Mr. Weasley gaped at the group. "Death Eaters? A dozen Death Eaters? In the orchard?" His jaw hung open as Ron, Fred, George, and Bill all nodded tensely.
Harry sat silently in a large armchair near the fireplace.His jaw was clenched, muscles tensed, anger glittering in his eyes. Thoughts whirled uncontrollably through his mind. His side was cleaned and rebandaged, though he hadn't put a shirt on yet. The adrenaline from the attack had kept him from feeling the pain of overusing the newly-healed skin of his burn, but he was paying for it now; it was too sensitive for even a t-shirt to touch.
He hadn't lost one whit of his fury. Voldemort was dead, dammit. He and his followers had been utterly destroyed. Harry had watched it.
Ginny, somehow conscious again, reaching up from where she'd collapsed at Voldemort's feet to press her wandtip to the evil wizard's chest. A voice he had once heard crying out in joy from beneath him now cold and furious: "Decurso ad ultimum advoco!" The whole world beginning to quake. Wind whipping wildly toward Ginny from all directions. Light growing from the tip of her wand, filling Voldemort, making him glow with a brilliant white light that first pained, then blinded, then overwhelmed. Ginny frozen in place, face drained of colour, shaking with the power flowing through her. Magic rushing from Harry toward her, rushing from everyone toward her, as though she were a whirlpool of light and sound and energy. Panic coursing through his veins, pulling him to his feet. His heart pounding, side burning in agony, stumbling toward her step by step. His brain registering what she'd done: she'd called the Fynalle Strykke. She was sacrificing herself. He couldn't let her. He couldn't.
He had nearly lost her once. She should have died. Thank God she hadn't, but she should have died. The Fynalle Strykke should have killed her. Why was this happening all over again? It should be done.
"They Apparated in just as we were right in the middle of the game, Dad," Bill said. He was sitting in an old armchair next to the only wall with no windows; Charlie sat on the equally old loveseat next to him. "They knew we were there. This was planned. If Harry's scar hadn't warned him, we'd be dead by now."
"Or captured," Fred said from his sprawled position on the floor next to his twin. "Which is even worse."
Hermione stifled a small sob at the thought, and Ron's arm tightened around her. She sat on his lap, making no pretence of propriety since she'd seen him coming back from the orchard battered and bloody. She hadn't left his side since she'd rebandaged Harry's burn and got Ron patched up, and he seemed not at all loath to have her so close. She leaned against his shoulder, letting him hold her.
"Why would anyone want to capture one of you lot, though?" Mr. Weasley asked. "Why a Death Eater, I mean? You boys were no more involved in the war than anyone else."
Ginny shifted in her seat, and Harry looked at her, despite his promise to himself to stay away. He felt guilty and disgusted with himself. During the attack in the orchard, he had given her a wand to defend herself, then flown away and left her to face down three Death Eaters on her own. Just flew away and left her there while he concentrated on the others. She had acquitted herself well, of course, but that wasn't the point. What must she be thinking of him?
"Dad," Ginny said softly. Every head swung to look her way. "I think the Death Eaters were trying to get at—me."
Only those who had been right there with Harry at the Last Battle—Bill, Charlie, Percy, Mr. Weasley, Remus Lupin, and, at the last minute, Ron and Hermione—had actually seen what had happened to Voldemort. Nobody else had been near enough. They eight—nine, if you counted Ginny—had all been knocked unconscious as soon as the spell had climaxed and Voldemort had died, and none of them had awakened from their shock-induced comas for at least a week after. It had taken many of them even longer.
They had awakened to discover the Daily Prophet had published a story saying they had all attacked Voldemort together and their combined efforts had finished him off. Nobody had done anything to challenge that story, in order to better keep the press away from Harry and Ginny. In short, except for the people in this house (who had been told, if they hadn't been there), and Remus Lupin, who was still recovering at St. Mungo's, nobody knew that Ginny had single-handedly destroyed Voldemort.
Ron said, "Don't be ridiculous, Ginny. You weren't even at the orchard, and there was no reason to think you would be. You never come watch us play Quidditch."
"I didn't say to get me, Ron," Ginny said soberly. "I said to get at me. Through one of you." She caught Harry's eye, and he felt his stomach lurch. She knew something—had Seen something—she hadn't yet told him.
"I think it's more likely this was an attack against a prominent wizarding family known to have been active during the war," Mr. Weasley said heavily, rubbing his forehead. "Nobody knows about you, Ginny."
Ginny looked over at her father. "Nobody on our side, you mean. What about the other side?"
"They were destroyed," Percy pointed out. Penelope was in the kitchen with Mrs. Weasley, trying to calm her mother-in-law down, and he looked as though he wished she were there with him instead. "The Death Eaters were destroyed."
"Most of them were," she agreed.
The implication was clear: nobody had ever really doubted that at least a few Death Eaters had managed either to Disapparate, or to hide themselves in with the Ministry wizards or non-combatants. The room grew silent as everyone looked at Ginny uncomfortably.
