Disclaimer: Harry and Ginny are JKR's. These are my hopes for them.
A/N: While I don't think anything like this will happen in canon, especially with the compressed time-line, I do think H/G will happen, and that it will be important to the series as a whole. I have a WIP which takes Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione from the events of this story through their sixth year. Coming soon!
The morning sky was the kind of impossible blue that only appeared after a week of rain. A good omen, thought Harry as he stood on platform nine and three quarters, flanked by Ron and Hermione.
He scanned the crowd for Ginny; he knew she had arrived, since he had placed his trunk next to hers in the compartment
The first day of school had always been a time of anticipation and excitement, but never had he felt it as keenly as he did today. Looking at the forceful scarlet of the train, feeling the vibrations from the thrum of the engine under his feet, he felt again the power of Hogwarts, the power of knowledge. It was all there for him to learn, and in fifteen minutes he would be on his way.
As he half-listened to Ron and Hermione amicably bicker about the wards around the Grangers' house, Harry took the chance to observe them, something he hadn't been able to do for two months.
Ron was still Ron – impossibly tall and gangly – but there were differences. He no longer held himself awkwardly, but with a new confidence that was almost graceful. Right now he was looking down his long nose from his considerable height at Hermione. Harry could tell how Ron was going to conduct himself as Prefect this year; he had mastered the pose of quiet authority. Somehow, Harry knew that eventually it wouldn't be a pose. Then he was struck by how odd it was to see the Ron of the future so clearly in the here and now.
Hermione was undaunted by either the height or the attitude. She was making her point as she always did: in clear cogent statements with a hint of passion. She was still throwing herself into everything she did – from knitting hats for the elves to debating an obscure element of setting a Charm.
They had been so good about the prophecy – just the right amount of sympathy and practicality. Telling Ginny first had been the right decision; it had been easier for all of them to have the emotion diffused before seeing each other.
Hermione suddenly broke off her explanation to look at her watch. "Ron, we should go. They want us in the Prefects' compartment in five minutes."
"Right. Harry, you coming?"
"No, I'll stay here and wait for Ginny."
Hermione stopped short and turned to face him. "You're waiting for Ginny?" she asked with narrowed eyes.
"Yeah, we said we'd sit together on the train," Harry answered, enjoying watching the wheels turn behind Hermione's eyes. It was so much better than watching her trying to solve some foul problem they usually had to deal with.
"Oh," she said, nonplused. "I knew you saw her over the summer, but you never said –" she rounded on Ron. "Did you know about this?"
Ron looked mildly startled, but he only grinned and answered, "There isn't much to know, from what I can tell."
"Well, there must be if he's waiting for her," Hermione retorted impatiently.
"Um – I'm still here and I can hear you."
"Sorry, Harry. I was just surprised –"
"Look, Hermione," Ron cut in. "No one's keeping a deep dark secret from you. From what I know, Ginny turned up at Harry's house on his birthday when the rest of us couldn't go. Apparently she helped him wallpaper. For that she was grounded for two weeks. Then she ran into Harry when they were both at Diagon Alley shopping for school things. That's all I know. Except now 'wallpapering' in our house is the byword for something illicit. Right up there with 'scarlet woman'."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Is that it Harry? What Ron said?"
"Pretty much, yeah." Harry had to smile to himself, since he knew Hermione was not going to let this go.
Ron seemed to sense this as well. "Ok – let's ask him." He caught Harry's eye, as if asking permission.
"Have you kissed her?"
"Do you want to?"
"Do you realize that this is the most I ever want to hear about any of this?"
While Hermione threw up her hands, Harry laughed at Ron's expression. Somehow he managed to look both disgusted and pleased at the same time.
Then Hermione laughed too. "Ok, Harry. I'll talk to you again without this one listening in. He has delicate sensibilities."
"Hey! I think it would be pretty weird for a bloke to be that interested in his sister's love life." Ron's quiet, calm pose had slipped a bit.
"I suppose," Hermione conceded as she tugged at his arm. "Come on, we have to go now."
He watched them go, enjoying the sight of seeing the two of them together, with the cloudless blue sky above them.
Harry saw most of his classmates as well. Neville Longbottom was pushing a trolley heaped with his trunk and a very large cage containing a huge plant, which he guessed was the squirting Mimbulas Mimbletonia from last year.
Luna Lovegood drifted over with the latest copy of The Quibbler. ("We didn't find the Crumple-Horned Snorkack, but we found a water-skiing budgie.")
Seamus and Dean passed with a friendly wave. Harry was very grateful not to have to hex Dean.
