“Well, the idea was sound, I’d say, but we didn’t quite think it through,” Fred said with a shrug. “Good thing we tested it before putting the whole plan into action.”
“Good?” Ron asked. “You two wound up starkers in the common room. That was not good.”
“It was hilarious, actually,” Ginny said. “Did you see the look on Angelina’s face? She looked like she couldn’t decide if it was Christmas or Halloween.”
“It was Christmas for him,” George muttered, glancing at Fred.
Sirius, who was sitting at the end of the table, barked a laugh. “Merlin, I wish I’d seen that.”
Harry shared a grin with his godfather. “No, you don’t, not really. Trust me.”
“It’s good to see you smiling, Harry,” Mrs. Weasley said from the worktop.
Harry nodded at her, but the well-intentioned comment simply reminded him why he had not smiled much lately. He wondered, irrationally, what Cedric would have thought if he had been in the Gryffindor common room that night.
As the laughter died down and the twins artfully dodged their parents’ questions, Harry heard a loud crack from the living room above. The table went silent instantly, and then an even louder crack sounded from the ceiling. The echoes had not quite faded when Harry heard the sound of something or someone falling to the floor above. A groan leaked through the ancient floorboards.
Mr. Weasley and Sirius leapt to their feet. “Are we expecting anyone?” Sirius asked.
“I don’t think so,” Mrs. Weasley said.
“Harry, stay here,” Sirius said, his wand out. “I mean it. It might just be Kreacher, or it might not. Arthur and Molly, go up by the stairs. I’ll Apparate through and come in from the other side. Hermione, if you hear any one of us cast a spell or shout something that sounds remotely bad, Floo the Headmaster.” He fixed the twins with his dark, piercing gaze. “If Harry gets hurt, I’m coming after you two.”
The twins nodded and drew their own wands, moving to stand on either side of Harry’s chair.
Mr. and Mrs. Weasley raced out of the room, and Sirius vanished with a slight pop. The moment they had all gone, Harry leapt up from his chair. “Come on.”
He, Ron, and Ginny all bounded for the door, but the twins darted ahead of them. “Hang on,” George began. “We’re supposed to make sure you stay here.”
The twins looked at each other and shrugged. “Not sure how we’re supposed to protect the bloke who just duelled You-Know-Who, though,” Fred said. “We’ll just try to make sure you don’t do anything too stupid.”
“Better stay close, then,” Harry said, slipping between the two boys and out of the kitchen.
All five of them raced up the stairs and down the dim corridor past Mrs. Black’s shrouded portrait. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were standing in the doorway to the living room, but their wands hung loosely at their sides. At the sound of the children’s approach, the two adults turned to face them. Then, inexplicably, they moved to flank the door and let Harry and the others into the room.
Harry was first to enter, and he slid to a halt as soon as he crossed the threshold. Ron and Ginny collided with his back, pushing him forward against his will, and loud “oofs” behind him told him that the twins had stopped, too.
A boy and a girl, both dressed in worn Muggle clothing, sat in the middle of the living room floor. Neither was more than six or seven. The girl was facing away from Harry, but long red hair cascaded down her back. She was leaning towards the boy, who was half-lying on the floor. One of his thin hands lay limply outstretched, as though he had been straining for something and had simply run out of energy. Following the direction of his arm, Harry saw a small stick of firewood poking out of the smouldering fire.
At that moment, the boy looked up, and Harry’s heart began to hammer in his chest. The boy looked incredibly like Harry’s father. People always said that of Harry himself, but they also said he had his mother’s eyes. This boy did not. This boy’s eyes were brown.
The boy’s appearance was not what stopped Harry. It was his gaze. Those brown eyes looked at him with a sort of endless agony, as though he had been in tremendous pain for a long time, and yet they were tinted with something like hope. After a moment, the boy blinked, and a very familiar grin formed on his features.
As soon as the boy reacted to Harry’s presence, the girl spun around. Harry gasped. Her hair was a striking shade of red that he had grown accustomed to long ago, but her eyes were green. His mother’sgreen.
