Disclaimer: These are JKR's characters. I'm just nicer to them!
Thanks to Faelaern for inviting me to archive here. This is the first story in the "Wallpaper" trilogy.
"Cheers," chorused jovial voices.
Sunlight spilled through the green leaves.
Liquid splashed in a glass.
A shrill sound broke through the scene. It demanded…
The phone! Harry realized as he finally shook off the last remnants of his dream. He barreled down the stairs.
"Hello?" he panted.
"What took you so long, boy?" It was Uncle Vernon calling from Majorca. While they did not trust Harry to stay alone, the Dursleys could not pass up a free holiday.
"Why aren't you at work? I pulled a lot of strings to get you that job."
And broke a few laws as well, Harry thought.
"If you mucked up that job –"
Harry looked out the window. Water poured down the panes in sheets.
"Then do something from the list."
Aunt Petunia had a list of projects for Harry to fit around his work schedule. It had taken him three late nights to paper and paint the dining room. The living room is going to take twice as long, he thought despairingly.
"Harry?" It was Aunt Petunia. "Make sure the beige diamonds go in the dining room and the beige swirls go in the living room."
Wouldn't that be rich if I messed them up? Harry thought, rolling his eyes.
"OK," he answered.
He heard Uncle Vernon say, "Ring off, Petunia! This is costing a bloody fortune!"
With an abrupt click, the line went dead.
Harry shivered in the morning chill. He wished he could turn on the electric fire or do a Heating Charm. Even though it was unusually cold for July, the Dursleys would forbid the fire and the Ministry would forbid the magic.
July, Harry thought. It was his sixteenth birthday today. No wonder Hedwig isn't back yet.
As he made the bed and got dressed, he thanked his lucky stars that the Dursleys were still on holiday. It was the first birthday he could remember without them. The best gift of all.
Glad that he was starting this project in the morning instead of after a full day's work, Harry set up the ladder in the living room. The furniture was piled away from the bare, stained walls recently stripped of their coverings. The only illumination was from the single bulb in the center of the ceiling. He wondered how the beige swirls were going improve such a dingy and depressing room.
The doorbell interrupted his thoughts. Harry couldn't imagine who would be calling at nine o'clock in the morning in such awful weather.
He opened the door and received a face full of rain. He could see a small figure in a yellow slicker, carrying a bulky bundle wrapped in plastic.
"Happy Birthday!" cried a familiar voice.
"Ginny?" Harry asked, as he pulled her in through the doorway.
"Here." She thrust the bundle at him as she began to take off her dripping coat. Her vivid hair shone in the lamplight. The hallway seemed full of color as she giggled and explained, "I wanted to spare the owls, so I Flooed over to Mrs. Figg's and walked the rest of the way. She loaned me her coat."
"Spare the owls? Ginny, you're soaked through. I can't believe your mum let you come out in this."
"Harry, don't fuss. It wasn't raining when Ron and I left the Burrow to meet Fred and George. They were supposed to come along too, but they received a message to meet Mundungus somewhere. They said their financial backer would understand."
He grinned. "So where's Ron?"
"Watching the shop," she said, studying him intently.
"What's with you?" he asked. "Do I have dirt on my nose or something?"
"No." She laughed. "What have you been doing? You look like Charlie somehow, like you've been outside a lot."
"Uncle Vernon wrangled a job for me with one of the builders who has contracts with his company. I've been tiling roofs for the past five weeks."
"Um… making Muggle roofs waterproof is the best way to describe it. I have the job of carrying the bundles of tiles up the ladder. Then I help fasten each little rectangle."
"That sounds awful!"
"No, it's OK." It was difficult to put into words how much he enjoyed being high above the streets, working with his hands, and seeing a project completed.
Ginny looked skeptical – and bedraggled.
"Ginny, you should get out of those wet things. How long can you stay? I can put them in the dryer for you if you like?"
"Dryer?" she asked, puzzled, craning her neck to look around at the Dursleys' house.
"Have you ever been in a Muggle house?"
She shook her head and then shivered.
"I'll give you the tour after you change." Harry took her to his room and pointed out his bureau. "The smaller stuff I've outgrown is in the bottom drawer. I'll leave you to it."
