Biscuits Deferred by GHL



Summary:

*** Winner of Best Overall in the The Potter Trunk Challenge ***

Shadows were closing in. Time grew short and options scarce... and so the young parents prepared a gift for their infant son.

Years later, their caring gesture nearly foundered... yet thanks to a dozen sacrificial biscuits, Harry Potter's twelfth birthday is graced by a single present -- one that will someday yield the greatest gifts of all.


Rating: PG starstarstarstarstar
Categories: Alternate Universe, SIYE Challenges, The Potter Trunk Challenge (2016-2)
Characters: None
Genres: None
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2016.04.24
Updated: 2016.05.14


Index

Chapter 1: Night Flights
Chapter 2: Helping Hands
Chapter 3: Second Kiss
Chapter 4: Promises


Chapter 1: Night Flights

Author's Notes: Oh all the wacky writing experiments I have subjected my dear readers to, this may be the most unexpected. There are no agendas, no twists or strange literary devices. This is a merely series of loosely connected watershed vignettes intended to address the letter and spirit of the challenge and (if I'm lucky) inspire a slowly blossoming smile.


Chapter 1. Night Flights (July 31 — Aug. 1, 1992)


WHAMMMM!!!

Wide-eyed, Harry Potter stared at the reverberating bedroom door. Nothing had shattered, but he couldn't help wondering if his uncle mightn't have just set off earthquake sensors at the nearby Egham Hill Geological Station...

But no matter; having the old clod slam a door in his face was never a pleasure, and seemed fairly stupid (another bang or two like that, and someone would be stuck fitting new hinges) but it was a pointless bit of stupidity that Harry could believe in...

As opposed to the rest of a day, which had been beset by an endless spate of truly 'unbelievable' stupidities.

Yes, the day had been unbelievably stupid. Every event seemed to unfold with an air of exquisite absurdity. Each blind corner produced some fresh new farce. Stupidity seemed to cling (like the cloying reek of tonight's splattered eggy-cream pudding) to every molecule in the house; to every morose thud of Vernon Dursley's innately clownish dress shoes receding stupidly down the stairs. The injudicious sting of a Ministry of Magic reprimand (stupid even by their exceptionally clever standards) prickled Harry's neck and face like so many ignoble bureaucratic nettles. Now he found himself trapped by a stupid Muggle lock he could have sprung instantly if only his wand wasn't stupidly bolted away in that stupid little cupboard beneath the stairs.

Was the world trying to demonstrate just how much remarkable inanity it could cram into a single day? Would he experience a few more pointless catastrophes, to set some all-time standard for utter nonsense? Or would the disgraced sun finally cut its losses, declare Harry Potter's twelfth birthday to be over, and go cower in shame somewhere west of the Little Whinging skyline?

Harry groaned.

He was tired, hungry, achy, angry, demoralised, scandalised, flummoxed and, in general, not very cheery. But on the bright side, at least he could now look forward to being ignored by the Dursleys. And, when it came down to it, he still had the company of someone far superior.

"Who?"

Harry turned in the direction of the voice. "Who else, girl? You!" He offered a half smile to his Snowy Owl — a perfectly majestic bird in every sense, except for the fact that she was... err... contorted?

Hedwig had craned her very flexible neck, face tilted vertically, her eyes very nearly resembling a feathery amber-over-amber traffic light.

Harry regarded her curiously. He angled his own head around a bit.

The bird blinked at him.

Harry tried bending his neck a bit further to the side; a bit further still... until finally his whole torso inclined to match his view to hers.

Hedwig nodded slightly.

Harry blinked. He scanned the half-turned room for a moment from this unique perspective, then straightened up and grinned crookedly. "Nice try, but I'm afraid the world's a cock up at that angle too."

"Who," admitted Hedwig.

Harry dropped to his knees and reached beneath his threadbare bed to retrieve a covered tin. He pried off the lid and examined the contents dispiritedly. One half slice of stale bread; an ounce of partly desiccated cheese, and three owl treats.

He sighed, put the tin away, and kicked off his shoes. Not bothering to shed his trousers or shirt, he extinguished the room's sole flickery light, and collapsed onto his bed.

And lay there.

Miscellaneous noises drifted up into the half-dark room — aftershocks from the post-Mason soirée/fiasco. Down in the lounge, Vernon was apparently still kicking things and grousing oafishly. Petunia was offering the occasional derisive sniff or nasal whinge. Intermittent beeps and floops pulsed from Dudley's video game down the hall. An occasional growl rumbled from Harry's stomach...

"Who?" suggested Hedwig softly.

"Sorry girl." Harry rubbed his protesting midsection. "We'll be lucky if they even give us water tomorrow, so we'd best draw out our rations as long as we can."

Hedwig closed her eyes resignedly. "Who."

Harry lay there, alternating between trying to force his eyes closed, and just staring blankly at the dim residue of street lamps filtering through branches of a nearby elm.

After a some indeterminate time, a breeze must have picked up outside, making the ceiling patterns tremble and sway suggestively. Happy to have a diversion available, Harry watched the dancing shadows, and found his mind drifting toward more pleasant thoughts — a sparkling sunrise seen through the distant pines east of Hogwarts... scenery rushing past as he raced on broomstick over heather braes... a shimmering late autumn sky reflected on Black Lake... the flapping of a fistful of undelivered letters clutched in the spindly fingers of a demented House Elf...

"Who!"

Harry leaped, wide-eyed from his bed. Then he took a deep breath. Based on the feeling of wobbly disorientation, he knew he must have drifted off. But, for how long?

Harry's eyes darted past the caged bird (wide awake and staring expectantly at him) before settling on the red numerals of his old digital clock, which read 11:52.

Harry sighed and settled back onto his bed. "Brilliant. Another spectacular birthday nearly over. Jolly good for us, yeah?"

"Who!"

Harry blinked and turned to Hedwig, whose serious, insistent declaration didn't mesh either with Harry's own cynicism or with the basic underlying gloom. "What is it girl?"

"Who." The owl's eyes were fixed on the window.

Puzzled, Harry rose to his feet and crossed the room to pull the thin drapes aside. He didn't know exactly what his friend was trying to suggest, but he now recalled something from his uncle's earlier rant — a sputtery, semi-incoherent manifesto about how, first thing in the morning, he (Vernon) was going to bolt, bar and board up every entrance and exit to this squalid little suburban gaol cell. Permanently.

Harry nodded to himself and carefully flipped the latch. "One last night of fresh air? Is that what you're thinking?"

He paused for a moment to gauge his environs... hearing only a blend of Vernon's and Dudley's distinct snores, and miscellaneous normal household rattles and hums. Satisfied that his relatives were asleep, Harry placed a hand on the window and, with agonising care to avoid the repercussions of a squawking window, he raised the bottom panel to admit a waft of evening breeze...

... and two Great Horned Owls!

Fwffft! The birds swept across the room to deposit a loaf-shaped parcel onto Harry's just-vacated bed. One landed on the desk beside Hedwig, glared disapprovingly at the Dursley-dictated cage for a moment, then stood tall and closed its eyes. The other balanced atop Harry's pillow, puffed out its chest importantly, and raised a leg to which a small parchment had been attached.

Harry stared. "Well, thank you! But how did you two get past the manic House Elf?"

The owl on Harry's desk raised one of its talons and held up the tattered remnant of a striped cloth ribbon that didn't belong with the parcel they'd just delivered. Harry accepted the ribbon thoughtfully. "There was a second gift?"

The owl nodded.

"Who," Hedwig added by way of explanation.

"Seriously?" Harry winced slightly at the delivery owl. "You beat him back with the second parcel?"

The owl nodded.

"Whew! I'm sorry for your trouble..." Still clutching the torn ribbon, Harry turned his attention to the owl on the bed. He removed the owl's scroll, then smiled nervously at the two impressive visitors. "Well, I'm grateful you were able to deliver what you could!"

"Ahem."

Harry blinked at the large bird on the desk. He knew owls had a bit of vocal range, but... had that bird just said 'Ahem'?

The owl regarded Harry with a distinctly assertive look. With sinking heart, Harry guessed exactly what that bird expected of him. These two tough customers might have had the means to dissuade very persistent House Elf, but such effort inevitably came at a price.

With a sigh, Harry knelt down to once again retrieve the humble tin from beneath his bed. He held it up tentatively where Hedwig could see it.

The Snowy Owl glanced at the tin, met his eye, then nodded her approval.

Harry removed the three remaining owl treats, and gave one to each of the three raptors in the bedroom.

Hedwig hooted her appreciation and nibbled at hers, while the two larger owls examined the treats skeptically for a moment, then wolfed them down and whisked themselves efficiently back out into the night air.

Harry watched them disappear into the night, then turned back toward his bed. "So someone got through to me for my birthday after all!" He picked the scroll. "I wonder who...?"

Harry squinted at it in the darkness. He returned to the window, seeking enough street light to see the text properly.

"Who who?"

"Blimey!" Harry ran a hand through his pillow-mussed hair. "It's from my... my Mum and Dad!" He bit down on his lower lip to steady himself then he continued with quivering voice. "They had Gringotts deliver a gift to me for my twelfth birthday. They arranged it years ago in case they... they didn't... didn't..."

"Who." Hedwig turned respectfully away as her master loosed a few ragged breaths and dabbed at the corner of his eye with a sleeve.

Harry steadied himself; he took a deep breath and exhaled hard, forcing weeks of pent up angst from his chest. His hand stronger and more sure, he raised the letter back to his eyes, stared at it... and frowned.

"What does this mean, girl?" He walked over to the bed and picked up the ten inch wooden chest. "The note says that there are 'rooms' inside that little box?? A library, a study, and... and a potions lab??"

"Who."

"Seriously? It expands that much?!" Harry examined the trunk from top to bottom, put it back on the bed, then resumed reading, until... "Crumb!"

"Who?"

Harry shook his head. "No, it says that in order to resize the trunk I need my wand, which that hairy walrus happens to have confiscated. Now I won't be able to use wand or trunk or anything." He clenched his teeth for a moment. "Fiddlesticks. Just a happy ending to the happiest birthday ever I guess."

"Who."

Harry shrugged. "No, that's the point. No wand means no trunk, which means no library or potions lab."

"Who!"

Harry gave his owl an exasperated look. "Yes, but that's different. Sure, I may have made the glass disappear last summer at the zoo, and some other funny things have happened from time to time, but it's not as if I can just put my bare hand on the trunk and say..."

"Who."

Harry glared at Hedwig for a moment, then relented. "Okay, but listen — you are NOT to laugh at me when this fails!"

"Who."

Harry gave the bird one final sidelong glance, sighed, then placed his hand on the chest and steeled himself for disappointment.

"Enlarge."

After a fraction of a second, he turned impatiently back to the owl. "See girl? Nothing happened. Are you hap... Aackk!"

CLOINNK!! SPROINGY Sproingy sproingy...

"Fffwho whuh...?! Oi, freak! WHAT the blerdy snork's sake is going on in there?!!"

"Nothing sir!" Harry stared at the suddenly full-sized chest, beneath which his mattress sagged almost to the floor. "I, er, just fell out of bed."

"Idiot boy! Next time try to fall on yer bloody head, will you?!"

Harry made no further response to his uncle's half-muffled carping; he was too captivated by the large wooden container.

"Who."

Harry chuckled. "Yes, you were right, and I'm grateful enough I'll let you rub it in."

"Who?"

"Of course." Harry nodded thoughtfully. "We've gotten this far; might was well open it, right?"

"Who."

Harry placed his hand on the ornate wooden catch. Seeming to practically hum at his touch, with the barest effort it swung loose and the heavy lid raised smoothly upwards.

Breathlessly, he looked inside for a moment, then lifted his head, staring blankly across the room. He closed his eyes, shook himself, then tried again. "Wow!"

"Who who."

Harry grinned at his owl's enthusiasm. "Should I go in?"

Hedwig nodded.

Harry grinned wider. Lest it destroy the already wonky mattress springs, he carefully (quietly!) slid the chest from the bed to the floor. Emboldened by mounting excitement, he swung his leg over the wooden side and tested his footing on the top step of a steep nautical staircase that led down into the trunk. With a quick breath, he lowered himself down.

A moment later, Harry was marveling at a suite that, although not opulent, was welcoming and distinctly functional. It wasn't huge, but the space seemed utter luxury to someone dreading a long incarceration in a small bedroom.

His first true sight of the interior, courtesy of a flickering magical torch at the bottom of the steps, was the library. Gazing about, he couldn't help but laugh — partly in relief (he'd be able to complete his summer assignments after all, despite his Neanderthal uncle), but also over the irony that he, a slipshod, marginal student, would acquire such a beautiful collection of knowledge, when scholars like Hermione might have trodden over her own grandmother to set hands on it.

Anxious to keep exploring, Harry scanned the room and spotted a single open door at the far end of the book stacks. Through that doorway, he saw a small but pleasant carrel — enough space to comfortably house a pair of high-backed desks, two cushioned study chairs, a slate blackboard and a modest sized project table.

Returning his distractible attention to the library, he spent several open-mouthed minutes browsing the shelves, staring at the incredible array of magical titles. A few of the books he recognised (some were common references, or early editions of popular text books), but the vast majority of the titles were new and mysterious to him — glimpses into a complex world of magic whose surface he had only begun to scratch.