At last he saw her. She was with a group of fifth years, laughing and chattering as usual. He suddenly felt awkward. Did he approach a group of people he didn't know and interrupt? Was he supposed to wait for her to come to him? There didn't seem to be any clear answer.
He saw Ginny's eyes scan past her friends and he knew the minute she saw him, since her face lit up and she smiled right at him. Feeling as if he had downed an entire Butterbeer in one go, he smiled back.
Ginny detached herself from the group and hurried over. "Hi! We almost missed the train because Jeannie's cat got loose in the station and we had to hunt him down. Of course, it ran into the men's loo and none of us could go in there. So we had to ask for help."
"I'm sure you had no problem getting help," he said, not being able to imagine any male from seven to seventy being able to resist those eyes. He wished he could have been the hero.
"No, actually, we didn't." Ginny smiled mischievously. "A very nice Muggle boy rounded up Mr. Boots for us. He got scratched for his efforts, though."
"Small price to pay," he murmured feeling a little distracted by how close she was standing to him. Today she was wearing her hair in a tight braid tied with a blue band, which matched the blue of her blouse.
"Where is everyone?"
"On the train. Lupin and Tonks already left. I think your mum did too."
Only an elderly lady in lavender robes was on the platform. They had just turned to board the train, when Ginny called out, "Harry – catch her!" She pointed to the lady, who looked as if she was going to faint.
He leapt to her side, catching her as her knees buckled. Harry was alarmed at how fragile the woman felt, as if her bones were hollow, like a bird's.
"Lay her flat," Ginny advised, "get the blood to her head."
Within seconds the woman began to stir. Harry shifted to shade her face from the glaring sun. He was glad to see the dark eyes flutter open. While her face looked terribly wrinkled and ancient, her eyes were lively and lucid.
"Mum!" A middle-age witch in gray came hurrying over. "I knew you shouldn't have come today."
"Oh, Harriet, don't fuss," said the lady. "Too much sun, that's all. These youngsters kept me from hurting myself on the way down."
"Can you sit up?" the daughter asked anxiously. "Do you think you can Apparate? We could take the Floo –"
"I've been Apparating for over one hundred years," she said testily, "I think I can do it after a little faint."
"We'll take it slow."
Harry lent a hand as the elderly lady struggled to her feet.
"Thank you, young man."
"Yes, thank you," added the daughter. With a small 'pop' they both Disapparated. They were gone –
– And so was the Hogwarts Express. It wasn't entirely gone, but it was slowly pulling out of the station.
Ginny's very unlady-like reaction was drowned out by the departing whistle.
They both started running, Harry quickly taking the lead, which he didn't notice since all of his attention was focused on the open door of the last car. He was an arm's length from reaching it, when he realized Ginny was not with him.
He stopped immediately, and turned to see Ginny struggling to keep up. He ran back to her, knowing that they had both missed the train, and that they were in big trouble.
Neither of them spoke as they waited to catch their breath.
"You know, for a nice girl, you certainly can swear with the best of them."
"Don't tease!" she flared.
Harry was shocked to see tears in her eyes.
"Ok," he said quietly. He felt a stab of annoyance. He was just trying to put their situation into perspective. It was an honest accident. Unless…
We didn't find out for months that it was Dobby who wouldn't allow us on the platform, Harry remembered. I wonder if that old lady was some sort of a set up? He looked around at the empty platform. They were the only two people left. Suddenly he felt quite uneasy.
What to do? They had no money, no owl, and no access to the Floo network. What did a wizard do during such an emergency? Then Harry remembered. He drew his wand and summoned the Knight Bus.
With a bang, the purple Knight Bus appeared. It was tipped with two wheels on the platform and two wheels on the track.
Stan Shunpike popped out and began his speech: "Welcome to the Knight Bus –" but broke off when he recognized Harry.
"Cor – it's 'arry Potter!"
"Yeah. Look Stan, we missed the train. We don't have any money, but we could pay once we get to Hogwarts."
"Sure thing." Stan smiled proudly. "Dumbledore told me what to do if you was ever stranded again: 'Go to the nearest safe place,' he said. Hop in."
They found squishy chintz armchairs close to the front, and were immediately thrown back as the bus leaped forward.
No sooner had they started, than they stopped. Harry looked out the window. They appeared to still be in London. They must be stopping for another passenger.
"This is it, 'arry!" Stan yelled, "your safe place!"
"Gotta schedule to keep."
Then the side of the bus opened and they were thrown on to a patch of hardscrabble grass.
They heard a cheerful, "no charge!" before the bus was gone with a bang.
Ginny scrambled to her feet, but Harry remained on the ground staring across the street. The safe place Stan had brought them to was number twelve Grimmauld Place.
"Harry?" The sun was at his back and Ginny was squinting to see him.
