Chapter 1. (August 7-8, 1995)
Spitting away a mouthful of grit, Ginny Weasley's arms pushed back from the sooty, debris-strewn floor. Her muscles trembled in momentary exhaustion and doubt, but then her determination rose anew. She staggered to her feet and twisted around to face the brutal mayhem. Wand raised, she scanned the room for someone to attack, or defend... or... or...
Sweet Merlin! It's happening!
A chill descended her spine. In that instant, gazing about the Great Hall, Ginny somehow found herself recognizing every chaotic detail she laid her eyes upon — every fallen stone, every shattered table and scorched chair, every raging, panicked or delirious face...
Ginny knew this moment. It was the cusp of destiny — a moment so thrilling and terrifying, so utterly inconceivable, and yet so strangely inevitable.
This is it! Be strong Weasley!
On all sides, others began gradually sensing something in the air — the palpable sensation of sheer power flooding in around them. The cacophonous din of combat hissed, rasped and clanged to a halt. The shrieks, wails and shouts of a moment ago fell away into an eerie quiet. Hundreds of mesmerized hands lowered in tremulous unison. All eyes — friend and foe — locked upon two figures.
Ginny stood breathlessly. Her hair, still loose and wild from the raging fracas, tumbled across her face, but she simply stared straight through it, mesmerized, clinging to her mantra.
It all comes down to this...
Strong for the light...
Strong for him...
Ginny was right — everything truly did hinge on this final confrontation. But how could a callow teen foresee, with such clarity, a climax that even the most renowned seers had never described? Why did this reality seem to her more like a vivid, horrific memory?
Yet, no matter how familiar it was to her, there was one thing she did not know — exactly how it would all end. Who would be left standing...
A suffocating weight of dread and desperate hope began to settle into her chest as they approached — two ascendant figures advancing like opposing thunderheads, their very presence clearing a wide swath across the battle-scarred floor.
The young man — battered, bloodied, but singularly noble — moved with the calm certitude of predestination; his feet barely brushing the char and detritus as he circled his wary opponent.
The reptile-faced spectre stared in turmoil, caught within the clashing currents of his own rage... and what Ginny knew could be nothing less than fear. Merely glancing at the enemy's repugnant face brought her close to gagging, but she forced herself to study him carefully, to watch his unguarded expressions, finding them to be so transparent that she could almost read his despicable thoughts:
The filthy little rat was exterminated! Slaughtered by my own hand!
He's dead! Dead!!
How many times must I...??
Yet for all the ghoulish sorceror's consternation, the moment of doubt passed. Ginny knew that a flame of self-assurance would flare again in his sickly eyes, proclaiming to the assembled masses that there was only ever one conceivable outcome.
However much she longed to act, Ginny found she couldn't. She could only watch the verbal preamble play out, as the two foes tested each others' resolve. She knew it was all meaningless – that declarations might rattle back and forth, but that each taunt and conciliation would be batted aside like a toy dart off rigid shields of opposing conviction.
After several minutes, it became clear that even the combattants knew there could be no compromise, for the futile posturing dwindled to leave the two fighters to trace out their final, calculated steps in seething silence.
Jaw set, and a pure glint in his piercing eyes, Harry Potter twitched his wand, captivating the entire hall's attention. "So it all comes down to this, doesn't it?" the young man whispered. "Does the wand in your hand know its last master was disarmed? Because if it does . . . I am the true master of the Elder Wand."
The expression of inhuman loathing offered almost no response, yet once again, for the barest instant, Voldemort's coal-red flaming eyes flickered. For a miniscule fraction of a second, the monster seemed to consider the boy's words... but the course was set. Carved in immutable stone, the only acceptable reply issued forth like the hiss of a thousand tormented serpents.
"Avada Kedavra! "
Red and green spell flares burst across the Hall. The day's first sanguine beam of sunlight sprang through a shattered window, perfectly bisecting the magical arc. At the duel's crackling epicentre, a wall of scintillating white sparks erupted, casting a brilliant glare about the Hall, etching the scene like some masterpiece of ghastly apocalyptic art.
Reptile man quivered in weakness and fear.
