Harry sat in the kitchen with Ron, feeling rather foolish. He had never been dressed so well to simply sit at the kitchen table at The Burrow.
He and Ron were continuing a game of chess they had been playing last night and it was Ron's turn. Ron sat in concentration. His long ginger hair was neatly combed and he wore brand new rust-coloured dress robes which were a far cry from the ones he had worn to the Yule Ball fourth year. He actually looked somewhat normal.
Harry yawned and stretched his arms above his head. He took a sip of his butterbeer, careful not to spill any on himself.
Harry looked over when Mr. Weasley walked into the kitchen.
"Hi, Mr. Weasley."
"Hi, Dad," Ron said without looking as he made his move. "My rook, your queen. Your turn, Harry."
Harry turned his attentions to the chess board for a moment, until Mr. Weasley spoke.
"Don't you two boys look smart. And strapping."
"Well, tonight is an important night for Mr. Potter here." Ron threw a balled up Droobles gum wrapper at him.
"A toast should be in order, then. You two are men now. Nearly." Out of nowhere, Mr. Weasley had procured a bottle of firewhiskey and three glasses, after which he poured a measure out for each of them. Harry was a bit surprised by this gesture, but grateful. Perhaps it would ease his nerves a bit for the impending evening ahead.
"Congratulations, Harry," Mr. Weasley lifted his glass. "May you live up to your Order of Merlin and do wonderful things for the Auror Department. Son, Molly and I are so proud of you…"
"Cheers. Oi, Harry!" Ron downed his glass. "Now, it's your move, git."
Harry looked down at the chessboard, feeling slightly awkward after Mr. Weasley's kind toast. He must have meant for it to be celebratory, but Harry did not feel as if this were an occasion to celebrate. He felt unable to look Mr. Weasley in the eye lest he suspect and question why Harry looked grim and un-enthused. "Err… thanks, Mr. Weasley." He looked at him briefly, tried for a grin, and then drank the firewhisky in one shot. As the warmth spread down his arms, he realized that all he felt was more anxiety piling up about tonight, rather than the calm and relaxation he expected to feel.
"Harry." Mr. Weasley sat down next to him and took a slow sip from his glass. "I still find it strange to be having conversations like this with you, but… to be honest, I have six sons that I don't need to care about…"
"Thanks, Dad. You've always cared about Ginny more than any of us." Ron made his move on the chessboard.
"That's not true, Ron. I only meant cared about in a different way. In fact, after watching Bill take out girl after girl, and making sure that Ron is on his best behaviour with Hermione, I find it a bit odd to be on the other side of it all now. Although, I shouldn't find it surprising. I expected to find it strange when it came time for my little girl to date boys."
"Harry's not just any bloke, Dad," Ron interjected.
"I know. You'll understand one day, son, why I brought all this up."
"Me?" Ron scoffed. "I don't imagine that I'll ever have a daughter, Dad. It took you six tries to have Ginny and I don't plan to have that huge a family."
"You say that now, son," Mr. Weasley smiled. "Back to what I was saying. Harry… Ginny is my daughter, so I might as well play the role of the concerned father with you since you two are… err…"
"Going out?" Harry offered.
"Yes, going out. When Ginny was younger, I always assigned one of her brothers to look after her, which became relatively ordinary. I still want to assure Molly that she's cared for, so instead of assigning Ginny to Ron tonight, all responsibility lies with you. Understand what that means, Harry."
"Sure," Ron chimed in, "Every pretty little hair on her pretty little ginger head is on you, mate."
Harry glanced at Ron. "Mr Weasley, I wouldn't let anything happen to her." Of course he wouldn't, but he felt a certain sense of pressure now. "Err… thanks for allowing me to take her tonight. I just… when I found out about it, I thought she would want to go…"
"You know that Ginny hates to be left out of important stuff," Ron said, studying the chess board. "Besides Dad, we're not going to a Weird Sisters concert. Harry is going to get his Order of Merlin tonight!"
"Stranger things have happened at wizarding ceremonies, Ron. I would imagine you would be naïve if you thought otherwise."
"Sure, Dad. I'll kick Harry's arse if he loses my sister or if anything happens to her."
"The four of you just enjoy one another and have fun. Responsible fun. Oh, look who it is. There's my princess. Ducky, you look lovely."
Ginny was coming downstairs.
Harry turned quickly and stood up when she entered the room. Ginny felt very touched by this gesture. It was very old-fashioned and almost laughable to her, but so gentlemanly and proper. She had no idea how it was that he was so wonderful when his role models growing up had been so horrible.
He looked even more handsome than he had up on the quasi-platform the day she had arrived home for the holidays. His dark green robes were perfectly tailored to his frame. His collared white shirt and his pressed trousers underneath finished off the look. With his hair combed neatly and his face clean-shaven, he looked gorgeous. Tonight, he looked as handsome as she had ever seen him. She should have been nervous, but for some reason she wasn't. She was glad that she had seen him in these robes before and had already dealt with the initial shock.
However, at the moment, she was quite distracted by the lace underthings she had chosen for tonight, which were stuck in an entirely uncomfortable place. She tried not to think of it.
Instead, she concentrated on the tiny, crystal, butterfly-shaped pins that Hermione had placed in her hair to hold it up. Ginny imagined that, if she moved a certain way, everything would come crashing down — despite Hermione's assurance that her spells would keep Ginny's hair in place all night — so she tried to remain still and graceful, but she felt ridiculous all the same.
Harry just kept grinning at her.
"What?" she asked as she approached him.
"Your hair. It's up. You never wear it up like that," he said, sounding utterly gobsmacked.
"Hermione helped me with it. Do you like it?" Ginny twirled carefully in place, feeling the lavender robes sway with her and the butterfly pins in her hair flutter in her curls. "Oh, Ron… Hermione said she will be down in a moment. She wanted me to tell you."
