Harry awoke the next morning to the sound of shrieking – terrified shrieking to be precise. He threw his covers off, grabbed his wand and blearily pointed it in the direction of the noise. It was seconds before his eyes were focused enough to see that the screaming blur was his aunt, and that both Ron and Hermione were already pointing their wands at her.
“Aunt Petunia,” Harry said as his heart rate began to decrease. “Aunt Petunia, it’s all right. They’re my friends. They’ve come to stay with me until I leave.”
But she either did not hear him, or the sight of a half-clothed Ron and a nightgown-clad Hermione, both pointing their wands at her, had sent her into hysterics. Uncle Vernon and Dudley were now in the doorway, staring into the room with wide-eyed horror.
“What is the meaning of this?” Uncle Vernon bellowed, pushing aside his wife and entering the room with a beefy finger already pointed ominously at Harry. “How dare you bring more of your kind into my house?”
Harry located his glasses and put them on. He did not budge when his uncle’s finger found Harry’s bare chest and began to jab as the older man continued to rant. It had been the same ever since Harry’d been a toddler.
“They’re with me,” Harry repeated when Uncle Vernon finally ran out of steam. Ron and Hermione looked warily at Harry’s relatives. “They’re staying here until I leave.”
“No, they’re bloody well not!” Vernon yelled hotly. “I’ll not be supporting a bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing freaks in my house!”
Folding his arms across his chest, careful to keep his wand clear of his body in case sparks decided to fly out of its tip, Harry levelled a challenging gaze at his uncle. He thought of the one thing that would entice the man to allow Ron and Hermione to remain with him. “Actually, Uncle Vernon, there’s not a whole lot that you can do about it. They’re staying until I leave in a couple of weeks. Which’ll be the last time I ever darken your door.”
The thought that a time would come when Harry would leave permanently had never seemed to occur to Vernon and even as he opened his mouth to reply, a strange, glazed look overcame him. Harry knew that the age-old battle of giving in to any of Harry’s desires was in mortal struggle with the idea of being rid of him – this time, forever.
“Fine,” he said sternly, his finger popping up to poke into Harry’s chest once more. “But you’ll have to find your own food. I’m not feeding this lot. And NO funny stuff.”
Harry wasn’t about to argue the point when he’d clearly not even noticed the magical modifications to his bedroom. They’d do as much magic as they needed, the irrational bigotry of his relatives be damned.
His uncle backed out of the room, pushing a still terrified-looking Petunia and morbidly fascinated Dudley with him, and closed the door.
There was a silent moment while all three of them stared at the door. Then Ron lowered his wand and shook his head. “Wake up like that every day?” he quipped.
Harry gave a half-hearted smile. “Not recently; it’s actually been lots better since I stopped sleeping in the cupboard.”
There was a small, shocked gasp from Hermione, but she did not comment on Harry’s ill-treatment. It was just something they’d never really talked about.
Ron flopped back onto his bed, still bare-chested and heedless of Hermione’s stares. “Glad we can do magic, though. It’s nice to know that we can hex them if we need to.”
Harry silently agreed. He sat on his bed and bent over to search for a shirt among the pile against the wall. He had just put his head through the hole of the over-sized red t-shirt when he froze. “Hey,” he said with a start. “How can you do magic here?”
Ron turned his head to look at him, a strange smirk on his face. Hermione was still staring at him. “What d’ya mean? We’re of age. Why wouldn’t we be able to do magic?”
“No, not that,” explained Harry, pulling his shirt fully over his torso. “I mean, the Underage Magic office doesn’t know you’re here. All they know is that Enlargement Charms and Conjuring Spells have been cast. How come I haven’t got a letter expelling me from Hogwarts already?”
Ron looked confused for a second before he sat up. “Oh, that. Well, Dad said that they pulled ol’ Hopkirk from her post to staff the Office for the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and Protective Objects. The under-aged magic detectors are working just fine, but there’s no one there to read the logs.”
Hermione seemed to come out of her trance and nervously smoothed her nightgown. “By the time they get to them, you’ll be of age, and we’ll be able to testify that we were the ones doing the magic at any trial they’ll want to hold. Besides,” she finished with an encouraging smile, “you’re going to defeat Voldemort; it’s not like they’re going to put you on trial first thing when you get back.”
Harry didn’t know why it was, but those particular words made him feel more light-hearted than he’d felt in days. It was not only re-assuring to know that his friends would be with him when he faced Voldemort, but that in the end, they were expecting him to win.