Harry really didn't like the way this discussion was going. They wouldn't have been after Ginny. They couldn't have been. Could they?
I think she and I need to talk.
"I suppose I should tell you what I found out today at work," Mr. Weasley said at last. "More incidents of Muggle baiting have been cropping up, particularly in the north of England, and Muggle reports of missing people are increasing. The suspicion is that a cadre of Death Eaters survived and are carrying on in secret."
"But what could they be trying to do?" Hermione asked. "Voldemort's gone! What could they possibly be after?"
"Power," Harry said shortly. He had been thinking about this ever since they'd left the orchard, and it was the only answer that fit. Every eye turned to him, and he was struck by how sombre they all looked. This was just like being right back in the middle of the War again. "There's a power vacuum now Voldemort's gone. Someone's going to try to fill it. I expect the Death Eaters are competing for the privilege of becoming the next Dark Lord."
He saw Ginny draw her knees up to her chest and hug them to her, and his heart twinged. He hadn't been able to protect her during the Battle, hard as he'd tried. Despite his actions today, he still had a deep, cavemanlike instinct to put her away someplace safe, someplace where she'd never be troubled any more. She can't go through another War, he thought. She's still too weak from the Fynalle Strykke. Another Battle will kill her.
His anger surged again at the thought. Anger was good; it gave him a place to focus his energy.
Bill and Charlie were eyeing Harry with increased respect. "That fits the evidence," Bill said. "But how did they know you'd be at the orchard at that time? You only decided on the pickup game just before lunch. It hadn't even been two hours."
"And how did they get multiple Portkeys to work with one person's incantation?" Charlie added. "I always thought Portkeys had to be touching your skin to work; how did their belts do that?"
"I'm not sure it was the belts," Harry said. "That's just what it looked like, because that Death Eater I talked to touched his before he disappeared. But even if it was, skin-to-skin contact could be easy enough to arrange. All you'd need is a hole beneath the buckle."
"True," Charlie conceded. "And I don't think there's any way for us to know how they knew where we'd be. Maybe they just figured a summer day after the end of school was a good time to Apparate into the orchard; we play Quidditch out there most days when the weather's nice. They could have planned to lie in wait for us."
"Do you think that's likely?" Mr. Weasley asked.
Bill and Charlie glanced at each other again. "No," Bill said, shaking his head at his father. "I don't. This was too well-planned. They knew, all right. But I do think Charlie's right when he says there's no way for us to know how."
Charlie put a hand to his chest and leaned backward in feigned shock. "I'm right!" he gasped. "Somebody write this down! Bill just admitted I'm right!"
Bill threw a coaster at him. Charlie caught it and grinned, flipping it back.
George propped himself up on his elbow. "I can provide you with something of a bit more heft to throw than that measly little coaster, Bill," he said, raising an eyebrow.
"What, your brain?" Fred smirked. "How much more heft does that have?"
"Rather more than yours," George shot back with a grin. "But to get back to the original question of what our attackers wanted, what makes you think they didn't want to just kill us all, Ginny? Start with the ones there at the orchard, and make their way toward the house?"
"Because they didn't do any of that," she said. Her chin was on her knees now, her dark brown eyes unfocused, as though she were looking at something far away. "They had time enough to throw Killing Curses at all of us. They had twice as many people as we did; why didn't they just start hexing us right and left? For that matter, why not just Apparate directly to the house and kill? The only possible reason is that they didn't mean for us to die. They had something else in mind—and the more time they had between attack and discovery, the better for them. That's why the orchard."
Harry had been distracted by the brotherly by-play, but now he focused suddenly on her expression. That preoccupied look was familiar. It wasn't the horrified, wild-eyed stare of her Vision this afternoon, but he was certain she was seeing, or more accurately Seeing, something that nobody else could.
Bill shook his head. "I'm still not convinced," he said. "Maybe they were trying to kidnap one of us, but why to get to you? Why not just to unnerve the whole family, like Dad said? We were well-known for being on Dumbledore's side, after all."
"Because it wouldn't work that way," Ron put in unexpectedly. "If they wanted to unnerve us, they'd take the most vulnerable of us. That's Ginny. She was in hospital for almost three weeks after the Battle and still hasn't completely recovered. Plus she had that link with Voldemort through that damned diary. That should have made her an easier target for any Death Eater high enough in the ranks to be vying for power; they'd know how to make use of it, if they were close enough to Voldemort to have that much influence now. They wouldn't have attacked the rest of us unless they were after one of us in particular. The only reason for that would be to use whoever it was as a hostage."
Harry nodded. "I agree," he said. "But I don't think it was Ginny they were trying to affect with the kidnapping. I think it was me."
He looked around at everyone in the room. "You all are the only family I've got left," he said softly. "I don't think I could stand it if I lost one of you as well. And especially if I was in the house at the time you were taken. If my scar hadn't warned us—" He shook his head.
