Chapter 1. Eyes (Dec. 10-25, 1997)
The man held aloft a small purple stocking.
Although wretched sleet spattered his expressionless face, the man stood passively in the jaundiced, feeble glimmers of a faltering street lamp. Cold rivulets leaked from his stringy hair, trailing past hollow eyes, down stubbly cheeks and neck, soaking an unseasonably thin anorak.
"Is that all you found?!" the voice snapped harshly from within the dark threshold.
"Yes." The man nodded. His voice sounded as vacant as his expression. "Her room was bare. The stocking was snagged beneath a dresser drawer; overlooked likely. Nothing else was left behind."
The voice hissed in frustration. "Well, I suppose it will have to do. What do you have for Chosen?"
The man carefully placed the stocking back into his sack and withdrew a well worn athletic shirt.
A lurid cackle sparked through the dank night. "Ooohh — much better! How did you come by this?"
"Nicked it from St. Mungo's Child Health Foundation. It was to have been auctioned at a charity benefit," the man responded blandly.
"Oh, how delightfully absurd!" Another shrill cackle erupted then subsided. "What else do you have?"
"Items for most people on your list. Each is tagged per specification." The man offered his sack across the threshold, where it was snatched by a thin, dark hand; wrinkled yet with an odd sheen that glistened in the low light.
"Very good!" the voice purred in satisfaction. "Did anyone see you at all?"
"Nobody except Colours," the man admitted dispassionately. "She came around a corner before I could Disapparate; watched me for a moment then turned away. I don't know that she suspected anything."
"You don't know?? Ewww... ambiguity is as bad as failure." Even the distant street lamp seemed to shiver at the chill that oozed from the voice. The hand emerged again, holding an equally black stick. "Such a pity — you had been doing rather well."
Silence fell over the gloomy scene, punctuated only by the rattle of droplets upon the decrepit front steps.
"Will that be all?" The man made no move; not even to wipe away droplets of rain collecting in the deep circles around his eyes.
"No," the voice replied. "Mustn't take any chances, right? Go lie in that culvert."
The man nodded. He walked stiffly down the steps and set himself face down in the cold trickling water.
"Avada Kedavra!" A flash of green split the night. After a deep breath, the voice spoke again with a soft, preternatural calm, saying, "Evanesco"... and the water was left to resume its natural, unimpeded course to the drain.
Far away, a young girl in her nightgown burst awake, scattering pillow and quilt onto the hardwood floor. Gasping for breath, she stared through the window just as the waxing gibbous moon broke its way through a bank of thick departing clouds.
Setting aside the cold prickles on her scalp, the girl rose from her bed and tiptoed in stealthy haste to the battered travel trunk at the foot of her bed. Quickly, quietly, she rifled through it. In less than a minute a tiny gasp, nearly inaudible, escaped her lips. She had found what she sought; with trembling hand, she held it aloft in the moonlight.
From within a stack of carefully folded pairs, she had retrieved... a solitary purple stocking.
Ugh — utter chaos!
The coverage was intense — flashes of light and color were sparking up everywhere. Harry Potter feverishly scanned the frenetic greenscape, fully aware that a poor choice now would only make matters worse.
Focus Harry — get it done!
With exemplary poise, he sifted dispassionately through the confusion, mapped the subtle underlying patterns, inexorably zeroing in on deficiencies. In barely more than a blink of an eye, he narrowed the plausible targets down to one — a single region whose coverage was slightly, almost imperceptibly, sparser than the rest.
His gaze darted left to right, up and down, re-assessing and verifying. After all, if he was to have any hope of resolving this now, any chance of restoring balance and order, he could not risk a miscalculation.
Everything checked out... he nodded decisively.
With one last quick breath to sharpen his mind, he committed! At arm's length, he raised the glistening object in his hand against the complex backdrop then surged forward and upwards in a fluid, deliberate maneuver. Senses honed to subtle aspects of position and motion, he registered a stream of images racing past, reflected in the shiny sphere: branches, lights, piercing eyes...
"Agghhh!" Harry yelped in surprise. The delicate glass Christmas ornament sprang up, out of his startled hand, and sailed obliquely in a smooth arc. Instinctively he pivoted hard, twisting his momentum away from the imperiled tree and redirecting himself in pursuit of the escaping bulb. His long and skilled fingers gauged the trajectory, closed in...
... and clamped around the wrist of Ginny Weasley.
Standing behind him with ornament securely in hand, Ginny grinned impishly and turned to her fiancé. "Ha!" she scoffed. "And here we are led to believe that you're the star seeker!".
"Anything I can do, you can do better." Harry snatched the ornament away and affixed it safely onto the chosen branch.
"Prat!" Ginny smirked and turned to leave... but not before Harry's seeker's hand curled around her waist and pulled her tightly into the crook of his arm. He planted a firm, lingering kiss on her collar bone. His lips crept south. Ginny exhaled and arched backwards, deeper into Harry's grasp. Harry lifted his head to capture her lips.
Several incoherent vocalizations later, and Emerald — her feline curiosity now fully piqued — leapt up from her favourite resting spot near the crackling hearth, mewling inquisitively, as she proceeded to weave her way between their tangled legs.
The tender kiss was rent by an ignominious shriek and Ginny burst out laughing. "That tickles, you wretched beast!" She twisted about, trying to extricate her bare feet from the furry, whiskery dynamo.
"Are you calling me a wretched beast?" Harry raised an indignant eyebrow as he broke away from the tangle and made his way toward the kitchen to investigate the suddenly frantic buzzing of an oven timer. "After all my suffering labors, I might choose to not share the cranberry biscotti, you know."
"Double prat!" Ginny called after him as she stumbled around trying to evade the capering paws. "I promise to tickle you within an inch of your biscotti... I mean life... if I ever escape from this darling and oh so evil kitty cat!"
Harry chuckled. He had no idea why all hell seemed to break loose whenever he and Ginny locked lips, but they had long since just learned to laugh and live with it.
