Disclaimer: All familiar characters, spells, names and places belong to J.K. Rowling.
A/N: Thank you to my beta, Mistral, and to everyone who read the last chapter!
Ginny gingerly pulled aside a velvet drape and peered out the bay window. The sleeping gardens gleamed with the sheen of frost, and a fat ginger tabby rolled negligently in the grass. It seemed as if the whole world was contained within this one tiny village, that nothing existed beyond the hedgerows and frozen streams, and that life would go on forever here. A perfect, endless façade.
The Rollestons lived in an enormous manor home, sparsely decorated with deceptively simple items. The whole package had probably cost the earth, but the effect was surprisingly tasteful. Either Lord Rolleston, Lady Jane, or a highly recommended interior designer, had done a good job. It felt like a home – an exorbitantly expensive home, yes, but it wasn't a show house.
It still left Ginny cold.
It was the same at every scene. The walls were beige here; in Oxfordshire, Cynthia Caldwell had indulged an unfortunate fetish for puce. The Rolleston Estate patronised Fleur's favourite designer, Alexandra LaVeene; Norma Grey's children had inherited an impressive collection of Muggle paintings. Penelope Graham's faithful Labrador still refused to leave her empty bedroom, while the Rollestons' six cats were yet to notice the couple's absence. Different people, individual lives, separate tastes – and yet, in Ginny's mind and in Ministry files, they were clumped together. Discussed and dissected collectively. These weren't people; they were cases, and it was their similarities that mattered. They had all been wealthy, they all had connections to the Ministry, and they were all dead.
Seamus appeared at her side, uttering a low, impressed whistle. "Seriously nice haul. See that?" He nodded at an uninspiring bronze bust. "That's a Luigi Deinza. Genuine. Not a bad knock-off like the Banbury monstrosity. The stiffs actually had taste."
Ginny shot him a look. "These were people, Seamus."
"Now, now, Gin," he shot back, with sharp-edged cheer. "That sounded almost personal. We aren't people, remember? We're Aurors. Hard-assed professionals. And these weren't mums, or uncles, or friends. These are cases," he emphasized, unconsciously echoing her thoughts. Meeting her troubled eyes, his own gaze softened. "Look, it's their families' right to mourn them now. Our job is to figure out who did this and take them down. That's all we can do. This is what Tonks was talking about – you have to be hard. You don't get upset; you get really, really pissed off. And you fight back." He grinned and mimicked Tonks's husky tones. "It's a damn dirty job, kids. Lesson number one? When the going gets rough, Aurors shouldn't cry."
"They should curse like horny, drunken sailors," Ginny finished, cracking a smile.
Seamus slapped her on the back. "That's the spirit. Now, come on. Let's get this written up. I've got myself a date with a very pretty girl tonight. She likes my 'leprechaun voice'." He intercepted her cringe and laughed. "Who needs brains when you've got legs up to your lips, right?"
She rolled her eyes and pushed past him to join Tonks in the master bedroom. The pink-haired witch was intoning notes into an Ezi-Record quill. The room was very quiet, otherwise, and unusually tidy for a murder scene. Rumpled sheets and a scarlet silk coverlet spilled onto the floor, but there was no blood or fluid. It even smelled clean, Ginny realised, having half-expected the pungent scent of decay and antiseptic.
Tonks deactivated and pocketed her quill, turning to grimace at Ginny. "Roderick's upping the alert on Delltorio. Code Four."
"That's a good thing, isn't it?" said Ginny, carefully. "People might be more cautious." Although she doubted it. "You still don't think it's him, do you?" she asked, watching the hard set of Tonks's mouth.
Tonks closed her eyes and shoved an impatient hand into her hair. "He was seen leaving the Grey household by an Elder of the Wizengamot. There is no reason to suspect use of polyjuice potion, glamour charm or simulacrum," she recited. "Delltorio is already a convicted murderer. He was proclaimed of sane mind but designated likely to re-offend. Targeting high-profile officials is in keeping with his usual method of operation. He likes to be newsworthy."