"I think I'll… err… go up and get her. You look nice, sis."
"DO NOT touch my hair, Ronald." Ginny glared at him as he lifted his hand on his way out of the kitchen.
Ron took the stairs two at a time.
"Would you like some firewhisky… or butterbeer? Game of chess?" Harry asked.
"No. I think I'd spill on my robes. And I couldn't concentrate. Besides, you and Ron look like you're in the middle of something." Harry looked down at the board where one of his knights was fiercely battling one of Ron's.
"Your dress robes… they're a pretty colour on you. I like lavender."
Perfect. Just as she had hoped, he didn't seem to remember her robes from fifth year. Then again, maybe boys just never noticed clothes in general. Ginny felt herself relax. Judging by the look on Harry's face when he saw her, he really liked her hair and her robes and everything.
"Yeah. It makes your eyes look… beautiful. Not that they're not always beautiful."
"Sorry! Camera coming through." Her father, who had disappeared out the back door soon after Ginny had come down, burst through the kitchen door with a huge camera and tripod, the entirety of which seemed left over from the days of Uncle Bilius.
"Dad!" Ginny whinged, realizing that she and Harry were already holding hands. She wondered how it was that they were always seeking a connection to one another. "Please put that away. Don't make a fuss."
"Sorry, sweetie, I promised your mum, she wants a picture for the mantle and I can't say no. So into the living room, the lot of you."
"Look at the both of you," Mum glided spryly out of her bedroom and into the living room. She took turns kissing them both on each cheek, a habit she was picking up by spending time around Fleur's mum, Ginny expected. Mum and Mrs. Delacour had just gone holiday shopping together, of course, in preparation for the newest little Weasley's impending late April arrival which, to Ginny, still seemed a ways off to already be making such a fuss.
"The robes came out stunning, Ginny, if I do say so myself. And Harry, you look so handsome and grown up, dear." Ginny shared a look with Harry that nearly made her laugh. "Now, in front of the hearth with you two," Mum demanded in a way that showed how impossible it would be to say no.
Her dad set up the camera and soon Harry was awkwardly posing with her for the first shot.
Ginny wanted to get away and pull Harry with her out the front door. Her family was so embarrassing to her it was ridiculous. She felt about ten years old at the moment. She wanted to scream and kick her shoes off, which were already hurting her feet, and get angry at being told what to do. She wanted to whinge to Harry that they should skip the party and just go somewhere else where they didn't need to dress up and wouldn't be in the spotlight. As much as she had been looking forward to tonight, she still had doubts about her first public debut as Harry Potter's date. She knew, deep down, that a quiet night in with Harry was more her speed, although she kept her poise. It wasn't that she didn't want to go. She so wanted to be there to support him, more than anything.
Dad made them pose a second time. This time, instead of standing side by side, she shifted herself in front of him and had him hold her around the waist. Feeling ridiculous, she smiled as fake as she could. Worse, his arms around her felt acted-for, like it meant nothing, and she could tell that he meant to drop them as soon as her parents were finished and satisfied.
It felt so ridiculously fake to pose with him like this. Ginny decided that, when and if she ever did want photos of them taken, she would instruct the photographer to do so as naturally as possible. The camera snapped once more, and the flash hurt her eyes, which she tried not to touch because Hermione had done her eye makeup perfectly and Harry had just said her eyes looked beautiful.
"What about us, Mum? I'm all grown up too." Ron and Hermione now entered the room hand in hand. Ginny smiled at Hermione, who looked quite pretty in elegant, gauzy black evening robes. Ginny had tried the same robes on, too, but they were way more revealing than anything her mum would have found acceptable. Ginny noticed that Hermione's robes were somewhat low-cut in front and Ronald the prat couldn't stop ogling her. Disgusting. Ginny looked away, glad that Harry usually fancied staring into her eyes rather than at her chest.
It didn't matter, though. Ron and Hermione always looked happy these days, whether or not they were even together. Ron twirled a laughing Hermione around as he had done on Christmas.
"Don't you want a photo of us for the mantle, Mum?" Ron gave her mum a winning grin.
"Yes, absolutely, Ronald, of course we do. Ginny, step out of the picture. There now, Ron and Hermione, dears." Mum pushed them toward the mantle. "Pose with Harry for a moment, please." Mum smiled sweetly, but Ginny knew this was more of an order than a request.
After the golden trio were snapped, Ron had his picture taken with Hermione. Ginny tapped her foot, wondering if they would be late for having taken all these pictures.
"How about all four of them, Molly? The golden trio and…"
"The ginger-haired tag-along?" Ginny piped up. Everyone laughed. "Well, if you all are golden, I may as well be ginger."
They all posed together. She was sure this one would not end up on the mantle because Ron was making some kind of a gesture and Harry was looking at him strangely and Ginny was certain she had been rolling her eyes at Ron.
As her parents fussed with putting the camera away, Ron and Hermione went into the kitchen. Ginny could see Ron pouring the two of them a bit of firewhisky. They toasted one another, and began speaking, standing rather close together. The flirty look on Hermione's face suggested that she loved the attention her brother was bestowing upon her. She turned her attention back to Harry.
"Well, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, we better be off. I won't have her back too late," Harry said to her parents as he took her hand.
Mum walked up to them both and placed one hand on each of their cheeks. "Have fun, you two. Don't worry about the time."
"Just have her back safe, Harry," her dad uttered in a low voice.
That was enough! thought Ginny, more than aggravated.
"Dad! Would you leave him alone, please? Who would I be safer with if not Harry? Mum? Have you both forgotten I have a wand as well?" Ginny voiced.