Yet she was not his mother. He could already see that she was too small, even as a child, to grow into the woman whose shade he had seen and spoken to less than two months before. Her hair was too bright, her nose too small, and her skin was scattered with freckles.
For the barest moment, the girl’s eyes flashed with the same expression of pain and promise that the boy’s had, and then she smiled. Harry swallowed. He knew that smile, though he would never have expected to recognise it so readily. He had first seen that smile sprinting down platform nine and three-quarters as he departed for his first day at Hogwarts.
The girl beamed at him, and then her gaze moved over his shoulder. She took a shaky breath, and then she cried out in a loud, clear voice. “Mummy!”
A voice, unrecognisably choked, spoke from behind him. “What?”
There were many things about magic that Harry still did not know, but he knew the simplest way – perhaps the only way – for a little girl to have Lily Potter’s eyes and the distinctive Weasley hair. He turned his head and saw Ginny goggling at the two children.
“It wasn’t my fault, Mummy,” the girl said, her green eyes huge in her face. “It was Jamie’s idea!”
“Was not,” the boy said. His voice, in contrast to the girl’s, was weak and breathy. He heaved himself up onto an elbow, but he did not sit up fully.
“Good heavens!” Mrs. Weasley pushed past Harry and into the room. “Are you all right, child?” she asked, staring at the boy.
“Of course he is,” the girl said promptly. “Jamie doesn’t talk loudly or move quickly, Grandma. You know that.”
Mrs. Weasley froze halfway across the room. “Grandma…?”
“It’s Lily’s fault,” the boy – Jamie – said. “She’s the one who started it. You believe me, don’t you, Daddy?” He looked up at Harry.
“What?” Harry said. He looked around the room, trying to find some possible explanation for the impossibility in front of him. All he saw was Mrs. Weasley, standing to one side with her hand over her mouth, and Sirius, frozen in the other doorway. The haggard man looked as though he had aged twenty years in the last twenty seconds.
Lily scowled and cocked her head to one side. “Why are you fighting?” She turned to look behind Harry again. “What did Daddy do?”
Harry glanced involuntarily at Ginny, and this time her eyes flickered to his for a moment. “Fighting?” she asked, swallowing heavily. “What… what do you mean?”
“You and Daddy aren’t holding hands,” Lily said, sounding as though she were reciting something as simple and universal as the alphabet. “You always hold hands unless you’re fighting. Always.”
“Don’t like it when you fight,” Jamie said in his fragile voice. “Makes everybody feel all nervous. Like they’re not allowed to talk.”
“Please don’t be fighting,” Lily said, her expression pleading. “Please don’t. I hate it when you fight.” Her green eyes suddenly welled with tears.
Ginny stepped forward to stand at Harry’s shoulder, and he saw her take a deep breath. “No one’s fighting,” she said, her voice regaining some of its strength. “See?” She took Harry’s hand and squeezed it tightly enough that he felt her pulse alongside his own.
“Promise?” Lily asked.
“I promise, Sweetheart,” Ginny said, her voice soft and gentle. “Right, Harry?”
Somehow she squeezed his hand even more tightly, and Harry nodded. “Right. No fighting. Holding hands.” He raised their clasped hands.
Lily’s eyes regained their brightness, and she smiled again. Her smile truly was breathtaking, Harry thought. “Good,” she said. “Then it’s still Jamie’s fault.”
“S’not,” Jamie said, a hint of spirit in his voice. “Your idea. Completely your idea.”
The girl turned and glared at him in mock anger. “Okay, fine, it was my idea. You agreed almost instantly.”
Jamie gave a short laugh, but it sounded as though he was choking. “Always do.”
Mrs. Weasley started towards the boy again, but he shook his head and held out one hand. “Mummy?”
Ginny’s hand left Harry’s in a heartbeat, and she ran to Jamie’s side. He put that one arm around her neck, and she dropped to the floor and pulled him into her lap. From his position by the door, Harry saw the boy wince, but he smiled at the same time.
“Oh, Jamie,” Ginny said, running one of her hands down the boy’s back. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Silly Mummy,” he said into her shoulder. “Same thing as always.”
