Phoenix by Sovran
Summary: ** Winner of Best Overall & Best Adventure (Tie) in the December Engagement Challenge **
What does it take for the phoenix to rise from the ashes?
Categories: Post-HBP, December Engagement Challenge (2006-6)
Chapter 1: Prologue: Burning Day
Chapter 2: Ashes
Chapter 3: Nestling
Chapter 1: Prologue: Burning Day
Author's Notes: Thanks to Chreechree for exploring something different with me (again). Thanks also to moshpit, Jonathan Avery, and regdc for their assistance in making this fit to read.
Sixteen years and one month after his first encounter with Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter burst through the front door of his relatives’ house on Privet Drive with Ron and Hermione close behind. His friends walked backwards, casting shields and hurling curses at the Death Eaters massed on the front lawn. The distant sounds of Apparition announced new arrivals. They might be more of Voldemort’s followers, or they might be Aurors responding to the message Harry had hurriedly sent to the Ministry. He did not know, and he could not spare a moment to care. Whoever they were, they would be the last additions to the battle. Harry felt Anti-Apparition wards snap into existence around the house and garden a moment later.
The familiar stench of death led him to look into the sitting room, where his aunt, uncle, and cousin lay in a lifeless heap in the middle of the floor. Again, he could not afford the time to care.
The instant he had crossed the threshold into the Dursleys’ house, he had felt a difference. Just as he had somehow known many things in the last few months, he knew that Tom Riddle was waiting for him in the smallest bedroom.
“He’s upstairs,” Harry said in a harsh whisper.
“Go on, then,” Ron said, pushing the door closed in front of him and sealing it with a spell. Harry started up to the second floor, and he looked over his shoulder to see Hermione and Ron taking up a defensive stance at the bottom of the stairs with their backs to him. They stood shoulder to shoulder, physically blocking the staircase, and waited for the Death Eaters to break through Ron’s hasty charm on the door.
“Good luck, Harry,” Hermione said. “He’s nothing compared to you.”
He wanted to tell them what it meant to him to have them there, giving him the chance to finish the war that had started so long ago. He wanted to say that he could not imagine his life without them. He wanted to tell them that, whatever happened, they were the best friends he could ever have asked for, and he wanted them to live long and happy lives together. But he had no time.
“See you soon,” Harry said.
He ran up the stairs and down the short hallway to the door of his room. In a moment of misplaced clarity, he noticed that all of the locks on his door were secured. He had never seen it that way from this side. Shaking his head to clear it, he unlatched the locks with a simple charm. Breathing deeply, he pushed the door open.
Tom Riddle, wearing his midnight-black cloak and rolling his wand between unnaturally long fingers, was standing in the middle of Harry’s room. Voldemort was looking out through the window, and from the multicoloured light playing across his pallid skin, Harry could only guess that there was a battle in progress on the lawn. The new arrivals must have been Aurors after all.
“Hello, Harry,” Voldemort said, his voice mockingly light, without bothering to turn around. “Please, do come in.”
Knowing he could not and would not avoid what was coming, Harry stepped into the room with his wand ready. “Hello, Tom.”
Riddle hissed, the slits of his nostrils flaring momentarily. Without any other warning, he turned his head towards Harry and flicked his wrist, sending a bright yellow spell unerringly towards Harry. With a slight wave of his wand, Harry summoned a shield which absorbed Voldemort’s spell.
“I see that you’ve learned something at last, Harry,” the snake-like man said. “Let’s skip the formalities this time, shall we? Crucio!”
Harry ducked to the side, avoiding the Unforgivable, and responded with a wordless stunning spell. Voldemort blocked it easily, and their duel began in earnest.
The two combatants spent the next few minutes exchanging spells in the cramped confines of Harry’s bedroom. Riddle was far too canny to use only the Unforgivable curses, which meant that Harry could shield himself from some spells instead of avoiding them all. Unfortunately, it also meant that Harry never knew what to expect, and a handful of bludgeoning and cutting hexes that he had never before encountered soon left him battered and bleeding.
For the first time, however, the fight was not entirely one-sided. Harry grazed Voldemort with a slicing spell, tearing the evil wizard’s robes and cutting bloodlessly into the pale flesh of his torso. Buoyed by that minor success, Harry redoubled his efforts and ignored the increasing pain of his own body.
He dropped to the floor to avoid a Killing Curse and regained his feet in front of the open door. It was time, he decided, to try something different.
“Tun!” he shouted. As Voldemort turned to face him, a blue light shot out of Harry’s wand and struck the taller wizard’s left shoulder. The impact was not as great as that of a normal bludgeoning hex, but it caused the Dark Lord to hiss and take a half-step backwards.
“Tun!” Harry shouted again. “Tun! Tun! Tun! Tun! Tun!”
Over and over, as fast as he could, he cast the spell Hermione had found for him. Voldemort raised a shield to block the spells, but he was unable to retaliate without exposing himself to the barrage. After stopping nearly twenty casts of the same spell, Riddle sneered behind his shield.
After a few more repetitions, Harry non-verbally cast a summoning charm between two shouted curses. The heavy lamp on his bedside table flew through the air and struck the Dark Lord in the back, causing the taller man’s shield to falter for a moment as he reacted to the impact. Seizing his chance, Harry silently cast the disarming hex, and to his surprise Voldemort’s wand flew from his hand to land at Harry’s feet.
“Incarcerous! ” Harry shouted. Thick chains sprang into existence and wrapped themselves around Riddle’s body from his shoulders to his ankles. With a loud crash, Voldemort fell stiffly to the wooden floor.
Panting, Harry put his heel over the handle of the wand at his feet. With his free hand, he grasped the tip and pulled sharply upwards, snapping the slender length of yew into two pieces. Magical sparks flew out from the broken shards. Leaving the halves on the floor, Harry stepped over to Tom’s bound form, keeping his wand trained on his opponent’s head.
“Very good, Potter,” Voldemort wheezed. “Very good, indeed. But you are an ignorant fool. I have gone far beyond mortality, and you have no more chance of killing me than you did sixteen years ago.”
“You’re wrong there,” Harry said harshly. “I know all about your Horcruxes, and I’ve destroyed them all. The diary, the ring, the locket, the staff, the cup, and the snake. There’s only you now, Tom.”
Tom Riddle’s red eyes widened, but his sneer remained in place. “Why should I believe you? You may know about them, but to have found and destroyed them all? I am the only wizard alive in the world with the power to do that. You couldn’t possibly have done it.”
Harry shrugged with one shoulder. “There’s one quick way to find out, isn’t there?”
“You will try to destroy me, then?” Voldemort asked. Surprisingly, the vile creature laughed. It was a cold, insane sound, and it contrasted sharply with the growing fear in his inhuman red eyes. “Do you know what will happen if you kill me, Harry? Do you have any idea?”
“You’ll die,” Harry stated.
“If you have done as you say, then perhaps I will. But there is enough magical energy in my body to do things you cannot imagine, and if you kill me, that energy will be released. You will die, and so will everyone else in this house or outside of it.” His lipless mouth shifted into an evil leer. “Your precious friends are here, Harry. Will you destroy them? And what of the innocents outside? Will you murder all of them, too?”
As Harry watched, the chains around Voldemort’s body began to slowly shift. The captive wizard was trying to loosen them, and Harry could see the links of the chains stretch even as his spell tightened them and fought to maintain their restraint. He knew he was running out of time.
“Decide quickly, Harry Potter. Is my life worth those of the blood traitor and the mudblood? Is my life worth the lives of everyone around us?”
Harry’s mind froze. How could he do it? How could he knowingly kill Ron, Hermione, and the Aurors outside?
He closed his eyes, and some part of his mind spoke to him in a way that he always associated with Hermione. His friends loved him, the voice said, and they would understand. If he loved them in return, he could not do anything except end their journey. The past four months had been a time of honesty and harsh truths. Each of them knew that if it meant winning in the end, their own lives were expendable. Ron and Hermione would be waiting with open arms to begin the next great adventure. Could it be any different with the other innocents? They, too, would understand.
In a quiet corner of his mind, he was devoutly thankful that Ginny was not with them. She was safe, and she would remain so even after the end of all things for Harry.
“Is it worth your life, Harry Potter?”
Voldemort had demonstrated once again that he did not understand Harry at all. Yes, it was worth his life to rid the world of such filth. His eyes snapped open, and he raised his wand to his throat. “Sonorus,” he whispered. Then, he took a deep breath and yelled, “Everyone get down and put up shields!”
