In the aftermath of the interrupted duel, the corridor was a shambles. Ginny took advantage of the momentary lull to cast the counterspell for jelly-legs on herself. Just beyond her feet, the stone of the corridor had turned into burping sludge and Pansy Parkinson was stuck in it up to her waist. Hermione, whose hair was presently a mass of writhing squid tentacles, had got off a particularly good spell that Ginny didn't know the name of; one of the other Slytherins was enmeshed in the sticky, gooey webs, and Nott, who had brushed up against it, was as firmly stuck. Too bad it hadn't been his wand hand. All in all, she thought, they hadn't done too badly for themselves, even though Ron had a horn growing from his tongue. And, of course, there was Neville.
"I... think it was an engorgement charm," Hermione said, after it became clear that no one else would reply. "But I didn't see."
Snape gazed once around the corridor before looking back down at Neville. "Positively gargantuan," he muttered. "Take him to Madam Pomfrey. And twenty points from Gryffindor for dueling in the corridors." With a wave of his wand, he dispelled several of the hexes on the Slytherins and then marched away, sweeping his students along in his wake.
Ginny joined Hermione in looking down at Neville in dismay. "Maybe the two of us can lift him," she said.
"I'll help," said Harry.
"Maaummhhphh mllll," said Ron.
"Right," Hermione said, eyeing Ron's... addition. "Madam Pomfrey should have a look at you too."
"Harry?" said Ginny, as they walked along, one on each side of Neville's head. "How do you manage to come through all of these duels unscathed?"
"Um," said Harry. "Quick reflexes?"
Hermione said sourly, as she brushed a tentacle out of her face, "I'm sure it will all balance out in the end."
"Uh, thanks, Hermione," said Harry. "I think."
"Well, that went badly," Harry grumbled, throwing himself down on his bed.
"Twenty points for dueling," Ron complained. "He didn't even take any points from Slytherin for it."
"He never takes points from Slytherin," Harry said, flipping over to lie on his back. "You're talking better, at least."
"Madame Pomfrey said it was an easy one to fix," Ron said with a grin. "Not like Neville's head."
Harry sighed. "Poor Nevi---OOF!"
The griffin had taken to playing "Death From Above" with the denizens of the Gryffindor sixth year boys dorm. She would conceal herself among the draperies and then pounce down upon her unsuspecting prey. Harry had to admit that she was quite good at it, and he thought she would eventually be a magnificent huntress. However, his scalp, shoulders, and, now, stomach, were suffering for her art.
Ron said, "We should take her out tonight. Now that the Slytherins aren't likely to let anything slip."
Harry coughed and inhaled, which was rather a project with Dora continuing to dance merrily on his belly. "Yeah. I wish Ginny hadn't gone off on Malfoy like that. Now he's put all of them on alert, and they're just going to be problems."
"That's Ginny," Ron said sagely. "Never thinks things through, and has an awful temper. You should never have married her, Harry."
Harry launched a sock directly into Ron's laughing face, and he cheered when Dora decided it was a game of fetch and ended up scrambling over Ron's head.
"I feel," said Ginny mournfully, "like an utter prat."
Hermione looked at her over the top of the book she was consulting. "Why is that?"
"Well, if I hadn't gone off on Malfoy like that, he wouldn't suspect anything," Ginny said, leaning her chin on her fist. "He denied everything anyway. And now the Slytherins are all twitchy."
"What did you expect to do? Walk up to them and ask, 'Right, so, which one of you is setting snakes loose in Gryffindor then?'" Hermione demanded. She shoved irritably at one tendril of hair that kept creeping into her eyes--it apparently had problems forgetting to be tentacular.
"Noooo," Ginny said. "But maybe... I dunno... I just feel like I messed it up, you know?"
"Look," said Hermione reasonably, "it's true that you probably shouldn't have gone off on him. And that I shouldn't have hit him. And... well, anyway, I don't think it changed anything. We still suspect some of the Slytherins, and it could involve Malfoy. But isn't it nicer to think that it doesn't and that there's something he's left out in the cold on?"
Ginny grinned slowly. "You're right, that's rather nice to think of, actually."
"And even if they're more careful now," Hermione went on, "Harry and Ron are still very enthusiastic about Dora. We'll find them soon enough."
"You're right again," Ginny admitted.
"So, there," Hermione said, shoving her hair out of her face and picking up her book again, "you've got no reason to feel bad. Unless you really do regret the cold Malfoy's got now after getting soaked in the snow?"
Ginny laughed. "No," she said, "no regrets there."
"I think that box was one of 'em," Ron was saying as he and Harry entered the Common Room.
"You're probably right," Harry said, taking the leash off Dora. The griffin squeaked and danced off to investigate the other inhabitants of the room. "It sure looked like it was packed for snakes."
"Found something?" Hermione asked, she and Ginny looking up from their cards.
Harry grinned. "Dora led us right to a box down this side passage." He glanced around the mostly empty room, and pulled out his map. He unfolded it once and pointed.
"There's a box down there," Ron said. "We couldn't bring it away, though. Mrs. Norris showed up."
"You said it looked like it was packed for snakes?" Ginny asked, peering at the map.
"Yeah," Harry said. "Harder stuff, like cardboard, making spaces for snakes to hide or move around in, and softer stuff to pad it. It was all scattered about."
"So it looks like we were right," Hermione said, dealing Harry and Ron into the game.
"Now we just have to find out who's getting the boxes," Ron said cheerfully, examining his cards.
"No handy address label?" Ginny asked.
Harry scowled at his cards. "No such luck," he said.
"Aw, it's just a matter of time now, Harry," Ron said. "Especially since we know where they're letting the snakes out."
"Easy to say," said Harry. "How long did it take us to find it in the first place?"
Ron rolled his eyes and shrugged.
Ginny burst out laughing. Harry looked at her quizzically, and imagined that Ron and Hermione were doing likewise.
"Sorry," Ginny said, stifling herself and dropping her voice. "It's just... oh, Ron, I don't know why they didn't marry you to Harry instead of me."
Harry glanced over at Ron, who was bright red and refusing to look at Harry. Hermione raised both eyebrows. "Uh," Harry said. "They thought about it."
"No surprise really," Ginny said. "You two are already like a married couple."
"The Wizarding world lets... two people of the same sex get married?" Hermione asked, a little startled.
"Oh, yeah," Ginny said lightly, trading part of her hand for new cards. "I think we've always done it. Don't Muggles?"
Hermione gave Harry another raised-eyebrows look. "Uh, no, actually," Harry said.
"They do it in Sweden," Hermione pointed out.
Ron laughed, somewhat awkwardly. "It's like, you know, arranged marriages," he explained.
"Yeah," Ginny added. "It's for when families want to, you know, foster alliances and such. And they've only got a son each, or a daughter each. So they marry them to each other." She laid out her cards. "It's not like something unnatural or anything."
Harry watched Hermione's face freeze, and wondered about that as the cards shuffled themselves back together.
"I've got some homework I want to do," Hermione said after a moment, gathering her books together. "I'm going to go up to my dorm. See you all in the morning."
"Hello, Weasel," Ginny heard behind her. She turned and found herself face-to-face with Pansy Parkinson. Behind Parkinson stood Millicent Bulstrode and three or four Slytherin girls in Ginny's year.
Ginny raised an eyebrow. "Won't you lose points for talking to a Gryffindor, Parkinson?"
"I'm just fostering house cooperation," Parkinson said innocently.
Bulstrode and Ginny snorted almost simultaneously, which led to a brief interlude of staring at each other with somewhat outraged expressions.
Parkinson took advantage of the pause. "It's been noticed that you're spending a great deal of time with Potter's little group," she said, continuing the game of innocence.
Ginny shrugged. "My brother is his best friend, after all." The invisible ring felt heavy on her finger suddenly.
Parkinson eyed the ceiling with clearly feigned disinterest. "It's been suggested that perhaps there's something going on between you and Potter."
Ginny laughed outright in Parkinson's face, which startled the other girl so much that she backed up a step, right into Bulstrode. Bulstrode bore it with a certain immovable quality of tolerance, reaching out to steady Parkinson. Then Ginny said, "Something between me and Harry Potter? You're pretty funny, Parkinson. And late to the game. The Gryffindor girls asked me the same thing almost a month ago."
Parkinson tossed her head and scowled. "No need to be so rude. I was just being interested in the goings-on in other houses, little Weasel."
"Aren't you just a nosyparkerson?" Ginny said with grim humor. "Your little rumors couldn't be further from the truth."
Ginny could clearly see that wit was lost on Pansy as the Slytherin went somewhat blotchy with anger. "Maybe Draco is right," she hissed. "Maybe all you Weasleys sleep in the same bed, and you're just missing your precious brother."
There was a sneeze, followed by a miserable drippy sniffle, nearby. "Is someone using my name in vain?" Malfoy inquired from around the corner.
Pansy turned away from Ginny and hurried to Malfoy. "Oh, Draco, I just had the most dreadfully unfortunate meeting with one of those... Weasleys."
Ginny and Bulstrode traded stiff nods before passing each other in the hall. The other Slytherin girls slunk along in Bulstrode's wake. Ginny could have sworn she heard Bulstrode whisper, "Nosyparkerson," under her breath as she walked by. But she decided she must have imagined it.
The griffin crouched behind a small heap of snow, rear end wiggling madly. Harry watched her with distracted fondness until she pounced out to the end of the leash and nearly yanked him off his feet.
"Harry," Hermione said hesitantly as he attempted to right himself and keep hold of the eager griffin.
"Um?" he said, reeling Dora in from her pursuit of a squirrel.
"There's a book I think you ought to read," she said, gazing off toward the castle.
"Hermione, it's almost the end of term," he said plaintively. "I barely have time for homework, much less another book."
"I know," she said. "But it's about marriage in the Wizarding world. I just... thought there were some important things in it."
"I know far too much about marriage in the Wizarding world," Harry intoned.
"It's not like it is in the Muggle world," she insisted.
"I've noticed! In the Muggle world, no one would have made me get married at sixteen!" Harry shouted.
"Harry," said Hermione in the perfectly dead voice that meant she was getting angry. "Don't shout at me. In fact, don't shout. People aren't supposed to know about that, remember?"
"Look, I just don't want to think about it," he said. "Ow! Watch it now!" Dora scaled him deftly and stood on his head, looking about.
"I suppose you think if you don't think about it, it will all go away," Hermione said scornfully.
"Don't worry," Harry replied, standing very still so as to avoid a clawed foot in the eye, "I know you and everyone else won't let it."
"Oh, blast you, Harry Potter," Hermione snarled. "I thought you had actually grown up a bit. Sorry to see I was wrong."
"What?" he said, slightly bewildered by her irritation and helpless to walk off as he'd like.
"Look," she said between gritted teeth, "the Wizarding world is generations behind the Muggle world."
"Hermione," said Harry, "Is this going to be another discussion about Azkaban? Because I don't want to talk about that right--"
"No, not the justice system. Marriage."
"But... but they've got..." Harry mentally urged Dora to move. The griffin sat down, her tail dangling into his face.
Hermione waved his reminder away. "That doesn't matter. It's all part of the arranged marriages. And did you know that arranged marriages are still going on? I don't just mean yours. I mean, they were the accepted standard in your grandparents' generation. And your parents' generation, particularly for Pureblooded families, was mostly still supposed to marry who they were told to."
"My parents fell in love. People keep telling me about it," he replied glumly.
"Yes, but do you think for one moment that Lucius Malfoy didn't have an arranged marriage? Marriages like your parents and the Weasleys were still considered sort of... lower-class, or odd, or something back then. And Draco's probably going to have to marry someone he's told to. In fact, his parents may have picked her out already."
Harry thought about this. "I hope she's really awful."
"Harry, that is not the point!"
Dora, startled by Hermione's outburst, leaped up and then had to scrabble for balance, her wings flailing the air. A brush of feathers knocked his glasses into the snow.
"Ow! Ow ow ow! Dora, quit it!" Harry looked down and squinted at the snow, hoping to find his glasses. His shift in position made Dora dance more wildly. "Settle down, you daft catbird!"
"You settle down," Hermione told him. "And listen, for once! If your parents were alive, Harry, and important, and everyone seems to think the Potters were an old Pureblood family and they certainly left you lots of money although there doesn't seem to be an estate..."
Harry bent over further as the snow was too far away. Dora strolled down his back as he peered at the trampled snow-shadows. How could his glasses just vanish like that? Just before he was going to straighten back up, he felt Dora lie down on the small of his back and make herself comfortable. He groaned inwardly.
"...And if it was really important to mend relations after the war, and it might be, you might be made to marry Draco to foster an alliance between the Potters, Malfoys, and Blacks."
Harry choked. "I can't! I'm married to Ginny!" He discovered that it was difficult to panic properly with a griffin kitten perched on one's back. Dora prickled him warningly through his robes.
"Were you listening at all? I was talking about a what-if! And anyway, you ARE married and the war isn't over and they loathe you so it's not going to happen. But that kind of thing happens all the time in the Wizarding world."