Harry’s attention snapped back to the girl. “Umm… yeah?” She held up her arms to him. Harry paused for a moment, and Ginny looked back at him over her shoulder. The expression on her face told him what he needed to do and how very much he would regret not doing it.
Lily squealed happily when he picked her up, and she wrapped her arms and legs around him. He was not large, even for a fifteen-year-old, but she was quite small, and he decided he could hold her up for a while if she wanted him to.
She pulled back from his embrace and turned her head to look around the room. Harry spun in place so she could see, and she flashed that smile at him again. Her eyes sought out each person in the room one at a time. Sirius. Fred. Mr. Weasley. George. Mrs. Weasley. Ron.
Finally, Lily looked at Hermione, who was standing at the back of the group, her eyes wide. The girl smiled. “Sorry, Aunt Hermione.”
Hermione’s mouth fell open, but she recovered more quickly than Harry had. “Err… for what?”
“We’ve played a prank on you,” Lily said. “You’ll work it out.”
“’Smart girl, that Hermione,’” Jamie said.
“That’s what Daddy always says,” Lily said quickly, nodding at Hermione.
Jamie coughed from his place in Ginny’s lap, the sound wetter and weaker than it had been before. Ginny stroked his unruly hair and began to rock slightly. “Jamie, Sweetheart…”
“I’ll be all right, Mum,” he said.
Lily sighed into Harry’s ear and then shifted to face him from only a few inches away. Slowly, the merriment faded from her eyes, and she looked up at him with a regret far, far deeper and longer than that which he saw in the mirror every day. “We have to go soon, Daddy.”
“What?” Harry asked, suddenly terrified to lose this child. “Why? Where?”
Her smile was gentle and slow and old. “Back the way we came.”
“Is it bad there, Swee… Li… err…”
“Baby,” she said, her grin resurfacing for a moment. “You call me Baby.”
“Is it bad there, Baby?” Harry asked, the word feeling natural somehow. “You and Jamie seem very sad.”
“It’s very bad, but you can make it better,” Lily said. “You and Mummy.”
Ginny stood up with Jamie in her arms, showing strength Harry would not have imagined in such a small person. “How?” As Ginny stepped closer, the rest of the room seemed to fade. Harry felt as though they were the only people present.
The little girl shrugged and smiled again. “Just hold hands. As much as you possibly can. It’ll help everything, I promise.”
“And practice,” Jamie wheezed, turning his head on Ginny’s shoulder to look at Harry. “Practice all the time, and make other people practice.”
“But… practice what?” Harry asked. He was thoroughly confused, yet he felt that understanding was right at his fingertips.
“Anything that might’ve helped you in that graveyard. Learn as much as you can.” Jamie coughed again, and a thin trickle of blood leaked from the corner of his mouth.
“Jamie!” Ginny said, shifting her grip in an effort to free one of her hands. Lily reached out from Harry’s embrace and gently wiped the blood off of her brother’s face. When she moved, Harry realised that the small girl had begun to sag in his arms.
“It’s okay, Gin,” the boy said, his brown eyes glazing slightly and glinting almost green in the dim light. “I’ll be fine.”
Lily nodded, her eyes filling again. “Not long, now. Hang on.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll make it.”
“Tell us what’s wrong. Please, tell us what’s wrong,” Ginny said, looking at Lily with tears already running down her cheeks. “We’ll help.”
Lily leaned forward and tucked her head under Harry’s chin, grasping him tightly with her arms. “Just hold hands and practice. That’ll help. You’ll miss it if you don’t, I promise. You can have years.”
The last word was almost a sigh, and she shuddered against Harry’s chest. “We have to go now. Bye, Daddy.” She reached out and ran her hand down Ginny’s arm. “Bye, Mummy.”
Lily reached for her brother and grasped his fingers tightly. She swallowed visibly and whispered, “Goodbye.”
“Bye, Baby,” Jamie said, his voice barely audible.
Harry tried desperately to think of anything to do, anything to say that might help, but he was paralysed. He looked over at Ginny, who seemed just as desperate. Her tears fell into Jamie’s hair as she held him, and she shook her head helplessly. Jamie took a rasping breath and began to release it in a long, wordless whisper.