As he pulled the baking pan from the oven, Harry inhaled the rich vapours and sighed contentedly. He put the biscotti aside to cool and summoned a pair of coffee mugs. Taking a seat at the table, he sprawled relaxedly, raising a mug to his mouth and blowing on it in quiet contemplation. He smiled at the sounds of Ginny's affectionate prattle as she attempted to coax the cat away from her feet with the promise of an early supper. Treading very carefully, she emerged into the kitchen, magically assembled a bowl of Emerald's favorite kibble and proceeded to hover it in front of the cat's nose for several seconds before sending the meal scooting into the pantry with cat in mad pursuit.
"Ahh!" Ginny sighed in relieved liberation. She turned to Harry, regarding him skeptically; clasping her hands in a way that might have looked a bit more threatening than she intended. "So, just what are you smiling at, sir?"
"You." Harry's diffuse smile expanded into a grin.
"Well, I suppose that's tolerable." She picked up a mug and crossed the room to investigate the oven tin on the counter. "A smile that comes with coffee and biscuits might even be worth encouraging."
"Save a dozen or so for Remus and Tonks, please?"
Ginny nodded as she transferred most of the biscuits to one of their Christmas plates and carried the remainder to the table. She picked up one and examined it for a quarter second before taking a bite. "Mmmmm! Pistachios!"
"It's Andromeda's recipe," Harry explained. "I'll be curious to see if Tonks notices." His gaze followed Ginny as she took a seat across from him and rested her bare feet atop his loafers. He took another drink of coffee. "So... how exactly did you sneak up on me like that, Gin'?" His eyes peered inquisitively at her from over the rim of his mug.
Ginny wiped a few crumbs from her lips, stifling a snicker. "Oh, come on Harry! It's not as if it was all that difficult, considering where all your concentration was. Goodness — I'd have sworn you were dueling that tree, not decorating it!"
"I take our Christmas blazonry very seriously I'll have you know." He chuckled. "But I'm still surprised you took me at unawares."
Ginny met his gaze and nodded. "I'm sorry if I rattled you."
"No need to apologize." Harry offered a reassuring smile as he reached for one of the cooled biscuits, but hiding behind his easy smile was a slightly uncomfortable truth — Ginny actually did rattle him a little these days.
It wasn't their relationship that unnerved Harry — that was very nearly as wonderful as Harry could have asked for. If it was not quite perfect, then it was a trade off that he accepted. During peacetime, without constant perils to necessitate their constant crystal-clear communication as confidantes, tacticians and warriors, it was actually proving a bit more challenging to be lovers.
It seemed easier to find things to disagree over when decisions no longer carried the fate of thousands of people, but he and Ginny were nonetheless adapting well to a quieter life, and were learning to cope with the incredible vistas of opportunity that seemed to have opened up to both of them.
Yet, one source of concern that seemed to keep Harry on his toes was Ginny's magic. After Voldemort's death, her aura had become increasingly opaque to him. Very opaque, in fact. And for Harry, whose most unique and powerful skill lay in sensing and interpreting magical signatures, the effect was disconcerting, and also rather intriguing...
"Earth to Harry." Ginny waved gently across his field of vision. "Is there anybody in there?"
Harry blinked and renewed his smile. "Sorry Gin' — just lost in thought." He took a sip of coffee and gazed out the window before re-engaging her curious gaze. "So, as I was saying, there's no need to apologize. Frankly, more than anything, I was impressed. Distraction or no, I'm almost certain that if any other witch or wizard in Britain had come up behind me I would have noticed. I don't know anyone magical who has a quieter aura than you had back there. Have you taught yourself some sort of exotic Occlumency trick or something?"
Ginny shook her head and put down her mug. "Not intentionally, however, in the last few weeks I've started going through some of the memories that Salvatore Fugo left me..."
Harry's eyes widened. "Ah? What have you found?"
Ginny gazed off through the window to the snow falling gently onto the hedges and roofs further down Magpie Lane. "I found things I didn't expect," she answered contemplatively. "You know, when he entered my mind that night, it seemed as if he was just bequeathing some sort of fantastic travelogue — memories of all these amazing sights, places and experiences. At the time I figured, okay this is quaint — now I can plan two hundred and fifty years worth of fabulous vacation getaways for us, but now I realise he left me a lot more. There seem to be secrets to some of his more advanced magic..."
"How to become a stone?" Harry mused.
Ginny nodded. "Self-transfiguration to inanimate objects... aura stealth... how to appear magically inert — things one might expect from a gifted wizard who spent many decades hiding from the world. I think there are other things in there too that I haven't even begun to grasp." She paused for a moment. "I wonder if Tremelda left you anything that night? I mean, besides a splitting headache."
Harry winced, then laughed as he recalled the painful episode of Horcrux diagnostics. "That's a good question — I was so caught up in their eccentricities that it never really occurred to me that they might be teaching us magic." He pulled his chair closer and lifted Ginny's feet into his lap where they nestled into his oversized jumper. "Sometime soon I should go through my memories to see if she bequeathed anything interesting, but I'm not very optimistic. Unlike Salvatore, I think her goal that night was to understand me, rather than to instruct."
"Makes sense," Ginny agreed.
"But going back to your privileged knowledge then... I was wondering...?"
Ginny looked up and nodded expectantly.
"I was wondering if you could teach me the stealth thing?" Harry inquired.
"I'll need to understand it better first, but we can certainly try." Ginny tapped her lip for a moment, then nodded to herself. "Why? Academic curiosity, Professor Potter?" She smiled at him with a twinkle in her eye... but the sparkle evaporated as it met unexpected gravitas.
"Just curious," Harry responded unconvincingly.
Ginny's eyebrow shot up. "Harry, what are you not telling me?".
"Argh! Okay, yes, there's a practical reason." Harry sighed. "But I don't want this to mess with our happy Christmas, okay?"
Ginny nodded as an apprehensive chill crept down her spine.
"Gin', we've been spoiled. The last few months we haven't had to dodge anything more frightful than obnoxious reporters, but, well... I think it might be time to revisit some of our old prudence again. A little more stealth perhaps." Harry met Ginny's inquiring gaze with utmost sobriety. "A couple days ago, the Muggle Liaison Office handed Robards some police reports of a woman loitering near Dolwyddelan, giving villagers the creeps..." Harry took a long pull on his coffee and placed the empty mug on the table. "Tall; thin; wild eyes and long, dark but greying hair... description basically fits Bellatrix Lestrange."
