Ginny winced as the attic door opened with a sharp creak. She knew Harry had probably heard it, which would mean he would have his defenses up well before she reached the top of the stairs. To her surprise, he was seated sideways on the top step with his back braced against the wall. His head was thrown back, and Ginny could see sweat trickling off his brow into his eyes, which were closed. He didn't bother to open them when he spoke to her.
"I'm fine, really," he called out, a note of exasperation evident in his voice. "Go on back downstairs."
"I didn't ask how you were," Ginny replied calmly and began climbing the steps. She refused to let Harry's prickliness intimidate her. He'd been working in the attic for two hours without a break. She was going to make certain he took one.
Harry finally opened his eyes and looked her way. "Look, I said I wanted to do this alone," he began, but then he noticed the basket she was carrying. "What's that?"
"Picnic basket," Ginny replied nonchalantly. She reached the step below Harry and took a seat facing him, then began rummaging around in the basket.
"I can see that it's a picnic basket, Ginny," Harry snapped. "I meant, what's in it?"
Ginny ignored his question and withdrew a thermos from the basket, along with two cups. "Do you know you get quite shirty when you haven't eaten anything in a while, Harry?" she asked pointedly, as she unscrewed the top from the thermos. She glanced over at him and saw that the irritation had left his face, replaced by chagrin. "How do you take your pumpkin juice?" she asked in a softer tone.
"Sweetened, not stirred. And with a dash of cinnamon, if you have it," Harry said hopefully.
Ginny smiled, handed Harry one of the cups and filled it nearly to the brim. The cup frosted over immediately, as the thermos was charmed to hold the contents at a temperature just above freezing. When Harry would have lifted the cup to his mouth, she stopped him. With a smug grin, she reached into the basket again, drew out a small tin of cinnamon and shook it lightly over the icy beverage. Harry gulped the juice down in several swallows and held the cup out for Ginny to refill, which she did gladly before filling her own.
Instead of draining the cup of its contents a second time, Harry held it to his face instead, sliding it across his forehead and resting it against one cheek. He leaned back and closed his eyes again, relaxing against the wall. "Ah, relief from the heat," he sighed. "It's hot enough to cook a Hippogriff up here."
"Better not let Buckbeak hear you say that," Ginny said in wry voice.
Harry smiled at first, but then his eyes darkened with pain.
"Oh, damn, Harry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to remind you...." Ginny broke off, blushing in a combination of anger and embarrassment at her thoughtlessness.
"No, it's all right. Where is Buckbeak, anyway?"
"Charlie took him to Romania. He thought Buckbeak might be a great help training the dragons, being able to fly and all. They tend to swat at anyone on a broomstick."
"Yes, I remember well," Harry replied dryly. He looked over at Ginny and gave her a wan smile. "I'm glad he's with Charlie. I think Sirius would have been glad, too."
Ginny nearly dropped her cup in astonishment. Harry had been at Number 12 Grimmauld Place for nearly two weeks, and this was the first time she had heard him mention his godfather's name. Fortunately, she managed to maintain her composure and instead busied herself with the picnic basket again, silently offering Harry a sandwich wrapped in a napkin.
"I suddenly realized I'm bloody starving," Harry remarked as he accepted and began unwrapping the sandwich.
Ginny watched as he took an enormous bite, gratified when his eyes lit up with pleasure.
"Mmmf," Harry moaned with his mouth full. He swallowed the first bite nearly whole. "Mutton, lettuce and tomato. My favorite. Did you make this?"
"Is it any good?" Ginny asked impishly
Harry had bitten off another chunk and couldn't answer with his mouth full, so he nodded vigorously instead. Ginny smiled.
"Then yes, of course I made it," she replied smartly, ridiculously pleased that he was enjoying the simple meal.
Harry laughed. "What would you have said if I had told you they were terrible?"
"Blamed it on Hermione," Ginny replied matter-of-factly.
Ginny's nerves tingled with satisfaction as Harry chuckled again, but she said nothing, concentrating instead on her own sandwich. Harry finished his own in three more bites. When he looked toward the basket hopefully, Ginny reached in and pulled out another sandwich and a small dish containing a generous portion of treacle tart. Harry devoured them both in the time it took Ginny to finish her own sandwich, and he heaved a great sigh when he was done.