It gave Harry a funny feeling to have Ginny in the Dursleys' house, to have Ginny in his room. That feeling intensified when she appeared in the kitchen wearing a pair of faded jeans, the cuffs rolled up several times, and Harry's Weasley jumper from fourth year, the green one with the dragon. "I'm going to nick this jumper from you," she announced.
"Are you?" He smiled. "What makes you think I'll let you have it?"
"You will," Ginny said confidently. "It will be in good hands, and besides, you can't fit it over those shoulders of yours anymore."
Harry laughed but didn't say anything, since he had suddenly realized that he couldn't deny her his jumper. In fact he was pleased she wanted it. Why? He didn't have time consider this because she was still talking.
"I've discovered some very interesting things about you."
"Like you are a sentimental packrat. You still have your Weasley jumper from your first year. I saw it in the drawer and I recognized it, because I went with Mum to pick out the yarn."
"I still like it."
"Even though it doesn't fit?"
"Even though it doesn't fit," he affirmed.
She smiled. "See, you are sentimental."
He interrupted her before she could find anything else to analyze. "How long can you stay? Do you have time for me to put these things in the dryer?"
"I can stay all day. That is, if you want me to."
"Really? Great!" The day suddenly seemed brighter. But then another thought struck.
"What do you want to do?" Harry was at a loss as to how he was going to entertain Ginny all day during a driving rainstorm, with no Muggle money and no means of transportation.
"What were you planning to do?" She asked.
"Wallpaper the living room."
"I'll help," Ginny said immediately.
"I don't know if that is such a good idea. It's not a lot of fun," Harry warned.
"I'll try anything once," she said airily. "Besides, won't it go faster if the two of us work together?"
"Ginny, I feel like the biggest prat."
"It's your birthday, if you want to hang wallpaper, so be it. You're king for the day!" She laughed.
"Lucky me, so many walls, so little time."
They quickly established a working routine. In fact, Harry was astonished to find that she had quite a knack for hanging wallpaper. "How did you know to do it that way?" he asked when she showed him an easier way to measure the roll.
"Just a natural," she gloated from the top rung of the ladder.
"A real wallpaper prodigy." He handed her the sopping wet length of paper.
She expertly lined up the top corners at the ceiling. "Call me the goddess of home improvement!"
He laughed as he smoothed the rest of the sheet down to the floor with a large brush.
To his surprise, Harry found himself telling her about his dream he had had that very morning. He described how he saw a large black dog running on a white, sandy beach, chasing the turquoise waves. But then the dog disappeared. Suddenly, there was Sirius, happy, laughing, and fit, sitting at a table in the middle of a garden. Feasting with Sirius was the strangest assortment of people Harry had ever seen.
"Who were they?" Ginny prompted from the top of the ladder.
"It was a dream, so it sounds kind of strange…You know how dreams are. It was people from the portraits at Hogwarts. Like, you know, Sir Cadogan."
"Was he wearing his armor?" She giggled.
"He was, and he was trying to cut an apple with his sword, not too successfully." Harry smiled.
"So, who else?"
"Well, er… you know that picture on the way to the astronomy tower, the one with the lady in the red dress and…"
"The one with the cleavage?" Ginny smirked. "Yes, I know her! Colin Creevey made a point to walk by it about twenty times a day our first year. She is enough to give any girl an inferiority complex."
"She is? I mean, er, I hadn't noticed."
Ginny snorted at that.
"Anyway, she was there sitting on Sirius's lap, and he looked very happy."
"I can imagine," Ginny said dryly.
"That was it," he concluded, and then opened his mouth as if to say something else.
She climbed down the ladder and stood in front of him. "What else?"
Harry glanced at her and then studied the wide wallpaper brush he was holding. "At the end of term I talked to Luna about the Veil. You know, the one we saw in the Department of Mysteries?" Harry looked at her for confirmation of this. When he saw her nod he looked down at the brush again, running his fingers over the bristles.
"She said…" He sighed. "She said that she could hear voices beyond the Veil, and that someday we would see our dead again. Do you think that could be true?"
Ginny wrapped her arm through the rung of the ladder and leaned against it. "I don't know for sure. But that doesn't mean it can't be true. Don't you think that there are just some things you know in your heart, that your head can't explain?"
He looked at her. "Do you think that dream was a real message from Sirius? Or was it just me hoping he's somewhere… happy?"