Then, with the softest of pops, the two children vanished. Harry and Ginny stood facing each other, their arms outstretched and empty.
The room came back into focus. Sirius, Hermione, and the Weasleys stood in a loose circle around Harry and Ginny, their faces slack with awe. For several long minutes, no one spoke.
“Who were they?” Ron asked in a whisper, breaking the silence.
Harry kept his eyes locked on Ginny’s and saw determination building in her now-familiar brown orbs. “Our children,” Harry said. She nodded.
“But… how?” one of the twins asked.
“I don’t know,” Ginny said, still holding Harry’s gaze.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sirius said in a rough voice.
Hermione sniffled loudly. “They… they didn’t talk like children.” Harry turned to face her, something ferocious stirring in his chest. “I’m sorry, Harry, but they didn’t.”
“She’s right,” Arthur said thickly. “They sounded older.”
“Sounded… ancient, really,” George whispered.
Hermione looked from Harry to Ginny and back. “It could have been some sort of… a hoax, or something. Someone trying to… to…” She shrugged. “Something.”
“You saw them, Hermione,” Ginny said, her eyes blazing. “My—… Jamie was dying. Are you willing to bet his life that it was a hoax? They just wanted… help. Somehow.”
Harry nodded. “‘Practice,’ he said. He was talking about fighting Voldemort. That’s not any sort of setup. It’s just… a smart thing to do. And as for the rest…” He turned his attention back to Ginny.
She took a deep breath. Her face was dry now, and her gaze was steely. “Ask me out, Harry.”
Though he knew where the whole conversation had been heading, he was caught off guard. “What?”
“Ask me out,” she said, slowly and precisely. “Now, please.”
“Right.” Harry swallowed. “Err… would you… ahh… would you like to go to Hogsmeade with me? Next year, I mean.”
Ginny closed her eyes, taking a deep breath and holding it. Without exhaling, she said, “Sooner.”
Harry blinked, but then he understood. As much as you possibly can.“Err… when we go to Diagon Alley for our school things… we could go together. I mean… would you go with me then?”
She nodded sharply. “That’ll do.” She shook her head, and a ghost of a smile flashed on her lips, accompanied by the shadow of a blush. “I mean, yes, thank you. I would love to visit Diagon Alley with you.”
Harry grinned slightly and nodded, his heart racing again. “Okay.”
“And…” Ginny trailed off, biting her lip. “Look, no one’s started cleaning the third-floor study yet. Why don’t you and I take a look at it tomorrow? We can… we can talk.”
“Yeah, all right.”
Ginny held out her hand, and Harry took it without hesitation. They turned to face her parents. Mrs. Weasley was sobbing quietly, but she met Harry’s gaze. Mr. Weasley, one arm around his wife, wiped his own eyes and nodded at them. “All right.”
“We’ll help,” Sirius said gruffly, striding forward to put his hands on Harry and Ginny’s shoulders. “You tell us how, and we’ll help. I can’t…” His voice faltered, and a single tear trailed down his nose. “I can’t see that again.”
Ginny reached up with her free hand and squeezed Sirius’ arm. “You won’t, Sirius. Not if we can help it.”
Though he was far taller and older than Ginny, Sirius nodded meekly.
“Oh my god.”
Everyone turned to face Hermione, who was standing by the fireplace and staring down into the flames. She was deathly pale and shaking visibly.
“Oh my god,” she said again, turning pained eyes to Harry. Tears flowed down her face, faster and thicker than he had ever seen. “Harry?”
Letting go of Ginny, he moved to his friend and held her arms in his hands. “What is it, Hermione?”
“You… you…” She broke free from him and turned back to the fireplace. She picked up one end of a burning piece of kindling and doused it in a vase on the mantle, sloshing water onto the floor. Then, holding it reverently in the palms of her hands, she brought it to Harry.
He looked down, and all of his breath rushed out of his body. Cupped in Hermione’s hands were the last few inches of a very familiar shaft of holly.
A/N: Thanks to Chreechree, Jonathan Avery, regdc, and Sherylyn for the beta work on this tricky bit of fiction.