"Feel better?" Ginny asked.
"Much," Harry admitted. "Thanks, Ginny. And I'm sorry I snapped earlier. I didn't mean to."
"I know," Ginny assured him. "It's all right. And you're welcome."
"So, where is everyone?" Harry asked.
"Mum's in the kitchen. There's a meeting tonight; she wants to make certain there's plenty of food. Dad's at work, and Ron and Hermione aren't back yet from visiting Fred and George. Why didn't you go with them?"
Harry shrugged. "Didn't feel like it. I wanted to get this done. Why didn't you?"
"I thought you might need some help," Ginny replied. "From the looks of things, I was right."
Ginny looked past Harry and surveyed the contents of the attic bleakly. The room was dark, it smelled bad, and she thought she could hear faint scuttling noises in the corners. There were boxes and furniture stacked haphazardly, piled almost to the ceiling in some places. Ginny observed that Harry had begun clearing a path through the middle.
"You haven't made much progress," she commented.
Harry's gaze followed hers.
"I've managed to shift a few boxes, stun a couple of doxies, and get completely filthy. All in all, I would say I've accomplished exactly squat," Harry replied, nodding sagely.
When he stood and walked deeper into the attic, Ginny followed him, pausing here and there to read the labels of boxes that were coated in thick layers of dust. She nearly bumped into Harry when he stopped at the end of the path he had created.
"Why don't you go on back downstairs, Ginny? I'll finish up here. This is no place for...." Harry trailed off, but Ginny wasn't going to let him off the hook.
"For a girl? For somebody my age?" she finished irately. As he opened his mouth to speak, she waved away the apology she was certain he was going to offer. "Forget it, Harry. With six older brothers, I'm used to it. I'll just take the basket back to the kitchen. Give a shout if something tries to eat you. Maybe someone will hear you."
Fuming, Ginny turned and walked back to the stairs as calmly as possible, where she began gathering the dishes back into the basket. Then, rather than lug the bulky basket back down the stairs, she drew her wand and banished it to the kitchen. When she turned to take one last look at Harry before leaving, she jumped in surprise to find him directly behind her.
"Aren't you worried about the underage magic laws?" he asked, appearing puzzled.
"Not here," Ginny answered, shaking her head. "This place is unplottable; any magic performed here doesn't register on any of the Ministry's detectors. Didn't anyone tell you?"
"No. I've been moving boxes by hand up here," Harry explained, irritation creeping into his voice.
"That would explain the lack of progress. See you later, Harry," Ginny said flatly and began walking down the steps.
"Ginny, wait. I didn't mean it the way you thought," Harry protested.
Ginny paused on the second step down and turned back to Harry. "Then what did you mean?" she asked.
"What I meant was that this is no place for human beings. I think you're crazy not to go back downstairs. But if you want to stay, I can use the help. Please," he added.
"Fine," Ginny relented. "Let's get started, then." She brushed past Harry and returned to the spot where they'd stood earlier. As she took stock of the situation, Ginny thought Merlin himself would shy away from the task at hand, but she began barking orders anyway.
"We'll get more done if we each take one side of the room. You start there, and I'll start here and work towards the back." She turned and saw Harry watching her with an odd expression on his face.
"What?" she asked defensively.
They began sorting boxes into piles: one for harmless trash that could be incinerated, one for potentially dark or dangerous magical objects, and one pile for items that might be functional again, after a bit of scrubbing. Ginny began opening boxes and was mystified to find several that were full of unopened bottles labeled "Mrs. Skower's Magical Mess Remover."
"No wonder this house is filthy. Someone hid all the cleaner," she muttered to herself.
Ginny set aside the boxes within easy reach, certain they would come in handy later. As she worked her way to the back of the attic she lost track of time, but reckoned she and Harry had been working an hour or more when she discovered a large, antique wardrobe. It was at least seven feet tall, with double doors carved in the same serpent motif found on many other pieces of furniture throughout the house. Judging by the thick coat of dust, it had stood abandoned in the attic for many years. Ginny knew she wouldn't be able to move it alone, but she could at least have a look inside and take stock of the contents.