Harry was so intrigued by the stacks of extraordinary literature that he almost didn't notice as his eyes scanned past the end of the shelves and fell upon one final door, leading into... the potions laboratory.

Ah. Potions.

Chewing his lip, Harry gazed in at the dim flickers then, hesitantly, crossed the threshold to see what he would find. On one hand, the idea of 'potions' fascinated him. After all, they had tremendous medical potential, provided strength for many common challenges, and protected against numerous magical threats. Countering that, though, was a snarling mental image of Severus Snape.

And yet... Suddenly Harry's mood brightened. Was it possible that his parents have given him a potent cure for the worst of Snape's vitriolic prejudice? Stretched out before him were cabinets of glittering bottles and glassware, polished cauldrons and urns, and every piece of specialised cutlery he could recall seeing in last year's Potions classes. Within that array of resources, upon that sturdy lab bench, or within the stately potions hearth, could he achieve independence? Would this give him the freedom to do fun, ambitious, or vitally important magic, comfortably removed from the vindictive yoke of sadistic, smirking Snapely sabotage?

Yes!

A thrill of opportunity coursed through Harry's veins. His parents might not have survived to see him off to school, but he could not imagine anyone's parents ever giving a better twelfth birthday present — the gift of self sufficiency! Suddenly it didn't matter if his repugnant relatives kept him locked indefinitely inside the Muggliest house in all of Britain. He almost didn't care that a neurotic (if arguably well-intentioned) House Elf wanted to semi-permanently sever him from the magical world...

Er, okay, he hadn't quite resigned himself to those fates yet, but at least, in the mean time, his parents had given him the means to grow, and follow in their distinguished footsteps. Even if he'd have to do so alone.

Alone...?

Hmmm...

Harry found himself staring at one of the most mundane features of this marvelous potions laboratory — a pair of stools.

A pair of stools.

Why, he wondered, were so many things in this personal storage trunk paired up? There were two stools, two cauldrons, two cutlery blocks, two desks, two chairs? He had even seen twin copies of Miranda Goshawk's Book of Spells.

A puzzled frown on his face, Harry walked over to the lab bench and pulled up one of the stools. He glanced pensively at the other vacant seat, and a strange expression crept across his face.

At times in his life he had been very lonely, but that was not exactly what he felt right now. At this moment, he was trying to picture what it might be like to actually not be alone; to always have someone to confide in, to support and be supported by. Someone with whom to discuss everything — from the most mundane to the most earth-shattering things in life.

Planting both elbows onto the work-worn table, Harry lowered his chin into his hands, pondering how his parents might once have worked in this very lab — perfect partners, learning, creating, doing things... together.

His eyes cast pensively about the room, considering how he might now use such a wonderful but unexpected resource. A sliver of Harry's ever-insular soul instinctively wanted to claim the place as his own exclusive refuge — a symbol of a part of his life that Harry shared with nobody else — wistful thoughts about his long-lost parents. But now, all of the duplications evident in the trunk made Harry realise that the greatest gift of this present might only come if he shared it.

Harry tapped his chin. If he did share this trunk, then with whom?

The image of Ron drifted through Harry's mind, but it didn't stick. Ron was a fine friend, but this was hardly his cup of tea — not a single Quidditch poster, board game, or sweets wrapper in sight. This trunk was obviously for magical curiosity and discovery, neither of which ranked high among Ron's priorities.

Thoughts of Hermione naturally followed... but that didn't work either. Sure, she would go bananas over all the books and resources at her disposal... but where was the 'two partners' spirit? Would Harry become a vassal in his own special space? Would Hermione schedule his lab time, and issue him colour-coded weekly swotting assignments?

Bleh.

For some reason it was so easy for Harry to imagine his parents working together, equably and productively, but it seemed nearly impossible to picture himself in such a happy partnership. How would he ever find such a compeer? Were his parents naive to assume that their outcast son would ever find a suitable partner — someone with Hermione's drive and inquisitiveness, yet also Ron's unassuming camaraderie? Someone conveniently lacking Hermione's oppressive stridency, and Ron's moody petulance?

Harry gave a sardonic laugh. Nobody like that would be caught dead with a miserable wretch like me.

His enthusiasm spent, Harry sighed, ready to push away from the lab bench and trudge back up to his Dursley bedroom. Then his breath caught.

A scroll!

He hadn't noticed it before, but resting upon the lab bench in front of him was a single roll of parchment. Now, what did that remind him of...? Of course!

The note on the owl's leg had stated that he should find a second message inside the chest with more detailed instructions. This must be it!

His whole body tingled as he reached for the scroll. Slowly, fumblingly, he pulled it straight, and... frowned.

The only message, in a pleasing florid script, read simply.


When a Potter learns to love, he learns to love to learn,
Together.

Two may learn to love to learn right here,
With one another.

Love,
Mum



Harry put the note down and stared blankly across the room.

Huh??

Harry didn't know exactly what 'detailed instruction' he might have expected to find, but this was not it. He didn't know what mystified him more — how odd the message was, or how perfectly suited it was to the argument he'd just been having with himself?!

Harry sighed deeply. "How, Mum??" He released a ragged breath. "How can I learn to love to... er... what you said. How can I learn anything together if I'm stuck all by myself in a locked room surrounded by people who hate me?!"

Silence.

Harry lifted his face and gazed glumly around the lab, daring the world to start to make sense.

It didn't.

Finally, he picked up the scroll again, to see if he'd missed anything useful.

He blinked. He stared. He blinked again. The poem from his mother had vanished; in its place he found a hasty scrawl from his dad.



Harry, are you telling us that you're all alone on your birthday?!

SHI... uh, I mean 'shoot'.

Please forgive us Harry — I thought (hoped) we'd arranged things a bit better for you.

But still, it's not too late to make something of your birthday, right? There's Floo powder above the hearth; why not go find a friend!

- Your very apologetic Dad



"Dad?!" Harry gawked at the parchment. "You're in there too??"

The parchment went blank and stayed that way. Just when Harry began to wonder if perhaps he'd been imagining things, a new message appeared.



Well, not exactly. We're not your real parents, Harry. Think of this scroll as a magical portrait, without all the paint.

In truth, we did plan to leave a portrait of ourselves for you, but we spent all autumn shut away in Godric's Hollow for security reasons, and missed our appointment with the artist. Fortunately, your mum knew a spell to imbue this piece of parchment with some of our personality and memories.

This was our backup plan and apparently we got no further. Sorry we weren't able to give you something better.



"Better?" Harry struggled to loosen his suddenly constricted throat. "Dad, Mum, I've gone nearly eleven years without you. I can't imagine a better present than this!"



Sweetie, that's so kind of you to say, but we're certain there will be better things in your life than sitting in a potions lab talking to magical memories of your father and me.

Tonight should be a special night for you, Harry; don't squander it with an old scroll. Go share it with a friend.



Harry blinked. "Er, I'm not trying to be contrary Mum, but it's nearly one o'clock in the morning."



Seriously? One o'clock in the morning? The gift arrived that late?



Harry nodded. "I think the owls had a difficult time getting past some nut-case House Elf."

More than a minute passed, with Harry staring at the now-blank parchment, wondering if the conversation was going to resume. Then suddenly a flurry of writing sprayed across the page, filling nearly the whole surface. Front and back.



Harry, your Mum finally shrugged and said, and I quote, "Well dear, I suppose it's never too late for a friend."

Translation — she's giving you her blessing to go out and do something fun. Even if your birthday is technically over.

But, oi little mate! Are you the golden boy, or what?! As if she'd ever give me permission to go carouse in the middle of the night! You'd best rush out right now before she changes her...





James, be quiet.

Harry, unlike some Potters I have known, I think you're mature enough to make responsible decisions for yourself.

If you'd prefer to remain here or return to bed, that's fine, but even a mum knows that every once in a while it's okay for her son to be impulsive. As long as you play safe, James and I would be happy knowing you're having a bit of fun.

If you've never used a Floo before, just step over to the hearth behind you, toss in a pinch of the powder (full dish on the mantle) and say, "Take me to see a friend".

Hugs, kisses & good night.

- Mum



Harry stared as the messages slowly faded.

For a long moment, he sat transfixed by the blank parchment.

Finally, he rose from the lab bench and turned to face the fireplace. He reached up into a small bowl on the mantle and soon had some sugar-like granules lodged between thumb and forefinger.

He had no idea what he was doing. He didn't really even know why he was doing it, or why his parents would ever condone (let alone encourage) such daft behaviour but, before he knew it, Harry found himself swept away in a whoosh of bizarre green flames.





Ginny Weasley fluffed her pillow. She was about to bury her head back into it when it occurred to her that pillow fluffing had failed her at least eighteen times now. She simply couldn't sleep.

Huffing in frustration, she lowered her legs from the bed, crept over to the window, and looked out.

Moonlight. A few whispy clouds. A brisk but pleasant summer breeze. Not bad!

That settled it. She might try to make up her sleep deficit some other decade, but tonight she was going flying!

Night flying above the paddock was Ginny's favourite semi-illicit activity. It was good practice, brilliant fun, and in the end it was imminently relaxing. Flying could settle her when she was excited (for her brothers to return from school; for the first day of summer; for the first dry night after a long stretch of Devon grey). Flying could also settle her when she was tense. As she was tonight.

Very tense.

Edging her way past her door (she always left it slightly ajar in case she needed to get past the wonky hinge without waking anyone), Ginny tiptoed down the stairs... worrying as she went.

Ginny Weasley was more worried tonight than she'd been all summer. This was saying something, since she'd been on edge for weeks — probably even more anxious than her brother Ron, who'd been acting antsy ever since returning from Hogwarts.

Noticing her brother's anxiety at Kings Cross Station, Ginny had assumed it would subside after a few days of the slow summer Burrow routine.

Not so! If anything, his angst had gotten worse — he was forever whispering to the twins; writing letters almost daily (letters? Ron??); rushing for the window far too often to check for owls.

She had confronted her brother and the twins about the odd behaviour, but all three had belted up, stubbornly denying any problem. Some little sisters might have felt annoyed or insulted to be excluded like this, but not Ginny. Instead, this afternoon she had (coincidentally) happened to be in the bottom of Ron's closet with a periscope and a listening cup at the time of a key conversation and had thus learned the frightening truth.

Harry Potter was missing!!

Nobody had heard from the Boy Who Lived in a month! He hadn't visited any of his friends or replied to any letters, and now all of his birthday gifts had been returned unopened. Ginny's own gift to him, a parcel of home baked biscuits loaded with pralines and candied ginger, had been returned to the Burrow around sundown in horrific shape — missing its ribbon and looking as though it had been trampled by a herd of Hippogriffs...

Ginny shuddered.

For anyone else, there might be a mundane explanation, but this was Harry Potter — the Prince of Peculiar Phenomena. In the past school year alone (according to Ginny's intelligence gathering), Harry had battled a Mountain Troll, been subject to an assassination attempt, escaped a midnight encounter with a blood-drinking monster in the Forbidden Forest, smuggled a dragon out of the country, avoided being eaten by a Cerberus, and had driven off some psychotic demon living inside the Defence professor's hat.

And now the boy was missing??

Crossing into the darkened sitting room, Ginny fought back a tremble and shook herself sternly. Be brave girl! If Harry's truly in trouble, he'll need strong, brave friends to...

WHOOOSSH!!!

"...!!!" Ginny's hand clasped about her mouth with the force of clambering Clabbert, muffling her shriek before it could startle the whole house. She gaped as the green flames of an unscheduled Floo visitor dissipated, depositing a stumbling, boy-sized projectile onto the carpet.

Struggling to his knees, the visitor coughed, squinting from the soot in his eyes.

Ginny rushed over to grasp one of the boy's fumbling hands, and help him to his feet. "So sorry! We'd have cleaned the chimney if we were expecting a guest, but..."

Wincing at the sight of the unidentified boy rubbing his eyes, she spotted an old shirt that George had left lying on the arm chair, and pressed it into the visitor's hand. "Here. Clear your eyes with this."

Still coughing, the boy accepted the shirt and dabbed the grime from around his eyes. Then he blinked, and stared with sudden dismay, as though he just now realised he was standing (uninvited) in a stranger's house, face to face with equally shocked girl, dressed in her... nightgown?

As the boy hastily averted his gaze, his sooty profile passed through a ray of moonlight, and Ginny saw what grime and shadow had been obscuring. "You..." Her voice went dry and raspy. "You're Harry Potter!"

"Huh? You know me?" Startled, Harry momentarily forgot his shame and turned back to Ginny. His eyes swept her face in the darkness and recognition set in. "Blimey!" He chuckled in relief. "You're Ginny Weasley, right?"

Ginny nodded, wide-eyed. Oh dear! It's the middle of the night; I'm in my night dress, and I'm speaking to... the Boy Who Lived!?

Harry processed Ginny's shocked expression and his face reddened. Friend or no friend, it was thoughtless to barge in on anyone unannounced. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to intrude. I just, er... I didn't know what I was d..." He shuffled his feet and looked away again. "Er, well, I really didn't think things through, did I...?"

Ginny opened her mouth to reassure him, but froze, realising with horror that any simple response to that question (No? Yes? I don't know? ) could sound snarky, and she would never want to be snarky to Harry Potter.

