Since so many members of the Weasley family were at The Burrow this year, Christmas breakfast was served buffet style and everyone drifted to different parts of the house to consume it. Ron was happy his mother had let Hermione and Audrey convince her to serve the meal this way, because it gave him an excuse to get Harry off to one side for some private conversation. He purposely elbowed Ginny out of the line and took her place in back of his friend.
“Ron, I was there first,” she protested.
“Yes, you were,” he agreed, “but I want to talk to Harry and this way we’ll be together when we leave the line.”
“You’ll help him with his plate?” Ginny asked, sounding uncertain. “It will need a Temporary Sticking Charm so it won’t slide off his lap.”
“I heard that.” Harry’s tone was light. “I’ll ask for help if I need it.”
“He’s family, Ginny, and family helps family, right?”
She sighed. “I know… Go on, you two, and stop holding up the line.”
“Thanks,” Ron said and turned his attention to Harry and their empty plates.
“What did you want to talk about?” Harry asked as they found a secluded corner in which to talk.
Ron put their drinks down on a small table and settled into his chair before answering. “A lot of things, Harry,” he said. “We haven’t had much time to really just talk like we used to and there’s stuff you need to know.”
“All right, what do you want to discuss first?” Harry asked between bites of toast.
“I guess I’d prefer to get business out of the way first,” Ron said as he stirred his porridge to cool it a little. “I held a planning meeting last week with the various departments plus Healer Stilwell and the director of St Mungo’s, and we’ve come up with a plan that just might work.”
“Tell me about it,” Harry said, his voice taking on the no-nonsense tone he always used at the office.
Ron held back a smile as he described the plan.
When he finished, Harry was silent for a rather long time. Finally, he put his empty plate aside and asked, “What does Hermione think about this?”
Ron felt his ears heat up. “I haven’t told her yet,” he said sheepishly. Harry sat back and laced his fingers across his stomach and Ron could easily picture him doing this exact same thing behind his desk at the Auror Office. “Erm… I’m using the excuse that it’s classified information, Harry. You know I’d get in trouble if Robards thought I’d compromised the investigation in any way… including telling you what we were planning.”
“I don’t like it, Ron,” Harry said. “You’re playing with fire here and if something goes wrong, you could end up like me.”
Ron sighed. “It’s a risk I have to take, Harry. Robards and Stilwell agree, even though Brodie and Garrett had another, safer idea which we’re using as Plan B,” he said, “but the more I mull the two over, the more I think our Plan A is the best way to catch the Matron.”
“When are you planning on carrying it out?”
“Not for a couple of weeks yet. There are some things still pending that need to be in place before we can do anything. We won’t attempt anything until everything is in place.”
“I hope one of them is some in-depth training on the specialized skills needed for a situation like the one you’re planning.” Harry’s tone made it clear what he wanted for his Aurors.
“That’s one of them,” Ron explained. “Robards is arranging for the entire Auror Department to take a specialized course that covers the new magic, procedures and techniques we need to capture the perpetrators and keep everyone involved safe.”
“Good. Even if most of the teams never encounter a situation like the one you’re planning, the new skills will benefit everyone. Please tell Robards I’d like a report on the results of your training to be sent to me. Is he going to participate?”
“Yes,” Ron answered.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Harry said, looking pleased.
“In the meantime,” Ron continued, “I think you’d better warn your informant that it might be best to take an extended holiday or at least work from home for a couple of weeks.”
“Brodie, Terry and Garrett gained access to the warehouse on Monday and did some exploring. They found evidence of the same type of experimentation we found at the house as well as signs of either packing up or unpacking of various parts of the room. We think it’s likely that the Matron and her compatriots are looking for new premises and may be gone from their present location within the week.”
“How does that affect my informant?”
“Harry, there are only two known magical warehouses on that block. One is being rented to an unknown company; the other has been there for thirty years and changed ownership within the last eighteen months. You might as well tell Draco Malfoy that he’s in grave danger and shouldn’t be alone at the office after hours.”
Harry’s eyebrow had disappeared into his fringe at the mention of Draco, the only sign that Ron’s guess had been correct about the identity of Harry’s informant.
“I promised him he’d be anonymous,” Harry croaked, sounding troubled. “What happens now? You know who he is, which means I’ve violated the trust it’s taken us years to build.”
Ron stared at the empty plate he held. “I only just figured out who your informant was yesterday. I haven’t told anyone, not Robards, not Garrett, not Brodie or Susan or Terry, nobody. I promise to keep his name classified just as you did.”
“So nothing has been written in a folder that someone could copy?” Harry asked. “I’m concerned because Draco has a wife and son…”
“Nothing,” Ron confirmed. “I just hope a verbal warning or an unfamiliar owl will alert him to how serious things could get for him, his family and his employees.”
“I’ll get word to Draco one way or another,” Harry promised.
Ron smiled. “You’re a good friend, Harry… to both of us.” He was surprised a moment later when Harry disagreed.
“Ron, I’ve been anything but that the last few months. Just ask my wife!” Harry protested. This was just the opening Ron needed for his next subject.