Ginny grasped the brass handle of one of the doors and pulled, but the door didn't budge, even when she tugged harder. She finally resorted to tugging on both doors simultaneously with all her might before they gave with the harsh groan of wood against wood. The sudden lack of resistance sent her sprawling across the floor. A faint breeze passed over her as she settled into a heap, coughing.
"Bugger," she swore quietly, hoping Harry hadn't heard her fall. The last thing she wanted was for him to find her arse-over-end; she'd never live down the humiliation. Grimacing at the layers of grime that now clung to her clothing and skin, Ginny stood and dusted herself off. She heard a faint rustle nearby and looked up to find Harry watching her.
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Hope you had a good laugh. Are you finished already?" she asked.
Harry said nothing but began moving towards her slowly. He seemed pale, and his eyes were dull. Ginny's scalp began prickling in alarm.
"Harry? What's the matter? Did you find something?" she asked.
Still silent, Harry held out his left hand to her, palm up. Ginny reached her own hand out to take his, thinking perhaps he wanted to show her something across the room, but she saw something then that chilled her to the core.
The inside of Harry's forearm was tattooed with a black skull and a serpent coming out of its mouth. Despair and panic gripped Ginny, but she tried to reason with herself. It was a joke, obviously; she would have noticed before now if Harry had the Dark Mark on his arm. She raised her eyes to his, hoping he would crack a smile and laugh at his tremendous prank.
But Harry's eyes were cold and hollow, and the terrible grin that split his face held no humor. He almost looked like...Tom. Every nerve in Ginny's body was screaming for her to run, but Harry was between her and the stairs. She began backing away slowly, but she had only taken a few steps before she collided with the wardrobe behind her. She had nowhere to go, and Harry was still moving towards her. With shaking hands, Ginny drew her wand and aimed it at him.
"Stay away, Harry!" she commanded with false bravado. She slashed her wand in midair and shouted, "Stupefy!"
A burst of light shot from her wand and enveloped Harry, but he continued to walk towards Ginny, unaffected. He seemed to take perverse pleasure in creeping as slowly as possible in the face of her terror. Ginny had gone completely numb. She couldn't think, couldn't speak, couldn't move. Her wand quivered in her hand, useless, and she was ashamed by the tears that sprang to her eyes.
"Why?"she finally managed in a choked voice. "Harry, why?"
Harry remained silent as he closed the last bit of distance between them. He was breathing harshly, and the hand he reached up to caress Ginny's cheek was ice cold. She turned her face away, shuddering in revulsion. When she pushed against Harry's chest, bitter cold seemed to seep through her skin into her bones.
The hand that was stroking her face reached for her left arm, closing over her wrist in an iron grip when she tried to wrest it away. Harry brought her arm up and twisted it painfully until her forearm was facing upwards. In his right hand, Harry brandished his own wand, pointing it at her exposed arm.
"Morsmordre!" he intoned in a deep, resonating voice, and touched the wand to her skin.
Ginny's began screaming. If her veins had before been ice, now they were molten with an excruciating fire. She ceased her struggles and went limp, helpless against the pain.
"Ginny!" a voice called.
Ginny looked over Harry's shoulder to see Harry rushing towards her. But that was impossible, because Harry was still standing before her, clutching her arm with that terrible grin....
"GINNY, THAT ISN'T ME!" the other Harry bellowed.
The Harry that was holding Ginny by the arm turned towards the newcomer, a look of confusion crossing his face. He dropped Ginny's arm, but she hadn't yet recovered from the awful fire that had threatened to consume her a moment ago. Helplessly she watched as the impostor drifted ominously towards Harry.
"WHO ARE YOU?" Harry shouted to the impostor. "TELL ME!"
Harry was backing away now, brandishing his wand at the intruder.
"Stupefy!" he shouted, just as Ginny had earlier. The spell seemed to bounce harmlessly off of the impostor, the same as before.
Then, to Ginny's great shock, the impostor doubled over, twisting and rolling, as if he was turning himself inside out. As it grew larger and darker, Ginny backed again into the wardrobe behind her, and something clicked inside her head.
