The atmosphere in the sixth-year boys' dormitory was very strained as Harry, Ron, Dean, Seamus, and Neville packed their things to leave for the holidays. Seamus kept to himself, not even talking to Dean. For reasons unknown to any of the rest of them, his anger over Quidditch tryouts seemed to have increased rather than diminished with time. Ron also remained silent, though he kept shooting glances at Harry like he wanted to say something. Neville and Dean felt very awkward and had long since stopped trying to make conversation. Harry was silent as well, but for an entirely different reason: his voice was so hoarse from screams no one had heard that it was actually painful to speak.
In the past week, Harry had witnessed two more attacks, but he no longer went to Dumbledore about them. He just didn't see the point; Harry's visions took place as he saw them so he was helpless to even try to stop the events from happening. Besides, the Headmaster had very little to say other than inquiring as to the level of Harry's intrusion on Voldemort's mind and reminding Harry that although Occlumency did not prevent the unintentional connection forged during the failed killing curse, it saved Harry from having to feel Voldemort's emotions and, more importantly, it kept Voldemort from realizing that Harry was there.
Harry already knew all of this, and he found the Headmaster's inability to change the situation extremely disconcerting. After the first attack, he simply spent the remainder of the night lying in his bed and trying unsuccessfully to go back to sleep. He wondered why these attacks had started so suddenly when relatively little had happened over the entire term. What had changed?
Ginny and Hermione were very concerned about Harry's hoarse voice, thinking he was coming down with a nasty winter cold. Since very few people actually knew about the attacks that Harry was witnessing, and they weren't reported by the Daily Prophet since they had happened to Muggles and the Mark had not been cast, none of Harry's friends had realized that there might be more meaning behind his croaky voice. Eager to keep his secret, Harry had visited Madam Pomfrey for a Pepper-Up Potion at Ginny's insistence, and had spent the remainder of the evening with steam coming out of his ears. Ron had actually looked as though he were about to laugh, but he covered it with a cough just in time while Hermione clucked at him impatiently.
Harry had wanted to spend Christmas at the Burrow for years, but now that he was only one day away from actually going, his heart just wasn't in it. He only hoped that he would be able to make it up with Ron while they were there, because if Ron continued the silent treatment it was going to be a long few weeks sharing Ron's small bedroom.
Harry packed his last pair of socks away in his trunk and headed back down to the common room to meet Ginny for a walk around the grounds before curfew. "Bring your cloak," Ginny had said shamelessly as he had gone upstairs to pack, and now, as he rolled the silvery cloak tightly and put it in his pocket, being careful not to let Ron see him doing so, he could barely hide his grin. His time with Ginny had given him a whole new appreciation for his father's old cloak.
When Harry and Ginny returned to the common room almost an hour later, Harry's cheeks were flushed, his hair more unruly than ever, and he no longer had any reservations whatsoever about departing for the Burrow the following morning.
* * *
Lupin, Shacklebolt, Molly, Arthur, Bill, Charlie, and the twins greeted Harry, Ron and Ginny happily the next morning as the Hogwarts Express arrived at King's Cross Station carrying most of the students home for the holidays. The atmosphere on the ride down had been festive as the young witches and wizards relished the idea of having so much time free from examinations, and for Harry and his friends, the mood was improved because Draco Malfoy had been one of the few students to sign up to stay at school for the holidays. They had not missed his customary visit to their compartment on the journey and had passed the time pleasantly, gossiping about their fellow students and playing games of Exploding Snap and Gobstones. Although Ron had never spoken directly to Harry, he had not seemed hostile, and Harry had hopes that he would be ready to bury the hatchet sometime soon. Even Hermione did not crack a book the entire way back, preferring to spend her time snuggled close to Ron, who she most likely would not see until after Christmas. Her parents were insistent that she spend the holidays with them, and even Hermione could not say that she blamed them after their summer had been cut short the way that it had.
Ginny grinned at Harry as Mrs. Weasley made a fuss over all of them, inquiring about what they had eaten for lunch and how they had done on each of their midterm exams. It was only after being swallowed by one of Molly's bone-crunching hugs that Harry was able to make his way over to Remus, who immediately shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder, a broad smile on his face. They were all very happy to see one another, but perhaps none quite as much as Moony and Harry, who were still getting the feel for their relationship, and who had both lost so much that they could no longer take for granted that they would see each other again. Though the Weasleys were all saddened by the losses of Sirius, Arabella Figg, and Hestia Jones, Voldemort had yet to claim a member of their family, and they never seemed to doubt that Christmas and summer holidays would always bring them all back together.
