Harry was chewing on a slice of bacon and thinking about Quidditch practice when an owl fell in his porridge.
The mess splattered his robes and face, and peripherally got Ron and Hermione, who were sitting next to and across from him. Lavender Brown, who happened to be sitting nearby, was also splashed a little, and she shrieked indignantly as porridge fell into her teacup. "I was going to use that!"
"Sorry," said Harry, dabbing vaguely in her direction with a napkin while trying to lift the owl out of his porridge.
"Foreign substances mess up the vibrations!" declared Lavender.
"That's got to be Errol," said Ron gloomily. "I've never met a clumsier owl."
"What's foreign about porridge?" inquired Seamus Finnegan aggressively, squinting down at his own bowl as though it might sprout pixies. "Porridge is domestic, it is!"
Harry fished Errol out of his breakfast and set him on the table, where he lay on his back panting while Harry untied the letter from his leg and read it.
"I meant anything that could contaminate the tea!" Lavender shot back at Seamus. "You can't get a good reading with--"
"What do Mum and Dad want?" asked Ron, dabbing the mess off his face.
"They... they've invited us down to the Burrow for the weekend," Harry said weakly.
"There's nothing contaminating about porridge," Seamus said stoutly. "Good healthy oats, grown here in the Isles."
"Oh-- well, that's brilliant!" said Ron. "We'll have a great time! Unless you think Dumbledore won't let you go?"
"Oh, no, they say they've checked it out with Dumbledore," said Harry. He folded the letter and set it down beside his plate. "They said to be sure to tell you and, uh, Ginny that you're invited too."
"It's tea that's imported," Seamus went on. "Comes all the way from India and China, I've heard. Can't trust that foreign stuff."
From the other side of Hermione, Ginny said, "And you're coming too, Hermione. I'll write to Mum and Dad to make sure they know."
Lavender said, "Can't trust--! Seamus, you are such a dolt. I'm not even going to bother to explain." She flounced off in a huff.
Seamus shrugged, grinned, and went on eating.
Hermione said, "If you're sure I won't be in the way."
Harry and Ginny said in unison, "No, of course not!" Then they gave each other horrified looks around Hermione, who looked a little startled.
Errol wobbled to his feet. "I think I'll use one of the school owls," Ginny said, eying him. "They'll get the message faster that way."
After crashing into a chandelier and a couple of teacher's hats, Errol managed to make it out of the Great Hall.
"Good to see you, Harry!" Mr. Weasley said, clapping him on the shoulder and shaking his hand. "How's everything going this year?"
"Ginny, darling!" Mrs. Weasley said, enfolding Ginny in a maternal embrace only slightly less choking than the one right after the wedding. "Ah! Hermione! Ginny let us know you'd be coming."
"Thank you for extending your invitation, Mrs. Weasley," Hermione said politely.
"Mum!" Ron exclaimed. "You're making sweet potatoes! You said you'd never make them again!"
"I said I'd never make them again with the twins around," Mrs. Weasley said, releasing Ginny at last and chasing Ron away from the pots with a few waves of her apron. "It took me weeks to get the orange spots off the ceiling of their room."
"Have a sit, you lot, while I go rustle up some drinks," Mr. Weasley told them.
Ginny went to help her mother with the food, and Hermione followed. Even over Mrs. Weasley's constant chatter, Ginny could hear her father and Harry and Ron in the next room.
"Here you go, boys," Mr. Weasley said, popping the tops off some butterbeer.
"Thanks, Mr. Weasley," Harry said.
"Arthur, Harry, call me Arthur," Mr. Weasley said grandly. "Or at least call me 'Dad'."
Ginny could imagine the awkward, tongue-tied smile on Harry's face and shook her head over it.
It was a cheerful business, everyone assembling for dinner, though not nearly as crowded as it usually was during the summer. Mr. Weasley managed to slap Mrs. Weasley's bum as he sidled past her, drawing an exasperated but affectionate, "ARthur! The CHILdren!"
At last they were settled, and passing food around the table.
"So, Hermione, Ginny said you'd figured it out on your own," Mrs. Weasley said.
At the same time, Mr. Weasley asked, "How're your classes going, Harry?"
Conversation flowed around Ginny. Mr. Weasley eventually got around to asking how Ron and Hermione liked being prefects this year, and Mrs. Weasley reminisced about the prefects in her day.