He pulled his wand away from his throat, cancelling the amplification spell, and aimed it back at Voldemort’s neck. He summoned all the energy he could find in his body, and just before he released it, he whispered, “Goodbye, Tom.”
“Reducto!” Harry shouted. As the spell flashed towards its target, Harry knew that he would not survive if Riddle had been telling the truth about the imminent explosion.
He regretted his death, but he had accepted long ago that he might have to sacrifice his life. He only hoped that his warning had given his friends time to find shelter.
As the light of his spell vanished into Voldemort’s body, Ginny’s voice from months ago played through Harry’s mind. “Just come back to me, alright?”
Ginny. Sweet Ginny.
He had to try to survive for her.
A shockwave of magical energy burst towards him from where Tom Riddle had been, and just before it struck him, Harry raised his wand one last time.
A/N: ‘Tun’ is a truncation of a Latin word for ‘hit or strike.’
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Chapter 2: AshesOn December nineteenth, Harry crouched alone in a secluded corner of platform nine and three-quarters. He wore an old pair of Ron’s jeans and Percy’s untouched jumper from his fifth year. His father’s Invisibility Cloak brushed the floor around him, concealing him from the hundreds of other witches and wizards nearby. He was thankful, not for the first time, that the cloak had been tucked into a pocket of his winter cloak when he had faced Voldemort.
The initial explosion caused by Riddle’s destruction had hurled Harry down the stairs even as it obliterated the upper storey of the Dursleys’ house. Harry’s shield had protected him from the worst of the blast, but it did not soften his landing or prevent the rest of house from collapsing around him. He distinctly remembered the snap of his wand breaking as he tumbled to a stop at the bottom of the staircase.
Harry had thought that the cataclysm was over, but the energy stored in Tom’s body had continued to erupt. Whip-like tendrils of pure magic had slashed through the house and yard randomly, destroying everything in their path. One had flashed inches away from his face as he tried desperately to find his friends. When he had recoiled from the magical tendril, he had fallen and, striking his head sharply, been knocked unconscious.
A week later, he had been released from St. Mungo’s. His broken bones had been easily mended, and the damage from his brush with raw magic could only heal with time. Ironically, he was the luckiest of those who had been in or near the house that day. Dozens of Death Eaters and Aurors had been killed outright by the effects of Voldemort’s demise. Fortunately, Tonks had taken the time to alert the rest of the Order before Apparating to the play park near Privet Drive, so she had arrived just after the disaster. The Order of the Phoenix had dug Harry out of the ruins and done what they could for the other survivors.
Ron and Hermione had been found huddled together in Harry’s broom cupboard. The cupboard had protected them from the explosion, but a strand of magic had torn through the tiny space, destroyed Ron’s shield, and slashed along their sides. Ron’s right arm and Hermione’s left had simply vanished, along with much of the flesh along the affected side of their torsos and legs. The arrival of the Order, and their proximity to Harry in the rubble, had saved his friends’ lives, but they would be confined to St. Mungo’s for months as their limbs were re-grown and their skin repaired.
Harry shook himself out of his reverie and surveyed the platform. More families had arrived, and seeing them made Harry think that perhaps it was fortunate that Ron and Hermione were hidden from the public eye.
Rufus Scrimgeour had seized upon the deaths of Voldemort and so many Aurors to promote his own position and vilify Harry in the process. After all, Harry was Dumbledore’s man, through and through, and would never be the Minister’s man.
According to the Ministry, Harry Potter had used dark magic to defeat Lord Voldemort and deliberately caused the deaths of nearly all of the Aurors sent to aid him. Not every wizard or witch believed the Minister, but enough did that only Harry’s closest friends would willingly associate with him. The Ministry’s Aurors became the fallen heroes of the day, while Harry became a monster second only to Voldemort himself. Scrimgeour had not, apparently, been quite brave enough to have Harry arrested, but the damage was bad enough even if he was technically a free wizard.
At last, the Hogwarts Express rolled into the station and came to a whistling halt at the platform. Reluctantly, Harry stood and removed the Invisibility Cloak. The crowd reacted immediately.
First, those standing closest to him saw him and recoiled from the sight of his ruined face. Voldemort’s energy had passed a few inches from his left cheek, but at that distance it still dissolved his flesh. The damage was slowly healing, but nineteen days after the battle, Harry’s melted skin, missing hair, and deformed ear were still a gruesome sight.
Once the people around him began to recognise him, the accusations began. “Murderer!” shouted one man. “Dark Wizard!” a woman’s voice screeched. The cacophony of verbal abuse rose from more than half of the people waiting at the platform, and as students emerged from the train, their families snatched them up and hurried them away from the supposedly evil man in the corner.
Harry stood still, his shoulders hunched, and tried to ignore the taunts and accusations. His eyes scanned the doors to the train. A minute or two later, he spotted a flash of bright red in one of the doorways. He started towards it, and the crowd parted around him.
Ginny stepped off the train with her trunk and spotted him immediately. She smiled broadly and then rapidly crossed the remaining distance between them. Without speaking, she put her hands on his chest and rose up on her tiptoes to kiss his damaged cheek. She sank back down to her feet and wrapped her arms around his waist, tucking her head under his chin. Slowly and reverently, Harry put his arms around her shoulders, and they stood there together for a long moment.
“Traitor!” a woman shouted from the crowd. “He’ll kill you, too!”
Ginny pulled out of his embrace and turned to face the people around them. She took a step away from him, and Harry watched as her expression shifted from tenderness to fierce challenge. “None of you has any idea what happened that day,” she called fiercely. “Voldemort is dead! How do you think that happened?! Harry did that, and he did it for you! You don’t have to worry about Voldemort murdering your families anymore. Show some respect!”
Ginny glared around the platform, but no one was willing to say anything further. After a moment, she faced Harry again and smiled affectionately. “Take me home, Harry.”
He nodded. With a quick wave of Bill’s old wand, Harry shrank her trunk to the size of a matchbox and tucked it into his pocket. Ginny wrapped both of her arms around his left bicep. After a turn and a wave, they were standing on the front lawn of the Burrow.
Ginny kept her hands on his arm as they walked into the house. She only let him go when Mrs. Weasley bustled into the hallway from the kitchen and pulled Ginny into her own crushing embrace. “Oh, Ginny dear, it’s so good to have you home,” she said.
Mr. Weasley emerged from the sitting room and greeted his daughter also. Fred and George, who were spending the day at the Burrow in honour of the occasion, came thundering down the stairs and swept Ginny up for their own uniquely rambunctious version of a welcome.
Momentarily sidelined in the hubbub, Harry climbed the stairs to Ginny’s room. He placed the trunk at the foot of her bed and returned it to its original size, and then he went up another flight of stairs to Percy’s old room. Inside, he opened his school trunk and put his Invisibility Cloak back in its place.
Before closing the lid, he stared at the trunk’s contents for a moment. This, he thought, was all that he had left. The rucksack he had carried during the long months of the search for the Horcruxes had been left carelessly in the front yard of Privet Drive along with his Firebolt. Harry’s other possessions, including most of his clothes, had been stored in his bedroom. When the house exploded, those things were lost. All he had were the contents of his school trunk, which had been at the Burrow: a few uniforms, a few of his older textbooks, the precious photo album Hagrid had given him, and an assortment of small things that had stayed in the trunk over the years.
Hedwig had left Privet Drive at the beginning of the battle and showed up at the Burrow a few hours later. She was exhausted, and the news she had sought to convey had already been delivered, but she was alive, and she perched silently on top of the wardrobe. The familiar sight provided Harry with some slight sense of comfort.
The rest of the things in ‘his’ room had once belonged to one or another of the Weasley brothers. The wardrobe was full of old jumpers, worn shirts, and patched trousers. He certainly did not object to wearing second-hand clothes, but they seemed to be an accurate reflection of his lot in life recently.
“Harry?” Ginny called softly from the doorway. He turned to see her standing there, still smiling, even though her eyes were tinged with sad compassion. She held out her hand to him. “Dinner’s ready.”
He took her hand and let her pull him back down towards the kitchen. On the last landing, she stopped and turned to him. With her free hand, she reached up and gently lifted his chin, encouraging him to meet her gaze. Her eyes regarded him solemnly as they searched his face. “Say something to me, Harry.”