"How are you, Harry?" Remus asked quietly as they pulled away from King's Cross in one of several Muggle taxis, the drivers rather confused and disgruntled by the cacophony of sounds coming from the several animal cages and the large, unwieldy trunks with odd crests upon their lids.
"All right, Moony," Harry answered happily, and for the moment it was perfectly true. They had two full weeks without lessons, the snow was becoming whiter and prettier as they left London and headed towards Ottery St. Catchpole, and he had a pretty girl snuggled close on his other side, sleeping comfortably on the rather long trip.
"You look like you haven't been sleeping well," Lupin prodded, noticing the bags that were once again present under his charge's eyes.
Harry shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. "Just been staying up late with revision and all," he commented, avoiding his guardian's eyes.
"Harry," Lupin said warningly, reminding Harry that he would accept nothing less than full honesty.
"Everything's fine, Moony," Harry said with the slightest trace of irritation in his voice. He did not want to talk about his visions right now. Was it so much to ask that he just have the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and anticipate spending the entire holiday at the Burrow with the people he loved the best?
Remus glanced sideways at Harry and his expression cleared a bit as he noticed Ginny's head resting contentedly on Harry's shoulder. He could not resist, however, adding one last comment. "Okay, but I'm here if you need anything."
Harry nodded, and then, casting about for a subject change, asked, "What did the Marauders do over the Christmas holidays?"
Lupin grinned and settled himself a little more comfortably on the vinyl backseat of the small taxi. "Let's see," he said as if searching for a memory, although he had immediately chosen the story he would tell today. "The only Christmas that the Marauders all spent together was the Christmas during our fifth year. Sirius's parents had gone traveling, as had mine, and Peter's parents gave him permission to come with the rest of us to the Potter's for the holiday.
"We started planning for it as soon as we knew it was going to happen. I think the professors were actually rather taken aback, because during November we were so busy with our plans that we forgot to make much mischief elsewhere. I believe that James and Sirius only served one detention apiece during that time, for sitting at the front of History of Magic and using their wands to shoot pink bubbles through Professor Binns."
"It sounds like my dad and Sirius were always in detention," Harry commented wryly.
"Well," Remus said with a smile, "not always. I do believe, however, that they spent more time in detention than any other Hogwarts student has since."
"So, go on about Christmas," Harry encouraged, shifting his weight to get Ginny's head off his collarbone.
"Okay," Remus continued, smiling once again at Harry's thirst for knowledge of his father's Hogwarts days. "When the day finally came, even Sirius didn't need one of us to get him moving in the morning. Potter Manor had a very large garden, perfect for snowball fights and pick-up Quidditch, and the house itself was huge. There was also, of course, the added benefit of neighbors with three very pretty daughters, one of whom was a Ravenclaw from our year."
"My dad lived in a Wizarding neighborhood?"
"No, I wouldn't exactly say that," Remus answered. "As many wizards choose to do, your grandparents lived fairly far out into the countryside outside of London. You see, fewer wards and anti-Muggle protection measures are needed the farther from the city you are. This was very appealing to many Wizarding families as they decided where to build their homes. In this case, the Potter family and the Davies family had a friendship that went back a long way, and somewhere along the line, they had decided to build their estates on neighboring lots. As is common among Pureblood families, the two households were also related to one another through several marriages over time."
"The Davies family?" Harry asked. For some reason, the mention of the name "Davies" had triggered something in his mind, but he wasn't at all sure what. It took him a moment to remember the small brunette who had been sorted into Gryffindor at the Start-of-Term feast, but he quickly rejected the idea that she could have come from any kind of magical family. He distinctly remembered suspecting that she had come from a Muggle background just as he had.
"Yes, the Davies family. The entire family was killed during the first war, at the same time as the Potter's home was destroyed."
"Were my...grandparents killed at the same time?" Harry asked with difficulty, realizing that he had never asked about his father's family.
"No," Lupin replied. "Your grandparents had James late in life, and they both died of natural causes the winter before you were born. Lily was only a couple of months pregnant at the time. The Davies were killed and your family manor destroyed soon after you were born. There was no connection that we know of, however. Unfortunately, the destroying of families and homes was a rather common occurrence during those days."
Harry nodded, feeling the familiar surge of sadness and anger that accompanied every bit of news he received about Voldemort's reigns of terror.