"Remember Helen Climpson, Molly?" Mr. Weasley said with a grin and a wink.
"Do I ever!" Mrs. Weasley replied with a laugh. "She was the prefect that found us kissing in the Transfiguration classroom after the Hallowe'en Feast!"
"'Fifteen points from Gryffindor!' she said," Mr. Weasley said, laughing harder. "Then she sent you back to the tower and gave me a mighty talking-to."
"You'd think she didn't do the same with that young man of hers," Mrs. Weasley chuckled.
"Like Percy," Ron added. "But Ginny spotted him with Penelope her first year!"
Percy still being a sore subject in the house, the conversation flattened immediately. To divert things, Ginny said, "Well, the first Hogsmeade weekend is coming up soon. Is there anything you're looking forward to, Harry?"
Harry, who had applied himself to his meal with admirable enthusiasm, shrugged and continued to eat.
"I heard there's a new shop opening up," Ron said. "'Evershed, Barke, and Chewe, Purveyors of Harmless Magical Creatures.' We could go look for a present for Hagrid, Harry."
Harry perked up. "Oh, that's a great idea, Ron! Wonder if they get anything really exotic in?"
Hermione asked Mrs. Weasley, "Am I right in thinking your clock has ten hands now?"
"Oh, yes, dear," Mrs. Weasley said with a smile at Ginny. "Came right home and added Harry to it. Only right, you know."
"Yes, to help the 'family magic' along, I suppose," Hermione commented.
"Well, he's part of the family," Mrs. Weasley said. "Isn't he, Ginny, dear?"
"Oh," Ginny said. "Yes. Of course."
"Of course he is," Mr. Weasley said. "I expect, though, given your history, Harry, that the 'Mortal Peril' spot will probably get some use."
"Not that it hasn't had use for Ron," Mrs. Weasley said in a repressive voice. "And you, dear."
"You can't tell me that it hasn't come up for Fred and George," Hermione added.
"Well," said Ginny, "I guess Mum's got your number now, Harry. You'll have to behave, just like the rest of us."
Harry hesitated for a moment as he reached for another biscuit, then turned to Ron, asking, "Do you reckon that there are any, you know, safe dragon-like creatures? Ones that are legal?"
"Dunno," Ron said, frowning thoughtfully. "What d'you think, Dad?"
Hermione looked at Ginny. "Well, he's always behaved as well as anyone could hope, I suppose."
Ginny nodded slowly, looking past Hermione at Harry, who hadn't so much as glanced at her.
"Well, son, I dunno about safe dragony things. You're thinking about Hagrid? He doesn't really go for safe now, does he?" Mr. Weasley said, pushing back from the table with a contented sigh. "Wonderful dinner, Molly, simply splendid," he interjected, shooting his wife a sweet smile. "How many years have we been together, and I never get tired of your cooking."
"Oh, you," Mrs. Weasley said, swatting his arm.
They'd done this for years, Ginny thought. But she'd never really noticed it before. Her parents had always bandied affectionate little comments back and forth, swatted each other on the bum, reminisced fondly about their courting years at Hogwarts. Why hadn't she noticed it, really noticed it before?
"That's true," Harry said in a depressed tone of voice.
"There's your problem," Mr. Weasley continued, standing up and starting to collect the dishes in arm's reach. "Hang on, let me think a bit," he said, carrying dishes away to the sink along with Mrs. Weasley.
"It would probably be better to ask at the shop," Ginny said. "Surely they've got experts there."
Hermione added hastily, "And probably a catalog, I would think."
Harry said, "You're probably right. Maybe there's something that'll be in the catalog they wouldn't think of otherwise."
Ron laughed, "Just no flobberworms or blast-ended skrewts."
Ginny stood up abruptly, having just spotted her parents kissing fondly before coming back to the table. "I... I have to go." And she turned on her heel and fled the room.
Behind her, she heard Ron say, "What's up with her?"
And then another chair scraped the floor, and she heard Hermione's voice say, with a snarl, "Boys," just before she heard Hermione's footsteps coming after her.
Harry watched Hermione go, feeling utterly bewildered. He looked over at Ron and saw his confusion reflected in Ron's expression. "What was that about?" he asked hopelessly.
Ron shrugged. "Beats me. One moment we're talking and the next--" He waved a hand expressively.