The young avenger radiated magnificence, face gazing calmly upon his faltering opponent as a vibrant beam of justice and compassion poured from his wand, thrusting back against the boundary flame.
Good ascends over evil; love prevails over hate...
In an inexplicable flash — appalling, unfathomable — it was over.
Nobody — not even the trembling detestable herp-faced villain — could have foreseen it.
In that instant of infamy, all magic of hope and honour drained away. A fundamental balance shattered; the pulsing white fulcrum between their spells vaporised, and a lurid tongue of bitter death — the vomit of hell — slashed unchecked across the hall...
The bold and selfless young man, the icon of love and sacrifice, crumpled to the floor.
Eyes of deepest emerald gazed eastward one last time as a quivering finger of sunshine touched tenderly upon his beautiful face... before quenching beneath an acrid shroud of dust, smoke and despair.
Harry James Potter... the boy who lived... the last hope of the light... was dead.
An otherworldly shriek — possibly her own — tore through Ginny's head like an infernal klaxon. She found herself leaping across the Great Hall. In that paralytic moment when every other soul in creation seemed frozen in disbelief, dismay or disarray, one young woman who could lose nothing more, closed meteorically upon the Execrable Filth. Her wand stretched out before her, unleashing a phenomenal blaze of spell-work that nobody could had ever have duplicated, let alone actually taught her.
The vile bane of hope, despoiler of faith and mercy, reeled drunkenly. His shield quivered and melted. His spindly, misbegotten knees buckled in exhaustion and fright. All magic spent, the Elder Wand slid from Voldemort's slack grasp as he turned, cowering cravenly, to beg for mercy — a final plea to forestall the death he dreaded more than anything else, when...
Jagged sparks slashed across Ginny's vision as some blunt, crude stone impacted the side of her head. An instant of blinding pain gave way to the vague sensation of prickly wetness trailing down her face. A salty metallic taste crept into her nose and mouth.
Ginny had no idea what had just happened. To herself. To Voldemort. To the world.
She knew only that she was... so very very tired.
There is nothing left now.
Please take me away.
She cast off all shackles, renounced everything that she had ever known, and felt herself falling into darkness.
Memories, aspirations and everything corporeal slid away before her.
Please take me away.
There is nothing left.
Nothing left except...
Except for two hands...
Strong as an oaken rail.
Warm upon her icy skin.
One hand tenderly cupped the back of her neck; the other inserted itself gently between her waist and the stone beneath her. With the care of a doting father, the hands half-lifted, half-rolled her torso obliquely onto something firm yet soft. Something that smelled of pollen... a faint residue of applewood smoke... the slightest hint of musk.
Her eyelids fluttered open, admitting a disorienting montage of colour.
Light blue...? Sky?
Green? The soft pear-hues of a springtime's young leaves emblazoning the hedge and hills.
Grey? Sunlit flagstones — rough-hewn, worn smooth.
Red? Woollen fabric of a fine weave — sturdy, yet supple. Like an old tapestry?
Ginny was seized with an instant of blind panic as the stick neared her face... but the one-armed grip tightened, bracing her against a man's chest. A well-muscled forearm and sun-bronzed hand angled the wand carefully toward her temple. For a moment she sought to struggle, but was immediately soothed by a familiar, calming voice, speaking an odd but reassuring word. "Emaculo."
A pulsing heat flashed across her face and scalp; a rapid cleansing tingle followed by a cool spring breeze...
A swell of restorative energy flowed through her body. She twisted her neck and followed the red fabric up the angled curves of a man's chest, to a grey mantle fastened by an intricate brooch — polished silver wings, central badge inset with two fine gems.
Borrowing another burst of strength from her still-woefully-depleted reserves, she craned back another inch to gaze ascendantly into...
Dear Mother Circe — it can't be!
From the moment years ago when she had first glimpsed those eyes, she knew with every breath of her soul that she would never, ever, see another pair like them, and yet...?
How is it possible??
IS it possible??
The man was running his wand along her side, concentrating fiercely as he sought to detect internal injuries. He made no move to stop her as she reached her hand, shy yet determinedly, toward his face... toward his carefully cropped hair — straight tresses, once raven black, now blended with the frosts of many autumns.