The days leading up to Harry’s departure were spent reading, playing chess with Ron, and avoiding the Dursleys at all costs. Uncle Vernon had not found the gumption to visit Harry’s bedroom since the morning he’d discovered Ron and Hermione, and that suited Harry just fine. His Aunt Petunia, however, regularly walked past their door with the excuse that she was taking laundry downstairs, or cleaning the bathroom for the third time that week. Harry rather suspected she was worried that Hermione and Ron’s presence would somehow corrupt Dudley, who would also lurk by their door from time to time.
Hermione had been exhibiting odd behaviour, too. While she did not stare at Ron as obviously as she’d done the first morning they’d spent together, Harry had caught her doing so when she thought no one was watching. Furthermore, he suspected that Ron was also aware of the extra attention because he always had a self-satisfied smirk on his face when she was nearby.
The day before Bill and Fleur’s wedding, a package arrived from Mrs. Weasley. Pigwidgeon delivered it just before it dawn.
“Knock if off, you little feathery git,” Ron chided as he attempted to catch the tiny owl. Pig was zooming around the ceiling, the package flopping back and forth from his leg. “Couldn’t you have waited a little longer to deliver this?” Ron asked as he stopped lunging after him and opted instead for a Summoning Charm. Pig instantly shot to Ron’s outstretched hand and hooted shrilly when Ron detached the package. “Six in the bloody... Hey,” he said, testing the box for weight. “It’s light. Too light.”
Hermione snatched the box from Ron, placed it on the bed, and tapped it with her wand. “Your mum must have added a Featherweight Charm on it.” Sure enough, when the charm was cancelled, the depression it made in Ron’s duvet doubled. “It’s been shrunk as well. Probably to make it so Pig could carry it.” She tapped the box again and it sprung out so that it took up half of Ron’s bed.
Ron tore off the wrapping and opened the package while Hermione took a note that had fallen to the bed. A fantastic smell filled the room. Eggs, toast, bacon, bangers, flagons of juice, and three mince pies were packed close together, along with a complete serving set for three people.
Hermione cleared her throat and began to read from the parchment.
I hope this is enough food for all of you. Mum was manic about making loads of food and was the one that charmed it while I wrote this note. Things are winding their way up for the wedding. Dad’s in a right state. He’s been asking for help from the Ministry to beef up security, but I don’t think they’re too keen to let anyone go seeing as how there’s a war on. Bill invited some friends from work to the wedding that are handy with curses, but they’re not Aurors. I just hope there won’t be any goblins here. Mum would go mad before the wedding march was played.
Take care. All of you.
They stared at each other, each thinking the same thing: No Aurors at the wedding wasn’t a good sign. A wedding like this would be sure to attract Voldemort’s attention, especially with Harry as a guest.
Harry, determined to not dwell on such thoughts, picked up a fork and pointed it at Hermione. “I reckon Mrs. Weasley knows you’re here.”
With a slight blush, she took the fork from him. “As long as she hasn’t told my parents...”
“Not much they can do about it,” Ron said and then stuffed a whole, fat banger into his mouth. “Mmm. ‘S good.”
“Why not? Don’t they have the right to know where she is?” asked Harry, who didn’t like the idea of Hermione leaving her family without their consent. It was one thing to tell them directly that she wasn’t going with them on holiday, but she’d left after concealing it for days.
“Because I’m of age,” Hermione explained, portioning out eggs to all three plates, the use of which Ron seemed content to forgo as he fingered a piece of bacon, still chewing on his sausage. “Look, it was painful enough to go through with them; I don’t want to rehash it with you two as well.”
Harry held his tongue, also keen to not argue on one of the last worry-free days he’d be able to enjoy for the foreseeable future.
Ron finally swallowed his banger, and shoved a whole piece of bacon into his mouth, seemingly intent to ignore the subject completely.
When breakfast was finished, Hermione packed the dishes away and re-shrunk the box.
Hermione left to visit the loo while Ron and Harry began to pack. Ron enjoyed making Harry’s clothes fly into his trunk, and then gleefully did the same with his own, though they hadn’t been folded very well. Once everything was packed Harry remembered the old loose floorboard and began to feel along the floor in an effort to find it.
“Give me a hand, Ron?” he asked, still on his knees, following the lines of the floor with his fingers.
“What’d you lose?” he replied, also sinking to the ground.
“I didn’t lose anything,” Harry explained. “Well, not technically, but I used to keep things in a loose floorboard – mostly sweets, but sometimes my homework. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything.” He moved his hand under his bed, but didn’t feel the distinctive raised corner that told him that he’d found it, and moved to Ron’s bed. “I guess when Hermione expanded the room, it got moved.”