He didn't want to look at Ginny, not because he was perpetuating the lie about how they had discovered the attack, but because he was convinced he was right. If any of the Weasleys were hurt because of him—especially Ginny, who had endured more than enough because he'd been a stupid, selfish prat and refused to listen to her that night—he'd never get over it. He'd never forget it. He'd never survive it.
Thankfully, they were interrupted by the arrival of the post. Three different tawny owls swept in with official-looking envelopes tied to their legs, and headed straight for Ron, Harry, and Hermione, respectively. Once they had been divested of their messages, they ruffled their feathers importantly and took off again. Harry turned his over to look at the reverse. "They're from Hogwarts," he said in surprise. "What would we be getting from Hogwarts?"
"Our N.E.W.T. scores, at a guess," Hermione said, ripping hers open. Her eyes quickly scanned the parchment, and she gave a squeal of excitement. "Oh, how wonderful! What did you get, Ron?"
She tried to reach for Ron's letter, but he grabbed hold of her wrists in one big hand, holding the envelope out of her reach. "Hey!" he protested. "Give a bloke a chance! I haven't even read it myself yet." She subsided, letting him look, but watching him carefully. A moment passed, then his ears turned bright pink. "I don't believe it," he said under his breath.
Hermione, obviously unable to stand it a moment longer, snatched it from his hand again, then gave another squeal of even higher excitement. "Ron! You ranked third in our year!" she cried, and seized his face to give him a resounding kiss.
"That's bloody brilliant, Ron!" Charlie said sincerely. "Impressive! So who ranked second?"
"Don't you mean who ranked first?" Percy interjected.
"Don't be an idiot, Percy," Charlie said. "Anyone with half a brain knows it's Hermione." Hermione flushed beet-red, causing everybody to laugh. "Well, Harry?" Charlie continued. "Aren't you going to open yours?"
Flushing a bit, Harry turned his attention to his own letter. He had very low expectations; after being unconscious for almost four weeks and then trying to do his revision in hospital, he really didn't think he could have scored very well.
Even if I did use studying as an excuse not to think about anything else.
The parchment came open in his hands, and he read the letter through. Then he read it through again. Then a third time, because the words didn't make any more sense than they had before.
"Well?" Hermione said, almost quivering with excitement.
"I'm—" He stopped. His mouth was dry. "I'm—ranked second."
Ron gave a great whoop and lifted Hermione off him, bouncing up to come over and pound Harry's right shoulder. Harry winced; even though that was his good side, it hurt. "I knew it!" Ron crowed. "I knew it! If there's one bloke I don't mind being beaten by, it's you! Hey, Harry—three Gryffindors beat out all of Ravenclaw! How about that!"
Harry still wasn't quite able to assimilate the news. How could he possibly have scored so well? He glanced up and met Ginny's gaze. She smiled at him. "Maybe nightmares are good for exam scores," she said impishly. "If you can't sleep, might as well study, right? I scored top of my class on our end-of-year exams, too."
Harry couldn't help grinning back. It was black humour, but it was humour. "I think we'll try to find some other way of helping you prepare for your N.E.W.T.s next year, though, if it's all the same to you," he said.
"Yes, please," she said, deadpan, as she shifted in her seat so one leg was tucked underneath her. "I really don't fancy being flayed as an aid to revision."
"Ginny!" Percy said in horror, but Harry laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh with Ginny. His anger had subsided a bit, and he realised with a start that she had actually spoken to him this afternoon, for the first time since the Battle. Her eyes were even twinkling at him. Does this mean she's not angry with me anymore? he thought hopefully.
Ginny's eyes shifted, and her face sobered. Curious, he followed her gaze and noticed Bill and Charlie looking at each other, an odd expression on their faces. It was as though they were speaking without having to do it aloud. Bill nodded, once, and Charlie echoed it, as though they were agreeing on something nobody else knew about. Charlie glanced over and caught George's eye, lifting an eyebrow.
George stood up. "I think we've hashed this out as much as we can for now," he said. "Dad, Percy, Fred, why don't we go on out to the orchard and see if we can find anything that might give us some clue? And maybe we can see about setting up a line for the wards. They're going to have to be awfully big, and we'll probably need a physical fix for them."
"Right," Fred said, standing up. "Come on, Perce. You know more about wards than anyone else in the house."
Predictably, Percy preened, standing up as well. "Well, I wouldn't say that, Fred," he said in a pleased tone of voice. "Father knows rather a lot as well, you know. Of course, since I got my promotion at work, I have to work with wards all the time, so…." His voice faded out as the four of them left the room, heading out the back door.
Charlie chuckled helplessly, leaning his head against the back of the loveseat. "He's really not as much of a prat as he sounds," he said to the room at large. "Honest."
"I don't think he sounds a prat at all," Hermione said, shocked.
"Hermione!" Ron said, rolling his eyes. "Of course he does."
As the two of them started to bicker in earnest, Bill crossed over to Ginny and whispered something into her ear. She glared up at him for a minute, then sighed and stood up. "I'll just go see if Penny needs any help with Mum," she said. Harry frowned, trying to catch her eye as she left, but she didn't look his way again, just pushed through the kitchen door, letting it swing closed.
