Lily opened the front door, cold, wet, and ready for some hot cocoa, which her grandmother had promised would be ready after the boys-against-girls snowball fight. She had come in a bit early, looking for her mother and eager for a few quiet moments together by the fire. The last place she'd seen Mum was at the kitchen table, and Lily was hoping she was still there. She was immediately disappointed when Mum's cup and saucer were on the table, but no Mum was in sight. Sighing, Lily began wandering the downstairs rooms in search of her mother, leaving a trail of wet footprints across the floor.
"Hey, Short-stuff, you look like you're looking for someone?" said Uncle Ron. "I think you need a Drying Spell, too."
Lily looked down at her soggy shoes and wet jeans. "Could you add a Warming Charm, too? I was looking for my mum. She knows where my dry clothes are," she explained.
Uncle Ron pulled out his wand and aimed it at Lily. "I can help with the charms, but I don't know where your mum is," he said. "Ready?"
Lily smiled and turned fully to face him, spreading her arms wide so the spell could find all the wet nooks and crannies in the fabric of her clothes. "Thanks, Uncle Ron." She smiled as the spells dried and warmed her wet mittens and socks.
"Not at all," her uncle replied. "If I see your mother I'll let her know you're looking for her."
Giving him a small wave, Lily started up the stairs, intending to peer into each bedroom until she found her mum.
Her search proved fruitless and Lily came downstairs dreading going outside into the cold and wet again. As she emerged from the stairwell, she spied Albus' broom leaning against the wall next to the kitchen door. Her brothers and cousins were all gathered at the table slurping down hot cocoa and stuffing biscuits into their mouths; they paid her no attention as she crossed the room, grabbed the broom and took off from the top step, intent on searching the estate from garden to pitch to pond if she had to.
First, she circled the house, just in case Mum had gone out to the van for something. It was parked next to the garage with a thin layer of snow on its roof. The path Aunt Hermione had cleared for Daddy had been filled in a little, too, and there were no footprints leading from the house to the van, so it was ruled out as a place for Mum to be.
Next, Lily flew through the back garden and out to the pond, half expecting her mother to be sitting on her favourite rock, enjoying the silence of the winter scene. If Mum was there, maybe they'd do a little ice skating like they'd done last Christmas. She was disappointed when Mum wasn't sitting by the pond.
Finally, her concern turning to mild panic, Lily flew to the Quidditch pitch. It really was the logical place for Mum to be, because Lily had often found her on their family's pitch at home, throwing charmed Quaffles at the hoops and doing flying drills she remembered from her time with the Harpies. However, the pitch was as deserted as the pond and van, the only thing in the snow was the Quaffle Hugo had forgotten to bring in after yesterday's practice.
Not one to give up very easily, Lily circled the pitch, peering into the woods surrounding the clearing. "MUM!!" she cried. "MUM, ARE YOU HIDING?"
Now fully alarmed, Lily sped back to the house through the orchard, pushing Albus' broom as fast as she dared fly it. With tears streaming down her face, she entered the kitchen, dropped the broom next to the door, and made a bee-line for the sitting room as Albus yelled at her to put his broom away properly.
"Dad, Dad, have you seen Mum?" Lily cried as she entered the sitting room.
Dad looked up from his chess game with Uncle Bill, "Erm, no, Lily, I haven't seen her all afternoon. Isn't she in the kitchen having a cup of tea?" he asked.
"No, she's not. I went all through The Burrow looking for her and she wasn't in any of the bedrooms. I even went outside and looked in the van," Lily explained as her father's expression turned from curious to concerned.
"You're sure you didn't pass her? Maybe she was in the loo."
Lily shook her head. "I'm certain, Dad. I even took Albus' new broom and flew over to the pond and the Quidditch pitch. I called and called, but she's not here!" she insisted, fat tears beginning to form in her eyes.
Daddy pushed away from the chess table and swung his chair towards her. Then, he opened his arms, inviting her onto his lap. "Come here, my sweet girl," he said. Lily scrambled onto his lap; she had to hook a foot around one of the bars of the foot rest to stay on, but stay on she did as Daddy continued, "We'll find her, Lily. I promise."
Uncle Bill asked, "How long ago did you start searching for her?"