Meanwhile, Harry was staring awkwardly at the floor. "Uhh, I'd better go now. But could you maybe just tell Ron that I'm okay? Some frantic House Elf has been intercepting all my mail, and my relatives have locked me in my room, but no one should worry — everything will be fine."

Her voice utterly failing her, Ginny nodded vigourously — profoundly eager to please, and equally relieved that Harry was safe.

Unfortunately Harry completely missed the silently enthusiastic display as he had twisted around to study the inside of the fireplace, perhaps wondering whether he could squeeze inside the chimney. "Would you happen to have a bit of that, erm, Floo powder to lend? I think I just need to toss some of that and say that I want to go back to my trunk. Does that sound right? Anyway, I'm so very sorry to have caused you so much tro..."

"Wouldyouliketogoflyingwithme?"

Harry's eyes bugged out, he whipped around and stared in surprise at the girl's earnest expression. "Would I like to... uh... beg pardon?"

Ginny blanched at her impertinence. "Fly? Broom?" Her trembling little hand gestured toward the house's back door.

"Do I want to fly...?" Harry raised a pensive finger to his lower lip. "In the middle of the night?"

Ginny chewed her lip, realising that Harry Potter now fully appreciated what a complete nutter she was. Steeling herself, she forced herself to answer with an earnest (if somewhat stiff) nod of her head.

Then she waited for the inevitable scorn.

None came.

Ginny chanced a quick peek at the boy and, to her astonishment, saw him gazing out the window at the moonlit meadow with a distant look in his eyes.

Her eyes widened. A tiny smile flickered at the corner of his mouth.

Above her thumping heart, she had to strain to hear his shy voice.

"You know Ginny, I would like that a lot."

Back to index


Chapter 2: Helping Hands

Author's Notes: So here's chapter two out of four. This chapter will give you an idea what the overall shape of the story will be, which is to say a bit of a 'sawtooth'. There are inevitable disappointments to be overcome, but with protagonists as special as ours, each triumph is destined to lift our heroes to a higher level.


Chapter 2. Helping Hands (Sept. 1, 1992 — March 4, 1993)

Ginny had finished her packing and checked it carefully. The penalty for her diligence was being late for breakfast, but fortunately there was a silver lining. As she entered the kitchen, the twins were getting up to leave, which would open up a seat across from Percy (immersed deeply in the Daily Prophet) and (!!) right next to Harry!

Ginny swung herself into the chair, flicked the butter dish out of her way, and frowned as it skidded a little further than planned. She had just opened her mouth to warn Percy that his arm was hovering a bit close to the relocated condiment… when a fresh tray of mouth-watering crumpets made their appearance and derailed that thought. Something about Weasleys, food, and attention spans…

Harry gratefully accepted a crumpet, and flashed a smile as he passed Ginny the platter. “G'morning Ginny! Are you…?”

"Oi Harry, it's late!" Ron burst from the table, yanking Harry away from his crumpet. "Mum, we'll be upstairs. I still need to finish packing, and Harry hasn't finished reading the 'Martin Miggs Goes to Mongolia' series."

"Errr…?" Harry gave an off-balance glance back at the table as he lurched along, following the arm that Ron had forgotten to release.

"C'mon mate!” Ron tugged Harry relentlessly toward the stairs. “This is your last chance. I'm not bringing any comics to school this year — not after Seamus got custard on my 'Miggs the Matador' special issue!"

Harry's sigh faded into the distance, interspersed with clattering footsteps.

Ginny's eyes trailed them for a moment... then drooped back down to her plate. Suddenly crumpets and bangers didn't seem quite so inspiring.

Over the next while she fiddled listlessly with her fork, supplied obligatory responses to her mother's cheerful queries, and chewed a few bites, washing them down with pumpkin juice she barely tasted...

Through it all, Molly Weasley furtively eyed her daughter with renewed concern. She paused her dish washing and wiped her hands. "Not keen on the crumpets, dear? Would you prefer some eggs or toast?"

"No thanks, Mum."

"Are you sure? I'd hate for you to go hungry on the train."

"You packed lots of sandwiches, Mum." Ginny pushed back from the table. "Can't I just eat later when I'm hungry?"

Molly frowned. She usually knew her children like the back of her hand, but Ginny's recent despondency remained a mystery.

For several days after Harry had first arrived here, the youngest Weasley had been the life of the Burrow, full of wit, charm and energy. Molly suspected that Ginny had probably been a driving force behind that misguided (albeit successful) scheme to rescue Harry's owl and belongings from Surrey (thank Merlin neither the Ministry nor the Daily Prophet had found out).

But then things had since gone way downhill. Sometime after that humiliating trip to Diagon Alley (will Arthur ever learn to ignore Lucius's flagrant provocations?! ), Ginny had grown… depressed? There were still brief stretches when Molly's vibrant daughter seemed about to regain her natural spark, but some mishap would invariably weigh her down, and…

“Oh!” Molly jolted from her thoughts. “Percy, look out for…!”

Rising from the table, Percy cast down his newspaper with a self-important flourish… and sank wrist-deep into well-softened butter.

For a moment both Molly and Ginny stared at the thick splatters adorning Percy's lace cuff…

“Oh right.” Ginny sighed wearily. “Mind the butter dish, Perce.”

Molly bit her lip.

Percy's pinched face exuded a classic 'kick me' whinge that normally invited a lively round of Weasley ribbing.

But not today.

This morning, for the first time in modern Weasley history, nobody laughed...

Hours later at Kings Cross Station, with Ron and Hermione garrulously monopolising the Potter boy's attention, Molly could not restrain herself any longer. She wasn't certain that she grasped the situation perfectly, but it was breaking her heart to see Ginny plodding listlessly along the platform, so the Weasley matron swung into action. Leaving Percy and the twins to fend for themselves, she hurried to catch up with her only daughter and wrapped a warm maternal arm about those little shoulders.

"Bye Mum. I'll be good,” Ginny attempted by way of dissuasion. “I'll owl every two weeks…"

Molly smiled at the brave, dutiful recitation that the girl must have learned from her brothers. She squeezed Ginny's shoulders a little harder then stepped back to look at her.

Ginny shrank from her Mum's eyes.

Molly cupped the girl's face. "He's only twelve years old, dear. Give him a little time, and he's sure to come around."

"Huh??" Blinking, Ginny finally meeting her Mum's gaze. "Who'll come around?"

"Who else?" Molly's eyes betrayed gentle amusement as a tinge of mortification crept down her daughter's cheeks. "Don't think I haven't noticed — every time you try to talk to Harry, there's always someone getting in the way. Ron, Fred and George, Arthur... probably even me..." Molly sighed in regret. "I swear, we all seem to latch onto the dear boy as if he was some sort of prized gem..."

Ginny nodded awkwardly.

"But don't worry." Molly's smile returned. "He may seem polite and accommodating, forever getting steered about, but he's a Potter — and Potters are famous for setting goals then doing everything humanly possible to achieve them. I'm sure that the time will come when he'll stand up straight, push away all of the distractions, and finally claim his own prized gem."

"What prized gem?? Mum, you're not making any sense!" Ginny shook her head in confusion, nervously eyeing the train whose doors would be closing soon.

Molly tapped her daughter's pretty little nose then pulled away. "You, you silly goose! You're the prized gem; you just need to give the boy a bit of time to realise it." She laughed and caught Ginny's hand, guiding her toward the nearest train car. "Now go find some friends to sit with. And if I don't get at least four owls a month you'll be in a world of trouble, Ginevra Mol..."

The car door juddered shut with Ginny on one side, and her mother's muffled voice trailing off on the other. Ginny waved halfheartedly as her parents slipped away, then she gazed up and down the car at all of the packed compartments. She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Go find some friends... That'll be so easy."

Trudging toward the rear of the train, Ginny quirked her head and shrugged. At least she had one friend she could count on. She didn't even need to worry whether that friend had saved her a seat... because he was ready and waiting, tucked inside her hand bag, conveniently stored within a small black book…

Oh Merlin, what a mess! What a lousy day in a rotten week of a horrible year! Trudging up the steps of Gryffindor Tower to his dorm, Harry knew he would be useless in the day's remaining classes. He was so bewildered and demoralised that he could barely concentrate on keeping his feet moving, one after another.

Harry entered the silent Second Year boys' quarters. He dropped his torn, ink-stained ruck sack onto the floor beside his four-poster and reached beneath the bed to pull out his old school trunk. Tucked away inside a pair of stockings near the bottom of the old chest, he pulled out a second (much smaller) trunk. After checking to make sure that nobody was around and all was silent, he tapped the trunk with his wand and uttered the elementary spell. "Expand."

As the trunk enlarged itself, Harry groaned in contrition. He took a deep breath, then lowered himself down into the gift his parents had sent him for his last birthday.

Frenetic months had gone by at Hogwarts and he'd found so little time to enjoy his wonderful resource. With heavy heart, he now realised that he should have come down here far sooner. Good parental advice and perspective could probably have spared him (and others) a lot of pain.

As he made his way to the potions lab, he recalled his thrill months ago upon first discovering this special inner sanctum. That thrill seemed rather distant now; he slunk along with the trepidation of a child who assumes he's about to face a good old-fashioned scolding.

Taking a seat at the lab bench, he gazed regretfully at twin stool standing empty beside him.

He'd never invited anyone to sit there. Should he have? Would that have helped this mess?

Groaning again, Harry's face sank into his hands as he steeled himself for the unavoidable. Finally he reached forward and unraveled the small scroll that lay nearby. It had a very simple message for him.


Blimey son, what's wrong?


Harry cringed. "Dad, things are all bollixed! Someone's been opening the Chamber of Secrets; Justin and Colin have been petrified, and Nearly Headless Nick has, errr, been frozen or something. Ron, Hermione and I have been going spare trying to figure out what's going on and, well, in all the excitement I guess I just never made it down here."

Harry waited with bated breath for a response which, mercifully, came quickly.


Harry, we're here to help, not to judge. You needn't feel guilty about taking your time between visits… but we're guessing that's not the only reason for your remorse?


“No. I feel like such a heel for how I've treated Ginny. Last summer, she was so kind to me after my awful birthday, and I was grateful and all, but things just got so busy... I've barely spoken ten words to her since the start of school, and she must think I'm utterly thoughtless.” Harry issued a ragged sigh. “It's Valentine's Day today, and she sent me a poem that, well…”


A poem? Uh oh.

Do you recall anything of it, dear? Can you recite a few lines?


"Errr, maybe, but you have to understand that my books were scattered all over the floor, I had a dwarf on my back yelling and spitting in my ears, and Malfoy was being the usual git, so I wasn't listening closely to, you know, rhyme and meter stuff. But..." Harry trailed off. "Oi. Are you really going to make me recite poetry?"


Son, your Mum thinks there's more going on here than a love-sick girl pouring her heart out. Please answer as best you can.


Harry sighed. "Okay, but don't hold any of this against Ginny. The Dwarf sounded half illiterate, so who knows how much he hacked around with the poem, but one of the verses he snarled at me sounded something like:

Harry Potter, he never fails;
He's hero of so many tales.
But those green eyes, so dreamy,
Never do they see me...

Oh, and I think the refrain went:

If I wasn't invisible
To the boy who's incredible.
Then I'd be dependable;
I'd be his friend."

Wondering if the parchment could magically detect his blush, Harry edged back a bit from the lab bench. Nonetheless, he watched it intently as it deliberated, and soon it filled with script.


Hmmm. You know dear, that's not half as sappy as the lovelorn Valentines your father used to get. Ginny may be miffed that you haven't paid attention to her, but something doesn't add up. Someone plucky like her ought to get plenty of notice...


"That's true; she ought to." Harry nodded distantly. "She's bright and funny, and hey — remember last summer when we flew together? She actually did a barrel roll! I thought I was going to choke just watching her, but she held on, pulled through the loop and grinned at me."


Ah?? Real chaser material, eh? She's a catch, son! Why don't you run out and find her? Apologise for being so thick, and let her clear the air.


"I tried Dad, but she was upset by the ruckus with the Dwarf and Malfoy, and she bolted. By the time I'd gathered up my stuff, she was nowhere to be seen."


Really? Hmmm.

I think your Mum's right — we're misreading the problem. A girl with the moxie to fly a barrel roll or send her beau a tweeky public Valentine is unlikely to run away from mere embarrassment.

What do you think, Lily? Is this bigger than boy problems?

Definitely! She says Harry's not noticing her, but… I just sense she's saying more than she's 'saying'. Does that make sense?

Sweetie, can you tell us more? What happened just before she ran away?


"Let me think." Harry closed his eyes for a long moment, replaying the scrum in his mind. "So I'm heading to Charms when I saw the Dwarf making for me. I tried to back away, but my ruddy rucksack chose that moment to spill open, scattering books, quills, ink everywhere... ugh."

Harry paused to wipe the cringe from his face. “It was just like one of those ridiculous dreams where everything goes wrong — I was down on all fours trying to collect my stuff; the Dwarf was on my back, shouting and slobbering down my neck; then Malfoy — of course he just had to be there — reached down to pick up the diary. That's when I heard Ginny gasp…"


Slow down, son. Diary? What diary? What are you doing with a diary?


"It's not mine, Dad." Harry shook his head. "We found it in the loo; somebody tried to flush it through Moaning Myrtle's head, and she regurgitated it."


Ew. Okay, so the diary isn't yours, dear? Might it be Ginny's, then?


