It seemed odd, walking down Privet Drive next to Charlie Weasley. Harry couldn't help casting furtive glances at Charlie, who seemed oblivious. He wasn't behaving the way Harry had expected either. He'd been expecting everything from anger to a cold shoulder from the Weasley brothers and Charlie seemed rather cheerful.
"Ginny asked me to come get you, you know." It had finally come, and Harry snuck yet another look. Charlie wasn't watching him with a glaring eye. In fact, he seemed to be casually watching the skies as they walked. His very posture seemed casual, from his hands in his jeans pocket to the smile on his face.
Harry swallowed thickly. He couldn't bring himself to look at Charlie again, and after a few moments it became evident that Charlie was looking at him. "Th-thank you," he stammered, then sighed, allowing his shoulders to slump. He'd hoped, beyond all wanting and even believing, that she would be one of the people to pick him up. He should have known better. And even if she had, he thought angrily, what good would it serve? He couldn't be with her. He couldn't risk her that way. He wouldn't risk her that way.
Charlie cleared his throat, and Harry felt his face flush. He remained silent, walking on, until Charlie began to whistle, a strange, haunting tune. Harry glanced up then, wondering if the older man had learned it in Romania.
"The signal," Charlie smiled, and stopped, leaning back against a tree. He looked at his watch. "It looks like we have a bit of time. You should relax. Maybe talk. You seem to have quite a bit on your mind."
Harry winced slightly, and looked up at Charlie, but there was neither a reproachful look nor hardness in his tone. He seemed genuinely concerned. Harry swallowed again and shook his head, "Nothing to talk about."
"Nonsense," Charlie said, clucking his tongue. "You've got the same look Ginny's had all week." Harry started, looking up at Charlie, who looked back with a tiny smile on his face. "She won't tell me what's wrong, either. I have a feeling it has something to do with you."
Harry looked down, expecting the hammer to fall. He was, in a way, relieved that it would finally be over with.
"I can't say, Charlie," was his soft reply. He looked at him, lifting his chin up, and met his eyes for the first time since they left the Dursleys. "It's... personal."
Charlie pierced Harry with his gaze, then, to Harry's surprise, nodded slowly. "That's exactly what Ginny said." He sighed, looking down the street. "I can't say I like it, Harry. I don't like to see Ginny sad. It's so unlike her." Harry nodded, but Charlie continued. "I don't like to see you sad, either. It's a hard enough time as it is without finding other reasons to be depressed, right?" Charlie smiled, a little sadly at Harry.
"It's..." Harry looked away, then back at Charlie, deciding to confide in someone, if only a little. "It's because of Voldemort."
Charlie nodded, as if the last piece of a vexing puzzle were put into place. "Talk to me later about it, Harry. Here's our ride." Harry looked up to see Mundungus, oddly subdued and understandably wary, and Tonks walk up. Tonks was holding what looked like an empty soda bottle.
"Wotcher, Harry, Charlie!" Tonks's hair was a lively shade of blue, and she winked at Harry, a bit more her old self.
"'llo, Tonks," Harry said, but Charlie pulled her into a tight hug.
"When's it supposed to go, Nynny?" He winked at Harry, ignoring Tonks's glare.
"Five minutes, plenty of time," Tonks punched Charlie lightly in the arm, "and I told you, call me Tonks."
"Aww, c'mon," Charlie drawled, easily, bringing a reluctant smile to both Tonks's and Harry's faces. "Tonks makes you sound like one of the twins' jokes backfired."
That brought a laugh from the auror, who lifted the bottle. "All right, all right, but come up with something better than Nynny, if you would. Now, grab on, it'll go off soon."
Harry reached forward, touching the bottle with two fingers, then cast a look at Mundungus. "Isn't he coming?" Harry was surprised at the coldness in his own voice, but he had remembered the scene in Hogsmeade. Mundungus Fletcher wasn't among his favorite people right now.
"Nah, I'm stayin'," Dung refused to look at Harry, "Got an assignment to watch yer muggles."
"Well, I hope a stack of cauldrons doesn't fall off a broom somewhere or they're in deep trouble."
Harry ignored Charlie's raised eyebrow, and was grateful when the tugging sensation happened behind his naval. It had cut of Tonks's admonition.
After she and Harry had picked themselves off the ground, Tonks gave Harry a look that reminded him of Hermione; Half-exasperated, half amused, then turned to Charlie. "I'll go in and make sure the coast is clear," she said.