Patiently, with unwavering focus, the man continued his travails, even as Ginny carefully swept his peppered locks aside to reveal a forehead — one she would have recognized in a heartbeat, except that it was... unscarred. It bore not a single defect. No lightning bolt. Not even the faintest trace.
Baffled, her hand trailed down his cheek — full, chiseled, and coloured of long seasons of wind and sun. And down there, where she would not have expected, she found a strange and ironic token of asymmetry. Just above the masculine grace of his firmly-set jaw was a scar — a single pale slash articulating one cheek.
How could it NOT be???
"Harry?" she whispered — softly, beseechingly.
Finished with his ministrations, the man gazed down at her with those extraordinary eyes.
With Harry Potter's eyes.
The eyes were deeply troubled — compassionate yet conflicted — torn between necessity and need.
The man put away his wand. Ginny saw one powerful hand slide beneath her knees, and felt the other arm brace her head and torso with kind firmity. In a burst of dizzying strength and agility, the man surged to his feet. Ginny sensed herself being uplifted and swept away — almost floating — from the sunlit roadway, down a short embankment, and into the shade of a riverside willow.
They paused a moment amidst the placid greenery. When Ginny's eyes adjusted, she found them affixed to the man's gaze.
The man chewed his lower lip; faint worry lines forming on his brow. He opened his mouth and a gentle phrase issued... "Sume fibulam."
In her dazed state, Ginny drank in the words, absorbed their resonance, completely oblivious to the fact that she had no idea what they meant. The only thing that mattered to her was that this truly had to be the voice of Harry Potter.
Thinking it over, she realized that the voice was ever so slightly different... almost like she recognized it, not from knowing Harry, but from recalling some dream of Harry... or some dream of someone who reminded her of Harry. Just as the man holding her so painfully resembled Harry, yet was not...
Ginny's injured head began to throb from the circular confusion. A creeping nausea swelled in her, worsened by a growing dread that she was missing something – that she had forgotten some critical task that she had to fulfill.
Why was she suddenly certain that vitally important details or instructions had slipped from her mind? What made her so convinced that she had a message, a warning, she needed to give this man, when she didn't even know who he was?
She forced a breath of air into her lungs and opened her mouth desperately hoping that some vital word or sentence would emit. But when she exhaled, all that emerged was a weak sibilance, unintelligible to either herself or the man.
The creases on his face deepening, the man reached out tentatively to touch her cheek. "Tu sume fibulam? "
Still dizzy and disoriented, Ginny frowned as she forced herself to try to sort out the situation. A face — same as Harry's yet different. A voice — same yet different. Those were not the awkward utterances of the boy she had met years ago on Platform 9¾. Not the troubled but tenacious teen whom she'd so fancied in ways that suddenly now seemed sophomoric and naive.
Finally it occurred to her — the face and voice were exactly how she might have imagined Harry if he had ever been permitted to grow into dignified adulthood. But how could she be seeing this dream-face, hearing this dream-voice of a wonderful grown man who, as a teen, had just been...
taken from her...
Ginny choked as bitter tears prickled beneath her eyelids.
A hint of urgency crept into the man's troubled expression. "Lanossëa? " The voice had taken on a vaguely plaintive tone. He peered deeply, questioningly into her eyes. "Quaeso, tolle fibulam."
Ginny bit back her anguish and confusion, and tried to process the slow, clear syllables the man had offered. Whoever he was, the man clearly expected a response from her.
Latin. He's speaking Latin.
She nodded slightly to herself — any witch or wizard would know some Latin because it figured so prominently in spellmanship... But 'fibulam' is not... it's not an incantation?
She fought through her daze and tried to recall her Mum's patient linguistics lessons (English, Greek and Latin) from back in those sweet, innocent years before Hogwarts. She squinted for a moment, then raised a tentative, inquiring finger to his brooch. "Take this off?"
With trembling fingers, she tugged at the silver object. Anchored by a long, polished straight-pin, the brooch slid easily to the side and fell, smooth and cool, into her hand. The heavy grey mantle tumbled to the ground behind the man.
Still holding Ginny as if she were but little more than a waif in arms, the man turned. With his leather-bound feet, he kicked at the mantle several times, tugged it into a passable rectangle with his toes, and laid her lightly upon it. Her exhausted limbs settled into the fabric's comforting warmth. Beneath her, soft cushioning grasses and moss swaddled her aching body.