They’d searched for another few minutes when Ron found the board. “Got it,” he said and wrenched it up from in between his and Hermione’s bed. He lit his wand and flashed it into the dark space between the joists.
Harry and Ron peeked inside, and saw the torn corner of a pink cardboard box, (remnant of the cake Mrs. Weasley had sent him three years ago) an Acid Pop stick, and two army men. Harry scooped his hand inside the cubby and pulled everything out.
Sitting with his legs stretched over the open spot in the floor, Harry dropped the Acid Pop stick and the piece of pink cardboard into his lap. The remaining items still in his hand were the only toys he’d ever had as a child. Dudley had tossed an entire bucket of them over the stair railing and two had skidded under his cupboard door. He kept them in his pillowcase to prevent his aunt from finding and confiscating them and had probably placed them in the loose floorboard when he went to Hogwarts for the same reason.
Hermione walked in just then and stopped, giving them an odd look, drying her hair with a towel. “What’s the matter?” she asked when Harry shoved the toys into his pocket and Ron quickly put the loose board back into place.
“Nothing,” Harry and Ron chorused. “Just finished packing,” added Harry.
She eyed them warily, but then walked to her bed and tossed her towel into her open duffel. “Good. You can be next in the shower, then, Ron.”
“Nah,” Ron said, standing up and shrugging at Harry, as if to say that he understood the importance of little green army men. “I’ll shower when we get home.”
Hermione wrinkled her nose, and tossed her dirty clothes in with her towel. Then she shrunk the bag, applied a Featherweight Charm, and slipped it in her pocket. “All set then?” she asked brightly.
“Yeah,” Harry said, feeling the bulge of the toys in his pocket and deciding that he needed to take care of one more thing. “I’ll be right back.”
He walked downstairs, ignoring the look his aunt gave him as he walked through the kitchen. He stopped outside the familiar metal flap and lock-covered door that had been his home for ten years. Pushing back the catch, he opened the door and saw that his old mattress was still on the bottom of the cupboard, but had a pile of dusty boxes on top of it. The single light bulb that dangled from the stairs was encrusted with dust from disuse. Slowly, he removed the toy soldiers from his pocket, and placed them on the floor of the cupboard. As he did so, a strange feeling of melancholy overcame him. With a hitch in his breath, he took a final, sweeping survey of the diminutive space, and closed the door.
Turning to face his aunt, Harry tried to meet her eyes.
“You’re leaving, then?” she asked with a glint of some unidentifiable emotion in her voice.
Feeling intensely awkward about having to face her, Harry shrugged. “I guess so.”
There was a pause wherein Harry thought about running upstairs to avoid the whole situation. Then, without any warning whatsoever, a pair of bony arms were around his back, holding him stiffly in what he knew was probably the only hug she had ever given – certainly the only one she’d given to him.
“Take care of yourself,” she said and pulled away before he could react. Avoiding his gaze, she wiped a finger under her eye and straightened her apron. Then, dust rag in hand, she walked out of the kitchen.
“All set?” Hermione asked with a warm and understanding smile when Harry returned upstairs. It was clear that Ron had explained about the army men in the floorboard.
Harry nodded, not able to trust his voice in front of her and Ron just then. He slipped his arms into both of theirs, ready for the impending side-along Apparition and waited for the horribly confining feeling to overtake him.
When he opened his eyes again, he was standing in the Burrow’s front garden, shaded from the early morning sun by a large birch tree. Ron grabbed his lightened trunk and trudged off for the Burrow, only to be ambushed by his mother.
“Stay right there,” Mrs. Weasley said, her wand noticeable as she held it by her side. She seemed to hesitate, as if looking for the best question to ask him. Then, her eyes lit up. “How many weeks were you grounded for accidentally turning Ginny’s cat into a toad?”
Ron’s red ears were easily visible from where Harry and Hermione were still standing, watching with a great deal of amusement.
“None!” Ron replied. “It was George that did that, not me!”
Mrs. Weasley nodded and gave her youngest son a warm smile. “In you get, then.”
Harry and Hermione followed. “Thanks for the breakfast, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, with one eye on Hermione, who had the grace to blush.
“You’re quite welcome, Harry,” Mrs. Weasley responded, but just as they approached her, she took Hermione into a great hug. After a moment of surprise, Hermione returned the gesture. “We were so worried when your parents arrived last week looking for you. It was obvious where you’d gone, of course, because Ron was with Harry and you three are never far apart when there’s mischief to be had.”
Mrs. Weasley had a twinkle in her eye that reminded Harry so strongly of Dumbledore that he couldn’t bear to look at her and turned to watch Hermione instead.