The creature that was now floating over Harry no longer bore resemblance to anything remotely human. Its clothing hung in tattered black rags, and its head was concealed within a deep hood. The hands that protruded from the sleeves of its garments were grey and rotted. As Ginny watched, Harry fell backwards over several boxes in his haste to back away from the Dementor. Ginny, her earlier terror forgotten, dashed around the foul thing to stand in front of Harry.
"GINNY, NO!" Harry shouted.
But Ginny paid him no mind. With renewed confidence, she wielded her wand and shouted "RIDDIKULUS!"
The Dementor halted its advance immediately and began to morph again, finally taking the shape of a scarecrow clad in a frilly pink ball gown, and a jaunty yellow bonnet. As the scarecrow looked down at its new attire in dismay, Ginny began laughing heartily. Helplessly, the creature began to waltz with an imaginary partner before it finally poofed out of existence. Ginny sagged against the nearest stack of boxes and heaved a sigh of relief.
"Ginny?" Harry had risen from the floor and now stood in front of her, concern and confusion etched upon his face. "Are you all right?"
Ginny didn't trust herself to speak as a wave of dizziness swept over her. Instead, she simply nodded, hoping that would be enough and that Harry would go back to the other side of the room and give her a minute to collect herself. He didn't. Instead, he pulled her by the arm and led her to the top of the steps to have a seat, where she ducked her head between her knees until the dizziness passed. Neither of them uttered a word for several long minutes. Finally, Ginny was calm enough to speak without a quaver in her voice.
"I'm sorry. I should have known from the start it was a Boggart."
Harry was staring at her wide-eyed. "I had the Dark Mark on my arm," he said in a low voice.
Ginny nodded miserably.
"Is that what you really think of me?" he asked hoarsely.
"No, Harry you don't understand. Tom said..." Ginny began, but Harry cut her off impatiently.
"You've heard the prophecy, haven't you? Who told you?" he demanded angrily, his voice rising a notch.
"The prophecy?" Ginny repeated, confused. "No, Harry, listen to me! It was something Tom said in the Chamber of Secrets."
"I'm listening," Harry said darkly.
Ginny felt a familiar sense of nausea rising as she thought back to the Chamber, but she struggled to contain it. Harry needed to understand.
"Before I fell unconscious, he said it seemed a waste to kill you. He said he thought he might convince you to join him instead, and that you were so much like him, you might jump at the chance," Ginny finished sickly. "But I knew you wouldn't."
"Maybe I'm more like him than you thought, Ginny."
"No, Harry, you're nothing like him," Ginny insisted.
Harry laughed bitterly. "I'll have to be, to defeat him."
"Harry, what are you talking about?" Ginny asked, utterly bewildered now.
"Nothing," he snapped. "I have to go." He rose from the steps to leave, but Ginny jumped to her feet as well and stood in his way.
"No, Harry, I won't forget it. Please, tell me what's bothering you." When he refused to answer, she pressed further. "Harry, this is eating you up inside. If you won't tell me, you have to tell someone."
"The prophecy said that either I have to kill Voldemort, or he'll kill me," Harry snapped
He proceeded to recite the entire prophecy verbatim to Ginny, as she sat transfixed.
"'One must die by the hand of the other...'" she mused aloud when he had finished.
"Right. Either I die, or I become a murderer. And if I do, then what's the difference between him and me?"
"A world of difference, Harry. Voldemort is the murderer, not you. And if you defeat him..."
"It will be justice, nothing more, nothing less."
"Revenge," Harry countered.
"Ginny, I can't. I can't do it."
"Yes, you can. You have to, Harry. If that prophecy is true, you're our only hope. If you don't defeat Voldemort, no one will. You're..."
"I'm the bloody Boy Who Lived, right?" Harry snarled angrily. "I'm bloody sick and tired of hearing how bloody important I am. Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, that's all I ever hear from them. Now you, too," he finished bitterly.
"But Harry..." Ginny protested.
"It had nothing to do with me! That was my mum's magic, not mine! It wasn't me that defeated Voldemort, it was her!"
Ginny folded her arms against her chest mutinously and looked Harry square in the eyes.
"Really? Then what about last year, at the Ministry of Magic, Harry?"
"That was Dumbledore," he retorted.
Ginny took a step closer and glared up at him fiercely, her voice a notch lower than usual.