All right. What's going on here? He looked at Bill and Charlie as Bill resumed his seat. Sarcastically, he asked, "Have you got rid of everyone you need to, or should I make some excuse and go polish my trunk or something?"
"No," Charlie said. "Or, rather, you can if you want to, Harry. But Bill and I think we might have something you'd be interested in hearing."
"Unless it's a way I can get hold of these Death Eaters and kick their arses for them, I'm not," Harry said, pushing himself up out of his chair and having to restrain himself from kicking it out of the way. The anger was back, strong enough that he could almost ignore the blaze of pain from his overused left side. He was tired of being manipulated.
"It may well be just that," Bill said.
Harry stopped dead in his tracks and swung back around to face the two of them. Ron and Hermione were staring in surprise, too. Obviously, neither of them had expected to hear that either.
Charlie leaned forward. "Bill and I need to tell you this," he said, looking all three of them in the eyes in turn. "But it's absolutely essential that, whatever your decision, you keep this information strictly to yourselves, okay? A lot of people's lives could be on the line if you bollox this up."
Harry had never heard Charlie be so severe; he was usually the most easygoing of the family. Bill was nodding, too. Maybe he should hear them out. Silently, Harry returned to his chair and sat back down. This had better be good, he thought sourly. I'm not in the mood to waste time.
Bill took a deep breath. "When we came back to fight in the war," he said, "we didn't just join up with the Ministry. We were conscripted into the Department of Mysteries."
"Conscripted?" Ron repeated, brow furrowed. "You mean offered a job, right?"
"No, I mean conscripted. Impressed into service. Neither of us had a choice. Charlie's experience with magical creatures was needed because it was believed Voldemort would pull in everything he could think of in his war, including manticores and chimeras—"
"Which he did," Charlie interjected.
"—and you don't work for years breaking curses for Gringotts without getting a certain reputation," Bill finished. "So they conscripted us. But they gave the twins a choice; Fred and George joined up without a second thought."
"The twins?" Ron looked as though his jaw would bounce on the floor if it fell any farther. "The twins work for the Department of Mysteries?"
"Oh, come off it, Ron," Charlie said patronisingly. "You didn't think they'd really spend their whole lives on that joke shop, did you? It's a cover, of course. And a bloody good one, especially since anyone who was at Hogwarts while they were there would believe it without a second thought."
Ron looked annoyed at his brother's tone, but before he could say anything, Hermione said, "You're right, it's a really good cover. And one of them can be in the shop while the other's on some sort of—mission, or whatever it is, right?"
"Right," Bill said. "And each of them can pass for the other at will. Makes things a lot easier on the rest of us."
Harry sighed and rubbed his forehead impatiently. "Okay," he said. "You two and the twins work for the Department of Mysteries. I wondered why you spent all your time skulking from shadow to shadow. Bloody brilliant. Congratulations. So why tell us about it?"
Condescending gazes settled on him. "Because, you prat," Bill said, "it's a good bet that we are the whole reason for that little attack this afternoon."
"Bloody hell," Ron said in shock, mirroring Harry's own reaction and sitting up so suddenly he almost unseated Hermione. "If something leaked out about you lot—"
So maybe it's not about Ginny after all, Harry thought. A weight on his chest began to lessen with hope. Please, God, let her have been wrong. Something about her arguments had seemed disconcertingly accurate. He didn't like to think about it.
"Got it in one," Charlie said heavily. "It's a lot likelier than someone trying to get to Ginny. Or to you, Harry, Boy Who Lived or not. You finished your job last March, and there's nothing that'll bring Voldemort back now. There's very little point in taking the risk just to get at you for revenge. But my brothers and I have been spending an awful lot of our time making things very uncomfortable for the remaining Death Eaters, and that is likely to have made them somewhat cranky."
"Like hell I've finished my job," Harry snapped, stung. "I wasn't born just to take Voldemort down, was I?"
Charlie held up his hands defensively. "Hang on!" he said placatingly. "That wasn't what I meant, Harry. I meant that, since you've been on the injured list since the Battle, you haven't been provoking the Death Eaters as much as we have. You're not totally out of their sights, mate, but you're not as much in their way as we are."
Harry sighed, sagging backward into his chair and rubbing his forehead. He didn't want to lose his temper with the Weasleys when it was the Death Eaters who should be suffering. "Sorry," he said. "I know that's not what you meant."
"Anyway," Bill said, "now that you've got your N.E.W.T. scores and you've done so well, we've been authorised to offer you lot positions." He looked at them all gravely. "This is a genuine offer," he said. "I can't tell you where you'll be placed, but I can tell you that, if you take it, you'll be committing yourself a hundred percent. There's no backing out once you're in. You'll sign a binding magical contract, and you'll be placing your life in the hands of the Department—not to mention taking the lives of every other member into your own hands."
Hermione cocked her head sideways. "What sort of things would we be committing to do?" she asked. Harry was glad she'd done it; it was likely to come off better from her than from him.