Ginny made her way to the kitchen, rolling her eyes at the cheerful cacophony that continued to pour out of the living room. Off-key caroling apparently made for thirsty guests, and it was her turn to fetch refills.
Despite the racket, she was having a good time. More than anything, she was overjoyed to see Lupin and Tonks so relaxed and openly affectionate with each other. Lupin had just received an excellent job offer (Professor MacGonagall had recruited him to fill the transfiguration teaching position at Hogwarts that she was supposed to vacate as Headmistress) and he had celebrated that fine news by placing a beautiful, color-shifting alexandrite ring on Tonks's finger! A sunny grin spread over Ginny's face as she thought of what a happy, exciting Christmas this had become for her dear friends.
As Ginny reached for the punchbowl, however, a composite of past Yuletides memories flickered through her mind and the grin tapered to a bittersweet sigh.
It was only right that no festive season should ever pass without some quiet, wistful remembrance of Sirius Black — the old dog would have been beside himself to feel such love in the air tonight! "God rest ye merry gentleman..." Ginny murmured softly to the dimly-lit kitchen as a faint mist arose in her eyes. She raised a glass of punch to her lips and took a long, slow drink.
Rather than immediately replenish the tray and return it to the festive living room, she drifted over toward the window to gaze out at a darkening sky and the dusting of snow that continued to steadily blanket their Muggle neighborhood. She put her fingernail to the window and scratched distractedly at one of the frost flowers that was spreading across the pane. On the face of it, the nocturnal scene seemed so peaceful, but if she stared out past the sparkling flakes, past the fluffed-up hedges and speckled street lights... there was darkness — cold and unknown. Despite all the reasons for joy, she had still not managed to shake the vague queasiness that had descended into her stomach from Harry's disturbing news.
She tried again to reason with herself; to accentuate the positives. Following the climactic battle in September, the autumn had been so pleasant and restorative. Death Eater attacks were non-existent; more than three quarters of all known Voldemort supporters had either been incarcerated or subjected to voluntary tracking charms, and the remaining fugitives were laying low, seemingly avoiding any activities that might attract Auror attention. Harry had remained engaged but safe — Gawain Robards was in near-daily contact with him, seeking opinions on current investigations, but Ginny's fiancé had proven content to uphold to their shared pledge of leading a quieter, less perilous existence, and had instead thrown his energies into his Hogwarts teaching duties.
Nobody (not even Ginny) expected Harry to spend the rest of his life as a quiet professor, but for the time being he certainly deserved a break. As far as protecting the world from evil, he had accomplished more heroic deeds last year than almost anyone else had ever done in an entire lifetime. His all-consuming mission was over; it had been a smashing success, and he had surely earned a bit of the luxurious peace he had brought to so many others. Hadn't he?
With that, Ginny sighed discontentedly, because as long as the despicable Madame Lestrange skulked in the darkness, there would never be true peace for Harry. Or for anyone in the British Wizarding community to be honest.
Ironically, at that very moment, Bellatrix's niece was in no mood to let people dwell in peace either. "Ho ho ho!" Tonks proclaimed as she bounced into the kitchen. "I knew it, boys! Weasley's in here guzzling all the punch!"
As Tonks grinned, a copious application of apple-red lipstick glistened in the lamp-light, perfectly complementing her wintergreen punk cut. Ginny attempted a breezy smile. Unfortunately the attempt failed, and Tonks's smirk faded to concern. "You look glum, chum. I'm guessing you heard about the MLO report then?"
Ginny nodded and took another sip while Tonks filled a glass, sloshed a bit over her sleeve, and did a quick scourgify. "Listen kiddo..." Tonks wobbled a bit then she regained her equilibrium. "Trust the Aurors on this one — we'll bring down the old cow and put her away. We won't let her get close to you or Harry. Try not to worry about her, orright luv?"
Ginny attempted the smile a second time but once again it fell short. "Thanks Tonks," she replied wearily. "I wish I could put it out of my head, but it's not easy. I know it probably sounds daft for the two people who defeated Riddle to be worried about an underling like Lestrange, but this is completely different.
Tonks nodded with an engaged frown on her face. She leaned against the counter next to Ginny, cradling her drink thoughtfully, silently waiting for Ginny to resume.
"The big difference is that Riddle was so predictable," Ginny explained. "He was evil incarnate and had outrageous power, but everything he did had a very perverse yet consistent logic and it was possible to graph a lot of his moves. That's the biggest reason Harry and I were able to defeat him — we could always guess how he would react to a given threat or opportunity, whereas Riddle constantly misjudged us. But that's where things break down now — Lestrange is such a toxic flakey nutjob!" Ginny paused and angrily blew a stray lock of hair from her eyes. "Find me one person on this bloody planet who has half a clue what that bitch is going to do next?!"
Tonks nodded, chuckling wryly but otherwise remaining silent.
Ginny moved from the window and began to pace. "Next problem," she resumed, "is the fact that she was spotted within spitting distance of our SHP safe house..."
Tonks lifted her hand to interject. "Don't let that fret you, Ginners! The most likely explanation for that is that Bellatrix is trying to find... or eliminate... Mum and Aunt Cissy. Aurors don't think the Dolwyddelan sightings have anything to do with you or Harry." Tonks took a long drink and re-filled her glass. "Either way, we doubt Lestrange will make any headway. We sent a team out yesterday to check and bolster the Fidelius. It was rock-solid before, and it's even better now. We also reworked the Apparition point a bit to make sure it's completely obscured from possible spies. I think it's a dead end for her."
"That's all encouraging," Ginny agreed, "but I personally found it spooky that the sightings happened only three days after Skeeter wrote an exposé revealing that Harry is bankrolling the Safe Homes and People program, and implying that the Headquarters is somewhere in the Gwydyr Forest. That filthy cockroach even went so far as to insinuate that SHP was a euphemism for Sneaky Harry Potter, and that he's using it to shelter criminals!"
Tonks wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"So maybe your department knows something that would really make me feel better," Ginny said, pouring herself some more punch, "but I'm thinking it's just as likely that Lestrange picked up the lead from Skeeter and went to Wales solely to try to scrounge for leads on Harry. As far as I can guess, she might not even realize she'd bumbled her way to within a stone's throw of her two sisters."