“Or is there another reason you went to live with two boys?” Mrs. Weasley continued. Hermione looked shocked, her face now fully scarlet, and all she could manage in reply was a disjointed stutter. Mrs. Weasley seemed to take great joy in this reaction, however, and gathered her into another large hug. “Just as I thought,” she whispered. “He can’t talk enough about you, either.”
Then, Mrs. Weasley turned on her heel and walked back through the Burrow’s front door, humming to herself as she went.
“What was that all about?” a still red-faced Hermione asked in a whisper, as if she suspected Fred and George to be lurking behind the bushes with their Extendable Ears out, poised to hear everything she was about to say. “I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever admitted to anyone that I liked Ron. Why would she jump to that conclusion? I might like you that way for all she knows.”
Harry simply smiled at her. “Hermione,” he said with great satisfaction. “Mrs. Weasley didn’t say anything about you liking Ron... but you just did.” He turned and left Hermione spluttering to herself once more, his smile even wider on his face. He didn’t understand the appeal in seeing Hermione deal with Mrs. Weasley’s knowledge about her feelings for Ron, or the tacit acknowledgement that Ron reciprocated them at least a little bit, but he did know that Professor McGonagall had been right. It was good to see a little more love in the world.
At that exact moment, just as he had entered the Burrow, his smile evaporated. Ron was having a heated conversation with a shorter, angrier, and prettier Weasley at the foot of the stairs. When Harry entered, the conversation immediately halted and Harry’s stomach lurched at seeing Ginny’s blazing anger directed at him. They stared at each other for a long moment and he thought he detected a hint of sadness behind her eyes. Then, she shot up the stairs and they heard the distant sound of a slamming door.
Ron grimaced at Harry. “She’s in a right state. I’d wait to talk to her if I were you.”
Harry stared back at his friend, remembering with a pang of guilt that he’d completely put aside his relationship with Ginny. “Who says I’m going to say anything to her at all?”
The shocked look on Ron’s face would have been comical in any other setting, but Harry’s resolve was still in full force. As far as he was concerned, Ginny was just a happy memory that would have to wait until the end of the war to be enjoyed again.
Sleep came fitfully for Harry that night, as if his mind was rebelling against itself, protesting his decision to ignore Ginny. His conscience burned within him and he couldn’t seem to get her angry face to stop reappearing every time he closed his eyes. Finally, when the dim light of pre-dawn broke into a full-fledged sunrise, Harry pushed his covers off and trudged down to the loo for a shower, his clothes and toiletries tucked in a small bag under his arm. The space under Ginny’s door was dark, and he was grateful that she was still asleep.
An hour later, feeling guilty at using so much hot water, but remembering that the Burrow’s magical supply of water never ran out, and deciding he’d sulked in the steamy cubicle long enough, Harry left the loo. He passed Ginny’s now partially-opened door and concentrated on averting his gaze in order to not risk seeing even a glimpse of her. It didn’t matter, however, as quiet, heated voices filtered around the door frame and pinned him to the floor.
“He’s just as miserable as you,” whispered Hermione fiercely, as if she needed to convince the other girl in the room that it was true. The other girl being Ginny, of course and her face flashed in his mind, momentarily causing Harry to miss what Ginny said in response.
“That’s rubbish,” said Hermione, an exasperated edge clear in her voice. “You don’t know how he feels because you won’t even talk to him.”
“And you do?” Ginny said, her voice rising. “I suppose that means you’ve been having cosy little chats with him while you’ve been sleeping in his room.” Harry certainly didn’t miss the accusation in her tone and knew Hermione wouldn’t either.
“How can you think that?” Hermione replied after a moment of silence, her voice softer, so that Harry found himself leaning in to hear. “Ron was there the whole time, and you know how I feel about him.”
There was another long pause and Harry briefly thought he’d pushed his luck enough, that he ought to go back to Ron’s room and forget about this whole conversation, but when Ginny spoke again, he knew he’d have to stay until the end.
“I’m sorry, Hermione...” There was the sound of something hard hitting the wall and then a creaking from what sounded like bedsprings. Ginny let out a breath. “I wish there was a solution. I wish he hadn’t broken things off with me, but that’s all in the past. I understand why he did it, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Feet shuffled close to the door and Harry jumped back, clutching his bag of dirty pyjamas and shaving supplies, ready to sprint up the stairs, but keen to hear the rest of the conversation.
“Just talk to him,” Hermione said finally. There was a metallic click as her hand found the door knob and Harry shot up three steps, cocking his ear towards the almost-open door. If he made it look like he was just coming up the stairs, she wouldn’t suspect anything....
