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SIYE Time:7:01 on 19th October 2017


Splinters
By GHL

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Category: Alternate Universe
Characters:Albus Dumbledore, Harry/Ginny, Hermione Granger, Nymphadora Tonks, Remus Lupin, Ron Weasley, Sirius Black
Genres: Drama, Romance
Warnings: Death, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Violence
Story is Complete
Rating: PG-13
Reviews: 277
Summary:

In the secret mists of time, a truth has been shattered. The path to victory has been cursed with despair... and nobody realizes it.

It is 1995 -- the summer of their discontent. Sequestered within the grimy walls of Grimmauld Place, Harry and Ginny begin having strange dreams of an era long past and events yet to come. Are the dreams somehow real? Is fate taunting them with tragic visions of doom, or are they being granted a precious chance to survive... and fall in love?

Note: this story presumes canon until Chapter 4 of OotP... beyond which things begin to go haywire.


Hitcount: Story Total: 38546; Chapter Total: 2581
Awards: View Trophy Room




Author's Notes:

Well, based on the first chapter's reception, there are a good number of readers out there who are quite open to a disorientingly non-linear little tale. Happy happy!

That said, this second chapter expends most of its words dwelling upon a day in the life of 1995 Grimmauld Place. Don't worry though -- I promise I'll yank your chains again soon.





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Chapter 2. Perfectly Normal? (August 8, 1995)

Harry flipped another egg over to the warm plate on the side of the stove and added two more slices of toast to a deep dish, covering it with a clean cloth to keep it warm. Glasses of cold pumpkin juice were glistening with frosty condensation, an urn of coffee was brewing, and a pile of bangers filled the room with a sumptuous aroma. He gazed about the empty kitchen at all the empty chairs. Yes, the only thing missing from a spirited breakfast were hungry mouths.

Ahh — and here come a few now!

A clatter from the front door signaled that Remus Lupin and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were finally returning. Harry smiled as he heard them whispering and tip-toeing their way back toward the kitchen.

"Good morning!" Harry greeted Molly in a low but friendly voice as she emerged through the door.

"Harry!" She stared, wide-eyed. "What are...? I mean, why aren't you in bed?"

Before replying, Harry smiled and waved as Arthur and Remus entered and added their surprised faces to Molly's. "I was awake early this morning and figured I might as well get up and make breakfast." Harry shrugged casually, with no intention of mentioning that Sirius had staggered into the girls' room forty minutes ago to warn him of the adults' imminent return.

"Breakfast??" Molly gazed around in confusion at the juice, coffee, plates of golden toast, and expertly prepared griddle fare. "But Harry, you mustn't feel you need to..."

"It's my pleasure!" Harry whisked several plates off the counter with surprising cheer and began setting three places at the table. "I knew you'd be out all night, and assumed you'd return exhausted, so why not give you a break? I was a little leery of the thought of Kreacher's, uhhh... cooking? So, I decided to get things started myself." Harry's face slid into a wry grin.

"Thank you son!" Arthur offered Harry a tired smile. "It looks and smells delicious!"

"Glad you think so — I've had some practice in the kitchen." Harry placed mugs of coffee by each of the plates. "So, how was your night?"

A quick glance at the suddenly grim expressions around the table gave Harry an answer more telling than he had expected or even really wanted. Arthur and Lupin were fidgeting uncomfortably; Molly's eyes reddened; she caught her breath and looked away, holding back a round of unshed tears.

Lupin sighed deeply. "Let's keep this under our hats for now Harry, but Albus's concerns were correct. Twice last night Death Eaters attempted to breach the wards at the Burrow. If we hadn't been there to fend them off, they would have broken through."

Arthur exhaled, clenching his coffee cup and staring stonily at the wall. "It appears we're not going to be returning home any time soon," he said expressionlessly as Molly sniffled.

Harry nodded sympathetically. Rising from the table, he turned his focus back to several half-cooked servings of eggs and sausages on the stove. "Yes, but this too shall pass, right?" Harry returned to his labours with a neutral expression. "Everyone always finds their way back home eventually."

Arthur and Molly glanced at each other in surprise; their curious eyes turning to follow Harry about the room, trying unsuccessfully to reconcile this sunny optimist with the edgy, irascible and distinctly damaged youth who had come to roost only two days earlier. Lupin also paused momentarily to study Harry, before shaking his head slightly; several pensive lines etched themselves on his face as he silently carved into his breakfast.

Some time later, after the two elder Weasley's had stumbled away to find some sleep in one of Grimmauld Place's many dilapidated guest rooms, Lupin sat nursing his third cup of coffee. He opened his mouth, closed it, stirred an extra spoonful of sugar into his mug, then finally resolved to proceed. "Harry, I had a brief chat yesterday with Nymphadora Tonks..."

