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Free Life Posted on 8/16/2014 1:03:46 AM
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Disclaimer: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling and Warner Bros. I in no way claim ownership of any rights to the Harry Potter Universe.

Author's Note:

Chapter 15: An Unforgettable Christmas
Harry was crudely awakened from a very short sleep when a great lump crashed onto the mattress he was lying on, bellowing, “Wake up. Presents!”

Harry swatted at the lump, but it had left long before his arm would have made impact. He tried to burrow into his pillow to get back to sleep, but the lump, along with some other lumps, were making too much noise. Rather than drifting back to sleep, Harry found himself becoming more aware and alert, and he realised that sleep would not be coming again any time soon.

He wearily rolled onto his back and blinked open his eyes. Judging by the amount of light in the room, Harry could tell that it was later than he was accustomed to waking. Thank Merlin for small miracles. Ron was not usually a morning person, so even on the one morning that he chose to wake up early, he still slept past Harry’s usual wake up time. That did not make Harry any more pleased about the situation. He was tired, and he really wanted more sleep.

“Get up, Harry,” the lump yelled at him. A moment later a pillow connected with the side of Harry's face.

Harry turned his head and glared at said lump. Apparently even the tentative ground their friendship had been on since Ron had thrown Harry off the Quidditch team was not enough to dampen Ron’s enthusiasm this particular morning. Harry continued to glare.

“Come on! You’re up before the rest of us every single morning, and you choose Christmas morning to sleep in?”

The stupid lump would not shut up. When the lump again bounced on his bed, Harry had to stop himself from hexing him into oblivion. Tempted as he was, Harry knew it was not worth giving away his wandless abilities. He finally rolled off the bed and onto his feet. As he rose to his full height, he released a big yawn and stretched, shaking off a small amount of his drowsiness.

As he looked around the room, he noticed that his dorm mates had already dug into their piles of presents. Instead of following suit, Harry threw on a dressing gown and walked into the bathroom. After taking care of the most pressing matters, he walked down to the common room. The room was sparsely populated, but the creatures of note were Hermione and Ginny who were both sitting in front of the fire with piles of wrapped presents surrounding them.

“There you are,” Hermione called out. “We’ve been waiting here for you guys so we could all open our presents together.”

Ginny did not even move to greet him. He could not see her very well, but he was fairly sure she had fallen asleep on the sofa. If only he were so lucky.

Harry nodded to Hermione, then turned and headed back up to his dorm. He picked up his wand and levitated his pile of presents as he left to walk back down. Ron noticed his behaviour and asked, “Where are you going, Harry?”

“The girls are downstairs waiting on us to open presents,” he replied shortly but not unkindly.

Ron adopted a sheepish expression as he looked back at his own pile of presents, over half of which were already unwrapped. Harry turned towards Neville, who had only opened a couple presents so far, “You coming, Nev?”

The boy looked thoughtful. “Nev?”

“I’m tired, and anything longer than one syllable just isn’t going to work right now,” Harry replied.

Neville laughed. “Works for me. Let me just get everything together, and I’ll meet you down there.”

Harry nodded and resumed his trek back to the common room. When he made his way over to the girls, he confirmed his suspicions on Ginny’s lack of consciousness. She was sprawled across the sofa preventing anyone else from sitting on it, but Harry solved that dilemma by lifting up Ginny’s legs and plopping himself down underneath them. Ginny shifted slightly but did not wake. Harry realised that his presents were still waiting for him to command, so he had them descend to the ground right in front of the sofa.

“Where’s Ron?” Hermione asked.

“Probably re-wrapping the presents he already opened,” Harry replied easily. “Neville will be down in a minute as well.”

Hermione huffed at hearing that Ron had started without them but otherwise did not respond.

Neville joined them after a minute, and Ron made his entrance shortly thereafter. Harry grabbed Ginny’s foot to give her leg a shake and got a solid kick in the chest as a result. Ginny popped up at Harry’s pained exclamation and immediately asked “What’s wrong?”

“You kicked me,” Harry forcefully responded.

“I did not,” she denied, shaking her head as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes with the back of her hand.

“I tried to wake you up, and you kicked me,” Harry insisted, massaging his chest.

Ginny’s face scrunched up in thought as she attempted to brush off her drowsiness to fully comprehend the situation. “I fell asleep?” she asked. Harry nodded. “And you tried to wake me up?” He nodded again. “And I kicked you?”

“Yes!”

“Well how did you try to wake me up?” she asked him.

“I grabbed your foot to shake you,” Harry explained, still rubbing his chest. She really packed a punch, or a kick as the case may be.

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Well it’s your own fault then,” she proclaimed, absolving herself of the matter.

“How do you reckon?” Harry demanded.

“I’m ticklish on my feet. Hell, pretty much everyone is ticklish on their feet. Grabbing my foot was just asking for trouble,” she told him exasperatedly.

“Well now you tell me!”

“That’s common sense, Harry,” Neville quipped, smirking at the byplay.

“Fine then, be that way,” Harry grumbled good naturedly. “Hey let me see that,” he said reaching over to the long box in Ginny’s pile of presents. “Don’t know how that one got in there.” He pulled it out of her pile and stuck it behind the couch. “Hey Neville, let me see your presents there.”

“I don’t think so, Harry,” he challenged, hoarding his pile close to him.

“Don’t be a baby, Harry,” Ginny scolded him as she retrieved her long, wrapped gift.

“So how do you want to do this?” Neville asked after a moment of silence. “One at a time? Or a free for all?”

“I think we should go one at a time,” Hermione immediately input. “That way we can see everyone’s reactions.”

“That will take forever,” Ron whinged. “If you want to see everyone’s reactions, why don’t you just sit and watch while we all open our presents?”

Hoping to head off an argument, Harry offered up a compromise. “How about we go one at a time for the presents we got each other, and you can open everything else however you want?”

“Perfect,” Ginny seconded.

“So who goes first?” Neville questioned.

“Youngest?” Hermione suggested.

Ginny grinned. “Works for me.”

As Ginny turned to examine her pile to pick out her first present, Ron quickly grew impatient. “Just hurry up and open one.”

“I don’t know why you’re so impatient,” Hermione snapped. “You’ve already opened half your gifts.”

Ron’s face heated up as he retorted, “I didn’t….”

“Don’t even try it, mate,” Harry interrupted. “Everybody knows.”

Ron huffed and grumbled a bit. His face did not immediately lose its colour, nor did his impatience seem to fade. Meanwhile, Ginny was examining her presents. “Well I’m tempted to open this big one Harry got me because I’m rather curious about it,” she commented. “But I think I might just save that one for last.” With that, she grabbed Hermione’s present, which looked to be in the shape of a book.

Harry was wrong in his estimation. It was not a book; it was two books. The Ultimate Guide to not Failing Your OWLs and 1001 Things Every Chaser Should Know. Ginny did not react to the first book, but when she saw the second she looked up with a smile and said, “Thanks, Hermione.”

Harry was next, opening his present from Ron which turned out to be a large box of Chocolate Frogs. He smiled widely at his friend in thanks. There was something nice about the predictability in Ron's gifts. Plus he was quite glad to have avoided Chudley Cannons memorabilia this time around.

Things took off from there. Harry watched with interest as each of his friends opened up his gifts to them. Hermione was the first to open one of his gifts. She squealed in delight when she found a personalized stationery set with a set of self-inking eagle feather quills. Harry smiled in reply to Hermione's exclaimed "Thank you." He had a feeling that Hermione would appreciate the practical gift, and he was glad to see how much she liked it.

Hermione gave him a book covering the basics of several different types of muggle martial arts. She said that she was impressed with what he had done combining a muggle concept to a wizard’s duel and thought the reading material might help him out even more. Harry was actually pretty excited to read about it. He had never been allowed to watch the telly at the Dursley’s, but he had caught glimpses of various shows over the years. He remembered seeing martial arts programmes on from time to time. If he could learn to move like that, there would be no telling what he could do. He enthusiastically thanked Hermione for the thoughtful gift.