"What, two men getting married?"
Hermione sighed meaningfully. "No, Harry. Well, it happens, but that's not the point. It's just a coincidence that both you and Draco are only children so it would have to be the two of you if your families decided to make an alliance. For that matter, it could just as easily be you and Neville! No, what I meant was--"
"Neville!" said Harry, standing upright involuntarily. Dora was launched from his back with an indignant squawk, and glided to a messy landing nearby. "Thanks for that image!"
Hermione covered her face with one hand. "Harry. Potter. Please. Listen."
"I'm trying but you're not making any sense!"
Hermione stared at him for a moment-- or so he thought; her face was a blur-- and then levitated his glasses out of the snow with a brief flick of her wand. "Here. One of the things I was trying to say was that arranged marriages were the norm until your parents' generation, and they are still very common. Did you get that?"
"Yeah," he said sullenly, putting his wet glasses on his nose.
"The Weasleys do not have an arranged marriage, you may have noticed. Like your parents."
"Well, yeah," he said. "Anyone can tell they're really fond of one another and all."
"Arranged marriage is a class thing, Harry. The Weasleys don't give a dragon's sneeze about it, because they're just... well, just wonderful people. Not at all like the Malfoys."
"Nothing like the Malfoys," Harry said wholeheartedly.
Hermione gave him a pitying look. "Harry. Given that I'm pretty sure they hoped for all their children to have love-marriages, why do you think they let Ginny marry you?"
Harry stared at Hermione in shock. He suddenly became aware of the cold snow seeping through his shoes and the griffin's leash tangled around his ankles.
"Oh, no," he said.
Hermione dragged into the common room late enough that Ginny had just finished her most recent Potions essay.
"You look..." Ginny began.
"Dead?" Hermione dropped into the chair next to Ginny and draped herself for dramatic effect.
Ginny was more than a little startled to realize that, while she had been thinking that Hermione looked tired, seeing Hermione draped dramatically changed that image to something rather more attractive. She kept her face as blank as possible.
Hermione sighed. "We just broke up a duel between a Hufflepuff and a Ravenclaw down by the greenhouses. At least two-thirds of the second year was there to cheer for one side or the other, including a raft of Gryffindors."
"You're kidding," Ginny said, eyebrows high. Some part of her sighed with relief at the distraction.
"Ernie heard about it through the grapevine and asked a few other prefects for help, since it sounded likely to be a crowd." Hermione frowned briefly. "Ernie kept asking me if I could get Harry to help too. He seemed disappointed when I said I didn't think it was appropriate, since Harry isn't a prefect."
"How'd it go?" Ginny signed her essay with a flourish, blotted it, and began to roll the parchment.
"Only two full-body binds and an Expelliarmus or three," Hermione said with a faint smile. "I'm now a monster, since I took a full complement of points from Gryffindor."
"Well," Ginny said, "you've certainly had a full night of it."
"Yes." Hermione stared at the fire for a moment, then said, "Do you fancy a game of cards before bed? I really am too wound up to sleep."
"Oh!" Ginny said. "Sure! And I found a fresh pack in my trunk -- Mum must've put it in -- so we don't have to play with those creaky old things." She gestured in disgust at the set of shelves that held the common room games.
Hermione pushed herself out of the chair and glanced around at the other late-study students poring over their books or parchment. "Come on up to my dorm, then. It'll be empty."
Ginny arrived a few minutes later, deck of cards in hand, and the pair retired behind the Imperturbable bed drapes on Hermione's bed. "Right," Ginny said, pulling the deck out of its plain cardboard box and setting it on the bed. "What game?"
"How about Spit in the Cauldron?" Hermione asked. She tapped the deck with her wand and said, "Shuffle, please."
"You've been reading up," Ginny said accusingly. Hermione contrived to look innocent as the cards neatly shuffled themselves. "Well, then, you're in for a nasty surprise," Ginny added, settling herself, tailor-style, on the foot of the bed.
"Perhaps you'll be the one surprised," Hermione said lightly and picked up her cards.
"So," Ginny said, dropping two cards face-down and tapping the deck twice, "are we going to have to seriously consider Ron's Snape suggestion?"
"I doubt it." Hermione dropped four cards. "I was trying to watch the Slytherins during the... discussion that led to the scuffle the other day. I think a couple of them may have guilty consciences."
Ginny wagered, "A bar of Honeydukes," and Hermione winced. "Poker-face, Granger," Ginny commanded, "you were doing better than this before."
Hermione said, "I call," then added, "I'll do better, Teacher."
Ginny won the hand. She grinned up at Hermione. Then blinked. "Um. When did you take off your tie?"
Hermione's hand flew to her throat, then she looked around. There it was, folded neatly next to her. She turned wide eyes to Ginny, saying, "I don't remember doing that."
Ginny's stomach hit the floor. "Oh, damn," she said. "I'm going to kill them." She turned the deck over and there, on the bottom of the pile, was the Queen of Spades, reclining on a couch and wearing little besides a pair of patent-leather boots and a large black pointy hat. "Damn, damn, damn."
"What?" Hermione began to look alarmed as Ginny started sorting through the deck.
"Arrrrrgh," Ginny said, with feeling, as she pulled up the Ace of Spades. "Look. 'Wizard Poker Disrobing Deck courtesy of Weasley Wizard Wheezes.' I'm going to hex them both so hard they'll be pulling bats out of their..."
"Oh, it's all right," Hermione said hastily. "I'll run down to the common room and get another deck."
"That might be a baaaad idea," drawled the Queen of Spades.
They both peered down at her. The Queen shifted on her chaise lounge and said, "There are consequences if you quit early, ladies."
"Consequences," repeated Ginny. "What sort of consequences?"
"Do you like having a random article of clothing removed to a random location within a 50 yard radius at random intervals for the next two days?" the Queen asked lazily.
Ginny uttered another incoherent noise of rage.
Hermione swept the deck together and set it face-down on the bed. "Shuffle and deal," she ordered, then met Ginny's gaze steadily.
Ginny let out the breath she'd been holding. "I suppose it's better than the alternative."
Hermione picked up her cards. "Definitely. And I can only thank whatever powers kept us from having this game with Ron and Harry."
"So," said Harry, buttering his toast, "I heard there was a duel last night." As he crammed the toast into his mouth, Hermione and Ginny traded glances. Ginny looked away quickly and Hermione smiled. "A duel in the forest behind the school?" he amplified, mouth still half-full.
Hermione took a calm sip of pumpkin juice. "It was behind the greenhouses, not in the forest. You should know better than to listen to rumors, Harry." Then she said, "The prefects broke it up."
Ginny was staring at her muffin fixedly. Harry thought that girls were weird about sweets, but a muffin was a good idea anyway, and took one for himself. "Anything interesting happen?" he inquired.
Ginny sprayed muffin crumbs as she giggled unexpectedly. Harry gave her a sideways look.
"Not really. We had to take some points. Ernie asked after you." Hermione ate a forkful of eggs.
"He did? What for?" Harry was honestly puzzled. He put a whole slice of bacon in his mouth and gave Hermione an inquisitive look.
"Oh, I think he just thought you might be--"
"Nice to have around," said Ginny, controlling her giggles with a big swallow of juice.
"I was going to say useful," Hermione said, with a reproachful glance at Ginny that slid off into a dimpled half-smile. Ginny turned slightly pink and it was Hermione's turn to look down at a plateful of porridge with a repressed snort of laughter.
Harry was beginning to feel left out. "What's so funny?" he asked.
The tips of Hermione's ears turned red. Ginny said, a little hastily, "Ernie."
"What's so funny about Ernie?" Harry asked, honestly bewildered.
"Harry, if you don't know, it's not my place to tell you," Ginny replied mischievously.
"Are you sure you weren't trying to throw the game at all?" Hermione asked suspiciously as they climbed the stairs to the Owlery.
"Me? Why would I do a thing like that?" Ginny said innocently, sealing the scroll to her mother.
"Misplaced chivalry?" Hermione said.
"If I were being chivalrous," Ginny said reasonably, "would I have started laughing that time you won and the cards announced, 'Two pairs'?"
"Of course you would have," Hermione said, opening the door at the top of the stairs. "I've never heard a supposedly nonsentient object be so lascivious in my entire... Oh, hello, Cho."
Ginny came up short at the sight of the Ravenclaw. Cho Chang, for her part, looked startled. "Hello, Hermione," she said. "How are you doing?"
"Not badly," Hermione said, stepping to one side. "How's studying for NEWTs?"
"Everyone's pretty tense already," Cho admitted. "It's going to be a long year."
"Not long enough, I bet," Hermione said. "That's the way I felt for OWLs, at least." She shot a Significant Look at Ginny, who rolled her eyes skyward.
"Oh, hi, Ginny," Cho said, a little distantly. "Haven't seen much of you lately."
"Well, since I'm not Seeker anymore," Ginny said, stepping past Cho into the Owlery, "I suppose you don't have any reason to see me."
"Yeah," Cho said thoughtfully. She turned back to Hermione. "How's Harry these days?"
Hermione glanced at Ginny, who shrugged and went to choose an owl. "Oh, he's fine. He's Harry, you know?"
"I'm sorry I don't get to see him more," Cho said, starting down the stairs. "All the girls in Ravenclaw have been talking about how good he's looking these days."
"Ah," Hermione said blankly, and waved after Cho.
Ginny finished attaching her scroll to the owl's leg while she fumed. Hermione closed the door of the Owlery and shook her head.
Ginny snorted. "At least she didn't ask me if something was going on between Harry and me. Why don't they ever ask you that, Hermione?"
Hermione shrugged. "I suppose I'm old news."
Harry stuck his head into the stairwell. The tell-tale whistling of "Weasley Is Our King" told him that Ron was just stepping into the Common Room. Harry trotted down the stairs to ask him about the Charms assignment.
Just as he was about to step around the corner into the Common Room himself, though, he heard Ginny's voice nearby, lowered but agitated, and he stopped curiously.
"Whistling that dratted song again," she was saying.
There was a pause, then Hermione said, "What's wrong?"
"Oh, it's just..." Ginny sighed. "I mean, I'm proud of him for managing to snap out of his bad-keeper funk, but... I bloody well won that game, catching the Snitch under Cho Chang's nose, on a bloody cheap, ancient broom. Not a Firebolt, or even a new Cleansweep. And who got carried off on everyone's shoulders?"
Harry rested his head against the stone. He hadn't even thought of that. He'd been so proud of Ron, and glad that he'd got the cheers he deserved after all his hard work.
"Oh, forget I said anything, Hermione," Ginny said after a moment. "I'm just... tired. I'm just... tired of being invisible." There was a pause. "Seriously, forget that. I really was glad for Ron, you know. I'm going up to bed."
Harry waited until he heard her footsteps walking away before he rounded the corner. Hermione was looking after Ginny, frowning.
Ginny said, "Sorry, you need to budge up a bit," as she set the new snake down in the glass tank. "Now behave, all of you."
There was a general hissing of dismay and irritation from the half dozen already itinerant snakes.
"Would you prefer I left you out as griffin food?" she asked sweetly.
The snakey dissension settled down. One small voice exclaimed Skeereeee monsterrrr!
She hunted in a nearby cupboard and found a box of crickets. After a moment's deliberation, she set the box down in the tank and opened the lid. Crickets of all sizes began to leap out, and she hurriedly clamped the tank lid down and moved over to the second tank.
"All well here?" she asked of the three larger snakes, who were all sleepy with meals from the day before.
Yes one replied, while the others drowsed.
"Remembered anything of the person who handled you?" she inquired as she checked their water.
Very warm hands the snake said. It considered a moment longer. Smelled of food.
Ginny frowned. Food, to this snake, suggested someone with... a rat for a pet? She tried to remember any Slytherins with rats. While she couldn't recall any specifically, she suspected that the actual number was rather large. And as for warm hands... that wasn't something she generally wanted to go around checking.
"Thanks," she said, and closed the lid.
She drifted aimlessly around the Room of Requirement, seeing what the room thought she needed on this trip. Some items were constants when she came to check on the snakes: the snake tanks, the food cupboards, and jugs of water. Usually, there was a nice fire in the grate, a comfortable chair, and tea. Sometimes, there was a trashy wizard romance novel on the little table beside the chair, just the thing to take her mind off everything in her life for a short while.
When she came in to see the snakes, it often took her a while to stop speculating about who was working for Voldemort, grilling the snakes for every last detail of information, and how this whole thing with the snakes was designed to sabotage the protection they had set up with this marriage.
She threw herself into the cushioned chair with her usual disgust with their lack of information. Harry, Ron, and Hermione kept taking the griffin out to hunt the corridors, but they hadn't found another box, and the griffin made sure that they couldn't question their finds. Ginny had taken to snake-hunting just in the girls' dorm, keeping her finds in a box secured in her trunk until she could bring them to the Room of Requirement.