Harry turned from the wash basin. "Oh yes?" Harry's tone was tentative; his eyes crinkled slightly.

"She has a well-placed friend in the legal division at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement," Lupin continued. "Tonks outlined your case in brief, and her friend is of the opinion that they'll never make the charge stick. The law offers clear protections for cases of magical self-defence, and we all agree that your story will stand up to basic scrutiny. If there's any question as to your honesty, a competent examiner could simply assess your state of mind when you summoned your Patronus — easily accomplished by casting prior incantatem on your wand. If they extend you that most basic consideration, Tonks' friend believes it would be a farce for them to proceed any further. And even if they continued with a formal hearing, she's certain that the charges will be thrown out."

Harry gazed at the doorway, smiling to a worn-looking Hermione who was just now quietly making her appearance. She responded with a worried half-smile and took a seat at the table, her gaze flitting rapidly between Harry and Lupin.

"Thank you for looking into that, Professor." Harry placed a fully laden plate in front of Hermione, and took a seat beside her at the table. "Frankly, though, it doesn't even seem all that important anymore. Let them decide what they decide. In the worst case, I simply won't go to Hogwarts this year."

Lupin's coffee cup froze, half way to his mouth. Hermione gaped at Harry. "You can't possibly mean that, Harry! You have to return to Hogwarts this year! It's... it's..." She trailed off, dumbfounded.

Harry gazed thoughtfully at his well-intentioned, open-mouthed friend. He knew her shock was justified; yesterday morning he himself had been just as passionately outraged as she was now. Probably even more so. But in the light of this new day, everything seemed... different... like he was looking at the world through a new pair of lenses. And at this very moment, those lenses made the whole hearing seem completely puerile and asinine.

"I don't know, Hermione," Harry replied. "Of course I'd like to get a proper and normal magical education just like any other Hogwarts student, but let's be realistic. When is the world ever going to let me be just another Hogwarts student? Can any of you truly imagine that I'll ever simply be allowed to go to class, prepare for OWLs and obsess over Quidditch like everyone else. I've confronted near-death every year at Hogwarts, so why should I expect anything different now? If some idiots in the Ministry of Magic want to expel me for saving my soul, then why should I try to stop them? They might be motivated by wrong-headed reasons, or maybe by no clear reason at all, but it's honestly occurred to me that it might be a lot healthier for everyone if I didn't return to a school where my very presence probably imperils loads of other students."

Hermione burst up from her seat. "Yes, but you need to keep up your lessons just to... to... to survive! "

Harry gazed at her thoughtfully with a distant look in his eye. "You know... I'm not sure about that... I sometimes wonder if maybe there's another way..." He gazed toward the old grime-spattered wall for a long moment, then returned his attention to Hermione, giving her a half-smile.

Harry stood up again and returned to the stove. Hermione stared at him, unblinking, unbreathing.

Lupin sighed. His cup eventually found his mouth; he took a sip and placed the coffee wearily back on the table. "I, er, well... all that aside... don't you at least care about the principle of the thing, Harry?" Lupin scratched idly at his stubbly cheek with an air of self-questioning hesitation.

Harry shrugged. "Maybe, but what's principle and what's folly? The only principle that matters to me right is goodness overcoming evil. Where the hell does the 'Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery' fit into that? It's not exactly evil, but it's definitely not goodness either. I'd say it's all just a waste of fine parchment sitting on some brainless quill-pusher's desk. Maybe my civic spirit has gone to rubbish, but as far as I'm concerned there's no principle in fighting something that has no principle."

An awkward silence descended... but was broken, mercifully quickly, by shouts and raucous laughter as they twins rambled their noisy way down the steps, followed by a rather stoney-faced Ron.

"Shhh!" Lupin frowned at the three Weasley brothers as they poured into the kitchen. "Please keep your voices down a bit — Molly and Arthur are trying to get some sleep."

"Keep it down?" Fred asked incredulously. "Could you please tell that to the prat who was making all the racket last night when WE were trying to sleep?"

George laughed. "Yes, did we miss anything exciting?"

"Er, well Ginny had a nightmare." Harry glanced around at the newcomers, wondering just how much any of them had heard. He couldn't help but note, with a bit of discomfort, the very sour look on Ron's face, but relaxed to see the twins offer disinterested shrugs as they cracked open a copy of the Daily Prophet and began sniggering over the morning's latest stories.

Lupin, however, leaned forward with wide eyes. "Oh? Poor kid. Is she okay?"

"Yes," Hermione answered in a surprisingly firm tone, narrowing her eyes at the various Weasleys. "I'm certain she's fine, though she could probably use a little extra sleep this morning as well, so let us all respect Professor Lupin's advice and try to keep our voices down. Understood?"

Ron blinked at his friend in shocked indignation. He opened his mouth in protest, but a sharp glance from Hermione silenced him. In resignation, he scowled and flumped himself noisily into the seat beside Lupin.