In the next round of present opening, he found that Neville had given him an old edition of The Auror’s Handbook. When Harry looked at him quizzically, Neville responded, “It was my dad’s.” Harry was at a loss for words. The few things he had of his parents were some of the most precious things he owned; he could only imagine that Neville felt much the same way about his parents' belongings. Harry was sure that Neville had more from his parents than he did, but he knew how important every little thing was, just the same.

Neville chose Harry's present next. Harry was not sure how his friend would react. He admittedly knew little about Herbology, having never done any reading or research beyond what they had covered in class. Knowing Neville was into the subject, he had asked the shopkeeper in Diagon Alley to see his rarer plants along with a brief summary of their properties. From there he picked out the one Neville was now uncovering.

When Neville had removed most of the wrapping, which Harry had charmed not to smash the plant, Harry heard the boy catch a sharp intake of breath. “Is this what I think it is?” he asked Harry with wondering eyes.

“I hope so?” Harry replied thickly. “What do you think it is?”

“Paliurus focus,” Neville whispered in awe.

Hermione gasped, and Ron demanded, “What’s the big deal about a plant?”

“That’s not just any old plant,” Hermione retorted.

“I was told that caring for the plant was supposed to help increase your focus and concentration and is said to help its owner achieve his goals,” Harry stated helpfully, hoping Neville would like the gift.

“This is almost as rare as my Mimbulus Mimbletonia,” Neville remarked. “This must have cost you a fortune.”

Harry scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably. “It really wasn’t that much. The owner of the shop said he’d had it around for quite some time and that not many seemed interested in it,” Harry told him.

“And when did you get a chance to talk to this shopkeeper?” Hermione inquired curiously.

Harry caught the inquisitive zeal in her voice and knew he had to be careful in his reply. “I sent him an owl asking about any rare plants he might have in stock, their properties, and how much they cost. He sent me a list back, and I chose from there,” Harry lied easily, looking Hermione right in the eye as he did so. She did not question him further.

Ron was next. He was quite happy to find a set of Quidditch pads and keeper gloves as well as a box of chocolate frogs and enthusiastically thanked Harry for the gifts. Harry smiled in reply and gave a polite but quiet "You're welcome," in return. He had been slightly wary of giving Ron a Quidditch gift because of their rift over Quidditch earlier in the term. He was glad to see that the gift did not appear to reawaken any of that tension.

Ginny, as she had said she would, saved Harry’s present for last. It was the one he was both looking forward to and dreading the most. He knew she would like the present, and he was excited to see her initial reaction. Her present, however, had been much more expensive than any other. He was worried that she might not want to accept it, but he was also worried at his other friends’ reactions, namely Ron’s.

Ginny wasted no time in tearing the wrappings off, revealing a sleek black case. With not a small amount of anticipation, Ginny undid the latch on the case and opened it up. She literally squeaked. The case slammed shut. She looked at Harry with big eyes, then quickly glanced back down, reopening the case a fraction to peek back inside. Her initial assessment confirmed, she bounced into Harry’s lap so fast that she was lucky she did not get hexed in his surprise. As it was, he ended up with a mouthful of Ginny’s hair that he was trying to spit out as she hugged him tightly.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” Ginny squealed by his ear. “Oh I could just kiss you.”

Harry turned his head sharply towards her at her final proclamation. She had frozen slightly but was still holding him firmly. Harry could not see her face, but he watched as a red tint crept up her ear.

“Well what is it?” Ron impatiently asked, breaking the spell of the moment. Not one to sit and wait for a response, he got to his feet and walked over to the case. When he flipped the lid, he gasped. “That’s a Nimbus,” he exclaimed. He reached in to turn the broom for a better look. “A 2001! You bought her a Nimbus 2001?” he asked incredulously, turning to Harry.

Harry, his arms wrapped around Ginny's back, was still trying to remove the last of Ginny’s hair out of his mouth. He nodded over Ginny's shoulder. “I got a good deal on it,” he explained shortly. As he removed the last tendrils of hair from his mouth, he ducked his head down slightly into her neck and inhaled deeply, catching the scent from Ginny's hair. He could not stop the sigh of contentment that escaped his lips. He could not quite place the smell; it was just indefinably Ginny.

“How on Earth did you get a deal on a Nimbus 2001? And what exactly is considered a good deal on it?” Ron demanded, causing Harry to lift his head back up to meet the boy's glare.

“First of all, what I paid for it is none of your business,” Harry retorted. “Second of all, I got a good deal because I made arrangements to purchase the new Nimbus model when it hits the market in late January.”

“There’s a new Nimbus?” Ron asked in an awestruck voice, his earlier questions forgotten.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief as he nodded, and Ginny giggled into his neck. He was not sure if it was the feeling of his breath on her neck or just her brother's reaction that had elicited her quiet laughter, but he smiled and squeezed her tighter in response. “They said it would be out by late January. February at the absolute latest. It’s supposed to be a little faster than the Firebolt, with greater acceleration and maneuverability.”

“Brilliant,” Ron responded dreamily, visions of broomsticks undoubtedly dancing in his mind.

Ginny finally leaned back from Harry, still straddling his lap. Their eyes caught for a moment. "Thank you, Harry," she whispered just before leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek. She slid off his lap and returned to her broom case, very carefully and almost reverentially lifting the broom out of it. “I have my own broom,” she whispered to herself in awe. “I have my very own Nimbus 2001.”

Harry smiled as he watched her reaction. She was smiling widely. Her eyes were shining. She was excited. He looked around. Nobody was blowing up. In fact, everyone seemed to be smiling. Neville gave him a thumbs up, while Hermione just gave him a knowing look. Ron seemed to be mulling over the idea of a broom that was even better than a Firebolt. It could not have gone any better.

Harry was next on the list, having been born a day after Neville. They were on the final round of present opening, and he had saved Ginny’s for last. Her gift was in a small, rectangular box that felt like it was made of wood. He tore into the wrapping paper to find a small reddish coloured wood box. There was a carving of a broomstick on the top of it. Harry flipped the latch on it and opened it up. A golden blur made to rush out of the box and away from Harry, and his instincts took over. His hand extended and closed around the golden object before it made it a meter away from the box. Harry very carefully opened up his hand. “You bought me a snitch?” he asked to Ginny disbelievingly. Ron gasped.

Ginny nodded meekly. “Do you like it?” she asked with her nervousness written clearly across her face.

“Like it?” Harry repeated. “I love it! Thank you.” With his left hand he reached out and squeezed her right, while he opened his right hand, allowing the snitch to stretch its wings for a moment before trying to make its escape. Harry was much too fast for it.

“I thought the school’s best Seeker ought to have his own snitch,” Ginny told him.

“How could you afford this?” Harry asked without thinking. Luckily, Ginny was neither surprised nor offended at the question.

“I sold my body to Fred and George for experimentation for their newest products,” she candidly replied.

Harry’s jaw dropped. “You did what? No. Take it back,” he told her, trying to hand the snitch over to her. When it tried to fly away again, he was forced to snatch it back out of the air. He began reaching for the box to lock it up when the sound of laughter stopped him. Ginny’s laughter. Harry looked at her sharply. “You were just having me on?”

“Well I did have their help. I’m working out a way to work it off with them,” Ginny replied truthfully. “I won’t be testing any of their products; at least, not on myself,” she added with a smirk.

“Thank you,” Harry told her again.

“You’re welcome, Harry.”

Neville had saved Ginny's present for last and was quite pleased to receive a book on how to care for his newest plant. He thanked her and wasted little time before hiding behind the cover of the book.