"I wish I knew what we'd done," said Harry, trying to be annoyed but only managing plaintive.
"Don't worry. I'm sure Hermione will be more than happy to tell us all about that," replied Ron in doomful tones.
"Boys!" called Mrs. Weasley. "Come and have coffee with us in the living room!"
They got up and wandered into the living room, where Mr. Weasley clapped Harry on the back again. "Girls gone upstairs, eh?" he said. "Well, they'll have things to discuss."
Mrs. Weasley poured the coffee and smiled at Harry. "Don't worry," she said.
"Oh, no, of course not," he replied weakly.
Ginny didn't say anything when Hermione came into the room, just lay there, face in her pillow.
"Ginny?" Hermione said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "Ginny, he doesn't mean to hurt your feelings."
Ginny sat up and said, "What?" as she wiped her face.
"Harry," Hermione said. "He doesn't mean to be an insensitive prat. He's just a sixteen-year-old boy."
Ginny nodded, not exactly trusting her voice at the moment to anything more than monosyllables. She set her forehead on Hermione's shoulder and sighed.
Hermione put an arm around Ginny. "He's been like this for weeks, though. What...?"
Ginny struggled to swallow the lump in her throat. "My parents," she said hoarsely. "I'd never really noticed before how much they just... like each other."
"Oh." Hermione sighed. "Yes. And the contrast is..."
"... Vivid," Ginny finished.
They sat there quietly for a while. Then Ginny said, "I'm not hurt so much as angry, you know."
Ginny sat up. "No, really." She scrubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. "I'm angry and frustrated."
Hermione nodded. "I can see that. But I'd be hurt if one of my friends suddenly stopped talking to me."
Ginny sighed. "I suppose you're right."
"Why haven't you talked to him about it?"
A disbelieving stare was Hermione's answer. "How?" Ginny exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. "I can't discuss it with him in the Gryffindor common room. And he avoids me so thoroughly that I can't precisely convince him to go for a stroll with me around the lake, can I?" Ginny lunged to her feet and paced the small stretch of floor in her room, gesticulating angrily. "Oh, Professor Dumbledore, can I please use your office to discuss our marital troubles? Professor McGonagall, could I please use your office to strip the flesh from my husband's bones?"
"Sounds messy," Hermione said with a smile.
Ginny burst out laughing and fell backward across the bed.
"Married a month and already needing a marriage counselor," Hermione said mournfully down at Ginny.
"Hah," Ginny replied. "Is that a Muggle thing? I don't think wizards have marriage counselors."
"Nor therapists," Hermione said wryly. "Alas."
"I don't want to know, do I?"
"No, probably not."
Ginny sighed. "So what do I do? I can't keep being the silent, unseen, avoided secret wife. I didn't exactly do this for my health."
"Well, you did it for everyone's health," Hermione pointed out, "including your own."
"Yes. But what do I do?"
Hermione bit her lip thoughtfully. "Well," she said after a moment. "You could try the Room of Requirement."
"Say." Ginny sat up. "That's a good idea."
"And if you summon the room, it'll have all the things in it you'll need," Hermione added.
"Things to throw at him," Ginny said gloomily.
"Padded walls," suggested Hermione.
"A single straight chair," Ginny said with vicious glee.
"Bataca encounter bats?"
Ginny paused. "What're those?"
Hermione waved a dismissive hand. "Muggle joke. They're for hitting people with without hurting them."
"What's the use of that?" asked Ginny. "Now, some shackles and chains..."
"Kinky," said Hermione.
"Eeeeuuuuurrrrggcckkkk!" said Ginny, flinging herself back onto the bed and covering her head with a pillow.
To Harry's vast relief, everyone seemed to expect him to sleep in with Ron, rather than... with Ginny. It was all just taken for granted that everything would be as usual. Mr. Weasley did start to make a joke about it, but Mrs. Weasley shut him up by levitating an entire frosted cupcake into his open mouth.
After they were bedded down for the night, Harry found himself listening for voices from the next room over and hearing only an ominous silence. Finally he reached over and poked Ron, who responded with a sleepy, "Whaaaat?"
"I don't hear anything from Ginny's room."
"What d'you expect t'hear, fireworks? Gin and Hermione aren't Fred and George."
"Do you think they're asleep?"
"Whispering, more likely. Who cares?"