He slowly closed his eyes, fighting the moisture he could feel gathering there, and squeezed her hand tightly. He had decided over a month ago that he would ask her a question, but now was not the time. After a minute, he opened his eyes and looked directly at her. “I’m so happy you’re here, Ginny,” he whispered. His voice was laden with emotion, and her brown eyes softened as she stroked his cheek with her thumb.
“I’m happy, too, Harry,” she said softly.
After dinner, the Weasley family sat around the table listening to Ginny talk about her term at Hogwarts. She told cheerful stories, but Harry could tell that there were many more things she could have said if she had not been committed to keeping the mood light.
A while later, Harry quietly stood from the table. Ginny smiled at him and nodded slightly as he excused himself. Pulling on Fred’s old winter cloak, he stepped out into the garden and settled onto a bench near the house.
As the silence of the night settled around him, his thoughts returned to the last few months, as they often did. He should have known, he supposed, that defeating Voldemort would not be so easy. He, Hermione, and Ron had managed to find and destroy four Horcruxes in four months. Harry had spent his money lavishly to accelerate the hunt and to support himself and his friends as they traveled. When his inheritance had run out, the three of them had lived more simply but maintained the pace of their search. Ron’s memory had sent them back to Grimmauld Place to find the real locket. Hermione’s skill at research had led them to Hufflepuff’s cup. Ravenclaw’s staff had been hidden in Hogwarts itself, which saved them some time but challenged them more than either of the other two. Nagini had died on the lawn of Privet Drive just minutes before Harry had killed Tom.
Up until the final confrontation, it had seemed so easy. They had grown confident in their skills as individuals and as a team. Harry’s strange hunches had helped them to avoid the worst of the protections around the Horcruxes, and he had begun to think that they might make it through the war intact.
Then, of course, Harry himself had triggered the cataclysm that killed Aurors and Death Eaters and maimed his two best friends.
He had spoken to them, briefly, when they were conscious. They knew what had happened, and they did not blame him. But that had never stopped Harry from blaming himself, and he had only been able to stand being in their presence for a few minutes since that day. Their ruined bodies and his own face were constant reminders of the choice he had made, the price they had all paid, and the many decisions that could never be altered.
The door to the Burrow closed noisily behind him, and Harry turned to see Fred and George crossing the garden. They took seats on the bench to either side of him.
“Evening, Harry,” George said.
Harry nodded his acknowledgement, wrapped in his silent thoughts and memories of four months that felt like four lifetimes.
“Still planning to ask our sister to marry you?” Fred asked.
Harry was vaguely surprised at the direct approach, but he realised that he should have long ago learned never to predict what one of the Weasley twins might do. He had spoken to them shortly after arriving at the Burrow from St. Mungo’s. Aside from Ron and Hermione, no one else knew of his plans yet, but somehow the twins had seemed like the right people to sound out about the idea. He had expected vehement objections, but they had simply looked at him searchingly and finally nodded in support.
Harry had almost nothing left, but he would offer Ginny what little he had. He was not sure he was worthy of her now, assuming he ever had been. After what he had done, he was not entirely certain he could ever feel worthy of even her friendship. But he would ask. He had everything to gain, and almost nothing to lose. In a stolen moment, Ginny had told him that she never wanted them to be apart again after the war, and he had agreed wholeheartedly. He did not understand how she could want a penniless, deformed mass-murderer, but she was treating him the same way she had before. Perhaps she still cared for him, after all.
“If she’ll have me,” Harry whispered.
George shook his head and grinned slightly. “You say stupid things, Harry. Always have.”
“Look, Harry,” Fred said solemnly. “You helped us out a few years ago, and now it’s our turn. We know you’ve no money left, so why not let us pay back what you gave us?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t want that money then, and I don’t want it now,” Harry said.
Fred sighed. “I wish you’d stop saying that.” He looked out over the snow-shrouded garden. “We knew you would, though.”
“So we went ahead and spent some of it anyway,” George added.
“We got you some clothes,” Fred said. “They’re in the wardrobe in your room. They should make you look more like Harry Potter and less like a Weasley with a bad hair-colouring charm.”
“Wear them tomorrow,” George suggested. “Go for a walk with Ginny. Talk to her. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”
Harry shrugged. “Yeah, alright,” he agreed listlessly. He had to try.
The next morning, Harry showered and returned to his room to get dressed. Inside the wardrobe, as promised, were several pairs of fresh new jeans and a collection of shirts and jumpers. There was even a new pair of brown shoes on the floor of the wardrobe. Harry pulled on a pair of jeans and a dark green jumper, surprised at how well they fit, and went downstairs to breakfast.
The Weasleys were already at the table, and Ginny’s eyes lit up when she saw him. She openly looked him over from head to toe and raised an eyebrow approvingly. The grin she wore was one he remembered well from walks by the lake at Hogwarts during their previous lifetime together. He ducked his head and took his seat, keeping his eyes on the plate in front of him.
After breakfast, he stood up and glanced at her across the table. “Ginny . . . would you . . . would you like to go for a walk? With me?”
“I’d love to, Harry,” she said with a warm smile.
They donned their winter cloaks and stepped out into the garden. Ginny slipped her arm around his elbow, and they walked for several minutes in silence. This was the first time in months that Harry had been able to talk to her without some sort of deadline looming. They had danced at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, speaking only with their eyes, and Harry had gone to sleep that night knowing that she still understood him. Though they would not be in each others’ company, they were together, just as they had been since May. The next morning, Ginny had watched him leave the Burrow with the same blazing look he remembered from the day they had first kissed. No words had been necessary.
Later, he had stolen a few moments to see her after retrieving Ravenclaw’s staff from the depths of Hogwarts’ dungeons. Hermione had used the Invisibility Cloak to sneak into the girls’ dormitory and bring Ginny to the Room of Requirement. She and Harry had spent their time in a fierce embrace, whispering truths and hopes in each others’ ears. With Ron and Hermione fidgeting as they faced the wall in the far corner, there had not been an opportunity in those brief yet precious minutes to even properly kiss each other. Ginny had only managed to brush her lips across his cheek before he had needed to leave again.
“How are Ron and Hermione?” Ginny asked, interrupting Harry’s musing.
Harry dropped his gaze from the landscape ahead of him to his feet. It was so hard to see them, to see the price of the choice he had made. If he stayed with them long enough, he could almost imagine the faces of the Aurors that had not survived at all. “They’re awake for most of the day now, and your mum had them moved into the same room. They can’t move much at all, but they can keep each other company.”
Ginny knew what had happened to them. The last time he had seen her before picking her up from Kings Cross had been when she had come to St. Mungo’s to visit Harry the day after Voldemort’s defeat. He had confessed everything to her, sparing no detail or consequence. He had fully expected her to leave his room and never return, but instead she had held his hand and told him how proud she was of him.
Ginny laughed lightly. “So, what you’re telling me is that they’re spending their days rowing about nothing and everything.”
He could not help the small smile that crept onto his face. “They like it that way. They always have.”
Ginny nodded and grinned. “So, did I miss the Event?”
Harry snorted. “Yeah. I caught them snogging in the kitchen of our tent one night, about six weeks ago. They said it was the first time, and from the look on Ron’s face, I believed them.”
She turned to look up at him, and her brown eyes were deep and dark. “Funny, isn’t it, how things change so much and yet still remain the same?”
Unsure of what she meant, Harry nodded. They reached the pond at the back of the garden, and Harry stopped for a moment, looking out over the silver and white beauty of the winter landscape. He took a deep breath.
“Ginny, I . . .” His voice trailed off. He could not do it. Not now. Not like this, his mind told him.
“What is it, Harry?” she asked softly.
He scrambled for something else to say. Finally, he settled on the truth. A different truth. “I’m so glad you’re safe, Ginny,” he choked out. “Thank you for staying safe.”
She leaned over to rest her head on his arm. “Even if I didn’t always like it, it was what you needed me to do. I understood that, Harry.”
“I wish . . .” he began. “I wish we could have had it both ways.”
“So do I. We couldn’t, though, and it worked out the way it was.”
Harry took a deep breath, fighting the sudden moisture in his eyes. “Ginny, if you had been there . . .” He swallowed heavily. “If you’d been there, I don’t think I could have done it.”
Her hands tightened on his arm, and she sniffed quietly. “I know, Harry. I’m glad I wasn’t there.”
Harry nodded, slowly, and they continued their walk.