"Dumbledore didn't drive Voldemort out of you Harry. You did that. And what about the year before, during the Third Task? Dumbledore wasn't with you then."
Ginny's face was pale now as she faced him down, ready to deliver the last punch. "And what about the Chamber, Harry? What about the night you saved my life?" Ginny demanded.
"I HAD HELP THEN, TOO!"he shouted angrily. "FAWKES AND GODRIC GRYFFINDOR'S SWORD!" He broke off abruptly, apparently struggling for control. "I was stupid enough to let Tom Riddle get my wand," he continued, his voice cracking. "You nearly died because of me! Sirius died because of me!"
"No, Harry," Ginny said sadly, shaking her head. "You're wrong."
Ginny walked up next to him and reached out her hand, but at the slightest contact of her skin upon his, her jerked away as if she had burned him.
"Don't touch me," he hissed.
Ginny's hand dropped back to her side, betraying her shock and hurt. A look of shame crossed Harry's face. His mouth opened as if to say something, but then he turned and walked deeper into the shadows of the attic. Ginny stayed frozen in one spot, torn between leaving with her dignity intact, or trying to reach Harry, somehow. As usual, concern for Harry won over her pride. She followed him into the shadows and found him sitting on a trunk in the corner with his face buried in his hands. Ginny was wondering if he had heard her approach when he spoke.
"Please, Ginny, just go away," he pleaded softly.
Ginny sighed heavily and knelt in front of him, sitting back on her heels. "I won't just go away, Harry. I can't. I owe you more than that," she explained patiently.
Harry shook his head vehemently. "You don't owe me anything."
"Yes, I do," she insisted. "Nothing you say or do can change the fact that I owe you my life, and a life debt is not something to be taken lightly."
"So, what, you're here to repay me?" Harry asked in a choked voice.
"No, Harry. I'm here because I love you."
When the words slipped out on their own volition, Ginny didn't give Harry a chance to react. She rose up on her knees and slipped her arms around his waist in a fierce hug. He stiffened in her embrace at first, but then closed his arms around her so tightly she could barely breathe. She held him without protest, amazed that he hadn't pushed her away.
She almost missed it when he muttered softly, "No one has ever told me that."
"What, that they love you?" Ginny asked.
Harry nodded. Ginny's eyes began to sting, but she wasn't surprised by the revelation. She repeated to herself for what had to be the thousandth time that if she ever got just five minutes alone with those horrible Muggle relatives of his, she'd probably wind up in Azkaban prison for the rest of her life for using an Unforgivable Curse. She surreptitiously wiped the moisture from her eyes before it spilled over, then leaned back on her heels to look Harry in the eye.
"It doesn't matter to us that you're the Boy Who Lived. What matters is that you're Harry, our friend. I owe you my life for what you did in the Chamber of Secrets." Ginny paused and took a deep breath before continuing.
"But I love you for being you. So do Ron and Hermione, and Mum and Dad. And I know Gred and Forge love you-they should, after all, you gave them a thousand Galleons!"
Ginny and Harry both laughed softly before she continued.
"In our eyes, you've been a bona fide Weasley for years. Mum would adopt you, if she could."
Harry cleared his throat. "I-I don't know what to say," he croaked.
"You don't have to say anything, Harry. I just thought you should know."
Ginny looked up at Harry and studied the face she had observed so closely ever since she was eleven. He was blushing faintly, but the expression on his face was worth sacrificing a bit of her dignity. Before she could reconsider, she leaned forward and brushed her lips gently against his in a kiss she intended to be interpreted as friendly, nothing more. She nearly fell over in shock when Harry slipped his arms around her back and cradled her close enough to feel his heart hammering in his chest. Ginny's hands traveled up and rested upon Harry's shoulders as he captured her lips firmly with his. Then, as suddenly as the kiss had begun, it ended. Harry broke away and let his arms fall away from her body, leaving Ginny feeling oddly empty.
"I'm sorry," Harry muttered, looking down at the floor. "I didn't mean to do that. I shouldn't have."
Disappointment crashed through Ginny, but she maintained enough of her dignity to respond gracefully.
"Don't worry about it, Harry. What's a kiss between friends?" she said breezily. "Let's just see if we can finish up the attic before supper, shall we?"