Bill sighed, glancing at Charlie. "I can't exactly tell you that," he said. "Partially because it's classified until you're sworn in and bound, but mostly because I really don't know. I don't know what goes on in all the offices of the Department; it's all on a need-to-know basis. You could be working in the field openly; you could be working under cover, like the twins; you could be working in one of the research and profiling offices full-time. But I can tell you this—" he met all of their gazes directly "—no matter what you're doing at the Department, no matter where you work or what your day-to-day job is, you're on the front lines."
Harry glanced at Ron and saw his shoulders relax minutely. If there was one thing Hermione was good at, it was research, and that would put her smack into an office, not in the field. For that matter, it made Harry himself feel better. There was no one better at your back in a pinch than Hermione, unless it was Ron, but if she could be at his back and be safe, so much the better. Harry didn't think he could deal with the loss of another friend. Ron, he knew, would be at his side no matter what. Hell, Ron would lie down in traffic for me, Harry thought with bleak amusement. There's no way to keep him safe. But if we can somehow protect Hermione….
"If you're working in the field, you'll be assigned a partner," Charlie was saying. "Your partner becomes closer than family—he becomes almost an extension of yourself. You trust him to watch your back, to take care of your loved ones, to save your life. And you do the same for him. It's the ultimate in trust." He looked them over. "You three already have that," he said. "You've had it for years. That can only help you. Having worked together so long means that you already can read each other better than anyone else in the world can. That could mean the difference between life and death. Literally."
Hermione was looking at them through narrowed eyes, as though she were concentrating. "So you two are partners," she said. It was a statement, not a question.
Charlie grinned. "Actually, no," he said. "George is my partner. Fred is Bill's."
"WHAT?" Ron blurted, but Hermione just shook her head.
"No," she said decisively. "That can't be. It's got to be you two."
"And what makes you say that, Miss Granger?" Bill asked, his eyes twinkling.
"Because you move together. Any time one of you is turned away from the room, the other is always scanning, watching for trouble. You've arranged yourself so that your backs are to the wall, but you're facing the fireplace, just in case something comes through the Floo. And you're angled so that you can each see over the other's shoulder. Even here at home, you're watching each other's backs."
Both Bill and Charlie started laughing. After a moment, so did Harry. Every single thing she'd said was true, but it wasn't until she'd pointed them out that he'd realised there was any significance to it.
"Good for you!" Bill chortled, wiping his eyes. "I knew you were a good candidate." He looked at his youngest brother. "So, Ron, what do you think?"
"What do I think about what?" Ron asked, a bit belligerently. He didn't notice any of that stuff either, and he's feeling stupid, Harry translated from his tone.
"This sound like something you want to do?"
Harry watched as Ron hesitated, biting his lip. His gaze flickered to Hermione, and Harry could guess what he was thinking: more or less what Harry himself had been thinking earlier. The Battle, what they'd seen of it, had been horrific enough; Ron had told him that Hermione was still suffering from occasional nightmares about it. Harry was sure Ron wanted to keep her away from anything that might be in the least dangerous. But after her impressive answer to Bill, Ron must know there was no way she'd allow that—not by a long shot.
Ron's gaze flickered over to Harry, and he raised his eyebrow, as if asking what Harry's intentions were. Harry nodded, and Ron's face set. "I'm in," he said. Where Harry and Hermione were, there he would be. That was just the way his world worked. For a moment, Harry envied him that solid knowledge of where he belonged.
Bill nodded, and turned to face Harry. "And you?" he asked quietly.
Harry met Bill's gaze. "Do you have to ask?"
"Yes, I do."
Harry closed his eyes. His fury was there, burning through him. He could still picture Ginny's small, slim form crumpled at Voldemort's feet, and the look on her face this afternoon when she'd had her Vision. He was not going to sit back and let these bastards take more away from her than she'd already lost, or let Ron and Hermione face things alone. He opened his eyes again, meeting Bill's and Charlie's gazes with a glare. "Yes," he grated. "I'm in, too."
She nodded firmly. Harry saw Ron's arm tighten around her.
Bill and Charlie looked at each other and grinned. "Right," Bill said. "We thought you'd want to. Let's go find the twins, Charlie. We'll all talk again later tonight or tomorrow, after Charlie and I have reported back to Headquarters."
Harry didn't move, didn't even flinch as a sudden roar of thunder shook the house. A soft patter of rain began to sound on the roof and windows, turning rapidly into a fierce downpour. It fit his mood. His path was set now, and he felt nothing at all but the anger.
Ginny couldn't sleep. It was well after midnight; the thunderstorm still raged outside, and she watched the wavering lines of moonlight on her wall as rain poured down her window.
She didn't know what Charlie and Bill had said to Harry, Ron, and Hermione earlier, but she had a pretty good guess. Maybe nobody else in this family paid attention to what her brothers were doing, but she did. It had not escaped Ginny that they were always gone just before another Dark attack or Ministry raid was reported. But then, maybe everyone else does pay attention, she thought, and just doesn't say anything, the way I don't say anything. If nothing is said, nothing has to be faced. Like the fact that my brothers are secret Aurors or something, and someday they may go to work and never come home again.