Harry shook his head. "I don't think so, Mum. The name on the inside cover was 'T.M. Riddle'."


BLOO... Harry, get the diary! Bring it here, immediately!


"Er, okay, but..."


NOW!!


Wide-eyed, Harry raced out of the lab, through the library and up the steep steps. Head and torso bursting up through the opening, he lunged to the spot on the floor where...

"What the... ?!"

Harry's torn bag had been hastily shoved to the side; the contents were (once again) scattered.

A quick scan of the mess produced bad news — the diary was gone!

Harry groaned and ran a hand through his hair. "Blimey. I wasn't even down there for ten minutes and the diary is already gone!"

"Trust me, Harry. You don't want the diary."

Harry jumped, nearly lost his balance on the step, then came face to face with a disheveled but fierce-looking Ginny Weasley.

Her wand trembling, Ginny pulled back scattered locks of hair to reveal a face strained, yet blazing with determination.

Baffled, Harry glanced down to the diary clutched in her left hand.

Noticing his glance, Ginny shook her head, sending hair flying back into her face. "Forget the diary, Harry. I refuse to let it hurt you the way it hurt me!" Her voice quavered slightly but her wand grip stiffened. "I have to get it out of here. I'm going away to find some way to destroy it. Don't try to stop me, and don't follow me."

Wide-eyed, Harry slowly shook his head. "Ginny, we need to talk. Please don't go."

"No, listen!" Ginny's voice shook. "Don't make this any harder for me. I need to leave Hogwarts before there's any more trouble. I'm taking the diary away so it can't get at anybody else. So it can't get... at y-you..."

"Look Ginny. I don't know what's going on, but I really really want to help you." Harry reached out an empty hand toward her. "Have you thought any of this through? Do you know how to destroy it? I mean, you're obviously not going to simply flush it down another toilet, but if you told me what you're planning, maybe I could help."

Trembling, Ginny stared at him uncertainly.

"Let's be strong together, Gin'." Harry extended his hand a bit further. "I've got great resources down in this trunk that we can use. Can I show you?"

Ginny glanced at Harry's hand, but didn't take it.

“My parents sent it for my last birthday.” Harry gestured toward his trunk. "There's a full potions lab and tons of great books. I've never shown it to anyone, but I'll bet it's perfect for dealing with that diary."

Harry smiled weakly but hopefully. Ginny's intense gaze flickered from Harry's hand, to his smile... to the trunk itself (from which he half-protruded), before finally settling on Harry's eyes.

Ginny stared for a long time at the face of a boy who evoked so many questions...

Who was this boy? Was this the same shy fellow she'd taken flying that perfect summer night months ago? The one she thought might become her friend?

Or was this the boy who always went off with his friends and ignored her? The snotty, arrogant Harry Potter that Tom railed against — far too important to ever be interested in pathetic, clingy little girls like her?

Ginny had been asking those questions in her mind for months, but had almost lost hope of every finding answers. Every time she'd approached Harry, someone had spirited him off or shooed her away. Even here in the silent dorm, she practically expected someone to swoop out of a closet… or for Harry to turn and run...

Yet nobody swooped, and Harry did not run. All fell perfectly still.

Ginny's scrutiny moved from his face, to those tantalising green eyes… and peered deeply within.

Harry stood patient, unmoving, hand still extended in hopeful invitation, as Ginny silently pursued an inquiry that had been stifled so long.

Will you trust me? Can I trust you?

Can I be a friend? An equal?

Are you as honest and good as I once hoped? Uncorruptible enough to handle the diary?

Will you leave in disgust when you see how weak I've been? Or will you understand how hard it was for me? How awful, how poisonous and treacherous a curse can be?

Will you help me, Harry?

Ginny finally loosened her penetrating stare and let her gaze drift downward.

Her eyes focused on Harry's five patient fingers, still poised exactly where they had been all along — only an arm's length away.

Ginny reached for them... and her face spread into its first real smile in so many months.

Midnight struck the old clock above the hearth in Harry's Potions Lab.

Just as they had every night over the past few weeks of hard work, Harry and Ginny wound down their tasks, and wearily took seats at the lab bench.

Harry removed his dragon skin gloves, wiped the perspiration off his hands on a clean towel, then reached for the scroll, ready to provide an update and receive new instructions.

Tonight, the scroll read simply:


Have the moonseeds finished steeping in hot vitriol?


Ginny coughed slightly as a whiff of the expected pungency evaded the chimney. "Yes, Mrs. Potter."


Before you do anything further, be certain that the amphora is still completely solid. Give it a dozen good whacks with a metal spoon from top to bottom; if the carborundum doesn't make a nice ringing sound, we can't risk going to the final step.


Harry glanced toward the fireplace. "I just finished testing it a few minutes ago Mum. It's solid as a rock."


Wonderful!

So this is it, then. You could either wait until tomorrow night for the last step, or finish it tonight.


Harry and Ginny glanced toward the diary which lay on one corner of the bench, next to a small bowl containing a yellowish paste. They nodded in unison. “Tonight.”


Good. You must first add the Syrup of Arnica. Then you can throw the book in.

Who would like to do the honours?


Harry shifted in his seat. "Er, I've worked with Arnica before, so I'll add the syrup."

"I want..." Ginny gritted her teeth; a steely edge to her jaw. "I want to do the book."


I understand. Good luck then.

But I must impress on you both the need for caution! Once the Syrup of Arnica has been added, your potion should be able to destroy any magical object beyond hope of magical repair.

The book is a magical object, but so are you! A single droplet on the skin could be fatal!


Harry nodded expressionlessly. "We understand the risks Mum. We'll be careful; we can do it."

Ginny's stoney expression didn't waver. "I want that book destroyed."


I knew you would say that.

As a mother, though, I have a duty to remind you that there is another way.

Harry, your father doesn't like this suggestion, but don't forget that you could ask a professor to perform the final steps.


"Mum, that would mean Snape! No way I'm explaining the diary to him — he'd expel us both!" Harry shook his head vigourously. "Ginny and I need to do this. Her and me; nobody else. We can't let other people risk themselves.”

Ginny nodded. “Harry and I are committed to this and we're going to finish it. Together."


Sigh.

Harry, you're pure Potter, and Ginny you're so clearly a Prewett — two of the most wonderfully, admirably, impossibly hard-headed families in all of Britain.

I can hardly fault you for that, can I?


Blushing slightly at the affectionately back-handed compliment, Harry and Ginny found their gazes falling upon each other. For a fleeting instant they couldn't help wondering about all those adventures from the first Wizarding War — those days of fear and courage when Ginny's valiantly knavish uncles had stood shoulder to shoulder with Harry's parents, striving to push back the suffocating darkness.

In another world, parents and uncles (and so many others) need not have perished; Harry and Ginny might have grown up with far more time for play, innocent discovery and daydreaming. But in this world they inhabited, they were left to shoulder urgent weighty responsibilities — the hour was late; time was short, and the note on the scroll had already been overwritten.


Focus dears!

Just because you're a Potter and a Prewett doesn't mean I'm going to let you charge in unprepared!

First of all, please confirm the safety precautions.


Ginny jumped. "Oh yes, of course! I, uh..." She reached across the bench for a small box containing a collection of vials. "I have the Twelve Vital Antidotes of Hippocrates in easy reach. Each vial is capped and full."

Harry picked up an unusual harness from its hook beside the bench. "When adding the syrup, I'll wear the bubblehead mask and shoulder harness." He reached across the table to retrieve his elbow-length work gloves. "And these!"

Ginny picked up the end of a sturdy tether attached to Harry's harness. "If the potion splatters, or if Harry staggers even a tiny bit, I'll be ready to pull him back from the amphora."

Harry took a deep breath. "I will walk, but not run, to the hearth. I'll scrape the syrup against the inside lip of the amphora then I'll return briskly to the bench."


Perfect!

You'll cover for Ginny when she's ready to dispose of the diary?


The pair nodded.


Oh! One second sweeties...

Harry, your father wants to say something.


"Sure Dad! Go ahead."


Harry, Ginny, I don't want to alarm you, but if the diary curse is what I suspect, it might fight back.


"Huh?" Ginny stared in consternation at the scroll. "Fight back? How?"

The scroll went blank. It remained that way for a tense moment, before the characteristic scrawls of James Potter returned.


I'm not sure. It may try to brainwash you, trick you into weakening your resolve, or turn one of you against the other.

I need to know that you can both be very strong, determined, and fiercely loyal to each other.


A cold prickle ran down Harry's spine as he remembered the hideously persuasive wiles of the Voldemort wraith lodged in the back of Quirrel's head.

Ginny's breath hitched as she caught a flash of suppressed memory — a faint but terrifying recollection of Tom Riddle's hypnotic pull; his saccharine charisma; his silky poetic words sucking her inexorably into blind subservience.

The two children stared at the diary sitting quietly in front of them. A mere moment ago, it had seemed to be passively awaiting its caustic fate, but suddenly they both pictured not a simple book, but instead a pulsing canker of hidden malice and trickery, sparking invisible powers to target, corner, conquer and CRUSH...

Or not!

Unconsciously, two hands clasped — Harry's on Ginny's — and the ghastly vision passed, replaced by the warmth of ten intertwined fingers; by strength — gentle but mighty, more awesome than the darkest, most dastardly curse.

Harry looked into Ginny's eyes.

Ginny gazed up at Harry's face.

Their hands squeezed.

"We're ready Dad." Harry rose from the table and donned his harness. "It's time."

The explosion of power blew out all of the magical lamps inside the trunk. A demon's fury and hatred had scourged the senses of two courageous children... but their preparations had been perfect. The grey amphora, magically tempered to great resilience, had sent the raging blast and magical fury straight up the chimney, to some unknown aether beyond.

Her outstretched fingers still curved to the shape of the now-vanquished book, Ginny teetered, and gave way to the tether's frantic pull. Rushing forward, Harry caught her, and she collapsed into his arms.

Shuddering from the ordeal of defying the desperate magic of Thomas Riddle, Harry locked his thin twelve year old arms around the small midsection of a girl who must surely now be his dearest friend. Perspiration glinting in the flickering sparks of the nearly-spent potion, Harry strained backwards, and hauled Ginny's limp form toward the library.

Fearing for her life, Harry braced himself against a wall and carefully lowered Ginny (and himself) to the floor… and was rewarded with a soft moan — the most precious sound he had ever heard.

Setting her to rest in his lap, Harry reached across himself to find his wand. "Lumos."

Ginny's eyelids twitched; her breath rasped. "Bastard."

"He was. But he's gone, Gin'.” Harry tenderly brushed a lock of hair from her face and exhaled. “You did it."

Ginny nodded slightly, then shook her head. "No Harry. We did it."

Harry smiled to himself. Pointing across the room with his wand, he re-lit one of the magical torches, then shifted slightly, seeking a position comfortable enough to sustain even if they were stuck there for a while.

Ginny shifted sightly and put her head on Harry's shoulder. "Did..." Her voice trailed off uncertainly. "Did you believe what Tom said? About me being ungrateful... whinging... callously risking your life...?"

"No!" Harry caught himself, surprised by the force in his tone. He took a breath to expel some of the tension, and placed a comforting arm around her. "No. Tom was a dirty liar. He was desperate to kill me, and he'd have said anything to drive us apart." Harry unconsciously stroked the girl's cheek. "Besides, you're my best friend."

Ginny snuggled deeper into the crook between Harry's neck and shoulder. "Thanks."

They remained there for an indeterminate time, wedged between floor and wall in the dim light of a single flickering torch. After a while, with his leg starting to go numb, Harry stirred again. "Hey Gin'?"

"Uh huh?"

"Do you think you've recovered enough to, er, stand?"

Ginny didn't respond for a moment. Harry was just beginning to wonder if he should try repeating the question, when Ginny pulled back a few inches and looked him in the eye. "Sure Harry, I can stand… But why stand when we can FLY? "

"Errr..." Harry blinked and raised a pensive finger to his lower lip. "We've been working half the night and it's must be four or five hours past curfew. Are you suggesting that we, uh, sneak out and go flying...?"

Ginny nodded, her face spreading into a feisty grin. "You have an invisibility cloak, right?"

Harry gaped at the girl, then formed a crooked smile, elated to witness such a wonderful transformation. Ginny had been subdued and sullen for so long that Harry had nearly forgotten how amazing she could be.

After a cold dark winter, they had just reignited a hidden spark, brighter than the stars; more spirited than a lithe filly on a fresh spring morning.

Back to index


Chapter 3: Second Kiss

Author's Notes:

A huge round of thanks to readers and reviewers for chiming in and providing feedback on the story!

I believe Martin had things very well pegged when he said, after the last chapter, that it felt as if things had just barely begun. How very true! Plotwise, the first half was really just setting the tone. This chapter and the next are where things really progress.

As I mentioned in last chapter's reviews, there are large leaps in time, lots of water under the bridge, characters maturing at the amazing rates people have when they're young... To help address the gaps, there are some brief 'retrospectives', including one in this chapter that I believe is the best I've ever written. Comments and opinions on that (and whatever else) are welcomed wholeheartedly.

Hope you enjoy!


Chapter 3. Second Kiss (June 24, 1995)

Ginny Weasley was in a foul FOUL mood!