Tonks shrugged. "Okay, you've got a point — I'll bring it up in the next team meeting." She laughed. "You know, I think I see why Kingsley wanted so much to recruit you."
Ginny smiled for a moment at the compliment, then took a drink and resumed pacing. "The final problem..." she began, then paused for a long moment.
Tonks watched her friend silently deliberating. Despite Tonks' loquacious tendencies, the soft-skills Auror training she had taken told her that the best way to get the most out of this conversation was to give Ginny silent, supportive companionship as she worked through complex details. In other words, it was a great time to shut up, wait and listen. She was fully aware that both Ginny and Harry often saw patterns that everyone else seemed to miss and, although she disliked using her friends to advance ongoing investigations, the quality of insight she knew she might come away with posed a powerful temptation.
Despite the pregnant pause still hanging in the air, Ginny stopped to look out the window for a while. Finally she turned to face Tonks. "The other problem," Ginny conveyed with a note of finality in her voice, "is something I can't talk about yet."
Tonks looked at her quizzically for a moment then nodded slowly. "Ah," she said blandly.
"Sorry about that." Ginny shrugged with a sheepish smile. "I haven't had a chance to discuss it with Harry yet. That always has to come first."
"That's okay, Ginny — I understand," Tonks replied, fixing her friend with an intent gaze. "But whatever this other problem is... if it becomes a life or death thing — you're going to tell me about it, right?"
Ginny nodded earnestly, relieved that Tonks was prepared to drop the topic for the time being.
Tonks grinned. "Okay it's a deal. But blimey, sweets — what dopey barmpot started a conversation like this anyway? It's Christmas! You know — joy to the world and all that? And if we don't get some punch out to the boys soon, they're bound to start improvising!"
"Improvising?" Ginny's eyebrows spiked in trepidation.
"Firewhisky!" Tonks said with an involuntary shudder, as she rapidly filled several glasses with punch, spreading a fair puddle across the tray. "I saw Remus slip a quart of Ogden's Finest into his cloak pocket just before we left Grimmauld."
"Firewhisky?!" Ginny's tone rose dangerously all of a sudden. She muttered an oath under her breath and stomped ferociously into the living room...
Standing by the bay window: open bottle bottle in one hand, empty glass in the other, Lupin froze. He turned slowly, stiffly, and wilted in the face of Ginny's glare. "Errr..." he said with a sheepish grin, "I was just saying to Harry that we'd both love another glass of that wonderful punch of yours. And, um, you see, I was just about to put away this bottle so that I could... umm... er..."
"Save it for unclogging fouled drains?" Ginny's face displayed remarkably little humour.
"Yes, that would be it!" Remus put the tumbler down and hastily re-corking the spirits.
"Well, far be it from any Weasley to fear the fire," Ginny lectured sternly, "but I think the two esteemed Hogwarts faculty members in this room would benefit from reading page three of the Sunday Prophet." She picked up the newspaper from a small table near the front entrance and handed it to Lupin, gesturing forcefully toward the top of the page.
Cauldron Brawlers Include Three Order of Merlin Recipients
DIAGON ALLEY — Ten overly exuberant holiday revelers woke up this morning in DMLE holding cells following their part in a wild overnight brawl. Fueled by record Firewhisky sales yesterday afternoon and evening, the destructive fracas is reported to have more than wiped out Leaky Cauldron profits for the month and sent several people to St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. Violence spilled over from the pub into South Diagon Alley where several stores were vandalized. Among those arrested in connection with the disturbances were Pansy Parkinson, Tracey Davis, and Theodore Nott, Jr., all of whom are recent Order of Merlin (Third Class) honourees in recognition for their courageous service in the Battle of Hogwarts. Parkinson and Davis were fined for disorderly conduct and released this morning. Nott is being held on bail under charges of assaulting two members of the local Diagon Alley constabulary.
Having read the article over Lupin's shoulder, Harry sagged onto the chesterfield with a look of weary disappointment etched into his face.
Occlumency sorting was tedious. Harry knew that the ultimate benefits (which ranged from stress-reduction all the way up to sheer survival in some of the most perilous situations) were well worth the effort, but the task seemed especially dreary at times like this... lying in bed, facing away from a beautiful, loving and rather concerned young woman who was waiting for him to turn over.
Harry hated making Ginny wait, but he also knew that the sorting could be a finicky task that was best accomplished while stressful thoughts were at their freshest. To make certain that Ginny didn't worry that he was brooding, he paused his introspection for a moment and reached back to grasp the small hand that was gently stroking the curve of his neck. He pulled her fingers to his lips and held them there for a long moment before releasing them.
Somewhat heartened, Ginny moved her hand to the center of Harry's chest and pulled her body in tightly behind his, softly kissing his shoulder.
Harry sighed and returned to his labours — hauling out each and every worry, doubt and fear, examining and acknowledging it, then locking it carefully into an appropriate bin where nobody could use it against him. During the war, he had typically done the exercise several times a week. It had become much less frequent over the past two months, but this week he had once again started to feel a bit embattled, and this was evident in his sorting efforts. After the work was done, Harry would achieve peaceful equanimity, but to get there involved bringing angst to the surface, and Ginny was especially sensitized to it — every time he tensed or winced, he could hear her breath catch. Even in the dark, facing away from her, Harry could visualize those little worry crinkles springing up around her eyes. He groaned softly. No sixteen-year-old should ever have had reason to acquire little worry crinkles! But then again, not many sixteen-year-olds had ever matured so quickly; almost none had ever played such a critical role in facing down one of the worst menaces in wizarding history. Ginny was entitled to a little crinkle here or there, and besides — they were one of the many unique little things about her that made her so utterly irresistible.
Focus Harry! Focus!
Harry forced aside all glowing thoughts about how irresistible his fiancée was, and came to bear on his worst current worry — the ghastly spectre of Bellatrix Lestrange's psychotic obsessions and peculiar powers. He spent several moments contemplating the unfathomable connection Bellatrix had with him — the fact that she, alone of any Death Eater that Harry had ever known, seemed capable of sensing his aura! He replayed in his mind the memory of last September's Gringotts battle — a frenzy of spell-fire, dust and distractions that had reached a petrifying climax:
Harry, in owl animagus form... counting on the element of surprise, flying straight through the air toward the entrance.
