After dinner, Mrs Weasley insisted that the two non-Weasleys present sit and let the family clean up. Fleur seemed to take it as a matter of pride that she had now been included as family, but Harry sat a bit uneasily with Luna as the rest packed away the remains of Ginny's birthday feast.
“I don’t go to birthday parties much,” Luna sighed, sipping the last of the dandelion wine that Mr Weasley had broken out for the occasion. “This was so lovely tonight, being among people...”
“Being among your friends,” Harry said, and her eyes lost some of their mistiness. “We are your friends, Luna, you know that, right?”
She looked at him steadily, her gaze focused on his left shoulder.
“You’re my friend,” he continued, not sure how he had got himself into this conversation.
Suddenly she smiled, and her silver-blue eyes locked on his. “I’m glad,” said Luna. Leaning forward, she whispered, “I am your friend, Harry, but right now I think Ginny wants to talk to you more than I do.”
Harry blinked. “Isn’t she... clearing away?”
“Oh, no, she sneaked off into the trees past the paddock. She is the birthday girl, after all. It’s her favorite alone spot. But I think she doesn’t want to be alone just now.”
“Oh,” said Harry.
He found Ginny sitting beneath the willow tree beside the Weasleys’ paddock. Her chin was balanced on her knees, holding the hem of her skirt in place, and the tree-dappled light of the sunset made her hair burn fiercely as it flowed over her shoulders. Harry knew that, if he could see her face, the expression would be that almost predatory readiness that always made his heart skip.
At that moment, Harry felt like the stupidest boy on the face of the earth.
“Going to sit, Harry, or are you just enjoying the view?” she murmured without turning toward him.
Both, he thought, but as he sat, he said, “Happy birthday, Ginny.”
She turned towards him, managing to look both fierce and shy, and the animal in his chest that always seemed to respond to her kicked into a quiet growl. You walked away from this, he thought. You walked away and she understands. Don’t confuse yourself. Don’t hurt her.
“Thank you for the broomstick, Harry. You didn’t have to do that.”
Oh, yes, I did, he thought, mind flashing on the rings and bracelets and necklaces that he had forced himself not to buy. Harry shrugged. “I thought a top-flight Chaser’s broom like the Hummingbird would suit you, since you’re almost certain to be Captain next year.”
She peered up into his eyes. “You’re really not coming back?”
“No,” Harry sighed, because at the moment all he could think of was the dozens of classrooms and cupboards that he and Ginny hadn’t yet explored together. “No, and your brother and Hermione seem determined to stick with me.”
She pursed her lips and looked back at the sunset—the sun had fallen below the horizon over the pond, and the sky was bedecked in spectacular Gryffindor colors. “Take me with you.”
The growl inside of him grew, and Harry knew that he wanted nothing more than to have Ginny at his side when the next Death Eater ambush came, when they found the fourth Horcrux. He knew too that what he had told her at Dumbledore’s funeral was still true: that if she were hurt or worse at his side, he wasn’t sure how he could stand it. “Please, Ginny,” he said, his voice thick. “I can’t.”
Again she looked at him; with the light behind her, her dark brown eyes seemed black. “I’ve thought a lot about what you said, Harry. I have one question that I have to ask you, though. Is it that you think that caring for me is going to get in the way, or is it that you’re worried for me?”
Opening his mouth and closing it again, Harry wondered for the nine hundredth time why he hadn’t tried to get involved with Ginny sooner. Here was a beautiful girl who he could actually talk to, who talked to him. Something annoyingly like regret was pricking at him, and he felt all of the resolve that had anchored him for the past two months beginning to shatter. Oh, hell. “Both,” he managed to say.
For a moment her eyes bored into him, testing for evasion or a tease. Finally she gave a sad half-smile and a nod. “Right. That makes sense.” She looked away again. “Does it change anything if I tell you I’ll still be a target even if you leave me behind?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there are a couple of things." She began ticking points off on her fingers. "First of all, I’m already known as one of your good friends. Luna, Neville and I came to the Department of Mysteries with you. Everyone knows that we were dating this spring. I’m a Weasley, which puts me high up in the charts anyway. And...” She bit her lip. “You’re not going to like this, Harry.”
She shook her hair so that it fell down over her face. It was a gesture she pulled out only when she had something to say that she was very upset about. “Harry... I could be a Horcrux.”
He tried to wrap his mind around what she was saying, but failed. “What?”
He could just see one brown eye peering through her hair. “Hermione told me about the Horcruxes, Harry. After you left for the Dursleys. I sort of... threatened to hex her if she didn’t tell me what the hell you and Dumbledore were doing before he was, you know....”
Harry looked at his erstwhile girlfriend. If it had been anyone else that Hermione had told, he would be really upset. As it was, he was just thrown. “She told you? I can’t believe...”