Harry blinked at her as she strode toward the kitchen door, and turned to Charlie. He was grinning, causing a certain amount of unease in Harry's chest.
"The, ah, twins," began Charlie. "They seem to have put together that Ginny's recent depression is caused by you. Needless to say, they're not exactly happy." Harry's blood ran cold. Being on the twins' bad side was not a position he had anticipated. He, briefly, wondered which would be worse, the wrath of the Dark Lord Voldemort, or the wrath of the Weasley Twins.
"If I can survive this, Voldemort will be easy," he muttered, bringing about a nervous laugh from Charlie.
Tonks came to the window and waved the two in, meeting them at the door. "They're not here," she told Charlie, her eyes sparkling in merriment. "Your mum has sent the boys into the village for more drinks and ice. Don't look too relieved Harry," she said with a decided twinkle in her eye. "I get the feeling that she wanted first crack at you." Harry looked around at Charlie, his eyes widening in alarm. Charlie only grinned.
"Sorry, Harry, I can run interference with the twins, certainly. Mum is a different story. You're on your own."
Tonks giggled, then handed Harry a butterbeer. "I wouldn't worry too much, Harry," she said, turning to look through the kitchen entryway at the crowd beyond. "She's too involved with family and wedding things to worry about... just yet."
Remus passed by the door, and with a little hop, she turned, winked at Harry, and sashayed her way out, an effect that was completely ruined when she stumbled on her way out the door.
"What's going on here, Charlie?" Harry had only seen the Weasley home so occupied once before, during Christmas and his birthday, and this had all the markings of more than a family affair.
Charlie started a bit, his brows raising, "I forgot to say, didn't I? Mum's having a bit of a get together before the wedding. I think she needed to unwind. She's been running about like a half crazed house elf."
Harry smirked, half amused at the sudden image of a large eared, large nosed Molly Weasley squeakily getting her children up and about. Charlie had apparently had a similar thought, judging by the large smile he had on his face. Harry bit back a laugh and entered the main sitting room.
The scene was a tribute to organized chaos. Harry let his eyes wander around the room to rest, for a short time, on each member of his favorite family in the wizarding world. Fond memories flooded him of the past six years, years in which this family, as a lifeline, would offer freely what the Dursleys would, or could, not. Mr. Weasley, whose patience in listening to his seemingly mad schemes was the closest thing he could call fatherhood since Sirius had passed on. Molly, who's bustling, sometimes frightening demeanor hid the softest heart he could imagine, one that had accepted him so readily he'd scarcely known it was happening until it was over. Each red haired, freckle faced member brought a surge of warmth in the way that they'd accepted him and treated him like family, until a flash of movement caught his eye, and he turned his gaze to the stairs just in time to see a white flash of a girl's trainers disappear above the ceiling line. Hermione shook her head and caught Harry's eye, then looked away suddenly, as if ashamed to have intruded on his thoughts.
Those thoughts took a darker turn, and he found himself wondering what they thought of him. What did it mean that even a flash of red and white in the corner of his eye sent his heart racing and brought a lump to his throat? Harry suddenly wanted nothing more than to sink back into the shadows and disappear from this family's warm home, to never have darkened their doorway. Surely a lifetime of the Dursleys was better than this feeling right now. If only slightly.
The urge to turn to Charlie and ask for just that froze with his heart as Molly turned and spotted him, and as one all of the eyes in the room honed in on the same place. Molly straightened, tightened her lips into a line, and, it seemed, fairly stalked toward Harry. It was as if she were trying legilimency on him, the way his vision went hazy around the edges. He felt, as if from far away, that he'd stumbled back. It wasn't long before he was caught, and pulled into a motherly embrace by Molly Weasley.
Harry's heart started beating again, but he was so confused he almost missed what Mrs. Weasley was saying. He patted her back awkwardly, focusing on her words. "I know it's hard, Harry, I know it is, but you'll work things out. I have faith." It was said with such utter conviction, such emphasis, that Harry couldn't bring himself to argue. Did she think that all that had happened was that Ginny and he had had some kind of row? A glance at Charlie showed he was just as confused as Harry.
Molly let go, smiling encouragingly before turning to minister to the rest of the party goers. Eyes averted from them and the party seemed to go on, but Harry, at least, could feel a heavy tension in the air. He looked down, not looking over when Charlie patted his shoulder in a comforting gesture.
"Mum's always had a bit of a soft spot when it came to you, I think, Harry," Charlie said, shaking his head. "I think you could kick Dad in the shins and she'd say you were just being precocious." Harry almost laughed at that.