With efficiency that bespoke exigency, the man set to work. Fingers tougher than tree roots (gentler than a masseuse) cradled Ginny's head as he rolled up two loose corners of the mantle to form a makeshift pillow. Raising her head an inch, he sculpted the U-shaped roll to the contours of her head and laid it back down to rest.
She sighed as her scalp gratefully enumerated each of the five strong digits woven into her hair.
But then they were gone. Ginny winced (in sudden dejection, not pain) as the man withdrew and rose to his feet. She watched as he unclasped the belt about his red and grey tunic, and slid free a leather flagon and small pouch. "Victus et aqua," he explained, kneeling down to place the rations at her side.
Although her exhausted mind was beginning to swirl in exhaustion bordering on delirium, Ginny braced herself, clinging to the bewildering moment, determined to capture some shred of clarity from the chaos. Tremulously, she reached to touch the sinews of his arm. "Are you leaving?"
He turned to her with a look of silent contrition that pierced Ginny's heart. Empathy and loneliness pouring freely, she was swept by an overwhelming desire to clasp herself to him and never let go.
But Ginny knew she couldn't. She still had no idea who this man truly was... (Harry! shrilled the desperate voice in her fevered mind one final time before she shunted it aside), and she could read his body language with certainty. The man had urgent business elsewhere; some imminent crisis pulling him inexorably away.
From somewhere inside her, a voice admonished that she must let him go. She must not interfere with things which she did not understand. Sighing, she surrendered to logic. With her final ounce of strength, she fixed his gaze. "Come back to me? Come back when you can?"
Her eyes bored into his, imploring against all hope that he would somehow understand the request and assent.
The man reached toward her, found her right hand, and grasped it tightly. His weathered fingers whispered to her an unspoken, tender, resolute promise. Divine eyes once again graced hers.
Her strength fading fast, Ginny finally let go. She found herself drifting down, soft as a dewdrop, into a verdant boreal pool of sleep. Faintly, as if from a great depth, she heard the sound of a lone horse racing away over the stone road. As darkness engulfed her, she recalled only the sensation of cold silver wings still pressed firmly to her palm.
Was he already too late??
Hearing distant voices raised in outrage, Harry frantically scanned the impregnable palisade. No guards were present to admit him, and the walls were protected by magic stronger than his, but years ago he had discovered a secret weakness within the gate. Hating to trespass, but seeing no other option, Harry pulled out his wand and blasted away the vulnerable cross-bar. Pushing through, he sprinted the narrow wooded path to the longhouse and crossed beneath the lintel into the dark interior.
"Stop! This is madness!" Catching his breath, Harry held aloft the scroll. "I have the treaty! It clearly states..."
He froze. Just now adjusting to the low, smoky light of the chamber, Harry could not help but recognize that there were... twelve intricately carved wands pointed at his chest.
Bitter bile pooled in his throat as his eyes swept the room and confirmed the worst.
Bodies lay strewn about. In this proud court of warriors, only the indomitable sovereign was left standing, yet even she had been overcome — writhing against shackles, her hands were bereft of their mighty staff, renowned all across Britannia for its magical might.
Harry's gaze darted about the room in search for the ornate walnut pole, with its characteristic copper horse-head grip. His eyes fell upon it — there it was... cradled in the puff-pasty hands of the...
"Traitor!!" Furious, Harry pointed his trembling wand at the supercilious villain. Heedless of the hopeless odds, he launched himself across the dusky room.
Stunning spells bursting from Harry's wand felled three wizards adjacent to the foul swine, but the horse-head staff in the scoundrel's hand brushed aside Harry's main thrust with barely a flinch. Out of nowhere, cloying, suffocating restraints flung themselves about his body and Harry lurched to a raging, impotent halt. Struggling mightily to shake off the invisible bonds, he twisted hard, and ripped...
The high-pitched, real-world shriek tore Harry from his nightmare and out of bed. Eyes-wide, he raised his arms just in time to cushion what could have been a horrendous collision with his room-mate, Ron Weasley, who had leaped simultaneously from the other side of the small room.