"Harry, I don't know for sure. Remember, we were in the Department of Mysteries. It's a mystery. Why can't Sirius be somewhere happy with a great looking woman on his arm? Why can't that be true?" Ginny replied. "I'm glad you told me about your dream; it makes me feel better about Sirius. And it feels right that Sirius would have that kind of an afterlife. I'll bet that lady in the red dress flirted with him the entire time he was at Hogwarts!"
Harry laughed. "He was a good looking bloke – I'm sure she had her eye on him!"
Ginny started up the ladder again. "What about you, Harry? Did you walk by that picture twenty times a day your first year?'
"Me? No way. Nineteen at the most," Harry replied, turning to wet more wallpaper in the tray.
The work was going well until it was time to paper around the fireplace, which involved precision cutting and measuring. Harry started to pencil the cutting lines.
"No, Harry, that won't work!"
He interrupted her. "I know what I'm doing."
"If you'd just listen for a minute –"
"I'm going to do it this way," he said, turning away from her.
Ginny's temper ignited. "Fine, you can do it your way, but at least have the manners to listen to me!"
Harry turned back to see her glaring at him. "Ok, I'm listening," he said through gritted teeth.
After she finished her explanation, Harry admitted defeat. "Bloody hell – you're right! I should have known to listen to the wallpaper prodigy!" He smiled ruefully, even though it nettled somewhat to be so obviously wrong.
Ginny gave a smug smile. "You know, that's one of the things I like about you. You never seem to mind too much when I'm right."
"I've had loads of practice," he said, moving the ladder closer to the mantle. "I've been friends with Hermione for five years. It keeps me humble."
"I shouldn't have yelled at you," she said, stooping to move the water tray out of the way.
Harry noticed that she had tiny scraps of wallpaper stuck in her hair. Without really thinking, he stood in front of her and picked them out. "You were angry because I wasn't listening."
"Right." Ginny seemed distracted by his hands on her hair, but then she said with spirit, "because I would have done it my way, whether you agreed or not."
"I reckon you would," he laughed, looking down at her. "From now on I'm agreeing with everything connected to wallpaper. It will be 'yes, dear' or 'no, dear' from now on."
"I'm glad we have that settled," she said in a satisfied voice as she turned her attention back to cutting the paper.
They stopped for lunch with Harry doing the cooking, since Ginny only knew how to prepare food with a wand.
The contents of the fridge didn't look promising.
"Um, do you like omelets?"
"What? Oh, omelets! Sure, anything." Ginny was distracted by the drawer full of kitchen gadgets.
"That's a good Niffler imitation you're doing."
She giggled. "I understand them so much better now. I mean – would you look at this?"
"That's an eggbeater, and I need it," he said, plucking it out of her hands.
"Show me how it works."
Ginny stood distractingly close, leaning over his arm to get a better look at the gears turning and the eggs frothing in the bowl.
"Let me try."
He stood the eggbeater in the bowl, and moved out of the way.
She grabbed the top handle with the wrong hand. "Now what? How do I make it go?"
"Put this hand here." Harry stood behind her, putting his hand over hers. He put his arm around her to reach her other hand. "And put this hand on the turning handle."
"Oh, I see now." She sounded a little breathless.
Harry realized that he was practically hugging Ginny Weasley, that her hair smelled really nice, and that he wanted to stand there a lot longer than it would take to prepare those eggs for cooking.
"Uh… time for the pan." He took his hands away and wondered if he looked as flushed as Ginny. "Would you mind setting the table?"
By the time they sat down to eat, Harry was feeling a bit more normal. Ginny was chattering away, praising his cooking, and telling him about Ron's disasters in the kitchen. The gloomy weather, the boring home improvement projects, all seemed far away from the pleasant world they had created around the lunch table.
"And we have dessert!" Ginny suddenly remembered the parcels. "Here, open this one."
It was a birthday cake from Mrs. Weasley.
"Excellent. What kind is it?" Harry asked.
"Chocolate, of course," she said, bringing a knife over. "What could be better than chocolate?"
A whole day with you.
Harry wondered if he had said this out loud, since those unbidden words were thundering in his brain. But Ginny was cutting the cake, looking unruffled.
"There you go," she said, handing him a piece of cake.
"Thanks. And uh… Ginny?"
"Thanks for helping me today; you've made it a lot of fun."