With raised eyebrow, Harry continued to assemble breakfast servings, surreptitiously watching the chastened teens settle themselves at the table. A subtle smile of gratitude twinkled about his eyes as he refilled Hermione's glass of pumpkin juice, then he too (finally) pulled up a chair for himself and took his place in front of a well-stocked plate.

The rising sun was just breaking through a row of trees on the far bank of the stream, sending merry beams across to sparkle throughout the copse where Ginny lay. Specks of light danced across her weary face. Her eyelids twitched and, reluctantly, she stirred, and stretched.

Gazing around at the curtain of swaying grasses, and a ceiling of shimmering leaves, it took Ginny a moment to piece together the disorienting half-memories that had brought her to this place — a ghastly nightmare of utter desolation; a blurred, bitter-sweet vignette of discovery and abandonment. And at the beginning, and at the end, there was...

Harry?

Or not Harry?

That face, those eyes, that voice, had been the one constant through all of her strange dreams — dying and living; mature then young; helping and healing; inspiring hope or regret.

Giving a brooch.

Taking it away?

With a start, Ginny's left hand flinched.

Empty! The brooch was gone!

Ginny was instantly swept by a powerful wave of bereavement. With no idea what she had really lost (the brooch? Harry? ) she flailed about blindly, in the vain hope that she could merely reach out her hand and somehow...

Find it??

Ginny blinked in amazement. The leaves and grasses of the riverside glade had vanished. She was sprawled haphazardly across her bed in the dingy yellowish bedroom at Grimmauld Place. Sunlight was streaming through the narrow Victorian window. Bedclothes were strewn about, her hair had fallen chaotically about her face... and her fingers, grasping for the night stand, had settled upon... the ornate silver brooch.

She slowly withdrew her hand and stared at the mysterious object that seemed equally puzzling both within and beyond her dreams.

Crawling over the bed to take a closer look, she turned it over and found that it was a small, but striking piece — a smooth oval shield graced by two wings angled out to the side in the manner of a sea eagle drying its wings. In the centre of the shield, punctuated by two glittering gems (an emerald and a ruby, Ginny supposed), was an inscription:


Invenies in Tenebris

P. PEVERELLIVS


In appearance, the brooch was intriguing but not extraordinary — it was ornate, attractive and unusual in design, but would not stand up to the superior Goblin pieces she had seen in fine shop windows in Diagon Alley. What really struck Ginny about the brooch, rather, was that it seemed to be calling to her — a plaintive song, beautiful yet faint as if heard from a great distance.

Magical!

Ginny's hand flinched back as if she'd been scorched.

Was the brooch truly magical? If so, how? What did it do?

Mysterious magical objects had betrayed her before, and Ginny was not about to fall blindly into another perilous trap. Yet, for some reason, the brooch felt... wholesome... It made her feel more secure, reminding her of the man who had given it to her.

In her dream...

Huhhh??

Ginny winced as a throb of disorientation coursed through her battered head. With no clue how an object from a dream could possibly have landed on her night stand, and no energy for sorting the illogical images left over from a most perplexing night, she rubbed her temples for a moment. She then tugged on her pillow, removing the slip and draping it over the night stand to shroud the contentious brooch.

Mysteries would have to wait. Ginny was sore, tired and hungry. For those ailments, the best cure was the most obvious one — a good hearty breakfast.

Wrapping herself in a bathrobe, she found her slippers and shuffled her way out into the corridor and down the steps to the kitchen. As she went, she smiled wryly at the distinct noise of her siblings attempting (with the usual lack of success) to be quiet.

Ron shot Ginny a baleful look as she entered the room "Oh look! Her majesty the Drama Queen is finally out of bed."

Ginny ignored him, her attention instead occupied with noticing a scathing glare that Hermione had just shot her grouchy brother. Lupin too, she observed, had given him a frown of distinct disapproval, prompting Ron to turn his flushed (and perhaps slightly contrite) visage back to the remaining food on his plate.

Okay, what was that all about?

Ginny and Ron had sparred almost daily all summer, even before the horrendous exile to this dump. She knew that few people bothered to intercede anymore, probably in fear of the inevitable verbal shrapnel. Consequently, Ginny was baffled to suddenly find not one but two people blatantly taking her side.

At least Fred and George (barely glancing at her as they engaged in a heated debate over Quidditch teams) were behaving normally, which hopefully meant that she wasn't covered with green spots (or worse). Nonetheless, as Ginny took a vacant seat immediately across from the twins, she made a mental note to pursue some discrete inquiries later.

Ginny had just opened her mouth to start some frivolous chit-chat with Hermione, when a hand swept down in front of her, depositing a plate adorned with a hearty meal that her Mum would have been proud to serve.

But that was not her Mum's hand...