"I can't go in there," he said flatly.
Ginny turned and gasped as she realized where they were. "What are we going to do?" she asked, her eyes moving nervously from him to the door of number twelve.
Harry felt the numbing effect of intense pain. He knew he had to go in there and face whatever Sirius's house had to say to him, but he wasn't ready…
"Let's go." His voice didn't sound like his own. It was drained of all color. It sounded as cold as he felt.
Ginny held her hand down for him to grab while getting up. It felt warm in his. He did not let go as they approached the entrance.
He heard Ginny speaking to him as if from a great distance. Only her hand felt real.
He looked at her.
"Kreacher's gone. He left the same day Sirius died. They think he went to the Malfoy's."
He felt the numbness dissolve. Anger was bubbling to the surface. He welcomed it: anger was what he was used to, anger he could handle. It warmed him, gave him the energy to go forward.
"Good! They deserve each other!"
Something in her voice caught his attention. He was surprised to see the flushed and angry expression on her face. This comforted him immensely; she was feeling the same thing he was. He was not alone.
He took a deep breath to get his feelings under control. He tapped the door with his wand.
His first impression of the entrance hall was of being underground. It was dark and the air was heavy, damp, and chill, as if it too had been locked away all summer. Once his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he noticed that the portrait of Mrs. Black was missing.
Ginny spoke at his shoulder. "She went silent after Sirius died. And the Sticking Charm didn't work after that, so they took her down."
The elf heads had been removed as well. The silence was as different as the atmosphere. Somehow, the anger, the turmoil, the dark life, which had bedeviled the Black family, which had bedeviled this very dwelling, was gone…
They descended into the kitchen. It was painfully neat. Not one dish or paper was on the table. The chairs were lined up in precise order, as if no one had sat in them for two months.
"I don't think they use this house for the Order much anymore. They're not too sure what secrets of the house Kreacher took with him."
He nodded. Ignoring the matches on the mantel, he drew his wand and produced a fire in the grate, half-hoping the Ministry would be alerted to their whereabouts.
Ginny rummaged around looking for Floo powder. She looked in the dresser, the pantry, in the cupboard by the sink.
Harry looked in the vase on the mantel. "Found it." Unfortunately, there were only a few grains of powder left. He threw those on the fire, hoping they would suffice.
He looked around, thinking. Since the house had been stripped of most of its contents, it didn't seem possible there would be any communication devices left behind, like mirrors or –
"I know. The portrait of Phineas Nigellas that was in the room I shared with Ron. He has a portrait in Dumbledore's office too."
"Great. Wait. We should put out that fire." With a flick of her wrist, the fire went out. She bent closer to the grate.
"What are you doing?"
"Checking for Ashwinders. There's something about an empty house they like."
They both stared at the pile of gray and white ashes. Nothing stirred.
"Should be ok," Ginny said.
As they walked up the stairs, he thought about the ashes cold in the grate. They seemed to reflect everything about this tomb of a house. There wasn't even the anger of the Black family to stir it to life. What was it all for? Is this all life was? You live, and then you die – with nothing but ashes to show for it?
He could feel the cold darkness threaten, as if Dementors were surrounding him. He followed Ginny upstairs, feeling a little better seeing her vivid hair lighting up the corridor.
Luckily, Phineas's portrait was still on the wall, although his chair was empty. They called and called, but no one appeared.
"Reckon we'll have to wait."
Ginny sat on the edge of Ron's bed by the window. Harry sat on his, lost in thought, trying to push the icy despair away.
"You've left too, haven't you?"
Ginny's question cut through his thoughts. She was sitting with her arms crossed in front of her. Her hair looked untidy, with strands coming lose from her braid. They caught the light streaming in from behind her.
He had been so absorbed, that he wasn't quite sure what she had asked. "Pardon?"
Instead of answering him, she threw herself on the bed, face first.
Startled, he moved toward her.
"Ginny, what's wrong? Are you ill?"
He couldn't see her face, just her braid, which was coming undone.
"No," came the muffled reply.
Harry stood there awkwardly. He couldn't sit on the bed without shoving her over, so he sat on the floor with this back to the portrait. He leaned an elbow on the bed, but didn't he dare touch her.
"Ginny – please – what's going on?"
She rolled over to face him. She looked pale except for two patches of red on her cheeks.
"I'm just so angry with you," she said in a low, intense voice. "I don't know whether to shout the house down, or hex you, or… "
She took a deep breath. "I can't bear that closed look on your face."
He didn't know what to do – and he wanted to do something, anything, so badly.
"I'm sorry. I –"
Ginny made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a scream, and turned toward the window.
She looked so far away.