Ron was next. The only unopened gift in his pile was the one from Hermione. He haphazardly tore through the wrapping paper to reveal a book on the complete history of the Chudley Cannons from the team’s formation until present day. Harry had never before seen Ron look at a book with such fondness.

Being the oldest, Hermione was the last of them to open her final gift. She lifted the gift from Ron into her lap and methodically slipped her finger underneath the tape at every edge, preserving the wrapping paper for reasons known only to Hermione. She eventually uncovered a scented candle and body potion. Hermione smiled brightly at Ron and thanked him for the gift.

Not long afterwards, they each went up to their rooms to put away their presents. Harry very happily packed away his new belongings. In addition to the gifts from his four friends, he had received the usual Weasley jumper from Mrs. Weasley plus a tin of fudge. From Hagrid, Harry received a wooden carving of a griffin. Harry was rather impressed with Hagrid’s craftsmanship. It did not move around like the model of a Hungarian Horntail he had received during the Triwizard Tournament, but it was very finely fashioned. Harry put it on his bedside table. He chuckled as he put away the socks Dobby had knit for him and the note about his year long subscription to the Quibbler from Luna. Both Luna and Dobby were unique friends, and their gifts were indicative of that.

Remus had sent Harry a leather jacket. Inside a pocket of the coat, Remus had stashed a note which Harry just noticed as he was putting it away. Remus thanked him profusely for being there for him over the last few months, stressing just how much it meant to him. He also asked Harry to pass along his thanks to Ginny as well. He explained that Tonks had helped him pick out the jacket. They both thought it might come in handy when he finally got around to riding Sirius’s motorbike.

Harry spent most of the day lazing around with his friends. He did manage to sneak in a short nap, as did Ginny. Not too long after lunch ended, the girls all began heading up to their dorms to begin preparing for the ball, which left the boys a couple hours to themselves before they would need to get ready. Harry could not help but think that being a guy definitely had its advantages.

Harry, Neville, and Ron spent most of that time playing exploding snap or chess. At one point Ron sat on the sidelines and watched as Harry and Neville battled each other over the chess board. He spent the entire time groaning and pulling his hair out over all the moves they were missing. Neither Harry nor Neville really cared. They were evenly matched, so it was a good game which Harry narrowly won.

The boys all eventually ascended the stairs to their dorms to get ready for the ball. Harry showered, which Ron neglected to do, before he donned his crimson and gold robes. The others all headed back down before him, and as he stood there looking in front of the mirror, Harry remembered something Ginny had once said to him. Looking around to make sure nobody was around, he concentrated and willed his hair to shorten back to the length he used to wear it. He noticed, with equal parts amusement and frustration, that his hair was once again sticking up at the back.

Harry examined himself critically in the mirror. It was not so terrible, he supposed. If Ginny liked it, well, that was good enough for him. On the other hand, he wondered how it might look if he shortened the sides a bit. He spent the next several minutes trying out slightly different styles in front of the mirror that would look a little nicer but still maintain that messy, windswept look he shared with his father. He finally found the right combination and smiled at his reflection in satisfaction.

Taking one last look at himself to make sure he looked all right, Harry headed down to the common room to join the rest of the Gryffindor boys who were all standing or sitting around waiting for their dates and the start of the ball. He spotted Ron's red hair easily enough as he descended the stairs and noticed Neville nearby, so he headed in their direction. A lot of surprised eyes met him as he entered into the common room. Ron voiced the thought. “Your hair….” Harry could not tell whether the reaction was at all positive or negative.

“Your sister once told me she liked it better short,” Harry replied with a shrug. That seemed to satisfy most of the onlookers, for they all drifted back to their own conversations.

“How’d you cut it?” Ron asked him.

“I looked up a charm a few days ago,” Harry lied smoothly.

“Ginny will be surprised,” Neville told him.

“I hope so,” Harry returned with a small, nervous smile, which caused Neville’s grin to widen. “When are you meeting Hannah?” Harry asked him curiously.

“Not for another 15 minutes,” Neville replied glancing at his watch.

“In the entrance hall? Or….”

“I’m meeting her near the entrance to their common room. We’re not supposed to know the exact location, so she told me a place to meet her that’s nearby,” Neville answered.

“Good on you,” Harry replied. “We'll try to meet you in the entrance hall before the doors open, but if we don't make it in time, grab a table with whoever else is there, and we'll find you."

"All right," Neville agreed. He looked down at his watch again. "I should probably go, just in case she's early."

Harry did not think there was much chance of that happening, but he knew that his friend would feel more comfortable knowing he was not going to leave his date waiting for him. "Sounds like a plan. See you down there, mate."

"See you Harry," Neville called back. Harry was already turning his attention back to the girls' staircase where most of the eyes in the room were currently locked.

It was several minutes later when the first of the girls came down. Stephanie, the third Chaser on the Quidditch team, was one of them, along with another girl in her year. They were each met by their dates and escorted out of the portrait hole.

After that, more girls began descending down every couple minutes. About half the room had cleared out when Harry felt his stomach drop to his feet. Walking down the stairs in a black dress was none other than his date, Ginny Weasley. Taking in the sight of her, he unconsciously licked his suddenly dry lips.

The dress was strapless with a relatively low neckline. Harry briefly wondered to himself just how it was being held up. A moment later he could have smacked himself upside the head as the obvious answer came to him: magic. The dress clung to her body at every curve, and Harry could not stop his eyes from tracing every single one. He knew she was attractive, knew she had curves, but due to the bulky robes she usually wore, he had never really seen them showcased. Now he was seeing them in all their glory; well, maybe not quite all their glory...he really should not let his thoughts wander down that path.

As she made it all the way down the stairs and into the light of the common room, Harry noticed the dress shimmer. He looked closer and found golden flecks woven throughout the fabric. Even without the added effect, Ginny was positively glowing. She stopped her progress after taking a couple steps into the room, and Harry managed to kick-start his brain enough to walk out to meet her.

She smiled when she first noticed him, and Harry could swear he saw the room brighten at its appearance. Their eyes met as he was only several meters away, and her eyes did a casual flick to his hair. Another step, her eyes flew back to the top of his head and widened significantly, right alongside her smile.

Finally, after what seemed like several minutes, he made it to her. He stopped an arm’s length away and paused briefly to allow his eyes one last opportunity to rake in her appearance from head to toe, before taking a final step towards her. Their bodies were nearly touching as he lifted his hand and gently traced her cheekbone with his fingertips. His eyes followed past his hand, and he found himself quite intrigued by the deep red mass of waves cascading down her back. He had to resist the urge to run his fingers through the long tresses of her hair.

Now if only he could get his throat to open back up. After a moment he managed to say, “You look…” a million adjectives rushed through his mind: amazing, incredible, gorgeous, sexy, stunning, wonderful, breathtaking. He finally decided on the one that said it all the best in his mind. “Beautiful.” The word was said reverentially. Ginny blushed prettily behind her smile.

“You cut your hair?” she asked him wonderingly.

Harry nodded. “Do you like it?” he asked her, hoping he had not messed up.

“I love it,” she replied. “But why?”

Harry shrugged. “You told me you really liked my hair the way it used to be.”

“So you did this just for me?” she asked him.

“Yeah,” Harry replied simply, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world.

“You do realise it will take a long time to grow back, right?” She whispered the question meaningfully, and Harry nodded in reply.

“I know. I might just keep it this way,” he told her honestly.

“Well thank you,” she told him sincerely. “And you look rather dashing, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Harry replied with only the slightest blush.

“Hermione should be down in a minute; then we can head down,” Ginny informed him.

Harry nodded absently. He could not help his eyes wandering up and down her figure. “That dress looks absolutely stunning on you,” he told her without consciously deciding to.

“Thank you, Harry,” she said blushingly. “I still can’t believe I could actually afford it,” she commented half to herself as she self-consciously ran her hands down her sides to smooth out the fabric.