Ginny colored, but she said in a teasing voice, "And I've kept you from committing crimes against innocent wallpaper."
"For that too," he said, smiling.
They couldn't stretch lunch out any longer. It was time to go back to work. Harry suddenly felt in a bad mood. He just wanted to talk to Ginny and wile the day away, but this project had to be finished, and she was being such a good sport, that he didn't say anything.
As they walked back to the living room, Ginny continued to marvel at the Muggle way of cooking. "It's like having to make a potion really. You have to do everything step by step and pay attention. What I don't understand is why you had such poor grades in Potions."
"How do you know I had poor grades in Potions?" he demanded.
"Ron or Hermione. I don't remember who mentioned it. It's no big deal to me what your grades are, Harry. I'm just surprised that your skill in the kitchen didn't transfer over to Potions."
"I think it is just Snape. I can't get past him. He makes me lose my concentration," Harry replied. "No excuse, really."
"Aren't you done with Potions now that you've taken the O.W.L.s?"
"No, I got a good enough mark to continue to study Potions for the N.E.W.T.s. So, Snape and I are still together another two years. I don't know how I'll stand it."
"I wish –" Ginny started.
"I wish I knew what to say, I mean– "
"You don't have to solve all of my problems," Harry said irritably.
"I know that," she flared. "Don't you think I know that? But I still wish I could wave my wand and fix it for you."
Harry looked at her. He did not want Ginny to feel sorry for him. All he wanted was to go back to the happy time at lunch when all of his problems were forgotten.
"If one more person tries to fix me, I think I'll go mad. I'm tired of the scrutiny. I'm tired of people stopping by trying to convince me not to feel guilty about Sirius. Do you know how many want to share the guilt? First Dumbledore says it's his fault. Then Lupin says he should have stopped him from leaving the house. Same with Tonks and Moody."
"You can add me to the list," Ginny cut in. "And I'm not saying it to make you feel better. I'm saying it so you can get a little perspective on the situation, which you are sorely missing!"
"What do you have to feel guilty about?" he challenged.
"Not just me, we. None of us remembered that Snape was in the Order," she said heatedly. "And we weren't exactly a lot of help against the Death Eaters, were we? You don't get to keep all the guilt to yourself, Harry."
"I know how you feel, I really do," she continued as if he had never said anything. "I know what it's like to be constantly watched, to be treated like you're a bomb that could go off at any given moment."
Harry stopped short. She had just described his feelings perfectly. But how could she know that? How could she understand?
He followed her into the living room where she had started, with some agitation, to measure the paper. Then it hit him. Her first year. That business with Tom Riddle.
He watched her kneel on the floor to cut the paper with an unsteady hand.
"Here, let me." He crouched down next to her and took the knife from her hand.
"I wasn't going to stab you."
"I probably deserve it," Harry said. "So," he hesitated, "so, what did you do that summer after your first year? I mean, how did you cope?"
"Harry, I hate talking about this," Ginny began.
"Sorry," he said quickly.
"No, you asked. I don't mind telling you. I just want you to know that this isn't easy for me to talk about."
"Really? I thought girls liked to talk about feelings and stuff."
"Not all girls are alike," she said with a sigh.
"Anyway. It was Bill who helped the most. Remember, we went to Egypt?"
Harry nodded as she settled herself more comfortably on the floor.
"Bill was just so… matter-of-fact. He's a curse breaker and he has seen more weird stuff than you and I put together. He helped me put my actions in perspective – like I wasn't the worst person who ever walked the earth. He made me see that I wouldn't stay silly and stupid if I faced what I did, and learned from those mistakes. And…" Ginny became lost in thought.
"He told me something about guilt. It was something like… guilt is useful up to a point, but if you let it take over, then the guilt is more about you than the person you have wronged. It's kind of… selfish."
Harry thought about what Ginny was trying to say. Was he being selfish in his grief?
"You know," he said slowly. "I even felt guilty about the good dream I had about Sirius. Like I shouldn't feel good about him."
"Harry, you don't feel good that he's dead. You feel good that he's still Sirius, wherever he is. Don't you think he would want you to feel good when you thought of him?"
He looked at her quizzically. "I thought you didn't like to talk about feelings?"
"I don't mind talking about your feelings. It's mine I don't like to share."