Her inquiries hadn't been rewarded, unfortunately, except with tiny pieces of information that didn't fit together in any reasonable way. And she wondered what the devil she was going to do with all these snakes.
With a sigh, she snatched up the book beside her and opened it. After a while she slowly closed it and peered at the cover.
Not the usual sort of romance novel.
A little trepidatiously, she opened the book again and started reading, wondering just what it was the room thought she required in this book. But, well, she supposed it might be interesting.
Harry unslung his broom just outside the Quidditch pitch. "Up," he told it. The Firebolt sprang from the ground eagerly. Ron did the same with his broom.
Harry muttered, "I wish that Smith hadn't been hanging about."
"Why?" asked Ron. "He just wanted to ask you about the DA again. You know he likes to pester you about that."
Harry sat down on his broom and grumped, "He just really gets up my nose. I always feel like he's trying to catch me doing something bad. Like Malfoy."
"He's not as bad as Malfoy," Ron protested. "I mean, he was in the DA while Malfoy was working for that... that woman."
Harry didn't need reminding. "I know. But you know what? I prefer talking to Malfoy. He's right up front about hating us. Smith just gives me the creeps."
"This is too deep for me, mate," Ron said. "Though I don't like him much either."
"Why don't you like him?" asked Harry.
"Cause he's always watching you," said Ron. "And he's sneaky."
Harry slapped his forehead, then wondered if he was picking that habit up from Hermione.
"Ginny," Harry said to her suddenly, quite late at night as she sat alone in the common room with her latest Potions essay, "I need to... Can I... Would you please help me with something?"
She blinked up at him blearily, trying to shift her mental broomstick abruptly from its target at the academic hoops to chasing the Snitch of Harry's train of thought. "Um. Sure?"
He plopped down on the chair next to her, and she noticed in passing that he was in his pyjamas and dressing gown. His hair was more rumpled than usual -- apparently, he was coping with end-of-term insomnia. Or something. He stared down at where his hands rested on his knees for a long moment, then said, "I'd like to get something for the holidays... for your parents."
Ginny focused a bit more. "Okaaaay," she said slowly.
He looked up at her. "I'd like to get them something really nice. And things for Ron, and the twins."
She nodded, but felt that he was trying to drive at something that she wasn't quite getting. After a moment of trying to fathom his expression, she raised her eyebrows and cocked her head interrogatively.
"Because I can now," he blurted.
They stared at each other. Then realization dawned on her. "Ohhhhhh," she said.
"Yes," he said with tones of triumph. "So. I need your help."
"On two conditions," she said.
He swallowed hard. "Um. Okay."
"One," she said severely. "That you do nothing stupid in the pursuit of these things, like sneak out to Hogsmeade."
He nodded, looking chastened.
"Two," she said, "the 'From' labels say that the gifts are from the both of us. Because you know that's the only way this sort of thing can come. From the two of us."
He blinked at her owlishly, then smiled. "Done."
Harry was grateful for the warning when Colin yelled, "Owls!" down the table. It helped him dodge the enormous set of packages that Hedwig and company nearly deposited on his head. He had the sinking feeling that she wouldn't soon forgive him for the griffin's friendly overtures of the day before.
"We'll never spot the snake boxes now," Hermione said as she peered around the room. "Everyone's ordering gifts by owl."
"That's a lot of packages, Harry," Ron commented innocently.
"You better just be patient, Ron," Harry said, awkwardly gathering up his packages. "No hunting under my bed."
"Better tell the griffin that," Ron grinned, picking up his books.
"Can I give you a hand?" Ginny asked, hefting a couple of boxes. Harry shot her a grateful look and tried not to drop the box he was sure contained the pretty floral teapot for Mrs. Weasley.
"Of course," Hermione said thoughtfully as they emerged from the Great Hall, "if we notice more snakes now, it's evidence that they're taking advantage of the situation. So, obviously, we could assume that they're getting inside information. You know, that they'd know Hogsmeade weekends were canceled and such."
"Uh, yeah," Harry said. "Look, I'll catch you all up. I have to drop these off in the tower."
"Don't be late," Hermione said as she and Ron headed off down the hall.
Ginny helped him carry the mess up to his room, a slightly quizzical expression on her face. Once there, she asked, "So, who's the broom for?"
Harry sighed. He didn't know why he bothered hoping that either of the girls would miss the least little detail of his life. "Well, since the secret's out, it's for you," he said with a touch of asperity.
"Oh!" Ginny turned beet-red. "I didn't... didn't think..."
"It's all right," he said, thrusting the package into her hands. "It's not like I could hope that no one would recognize it. I mean, brooms are pretty obvious, aren't they?"
"Yeah," she admitted, staring down at the package.
"Well?" he said after a moment.
She shot him a sheepish grin and tore the paper off. After a long moment of staring, she said, very sincerely, "It's lovely, Harry." She ran her hand over the polished wood.
"I wanted to get you a Firebolt, or a Nimbus," he said apologetically. "But Hermione said I shouldn't. So I got you a Cleansweep like Ron's."
Ginny looked briefly disappointed, but nodded. "She's perfectly right, too. This is just right." She hesitated for a moment, then leaned over and kissed Harry on the cheek. "Thank you."
Harry felt himself blush fiercely. "That's all right," he said, trying not to feel too pleased with himself. "C'mon, help me stash these under the bed, and then we'd best get to class. I can't give Snape another reason to take points."
Ginny groaned. "Don't get me started on Snape," she said.
"Is he still being a bastard to you?" Harry asked, shooing the inquisitive griffin away from the stack of packages.
"Well, I'm trying to be philosophical about it," Ginny said, helping him shove the boxes into a more secure position. "I'll know a lot about Potions when I'm done. It'll take a lot to make me do badly on the Potions OWL, won't it?"
"True," Harry admitted, trying hard not to remember his own OWL for Potions.
There was a rending sound, and paper showered down around them. The griffin stood in the center of her kill: the paper from Ginny's broom. Harry groaned.
"Go on," Ginny said, giving him a shove. "You get to Potions. I've got Binns this morning, and you know he never notices if you're late."
Harry picked up his books and grinned at her. "You're too good to me, Mrs. Potter." He failed to dodge the pillow that shot into his face in reply.
"Get out, Mr. Potter," Ginny said, "before you have to go to Potions with bats trying to eat your face."
Harry fled, snickering.
In the common room, after dinner, Harry appeared, carrying two boxes. The boxes didn't look familiar to Ginny, so she drifted over from her conversation with Dean and Seamus.
"What have you got there?" Ron asked, sitting up from staring forlornly at his Defense Against the Dark Arts reading.
Harry opened the larger box and pulled out a... compact, shiny white-and-metal thing.
"What is that?" Ginny asked, leaning closer.
"It's, um, for your dad," Harry said. "It's an ice shaver."
"What d'you need to shave ice for?" Ron asked, bewildered. "It doesn't have a beard."
"No, no," Harry said. "It turns ice cubes into little shavings."
"Sort of like artificial snow," Hermione explained, wandering over from helping Colin with his Arithmancy.
Harry pulled clear bags off the various pieces of it, carefully assembling the little parts. Ginny stared, fascinated. "Why make a thing to make artificial snow?" she wondered.
"It's a... sort of a... food thing," Harry said.
"Dad'll love it," Ron said, holding up one of the dangling bits. "It's got a plug. What's it made of?"
"Plastic," Harry said.
"He'll love it," Ron said, nodding.
"You put the shavings in a cup," Hermione explained. "And then you can spray a bit of flavoring on it, like fruit juice." She plucked a small rack of four tubes, each a different color, out of the box. "Looks like it comes with, um, cherry, grape, orange, and... well, I guess green could be lime."
"What'll Dad do with it?" Ginny asked. "The Burrow's got no electricity."
"Well," said Harry, "that's what this--" holding up the second box "--will hopefully fix. It's a kit to convert electricity-run things to run on magic."
The three of them looked skeptical. "Where'd you find the kit?" Ron asked.
"In a catalog," Harry said, a little defensively.
"Which catalog?" Ginny pressed.
Harry looked flustered. "'Arney's Activities' if you must know."
"Arney's?" Ron asked, confused. "I only know of B.L. Arney's..."
Ginny gripped the bridge of her nose tightly between thumb and forefinger. "Argh."
Hermione looked curious. Harry looked confused.
"It's a... not very... it's a bit dodgy, Harry," Ron said kindly.
"It all looked very legitimate," Harry said, more than a little defensive now. He opened the box and pulled out a copy of the catalog. "There are even quotes about them on the back of the catalog."
Ginny peered over Ron's shoulder and read aloud, "'Buy Arney's! Definitely a winning bet!'"
Ron added, "From Ludo Bagman."
Ginny pointed. "Look! A picture of Gilderoy Lockhart!"
Ron squinted. "He keeps getting lost in those pictures of talking mirrors. And shouting at them."
Harry pulled out a brass box with copper endcaps and a folded piece of paper with tiny writing on it. "Look here. It even comes with directions."
Hermione took the directions while Harry produced several coiled wires with plugs on them from the box. Harry started trying to fit plugs into some of the holes, but they all fit, more or less. Ron started to help him, a little half-heartedly.
Ginny peered over Hermione's shoulder. "That's not proper English," she said after a moment.
Hermione started to laugh and covered her face with one hand.
"What? What?" Ginny, Ron, and Harry all clamored.
"Well, it's pretty badly translated, whatever its original language," Hermione said. "I think I can safely say that the original directions involve plugging things into holes."
Ginny managed to stifle her explosion of laughter. Harry's ears turned pink, and he said, ill-temperedly, "Is it at all more specific? Like which holes? Wire colors? Anything?"
"The red wire," Hermione said, squinting at the tiny text, "seems to plug into the transformer pack near the imprint of a Greek omega." She leaned over to peer at the thing in his hand. "There, I think," she said, pointing.
Harry shoved the plug on one end of the red wire into the hole. A bit of the copper endcap bent as he did so.
"Now, you'll have to open up the machine," Hermione said.
A good quarter of an hour later, the innards of the shaver lay exposed, and the plastic cover was not broken, but several of Harry's knuckles were skinned. More Gryffindors had drifted over to observe the odd proceedings.
"I think the power supply is where the power cord comes in," Harry said after examining it. "It'd be easier if it was more like a computer. I saw the inside of Dudley's computers all the time when he threw tantrums and broke them."
"I think you're right," Hermione said, having surrendered the directions to Ginny and Ron and turned to helping Harry more directly. A tendril of hair drifted into her face and she shoved it irritably aside. "I'm not seeing any place to plug this thing in. We may have to splice the wires together."
They all stared at her. She looked around. "What? My mother had to do it when she replaced a light switch one time. I read her the directions. I think I remember how to do it."
There was an intense ten minutes of scraping and twisting and whatnot. Harry and Hermione sat back and grinned at each other triumphantly.
"All right then," Harry said. "Let's see if this thing works."
He flipped the "on" switch.
There was nothing for a moment. Then, slowly, the gears started to make noise.
And then the brass box exploded, spraying orange goo over them all.
Harry stared at the box, then sniffed his sleeve. "Orange marmalade... transforms magic into electricity?"
Hermione leaned her head on her hand. "For a few seconds, apparently." She stood up abruptly. "I am going down to the library to find a book, written in English that tells us how to do this properly." She marched toward the painting.
"Um, Hermione?" Harry said.
"What?" she replied, turning back toward them.
"You still have marmalade on your nose."
She rolled her eyes, mopped her nose off, and marched out.
"Catch it before it eats the griffin!" Ron yelled.
Harry watched despairingly as the ice shaver made its way speedily across the room toward the distracted griffin. Ginny pounced after the machine, and managed to wrap an arm around it, but it kept moving, dragging her along.
Neville managed to snatch the griffin out of harm's way just before the ice shaver descended upon the fluffy tail, but Dora repaid his devotion with a sudden unveiling of five pointy ends and an ear-splitting squawk of dismay.
Harry threw himself after the machine and Ginny. Together, they managed to flip it over, and Hermione finally landed the cancellation spell on it.
"Right, then," Hermione said, sitting back down. "No more dozens of tiny feet."
Harry picked the thing up gingerly. "I didn't like the way it was following me around."
"It was happy until you yelled at Dora," Ginny pointed out, standing up. "Then it was off with the kid gloves. Er, boots."
"What about this bit here?" Ron said, pointing at a spot on the page of the book Hermione was scanning.
"Oh, I think you're right, Ron," Hermione said. "That looks like our spell."
Harry set the ice shaver back on the table, right side-up. "You're sure this time?" he asked dubiously.
Hermione didn't deign to give him an answer. She simply performed the spell, reading the incantation out of the book and carefully following the wand pattern.
When she was done, the machine glittered a little, and then hummed to life.
They all traded looks, and the surrounding Gryffindors murmured appreciatively, closing in now that all looked relatively safe.
"Now to test," Harry said. "Ginny?"
Ginny slowly reached into the bucket of ice, withdrew a single cube, and dropped it into the hole on top of the machine.