The next afternoon, the twins came by and cornered Harry in his room.
“Well?” Fred asked.
Harry sighed deeply. “It wasn’t the right time,” he explained.
“Wasn’t the right time?” George echoed.
“It just didn’t . . . feel right.”
Fred frowned. “How can it not feel right?”
“Have you ever done this, Fred?” Harry asked.
“Well, no . . .”
“Then trust me, okay? It didn’t feel right.”
George cocked his head to one side and looked at Harry flatly. “You still want to, though, don’t you?”
Harry’s eyes lost focus as he remembered the sight of Ginny by the frozen pond, so vivid and beautiful against the stark landscape. “Oh, yes. More than ever.”
“Well, when are you going to do it, then?” Fred asked.
Harry shrugged. The twins backed over to the far wall and whispered to each other behind their hands. After a minute of rapid conversation, Fred Apparated away with a raucous pop.
“Well, Harry,” George said, rubbing his hands together. “We’re going to give you another chance.”
“As of right about . . .” George looked down at his wrist, miming checking a watch that he did not wear, “ . . . now, you have a reservation for dinner tonight. You and Ginny, at our place in Diagon Alley. Food will be provided, atmosphere will be perfect, and company will be absent. Please keep your clothes present, though . . . otherwise we’d never be able to clean the place well enough to want to keep living in it.”
Harry’s mind wandered for a moment, but he forced himself to focus on George’s offer. “You’re giving us a date?”
“But . . .”
“No buts,” George insisted. “We want you to be happy, and we want Ginny to be happy. Going out together will make you both happy, so that’s what’s going to happen. If it ‘feels right,’ then that’s even better. Try to let it feel right, alright?”
At seven o’clock that evening, Harry met Ginny in the sitting room of the Burrow. He was again wearing some of the clothes the twins had given him. She wore a simple green winter dress, and Harry thought she had never looked lovelier.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, awed.
She lowered her eyes demurely. “Thank you. You’re pretty handsome yourself.”
He Apparated them both to the twins’ flat in Diagon Alley. They arrived in the living room, where a small table had been set up with two chairs. The rest of the furniture had been removed.
As promised, the table was laden with a warm and welcoming meal for two. Harry was not sure what to call the pasta dish that awaited them, but it smelled wonderful. It was accompanied by a light salad, fresh rolls, and a small glass of white wine for each of them.
“This is wonderful,” Ginny said. “What are they up to?”
Harry shrugged, fighting the urge to look away from her, and pulled out her chair. As soon as she sat down, two candles in the middle of the table lit themselves, and soft music drifted around the room from an unseen source.
They ate their meal with few words, savouring the food and frequently smiling across the table at each other. Harry almost forgot who he was for a few minutes, and once again he thought that perhaps he was living someone else’s life. The incredible woman across the table could not be smiling at him like that, with love and admiration in her eyes. He could not possibly be allowed to kiss those soft lips or caress that cascade of fiery hair.
Harry knew he was staring, but he did not care, and Ginny did not seem to mind. They sipped their wine slowly after they finished eating, and Harry finally found some shred of his courage.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked.
She nodded, and before he knew what was happening, she was in his arms and they were swaying gently to the music. Gradually, she shifted closer to him, until her body pressed against his and she rested her head on his shoulder. Her hands were warm and soft on the back of his neck, and her waist felt delicate and precious as his arms encircled her.
“I’m so glad it’s finally over,” she whispered against his chest.
In that moment, everything changed. He wore borrowed clothes in a borrowed place. They had eaten a borrowed meal, and they danced to borrowed music. Even Ginny’s affection might have been borrowed from the man he had once been. Borrowed time from a borrowed life.
He felt himself freeze, and Ginny raised her head to look at him as they stopped moving. “What’s wrong, Harry?”
“Nothing,” he lied. “It’s just . . . well, it’s getting rather late, and I don’t want your family to worry.”
“Oh,” she replied, blinking rapidly. “Well, then I . . . I suppose we should be getting back.”
“I wish we didn’t have to go yet,” Harry said.
Her eyes betrayed her confusion, but Harry was amazed to see that they still held affection, also. “I do, too,” she whispered.
They Apparated back to the Burrow, and Harry walked her to the door of her room. Her family was conspicuously absent, and Harry silently thanked them for that.
“I had a wonderful evening, Harry,” Ginny said. “Thank you.”
Harry kept his eyes on the shoes he was wearing. “Thank your brothers.”
Ginny tilted his head up and shook her head slowly. “That’s not what I meant.” She looked deeply into his eyes for a moment, then reached up and kissed his left cheek. “Goodnight, Harry.”
He stayed until she had closed the door behind her, and then he went up to his room. It was not yet nine o’clock, but he sat alone on his bed for the rest of the evening before falling into a fitful sleep.
On the morning of December twenty-third, the twins caught him alone in his room again.
“Alright, Harry,” Fred said. “You’ve told us twice now, and we finally believe you. We can’t just create the right time and place for you. Right?”
Suspicious, Harry nodded.
“Well, then, we’re not going to try anymore,” George said. “We’ll let you find the moment for yourself.”
“But there is one thing we can do without interfering with that,” Fred added. “We’re going to do it, and then you’re on your own. Ready?”
Harry eyed them both slightly askance for a moment. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll see,” George said mysteriously, pulling Harry to his feet.
As Harry stumbled for balance, George turned sharply. Harry felt the bizarre squeezing of Side-along Apparition even as he started to protest. He was still stumbling when they arrived at their destination, but the twins held him steady. Looking around, Harry found himself in front of a small shop on a side street of Diagon Alley. He had seen the tiny lane before but had never explored it.
Fred pushed open the door of the shop, and George pulled Harry inside. The interior was brightly lit, and the walls were lined with glass cases. A tall, thin man in very formal robes stood behind one of the cases.
Immediately, Harry stepped back from the man and dragged the twins with him. Never taking his eyes off the stranger, he whispered urgently to Fred. “Who’s that?”
“The proprietor,” Fred answered. “Don’t worry, we know him, and he’s got no problem with you. The shop is closed to other customers for the next hour.”
Harry nodded briefly before taking a few cautious steps forward. The man behind the counter looked at him with a calm, professional expression.
“Good morning, Mr. Potter. I am Thomas Banks. I believe you’ll find what you’re looking for in this display.” He swept his hand over the top of the case in front of him.
“What I’m looking for?” Harry asked, momentarily bemused.
“Have a look, Harry,” Fred said.
He stepped forward to peer into the display. Inside was a collection of dazzling engagement rings. Some were made of gold, and others were made of platinum. The precious metals cradled diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds of various sizes and shapes. Some of the gemstones were the size of Harry’s thumbnail, while others were brilliant sparkles no larger than the head of a pin.
“Pick one,” George instructed. “We can afford anything in this shop, and so could you if you’d let us pay you back properly.”
Stunned, Harry stared at the rings in the case. Against his will, he compared them, thinking about how each one would look on Ginny’s delicate left hand. Some were clearly too large and would look ridiculous on her. Some were far too small to express what he wanted to say. A few were so heavily encrusted with gems that he could not imagine Ginny wearing them. His eye was drawn to plain bands with only one or perhaps three stones.
He was starting to really scrutinize those simple rings when he suddenly realized what he was doing. Straightening, he turned to face the twins behind him. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” he asked.
They nodded, and Harry politely excused himself from the jeweller’s attention. The three young men gathered in a corner of the shop.
“Fred, George . . . this is amazing. You really shouldn’t do this.”
“We already told you . . .” Fred began.
Harry held up his hand. “I know. And I truly appreciate it, but . . .”
He tried desperately to find a way to explain what he felt. At last, he put into words the fear that had been plaguing him ever since he woke up in St. Mungo’s.
“Look,” he said. “A lot of things have changed. I still want to marry Ginny. I still . . .” he took a breath and met George’s eyes squarely. “I still love her. I always will. But I have to ask her as myself. I have to make sure that she loves me the way I am and that she wants to marry me the way I am. Not the way someone else can make me seem to be.
“I need for her to love me as I am today,” he repeated. “Trying to pretend I’m the person I was before won’t work. I don’t have nice clothes. I can’t afford fancy dinners. And I can’t offer her an engagement ring like these. Do you see?”
The twins stared at him for nearly a minute without speaking. At last, Fred sighed. “Bloody hell. You just don’t do anything by halves, do you?”