"Anyway," Remus continued, changing the subject quickly upon seeing the look on Harry's face, "I remember Christmas morning of that year particularly well. All four of us were staying in rooms near James's in the manor, and we were awoken no later than 5:30 in the morning by Sirius galloping up and down the hall like a five-year-old, shooting Reductor curses at each of our doors."
Harry grinned in astonishment. "Reductor curses? But I thought you weren't allowed to use magic outside of school."
"Of course we weren't, but when was the last time Sirius was ever concerned about small issues such as rules and restrictions? Besides, the wards on Potter manor kept us rather safe in that aspect, unfortunately for Mr. and Mrs. Potter, who had to deal with the fallout of everything we did."
Harry had a sudden image of his grandfather, who he imagined to look much like he and his father, pushing back unruly, black hair and sighing good-naturedly as he cast Reparo charms on broken items throughout his house.
Remus seemed to be reading Harry's mind as he smiled reminiscently and said, "Mr. and Mrs. Potter were very good sports, but I daresay that from their interactions with Sirius over the years they had some idea of what could happen when they invited all four of us to stay for the holiday.
"Anyhow, that Christmas morning we were all awoken by our doors blasting to smithereens, Sirius singing 'God Rest Ye, Merry Marauders' at the top of his lungs, and Mr. Potter following him and making a very half-hearted attempt to get Sirius to cease blasting the doors and go back to bed. Sirius, of course, would have none of it, and we all knew he wasn't going to stop until we were all up and in the lounge, ready to tear into our presents.
"So it was that the four Marauders and Mr. and Mrs. Potter filed down the stairs to the lounge, all of us save Sirius still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, and when we reached the door and began to file through, most of us had to do at least a double take. Apparently, sometime in the night, Sirius had bewitched the walls, the paintings, even all the furniture to bright shades of red and green, or metallic gold and silver. It was blinding, and poor Mrs. Potter about fainted." Remus chuckled as he recalled the garish colors of the normally rather staid Potter lounge. Harry grinned as well - it sounded just like something Sirius would have done.
"We all opened our presents. Knowing that Sirius would receive little to nothing from the Blacks, who had all but disowned him when he became a Gryffindor, the Potters made sure that he had as many presents as James. I can't remember exactly what it was that everyone got, but suffice to say that none of us felt neglected in any way.
"After we'd had a big breakfast and Sirius had changed the colors back to normal in the lounge, we went out to have yet another snowball fight. Mr. Potter confiscated our wands, saying that he did not want yet another complaint from the Davies, who had grown quite tired of enchanted, multicolored snowballs hitting their daughters' windows at all hours of the day and night.
"It seemed nothing could ruin Sirius's mood. As soon as we were a safe distance away from prying eyes, he transformed into Padfoot and rolled around in the snow like an idiot, and before any of us could stop him, he was bounding through the garden and over the hedge that separated the Potter's property from the Davies's. What he didn't realize at the time was that Camilla Davies, the youngest of the sisters, had seen him transform more than once and knew our secret.
"James did not transform at the time, being at least slightly more cautious than Sirius, and Peter didn't transform because it was extremely hard for a rat to run through deep snow. I, of course, never had the option of whether or not to transform. Anyway, needless to say, Sirius ran out of our line of sight almost immediately, and by the time we reached the Davies there wasn't a sign of him anywhere."
"He didn't go into the house, did he?" Ginny asked, sitting up suddenly, and Harry laughed. Her eyes were bright and alert, and it was immediately obvious that she had only been feigning sleep in order to give him and Remus a sense of privacy.
"No," Lupin replied, laughing along with Harry. "We found him about half an hour later, wearing a bright red harness and chained to a peg that was driven into the ground. From the prints on the snow, it was obvious that he had tried to transform into his human form, but because of the constraints of the harness around his torso, he was unable to do it."
"The Davies girls just left him there on his own?" Ginny asked incredulously. "Out in the snow?"
"Oh, no," Remus assured her, his eyes twinkling very much like Dumbledore's often did. "Although I assume he probably wished that they had. The Davies girls could obviously give as well as they got, which was something we hadn't realized until that very moment. All three of the girls were standing right in Sirius's line of sight, bewitching snowballs to fly straight at him without mercy and occasionally letting loose with some other minor yet very annoying curses. Can you imagine suffering a bat-bogey hex without being able to use your hands to swipe the things away?"
