Harry's eyes blinked open; Ron was shaking him by his right shoulder. Harry sat up. "Right," he said, rubbing his eyes to clear them, then reaching for his glasses. "What time is it?"
"Half-past eleven. Big Sky and Jester will be here any moment for debriefing." Ron stretched, and Harry heard his bones creak. "Blimey, this was a killer shift. Thirty-six hours is too bloody much. I'm ready to go home and sleep for a week."
"And miss Lavender and Seamus' party tonight?" Harry grinned, leveraging himself up off the sofa in the corner of their office, where he'd been napping for the past couple hours. "Hermione would never forgive you, mate."
"Hermione hasn't been on shift for a day and a half, either," Ron groused, resettling his robes, which had ridden up as he'd stretched, to lie properly across his shoulders. "Thirty-six bloody hours! What was Twilight thinking?"
"Well, we shouldn't have to do this again any time soon." Harry straightened his own robes and went to look at the maps they'd created, which had been tacked to the wall. He knew Ron was just tired and short-tempered. "We can go home and sleep for a few hours before the party."
"If we don't get called." Ron scowled, coming up beside Harry. "Ten to one we will. It's not likely the Death Eaters will let New Year's Eve pass by again without trying something. There are just too many glorious possibilities for mayhem." His voice was dry enough to dessicate.
"Hm. They don't seem to need holidays to find an excuse, though," Harry commented, frowning at the dozens of pins pulsing red on the map, each one marking the site of a Death Eater attack. "And it's just the luck of the draw that we get New Year's Eve off, mate. Otherwise we'd be coming on shift right about now, and have all that mess on our watch."
Twilight had changed their schedules for New Year's. Because attacks—huge attacks—had occurred each of the previous two New Year's Eves, Twilight had chosen to put the two of them on a 36-hour shift from midnight, 30 December through noon 31 December. Jester and Big Sky would then take over for the next 36 hours, leaving Harry and Ron the chance to get some sleep before evening so that, if they were called out, they'd be rested. Harry had heard also that most of the rest of the Department, and all of the Aurors, were on alert as well.
Please, he thought as he cast a Cleansing Charm on their coffee cups and put them on the shelf beneath the map table, let this New Year's Eve be one without an attack.
But he didn't hold out much hope.
The door squeaked slightly, and they turned to see who was coming in. "'Ello there, lads," a deep voice said in a Liverpool accent, and a tall, dark-skinned man came in. "Long shift?"
"Longer than I ever want to experience again, Jester," Ron said. "But I don't want to spoil your fun by telling you all the details."
"Oh, spoil it, please," said Big Sky as he came in behind his partner, running his hand through his mop of mousy-brown hair. He was a shade shorter than Harry, but nearly as broad as Charlie; not a person Harry would be anxious to take on in a fight. "We're desperate to know what it is we've missed." He and Jester both moved over toward the map on the wall beside Ron. Harry made his way over there as well.
"Right, then," Ron said, and he waved his wand over the map. The red lights indicating attacks dimmed. "Two squads of officers were deployed about three hours ago to the Lake District; reports have placed Draco Malfoy there for the holidays." Two blue lights shone brightly in the northern part of England. "Apparently there have been some, quote, 'odd sightings' reported by the Muggles there over the past week or so, and the Department doesn't want to take any chances, especially as hard-hit as they've been by the Death Eaters recently. Another squad was sent to Devon as well; though there haven't been any attacks in the last couple of weeks or so in that region, it's seen enough action that they felt caution was warranted." He waved his wand again, and another blue dot began to glow, this one in the south, near Cornwall. "We've got two here at the Ministry on alert as well, and every other squad we have is ready to be called in at a moment's notice. So are the Aurors, of course; they'll be going out with us if we're called."
And not just the Aurors. Ron wouldn't say anything to Big Sky and Jester, of course, but Tonks had come in about six that morning to tell them off-the-record that the Order of the Phoenix—or what remained of it—was also on alert. Not so much for the fighting—though they'd be doing rather a lot of that, especially the members who had once been part of the DA at Hogwarts—but for information gathering. There were no equals to the Order of the Phoenix when it came to collecting information, not even the Department of Mysteries. Harry was exceedingly glad the Order was willing to carry on and to report to them, so they could do something about it.
"…think that's about it," Ron was saying. Harry pulled his attention back to the task at hand and tried to pretend he'd been listening all along.
"Right," Jester said. "Well, then, you lot get on home. We'll likely be calling you in a few hours, if the Death Eaters keep to their usual holiday timetable."
"And stop by Twilight's office on your way out," Big Sky said. "He ran into us on our way in and told us to tell you."
"Right. Quiet watch, then." Ron flipped them a jaunty salute; Harry rolled his eyes and just nodded. I just want to get out of here and get home. I've got plans for this afternoon, and I'd rather not be late for them.
They headed out of their office, turned left, and made their way through the maze of cubicles to Twilight's office. The door was open; Twilight was hard at work at his desk. Harry knocked on the doorjamb, and his boss looked up. "Onyx," he said by way of greeting. "Red Knight. I don't want to keep you, since I know you've got to be exhausted, but I've got something for you. Come on in."
Harry and Ron stepped into the office and approached Twilight's desk. He handed them each a small object about the size and shape of a ball-point pen. "Communicators," he said. "If we need you, it'll heat up; hold it up to your mouth and speak your code name, and it'll become a Portkey. If you run into trouble and you need backup, break it in two and the squads on call will be notified. If you need more than the two on call, speak into it with the number of squads you need and then break it. Got that?"
"Yes, sir," they chorused. Harry put his in the breast pocket of his robes, reminding himself to make sure he took it with him to the party tonight.
"Right, then, that's it. We're sending them out to everyone; we want to make sure every single officer of the Department has one, just in case." Twilight shook his head. "I don't understand why people insist on having big parties like this when the Death Eaters are so active," he complained. "It's just an invitation for them."
"This is an engagement party as well as a New Year's Eve party," Ron said. "Family as well as friends."
"That's not exactly my point, but at least they had the sense to have it someplace away from the worst of the attacks. Nottingham, did you say?"
"Just outside," Harry confirmed. "The hostess's parents have got a huge home on quite a bit of land."
Twilight sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I'm glad it'll be the three of you, at any rate. If something does happen, you lot can hold things together until backup arrives. But no heroics, you hear me? We need you too badly for that. If you were dispensable enough to be on a squad, we'd have you there. All of you. Understood?"
Twilight shook his head and waved his hand at them in a shooing motion. "Off you go, then. Mind you get some sleep; if you have to leave this party on a call, you don't want to be falling over from exhaustion. Or drunkenness," he added significantly, looking hard at each of them. "One drink, no more. Got that?"
"Yes, sir." They saluted, then left, heading for the Apparition point.