Lily looked at the clock. "Maybe a half-hour ago. I came in from the snowball fight about ten minutes before everyone else did because I was cold and wet and not having fun any more. Uncle Ron dried me off and warmed me up when he saw my wet footprints all over the kitchen."
Uncle Bill said to Daddy and Uncle George, Uncle Ron, Uncle Percy and PopPop who were now listening, "She's had a half hour's head start if she's Apparated somewhere."
"Would she have Apparated away?" Uncle Percy asked. "I remember she used to hide in the attic when she was little, even in winter like this when Fred and George picked on her too much."
"Or what about the tree house in the apple orchard?" Uncle Bill asked. "I remember finding her there on more than one occasion."
"Sorry, big brother, but the tree house collapsed three years ago in that big storm that blew in from the Atlantic," Uncle George said.
"That's the one that took half my roof with it," Uncle Bill remarked.
"We know," Uncle Percy said, sounding impatient. "Since Lily's upset, I'll go up to the attic to find Ginny. See if I can talk her into coming down." He rose from his chair and disappeared up the stairs.
"I'll go find the girls and see if Hermione or Angelina have seen her," Uncle George volunteered as Daddy tightened his hold around Lily and she moved her head to a drier spot on his shoulder.
"Maybe Mum and Fleur have seen her," Uncle Bill suggested, also rising.
Uncle Ron now sat in Uncle Bill's chair. "Do you want me to search the grounds, Harry?" he asked.
"It wouldn't hurt, but I think Sweet Pea here did a thorough job of it, didn't you?" Dad asked.
Lily could only nod.
Uncle Ron sat back down at his chess board. He studied it for several minutes and then murmured some instructions to his pieces. They moved just as Uncle Percy came back into the room.
"She's not up there," he reported as he sat across from Uncle Ron and stared at their board.
"Didn't think she would be," Uncle Ron murmured, making Daddy whip his head around to look at him.
"What do you mean by that?" Dad demanded.
"I told you she's been acting oddly," he told Dad. "This is probably just her way of getting away from all of us."
Lily sat up. "Do you think Mum is hiding, Dad?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said, sounding sad.
Uncle Bill and Uncle George entered the sitting room. "Nobody's seen her since lunch," Uncle Bill said.
"I'm worried," Dad said as Aunt Hermione came in.
"Lily," her aunt said, "why don't you come with me? Grandmum saved you some hot cocoa and a few biscuits. Would you like some?"
Lily nodded and slid off her dad's lap, but not before she gave him a big squeeze. "We'll find her," he murmured to her. She gave him a soggy smile and followed Aunt Hermione into the kitchen where Albus was busy polishing his new broom at the table.
He looked up and glared at her. "Lily, you didn't ask permission to take my broom," he said accusingly.
Lily hung her head. "Mum's missing!" she blurted. "I took your broom to go see if I could find her."
Albus put down his polishing rag. "Mum's missing?" he repeated. "Why do you say that?"
Aunt Hermione handed Lily a mug of cocoa. "Your sister and all your uncles have looked everywhere for her and she's simply not here," she said. She cocked her head to one side, absent-mindedly set a plate of warm biscuits on the table and left the room.
"You went looking for Mum?" Albus asked. "And you took my broom to go do it?"
Albus smiled at her. "You're forgiven," he said. "Erm… just this once."
Lily stuck her tongue out at him. They giggled together and Lily felt a little better.
The cold winter wind bore down on Holy Island from the Irish Sea, carrying with it a flurry of snowflakes that turned the quaint seaside town of Holyhead a pearlescent white as it drifted against walls and accumulated in corners and on window casements. It swept across the barren land making the low brush thrash and bend on the desolate landscape.
Not far from the town proper, the flags surrounding a magically hidden Quidditch stadium stood out stiffly from their poles, attesting to the strength of the winter tempest. However, inside the stadium—disguised for Muggles as a derelict warehouse nobody used any more—the wind was much calmer with just enough of a breeze to freshen the air.
It was here, high above the pitch, that a lone witch had come to fly in frantic patterns around imaginary opponents and hurl several huge red balls at three of the six golden hoops. Each Quaffle was enchanted to come back to her and she had also enchanted a mechanical Keeper to fly interference and cause her to make split-second decisions about each of her shots.