Harry furrowed his brow, not understanding, but George spoke before he could question Fred. “Alright, Harry. If that’s the way it has to be for you, then that’s how it’ll be. We just wanted to help, you know? You’ve done a lot for our whole family, and we wanted to return the favour.”
“You have, George,” Harry said. “Honestly.” A thought came to him, and he smiled crookedly. “Do you really want to do something extravagant like this for me?” The twins nodded. “Well then, when Ron and Hermione get out of St. Mungo’s, bring Ron here and make him the exact same offer you made me. Make sure you’ve got a camera set up first. Alright?”
The brothers blinked at him for a moment, and then their grins returned in full force. “Alright, Harry. You’re the boss,” Fred said.
Harry walked back over to the counter, leaving the twins to wait for him by the door. “Mr. Banks, I’m sorry, but I won’t be buying anything from you.”
“Do not concern yourself, Mr. Potter,” the tall man said. “I have seen hundreds of young men in this shop, and few of them were as earnest as you clearly are in your intentions.” He waved his hand over the case of rings again. “This is not the best way for every man or for every woman. It is far more important to do the thing properly than to do it conveniently.”
“Thank you, Mr. Banks,” Harry said. “The Weasleys here will be bringing in another of their brothers for a purchase, and I hope that will make up for the waste of your time today.”
Banks chuckled and leaned towards Harry across the counter. “Don’t worry, Mr. Potter,” he whispered. “These two Weasleys have already purchased their own engagement rings from me, so my time has hardly been wasted.”
“Really?” Harry asked, incredulous.
“Oh yes,” he answered. “For themselves and their ladies, it seems that expense was quite the rule of the day.”
Harry stifled a laugh with his hand. He was somehow sure that Angelina and Katie had no idea what was coming. “Thank you for that tidbit, Mr. Banks.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Potter. Have a good Christmas.”
Harry walked back towards the door, but he stopped when the proprietor spoke again. “Oh, and Mr. Potter? You have my thanks, even if much of the world is too blind to understand why.”
Stunned, Harry nodded. “You’re welcome, Mr. Banks,” he said quietly.
Back to index
Chapter 3: NestlingOn Christmas morning, Harry came downstairs to share the day with the Weasleys. They were all there except for Bill and Fleur, who had said that they wanted to be alone together for their first Christmas Day as husband and wife. According to Ginny, Mrs. Weasley had sniffed a bit when Bill told her that, but the Weasley matriarch had made no objection.
Percy, of course, was also missing, but that loss had become familiar in the past three years.
Harry was flooded with gifts. Apparently, the Weasley family and his friends had conspired to help him replace some of the things he had lost. Package after package contained new clothes and other basics of daily life. Mrs. Weasley had found a book of household charms and given it to Harry on Hermione’s behalf. Ron, with Mr. Weasley’s help, had sent Harry a red Gryffindor Quidditch shirt.
Harry opened the presents gleefully. None of them were very expensive, but they were all heartfelt, and Harry truly appreciated having things that he could legitimately call his own.
He had very little to give in return, but he had found a few things that he thought might suit their recipients. He had given Ron his Agrippa card, and he had written Hermione a long, sincere letter thanking her for all of her help over the years. He planned to cook breakfast for Mr. and Mrs. Weasley on Saturday, and he had given the twins an I.O.U. allowing them to test their products on him for a full week. He had no idea what to get for Charlie, Bill, or Fleur, but Ginny had simply added his name to each of her gifts to them. He had been unable to think of anything meaningful enough to give her, so he had simply conjured a bouquet of her favourite daisies. They were hardly a proper Christmas present on their own, but he decided that he would also offer her himself. He hoped that it would somehow be enough.
After opening a collection of clothing and necessities, only his present from Ginny remained. The rest of the Weasleys stopped their own unwrapping to watch him open it.
Ginny sat on the floor next to him and handed him the small box. He unwrapped it carefully and found a watch unlike any other he had seen. It was made entirely of some grey metal, but it was surprisingly light in his hands. Its face was the same flat grey, and it had shining silver hands displaying the time. A fourth hand was made of a lustrous red metal, and it did not appear to move as he watched it. Instead, it remained firmly pointing at approximately nine o’clock on the dial.
Gently, Ginny reached across and turned the watch in his hands so that he was looking at it sideways. The red hand turned also and now pointed at twelve o’clock. Fascinated, Harry turned the watch a few more times on his own, but that mysterious hand always pointed firmly to his left. Looking more closely, he saw that the hand was tipped in a tiny arrow. He looked up along its length and found Ginny smiling softly at him.
“It always points to you,” he whispered.
She nodded. “Turn it over.”
He flipped the watch onto its face and noticed tiny letters engraved on the back.
I’ll always be yours.
I love you,
Harry stared for a moment at the simple words in front of him. For a moment he marvelled at how a few short phrases had made such a difference in his life. Carefully, he slipped the watch onto his wrist. He clasped it, and though it was much too large at first, a few of the links in the band vanished until it fit him properly. Just to be safe, he drew his wand and placed a locking charm on the clasp.
He looked up. The entire Weasley family was smiling at the young couple on the floor, and none of their smiles held any reservations or worries. He turned to Ginny and found her practically glowing at the expression that he knew must be on his face. He reached out and gathered her into his arms, crushing her to his chest and rocking her slightly in his lap.
Releasing her, he looked around and spotted his new Weasley jumper. It was emerald green, as most of his jumpers had been. He pulled it on over his head and then spotted Ginny’s jumper at his feet. It, too, was green this year. When he picked it up and bunched it for her, Ginny looked puzzled, but she smiled and raised her arms above her head. He pushed the jumper over her arms and tugged it down, carefully avoiding brushing her chest or stomach with his hands.
As Ginny straightened her jumper, Harry climbed to his feet and pulled his new winter cloak from the pile nearby. He threw it over his shoulders. Ginny was looking up at him with a bemused smile, and he finally smiled in return. “Want to go for a walk, Ginny?”
“Alright,” she agreed. He pulled her to her feet and towards the back door, where she put on her own cloak, and they quickly pushed their feet into their boots and pulled on their gloves. When they were outside, he led her to the bench where he and the twins had talked a few days earlier. Brushing the snow off of the bench with his sleeves, he gestured for her to sit, and then he sat on her left.
She looked at him expectantly, and he took a deep breath.
“Ginny, I . . .” He trailed off and swallowed heavily as his enthusiasm was replaced by realism. “I have nothing left to offer you. I have no money. I don’t have a racing broom. I don’t even have my own wand. The clothes I got today are just about the only ones I own.”
He looked down at the snow at his feet and continued in a whisper. “Most of the world hates me. I’ve tried to find a job, you know. I asked at all sorts of places, but they either threw me out or couldn’t afford to have me around. I even went to try out for the Cannons with Ron’s broom, and the manager said they couldn’t associate with me, no matter how well I could fly. I . . . I definitely can’t be an Auror.”
He turned his body and faced her directly, deliberately showing her the ruin of the left side of his head. “If I was ever . . . attractive, or anything . . . I’m not anymore. I won’t look the way I used to for a long time. Months, maybe years, if ever.
“I have no idea what there is left to like about me, and I have no idea how I will support myself, much less you. But I love you, Ginny. I love you more than I ever thought it was possible to love someone. I know we’re young, and I’ll wait as long as you want.”
Ginny gasped as he fell to his knees in the snow in front of the bench and took her mitten-covered hand. “I have nothing left to lose except for you. If you don’t want me anymore, I’ll understand that and I’ll leave you alone from now on, but I have to know.
“I don’t have a ring, but . . .” He leaned over and lightly kissed her mitten where he imagined her ring finger to be. “Ginevra Weasley, will you marry me?”
She gaped at him for several moments. He saw the astonishment in her expression, but he had no idea how she might answer. Finally, she blinked rapidly and reached down to stroke his scarred cheek with her free hand. Her eyes had lost their shocked look, as though she had reached some sort of decision.
“I love you, too,” she whispered. “Now tell me something, Harry. Who are you?”
He furrowed his brow in confusion, but for her, he would do his best at anything she might ever ask of him. “I’m . . . I’m Harry Potter.”
“That’s your name,” Ginny said tenderly. “Who are you?”
“I . . . I don’t know anymore,” he replied.
She nodded. “What do you love?”
“I love you, Ginny,” he said simply.