"You are planning to sleep, right?" Ron added to Harry as they headed out into the corridor.
"Eventually." A corner of Harry's mouth tugged upward. "I've got something to do first."
Lunch was a fairly noisy affair. All of the Weasleys were at home for the holidays, except for Mr. Weasley and Percy, who were both at work. "And why they can't let them off on New Year's Eve, I've no idea," Mrs. Weasley said irritably as she set a plate of chops down on the table. "Or at least half a day. It's ridiculous that they should be expected to work on a holiday."
"They've tomorrow off, Mum," Charlie said soothingly, passing the bowl of broccoli to Ron, who scowled and handed it to Hermione without taking any. Hermione scowled right back and dished some onto his plate before taking some herself.
"I know they will, but still, the holidays are a time for family, and I don't understand why they have to work." Molly turned to Hermione. "Not that we don't enjoy having you here, Hermione dear, but are you certain your parents wouldn't rather have you with them? Or perhaps they'd like to come here for New Year's dinner tomorrow. I hate to think of them all alone on the holiday…"
Hermione smiled. "I'm sure they'd love to come, Mrs. Weasley. They certainly enjoyed themselves at Christmas. If you'd like, I'll owl them right after lunch."
"Yes, by all means!" Molly said, beaming. "I do like your parents. I hope that we can become good friends."
Crookshanks padded into the room, tail held high, and stopped beside Hermione's chair. "Mrrow?" he said in what would have been an interested tone of voice if he'd been human. Harry turned to look at him and burst into laughter: someone had tied mistletoe to the tip of his tail, and he was carrying it proudly, as though showing off his holiday spirit. Hermione appeared to be torn between amusement and irritation, and Molly was incensed on behalf of the poor cat, but everyone else had collapsed back in their chairs, laughing.
"FRED AND GEORGE WEASLEY!" Molly bellowed. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO THAT POOR CAT?"
Fred was laughing, but George managed to look as nearly innocent as either of them ever managed. "Just a bit of holiday spirit, Mum."
"Well, I don't think it's very funny! That poor cat has to carry all that around all day…"
"Crookshanks seems to like it," Charlie gasped, beginning to recover. He wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands and took a deep breath. "He's showing off for us, Mum."
"I don't care!" Molly snapped. "Mistletoe berries are deathly poisonous to people and to cats. You'll get that off him right now, and then you'll be spending the afternoon making sure this kitchen is spotless, and I do mean spotless."
"How old are we again?" Fred muttered to his twin, but they didn't argue. Harry rather thought it was because they knew it wouldn't do any good.
He looked over at Ginny, who sat to his left and had been mostly silent all through lunch. She didn't seem to be upset, though; it was more like she'd been enjoying the spectacle too much to interrupt it. Her eyes sparkled with unspoken mirth. "Are you finished?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," she said promptly. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Get out of the kitchen before Fred and George start flinging Cleaning charms about?"
"Exactly," Ginny grinned, standing up. "Mum, we're through. Shall we put the plates in the sink for you?"
"Yes, thanks, Gin," Fred said before his mother could answer. "That'd be spiffing."
Molly glared at her son, but didn't say anything. Ginny tried to hide a smirk as she Banished her dishes and Harry's to the sink.
"Hey, Harry," Ron said, quickly swallowing his mouthful of potato, "fancy a quick match in the orchard a bit later?"
"Thought you were going to have a lie-down," Harry said.
"I am, but there's only a few more hours of daylight. What d'you say?"
Harry glanced at Ginny, then said, "Er, thanks, Ron, but Ginny and I were going to go for a walk."
"Ooooo, a walk," George said in a high-pitched voice.
"I don't know, George, should we let 'em?" Fred said with mock-seriousness.
"I'm not sure we should. You never know where a walk will lead—"
"—and she's our baby sister—"
"—she'll need our protection—"
"—from the dangers of these Ministry types."
"You two are the ones who'll need protection in a moment," Ginny said, but her eyes were twinkling. "I catch you two following us and a Bat-Bogey hex is the least you'll have to worry about."
"Oh, George, sounds like they want to be alone…"
"Leave it," Bill said firmly as Harry and Ginny turned to go upstairs for their cloaks. "Honestly, you two don't know when to quit, do you?"
"I don't know what you're on about, brother dear," Fred was saying hotly as they managed to escape into the living room.
"Whew!" Harry said as the kitchen door closed behind them. "I hope Bill can keep them occupied for a bit; don't want them following us."
Ginny had stopped and turned to face him. "Following us on the walk that I didn't know anything about?" she said, an eyebrow raised.
Harry blushed. He'd forgotten he hadn't asked her. I'd better apologise, fast. "Sorry, Gin," he said hastily. "I meant to ask you before lunch, but then our boss held us back for a bit, and when we got here we were all ready to sit down at the table, and—"
Ginny laughed and touched his lips with a fingertip to quiet him. "It's all right, Harry," she assured him. "I'm only joking. A walk sounds lovely. Where would you like to go?"
She's not angry. Good. "I was thinking down toward the pond," he said with deliberate casualness, trying to keep his nerves out of his voice. "Just to get out for a few minutes. Ron's right, we've only got a few hours of daylight left; we can nap later. It's only half past one, and we're not supposed to be at Lavender's till—what? Ten o'clock?"
"Ten-thirty." Ginny smiled. "All right, then. Let's get our cloaks before anyone comes out to disturb us."
She headed up the stairs, Harry right behind her. Once she'd turned into her room, which was on the landing below his own, he pounded up the remaining steps and raced into his room. His cloak was hanging on a hook on the side of the wardrobe, but he ignored it for the moment. Instead, he dug into the back of one of the drawers of his dresser, looking for the small box he'd hidden there. His hands trembled as he drew it out of its hiding place and looked at it for a long moment.
Do I dare? he thought, his stomach fluttering desperately with the nerves he'd been trying to hide. I don't even know if the time is right. What if it's not?
He imagined putting the box back, returning downstairs and going for a peaceful, innocent walk with Ginny. His nerves quieted, but his heart twisted in protest.
I can't put this off. Not and live with myself afterward. Am I a Gryffindor or not?
He'd changed into jeans and a sweatshirt before lunch; now he put the box into his pocket and closed his drawer. Taking a deep breath, he lifted his cloak off the hook and draped it across his arm, then headed downstairs.
It had snowed that morning while he and Ron were at work; their footsteps crunched as they walked from the house down toward the pond at the bottom of the orchard, nearly half a kilometre away. Ginny's royal-blue Weasley jumper peeped out above the collar of her cloak and showed through the arm slit, where she'd slid her arm through so she could hold Harry's hand. He laced his fingers with hers, praying they didn't continue to tremble and trying hard to focus on what she was saying, not what he was planning.
Merlin, she's gorgeous, he thought as she shook her hair off her shoulders and smiled at a small snowbird that flew past. I don't know if I can do this.