"Noise! Scream?!" Harry blurted. "Who yelled?"
Ron stepped back, extracting his arms from Harry's armpits, shaking his head distractedly. "Dunno. It sounded like..."
Harry stared at his bewildered friend for a split second, then nodded. Violently shredding away the tatters of a tangled bed sheet binding his arms and legs, Harry tore from the bedroom and raced down the steps. Skidding to a halt at girls' chamber door, Harry elbowed his way past a teetering Sirius Black and gaped at the floor.
Hermione knelt on the cold stone, wracked by sobs. Beneath her, in a confused splay of limbs, face resting sidelong in a spreading crimson stain, lay the youngest Weasley — ghostly pale in the light of a flickering hallway lamp.
Harry burst in, ushered Hermione hastily to the side and knelt beside Ginny. As gently as he could in his urgent haste, Harry maneuvered the fallen girl's head and shoulders out of the bloody puddle and into his lap, heedless of the deep red smears across his flannel nightclothes.
Instinctively, he braced her right shoulder into the crook of his elbow and drew his wand. He took a deep breath to will some steadiness into his shaking hand, then concentrated on the spell. "Episkey! "
Ginny jolted at the sudden sensation, but the gash closed and bleeding stopped.
Harry carefully pulled back disheveled red tresses from her pallid face, both soiled from her wound. He pointed his wand again and, with greater confidence, cast a Tergeo spell. The red stains and dirt vanished.
As Harry visually examined her head and face, assessing her secondary wounds, Ginny's eyes opened. After a moment, her diffuse pupils focused on the dimly lit features of Harry's face, then they closed again. "Hey..." Her lips parted slightly. "You came back..."
Focused on trying to remember a passable spell to reduce the deep bruising in the girl's face, Harry nodded distractedly.
Ginny stirred sightly and took a breath. "Please stay this time."
Harry frowned slightly as he registered the unexpected (inexplicable?) request. His best mate's sister had obviously just taken a frightful blow to the head, but he still couldn't quite imagine such a vivacious, independent and headstrong girl seeking his... comfort?
Perplexed, he turned his attention away from Ginny's bruised forehead and met her suddenly lucid gaze.
Ginny reached over to touch his forearm. "Stay please?"
Caught within the irresistible beam of her wide, sincere eyes, he nodded tacitly as he struggled to process the situation. Somehow this strange real-world scene almost seemed to belong within the bizarre, fretful dream he'd just risen from; it was as if he'd woken up too quickly to shake off the residual stupour, and the stubborn dream had followed him down two flights of stairs, into the girls' room, and was now doggedly reasserting itself.
Oblivious to his confusion, Ginny smiled softly at him for a moment, then her eyes drifted to his wand, still poised intently at her side. She reached out slowly with her right index finger and pressed it to the tip, then carefully pronounced the word she remembered from her dream... "Emaculo..." Ginny then carefully steered Harry's wand through a motion identical to a quill writing the Greek letter η.
Harry frowned in confusion. "Emaculo ?"
She nodded and gestured at the swelling on the side of her face.
Baffled, he steadied his hand again, focused the wand, and clearly repeated the simple incantation as he effected the prescribed motion.
Harry gasped as a cool tonic spread through the air, bathing not only Ginny's face and head, but also his own hand and forearm.
Her swelling gone, and colour restored, Ginny's face relaxed and her eyes closed. "Thanks," she murmured.
Still reeling from the powerful cleansing sensation, Harry blinked at Ginny's face, now fully restored to a state of sublime peace. "But what... where...? Uh, who... did you learn that spell from, Ginny?"
A mysterious wistful smile drifted across Ginny's face for a moment. "Dunno," she replied hazily. She then reached her hand around to the small of Harry's back to pull herself more snugly to his chest, and promptly fell into a deep, restful sleep.
"Ugh!" Hermione buried her face in her hands. "I feel so useless! I can't believe I just fell to pieces like that! If Harry hadn't come and taken over...?!"