“Well, I for one am glad that you could,” Harry told her with an inner smugness. He was infinitely pleased with himself to have provided her the means to purchase that dress. She may get to wear it and keep it, but somehow Harry felt he was getting the better end of the deal.

Had Ron not been so nervously staring at the girls’ staircase throughout their exchange, he just might have felt the need to give Harry a black eye for the looks he was directing at his sister. Then again, most of the occupants of the common room would have to be given similar treatment.

They spent another minute waiting for Hermione. Ron had to be nudged forward to start moving as Hermione waited nervously for Ron to meet her. When he finally found himself directly in front of her, it was apparent that Ron had no idea what to say. His face, neck, and ears all stained red as the two stood there awkwardly for almost a full minute before Ron managed to stammer out. “You look incredible.”

Hermione, whose face was already pink, blushed brightly. Harry had to admit that Ron was not lying. She had tamed her hair as she had for the previous ball. From what Harry could see Hermione had pulled her hair up into an elegant knot, with a few soft curls framing her face. She was wearing lavender coloured robes. They were not quite as form fitting as Ginny’s, but they definitely showcased a side of Hermione not often seen.

“Thank you,” she replied. “You look good in those robes,” she complimented him. “Blue is definitely your colour.”

“Think you could convince my mum of that?” Ron grumbled good-naturedly, eliciting a small laugh from Hermione.

Hermione looked over to Harry and Ginny and smiled at them. “You look great Ginny, and Harry…your hair! You cut it. Oh, you look good.”

“Thanks, Hermione,” Harry replied honestly. “You look rather striking as well.”

The couples stood smiling at each other for a moment before Harry turned and held his arm out to Ginny. “Shall we head down, m’lady?”

She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and replied, “Indeed, good sir.” Harry placed his other hand on top of hers, and the two set off, chuckling at Ron’s expression as he watched them.

Hermione just rolled her eyes and grabbed Ron by the arm. “Come on, Ron.” The two of them caught up to Harry and Ginny easily, who had been walking at a leisurely pace. The four Gryffindors made their way down to the entrance hall in a mostly comfortable silence. Harry had to spend the entire walk concentrating on keeping his eyes forward so as not to trip or walk into anything. Despite his best efforts, they continued to drift over to the gorgeous red-head by his side. Luckily, with her arm in his, it was hard for him to completely stray off course, and they made it to their destination without incident.

The doors to the Great Hall had yet to open, so many students were milling around the entrance hall. Many students waved hello to Harry as he passed by. Harry returned their greetings, referring to them each by name, a feat which Ginny pointed out.

“Well, what kind of professor would I be if I didn’t even learn my students’ names?” Harry asked her.

Ginny shrugged. “I have a hard enough time keeping track of who everybody is in just our HA class. I’d be in way over my head having to remember the names of everyone in the second class on top of that.”

“It took me a while to start getting them down, but when you’re working with them twice a week, it’s bound to stick in your head eventually,” Harry responded. “When you’re in my class, you don’t necessarily work with everybody there, but I do. I make it a point to try to interact with each student every class, even if it’s just a passing greeting or remark as I make my rounds. I think it helps them to know that I’m there and that I am paying attention to them, even if I’m not working with them directly. Does that make sense?”

“Perfectly,” Ginny replied thoughtfully. “I guess I had never really thought about it that way, but I see your point. You really are a great teacher, Harry. Have you ever thought of becoming a professor in the future?”

Harry stopped and looked at her. “No, actually, I hadn’t, but it’s not a bad thought,” he mused aloud. Hermione and Ron kept walking, though they each sent a curious, furtive glance their way.

“You seem like you enjoy it,” Ginny input. “And you’re obviously good at it.”

The last was said with such honesty and finality that Harry had to work to fight down a blush. “Thank you,” he told her sincerely. “I think I’ll have to give that some thought. The only thing I had ever really considered becoming was an auror, and I’m not even sure why. I think just because I’m good at defense and seem to always end up in the middle of every fight.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Ginny said. “I think you’d make an incredible auror as well. But you should really consider your options and make sure that you do what you want to do, what you think will make you happy.”

“I’m still not used to the idea that I actually finally get a say in where my life is headed,” Harry commented off-handedly.

Ginny slid her hand down his arm and squeezed his hand. She turned and leaned in rather close to him. “You say that as if you haven’t been doing whatever you want for the past several months,” she teased in a whisper.

Harry's stomach leapt slightly as he felt her body lightly brush against his. He had to shake his head to clear his thoughts as he replied, “That’s true, but I’ve had to do it all in secret. I’ve had to hide so much. It’s frustrating to have to lie to everybody and hide so much from them. I wish I could just be me and stop with all the games.”

“You know you can always just be yourself with me,” Ginny told him. “You don’t have to hide things or pretend you’re someone or something else.”

“I know,” Harry responded looking deep into her eyes. “And you have no idea how much it means to me. I….” Harry shook his head, at a loss for words. “But even then, there is still so much I’ve kept from you, that I can’t tell you yet. Not until you learn….”

Ginny nodded. “Occlumency,” she said in a whisper.

“How's the reading coming?” he asked her curiously.

She shrugged. “All right, I guess. I haven't been able to get away as much as I would have liked, but I'm making progress."

“I know what you mean,” Harry ruefully agreed. “I’ve hardly done any training all break. Hermione and Ron have been hanging around all the time, and they make it really hard to break away for some private time. Even Hermione has been putting down the books. It’s great that they want to spend time with me and everything, but they just seem to want to smother me. Any time I try to make an exit, they come up with some reason why I have to stay. If I say I’m going to go study in my office, Hermione will offer to study with me in the library, and even Ron will agree sometimes. It’s maddening.”

“I’m sorry, Harry,” Ginny replied carefully. “I think they’re just trying to make up for last term, since you three spent so much time at odds."

“I know, which is what makes it so hard to actually be mad at them for it,” Harry returned. “But honestly, you'd think they might realize that I need a little bit of privacy.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Harry. Maybe things will level out once classes begin again.”

“I hope so,” Harry responded. “I don’t want to fall behind." Harry looked over Ginny's shoulder and spotted Neville and Hannah. "Oh, there's Neville," he said giving his head a slight flick in their direction.

Ginny spun around and easily spotted the couple. "Let's go over and say hi," she said, tugging on his hand and pulling him towards them.

Harry smiled, squeezing her hand in return. She glanced over her shoulder at him and gave him a small smirk at the gesture. "Hello you two," Harry greeted. "You make quite the dashing couple."

Neville blushed and looked down at his shoes. Hannah's cheeks burned to match his. "Thanks, Harry. The two of you look incredible together."

Harry managed to fight down his blush as he turned to look at his date. He noticed Ginny's cheeks had tinged slightly pink at the compliment. He gave her hand another squeeze. She gave his hand a small squeeze in return, and the couple smiled at each other. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Neville and Hannah share a knowing look, though he was not quite sure what it was about.

"There you are," an overly loud and cordial voice announced. Harry turned his head over his right shoulder to find Ernie McMillan maneuvering his way through the crowds towards them with his date on his arm. Harry immediately recognized her as Julianne Murphy, a fifth year Hufflepuff in his BHA classes. The boy greeted Harry and Neville each with a handshake and Ginny with a short bow. Hannah, with whom he was good friends, offered her hand to him. He grasped her finger tips lightly, bent down at the knee and dropped a kiss on the back of her hand. Hannah giggled at the formality of it and swatted him on the shoulder as Ernie stood up to his full height.

"Honestly, Ernie, this is just a school ball, not some fancy Ministry function," she protested good-naturedly. The boy did not show any indication he had even heard her.