The sight of Fleur Delacour's battered and stupefied body was too much. This Triwizard Tournament was a barbaric death trap and Ginny's temper was on the brink of detonating. She clenched her teeth fiercely and forced herself to not explode into another of her 'Department of International Magical Co-operation' tirades.

Not aloud anyway. Inside Ginny's head, she couldn't suppress a smarmy satirical bureaucratic voice…


Such a lovely idea! Let's find the three most talented young wizards and witches from all Europe and see if we can bump them all off in one single insane, pointless gladiatorial absurdity!

Oh, and shouldn't we also conscript Ginny's best friend, Harry Potter, into the perilous farce? Indeed, the only good brave selfless hero is a dead brave selfless hero!

Oh, and let's cancel Quidditch, because nobody likes to play that. And let's convert the Quidditch pitch (Ginny's Quidditch pitch!) into a gardener's worst nightmare. And let's fill the bleachers with brain-dead morons who enjoy staring for hours at the splotchy travesty that used to be a Quidditch Pitch, where the only thing left to watch is mutant vegetation that looks (from this height) like what Kneazles spit up after raiding the catnip patch. And let's get Seamus Finnegan to entertain the moronic spectators by making icky noises with even ickier body parts, while Lavender and Parvati giggle like lobotomised banshees. And let's do all this while Death Eaters lurk in the wings, plotting to spring some dastardly… !!


“Breathe Ginny! Breathe!”

Ginny's red-stained eyesight locked onto a head of bushy hair, glared… and she deflated.

Clasping Ginny's hand, Hermione regarded her anxiously.

Ginny took a deep breath, and slumped wearily onto the bench.

“Harry will be fine — you've made certain of that!” Hermione gave her friend an encouraging smile. “He's learned so much in all those long sessions with you in that trunk. Mercy, if he worked half as hard in class, he'd have straight E's and O's!”

Ginny breathed again. “You're right Hermione. He's very well prepared; there's nothing in this task that Harry can't handle.”

“Absolutely. So any minute now, he should be…” Hermione's smile faded as she examined the younger girl's face more closely. Ginny's rage and tension had diffused, but there was a residual stiffness that worried Hermione.

Hermione parsed Ginny's statement for words both spoken and unspoken, and concluded something fundamental — Ginny was not concerned about the Triwizard task itself… but something else was really troubling the girl.

Unfortunately, by Hermione's estimates, Ginny was the second-most stubbornly private student at Hogwarts. Convincing Ginny to accept help was a quest of Quixotic proportions… but Hermione could be Quixotic, and stubborn too. She switching on her best saccharine appeal. “Ginny, something's bothering you. Please tell me about it — perhaps I can help?”

“It's nothing, 'Mione.” Ginny's voice was slightly more civil than a growl; she forced a mirthless smile. “I just hate waiting, that's all.”

Hermione processed the statement, then shrugged. While clearly evasive, the answer was plausible and accurate, insofar as it went. She gave the girl's hand another quick squeeze and released it. “Okay. If ever you'd like to talk, do let me know.”

Ginny nodded, but her attention had already swung back to the scraggly mass of cancerous landscaping from which a comatose Victor Krum had just been levitated.

As she scanned and squinted, Ginny felt a niggling regret in the back of her mind for rebuffing Hermione's well-intended overtures, but… no. This situation was complicated, and Ginny was too distracted right now to lead a skeptic through strange coincidences and vague conjectures.

The truth was that Ginny DID hate waiting. She especially hated waiting for her best friend to escape a horrid maze, possibly fraught with perils far odder and deadlier than anyone guessed. And that's where the real worry lay — Ginny and Harry were almost certain something was wrong, but had no idea what.

Working together, Harry and Ginny had documented numerous peculiar threads (Death Eaters at the World Cup; disappearances and attempted kidnappings at the Ministry; Harry's inexplicable tournament entry; the Dark Mark on Snape's and Karkaroff's arms; something whiffy about Alastor Moody, Bartemius Crouch and Ludo Bagman) that arguably pointed to someone targeting the Tournament. But how?

They had approached Professor Dumbledore with their concerns. Pulling his hair out with organisational hassles, he had wearily suggested that he would be happy to take a closer look, if they didn't mind waiting until after the Tournament.

Okay but, well, uh...?

Argh! Had Ginny ever mentioned how much she hated waiting?

Yet beyond all that, there was another 'wait' weighing on her.

Ginny was waiting for (sssshh!)… a second kiss.

She would never admit this to anyone — barely even to herself. With all the ominous portents to consider, Ginny couldn't afford such frivolity… but sometimes when she couldn't fall asleep in History of Magic class, her drifting thoughts would turn to girlish musings, pondering whether Hogwarts' most famous friendship (the loyal confederacy of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley) might ever become… something more?

Everyone else had stopped speculating. Harry and Ginny were quintessential mates — the two stars of last year's Quidditch Cup championship; inseparable at meals, weekends and evenings; ever implicated in the wildest capers and scrapes! Yet only two people on Earth were aware there had actually been a first kiss… and nobody knew whether there would ever be a second.

The KISS had happened six months ago. At the Yule Ball.

Oh what a night!

What a fun, exhilarating, frustratingly incomprehensible night!

It wasn't supposed to be fun, exhilarating or incomprehensible. Contrary to silly gossip of a hundred teenaged witches, Ginny had not gone to the Ball expecting romance. It was supposed to be a serious night for two friends who had grown rather serious.

No, not 'closet snogging' serious; they were 'life and death' serious.

Shocked into action by the perilous first Triwizard task, Ginny had appointed herself as Harry's unofficial trainer and manager (some suggested 'body guard'). As far as she was concerned, Harry may have survived Voldemort, but that didn't guarantee he would survive Department of International Magical Co-operation incompetence.

As trainer/manager, Ginny's first executive decision was that Harry couldn't afford the distraction of some fluffy-headed chickadee Yule Ball date. Down in Harry's trunk after a long evening studying underwater breathing charms, Ginny had reached across Harry's desk, shut the old tome he'd been squinting blearily at, and informed him that he would have to take her to the Ball.

Harry had quirked his head at a funny angle (Ginny had no idea where he had picked up that mannerism, but it was WAY too endearing), and grinned. In his typical teen male eloquence, he'd replied, “Okay.”

Knowing that passionate declarations like 'okay', and 'thank you' were near the limits to Harry's romantic repertoire, Ginny didn't expect a tryst. If their ensuing dance lessons began to get increasingly 'enjoyable' as Christmas approached, she assumed it was because Harry was getting comfortable with steps that were pretty easy for someone accustomed to complex dueling maneuvers. If he'd kept her dancing until the Ball's final song, then dallied on the floor chatting her up until all other revelers had cleared away, it was probably because they were both savouring some enforced down-time.

And if the two of them found themselves racing through secret passages well past curfew (a very liberal Yule curfew) it seemed perfectly natural to two teens who were so accustomed to illicit night flights that the entire owl population knew (and avoided) their routes by rote.

But if the old tapestry at the end of their passage suddenly chose that night to not lift for them… well, that was strange.

If the tunnel they'd just traversed seemed to bend and twist in ways completely unfamiliar to either of them, well, that was strange too.

Then if they found themselves, forty minutes later, still wandering fruitlessly through dark, uncharted bowels of the castle, well that was getting… distressing.

And, as much as she loathed to admit it, somewhere inside strong, assured, confident Ginny Weasley there remained a little girl who still bore scars from the terrors of her first year. When those old insecurities awoke in the darkness, Harry Potter's best friend began to tremble, to shudder in a panicked delusion that somewhere within the shadows lurked the evil spectre of Tom Riddle, creeping close, plotting to steal from her the one thing in life that mattered far more than anything else, and it would be all her fault because she was too weak to repel him, and…

And Harry embraced her.

Suddenly all of those daft delusions of Riddle blinked out of her mind because the one thing in Ginny's life that meant more to her than anything else had collected her into his surprisingly strong arms, and was gently caressing her shoulders, whispering reassurances, and Ginny was trying to answer calmly, to tell Harry that she was okay, and to not worry, but every word was undercut by the fear that if she sounded too strong and independent, those arms might release her just at the point when she desperately wanted their hold to tighten, which was when she remembered she too had viable arms, and so those Chaser-strong limbs drew in her best friend so tightly that there was nowhere else to put their faces (their mouths) except...

Wow.

If she closed her eyes, Ginny could still feel the electric heat of his tender lips on hers, the magic of his fingertips working their way through her Ball coiffed hair to grace the base of her scalp, and how every place they touched seemed to tingle with a vitality beyond the means of the greatest healer. She still vividly recalled how she had melted into him, hungering for his mouth, his hands, his chest, and, dare she admit, his love…?

And although the rest of that night was ensconced in a happy dream fog, Ginny would roll out of her own bed some hours later, collect a yawning Harry from the Common Room, and accompany him to Boxing Day brunch. And although he and she remained every bit as comfortable together as they were before Christmas, they could never seem to find the right time (or courage?) to ask each other what exactly had happened that late night in the dark passageway.

Then, life soon began to race past in a blur of training, fruitless debates about some vague mysterious Death Eater plot, and the inflexible hustle-bustle of a new school term. And now, nearly six months later, Ginny was still waiting; still wondering if the incredible spark of Yuletide magic would find them agai…

“Look!”

With a jolt, Ginny blinked away the daydream. Following Hermione's finger, she cursed herself for momentarily forgetting what she should be waiting for. Another half hour had passed, and her best friend had still not emerged from that despicable briar patch within which…

Ginny stared.

Stooped and empty-handed, Cedric Diggory was stumbling out of the brambles. He hobbled to the medic table where Fleur and Krum were both unconscious.

Every ounce of blood drained from Ginny's face.

Every champion had now vacated the maze… except Harry!

The vicious crackle of an Unforgivable curse scorched the air a mere inch from Harry's head as he leaped for cover behind the grave stone. Tremulous body pressed to the damp rock, Harry took a breath — the first in a long time.

Somewhere off in the dank, torchlight of the Little Hangleton graveyard, a thin nasal voice howled in a demented mix of rage and scornful derision, disparaging Harry's cowardice.

Oi, what a mess…

Just yesterday Harry and Ginny had been dismissed as alarmists, but tonight the Triwizard Finale had indeed been torn asunder by a Death Eater plot — just as he and Ginny had warned. So who was laughing now?

Voldemort, obviously.

Certainly not Harry… and he knew that Ginny wouldn't be too jolly either.

After all, they'd gotten it wrong too, having guessed maybe a lurid panic-mongering melée like at the World Cup, or an attempt on Harry's life. They'd never remotely considered a scheme that would culminate in Voldemort's corporeal rebirth. All made possible by Harry Potter, Triwizard Champion-Patsy.

He cringed; not from the post-Cruciatus pain still burning every nerve, or from the deep throbbing cut in his arm, but rather at the wrenching disgrace of having had his own lifeblood torn from his body to fuel the evil abomination.

Trembling from shame, Harry slid to the dank ground, and thrust a shivering hand into his pocket, hoping to find…

an old cloth ribbon.

Harry's fingers caressed the old remnant of some unknown package that had been lost en route to his twelfth birthday. Harry did not really understand why he always clung to the ribbon; perhaps it represented selfless sacrifice — a reminder that, although life was hard, the world was graced by kindness and generosity, often without reward or even acknowledgment.

In times of fear and doubt, Harry still turned to this cloth for hope and clarity.

It did not disappoint.

Crouched behind the gravestone, Harry's thoughts crystallised; his anguish gave way to commitment. He must warn the world (warn Ginny!) that Voldemort had returned.

But how?

Run? Fight my way out?

Harry was a split second from deciding when his options expired. From the corner of his eye, he spied motion — Voldemort's minions were beginning to circle around him.

His shelter compromised, Harry's instincts took over. He sprang from behind the gravestone, wand stabbing the night. “Expelliarmus!

Avada Kedavra!

As the killing curse unleashed, Voldemort exulted — thrilled at a new body bristling with acute senses and spry limbs; overjoyed that his prey had come out to play. Voldemort had not dueled in more than a decade, but he was Alive! Immortal! He was Power Incarnate! He would cut down the insolent child with no more effort than a...

than a…?

The sorcerer gaped at his wand and the malformed spell it had produced. The killing curse was not a mighty concussive blast. It did not rent the air. It frayed into fine cords and streamed delicately about his victim's disarming spell — a mesh of green and red bands glowing upon the night sky.

Harry's eyes widened at the extraordinary radiance spanning the space between himself and his worst enemy. Shining stripes.

Ribbons?

The sacrifices of anonymous friends?

His tremble ceased; fist solidified about his wand; granite set into his jawline. Harry Potter had no idea what was about to happen next, but he had a powerful conviction that he was here tonight to vindicate the sacrifices of people who had gone before him.

He was not about to die. He would survive to warn the world; live to fight another day.

He would again see Ginny.

The bleachers were buzzing at Cedric's emergence — a droning ocean of foolish inanity that Ginny banished from her mind as her mind raced through contingencies.

Harry was still in there. He hadn't been dragged out on a stretcher, but he'd been gone far too long!

Contrary to the strictures that the Triwizard Committee and Dumbledore had issued, Ginny began to make her way down the bleachers toward the pitch. Hermione called to her in askance, but Ginny didn't hear. She had to know what was happening.

As Ginny stepped out onto the pitch, Madame Hooch paused in her sidelines patrol, cupped a hand to shout, but took one look at Ginny's face and let her pass. Ginny strode purposefully over to the medic tent, catching the eye of Cedric who was seated on a cot, hunched over and shuddering.