Sirius cuffed her gently on the shoulder. "Pah. If Harry hadn't come to take over, you'd have done fine. All you needed was a few minutes to pull your head together." Throwing an arm around Hermione's shoulders, he ushered her gently over the threshhold and drew the bedroom door shut. "Next time, just take a deep breath and try not to panic. Gingersnap wasn't in dire straits — just a bonk on the head. Besides, she was out cold and feeling no pain — not as if she was about to badger you if you needed to take a moment to flip through an old spell book to find the right way to close a cut. Don't stew over it, Sweets!"
Hermione pulled away from Sirius and turned on him. "That's not the point! What if something really awful was to happen?! What if Ginny or you or Harry or... or Ron... was lying there with seconds to live and I was the only one around who could save any of you?" A lock of Hermione's rumpled hair fell across her face and she whipped it aside. "What do I do then?! What if I just went blank again and started bawling my pathetic little head off??"
"Ssh Granger." Sirius raised a finger to his lips. "It's no fun to get blasted out of bed like that and have to launch straight into coherent action. But if it'd make you feel better, maybe we could start doing practice drills. Back during the First Wizarding War, Order of the Phoenix members like Mad-Eye and them were constantly barging in on us at all the worst hours of night to get people used to being woken up for emergencies."
"Really?" Hermione's cringe evapourated, replaced by curiosity. "Did it work?"
"Hah!" Sirius barked. "Hell no! But it sure made a bloody good excuse to hit the bottle! Gideon, Fabian and I would tie one on nearly every night. Depending on when exactly the gits came to ambush us, we'd either still be sober enough to spray them with shots of Firewhisky, or else we'd be so rat-arsed they could have turned a Swedish Short-Snout loose on us and we wouldn't have budged."
Hermione laughed, relieved by the leavening humour.
Not sharing in the levity, Ron caught Sirius's wrist. "Hey! Why the hell did you shut the door like that?" Ron turned to glare back toward the room they'd emerged from. "We're not going to just leave Ginny in there with... uh, with Harry?"
Sirius grinned. "That's exactly what we're doing. None of us need any more fuss tonight." He paused and pointed toward the stairwell. "You young urchins are headed straight back to bed — especially you, Copper-top. Weasleys need their sleep or else they're bloody insufferable."
Oblivious to the Ron's flushing complexion, Sirius turned and winked at Hermione. "Granger, you're welcome to take the small guest room up on third floor close to the WC — the bed is comfortable and freshly-made." He began to make his way back out toward the front room, adding, "And yes, we are going to leave the two little sweet-dreamers alone in there together to settle peacefully. I'll peek in on them in an hour to make sure all's well, but beyond that we're going to let them be."
"But... but..." Ron wrung his hands. "Harry will catch no end of grief for this! Ginny bites our heads off whenever we try to help her with anything these days. She says she's tired of being babied. And besides, all she had was a bad dream — she doesn't need anybody in there to..."
Sirius shook his head, cutting him off. "No, you missed a few cues, Ron. Most importantly, she asked him to stay. Twice, if I counted right. I don't have a clue what kind of dream could have been bad enough to launch her across the room into a full-on face-plant, but we're all bloody stressed out of our gourds these days. You remember how pale and quiet she got the other night when Tonks came in with the news about Harry's brush with the Dementors? Little Miss Pepper Vinegar may have us believe that she's all ready to tackle the world, but we all know that your sister is just as fussed and rattled by all this idiotic crap as anyone else. If she keeps her fears bottled in all day every day, it's hardly any surprise to see them come screeching out in the occasional nightmare."
Hermione nodded thoughtfully, but Ron scowled and looked away.
"Hey listen..." Sirius shrugged in a conciliatory way. "I'm a sorry excuse for a sage, but I do know two things damned well. I know for a fact that when a frightened friend comes asking for help, neither Cub or I would have the heart to tell her 'no '. Secondly, I've also learned that the best way to keep Harry from digging a grave over his own worries is to let him help other people deal with theirs."
Hermione's eyes widened and she nodded. "Good point! I'd never thought of that before!"
Ron, however, whipped about to face Sirius. "No, YOU listen, Sirius. That's all bollocks! Mum is going to go spare when she comes back tomorrow and finds out that Harry and Ginny spent the night together!"