With a surreptitious glance out of the corner of her eye, Ginny saw an unexpected form retreating back toward the wash basin.

Harry is serving breakfast??

Subtly gesturing toward Harry with her thumb, Ginny gave Hermione a questioning glance, but the older girl merely shrugged.

Very curious...

Lots and lots of little mysteries seemed to be cropping up this morning, but Ginny was ravenous enough to put them all aside for long enough to devour her exceptionally tasty breakfast under the semblance of normality. Over the years, she had become very practiced at miming nonchalance in the face of the untold chaos that might be occurring around her. This morning, her finely honed acting skills (a great asset in the Weasley household) helped her sustain the illusion of a perfectly pleasant chat with Hermione, despite having to ignore a steady onslaught of seemingly unprovoked sneers and snarls from Ron.

Even Ginny couldn't block out all of the strangeness, however. Occasionally she would get distracted by some of the twins' more egregious jokes about Harry's domestic skills, and a couple of times a little giggle slipped through. But after a while, she found herself much more tempted to 'watch ' rather than laugh, because strangely enough...

Harry was laughing too!

Ginny forced herself not to stare at the buoyant young man in the flowery apron. It was not as if she had never seen the humourous side of Harry before but, well... he had not exactly arrived at Grimmauld Place encased in a barrel of laughs...

Ginny understood full well that Harry had just gone through horrendous stretch. Seeing a friend get murdered, observing the rebirth of evil incarnate, being attacked by Dementors and getting charged for unlawful underage use of magic hardly couldn't inspire much levity. Yet at this very moment, as the dark-haired youth artfully deposited a soggy dish rag onto Fred's head in retaliation for a comment assessing Harry's wifely virtues, it seemed that The Boy Who Lived was doing a brilliant job of coping. In fact, as he stepped directly into Ginny's (not-staring-at-him) line of sight to retrieve the soapy cloth, Harry actually glanced across the table... and winked.

At Ginny.

Ginny Weasley, actress extraordinaire, did exactly what the script called for. She grinned and winked back... because that would be the perfectly normal response.

Yes, Ginny had acquitted herself perfectly normally throughout the entire bizarre, if rather amusing breakfast.

But when she left the table, she was curious as hell!

After pouring a sizable dosage of hangover potion down his godfather's throat and getting a good meal into the man, Harry put aside the apron and officially signed off his voluntary breakfast duty. With Molly still asleep from the night's exertions, there were no other chores assigned, so the Weasley siblings had apparently gone off somewhere to play Exploding Snap, and Hermione was likely curled up somewhere with a school book.

Despite his morning's cheerful demeanour, the night's interrupted sleep had caught up with Harry and he was no longer feeling very sociable. Instead of joining the others, he ascended the staircase to the third floor library. It was the only room on that level with an open door, and the daylight pouring through it beckoned him down the hallway and into the dusty chamber.

Harry gazed around the quiet room which, although in desperate need of some basic Scourgefy spells, was otherwise brighter and in a better state of repair than most of Grimmauld Place. Over by the west-facing windows he noticed an ornate wooden chair and an escritoire with several quills and bottles of what might have been viable ink. On the north wall there was a fireplace flanked by an armchair and ottoman. Not surprisingly, most of the rest of the walls were taken up by book shelves, well appointed with a wide variety of old volumes.

After browsing for less than a minute, Harry's finger landed semi-randomly on one of the larger tomes — "A Magical History of Britain", by Titus Cornerstone. Withdrawing it carefully from the shelf, he walked over to the ottoman, pulled aside the dust cover, and settled himself comfortably onto the cushion with the goal of lulling himself to sleep. Opening the book to a random page near the end of the first chapter, he began to read.


It was with some surprise that the immigrating Roman wizards encountered a sophisticated indigenous magical community in Britain, exhibiting skills significantly superior to Celtic and Teutonic wizardry in continental Europe. In large part, one may safely attribute the British advantage to a long-standing branch of advanced Ollivanderian wandlore already established north of the channel.

Predating Roman settlements by more than three centuries, the first Ollivander wand-maker arrived in Britain via an early Greek trading expedition around the year 382 B.C. Despite their roots within the rigidly formulaic Messenia wand-making tradition, the early British Ollivanders proved to be clever and pragmatic innovators, establishing a well-deserved reputation for magical excellence by augmenting classical Greek magical techniques with Druidic traditions.

The Ollivanderian rise to prominence in pre-Roman Britain was fueled greatly by an unprecedented (and, indeed, never again replicated) application of Greek wandlore principles toward Druidic staff-making. This bold experiment produced immensely powerful staves that gained immediate favour among the British Druidic elite, thus anchoring Ollivanderian reputation in the Isles.