And she had a sinking suspicion that those same brothers had offered Harry, Ron, and Hermione a chance to do what they were doing. Their N.E.W.T. scores had been good enough for them to have their pick of any of a number of jobs, and they'd certainly had experience fighting Dark forces.
But she couldn't bear the thought of Harry going off again to die, without her having told him everything.
Finally, she gave up trying to sleep. Tossing and turning in bed all night wasn't her favourite way of spending her time. Pulling on her dressing gown, she opened her door as quietly as she could and tiptoed down into the living room, intending to get a glass of warm milk. Maybe that would help settle her down.
She stepped off the last stair into the dark living room and barked her shin on something hard. She cried out in surprise and pain. A dark, shadowy figure by the windows whirled suddenly, and Ginny saw by a flash of lightning that it was Harry, fully dressed, half-crouched, and with his wand trained unerringly on her.
She stared, too shocked at his reaction even to move.
Harry relaxed as soon as he saw who it was and let his wand hand drop back to his side. "Sorry," he said quietly, rubbing the back of his neck the way he always did when he was embarrassed. "I'm a little—jumpy." As if in apology, he pointed his wand at the fireplace and said, "Incendio!" A fire sprang up, giving them enough light to see by.
Her heart was still pounding. She took a tentative step into the room. "I just—couldn't sleep," she said. "I came down to get some milk. If you'd rather be alone—"
"No," he said, quietly, looking up again to meet her gaze. "Please don't go. I don't want to be alone." His eyes seemed to shine overly brightly for a moment. Swallowing, he ducked his head and sat heavily down on the couch, staring down at the wand in his hands.
For a moment, she wavered. I've been avoiding him so long, she thought. What if he asks me what happened that night?
What if he does? another voice in her mind replied. This is Harry. He needs you. He just said he doesn't want to be alone. Can you walk out on him right now? Can you walk out on the man you love just when he needs you?
But—that night—I said—
You gave him a stupid ultimatum. Did you mean it?
Do you want him to think you did?
Then why are you hesitating?
He needed her. Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she came over and sat down, close to him but not—quite—touching. After a moment, he spoke.
"Did you know I threatened the Dursleys yesterday morning?" he said softly, his eyes still on his wand, which he was rolling back and forth between his hands.
"No." She could feel the pain in him; it was radiating out of him in palpable waves.
"I nearly performed the Cruciatus Curse on them," he said in that same soft, expressionless voice. "I had them all in the kitchen, and my wand was pointing at them. I almost did it, Gin. It was on the tip of my tongue to do it."
"So why didn't you?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
His head whipped around and he stared at her in horror. "Good God, Gin, what do you take me for?"
She smiled softly. "A good man who obviously didn't do anything to the Dursleys," she said. "Your reaction just now showed me why not."
Harry stared at her for another moment, then shook his head and gave a small, wry laugh, rubbing his eyes with his fingertips. "That's just what Sirius said."
"Sirius?" Ginny repeated, startled. But Sirius is dead. Doesn't he know?
Harry waved a hand as if to wipe away the misunderstanding. "I dreamt about him," he clarified, letting his head drop to the back of the sofa and his hands to his lap. "While I was napping upstairs. He told me that—well—he told me a lot of things. And one of them was that I didn't do anything wrong to the Dursleys. Which Ron had already told me, but at the time, I wasn't really in a position to believe him."
Silence stretched out again between them. Ginny remained still, sensing his frustration. Just stay quiet and let him say what he needs to say, she thought. Let him get it out of his system.
Finally, Harry lifted his head to stare out the window. "Ever since I woke up in hospital," he said, "I've been fighting this terrible anger, you know? This absolute fury at the world." He shook his head slowly. "So much death, Ginny," he said hollowly. "So much pain. So many people, good people, just gone, just like that—" he snapped his fingers, making her jump "—because Voldemort had to try to seize power, and a bunch of wizards had to go along with him. So many people whose lives will never be the same because of the actions of a few. Why?"
The last word was cried out in an agony of despair. Ginny's heart twisted for him.
"Why here?" Harry continued bitterly. "Why now? And dammit, Ginny, why me? It's not fair. What gives them the right to try to get to me—and to use everybody I love to get there?" He stopped, swallowed, and looked at her again. His emerald eyes were nearly glowing. "And what gives me the right," he said, in a much softer tone, "to love anybody, or allow them to love me, when I know I'm being hunted?"
He reached out a hand and gently let a stray curl of her hair wrap around his finger. "I'm already endangering you," he said. She caught her breath at the pain in his voice. "The longer I stay here at the Burrow, the more danger you're in."
She looked up into his eyes, soft brown meeting blazing green. "You're not going to just leave, are you?" she asked anxiously. "You're not going to disappear? Because that would break our hearts, Harry. All of us."