All three of them burst into laughter at the thought of the large black dog with giant flying bogies attacking his face, but Ginny noticed the sudden look of sadness cross Harry's features and she reached out and squeezed his hand comfortingly. "Hey," she said softly, as Remus watched the exchange, "this is the way that Sirius would want to be remembered, isn't it?"
Harry nodded and smiled at her in thanks, squeezing her hand back. The three rode in companionable silence the rest of the way to the Burrow, and Harry pretended he didn't notice as Remus performed a mild memory charm on the driver after he had unloaded their trunks and animal cages in front of the ramshackle old house that had been the Weasley's home for years. As he lugged his trunk up the stairs to Ron's room, he resolved to talk to Ron as soon as he had the opportunity. The Weasleys felt like family to him, every last one of them, and he had no intention of letting anything stand in the way of that for one moment longer.
After Harry and Ron had silently organized their things, keeping their backs carefully turned towards each other, Harry stole a glance at the closed door. Having convinced himself that they were alone, he finally broached the subject which had been bothering him for over a week.
"Er, Ron?" he ventured tentatively, hoping not to cause an explosion of Weasley temper.
Ron showed no signs of anger as he turned towards Harry, a guardedly hopeful expression crossing his freckled face. "Yeah, Harry?"
"Look, I'm really sorry about what happened, okay? When I, er, held my wand on you and stuff."
"You mean when you almost killed me?" Ron asked, and Harry was about to retort angrily when he caught the half-smile on Ron's face. "It's all right, mate," Ron continued somewhat bracingly.
"I really am -" Harry continued.
"No one else has to deal with the stuff you have to deal with," Ron replied, and Harry must have looked surprised at this abrupt change in attitude because Ron hurriedly said, "Hermione made me think about what it would be like to be in the middle of something like that."
"She did?" Harry asked, because generally Ron's and Hermione's attitudes on feelings and emotions differed greatly and they found no middle ground.
"Well, yeah," Ron admitted, looking a bit awkward now. "I mean, you told us about the prophecy. We know what you have to do, and you are not going to shut us out. We've always been there before. This is no different."
"If you feel like that, why did you wait so long to make it up?" Harry asked.
"I...ermů" Ron started, and Harry noticed the tips of his ears begin to turn red.
"Out with it," Harry said firmly, sure that at last he was going to find out why Ron had stayed angry with him for so long.
"I just reckoned you had Ginny and you didn't need anyone else," Ron muttered.
Harry stared at his best friend, who was determinedly avoiding any eye contact. "You're mental," Harry said firmly. "Do you have any idea what it's been like, spending time with no one but Ginny and Hermione?"
Ron grinned. "Yeah, I guess I do," he said, no longer looking embarrassed. "Ginny is my sister, after all. Tell me, has she bat-bogeyed you yet? Just wait..."
* * *
The last few days before Christmas Day passed in a blur of snowball fights, ice skating on the small pond behind the Burrow, and surreptitious owl orders being carried out at all hours by Pigwidgeon, Sammy, and of course Hedwig. The holiday spirit was in the air, and thoughts of war and death were pushed aside for everyone at the rickety old house. Everyone, that is, besides Harry, who was still forced to cast silencing charms on himself before he slept each night to avoid waking the others. Although Harry was certain that Voldemort had not detected his presence during the almost nightly attacks on Muggle families, no amount of Occlumency Harry could employ seemed to be able to keep him where he belonged, on the small cot in Ron's bedroom at the Burrow.
Harry's hoarse voice each morning concerned Mrs. Weasley greatly, and as she had promised herself to treat Harry just like one of her own, she dosed him up with Pepper-Up Potion and tried to insist that he stay inside. Harry took the potion and tried to ignore the steam coming out of his ears, but he was glad when Ginny intervened and convinced her mother that to keep Harry inside for all of his Christmas holidays would be nothing less than criminal.
Although the Dark Mark had not been cast over any of the Muggle homes, the Daily Prophet had finally gotten wind of what was happening, and the Christmas Eve headline proclaimed in large letters, "Death Eaters Run Rampant: Muggle Attacks Increase." As a result, when Harry, who was always last to come downstairs due to the necessity of casting the counter-charm on himself before he spoke to anyone, arrived in the kitchen on Christmas Eve morning with his voice as croaky as ever, he was greeted by solemn stares from everyone and a particularly penetrating gaze from Lupin. Arthur, the twins, Bill and Charlie were not present, but Harry was used to this. He often arrived at table after the rest of them had gone.