The witch retrieved a Quaffle, drawing her wand and cancelling her spell on the other three balls. They dropped to the snowy ground and rolled a little way before coming to a stop. The witch ignored them as she turned towards the goal hoops, faked to the right, flew left and sent the Quaffle whizzing through the middle hoop, startling a flock of birds that had settled on its top. The Quaffle returned to her and the witch caught it, cancelled her retrieval spell and dropped it with the others as she took off racing around the stadium, pushing herself and the broom to their limits. If there had been an observer in the stands, he or she might have been able to read "Weasley-Potter" embroidered across the witch's back as she flew past…
In the sitting room the atmosphere was very different than what it had been forty minutes ago. All of Ron's brothers were in deep discussion about where to look for their sister, completely ignoring poor Harry who sat next to the forgotten chess game, listening to everyone's theories. His face was grim with worry, reminding Hermione of the many times she had seen that same expression on his face when they were at Hogwarts.
She approached Ron and whispered in his ear, "I think Ginny went home for something and hasn't come back."
Ron nodded. "I agree," he murmured. "She could also be sitting on their roof."
"Not in this weather," Hermione said. "She may have fallen asleep and lost track of time instead."
"Want me to go looking for her?" Ron asked.
"Yes. I'm coming with you. Let me get my cloak," Hermione answered. As Ron stood up, the scraping of his chair legs on the floor distracted his brothers from their discussion.
"Where are you going?" Bill asked.
"We think Ginny might have gone home and fallen asleep on the sofa," Hermione replied. "She looked tired this morning."
"With Harry's permission, we're going to Apparate to Snidget's Haven and see if Ginny's there," Ron added.
George, who had been quietly listening to the discussion, stood up abruptly. "No! Don't go!" he ordered. "If you two go she'll just bolt and we'll never find her until she wants to be found!"
"How do you know?" Harry demanded, looking wildly from one speaker to another. "How do you know she's at home? How do you know she'll bolt?"
George walked over to Harry and knelt by his wheelchair. "Harry, I can't explain it. It's a feeling I have. Let me go, please," he pleaded. "I… I think I know why she left and what to say to bring her back."
Hermione glanced at Ron. His expression told her more than any words. "George needs to go," she told the men. "I think the rest of us should fan out and search the estate just in case Ginny didn't Disapparate."
George said to the others, "Right, then. I'll get my cloak." He disappeared up the stairs, his brothers all following. A moment later he reappeared, stuffing a miniaturized object into a pocket. He went straight to Harry.
"I'll find her, Harry. I'll bring her back home."
Harry ran a hand through his hair. "I wish I could go with you," he sighed.
Hermione laid a hand on his shoulder. "I know you do, but it's best if you let George go alone."
Harry looked down at his legs. "I'd be more of a burden than a help," he said, sounding rueful.
George stood up. "Later," he said simply and in three quick strides was across the sitting room and headed for the kitchen door.
Hermione Summoned her cloak and with one last smile at Harry, opened the front door and went to search the front garden.
"Harry," Arthur said, startling his black-haired son-in-law. "Let's go out to my shed where we can have some privacy."
"All right," Harry said, nodding woodenly.
Arthur fetched their cloaks and watched in amazement as Harry lowered himself down the front steps and into the snow. Then, drawing his wand, Arthur led his son-in-law around the house to the shed, melting a path in the snow for Harry as they went.
As soon as the shed door closed, Arthur turned to face Harry and said with conviction, "I have faith George will find Ginny."
Harry turned his bleak-eye expression in his direction. "How do you know, sir?" he asked, making Arthur smile. Harry had never quite fallen out of the habit of being polite to him in times of stress.
"Well, son," Arthur began, "your Ginny was always very close to Fred and George in temperament; the three of them often thought along the same lines, especially when it came to pulling pranks and being inventive. She also never thought Molly and I knew she was sneaking out at night to fly on her brothers' brooms when she was little, and it never occurred to her to wonder why the broom shed was often left unlocked after sundown." He chuckled softly. "Her mother would have been angry with me if I'd locked it on my way in at night."
Harry grinned at this. "Ginny did the same thing for Lily starting the summer before James went off to Hogwarts," he said.