“I’ll think about it,” Ginny answered resignedly and the door was jerked open. Harry was caught staring right at Hermione; all thoughts of deception flew from his mind. He jerked his eyes back up the stairs and walked quickly back to Ron’s room. In that brief second, where he had seen Hermione’s face, the unmistakeable look of shock had changed ever-so-briefly into a maddening grin that made Harry curse himself for having been caught eavesdropping. If Hermione told Ginny that he’d been loitering outside her door.... Or even worse, if the older girl decided to confront him about it....
Breakfast was tense. Mrs. Weasley was oblivious to it, however, because she was so busy getting the food ready for the wedding brunch that she hardly even acknowledged them.
“Watch the quiche!” she shouted as it zoomed over to a table of mounting snacks, drinks, and delicious-looking foods that Harry could only begin to identify.
He didn’t try very hard, however, as he was exerting all his effort in not making eye contact with Ginny, who happened to be directly across from him, a fact that made Harry give Hermione a very threatening look. Her vague smile confirmed that it had been planned and the only consolation he took was in seeing that Ginny was just as upset by the arrangements.
“Stop kicking me, Harry,” she said angrily and snatched another piece of toast, biting into it without buttering it at all. She hated plain toast.
“It wasn’t me,” Harry replied to Ron, who looked abashed, his own feet shooting under his chair.
“Sorry,” Ron muttered and shovelled porridge into his mouth as a plate of crescent rolls flew over their heads.
They ducked and Hermione gave a lingering sigh. “Why don’t we go for a walk after breakfast?” she said, beaming annoyingly at them.
Harry glanced at the last half of properly-buttered toast on his plate and pushed it towards Ginny. “I’m going back to bed,” he muttered and left the table, just as Mrs. Weasley dropped a large bowl full of cake batter, eliciting a string of words that Harry never imagined coming from the woman who had scolded Ron incessantly for his language.
Hermione also got up from the table to follow him and even though he used his long legs to take three steps at a time, she cornered him before he could find the safety of Ron’s room.
“Harry,” she said breathlessly, holding a stitch in her side. “Wait.”
Reluctantly, he turned and folded his arms across his chest. “What?”
She took a few deep breaths before answering. “You need to talk to Ginny. This is getting ridiculous.”
Harry shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Ginny doesn’t understand,” she said, finally straightening up to look him in the eye. “She says she does, but she can’t. She doesn’t know what we do.” Her expression told him that what she really wanted was for him to tell her everything and that was something he just couldn’t do. Not yet.
“Heck, I don’t understand,” replied Harry, as he leaned against the wall and stared at Ron’s name above his doorframe.
Hermione stepped closer. “Then you need to figure it out because this isn’t working.”
“What’s not working?” he replied thickly, hoping she’d get the hint and leave him alone.
“This! You and Ginny!” she said, stomping her foot and folding her arms in a mirror of him. “If you don’t fix this, you’ll be moody and distracted the whole time we’re out looking for Horcruxes, which means that you’re going to get yourself, or me, or Ron killed. Dumbledore was one of the most proficient wizards of all time, but destroying one Horcrux cost him his hand and the other would have cost him his life. Your solution isn’t working Harry – you need to be at one hundred percent for this little escapade, which means that you need to work things out with Ginny.”
Harry’s mouth opened to reply, but nothing came out. He couldn’t think of a thing to say to her that could express his combined frustration at her undeniable logic and his determination to leave Ginny – at least until the war was over. So he didn’t answer at all. Ignoring her pleading eyes, he pursed his lips, took two steps into Ron’s room and closed the door.
The wedding was a blur of white and gold-coloured women (all of whom Harry either didn’t know or was actively avoiding), fantastic-looking food that he didn’t touch, and frequent toasts that were half in French and half dedications to witches and wizards involved in the war that invariably made Harry think about Dumbledore. Bill’s friends from Gringotts turned out to be human after all. A tall wizard with graceful features and slight build was accompanied by a witch with piercing blue eyes, long black hair, and who wore a smile wherever she went. They looked like brother and sister, but Harry’s only spared a casual glance at them.
When the dancing was about to start, Harry pulled out his Invisibility Cloak from a pocket in his dress robes and sequestered himself behind a clump of young oak trees. From where he stood, he could see the dance floor and the knots of mingling guests. He didn’t feel like enduring the stares and whispers from dozens of strangers. Safely under his cloak, he was free to relax and enjoy himself for the first time since he’d arrived at the Burrow.