"What's wrong?" Harry asked groggily; he had been up most of the night, but was not yet aware that anyone else knew about the attacks.
"Harry, it's so terrible," Hermione began breathlessly, shoving her copy of the Daily Prophet at him as he sat down. She was visiting for Christmas Eve, having finally convinced her parents that letting her go for one day could not have too many ill effects. Lupin watched Harry carefully as he skimmed the front-page article and was not surprised when Harry showed no emotion or outrage at the news.
"It's like what happened that one night, Harry," Ron said carefully. Both of them still avoided the subject of their argument as much as possible.
"Yeah," Harry said shortly, and everyone at the table noticed that his voice was almost nonexistent. Mrs. Weasley passed him a plate of kippers, but he shook his head almost imperceptibly and got up from the table. "I'm not hungry, Mrs. Weasley, but thanks," he said quietly, and went back up the stairs to Ron's room.
Ginny rose at once to follow him, as did Ron and Hermione, but Lupin motioned for all of them to stay seated as he himself rose and took his plate to the sink, where the scrubbing brush immediately went to work scrubbing off the remainders of his breakfast. "Let me talk to him," he requested, and before anyone could protest, he left the room quietly.
"What d'you reckon?" Ron asked Ginny, Hermione, and Mrs. Weasley, all of whom had reseated themselves at the table, looking nervous.
"Oh, Ron, isn't it obvious?" Ginny snapped before anyone else could reply. "Harry didn't just see that one attack; he's been seeing all of them."
"No, he hasn't," Ron protested. "I've been in the same room as him every night. He never makes a sound."
"That doesn't make any sense," Hermione pondered. "Hasn't he always woken up when he has these...these...dreams, or visions?"
"Yes," Ron answered, still looking confused.
"Unless..." Hermione said quietly, and it was obvious to the others that whatever she was thinking disturbed her greatly.
"Unless what, dear?" Mrs. Weasley prompted after Hermione had not continued for a few moments.
"How long has his voice been like that, Ginny?" Hermione asked.
"On and off for a couple of weeks," Ginny answered, and Hermione nodded in confirmation.
"Ever since the first attack?" Hermione prompted, and Ginny nodded.
Mrs. Weasley gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. "Oh, no," she whispered. "Oh, that poor dear."
"What?" Ron asked, helping himself to another kipper as everyone else at the table looked towards the stairs, their expressions a mixture of horror and pity.
Hermione sighed, returning her gaze to her boyfriend. "Isn't it obvious, Ron?"
"Will everyone stop saying that and just tell me what in the bloody hell is going on?" Ron asked hotly.
"Harry's seen all of the attacks," Hermione repeated, and before Ron could disagree, she continued, "and he must be casting a silencing charm on himself before he goes to bed so you won't hear him if he wakes up. It's why his voice has been so hoarse."
"Come off it," Ron said. "Harry would never -"
"It's exactly the sort of thing Harry would do," Ginny said angrily, "especially after what happened that first night. You wouldn't speak to him for days because of something he couldn't even help."
"He held his wand on me, Ginny!" Ron countered hotly. "Who wouldn't have had a problem with that? Besides, we're all right now."
"It's because of you that he wouldn't tell anyone!" Ginny shouted, jumping up from her chair. "You made him think it would be dangerous for anyone to help him, and now we find out he's been seeing these horrid attacks almost every night, and watching families and children die terrible deaths right in front of him, and because you decided you would be stupid and act all injured, he's thought he had to do it alone! You disgust me, Ronald Weasley!"
Ron gaped at her and stood up so quickly that his chair toppled backward, but once he was up, it didn't seem like he could figure out exactly what to say.
Ginny didn't give him a chance to gather his thoughts, and her voice rose in pitch as she continued shouting at him, ignoring the reproachful looks from her mother. "In case you have forgotten, Ron, we promised him we would help him! When he told us about that prophecy, we swore we'd stay with him, fight with him, no matter what! Some friend you are," she raged, her face coloring brilliantly. "You swore to fight alongside him, to help him, and at the first sign of difficulty you not only leave him alone, but you start a row with him!"
"Ginny!" Mrs. Weasley shouted, standing up and banging her hands on the table. "Do you think this is helping Harry?"
"Maybe not," Ginny said, struggling to control her voice as she turned to face her mother. "But it's high time someone helped him." With that, she turned from all of them and ran up the stairs.
"The first sign of difficulty?" Ron asked incredulously, and Molly and Hermione both turned to him, expressions of mixed pity and annoyance on each of their faces.