There was a thoughtful pause. Then the ice shaver made a sound surprisingly like a growl, rocked back and forth violently, and the ice cube shot back out of the hole.
Harry was on his feet, staring down at the felled Dean Thomas. Ginny ran over. "Dean? Dean?" she said.
"Ginny," Dean said weakly, "most girls give a chap the talk about being friends. Or write a note."
Ginny burst out laughing and patted his shoulder. "You've got a goose-egg coming up. Let me fix that."
Harry, relieved, turned back to the offending device. Hermione was scowling fiercely at it. Ron nudged him. "She's not going to let us quit until she kills everyone in the room with the beastly thing."
Harry laughed, although he was a little dismayed by the hysterical edge in his voice. He shook his head. "Face it, Ron. Your dad will get his present over the bodies of House Gryffindor."
Even though the dungbombs went off outside the door, at the Fat Lady's feet (or where her feet would be), the Common Room filled with the stench pretty quickly. Ginny wished that her brothers had not improved the dungbomb technology so very much.
In the confusion, while Hermione was stopping one of the fifth year Prefects from actually opening the door to pursue the offenders ("Can you imagine what it's like out there right now?"), some of the first and second years threw open every window. Ginny yelled, "Dora?" to try to be heard over the tumult, and then watched helplessly as the griffin slipped out one of the windows.
"Damn! Hermione!" she called, wading through retching third years to grab the prefect's shoulder. "Dora's got out."
"Oh, damn," Hermione said, "and it's almost dark too."
"I'll get my broom," Ginny said, rolling her eyes.
A few minutes later, they were riding double on Ginny's new broom in the twilight.
"Do you see her?" Ginny asked, feeling a little desperate.
"I've got my eyes closed," Hermione admitted.
"I can't steer and look for her!" Ginny replied, exasperated.
"Steer! Steer!" Hermione said, and began to apply herself to looking for Dora.
"You'd think she'd be easier to spot," Ginny said after a few minutes.
"There she is!" Hermione said, pointing. "She's heading for the Forest!"
"Hang on!" Ginny said, leaning forward and urging as much speed out of her heavily laden broom as she could. Hermione squeaked and clung to her waist.
"Ginny," Hermione said after a particularly sharp turn, "we're not chasing the Snitch here!"
"Good thing, too," Ginny offered, over her shoulder. "With two of us, we couldn't hope to catch it. Oh, hang on!"
"I say," Hermione said weakly after a moment, "that was rather neat."
"She doesn't corner as well as the Snitch either," Ginny observed as the griffin, cut off from the Forest, swerved back toward the castle.
"Neither do we," Hermione sighed.
"She's enjoying this," Ginny said, angling after Dora.
"Of course she is," Hermione said, a little bitterly.
"Well, she's still got the harness on," Ginny said, trying to get a little altitude. "I can make a grab for that."
"I thought you said we weren't chasing the Snitch," Hermione moaned.
"No, you said that," Ginny observed reasonably. "How else do you propose we catch her?"
"I could try the Enmeshing spell," Hermione said, trying to worm her wand out of her robe without letting her grip on Ginny relax too much. "The one I used against the Slytherins."
"She might get hurt if she falls," Ginny said a little dubiously.
"We could try to get her to fly lower," Hermione said hopefully.
"That might work," Ginny admitted. "Hold on!" she ordered, taking the broom into a steep dive after the griffin.
Dora squawked when she happened to glance back and see them stooping toward her. She went into an abrupt descent herself.
"Good!" Hermione said, voice unsteady and unconvincing. "That's great! She's getting lower!"
"I think she's almost as low as she's going to get," Ginny shouted over the roar of the wind, laid almost flat against the broomstick.
"I think you're right!" Hermione shouted back, and cast the spell.
"You got her!" Ginny crowed as the griffin struggled briefly, then drifted toward the snowy field.
"Pull up! Pull up!" Hermione shrieked in Ginny's ear.
"I am!" Ginny replied, pulling with all her might. "We're too heavy! Brace yourse--!"
Ginny opened her eyes to... snow. She tried to lift her head, but just as she did, Hermione pushed against her back in trying to get herself out. Ginny went in deeper, and Hermione wobbled to the side and fell in deeper herself. There followed several confused minutes of flailing up to the surface of the drift.
The griffin trilled at them wistfully from her sticky prison, and Ginny burst out laughing. Hermione was laughing and red in the face from the wind. Ginny reached over and swept some of Hermione's out-of-control hair back, and Hermione smiled down at her.
Hermione was surprisingly warm, and Ginny thought that she kissed as well as she did magic, really. It wasn't until they looked at each other again in the fading light that Ginny wondered how that had happened.
The griffin peeped hopefully, and they both dissolved into giggles.
The two of them walked back to the castle slowly, the griffin cavorting on the leash that Hermione had remembered to bring, the broomstick over Ginny's shoulder. They didn't talk much at all.
"Potter," McGonagall said one day as Transfiguration ended.
Harry turned to her. "Professor?"
"Stay a moment, won't you?" she asked, almost too casually, as she gathered the day's equipment with a wave of her wand. A few blocks of chocolate, a few chocolate frogs, one real frog, and a few unfortunate things in-between flew to her desk.
Harry followed her up to the front of the classroom and looked down at the assortment of products from the class. "What will you do with them?" he asked after a moment of consideration.
McGonagall waved her wand, and there was a pile of chocolate frogs. "Have one if you like, Potter."
"Er," said Harry, vaguely queasy. "No thanks."
"It's about Christmas, Potter," she began, seating herself behind the desk.
"I expected to spend it at the Burrow," he said, worriedly. "I don't have to go back..."
"No, no, nothing like that," McGonagall assured him. "It's only that... well, things were arranged to protect Hogwarts," she said, looking around her. "And if you and... your family... leave, even for a few days, it will be unprotected."
Harry thought about this. "Well, then, I suppose I should stay here."
"That won't do," she said, idly picking up one of the friskier chocolate frogs and examining it. "It has to be you and your family."
"Uh," Harry said. "It seems kind of mean to make Ron stay here with me. Or Ginny," he added after a breath."
"Well, why don't you talk to them about it?" McGonagall asked. She took a small bite of the frog. "Ah, pecans. Two points to Gryffindor for Granger's skill. And for remembering that I rather like pecans."
"I'll stay, mate," Ron said. "It's no problem at all."
Ginny regarded her brother gratefully across the dinner table. She loved being with her family for Christmas, and the prospect of a cold, echoing Christmas at Hogwarts had filled her with despair.
"And, of course, I'll stay, Harry," Hermione said. "My parents were talking about a trip, but they'll understand."
In a wrenching reversal from those few words, Ginny felt desperately left out, like she had only a month before. The three of them were a whole, inviolable, unreachable. Even after the time she'd spent with them... and spent with Hermione... she felt like a... a... what did Hermione call it? A grouper.
Just then, an owl managed to land on Ron's head.
"What?" Ron exclaimed. "Who?"
"Errol," Ginny, Hermione, and Harry all said at the same time.
Ron flailed at his head. Errol wobbled dangerously. Harry managed to grab the owl off Ron's head before anyone's dinner became a casualty.
Harry extended Errol to Ginny, feet-first. "Thanks," she said, and removed the scroll. Errol began to snore gently in Harry's hands as she handed the letter to Ron.
Ron opened it and exclaimed. Heads at the table turned toward them curiously.
"Bad news from home?" Lavender Brown inquired.
"Oh," Ron said. "I suppose. Only my mum and dad want to spend Christmas at Hogwarts."
Lavender frowned and traded baffled glances with Parvati. "Why would they do that?"
Hermione cut Ron off before he could speak. "Just a family joke, really. They always tell them that."
"Yeah," Ginny chimed in. "I can't believe Ron still believes them. Every year!"
"Hey," Ron said.
Lavender and Parvati both giggled and went back to their conversation. Ginny caught a glimpse of the magazine they were poring over: Love Signs--Special Harry Potter issue! She tried not to laugh.
Ron looked indignant. "Now I look stupid."
"It's all right," Harry said hurriedly. "No one will notice, really. What was that about your parents?"
"Hey!" Ron said, even more indignantly.
Ginny snatched the letter out of his hands and scanned her father's crabbed scrawl. "We're to have Christmas here," she said, and flashed a hesitant smile across the table at Hermione. "They'll bring everything. So we can all spend Christmas together."
Hermione smiled back at her. Ginny felt a rush of elation.
"Well, good," Ron said. "Saves worry."
Harry looked relieved. "I'm glad I'm not ruining anyone's Christmas."
"Oh, Harry," Hermione chided. "You couldn't possibly do that. But I admit that this way will be more..." She searched for the right word, and settled on, "familial."
"Harry," said Mr. Weasley. "Help me fetch the presents from the Floo? That's a lad."
Harry cheerfully walked with Mr. Weasley to the Floo that had brought him and Mrs. Weasley, the twins, and Charlie in from the Burrow. Bill was in Egypt again, and had sent along a card with dancing, singing mummies that Mrs. Weasley had shared with everyone upon their arrival at Hogwarts.
Mr. Weasley glanced aside at Harry a little nervously, and finally said, "So, er, how are things?"
"Fine," Harry said as they reached the pile of presents. "The Quidditch team's doing well this year. Ron's improved as a keeper, and Ginny's fabulous as a Chaser. Our Beaters aren't as good as the twins, but, well, who is?"
Mr. Weasley nodded, adjusting his glasses. "That's, er, great, Harry, just great. I, um, meant with Ginny."
"Oh," Harry said, deflating a little, and opting to pick up an armful of gifts just then. "Things are all right."
"Really?" Mr. Weasley asked around his own armful.
"Yeah." Harry thought for a minute and added, "They were a little difficult at first, but I think it's okay now."
"Grand," Mr. Weasley said. "Really grand. Ginny's a fine girl. A little young for all this, sure, but she's a lot like her mother. High-spirited and tough as nails."
"Ah," Harry said.
"Let me tell you the secret of a happy marriage, Harry."
"Oh?" Harry wondered what sort of wisdom was forthcoming.
Mr. Weasley lowered his voice. "Always say you're sorry."
Harry blinked. "Always?"
"Always," Mr. Weasley said firmly.
"What if you're right and she's wrong?"
"Apologize anyway," Mr. Weasley said. "Works a treat, really."
"Arthur?" Mrs. Weasley called down the hallway. "What's taking so long? We were afraid the Floo had eaten you!"
"Coming, Molly," he replied cheerfully. "Sorry."
Harry followed Mr. Weasley back into the common room, pondering.
He wasn't there long before Mrs. Weasley neatly cut him out of the group and got him off in a corner.
"Now, Harry," she said, holding his shoulders and looking at him. "You've got taller."
"Have I?" he asked. "Really, around Ron I always feel short."
"He has got tall, hasn't he? But you've definitely grown. It looks good on you."
Harry blushed slightly. "Er. Thanks."
"So," she said, lowering her voice a little, "how are... things?"
Harry felt like an old pro at this already. "Just fine. Really."
"She's a good girl, Harry," Mrs. Weasley said a little mournfully. "I'm sorry this happened so suddenly, but I couldn't ask for a nicer son-in-law."
"Um," Harry said, brain starting to sputter quietly. "Thanks."
Mrs. Weasley looked at him fondly. "Lily was red-haired too, you know," she said. "Beautiful auburn color. I suppose that maybe at least some of the children will be ginger."
His brain went into a stall. "Um, uh, children?"
"Well, not right now, of course," Mrs. Weasley said. "But I never thought my youngest child would be closest to making me a grandmother."
Harry's brain was in a steep dive and beginning to spin when Ginny appeared at his elbow and said, "What are you two doing over here? The eggnog is over there." She managed to get between them, hooking both of their arms and guiding them back toward the side of the room where the family was gathered, and where Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore had just come in through the painting. "Of course," she continued, "Fred and George whipped it up, so who knows what it will taste like."
Harry looked down at her with a sudden grateful fondness, and she smiled back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mrs. Weasley's expression change from anxiety to relief. He realized--thanks to his enforced illumination by Hermione--that Ginny had orchestrated that just for her mother, in addition to rescuing him.
He thumbed his invisible ring and wondered what other talents would suddenly materialize in his wife.
Ginny tried hard to maintain a suitable detachment from the process of opening presents, but still got a little misty-eyed from her parents' enthusiasm for Harry's presents. Well, the presents from her and Harry.
Mr. Weasley was ecstatic over the ice shaver, and exclaimed over everyone's cleverness (Ginny and Harry were careful to include Hermione's name on the gift as well) in converting it to work on magic. He insisted on feeding everyone a round of shaved ice with every single flavor squirted on. It left a peculiar aftertaste in Ginny's mouth that reminded her unpleasantly of Potions class, despite the sweetness.
Mrs. Weasley actually burst into tears over the teapot, after several minutes of opening other, more practical gifts. Ginny had remembered that her mother's most treasured teapot--her brother Gideon had given it to her not long before he died--had been irrevocably destroyed by one of the twins' early magical accidents. Ginny had spent a headache-inducing evening hunting through catalogs for something similar.