Ginny nodded; she'd read Roderick's statement more than once, herself. "But you still don't think it's him," she repeated. "Do you?"
Tonks gave a short, humourless laugh. "No. Damn it, I don't. I'm buggered if I know who's behind this, but it's not Delltorio. If he's involved, he's in it for money. He's not the brains. This isn't his style. It's too…neat." She shuddered. "I'm glad you never saw what he was responsible for." Her eyes glazed for a moment; she was lost in a clearly unpleasant memory. Ginny bit her lip, and Tonks came back to herself abruptly. "He liked blood," she said shortly. "This is too clean. Quick Killing Curses every time. No variation. No mess. Delltorio would never use the Avada Kedavra. There's not enough suffering."
"I wish it was him. He shouldn't be out there."
Tonks shook her head. "He may not be involved in any way. It doesn't matter. He's going back to Azkaban. He's going back."
There was something about Tonks's voice. Ginny didn't doubt her for a moment.
Seamus held a photograph up to eye-level and waggled an admonitory finger. "Pretty normal-looking bloke, aren't you?" he said to the smiling image of Lord Rolleston. "Pricy robes, nice comb-over. Who would have thought you'd been such a naughty boy, mate?"
Ginny plucked the picture from his hand and stared at it. A smiling, middle-aged couple beamed back. The Rollestons were standing in their front garden; she recognised the oak tree. Lady Jane was immaculately made-up, her stiff blonde hairstyle barely moving in the breeze. One arm rested in the crook of her husband's elbow, and every so often she inclined a graceful cheek for his affectionate peck.
"You found something?" she asked, still frowning at the photograph.
Was it just her imagination, or was there something rather forced about that intimacy?
Despite his levity, Seamus looked disgusted. "Old Man Rolleston didn't retire from the Ministry. He was asked to step down – and given a Golden Handshake, Merlin almighty! – for accepting bribes from Death Eaters during the war. He single-handedly kept half a dozen of the Dark Lord's finest on the streets. No wonder he could afford that art collection. Bastard."
Ginny held up another file. "A marriage made in hell, then. There're a thousand pages of speculation here that Lady Jane was scraping money from St. Mungo's to fund her gambling habit. Just not enough evidence to prosecute." She frowned. "It fits with the other murders, anyway. What does that bring the count to now? Bribery, gambling habits, infidelity, extortion, perjury, theft and fraud. Not exactly a pack of model citizens, were they? And you're right. They've all looked so damn…normal."
"Who is normal, really?" said Seamus seriously. "It seems to be the case, more often than not, doesn't it? Subject A looks like a mother's worst nightmare; Subject B looks like an angel. And guess which one is more familiar with the Unforgivables?"
She felt a slight apprehension twist her stomach and strove to lighten the atmosphere. "I don't have to watch my back around you, then, yeah?" she teased, wrinkling her nose at him.
Seamus pretended to be insulted, leaning back in his chair and gesturing with a sweeping hand. "With this pretty face? Going by the law of averages, I should be one hell of a dangerous chap." He waggled his eyebrow and deepened the tone of his voice. "And believe me, Ginny-bean, Ican be. Care to test the theory?"
Ginny was unable to hold back her smile. "And get in line behind the leprechaun-tamer? Not today, thanks."
He chewed on his quill thoughtfully. "Excellent point, that. Wouldn't want to cause a riot, would we? Although…"
The door to their workroom was flung open, hitting the wall with a resounding crash. Kingsley Shacklebolt strode in, robes swirling around his legs, and brandished his wand at a cluttered corner desk.
"Accio Johnson file."
A sheaf of papers slipped from a pile and flew neatly into his waiting hand. Turning, he cast them a quick smile.
"Stuck on the paper trail?" he questioned. There was a hint of sympathy, and a load of amusement, in the bass tones.
"I don't remember this," Ginny said, waving her hands at the stacks of reports, "being mentioned during training."