"I-I didn't mean to shut you out. I think it's partly out of habit and partly the Occlumency I'm supposed to do. Snape said I'm not supposed to have any emotions, and –"
She turned around in one movement, and said sharply, "Snape said you're not to have any emotion? That's rubbish! How are you supposed to do that and stay human?"
"I don't know," Harry said uncomfortably, because Ginny was now glaring at him. "He said I couldn't wear my heart on my sleeve or Voldemort could access my mind with ease." Then he blurted, "I don't know how I'm supposed to be half the time."
"I reckon you don't," Ginny said softly. Her eyes were glistening. "I'm just as angry at myself as I am with you. I can't expect you to be any different."
"Don't say that! Why shouldn't you expect me to be different? I wanted you to tell me things. Why shouldn't you expect the same from me?" He felt a rising sense of panic. "Please – Ginny – don't give up on me. I'm trying, I really am."
"Oh, Harry." She rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling. "I have a terrible temper. And sometimes I think it is easier to be angry than to be frightened."
"When you get like that – that closed look – I don't know how to cope – how to help."
She was still staring at the ceiling. He wished she'd look at him.
"It's been a very stressful day – and this house …" She rolled over on to her side, facing him. "I'm sorry, too."
He took a deep breath. He felt as if he had run up a mountain and then back down, only to be in the same place. He wearily put his head down on his arms.
They were quiet together for a few minutes until Ginny finally asked, "Harry, what were you thinking about when we first came in here? Were you angry with Kreacher?"
"No, I wasn't angry at all. Angry is easy." He smiled ruefully. "I was thinking about Sirius, about what a horrible life he had – and why he had to die when he did. He didn't have very much happiness. And all I could think of was – what's life all about?"
Ginny was listening with quiet intensity, her hands folded under her cheek. "That's quite a question."
"I look at Sirius's life and it seems so bleak and…"
"Do you think Sirius thought it was bleak?"
"Sometimes, yeah. I think this house really got to him."
"We spent the whole summer with Sirius and he told us a bit about his life. Well, he had to, what with that picture screeching every other minute. He escaped from it, you know – that's why he was so close to your dad."
"Yeah, but he ended up in prison."
"But you got him out. The idea of you in danger gave him the strength and will to escape."
"What was the point? He just ended up on the run and then back here."
"He had a chance to get to know you."
"I don't think that quite balances it out."
"Wouldn't you do the same thing? Say if there was a Ron-look-alike with Hermione's eyes who was in danger – wouldn't you risk it all for that kid?"
"Of course. I can see why he chose what he chose – but why did his life have to be so awful?"
"Do you want to know what we talked about one night after Ron and I came back from Hogwarts?"
"Tell me. Where were you?"
"We were out in the garden after supper: Mum, Dad, Bill, Fred and George, Ron and I. We started talking about Sirius."
Harry could imagine them all outside under the stars, their voices floating through the warm air. He put his head down on his arms and closed his eyes. His glasses were cutting in to the side of his face, so he took them off. Ginny's voice was low and soothing.
"Fred asked the same thing you did. And Mum talked about how much Sirius loved you, and how happy that made him. But Fred didn't like that answer. He had the same objection you did."
"So, Bill spoke up. He said, 'how about it was his destiny to die?'"
Harry looked up. "You mean like this prophecy rubbish?" Ginny's face was inches from his own.
"That's what I thought he meant at first – you have the most beautiful eyes – close them or I won't be able to talk to you properly."
"I can't do anything about them, either. Is that destiny too?"
He felt Ginny's hand smooth his hair back from his forehead. "I don't know what you call it."
He relaxed, feeling comforted by her touch, but he still was not entirely sure about her words.
Ginny continued in the same low voice, "Bill said that everyone's destiny is death."
"Oh, that's a cheery thought."
Ginny laughed softly. "I suppose if you hang around tombs as much as Bill does, you get a different perspective."
"Well, that's not exactly news, you know."
"No – but Bill seems to think that if you see your whole life that way, then you start understanding your choices."
"What do you mean?"
"Take Sirius, he hated what his family stood for. He left home. That was a choice. He could have stayed and tried to be conventional, fit in, please his mum. But he couldn't. The whole Secret-Keeper thing, he could have left it the way it was, but he was bold, unconventional. When you look back, all his choices had a pattern."
"But why was his life so miserable? Was that his destiny?"
"But he fought it all the time – the misery. He didn't stay with his family; he didn't go crazy at Azkaban. He wasn't afraid to die as long as he was fighting."
"Hagrid tried to tell me that." He opened his eyes. "I wasn't ready to hear it."