He watched Remus and Tonks dancing slowly, a grin on both their faces. Hermione and Ron were turning slowly next to the punch bowl. Fleur and Bill danced on a raised platform that was enchanted to hover around the entire garden. Fred and George were releasing fireworks in time with the music and Harry felt himself relax into the spindly trunk of a tree behind him. Then, his eyes caught a glimpse of gold and red.
Ginny was dancing with a blonde boy he didn’t know, but had seen arrive with Fleur’s family. A strange mix of burning jealousy, and placid indifference washed over him. He wanted to hex him for touching his Ginny but immediately remembered that she wasn’t his at all. Not any more. As soon as that thought left, it was replaced with the notion that perhaps Ginny didn’t want to be Harry’s any more. Maybe she was okay with him ditching her. Even her last words to him when he broke their relationship off were indecipherable. He wanted to believe that when she said she’d never given up on him that she meant she wouldn’t give up on him still; that she’d wait for him. The intervening weeks since had cast great clouds of doubt on his mind, however, and he found himself thinking she might just as easily have been telling him that she was done waiting. He clutched his head in his hands and groaned. Why did girls have to be so bloody complicated?
The music ended and Harry raised his head. His eyes seemed to find Ginny of their own accord and he let them, feeling a measure of immunity as he sat invisible, a safe distance away. A new, faster song started, and Ginny shook her head as her dance partner gestured back at the dance floor. That’s right, Ginny, thought Harry. You tell him to sod off. A small smile curved on his lips as she turned her back on her would-be suitor and stalked over to where Fred and George were still setting off fireworks.
There was a large boom overhead and a shower of gold and silver sparks fell across the sky. Ginny turned her head up to watch the display and he stared at the white flesh of her neck, a place he was very familiar with. Heat pooled in his stomach and as the twins set off more rockets into the sky, her head fell slowly until her eyes locked onto his. Harry started. She did not blink, but smirked and winked in his direction. Frantically, he checked to make sure his cloak was firmly around him and when he decided that not even his feet were visible, he looked back to Ginny and saw that she was walking in his direction. Panicked, he jumped up and made a bee-line for the river.
Had his cloak somehow stopped working? No, because he’d narrowly avoided Fleur’s sister, Gabrielle who, Ron had informed him, was keen on dancing with him that evening. She definitely would have said something if the cloak was malfunctioning. So how could Ginny have seen him? Was she suddenly channelling Dumbledore?
That particular thought chilled him as he climbed to the top of a bluff that overlooked the River Otter. Crumbled limestone covered in brambles gave way in a sheer drop to a set of jagged rocks jutting out from the placid water. He turned around when he heard a twig snap behind him. He couldn’t see the wedding at all and readied his wand, just in case it wasn’t Ginny that had managed to follow him.
To his relief and mounting frustration, however, it was Ginny. She sauntered out of the trees, her gold dress glittering in the evening light, her hair fastened in a jumble of red curls at the base of her neck with a matching gold ribbon.
He whipped his cloak off. “How did you see me?” he demanded, his anger evident even to him. If she noticed, however, she didn’t mention it.
“You looked like you needed company.”
Harry’s mouth went dry. “I don’t need to be kept company,” he replied more calmly than before.
Ginny ignored this, however. “Yes you do,” she said simply and stared at the tree-lined river. “It’s beautiful here. I used to come here with Ron and throw stones into the river.” She bent low, picked up a piece of the chipped rock, and then hurled it out into the water.
He looked at her, at the river, and then back at her again. “Yeah, it’s beautiful here, but I’m not buying that ‘keeping me company’, business.” He listened to the water gurgling around the rocks below, wondering where the anger he’d felt had suddenly disappeared to.
She turned to look at him again, rubbing her hands on her dress. “Hermione says we need to talk.”
He nodded, definitely not willing to admit to having this information already.
“I think she’s right.” She was staring at him now, her expression unfathomable.
He blinked and looked to his feet. “You never told me how you can see through my cloak.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her cheeks redden. “I have a secret,” she revealed with a flash of mischievousness returning to her voice. “I did more than just study for O.W.L.’s last year.”
Intrigued, Harry chanced a peek at her face, which was glowing from the red of the setting sun and the pretty blush lingering on her face.
Then, with a twinkle in her eye and a sly grin, she disappeared. Harry jumped back, thinking that she’d turned herself invisible, but then he heard a mewing noise from his feet. There, curling around his ankles and rubbing her ginger head on his calves, was a tomato-coloured cat. She looked up at him with chocolate-brown eyes and pranced back to the spot she’d recently occupied. Then, with a slight pop, she re-appeared, her hair slightly askew, but looking very accomplished.