"I don't know, really. Maybe because Mum and Dad watched me so closely and listened to every thing I had to say, like it had some hidden meaning. Bill was great getting them to back off, because after the trip they stopped acting so suspicious."
She got up and began to dip the paper in the water tray. "You know," she said, like she was trying to work it out in her mind. "I still don't think Mum and Dad trust my judgment. I think that was why I was so angry about being shut out of the meeting they had with you last summer."
She climbed the ladder with the length of paper. "Come to think of it, I'm still angry about that. I didn't really realize it until now…Oh, drat! My hair is stuck to this paper! Harry, do you have some ribbon or twine or something I can use to tie my hair back?"
Ginny was in a predicament – a portion of her hair were caught in the glued side of the paper. He knew better than to tease her about it. "I didn't realize long hair was so hazardous."
"It's a nuisance sometimes. I can't put this paper down, so you'll have to tie it back for me."
He returned with some white parcel string. He wondered how he was going to do this without pulling her hair and without being all thumbs. "Um… climb down, I can't reach you from here."
"If I climb down, the paper is going to stick to the floor."
So Harry climbed up the ladder to stand on the rung directly below hers. He could feel the length of her body against his. He tried not to feel this latest distraction, since two people on a ladder wasn't the safest position to be in. "I still can't reach you. Move your feet over, so I can get one foot on this next rung."
Harry had very good balance, but he knew he couldn't stand on one foot long enough to use both hands to tie her hair back. He looked for a place to anchor his other foot. It would have to be the un-papered wall, which meant swinging his leg around Ginny. Well, he wouldn't touch her – it would be all right. Just a little awkward.
The ladder shook a little with that maneuver. She started to giggle. "Good thing that wall isn't papered. I'd like to see you explain a footprint there to your relatives."
He laughed, "I don't think I could explain this one to anybody. How am I going to free your hair without it hurting?"
"Just give it a yank; my arms are getting tired of holding this bloody paper."
Harry's arms were around her once more, as he carefully pulled the glued strands away. Then he gingerly gathered the rest of her hair into a ponytail. His hands felt rough against such silkiness. "Did I hurt you?"
"No, you were very gentle." Her voice sounded funny.
"Almost done." He quickly tied the coarse string. It looked odd set against the richness of Ginny's hair.
He moved off of the ladder, without tipping them both over. Ginny climbed another rung and smoothed the offending sheet on to the wall.
On her way down, she finally spoke. "See, this is why I don't talk about my feelings. I get upset, and I don't pay attention to what I'm doing."
Harry could see her distress, and without thinking, he said the words he had been hearing all summer long, and never dreamed he would say to anyone else: "Maybe you should talk about your feelings more, so you don't get quite as upset when you finally do talk."
She looked at him in surprise.
He looked back at her, the words still ringing in the room.
"Did I just say that?" He grinned.
"Is there anyone else here?" Ginny answered, starting to giggle.
"Anyone else would not believe that you were stuck to a sheet of wallpaper and that I am suddenly interested in talking about feelings."
She laughed. "Yes, we have reputations to uphold. It will be our little secret."
She watched him cut the next section of paper. "You know, I'm not trying to fix you. I don't think you're broken."
"It's not just you. I wish I could wave my wand and give you some happiness, and Ron some self-confidence, and make my mum stop worrying."
"What about you?" he asked, suddenly curious. "What do you want for you?"
Ginny took the paper and folded it into the water tray. She didn't answer until she stirred the water a few times.
"That's hard to say," she said in a strained voice, still looking at the tray. "I reckon," she heaved a big sigh. "I reckon I just want to know where I fit in." She threw him a quick glance. "In the war, I mean." She stared at the paper now floating in the water. "Does that make sense?"
Then she looked at him.
Ginny looked like someone who was a little lost and determined not to be. That curious mixture of vulnerability and defiance made Harry want to comfort her somehow. Like put his arms around her for a hug, not just to demonstrate eggbeaters or un-stick hair.
But since he had never done such a thing in his life, he only said, "You will. I mean … you'll figure it out." He moved closer, but then he plucked the dripping length of paper from the tray instead of touching her. He wished he had something better to say.
She climbed the ladder. "You think?" she asked, looking down at him. Their hands brushed when he handed her the paper. He wanted to smooth back that lock of bright hair, to touch her face. He wanted that serious, almost sad, expression to go away.