He nodded to her weakly and beckoned her over. Swallowing, he met her gaze. “When I last saw him, he was fine.”

“Thanks.” Ginny knelt in front of him. Frowning at the older boy's tremors, she took hold of one of his hands, noting the cold perspiration. “Oi Diggory. You're not exactly fine though, are you?”

Cedric attempted a shrug, but shivers defeated any attempt at nonchalance. “Cruciatus curse.”

“What?!” Madame Pomfrey burst up from her ministrations to Fleur. “Cruciatus?! In a student competition?? Who cast it.”

“Er, well...” Cedric cast an awkward glance at the Durmstrang student lying comatose a dozen feet away. “It was Krum, but Harry and I were both convinced he'd been Imperiused.”

Imperiused?!! ” Madame Pomfrey choked. “Albus Dumbledore is going to need a bandage on his ear when I'm through yelling!”

The Healer tore open her apothecary's bag, kneading her temples. “Unforgivables at Hogwarts?? Merciful Merlin — I packed sporting potions, not a blooming DCTK!”

Ginny gave her a concerned look. “DCTK?”

“Dark Curse Treatment Kit.” Pomfrey ground her teeth. “Fiddlesticks! Where's my Valerian? My Skull's Cap and Devil's Claw?”

“Madame Pomfrey?” Ginny reached into an inside pocket of her cloak. “I have all of those with me.”

Pomfrey rolled her eyes impatiently. “Miss Weasley, this is a place of healing. I have very serious duties to...”

“No, you don't understand.” Ginny produced a small wooden box. “I have Harry's trunk with me. It has a potions lab hand-stocked by Lily Potter.”

“Lily Potter…?” Pomfrey stared for a moment, then her eyes brightened. “Girl, why didn't you say so?! Let me make a list for you. I won't need full dose regimens — just enough to comfort these poor children until I get them back to the castle.”

While Madame Pomfrey re-examined the three students, Ginny summoned vials of healing herbs from the now-expanded trunk, and listened as Cedric recounted how a stunned-looking Victor Krum had ambushed him. With Fleur already out of the competition and Harry far ahead of them all in the maze, Cedric explained that he'd very nearly lost hope, fearing for his life and sanity, only to have Harry sprint back in the nick of time to stun Krum.

“You chose well, Ginny — Harry has class.” Cedric settled back onto his cot, wincing in pain. “He didn't want to leave me, but finally I persuaded him to get the Cup and put an end to this mess. I promised him I'd let you know he was okay.”

“Thanks.” Ginny nodded as she examined a jar of Devil's Claw to make certain it was still robust. “Funny how none of us care about the bleeding Cup, yeah? I just want Harry out of there. Alive.”

Cedric lay a weak hand on her arm. “He'll be fine. He can't have had many more obstacles left.”

Ginny nodded again and looked away. She didn't want to diminish Cedric's reassurances, but the Hufflepuff was missing the point. Harry had almost certainly conquered the final Triwizard obstacles ages ago… but with Unforgivables flying about the pitch like confetti, there was no telling what…

Ginny thrust dreadful thoughts from her mind. There was no time for aimless fretting — she needed to hold herself together and figure out what was going on!

Ginny forced a gracious smile for Cedric, then straightened up to observe Madame Pomfrey Rennervating Fleur.

As Fleur startled in momentary confusion, Pomfrey placed a damp cloth on the girl's forehead, felt for her pulse, then looked the Beauxbatons student in the eye. “Miss Delacour, can you tell me who assaulted you?”

“Qui a fait…?” Fleur blinked, stared up into the darkening sky for a moment, then jerked into a sitting position. “That man did eet! 'Ee is tres bad!”

Wide-eyed, Ginny turned to follow the French witch's shaking finger… straight to a familiar grizzled professor with a wooden leg.

About sixty feet away, on the fringe of the maze, Mad-Eye Moody was lumbering purposefully toward…

Toward what?

“...!” Ginny's vocal cords failed. She stared in horror at a body crumpled upon the ground.

The sensation is indescribable. When six deadly hexes sizzle through one's hair in the very instant that the Portkey activates, it is the hand of fate… cold, exhilarating, almost sensuous.

Yet Fate is a perfidious partner. Fate had led Harry astray, stolen his precious blood, cast his future into great jeopardy. Then Fate had guided him back from the brink.

In the end, Fate proclaimed a stalemate. The battle in the graveyard had driven the arch-villain, gasping, to his knees. Harry could not vanquish him, but neither could the forces of darkness kill a boy who had such good reasons to live.

Any exhilaration at escaping a swarm of panicked Death Eaters was short-lived. The Triwizard Cup dropped Harry face down onto the pitch, knocking him breathless. Head swimming, he struggled up…

… then fell back down hard, cloak pinned to the earth by a wooden leg.

“No point in struggling, young Harry. I'll take care of you well enough.”

Gathering his wits, Harry recognised the voice of his Defence professor. Sort of. Something in Moody's tone was off… the notes were stretched. It sounded almost like a gangly teen's voice breaking.

Harry coughed. “Let me up, professor. I can stand.”

“Maybe, but you'll not move 'til I've checked for injuries.”

Harry felt the toe of a boot jab him roughly in the ribs. Meaty fingers wrapped around Harry's right hand. He felt them wedge inwards, trying to loosen the grip on his…

Wand!

Tearing his cloak from beneath Moody's peg, Harry spun onto his back. “Expelliarmus!

The grizzled man had barely an instant to register surprise when…

Stupefy!

… He crumpled onto Harry.

Harry shoved Moody to the side and twisted up to see… “Ginny!”

Ginny's wide eyes left the professor she'd just stunned, and clung desperately onto the young man she'd been waiting for. “Harry!”

Kicking the Triwizard Cup away, Ginny knelt by him, running tremulous fingers along his perspiring cheek. “Harry, are you okay?”

Harry's mouth opened, but he couldn't find an easy answer. He knew his physical afflictions (an ugly gash on one arm, several broken ribs, numerous scrapes and the residual pain of Voldemort's Cruciatus curse) would all mend. But there were other wounds — to his spirit; to the world. Would they heal?

Harry's breath rasped and he looked his best friend in the eye. “Ginny, we need to talk. Alone.”

Ginny nodded. She glanced at the tall shrubs around them, noting that their location still shrouded them from prying eyes. Unfortunately, the stands were roaring in wild speculation ignited by Ginny's wild dash into the fringe of maze. Things were about to get… chaotic.

Ginny's gaze settled on Harry's trunk — privacy! She pointed her wand toward where she'd left it on the sidelines. “Accio trunk!”

“Miss Weasley, what…?” Madame Pomfrey turned the corner and stared in bewilderment at the stunned body on the ground (Moody seemed to be growing taller, younger, less scarred and more gaunt by the second); the Triwizard cup discarded in the weeds; a girl helping a battered, bleeding Triwizard champion to his feet. Pomfrey cleared her throat. “Miss Weasley, please release Mr. Potter. I must examine him before…”

Harry looked up; his green eyes pained and beseeching. “Madame Pomfrey, this place is about to get a bit crazy. May I please speak to Ginny in private first?” Harry gestured to the open trunk.

Scowling, Pomfrey considered the options, then sighed. “Mr. Potter, I'm certain to catch a world of grief from the Headmaster for permitting this but… very well. I'll try to give you ten minutes.”

Harry offered her a weary smile — downcast but grateful.

A minutes later, Harry was sitting on a conjured cot in the library wearing no more than his boxers. It was not the first time that Harry, for various medical reasons, had stripped down in the company of his best friend. Lip wedged between her teeth, Ginny held a basket containing Essence of Dittany, burn paste and various other healing potion, and was now examining him, head to toe.

Ginny knelt and began tending his arm, angling her torso away so that Harry couldn't see the moisture in her eyes. After the bleeding had stopped, she released a long, pent-up breath. “So what happened?”

Harry's voice was barely more than a whisper. “He's back, Gin'.”

Ginny nodded with neither shock nor fright; she had already guessed the news from Harry's face. “How?”

“Some kind of monstrous necromancy.” Harry's face scrunched in revulsion. “My blood brought him back.”

Ginny put aside her Dittany cloth and lowered her cheek to his chest. “Oh Harry…”

“I failed.” Harry fixed his eyes on the ceiling. “Two years ago you stopped him from coming back, but tonight… I failed.”

Ginny stiffened. She lifted herself from his chest and glared at him sternly. “Harry, two years ago WE stopped him from coming back. Tonight, WE were tricked! You and I both knew something was wrong, but we just didn't figure it out in time.” She looked away and gritted her teeth. “No thanks to Dumbledore, Fudge, or the criminally negligent Department of International Magical Co-operation…”

Harry's eyes widened; he stared for a moment at the livid, strained, pained, but otherwise beautiful face in front of him.

This was a face he would do anything for.

This was a face that, months ago, in a moment of weakness, he had kissed.

He desperately wished to do it again, somehow believing that the affection and solidarity could help to take away her pain…

But no. Ginny was his friend. Just because she was so patient and kind to him didn't mean she was comfortable with… Er, well, she had more than enough to worry about, without all the complicated stuff that comes when a boy tells a girl that he's…he's, uh…

He's in love with her?

Ginny was looking at Harry quizzically. He ducked his head awkwardly but then, uncertain of exactly what to do, he raised a tentative hand to stroke her cheek.

“You're right, Gin'.” Shy but determined, he met her gaze. “You and I were tricked… but never again. No pig-headed Death Eaters or snake-nosed maniac will ever best us both, right?”

Harry attempted a smile.

Ginny blinked once for the unexpected hand on her cheek, once for the bravado in her friend's voice, and once for his smile. Reflexively, her mouth turned up at the corners. She gazed at him contemplatively… then looked away and sighed. “That's just it, Harry. Nobody will fool both of us.”

Harry frowned, not comprehending.

Ginny turned back to face Harry, pinning him with wide, earnest eyes. “Nobody can take us on together and win, but what about when we're alone? Two years ago, Tom pried us apart, isolated me, and it was nearly catastrophic. Tonight, you were all alone at the end of the maze, and look what happened.”

Harry pursed his lips. “So you're saying that… when we're apart, bad things happen?”

Ginny studied Harry pensively for a long moment, then shrugged a bit sheepishly. “Yeah, basically.”

Harry nodded. “So, for the sake of safeguarding the world, we should… promise to stick together?”

“I suppose so, yes.” Ginny pursed her lips. “I promise. For the good of the universe and whatnot…”

“I promise too.” Harry's mouth twitched. “But the universe can't really expect us to be together every moment of every day, right? I mean, Riddle's not going to follow you into the shower, for example.”

Ginny tapped her cheek. “Yes, well fortunately Gryffindor Tower is charmed to keep men and boys out of the girls' dorms and loos, so no worries there. But you, on the other hand…” She tapped him on the chest. “I'm afraid universal security will dictate a change in your routine. Beginning tomorrow, I suppose I'll have to start escorting you to the loo.”

“But…” Harry gulped, and ran a hand through his hair. “I, uhh…”

Ginny raised a stern eyebrow… then burst out laughing. “Don't worry, Harry. I promise I won't start staking out your shower. People might start thinking that I'm overprotective.”

“Oh, heavens no.” Harry chuckled. “I can't imagine anyone ever thinking that.”

They both burst out laughing, and couldn't stop for at least a minute — a perfectly ridiculous little interlude for two people who had spent too long being far too serious.

As the merriment subsided to warm, quiet smiles, Ginny rested her fingers on the curve of Harry's jaw. “Speaking of taking showers, people outside are likely in a complete lather now. We've been down here for well over fifteen minutes.”

“I know. I know.” Harry sighed. “Don't you just wish we could run away from it all? Go flying together? It feels like our tradition now, yeah?”

“I'd love to… but they'd never let us.” Ginny smiled softly and stroked his cheek. “Of course, we could start a new tradition…”

“Oh?” Harry's eyes widened. “What did you have in mind?”

Ginny said nothing.

She couldn't… because she was kissing him.

Back to index


Chapter 4: Promises

Author's Notes:

Le dénouement, my friends!

After wrestling with this a bit, I've decided to nudge the rating up to PG, based on the intensity of the first scene. And yes, there is death depicted.

A key acknowledgement to make: I usually strive in my writing to push into new and uncharted vistas, but the more I edited this last chapter, the more I knew that some of the mood and imagery was indelibly inspired by Alicia Rose Potter's beautiful short, 'Flying Again'. I guess I couldn't get it out of my head, ARP -- thank you for creating something so touching!

Fist bumps to all readers and, especially, reviewers. I won't name names, but some of you are as loopy as I am. Thanks!


Chapter 4. Promises (May 2, 1998)

Harry rose through the trap door just in time to glimpse the tip of a massive snake tail slithering out of view.

Biting back a cry, he saw immediately that he'd arrived at the Shrieking Shack too late. Even in the low light afforded only by distant street lamps shining through a window, Harry could read pain and anguish on the face of a mortally wounded Severus Snape. Rushing to the side of the man Harry had long considered a nemesis, he saw Snape's eyes open in recognition. Harry was amazed that the man was still alive, given the massive dark stains spreading from his torso.