“I know you do, Harry. And I truly do love you. But what else do you love?”
He looked down at the snow, distantly noticing the chill seeping through his robes and trousers. “Just you, I suppose,” he muttered.
She nodded again and raised his chin to look into his eyes. “What do you want to do with your life?”
He shrugged helplessly and answered in a whisper. “I don’t know.”
She pulled her hand out of his and reached up to wipe the moisture from her eyes. In that moment, Harry was sure that he had lost her. After all the twins’ misdirected efforts, it was he himself who had ruined his chances by not knowing the answers to her questions.
”I know what you’re thinking, Harry,” she said softly, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I don’t want you to leave me. I don’t want to leave you. But . . .” Shifting her grip to his hand and holding it tightly, she reached up to wipe her eyes again with her other mitten. “Harry, do you love me enough to wait for my answer? Can you do that for me?”
This question, at least, was easy. He would wait as long as it might take to get the one thing in the world he still truly wanted, the only thing that made waking up bearable. “I’ll wait forever if you want me to, Ginny,” he said, climbing to his feet. “Just tell me when you’re ready, either way. If you want me to . . . to give you some space, or something, just say so. I’ll do whatever you want.”
Ginny shook her head. “I don’t need any space, Harry. I never want space from you. And I hope it won’t take much time.” She took a deep breath through her nose and released it sharply. “Wait right here for a minute, okay? Promise me that you’ll stay right here until I get back.”
This, too, was easy. “I promise, Ginny. Right here.”
She hugged him quickly and then turned to run into the house. Less than a minute later, she ran back outside carrying a broom in one hand and with the other stuffed into her pocket. Halting abruptly, she held the broom out to him. He recognised the Firebolt he had sent her for her sixteenth birthday.
“Here,” she said.
“That’s your broom, Ginny.”
“I know it’s my broom,” she replied with a grin. “And I’m not about to give it up. But I want you to fly on it. Now.”
He took the broom reluctantly and mounted it. It was not his broom, but the handle felt familiar under his hands. When he pushed off from the ground, it responded the way he knew it should, with a smooth power that had thrilled him for over four years.
Harry rose into the air in a smooth spiral, gaining speed as he climbed. As he performed a lazy lap around the paddock, he luxuriated in the feel of a world-class broom beneath him. He climbed into a loop, performed a simple roll, and then released the full potential of the broom as he shot straight up into the air. When he reached the highest altitude allowed at the Burrow, he tipped the broom over and dived straight for the ground.
He continued accelerating as he plunged towards the ground, pushing the Firebolt for the maximum speed it could possibly produce. He waited until the very last moment, and then he waited half a second more before pulling up on the handle. As he flattened out of his dive, he felt his knees ploughing through the snow, and when he began gaining altitude again, he was unable to restrain a whoop of pure joy.
“Harry!” Ginny shouted from the ground. He turned in the air and flew towards her. She held her hand up above her head, and Harry could see a sparkle of gold in her fist. “Catch!”
She opened her hand, and a Golden Snitch zipped into the air. With his momentum, Harry could have snatched it out of the air almost instantly, but he let it get ahead of him before giving chase. It darted around the paddock at random, and Harry followed every move it made. After a few minutes, he put on a burst of speed, and the Snitch smacked firmly into his palm.
Holding it in the air over his head, as he always had, he could hear Ginny applauding from the ground. He flew down to land next to her, and she flung her arms around him, burying her cold nose in his neck. He returned her hug, shivering slightly at her touch, and when she finally released him, he looked down at her with a wide grin.
“Where’d you get a Snitch, Ginny?”
“I nicked it after the Quidditch final last year. I meant to give it to you then, but someone distracted me.” She beamed at him. “After that, it didn’t seem so important.”
“Well, it’s yours, then,” he said, pressing it carefully into her palm.
“No, Harry,” she said softly. “It’s ours. Now come on, it’s almost time for Christmas dinner.”
After Mrs. Weasley’s dinner had been consumed, she packed a huge basket of food, and the entire family lined up to Floo to St. Mungo’s. Harry wore his Invisibility Cloak and walked next to Ginny as they followed the corridors to the room Ron and Hermione shared.
The two teenagers lay in identical beds a few feet apart. Ron’s right shoulder and Hermione’s left were held flat against the bed by an immobilization charm, and short, inflexible tubes extended across the white sheets in place of their missing arms. The rest of their sides, down to their calves, were sheathed in bandages as Harry’s face had been for the first week. The contrast between the healthy and damaged halves of his friends’ bodies shocked him, even now. He was not sure where to look or what to say as he sat with his two closest friends.
They spent the next hour watching Ron eat one-handed, which somehow did not slow him down very much. Mrs. Weasley fussed over both patients constantly. Ron accepted her attention with little notice, but Hermione looked a bit overwhelmed at times.
A mediwitch came in and said that the group had to leave soon so that Ron and Hermione could rest for the afternoon. After a few more minutes, Mrs. Weasley led them out into the hallway, but Ginny took Harry’s hand and stayed behind. “We’ll be along in a bit, Mum,” she said. The older woman nodded and closed the door behind her.
As soon as the room was emptied of all but the four friends, Hermione raised her good arm. “Come here, Harry.” Hesitantly, he crossed to her bed, his eyes on his trainers. Hermione grabbed the front of his jumper and pulled him down until she could put her arm around his neck, and then she gave him the tightest hug she could manage. “You’re welcome, Harry. You’re so very welcome,” she whispered in his ear. Unbidden images flashed through his head, and he felt the tears in the corners of his eyes.
“How are you two doing?” Ginny asked, breaking the awkward silence as Harry returned to her side and Hermione swiped at her own eyes.
“I’ve almost got my elbow back,” Ron announced proudly, ignoring the byplay. “Once it’s done, I’ll be able to move my arm a bit until it grows out to the wrist, and then it has to be immobilized again.”
“Err . . . that’s great, Ron,” his sister replied. “And you, Hermione?”
“I’m alright, thank you,” the older girl said, rolling her eyes. “I’m getting rather good at reading one-handed.”
“When do they think you’ll be able to leave?”
“Another three or four weeks, perhaps,” Hermione said. “I’d really hoped to get back to Hogwarts for the Spring term, but I suppose it’s not going to happen.”
“I was thinking, Hermione,” Harry said slowly. “Maybe . . . maybe we could all . . . go back and . . . and do our final year next year.”
His friend’s eyes flicked to Ginny for a moment, and then she nodded. “That’s a wonderful thought, Harry.”
“What d’you want to do that for?” Ron asked.
“Well, Hermione wants to take her NEWTs, right?”
Ron snorted. “Yeah. I hear about them three or four times a day, minimum.”
“So Hermione wants to be there, and Ginny will be there,” Harry said. “Where would you want to be?”
“I . . .” Ron trailed off and looked down at his feet. After a moment of silence, he looked up at Harry fiercely. “I’m not revising on weekends. We saved the bloody world, and I say I don’t want to revise on weekends, NEWTs or no!”
Hermione raised her head and turned to look at her temporary roommate. “Ron! We’ll have tests and assignments due on Mondays. We can’t just lie about all day on Sundays.”
Ron huffed loudly. “Well, Saturdays, then. I won’t revise on Saturdays.”
Harry grinned at his oldest friend. “Hermione?”
“I’m sure we can find something else to do on Saturdays,” she relented with a smile.
Harry turned to Ginny, who had taken his hand when he first spoke. “Would that be alright with you, Ginny?”
“I suppose so,” she said with a sly grin. “But you’ll both have to try out for the Quidditch team. I’m Captain, you know.”
“We can’t lose then, can we?”
“How’s he doing, Ginny?” Hermione asked after a moment of shared smiles.
The red-haired girl grinned and leaned closer to Harry. “He’s learning.”
“I’m right here, you know,” Harry said.
“You’re right, Harry,” Ginny said. She patted his hand. “You’re learning.”
The mediwitch came in again and sternly said that they had only two minutes left before they had to leave.
When she had gone, Ron turned his head towards Harry. “Come here a sec, would you?”
Curious, Harry leaned over and put his ear near Ron’s mouth.
“Two things,” Ron said. “First, good luck . . . if you hurt her, she’ll kill you.” Harry choked back a laugh and glanced at Ginny, who was smiling at him as she talked quietly with Hermione.
“Second, they’ve got our good arms in the right direction, but we’re too bloody far apart. Could you, y’know, budge me over a bit?”