Bellatrix, ignoring all of the chaos... keying directly on the flight of the black owl...
Since the news of Bellatrix's re-emergence had been sprung on him several days earlier, the horrifying Gringotts episode, nearly forgotten in postwar complacency, had surged back to haunt his dreams. He worried that he was vulnerable to her in ways more subtle and insidious than he had been to Riddle; he had understood his link with Riddle and had found the perfect foil to it, but he had no idea what nexus Lestrange had with him, or how he could exploit or sever it. He could only hope, somehow, that learning more about Ginny's new stealth powers obtained from Salvatore Fugo's memories could somehow give him the means to occlude the connection.
Harry then proceeded to sort away his aching concerns for emotionally damaged Slytherin youth. His heart went out to Ted Nott Jr. whose bouts of irrational immaturity likely arose from a struggle with suffocating guilt over getting his own father sent to Azkaban. Fortunately, Harry had already started deliberating on this, even before Nott's recent arrest, and he was confident he had a solid plan to put his fragile colleague back on a path to recovery. There was good hope at least on that front.
That was the last of what Harry could accomplish on his own. Just a few more minor issues... and for those he needed help. Luckily he knew just whom to ask, and he was fairly sure that she was ready and waiting to assist.
Harry turned himself over. Ginny raised her arm to accommodate his motion, and then placed it back around him, gazing anxiously at his face, waiting for him to speak.
"Us," Harry said tonelessly, without elaboration.
Ginny stared at him for a moment, blinked, and then giggled softly.
"What?!" Harry grumbled.
Ginny tamped down her mirth and smiled at him in the darkness. "Sorry, I'm just trying to imagine what will happen if I ever capitulate to one of those bloody Witch Weekly interview requests. You know the sort of dopey questions they ask, right? How about this... 'So, Miss Weasley, for all the witches out there who desperately want to know how you and Harry Potter manage to stay so happy amidst all the pressure and public scrutiny — what's your secret? Do you and the Chosen One have intimate pillow chats? Does he ever bear his heart and initiate relationship discussions?'"
Harry chuckled. "Okay, okay! You're saying I need to try to articul...?"
Ginny placed a finger to his lips, before giving them a quick peck. "No Harry," she soothed. "Don't worry — I'm not Witch Weekly. I know precisely what you're asking and how's this for a nice simple answer? We're doing fine!"
Harry smiled softly. "Thank you. I'm not sure why I even had to ask..."
"There never has to be a reason, Harry. It doesn't hurt to check once in a while," Ginny mused. Her eyes strayed to his chin which she began to stroke absent-mindedly. "As far as I'm concerned, if you're occasionally a little baffled by interpersonal relationships, then it just proves that you're human. Umm... let me clarify and say that you're a human who has somehow survived a decade with the Dursleys, spent the next five years with two best friends for whom your every anxiety was treated either as a personal affront or a research project, received your first kiss from Cho I'm-an-emotional-amoeba Chang, then got your magical aura all tangled up with some high-maintenance Weasley chick who keeps needing to be rescued from mortal peril."
Harry rolled his eyes and laughed. "I..."
Ginny nipped Harry's protest in the bud with a well-timed kiss, before pulling back and proceeding in a more serious tone. "I think the biggest challenge for us is trying to bumble our way through a real relationship without that magical tether we used to have. It's a little like for months we could take examinations with the answer sheet right in front of us, and then someone comes along and takes the answers away. I found it nerve-wracking for a while, because don't forget that I was every bit as pathetic with relationships as you were..."
She ran her hand gently through his hair contemplatively for a while before continuing. "But look — we've been going for months now since the war ended and nothing's fallen to pieces yet, right? You're still sweet and thoughtful Harry. You're still smart enough to be completely smitten with me, right?" She winked at him playfully. "We handled a lot of stressful situations together without friction. Sure, I can't always sense your moods anymore and I probably seem a bit more distant to you. But you're far too precious to me. I'll never let a little mystery and ambiguity get in the way of our rightful happiness... and I know with all my heart that you feel the same way."
Harry closed in to kiss her.
Ginny met his lips curiously... experimentally... wondering whether this was going to be one of those knee-quivering, heart-hammering, mind-vaporising kisses? She savoured the moist warmth of his lips, the gentle puffs of breath. Nice. Very pleasant. But as her mind had not yet vaporised, she knew that Harry was still holding back.
Indeed, after a moment, he also pulled back and gazed into her eyes with an expression whose soft neutrality was difficult to interpret. "So we're okay, then?" he asked.
Ginny nodded thoughtfully. "From what I can tell... and I'm a world renowned expert on this you realize..." She winked again and tickled the back of his neck. "We're doing great, Harry. Of course, from time to time I will certainly do boneheaded things like shoving nasty newspaper articles in your face, and I expect that you're sometimes going to get obscure and reticent, but as long as we never forget to check back in, then I'm sure we'll continue to be the absolute envy of all precociously amorous teenaged couples everywhere!"
She stopped speaking and frowned sternly. "Now listen lover boy — just how much longer are you going to lie there and prattle on?" Ginny glowered at the overt smirk on his face. "Are you at the point yet where you're prepared to snog me senseless, or do you have more worries to offload?"
Harry pecked her nose affectionately but again retreated. "One more worry," he sighed. "Me."
Ginny schooled her thoughts, stroking his cheek pensively for a moment as she translated his vague abstraction. "Well, you're in luck, because I happen to be a world renowned expert on that too," she quipped. "Here's what I think the problem is..." Her gaze swept analytically about his face before settling back to his eyes. "I believe that you haven't really settled into a world in which you are no longer the chosen one, bound in prophesy to clash with some stupendous force of evil. You don't have an all-encompassing summons to face a daunting, perilous challenge. In essence, Harry James Potter, I believe you're bored."
Harry nodded solemnly as he began processing the implications of Ginny's pronouncement. He was just parting his lips to whisper his sincere gratitude... when he found himself thrown onto his back — all four limbs pinned firmly to the mattress. A veil of silky hair draped itself over his head, and his mouth had only the barest instant to utter a small gasp before becoming trapped within an intense blaze of passion.