"I reckon," agreed Seamus, bitterly. "Stealth and tracking, my ass. Filing and paper cut protocols, more like."
Kingsley laughed. "Not the glamourous image you had in mind? What were you expecting?"
Ginny chewed on her lower lip. "Hexing people," she said, honestly. "I thought there'd be more of that. And, you know. Running, hiding, yelling. Saving lives."
"It's tough luck for you kids," Kingsley commiserated. "Juniors used to see a lot more action. But Robards has final say. Don't worry; you'll be collecting battle scars before you know it."
"We've got a few of those already," Ginny responded quietly, and the tall man nodded.
"I know. If it means anything, I think you'd handle yourselves better than some of our team in the field now." He glanced at his watch and winced. "Sod it. Late. Oh – Finnegan. Weasley asked me to pass on the message that he'll be late for Diagon Alley tonight. We're taking a little side trip to Wales this afternoon. Bit of trouble brewing in Cardiff."
"Dangerous?" Seamus asked, a little wistfully.
Kingsley's eyes twinkled. "Very."
"Nice for some," Ginny muttered, reaching for a new inkpot.
"You're working with Tonks, yeah?" he said, grinning. "Don't worry; if you're after tight situations and plenty of curses, she's your woman. And the latest load of babies just came stumbling out of training. Robards is reviewing Juniors at the moment; I'd be very surprised if he doesn't give Tonks permission to use you more."
"A change of scenery would be nice," Seamus said gloomily, thumping his folder on Lord Rolleston against the edge of the desk. "A protection gig. Theft of magical artifacts. Even a bar brawl. Anything but more paperwork on the 'O'Clock Killings'."
"It may be frustrating, kiddo," Kingsley said with feeling, "but the Delltorio case is likely to remain top priority until we get a break. The Ministry doesn't like big names turning up as corpses. Tarnishes the image."
Ginny gave him a hard look. "You're certain it's Delltorio?"
He hesitated before shaking his head. "Actually, no. I have my doubts. I imagine that everyone does. People like to believe that crime is impersonal, but I don't think that's true. Murderers leave calling cards; their personalities are always reflected in the killing."
"So, Roderick is pushing this shite theory because…?" Seamus asked testily.
"Because if the Press is given reason to scrap that angle, we stand to look like worthless sods," Kingsley stated bluntly. "Look, whoever's doing this is slow and methodical. He waits months before striking. This is planned. That alone clears Delltorio of blame, in my opinion. If ever there was a cocky bugger… Cocky criminals get caught. Eventually, they get ahead of themselves, and they slip up. Whoever this bloke is, he's prepared to be careful. And that's why we're having such a damn of a time catching up. At the moment, the media fervour dies down between murders. As far as the Daily Prophet is concerned, Delltorio is a wily bastard who's leading the Ministry on a bloody dance. That's bad enough; if they realize that, after two years, we don't even know who we're looking for - stand back and watch the mud fly. Our jobs won't be worth shit to the public."
There was a brief silence, eventually broken by Seamus's annoyed grunt.
"And Ma thought my old job was a waste of time."
Ginny reached for the tomato sauce and carefully drowned her plate of fish and chips.
"Do you want some food with that sauce?" Harry asked, quirking an eyebrow at her and dumping a handful of chips on his own plate.
"I like tomatoes," she defended herself, spearing a piece of fish and waving it for emphasis.
"Yeah. Me, too." He grinned and touched her hair with salty fingers.
"At least you didn't call it carrots."
"No. I remember what you did to the last person."
They were sitting on the floor of their flat, with a mountain of takeaway and two bottles of butterbeer between them. They did have a dining table, although Ginny didn't think they'd used it since Harry's twenty-first birthday party. Seamus had gotten spectacularly drunk and danced starkers on it, and there weren't enough scouring spells in the world. With the hours they worked, too, it was often easier to grab something quick on the way home and just crash out on the hearth rug. Besides, they were both bloody awful at cooking.