Ironically, the Ollivander family can probably be blamed for the decline and eventual extinction of traditional staff-making. The Ollivanders' exhaustive and costly magical curing process largely constrained staff-ownership to the wealthiest and most influential figures in British society. Most aspiring middle-tier Druids and Druidesses sought to bolster their status by adopting Ollivander wands instead of crude indigenous staves. By the year 100 B.C., it thus appears that only the most remote and primitive communities continued to hand-craft staves using ancient Druidic techniques.

Although most secrets of Ollivanderian staff-making have been lost to the ravages of time, magical historians agree that the staves were crafted exclusively from those hardwoods originally preferred by Druids — primarily oak, beech and walnut. While such pale, unpliable woods have generally proven ill-suited for crafting wands, the Ollivanders apparently developed processes for turning such material into larger instruments of prodigious magic.

The last great Brittanic staff, thought by many to be the apex of Ollivander staff-making, was crafted for King Scavo of the Iceni around A.D. 29. Distinguished by its ornate copper horse-head grip, the Icenian royal staff disappeared from public record during the great uprising of A.D. 61. In the aftermath of the rebellion, under pressure from the Roman Proconsul, the Ollivander family destroyed their entire stockpile of staves, as well as all records of staff lore, in order to...


"... protect our loyal Roman citizenry," the tall silver-haired wizard droned with an arrogant sneer. "As an Imperial Publican, you must surely understand that!"

Harry's head was pounding mercilessly. He shook himself, trying to blink away the disorientation, but found one eye fused with encrusted blood. Stalling for time in the hopes of restoring his wits to a viable equilibrium, he heard himself saying, with affected humility, "Please forgive me Legate, but would you repeat that? What must I surely understand?"

"Imbecile!" The wizard stalked across the stone floor of a holding cell and spat in Harry's face. "Understand that Roman interests in Britannia require us to confiscate all barbaric instruments of magic! I demanded of the woman that she surrender her staff peaceably. She refused, and thus she has been forcibly detained, to face the magistrate as a common criminal."

Through his one available eye, Harry saw the man turn to scowl at him. "If you had been administering this district properly, no such intervention would have been required. In light of your dereliction of duty, you too shall face a tribunal. Consider yourself charged, Publican!"

Heedless to the pain searing every inch of his face, Harry growled and assembled a defiant expression. "What do I care for your trumped-up accusations? I stand not for myself, but for the integrity of the Pax Romana. The treaty signed by Proconsul Paulinus affirmed the sovereignty and self-determination of the queen and her people in the lands north and east of the rivers Ouse. The treaty guarantees her family and followers the rights of self-armament, as long as those arms are not raised against the Imperial Standard."

"Treaty? What treaty?" A lurid smirk crept across the wizard's face.

Harry tried to reach toward an inner fold of his tunic, but was immediately and painfully reminded of his dire situation — he was tightly bound, hand and foot, to a wooden stool. "The signed treaty I carried from Camboricum!" Harry winced as the magical cords tightened sharply, biting into his skin, but he pushed the pain out of his mind. "What have you done with it?!"

"What have I done with what?" The man slowly withdrew from his cloak a scroll bearing the Proconsular seal. He held it out, for one long second, within plain view of Harry's one open eye. "There is no such treaty, nor has there ever been!" he declared in a wicked drawl.

A vicious grin alighted upon his face as the scroll burst into flame. He tossed the burning parchment between Harry's feet and chortled callously at the sight of Harry grimacing as the flames licked upwards, scorching his calves.

"You're a traitor, Legate !" Harry clenched his teeth as he twisted away from the flames. "You will enrage the Britons! You will destroy fourteen years of peace! The blood of Romans and Britons alike will be on your hands!"

The Legate smiled coldly. "No, it is you who are the traitor, Publican Peuerellius. Your ceaseless coddling of these barbarians marks you as a traitor to the Order of Letum, and you will rot in hell for it!"

Harry recoiled. "Order of Letum! I have no allegiance or dealings with those vermin! Never, EVER, speak to me of that FOUL..."

Harry voice ruptured into spluttery gasps, his chest and throat spasming violently under a crude silencing spell.

Twitching in agitation, the Legate's left hand fingered the head of the awesome Icenian staff... his lips trembled as he glared hatefully at Harry for a long moment of apparent internal conflict. Without warning, the man screamed in fury, lashing out wildly with his right arm to club Harry hard across the head, knocking him sideways onto the hard floor, bound stool and all.

Rage still unsated, the wizard kicked Harry hard in the ribs twice before stubbing his toe hard against the stool. "Aiiiiee!" the Legate cried out, staggering back, clasping his foot. Panting and sputtering dark oaths, the wizard finally fought his anger into abeyance.

Brushing long hair from his face the wizard caught his breath and stared down at his prostrate enemy. "No Publican..." He leared downward, utter hatred coursing through his veins. "You may not be a member of the Order, but your sons are. And how mortified they will be to see you lying in blood, filth and ignominy!"