"As did Molly's parents before her," Arthur added. "You see, Harry, the Prewett witches are a very hardy, strong-headed lot. They can endure as much or more adversity than a wizard in times of trouble. During the second war, there were times when I was ready to throw up my hands and quit the Order over some of the things Dumbledore made us withhold from you, but Molly… she remained steadfast in her belief that if Dumbledore needed us to remain silent—even though it caused you excruciating pain sometimes—that was what was best for you. We argued many times over your right to know, as we did over various subjects concerning our children."
"I remember," Harry said quietly. "You defended my right to know about Sirius that night at the Leaky Cauldron before my third year. I never thanked you."
Arthur smiled as Harry lapsed into silence, his face a cloud of misery. At length, he asked, "So what does that have to do with why Ginny disappeared?"
Arthur went over to his cloak, which he'd hung by the door, and took out two picture frames. The one he handed Harry was the Potter family portrait he and Molly had received as a Christmas gift. It showed the five Potters happily posing on the Blackpool pier on their holiday last August. His daughter looked relaxed and happy in the photo, hugging the man she loved while the sons and daughter she cherished stood in front of her.
"Has Ginny looked like this in recent months?" Arthur asked, peering at the portrait over Harry's shoulder.
His son-in-law studied the photo. With a monumental sigh, he murmured, "Not since the middle of October."
Arthur handed him the other photograph, a framed snapshot of the Weasley family gathered on the staircase of Grimmauld Place circa July of 1995 by the absence of Charlie and Percy. Harry immediately seemed to comprehend the reason for the two photos by the change in his expression.
"If I didn't know better," he said quietly. "Ginny could be Molly in this picture."
"Why do you say that?" Arthur asked.
"Molly's expression is the same one Ginny has worn since my accident," Harry explained. "It's almost as if Ginny's been taking on everyone's burdens, just like Molly carried mine that year…" He trailed off as he handed the photos back to Arthur who set them on his workbench.
"Harry, your wife is exactly like her mother in that respect; as fiercely protective as a mother dragon and as selfless as a house-elf when it comes to her family," Arthur said with a smile. "It is my opinion that our Ginny has born the burden of your recovery to the point of exhaustion, so that she has nothing left to give. I think she reached her breaking point sometime this afternoon and simply needed to get away to find the part of herself she tucked away when you were injured. She's seen that you no longer need her as much as you have in recent weeks."
"You're right; I don't need her as much as I used to. We argued for nearly five days because she still wanted to do everything for me—and I don't need her to any more—until James made us sit down together and come to an agreement," Harry said, "or rather a truce. Do you really think she's finally letting go?"
Arthur nodded and placed a hand on Harry's shoulder. "I do, son, I do. Do you remember what Molly was like in the early days, right after the war ended?"
Harry nodded, seeming to make the connection. "I do," he said. "Ginny and I couldn't believe her mum never shed any tears except the ones she cried at Fred's funeral. She was constantly coming up with things to keep us busy so we didn't have to think." He snickered. "Ginny thought her mother was purposely messing things up." Arthur chuckled because he knew his daughter had been right. Harry continued, "When I asked her why we were doing so many chores, Ginny said her mum told her keeping busy would keep our minds from dwelling on our sadness. At the time I wondered how Mrs Weasley was so wise."
Arthur smiled at this. "Well, Harry, Molly had nearly raised seven children and when push comes to shove, sometimes a parent needs to be a bit creative in the chore department."
Harry laughed outright at this. "Tell me about it," he said. Then he sobered. "But what happened to Molly when she finally realized we were all beginning to recover from our initial sadness over Fred's death?"
Arthur sighed as the memories came flooding back. "She couldn't hide behind being busy or caring for her family for very long after that, now, could she? The stress was just too great and one afternoon when you were off at the Ministry—I think it was several days after Ginny's birthday—she locked herself in our bedroom with the wireless and refused to come out for three whole days. Do you remember?"
Harry's eyes had gone wide. "Yes, I remember. She came out two days before Ginny and Hermione left for Hogwarts," he said slowly. "That's what's happened to Ginny, hasn't it?"
"I'm afraid so, Harry. Ron recognized the signs that something was wrong with his sister, but it is George who knows what to do to get her to come back. It may take a day or two, but if he finds her, Ginny will be well taken care of," Arthur said. "She's in good hands."