Harry straightened with a smile. He drew his borrowed wand, and with a careful nonverbal levitation charm, he slid Ron’s bed a foot closer to Hermione’s. Then, just for good measure, he cast the strongest sticking and binding charms he could manage on the legs of both of their beds to keep them in place.
Immediately, Ron and Hermione’s hands reached out and met in the middle of the space between their beds, clasping tightly. “Thank you, Harry,” Hermione said softly.
“You’re welcome, Hermione.”
“Don’t stay away anymore, alright?”
Harry nodded uncertainly and glanced at Ginny, who gave him an encouraging smile. “Yeah. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
With a last wave, Harry put his Invisibility Cloak back on, and he and Ginny left the room to return to the Burrow.
When they arrived at the Weasleys’ home, Harry went upstairs to put away his cloak, and he came back downstairs to find Ginny making a Floo call. She pulled her head out of the fire and turned back to him, taking his hand to lead him towards the sitting room, where the rest of her family was talking noisily.
After a light meal that evening, Ginny turned to her mother. “Mum, Bill and Fleur invited Harry and me to stay with them this evening. Do you mind?”
“You mean all night?” Molly asked.
“Yes, Mum, all night.”
“Well, I don’t know . . .”
Ginny rose from the table. “Can I talk to you for a minute, Mum? Upstairs?”
“Of course, dear.” The two women went up the stairs, leaving Harry to face the suspicious looks of her father and three of her brothers.
“Did you know about this, Harry?” Charlie asked.
“No, I hadn’t heard about it until just now,” he replied.
“She’s up to something, then,” Fred said.
“And whatever it is, it’ll probably work,” George added, winking at Harry.
“If Bill invited them, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” Mr. Weasley said. “Right, Harry?”
“Err . . . right?” Harry had no clue what the safe answer to that question was.
Mrs. Weasley and Ginny came down the stairs after a few minutes, and Mrs. Weasley handed Harry a battered knapsack. “You’ll need a change of clothes, Harry dear, and your pyjamas. Hurry along now and pack.”
Ginny smiled at him, and Harry left a suddenly silent kitchen to go up to his room. He pushed his clothes and toiletries into the bag. Whatever his girlfriend had in mind, he trusted that she had a reason for it.
She was waiting for him next to the fireplace with her bag already packed. After brief goodbyes to her family, they Floo’d to the kitchen of Bill and Fleur’s flat in London.
“’arry, Ginny, it ees so good to see you,” Fleur greeted them, kissing them each on both cheeks. “Please, you may leeve your bags ‘ere. Bill ees in the parlour.”
The tall blonde woman led them down a short hallway and into an elegantly-appointed sitting room. Bill was already getting to his feet, and he strode forward to hug Ginny tightly. Keeping one arm around her shoulders, he reached out and shook Harry’s hand. “Good to have you, Harry.”
“Err . . . thanks for the invitation, Bill,” Harry said. He felt a kinship with Ginny’s oldest brother. The bites Greyback had inflicted had healed, but the scars on Bill’s face were obvious and permanent.
Bill snorted. “Invitation, yeah. My wife and sister told me what I would do, regardless of how it was phrased. I never had a choice.”
“’e is keeding,” Fleur said. “’e did not require much in the way of persuasion.”
Ginny smirked at her sister-in-law. “I’m sure he never does.”
“Yes, well,” Bill said with a slight cough. “It was a good idea, regardless. Have a seat, both of you.”
Ginny claimed one side of a loveseat and patted the other side in invitation to Harry. Bill sat back down in his chair, and Fleur folded her legs beneath her in a large armchair.
“Alright, Ginny,” Bill said when they had settled. “What did you want to ask me about?”
“Well, Bill,” she answered, “I was thinking that I might like to be a curse breaker after I leave Hogwarts, and I wondered if you could tell me what it’s like.”
Harry turned his head to look at her quizzically. He knew Ginny well enough to recognise a rehearsed line when he heard one. She grinned in response and turned back to Bill.
Over the course of an hour, Bill talked about curse breaking. He told them about dealing with the goblins, how curse breaking teams were set up, and how a curse breaker’s time was usually spent. After a while, Fleur left and reappeared with a glass of red claret for each of them. Occasionally, she offered something from her own experience with Gringotts, but for the most part she let Bill tell his stories.
Harry was fascinated. Curse breakers, it seemed, were a varied and colourful group. They came from all over the world, and Bill gave the impression that some of them were no longer welcome in their home countries for whatever reason. Quite a few were retired or disenchanted Aurors. They worked in teams of six, usually, and spent more time researching their sites than they did inside the tombs themselves. Once inside, however, they became problem solvers. They used their magic in creative ways to solve puzzles and conquer challenges that no one had seen in hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.
He was so enraptured that it took him a moment to realise that he was the one who had asked Bill how to become a curse breaker. As it turned out, the process was both simple and difficult. The goblins themselves would hire anyone with the proper NEWT scores in Charms, Transfiguration, and Defence. But in order to become a curse breaker, an applicant had to reach an agreement with an established curse breaker. The older witch or wizard would then take the applicant as his or her apprentice, and only then would the applicant begin to learn anything beyond the day-to-day operations of Gringotts Bank.
While an apprentice, the new employee would go wherever the senior curse breaker went and do whatever they were told. It was, Bill said, often a grueling process, but the experience was invaluable.
When the conversation finally wound down, Fleur got to her feet. “Come, Bill,” she said. “We must make ready the guest room. ‘Arry, Ginny . . . please be comfortable.”
“What do you think, Harry?” Ginny asked, settling back into the chair and pulling his arm around her shoulders.
Harry knew that he was not as quick-witted as Hermione or Ginny, but he was not a complete idiot. “I think I’ve been set up,” he replied, smiling.
She grinned in return. “Perhaps. But what do you think?”
“I think it’s brilliant, Ginny. Getting away from all of this mess. Using magic the way it was intended to be used. Solving problems that are probably new or at least different every time.” He sighed. “I never thought I’d admit this, but I had loads of fun while we were searching for those Horcruxes. Even the research was fun because it had a real, concrete purpose. We learned more spells and more history in those four months than we did in years at Hogwarts.”
“If you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad,” Ginny agreed.
“I could have done without some of the other parts, though,” Harry said. “What about you? Are you really interested in this, or was the show for my benefit only?”
Ginny elbowed him gently. “What do you think?”
“Yeah, alright. Stupid question.”
Bill and Fleur came back into the room, and Harry rose to face the older man. “Bill, I want to be a curse breaker.” Ginny tugged sharply at his hand as she stood also. “Sorry. We want to be curse breakers. Do you know anyone we could talk to?”
The smile on Fleur’s face was blinding, even to those immune to her Veela charms. “Theese country,” she said, exaggerating her accent, “eet ees so terribly cold and damp. Always, I am freezeeng. Guillaume, we seemply must move to someplace warm and . . . how you say . . . not so wet.”
Bill rolled his eyes. “We’ve been thinking of moving to Egypt in the next year or two. I want to get back into the tombs, and Fleur really doesn’t care for England’s soggy climate. If you two get the NEWTs, I’ll take you both as apprentices. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, but I’ll make sure it’s worthwhile. There are plenty of curse-breaking couples in the world, so Gringotts will have no problem making sure you’re always assigned to the same team.”
Harry laughed softly to himself. “How long have you been in on this, Bill?”
The older man’s mirth faded, and he looked Harry in the eye. “Since I danced with my sister on my wedding day.”
Stunned, Harry turned to Ginny. She faced him boldly and almost defiantly, daring him to object. Instead, he placed a gentle hand on her arm and pulled her close before leaning down and whispering into her ear, “Thank you, love.”
Her breath caught visibly, and from the corner of his eye, Harry saw Bill and Fleur turn to admire a painting on the wall of their sitting room.
With shining eyes, Ginny placed her palm flat in the middle of Harry’s chest and leaned into his arms. “You’re welcome, Harry.”
Bill cleared his throat a moment later. “Well, that’s all settled, then. Fleur and I are off to bed. The guest room is ready. The sofa here is also available, but . . . err . . . well, if neither of you uses it, I won’t be bothered. You’re both old enough to . . . well . . . to be responsible. Just . . . don’t make me lie to Mum and Dad, okay?”
Harry’s jaw dropped open, but Ginny turned to her brother calmly. “We’ll sort ourselves out one way or another, Bill. Thank you.”