Harry rolled over and punched at his pillow. After a moment, he asked, "You don't suppose they're talking about me, do you?"
"Nah," yawned Ron.
"I'm sure he just needs to get used to it," Hermione said, watching Ginny pace. "It's all been a shock to him."
"I'm sure it has," Ginny said reasonably, glancing aside at where Hermione sat on the bed. "But the question is, how am I to get him somewhere, even the Room of Requirement, to talk to him?"
"You could just ask him," Hermione suggested.
"Yes, well, I might've done that before," Ginny said with a wry smile. "That was when he'd actually acknowledge my existence. I suspect the only way I could get him to acknowledge my existence right now would be to play Quidditch in the nude."
"No," Hermione deadpanned. "He's looking at the ground so much I doubt he'd notice if you flew overhead. How about challenging him to a duel?"
"But he never pays attention to anything I say," said Ginny. "I'd get off three jinxes before he noticed I was in the same hallway!"
"Well, if he's going to hand you an edge like that," said Hermione, "it'd be a shame not to take advantage of it."
They both laughed. After a moment's silence, Hermione said, "I'm sorry."
Ginny shrugged. "Not your fault. None of it's your fault. Not the wedding, nor the attack, nor my husband the prat, nor Snape..."
Hermione fixed her with a piercing gaze that made her look not unlike McGonagall. "What about Snape?"
With a nervous laugh, Ginny waved one hand dismissively. "Nothing, really. He's just being more obnoxious than usual. I'm sure it will pass if Slytherin beats Ravenclaw next week."
Harry rubbed his forehead absently, then carefully wrote a title at the top of his parchment: An Analysis of International Wizarding Relations and Their Contribution to the Rise of Grindelwald. It looked boring. How anything related to the rise of a Dark Wizarding Lord could be boring was beyond his understanding, but Professor Binns could make anything boring. He could make glitter-covered dancing two-headed badger-corns boring. "Hermione? Do you have the notes from four weeks ago?"
"Yes," said Hermione, without looking up.
"Can I borrow them?"
"Yes," said Hermione, her nose almost touching her parchment.
"Do you think this book would be useful for my essay?" asked Harry hopefully, displaying a copy of The Compleat Historie and Merrie Farce of Diplomacie Among Magical Nations.
"Mmm hmm," replied Hermione, getting a dab of ink on her nose.
Harry frowned a little. "What about this book?" he asked, pulling out a copy of 101 Uses For Stinking Groundsel in Potion-Making.
"Sure," said Hermione, apparently looking something up in a large tome.
Harry rubbed his forehead again. "I think I'll start with a section about how it all depends on Crumple-Horned Snorkacks and the illegal trade in their tails for Dark potion ingredients."
"Mmm," said Hermione.
"And then I'll talk about his army of fire-breathing toads that we defeated with Hiccup Hexes-- after all, nothing's more unreliable than a fire-breather with hiccups. Did I mention that my scar has vanished? And I'm hiding a dozen baby nifflers in my shirt?"
Hermione looked up. "Did you say something about your scar, Harry?"
Harry threw down his quill. "No. Hermione, are you ignoring me?"
She thought about it for a moment. "Yes, I suppose I am."
"Why?" Harry ran the fingers of both hands through his hair, leaving a smudge of ink on one temple and his glasses slightly crooked.
Hermione bit the end of her quill thoughtfully. "Because turnabout is fair play." Then she went back to making notes.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Harry reached across the table and touched the edge of her parchment. "C'mon, Hermione, give."
Hermione looked up again, but her expression was not favorable to conversation. "No one likes to be ignored, Harry. Especially when she thought she was your friend."
"What? I haven't been ignoring you," said Harry, utterly baffled.
Hermione looked at the ceiling, as though a mantra of patience might be printed there. "No. Not me. Ginny."
Harry blanched. "It's just all very confusing."
"Yes, well, you're not improving things by acting as though she's got cooties."
"I didn't--!" Harry glanced around, then lowered his voice. "I didn't want to do this!"
"Well, do you think it was her idea, either?" Hermione shot back at him. "The least you could do is go on treating her as a friend instead of pretending that she's suddenly caught the plague. She's not going to... to demand that you start living in a cottage and having children for Merlin's sake, that idea frightens her just as much as it does you. More."
"More?" said Harry skeptically.
