and her back stiffened.
“Harry?” she said sweetly. He was immediately on his guard.
“Judging from the looks on my beloved brothers’ faces, they’ve found out about us going to the ball together.”
She made a face. “Teasing? Gleeful innuendo? Prancing around like pillocks, making kissy faces?”
“Well… sort of.” Harry shrugged uncomfortably, and she let out a long-suffering sigh.
“Excuse me while I explain a few simple facts of life to my brothers. Or, more like, a few simple facts of instant bloody death!”
Wand in hand, she stormed towards her twin brothers. They took one look at her and bolted, but almost as soon as they were on their feet, there were two flashes of light, and they fell full-length in front of the portrait door, wrapped head to foot in ropes. Behind them, Angelina and Alicia nonchalantly blew the remaining wisps of spell-light from the ends of their wands.
“Mercy! We surrender!” the twins falsettoed, squirming against their bonds.
“You’ll be bloody lucky,” Ginny snarled. “Harry, go on ahead. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
“Harry!” gasped George.
“Mate!” Fred added, looking beseechingly up at him.
“Don’t leave us like this!”
Harry thought about it for a brief second. Never mind the sodding bon-bons, it’s revenge that is sweet but not fattening. “Don’t worry, guys, I’m sure your ‘darling, cutesy-wutesy wittle pwincess of a sister’ won’t do anything too permanent,” he said, stepping over them.
Ginny let out a growl at the description that was, frankly, terrifying, but the portrait swung shut behind him before the shouting started.
* * * * *
Ginny arrived a few minutes late but with a spring in her step and a smile on her face. Harry decided it was best not to ask. Instead, they warmed up with a few repeats of the previous night’s exercises before Ginny began to introduce turns and other simple moves to expand their repertoire. When he got in a tangle or tripped over his feet, she simply offered a few quiet words of encouragement or advice, waited a few bars, and they started again. It came as something of a surprise when Professor McGonagall pointed out that curfew was fast approaching.
“You have prompted me to consider whether I should roll out dancing lessons for all my Gryffindors,” she added. “No doubt even those who already know how would benefit from some practise, but given the current situation, I think I shall wait until next week when the term is over and attention spans are a little longer.” She fixed them with a penetrating look, “I shall expect you both to attend and to lead by example. Make sure you’re smartly turned out for the Ball, and I dare say you’ll surprise a few people — maybe even yourselves.”
As they made their way back to the tower, Harry’s thoughts turned to his robes, still in the bottom of his trunk where he’d left them. Maybe I should hang them up, dust them off a little. And that brought another thought.
“Err… Ginny? You do have robes for the Ball, right?”
“Yeah, Mum got me some when, erm…” She trailed off, looking rather red, and Harry tried not to think too hard about the conversation that must have entailed. The twins’ over-wrought mockery sprang immediately to mind. “I feel a bit bad for Ron about that, actually,” she continued. “One of the benefits of being a girl, I suppose. I don’t know where she found those things Ron got, but I think they might have been Uncle Bilious’ at some point.”
“From how long ago?” Harry couldn’t resist asking.
“I think you mean, from which century,” Ginny corrected him.
He didn’t laugh. “I guess they were what she could get, but...”
When they walked back in to the common room, Ginny was immediately pounced on by Colin and Katherine, so Harry went up to his dorm room. Opening his trunk, he had to shove aside quite a jumble of clothes, books, and knick-knacks before he found the brown paper parcel containing his robes. He shook them out and held them up; luckily, other than some well-engrained creases, they seemed to have survived four months of neglect pretty well. Maybe I can get them pressed, somehow? Or ask the house-elves?
“Huh. Practising making yourself look lovely for my sister, are you?”
Harry looked up to see Ron watching him from the doorway, a disgruntled look on his face.
The big redhead just shrugged and went and sat on his bed. “Not that I blame you. I mean, you’ve got to get up there in front of everyone.”
“Yeah. I thought I should at least make sure they were clean, you know?” He took a deep breath. “What about yours?”
“What about them? Bloody things, I’d be embarrassed to even use them for dusters,” he moaned.