"Harry, you don't know about every minute of Sirius's life. You can't say it wasn't worth living because of the difficult bits."
"Yeah," he replied, because it was true – he really didn't know everything there was to know about Sirius, much to his own regret. But he still didn't understand how choices affected your destiny.
"But there are so many things that happen that don't have anything to do with choice. Like what color my eyes are."
"Maybe not your choice," Ginny said as she shifted on the bed, propping her head on one hand, "but your parents chose each other, chose to have you."
"I'm not really sure how that all worked out." Then he told her what he had seen in Snape's Pensieve.
"That's what you wanted to talk about to Sirius that time?"
"Yeah." He had forgotten Ginny's role in all of that.
"What did he say?"
"He said that they were arrogant berks and that my mum didn't start dating my dad until their seventh year when he had 'deflated' his head a bit."
"Well, there you go."
"I don't know," Harry said uneasily, "you should have seen her. She was really angry."
"Angry doesn't equal hate. I wasn't too nice to you a few minutes ago. It wasn't because I hated you – I was just frustrated."
He sighed, still not convinced.
"Didn't you say your mum had been watching your dad with the Snitch?"
"Well, that was before he started hexing Snape. Sounds like she was interested in what he was doing the whole time, not just when he did something wrong."
"It still doesn't mean she liked him."
"Maybe not like – but interested – definitely."
"You really think so?" Harry had never considered that angle.
"What if Ron's look-alike with Hermione's eyes popped into your memories of them? There were times it was hard to tell they were friends."
"Don't let Hermione hear you talk about look-alikes – or Ron either."
"Who would lose their mind first?" she asked with a smile.
"Hermione," they said together.
"You know, it's funny," he said, looking up into her face, "I watched them today, waiting for the train, and it was strange – but I could imagine what both of them are going to be like in the future. I don't know, I never usually think like that."
"It's that first day of school feeling," she said. "Like you know your life is going to change because suddenly the future is right now – you're one year ahead of where you were, just like that."
"Yeah – maybe that's why I always liked the first day of school. I remember my first day at Hogwarts. I didn't know how to get on the platform, and your mum told me how."
"And you ran after the train." Harry smiled a little, remembering.
She collapsed onto her back. "I was hoping you'd forget that."
"No one wants to remember all the silly things they did when they were ten."
"That wasn't silly – it was – I don't know – you."
Ginny groaned at the ceiling. "Don't remind me. Are you thirsty?"
"Of course." She sat up and ruffled his hair. "I'll go see what I can find in the kitchen."
"Do you want me to go with you?" he asked, putting his glasses back on.
"No, that's all right. It would be our luck if Phineas showed up while we were gone."
Harry got slowly to his feet. He felt stiff from sitting for so long.
He roamed around the room, trying to find something to look at, but the walls were as blank as the portrait. Looking out the window, he noticed that the sun appeared to be directly overhead. He remembered being on the roof and knowing lunchtime was near as he watched his shadow get smaller and smaller, fading to nothingness.
Even this gray and rubbish strewn street was suffused with light for a few moments at noontime. Sirius had looked out at this view when he was a child, and then again when he was an adult. Maybe that was what kept Sirius going – those few moments when the shadows fell away, and there were glimpses of hope.
He thought he heard Ginny on the stairs.
"Ginny?" he called.
She answered from a distant corner of the house. "Coming."
A few minutes later, she came in carrying two glasses of water. "It's all I could find. Well, besides some bottles of wine. There isn't a crumb in that kitchen."
Harry could just imagine Professor McGonagall's face if they turned up at Hogwarts late and smelling like Mundungus Fletcher.
"Best stick with water."
"Cheers." They clinked their glasses together. Then he noticed the Ginny's eyes; they were red-rimmed as if she had been scrubbing away tears.
"Ginny? Were you? Are you ok? You look –"
She went to sit on the edge of Ron's bed, avoiding his eyes. He took her glass away and sat down next to her.
"You look like you've been crying."
She gave a brief laugh. "Me? I just had a moment, that's all."
"A moment about what?"
"I went to the kitchen and it hit me all over again that Sirius was gone. He always liked to sit in there. He didn't use the other rooms too much."
Harry took her hand, wishing he knew what to say.
"Then I felt sad for you, and then I felt sad for me too."
"Yeah, I miss him too." She glanced at him and took a deep breath. "I think I fancied him a bit."
"You did?" he asked softly. "Really?"
She looked down. "You must think I'm silly."
"No – I –" Harry was overwhelmed… that she was so loving… that she loved the same person he loved… "That makes me feel – happy – for Sirius."
He thought about how much Sirius must have liked to look up and see those bright brown eyes looking upon him without judgment, wanting nothing in return…
"That he got to know you – know that about you."