"It's alright, Ginny. Of course…" Harry replied, his tone serious, as if keeping her safe was of the utmost of importance, "Of course I will."
"We trust you, son. In fact, you're the only one we would trust. Just so you know," Dad added.
"Dad!" Ginny felt her cheeks burning.
"Err… yeah. Thanks. That means a lot to me," Harry responded quickly.
Her dad gave him a quick hug and then gave her one, too.
"You two enjoy yourselves, dears." Mum smiled. "You both look… lovely. And Harry?"
"Yes, Mrs. Weasley?"
"Smile, won't you?"
"Oh." He cracked a grin. "Alright."
Finally, with the invitation in hand, Harry led Ginny by the hand outside into the snow.
For once, holding Ginny's hand felt abnormal to hold. Harry's palms were a bit sweaty and he was having trouble figuring out how to hold her fingers without making her uncomfortable. Finally he dropped her hand, glad to have a chance to cool his off, and walked beside her as they made their way out the gate and towards the drive to the spot where they usually Apparated.
He still felt nervous and unsure about tonight, yet the Weasleys had just added to his stress level significantly. He had never felt more uncomfortable than he had just moments ago, with the Weasleys looking at him like that! And was Mr. Weasley's father/son talk and the whole bit about placing Ginny's responsibility straight into his hands truly necessary? Could they be any less aware of how horrible he felt about tonight's event? And what did they think he was going to do if someone came after Ginny? Stand by and let them hurt her? Did they not know him at all? And why didn't they trust him? It made him slightly nervous that a stupid mishap such as Splinching her in Apparition was going to happen and ruin the night. All sorts of things went through his mind about what could go wrong now that the Weasleys had done a right job of freaking him out.
Harry decided to put it out of his mind. He glanced at Ginny, who grinned at him briefly. Despite his nerves about this evening's events, Ginny was with him, so at least he had that. She was all his this evening and not only that, her hair was looking beautiful all done up, and she was dressed up in the prettiest robes he had ever seen her wear. She looked like a beautiful princess. He remembered her father calling her that when she came downstairs and it was fitting for tonight. Harry usually found her to be beautiful dressed in jeans and a Weasley jumper, but she did look stunning tonight. He'd just never before had the opportunity to see her done up like this and for once, tonight felt special to him.
Ginny grinned at him. "Mum is right. You do look more handsome when you smile, Harry."
"Thanks." He rubbed his face, which still burned slightly from shaving. He had left the enchanted razor the Delacours had bought him for his seventeenth at home, and hadn't felt like going back for it, so instead he had used a Muggle razor he picked up in the chemist's in Ottery St. Catchpole. His skin wasn't used to it and he cursed himself for not going back to Grimmauld Place this afternoon to fetch his razor.
"Are you okay?"
"You're not fine."
He took a deep breath, and then adjusted his glasses. "In all honesty, I'm not sure that matters. Let's just get this over with."
Ginny sighed. "It matters to me if you're not fine."
"I…I know that." He kicked at a bit of snow with his dress shoes.
"It's okay if you don't want to talk about it right now. I know why you're so upset. Just remember, I'm here with you, you know. Tonight. So, even if it's hard for you, you have someone who… who wouldn't want to be anywhere else but with you." She reached for his hand again and she squeezed it gently. Ginny's words stirred something in his chest, making him feel warmer, and even a bit more relaxed. He found her gaze and squeezed her hand. Then, lacing his fingers in hers, he was back to feeling like it was the most natural thing in the world to hold her hand.
"Thank you. Just do me a favour and stay with me tonight," he muttered, focusing on her golden-brown eyes.
Ginny laughed. "I'm not going anywhere. Yes, silly, I'm going to go dance with all the handsome young Auror trainees and leave you sitting alone."
"You laugh now, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of them try to take you away from me for a dance or something." He scratched the back of his hair, pulling his hand down to avoid the habit.
"So are you asking me not to dance with any other boys, Harry?"
"No. I'm not saying that. Just…" Harry didn't know how to voice what he meant by stay with me tonight. What he probably should have said was, I need you near. Don't leave my side for too long. Of course, the thought of watching her dance with one of the blokes from his class, like Martin, made his skin crawl and the monster in his chest growl, but he didn't want to seem like a jealous git.
The night was so still and quiet…
"Was Dad giving you a hard time before?"
"Oh, no. As Ron said, every pretty hair on your pretty ginger head is my responsibility or—" He pretended to slit his throat, and Ginny laughed.
"Please don't let it make you nervous. In fact, I'm going to have a talk with them when I get home. I won't let them pester you from now on, Harry. Disregard what anyone in my family says from now on. I'm sure Dad gave you the speech about how I'm your responsibility and all, but I find it a bit insulting and old-fashioned, to say the least. I have my wand and I'll protect myself. Although…"
"Err… come to think of it, my wand is sort of stuck in an uncomfortable place right now and it would be slightly difficult to reach if a crazy person tried to come after me."
"Err… where is it?" he questioned her, curious.
"My stocking, you git. Which is under my robes, which is under my cloak and… well, you get the picture."
"Well… hold on, you didn't bring an evening bag?"
"Evening bag? I'm not the sort of witch to tote around make up with me. Hermione's carrying the make-up in her bag anyhow."
"Is it the purple-beaded one?"
"The one and only," Ginny grinned.
"That bag is probably the coolest thing ever! I should ask her to hold a few things for me, actually."
"Why? You need her to hold your make-up, too?"
They both laughed and when they quieted, there was more silence.
"What are we waiting for, Harry? I may freeze if we don't leave soon. I don't have much in the way of warmth under this cloak."
"Do we have to go?" he grumbled petulantly, knowing he sounded a bit childish, but he felt that way right now.