“Actually, I think I will,” he said.
“Huh?” This seemed to startle Harry. “You’ll ask her what?”
“Mostly why she’s not acting like herself,” Ron said, leaning back in his own chair and reaching for his mug of tea. “Harry, I’m worried about my sister. I don’t think anyone else in the family sees it, but have you notice that she hasn’t sat down or relaxed since you arrived yesterday?”
To Ron’s surprise, Harry leaned forward and supported his forehead with his fingers. “I’d hoped after our discussion yesterday that she’d back off,” he muttered.
“Yes, from the time we picked up the children Saturday. James came home from his visit with Brian on Wednesday and told us that if we didn’t stop arguing, he was going back to Hogwarts and was probably taking Al and Lily with him.”
“What’d you two do?”
“We managed to talk civilly for the first time since we set foot in the van on Saturday.” Harry looked up, his expression bleak. “Ron, she thought she was bringing me home to die.”
Ron felt the sadness and confusion of those first two weeks come flooding back. “We all did, Harry. You have no idea how scared and helpless we all felt, especially after Healer Stilwell performed the emergency surgery on your heart,” he admitted.
“I’m beginning to get the picture,” Harry said. He reached for his mug and took several sips. “So… how do we help her? What can I do?”
It would be so easy to just brush off the question with an I-don’t-know answer, but Ron knew that was a copout. Finally, he said, “I think you’re doing it already, Harry. You’re showing her that you’ve become stronger and are capable of taking care of most of your needs by yourself. The more you demonstrate it, the less she’ll tend to hover, I reckon.”
Harry looked relieved. “I hope so… I… I thought it was more of an … intimacy problem,” he stammered, his ears turning Weasley red.
Ron cocked his head to the right. “It could be that, too,” he chuckled softly. It was his turn to feel embarrassed as he asked, “Have you tried anything? Can you… feel anything… you know… intimate?”
Harry cleared his throat. “No, we haven’t and yes, there’s … sensation,” he hedged.
Ron bit his lip and then said, “Right. Good to know. Now let my sister know that, too.” With that, he gathered their dishes to take to the kitchen. “Erm… nice talking to you, Harry.”
On the coast of Scotland, not far from Aberdeen near Stonehaven and just south of the ruins of Dunnottar Castle, was a set of magically-carved steps leading down the cliff face to an almost imperceptible crack in the rocks. There, in a cave carved by the relentless crashing waves of the North Sea, a make-shift potions lab had been set up, along with two other chambers, one big enough to hold three containment cells and another, larger room for conducting experiments. At this moment, only the potions lab was in use, because the other three people who worked here were celebrating the holiday. The potioneer, on the other hand, was using the peace and quiet to tend her cauldrons as they bubbled and hissed and sent up clouds of coloured steam.
The Matron pushed some limp hair out of her face and gazed thoughtfully at her finished potion. It was a pearlescent blue-green colour, a combination of the two potions she’d been using on her last six test subjects and her two successful victimizations of Payton Stilwell’s patients. The two separate potions had done what they’d been designed to do, kill nerves and successfully cripple both victims, but this newest potion… This potion had the properties of both previous potions plus an added ingredient that when activated remotely by a specific spell would cause severe anaphylactic shock, which would kill the victim within minutes if the proper medical spells and/or potions were not administered straight away. The beauty of this was that the needles could leak their poison into the victim’s system and at precisely the right moment, with the caster as much as a mile away, the spell could be cast and the victim dispatched without suspicion.
She could hardly wait to try it out on another of Stilwell’s patients. She smiled. It was a very happy Christmas, indeed…
Across the room Ginny was deep in conversation with her sisters-in-law. It was a nice, easy discussion that allowed her to sweep the room with her eyes, looking for anything her children and husband might need. With one ear on what Fleur was saying about Louis’ chances of getting a job at the Ministry right out of Hogwarts verses his taking a Gap Year between leaving school and then finding a job, Ginny willed her mind to stop thinking about the drive home in two days’ time and dreading the long stint behind the wheel of the van. She was also quite tired; she hadn’t slept well last night because she had dreamed of Harry’s funeral again, the one she’d started planning in her head during the long nights right after Harry’s accident. Despite the fact that her husband was within earshot and very much alive, she just couldn’t shake the sadness and terror of facing life without him…
Oh, Harry, don’t ever scare me like that again…
“Earth to Ginny! Earth to Ginny!” Angelina’s voice broke through her thoughts and she turned back to the group to find her friend looking at her with a rather concerned expression. “Ginny, you’re a million light-years away. What’s up?”
Ginny smiled shakily. “The ceiling,” she quipped, pointing over their heads with her fork.
Angelina shook her head. “I’m serious, Ginny, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Still trying to evade he sister-in-law’s question, she answered, “Actually, it’s been over twenty years since I’ve seen Nearly-Headless Nick. What about you?”
Scowling now, Angelina said, “Stop it, Ginny. You can’t fool us. You’ve been too quiet the entire time you’ve been here… how… how are you holding up?”