Harry, she noticed, looked acutely embarrassed.
Just then, Mr. Weasley descended upon the party, passing around a new serving of shaved ice. "I ran out of those flavor thingies," he said, "so I tried it with butterbeer!"
Everyone tried some. The twins seemed to like it, and started discussing other alcohol-based possibilities in a lively fashion with Harry and Charlie.
Ginny, Hermione, and Mrs. Weasley had a couple of poker games with Professor McGonagall.
"Wow," said Hermione, after Mrs. Weasley had wiped them all out for the fourth time. "You're good."
Mrs. Weasley smiled. "Thursday night's ladies' poker night," she said. "Keeps me in practice. Arthur's poker group won't play with me any more."
"Well, I'm out of beans and chocolate," Professor McGonagall said. "You've got it all, Molly. I seem to recall that you frequently cleaned out the other girls in Gryffindor."
Mrs. Weasley shrugged, looking innocently heavenward. "I managed to get the Hufflepuffs involved, too. Dumbledore complimented me on fostering good inter-house relations."
Mr. Weasley appeared again, grinning broadly. He handed round another set of small cups of shaved ice, this time with a dark substance spread over the scoop.
Harry, without really looking at it, scooped a spoonful into his mouth. He nearly fell off his chair. "Marmite?" he exclaimed with some horror.
"Bit strong," Mr. Weasley admitted.
"We figured it was a Muggle thing," Ron said, looking sheepish. "So we tried it."
"Uh," Harry said. "Yeah."
Hermione quietly used her wand to clean out her cup while Mrs. Weasley was looking the other way. Ginny noticed McGonagall doing the same. Ginny, curious, tasted hers. The flavor was powerful enough to burn, and certainly did not belong on shaved ice.
She rose swiftly, bore down upon the sleepy griffin, scooped her up, and said, "Dad! I don't think you've met Dora!"
Within minutes, she'd ensconced her father in a comfortable chair near the boys, sleeping griffin in his lap.
"Arthur has such a calming presence," Mrs. Weasley commented, taking up her knitting and beaming fondly upon her now-dozing husband. "I used to give him the babies when they were fretful and out like a light they all went."
"Along with him, it looks like," McGonagall said with a chuckle.
After a long nap, Dora awoke with a vengeance, bounding from person to person, trilling excitedly. While everyone was distracted by Professor McGonagall calming the griffin, Fred and George seized Harry by the arms and carried him off to the deserted sixth year boys dorm.
"We thought that, now you're part of the family--" Fred began, dropping a small object on the floor.
"We should make sure you're entirely up to speed," George finished, tapping the object with his wand. The thing telescoped upward and sprang open as a stand holding a large flipchart.
"On what?" Harry asked faintly.
"The facts of life," Fred said, gesturing at the flipchart, which obligingly opened to a page announcing THE FACTS OF LIFE.
"Oh," said Harry. "I'm pretty sure I've got it."
"Let's make sure, shall we?" George said, and the first page flipped over.
"We're sure you have the basic principles," Fred said.
"As illustrated here," George added.
"Agggh!" Harry said.
"But what about the details?" Fred asked as the page turned.
"Now this is what most people think of," George explained.
"But it's really the most boring position," Fred added.
"Now the major variants include this--" George said. The page turned.
"And this--" Fred said. The page turned.
"And this," George finished as the page turned again.
"But really the possibilities are endless," Fred said.
"Including ones that use furniture," George said. The page turned.
"So you should feel free to let your imagination run wild," Fred explained.
Then they both turned to him and said, simultaneously, "But not with our sister."
Harry felt his eyes get very large. He suspected that his face was redder than it had ever been before.
"Now, this is fun no matter how you do it," George said, turning the page.
"And includes endless variety," Fred added.
"Including this--" George said. The page turned.
"And this--" Fred said. The page turned.
"And this!" George said with a grin. The page turned.
"That's his favorite," Fred said conspiratorially.
"I'm very fond of the illustration too," George explained.
"Uh-huh," Harry managed.
"But, as we said, the diversity is endless," Fred said, turning the page.
"This is something to experiment with," George said.
Again, they both turned to him and said simultaneously, "But not with our sister."
Harry tried to press his back through the stone wall. It didn't work. His pulse was pounding in his ears, and he was convinced that most of the blood in his body had taken up residence in his face.
"Now this is the third main style," Fred said. The page turned.
"Notice that it can go like this--" George said. The page turned.
"Or like this--" Fred said. The page turned.
"Really, all the categories in the first style can apply here," George said. The page turned.
"Without the need for any spells, like you need in the first," Fred added.
"This one is a great deal of fun, really," George said.
"You should definitely try it someday," Fred said.
Both of them said, "But not with our sister."
"Now, while the first three basic styles are what people generally think of," said George, flipping the chart once more.
"There are actually many more things you can do," said Fred. "Such as this little number."
"While the illustration is a little less impressive--" said George.
"It's actually a lot more fun than it looks," added Fred, tapping the chart. The couple on the page sped up.
"Because nudity is optional," said George. "This one's good for a quickie."
"But not with our sister," they added together.
"Lastly," said Fred, as the page flipped over to an illustration that would have instantly turned Harry tomato-red if he hadn't been boiled-lobster already, "this is an important category in itself."
"You can see how it lends itself to a wide array of techniques, not unlike categories One and Three," George added, as the page flipped again.
"One of the advantages of this one is that the positions are just about infinite," enthused Fred, flipping the pages rapidly to show at least half a dozen different illustrations.
"This is one in which skill really counts, Harry," George said sincerely.
"So you need to practice a great deal," said Fred.
"But not with our sister," they chorused.
"You may have noticed that all the styles other than the first are gender-neutral," George said. The page turned.
"Not so much gender neutral, really--" Fred said. The page turned.
"--as fun for anyone," George finished. The page turned.
"We definitely advise trying all styles and variants," Fred said.
"At some point in your life," George said.
Both of them said, "But not with our brother."
"That concludes today's presentation," Fred said. The page turned and read THE END.
"We hope you've found it informative," George said, tapping the apparatus. It closed up into a little ball again.
"Welcome to the family, Harry," Fred said, solemnly shaking his hand.
"Welcome to the family," George said, shaking his hand.
"And remember," Fred said.
"If you have any questions--" George said.
"Or problems--" Fred said.
"Or just need a bit of advice--" George said.
Both of them said, "Just come to us."
Grinning widely, they made their way out of the room.
Harry heard them go down the stairs. He, meanwhile, remained pressed against the wall. He didn't seem to be able to convince his blush to stop, or his eyes to close. He suspected that some of those pictures would haunt his dreams.
Ron wandered in a few minutes later. "There you are, Harry." He studied Harry for a moment. "Are you okay?"
"Ron," Harry said weakly.
"When you get a girlfriend?" Harry said.
"Keep the twins away from her," Harry said urgently.
Ginny dragged cheerfully up the stairs of the tower from the very Weasley Christmas in the Common Room, her newest Weasley jumper keeping off the late night chill. Some commotion broke out below and, as her mother began bellowing, she retreated with more speed from the latest Fred and George prank.
Her own room felt cold and lonely, so she passed it by and knocked on Hermione's door.
Ginny poked her head in, and found Hermione, sitting up wakefully, reading a book. "Hi," she said shyly.
"Hi," Hermione said, closing the book and setting it aside. "Everyone going to bed?"
"Not yet," Ginny admitted, sliding into the room and closing the door behind her. "I just got tired."
"Want to sleep in here tonight?" Hermione asked, shifting over to give Ginny room on the bed.
"If you don't mind," Ginny said, kicking off her shoes and sitting next to Hermione.
"I don't mind at all," Hermione said. "You really tired?"
"I thought I was," Ginny admitted, "but now that I'm up here, I'm pretty awake."
"Want to play cards?" Hermione inquired in a suspiciously bright tone.
Ginny studied Hermione for a moment, then allowed, "I... sure."
Hermione pulled out a familiar box, opened it, and drew out the deck.
Ginny said, "Um. Hermione. Isn't that...?"
Hermione blinked at her innocently. "Yes?" she said, tapping the Disrobing Deck and starting its shuffle.
Ginny stared at her for a moment. "You... I... Oh."
Hermione smiled, and Ginny was startled by the amount of mischief there. "Shall we play Spit in the Cauldron? It goes so much faster than other variants."
Ginny's smile twitched wider. "Not too fast, I hope."
The holidays went far too quickly, as far as Harry was concerned. Well, possibly not fast enough to get the twins out of Hogwarts; they kept grinning at him, and he kept wondering nervously if they'd managed to charm some sort of "Kick Me!" sign onto the back of his Weasley jumper. But he enjoyed being around Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, and Charlie continued a good-humored harbor of safety from the twins' antics.
No snakes turned up during the holidays. Harry wasn't sure whether it was because they were holed up somewhere against the chill, or because the griffin had hunted them out and no fresh supplies came during those weeks.
The term began with the news that Hagrid was delayed another few weeks wherever he was, which meant that Harry and Ron had to greet Seamus, Dean, and Neville with excessively bright smiles, a griffin in hand, and plenty of chocolate frogs as bribes.
Neville stared in horror.
"You," said Dean, "have got to be kidding me."
Seamus said, "I think I'm going to get myself a supply of Proteus potions and move into the girls dorm."
Ron said, "Chocolate frog, anyone? How about these great ice mice from Honeydukes?"
"Ron," said Dean, "If you think that you can bribe us into putting up with that thing..."
Dora poked her head out of Harry's curtains and Neville squeaked. "She's... got... big!"
"Kittens do that, Neville," Harry said.
"She's a lot bigger than most kittens," said Neville.
"Fred and George sent me a consignment of their new hot buttered rum balls," Ron offered a little desperately, extending a tin.
"What do those turn you into?" Seamus asked in a flat, cynical tone. "Harry's cousin?"
"No, that would be hot buttered dum-balls," replied Ron. Harry suppressed a snicker.
"I got new pyjamas for Christmas," said Neville sadly. "Now they're going to be shredded."
"She's got lots less destructive," Harry said defensively. "And look, Dean, I got you a new pillow for Christmas."
"Thanks," Dean said, grudgingly poking the extremely fluffy pillow.
Dora leapt down onto the floor, spreading her wings to a gliding landing. She pranced up to the boys who had just entered, greeting them all enthusiastically with her newest trick, which was not only to do her little head-twisting dance, but to go up on her tiptoes, lifting one, then the other leg in a little dance, while waving her tail ecstatically. Her wings spread upward and vibrated happily.
"The power of the cute commands me," Seamus said, flumping down onto the floor and stretching out a hand. Dora rubbed against his hand and nibbled gently at his wrist.
"You've got her more trained than you admit," Dean said, sighing heavily. "She reads hand signals or something."
Neville got down onto hands and knees and bumped heads gently with the griffin. "Okay, so I guess I missed her."
"Sugar-Shock Honey Sticks?" Ron offered.
"We've got enough sugar shock right here," Seamus said, accepting one anyway.
"All my teeth are about to rot out," Dean commented, sitting on the foot of his bed.
"How many more -- ow -- weeks?" Neville asked, flat on his stomach, with Dora standing on his back. She thoughtfully plucked another hair from his head.
"At least three," Harry said.
"Mind control," Dean said. "It has to be."
"Wow," breathed Ginny. "And you get to use this bathroom any time you want?"
"It's one of the few perks of being a prefect," Hermione said.
"Few?" Ginny squeaked, staring around at the shining tile and elaborate fixtures. "Why didn't you show me this before?"
Hermione tapped the towel table, which promptly produced a stack of fluffy white towels. "I was waiting until you finished that round of detentions, so we could have a whole evening in here. I didn't want to interfere with your study schedule, either," she added, in quite a good imitation of her usual stern tones.
"Study schedule?" Ginny said, watching Hermione turn a tap that started to fill the enormous sunken bath with steaming water.
Hermione smiled. "I intend to take this evening off. I hope you did your studying this afternoon."
Ginny felt her eyes get big and round. "The door locks, right?" she said.
"I sealed it," said Hermione, then waved her wand casually at Ginny, murmuring a charm Ginny didn't quite catch.
Ginny supposed she shouldn't have been very surprised when her clothing started to... remove itself. Slowly, and neatly, but inexorably. It was an odd sensation. "Where did you learn that spell?"
"It's similar to the Disrobing Deck," Hermione said, looking just a touch smug. She began to remove her clothing in a more conventional manner.
"You learned it from the twins?" Ginny exclaimed. "Hermione, you didn't!" Her voice was a little muffled by her jumper just then drawing itself over her head.
"I was discreet," said Hermione, sliding into the steaming water. "Come on then."
"I thought I was the bold one," complained Ginny, and joined her.
"You're bold when it counts."
"What does this tap do?"
"I haven't tried them all."
"Eeee! In our house colors too!"
"An ocean at sunset!"
"Look! Dolphins at play!"
Much splashing and giggling ensued.