Ginny touched his cheek, her cool fingers soothing his burning skin slightly. "Yes, dear. Don't worry. As I told you before, I'm going to be right there with you. You have me… err… and Ron and Hermione, too. We're all here for you, Harry. We do have to go, though. I'm ready." She took a half-step toward him.
"Okay. If you say so." He took a step towards her so their bodies were touching. He linked his arms around her waist, choosing not to hug her over her wool cloak, but instead lacing his arms into the cloak. She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head in his chest. "Ginnyyousmellincredible," he whispered in her ear.
"Thanks." Ginny let out a half-sigh, half-purr as she settled against him. Her noise made Harry's heart pump a bit faster, especially when she was so close. He could feel her warm breath through the fabric of his robes and he shivered in delight as the monster in his chest purred contentedly.
"Let's go." Harry felt her pull her body as close as possible to his.
"Yes." She closed her eyes and clung to him tightly.
Ginny had craved the feeling of Side-Along Apparition with Harry since that night when they had been by the river in Ottery St. Catchpole, their first night of the hols. She knew that Harry would prefer to take her Side-Along to the party, instead of through the Floo, and she had been more than excited for this moment.
Ginny held Harry to her as close as possible. In the darkness, he was all she could feel against her, his body and her body stuck in an in-between time, pressing and holding on. It was a strange type of intimacy, being connected to him like that. She squeezed him closer, kissing the fabric of his cloak, and listening to his heart beat in her ear. Every slight movement of his hands against her silky robes sent a rush of warmth throughout her body.
Ginny opened her eyes when the motion stopped and saw that they were in a very dark corridor. She gathered her cloak around her, feeling suddenly chillier than she had standing on the drive back home.
"Think this is the place?"
Water was dripping somewhere. It felt very cold, like the castle after an ice storm in winter. She shivered a bit, hoping to get inside somewhere warm soon.
They walked along the outside corridor hand in hand, until they heard the sounds of harp music and the low buzz of chatter.
"This must be it." Harry stopped short. "Err, are you ready?"
"Yes. You?" She grinned.
"No, I'm not sure I am. Are you sure we can't just skive off somewhere?"
"You, Mr. Potter, are the guest of honour, so no. You are SO ready." She took his arm, for once taking charge as she pulled her boyfriend in the direction of the entrance.
As they entered the room, she looked around. It was a small affair, smaller than she expected, but very, very elegant. The room had been charmed to resemble a dark, cavernous, torch-lit stone dungeon. It reminded her of the catacombs of Egypt and gave her an eerie feeling as it had when she was eleven, although it was nicely done. Ginny half expected a young, handsome Bill to come out from behind one of the tall statuesque pillars, with his long strawberry coloured hair, fang earring, and his wand in hand ready to break an ancient curse…
Ginny found their place card on a table in the middle of the crowd. Mr. Harry Potter, AIT OOMFC was written in block lettering and, below, the word and, and then three words: Ms. Ginevra Weasley. His name sounded so important and profound, while hers sounded so… well, ridiculous.
How had he known "Ginevra"? The smarmy git. He had never called her by that name and she didn't even know how he knew of it. Ron, of course! Or perhaps her mum had finally said something to him?
"Champagne?" a waiter walking by asked her and offered a tray.
"Yes, thank you," she murmured.
Feeling a little awkward and somewhat out of place, Ginny grabbed a crystal flute off the tray and brought it slowly to her lips and took a sip. The bubbles instantly warmed her throat, making her feel much older and more mature than her seventeen years. She scanned the room looking for Harry, who had wandered off. She found him nearby, talking to an elegantly dressed Auror with a ponytail. As she turned to join him, Kingsley Shacklebolt materialized at her elbow.
"Good evening, Miss Weasley," he said.
"Good evening, sir. Who is that speaking to Harry?" she asked.
"That's Williamson. They're discussing the order of business for the evening and what's expected of Harry," the Minister replied.
"I see," Ginny said.
They stood watching Harry for another moment before the Minister said, "Excuse me, I'm wanted elsewhere." As he took his leave, he kissed her hand, causing her cheeks to feel rather hot. She wasn't used to such gallant attention.
"What were you and Kingsley chatting about?" Harry asked as he rejoined her beside their table.
"Ginevra?" She raised an eyebrow and showed him the card as they walked towards the bar. "Who told you my name?"
"Your mum. I had to ask her your given name. I knew 'Ginny' wasn't right and I was afraid you wouldn't exactly want to tell me what it was," he said as they wandered towards the bar.
"I would have, if you'd asked me." She took another sip of champagne and waited for Harry to order and receive his drink. "Well, what do you think?"
"Your mum said it would make you feel grown up to call you that. 'Ginny is her cot name'," he said this in a really good impression of her mum, maybe even on par with her own. "She has a beautiful name, but never wants to be called by it." Harry joked, "She said that all her kids had nicknames like yours as children: Billy, Freddy, Georgie, ickle Ronnikins." He took a sip of his beer. "But they all grew out of them except for you."
"That's not true!" she argued as they found a place to stand together near the back of the room. "Charlie is still Charlie and not Charles! Why can't I be still be 'Ginny'?"
"She also said that, out of all your brothers, you're the most like Charlie."
"Maybe." She stared at the bubbles in her champagne. "Either way, I'm 'Ginny', not 'Ginevra'."
"You could be 'Ginevra'. That's all I'm saying. I think it's a name you could grow into… err… someday."
"If I haven't grown into it yet, I don't think I will."
"You're only seventeen." He grabbed a canapé off the tray carried by a passing waiter and popped it into his mouth. "Who's to say that you won't eventually grow into it?"
"I don't know. I think that Harry and Ginny sounds better to me than Harry and Ginevra."