"Harry," said Hermione tiredly, "you're not the one who'd have to be pregnant at school. Imagine the scandal. Not to mention the whole labor thing. If you think regrowing bones is painful, you try squeezing a baby out of--"
Harry clapped his hands over his ears. "I'm not listening! I'm not listening!"
Hermione reached over and batted his hands away. "You'd better start listening," she told him in a voice that brooked no nonsense. And while he sat there gaping at her, she swept her essays and books into her bag and marched off.
Hermione pulled the curtains firmly around her bed and cast an Imperturbable charm on them. "There," she said. "Now we can talk without the others hearing when they come back."
"You're sure you don't need to do rounds or anything?" Ginny asked.
"My night off," Hermione said, "and I got all my work done in the library earlier."
"Found anything on the spell yet?"
Hermione shook her head. "What about you?"
"I've pored through more books than I ever wanted to see," Ginny sighed. "Every mention of 'family'. Stumbled on some very shocking, yet somehow informative, books that I'm not sure should be out of the Restricted Section. But I haven't seen anything useful."
"Sometimes," Hermione said with frustration heavy in her voice, "I think the wizarding world would be vastly improved by one really dedicated person creating indexes for every spellbook in Hogwarts library."
"I'm surprised you haven't done it," Ginny said with a touch of a smile.
Hermione snorted. "Like I've ever had time? If I haven't been studying, there's been some crisis Harry wanted me to help investigate."
"Or you've spent time as a statue," Ginny said ruefully.
"That wasn't your fault," Hermione said. "Don't get started down the same path of 'everything is my fault' that Harry's on. Just because you're married to him."
"Wasn't it my fault then?" Ginny wondered.
"Tom Riddle was commanding the basilisk, Ginny," Hermione said severely. "Only he or Harry could do that. There's only two Parselmouths around, after all."
"Three," Ginny corrected quietly, avoiding Hermione's eyes.
Hermione stared. "What?"
"Three," Ginny said again. She looked up in time to see the realization dawn in Hermione's face.
"Why didn't you..." Hermione started.
"Tell anyone?" Ginny finished. "Oh, come on. After watching what happened to Harry when people discovered he was one, and then seeing it happen again when that cow Skeeter got hold of the information?"
"No," Hermione said. "No, I suppose not. Does Harry know?"
"No," Ginny said. "And he won't know. And my family doesn't know. No one knows but you, now."
"How... were you born one?" Hermione asked.
"Oh, no," Ginny said. "At least, I don't think so. It wasn't until I got the diary. Riddle spoke to me in Parseltongue, and I just... started to understand. He told Harry in that last fight that he poured some of himself into me."
"You heard that last fight?"
"Oh, yes. I didn't tell anyone that either. I was in a trance, not unconscious. I think he did that on purpose, the vicious little bastard." Ginny played with the ends of her hair, running it through her fingers. "I guess some of Tom Riddle got left behind."
Hermione watched her for a long moment. "You and Harry have a lot in common, you know."
"I know." Ginny gave a short laugh. "Harry doesn't, though. Or at least he doesn't remember." She paused, looked up at Hermione. "You won't tell him, will you? He... I don't want him to decide to talk to me because he feels guilty or like he has to."
"No, of course not," Hermione said. "Though you might want to tell him someday."
Ginny shrugged. "I suppose. It's funny. Last year, he was Shouting Harry. Now he's Sullen and Silent Harry. Wonder what fun next year will bring?"
"Perceptive and Cheerful Harry?" Hermione said hopefully.
The two girls looked at each other and said, in unison, "Naaaah."
"Good practice," said Ron. "Did y'see me send the ball all the way down the field with a Scudamore Save?"
"Yeah," said Harry, who had spent most of the practice either avoiding or trying desperately to act normal around Ginny.
"I bet Hermione's running herd in the Common Room. Let's go up there and have a game of chess," Ron suggested.
"Um, we could go see Hagrid," replied Harry, searching desperately for an alternative.
Ron gave Harry an odd look. "Is he back, then? He said he'd be gone for a fortnight and not to touch the cabbages on account of the exploding thing."
"Oh, yeah. Right."
"So let's go in. It's getting colder than Durmstrang out here."
"I don't really feel like hanging out in the Common Room, is all," Harry said, trying very hard to be casual about it.