"I... have... no... sons..." Harry wheezed defiantly.

A wicked spark shot from the wizard's staff. "Crucio! "

Harry's nerves burst into the torment of ubiquitous flames; his every muscle tore; his...

His...

His cheek felt a cool, gentle radiance spread across it, like the feel of a moistened cloth over fever. A sensation of calm emanated over his head, down his shoulder, chest, arms and legs, soothing his blistered legs...

In precious contentment, he opened his eyelids, to discover someone gazing down at him — a face caring, yet slightly amused.

"You have no sons, Harry?" Ginny inquired innocently, her tone of empathetic concern almost completely disguising an infectious twinkle in her eyes.

"I, uh... wow!" Harry blinked dazedly at his best mate's little sister; her pretty hand resting lightly upon his cheek. "I must have been dreaming again."

"Really? And what would make you say that?" Ginny's mouth was the picture of disciplined solemnity, but her eyes could not disguise a sparkle that grew ever more irrepressibly impish by the moment.

"Look you!" Harry growled at her, then assembled a grin. He stretched his arms and sat up. "What are you doing up here? Tired of playing Snap?"

Ginny gazed out the window thoughtfully for a moment, her countenance growing suddenly subdued. "I wanted to talk to you." She glanced shyly at him, then turned away again. "I was hoping you could tell me what happened last night."

"Last night?" Harry asked, a weight of discomfort settling over him. "Er, what do you mean, 'what happened?' "

Ginny shrugged. "Just what I said. What happened? What did I do? I don't remember anything beyond a blur of strange dreams, and... well, today various people have been behaving rather oddly around me. Ron, Hermione, Professor Lupin... And then there's you, Harry..."

Ginny paused as the hint of a grin crept back around the corner of her mouth. "I admit that we've all grown accustomed to Harry Potter being a bit of an odd duck, but today you've been acting odd in ways that are strange even for you!"

"What?? You think I'm an odd duck?!" Harry flapped his arms comically. "Well quack quack quack to you then, Little Miss Normal!"

Ginny smirked for a moment. "Oh yes, I specialize in being normal," she proclaimed, then pushed his book to the side and, not-quite-accidentally, elbowed him in the ribs as she took a seat beside him on the ottoman. "Now tell me what happened last night, Ducks."

Harry chuckled for a moment at the silly moniker, then grew more serious. "Er, well, you had a bad dream."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Yes, well even I managed to figure out that much. But why are people acting strangely around me?"

"I guess, perhaps... well probably... because you, uh... did a nasty face-plant on the floor."

Ginny blinked; one hand rising reflexively to her temple.

Harry glanced at her briefly, then continued. "Hermione was flustered, and Sirius was drunk, so it kind of fell to me to patch you up."

Ginny frowned thoughtfully as she tried to align that information with her jumbled mix of dreams and half-memories. Unconsciously, she turned toward Harry, her eyes peering both at and through him. "Thank you," she said after a while. "I guess that would explain the headache and all the hushed sympathy. But, uh... does anyone know what I was doing out of bed?"

Harry fixed her with a gentle, sympathetic look. "I don't know for sure, but it must have been a frightful nightmare. You screamed and we hear this awful thud. That's what got us to your room in the first place — it was even loud enough to wake Ron..."

"Oi..." Ginny paused for a moment and groaned to herself. "A wee bit embarrassing, yeah?"

"I suppose..." Harry shrugged. "But according to some accounts I, er... have no sons."

Ginny stared at his deadpan face for a long moment... then burst out laughing. She grinned at him, her vivacious gaze alighting on his eyes, trailing down his cheek, then resting unwittingly on the crooked little smile that had begun curling his... lips.

Harry's eyes flashed wide, and he quickly looked away.

Unconcernedly, Ginny continued to examine her friend for a while, still contemplating the strange night, but also vaguely puzzled by Harry's alternating levity and discomfort. Finally she decided to proceed with the other question that had been nagging her.

"So, my fount of wisdom..." Hoping to alleviate his anxiety, Ginny reluctantly coaxed her eyes away from the rather attractive boy at her side. "Would you have any idea what's the problem with dear brother Ronald today?"

"Er, could you be more specific?" Harry stiffened further.

Ginny glanced at Harry then averted her eyes again. "Well, he's just seemed a bit... snarky... all day. I mean, I generally don't expect him to be particularly nice to me, but most of the time he's pulling my leg. Today, though, he seems... edgy... wound up. Actually rather mean, in fact."

"Ah." Harry fidgeted a bit. "Well, to be honest I'm not precisely sure either, but I assume, for whatever reason, it's because..." He trailed off uncertainly.

"Yeah?"

"I assume it has something to do with..." Harry paused, chewing his lower lip.

Ginny nodded avidly.