Luna and Alex approached just then, but their greetings were interrupted by the sound of the doors to the Great Hall opening. Dumbledore stood silhouetted in the doorway. There were fairy lights suspended in midair behind him scattered throughout the Hall, replacing the usual candles. Large snow flakes drifted down from the sky-like ceiling only to disappear once level with the lights. There were Christmas trees in each corner of the room plus one behind the Head Table.

The four house tables were gone, replaced by numerous round tables that would seat eight to ten comfortably. Each table had its own candelabra in addition to the fairy lights overhead to provide adequate light during the meal time. The room as a whole was only dimly lit. A large area was left open in the centre of the room which Harry assumed was the dance floor. The walls were adorned with a variety of decorations from wreaths to garland to giant candy canes. Harry thought he might have even seen a snowman wearing dress robes, but he could not be sure because there were too many people blocking his view.

The four couples made their way into the room together and immediately claimed one of the tables as their own. It was only as they were sitting and Harry noticed the two empty chairs that he realized they had lost Ron and Hermione somewhere along the way. He stood and scanned the Great Hall for them. Ron's red hair easily attracted his attention on the other side of the hall. The two of them were looked a little lost trying to find the rest of their party. Harry waved over his head to catch their attention. After a minute, Ron finally noticed. He caught Hermione's attention and pointed Harry out to her. The two began skirting the dance floor, rather than walking through it, to join them. In the meantime, Harry sat back down in his seat and found his eyes drawn to the beautiful redhead beside him. Now that they were not walking, however, he had nothing save decorum to stop him from staring.

Before he had realised any time had passed, Hermione and Ron had arrived and were sitting themselves in the only two empty seats left at the table. Harry shook his head at himself and greeted the pair. Menus appeared in front of each place-setting. Harry picked up his menu along with the rest of the students in the hall. As he opened up his menu he shifted himself slightly causing his leg to run up against Ginny's. He looked over at her from behind his menu, and she did likewise. They shared a warm smile, and neither broke the contact with their legs. Ginny turned back to her menu after a moment, and Harry forced himself to do likewise.

He had a hard time concentrating on the menu and eventually decided on some sort of steak dish. He put his menu down and made his order. The menu promptly disappeared, and his meal appeared in front of him. Looking around, he noticed that he was the last to place his order. They ate amidst light conversation. The topic stayed mostly on the holidays and the presents they had each received that morning. As dessert was being served, Ernie posed the question, "So what do you all think? Is Malfoy going to get pranked again tonight?"

Harry and Ginny shared a short look. Neither of them had even thought about pranking the Slytherin boy tonight. Their minds had been too focused on their own evening. Neville's eyes flicked to Harry and Ginny before answering, "I don't think so. I bet his prankers gave him the night off this evening. It is Christmas, after all."

"All the more reason to prank him," Ron blurted out. "It would make a great Christmas present."

"For you, maybe," Hermione commented. "I doubt he'd see it that way." She appeared like she wanted to go on but visibly restrained herself to avoid an argument.

"That's an interesting necklace you have on, Luna. I don't think I've seen you wear it before," Ginny said, tactfully changing the conversation.

"Oh this?" Luna asked as she reached to her neck with her left hand and fingered the cord of the necklace. "It was a gift."

"A gift?" Hermione asked curiously. "Who was it from?"

"Harry," Luna responded simply, turning her protuberant eyes in his direction.

"Harry bought that for you?" Ginny asked in disbelief.

"Oh yes," Luna replied. "It was very thoughtful of him to get this particular necklace for me, though I'm not sure whether or not I'll actually be needing it tonight." She turned her attention to her date, Alex, as she said this last bit and seemed to almost be sizing him up.

"What does that mean?" Hermione queried uncomprehendingly. "You're wearing it, aren't you?"

She turned back to Hermione. "Of course I am. I'm just unsure whether or not its properties will be of any use to me tonight," she responded vaguely, again turning her gaze back to Alex who was looking rather confused at the attention she was paying him.

"Special properties?" Hannah Abbot asked with genuine curiosity. "What kind of properties does it have?" She shot Harry a short glance as if he might have had the answer written somewhere on his face.

"The cord was woven with the hairs of an Abraxan," the blonde witch explained as if that explained everything.

Hannah's face contorted in confusion, while Hermione went into interrogation mode. "Abraxan hairs? Their hairs don't have any magical properties. I'd have remembered reading about them. I read all about Abraxans when the Beaubatons students arrived in their Abraxan-drawn carriage for the tournament."

"Oh, you wouldn't have found the information in the library," Luna commented. "If you read the Quibbler you'd know that Abraxan hair is a natural repellent of nargles."

Harry looked around the table. Ron was still eating, seemingly oblivious to the conversation. Neville and Alex were both listening but appeared to be having trouble following the conversation. Ernie was talking quietly to Julianne. Hermione, Hannah, and Ginny were actively following the conversation but had entirely different expressions on their faces. Hermione's face had twisted into a scowl at the mention of the Quibbler holding knowledge. Hannah had refocused on the actual necklace around Luna's neck. Ginny's face had scrunched slightly in thought. She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and ever so slightly bit down on it as she puzzled over this latest piece of information. Harry found his gaze caught on her lips.

Ginny suddenly jerked forward and snapped her fingers, obviously having figured out whatever she was puzzling over. "Mistletoe," she exclaimed in triumph. The entire table turned to look at her. She shook her head at all the confused stares she was receiving. "Nargles infest mistletoe, right?"

Harry was surprised she had remembered that. Had he not organized his mind for Occlumency, he doubted he would ever have remembered that extraneous bit of information. Having all his memories of Luna stored in one location had made it much easier for him to find something he could get for his odd friend. Ginny had yet to go through the process of organizing her mind, leaving Harry quite surprised at her ability to remember that little factoid. "That's right," he told her in a soft voice.

She turned her triumphant smile towards him. "You bought her a necklace that would repel nargles?" she asked. He nodded. "So that she wouldn't have to worry about going near any mistletoe?" Harry shrugged and nodded again. "That's so sweet of you, Harry," she cried out. She leant toward him and gave him a peck on his cheek, and Harry felt his skin burn at the contact and spread through his face. Try as he might, he could not fight down the blush, nor the strange tingling sensation left behind. He turned his attention back to Luna and noticed Alex blushing beside her as realisation dawned on him. Mistletoe only meant one thing.

Any further conversation was interrupted as the Headmaster rose from his seat and tapped his knife to his glass. “Good evening. I trust everyone enjoyed the scrumptious meal provided by our house elves.” Hermione harrumphed at the plight of the house elves as Dumbledore continued. “Now that we have sufficiently stuffed ourselves, I feel it is time to open up the dance floor. It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you the entertainment for this evening from across the pond, Nine Inch Wands."

The students all rose to their feet and clapped enthusiastically for the band. Ginny laid her hand on his shoulder and leaned up right to his ear to explain that they were an up-and-coming band that was quickly rising in popularity. They were supposed to be the next Weird Sisters. Harry did not really follow music. He could care less about this band, but he stood and clapped along with everyone else all the same.

As the band settled down and announced that they would be opening up with a traditional waltz. The professors all descended onto the floor to lead them off while most of the students sat right back down, everybody at their table included. All but Harry, that is. Instead, Harry bowed and held his hand out to Ginny. “May I have the honour of this dance?” he asked cordially.

*************

To say Ginny was surprised would be an understatement. She had anticipated having to drag Harry out onto the dance floor just to get a couple dances in, but here he was asking her for the first dance. She quickly recovered and schooled her features into a prim countenance. “The pleasure would be mine, good sir.” She gave her hand to him and let herself be led onto the dance floor. They moved into position to begin the dance, and Ginny could not help but notice the way Harry's eyes sparkled at her. She could tell that this he was up to something, and he was rather expecting to enjoy whatever it was.