Reaching into his survival kit, Harry withdrew a vial. Holding it up to the faint light, he winced. The vial held the remnant of a complex, extraordinarily potent healing potion that Ginny had made in April from his mother's instructions (via the scroll). In suitable quantity, the substance might have given him a chance to save Snape, but they'd needed two ounces of the precious distillate to stabilise Fred's wounds just an hour ago, and the half ounce remaining was unlikely to…

Snape's trembling hand seized Harry's wrist; his eyes locked onto Harry's.

Harry glanced from face to wound and back again. “Stay still sir. I'm going to try…”

The professor shook his head. Agony softening to an unusual expression (Regret? Sadness??), Snape's eyes glanced meaningfully at Harry's wand.

Puzzled, Harry drew his wand closer. And closer. It was six inches from Snape's face when Harry suddenly spied the faint filaments of glowing diaphanous vapour streaming from the former Potions Master's eyes and mouth. Gasping in sudden recognition, Harry began sweeping the tip of his wand about, siphoning up the tendrils of magical memory.

Casting about for a vessel in which to store the final testament of Severus Snape, Harry's eyes settled upon the nearly empty medical vial.

Biting his lip, Harry made his decision. Lifting the cork, he tipped the final aliquot of precious potion carefully onto Snape's chest — not enough to save the wizard, but perhaps offer the man some comfort in the final moments of a painful, tragic life.

As Harry deposited the memories into the now-empty bottle, he chanced one final glance at the perennially dour face and saw the faintest hint of a smile? Harry wondered if, in his dying breath, Severus Snape might be recognising and cherishing the unmistakable grace of a Lily Evans potion recipe…

Placing the capped bottle in an inside pocket, Harry stifled a sob. Reaching down for the lifeless hand, he was just preparing to cover the body, when…

“Oi! Boys, in here!” The juvenile bark rang out like a demented seal. “Confringo!”

Protego!” Harry, whipped around, deflecting the hex into a nearby wall, exploding it into sparks, splinters and plaster dust.

Wobbling in a nearby alcove was the pudgy, bug-eyed, deliriously excited face of Vincent Crabbe. “Oi!! I found Potter! 'Ee's with Snape!”

Rising to a wary crouch, Harry advanced slowly on the Slytherin student, and flicked his wand. “Go home with the rest of your mates, Crabbe. This is no place for children.”

“Naff off!” Crabbe's face pinched peevishly. “Look at li'l Potter-no-mates! C'mon boys, let's bring li'l Potter-no-mates to see the boss!”

There was no response.

A bit of distant light glinted off beads of sweat on the Crabbe's forehead. “Eh, boys??”

Beyond Crabbe's laboured breathing, all was silent…

Then Harry lashed sharply to Crabbe's right. “Stupefy!”

In the dark adjacent corridor, one shape thudded hard onto the clattery planks. Another yelped, leapt to the side in a telltale flash of silver-blond hair, and whipped out a wand. “Stupefy!”

“Protego!” Harry batted Draco Malfoy's stunner to the side, stumbled a bit, then looked across in horror…

Vincent Crabbe was prancing — wide-eyed; delirious. Wand pointing straight up, a crazed grin spread across his greasy features. He snorted, sniggered, then erupted into uncontrolled giggling as he unleashed a viscous, sulphurous flame from his wand.

“Should've come while 'e had the chance, li'l Potter-no-mates!” Crabbe waved his wand drunkenly, spraying the fierce, cloying flames about like a child's streamers.

Then a spark caught the Slytherin student's sleeve.

In the glare of the leaping inferno, Harry glanced down the corridor… at the horrified face of Draco Malfoy hovering over the stunned body of Gregory Goyle.

“Run Draco!” Harry gestured toward a distant window, still free of the flames.

Draco just stared, mesmerised by the ghastly blistering dance of death…

Harry's gaze darted to the alcove where Crabbe had been, but saw nothing there now but flames. Biting his lip, he recognised his only viable remaining action. “Repulso! ” Harry's spell punched Draco and the stupefied Goyle straight out the dilapidated window, and down into the brambly thicket that lined the outskirts of Hogsmeade.

With a final scan of the room (an impromptu funeral pyre for Severus Snape; an adventitious death trap for the murderous snake now writhing among the rafters like an igneous bullwhip) Harry twisted to Disapparate.

And nothing happened.

Oh crap…

Vaguely recalling rumours of a Disapparition jinx being placed on Hogsmeade, Harry glanced around at the walls of encroaching flame, wracking his brain for some way to escape.

Accio Harry!!”

Harry felt his whole body lurch backwards. Hastily raising a shield to repel the ravening flames, he skidded through some debris, tripped, and found himself plunging headlong through the trap door, straight toward… Ginny!

As Harry's petite girlfriend grabbed for him, he kicked at the stone wall — just enough to pivot them both. An instant later, they tumbled onto the loose scree of the Hogsmeade passageway; Harry on his back; Ginny on top.

Harry barely noticed the snapping sensations in his chest (a few additions to his lifetime collection of broken ribs), and instead attended to his frantic rescuer.

“Harry are you all right? You've no sparks on you, yeah? What in Merlin's name was that idiot thinking?? And blast it — the Trace Harry! They'll be onto us in minutes! I'm so sorry, but I didn't think. I just pulled my wand out and was casting Accio before I knew…”

“Gin'?” Harry raised a single grimy finger. “Can I say two things?”

Ginny nodded breathlessly.

“First of all, sod the trace, okay? If the fire hasn't tipped off our location, then Draco will probably rat on us anyway.”

Ginny took a quick breath as she processed the statement.

“Secondly, we need to run a few hundred feet that way.” Harry gestured down the dark tunnel. “Once we're past the Disapparition jinx, we'll side-along out of here.”

Ginny nodded. She leaped to her feet, ready to run, except for Harry's grip about her wrist.

Ginny looked at him questioningly.

Harry grinned. “Third, the snake's dead. And fourth…” Harry leaned in to kiss her forehead. “Thank you for saving my life.”

Willfully disregarding the pain in his ribs, Harry allowed himself to be pulled into a quick but fierce embrace, before disengaging to race down the narrow passage.

A minute later, Harry and Ginny had Apparated to a quiet copse on the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest. Tucked within a low stand of juniper, Ginny expanded the trunk while Harry cast several privacy and disillusionment spells.

Ginny had just reached the bottom step, and Harry was about to swing his leg down into the trunk, when a terrible voice — hard, nasal and shrill — echoed through the hills.


Friends and worthy opponents! I come to you in peace.

I come to rid our world of the cowardly menace you all know as Harry Potter.”


Harry stiffened.


For months, the scurrilous Potter has marauded about the British countryside, waging his personal war of terror upon our peaceable citizens.”


Harry quirked an eyebrow, detecting an unexpected quiver in Voldemort's voice. Was that a note of anger? Or fear?


My friends, he is a criminal and a killer, and has killed again tonight.

He lurks in our midst. He was just seen in Hogsmeade, and has likely infiltrated Hogwarts to threaten our Wizarding children.

Dear witches, wizards; students and professors — do not be fooled by Potter's lies and treachery! Bring him to me, here in the Forbidden Forest, and I shall rid you of him.

If you do not deliver the criminal into my hands WITHIN ONE HOUR, I shall enter the castle myself to personally remove him!”


After a fleeting glance at the castle, Harry gazed toward the depths of the forest. His jaw set, Harry took a deep breath and lowered himself into the trunk.

He'd have preferred more time with Ginny to examine Snape's memories in his parents' Pensieve… but they'd have to make do with a half hour.

After Harry and Ginny withdrew from the Pensieve, they sat in silence, facing each other, cross-legged on the library floor.

Harry opened his mouth, took in a quick breath… then trailed away without speaking. A short while later, Ginny did the same. Finally, they both spoke. Simultaneously.

“Harry, Professor Dumbledore was setting you up to be sacr… ?!”

“Blimey! Mum was right about Snape! I wish he…”

They stared at each other. The statements fell away, unfinished; unrepeated; unanswered.

Snape's memories had shaken some core convictions, yet opened their eyes to other truths that neither might ever have considered. For all the unresolved angst that both quietly hoped to someday conquer together, the Pensieve had delivered some crucial clarity.

Harry reached for Ginny's hand. “We have less than thirty minutes left to respond to Riddle's ultimatum.”

Ginny nodded.

“Gin'…” Harry fixed his gaze on her graceful fingers. “You know that I have to go into the forest?”

“Yes.” Ginny's gaze slowly tracked upwards from the floor, to Harry's chest, and finally to his eyes. “Are you going to tell people at the castle?”

“Ugh.” Harry ran a hand through his hair. “Hermione, Ron, McGonagall and Kingsley — every single one of them would try to talk me out of this.”

“Probably.” Ginny blew a lock of hair out of her face, and fleetingly caught Harry's eye. “But you should still let them know.”

Hedwig swooped across from the corner of the library, carrying a quill and blank parchment. “Who.”

Harry huffed, the corner of his mouth twitching. “Why do I get the feeling you two are ganging up on me again?”

Ginny raised an eyebrow.

Hedwig puffed out her chest. “Who!”

Harry got to his feet and accepted the writing materials from his owl. Ginny and Hedwig followed him into the study carrel and read over his shoulder as he wrote.


Dear Ron and Hermione,

By the time this reaches you, I will have gone into the forest to face Riddle.

I know exactly what I am doing. This is the only way.

Take good care of everyone — please keep them safe in the castle until the darkness is past.

- Harry


Harry fastened the parchment to Hedwig's leg. “Can you wait a half hour before delivering this?”

“Who.” Hedwig hopped onto the table. “Who?”

“Will you see me again?” Harry smiled fondly at his owl. “Yes, of course.”

Harry did not specify when or where they might ever meet again, but Hedwig accepted his promise. She nibbled gently on his chin then took to the air, flying up from the trunk, and out into the night.

Ginny watched the proceedings reflectively. She scuffed her trainer against the floor, then reached for Harry's arm.

“Yes Gin'?”

“Is all that true, Harry? You know exactly what you're doing?” She paused. “You know how you'll face Tom? You know how you'll evade his traps?”

“Errr...” Harry took her hand and pulled her close. “Okay, you and I both know I'm kind of winging it. I chose those words to placate Hermione.”

In simpler situations, Ginny would have delivered a smart remark, but tonight she merely nodded.

“About those traps though.” Harry met her eye. “Sure he'll play dirty, but who do you think he's going to snare?”

Ginny frowned. “He aims to snare you, Harry. To him, the Prophecy means 'kill or be killed', so he'd like nothing better than to eliminate you.”

“Right!” Harry nodded eagerly. “But he's wrong about the Prophecy.”

Ginny raised an eyebrow, but Harry continued undaunted. “The Prophecy goes to great lengths to avoid saying the word kill. There's live and die, vanquish and survive, but never 'kill'.”

Ginny nodded.

“In all of these crazy adventures, however unfair things may seem at times, fate never rewards the killer.” Harry's voice was a bare whisper. “Riddle is obsessed with death and killing, and I'm convinced his obsession will be his undoing. I just have to go spring the trap, Gin'.”

“So you're just going to blindly do Dumbledore's bidding?” Ginny bit her lip. “You're going to sacrifice yourself?”

“Yes.” Harry nodded slowly. “And I'm not afraid.”

Ginny scanned his face for a moment, then looked away. “You're not afraid to die.”

“Not anymore. How many times in the past year have we stared death in the eye?” Harry shrugged. “Death is practically an old friend now. Trust me, Gin', there are things that I still fear, but death isn't one of them.”

“So, what are you afraid of?”

Harry ran his thumb over the soft skin of her hand. “Right now, I can only think of two things.”

Ginny waited silently, expectantly.

“I'm afraid of a world where Riddle is never stopped, and…” Staring vacantly at the dormant Pensieve, Harry bit down on his lower lip. “I'm afraid of losing you.”

Ginny stood quietly for a moment, then turned back to Harry. She reached up and gently raised his chin. “Harry, you can scrap that last fear.”

Harry turned quizzically to look at her.

“You're never going to lose me.” A spark had ignited in Ginny's eyes. Her hand softly pressed his cheek. “Three years ago we promised to stick together, and I'm not about to break that promise.”

“But…” Harry stared at her, uncomprehending.

“Just take it on faith, okay?” She somehow managed to smile. “We're strongest when we're together. We're not going to lose each other.”

“Okay…” Harry nodded in blind affirmation.

“Good.” Ginny lowered her hand to grasp his. “So if we stick together, then I'm going into the forest with you.”

Harry's eyes widened.

Her statement was perfectly justifiable. He was being impetuous in this, so why couldn't she? Anyone who had followed him with such unquestioning loyalty through months of peril and exile had every right to follow him another hour; another quarter mile.

Harry knew of only one remaining argument. He sighed. “Gin', the Prophecy is mine to bear. Mine alone.”

“Not the way I see it.” Ginny shook her head. “The Prophecy said you had a power that he knows not.”

“Er, yes?” Harry raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“You have the power of a REALLY stubborn girlfriend. Tom may underestimate it, but you'd better not!” Ginny smirked fleetingly, then sobered again. “You and I are going into the forest together and, live or die, we'll make sure that Tom is stopped.”

Harry nodded.

“No more fears, right?” Ginny offered him a soft, hopeful smile.

Harry took a long, deep breath. “No more fears. Live or die. Together it is.” Then he smiled, content to be bested (once again) by an irrepressible young woman.