The rest of the night, shall we say, was not boring.
"Maybe we can fly tomorrow," Harry suggested. "If the weather is as nice as tod... ooofff!"
"Clara!" Sally Lyon gasped as a small blonde projectile tackled Harry. Everyone winced as the blunt end of a Comet 290 nearly drove straight up his nose. Staggering a bit to recover his balance, he gave Sally a lopsided grin to assure her that he wasn't seriously injured.
In keeping with eleven-year-old sophistication, Jonathon's initial show of gratitude had been a fist-bump with Ginny, but after watching his little sister exultantly mauling Harry it became clear that he was feeling a bit left out. Ginny saw the boy's arms twitch involuntarily; she grinned and swept him into a hug. "Happy Christmas Chaser! You'll cut the defenses to shreds with a Cleansweep Twelve." Ginny pulled back to appraise the Hogwarts first year. "Yes, once you're over seven stone, we might try you on a Nimbus or Firebolt, but for someone your size, the Twelve should give the best control and handling."
"Thank you thank you thank you..." Jonathon mumbled emotionally averting his eyes.
"Are you certain it's okay for Clara to fly that broom?" Sally asked Harry.
Harry nodded. "No problem at all. The Comet has adjustable power settings. Ginny dialed it back, so it shouldn't give Clara any difficulty now. We'll adjust back upwards as she gets used to it..."
"Er, I guess I was concerned whether it's legal?" Sally clarified.
"Well obviously she'll have to promise to only ride in areas with magical disillusionment wards," Harry answered. "It would have been fine at Dolwyddelan, but now that you're home again let's plan for her to continue visiting Hogwarts on weekends."
"Are there age restrictions?" Sally pursued in all her maternal diligence.
"Not really." Harry shrugged. "Hogwarts tells first year students to not bring their own brooms to school, but there's no prohibition on riding school brooms. As far as riding outside of school, I was on a functioning toy broom before I could walk. Ginny was on a real broom as, what, a six-year-old, Gin'?" Harry inquired.
"Er yes, roughly six." A mischievous smile flickered across Ginny's face before she marshaled her features for serious conversation. "A fair number of the older wizarding families have their children riding well before starting Hogwarts. I always thought it was unfair to students born into non-magical families — most of them take years to catch up with their friends."
"I'll be sure to cast a cushioning charm on her," Harry added. "If anything goes wrong, she'll just bounce around a little."
A burst of giggling erupted from the mass of blonde hair around Harry's chest and two spirited blue eyes emerged... along with an impish grin. "Errmm..." Chewing his lip, Harry gave her a concerned frown. "That doesn't mean that you should go deliberately testing those charms."
A little cackle escaped from among Clara's giggles before she hastily clapped her hand over her mouth. "I'll be good, Professor Potter," she said chastely as she broke away from him. Harry couldn't help but notice that her eyes had lost none of that dangerous sparkle, however.
Sally stared patiently at the ceiling for a moment, then lowered her face with a weary smile. "Well, I know that they'll be in good hands..." She sighed. "In any case, thank you so very kindly for continuing to look out for us! We're truly grateful for... well, for everything!"
Harry and Ginny smiled. "You're ever so welcome!" Harry answered, while Ginny's gaze drifted over to the two children who were busily examining each other's brooms and reading the accompanying care and instruction scrolls.
Ginny glanced at her watch. "Oh dear! We must be going — we promised to do gift opening at my family's house this morning and by now probably even Ron will be awake."
Sally's face fell and the two children glanced over with disappointed looks. "Can't you stay a while for a quick breakfast? Or else come back later for tea?"
"Sorry," Ginny replied. "Harry already stuffed us full of lox, prosciutto and cantaloupe this morning — we need a little break before my mother begins the force-feeding regimen. And as for later...?"
"After the Burrow, we're heading to Dolwyddelan to spread some holiday cheer to the children there. However..." Harry grinned. "Tomorrow should be much quieter. Maybe we can all get together after flying?"
"Sure, we don't have any commitments and would love to have you over," Sally agreed. An inquisitive expression swept over her face. "So, is the safe house still busy then?"
"Very," Ginny said grimly. "We have eleven young children there right now."
"Oh..." Sally shuffled her feet nervously, battling with an awkward question.
Recalling the woman's painful experiences from the recent war, Harry recognised Sally's look of concern and rushed to reassure her. "Most aren't orphans; they're victims of circumstance. In most cases, their parents were our enemies in the war and are now in Azkaban. Some children didn't have any acceptable relatives to take them in, so we've offered them space."
"Even the most benign and righteous outcomes can have victims," Ginny sighed.
Sally nodded sadly. "So your new caretaker... Narcissa's sister? Is she coping with the load?"
"She's okay," Ginny confirmed. "A decent system has evolved — Andromeda and her husband Ted are the main caretakers, but Narcissa is stuck there indefinitely as long as her husband is on the loose. She's begun to help in reasonably useful ways. Daphne and Susan visit a lot, and we have an extra rotation of students dropping by on a regular basis to lead fun activities for the kids and pitch in with chores."
"Oh good — that's a relief!" Sally enthused. "I would hate to have left you in the lurch."
Harry smiled. "Not at all, Sally! Thank you again for stepping up and helping this fall when we had Muggle-borns to fend for. The way things are right now, we're just so happy to have you settled back here where you belong... and to have you as neighbors again!" He grinned for a moment, before settling into a serious expression. "Besides, you might not enjoy Dolwyddelan so much right now. It's... uh... it's..."
"It's a bloody travesty is what it is!" Ginny blurted bitterly as she gathered her coat. "You wouldn't believe the psychological scarring we're having to heal. Half of the kids have been raised their entire lives on a steady diet of filthy pureblood anti-Muggle propaganda. Part of me wants to scream at them to shape up and listen, but the rest of me wants to break down and cry because it's not their fault. All they really need is patience, love and a gradually broadening perspective... but I'm afraid it drives me over the bend sometimes."