"You go out to the Rollestons' today?" Harry asked after awhile, pushing his glasses up his nose and looking across at her.
Ginny swallowed on a bite and nodded. "Yeah. Tonks is sure it's not Delltorio."
"Well, I reckon she'd know." He shoved his plate aside. "I don't remember much of his case the first time around. It was our first year of training, wasn't it? Ron's and mine? I've only heard bits of it through Remus and Harlow, but it sounds… different."
"Bloody," she said, grimly.
They both listened to the wind howl outside.
"Lord Rolleston was shagging his personal secretary," Ginny told him finally.
Harry turned to look at her. "Really?"
"And Lady Jane was shagging everyone. Including Lord Rolleston's personal secretary."
A few hailstones bounced off the windowpane.
Ginny sighed and flopped down on the rug, wiggling her hips to find a comfortable spot.
Harry watched her movements with great interest. "Neville and I went back to the Coopers' place," he said, sounding distracted and attempting to pull his gaze toward her face. "Interviewed the neighbour. Again. According to Roderick, if people are left to turn things over in their minds, they often recall forgotten details."
"And did he?"
"He now thinks that he might have seen a man matching Delltorio's description," said Harry dryly. "Complete with murderous scowl and smoking wand. I noticed that he subscribes to the Prophet. Shocking, that."
"Yeah, well, 'Escaped Mastermind on Brutal Rampage' and 'Bloody Hopeless Ministry' make for pretty eye-catching titles," Ginny said, closing her eyes. "At least it's giving you a reprieve."
"You obviously missed today's effort." Harry's voice was sharp. "In huge letters: 'The-Boy-Who-Lived-To-Lose-His-Touch.' S'pose they think they're being clever."
Ginny pushed up on one elbow and glared at him. "Those sodding tossers! Why can't they leave you alone? You lived up to your part of the bargain. Voldemort's gone. Dust. Merpeople food. And if that's not bloody enough for them…"
A slight smile replaced the bitter curve of Harry's mouth as he listened to her rant.
She broke off after a few choice words and gazed at him warily. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
He shrugged. "Dunno. Guess I must love you."
Ginny pursed her lips and considered that. "You think?"
Harry nodded seriously. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure."
"Oh, good," she said, releasing an exaggerated breath. "That'll make it much more appropriate when I tear your shirt off."
They had been inching steadily closer throughout the teasing exchange, and Ginny could feel the warmth of Harry's breath fanning her cheek. His green eyes were bright behind the round lenses, the pupils full and black. A sudden wave of love, and lust, and laughter rocked her insides, and she threw both arms around his neck, pressing her lips to his. The momentum of her body toppled their balance, and they hit the floor together in a tangle of hands and mouths. Ginny barely noticed the dull impact; all her senses were focused on the kiss and the searching slide of Harry's fingertips at her spine. He pushed against her, and they rolled. Ginny arched her hips into his, and a strangled sound worked its way up his throat. His body was heavy on hers, cradled between her legs, and his breath came in frantic puffs.
The loud cough from the fireplace was like an instant vacuum, sucking any remnants of desire from the room. Horror and mortification took its place.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, dears, but really, it is only seven-thirty, you know." Mrs. Weasley, her head hovering in the green flames of the fire, sounded more disapproving of the early hour than anything else.
Ginny squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that her mother would take the hint and disappear. Harry was frozen against her, his face the most ghastly hue of grey she'd ever seen. And his hands were still thrust up inside her top.
They realised the fact simultaneously, and Harry reacted as if he'd been prodded with a hot poker charm. Rocketing off her sprawled form – his elbow almost catching her nose in the process – he jerked to a sitting position and stared resolutely away from both Weasley women.
"Er – Mrs. Weasley," he croaked weakly and was apparently unable to elaborate on that.
Ginny sat up more slowly and scowled to cover her embarrassment. Her mother stared steadily back, one brow slightly raised. For a moment, it appeared as if she'd aged considerably at the shock of finding her daughter pre-shag, but closer inspection revealed that the white streaks in her disheveled hair were flour, and the 'wrinkles' were just smears of oven grease.