Silence fell about them. Arms reached out; two hearts pressed close and synchronised; unspoken promises silently intertwined.

They gazed for a moment about this sombre, studious yet greatly cherished chamber that James and Lily had bequeathed to their son. In those dark final days, the Potters had hoped (almost against hope) that their gift could bring knowledge, strength, and the power of love.

From the wisdom, strength and love manifest in the pair standing now within the trunk, it was clear that the Potters' wishes had been met.

Without shame, grateful tears began to track silently down Harry's and Ginny's faces, speaking so many soft, tender, eloquent things that words could not. Finally, they clasped hands, and made their way up into the darkest hour of night, prepared for one more journey together, uncertain whether it might be their last.

In deep shadow, behind one of the giant mossy oaks that the Forbidden Forest was famous for, Harry's fingers graced those of a young woman upon whose hand he had so often relied.

As with two people who have grown so close, the fleeting touch was no faint gesture. It was a whole, rich dialogue. The touch declared that Harry was ready to leave the Invisibility Cloak and reveal himself; that Ginny would hold current position and provide cover; that Harry remembered all of their well-rehearsed intervention signals; that Ginny would see or hear anything he did not.

That he loved her.

That she loved him.

Fingers slipped away, and Harry was gone — moving silently from the tree toward a circle of torches borne by an increasingly agitated group of Death Eaters, clamouring about their erstwhile immortal leader,

“Silence!” Voldemort raised his hand imperiously, quelling the din. He glared about the assembly. “Since the cowardly Potter has refused to honour us with his pres-”

“Are you blind, Tom?” Harry stepped into the light. “I'm here and waiting.”

Voldemort gaped at him for a moment, then quelled his surprise, twisting a pair of semi-human lips into a lurid grin. “Well, well! I see you've lost none of your penchant for dramatic appearances, have you, young Har-?”

“If your plan is to talk me to death, it won't work.” Harry raised his wand to a casual oblique level. “I'm here as a courtesy to you. In return, I expect the courtesy of you getting this over with.”

Voldemort's eyes flashed — embers scowling like a cat deprived of a favourite plaything. He stalled for a minute, perhaps wracking his brain for a cutting reply. In this he failed, managing only a feral snarl. “So be it, sniveling child. I challenge you to a duel to the death! No running away; no hiding behind your friends!”

“Sure. I won't if you won't, Tommy.” Harry gave a wry glance at Bellatrix Lestrange — dogging her master's heels; wand twitching excitedly.

Catching Harry's glance, Voldemort glared at his acolyte. “Stay back, Bella. The boy is mine and mine alone. I'll get you some playmates later.”

Affronted, Bellatrix gave Harry a loathsome sneer, then slinked away. Harry rolled his eyes, then turned impassively back to Voldemort who was watching him with a conflicted blend of stark hunger and half-suppressed anxiety.

Silent and unmoving, as the earliest fringe of twilight began to colour the eastern skies, a young man and an ageless fiend faced each other across the forest glade.

Somewhere in the distance, a chaffinch began to sing — a sweetness that pained the dark wizard's ears. He twitched and scowled. Then, as if enraged by the very innocence of nature, Voldemort's wand speared the air, lashing out at his young adversary. “AVADA KEDAVRA!!

In the time that it took for Elder Wand to summon pulsing boils of Unforgivable green filth, Harry rose tall… and set his arms to rest at his side.

As the heinous curse tore across the glade, Voldemort noticed the placid expression on his victim's face. He gaped in surprise; in sudden deep trepidation.

In fear?

Before the distant songbird had cast its final dulcet note, Harry's mind was not on the killing curse or what might follow; not on a world whose fate hung in quivering irresolution.

Harry thought only of love. And promises.

Cool night air thrilled through his hair. The crisp sky, although still dark and starry, was beginning to lighten to a rich Phthalo blue on the eastern horizon far below.

Far FAR below.

“Wow!” Harry's grip tensed on his broomstick. “We're flying high!”

“Yes we are.”

Harry's head spun to the side, and gaped at his smiling companion. “Ginny!” He blinked and stared. “I-I… wasn't expecting you.”

“Why not?” She raised an eyebrow. “Since when do you ever go night flying alone?”

“Ha! Too true!” Harry chuckled, then trailed off, a bit disoriented. He glanced again at the girl flying beside him. “Ginny, is that really you?”

She shrugged.

Harry gazed at her — the delicate features of her face seeming to capture soft luminescence from some unknown source; hair streaming out behind her; the ghost of a smile still decorating her lips.

He looked around at the huge dark sky above, and the distant, nondescript ground below. It was a view unlike any he had ever seen. It was surreal…

A faint pang arose in his chest… “Ginny, are we dead?”

She shook her head, sending luxuriant hair into delicate ripples that danced on the breeze for a moment before straightening.

“Oh?” Still mystified, Harry tried a subtle variation. “Then, am I dying?”

“I don't know, Harry.” Ginny's expression was serene and solemn. “I assume that's for you figure to out. When you do, please let me know."

“Well, I, uhh…” Harry frowned. “That might mean that… I have a choice? In dying?”

Ginny shrugged again.

As Ginny drifted silently closer, Harry studied her face for clues. “If I die, will Riddle be defeated?”

“Yes.” Ginny's tone was clear yet inscrutable. “You were brilliant, Harry. By refusing to defend yourself, you brought him to a ruin of his own creation. Magic may still bind his flesh and bones, but in all other ways he's bankrupt — clinging to a feeble shred of soul. Any challenge mounted with real courage or conviction will strip away his last pretences."

Harry gazed at her, not needing to ask whose courage and conviction would complete that task.

Ginny nodded slightly; her expression somehow both dreamlike and strong. She gazed off toward the horizon. “Tom hasn't quite realised it yet, but he completely squandered his life. He never had anything but delusions of immortality and dominion. Now he has nothing at all.”

“Ah. Poor him.” Harry stared into the deep starry sky. “I wonder what will happen to me? When I die, that is.”

“A lot of flying, maybe?” Ginny swept an arm through the night air. “If you get weary of that, I'm sure you'll find other inspirations.”

Harry's inquiring eyes riveted to Ginny. “With you?”

“Of course. I promised you.”

Harry couldn't tell if Ginny's faint smile conveyed encouragement, or sadness. He took a deep breath, feeling a weight of responsibility. “What will happen if I live?”

“Pleasure and pain? Sunshine and rain?” Ginny shrugged one final time. “A lot depends, my love, on why and how you live.”

“Of course it does.” Sighing, Harry closed his eyes, meditating on his choices.

Death would mean victory, freedom and bliss.

Life was a resumption of responsibility; acceptance of the unknown.

Harry descended into quiet inner solitude, wrestling between the temptation of a painless reward, and a conscience inured to forswearing all simple paths.

After some immeasurable time, still at an impasse, Harry felt Ginny lay her hand on his. He opened his eyes to see her smiling; to see the morning mist clearing away for a perfect summer day. Their brooms had drifted far lower; their toes nearly skimming the full-leafed upper branches of woodlands graced with merry birdsong.

“Come with me.” She winked. Withdrawing her hand, she sped away.

He watched uncomprehending for a moment, then grinned. Leaning hard on his broom, he dashed after her, and found himself in merry chase, speeding around a stand of tall aspens that looked… very familiar.

They pulled sharply to right and Harry saw it — the Burrow!

The Weasley home stood rickety as always, but with paint of fresh vibrant colours such as he couldn't recall having seen on the Burrow in years — well before all of the wartime privations.

They touched down in the back yard, laid their brooms against a post, then hurried onto the porch and through the kitchen door, arriving just in time to be startled by a loud DING!

Into the kitchen raced a girl in a pretty summer dress. Not paying them the slightest heed, she scurried to the old range.

Harry blinked... then laughed. “That's you!” He turned to his companion who was standing at his side, smiling absently. “That's you when you were, what? Maybe ten?”

Companion Ginny winked. “Very nearly eleven.”

Meanwhile, Little Ginny clambered up onto a stool to reach a pair of oven mitts hanging from a beam. “Mum, the biscuits are ready! May I take them out?”

“Yes dear, please do! I'll be down in a minute to help.”

The kitchen filled with a heavenly aroma as the girl carefully pulled the tray from the oven, setting out a batch of delectably golden biscuits to cool. As the young girl searched in a drawer for a spatula, Molly (a younger Molly, bearing noticeably fewer worry lines than Harry had now grown accustomed to) entered the kitchen with a gift box and some baking parchment.

Molly inhaled the kitchen's scents. “Perfect, dear! Pretty soon you'll bake me straight out of a job!”

Little Ginny scoffed. “Not likely, Mum!” She began carefully prying the biscuits from the tray; transferring them onto parchment Molly had set into the bottom of the box.

Molly smiled. “We should save a few for your brothers. And for yourself, of course.”

Little Ginny shook her head. “One for each of the boys, but none for me. I want to make sure he has enough!”

“Well, I'm sure he'll appreciate that!” Molly ruffled the girl's hair.

After Little Ginny had packed the last of the biscuits, Molly charmed the lid of the box in place, and reached into the deep pocket of her apron. “Would you like to tie it up dear?”

Nodding eagerly, the young girl accepted a ribbon...

A red and green striped cloth ribbon.

Harry choked. With tears prickling in his eyes, Harry fumbled for the inner pocket of his cloak, pulling out a tattered strip of cloth he had carried with him everywhere for the past nearly six years. He turned to the young woman at his side. “I knew it had to have been you.” He grinned moistly. “Nobody else would ever be so kind to me.”

“Nobody else?” Ginny's grin contained a mysterious glimmer of mischief.

Puzzled, Harry studied his companion, trying to parse her meaning.

Catching his eye, she gestured over his shoulder.

Harry swiveled back toward the pleasant domestic scene… and gaped.

The Burrow's joyously chaotic clutter had vanished. Magically, they found they'd been transported to a spacious modern kitchen. The marble and steel formality was happily offset with books, oddments, lots of silly pictures, and a jumble of mismatched sets and implements — all conspiring to capture something of that same homey character of the only kitchen that Harry had ever loved.

There was still a little girl carefully tying a ribbon; she was still lively and thin, with gleaming red hair, but she was no longer Ginny.

The late-thirtyish mother, whose patient finger anchored the girl's ribbon, was clearly not Molly.

Harry shifted his vantage to glimpse the woman's face. He stared for a moment, then chuckled.

“Ahem. Yes?” Harry's own teenaged companion placed hands on her hips. “Is something funny?”

Still wide-eyed, Harry gestured toward the lithe woman. “You're still just as beautiful, decades from now.”

“Perhaps.” Teenaged Ginny's eyebrow arched. “So apparently you find this… amusing?”

Harry carefully wiped the smirk from his face. “Sorry. It's just that you'll still have the exact same little pattern of pretty freckles about your nose and I, um love them!”

It was Teenaged Ginny's turn to smirk. “Good save, Potter.”

On the counter was a hand-written card that the little girl hadn't yet had the chance to affix to the package. Teenaged Ginny picked it up and handed it to Harry.


Dear Daddy,

Tomorrow is your birthday! I'm so excited!

I hope you like these biscuits, but Mum says you will. She even thinks you'll like them even more than treacle tart. Is that really possible?

Mum promised me that she'll wake me up tonight at 12:01 a.m., so that I can give you the present then. That way, you won't have to wait.

Mum said that, once upon a time, you had to wait a long long time (years!) for biscuits like these. Is there a good story in there somewhere? I hope you can tell me about it some day.

Happy Birthday!

Love,

Lily Luna!!


Harry placed the card carefully back onto the kitchen counter next to the little girl. Gazing wide-eyed, about the scene, he choked back a sob.

Companion Ginny took his hand.

“This is what…” Harry looked into her smiling eyes. “I mean, if I ever want to have…?”

His companion nodded.

“This is why I have to live.” He took a deep breath. “This is why I've got to go back to the forest…”

“Yes.” Her eyes moist, Companion Ginny nodded. “Otherwise no ginger and pralines for you, Harry.”

Tears running freely down his face, Harry embraced the only person who (quietly, through dozens of wild adventures) had always sincerely wished he might someday find simple, normal happiness. He held on for dear life.

Without leaving the comfort of her arms, he withdrew into his thoughts, mapping out what he needed to do. Then he stepped back and gazed upon his eternal companion — the girl of the ribbon and the trunk; commiserator of the diary and cup; loyal confederate through perils past; soul mate for joys to come.

Harry took a deep breath. “There is only one thing still standing in the way of those biscuits.”

“Right.” Shining with strength and dedication, Ginny's eyes met his and she nodded. “I'll meet you back in the forest — don't start without me!”

Smiling, Harry closed his eyes and felt the beautiful vision recede back from a night he had never left.

He found himself lying somewhere. His senses tingled, acute and ready — a sensation of moist earth and tree roots around his back and limbs… coarse voices muttering and whispering… a flicker of torches illuminating a leafy canopy high above…

Was it time?

His every limb pulsed with spring-loaded adrenaline. Harry Potter was more alive than he had ever been in his life.

A sudden burst of Death Eater clamour told Harry that his partner had just fulfilled another promise, which meant…

It WAS time!

Harry rose to his feet, sparking a second wild quake of confusion and dismay… that quenched to utter silence the instant he raised his wand.

And, though Voldemort was already casting a desperate curse, this story could only ever have one ending.

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