"Aphrodite rising from the foam of the sea."
"Who's that? Eeek!"
"Your education is shockingly lacking in some places."
"Oh, do educate me, then. Mmmmm. Look, the lovely hills of Atlantis rising again from the depths."
"But they cannot compare in beauty to the white-sanded islands of Greece."
"Hey, it's not my fault I'm so pale. Put it down to being a redhead."
"Are these the topless towers of Illium?"
"Ooooh, you're going to get such a ducking for that pun!"
Much later, Ginny said drowsily, resting her head on the side of the bath, "The twins are going to ask you a favor, you know, for teaching you that spell. They always ask for something."
"I dealt with that already," Hermione said placidly.
"Hey, Harry," Ron said. "Fellows? Game of poker? I just found a fresh pack of cards in my trunk."
The Gryffindor table was awfully quiet that morning. Neville, who was usually subdued, was instead entirely silent, refused to raise his eyes from his bowl of porridge, and ate so fast Ginny was afraid he was going to choke. Seamus was in an oddly good mood. Dean, on the other hand, was particularly grumpy. Ron and Harry just seemed shell-shocked.
After asking Ron three times to pass the salt, Ginny gave up and asked Seamus. He passed it to her and she traded him the basket of muffins. He dumped a muffin on Dean's plate.
"Buck up," he said. "It isn't how you win or lose, it's how you play the game!"
This got him a withering glare.
Neville muttered without looking up, "You know, Seamus, that would be more comforting if you hadn't been the one who won."
"Look, would you fellows have preferred if I'd stripped off too?" Seamus demanded. "It's nothing we haven't seen in the past six years."
"It's the principle of the thing," Ron said, while Ginny choked on her pumpkin juice and swiveled an accusing glare at Hermione. Hermione raised one eyebrow at her and continued to chew her bacon daintily.
"I would've been fine," said Harry mournfully, "if only the griffin hadn't got into the act."
"Nah," said Seamus. "We all knew you were bluffing that hand."
"Do the scratches still hurt?" Neville asked.
"You know," Dean said finally, "I reckon that game would be a lot better with butterbeer."
"Could be you're right," said Seamus thoughtfully.
Ron and Harry exchanged a look of alarm.
Seamus looked up, beaming, as Terry Boot and Michael Corner happened by. "Hey, fellows. Care to play some wizard poker tonight?"
"When is Hagrid due back, Harry?" Ron asked after the griffin had just kicked him in the stomach and danced off to the end of her very long, magically stretchy lead. It was a Christmas gift from Professor McGonagall to the griffin. Apparently, the Head of Gryffindor was rather taken with the little beast.
"Any time now," Harry said, peering toward Hagrid's hut. "At least, that's what the last letter said."
"I wish he'd... here, what's she got into?" Ron exclaimed, hauling on the leash without any result.
The griffin was pouncing and trilling and making little predatory head-twist motions over something in the snow. Harry felt his stomach go cold and broke into a run.
"Oh, no," he said, feeling queasy. "Oh, no, no, bad griffin, bad griffin!" He grabbed her harness and pulled her away.
"What is it, Harry?" Ron said, catching up to him and grabbing him by the arm. "Oh..."
There was a deep, narrow trench in the snow. Pressed into the bottom of it was an array of dead snakes, all of the same size and variety that they'd been finding in the castle. There was a little blood, a bright dot here and there from a crushed snake.
"She didn't do it," Ron said. "It was all done already. By something... else."
Harry pulled the griffin into his arms, and she trilled at him inquiringly. "No, she didn't do it," he said.
Ron looked along the trench. "It... it looks like there's snakes all along it. Why would they come out into the snow?"
"I don't know," Harry said. "Let's... let's go find Hermione. Maybe she'll have an idea."
Ginny was leaving the library. She had promised Hermione she would study for three hours, and she had; now she was going to leave the library before she screamed or threw a stack of books at the students arguing Quidditch moves or got up on the table and started reciting her notes like poetry.
How Hermione could study in the Gryffindor common room-- with the griffin-- was utterly beyond her.
She stepped outside into the hall and paused a moment to lean against the wall and close her eyes. When she opened them again, Luna Lovegood was leaning against the wall right in front of her.
Ginny blinked. "Hello," she said.
"Hello," said Luna. "People are saying that you're going out with Harry Potter." She gave Ginny a misty smile.
Ginny gave Luna a slightly too-toothy smile. "That's odd, given that I keep telling people I'm not."
"I know," said Luna peacefully. "I've also heard that you're going out with Hermione Granger."
Ginny's stomach did a little flip-flop and she stood up.
"Isn't that strange? It isn't often that rumors have the same person going out with both a boy and a girl. It would make for an interesting headline, except of course that we don't have a school newspaper and if we did it wouldn't print information about that sort of thing, and anyway it would be far more interesting to have the headline be about the ten-fold Kneazle-King that's living in the Forbidden Forest." Luna continued to lean against the wall.
Ginny tried to absorb all this and failed singularly. "What's a Kneazle-King?"
"Oh, haven't you heard of one? It's when a litter of Kneazles are born with their tails all tangled together, so they become one creature." Luna tilted her head back and studied the ceiling. "It's very rare to find one."
Privately, Ginny thought that even Kneazles were unlikely to survive such an event. "Have you seen it?"
"No," replied Luna, "but I hope to. Is going out with two people very complicated?"
"I'm not going out with two people!" said Ginny.
Luna nodded wisely. "The Forbidden Forest is not a very good environment for Kneazles. It's quite interesting that there should be a Kneazle-King there."
Ginny had an uncomfortable vision of all her brothers tangled up into a Weasley-King, tied together by their jumpers. She shook her head to get rid of that oddly disturbing image.
"Oh, I agree," said Luna. "Perhaps it's frightened of notoriety and hiding out there."
"Perhaps," Ginny agreed weakly.
"Would you return this to Hermione? I'm going to do some research for my Arithmancy project now," said Luna, handing Ginny a book. "Tell her that I wish her all the best," she added, and drifted into the Library.
Ginny stood there stunned for a moment, then looked down at the book: Cryptozoology: A Study of What's Hidden in Plain Sight.
As the three of them entered the Room of Requirement, Harry was immediately aware of a hubbub from the tanks.
"They're definitely upset," he said, walking across the room.
"What about?" Ron asked.
"Hang on," Hermione said. "Let him listen."
Harry looked down into the tank of smaller snakes and listened. The snakes were agitated, moving from wall to wall, trying to climb the smooth glass. One had wedged itself between the lid and the wall on a tiny ledge and was battering at the lid with its nose. At least one other snake had bloodied itself on the glass. The words he could gather were fragmented, barely comprehensible, but he could make out, repeated over and over, Calling, in a sort of pained tone.
He heard Hermione gasp nearby, and looked over. She and Ron were looking down into the tank with the larger snakes. "What?"
"One has killed itself," Ron said in a tone that suggested he was feeling sick.
Harry stepped over. The other two snakes seemed dazed, and weren't nearly as agitated as the smaller snakes. "Lift the lid for me?" he asked, and Hermione did so. He reached in, saying, "It's all right, I'm not going to hurt you, but you can't leave," to the others.
The two snakes hissed a sort of acknowledgment to him, but one still tried to strike at his hand as he lifted the dead snake out. He spoke sharply to it, and it subsided.
Hermione and Ron made sure the lid was down tight as Harry looked around for something to do with the body. After a moment, he said, "Well, I guess I can just... throw it out the window or something."
Hermione picked up a shoebox that happened to be near at hand. "Here. Put it in here. I'll take it out."
"Ginny'll be upset," Ron said. "She's been taking care of the snakes every day, you know."
Harry felt guilty that he hadn't known. He was having that experience a lot lately, even though he was really trying to do better. "I'll tell her," he said.
"What were they saying?" Hermione asked.
"Something about a call," Harry said.
"A summoning, then," Hermione said thoughtfully. "But why?"
Harry threw himself into a chair. "It doesn't make any sense. He sends the snakes here. He calls them out into the snow. They die."
"What about that trench?" Ron asked, pouring out tea for the three of them.
"All the snakes were going in the same direction," Hermione said, adding sugar and milk to hers. "They were going to him, maybe? Is he trying to get his inside information?"
Ron stuffed a biscuit into his mouth and mumbled around the crumbs, "Remember, we all thought he was pretty stupid to send a lot of spies here with no way to get the information back."
Harry said, "But it's winter. The snakes would die."
Ron shrugged. "They all thought he was crazy anyway."
"Maybe he only needs a few of them to survive," Hermione said thoughtfully. "I wonder what information he was looking for? We should really tell Dumbledore about this," she added, sipping her tea.
"You and Ginny keep saying things like that," Harry said, irritated. "But look, what would he do if we did tell him?" He set his cup down so angrily that he sloshed tea on the table. "Probably make some cryptic remark, wink at us, and still expect us to fix it! Isn't that what he always does?"
Hermione and Ron stared at him for a moment, then glanced at each other. "I... suppose you're right," Hermione admitted. "I just... well, you know, the professors are supposed to be there to take care of things like this. It's hard for me to think otherwise, despite," she added grimly, "copious evidence to the contrary."
Harry held up his left hand and tapped his ring with his thumb. "This is the proof that Ginny and I carry every day that the professors expect us to solve everything," he explained, a little calmer. "They just decided how to use us and went ahead and did it. We had no choice. I know they said she had a choice, but you know Ginny. She wouldn't have said no even if I was Malfoy! I'm just glad they didn't decide that we had to have kids for the spell to work. Dumbledore probably would've just waved his wand since we're 'too young for marital duties' and Ginny would've been the holy mother of the heir of Potter. Poof!" He waved his hands around for emphasis.
"Without any of the fun bits," Ron added.
"All right, Harry," Hermione snapped, finishing her tea. "You've made your point. We won't tell the professors. Until we know more. And then, you're probably right, we'll end up doing the job in the end. You've been brooding on this, have you?"
"For years," Harry said bitterly, adding more sugar to his tea.
"I'm glad we've only got one more year here," Hermione said. "Then you can go on to brood about larger things, like the government."
"Oh, please," said Harry, "I've been doing that for a few years too."
"I'll manage your campaign to become the Minister of Magic, if you like," Hermione said. "Or would you rather run Hogwarts?"
"After he's a professional Quidditch star," Ron said hastily. "He can't waste a talent like his."
"Of course," Hermione said, nibbling on a petit four. "He'd need the high profile recognition of being a Quidditch star on top of being the Boy Who Lived."
"A hermit," Harry growled. "That's what I'll become. Living in the furthest reaches of Scotland."
"He's a grump today," Ron said to Hermione, jerking a thumb in Harry's direction.
"Tell me about it," she replied. "I wonder how we put up with him sometimes."
"That's our job," Ron explained. "Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger, professional putters-up-with Harry Potter."
"Maybe we'll get special awards when we leave school," Hermione suggested.
"Medals from the Ministry," Ron said. "Then I can show mine to my grandkids."
Harry glowered at them.
"'Gosh, Grandpapa,'" Hermione said earnestly, staring at Ron with large, shining eyes. "'Did you really put up with the Boy Who Lived when he shouted at you?'"
Ron put on a gruff voice. "Well, of course I did, kids. And all the times he was hopelessly cranky and feeling persecuted too!"
"'But I thought he was a shining paragon of wisdom and strength!'"
"Can you be a shining paragon when you brood?" Ron wondered.
"I'm certain even shining paragons brood occasionally," Hermione assured him.
"ALL RIGHT!" Harry roared, trying not to smile.
"Do they shout too?" asked Ron.
"Apparently," Hermione replied.
"I think someone hasn't had his kitten dose today," Ron confided.
"Despite the fact that it's his turn to walk her?" Hermione said.
Harry put his head down on the tea table and laughed helplessly.
"Where did she go?" Ron fretted as they hurried down the hall.
"How did she get away from you?" Ginny asked Harry.
"I don't know," Harry said, peering into the rafters. "One minute, I'm just taking her out for the usual walk, the next minute, the leash just pops out of my hand and off she went!"
Hermione turned the corner ahead of them. "Oh, no," she moaned, and bolted forward.
The other three hurried to catch up, and saw what had made her exclaim: the doors to the Library were open. Hermione was standing in those doors, one hand over her mouth.
"What's up?" Ron asked, peering cautiously into the room. "Oh, no," he groaned.
"How did she get up there?" Harry wondered.
"How did she get there like that?" Hermione exclaimed.
Ginny looked in. Dora was sitting amidst the various arms and curlicues and whatnot of one of the chandeliers in the Library. She was almost entirely enmeshed in her leash, which was also wrapped intricately around much of the structure of the fixture itself. The griffin chirruped hopefully at them.
"We can't Accio her from there," Harry said. "She'd strangle."
"Thank goodness Madame Pince is out," said Hermione. "There must be a Staff Meeting. She never leaves the library, else."
"But when is she going to be back?" Ron said.
The four looked at each other in dismay, then surged into the room.