Harry slumped in his chair, cradling his head in his hands. "I hope you're right, Arthur. I hope you're right."
The interior of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes Diagon Alley shop was a little chilly when George Apparated into the office. He didn't bother lighting the fire because he only meant to be in the shop long enough to grab a few things that might be useful in his hunt for his sister. If his hunch was correct, he was in for a long, cold wait for her to exit her hiding place. Quickly, he strode through the shop, picking up a Headless Hat, the deluxe model with transparent view port; a Mischief Mantle, a capelet with the same properties as the Headless Hat that covered only half the body; a box of Canary Creams, the long-lasting kind that actually allowed the victim to fly a short distance; and his old Beater's broom that still bore the marks from Umbridge's chains. He swiftly shrunk the lot and pocketed it before Apparating to his next destination.
He materialized again inside the foyer of Snidget's Haven without incident—other than a slight slow-down as he passed through the security enchantments—with the intention of only staying a few minutes. He hastened through his sister's home towards her office at the very top of the house, stopping only to admire the magic that had been used to construct Harry's lift and the folding steps leading to his office and the library.
Deciding to shave a little more time from his visit here, George Apparated onto the landing outside Ginny's office and opened the door. It took only a moment to make a few observations and discover what she'd taken. Then, again feeling the power of Harry's security enchantments as he Disapparated, he left, hoping he remembered where the Apparition point on Holy Island was.
His landing was somewhat jarring because he'd not been quite as deliberate as he should have been since he'd not been to the Harpies' stadium in over ten years. He smiled when he discovered he'd landed only a few dozen paces from his chosen stake-out spot and thankfully, all in one piece (he'd Splinched himself once a few years back when his Deliberation hadn't been very precise about where he'd been going and he never wanted to do that again).
The topography of the island hadn't changed much: the absence of trees on the wind-blown island provided little by way of concealment places, so he decided to set up camp about thirty paces from a door he remembered as the team entrance. If he was correct, it would only be a matter of time before his sister emerged from the building. He didn't think he'd missed her because there was still enough light to see the door from his spot in front of it.
He settled down to wait behind a waist-high outcropping of rock, putting on the Headless Hat and Mischief Mantle, conjuring a folding chair and casting a few warming charms and wind-break spells. His plan was to watch the door until dark when he would start combing the Wizarding and Muggle pubs looking for Ginny.
The feeble daylight had almost faded away when the sound of a door unsealing itself caught his attention. George glanced at his watch. Half past four… his hunch had been correct, it seemed. A moment later, Ginny stepped through the entrance and turned to secure the door, completely unaware that she was being observed. When she turned back round, George saw her expression was one of extreme sadness mixed with exhaustion, not unlike her demeanour after her team had lost a match her first year as a Harpy. He longed to take her in his arms and comfort her… but that would have to wait. First, he needed to make contact.
Throwing off the Mischief Mantle, he popped a Canary Cream into his mouth and chewed vigorously. A second later, he had taken wing and was flying erratically toward his sister because he had not taken into consideration the strength of the wind. His plan was to land on her shoulder and chirp in her ear once or twice before the sweet wore off.
His bizarre, wind-buffeted flight did get Ginny's attention for she immediately drew her wand and pointed it at him. He instantly changed his plan of action and landed on the tip of her wand, surprising her a little, but not enough to scare her.
"All right, which of my brothers are you?" she demanded, but the question wasn't delivered very authoritatively because George could tell she was trying not to laugh.
"Chir-me, George," he said as he landed on his feet and spit out a few yellow feathers. A clattering noise told him he'd not jumped off Ginny's wand fast enough, causing her to drop it. Not good…
Ginny's attitude changed swiftly from amusement to angry suspicion. She eyed her fallen wand, looking not a little frightened now and he remembered he was still wearing the Headless Hat. Slowly, he raised his left hand and took off the hat.
"What was your motto when you were trying to open the shop?" she demanded, backing away from him.
George stayed still. "Anything's possible if you have enough nerve," he quoted.