Harry nodded and rose from the trunk, offering a hand to help Ginny up from the floor. She dusted herself off as she stood, glancing down to avoid Harry's eyes. Despite her heartache, she nearly giggled when her eyes alit upon the oddly shaped print Harry had left in the dust on the trunk lid. Then she took a closer look. When Harry started to pull away, she gripped his hand tightly.
"Harry," she began in a low voice, pointing to the lid. "Look."
The trunk lid was engraved with the initials S.B.
Harry's hand clenched painfully in hers. He made no move to open the trunk, but simply stared, his face filled with disbelief, fear, and hope.
"Harry? Aren't you going to open it?"
Harry shook his head. "I can't"
"Do you want me to?"
Harry nodded. Ginny disentangled her hand from his and knelt down to the trunk. She popped the latches open with no trouble, but there was no key for the center lock. Undaunted, Ginny withdrew her wand and aimed it at the lock.
"Alohomora!" she said firmly.
The lock didn't budge.
Harry's face fell, and the despondency Ginny saw there made her heart ache even more. But then Harry got a faint gleam in his eyes. Ginny was mystified when he knelt down and addressed the trunk.
"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," he said with a straight face.
"What?" Ginny asked, thinking Harry had gone off his rocker.
Then she heard a distinct click and realized the phrase must have been a password. Hope bloomed in Harry's face once more, and he shut his eyes.
"I can't look. Open it, Ginny. Please."
Ginny slipped her fingers under the edge of the lid. The hinges groaned loudly, protesting the motion after so many years of disuse, but she finally managed to coax them open.
"Oh, Harry," she gasped as the contents were revealed to her.
Ginny pulled out a slim object and placed it in Harry's hands. His eyes remained closed, and he sat frozen for a long moment, as if he didn't dare to believe. Finally, he looked to see what she had given him.
The book was covered in worn, black leather, with the initials S.B. stamped in gold on the spine, along with the numbers 1968-1969. The trunk was filled with additional volumes, ranging in date through 1981, then beginning again in 1993. The last date was 1996.
"He loved you too, Harry," Ginny said quietly.
Harry nodded, clutching the book in his hands so hard his knuckles went white. Ginny felt her presence was no longer necessary, so she rose to leave.
"Don't stay too long Harry. Mum will have supper ready soon."
Harry nodded again. Ginny suspected he hadn't noticed her departure. She climbed down the stairs alone, her emotions a tumult of joy and sorrow. Before she opened the door, however, Harry called to her from above.
She halted on the stairs. Something in Harry's voice made it impossible for her to turn around to look at him.
"Before, when you said...what you said, did you mean...only as part of the family, as a brother?"
Ginny took a deep breath before answering softly, "No, Harry."
The stairs creaked, and Harry spoke again, this time closer.
"Then, as just a friend?"
Ginny felt knots forming in her stomach, but she couldn't lie to Harry. Too many people had lied to him, or omitted parts of the truth. He deserved better.
Harry's footsteps sounded again, and he joined her on the final step in front of the door. She stood stock still as he gently lifted a lock of her hair and smoothed it between his fingers. Ginny swallowed hard and waited for him to speak again.
"Then, how?" he asked, so softly that he was almost whispering.
Ginny turned her face up towards Harry's; in his eyes was a mixture of wonder and confusion.
"I can't explain it, Harry. I just do."
"You probably shouldn't," he warned.
"You might as well tell me I shouldn't breathe," Ginny replied.
Harry had no response. They stood facing each other in silence for a long moment until Harry finally asked, "What happens now?"
"What do you want to happen, Harry?"
"I...I don't know. I'm not really ready for..."
Harry broke off, stumbling over the words. Ginny came to his rescue.
"I know, Harry. I didn't expect you would be. And that's all right," she explained, smiling gently, though with a hint of sadness. Harry's next words lifted her spirits once more.
"I think," he began slowly, "I'd like it if you stayed. We can read them together."
Ginny's breath caught, but she managed to respond in an almost normal voice. "I'd like that too, Harry."
Harry led her back to trunk, where they sat together, backs braced against the wall, hands entwined. Ginny pulled the first volume from the stack of books, and Harry's hand tightened in hers as she opened it and they began to read.