Ron and Harry climbed onto the tables closest to the chandelier. Hermione and Ginny handed up chairs for them to stand on.
"I'm really not sure about this," Harry said, stepping onto the chair a little unsteadily. "I still remember how much it hurt the last time we tried to do this."
"Are we anywhere near?" Ron asked, stretching.
"Close," Hermione said. "Can you edge just a little more this way?"
The griffin, watching all this, became excited and wiggly. The chandelier began to sway back and forth. This made the griffin nervous, which meant that she fidgeted as well as wiggled. The chandelier began to swing at the end of its heavy chain.
Harry and Ron moved their chairs to the very edges of the tables, then they stretched out to reach for the chandelier as it swung this way and that.
"Ow!" Ron exclaimed. "She clawed me!"
"Ouch!" Harry exclaimed. "Me too!"
The griffin had one paw free of the leash and metalwork, and was squawking and batting at the hands when they came close.
Hermione fidgeted nervously, concentrating on the scene so strongly that she started to sway lightly, too.
Ginny felt the oncoming rush of doom that must accompany two nervous wizards attempting to rescue an oscillant griffin. It made an interesting, if nerve-wracking, tableau, though; Ron and Harry standing on chairs at either end of the table, and the griffin swinging between them on the chandelier.
"What," said the perfect voice of doom, "do you imagine that you are doing?"
All four Gryffindors turned slowly to face the doorway. The griffin trilled. Ginny expected that the pendulum of the chandelier was counting down Gryffindor's points.
"Potter, Weasley, get down," Snape said. His wand was already in his hand. "I don't care if you break your necks, but Madame Pince would dislike having to clean up the mess."
Harry and Ron scrambled down and carefully lifted the chairs off the table.
Snape gestured with his wand at the pendent chandelier and its occupant. Ginny was just close enough to hear him mutter, "Extraho."
The griffin was drawn toward Snape, but the leash did not release her. She snapped abruptly back into place with a squawk and a flurry of feathers. The chandelier now swung vigorously in figure-eights. Dora seemed to object and said so, loudly.
Harry opened his mouth to say something to Snape, but Hermione trod on his foot hard.
Snape looked more irritated than ever, and snarled, mostly under his breath, "Extrico griffin!"
The leash writhed, unwound itself, and retracted to its normal length. With a happy crowing sound, the griffin leaped away from the light and glided around the ceiling briefly. Then she trilled sweetly and stooped affectionately upon Snape.
"Fifty points for inappropriate use of the Library," Ron sighed as they hastily departed, griffin in arms. "Ten points each! It's not far, taking points from Dora, it wasn't her fault."
"It was ALL Dora's fault!" said Harry, glaring at Ron.
"And detentions," Ginny snarled. "Like I have time to serve detentions with the man on top of his endless essays."
"I don't even know if Dora really has to serve her detention for being an excessively friendly mascot," Harry said.
"I think we can check with Professor McGonagall on that," Hermione said.
"It was worth it to see her try to groom his hair," Ron said.
Harry hummed to himself as he strolled into the locker room, broom over his shoulder. He'd lingered out on the pitch after practice was over, getting in a bit of extra flying to clear his head. The mystery of the dead snakes, as well as the continuing mysteries of married life, were far easier to ignore with the wind in his face.
In front of his locker, he kicked off his shoes, set his broom and glasses down, and peeled off his robes and the sweaty vest underneath, still humming.
Har... ry... Pot... ter something said.
He looked around wildly at the apparently empty locker room. As he groped for his glasses, his foot snagged on something cool and smooth and moving. He fell sideways.
There was a sickening crunch as he fell across the bench.
Something laughed at him nearby.
He rolled away from the shattered remains of his glasses, a few pieces of glass coming with him, embedded in his stinging hand, elbow, and side. He tried to get to his feet, only to feel something strike hard across the backs of his ankles, sweeping his feet out from under him.
An enormous thing loomed over him. It hissed Har... ry... Pot... ter...
He scrambled backwards, slamming the back of his head against another bench. Through the flashing lights and vast blurriness, he tried to see where it had gone.
Master wants you dead now, Harry Potter. You, or your... family.
Imbued with new energy, despite his aching head and bleeding hand, he clambered onto the bench and leapt from there to the top of the lockers.
That will not save you, Harry Potter.
The mystery of the dead snakes crystallized suddenly. Voldemort had summoned them, like the surviving snakes had said, out to where they would freeze to death in the snow. And then Voldemort's pet had followed that trail of corpses into Hogwarts, when no other means would let Voldemort in.
"Is he telling you to say that now?" Harry asked, squinting over the edge of the lockers, trying to spot the snake.
I do not need to be told, Harry Potter. I know.
"So you can't actually talk to Voldemort now?" He tried looking over a different edge. He wished he had his wand, but it had been securely in the sleeve of his robe.
Deadly fangs flashed up toward him, and he flung himself over on his back, nearly falling off the lockers. The metal was cold on his bare back.
I know his mind, the snake replied.
"So you can't! Talk to him, I mean." A wave of relief made him dizzy. It was one thing to be facing a giant poisonous snake, but it was quite another if that snake also is being remote-controlled by one's deadliest enemy, who might be able to cast spells through the snake.
A door opened and closed. It took Harry a moment to realize that it was the door to the locker room. He rolled over, squinting.
"Harry?" Ron's voice echoed through the room.
Smells like you, Harry Potter. Is this your family?
"RON!" Harry yelled, spotting the thick, moving black line on the floor driving straight for the ginger head. "LOOK OUT!"
As far as Harry's limited vision could tell, Ron's goal-keeper reflexes saved his life. He spun toward Harry just in time to see the snake launching itself at him. His hands seized its neck, keeping the fangs away from him, but the impact threw him backward into the wall, where he slid down, still holding the snake firmly behind the head.
Then the snake snapped her immense body around Ron's body, constrictor-like. Ron let out a loud grunt and began struggling with the snake, clearly having problems keeping her face away from him.
"It's really... strong!" Ron managed to squeak out.
"I wonder what's taking Harry so long?" Hermione said, tapping her foot.
"He wanted to fly a bit more," Ginny explained.
"He's going to miss dinner," Hermione fretted.
"Worse, he'll make US late for dinner," Ron moaned. "I'll go see if he's come in yet."
Ron trotted down the hall to the Gryffindor boys locker room and went in.
The two girls waited.
"Taking too long," Ginny said, and she trotted down toward the door.
"Ginny!" Hermione hissed as Ginny reached for the doorknob. "It's the boys' locker room!"
Ginny gave Hermione a jaded look. "Hermione, I have six brothers. If you think that I haven't seen..."
There was an immense crash.
Followed by Harry's voice, loud, urgent, and incoherent.
"Right," Hermione said, pulling out her wand. Ginny did the same and opened the door.
An entire row of lockers had been heaved over. Barechested, Harry was straining to pull the ugly triangular head and dripping fangs of a giant snake away from Ron. Ron, for his part, was nearly blue, struggling weakly against the coils wrapped around him and gasping for the least breath.
Ginny dived forward, seizing the snake just below Harry's hands and heaving with all her might. Her weight made small difference in the position of the snake's head.
Oh, perhaps I've made a mistake the snake said in a nasty tone. Perhaps this new one is your family, and the one I have is only... incidental.
Harry's eyes snapped open. "Ginny, get away!"
Ginny was already flinging herself backward, having felt the snake's body shift, but she couldn't quite get out of the way of the head that had suddenly reversed its direction. She saw stars as the heavy, blunt thing slammed across her face, and the breath was knocked out of her by her collision with a locker.
She heard Hermione shouting spells. Ginny, inhaling with a painful whoosh, heaved herself to her feet and onto her wand, a few feet away. Blood dripped from her bashed nose, and her eye was already swelling. She pressed the back of one hand to her face, trying to stem the flow. Harry was hauling Ron to his feet, and Ron's face was turning back to a more normal color.
Bothersome mouse! the snake snapped. Ginny saw its upper body rise abruptly across the room, and saw it make a strange, convulsive motion.
Ron collided with Hermione a split second after the snake spat. He yelped once as he was struck by some of the venom and again as the two of them stopped short at the wall. "Hot," he exclaimed, squinting at his shoulder.
Hermione wordlessly ripped his robes off. Ginny could see why; there were fumes rising from the venom, and it had already eaten through the outer robes and started on his shirt. Hermione was getting the shirt off as well, and Ron, apparently feeling the heat, was dancing and wriggling out of the burning fabric.
"Where's my wand?" Harry cried, on his hands and knees, squinting at the floor.
Ginny managed to get breath to squeak, "Accio wand!" She caught Harry's wand neatly as it shot out from under the wrecked lockers. "Here!" she tried to say, but only managed to whisper.
He leapt to his feet and took it from her. "Thanks," he said. They left smears of blood on each others' hands in the exchange.
She tried to focus on the constant hissing commentary of the snake, trying to track it around the room. Harry seemed to be doing the same thing.
Hermione said, urgently, "Harry, my spells didn't have any effect on it. We have to get out of here!"
"No," Harry said, distractedly. "If we go, she'll just start attacking people randomly, and she'll kill some of them, even before we can get to McGonagall."
"One of us could go," Ron said.
Harry snapped his head around to look at Ginny. "Ginny, you go get McGonagall--or anyone! Even Snape."
"Not leaving," she said. "Maybe..."
At that moment, the snake struck down at her from a ceiling beam. She fell backwards, pointing her wand and yelling, "Stupefy!"
All four of them had apparently cast it at the same time, and the snake carried on past her as if they'd sprayed a refreshing bit of water on it. It didn't bite her.
"It's playing with us," Hermione snarled.
"Why don't you just finish me?" Harry yelled at the snake, and it took Ginny a moment--and a glance at Ron's confused face--to realize he was speaking Parseltongue. "Isn't that what you're really here for? Come on, quit playing around and do your master's bidding!"
Are you so eager to die, Harry Potter? the snake inquired.
"I want this over with!" he shouted.
So be it, the snake replied without emotion.
Ginny shrieked a warning, but Harry was already dodging to the side. He snapped, "Impedimenta!" and Ginny was startled to realize that the snake actually hitched up in its strike.
Hermione dragged Ron back by his belt, or he would have thrown himself on the snake's tail. "Not the tail, Ron!" she shouted.
Harry was on the floor scrambling backwards, shouting, "Stupefy! Stupefy! STUPEFY!" The snake was pausing to shake its head at each one, and its body convulsed behind it. That gave Harry a chance to get to his feet.
Your spells are like the teeth of a rat in its death throes, the snake said with some irritation.
Hermione seized Ginny's shoulder. "When he casts in Parseltongue, the spell almost works!" she snapped.
Ginny gave Hermione a wide-eyed stare as she tried to comprehend. Then, as Ron screamed, "HARRY!" she turned to see the snake coiling for a strike.
Ginny and Harry hissed, "STUPEFY!" simultaneously, and the snake, in mid-air, fangs inches from Harry's bare chest... stopped. And fell to the side.
Harry stared across the room at Ginny, and she gave a tiny, embarrassed shrug.
The four of them sighed.
Hermione pressed a handkerchief into Ginny's hand. "Oh, your poor face," she said sadly.
Ginny's eye was almost swollen shut, and she could taste nothing but blood. "Madame Pomfrey will fix it quick enough. Ron, are you all right?"
Ron grinned weakly. "Cracked ribs, I think," he said, probing gently at one side.
"Thanks," Hermione said to him, touching his shoulder lightly.
"No problem," he replied.
Harry slid down the wall and sat quietly, staring at the snake and just starting to notice the sensation of blood dripping down his side.
"Harry, come away from the snake," Hermione said, offering a hand up. "Come on."
He slid himself back up the wall carefully. When he took Hermione's hand, she helped him stand upright. "I'm okay," he said.
"No, you're not," Hermione said. "You're bleeding, and you've left some on the wall. The three of you wait here... watch the snake. I'm going for Professor McGonagall."
"Right," Ron and Ginny both said.
Hermione ran out the door and the three of them stood there silently for a few minutes.
"Did the snake just twitch?" Ron asked.
"Dunno," Ginny said.
"I think it did," Harry said.
"What do we do if it wakes up?" Ron asked.
"We hit it again," Ginny said, reasonably.
"Let's..." Harry ran his uninjured hand through his hair. "Let's shove her in a locker. I don't really want to... try to fight her again."
"Good idea!" Ron exclaimed.
Ginny looked skeptical as Harry and Ron tried to lift the immense, dense bulk of the snake and fold it into a locker. Ron cried out when he twisted the wrong way and breathed too deeply, and Ginny sighed and took his place helping Harry. Harry shot her a grateful smile as they struggled with the limp, heavy coils.
"Potter! Weasley! What are you doing with that monster?"
Harry jumped guiltily, and lost his grip on the snake, which tumbled out of the locker and bowled Ginny over. He shoved seeming metres and metres of snake out of the way to help her back up. Hermione waded in to lend a hand.