His answer must have been correct because the next thing he knew, Ginny had thrown herself at him and was hugging him fiercely: she didn't cry, but he knew her tears were not long in coming. It was only a matter of time… This same thing had happened to him long ago when it was Ginny who had come to find him the summer after Fred died… He held her tightly, rubbing her back until he felt her relax and pull back a little.
"How did you know where to find me?" she asked shakily.
"I didn't," George admitted. "I was only guessing you'd be here. The pitch at Snidget's Haven wasn't occupied when I dropped by, so this seemed to be the only other logical place. Besides, we both know there's nothing better than the feeling of sending a ball zinging towards a target, no matter whether it's human or hoop-shaped."
Ginny stepped back, hugging herself. "I'm glad you came," she murmured.
George asked, "Are you ready to go back?"
"No, not yet." Her voice sounded wounded and lost.
"All right, let me get my stuff," he said. When she nodded, he pointed his wand at his hiding place, cancelling his charms. The folding chair disappeared as the box of Canary Creams, his old broom and his Mantle sailed into his outstretched hand. Turning to Ginny, he asked, "Is that Muggle pub, the Stanley something-or-other, still in business? I don't know about you, but I could use something to drink that doesn't have spiced Satsumas floating in it."
"Stanley Arms," Ginny corrected shakily. "I think it is. Do you want to go there or the Hideout? They're both close."
George remembered the Hideout was the Wizarding pub most frequented by the Harpies players. "Which one has the darkest corners?" he asked. When Ginny didn't respond to his joke, he said, "We need a private room, sis. Or at least a secluded table, preferably in the dark corner."
"Either one, I suspect," Ginny said as they began walking in the direction of the town. "But the Hideout won't be filled with Muggles, so I guess we should go there. It's just a stone's throw from here."
"Lead the way," George responded, slinging his arm lightly around his sister's shoulders and pulling her into a one-armed hug. She put her head briefly on his shoulder and then steered the two of them toward the pub.
Ten minutes later, with two large glasses of warm Butterbeer in hand, he led the way up the stairs and into a corridor lined with doors. Handing one of the glasses to Ginny, he retrieved the key he'd been given and opened the door to room three. Ginny followed him inside and shut the door behind them, sealing it and casting a few more spells around the room. Only then did she take a long gulp of her drink.
"Did your Chaser practice help?" George asked softly. "And… are you all right?"
Ginny's hand trembled so much that she set her glass on the bureau. A fat tear trickled down her cheek and she answered tremulously, "No, George, I'm not. Hold me, please?"
He opened his arms and invited her into his embrace. She came, tears now streaming down her face, and he caught her as her body sagged against his. She clung to him like she had when they were little when it had been Ron who had been mean to her and Bill wasn't home to soothe away the hurt feelings.
George closed his eyes as he held his sister. Memories, long suppressed, floated through his mind, reminding him of a time some twenty-two years before when it had been Ginny doing the holding and him finally releasing his pent-up emotions.
Ginny had come to find him one night in late July 1998 after he'd blown up at their parents, just two months after Fred's funeral. He'd yelled at them that their deferential treatment was not appreciated because Fred would have hated it. He'd then Disapparated to the shop and begun frantically throwing anything that reminded him of Fred into boxes with the idea of purging the shop of everything that reminded him of his brother. The trouble was, his late brother's fingers seemed to have touched every product, every display case, and everything in the office save George's personal items. Ginny had found him crumpled on the office floor crying into a magenta shirt bearing the shop's logo Fred had given him only a week before the Battle of Hogwarts to commemorate the second anniversary of their shop's opening. She had held him for hours until he'd finally exhausted the torrent of tears and could string his words into coherent sentences again.
Ginny had then Apparated them to the Leaky Cauldron where Hannah Abbott had given her a key and two bottomless butterbeer glasses. They had spent the rest of the night talking and reminiscing about Fred and talking of his plans for the future.
Now, it seemed, he was at last able to return the favour his sister had done for him so long ago.
"Ginny, love, let's go to the sofa. Or would you rather sit on the rug?" he asked, indicating the thick hearth rug in front of the fireplace. He pointed his wand at the logs and the next instant had a merry fire crackling in the grate.
Ginny pointed to the rug and George guided her downward until they were sitting facing each other, close enough for him to pull her into his lap as if she were five years old again. Then he held her, waiting patiently until her flood of tears subsided into shudders and the occasional whimper.