"I think they both sound fine," Harry continued, "And it's a very pretty name." She shook her head. "Fine. I'll only call you that on nights like these… occasions… when it's proper to use your full name."
"Wotcher, Harry Potter." A short young Indian wizard was walking up to them.
"Oh, hey, Ash. Ash, I'd like you to meet Gin…evra. I mean, Ginny. Just kidding." He winked at her.
"Ah, so this is the Ginny I've heard so much about?"
Ginny's ears burned. He talked about her to other people?
"I hope so. Somehow I can't believe that Harry, as brave as he is, could handle two Ginnys. You must be Ash." She held out her hand, feeling rather cheerful, and Ash kissed it.
"Guilty as charged. Wonderful to meet you."
"I've heard so much about you, Ash!" Ginny already liked Ash. He seemed very friendly and cheerful. No wonder Harry liked him.
"Like I said, I've heard much about you as well. Harry told me you were very beautiful, but he didn't tell me you were absolutely stunning! In fact, his exact words were, 'she's far too beautiful to really be mine.' Now I can see why!"
"Thanks, Ash," Harry muttered.
Ginny laughed it off. Had he really said all that? Oh Merlin, he had. He was turning purple. Did he feel that way? If he did, it was rather unbelievable. The fact that he said that made her feel… wonderful, happy, light, free and giddy, and she took another sip of champagne.
"How is your school year commencing, Ginny?"
"My studies are going well, Ash. Thank you." She tried to keep her smile down to a minimum, but after hearing what Ash had previously said, this was proving difficult.
"I went to school at Durmstrang, but I was at Hogwarts my sixth year for the Triwizard Tournament. I know you are classmates with many beautiful girls. I've been trying to get your boyfriend to come to some of the night clubs with me, but I haven't been able to drag him out since he's a taken man. Perhaps if you were along, and a few other ladies, he wouldn't mind socializing so much."
"I would absolutely love to go out once school is through. I'm sure there are quite a few single girls in my dormitory who would love to be wooed by an Auror trainee. Harry, what do you think?"
"Err… yeah. Let's go out sometime." Harry was looking around, and Ginny could see he was back to being anxious.
Ginny recognized the elderly wizard that approached them. Mr. Doge was an Order member who had been in her home several times when it was being used as headquarters. Ash excused himself quickly. "Harry Potter, it's an honour."
"Thank you, Mr Doge." He shook hands with the ancient gentleman.
"And who is this lovely, may I ask?"
"Ginny, err…" He cleared his throat. "Ginevra Weasley."
"Oh, I must not have recognized you, so dressed for the occasion," Mr. Doge replied cheerfully. "Of course, Ginny. Molly and Arthur's little girl."
"I wasn't sure you knew one another," Harry muttered.
"Don't you remember, Harry?" Ginny nudged him in the arm. "Mr. Doge was at my brother's wedding. How are you, Mr. Doge?" She held her hand out to the elderly wizard and he shook it gently.
"I'm well, thank you, Ms. Weasley."
"Are you enjoying the evening so far?"
"Oh, yes, A wizard of my age is always glad to come around in support of the young Aurors. Especially Harry, here. Albus would have been so proud of you, dear boy." Harry nodded, his sombre and detached look unchanged from Mr. Doge's comment. "Well, I hear that Molly and Arthur are about to become grandparents. Is that true?"
"Yes, in April." Ginny said politely.
"Please send them my regards. And your brother, Percy. What of him? He's all but disappeared from politics!"
"Well, sir, he's been working for the rebuilding effort. He led a huge effort in the rebuilding of Hogwarts School and now he's helping rebuild houses for families who lost their homes during the war. It's sort of life changing, but he's happy."
"Fantastic. I'm sure your parents are quite proud, Miss Weasley." Mr. Doge turned his attentions back to Harry. He elbowed Harry in the arm and hid his mouth with his hand to direct his voice. "Harry Potter, dating Molly and Arthur's girl. I dare say I see it now. You two make a smashing couple. Very attractive! Won't be long before wedding bells ring, eh? Oh, and I wouldn't waste too much time," Ginny heard the elderly wizard say although she pretended not to hear, "This one will go first, before all the others. Excuse me; I must go speak with Horace."
Harry took a slug off his beer and then coughed while the wizard walked off.
"Merlin! The rumours are going to start flying now!" Ginny muttered.
"They'll already be scripting our wedding announcement for the Prophet," he joked, "Look here comes…"
"More champagne." Ginny took it gladly, hoping to melt into the background.
"I was going to say Ron and Hermione, but sure. Go on."
It's only a piece of paper in a frame, or a medal on your robes.
Ginny's words from a few weeks ago echoed in his mind.
There they were: he held the framed certificate in his hand and the shiny medal had just been pinned to him. It had been presented to him in a velvet box into which it would promptly go back into after tonight.
Order of Merlin, First Fraud.
Flash. The bulb exploded and Harry thought he would turn into one of those raging superheroes from the cartoons he used to watch on Dudley's telly as someone else stuck a camera in his face.
Harry shook hands with Kingsley and the camera flashed again.
He hoped that tonight was the end of the interest that most had in him. He remembered Mrs. Weasley's words. Smile. He tried, but it wouldn't come out. It was just impossible.
He looked out into the crowd which was still standing, clapping for him. There was Ginny, looking awfully sombre. She wasn't smiling either, but when they caught eyes there was something in hers that he understood. She was there for him. He thought he could hear her thoughts, too.
Calm down, Harry. Everything is going to be just fine.
Or at least, that's what he thought she would say to him if she had the chance to right now. He felt a weird sort of comfort and strength stirring in his chest that he hadn't had before. He didn't want any attention on her, so he quickly looked away, but more and more he was realizing that, at times like this, when everything seemed really difficult, it always seemed less horrible when Ginny was there. This was probably why he had brought her along in the first place. What did it mean that she made a positive difference in his perspective, whenever she was around?