"Come on, where's that famous Fred and George optimism?"
She seemed to pull herself together. "Oh, it's still there," she smiled, "it just got buried under some Ginny Weasley impatience."
He watched her smooth the paper on the wall. Only it was – upside down.
"Er – Ginny?" Harry said, wondering how she was going to take this bit of news, especially since he had made her talk about her feelings some more. "That's upside down."
She stilled. He couldn't see her expression, since she was facing the wall.
"Harry?" she asked, still not turning to look at him. "Do you remember our agreement when we started this project?"
He searched his memory, and then smiled as he realized what she was getting at. "Yes, I remember."
"So, is this upside down?" she asked as she started to peel it away from the wall.
"No, dear," he replied dutifully.
The third wall was done. "Time for tea," Harry said.
He returned shortly with two steaming mugs of tea. She took a sip. "It's just how I like it! How did you know?"
"Every morning you put three spoonfuls of sugar in your tea before your eyes are even open. Then you stir it… Let me see…" He thought for a moment, visualizing her at the breakfast table at Hogwarts. "You stir it twice."
"You notice that? Why are you watching me?"
He laughed self-consciously. "I reckon so I don't have to watch Ron shovel in his breakfast, or see Neville spread marmalade on his toast from one corner to the next in a precise layer."
She was looking at him wide-eyed.
He laughed. "I can't help it – I just notice things."
"I reckon so."
They drank their tea sitting on the floor, legs out straight, backs against the last bare wall. They could hear the patter of rain on the windows, and the occasional car driving by.
Ginny interrupted the silence. "So… Dumbledore told you the prophecy?"
He was so startled by this abrupt change of subject that he answered the only way he could. "Yes," he gaped at her, turning slightly. "How did you know?"
"Ron and Hermione figured it out."
"While they were in the hospital wing. We all saw the label and figured it was Dumbledore who knew."
"Did they guess the prophecy too?" he said, annoyed.
"They speculated. But I don't know it they got it right," she said evenly. "Are you going to tell me what it said?"
"I haven't told anybody!" he said angrily. "I… I don't know if I want to tell anybody – even you."
His shoulders slumped. He looked down at the mug in his hands. "Because it would make it real if I said it out loud," he muttered.
She didn't say anything, but he could feel her looking at him. She took the mug from his hands. "I'll just nip these back to the kitchen," she murmured.
He let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes. Did he want to tell her that he was doomed to be a murderer or a victim? What would she say? What could she say? He felt that out-of-control hopelessness well up inside of him, leaving him no room to breathe or run or escape. How could he dump all that on Ginny – someone who was always laughing and full of fun? But she asked, another part of him said. And if he told Ginny, then he wouldn't have to tell Ron and Hermione. She could let them know.…
Who did he want to unburden himself to? Ron? Hermione? Ginny?
Just then she returned with a determinedly cheerful face and a brisk manner. "So shall we get back to it? Almost done!"
He remembered what she had said about her parents not trusting her judgment, and how that hurt. "Wait," he held out his hand. "Come sit down. I… I want to tell you what Dumbledore told me. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have snapped at you."
She knelt in front of him. "I'm not asking out of curiosity, you know. How can I help you, or how can Ron or Hermione, if we don't know what you're up against?"
"I don't think anyone can help me," he said. "But I'll tell you everything. Sit next to me – it may take a while."
She listened to his story, sitting so close to him that their shoulders touched. She looked out into space the entire time, only closing her eyes once – when he got to the murder or be killed part. When he finished, she sat quietly for a moment, and then she took his hand in a warm, sympathetic grip.
"Harry, why does it all have to happen to you?"
He could hear anguish in her voice and anger, too. He squeezed her hand in reply, feeling less alone than he had since that revelation in Dumbledore's office. They sat there, holding hands, each lost in their own thoughts.
He tried to lighten the mood by asking, "So, how close were Ron and Hermione?"
She looked at him. He could see unshed tears in her eyes. But she replied in a normal tone, "Pretty close, but they didn't get that bit about Neville."
She took her free hand and brushed his hair back from his forehead. "Marked you as an equal did he?" Then she said fiercely, "Well, you're not – you're not equal. You're better. I should know, I met him – for a whole school year I had to deal with that evil.…" She broke off.