"Know what about me?" Ginny asked ruefully. "That I'm a silly, weak-minded girl?"
"No, he got to know –" Harry swallowed a lump in his throat. "He got to know how sweet you are."
"You know what sweet means now?" Her eyes looked enormous.
He reached out with his free hand and smoothed a lock of hair away from her face. "It's something you've always been to me – even though I didn't realize it."
"What I have I always been to you?" she whispered. He was so close to her, he could feel her breath on his face.
She had always been something warm, and bright, and good – something he couldn't express – something he was just discovering.
"You've always been Ginny to me," he murmured, kissing her for the first time. "Sweet Ginny."
Her eyes were stars as she caressed the side of his face.
He kissed her again.
Then he was lost… in the yielding of her mouth… in the softness of her embrace.
All of his imaginings hadn't prepared him for the beauty of her bright hair spread on the pillow, or the wonder of feeling her in his arms.
She was smooth skin, delicate bones, and soft sighs.
He didn't think he could ever be cold again, as her warmth poured through his whole body, filling his mind and heart.
Like light with no shadows, she surrounded him.
From far away, as if from another land and time, he heard a voice. It was a silky sarcastic voice, and for one horrible minute he thought it was Snape's. The doorway was empty, but the portrait was occupied: by a frowning Phineas Nigellas.
"Why is it –" he hissed, "that Gryffindors, when they're not tearing around showing off their courage, they're engaging in unfortunate dalliances? All that misplaced passion."
Harry groped around for his glasses, feeling at a distinct disadvantage. One glance at Ginny straightening her clothes, her hair in wild disarray, made him want to turn the portrait to the wall and go back to doing what he had been doing.
"Mr. Potter – now that you have surfaced – explain yourself."
Nettled by his tone, Harry answered tersely, "We missed the train. The Knight Bus brought us here. We've been waiting for you to return to your portrait."
"So glad you could keep busy."
He did not want to talk about any of this. "Would you please let Professor Dumbledore know we're stranded here and that we need a way to get to Hogwarts?"
"Not until we've had a little talk."
He groaned inwardly – just what he needed.
"The portraits have been talking all summer about you, Mr. Potter, after that little scene in Dumbledore's office. They've been so worried. But I see you've recovered nicely."
Harry didn't say anything – he could tell from the former Headmaster's tone that he was working into quite the tirade.
"Not only do I find you compromising a fellow student in the middle of the day – but using your dead godfather's house to do such a thing. I knew you had a tenuous grip on your emotions, but I never dreamed your morality would be called into question."
"My morals! Compromise! What are you going on about?"
From behind, he could feel Ginny lean over his shoulder and mutter in his ear, "Don't argue with portraits – you'll never win."
He had a fleeting memory of Ron's spattergroit discussion at St. Mungo's.
Phineas did not like Harry answering back. "The cheek! Potter, you are clearly in the wrong here! In my day, two young people caught in an empty house would have brought ruin and disgrace on them both – especially the girl. Not only were you in a bedroom, you were in a bed together."
"We were just kissing!" Harry said, bewildered.
"Your lips weren't the only thing moving," he said snidely.
"Look – I'm not discussing this with you. What happened here is between Ginny and me – and no one else."
This sent Phineas into new heights of rage. "In my day we would be reading the banns and you would be hiding from your prospective father-in-law, since you didn't ask his permission in the first place!"
"Permission!" Harry sputtered. "I had her permission."
Phineas sat back in his chair in utter disbelief. After a moment's silence he said in a quieter voice, "I'm glad I'm not Headmaster today with these students who have had no proper upbringing. Potter, do you like this girl?"
"Her name is Ginny Weasley and I do like her – very much."
"Weasley? Ah yes, her father was injured last year." Phineas continued, "If you like her why would you put her in such an awkward position?"
"What are you talking about?"
"What man would offer her marriage after finding out what she had done here today?"
Harry turned to Ginny. He really hoped he hadn't stumbled on to some important part of the wizarding world he was ignorant of. What if this hurt Ginny in some way?
Ginny, however, was rolling her eyes in derision.
Why was everything always so difficult? he thought. Why did every good thing in his life come with a price? Then he remembered about fighting for treasure. Phineas wasn't exactly a dragon, but he was putting up a good resistance.
"Any man would count himself lucky to marry Ginny Weasley when she's out of school and of age. We've done nothing wrong, and I refuse to be ashamed."
Phineas stared at him for a moment. "Ah, Potter – a spirited defense. A word to the wise. If you have a certain itch, you scratch it with a certain kind. Leave the marriageable ones alone."
"You call that moral?"