"Er... because I spent the night with you," Harry mumbled.

Ginny blinked. Twice.

"You — you banged your head really hard." A deep blush was settling into Harry's cheeks, but he steeled himself and went on. "I assume you were really rattled, because when I got there, you latched onto me pretty tightly, and you sort of, errr, made me promise I wouldn't go anywhere, and so I, uh... Well, Sirius helped me get you back to bed then, er, he told me — it was his idea, you see... He said I should stay to take care of you and that I should come get him if you or I needed anything, and then..."

Harry paused. Despite looking pointedly out the window, he could somehow feel the pressure of Ginny's wide-eyes staring at him — a nearly overwhelming distraction. Nonetheless, he swallowed deeply and drove for the finish line.

"Sirius pushed Hermione and Ron out of the room and told them to go to bed. I could hear Ron out in the hall getting a bit shirty about it, but after a while everything went quiet, and..." Harry shifted uncomfortably. "So I tucked you in, grabbed a pillow and blanket... and fell asleep in the armchair."

Very slowly Harry exhaled.

Ginny continued to examine Harry for five eternal seconds.

Still focused rigidly on the hazy sky above Highgate Hill, Harry could not have seen the glimmer of a smile edging back across Ginny's face.

But, as she got up to leave, there was no way on Earth he could ever overlook the sensation of her soft lips brushing his cheek.

Nor could he possibly keep his neck from craning about to catch the sight of that gleaming hair trailing behind her as she drifted from the room... a subtle scent of apple blossoms lingering in her wake...

If it had been a normal day, the evening probably would have unfolded differently... but Ginny was taking a break from 'normal'.

An Order of the Phoenix meeting was now entering its second hour in the kitchen, and Ginny knew that Ron, Hermione and the twins were almost certainly still bickering over access to the extendable ears.

Yes, under normal circumstances, Ginny assumed she would still be right in the thick of things, squabbling and applying her feminine wiles for all their worth to be the first to glean any scraps or clues about what the adults were debating. Harry would probably be in there clamouring too, Ginny told herself... yet through all the evening's ridiculous juvenile shenanigans, her dark-haired friend had looked visibly tired and out of place.

And Ginny had felt tired and out of place.

After Harry had politely excused himself, it occurred to Ginny that he had the right idea. If she was tired, bored, and feeling out of place, why shouldn't she just pack it in as well?

Mum would be so proud, Ginny mused to herself with a tired (but still quite wry) smirk...

So now she found herself alone in her quiet bedroom, contemplating the moody light of a solitary bedside lamp.

All alone; no regrets. She couldn't imagine she was missing much. A month's worth of attempted spying had been a complete bust — about the only thing she'd been able to learn so far was that Dumbledore never told anybody (including the Order) anything of value, so why should she wait up to all hours for more of the same vacuous frustration? It wasn't as if her presence was missed — when she'd stood up to leave, Ron had scowled, the twins had remained glued to their silly 'ears', and only Hermione had actually bothered to acknowledge her, offering an understanding smile and a promise to fill Ginny in later on any discoveries. Ginny had thanked her politely, and left without another word.

And now it was time for what her aching head truly longed for — darkness, quiet and sleep.

Stretching across to extinguish the lamp, she accidentally brushed what lay beneath the pillow case she had draped over the night stand...

Harry is getting into bed now too...

Huh?!

Wide-eyed, Ginny stopped in mid-reach. She frowned to herself, mystified as to where that random thought about Harry might have come from.

She had to admit that her former childhood crush had sort of been on her mind a bit today... but that had been strictly an aberration, right? It wasn't as if she cared whether he was getting into bed, brushing his teeth, standing on his head, or whatever it was that Harry Potter typically did at ten minutes to nine on a Tuesday evening.

She shook her head demonstratively. In all honesty she really didn't think about Harry that often anymore. The old infatuation had been fading for years. She had interacted so little with him at Hogwarts, and not much more in the intervening summers. If the legendary crush had perhaps lingered in the shadows all these years, the Yule Ball had surely put an end to it...

No, not that way!

The Yule Ball was not a regret to her — it had been a celebration! It had brought no crying angst, no bitterness, no burning of bridges.

In Ginny's memories, the ball didn't bring to mind anything that Harry had done; it didn't even invoke anything Harry had not done! Rather, the Yule Ball had been a rebirth. For once in her life, she had done something strictly for herself! She had attended, not because anybody in her family expected her to; not as a favour to anyone (although Neville had certainly not minded) and, more than anything, she had not been trying to attract the attention of a certain dark-haired boy.

She had simply gone to the ball to have fun!

And she had succeeded. Royally!

Ginny had derived neither joy nor pain from turning down Harry's (pseudo) invitation, but she had done so. It had been the right thing to do — for Harry, for Neville, and especially for herself. She had set her principles, stood by them, and in doing so...