Yes, you can, an adamant voice from the back of his brain insisted. You will. You already Saw this, remember?
And with those words, the memory of his Vision more than a year ago fluttered through his brain. He had Seen it. It was the only thing he had ever Seen.
But did that mean it would come true?
I guess there's only one way to find out.
"Oh, Harry, look," Ginny said suddenly in an awe-struck voice, interrupting his thoughts.
He glanced up and was astounded by the sight that greeted him. The trees in the orchard, leafless through the winter, had each been frosted with an inch or so of snow along every twig and bough. It gave the effect of standing in the midst of an intricate lace pattern that sparkled in the thin, midwinter sunlight. "Wow," he said softly.
"Yeah," Ginny whispered. He turned to look at her. She stood with her face uplifted, taking in the beauty surrounding them. "This is incredible," she said. "It does this every time it snows—but every time it's so beautiful that you think you'll never see anything like it again. And you never do, because each time is just a little bit different."
He stared at her for a moment, then, as if in a dream, tugged her closer to him. Bemused, she turned her gaze from the lacy trees to him, smiling. "Isn't it incredible?" she asked. "Absolutely stunning."
"Yes," he said, looking deeply into her eyes. "Absolutely stunning."
She blinked, then her face began to colour as she apparently understood what he meant. She swallowed, keeping her gaze locked with his.
"Ginny," he began, a bit hesitantly. The butterflies in his stomach were back. Butterflies? No… more like dragonflies. Or dragons. Real dragons. Maybe a few Hungarian Horntails. "I…I wanted to come out here… for a bit of privacy. There's something I wanted to say to you."
A small frown creased her forehead. "Is everything all right, Harry?" she asked, concern in her voice.
"Everything's fine," he assured her. "I just…" He paused again, then plunged ahead, looking deep into her eyes. "Ginny, you told me you've always known we were meant to be together, and I've never doubted it. I don't think anyone has, since we started going out. But now…I want to make it a little more formal." He released her hand to pull his cloak back and dig into his pocket. When he brought out the little blue, velvet box, he saw Ginny's hand fly to her mouth in sudden realisation. She looked up at him with huge brown eyes, hope and disbelief shining in them, tears of joy brimming.
He opened the box and revealed its contents—a gold ring set with a centre sapphire and a diamond to either side. Her other hand flew to her mouth as well, and now Harry couldn't help but smile as he bent his left knee, kneeling in the snow before her and taking hold of her left hand. "I can't promise you a perfect life," he said quietly, looking up at her. "I can't even promise you a safe one. Not with the Death Eaters active again. Maybe it's not fair to ask you this now, but—" he paused, trying to remember the words he'd said in front of the mirror for days, "—what I can promise you, Ginny, is that you have all of me—heart, mind, body, and soul—for all of my life."
She blinked furiously, her eyes filled with both tears and delight.
"You said once that we were destined for each other," Harry continued. "That may be, but we've taken that destiny and made it ours. Through pain and sorrow and laughter and joy, we've created our own destiny."
He brought her hand down to his lips so he could kiss her knuckles gently. "Ginny Weasley," he said, trying to put all his love and devotion and hope into his voice and his eyes, "will you marry me?"
The tears that had threatened finally spilled over, and she threw her arms around his neck, laughing with joy. "Yes!" she carolled as he wrapped his arms around her and stood, lifting her off the ground as he did. "Yes, yes, yes!" She pulled back enough to lean down to kiss him, and he felt his own tears of joy slide down his face as their lips met. My wife, he thought, hardly believing it. My wife. She's going to be my wife!
After a moment he let her slide back down to the ground and pulled back, grinning like a lunatic. "Give me your hand," he said, releasing her to take the ring out of the box. He slipped it onto her finger, and both of them stared at it, sparkling merrily against the background of snow.
It looks so right.
Feeling as though his pounding heart was going to jump right out of his chest, he took her fingers in his hand and lifted them to his mouth, pressing a kiss just below the ring and letting his eyes smile into hers.
Ginny smiled and reached up with her other hand to draw his head down for a soft kiss. "It's lovely," she said breathlessly. "It's perfect. But…"
Harry's heart stopped, and he pulled his head back, staring at her. "But what?" Oh, God, please… tell me she hasn't changed her mind!
"The party tonight," she said, as if that explained everything.
He blinked. "What about it?"
"It's Lavender and Seamus' engagement party, love," she said. "This is their day, love. We don't want to walk in and upstage them at their own party. I think I shouldn't wear this on my hand tonight." She reached beneath her jumper and pulled a gold chain free—the one with her birthday pendant on it. "Here," she said. "Put the ring on this for now. I'll wear it on my finger starting tomorrow, but I don't want to take the spotlight from Seamus and Lavender tonight." She smiled up at him, but it was a tentative smile, as if hoping he'd understand.
He blew out a breath in relief as his heart unclenched. For one horrifying second, he'd been afraid she was changing her mind about marrying him. One day's delay was no problem. "All right, love," he said. "Whatever you like."
Her smile became broader, and she reached behind her neck to unclasp the chain. He pulled the ring gently from her hand and held it for her to thread the chain through it, then refastened the chain behind her neck. The ring sparkled just below the pulse of her throat, lying against her jumper as though they were made to go together.
But it looks so much better on her hand.
"Only until tomorrow, Harry," Ginny said, and leaned forward to kiss him. He kissed her back, knowing she meant what she said. And really, I don't want to be a prat and upstage Seamus and Lavender either. "Tomorrow," she said as the kiss ended, looking straight into his eyes, "everybody knows about us. I want everyone to know."
"So do I, love." He grinned down at her, so overwhelmingly happy that he couldn't hide it any more. He wrapped his arms around her waist and picked her up again, swinging her around. "I love this woman!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs.
"Harry!" Ginny laughed, her arms tight around his shoulders, holding on. "They'll hear us clear back at the house!"
"No, they won't. We're far enough away, and they're all inside anyway." He grinned at her, then threw his head back one more time. "I love Ginny Weasley!" he shouted again for good measure, and then set her down. "There," he said in a more normal tone of voice. "I've told the world. You can hide the ring as long as you want to."
Ginny just laughed and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her cheek to his shoulder. He held her, feeling her heart pound against his chest and hearing his own in his ears, and knew that, for this moment at least, all was right with the world.
A few minutes past ten-thirty that evening, Harry Apparated into a small grove of trees. To either side of him he heard the distinctive pops of Ron and Hermione appearing as well. Through the trees he could see light and moving shadows, and heard loud laughter. "Come on," he said. "I want to find Ginny. Blimey, but this'll be easier once she's taken her Apparition exams."
"She'll be in the drawing room, I expect," Hermione said as they moved toward the light, which turned out to be a huge bonfire. "I think that's where Lavender said the Floo network was connected."