Phineas examined his fingernails. "Oh, morals – I wanted to see what you would say. Gryffindors are so obsessed with what's wrong and what's right. I guessed you would respond to that. No, I'll tell you my real problem with all this, Potter. You don't have time to waste on love and romance – especially at your age, and with what you must do in the next few years."
"She knows about the Prophecy," Harry said dully.
"Potter," he said in a much kinder voice, "you must put this away from you. A relationship, especially a silly teenage romance, would just get in the way."
Harry thought about wanting to die just two short months ago. He thought about anger and depression: how Sirius battled it, how he was fighting it as well. Life went by so fast; if he waited until every complication was settled in his life, then he would risk losing his happiness. She was his joy, and he wasn't going to let her go.
He still had a choice about how to live – between now and death – just like Sirius did, just like his parents did. He had always had a choice – and he was choosing to be happy, in spite of it all.
"It's not a silly romance. And why should it get in the way? Maybe it is the way."
"I suppose you think this is different from any other lust-filled relationship that will collapse under its own weight?"
He didn't know how it was different; on the surface they probably appeared to be just like all the couples at Madam Puddifoot's, but he knew it was – somehow.
"Oh, why do I bother talking to students about their feelings? I should know better." He opened a book entitled, Bloodlines of Magic: A Wizarding Geneology. "Potter, Potter. Ah yes. Well, I didn't realize."
He gave Harry a sharp glance. "You're sitting on quite a pile of gold, Mr. Potter. You can have your choice. No need for an arranged marriage."
He flipped the pages, murmuring, "Weasley – yes, pureblood. And absolutely no dowry – not a Sickle to your name." He looked at Ginny. "Well, I must say, good work my dear. I commend you. For someone only moderately attractive to have insured such a secure future – very Slytherin of you."
Harry could feel Ginny shifting angrily on the bed behind him. "Don't argue with a portrait," he said out of the side of his mouth.
"Well, all I can say is that you are both fortunate that your feelings coincide with more practical matters," Phineas said closing the book as if that settled the matter. "I'll find Dumbledore now. He's not in his office, so it may be a while."
He left his portrait as abruptly as he had arrived.
Harry turned to Ginny, who was looking as stunned as he felt. "How weird was that?"
"Beyond weird – although I can imagine McGonagall if she had caught us."
"We might have gotten a lecture, but I don't think she would have married us off like this nutter."
She moved closer, and put her arms around his neck. "I'm just glad to know you like me 'very much.' It was an interesting conversation."
"And I'm glad that you've been exposed for the gold digger you are."
"Absolutely – your jumper collection is mine, all mine."
He laughed and kissed her, marveling that he could do that now.
A few minutes later, Ginny untangled herself from him and said regretfully, "If we're doing that when Phineas gets back, we'll get another lecture about Gryffindor hormones. I'd best comb my hair before anyone else shows up."
"He said he'd be a while."
Ginny ignored his hopeful look and started rummaging around in the wardrobe for a comb. "Found one." She started working the snarls out.
"Let me," Harry said impulsively, "I'm the one who messed it up."
He moved back so she could sit between his legs. He ran the comb down the length of her hair until he hit a tangle. He gently began to work the knot loose.
"Am I hurting you?"
"No – it's just no one's ever combed my hair except for Mum."
"Yeah, Mum always loved to braid my hair and to stick bows in it. You know, decorate me."
"I can see why."
"She braided it this morning. I asked her to."
"You two made up?"
"Yeah, she was so happy I asked her. It made me feel ashamed for how hard I had been toward her."
"Ginny, you're not a hard person."
"Not usually. But sometimes I think I am right before school starts. It's kind of like I'm putting the distance between us before it really happens. Kind of stupid, isn't it?"
"What, like you won't miss her so much?"
She shifted uncomfortably. "I suppose – and Dad too, and the Burrow. It's an awful feeling to be homesick."
It had never occurred to him that anyone could be homesick at Hogwarts. But the Burrow was a wonderful place.
"Done," he said as he smoothed the silky lengths with his hands.
"Do you want to braid it?"
"I don't know how."
"Oh, give it a go. If it looks terrible I can take it out."
As he wove one section over another, he thought about all the silent ways people showed their love: Molly Weasley taking delight in Ginny's hair; buying him green things to match his eyes; Hermione with her homework planners. It made him wonder what he could do for Ginny.
He fished around the bed for the blue band, and fastened it at the end of the braid.
"How does it look?"
"Um, like a rope that's starting to ravel."
Ginny laughed. "I'll just put it in a ponytail."
"I'll have to practice."
"I can just imagine Ron's face if he saw you trying to braid my hair," she said as she started to undo the braid.