With a cocky grin on his face, Harry asked, “Are you ready?” She only nodded in reply, still wondering how they had gotten into this situation. The music started and Ginny waited with a bit of trepidation for Harry to make the first move. She felt her jaw dropping as he began to gracefully lead her through the steps of the dance. Her eyes were drawn to his, and she noticed that his eyes never once left hers even as he led her with obvious practiced ease.

“You know, you’re liable to catch flies if you keep that up,” Harry commented a couple minutes into the dance with, she noticed, a self-satisfied smirk firmly in place.

“But where…? How did you…?” Ginny stumbled over her questions, feeling at a complete loss for words.

“Where did I learn how to dance?” Harry inserted smugly. Ginny nodded. “What makes you think I couldn’t dance before?” She gave him a look that expressed quite clearly that she was not going to fall for that one. “Okay, so I couldn’t dance before,” Harry admitted.

Ginny smiled self-righteously. “The question is: how can you dance now?”

“Quite easily,” Harry replied with a mischievous smirk.

“You’re not going to tell me?” Ginny asked while putting on her best fake pout.

“You’ll find out in good time,” Harry returned. “For now, just enjoy the dance.”

And enjoy it she did. They danced the next few songs as well, which included two faster paced and one slow song. Ginny found herself more and more impressed after each one. Harry danced and led and twirled her around with surprising ease. They had a good laugh at some of the more extravagant spins they performed. After a few songs, they moved off the dance floor to cool off with a goblet of pumpkin juice.

“I must say that I am quite impressed, Potter,” Ginny told him honestly. “I hadn’t expected you to actually do much dancing tonight, at least not without a lot of prodding. I definitely did not see this one coming. Here I was all ready to soak my poor toes at the end of the night – Don’t laugh. I could barely walk for days after the last ball – and here you come out and drag me off for the first dance, a traditional waltz, which you danced perfectly. When it turned out you were actually pretty good, I figured you may have just learned that one dance for the Tournament or something since you had to lead off the dancing. So imagine my surprise when you can dance the others just as well.”

She watched as he tried to hide his smirk behind his goblet as he took a sip. “Well, I did ask you to the ball. I didn’t want to disappoint you or leave you with some broken toes, so I made sure I could dance reasonably well,” Harry replied simply.

“Well thank you, Harry,” she replied tenderly. “It means a lot that you went through the trouble for me. You really didn’t have to.”

“I wanted to,” Harry told her. “I wanted to have fun, and more importantly, I wanted you to have fun.” He took another sip. “If I didn’t know how to dance, I’d probably be sitting at the table still, worrying over it, and you’d be stuck there sitting with me trying to convince me to get up for at least one dance. We’d waste away the night with that. That’s the last thing I wanted.”

Ginny glanced over at their table and, sure enough, saw both Hannah and Hermione sitting there with Neville and Ron. She knew that Neville would eventually concede and dance as much as Hannah wanted, and he would try his best, though Ginny could not help but feel bad for Hannah and her poor toes. She had no idea what she was in for. Turning her attention to her brother and Hermione, Ginny hoped that Hermione was able to convince Ron to loosen up and dance. Ron could be incredibly stubborn when he wanted to be, and Ginny just hoped that this did not turn out to be one of those occasions. She was interrupted from her thoughts by Harry’s voice. “You ready to head back out there?”

Ginny smiled dazzlingly. “Lead the way.” She saw Harry's eyes flick down to her lips, and she could not stop the blush that suffused her cheeks when his tongue darted out of his mouth to glide across his lips.

She let Harry lead her back out to the dance floor and pull her in close as they began to sway to the slow tempo of the current song. She tucked her head in the crook of Harry's neck and inhaled his scent, letting out a sigh of contentment. It was shaping up to be the perfect night. For the first time in her life she was wearing robes that did not make her feel like some cast off. The meal had been excellent. The music was great. And Harry...Harry was more than she could have dreamed of.

He never ceased to surprise her. She had hoped to spend a wonderful and, dare she say it, magical evening with Harry, but he had already far surpassed her expectations in that department. He had said all the right things. The way he looked at her made her feel like she was the most beautiful girl in the world. It was like to him she was the only other person in the room. And it made her feel special to garner Harry's attention in that way.

Then there were the physical touches they had shared. They had walked arm in arm down to the Great Hall. For a while he had been holding her hand. If she was not mistaken he had rather knowingly brushed his leg against hers during dinner, and he had made a point of maintaining that contact throughout the meal. Nothing, however, compared to the feeling of being held close against him as they swayed in time to the music. The dancing in general was incredible, whether they were cutting a rug to the up-tempo songs, waltzing, or just holding each other close and swaying to the music. It was an incredible thing to be dancing with Harry. The knowledge that he had learned it all just for her made it all the more special.

More than anything else, it was Harry's smile that made the night perfect for her. She had seen many emotions on Harry's face over the years, but never before had she seen him smile the way he was smiling at her tonight. To know that she was the one to bring that about, that she was the only one he smiled at like that, well, she had never felt so cherished and so wanted in all her life.

Ginny had been wondering at Harry's feelings for a long time now. She knew that Harry cared for her and that she held a special place in his life, but she did not know exactly where she stood with him or what exactly he felt for her. Sometimes she wondered if Harry even knew the answer to that. He treated her much differently than anyone else. He was so much more open with her, but it was more than that. He was not just open, he was coming to depend on her. At the beginning of the term he had trouble accepting even the simplest of touches or comfort from her, but now he welcomed the contact.

There were so many little signs that individually would not amount to much, but all together they made her think. She could feel Harry's hands resting on the bare skin of her back, one hand running up and down her back while the other was twirling a lock of her hair, which stretched midway down her back, on one of his fingers. His hands had a tendency to wander from her waist up a couple inches to where her back was bare. She loved feeling his hands on her skin, and she hoped that he enjoyed the sensation as much as she. Before this evening she had been very confused about Harry's feelings. She had felt as though she was holding onto a fool's hope, but now it was different.

Now she felt as though she might just have been right. Maybe all those signs did add up to mean something. Maybe Harry could actually feel something for her. She squeezed him a little tighter around his neck and reveled in the feeling when Harry pulled her even more tightly against his body. Yes, this would most certainly qualify as a magical evening.

**************

Harry marveled in the feel of Ginny's skin underneath his hands. He decided that backless dress robes were one of the more brilliant ideas he had encountered. He had trouble stopping his hands from wandering over her bare flesh or from curling her hair around his fingers. Every time he pulled her close his hands invariably climbed up from her waist to the bare skin of her back, and he thought he heard Ginny let out a sigh of contentment on a couple such occasions, but he also might have imagined that.

A faster song started up, and as Harry led Ginny he gradually increased their speed. He let go of Ginny’s waist as he led her into a twirl, smiling and laughing along with her as they now danced at double the speed of the beat. They were drawing many curious glances, but neither cared. They continued dancing to their own beat.

“So where did you learn to dance, Harry?” Ginny asked not for the first time that night.

Harry grinned. “Why are you so interested?”

“I need to know who to thank,” Ginny replied frankly.

Harry’s smile widened. “You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me,” she challenged back as the two spun around.

“In good time,” he said, leaning forward to catch her in a dip. He could not stop his eyes from flicking down to the neckline of her dress and decided he rather liked the idea of a good dip.

The next song was a slow one, and Harry pulled Ginny in close as the two began to sway in time to the music. Harry could not stop the wide smile that spread across his face as he felt Ginny’s body mold against his. The fast songs were fun, but there was something about the slow songs and holding Ginny close that made Harry feel inexplicably happy and warm inside.

“So did you have fun last night?” Harry asked her quietly.

Ginny nodded into his shoulder. “It’s fun playing around in animal form. I haven’t spent much time as a lioness.”

“We’ll just have to remedy that then, won’t we?” Harry returned.

“We just may,” she agreed.

“Do you think you’ll continue to join us?” he continued.