As horrible as he felt, having Ginny around him always made him feel better. Harry realized, as he had often done these past few weeks over the hols, that he was beginning to feel a bit closer to figuring out how he felt for her, and he was pleased with the progress he had made. Most of all, he had worked out that his desire to make her happy and to protect her was quite strong, and he was sure that had to mean something. He thought she was beautiful, of course, but the list of qualities he admired about her went on and on. And when she was around, he was happy, and he felt better than he had all autumn. Actually, despite their lack of alone time — which he had gone outside more than once to grumble about incessantly to whatever garden gnome would listen — the hols with Ginny couldn't have gone any better. He looked forward to sharing the next few days with her until she went back to school and he went back to his real life. Perhaps the next time they were together like this, he would be even closer to figuring it all out.
She really did look beautiful tonight. Harry wondered if he could store this memory in his Pensieve and go back to it just to see Ginny dressed as the tiny, beautiful, ginger-haired goddess Ginevra. He decided to do so then and there. He liked her name and thought he should tell her that soon. It was really a beautiful name, wasn't it? If he had the choice to do anything at the moment, it would be to grab his girlfriend by the hand, pull her out of the room and ditch the party. Maybe they could Apparate to London and he could take her out for ice cream or for a walk. Then he might finish off the evening with some blissful snogging and kiss her at the front step of her parents' home. Yeah, that sounded… good. Normal, too. Especially when you compared it to an Order of Merlin ceremony honouring yours truly.
Then his thoughts were cut off suddenly as he realized something horrible. Kingsley and the other Aurors were waiting for him to speak. He hadn't even realized.
"Harry? Are you alright?"
"I'm fine. Why?"
"We've been asking you to speak for a few moments," Kingsley pronounced.
"Sorry. Err…"Harry stood, suddenly back to focusing on this moment he had been dreading for weeks.
Harry amplified his voice, ready to say what he had written down, with Hermione's help, the last few nights. "Thank… you to Kingsley, and Savage, Proudfoot. All the Aurors who have taken me in and done their best to teach me in the realm of the Dark Arts. I've learned things I never imagined were possible, even while I was being taught by the best teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And even in these few months, I know that I wouldn't want to be doing anything else with my life. I want to thank my training class for their support, Martin Edwards, Jonathan Glass, Ross Goldstein, Asheem Kapur, and the rest of the training class of 2000."
It was a while before the clapping and hollering died down.
"I know the Order of Merlin is about… what happened last May. I just want you all to know that I appreciate the honour, but really, you should be honouring two people, both of whom saved my life numerous times. Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger."
Ron and Hermione stood and the crowd turned and clapped in their direction...
"Without them, I would have been unable to finish the job, so you owe them more than anything. That being said, someone very young, but also wise, recently told me that I should never think that I'm standing alone. Yet, I've been singled out up here and I'm standing alone, being recognized for ending the war, when it's all of you who should be honoured. Every one of you fought to end it." He looked out into the sea of faces. "Whether you were involved in the final battle or just a few of the battles, or only worked behind the scene to preserve what we believe is right, we all deserve the same recognition. Therefore, I accept this Order of Merlin, since I've been told by that same wise person that I have to. But really, I accept it in the name of everyone, especially those who fought valiantly and lost their lives."
"You are a great man, Harry Potter," Kingsley whispered as the crowd stood to clap for him, "One of the best."
Harry exited the stage and made his way quickly out a side door, desperately in need of some fresh air. As he gulped the frigid air, he realized that he no longer felt as much of an impostor as he had before making that speech. He had wanted to say what was on his mind so often and to get it out in the open made him feel a little better.
He sat on a stone bench and watched his breath disappear. Finally, he felt his nerves calm. He watched the brightest star in the sky, Venus, for a while and he remembered staring at the stars so many nights last year.
He recognized the voice instantly. Harry looked up into her concerned face. She looked brilliant, really, in comparison to the myriad of times he had seen her last year dirty, hurt, suffering, or tortured. Right now, she looked very grown up and beautifu,l too. Harry smiled weakly
"They're serving dinner, Harry. There's music. It's a party, remember?"
"I'm not very hungry."
"Good speech." She sat down next to him. He slid over to make room on the bench.
"You're the one who told me what to say."
"It was your words though, and it was very appropriate. Thanks for the recognition by the way, Harry."
"You're welcome." He cleared his throat. "I still think they should have given you and Ron one as well, for everything you two did, Hermione. I'll always think that it's unfair that it was only me who received the honour."
"Harry, at the end, it was only you. Don't you remember?" She turned towards him. "And while we did fight in the final battle, we had no part in finishing off Voldemort for good. You did everything alone at the end. Besides, they didn't just give you the Order of Merlin for finally ridding the world of Voldemort, Harry. They gave it to you because of your bravery in facing him."
Harry took a deep breath. He didn't feel like arguing that, if Ron and Hermione hadn't been there for everything leading up to that moment, it all would have ended very differently, one of the many reasons why he hated being singled out for the honour. She knew all that though, so there was no use arguing with her. Hermione nudged his leg.
"Everyone wants to see you. Come inside." She took his hand.
"Do I have to?" he managed weakly.
Hermione laughed, but Harry was serious. He rested his head on her shoulder for a few moments until she suddenly jumped, sat up straight, and gave him a concerned look. Harry recognized this as the way she usually acted if she suddenly thought of something or had an idea.
"What?" Harry muttered, bracing himself for whatever it was she had suddenly come up with.
"Are you okay, Harry? Ginny mentioned that you were especially nervous, but I'm not sure it's just that."