The question startled Ginny. She hadn’t thought about her own needs in quite a while. “I’m fine,” she answered, using Harry’s pet response to any question about his well-being that he didn’t want to answer.
“Oh, so you’re turning into Harry now?” Hermione asked, giving her a searching look. “I don’t believe you. You know as well as I do that’s the answer he always gave us when he was being evasive about his feelings.”
“Fine.” Ginny crossed her arms over her chest as she glared at Hermione. “If you really want to know, I didn’t sleep well last night because the bed was lumpy, the fairy lights on the Christmas tree reminded me of the light globes that hovered over Harry’s bed at St Mungo’s and Harry snored because he has a slight head cold but won’t take anything for it except Muggle cold preparations. He can’t take Pepper-Up Potion because it interferes with his other potions,” Ginny said irritably. “Now do you see why I’m tired?”
Hermione glanced at Angelina. “Those are just excuses,” Angelina said quietly. “I know there’s a deeper reason you’re not joining our discussion.”
Glancing away to look for James, Albus and Lily and finding them still at the table with their cousins, Ginny asked, “Why do I need a reason for tuning you out? I have a family to look after.”
“You used to do that a lot when the kids were younger and you felt you needed to know where they were all the time. That was justifiable when the boys were tiny terrors trying to demolish everything in sight. Your family isn’t under five years old any more, Ginny,” Angelina said. “They haven’t needed this much attention in ages.”
“I know that!” Ginny snapped. She turned back to her best friend and sister-in-law again. “Just leave me alone, all right? I’m fine,” she answered, hoping the answer would satisfy at least Angelina.
“If you say so…” Angelina shrugged and left her alone as Hermione scowled and turned back towards Fleur.
However, as she finished her Sally Lunn bread, Ginny asked herself, Am I really fine? The scary answer… she didn’t know.
He stood in the woods surrounding the estate called The Burrow. He was frustrated. Harry Potter was in that building. The Auror, Ronald Weasley, was in that building, too… And Weasley was in there celebrating the holiday while he… He banished the thought and moved to his other hiding spot where he could view the back door…
What infuriated him most was that the stupid security enchantments on the property were too effective at keeping him out; they would not allow him in to set the magical traps ordered by the Matron. For reasons he could not fathom, the Matron wanted Auror Weasley dead, or if not dead, so physically, mentally or magically impaired that the Auror would be forced to hand off the investigation to another of his colleagues who was less-familiar with the case. He stood there, willing Weasley to come out into the garden, but he did not come.
In fact, none of the occupants of the house had come out yet this morning and it was beginning to snow again. He tapped his head with his wand, casting a Disillusionment Spell upon himself and settled beneath a tree, hoping the warming charm on his cloak would be enough against the light snow which was beginning to fall.
The Burrow felt cosy with nearly all her brothers and their families home for Christmas. The morning had gone quickly with breakfast followed by the family gift exchange. She had been pleasantly surprised when Lily and Al had agreed to help their cousins pass out the gifts. She’d received some lovely and thoughtful things as had Harry and the children, and she was glad her family understood how last-minute her shopping had been. A light lunch had followed the gift exchange, and it would be another hour before all the wives descended on the kitchen to prepare Christmas Dinner.
At the moment, her children and most of their cousins were out in the back garden for the boys-against-girls annual snowball fight. Their high-pitched giggles and shrieks of laughter filtered through the windows to where she was sitting at the kitchen table nursing a cup of tea. Looking through the door to the sitting room, she saw that her husband, her brothers and her father were all engaged in their traditional Wizard’s Chess match which Ron had instituted the year the war had ended as something completely new that Fred would not have participated in willingly. This year they had set up three boards for the tournament and from the grin on Ron’s face, it was likely he would win again this year.
Ginny took a sip of her tea and suddenly realized that she had been sitting in this exact spot for nearly an hour with absolutely nothing to do. It was a very strange feeling, one she hadn’t enjoyed in over two months. Since Harry’s accident there hadn’t been time for her to just sit like this; there had always been something demanding her attention because of how much time she was spending at The Groves with him. But now that he’d learned so much and his life was out of danger, she suddenly realized he wasn’t going to need her constantly.
How do I feel about it? she asked herself.
Her answer surprised her because instead of words like relieved or satisfied, the first two words that came to mind were obsolete and superfluous… and they absolutely terrified her. On impulse, she rose from her chair and wandered up the stairs to her old bedroom where she’d left her handbag. She felt… restless… and in need of something physically exhausting to do. There was an old cloak hanging in the wardrobe and without a second thought, she put it on, snatched up her bag and walked out the kitchen door. Ten steps from the house she turned on the spot and Disapparated.
A/N: Just a few quick thank yous… to my pre-betas Jedi34, Mutt n Feathers, RebeccaRipple, Rosina Ferguson, and RSS, thank you all for your opinions and encouragement on this chapter, especially Mutt because you understand Ginny so well. Also, thank you to Aggiebell, my beta for the many times she read this chapter. I think I sent her at least three different versions, all with new material that needed to be read and/or commented on.