"I hope that isn't what it looks like," her mum said suddenly, eyes narrowing on the floor before them.
An odd strangled squeak came from Harry's direction, and Ginny prepared herself for what was likely to be a particularly humiliating lecture.
"Fish and chips for tea again? So unhealthy." Her mother's voice was fretful. "I do worry about you all living alone. It wouldn't hurt you to make a nice roast now and then, Ginny."
Ginny blinked. Er…
"We work long hours, Mum," she offered lamely. "We don't have time to cook."
And I can't do it for shite, anyway…
"Nonsense," was the brisk reply. "That's what slow-cooking casseroles are for. Do you think I had time to spend hours in the kitchen with the seven of you running me ragged?"
Ginny just shook her head, and Harry looked utterly stupefied. He could be incredibly unhelpful in situations like these.
"Did you want something, Mum?" she asked crossly. Her first reaction of horror was fading, and frustrated desire never went with good temper.
"Don't you take that tone with me, young lady," her mother said, "Or we'll discuss what else the two of you were indulging in this evening."
"Oh, don't be silly, Ginny. I understand that young people must have relations. Your father and I did make seven babies, you know."
Harry gulped audibly, and Ginny gazed desperately at a point just above the mantel. "Did you want something, Mum?" she repeated, trying to sound politely interested, rather than nauseous.
"Yes, I just wanted to make sure that you'll both be here for Christmas dinner." The words invited no argument.
"It's still November!"
"These things take time to plan, Ginny. Which you would know if you'd learned those household spells as I suggested…"
"Yes, alright, Mum! We'll be there. If we're not working."
"Oh, I've spoken to Tonks about that already. She's not to roster you on for Christmas. She and Remus are both invited as well, of course."
"You've…" Ginny pressed her lips together mutinously. Merlin, no wonder she was still on baby duty at work.
"Bill's coming home this year, with Fleur and the children. And Charlie's going to do his best. He's terribly busy, poor boy. And I've already checked with the twins, and with Ron and Hermione."
"Did you interrupt their…fish and chips, too?" Ginny asked sarcastically.
"No," her mother replied calmly. "Ron wasn't home, and Hermione was eating at the table." Like a civilized person, was the unspoken implication.
Ginny rolled her eyes but held back a frosty retort, because Percy's name had been conspicuously absent from that family list, and she could feel the tugs of grief pulling at her stomach again.
Harry reached out and laid a palm on her back, gently rubbing. She leaned into the comfort.
Her mum's face had softened. "Well, good," she said, eyes suspiciously wet. "I'll leave you both to your pudding, then."
She'd vanished before Ginny could decide whether or not that had been an intentional double entendre.
Harry cleared his throat; his cheeks were still a fiery red. "Are you okay?" he asked, looking worried, despite his obvious mortification.
She took a deep breath and let it out through her mouth. "Yeah," she muttered. "I'm fine. It's just… Christmas is rough in a way, isn't it?"
Harry's face was shadowed, and he nodded jerkily.
Ginny squeezed his hand and found a genuine – albeit rueful – smile. "Well, that was embarrassing."
"Bloody hell, yes." Harry passed a hand over his eyes before sneaking a glance at her. "You reckon there's any chance we'll give it another try?"
She had to laugh. Men.
"Tonight? No. Until I Obliviate the memory of my mother commenting on her rampant sex life? No."
"How does she know when we're doing…that?" he asked, sounding mystified. "I seriously think she has some kind of internal radar."
Ginny shrugged. "Well, either that, or it's the shagging alarm on the family clock… Merlin, Harry, I'm kidding!" she hurried on, giggling as his cough ended in a choking wheeze. Then, she paused and considered. "At least – I hope I am."
Harry just shook his head, looking a bit sick, and she tugged on his arm.
"Come on, let's get this cleaned up, and you can help me with my new shield charms before we go to bed."