“I threatened to emasculate Ron.” Through the hair, her eye and voice sparkled.
Harry snorted. His two best friends had yet to admit that they were a couple—at least to him—but their affection was clear. Harry could only imagine how effective that threat would have been, especially since Harry was quite sure Ginny would have had the means and nerve to follow through on it. “I see. Well, I still need to talk to her about it. But what were you talking about? How could you... ?” Even as he began to ask, the answer came to him. “Oh.”
She nodded. “Yeah. You destroyed Tom’s diary, but not before he’d poured himself into me for months. I’m still, erm, aware of him nattering at me from time to time. I mean, maybe it’s just my imagination, but—”
“No,” Harry said, emphatically. “It couldn’t be. If that were so, I would be too—he left part of himself in me when he tried to kill me the first time.”
Again she shrugged, and parted her hair slightly. “Maybe. But it could be that, in order to kill the bastard, you’re going to have to—”
“No!” Harry barked. “It can’t be. I couldn’t.”
“Maybe not, but I’d rather die than let Tom win.” Both eyes revealed now, her gaze froze him. “And I know you feel the same way, Harry. I told you. It’s one of the reasons I like you so much. I know you’re the Chosen One. I know you’re the only one who can kill that son of a bitch. And I don’t want to make chasing him harder.” She reached out and touched his cheek and he shuddered. “But you’re not the only one who gets to risk their life here, Harry. You're letting Ron and Hermione. Please. Please, let me help you. It doesn’t have to be rom—”
Suddenly, Harry found himself kissing her, and just as on their first kiss, time seemed to stop. This time, however, the days through which the kiss seemed to endure were not sunlit. Not at all.
He pulled back when he realized that she was trembling against him. Her eyes were blazing—triumphant, yet frightened.
Within him, the beast bellowed.
“Ginny, I... I...” He couldn’t lie to her. “I don’t know. I’m frightened enough with Ron and Hermione near me—I couldn’t say no to them, even though I wanted to, not after all these years. But you? I... The idea of you being there when Greyback attacks us or Voldemort comes after me or if one of the Horcruxes... They’re all booby-trapped, Ginny. The diary was the only one he meant to be found, and look at the damage it did, I don’t want you to be hurt, I don’t want anyone to touch you, I—”
She put her hand over his mouth and he realized he had been babbling. “Harry.” She withdrew her hand and began unbuttoning her top. “There’s one more reason I can’t let you go without me.”
Harry hadn’t felt this terrified since Dumbledore’s death. Shivering, he watched silently, mouth open as she slowly removed her chemise.
“I’m not trying to seduce you, Harry.” She smiled again, and Harry felt another howl rip through him. “Or perhaps I am. But I just need to show you—” The top dropped to the ground and she turned away from him. “—this.”
Harry and she had explored joyously during the weeks that they had been together. That first afternoon, after the Ravenclaw match, Ginny had introduced his fingers to the miracle of the soft flesh of her breasts. Suddenly, however, he realized that he had never seen her naked back—never while they were seeing each other, never before. Not under a bathing suit or a halter-top or a low-backed dress. Always, she had had her back and shoulders covered.
There, just over her two fine shoulder blades, were the images of two white hands—pale even against her fair skin. He held his own trembling hands up. They matched.
Leaning back into his touch, Ginny sighed, “They’re from the Chamber. I never let anyone see them. Just Mum and Dad. Even Hermione and Luna don’t know. They’re where you were holding me when I woke up and I realized you had saved my life.”
Stunned, Harry pulled her close to him.
“You understand what a Life Debt is, don’t you, Harry?” He nodded into her hair. “So, you see, I’m afraid I can’t let you go, Harry Potter. I can’t, and I don’t want to. Please let me come with you.”
He squeezed her hard, and held her. He didn’t know how to answer her. “I can’t say yes, Ginny, because... I just can’t. But I don’t want to be without you, and that’s the truth.”
She turned against him, and they kissed again, and Harry was very aware of the feel of her naked skin beneath his hands, of her silk-clad breasts against his chest. The feel of the strap of her brassiere against one of his fingers enraged the beast.
When they broke apart again, Ginny gazed at him cagily. “Harry,” she said, “do you know what I wished for every year for my birthday, from the age of eleven until last year?”
Harry shook his head, speechless at the sight of her.
She could see that. She knew. She smiled. “Every year for five years, my wish as I blew out the candles on my cake was that you would kiss me. And I got that wish this last year now, didn’t I?” Her eyes danced mischievously.
Harry could only grunt.
“Do you know,” she continued, “what I wished for this year?” When he shook his head, she grinned, reached behind her back, and unsnapped the brassiere.
The monster within him roared. But it was nowhere near the region of his chest.