“I don’t know,” Ginny replied. “I don’t want to intrude upon your time together or anything.”

“You’re not intruding,” Harry insisted. “I enjoy having you around.” Try as he might, Harry had trouble placing exactly what it was about Ginny that made him enjoy her company so much, but he could never seem to pin it down. He just loved to be with her and found himself always wanting to spend more time with her.

“But what about Prof—Remus?” Ginny persisted.

“Are you kidding?” Harry asked incredulously. “Do you have any idea how much it means to him that people are willing to even just look past his condition to see him for who he is? Well that doesn’t hold a candle compared to what it means to know that he has people in his life who want to help him during that time, that are willing to stay with him and offer him some small comfort when he transforms. He’ll be honoured that you want to continue to help. He left me a note in the pocket of the jacket he gave me. He wanted me to tell you how much he appreciated you being there last night.”

“Well then you can count me in,” Ginny replied.

“Good,” Harry said happily. He was glad that she wanted to help and that it would give them an opportunity to spend additional time together and in their animal forms as well. Harry had hoped for more time to play in the forest, but things had just been so busy, for Ginny especially, that it had not been possible before the end of term. Now that term was over, there were too many people around for them to ever get a chance to slip away unnoticed.

As they continued to sway to the music, Harry scanned the crowd around them. Hermione had finally managed to drag Ron onto the dance floor. He was holding her at half an arm’s length and staring at his feet as the pair danced. Harry was tempted to roll his eyes but realised that was probably exactly what he would have looked like if not for his lessons. That thought made him smirk. He could tell that Ginny was infinitely curious about where he had learned to dance. The fact that she had brought it up numerous times was indicative of that.

That thought brought Harry to search out his dance instructor. She was currently speaking to Professor Flitwick who was seated on top of the head table. As the current song faded, Harry released his tight hold on Ginny and let his hands drift from her back to her waist. He smiled as her face washed into view. “Do you mind if I dance this next one with someone else?” he asked her.

She shrugged nonchalantly. “That’s fine I suppose.”

“Thanks,” he told her, giving her hips a slight squeeze. “I’ll be back in no time.”

She nodded and headed off the dance floor as Harry wound his way through the crowd to Professor McGonagall. He smiled as he made his way to the head table. “Professor McGonagall, you look lovely this evening. And good evening to you, Professor Flitwick,” Harry greeted warmly.

The tiny professor greeted Harry in return as Professor McGonagall replied, “Good evening to you, Mr. Potter. I trust you’re enjoying yourself?”

“Very much so, thank you,” Harry replied. “I was wondering, though, if I might have the honour of this dance?” He held his hand out in invitation.

His stern instructor smiled warmly. “Indeed you may,” she replied as she reached out to take his hand.

Harry led her onto the dance floor and quickly moved his hands into position and began to lead his professor. “I wanted to thank you for all the lessons,” Harry told her honestly.

“The pleasure was mine, Harry,” she replied. “It was a nice chance to get to know you a little better. And seeing you out here enjoying yourself so much has made it all the more worthwhile.”

Harry laughed lightly. “If I had known it could be this much fun with a little preparation, I would’ve asked you to teach me two years ago,” Harry joked.

She smiled in reply. “I daresay it is more the company than the dancing that you’re enjoying so much this evening,” she observed.

“You’re probably right,” Harry agreed with only a minimal blush as his eyes automatically sought out the source of his enjoyment of the evening. Ginny was currently standing off to the side of the dance floor talking with her dorm mates. She looked over at him and their eyes met. She cocked an eyebrow at him causing him to smile even wider. He turned his attention back to his current dance partner. “All night she’s been trying to figure out where I learned to dance,” he told her with an impish grin.

“I think you ruined the secret,” McGonagall returned.

“Yeah, I figured letting her find out this way was more fun than just telling her,” Harry admitted.

As the song was winding down to a close, Ginny made her way over to the two of them. Professor McGonagall was the first to speak. “Good evening, Miss Weasley. I trust you’re enjoying yourself this evening?”

“I am, thank you,” she replied. “And I’m guessing I have you to thank for that.”

McGonagall smiled in reply. “Yes, I was quite surprised when Harry approached me about teaching him to dance, but he turned out to be an excellent student.”

Ginny smiled warmly at Harry. “Well you taught him very well; thank you.”

“You are quite welcome,” the normally stern professor replied. “Well I’ll leave you two to get back to the ball. Thank you for the dance, Harry.”

“The pleasure was all mine,” Harry replied. After a moment he turned to Ginny and held his arm out to her. She accepted his arm and the two walked off the side of the dance floor where they met Ron and Hermione. The four talked for a little while, Hermione questioning his newfound dancing ability and easily making the connection to Professor McGonagall after spotting the two of them dancing. Ron just looked at Harry funnily at that admission.

When the next dance started, Hermione dragged a willing Harry onto the dance floor where the two of them danced to an upbeat tune. He was somewhat relieved at the tempo of the song. With how upbeat it was, there was not much opportunity for conversation, nor was he required to hold Hermione close. He still was not all that comfortable with close physical contact with people, and he was still a little wary of Hermione. She had been much more agreeable since their confrontation over the weekend, but after spending the entire term avoiding her inquiries, Harry was not yet ready to acquit himself of the habit.

He just finished the following dance with Ginny when Neville and Hannah approached them. “Mind if I cut in for old time’s sake?” Neville asked, not directing the question to either one of them in particular.

As Ginny accepted, Harry nodded his approval. When the two moved off to dance, Harry offered a hand to Hannah. “Care to dance?”

“I’d love to, thank you,” she replied.

The two talked casually as they danced to the relatively slow tune. “So how are you enjoying the ball?” Harry asked her.

“It’s a lot of fun…” she looked as though she wanted to add in a “but” to that but trailed off.

“But…your toes are killing you?” Harry offered.

She smiled and blushed as she shrugged in reply. “He’s not that bad of a dancer, but my toes have suffered a bit, yes.”

Harry nodded. “At least he tries,” Harry said as he glanced over to Ron and Hermione who were sitting out yet another song. Indeed, the two had only danced a couple so far.

“Yes, I’m glad that he’s at least willing to give it a shot. He’s been great about it, though I feel bad whenever he does step on me. He’s always so sorry and sincere, it’s impossible to be mad at him for it,” she told him.

“That sounds like Neville,” Harry replied. “I don’t think he’d be half as bad if he got over his nervousness. He’s gotten a lot better with it over the past year, but he still gets nervous and embarrassed pretty easily. With a little confidence, he could be an entirely different person.”

“I like Neville the way he is,” she commented absently. “I think it’s sweet that he gets so nervous.”

Harry grinned. “Oh you do, huh?” Harry said, giving her a knowing look.

She blushed.

“It’s alright,” Harry assured her. “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Thank you,” she replied sincerely, with a bit of relief in her voice.

“Just don’t get too discouraged or disappointed when he doesn’t catch on to how you’re feeling right away or doesn’t act on his own feelings,” Harry told her helpfully. He was pretty confident that Neville felt the same way.

She nodded her understanding for a second before her eyes bugged and locked on to his own. “His feelings?”

Harry smirked wickedly. “Oh no, you’re not getting anything out of me,” Harry laughed. He was pretty sure she already got the message.

The song soon ended. “Thank you for the dance,” Harry told her.

“It was my pleasure,” she answered back. “You’re quite a good dancer.”

“Thanks,” Harry replied. “I had a good teacher.”

“Ginny?” she questioned.

Harry shook his head. “Professor McGonagall.”

Her eyes widened at that. “Huh. Well, that’s interesting.”

Harry chuckled at her reaction. “She’s really not so bad once you get to know her. She just uses the stern demeanour to keep the students in line.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” she replied.

“Just don’t tell her you heard it from me,” Harry joked.