Sirius merely offered his most roguish grin. "What Mummy Molly doesn't know won't hurt her... or hurt us !" He sighed wearily. "Honestly mate, every time we save the poor lady from sweating some harmless little cut-corner or dodgy detail, we're doing her a good turn, a'right? Molly's shattered enough from all the bedlam as it is."
Sirius paused to seek affirmation from Ron, but the youth didn't respond. The man fixed him with an earnest gaze. "Don't worry Ron, I'll make sure Harry is out of there well before breakfast. As long as none of the five of us tells anyone, then nobody will ever know the difference." Sirius smiled and clapped the two teens over the shoulders. "Now you two get to bed!"
Still seemingly conflicted, Ron paused for a moment, but then he nodded reluctantly and followed Hermione up the stairs.
Sirius took a final glance down the hallway toward the bedroom door, smiled quietly to himself, then made his silent way back to the sitting room, to rejoin the company of his Firewhisky bottle.
Harry gazed at the bedroom door as it closed, then listened pensively as his friends' indistinct voices drifted down the hallway.
How on earth had he gotten himself into this... situation?
It was all a blur. Harry couldn't recall whether, in his mad rush down here, anything conscious or coherent had been crossing his mind. He was quite certain he had operated on pure, blind instinct, but even if he'd been guided by cool-headed logic, he doubted he could ever have predicted this outcome.
Who might possibly have guessed that the only bonafide adult in the house (if Sirius could truly be called an adult) would close the bedroom door... consigning him to spend the rest of the night alone with a sleeping girl?
He took a deep breath and pondered the situation.
Harry didn't kid himself when it came to his godfather — he could smell liquor on the man's breath practically every night, and this evening was no exception. On the other hand, Harry could hear within the man's voice an otherworldly wisdom that couldn't quite be ignored. Like the hands of a stopped clock, Sirius was almost always wrong... except when he was right. Indeed, there were those very special circumstances (which seemingly came about twice in a dog's age) when Harry's godfather was absolutely spot-on.
He knew that Sirius was widely considered to be unreliable (almost to the level of Mundungus Fletcher), but Harry was somehow convinced that the man, as damaged as he was, would grow into key role in the emerging battle against Voldemort. Harry could only imagine that it might be a rather unconventional contribution — something befitting such an unconventional character!
As far as Harry knew, Sirius's greatest service to the order might be something as unusual as motivation or even 'morale'. For all the demoralizing circumstances faced by Order of the Phoenix members, few had weathered such hardship as Sirius, and yet he had somehow risen above it all. With magical society threatening to crumble around them, the old dog's humour held a special value right now. With the Weasley family driven from their healthy, happy household into a hellacious dump that had not seen real habitation since its use as a de facto bunker in the First Wizarding War, Sirius added spice to the drudgery. His lax interpretation of all of the less essential principles of etiquette was humane relief to the younger folk, and even Arthur and Professor Lupin gave in to the occasional furtive smirk in Sirius's presence. His wit and pragmatic irreverence seemed to be chock full of strategies to shepherd edgy people around all of the petty stresses in the day-to-day life of a family under siege. He was clearly appreciated!
Except by Molly.
Harry could tell that Sirius was driving the Weasley matron practically out of her mind. It must surely be galling for Molly to be forced to share domestic oversight with a host whose every instinct undercut her passion for orderly decorum, but Harry was convinced that Sirius was at least partially in the right. Molly seemed to be trying to cling to a pretense of normality as she knew it, but striving for an illusion of sanity in this zoo was surely a recipe for madness.
Yes, this was one of those twice-in-a-dog's-age situations — Sirius was the unlikely voice of reason. And, just a little while ago, this particular voice of reason had, in spite of the horrified tone in Ron's protesting voice, closed the bedroom door and committed Harry to the remainder of a night inside a closed, darkened room with...
Well, with a girl...
In fact, a rather pretty girl...
Pretty... Harry wondered to himself. When had that happened?
Harry gazed down at her in the low light, at the smooth curves of her cheeks, at the fine wavy hair that cascaded across her shoulders.
When, had Ginny ceased to be just 'Ron's little sister' ?
Harry marveled at how greatly her stature had grown from the nervous little mouse that Ron would reliably ignore (except perhaps when he deigned to scoff and roll his eyes at her).