"Are you all right now?" he finally asked as he Summoned a pouf and leaned back against it.
Ginny nodded and groped in her pocket for something. George smiled and conjured a handful of handkerchiefs. He laid them on her lap and was rewarded with a watery half-smile.
"Want to tell me about it?"
Ginny blew her nose.
"Oh, George, you're going to think me completely silly for running away like I did," she moaned.
"No, I won't. Remember, I'm the one who turned Ron's teddy bear into a spider all those years ago," he said with a chuckle, "now that's something silly to run away and hide about."
"I never blamed Ron for hiding in the chicken house because you and Fred did that," Ginny reminded him. When George raised an eyebrow at her she added, "I blamed the two of you for making me spend the hottest afternoon of the summer sitting on the bank looking at the pond when we could have been swimming in it!"
"But that's only because you were the one to nick Mum's wand since Fred wouldn't let go—"
"—at your suggestion since I didn't want my dolls changed into spiders either!"
"Got you to stop trying to tell Mum what we were up to, you little spy!"
"I wasn't spying! Merlin, I've told you a thousand times that Mum sent me upstairs to tell you breakfast was ready. It wasn't my fault that one of you had left the door open a crack and that I saw you and Fred playing with Uncle Gideon's old wand, turning everything in your room into something horrible!" Ginny said indignantly.
"All right, I give up!" George said as Ginny smiled triumphantly at him. "You've proven me wrong… you can smile, Sis. And I haven't seen you smile in ages."
"That's because I haven't had much to smile about, George," Ginny sniffed. She moved off his lap to lean against the front of one of the wing chairs facing the fire.
"But now you do," he said, "because Harry's getting better."
To his surprise, Ginny burst into tears again. "That's just it, George! Harry's getting better, but not by much!" she wailed and dove for the pile of handkerchiefs which now lay between them.
George stayed where he was, waiting for his sister to elaborate on her statement.
"Do you know how frustrating it is to not feel needed?" she finally asked. "I mean, my children are all at Hogwarts. They don't need me except as a scullery maid when they come home, and at first the feeling of freedom was wonderful because I could finally say 'yes' to the longer assignments my boss wanted me to go on for the Prophet. And then Harry was hurt and all of a sudden I was doing everything, and I mean everything for him, George! It was like I suddenly needed to Harry-proof the house so he could live there without getting hurt! It was like living with a two-year-old all over again, or thinking like that was going to happen." Ginny blew her nose hard and then continued, "George, at one point I thought I was bringing Harry home to die!"
"I know you did, Ginny. But that was before Healer Stilwell told you he'd arranged for Harry to go to The Groves, wasn't it?" George asked.
"It was," Ginny sniffed. "I've missed him, George… more than you can imagine."
George sighed. He did know about missing someone so badly it hurt to think about them… and it wasn't just Fred he missed, either. There had been a time after he'd broken up with Alicia that he'd ached, physically ached, for her whenever he'd thought of her. "I can, Ginny, I know what that's like," he murmured.
She looked at him, startled. "So you don't think I'm being silly for feeling guilty for trying to do everything for everyone even though they don't need me to any more?" she asked. "That the harder I try to stop the bigger the urge is to turn into a house-elf?"
He shook his head.
"And… and you don't think I'm being irrational when I'm feeling guilty for being afraid that Harry and I will never be… close… again?"
Again, George shook his head.
She lunged at him and he caught her up in his arms as a fresh torrent of tears soaked a huge wet spot in his shirt. "Oh George, I'm so glad you don't! It's such a relief!" she sobbed.
George held her until she was calmer. Then he nearly whispered, "I think there's more to it than just wanting to be your family's house-elf."
Ginny raised her head. "You'll think I'm being unreasonable," she said flatly.
"I'm scared because I've actually contemplated going to live at Grimmauld Place without Harry. I love him so much, but if we can't behave like a married couple any more, I've wondered whether we'd just be better off living separate lives. Merlin knows I still get enough love letters and marriage proposals at the Prophet to wonder whether I should consider taking one of those wizards up on his offer. But every time I think I'm ready to broach the subject with Harry, he does something miraculous like learning to swim, and I know I could never be happy in someone else's arms. I know I would always be comparing the new wizard to Harry and that wouldn't be fair, you know?"