"They're all making progress," Harry offered. "Andromeda's husband is a Muggle-born, but fortunately his hide is thicker than an erumpent's... er, elephant's... and he has a brilliant sense of humour, so just by being there he's helped to convince the kids that you don't have to be pureblood to be a lovable, worthwhile human. But I can't deny that there's still a hilly winding road ahead." He sighed as he moved toward the door. "Like Ginny said — every war has its victims."
Sally nodded thoughtfully, but reassembled her festive smile. "Thankfully, every peace has its heroes!"
The Lyon family all followed Harry and Ginny down to the front gate, and Sally smiled in farewell. "Thank you again, and have a very happy Christmas!"
In years gone by, the Weasley living room would have looked utterly preposterous by early afternoon on Christmas day. Today, with a somewhat reduced crowd and everyone around except Ginny now being over the age of majority, the scene was merely chaotic. Bill was spending the holidays with the Delacours near Lac d'Annecy, and Charlie was stuck in Romania due to mating complications with one of the Ukranian Ironbellies, but the twins were doing the best to compensate for the absences with merry havoc, and the resulting noise and confusion was no less than would have expected. Ron had just finished tearing the wrappings off a new pair of keeper pads from Harry and Ginny, when he whooped in an excitement that was endearing to some and grating to others (Percy and Hermione sported nearly identical grimaces) and shouted, "Cheers, thank you thank you! Bring out the next pressie, Perce!"
With a look of mild disdain, Percy shifted a pile of shredded paper to the side with a flick of his wand. He gave a cursory glance back and forth beneath the tree. "That, dear children, is the last of them," he said blandly.
"No more gifts?! No bloody way!" Incredulous, Ron began shoveling detritus from side to side as Fred made a snickering comment to George in the background.
"I think it is mate," Harry said with a grin. "You'll have to wait until your birthday for more."
"No, I don't care about me." Ron's earnest face showed a note of affront. "I should have thought the rest of you would still have a few more to open."
"How sweet of you to be thinking of others, Ron," Ginny exclaimed. "Sorry to disappoint, but I'm pretty sure we're done. I think we're all content to pile up our loot and turn on the Warbeck concert."
Ron stared at Ginny. Ever so slowly, he raised his finger and pointed at her. "You!"
"Me?" Ginny gave him a puzzled look. "No silly — it's Mum's job to turn on the wireless."
"No, no, no!" Ron shook his head vigourously. "You! You didn't give Harry a present!"
Ginny raised an incredulous eyebrow. She was in the process of preparing an acerbic response, when Harry broke in. "A single smile from Ginny is a gift more precious than all the gems in Gringotts," he intoned, prompting Hermione and Audrey to sigh melodically in the corner, while George inadvertently snorted eggnog onto Fred's shoulder.
Not to be diverted, Ron turned on Harry. "You shouldn't talk, you cheap bum! You didn't give Ginny anything either!"
"A mere blink of Harry's eyes," Fred crooned, "is a gift more cherished than all the fresh pickled toads in North Side Apothecary."
Fred was already diving for the cover even before Ginny's hand flinched, but Harry reached out to stay her lethal appendage before it could do anything rash. Ginny scowled for a moment at Fred's foot and ankle, which were struggling to join the rest of his body behind the old arm chair in the corner... then she broke into infectious laughter and turned instead to Ron. "Well if you absolutely must know, Ronald Bilius, Harry's gift to me was to buy presents for all the children at the SHP house."
"And Ginny's gift to me," Harry added, "was to buy more presents for the kids. Andromeda had them doing some crafts for their own little gift exchange, but while hand-made sock-dragons and toy broomsticks are cute, we thought we might liven up their day with books, games and some new clothes."
"How utterly sweet of you both!" Audrey exclaimed. Ginny beamed an appreciative smile at Percy's new girlfriend — a forthright, kindhearted Yorkshire lass whom Ginny had taken an immediate shine to.
"Sweet?!" Ron demanded garrulously. "What's so sweet about blowing Galleons on a nest full of snot-nosed snakelets?!"
A frosty silence descended over the room.
"Piping hot mulled pumpkin juice!" Molly called from the doorway. Carrying a tray of steaming mugs in from the kitchen, she froze at the sight of Ginny and Ron glaring daggers at each other.
"Thanks Mum." Harry took the tray from Molly's hands, and set a cup for himself on the coffee table. With a definite twinkle in his eye, he began circulating the tray about the room. "So, Ron was just volunteering to come out to the safe house to teach the kids about Quidditch strategy."
Molly blinked incredulously, but quickly recovered. "Oh, that would be lovely dear — that is so thoughtful of you!"
A smirk spread over Ginny's face. "Yes, that's a brilliant suggestion Ron," she enthused. "And I think Saturday afternoon should be fine — I'll check with Andromeda when we stop by there this evening, but I can't imagine it being a problem."
"I never...!!" Ron sputtered.
"It does sound like fun, doesn't it Ron?" Hermione mused with a menacing glare at her boyfriend. "We don't have any plans that afternoon so it should work perfectly. Would you mind very much if I tagged along, Ginny?"
"Er, but...?" Ron's eyes darted around the room, looking for nonexistent allies.
"That would be wonderful, Hermione," Ginny agreed with a grin. "If the weather's nice, you and I can walk one of the woodland trails while the boys are playing with the children."
"Brilliant!" Hermione grinned as she accepted a warm mug from Harry. "I'm so impressed that you thought of this, Ron!"
"So am I," Ginny wheezed as she fought to suppress a snicker. She crossed the room, gave her stricken brother a quick hug, then hurried toward the kitchen, and out to the yard. As the back door slammed, sounds of Ginny's howling laughter filtered back to the living room. Eyes twinkled and mouths curled upwards.
Molly surveyed the room as it erupted into mirth; even Ron's face twitched into an involuntary grin. "How I love the holidays!" the Weasley matron sighed as she sank into her seat by the fire and switched on the wireless.
The lamp-light in the small gabled bedroom was charmed to fade away as bedtime approached, but fortunately Harry had read the story a few times in the past and was able to parse the last paragraph through the combined effort of memory and squinting:
"The pot burped out the single slipper he had thrown into it, and permitted him to fit it onto the brass foot. Together, they set off back to the wizard’s house, the pot’s footstep muffled at last. But from that day forward, the wizard helped the villagers like his father before him, lest the pot cast off its slipper, and begin to hop once more."