Ginny hugged her brother and sister-in-law while Harry recovered his composure. Then Bill shook Harry’s hand, and Fleur embraced him lightly, whispering in his ear, “You are a lucky man, and she ees a lucky woman. Do not forget, oui?”
He nodded briefly to her. “Goodnight, you two. Thanks for everything.”
“Anytime, Harry,” Bill replied. “Goodnight.”
A moment later, the two teenagers were left alone in the parlor. Harry stared at the floor until Ginny gave a short laugh. “Come on, Harry. It’s just sleeping,” she said.
He paled. “I wasn’t going to . . . to . . .”
“I know you weren’t, Harry. So don’t worry about it, alright?”
“Are you sure about this?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then nodded. “If your brothers only knew . . .” he said, grinning nervously.
“Ron’s the only one who would object, and he’s spent the last few weeks sharing a room with Hermione. Even he is not that stupid.”
They retrieved their knapsacks from the kitchen, and Ginny led Harry upstairs to the spare bedroom. “I’m going to go change in the loo. You change here, and when you’re finished, just open the door.” She turned down the hallway, and Harry closed the bedroom door. Quickly, he changed into a pair of old pyjama pants and the Gryffindor shirt Ron had given him. When he was ready, he opened the door.
Ginny was not standing outside, so he sat on the edge of the bed to wait for her. A few minutes later, she came back into the room wearing a floor-length, blue flannel gown. Her hair was held back in a ponytail, and her face had a freshly-scrubbed glow. Harry had seen her in scores of different outfits, but somehow her simple nightclothes made her more beautiful than ever.
“Ready for bed?” she asked.
He nodded. “You can, err . . . you can sleep on the right, if you’d like.”
“No, Harry. I’d prefer the left.”
“Oh. Well, alright.” Harry stood up and crossed to the far side of the bed, away from the door. Together, they pulled back the blankets and crawled beneath them. Ginny lay on her back, and not knowing what else to do, Harry mirrored her position. They were only close enough together for their arms to touch.
They lay there for a few minutes, and Harry kept his eyes open and fixed on the ceiling. He could not imagine how he was going to sleep. Her mere presence made him nervous and kept him wide awake. She was so close, so soft, and he imagined that he could feel her warmth even though he was hardly touching her.
In the silence and darkness of the night, Ginny whispered, “Harry?”
She turned to lie on her side, facing him, with one arm tucked under her pillow and the other resting along her side. Sensing that she wanted to say something important, he rolled over and copied her pose. Their faces were less than a foot apart, and he could just make out her features in the dim light coming from the window. She reached out and took his hand, bringing it to her lips to kiss his knuckles gently.
“Who are you?” she asked in a tender whisper.
He grinned. “I’m Harry Potter.”
“That’s your name,” she said with a soft smile. “But who are you?”
He met her gaze, knowing her brown eyes were glowing even though he could not really see them. “I’m a wizard who attends Hogwarts. I’m good at Defence, decent at Transfiguration, Charms, and Potions, and fair at the rest. I have great friends who have helped me tremendously. I’ve seen some places and done some things, just like almost everyone else my age.”
“Yes,” she said. “What do you love?”
“You. My friends. Your family that’s also my family. Flying.” His lips twisted into a wry half-smirk. “Magic.”
“And what do you want to do with your life?”
“I want to be a curse breaker who has the most amazing partner anyone could ever ask for.”
Her smile lit up the dark room. She nodded firmly and then flung the blankets off of herself as she got out of bed. Harry sat up and watched as she crossed to her knapsack and pulled a tiny box out of it. She walked around the bed and stood facing him. She lifted his hand from his lap and put the box in it.
“Ask me again,” she said.
Harry lifted the lid of the box. Inside was an engagement ring. The band was gold, and it was topped with a square diamond flanked by two smaller rectangular rubies.
“What is this?” he asked, awed by her suggestion and the tiny bit of metal and stone that now rested benignly in his hand.
“It’s the engagement ring of the last Weasley woman. She left it to the next one, no matter how long it might take for one to come along. No one’s worn it in nearly two hundred years, but I’ve known it was mine since I was a little girl.
“Dad says that the diamond in an engagement ring represents the purity, value, and eternity of a good marriage. This one is charmed to produce a light of its own when worn by a woman whose fiancé or husband loves her beyond all other things.”
“And the ruby means what?” he asked.
She grinned. “Nothing. It’s red, and apparently Weasleys can never escape red.”
He looked down at the ring on his palm and traced the golden band with a careful finger.
“Ask me again, Harry,” Ginny whispered urgently.
Harry closed his fist around the ring and slid off the bed. He came to rest on one knee in front of her and looked up with a question on his lips.
Before he could speak, Ginny shook her head. With her hands on his biceps, she tugged him up until he was standing before her. She looked up at him, close enough for him to see her clearly even in the darkness.
Understanding at last, Harry smiled. “Marry me, Ginny?” It was half statement, half question.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. “Yes.”
Harry lifted her left hand and slid the ring onto her third finger. As it came to rest in its proper place, a tiny spark flared to life in the depths of the diamond, lighting its facets and giving the rubies a soft crimson glow.
Ginny looked down at the ring on her finger and sighed happily. Then she raised her hands to put them behind Harry’s neck. He willingly wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. She tilted her head up, and he lowered his lips to hers.
It was not like their first kiss, which had been bursting with youth, energy, and promise. It was not casual and exploratory, like their last kiss, which had been before Dumbledore’s funeral. It was each of those things, but above them all were loyalty, honesty, understanding, and a deeply abiding love.
After a long, indescribable moment, they pulled apart slightly. Ginny smiled up at him and then crawled across the bed to her side. Sitting up, she patted the bed next to her, and Harry obediently lay down on his back. Ginny lifted his arm and lay next to him, resting her head on his shoulder. Her left arm draped across his chest, and her left leg rested lightly on his waist. Harry pulled the blankets up over them both. He entwined his fingers with hers over his heart and let his left arm rest on her back, holding her close to him.
He felt her shiver slightly, but her voice was steady. “Did you see the Prophet today?”
“No,” he replied, confused by the odd question.
“One of the Aurors who survived the battle finally woke up, and he’s going to be alright.”
His breath left him in a rush of gratitude. “That’s wonderful.”
“It is.” She raised her head to look down into his eyes from only inches away. “Harry, I can’t stand to see you hurting because people believe horrible things about you. Especially not when it’s just because that arse in the Minister’s office wants to make himself look good. I’d really appreciate it if you’d find a reporter, like Luna’s dad maybe. Ask him to go talk to that Auror, and then let him interview you to get the real story. It won’t change our plans, no matter what happens, but it will get the truth out there for people to think about.”
She grinned mischievously. “Who knows . . . maybe they’ll wise up and want to give you a medal. If we time it right, we can tell them to sod off just before we leave for Egypt.”
He chuckled, but he saw the seriousness behind her smirk. He reminded himself that he would do anything to make this woman happy. She was his fiancée . . . his future wife. Merely thinking the word gave him joyful chills. “Alright, Ginny. I’ll tell them the truth, and we’ll see what happens.”
“Thank you, Harry,” she said, leaning down to kiss him quickly on the lips. Then she settled back onto his shoulder, and he leaned over to rest his cheek on her soft hair.
“I love you, Ginny.”
“I love you, too.”
He closed his eyes and inhaled the clean, natural scent of the warm woman in his arms. Someday, perhaps, a boring history text would give him credit for saving the world without accusing him of being the next Dark Lord. In his opinion, however, Ron and Hermione had saved the world by loving him enough to let him do what he had to do.
But whoever had actually saved the world, Ginny had saved him. He would gladly spend the rest of his life showing her his gratitude by being exactly who she wanted him to be: himself.
A/N: This story, like the others of the challenge, is dedicated to Jaquelyne. I’m not sure she’d have liked all of it, but I feel confident that the ending would have pleased her.
Ginny’s line, back at the end of the prologue, comes verbatim from moshpit’s “The Doors of Perception.” This story is not really a sequel to that one, but the two share a strong (and hopefully obvious) theme. Like moshpit, I have to thank Chreechree for giving us all the right answer (or at least a right answer) and helping us to articulate it properly.
The basics of curse breaking used in this story are mostly borrowed from Jonathan Avery’s story “Curse Breakers: The Maya.” I also borrowed from him the nature and general locale of the unknown Horcrux.
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