Harry gave her a strange look and adjusted his glasses. "Err… don't have kittens or anything, Hermione. Yeah. I'm alright."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Quite sure. Let's go back inside now, I'm ready."
He stood and avoided Hermione's concerned looks as he followed her back into the room.
When he entered the party again, the mood had changed, and he found that everyone seemed to want to have a good time now that the ceremony was over, but he still felt weird about having the pin on his robes.
"Hi." Harry sat next to Ginny, suddenly feeling hungry as the plate of gourmet food had appeared as soon as he sat down.
"Hi. Roll?" She offered him a basket.
Ginny passed the butter over. "Eat, you're hungry," she said this as if it was an order, and he obliged.
"I liked your speech," she piped up after awhile. "I think it made you feel better to say all that, didn't it?"
"Yeah, it did."
The dancing started after dinner; for Harry, it was the last thing he wanted to do, as nightmares from the Yule Ball bombarded his brain. Tonight, it seemed all the older wizards were hoping to watch the younger Aurors have a good time, but for the first time in a while, Harry didn't feel much like drinking. He nursed his second beer of the night, which Ron had dropped in front of his plate as he ate dinner. He and Ginny watched Ron and Hermione and some of the Aurors and their girlfriends dance what he recognized as a waltz. His other hand, the one not clutching his beer, was busy resting in his girlfriend's lap. Ginny sat with her champagne glass in front of her, her free hand fiddling with the stem of the glass. Ginny was doing exactly what he had asked of her: not leaving him. Staying near him. Should he say something, at least? The music was loud and he didn't want to shout. Besides, he liked that he didn't need to always feel like he had to talk around Ginny. Should he ask her to dance? He also didn't feel like dancing. Now that they were there, and even though the room was Rita Skeeter-free, he also wasn't sure if he wanted to bring attention to Ginny and their relationship by dancing with her.
Then, suddenly, Ash startled him as he approached Ginny and asked her to dance first.
Ginny looked at him as if to ask his permission, but he shrugged. She took Ash's hand. Harry watched as Ash spun her around the dance floor and made her laugh. He seriously hoped that another one of the blokes from training wouldn't ask her to dance, but plenty of them hadn't brought dates, and she was probably the prettiest of the lot.
Having realized he had finally finished his second beer, Harry stood up to go to the bar where Martin stood waiting for his drink.
"Why is Ash dancing with your girlfriend, Potter?"
He shrugged. "I don't dance."
"See that cute little blonde bird? She's with me."
Harry looked at Martin's date. She looked awfully like that Sarah girl from the WWW. Wait, was she?
"Should be an interesting night for the both of us, eh?" Martin gave him a smarmy grin.
Harry thought about it, wondering if Exacto was as smooth in his bedside manner as he was in his spell casting. He wasn't sure what Martin had planned, but he wasn't considering the rest of his night with Ginny as being as interesting as Martin's. He would probably take Ginny home, and maybe, if he was lucky, they would snog for a few minutes under the mistletoe. This sounded good to him, but he wasn't naïve. He knew that, to other blokes his age, his plans for Ginny could possibly have been viewed as a bit boring. Maybe he was a boring kind of bloke, though. After last year, he deserved to be boring for the rest of his life. Although, there was another reason that Harry's plans did not include anything lecherous. Perhaps Martin didn't have to worry or care so much about Sarah, as he did Ginny.
"Yeah. Should be," he answered, before noticing that Ron and Hermione were standing near the entrance. "See you, Martin."
"We're leaving, Harry. Congratulations." Hermione kissed him on the cheek as soon as he approached. "Enjoy the rest of the night."
"Thanks, Hermione. Why are you two leaving so soon? " he questioned his two best friends.
"Err… actually, Hermione's a bit… tired. We'll be going back to Grimmauld Place tonight so she can get some good rest. More comfortable bed and all… oh, you can sleep in my room at The Burrow if you want," Ron offered. During the hols, Harry had mostly been sleeping in Fred and George's old room, but he did prefer Ron's bedroom since it stayed much darker in the mornings and he was apt to sleep in tomorrow.
Hermione looked away when Ron divulged that the two of them would be staying at Grimmauld Place. Harry realized she was sensitive and he didn't want to embarrass her or make a big deal of their plans.
"Yeah, alright. That's fine. Cheers, guys."
"Thanks, mate." Ron stood behind Hermione, his hands on her shoulders. "Remember to take care of my sister, or else, Harry. Just joking," he added with a grin. Harry wasn't sure whether or not he was actually joking, but dismissed it.
"Well, you take care of my sister," Harry retorted, kissing Hermione's cheek in return.
"Goodnight, sweetie. We love you." Hermione touched his arm gently as they walked away. Harry could tell she was a bit unsettled from their conversation outside. He did his best to look cheerful for the moment to reassure her that he was, in fact, alright. He did feel a bit better, though, since they talked. Less numb, at the very least, and a lot warmer.
Between speaking to a number of people who stopped him on the way back to his seat, and a trip to the bar for another drink, it felt like ages before he returned to his spot at the table. Ash and Ginny were already sitting there, talking. The monster in his chest growled lazily at his friend's constant presence near his girlfriend, but he dismissed it knowing that, despite his aversion to dancing with her, Ginny had been gazing at him and smiling his way all night. In a way, he felt like he really had nothing to worry for.
"Hey, you." Ginny pulled his arm and he sank back into his chair beside her. "Ash was just telling me how incredible you are at countering defensive spells. He says Kingsley says you have an instinctual knack for offensive magic."
"Yes, well, Ash is a wonder at wandless magic. In fact, will you put on a show for the lady? Entertain us like you do at lunch break?" Harry asked, leaning forward on his elbows.