After a couple more dances with Ginny, Harry made note of the time and realised that it was approaching time for his last surprise of the evening. When the current song was fading, Harry squeezed Ginny’s arm and asked, “Do you want to go outside and get some fresh air?”

Ginny shrugged and said, “Sure.”

Harry offered his arm, which she gladly took, and led her through the crowd of students to the huge double doors leading to the entrance hall. From there it was a short walk to get to the doors leading to the grounds. As with the last ball, there were fairy lights set up for a short path into the grounds. Not many people were outside because of the cold, and those that did venture out for fresh air hardly stayed around for long.

As they walked into the fresh air, Harry noticed Ginny shivering beside him. He easily cast a warming charm with the hand she was holding which quickly spread through both their bodies. Ginny jumped slightly in surprise then turned a grateful smile towards Harry. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Harry replied. He led her at a slow pace through the temporary garden area and further on to the grounds. She looked at him questioningly but did not say anything.

A short distance from the castle, Harry guided her up to the top of a little hill. He took out his wand, though they both knew it was not necessary, and used it to conjure a large blanket on top of the grass. She quirked an eyebrow at him and asked, “Just what do you think is going to happen out here, Potter?”

Harry smirked mischievously. “I was thinking along the lines of a magical evening,” was his playful reply. He moved to sit on the blanket and tugged lightly to get her to follow. She did so, albeit a little reluctantly. She really had no idea where this was going, not that she was not interested to find out.

Harry just looked off into the night sky, a small bemused smile upon his face. “It’s a beautiful night, wouldn’t you say?”

“It is,” she agreed looking around at the night sky and the illuminated windows of the castle.

“I've really enjoyed spending the evening with you,” he told her sincerely, taking her hand into his and intertwining their fingers.
“Me too,” she told him. “This whole night has just been wonderful. Thank you, Harry.”

Harry just smiled. He could not explain it, but he was beginning to feel like a swarm of butterflies were flying around in his stomach. He tried to squash the feeling down with minimal success. He looked back into Ginny’s face, and the feeling intensified. “The night’s not over yet,” he finally replied.

Ginny gazed questioningly into his face for a long moment before asking, “What are we doing out here, Harry?”

Harry smiled back mysteriously. “You’ll see. It should be starting any minute now.” He lay down on his back and turned his attention back to the skies above Hogwarts.

Ginny followed his gaze wonderingly but remained silent. Sure enough, not two minutes later, the show began. She stretched out beside Harry and watched as fireworks began to explode in the air. More followed, and soon the night sky was completely lit up with sparks of all colours and shapes. She scooted closer to Harry as they continued to watch the spectacle until their shoulders were touching. He responded by slipping an arm around her and giving a slight squeeze. She just burrowed in closer.

Harry smiled as he continued to watch the lights in the sky. It was the perfect end to a brilliant evening. He was with Ginny, after having spent the entire night talking, laughing, and dancing with her. They were together and alone, enjoying each other’s company and the fireworks. He really did owe the twins for providing this. He had not expected them to offer the fireworks free of charge, nor had he thought that they would offer to take care of setting them off as well. The only thing Harry had to do was send the letter out asking for their assistance.

She shifted slightly next to him. He caught a whiff of her hair and smiled at the scent. He was still unable to define exactly what her scent was. He inhaled slowly and deeply again. She smelled like...home, whatever that smelt like. He had not exactly had a home in a long time, not since he was a baby. That was probably why he had such a difficult time placing the scent. He decided that he really liked the idea of equating Ginny with home..

He shook himself of those thoughts and concentrated on the show and the beautiful girl at his side. He squeezed her a little tighter, and she responded by snuggling closer, her head now resting on his shoulder. As the finale began, Harry’s focus was torn between the sight and Ginny’s hand which happened to be creeping along his chest and to his side. She gave him a light squeeze with her right arm. He returned the action smilingly, tucking her close to him.

As the last of the lights began fading from the sky, she turned to him with a coy smile on her face. “I suppose you set that up?”

“A favour from your brothers,” Harry replied. “Once I brought it up, they wouldn’t let me have anything to do with it.”

She smiled cutely. “I’ll have to remember to thank them properly.” After a moment she added, “And you.”

Harry gulped at the look she was giving him. He felt his whole body heat up. He licked his lips, which had suddenly gone dry. Her eyes sparkled, and Harry felt himself falling into their depths. Without consciously deciding to, he began to lean towards her. Time seemed to drag on as their faces inched closer and closer together.

And then it happened.

Harry cried out in pain and curled in on himself. His hand flew up to his scar which was suddenly flaring with a burning, searing pain. He felt the sensation of falling for a long moment, and then it stopped. When he opened his eyes, he felt sick.

In front of him, black robed wizards and witches moved from house to house. Orange and green lights erupted from within the buildings, followed by shrieks and cries of pain and agony. One man stood and watched it all, reveling in the moment. He walked through the streets and laughed cruelly at the plight of these pitiful muggles. A movement caught his attention from the corner of his eye. As he looked over, he noticed a small child hiding behind some bushes. She was probably trying to make her way to the forest just beyond the back of the building where it would be much easier to hide.

Harry felt his lips pull into a twisted grin and could sense Voldemort's excitement as he caught her with the Imperius Curse, forcing the girl to walk out of her cover and towards him. Harry was horrified for the little girl and desperately wished he could help her in some way, but he could not. He was caught in a nightmare, a real live nightmare, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He watched, sickened, as he removed the curse. The little girl was frozen in fear. Her terror was evident enough in her eyes, but the puddle accumulating at her feet reaffirmed it.

He could feel the smile widen across his lips. “You are right to fear me,” he told the girl in his snake-like hiss. Her eyes widened even more, something Harry would not have thought possible, and a moment later the girl was writhing and screaming in pain under the Cruciatus Curse. He held her under it for a very long minute. The girl did not move after he lifted the curse. Whether she was unable or just intelligent enough to play dead, Harry did not know. Harry silently prayed for Voldemort to leave the girl and walk away. He was surprised to hear his prayers answered in the form of Voldemort's hissing laughter. "How nice of you to join us, Harry. I do hope you are enjoying the festivities. It's a pity you won't be able to save the girl." With that he turned his attention back to the little girl lying in a heap at his feet and hissed, “Avada Kedavra.” Harry felt ill at the warped pleasure he could feel coursing through Voldemort.

Harry struggled with everything he had to break the connection with Voldemort. He did not know where they were, but he thought if he could get back to his body, he just might be able to find them in time to help. All his effort was for naught. No matter how hard he tried, he could not escape. He felt Voldemort's amusement at his plight, and he thought the snake might actually be trying to contain him to force him to watch more.

Harry was helpless and could only watch in silent horror as unspeakable events occurred all around him. He witnessed Death Eaters torturing and toying with defenseless muggles of all ages. He was revolted by their laughter and enjoyment of the horror and pain they inflicted upon their victims. He would expect Voldemort to feel a sick pleasure, but he had never imagined the rest of the Death Eaters were equally twisted and perverted. The realisation sickened and angered him all the more. Worse still were the feelings of enjoyment he could feel coursing through Voldemort. It left Harry feeling inexorably dirty.

The worst of what he was forced to witness was not the torture the Death Eaters or Voldemort inflicted on the muggles. Oh no, it was not enough for them to cause the pain and horror themselves; they took great pleasure and enjoyment in using the Imperius Curse to force family members to inflict the torturous acts on each other. Harry did not think he would ever escape the echoes of the desperate pleas of the children nor the uncomprehending, horrified looks they gave to their parents or siblings as they endured the various cruelties. They did not know what the Imperius Curse was nor how it affected people. They could not comprehend why their family members were torturing them so mercilessly. Harry pitied the ones who were left alive, forced to live with the memories.

Eventually, after what felt like hours, Voldemort had just finished killing off a mother and her baby when he hissed out "Happy Christmas, Harry Potter."

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