She had set herself free!

Good night schoolgirl misery! Farewell to lying alone in the dark, doubting whether she could ever be good enough for a great hero like Harry Potter. Good morning sunshine! Say hello to Ginny Weasley — her own greatest hero!

But any great hero must face the occasional trial... and this strange strange strange day certainly qualified as that.

The lamp still flickering beside her, Ginny hunched over the edge of her bed in a classic Rodin pose, frowning introspectively.

What did today mean? Had everything suddenly just changed again? Had she erased her hard-earned gains?

Was she still her own greatest hero?

Was it okay to have shared a casual wink at breakfast? Was she still free as a bird, despite their friendly little chat in the library? Was it normal that images of her old crush had been strewn all throughout her bizarre, vivid dreams last night? And why the hell had she clung to the poor boy like a bloody damsel in distress??

Bloody?

Nice choice of invective, eh Weasley?

Yes, Ginny now knew that she'd bled all over Harry last night. Ever the curious cat, Ginny had cornered a rather reluctant Hermione earlier this evening and quietly wheedled from her all of those cringeworthy details that Harry had been too courteous to embarrass her with. Hermione had told her about the noise and tumult... and the ungodly mess. And without editorializing, the older girl had related how Harry had gone beyond the call of duty to care for her, with neither fuss, nor complaint, nor any expectation of reward.

Did any of that change who Ginny Weasley was?

Ginny nodded with a soft, slightly chastened smile.

Yes, this all seemed to imply that Ginny Weasley, hero or not, was a person who could make a right arse of herself. Yet, it also implied that she could do that without losing the good-will and companionship of a boy who, apparently, could be considered her friend.

A fine and honourable friend at that.

And so damned cute when he's nervous!

Ginny blinked in surprise as, unbidden, she recalled the image of Harry looking so utterly flustered in the library. She glanced momentarily at the night stand to confirm that she wasn't touching the brooch. No, nothing magic in that one — just one of her very own 'silly girl thoughts'.

She huffed in amused indignation. Come on, Harry — all I did was accidentally glance at your lips! It wasn't as if I bit you on the nose!

Nah, we'll save that for next time, right Weasley?

Ginny burst into an inadvertent cackle, stifled almost immediately by her own hand clapping itself over her mouth.

Hush, you daft little ninny! Get to bed before someone hears you, and realizes how TRULY ridiculous you are!

She grinned for a moment of afterglow, then took a deep breath. She glanced toward the brooch again... and remembered that there was still one issue to resolve before the clock turned nine.

She regarded the brooch curiously, skeptically. After a moment, she extended her finger, ever-so-slowly, to touch it.

Harry is almost asleep already...

Ginny's eyes flashed wide... but then she rolled them.

"Dopey mind games," she grumbled aloud, and muttered to herself over the idiotic notion that touching the brooch was making her think about Harry. She could do that perfectly well on her own, thank you very much!

Nonetheless, when she reached across one final time to dim the lamp, she steered well clear of the silvery wings, before crawling safely under her covers.

Lying alone in the near dark of the bedroom, Ginny's head ached with weariness, her eyelids drooped... but did not stay shut.

In the distance she could hear the twins, Ron and Hermione 'quietly' squabbling about something or other. A clock was ticking. A blue-green blend of distant lamplight from the Islington skyline was creeping through through the ragged curtain — casting odd shadows of the sort that sometimes frighten little children, passively illuminating the jumbled pile of clothes she hadn't get gotten around to folding, alighting on school books that she should have started reading...

Flickering softly on the silver brooch...

She glanced at it, unthinking.

She reached for it, and clasped it firmly in her hand.

Her muscles relaxed, the distant sounds blended into a soft melange that reminded her of a pleasant breeze rustling the branches of trees. She closed her eyelids...

Then they sprang open in panic!

It was bright daylight! The sun had already climbed well above the hedge on the far side of the river!

"It's late! I've overslept!" she wailed, leaping to her feet, nearly tripping over the thick grey mantle spread out on the ground beneath her. "Oh Amaethon! How could you let me lie so long while he needed me?! I must find Harry!"

Without thinking where she could possibly be headed, Ginny began thrashing her way up through the low thickets and back to the road.

Harry??

Ginny stopped in perplexity. The name puzzled her — it was a word that now somehow seemed both familiar and yet very foreign.

More than anything, the name brought to mind bewilderment — the thick, debilitating fugue that had befallen her yesterday. At the worst possible time!

Ginny growled to herself. She could not afford such ridiculous confusion! Shaking the cobwebs from her mind, she sternly corrected herself. The good Publican needs me!

And she hadn't a moment to lose!!

An instant later, Ginny was racing as fast as her feet could carry her over a stoney roadway, leading her straight back toward the perils which, only yesterday, she had fled.

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