"Why not?" Ron gave him a look that suggested he thought Harry had finally gone round the twist. "No one thinks you're mad; people actually believe you; Malfoy and his gang aren't going to show up in our Common Room, and I'm a prefect! What's not to like about sitting in our own Common Room?"
Harry kicked a small rock. It stayed a rock. "Hermione told me off yesterday and I'm kind of avoiding her."
Ron sat down on a stone railing. "What about?"
"Ginny." Harry sat down on the opposite railing and scuffed a pebble along the ground with the side of his shoe. "And I'm tired of being lectured about it. Like it's any of her business anyway."
"You know how Hermione gets."
"Yeah, I know. But she's not the one who had to-- you know! She doesn't have to deal with all this!"
"Uh, Harry?" Ron said hesitantly, and looked uncomfortable when Harry glanced over at him. "She does, kinda. I mean, she is friends with both of you..."
"What has that got to do with it?" Harry muttered.
"Well, it's not like you've been handling Ginny very well," Ron pointed out. "She's a girl, her feelings will be hurt."
"Don't you start!" said Harry, sliding off the railing where he'd been sitting.
Ron flushed. "Look, Hermione probably had a point. She usually does. I know this is all--" he flapped his hands about helplessly-- "weird, but we have to stick together and stay friends. Ginny too."
Harry just stared at him, glowering.
Ron jumped off his railing. "C'mon, let's go inside before we freeze."
Harry followed him, rubbing angrily at his forehead with the back of his hand.
Ginny was waiting to talk to Professor Flitwick when she heard the piercing tones of Colin Creevy exclaiming, "Harry! Harry! So cool to see you here!"
She ducked her head and hid a grin when she heard Harry's response of, "Uh, Colin, you see me here every Tuesday."
"Yeah, but it's just so great every week!"
"Ah, um, thanks, Colin."
"I took a bunch of new pictures, Harry, want to see them in the common room tonight?"
"Uh, maybe. How are, um, your classes going?"
"Oh, just fine, Harry, thanks for asking! Y'know, Potions is almost like having you in class with us!"
"Oh. Um. Really?"
"Yeah! Because Snape is treating Ginny almost like he treats you these days! It must be because she's such an amazing Chaser and he's jealous, right, Harry?"
Ginny looked around for a way out of the queue to talk to Flitwick. She could talk to him later.
"Like two days ago, he stood over her and watched her until she dropped a whole bottle of turnip blood into her cauldron and it exploded! Then he told her she was just as bad as you! Isn't that cool?"
Ginny gritted her teeth and fled. Someday, she would have to drop Colin into her cauldron. She was sure she'd get extra points from Snape for that.
Harry stared glumly at the grade on his Transfiguration homework. He wasn't the best in the class, but he should be doing better than this, as Professor McGonagall remarked in red ink at the top of the paper. Across the room, Neville had accidentally turned his foot invisible, and a cluster of students and the professor were crowded around him attempting to reverse the magic. Harry sighed and stuffed his books and parchments all anyhow into his bag and prepared to follow Hermione and Ron out of the room.
"There, Longbottom, that should fix it. A good strong spell, just be more careful of your aim next time," said Professor McGonagall. "Well, what are you all waiting for? Be off with you. Except for you, Potter, I'd like a word."
Harry looked up, startled, to see Professor McGonagall gesturing towards the open door of her office. "In you go, Potter, don't hang about. Sit down. Tea?"
"Um, sure," he said, setting his bag by his feet. "Er, Professor, I don't know... I mean, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?"
She set a teacup in front of him and tapped it with her wand. "Sugar? Milk?"
She tapped the cup twice more and handed it to him. "Ginny Weasley," she said, and sat down behind her desk.
His stomach dropped. He would have liked to take a sip of tea but he didn't quite trust his hands.
McGonagall tapped her own teacup once and wrapped her hands around it, watching him over the rim. "I suppose I should call her Ginny Potter now," she said, "but the secrecy is very important."
Harry's stomach did something twisty and unpleasant.
"In any case, Potter, while I do realize that all this is a shock to you, it was my understanding that you were friends with the girl." She took a sip from her teacup, her watchful gaze never leaving Harry's face.
"Uh, er, yeah. I am," he muttered, and took a sip of tea. It was too hot and he suppressed a yelp.