* * *
Lupin walked quietly up the flights of stairs leading to Ron's small bedroom and was slightly surprised when he saw that Harry had left the door open, and was sitting on his cot, staring out in front of him blankly.
"Harry?" he asked quietly, entering the room and closing the door behind him. "You want to tell me what's been going on?"
"Nothing," Harry answered dully.
"That's not true and you know it," Lupin prodded, taking a seat at the end of the cot and looking at Harry with the intense gaze that Harry had come to dread. "You've seen all of the attacks, haven't you?"
"Yes," Harry answered simply.
"Harry, why didn't you tell anyone?" Lupin asked. "Why didn't you tell me or Professor Dumbledore, or even Hermione, Ron, or Ginny?"
"Dumbledore can't help with this," Harry replied, and his voice began to take on a bitter tone as he continued. "He said my Occlumency kept Voldemort from knowing I was there, and kept me from having to feel his emotion, but that the connection couldn't be cut off entirely."
"That makes sense," Lupin said. "The failed curse seems to have created quite a link between the two of you."
"There was nothing I could do about it," Harry spat. "They killed all those people, and I just stood there and watched it happen. No one could stop it. Not me, not Dumbledore, and I almost killed my best friend because he happened to be there when I woke up."
"You didn't almost kill him, Harry," Lupin corrected him. "You didn't do anything to him."
"Yeah, well, what if I had?"
Lupin was saved from answering this question by the door slamming open to reveal Ginny, her face flushed. "I'm sorry, Professor," she said, her tone leaving no room for protest, "but you've had your chance." She turned to face Harry. "Come on, get your cloak. We're going out."
"Ginny," Moony began as Harry grabbed his winter cloak, but Ginny paid him no heed.
"Yes, get your winter things on, Harry," she said firmly. "But we're taking the invisibility cloak, too. You need to get away from all this." As Harry finished pulling on his winter cloak, she went to his trunk and rummaged around until she found the invisibility cloak. She stowed it in her pocket, pointedly ignoring Lupin as she grabbed Harry's hand and pulled him out the door.
Ginny hurried Harry down the stairs, her hand pushing insistently at his back from time to. They both ignored the questioning glances from Ron, Hermione, and Molly, and they didn't respond to the twins' teasing as they passed them in the front garden, where Fred and George were experimenting with something for their shop.
As soon as they were away from view, Ginny pulled the invisibility cloak out of her pocket and pulled it around both of them. Once she was certain they were completely hidden from prying eyes, she led him into a grove of trees, carefully sweeping their footprints away with the hem of her cloak.
"Where are we -" Harry whispered, but Ginny shushed him and kept walking.
They had walked for nearly five minutes when Ginny suddenly stopped in a small clearing covered in pure white snow that sparkled in the morning sunlight.
"Here?" Harry asked, looking around. The setting was certainly lovely, but he could see no comfortable place to sit. As pretty and soft as the snow looked, any Hogwarts student knew that it was cold, wet, and not at all comfortable.
"No, not here," Ginny said slightly impatiently, "up there." She pointed into the top of one of the trees, and Harry could see a dilapidated wooden tree house nestled into a branch about halfway up. Ginny squeezed his hand and led him to the tree, showing him the boards fastened to the trunk every couple of feet, forming a rough ladder. After looking carefully around them, Ginny pulled the invisibility cloak off, balled it up and stuck it in her pocket, then motioned Harry to follow her up the ladder.
"Bill and Charlie built this thing before they were even old enough for Hogwarts," Ginny whispered. "Dad's always had all those Muggle tools around, you know, and Charlie reckoned that even though they couldn't use magic yet, they could build something with them. I think Dad might have helped them out a little bit, but they apparently thought they did the whole thing themselves. I was only a baby."
Harry looked around the tree house. It certainly didn't look like anything magical he had ever seen. In fact, it seemed just as rickety and poorly built as the club house that Dudley and his friends had attempted to build in the Dursley's back garden the summer after Harry's first year at Hogwarts. The only difference was that the small area was rather warm, especially considering that there were great holes in each of the walls serving as makeshift windows, and another in the floor giving access to the plank ladder. Before he had time to comment on anything, though, he felt the Invisibility Cloak slide back over his head. "Ginny, what -" he began.
"Shhh," she said, putting her finger too his lips, her body tantalizingly close to his. "Enough talking, Harry." With that, she pulled the cloak more securely around them and pressed her lips to his, kissing him longer and harder than she ever had before.