"That's the thing, I'm not better. No listen," he said as she made noises as if to disagree. "I'm no better – I'm just like him."
"Harry!" she said, shocked, pulling her hands away.
"Do you remember after Sirius died at the Department of Mysteries? And I ran after Bellatrix?" he asked with anguish in his voice. "Do you know what I did?"
She shook her head, wide-eyed.
"I tried the Cruciatus Curse on her. I wanted to hurt her! I wanted her to suffer – suffer as much as I was suffering – more. I want her to feel worse than I did! So, how can you say that I'm better?" he demanded. "I'm worse. At least he doesn't pretend to be a good person." He closed his eyes on angry, remorseful tears. He didn't dare look at her, dreading her reaction.
She was looking at him closely. "You said you tried. Couldn't you do it?"
"No," he answered in a subdued voice. "But that doesn't mean anything. I wanted to. I'll probably be able to the next time I go crazy."
"Next time?" she asked with a hint of amusement in her voice. "Are you going to practice?"
"This isn't funny. Haven't you been listening to anything I've told you?" He ran his hands through his hair in frustration.
"I have, Harry. I know you. You're a powerful wizard. If you had it in you to do that curse, you would have done it. I saw you run after her. I called out to you and you didn't hear me, you were so upset. If you couldn't hurt her when you were in that state, well – you just don't have enough evil inside of you."
He looked at her helplessly, wanting to believe her. "But I never should have thought of it."
"Get a grip –"
But he cut her off. "There's more. After Voldemort and Dumbledore dueled, he possessed me."
He saw her hands clench. "He possessed you?" she whispered. "What happened?"
He told her – about the pain, about how he wanted to die, what Dumbledore said about love.
She put a trembling hand to her forehead. With her other hand she reached out to him. He took her hand in his own as she sat for a few minutes in silence. "My God, Harry, don't you get it?" she asked, finally, in a low voice. "You threw him off – after what you had been through."
"I didn't defeat him," he said in a monotone.
"I don't think that's the point," she replied. "That will come. He couldn't defeat you."
Out of the depths of his despair, he felt himself voicing his deepest worry. "Ginny, what am I going to do?"
She squeezed his hand. "Do? What can you do? You have to keep going – learning, just being you – until… until a course of action becomes clear. There is no 'do,' at least right now."
He let out a deep sigh. Some of his burden lifted. She was right. There wasn't anything he could do right now. "But I just can't forget it. Forget this is out there, waiting for me."
"Yes, you can," she said. "This prophecy has been around since before you were born. So now that you know, what has changed? You just know about it, that's all. Go to school, tile some roofs, play some Quidditch… finish papering this bloody room."
He closed his eyes and let this sink in. "I have to sit here a minute, or I'll have wallpaper stuck to my head."
She giggled. "We've had enough of that."
Harry took a deep breath and relaxed. He was still holding Ginny's hand. It was still raining. There were still three walls papered, with one undone. But something had changed. He felt hopeful for the first time in months, and somehow, he felt strong enough to cope. All because of Ginny.
He opened his eyes and watched her profile. He wanted to tell her how much she had helped him, what it meant to be free from the despair that had overwhelmed him the last five weeks.
She raised her eyebrows in question.
"Are you always right? Or is it just at the end of July you become all-knowing?"
She smiled, picking up his mood. "You should know better than to ask that."
"Yes, dear," he mocked.
And they both laughed as he pulled her to her feet. It was time to go back to work.
They tackled the last wall in silence, until Ginny asked, "So, er… Harry, any other deep, dark secrets I need to know? Overdue library books? Nasty sugar quill habit?"
"Not that I can think of – I'm a simple fellow, really."
She snorted, smoothing her section with the long brush.
"You want to know something funny?"
"Before Voldemort was going to kill me –"
"He was going to kill you?" Ginny gasped.
He waved that aside. "Annual event. Dumbledore saved me. Anyway, he said, 'Potter, you've irked me long enough.' What the hell kind of word is 'irked'?"
She started giggling. "That does seem a bit mild, considering the prophecy. You're supposed to be his worst nightmare!"
"I hope so," he said, cutting the next roll of paper.
"So what are you going to say when you meet again?" she asked. "You've irked me long enough!"
They both laughed a little hysterically.
"No, I think I'll say I'm peeved," he began.