“I’ve been dying to show you that, but McGonagall made me swear not to tell anyone. Mum and Dad don’t even know.”
Harry simply gaped at her. “How...?”
“I know,” Ginny agreed. “It was really difficult, especially because I wasn’t particularly good at Transfiguration before.”
“How...?” Harry repeated, wrestling with too many thoughts at once. He settled for the one he wanted to know the most. “How does being an Animagus make you able to see through my cloak?”
She cocked her head in a very feline way, regarding him with confusion. “Oh! That. I don’t really know. I was practicing my transformations one day and saw Professor Moody patrolling Hogwarts castle in his cloak.... I saw this fuzzy outline around him and realised what was happening and.... I can see through cloaks. I reckon it’s because cats can. Luna says it’s something about how their eyes bend light differently than ours.”
A memory of Mrs. Norris popped into his head, her lamp-like eyes gleaming at him as he slinked along in the Restricted Section of the library, followed by another of him stuck in a trick step with the golden egg wailing in the corridor at the bottom. Dozens of times he’d been approached by Filch’s cat while wearing his dad’s old Invisibility Cloak and he could have sworn she’d known exactly where he’d been.
Harry shook his head, slowly slipping his hand through his hair. “That’s unbelievable.”
Ginny frowned and hugged her arms to her chest, as if a chilly breeze had blown around them. “Stop avoiding me, Harry.”
His head snapped up. “Wha – ?”
“Because it’s getting really annoying; I understand if you can’t handle having me as a girlfriend. Having to go haring after Voldemort is one thing...”
“What do you mean I can’t handle you?” he asked indignantly, suddenly forgetting all about the surprise of finding her to be a clandestine Animagus.
“I can handle you ditching me, but I can’t handle you acting like I don’t exist.” Harry made an odd choking noise, which she chose to ignore like she had his previous question. “Don’t you think people will notice you avoiding me after all the snogging we did last year?”
She had advanced on him, and even though she was a full head shorter than him, Harry felt oddly frightened. Unconsciously leaning his torso backwards, he struggled to think of anything to say in return. It was extremely difficult to think properly seeing her still-flushed cheeks (though now they were red from the effort of telling him off), and with her hair coming even more undone as she pushed him toward the cliff. “Er – ” he said ungracefully. She merely raised her eyebrows.
“Listen, Ginny,” he said, finally gathering his courage. “I’m sorry for treating you so horribly. I really am, but I don’t have a choice.”
Jutting her chin higher, she stared defiantly back at him. “You always have a choice, Harry.”
He wanted to have the strength to lie, to pretend like they’d never been together, but he just couldn’t do it. She meant more to him than he could ever articulate, and even if he could, he’d be admitting a weakness that Voldemort would use against him without question. Carefully, he placed his hands on her shoulders, preparing himself to tell her that it was too much to ask him. Her expression softened and he felt a pang of regret course through him. Then, without any warning whatsoever, there was a massive explosion that threw Harry across the cliff face, and into a clump of bushes.
The first thing Harry did was jam his cloak back on, and feel grateful he hadn’t dropped it. The second thing he did was look for Ginny. She was sprawled on the other side of the clearing, one arm hanging over the edge of a rock toward the river below. Three men in white masks and black cloaks emerged from the forest, two pointing their wands at Harry, and one pointing his at Ginny. Harry moved quietly away from the cliff face and around to the back of the attackers, who hadn’t noticed his disappearance.
“Where’d Potter go?” said the tallest Death Eater, who was obviously the smartest of the lot. “He was right there!”
His companion was peering over the edge of the cliff, as if Harry might have plummeted to the bottom. “Check for footprints, he may have Disillusioned himself.”
Harry aimed his wand at the man and cast a nonverbal Banishing Charm. It was a small spell, so as not to arouse suspicion, but the effect was predictable. The short man instantly lost his balance and fell head-long over the edge with a frightened yell.
“He’s here!” cried the tall one and shot a Stunner into the air where his companion had just been.
The third Death Eater was now close to Ginny and had whirled around to see what was happening. Harry’s Stunning Spell caught him in his face and he crumpled.
“Damn!” the remaining man shouted, shooting spells at random locations around the clearing.
Harry had been moving towards Ginny the whole time and was now right next to her. He crouched down, dodging a nasty blue jet of light, ready to flick his Invisibility Cloak over her when he froze. The Death Eater sprinted towards Ginny, pointing his wand at them. Harry momentarily thought the man could see through Invisibility Cloaks, too, and distractedly watched as the man levitated Ginny and walked toward the cliff.