To her relief, he shook his head. "No," he said, still playing with the curl. "I couldn't do that to you or to your family. But think about this, Ginny: nobody except us knows it was you who destroyed Voldemort. The Death Eaters all think it was me, I'm sure. They're desperate to get hold of me. I can't let your family be the barrier between them and me anymore. It's too dangerous."
"We put up the wards today."
"Wards can be broken." He let her curl fall and turned his body to face her fully on the couch, clasping her hands in his. "Ginny, I'm serious. I can't just let stuff happen to me anymore. I need to have some sort of control. I need to have some way of protecting myself and those I care about. I need to be able to do something, not just wait for things to happen." He took a deep breath. "I've accepted the job offer Charlie and Bill gave me earlier today."
"Working for the Ministry?" She knew that it was much more than that, of course, but that was the fiction they all kept up.
"In a manner of speaking, yes. The Department of Mysteries."
Ginny's eyes widened and she felt her heart clutch with fear. The Unspeakables of the Department of Mysteries had suffered some of the worst casualties of the war with Voldemort, mainly because they were in the direct line of fire as spies and passers of information and—whatever else they did. She didn't know, exactly. She only knew that it was classified and highly dangerous.
"I have to do this, Ginny," Harry continued, his eyes tortured. "I have to find an outlet for this anger. Because if I don't, I'm going to blow up, and I'm going to take someone innocent with me—or else I'm going to go off half-cocked and end up getting myself and a lot of other people killed."
Ginny thought about the pure, unadulterated rage that she had seen on his face that afternoon, and gave a small shiver. She could believe him capable of almost anything when in that kind of rage. The tie that had always been between them had let her actually feel some of what he had felt, though, and it hadn't all been anger. Some of it—much of it—had been sheer terror and protectiveness. Some of it had been guilt that the Death Eaters had come to the Weasleys, since they couldn't get to him. She could understand all of that; she could understand the driving need to do something. But she had another year at Hogwarts; she couldn't do anything herself.
Except See things I can't understand or change.
Harry hadn't dropped either her hands or her gaze. "Ginny," he said quietly, "I've been trying to talk to you since I arrived, and now that you're here, there's something I need to ask you. The day of the Battle, you said something to me I've never forgotten. Are you still angry with me for going down to Hogsmeade?"
She was startled into a reaction by the unexpected change of subject. "Oh, no!" she said, appalled. Her heart tightened, and she felt her face flush bright red. "Of course not! Harry, I'm so sorry I ever said that. I never meant it. Not for a moment."
His lips curved into a relieved smile. "Good," he said, then sobered again. "But then, Ginny, if you aren't angry and you are willing to speak to me, why won't you talk about whatever's bothering you?"
She froze. Oh, God— she thought in a panic. Not this, not now—
"I know something is," he pressed. "I know it the same way you know when something's bothering me; the tie goes both ways. And though I haven't Seen anything the way you do, I can tell when you're miserable."
She still didn't speak. He shifted a bit closer to her and released one hand to brush the back of his hand against her cheek. "Ginny, love," he said, "you can't hide it all inside. I'm only just learning that. You have to let it out sometime. Please talk to me. Don't shut me out any more. I can't stand this. I can't stand being so close to you and have you holding me at arm's length."
She tore her gaze from his and looked down. "I—I—" she stammered. The tears were threatening, choking off her voice.
"It doesn't have to be tonight," he said, his hand still caressing her cheek. "It doesn't have to be now. But please don't push me away anymore."
The dam broke, and Ginny collapsed against him, sobbing. He held her tightly against his shoulder, gently lifting her to sit on his lap, cradling her and letting the storm of tears die slowly away. She couldn't do this. She couldn't bear it. What if he pushes me away when he finds out? she thought in panic. What if he blames me?
But I have to tell him. If he's going to go away for training at the Department of Mysteries, he needs to know everything. He deserves to know everything.
She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her dressing gown, then took a deep breath and laid her head back on his shoulder. She couldn't meet his eyes. Not yet. "All right, Harry," she said softly, her voice a little hoarse from crying, "I—I'll tell you. But please, just… just hold me while I do."
"I'm not going anywhere, Ginny," he said softly, and kissed her forehead.
How to begin?
She swallowed. "Th-that night," she whispered. "The night of the Battle, just before you left, I had a—a Vision. I Saw myself with a piece of parchment in my hand, reading it, and then I Saw myself touching my wand to Voldemort and reciting the incantation. I saw him e-explode, and I knew that I could destroy him if I tried.
"Then I Saw you, Harry."
She was shaking; she could hear it in her own voice. His arms tightened around her. "You had the same parchment, but you had to cross all that open ground between Honeyduke's and Voldemort's position, and I Saw you get k-killed." The tears were falling again, but she forced herself to keep going. "I Saw you get hit with the Killing Curse, and I knew that if you tried to do it yourself, you'd die and Voldemort would win. So after you left, I sneaked out of the castle and down to the Shrieking Shack, and went through the tunnel there."