"How about 'irritated'?"
"'Ticked'," she said through her giggles.
"'Miffed' ought to cover it," he concluded.
"I guess we shouldn't be laughing about this," she said when they had run out of synonyms.
"Nah, it's good to laugh. Like whistling in the dark.…" he said.
Soon they were finished. Aunt Petunia's room living was transformed. "Not what I would have picked, but we did a good job," she said.
"What would you have picked?" he asked.
She squinted her eyes in thought. "Something with a little more life than beige on beige swirls."
"Like what? What's your favorite color?"
"Green," Ginny said promptly. "What about you?"
"Me? I dunno." His eyes wandered to her hair. "Red?"
He walked her back to Mrs. Figg's. The rain had stopped, but it was still cool for the end of July. The evening sky was full of sullen gray-yellow light. As always, Ginny was the brightest thing in the landscape.
"Good thing you kept the jumper; it's cool enough for one. I won't say you can have it, since that would ruin your fun."
She laughed and pushed him playfully with her shoulder. "You know me too well."
He stopped her before she turned down the path to Mrs. Figg's. "Dumbledore may not let me visit the Burrow this summer."
"I know," he said. "But it's better this year at the Dursleys' since I'm working. Really," he hastened to reassure her at the doubtful look on her face. "I had a good time today," he continued, "even if we worked."
"But, I want to make it up to you. Take you out." He found his heart was racing. "Ginny, will you go with me on the first Hogsmeade weekend?" And then he quickly added, remembering his disastrous date with Cho, "Just you and me – all day."
"The first Hogsmeade weekend?" she repeated. "You're asking me now to go out with you in October?"
He blushed. "Someone else might ask you first." Then he clapped his hand to his forehead. "I forgot about Dean!"
"What about Dean?"
"On the train. You said to Ron –"
"Harry," she said carefully, "do you believe everything I tell Ron?"
"Does Ron believe everything you tell him?"
"Yes, he does," she said with a slight grin, "one of the many lovable things about Ron."
"Can I believe everything you tell me?"
"Yes," she said, looking at him with an expression he had never seen before. "I could never lie to you."
He looked at her for a moment, trying to decipher the expression on her face. She looked so serious, so intense, like she was trying to tell him something else. Then he asked, "So, will you go with me?"
She smiled. The merry glint was back in her eyes. "Yes."
He let out a relieved sigh and felt the gladness bubble up inside of him. "I wish it could be sooner."
"I do too," she replied, looking up at him with shinning eyes.
Her mouth looked soft. He couldn't tear his eyes away from her lips. He leaned in. She moved closer and tilted her head –
A sharp rapping sound caused them to spring apart and turn toward the house. Mrs. Figg was at the window, motioning for Ginny to come inside.
"Oh!" she said, color in her cheeks. "I should go."
She looked so forlorn that he hastened to say. "Look, I'm sorry I unloaded all my problems on you. Don't think about it, OK? Don't worry about me."
She looked at him in surprise and said in a strong voice, "I'm not going to go home and worry about you. I believe in you."
This went straight to his heart, like an arrow piercing flesh. After everything he had told her… all the faults he had admitted… all the mistakes he had made.…
This time he did reach out for her.
She fit just right against him. He felt her arms around his neck, holding him close, and his eyes filled with tears. He allowed himself to sink into her embrace, to feel the silkiness of her hair against his cheek. All too soon she pulled away, her hands on his chest. "I really do have to go. Happy Birthday, Harry." And then she was gone.
Walking back to Privet Drive, he alternated between congratulating himself on asking Ginny out, and berating himself for not kissing her when he had the chance.
He dreaded returning to the house. It would feel lonelier than ever without her. But when he let himself in, something unexpected occurred. In his mind's eye he could see Ginny everywhere. She had been here in the kitchen, laughing about the eggbeater – in the hall taking off that wet slicker – in the living room telling him off by the hearth. The Dursleys had been completely exorcised. For the first time in fifteen years, Harry felt at home at number four Privet Drive.
When Hedwig returned late that night from gathering Harry's birthday greetings, she did not find Harry in his bed. She swooped down the stairs and found him. He was sleeping peacefully on the sofa, in the newly papered living room, a small smile on his face. Hedwig settled on the ladder nearby, ready to greet him when he awoke in the morning.