They pushed their way through the crowd toward the huge house that stood about a hundred yards back from the bonfire. Without really thinking about it, Harry pulled his wand out of its sheath about an inch to make sure it wouldn't catch, then pushed it back in again and checked the pocket where his communicator was hidden.
"Nervous, Harry?" Hermione asked.
He glanced at her; she must have seen him checking his equipment. "No," he said truthfully. "Just checking. Habit."
"And a good habit, too," Ron said, checking his own wand to be sure it was free in its sheath before slamming it back. A laughing couple, each of whom held a tankard of something that was smoking copiously, danced past him, nearly knocking into him. He stopped in his tracks and jumped backward to avoid being hit. "Oi! Watch it!" he called after them as they disappeared, laughing, toward the bonfire. "Bloody rude, that was," he added half under his breath as he caught up with Harry and Hermione, who had stopped to wait for him. "Nearly wore that drink."
Hermione took Ron's hand and squeezed. "It's a party, Ron," she said soothingly. "People won't be as aware of what they're doing."
"Well, they should be," Ron snapped. Harry hid a grin; the two of them were sounding more and more like each other all the time.
They skirted a box hedge and jumped over a narrow flowerbed, and Harry heard their boots crunch on gravel. The house loomed before them, candlelight flickering in a few of the windows upstairs, and blazing out of the lower story. Ron's expression had shifted from annoyed to amazed. "Wow," he said softly. "This is some house, eh? Wonder how many house-elves it takes to keep up a place like that?"
"More than you'll ever see in your life, Weasley, but I expect you know that," a familiar, hateful voice drawled from beside them. The three of them whirled to see Draco Malfoy lounging against a decorative brick gatepost to one side of the drive. "Are you sure you want to go in, Weasley?" he continued, shaking his blonde hair—now shoulder-length—away from his face. "I doubt the Browns will be happy to have muck tracked all through their foyer."
"Is that why you're out here, Malfoy?" Harry said, holding onto his irritation. Ron, apparently, was having a harder time of it; Hermione had let go his hand to take hold of his lower bicep, obviously trying to keep him calm. "Since you spend most of your time in the gutter with your Death Snacker friends, I'd think it would be nearly impossible to get rid of it now."
Ron snorted with amusement, and Malfoy's eyes narrowed. "Be careful, Potter," he warned.
"You say that every year," Harry observed. "It's getting old. Can't you think of any other Bad-Guy warnings to give? Like maybe, 'You'd better watch your back,' or 'Just when you think you're safe, I'll be there,' or even 'I know where you sleep.' The Muggles have some good ones in their films, Malfoy. You should do some research. Toughen up your persona. Could really use some work, mate."
He saw Malfoy growl and reach for his pocket, but before Harry could do more than reach for his sleeve and his own wand, a flash of movement caught his eye. Hermione had pushed Ron away and spun in a sharp roundhouse kick, knocking Malfoy's legs out from under him so that he landed on the gravel with an oof.
Harry's wand was out and pointing at Malfoy's face less than half a second later, as was Ron's. "Try that one again, Malfoy, and we'll do more than knock you down," Ron growled. "And then we'll call the Magical Law Enforcement Squad and have them cart you away to spend some time with dear old Daddy in Azkaban. Got it?"
Malfoy sneered as best he could with two wands only inches from his face. "I spend more time with 'dear old Daddy' than you might think, Weasel," he spat. "And I can have you up on charges for that little stunt, Mudblood. I didn't do anything to you."
Hermione stood beside Ron, toward Malfoy's right. "You were going for your wand," she said. "Under the Decree for the Reduction of Duelling, passed at the beginning of our seventh year, any private citizen is authorised to use non-deadly force to prevent a duel from beginning. Knocking you down falls well into that category." She tapped Ron's bicep with the back of her fingers. "Let him up," she said. "We've got to find Ginny anyway."
Reluctantly, Harry and Ron lowered their wands and stepped back. Malfoy leveraged himself up off the ground, raking his hair away from his face and glaring with pure hatred. "I won't forget this," he growled. "Trust me on that."
"Oh, see? You have seen a few Muggle films," Harry said in mock appreciation. "And don't worry, Malfoy; we won't forget, either. We've got an eye on you, never doubt it."
"Ohhh," Malfoy said in equally-feigned concern, "Potter, Weasley, and Mudblood are keeping an eye on me, are they? Well, I suppose I'd better watch out for you, then. Or at least for the Mudblood. There've been some fascinating rumours going round about her. It might be interesting to see if she's as talented as I've hear—"
Ron's fist connected with Malfoy's jaw so hard that Draco's feet actually lifted off the ground before he fell. Harry grabbed Ron, hanging on for dear life to prevent him from picking Malfoy up to hit him again.
"I'll kill him," Ron was snarling. "I'll kill him, I'll bloody kill the wanker! Let me go, damn it!"
Hermione interposed herself between Ron and Malfoy, pressing her palms against Ron's chest. "Ron, stop it," she was pleading. "Stop it." When he growled and fought again, her voice became harder. "STOP IT, Ron. Now. Before you get arrested for assault and battery."
Without releasing Ron (who might very well have picked Hermione up and set her aside like a rag doll on his way to finish what he'd started), Harry kept an eye on Malfoy, who had climbed gingerly to his feet and was holding his jaw. "You bastard," Malfoy snapped—or tried to; his jaw was swelling and when he turned to spit, he spat blood. "Assault charges are too good for you. You've just signed your own death warrant, Weasley."
Footsteps sounded on the stairs next to them, and they all turned. It was Seamus and Ginny, the latter of whom had obviously had a quick wash after Flooing over; her hair was damp, and she'd missed a small streak of soot near her chin. "Harry!" Seamus said expansively. "Ron! Hermione! Welcome, I'm so glad you've come. Ginny here was looking for you." He smiled at Ginny and patted her on the shoulder. Then he stilled; he obviously had noticed Malfoy for the first time. "Malfoy," he acknowledged in a clear attempt to be civil, but nothing more.
"Finnegan," Malfoy said. "Do you make a habit of allowing your guests to attack each other? Or should I say Lavender's guests, since it's her mummy and daddy paying for this shindig?"
Seamus' face hardened. "I haven't seen any attacks, Malfoy," he said stiffly. "Though these steps are a bit slippery. Bad luck if you've slipped down them, mate." Malfoy nearly growled, and Harry allowed his hand to creep toward his left sleeve. The tension was so high that he was half expecting Malfoy to draw his own wand any moment. The six of them stood frozen for what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, as the light from the bonfire and the house flickered over their stony features.
"Oh, honestly," Ginny said at last, sounding uncannily like Hermione. Brushing past Ron and Harry, she approached Malfoy so quickly that he didn't have time to do more than flinch backward slightly. She touched her wand (and how did she draw that without being noticed? Harry thought, startled) to Malfoy's jaw and, before he could do more than begin to back-pedal, said clearly, "Consanesco!"