"Ah," said Professor McGonagall. The silence stretched into uncomfortable moments before she added, "Of course, Professor Dumbledore made it clear to you that the marriage is meant to be one of friendship and family."
Harry felt his face grow hot and he carefully put the teacup down on the edge of the desk. "Yes," he allowed.
"Given that, Potter, I've been very disappointed in your behavior."
Being told off for the third time in as many days just seemed supremely unfair to Harry. He felt a solid core of anger somewhere underneath the tidal wave of embarrassment. "Well, Professor, it hardly seems fair to me," he managed to say fairly steadily. "I know I'm a bit young to have a choice about anything, but getting married is something most people do have a choice about."
"No," she replied, "It isn't fair, Potter." Harry blinked, feeling the wind die down in the full and billowing sails of his indignation. "But it isn't Ginny Weasley's fault. If it's anyone's fault, it's Professor Dumbledore's or ours, the Order's. Believe me, if she had refused, we would have found someone else. We need to protect the school." She paused to take a sip of tea. "If anything, she's sacrificed more than you, because she did have a choice, Potter. And as you point out, you didn't."
Harry looked down at the knees of his robes, struggling with resentment.
"I was willing," Professor McGonagall went on, "to contemplate this plan because I had confidence in your ability to deal with this situation. I have to say that I've been very disappointed in your lack of maturity, Potter."
Harry felt his face grow hot again.
McGonagall eyed him shrewdly. "Very well, run along. And don't forget about the homework due next week."
"Miss Weasley, perhaps you can tell us three common uses of powdered kraken hide?"
Ginny twitched very slightly as Snape called her name, and felt her back tensing as if for Quidditch. She cleared her throat, thought wildly. Powdered kraken hide? Was that even in the reading for today? "Um. Antidotes for marine poisons?"
Snape stood over her, looking down his long, hooked nose. "That's one guess."
"Uh. Neutralization of runaway transfiguration formulas?"
"That's two guesses."
She gritted her teeth. No, it would be just too easy for him to tell her that her first guess was wrong and move on to someone else. "Summoning the giant squid from the lake and convincing it to tap dance in bright red shoes on the highest tower of Hogwarts?"
There were a few giggles around her, and Snape continued to stare at her. "Very amusing, Miss Weasley. Oh, yes. I am so amused that you will give me a two-foot essay on all uses of powdered kraken hide next class. And ten points from Gryffindor for your cheek."
Ginny sighed as quietly as she could manage. An extra essay and ten points off in the first five minutes of class. That had to be some kind of record, even for Harry.
It is highly disconcerting to be worrying about something and to look up and see it happening; for one thing, it gives one the unpleasant feeling that one might be hallucinating. Harry rounded the corner and started down the corridor to the Potions classroom just in time to see Ginny leave the class in tears-- a sight that echoed his thoughts too closely for comfort. She fled precipitously down the hallway, choosing to turn down a different corridor instead of passing him by, so that he had no chance to catch her. No chance at all, even if he hadn't been frozen in shock.
Other students started passing by and entering the classroom as he stood there. Slowly, he picked up his bag of schoolbooks and went into the Potions classroom.
Snape was as unpleasant as usual, but Harry barely noticed what he was saying. The cold rage in the pit of his belly flared every time he met the man's eyes, so he tried to keep his gaze down. At the end of class, though, when everyone was packing up to leave, Harry discovered that he wasn't leaving.
"You go," he said quietly to Ron and Hermione. "I'll catch up."
Hermione gave him a worried look. "Don't do anything foolish," she said, in a tone of voice that indicated she knew that was a hopeless cause, and the two of them slipped out.
"Is there some reason you're taking so long to pack your bags, Potter, or does your incompetence extend that far?" inquired Snape from the front of the classroom as the door closed behind the last of the Slytherins.
Harry threw the rest of his notes into his bookbag and turned to face Snape, his chin rising stubbornly. "There's a reason."
"Then by all means enlighten me," replied Snape. He glanced away, pretending disinterest, but Harry could tell that Snape was just as focused as he was.
"Leave off Ginny. She can't help-- what happened."
"How gallant of you, Potter," he sneered, while tidying stacks of essays and racks of potion bottles on his desk. "Defending your little bride."
Harry flushed. "There's no call for you to be nasty to her just because you hate me. What do you think you're doing anyway?"