The story complete, Harry gazed around the dimly lit chamber. He could see a frown on the face of the older girl (Harry guessed that she was about Clara's age — nine or ten). He smiled at her as the final flickers of the lamp died away. Finally she turned her head to face him. "Mr. Harry?" she asked.
"Some people say that's a very bad story." Her voice seemed quivering, as from some sort of tension that Harry couldn't quite place. "They say that no good wizard or witch should think they have to help Muggles like that. The hopping pot is very bad to make him do it!"
Harry sighed and made a mental note to scratch the Hopping Pot from any list of bedtime stories for this crowd. "Well, in a practical sense, those people are correct," he admitted. "Wizards and witches are not allowed to use magic to help non-magical people these days, unless the non-magical people are already being directly threatened by magic."
Teri nodded smugly.
"But the real lesson from the story," Harry explained, "is that if you have a chance to do something nice to help other people, then you should take it. You will feel a lot happier than if you just walk away and leave people to their suffering."
"Oh!" The second, smaller girl sat up abruptly in her bed. "Is that why you posted bales to get Uncle Teddy out of prison?"
Harry blinked in surprise and met the seven-year-old's curious gaze. "Er, is Ted Nott Junior your uncle?"
"Uh huh! My mummy was Uncle Teddy's big sister!" Anna replied.
Was!? Harry winced furtively, not daring to ask for clarification on the past tense... He focused instead on the question. "Anyway, yes Anna, I posted bail for your Uncle Teddy because I knew I could help him and I didn't want to walk away and let him suffer needlessly. And the other reason I did it was because your Uncle Teddy himself has done some very brave things to help other people."
"No way, Mr. Harry! Ted Junior is a bad man!" Teri declared.
"That's not true," Harry chided gently. "He got a bit, umm, confused one night and made a few mistakes, but that doesn't make him a bad man."
"I'm not talking about him getting piss-drunk and hexing those bobbies!" Teri's sudden vitriol practically startled Harry off his stool. "I'm saying he's a slimy rat — he back-stabbed his own daddy!"
Appalled, Harry stared wide-eyed at the wall for a moment, letting his pulse settle. "Teri," he began. He turned slowly to meet her glare with gentle patience... but his breath caught. A ray of moonlight had glanced through the window to illuminate her face... so hollow and pale! Set with piercing dark eyes and framed by jet black hair, she looked like... What the...?!
Harry shuddered, and turned his head away. It had been a long day; he was exhausted and had obviously become momentarily confused by a trick of darkness and imagination. He hastily discarded the bizarre image from his mind and reminded himself of the reason he was here. He was not here to judge these children, but to help with the challenging but critical task of trying to heal the damage wrought upon them. Teri might be a tough nut to crack, he assured himself, but there was a golden heart buried within the darkness. Love and patience will bring it back into the light!
Harry forced a kind smile onto his face and refocused himself back to the misunderstanding at hand. "Teri, I don't think you've been told properly everything that happened before Anna's grandpa went away. Mr. Nott said some very important things that changed how many people thought of him." Harry paused briefly to gauge whether his voice had the right blend of patience and conviction. "He apologized to many people. He apologized to Ted Junior and to me. He even apologized to the Minister of Magic herself. He spent long hours trying his best to help the Aurors, and gave them some very useful information."
Trying to assess the stony look to her face, Harry glanced briefly toward Teri, before continuing. "When I went with Ted Junior to say goodbye to his father, Mr. Nott told us that he saw more courage in that one morning from his own son than he had ever seen in forty five years from..." Harry paused for another moment, feeling a bit awkward. "From, er... He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." Harry cringed inwardly to use the ludicrous moniker, but he wanted to make his point without frightening or alienating the children.
"Anyway, Anna's grandpa made a lot of mistakes in his life, but he's a changed man now — changed for the better. And maybe by next Christmas, he'll be sitting around a tree somewhere with you, Anna and Ted Junior, laughing, singing and opening presents."
The room fell into a restless silence for a while; Teri stared out the window, Anna pensively stroked the feathers on her new stuffed hippogriff toy, and Harry privately wondered how much longer he was expected to remain in the room, sitting as he was on a rather uncomfortable little stool. Finally Anna spoke. "Thank you for getting Uncle Teddy out of prison, Mr. Harry," she said earnestly. "He won't have to go back there, will he?"
"I hope not," Harry offered. "I think that he might instead have to come here to Dolwyddelan every weekend for a few months to work for Mrs. 'Dromeda."
"Really??" Anna asked, her wide eyes sparkling.
"I hope so," Harry indicated. "I'm fairly sure that the Minister agrees with me that your Uncle is a good young man who should be given a chance to prove he can be helpful and responsible."
Anna threw herself onto her back and sank deeply into her pillow. She closed her eyes and made a contented little keening sound as her face spread into a broad smile.
Very quietly, Harry rose from his stool and took a step toward the door.
"Yes Anna?" Harry replied softly.
"Mr. Harry, I think it would be okay if you wanted to kiss me goodnight," Anna whispered. "Right here," she said, pointing to her forehead.
Harry chuckled to himself. He gently planted a kiss on the girl's brow, his lips grazing the finger that was still in place to mark his target. She giggled softly for a moment without opening her eyes, then her face relaxed into a peaceful doze.
"Happy Christmas girls," Harry whispered as he crossed the room.
"Happy Christmas, Mr. Harry," Anna replied hazily.
Harry opened the door and began to quietly cross the threshold.
"Happy Christmas, Mr. Harry." Teri's voice was crisp and toneless.
Harry assembled a smile and turned to project it back into the dark room, but... he hesitated...
Without meeting her gaze, he knew somehow that Teri was sitting stiffly upright in her bed, bathed in cold moonlight. He could tell, for whatever reason, that she was scrutinizing him with disconcerting intensity. He took a short fortifying breath. "Good night Teri," he said quietly, then retreated into the hallway, slowly closing the bedroom door behind him. As he walked down the corridor, he shivered at the sensation of two dark, frigid eyes that he could swear, even through the stout walls of the seventeenth century manor, were still fixed unwaveringly on his back.