Immediately, the swelling went down and the bruising faded to nothingness, leaving Malfoy's pale skin unblemished. He backpedalled a few more steps, then stopped and worked his jaw a few times, testing it. He glared at Ginny, who had also stepped back. Harry let go of Ron and reached forward to take Ginny's arm, pulling her out of Malfoy's reach and out of the way of his and Ron' wands. "Very clever," Malfoy said patronisingly. "Often take it upon yourself to patch things up after your brother's stupidity?"
Ginny shrugged. "You don't look as though you've anything to complain about, Malfoy," she said sweetly. "Nothing wrong with you as far as I can see. Why don't you wander off and play somewhere else? There's a good boy."
The menace in Malfoy's gaze increased so much that Harry and Ron both stepped in front of Ginny reflexively. "You haven't heard the last of this," Malfoy said between gritted teeth, looking at each of them in turn. "Count on it." And with a last glare, he turned on his heel and walked away.
The five of them stood still, watching him until he pushed his way into the crowd and disappeared, then Ron whirled and scowled down at his sister. "What the hell did you think you were doing?" he barked, his eyebrows nearly meeting in a frown as he towered over her five-foot-six-inch frame. "Getting that close to Malfoy when he was that pissed off! And with a wand in your hand, too! What if he'd grabbed you and your wand and hit you with the Killing Curse, eh?"
"Then you'd have killed him and he'd be out of your hair," Ginny said, far too calmly for Harry's peace of mind. He knew she was just trying to rile her brother, so he bit his tongue to keep himself from saying anything.
Much as I might want to.
"But you'd still be dead!" Ron shouted, loudly enough for even Seamus, who was the furthest away, to wince. "God damn it, woman, when are you going to grow some sense?"
Ginny stepped back a half step so she wasn't craning her neck so badly. Her jaw had come forward, and her eyes narrowed. "You have no business lecturing me about safety, Ronald Weasley," she said in a cold, precise voice. "You risk your life every single day. All I did was ensure that Malfoy didn't have a leg to stand on if he did decide to take you up on charges for assault and battery. Since I Healed the bruising and the broken bones—and you did break his jaw, you git, and cracked several of his teeth—"
"Good," Ron and Harry said together.
"—he won't have any evidence as long as none of us talks. So you could show a bit more gratitude."
"You could take a bit more care!" Ron snapped.
Ginny opened her mouth to retort, but was interrupted by a familiar, girlish voice. "Seamus, darling! There you are!"
Lavender had come up from the fire and was heading toward Seamus. Harry turned to look at him. On his face was an expression of pure besotted bliss, and he held out his hands to her as she climbed up the brick steps toward him, simpering. "Hello, love," was all he said, but the gentle, loving (if chaste) kiss he gave her spoke volumes. Harry glanced over at Ginny. Her jaw was still set, but the dangerous flashing of her eyes had gentled. She met his gaze and gave the tiniest of smiles, reaching up with one hand to touch her upper chest where her pendant and ring rested beneath her robes. Harry smiled as well, unable to stop himself.
Hermione had stepped forward to hug Lavender and Seamus. "Congratulations!" she said, beaming at the two of them. "We're so happy for you two! I knew it would happen some day."
Lavender beamed right back as Ron, reminded of his manners, stepped forward to kiss her on her cheek and shake hands with Seamus. "We've all been wondering about you and Ron!" Lavender said, sliding her arm around Seamus and eyeing Ron and Hermione with both humour and appraisal. "You've been going out for longer than we have."
Hermione glanced at Ron, who coughed and flushed. "Well, don't worry, Lavender," Hermione said as she linked arms with him. "You'll be among the first to know."
Ron looked down at her, raising an eyebrow. "The first to know what?"
"If you ever propose to me."
"You're already making plans about when I propose to you?" His tone was amused.
Hermione put a hand on her hip. "I said if," she said a little testily.
Harry met Ginny's eyes, and they both grinned. "Come on," he said quietly, tugging gently on her sleeve. "Let's go see the house."
Leaving Ron and Hermione to their bickering, they went inside.
-------------------- It was nearly midnight, and the party had risen to a fever pitch. Harry and Ginny had met up with Ron and Hermione again, and stood on the outskirts of the crowd, watching with great amusement the antics of the more inebriated. Dean Thomas and Alicia Spinnet, who had become very friendly over the course of the evening, were attempting to juggle Butterbeer bottles and managing to hit each other more often than they caught the bottles they were tossing. Colin Creevey was supposed to be capturing the party on film for posterity, but from the way he was weaving around and grinning maniacally at everyone, Harry suspected his pictures would turn out off-centre at best and completely unrecognisable at worst. The twins, who had shown up about half an hour earlier, were having a field day testing out some of their stock on unsuspecting, more-than-half-drunk guests; consequently, people were bursting into feather or shrinking into newts or speaking in duck voices all over the place. Harry noticed, however, that neither of the twins drank more than one Butterbeer apiece. Neither had Ron or Hermione, and he himself had drunk nothing. Nobody who worked for the Ministry was off-duty tonight.
"Hey, Lavender," slurred Hannah Abbott, who was hanging onto Justin Finch-Fletchley for dear life lest she slump to the ground, "'who's your First Footer, then? Don't they have First Footers in Ireland, Seamus?"
"Dark hair!" said Oliver Wood a bit too loudly into Harry's left ear. He wasn't completely drunk, Harry judged, but he was certainly feeling no pain. "He has to have dark hair. That's the rule."
"And coal!" Ernie MacMillan chimed in, pushing his way through the crowd to be heard. "Dark hair and coal, Lavender love. That's the way it works. 'Oo's it to be, then?"
Lavender looked a little startled. "It's—I mean, I've heard of First Footers, but it's a Scottish thing... we've never done..."
"It's tradition!" Oliver roared, leaning forward to shake a finger in her face. "Can't argue with tradition. Bad luck. Got to have a First Footer."
Seamus seemed to be floundering a bit. He glanced at Harry. "Hey, Harry," he said quietly, "do you know anything about—"
"HARRY!" Ernie and Oliver proclaimed together in ecstasy.
"He's perfect!" Oliver said.
"He's got dark hair," Ernie said.
"Got to get him some coal, though," Oliver reminded him. "Must have coal. And a drink. You need a drink, Harry. Whisky. Scotch. The good stuff, not this Firewhisky crap. Lavender, you've got to give him some coal and some whisky. What kind of whisky have your folks got, eh? Just for him, mind," he added, winking and tapping the side of his nose slyly. "The rest of us can have the other. But the First Footer has got to have the best."
Lavender and Seamus looked at each other as if asking silently for help. "Well," Lavender said a little desperately, "I think Dad's got some Glenlivet about...."