"Somehow, I think I'd feel better if she'd yelled at me or hexed me," Harry admitted. He couldn't get past the image of Ginny's white trainer dashing up the steps.
"Well, wait a bit. The twins will be back, maybe you'll be luckier with them." Charlie's voice was tinged with humor. Harry's look of horror must have been part of the joke. Charlie chuckled even louder.
"I... I think I'll just... turn in," Harry stammer through the panic in his chest, "Long day and all that."
Charlie nodded, patting Harry on the shoulder one more time. "Don't worry, Harry. I'll make sure nothing happens while you're sleeping. Buy you'll have to watch your own back when you wake, OK?"
Without waiting for an answer, Charlie headed toward the kitchen. Harry made his way to the steps, stopping by Ron and Hermione, who had, it seemed, been waiting for him there.
"All right, Harry," Ron asked, staring at his drink. Harry felt a note of coolness in his voice.
"No," he answered, only partly surprised when Ron nodded.
"Harry," Hermione started, but, for once, seemed at a loss for words. Instead she hugged him, much as Mrs. Weasley had done. "It'll be all right, you'll see," she said, unconsciously mimicking the Weasley matron. Harry sighed and said nothing.
Ron seemed on the edge of saying something, and would have, except for a warning glare from Hermione. Instead, he sighed, putting his hands in either pocket. An awkward silence ensued.
"Ah. Nice vacation?" tried Hermione. She closed her eyes tightly after saying it, as if knowing it was a stupid question. Harry chose to answer as if it wasn't.
"It's been all right, about the same as last year, really." He smirked, as close to a smile as he could get. "Except this year Uncle Vernon tried to hit me."
The comment was met much the way he'd expected it to be, with shock from Hermione, and anger from Ron. "He didn't!" Hermione gasped, and Ron breathed out such a vile curse that if he'd been heard his mother would have had him cutting sprouts for a month.
Harry nodded, encouraged slightly by his friends' reactions. "Charlie came in just in time, or I'd have done underage magic again. Not that it matters."
Saying those last four words took the life straight from the conversation, and the three friends looked around, warily. Ron broke the new silence, "After the wedding, right?"
"Right," Harry replied, his face suddenly grim. "We end it this year, one way or another.
He couldn't bear to see the concern flicker between Ron and Hermione's faces. Looking down, he sighed. "I've had a long day. I take it I'm in your room, Ron?"
"Yeah, Bill's here tonight, and Charlie... you know how it is."
"Heard from Percy?" The question, he felt, was as foolish as Hermione's. He regretted it instantly. Ron, However, seemed pleased to have a topic in which he could finally stop choosing his words carefully, and spent a good five minutes roundly abusing Percy and his treatment of the rest of the Weasley family in high fashion. By the end of it, Hermione was fighting laughter, and even Harry had to smile.
"All right, all right, I shouldn't have brought it up!" Harry chuckled finally. "We'll talk about it in the morning."
He turned just in time to spot George and Fred walk in through the front door. Hermione and Ron instantly moved together, facing away from Harry, Ron's hand flapping behind him in a shooing motion.
Harry needn't be told twice. He hurried up the stairs, all the while keeping an eye on the twins. As such, he didn't see at the landing when he bumped into someone.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't wa--"
His heart promptly jammed into his throat, for there, sitting wide eyed on the floor where she had fallen was Ginny, looking for all the world like she had stuck her elbow in the butter dish.
It seemed like an eternity that they remained in place, staring at each other. Harry could feel that his face was pale, and Ginny's jaw worked as if she were trying to swallow something particularly nasty.
Harry moved first, putting out his hand to help her up, just as Ginny pushed against the floor, and they were standing together, closer than they had been in weeks.
Both stepped back hastily, neither looking at each other as they stammered apologies. Ginny swallowed once, sighed, and looked up, capturing Harry with her eyes. "It's good to see you well, Harry," she said, turning on her heel and marching, slightly wobbly, to her room, where she closed the door with a final sounding click.
Harry watched the door for a moment before letting his own breath out. "It's good to see you well, too, Ginny," he whispered to it, trudging up the next flights of stairs to his camp bed in Ron's room.
A/N: I want to extend a hand to my beta, Tanaxanth, for being very patient with me in my newness and sometimes puppy-like excitement to see this story through. Also, my pre-betas, Kimiko, Tzigane, Oklina, and Laone, who are very encouraging when they see when I send them. :)
B/N: Excitement is a good thing, and newness isnít always a bad thing. :-)