"Come along," McGonagall said. "We have to get you three to Madame Pomfrey. Potter, Weasley, you may want to put shirts on."
"In his current condition," Snape intoned, "Potter would no doubt start riots."
Harry looked down at himself and realized he was only wearing the tight, padded, yellow leggings that went under his Quidditch robes. His naked chest was smeared liberally with blood and broken glass. He blushed and looked around vaguely for his robes.
"Here," Hermione said, pushing a large towel into his hands. "Just wrap up. Everything's too topsy-turvy to find your things."
Ginny helped Ron carefully drape the remains of his robes around his shoulders.
"What a disaster," Snape said, looking over the wreckage.
"On the contrary," McGonagall said, nudging the snake with her foot. "I rather think that if this thing had got into any of the dormitories, that would have constituted disaster."
"So naturally there will be points for Gryffindor," Snape grumbled as he levitated the coils of the snake with his wand, peering at her head clinically.
"An excellent idea," McGonagall said sunnily as she herded the quartet of Gryffindors ahead of her toward the door. "The Headmaster should be here shortly, Professor."
Harry stopped. "I should stay," he said, turning to McGonagall. "She's immune to spells except in Parseltongue."
"The snake is immune to the sorts of spells you can cast, Potter," Snape informed the ceiling. "Contrary to popular belief, you are not indispensable in this situation. Move along."
"Oh," Harry said, too dazed even to bristle at Snape's tone, and allowed Hermione, Ginny, Ron, and McGonagall to chivvy him out the door.
"I'm glad we didn't have the griffin with us," said Ron. Dora was occupying herself on the walk by flying out as far as she could make the leash stretch, and then letting the contracting leash glide her back in. She occasionally crashed into Ron's head.
"She would have eaten the griffin!" said Ginny in horror.
"She nearly ate us," said Harry glumly.
"Look at it this way," said Hermione comfortingly. "The stay in the infirmary wasn't nearly as long as usual, and now you've got something to hold over Snape's head."
"Too bad she didn't eat Snape," muttered Ron.
"Ron! Ew!" exclaimed Ginny. "That would give even Voldemort's snake indigestion."
"I kinda wonder why she didn't kill him when she escaped," Harry said thoughtfully.
Hermione leaned over and said to Harry, "Because she recognized him, you dolt. Remember?"
"Oh," said Harry uncomfortably.
"D'you think he let her go on purpose?" Ron asked.
"No," the other three chorused.
"Really, Ron," said Hermione. "He's still in the hospital wing."
"Maybe we should send him a card," said Ginny, just a little too innocently.
Harry gave Ginny a very blank look.
Ron said, "Have you gone mental?"
Hermione snorted delicately.
Ginny said, "I sent him one of my singing ones. After all, he was injured defending the school."
Harry said, "I hope someone sends him a bowl of fruit, then."
"Oh, I've improved the spell," Ginny said. "If you shut it, it sings even louder."
Harry winced in involuntary sympathy.
Hermione valiantly changed the subject. "I like your new glasses, Harry."
"Yeah," Ron said, examining them as best he could with a periodic griffin in the face. "They're, um..."
"Exactly the same as the old ones," Harry said with a grin. "Dumbledore gave me a choice between my old ones or ones like his."
"I don't know, you might look smashing in Dumbledore's glasses," Ginny said thoughtfully.
"That's all I need," said Harry gloomily. "To have the school starting rumors that I'm actually Dumbledore's secret lovechild."
"Grandchild," said Hermione. "Really, Harry. As if anybody would cast doubts on your parentage."
They arrived at Hagrid's hut, and Harry was cheered by the sight of smoke rising from the chimney. "C'mon, Dora," he said to the griffin. "Let's go introduce you to your new dad."
Ginny held Dora's leash as they exited Hagrid's hut.
"Well, he liked her an awful lot," Hermione said soothingly. "It was a good thought, Harry."
"How was I to know that he was allergic to cats?" Harry said, watching the griffin burrow into a snowdrift in Hagrid's garden. She excavated something that Harry hoped was an oddly-shaped gourd and romped off with it.
"He thought her name was lovely," said Ron. "We'll have to tell Neville."
"He did say that he hoped we'd bring her to visit a lot," Hermione said.
"How am I going to explain this to Professor McGonagall?" Harry said, holding his head in his hands.
"Oh, stop it," said Ginny. "You know she's utterly smitten with the little beast already. Just get on her soft side. Tell her that poor little Dora is homeless. Come to think of it, she must know that Hagrid is allergic to cats, given her... talent. How come she didn't tell us?"
"Yeah," said Harry thoughtfully. "I guess she didn't tell us either."
"And she does have a soft spot for cats," said Hermione.
"Well, I say brilliant," said Ron decisively. "We've got a mascot! We never had one before!"
"There goes all good relations with our roommates," Harry muttered.
"She'll get over the kitten stage eventually," said Hermione.
"By that time, all my roommates are going to want to tie me up with her leash and hang me up for a kitten toy," he snarled.
"Hey, she's partly my fault," Ron said. "I helped convince you to get her."
"I am not forgetting that," said Harry.
"They'll tie you up together," Ginny said innocently.
The blank looks on Harry and Ron's faces were so identical that Ginny had to dash after the griffin to prevent herself from giggling.
"Ginny?" Harry asked, trying to be casual. The griffin was draped over his shoulder in a boneless sort of way.
"Yeah?" she said, not looking up from her essay.
"You're a Parseltongue."
Harry considered that while trying to remember what form of government the goblins in Ireland had in the 1300s.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked finally. "And don't say because I didn't ask."
Ginny tapped her nose thoughtfully with her quill. "Remember Rita Skeeter? And the Hufflepuffs?"
"But I wouldn't think... that..." His sentence came to a screeching halt in the face of her deeply sarcastic look.
"Harry," she said.
"Yes?" he replied meekly.
"How do you think I got to be a Parseltongue?"
He stared at her blankly and then said, "Oh."
Then he said, "Since first year, huh?"
"Yes," she said.
Harry sat there awkwardly, listening to the sound of her quill scratching across parchment. The moment was broken up by the arrival of Hermione and Ron, back from rounds.
Hermione said, "Hi, Harry," as she rounded the table and leaned down to look over Ginny's shoulder.
"Anything exciting happening tonight?" Harry asked.
"Nah," Ron said, throwing himself into a chair. "Just Snape hobbling about the halls, making a nuisance of himself."
Ginny looked up at Hermione and gave her a brilliant smile. Harry blinked. When had he ever seen Ginny smile like that before?
Hermione smiled back and leaned down to say something in Ginny's ear.
Harry stared at them, and they, oblivious, giggled about whatever Hermione had just said. Hermione never once looked at Ginny's essay, which struck him as the strangest thing of all.
"Ginny?" he asked after a moment.
She glanced over at him. "Yes?"
"Are you... is... I... um..." Harry blushed.
Ginny looked at him blankly.
Hermione looked at him blankly, for a moment, then said, "Yes," and kissed the top of Ginny's head.
Even Ron couldn't miss that, despite his Quidditch magazine. "Yes? Yes what? What are you two doing?"
Ginny said, "Ron. I am not giving details to my brother."
"WHAT?" said Ron. He spluttered, "You? Hermione? Details?"
"Details?" Harry echoed.
Ginny and Hermione looked at each other. "Private details," Ginny said firmly.
"You're not old enough," said Hermione.
"We're exactly as old as you are!" said Ron.
"Would you prefer I said 'mature'?" said Hermione.
Harry said, in a way that, after a moment, reminded him of only a few minutes earlier, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Maybe you have a different definition of 'discreet' than I do," Ginny said.
Harry's ears burned. "It's just that... you're both my good friends."
Hermione blushed slightly. "Sometimes it's fun to keep a secret for a while. And... I wasn't sure how you and Ron were going to take it."
Ron gulped. "I guess... it's okay as long as you don't make each other cry."
Harry laughed and covered his face with one hand. He was a little dizzy with something that he couldn't immediately identify. It felt oddly like relief. "I'm... actually glad, I think."
The griffin raised her head sleepily and prodded his ear gently with her beak, trilling. He scratched her cheek.
"Well, I figured if I was going to go out with someone, it should be someone in the family," Ginny said.
Ginny felt a little nervous as she went down to breakfast on Valentine's Day. She always felt nervous as she went down to breakfast on Valentine's Day, ever since she had spectacularly embarrassed herself (on account of Harry Potter, she noted with irony) her first year. For some reason, Valentine's Day was just linked with embarrassment. Also, she was nervous.
She tried to seem normal as she sat down to breakfast, but couldn't help noticing that Hermione wasn't meeting her gaze. Her heart fell into her stomach. Since her stomach was then full, she felt no appetite for breakfast. She glanced at Harry, who was stolidly eating toast and trying to make out his Potions notes from the day before.
She glared at him. He took no notice, so she poked him with a spoon.
He glanced up. "What?" he said, spraying her lightly with crumbs. "You're fifth year, I don't think you're getting a quiz today. Unless he really wants to be a bastard to everyone on his first day back."
She leaned close, confident that Hermione wouldn't hear, since Hermione was reading a book. "What's up?" she whispered.
Harry possibly would have looked less confused if she had turned into an owl.
"With Hermione," she amplified.
Harry turned his head to regard Hermione as if she might have turned purple in the last few seconds. "Looks fine to me," he said.
Ginny cradled her head in her hands, inwardly cursing the stupidity of boys. "Where's Ron?" she demanded.
"He'll be late," Harry said. "He was just getting out of bed when I was getting dressed."
"Where is everybody this morning?" asked Ginny, looking around at the table. Several Gryffindor faces were missing.
"People must've been rambunctious last night," said Harry, peering closely at his notes, apparently trying to tell whether something was a word or a stick figure drowning in a river.
A passing Ravenclaw girl giggled at Harry's comment, drawing a raised eyebrow from Ginny.
Then the owls started pouring in the windows and Ginny tensed. Her gaze slid sideways to Hermione. She watched as the anonymous school owl she'd commissioned dropped the large package of chocolate and enchanted roses in front of Hermione. Oh, dear. Was it too ostentatious?
An owl landed in front of Ginny. She blinked at it, and it hooted at her irritably. The package did look... heavy. She reached out in a daze to untie it. Inside the package were several books and a small elegant box from Honeydukes. Ginny felt her face turning red. She leaned backwards on the bench to peer around Harry.
Hermione leaned backwards on the bench to peer around Harry, holding the bouquet of roses. "You shouldn't have, you know," she said, apparently fighting her own blush.
"I wanted to," said Ginny.
"They're beautiful," said Hermione.
"Be thankful I didn't enchant them to sing," said Ginny.
Harry said, "Be very thankful."
Hermione whapped him with the roses. Gently.
Ginny got up and moved around Harry to sit next to Hermione so they could look at the books together.
Harry grinned conspiratorially at Ginny. "I told Hermione to get the chocolates too," he said.
An owl landed in front of Harry. Harry said, "Get off, that's my breakfast!" It shook its message-laden leg at him. Harry reached out and pulled the scroll off.
"My breakfast," said Harry. "It landed in my breakfast. And not even by accident either!" He unrolled the scroll and scanned it.
Ginny was selecting a chocolate when she became aware of a vast silence from Harry's direction. She glanced up. Harry was reading the scroll again, a peculiar flush starting to creep up his face.
"Harry," said Hermione, looking concerned. "Is it bad news?"
"I... uh... what..." stammered Harry. "No." Then he did blush and jammed the scroll into the sleeve of his robes.
Another owl landed in front of Harry.
"Is that my Daily Prophet?" said Hermione.
"No," said Harry in a faint voice. "It looks like another letter." He reached out and took it slowly. Another owl arrived while that one was departing. Then one landed on his shoulder. One dropped a package into the remains of his breakfast.
Ginny looked up and said, "Incoming!" as she saw an entire flight of owls headed for the Gryffindor table.
Pretty soon, there was no more room for owls, so they started dropping the letters in Harry's general vicinity. Several bounced off his head and shoulders. Most of them tried to put the packages down gently, but Ginny retreated under the table after being brained by something she was pretty sure was a box of chocolates. Hermione joined her in a moment, pulling a letter out of her hair like an odd ornament.
"Is he still sitting there like a statue?" Ginny asked.
"A very red statue," Hermione said, examining the letter curiously.
"Oh, that's mine!" Ginny exclaimed, spotting her own handwriting on the letter in Hermione's hand.
Hermione raised her eyebrow. "Yours?"
"Well, yeah," Ginny said, feeling a blush creeping up on her. "I mean, I thought it's sort of my wifely duty and all. Besides, I was afraid he wouldn't get any." A muffled explosion-sound and something that was probably meant to be a cheerful tune drifted down from the table above.
Hermione smiled. "Yeah, I never expected this..." She waved her hand generally overhead. "I'm sure he didn't either."
"Something tells me," said Ginny, "that Professor McGonagall would not call this incident 'discreet.'"
"Leave Harry to other people's indiscretions," said Hermione, "and let's go commit some of our own."