Harry stiffened involuntarily at first; after all, he was not really in the mood for snogging, and the floor of the tree house was hard and uncomfortable. As Ginny's arms tightened around him and her kiss deepened, however, Harry's entire body warmed past the temperature of the room and he found himself responding to her, pulling her closer and closer until she was in his lap, straddling him, her hands entwined his unkempt, uncombed black hair, pressing his lips harder onto hers as her tongue pushed between his lips.
Neither Harry nor Ginny felt the air hit their faces as the Invisibility Cloak slipped off them, and when Ginny took Harry's hand and moved it sensually up her abdomen and onto the soft mounds of her small breasts, they both shivered, and not from the chill in the air.
"Ginny," Harry whispered as Ginny moved her lips away from his, kissing and suckling softly over his jawbone and down into the nape of his neck. Harry moaned, no longer remembering what it was he had been going to say to her. Nothing could be important enough to make her stop...
* * *
The winter sun was getting high in the morning sky by the time Harry and Ginny broke apart and lay next to one another, breathing heavily, their clothing discarded and pushed into a corner. Their hands entwined, they were silent for a long while as they simply stared at the underside of the roof, lost in their own thoughts.
Harry found the silence too much to bear after awhile. "Ginny," he began hesitantly. "I'm -"
"Don't you dare say you are sorry, Harry," Ginny said softly, squeezing his hand.
"But, Ginny..." Harry trailed off, not sure what to say. His body was a screaming contradiction of sensation and emotion, and he wasn't sure why, but he had the sudden feeling that what they had done was wrong in some way.
"Harry, I love you," Ginny said firmly, "and nothing is wrong with this if it is done when two people love each other."
Harry stared at Ginny in amazement. She suddenly sounded much more mature than her fifteen years, sounded so knowledgeable about something that she, like he, had only just experienced.
"I'm not sorry, Harry," Ginny continued, turning her head to look at him. "I'm not sorry in the least, and I don't want you to be either."
Harry was saved the necessity of replying as Ginny rolled over and kissed him gently, and it wasn't long before any doubts he might have had were washed away.
Harry and Ginny lay together for the rest of the day in that tree house, the Invisibility Cloak now acting as a pillow beneath their heads. Harry's winter cloak was wrapped securely around both of them, Ginny's having fallen through the trapdoor and into the snow below. For hours, they talked about everything. It was not until the sun had begun to set that Harry's stomach growled, reminding him that they had been out since shortly after sunrise, and that he had not eaten breakfast.
Ginny was dozing in his arms, having said as few words to him as possible throughout the entire day, and Harry reveled in the slight rise and fall of her chest as she breathed softly, the skin of her chest pressed against his, their body heat combined with the magical warmth of the tree house negating the need for their jumpers and jeans. Harry had just resolved to wait until she woke up on her own and had pulled his cloak more securely around them when he heard voices in the distance, and the sound of boots crunching through snow.
"Harry! Ginny!" called the unmistakable voice of one of the twins. "Oi! Where are you two?"
"Ginny!" Harry whispered frantically, shaking her rather more roughly than he normally would have done. "Wake up! Someone's coming!"
"Whaa - ?" Ginny said in groggy surprise as she sat straight up, the winter cloak falling around her waist. The cold air hitting the moist, sweaty skin of her torso served as a sufficient wake-up call, and as she heard her brothers' voices calling again, her brown eyes widened in alarm. "Damn!" she whispered loudly, searching frantically for her own clothes and undergarments amidst the intermingled pile in one corner of the small space. In her hurry, she pulled Harry's jeans halfway onto her own legs before realizing her mistake. "These are yours," she whispered, grinning naughtily at Harry as she removed them and tossed them to him.
"Fred! Would you look what we've got over here?" said George's voice from directly below him.
"What's that, George?" Fred asked cheerfully. Ginny and Harry tried their best to quiet their breath and their movements as they hurriedly pulled on their clothes.
"If I'm not mistaken, this cloak belongs to our dear little sister," George said, and Ginny and Harry heard the snap of the fabric as George shook the snow off the cloak to show it to Fred.
"But if that cloak belongs to Ginny, then where could she be?" Fred asked in a tone of exaggerated bewilderment.
"Don't know, brother, but if she's still with Harry we know she's all right," George replied.
"Is she, George?" Fred asked, his tone changing to one of mock seriousness. "Because I have to say, Harry's seemed as though he..."