Harry's hand was slowly, steadily caressing up and down her back. She was glad for it; it was giving her strength. She swallowed again and continued. "You saw what happened when I got there. Voldemort t-took control of me. It was j-just like having Tom Riddle in my head again; he took my heart, my soul, and manipulated them, pulled me to him knowing that you would follow me. And you did," she added softly, looking down. "I was almost responsible for your death, too."
"No, you—" Harry started to protest, but she looked up and placed a finger on his lips.
"Please, Harry. This is hard enough."
He nodded silently and she let her finger drop, leaning her head against his shoulder again. She couldn't be looking in his eyes when she said this. She couldn't.
"A-after I came to again, I saw him standing right there, and I remembered the incantation and what it had said to do, and I just—just did it." She paused and took a deep, shuddering breath. "When I woke up in hospital, about a week before you did, Madam Pomfrey told me something that I made her swear never to tell another living soul. She said that when I'd gone to Hogsmeade, I'd been—pregnant."
Harry's hands stopped moving. The only sound in the room was the patter of rain on the roof and windows. "Pregnant?" Harry repeated after a moment. He sounded stunned.
Ginny nodded against his shoulder, the tears beginning again. "I didn't know, Harry," she pleaded. "I swear I didn't know. But the reason I didn't d-die after calling the Fynalle Strykke is that it didn't have to take my life force. It took the b-baby's."
Silence reigned again for a long, long moment. Tears ran down her cheeks as she waited for him to toss her aside in disgust, to accuse her of being a murderer, a child-killer, a reckless excuse for motherhood whom he was glad would never be bearing his children….
Oh, God, Harry. Say something. Please.
His right hand slid from her shoulder down her arm and onto her flat stomach. It rested there, shaking nearly as much as she was. "You're not—not now?" he asked, though it was almost more a statement than a question.
Hopelessly, Ginny said, "No."
There was another pause as Harry let his hand rest over her now-empty womb. Then he lifted his head and looked at her, raising his hand back up to twine itself into her hair, gently, tenderly. "My God," he said, and she could see the tears in his eyes, too. "And you've lived with that all this time, all by yourself?"
She nodded, tears still leaking out of her eyes.
"My God," he said again. There was a wealth of love and deep, deep sorrow in his voice. "God, Ginny. If I'd known—" He stopped, looking deep into her eyes again, then tilted his head forward and kissed her with soft intensity. "You will never have to go through something like that alone again," he whispered, his eyes only centimetres from hers. "Never."
She blinked rapidly, her heart beginning to swell with hope. "You're not—angry with me?" she asked hesitantly.
"Angry with you?" He framed her face with his hands, his eyes darkened with emotion, his muscles taut. "How could I be angry with you, Gin?"
"But—" she protested vaguely. "I went down to Voldemort—while I was pregnant—"
"And you didn't know you were," Harry said firmly. "And you wouldn't have been pregnant if we'd been more careful." He kissed her again, more deeply this time, and with a firmness that made her gasp, then pulled away and leaned his forehead against hers. There was anger there after all, swirling in the depths of his eyes. It was the same deep-seated rage she had seen before, but she knew it wasn't aimed at her. "This clinches it," he growled, cradling her as though she were about to break. "I am bloody well going to wipe out every Death Eater on the face of this planet if that's what it takes to get them to leave us thehell alone!"
He captured her mouth a third time, hard, demanding, passionate. She felt herself respond, and gave herself up to the feelings. She was too relieved at his reaction to be upset about anything else. He doesn't blame me! she exulted. He doesn't blame me!
At last Harry ended the kiss and looked at her one more time. His eyes had darkened again, but this time it was from desire. His breath was shallow, matching hers. She knew what he was asking wordlessly, and she felt a small smile curve a corner of her mouth. "I'm on birth control potion now," she whispered. "At Madam Pomfrey's suggestion."
He chuckled. "You read my mind." She felt him sit forward as though to stand up, but before he rose, his arms tightened on her slightly. "Ginny," he said hoarsely, "if you don't want to—if it's too soon—"
She silenced him with a kiss. "Harry," she said softly, "I've been living in fear of your reaction for months. I've been fighting with my guilt, terrified of what you'd say. I'm not really even convinced this is real yet. What I want is for you to show me what you feel. Don't just tell me, show me. Please."
With no more hesitation, his arm slid under her knees and he rose, carrying her toward the door to the back yard.
"Where are we going?" Ginny asked, wrapping her arms about his shoulders.
He grinned at her wickedly, making her heart flutter with anticipation. "I've always wanted to make love with you in that tree house during a storm," he murmured.
A/N: Forgot to mention last chapter, the idea for the Fynalle Strykke was not mine. I got it from Mercedes Lackey, whose books are well worth the reading. Thanks as always to my betas: Michael, Helen, Ben, Shannon, and, of course, Ahmie. Without their input, this chapter would be nowhere near what it is. Thanks also to Paula and Anne, for letting me use ideas from their fics in mine. Please review! Reviews make me want to write more!