"What do I think I'm doing?" asked Snape, his voice dangerously low. "I think that I'm doing something you have singularly failed to do, Potter. I'm treating her as your family. Whereas you have ceased to treat her even as a friend."
"I... I don't understand."
Snape placed his hands carefully on his desk, pushed himself to his feet, and stood there, hunched and brooding like a gargoyle. "Obviously you don't understand. For surely you wouldn't endanger our entire mission and the school of Hogwarts on purpose, would you?"
"I'm not endangering anyone!" Harry yelled back. "I went through with it, didn't I? Not that I had a choice..."
"You egotistical little fool," barked Snape. "Did you think a marriage was nothing but a ritual?"
Harry fell silent. Snape stalked around the teacher's desk and stood at the front of the classroom. "The Headmaster is attempting to alter a very complex and very strong spell that operates on your blood family, Potter. This spell potentially has the power to protect all of Hogwarts, yes... but all of that rests on your having family here. And that, I would hardly need to point out to a concussed kneazle, rests on your marriage."
Harry opened his mouth but Snape shot him such a withering glare that he closed it again.
"Yes, you were married to Ginny Weasley, and a very pretty ceremony it was too," he added jeeringly. "But a marriage isn't just the ritual. It's a spell in and of itself, and you're not performing it very well. You hardly speak to the girl, you're barely in the same room with her for five minutes at a time--"
"It's not like I wanted to--" Harry managed to get out.
"What you want or she wants or what anyone wants is not an issue here!" Snape roared. "You are hardly the first witch and wizard to be married for magical purposes, so I suggest that you quit whining about it and get on with it!"
Harry blanched. Surely Snape wasn't suggesting...?
Snape eyed Harry for a moment, then lifted his lip in an impressive sneer. "Terrified of a redheaded snip of a girl, are we, Potter? Marriage is many things: the main object of this exercise is to give you family, so the family aspect was... emphasized, and will continue to be emphasized by everyone working on the spell. You must start treating her as family, or everything we have been working on will fail, and I do not think you want to see that happen."
Harry looked up at Snape, who was now leaning over his school desk. "No," he replied, "No, I don't, but..."
"But what, Potter? Spit it out, I haven't got all day!"
"I've never been married before!" he blurted out. "I don't know what to do!" And then he turned bright red, utterly mortified to have said this to his worst enemy at school.
Snape closed his eyes, as though summoning much-needed patience. But Harry thought that he saw the corner of Snape's mouth twitch, just a tiny bit, before he shouted, "NO ONE gets a trial marriage, Potter! Figure it out!"
"I'm only sixteen!" Harry yelled up at him.
"That is in ample evidence," replied Snape dryly. "I was against this plan from the start, and you have only justified my fears."
That shut Harry up. He sat down and glowered up at Snape.
"The Headmaster is sure that the spell can be extended-- although it depends entirely on convincing it that you have blood family here. And that depends on your marriage. Now, I favored marrying you to the Weasley boy instead of the girl--"
"--but Professor McGonagall overruled me, said it might destroy the very friendship that we were seeking to use. Professor Dumbledore said that the spell also might find that future family was extremely important, so, as you are far too young to adopt children, reproductive potential was a factor."
Harry's ears started to turn red.
"We could easily have got around that by mating you with the Weasley girl sometime after the wedding," Snape went on, apparently enjoying Harry's discomfort, "but Professor Dumbledore said that he preferred not to interfere that much in people's lives. A fine line, but one he observes, apparently."
Harry found himself relieved that he did observe it. "I don't see what all this has got to do with me and Gin--"
Snape slammed his hands down on Harry's desk. Harry rocked backwards in shock. "Think, boy!" he bellowed. "Try to think for once in your narrow-minded little life! Your marriage is about family. Blood ties. In order to make it work, you must treat the girl and her family as your family because that is the only thing that will make it true. And it must be true for the spell to work. Has that penetrated your exceptionally thick skull?"
Harry nodded, feeling a little shellshocked.
Snape brooded down at him, still leaning on the desk. "To think that the fate of all of Hogwarts depends on your learning a lesson," he said. "I should be making my will, if I didn't keep it up to date."
He turned and left the classroom through the door to his office. Harry had grabbed his things and was halfway down the corridor when it occurred to him that the last remark might have been meant as a joke.
Which was absolutely the most terrifying part of the entire unpleasant encounter.
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