"Likes our little sister quite a lot," George supplied helpfully, as Harry and Ginny continued putting themselves back together and stowed the Invisibility Cloak securely in Harry's pocket. "We'll have to keep an eye on that one, Fred."
"We do have those new sensors for the shop that need testing," Fred mused. "You know, the ones that detect -"
"When you two are finished," Ginny interrupted in a loud voice, peering down at her brothers from the trap door, "Harry and I can come down."
"What's that, dear sister?" George asked, peering up into the trapdoor. "You say Harry's up there with you, is he? Tell him to come down!"
Ginny climbed carefully down the ladder, Harry right behind her. As soon as his feet had hit the snow, he opened his mouth to explain. "Ginny and I were just...just..."
"We were just having a snog," Ginny finished for him calmly, and all three males gaped at her. "Not that it is any of your business what we do or where we do it, mind you."
It seemed as though Ginny had rendered her brothers at least temporarily speechless, and she did not give any of them a chance to recover as she turned haughtily from all of them and strode out of the clearing, pulling on her wrinkled and wet cloak as she left.
Harry was about to follow when he felt a rough tug at his elbow, and he found himself face-to-face with two identical Weasleys, their faces more serious than he had ever seen them.
"Listen, mate, you're like our brother," George began, any traces of amusement gone from his voice.
"But if you ever do even one thing that hurts her," Fred continued, looking at Harry almost menacingly.
"We'll forget who you are, and you'll find yourself in more trouble than even bloody You-Know-Who could cause for you," George finished, and they nodded in unison.
"Guys," Harry began, but found that he didn't know quite what to say.
"Just don't forget it, Harry," said Fred in his normal, cheery voice. "Come on, blokes, Mum's fixing dinner and if Ginny gets back too far ahead of us, they'll think we've been up to something."
"Right you are, brother," George agreed. "Coming, Harry?"
Harry shook his head as he walked with the twins back to the Burrow. It had certainly been quite a day, but he couldn't help but notice that Voldemort and his Death Eaters had not even entered his mind the entire time he had been with Ginny.
* * *
Despite everyone's insistence to the contrary, Harry still waited until Ron had fallen to sleep and then performed his usual silencing charm. No matter what anyone said, the fact of the matter was that he had held his wand on Ron, and he was simply not willing to risk it again.
Harry was pleasantly surprised when he woke up after a dream-free sleep on Christmas morning to Ron's cheerful call of "presents downstairs, mate! Let's go!" Harry pulled on his dressing-gown and followed Ron down into the cheerfully decorated and warm Weasley lounge, which was already packed with the Weasleys and Moony.
Too late, Harry realized that he had not cast the counter-charm on himself. He was extremely grateful when Remus seemed to notice his predicament and quickly and quietly aimed his wand at Harry's throat and restored his voice, giving him a semi-reproachful look as he did so but unwilling to say anything to him on Christmas.
The day was extremely pleasant. Everyone opened their gifts, including their traditional Weasley jumpers, had an enormous brunch, and passed the afternoon out-of-doors throwing snowballs at each other and cursing at the older Weasley boys, who were unfairly using magic against Ron, Ginny, and Harry, who were bound by the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Wizardry.
After yet another large and delicious meal later that night, the twins headed to the flat over their shop in Diagon Alley and the rest headed to their rooms, groggy and befuddled, with too much rich food making them sleepy. Harry only barely remembered to cast his silencing charm before he fell into a deep sleep on his camp cot in Ron's room.
* * *
When Molly Weasley woke early the next morning and went downstairs to begin preparations for breakfast, she was startled to see the top of a head of unkempt black hair sitting at the kitchen table. Harry was usually the last to come to breakfast in the morning, and she hoped he was all right. It was really not fair, all the things he had been made to experience.
"Harry, dear," Molly said softly, reaching out to touch him on the shoulder as she neared the table. "Are you all right?"
Harry didn't respond, and Molly quickly sat down next to him. When she pried his hands away from his face, she was immensely surprised to find Harry's face blotched, swollen, and smeared with tears, as if he had been crying for hours.
"Harry, what's happened?" Molly asked in a voice of forced calm. Harry opened his mouth to speak, but he did not know how to say what he had seen. Unintentionally, he stared at the Weasley's family clock, which was resting on the counter in front of him. Molly turned to follow the direction of his gaze, and her scream pierced the sleepy quiet of the Burrow.
One of the hands on the clock had gone black.
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