"That'll do!" Ernie said happily. "It's nearly midnight. Where's the coal? Someone get Harry some coal."
"I don't think—" Harry began, but wands were already drawn, and despite cursing from around him by people who had had a bit too much to drink and ended up with rocks or gems or even mice in their hands, a good three or four had managed to come up with a respectable lump of coal and were pressing them into his hands. He caught Lavender and Seamus' eyes, but they shrugged. It was obviously out of their hands at this point. He sighed. "All right," he said. "What do I have to do?"
A roar of approval went up—apparently more people had listened in to this conversation than he'd realised. Though, loud as Ernie and Oliver are talking, half the county can probably hear them, he thought.
Ernie and Oliver surged forward and caught him by each arm, steering him toward the house. Most of the nearby crowd followed, including Ron, Hermione, and Ginny, who were all apparently trying to stifle their snickers. "Oh, it's a rare guid thing tae be a First Footer, Harry," Oliver said, his Glasgow accent becoming thicker the drunker he got. Much more, Harry thought, amused, and we'll have him speaking in Gaelic. "First, ye've got tae be tall, dark, an' handsome, and while I canna vouch for the latter, I think yon lass can." He winked outrageously at Ginny, who giggled. "An' ye canna be a minister, a doctor, or a gravedigger, but as ye're none o' those, we needn't worry. And then, ye have tae have a lump o' coal, which ye put on your host's fire, and when ye're offered a dram, ye make the Hogmanay toast. Dinna worry, I'll teach it to ye. Right?"
"Er," Harry said, stumbling slightly over the uneven ground as he was dragged along by two very drunken Scots and followed by what seemed like half the population of Hogwarts. "Right. Yeah. I've got it, I think." He shot a look at Ginny: Help me! She just grinned and winked.
Up the brick steps toward the porch, and then they stopped outside the door. "Lavender!" Ernie called, turning so quickly he nearly fell over; Harry and Ron had to catch him. "Lavender! You've got to have the drink waiting for him, lass! Otherwise it's bad luck! And only you can enter yet," he added as she came slowly up through the crowd. "It's your house, see. Anyone else becomes the First Footer and that's got to be Harry. Nobody but you can go in until he does."
Looking distinctly annoyed at the way her engagement party had been taken over, Lavender swept into the house and returned a moment or two later with a glass of whisky. "Right, Harry!" Ernie said, clapping him hard on the back and making him stagger. "In you go! With your coal, mind."
Checking to make sure the coal hadn't been dropped on the way in, Harry shook off Oliver's 'helping' hand and stepped over the threshold. The rest of the crowd surged in after him. "To the fire!" Ernie bellowed, and they piled inside en masse as Harry slipped into the drawing room, where the nearest fire was. There was barely room to stand once everyone was in—some were left out in the foyer, trying to peer over each other's shoulders—but by the fire, there was nobody but Harry and Lavender, and a five-foot space round them.
Harry looked for Ernie and Oliver. Ernie grinned. "Put the coal on the fire," he called. Harry tossed it on, and it sizzled, then caught. A cheer rang out. "Now the toast, Harry!" Ernie called. "Come here, and I'll tell it to ye."
Apparently his accent gets thicker when he gets drunk as well.
Harry moved closer to Ernie, and as he did, caught Ginny's eye again. Her eyes were sparkling with mischief, and suddenly he was infected with it as well. Why not be the First Footer? Why not have a bit of fun? He was an engaged man. He was going to marry the woman he loved. Why not take a bit of enjoyment out of this very silly situation? He raised his glass and, grinning, repeated the toast Ernie gave him: "Here's to us. Who's like us? Damn few, and they're all dead!"
Another roar of approval went up as Harry drained the glass, and Ginny stepped forward, flinging her arms around him and laughing. He kissed her, and the roar increased. "Well done, mate!" Oliver yelled, grabbing Katie Bell to him. "Now you get to snog all the girls you like! Another prero—peroga—benefit of being First Footer!"
Harry pulled away from Ginny long enough to grin at him. "I've got the only girl I want," he said. "Take the rest as a gift."
Whistles and catcalls sounded, but the only answer he needed shone in Ginny's eyes. He bent to kiss her again, and this time she slid her arms up over his shoulders and melded herself to him, turning the kiss into something more suited to a bedroom than a drawing room. The rest of the world began to recede.
Everyone jumped, and he and Ginny sprang apart. Pictures rattled on the walls and crystal clattered in a display case. They all looked at each other in shock. "What was that?" someone asked.
It was bigger this time, shaking the whole house. Red and green light flashed through the windows that faced the front drive. Harry saw people beginning to clutch at each other, fear in their eyes. Fear began to whirl in his own gut as well. He looked at Ron and Hermione, whose eyes had widened. All three of them had crept their hands toward their wands.
And then the screams began.
"Everybody OUT OF THE WAY!" Harry shouted as he drew his wand. Ron, Hermione, and the twins were already fighting their way through the crowd. He turned to Ginny. "Get hidden," he said tersely. "Now. I don't care where you have to go, get hidden and stay hidden. Understand?"
She bit her lip and nodded. He cursed inwardly. Why, oh why hadn't he thought to make a Portkey for her that would take her back home in case of emergency? He kissed her again, swiftly but tenderly. "Go now," he said. "I've got to back up Ron and Hermione."
She turned and fled through the door next to the fireplace, disappearing from sight. Harry pushed his way through the rest of the crowd, forcing himself not to worry about her. He had other concerns at this point.
But please, let her be safe.
He got out the front door and found Ron and Hermione on the porch. "Status?" Harry asked.
"Chaos," Ron said flatly. "Look."
There had been dozens of people who hadn't followed the crowd into the house. Now the lawn was scattered with bodies and people running, screaming in terror. Hooded figures advanced through the crowd, casting spells and laughing maniacally as people dropped dead, or fell screaming in agony, or were levitated into the air and toyed with. Harry tried to count the number of attackers. He couldn't; the light was too poor and the figures too many. "Communicators," he said, and pulled his out of his pocket, holding it up to his mouth. "Every damned squad you can spare," he said into it, and then broke it. Ron and Hermione broke theirs as well, tossing the pieces down on the porch to keep their hands free.
"Right," Harry said. "Zephyr, until Domina gets here, you're with us, okay?"
"Let's go. Stay together; watch each others' backs. Disable attackers if possible; kill if necessary. Ready?" He'd fallen back into his wartime commanding mode, he noticed vaguely, but Ron and Hermione were used to taking orders from him.
"Ready," Ron confirmed. Hermione nodded.
"Right," he said again. "Let's roll."