"What Ron doesn't know won't hurt him."
"Harry, do you think –
"What?" he asked the back of her head.
"Do you think Ron and Hermione are going to mind?"
"Mind what? Look, I can't talk to you like this. Sit next to me or –"
Ginny climbed into his lap.
"Er… right – sit on me."
She giggled. "What were you saying?"
"Was I talking? Bit stupid of me when I could be doing this," he said, starting to kiss her.
Ginny eventually picked up the strand of conversation. "Do you think Ron and Hermione are going to mind me being underfoot?"
It took him a few seconds to shift back to talking. "Underfoot?" Then Harry remembered Ron telling Ginny 'go away' when they were talking about Sirius.
"You won't be underfoot – believe me. You have completely different classes and it's your O.W.L. year. I'll be lucky to see you at all."
"Oh, the boy next door, I never thought of that," she said, giving him a quick hug.
"It will be fine. They'll just be glad I'm happy."
"When it's just the two of us, it's so easy. But going back to school will have its own problems," she said, absently smoothing his collar.
"Are you worried about getting in trouble once we get back?"
"Oh, I don't know – maybe a little – but none of it was really our fault."
"You just seemed so upset we missed the train. I thought maybe you were scared."
"No, just angry with myself."
"Why on earth would you be angry with yourself?" he asked, moving back to peer into her face. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"I didn't keep up. I couldn't keep up. And I hate that feeling."
"Ginny, your legs aren't as long as mine. So what – we didn't make it –"
"And then you had to turn around and rescue me," she said bitterly.
"Is that what you thought I was doing? Some noble gesture? Well, it wasn't noble at all. It was a choice. I wasn't going anywhere without you"
"I didn't want you to be forced to make a choice," she said, looking at him earnestly.
"Isn't that what destiny is, making your choices? Besides," he smiled down at her. "I do my best decision-making on the run."
She looked at him skeptically.
"Haven't you figured it out yet?" he asked, pulling her closer. "How else could a moderately attractive girl get such a catch?"
"So you're a catch now?" she asked, tucking her head under his chin.
"Phineas's book says so."
"And I'm only moderately attractive?"
"I can't believe you have to ask that question," he said running her ponytail through his hand.
He groaned. "I'm rubbish at compliments – it will sound stupid and insincere."
"Oh, come on. Let's hear a compliment."
"Ok." He took a deep breath and said the first thing that came to mind. "Whenever I look at you I feel better – even when I'm in a wretched place like this house."
She looked at him with soft eyes. "You were supposed to make a joke."
"I know – I can't joke about my feelings for you."
She embraced him tenderly, holding him close for a long time. Finally she said into the crook of his neck, "What do you say when you have your heart's desire?"
He kissed the top of her head. "Lucky you?"
She gazed up at him, her head cradled on his shoulder, "That's right, lucky me."
"Lucky me," he repeated.
"You're sitting up now – that's an improvement," Phineas Nigellas said from his frame. "Although, I don't know which persona is more odious – Harry Potter as misunderstood youth, or as ardent lover."
Harry looked over Ginny's shoulder. "What did Professor Dumbledore say?"
"He said the book of matches on the mantel in the kitchen is a Portkey to Hogwarts."
I should have known, he thought, matches didn't belong in a wizard's house.
"Best get going, Potter."
As they were walking to the kitchen, Harry said, "You know, I looked up 'sweet' in the dictionary. It said 'tasting of sugar' and 'smelling pleasant.'"
"Don't you think that applies?"
"Ok, let's see," he said and then kissed her. "Well, what do you know?"
"So much so I think that I should call you 'sweetheart' or maybe 'sweetums,'" Ginny said thoughtfully.
Harry stopped short. Horrified, all he could think of was Aunt Petunia calling Dudley 'sweetums' in that treacly voice. "Ginny, you can't do that! Ron would be off his food for a week! I have a perfectly good na –"
She was laughing so hard she could hardly gasp out, "Oh, this is brilliant. Better than the Bat Bogey Hex. And there's no counter-curse!"
At her words he caught his breath, suddenly realizing that there were two forces with no counter-curse. Death he knew about… but love?
As he watched her standing there in Sirius's gloomy kitchen, her laughter filling the room, he knew the truth – he felt the truth. Love was just as powerful – maybe even more so.
She stopped laughing. "Harry?"
His heart full, he could only pull her close. "I just realized something."
He caressed her cheek. "So there's no counter-curse?"
"Right," she whispered.
"Then I reckon it's 'yes, dear' –" He kissed her. "– and 'no, dear' from now on."
"From now on," she murmured before tenderly kissing him back.
Then she smiled impishly into his eyes. "Sweetie."