George nodded, trying not to bang his chin on the top of his sister's head. Ginny hugged him back. They sat together, staring at the fire until Ginny took a deep breath, signalling that there was more.
"I'm also worried that Harry's lost the will and the ability to do his job," she whispered.
"Why do you think that?"
"Being an Auror is so physical! In order to be one, you have to have all your senses, be able to run a certain distance, stay qualified at duelling with a variety of weaponry as well as with Muggle techniques, and a whole host of other things. Harry can't walk, he can't run, his vision is severely limited and he's back to being the equivalent of a first year magically. George, what if the Ministry says that because Harry can't meet the physical requirements he can't be Head of the Auror Department? If that happens, it would kill him! You know his identity hinges on his ability to do his job!"
George thought a moment. "No, I think you're wrong on that, Ginny. Harry's job isn't the only thing he defines himself with. Even if his job were to go away, Harry is proud to be your husband and the father of your children. Having a family and being part of our family is what's most important to Harry. You know how loveless his life was until he met Ron on the Express. Harry's told me many times that his life would be meaningless if it weren't for our family and the fact that Mum and Dad opened their house and their arms and accepted him as one of their own. I also know for a fact that Harry will willingly die if it means you and the children would be safe."
At this, Ginny burst into tears for a fourth time.
"Thank you, George," she wailed through her tears. "You have no idea how much better that makes me feel."
George hugged her and rubbed soothing circles on Ginny's back. "Have you taken some time for yourself in the last couple of weeks?" he asked. "You know, what Angelina calls 'me-time'."
Ginny shook her head. "It hasn't crossed my mind to take some me-time, George. I've been so worried and upset and busy with Christmas and preparing for Harry's homecoming and picking up the van and getting the house ready for the children…" She stopped only when George put a finger to his lips and whispered, "Shhhhh!
"Stop, you're making me tired, sis. No wonder you look tired and overworked! It's because you are!" he said a bit louder. "When we go back to the Burrow, the only thing you're to do the rest of the time you're here is to talk to that wonderful husband of yours and make sure he knows why you left and then come up with a plan."
"Actually, two plans," George said, grinning, as an idea began bouncing around in his head. "The first is what Harry and the children can do to help you get some of that me-time. I think they might even want to be in on that one because it seems to me that you took some of their jobs away from them when you turned yourself into a house-elf."
Ginny laughed ruefully. "I know I did. And I think Mum and Dad would be happy to let us have the sitting room for a little while to discuss it," she said. "What's the second plan?"
"Something just for you and Harry," George said. "Does James still have Harry's Invisibility Cloak? The last time I checked was last summer and he was happily pranking his siblings and cousins then."
"James lost the privilege of possessing the Invisibility Cloak on Percy's birthday for one of his pranks, and Harry didn't give it back when James went to Hogwarts this year," Ginny said, looking interested. "What do you have in mind?"
George whispered something in her ear and Ginny's eyes widened at the idea. "You really think we could get away with that?" she asked.
"Anything's possible when you have enough nerve," George quoted sagely, causing Ginny to burst into giggles.
They laughed together until Ginny started yawning. "I'm ready to go home now, George," she said as she levitated their forgotten butterbeers over to the rug. "I'm ready to face my family."
George took a long pull on his glass. "They'll be glad to have you back," he said.
Ginny slid off his lap and stood up, walking to the window. "I think… I think I'm ready to be me again," she said as he joined her.
"Good to hear that," he said.
Ten minutes later, they Disapparated back to the Burrow.
A/N: So there you have it: Ginny's reasons for leaving. I know some of you will wonder why she even contemplated some of them, but when you're under stress, you sometimes do and think things you ordinarily wouldn't when you're relaxed and happy.
Many thanks to my friend for making me rewrite Ginny's section until we were both satisfied with it. I've enjoyed our talks over tea more than you know and I thank you for sharing your struggles with me. Thank you too to my pre-betas for their comments and for catching typing and grammatical errors I didn't catch myself. Finally, thank you to Aggiebell for reminding me Tuesday night that I hadn't sent this chapter to her yet. I hope you have a great time at your get-together. To my readers, thank you for reading. I look forward to discussing the chapter with you.