They stepped off the now-dark porch into the fray and the world immediately narrowed into target: response. Time slowed to a crawl. He could feel Ron's presence behind him, and see Hermione's wand hand to his left as she Stunned another Death Eater. The now-limp attacker collapsed in a heap, causing another of his mates to trip over him and go flying, wand sailing through the air. Harry caught it in his left hand and broke it against his thigh before growling "Stupefy!"
Screams sounded from off to Harry's right, and all three of them whirled. A cowled figure was dragging a flailing woman off toward the shadows surrounding the front garden of the house. Ron snarled and started toward him; Harry and Hermione followed, covering him as two of the Death Eaters broke off what they were doing to focus on Ron. Harry Stunned them both in quick succession. The struggling woman managed, in her flailing, to connect somehow and her attacker doubled over in pain, releasing her. She ran right into Hermione, who caught her and soothed her enough to direct her toward the house, where it was likely to be safer. Ron, who had not slowed in the slightest, grabbed the Death Eater by the collar of his robe and punched him hard in the right kidney. He screamed, then screamed again as Ron punched the other kidney even harder. Ron turned him then, and the screaming stopped as Ron swung from his hip up into the cowled figure's jaw. He slumped back, unconscious, and his hood slipped away from his face.
It was Malcolm Baddock.
"Holy shit," Ron breathed. Hermione was so shocked she apparently couldn't speak, and Harry himself held absolutely still, showing nothing of the thoughts whirling in his head.
He's alive. He's alive and with the Death Eaters. Which means… he must have given his family to them.
Rage, which had been sublimated under his need to be clear-headed and logical in his defence of non-combatants, flared with the suddenness of a log popping in the fire, and he whirled, his eyes searching for any other Death Eater in sight. So what happened to Jones and Snodgrass?
Jones… he's probably here, he decided. Snodgrass is probably dead.
The telltale popping noises of Apparition sounded around them, like being caught in a panful of popcorn. Reacting, the three of them closed ranks, standing back-to-back until they realised the Apparating people were all wearing Ministry robes. Kestrel and Lakshmi had appeared right next to them, in fact. The two women saw them, stopped, and then raised their wands to cover all three of them. "Identify yourself," Kestrel said in something resembling a growl.
"Captain Onyx," Harry said quietly, holding his wand away from his body and pointed at the ground. Ron and Hermione were doing the same. "'Time and tide wait for no man.'"
It was the day's recognition signal. The two women lowered their own wands and snapped to attention. They were both lieutenants; Harry, Ron, and Hermione outranked them. "Orders, sir?" Lakshmi asked Harry.
"Death Eaters have attacked, numbers unknown but certainly more than a dozen. Find as many of them as you can and Stun them," he said shortly. It took all his strength of will not to say 'kill them.' "Then bind them and send them straight to Azkaban. The MLES can sort them out later. If you come across injured non-combatants, do what you can for them without getting yourself or other innocents killed."
"Yes, sir," the two of them chorused, and sprang forward to join in with the rest of their fellow officers. Harry, Ron, and Hermione glanced at each other, and had started to follow suit when a familiar voice screamed through the night:
"Not Lavender! No!"
It was Seamus. Harry was moving toward him before he thought, dodging stray curses and minor explosions as the chaos flowed around them; Hermione and Ron were right on his heels. Seamus was near the bonfire, Lavender crumpled at his feet and a Death Eater pointing a wand in his face. Harry put on an extra burst of speed; he was still a good hundred yards away. "Stupefy!" he bellowed, and he felt the telltale rushes of air as Hermione and Ron sent their own Stunning spells.
For a moment, Harry thought they'd been too far away for the spells to do any good, for the Death Eater had spoken a spell they couldn't hear properly. But their Stunning spells hit just as the Death Eater's wand shot a spell that glowed fiery red. His wand hand jerked wildly as he fell to the ground. Seamus screamed in agony and fell as well, clutching at his leg.
Damn. The spell hit him anyway.
His breath sounded loud in his ears as he panted toward Seamus. Another Death Eater appeared in front of them and Harry didn't bother with his wand; just swung a hard left hook into the hidden face. Hermione caught him in the ribs with a side kick, and they leapt over the fallen body, trusting the other officers to take care of him. He saw two figures with red hair flash by him, running toward the drive, and sent up a quick thank-you for Fred and George.
It was like running through molasses, or on a Muggle treadmill; Harry felt like he should have got there long ago. He stumbled in the dark over a limp body and pitched forward, but managed to roll into a somersault and spring back up, the way they'd done hundreds of times in training camp. Ron and Hermione had paused to make sure he was okay. "I'm fine," he spat, breaking into a run again. "Go!"
Ten yards… five…
Finally they reached him. Hermione dropped to her knees next to Seamus. He had fallen beside Lavender's limp, lifeless body, sobbing uncontrollably as he tried to pull her into his lap. Hermione batted his hands away from his fiancée and pulled his robes up to look at the thigh he'd clutched as he'd fallen. "Not Lavender," he sobbed. "No, please… please, don't be dead. Please, God, don't let her be dead…"
Hermione dragged Ron down by the sleeve as Harry took up a guarding stance. "Put your palm here," she said crisply, moving his hand to the pressure point in Seamus' upper thigh. "And bear down hard. As hard as you can. Lean on your hand." Ron obeyed as Hermione tried to knit the muscle together. By the light of the bonfire, Harry could see a slice as long as his hand and a good two or three inches deep running diagonally across Seamus' thigh. He'd been hit by a Severing charm. Blood soaked the cloth of his robes, and was still pumping out in time with his heartbeat, though it had slowed from a gush to a trickle as a result of the pressure Ron was holding. His face had gone pale. He's bleeding to death, Harry thought. It must have just nicked an artery.
The rage was ice now, and the thought was crystal-clear and precise, like shards of glass, even as he stood watch over the three of them. A burst of red light shot past his nose; he dodged backward and returned fire. Another cowled figure fell, and Charlie Weasley appeared right behind him. "All right, Onyx?"
"Yes," Harry said crisply. "Where's Seth?"
"Right behind you," Bill's voice came; Harry whirled. "You're right out in the open here, mate. Not safe."
"Field surgery," Harry said, jerking his head back toward Hermione, Ron, and Seamus. "Zephyr's trying to stabilise him so that he can be transported." Bill and Charlie looked down, their eyes widening at the sight of Lavender's dead body and Seamus's bloody one.
"L-Lavender," Seamus whimpered again, drawing Harry's attention. Ron was pushing hard against the pressure point in the injured leg, one hand atop the other and most of his weight against it. Hermione's head was bowed, her wand busy as she whispered Healing charms under her breath. Harry could only stand aside and watch as Seamus reached out and twined his fingers in a lock of Lavender's hair, which spread across the ground like a fan. Harry swallowed hard, suddenly picturing Ginny's glorious red instead of Lavender's brown.
Seamus' wide eyes focused suddenly on Harry. "Harry," he croaked. "Did—you get him?" His face was so pale it nearly glowed in the moon- and firelight.