Ash chuckled. "As you wish, Mr. Potter." Suddenly the floral centrepiece, a tall tree-like branch intertwined with red and white flowers, began to move. The branches twisted themselves upward. Then, it stopped twisting and a few of the flowers on the branches floated above the tree, twined themselves together in midair and created a narrow ring, which glided through the air toward Ginny's tiny wrist. It gracefully nudged her there and, as she lifted her hand up, it laced itself around her wrist like a bracelet.
Ginny laughed, amused, and Harry smiled at her expression. "How lovely! Thank you." She turned her wrist a bit, admiring her bracelet. "All without a wand," she muttered. "Oh, Harry, I wish Ash had been a DA member! He could have been very useful."
"Yes," Harry stretched his arms above his head and yawned. "He would have made all the Death Eaters look beautiful at the final battle. Woven flowers in their hair and such."
"No, I mean during the DA classes. He would have been able to teach us how to harness our wandless magic, Harry. Ash, you are a very talented wizard. The best I can do wandless is tie my bootlaces." She giggled. "Once, I tried, and they tied themselves together which was quite difficult to undo."
With that, slices of a beautiful chocolate gateau suddenly appeared in front of them. Ash turned his back for a moment, and Harry realized he was filching a half-empty bottle of cordials from a nearby table which had been abandoned by a few of the older Aurors who had already left the party. Ash conjured three tiny glasses and poured them each a measure.
"To Harry Potter," Ash grinned. "Who surprises me with his humility, his talent, and his ability to eat enormous amounts of spicy Indian food. You are, without a doubt, one of the coolest people I have ever met. I mean that, mate."
Ash's toast meant a lot to Harry, mainly because Ash was the first real friend Harry had made in this second life, post-Voldemort. But before he could respond, Ginny cut in with her own toast.
Ginny leaned towards Ash and whispered softly, "That was kind of you to say about Harry, Ash. I think he is one of the best, too."
"To good friends," Harry said quickly, "Cheers."
They all downed their glasses at the same time. They drank through another round of the strong, sweet liquor before tucking into their gateau.
As they were finishing up, Harry looked around. The evening seemed nearly over. Ginny hummed along to the soft music.
"Well, should I take you home?"
"I don't know. I was thinking we'd go to your place for awhile," she said quietly, as she picked up a nearby fork and filched a bite of his gateau. She had finished all of hers and he didn't mind. He scooted his plate closer to her so she could share.
"How much champagne did you have during the ceremony, Ginevra?"
She smiled. "I don't know. How many have you had?"
Ginny put her fork down. Harry felt her place her hand gently on his knee. "The night is still young and I'm not ready to go home just yet. Mum and Dad will be up and they'll question us about tonight… we won't have a moment alone until after midnight. By then, I'll be knackered. Besides, they did say that they didn't care what time I came in tonight." She took a moment to read his expression. "Please, Harry?" She looked up at him, her big brown eyes, pleading.
Harry shook his head. Absolutely not. No. Not with how much she'd had to drink. Despite how much he wanted to, it would be best and most responsible to take her home.
"Home, I think. Ready?" He rose and put on his cloak. Ginny gave him a disappointed look, which he responded to with out emotion as he helped Ginny put her cloak around her narrow shoulders. They said goodbye to Ash and others as they passed. Finally, as they were at the entrance, Ginny turned to him.
"I want to go to your house, Harry. And I won't take no for an answer." She threw him a determined look and took his arm. "And quickly, it's going to be freezing once we walk outside."
He hesitated, wanting to do as she asked, but was torn. He was still wondering if it was a good idea or if it would just be asking for trouble if the Weasleys or Ron found out. Although, why not take the opportunity? They hadn't had much alone time during the hols because Ginny hadn't taken the initiative to ask for any and he hadn't wanted to seem like a git. Now, she was asking for loads of alone time with him and he wasn't going to take it? How could he turn her down when it would feel really nice to snog her senseless right about now?
"You really want to go there?"
"Yeah, I do."
Harry watched as Ginny bit her bottom lip, rolled her eyes, then stood on her toes and boldly leaned over and kissed the corner of his mouth. The kiss was slow and warm, and left him wanting more.
"You ask too many questions, Potter. Just shut it and take me home."
After that, Harry had no choice but to agree.
"Fine, but only for an hour. I'll… make some tea for us or something and then I'm taking you home." Ginny gave him an odd look when he said that, both of them quite aware that tea was the last thing on either of their minds.
"Sure, I'd love some tea," she purred and pulled him by both hands out into the cold.
Several minutes later, they had landed in the entrance to Grimmauld and he unlocked the door. She hesitantly walked inside. It had been two weeks since he had been in here and, even though he had tried to leave it as clean as possible, it still seemed a mess. There was parchment all over the table. Drinking glasses were balanced on the table and mantle. Shoes and training gear were slung over the couch. Harry worried what his room looked like, but Ginny just set down her cloak.
"Let's go to your room. Come on." She took his hand.
Harry couldn't say no.
A/N: Thanks to Arnel for her patience with me as we went through the many edits of this chapter. I'll admit that this chapter was a difficult one for me to write, but due to Arnel's patience with me, support, encouragement, and amazing suggestions I was able to do something that I don't think would have been possible without her — complete this!! I also want to thank Arnel for her time, as these edits were going back and forth during a busy holiday season. As hectic as holiday seasons usually are, Arnel always had the time to get the chapter back to me quickly, which meant a lot! Thanks as well to the readers who have left their comments, reactions and suggestions. It does wonders for me when comments are made. Often times, they encourage me to take a step back and think about the story and where it is headed, or view and review the character actions from a new perspective. Therefore, I thank those who have reviewed for their insight! Please, if you are reading, let me know how I did with this! I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas holiday and have a happy New Year as well! Cheers, Rebecca