“Maybe you should get them cleaned up,” Harry suggested.
“What’s the point? I mean… oh, damn it, Harry, why can’t I just have something go my way for once? Hermione’s going to laugh her head off when she sees me. I don’t blame her.”
“The point is, last time I saw them you were using them to cover Pigwidgeon’s cage. Hermione will understand if they’re a bit out of date, but I really doubt she’ll be so understanding if you turn up in robes covered in owl crap and smelling like dead mice! Ignore them all you like, they won’t go away or get clean by themselves.”
Ron gave him a half-hearted glare and swore under his breath before getting to his feet and jerking open his trunk. A few items of clothing and Quidditch equipment were lobbed onto his bed before he straightened up, the hated maroon robes clutched in one fist. They looked no better than the last time Harry had seen them.
“Hold them up for a minute, will you?”
It wasn’t a pretty sight. There was, indeed, evidence of Pigwidgeon’s excitable nature down one side, and being put away damp had meant that the mould had taken a firm hold on the lace ruff and cuffs, which were mottled brown and black.
“Oh, bloody hell! Maybe I should just burn them — they’ll let me go in my school robes, won’t they?”
“You want to risk it?”
“Gee, let me think about that for a second. Hell, yes!”
“I was thinking the house elves might be able to help us. Someone like… Dobby!”
Harry snapped his fingers, and an instant later a little blur attacked his knees.
“Harry Potter, sir! Oh, the great Harry Potter sends for Dobby!”
Harry laughed, and tried to gently untangle the enthusiastic little elf. “Hello, Dobby, it’s good to see you.”
“It is good to be seeing you, too. Harry Potter, sir! And Harry Potter, sir’s, Wheezy!” Dobby reluctantly let go of Harry’s knees and gazed adoring up at him with tennis ball-sized eyes. “What can Dobby be doing for yous?”
Harry held out his robes. “The Yule Ball is coming up very soon, Dobby, and I was wondering if it was possible to get my robes cleaned before then?”
“Of course, sir! Dobby will take Harry Potter, sir’s, robeses himself to the laundry elves! They will be back fresh, fresh, fresh!”
“That’s great, thank you very much, Dobby. Now, I have a bit of a bigger challenge for you, too.”
Ron held up his robes, and Dobby looked uncertainly between him and Harry.
“Dobby is thanking Harry Potter’s Wheezy, but we is having plenty of dusters already,” he said eventually, pulling on his long ears anxiously.
Ron flushed, and Harry hurried on. “They’re not dusters, Dobby. Look, Ron needs his dress robes cleaned, as well. Do you think the laundry elves could do this for him, too?”
“I will be seeing if they can clean Harry Potter’s Wheezy’s dress, too,” Dobby said at last.
Ron looked like he was about to explode. “And if they can get rid of the lace and make it look less like a dress and more like robes, that’d be brilliant,” he said through gritted teeth.
Dobby pulled harder at his ears. “Harry Potter’s Wheezy wouldn’t prefer tragic laundry accidents with fire and water buffalo?”
“They’re what I’ve got, damn it!” Ron burst out, and the little elf cringed.
Ron scowled, but took a deep breath. “Sorry, Dobby,” he said after a moment.
“Dobby will see what he can be doing,” Dobby said at last. “H-E.P. is one thing but alterationses is not something Dobby can be doing himself.”
Harry frowned. “H-E.P.?”
“Don’t ask,” Ron said hurriedly. “Really don’t ask.”
“Oh. Well, thank you very much, Dobby.”
“Harry Potter, sir, and his Wheezy is welcome,” Dobby said, taking the garments from them and vanishing with a small pop.
“Reckon he’ll do it?”
“Dunno, but at least they’ll be clean.”
“Huh. Well, I was going to ask if you’d finished that Herbology essay yet? And I’ve got that Transfiguration one mostly done, if you need a look.”
Harry felt his shoulders slump. “Transfiguration. Damn it, there’s always something else, isn’t there?”
Ron grinned, “Come on, you may as well get it over with — and there’s still Potions to study for.”
“Oh, great. Things just keep getting better.”
* * * * *