Harry hesitated, and Charlie said quietly, "It's okay, Onyx. We've got your back."
Somewhat slowly, Harry knelt by Seamus and touched his shoulder. "Yes," he said, his voice rough. "Yes, I got him, mate."
"Good." Two tears slid down Seamus' cheeks. "Tried," he whispered. "Tried to save her… but she jumped in front of me. Took the curse meant for me." He shook with reaction. No, not reaction, Harry realised. With cold. He's dying. And with a look into Seamus' eyes, he realised further: And he knows it.
Seamus' eyes had glazed over for a moment, but his gaze strengthened and he looked at Harry one more time. "Bury us together," he whispered. "Same coffin. Same grave." A small smile curved his lips. "She wanted…to wait…"
The lump in Harry's throat was too great for him to answer. He nodded instead.
"Thanks…mate." Seamus took a rattling breath, and turned his head toward Lavender once more. Again his fingers reached for her hair as he exhaled, a long, slow breath.
And he didn't take another.
Harry waited for a long moment, waited to see Seamus' chest rise again. Finally, he reached over and touched Hermione's hands, stilling her. She looked up at him, uncomprehending for a moment, then realisation hit. Her shoulders slumped and she sat back on her heels, head bent in defeat. Ron leaned back, releasing the pressure he'd been holding on Seamus' leg, and reached out to touch Hermione's shoulder with his left hand, which was mostly unbloodied. She leaned over and rested her forehead against his collarbone—not crying, but as though she were utterly exhausted.
Harry felt as though he were in a daze. The world seemed somehow… distant. Disconnected. But he knew there was still something he had to do. Rising to his feet, he walked over to the Death Eater who had killed Lavender and wounded Seamus, and pointed his wand at him. "Ennervate," he commanded.
The Death Eater woke, starting to rise but stopping abruptly when he saw Harry's wand. "Show me your face," Harry said quietly. The figure hesitated, and Harry repeated, "Show me."
Hands rose to the cowl, then lowered it. It was Morgan Jones.
Much as he'd expected this, the shock of recognition hit Harry like a blow to the chest. "Where's Anthony Snodgrass?" he grated.
Jones laughed cruelly. "No place you'll ever find him," he taunted.
The ice was melting. Now the rage was white-hot again, filling every corner of his being and making his white-knuckled hands tremble with its intensity. "Why?" he asked. It was the only question in his mind. "Why did you join the Death Eaters? Voldemort's dead! Why now?"
Jones sneered. Harry was vaguely aware that Ron and Hermione had come up behind him, their own wands at the ready. "You don't honestly think Voldemort was the only powerful Dark wizard out there, did you?" he said condescendingly. "Or maybe you do, Potter. You're just about that stupid."
The rage nearly broke, but Harry kept it in check through sheer force of will. "Why here?" he asked. "Why tonight? And why Seamus and Lavender?"
Jones cocked an eyebrow. "Why should I answer you?"
"Because," Harry said in a deathly quiet voice, "I'm powerful, I'm angry, and I'm just about to lose control of my temper. Dark wizards like to pretend they fight for their own self-preservation. Think of it that way, if you like."
A snarl. "Tonight, because we wanted to send a message. Here, because there were people to carry it for us. And Seamus and Lavender—" he smirked. "—because they were in my way. Though I never much liked them anyhow."
Harry's vision was suddenly tinged with red as the rage took control. "You bastard," he said, almost too quietly to be heard. "You bastard!"
Jones only laughed, a high-pitched, murderous laugh that filled Harry's ears. There was nothing left but the rage—rage and hatred and the fierce desire for revenge. Harry tightened his grip on his wand, channelled all his fury and hatred into it, and whispered, "Crucio."
"No, Harry!" a panicked voice cried, but the rest of the protest was drowned out by Jones' shrieks. Harry held the wand on him, revelling in his agony, drawing it out and drinking it in as though it were water and he'd been in the desert for days. A huge, strong hand grabbed his bicep, trying to force his wand down, but he fought it, growling in warning. This was his prey. He would take it, revenge himself upon it, avenge Seamus and Lavender and Dumbledore and Sirius and the Baddocks and their baby…
And his baby…his and Ginny's…
No,said something deep inside his brain. No, you can't…you mustn't…
"Onyx!" a deep voice yelled in his ear, but even that name didn't register with him. He'd wanted to do this for too long, wanted to give in to the rage, needed to find expression for the hatred—and here it was, here was the place, here was the time, here was the victim…
Two pairs of hands were hauling on him now, dragging his wand arm down. He fought them blindly as the glorious shrieks died, struck out as one of them wrested his wand from his hand. This was his job, his revenge. Let me have it, damn it, let me torture him as they tortured others… let me teach him… LET ME GO!
No, said the quiet voice again, more insistently this time. This is wrong…you must stop, you must stop now, before it gets any worse. This is not revenge.
It is. It is revenge. And I'm taking it. Now.
"We're going to have to," a new voice he vaguely remembered said behind him. He hated that voice, but he couldn't remember why. I'll take him as well. Where is he? He struggled again, but they wouldn't let him go.
"No!" said the deep voice, nearly as familiar to him as his own. He liked that voice. "We'll take him home. He'll be fine."
"He's not going home, Red Knight, surely you must see that." The hated voice again. Oily. Satisfied. "He's going to be a danger to himself and others if we don't restrain him."
I'll show you restrain— Harry swung wildly, finally managing to throw off the hands that held him. He turned toward the hated voice, hands outstretched, ready to take him on.
Stop this… you can't… this isn't right…
The thought was beginning to wiggle its way to the front of his brain. It was an important thought, though, some portion of him finally realised. Confused, he tried to focus on it, but before he had a chance to think about what it had said, the hated voice said sharply, "Stupefy!"
The world went black.
A/N: Harry's comment, "Let's roll," is almost certainly OOC, but I wrote it as a tribute to the courageous men and women of United Flight 93, who attacked their hijackers on Sept. 11 and crashed their plane into a vacant field in Shanksville, PA, rather than allow their plane to hit its intended target. The words are Todd Beamer's, the last words anyone heard from anyone on that plane. They are, in my opinion, perhaps the most powerful words spoken on that day. His attitude, and the attitude of those on that plane with him, is the same attitude Harry has at the moment he said those words: if we die, we die, but we'll bloody well take them with us. God bless them all.
I got my information about First Footers from this website: http://www.new-year.co.uk/firstfoot.html. Any errors are mine, not theirs.
Americans may also notice a reference to a diamond commercial in this chapter. What can I say…I love that commercial. ;)
And (as if this author's note isn't long enough), HUGE thanks go to Chi, Basil, Jo, Michele, Sherry, Ahmie, and Willbot for beta work. Particularly Willbot, who helped me immensely with the battle scene. You all rock.