Yes, Ginny had acquired 'stature'. It was not that she was 'tall' per se (she was still attractively petite), but rather that she had learned to carry herself with an easy-going confidence that made her seem more accomplished, more personable... even more mature... than most of the students in Harry's own year at Hogwarts.
Maybe the petals had unfolded on this vibrant bundle of life when Ginny had started smiling and laughing. She had cultivated so many tools to capture attention — a winning sparkle, witty conversation, an easy laugh. And pranks. Yes, in truth she seemed to liven up Grimmauld Place almost as much as Sirius did. The capers she pulled were brilliant; funny and imaginative enough to put even the twins on edge.
Yes, it was abundantly clear to Harry 'how ' Ginny had progressed beyond her old status as the Weasley door-stop. But 'when ' had this happened? At what moment had Harry been so blind as to miss such a glorious transformation?
Perhaps at the Yule Ball...?
That small dagger of regret twisted in Harry's side, but he took another deep breath to suppress the sour memories, and return his focus to his remaining responsibilities.
Yes, Harry knew that he had to make sure that this vibrant, winsome, prankish, but currently very comatose, girl was comfortably settled for the night. Then he should try to get himself back to sleep.
Harry took stock of things. The big task was done — Ginny was back on the bed. As soon as Ginny's wounds had been treated, Sirius had entered the bedroom, and had helped Harry lift Ginny back into bed without rousing her. Immediately after that, however, everyone had spirited away, leaving the situation in a bit of disarray.
Harry picked up the sheet, blanket and quilt that had gotten strewn across the floor. After casting quick scourgefy spells on them and checking to ensure that they were no longer bloodied or dusty, he piled them on the end of the bed and began to arrange them over the peaceful girl.
As he was pulling the sheet into place, something sharp scraped his hand.
He carefully withdrew the sheet down to Ginny's waist, scanned the area where his hand had been. In the pale light creeping in from a crack in the curtain, Harry glimpsed a flicker of silver in Ginny's left hand. Drawing closer, he gasped — there was a thin silvery spike poking out from between her clenched fingers. "Oi! Glad she didn't spear herself with that when she fell!"
Staring more closely at it, he saw that the spike was attached to something larger, clasped rigidly in her fist. He carefully reached for her hand to see if he could gently extract it from her grip.
Ginny whimpered and pulled the hand closer to her body.
Harry paused to deliberate for a moment, then reached for her hand again. This time he stroked it softly, tenderly. "Ginny? Please open your hand. I'd like to put this, er, thing on the night stand, okay? Just to keep it safe for you while you sleep."
A frown flickered over Ginny's face, as she semiconsciously processed Harry's request. She nodded slightly. "Uh huh," she mumbled and her grip loosened. "Thanks so much...."
The object, heavier than Harry would have guessed, slipped into his hand.
Suddenly finding himself sincerely moved by this unexpected scenario — a proud, self-reliant girl caught at her most vulnerable, seemingly placing such trust in him — Harry gazed affectionately at his charge. Before he had any notion of what he was doing, he leaned down to place a tiny kiss on her forehead.
Harry could not remember ever having either given or received a kiss. Yet in that moment, despite his lack of experience, the act seemed simple and natural. All of his stilted, awkward experiences with girls, and all of his far more onerous stresses, faded for a while. With a happy sigh, he returned to the final bit of straightening up, pulling the sheet and covers over Ginny, then reaching over toward the night stand to stow the...
In curiosity, he raised the object in his hand so that it once again caught the faint light from the window. He examined it for a moment, vaguely stirred by the unusual, ornate craftsmanship, intrigued by the clasp's cool weight in his hand. It almost seemed to make him tingle.
Construing the unusual sensation as a figment of exhaustion, Harry placed the brooch on the night stand, and turned one final time to gaze down at his young and pretty friend. He was troubled by the sudden relapse of her old susceptibility to nightmares, but he was once again deeply stirred by her unexpected reliance on him; by her wholehearted (if slightly puzzling) acceptance of a helping hand.
Helping a friend truly felt good!
Harry borrowed an extra pillow and blanket from the boudoir, and settled himself in the comfortable old armchair beside Ginny's bed. Within moments, he was asleep, with a contented smile on his face.