“Come out, Potter, or I’ll drop the girl into the river!”
Harry watched, stunned as Ginny floated over the cliff’s edge and dangled helplessly by the Death Eater’s wand. Palms sweating, Harry weighed his options. Ginny was starting to stir and would be awake soon. He knew he only had a narrow chance of saving Ginny without getting killed himself. Without thinking of anything but getting Ginny safely back onto the cliff, he tip-toed closer to where the man was standing, careful to avoid the sticks and leaves that cluttered the clearing.
“You’ve got five seconds and I’ll drop her!” The man yelled and punctuated his words by flicking his wand so that Ginny bobbled precariously, causing her to blink her eyes a few times.
With the speed born of his stint as the youngest Hogwarts Seeker in a century, Harry wordlessly conjured a rock behind the man in mid-air that immediately fell to the ground with a dull thud. The Death Eater whirled around and, not wanting to risk a nonverbal spell, Harry shouted, “Expelliarmus!” The red light connected with the man’s back, who shot into the air, his wand flying. Ginny, too, went flying, now fully awake and let out a piercing scream. Harry extended his wand, and shouted the Summoning Charm. Ginny, who was now two feet below the lip of the cliff, zoomed upward until Harry was hit in the side by a dark mass, causing his wand arm to jerk upward.
Harry fell to the ground with a crunch and then kicked the man as hard as he could, and half-watched as Ginny’s body arced slowly toward the cliff face, but her momentum wasn’t enough. She hit the edge of the crumbled stone and scrambled to hold on to the shifting edge. Harry was hit in the stomach as the Death Eater renewed his attack. They rolled away from the cliff edge, Harry struggling to dodge the man’s blows and luckily landed two punches on the man’s face, sending his mask askew and revealing the crooked-toothed grin of McNair.
“Harry!” Ginny’s voice echoed in the air behind him.
He landed another blow as McNair scrambled for Harry’s wand, this time breaking his nose, and causing the man to howl. Finally able to break loose of his attacker, Harry got to his feet and ran toward the cliff. Ginny’s hands were all that he could see of her and just before he reached the edge, he dived onto his stomach and grabbed her hand. “Got ya!” he cried. She slipped, holding tightly to his outstretched hand with both of hers. He slid forward a little on the unstable rock and gravel and heard angry voices in the forest. The Weasleys must have heard the fight and were coming to help. Either that, or they were being attacked by Death Eaters, too, and the voices were unfriendly.
“Over here!” McNair had obviously recognized the voices and was shouting at them. They were definitely unfriendly. Harry pushed a stab of panic aside and struggled to hold on to Ginny as they slid another inch towards the sharp rocks at the bottom of the cliff. “I’ve got Potter and his girl! Hurry!”
Harry’s head was now over the side and he stared at Ginny’s dangling body, her dress ripped and bloody, her hair whipping around her face in the early evening breeze. The voices were getting closer.
“Ginny,” he whispered through gritted teeth. “Transform. You’ll be lighter.” McNair was walking again, but the shuffling gravel didn’t tell Harry where he was going.
For the first time Harry could remember, Ginny looked scared. “What if it goes wrong and my hand slips?”
They slid again and there was a shout from the forest, much closer than before. “I’ve got you - trust me.” His arms were shaking now, his shoulders dangling over the edge.
Ginny squeezed her eyes tight and shrunk in a flash, her red hair seeming to melt and cover her whole body in an instant. Then, he was staring into the eyes of a very frightened-looking cat, held by her front paws.
“Give up, Potter,” snarled McNair from behind him.
Catching his breath, Harry spread his legs for extra support, set his elbows on the cliff edge and then with an almighty pull, threw Ginny in an arc over his head toward the voice. Ginny’s scream as she flew through the air was a bonus. He turned onto his back to watch as she landed right on the man’s bleeding nose and began to claw his eyes with a high-pitched screech. Harry jumped to his feet, Stunned the man and snatched Ginny into his arms. He Summoned his cloak from the ground by one of the fallen Death Eaters and pulled it over his head. Then, with a flash of inspiration, he Obliviated McNair and skulked to one side of the clearing. As soon as the hem of his cloak made the tree line, four figures burst from the forest.
Harry did not look back, but after a few frightening seconds, heard a loud yell and then several shouts.
Exhausted and bleeding from his fight with McNair, Harry carried Ginny until they reached the clump of trees where he had hidden from the wedding. He stopped and leaned against one of the trees, cradling Ginny in his arms. In an instant, she transformed back into her human form and held him tight, shaking like a leaf in the wind. It was a long while before they went back to the Burrow.