Pretty much every character and setting in this story is owned by Jo Rowling, the beautiful and brilliant. I am receiving no remuneration of any kind for writing it.
The explosion is blinding and the loudest thing you've ever heard. It feels like a searing, none-too-soft copy of yourself has slammed into the top half of your body; you're blown backwards off your feet, landing hard on your right side. At first you can't see, but it's just the afterimage of the blast. The pain of the landing is sharp, but not bad after a few moments. Of more concern is your left shoulder, which is bleeding freely and has a small piece of Hufflepuff's cup imbedded in it. The thing must have shattered into pieces like shrapnel when you destroyed it. Bits of the ceiling patter onto your head.
You hear a moan, and you sit up quickly. Ron and Hermione are both down. Ron is getting up too, but Hermione is lying crumpled in the far corner. You rush over to her side; she's a mess. There are cuts and gashes all over her arms, legs, and chest, and she's bleeding from her forehead too. She's very pale, and her eyes are shut tight against the pain.
"Damn, damn, damn," she's muttering. "Oh, hell." You've never heard Hermione swear like this before, and it's more frightening than the explosion. Ron runs up right behind you, and his face has gone deathly pale, though he himself is unscathed. His eyes are fixed on Hermione's bleeding face.
Her eyes pop open. "Well, Harry?" she asks you through gritted teeth. "Do you remember the spells or not?"
You think quickly; it's better to get the pieces out before closing the wounds. Should you just summon them? No – you remember some of the hasty training you've had – then they might cut arteries or damage organs. You speak the incantation that makes the flesh transparent to your eyes – there's a piece, and yes, there's a blood vessel nearby so you need to move it that way and then this way before it comes out. You use modified, half-power, pinpointed summoning and levitation charms to rotate the piece and then it comes out, widening the hole in Hermione's skin as it comes. She grunts in pain; now she's bleeding more freely. Now what? You remember that there's a danger of infection from things like bits of clothing that may have entered with the fragment; this needs to be sterilized. You point your wand at the wound and say, "Asepto." Then you staunch the flow on the first exit wound and start on the second piece.
While you're working on the fourth fragment Hermione passes out.
"Not badly done, Mr. Potter," says Madame Pomfrey grudgingly. She's examining Hermione's sleeping form critically, scrutinizing the closed wounds and feeling the areas around the organs with her fingers. "Not badly done for emergency field work. A Healer would have done better, and those exit wounds were unnecessary. Also, in the future, you should raise the legs of someone who's bleeding so profusely; she probably passed out because she went into shock. But no harm done, and all in all, most satisfactory."
She turns away from Hermione, nods, and looks distastefully at your shoulder. "I wish I could say the same for this, however. Mr. Weasley took care of this?"
Ron nods weakly from the other side of Hermione's bed; you've never seen him look so worried or frightened, although you both know she is safe. Madame Pomfrey's criticism isn't really fair; probably he would have done a better job on your shoulder if his hand hadn't been shaking, and if he had been able to take his eyes off of Hermione for more than ten seconds at a time.
The matron continues, "Well, do be so kind as to avoid ministering to me, Mr. Weasley. I think Mr. Potter should stay overnight, and Miss Granger will probably be fit to leave in a day or two; she'll need some blood-replenishing potions and bed-rest, but she should be fine." She doesn't comment on the fact that none of you are currently students of the school, nor that you woke her in the middle of the night, nor that Ron, despite nearly collapsing with the effort of carrying Hermione all the way from Hogsmeade, had to have his fingers pried away from her.
Sometime after midnight, as you're lying in your infirmary bed trying to ignore your shoulder, which is throbbing and not letting you sleep, Hermione stirs. Ron is sound asleep in the chair next to her bed.
She awakens, moaning, in obvious pain, not seeming to know where she is or how she got there. "Ron!" she calls. You get out of bed and come to her side. She recognizes you, but her face is still distraught. "Ron, I want Ron." Without speaking you point to where Ron sleeps. She reaches over, overriding the increased discomfort it seems to cause her, and seizes his hand. She utters a long, shuddering breath and begins to cry silently. You reach out to touch her but she shakes her head quickly. Her eyes stay fixed on Ron's face as she clutches his hand for dear life, and the tears roll out of the corners of her eyes into the pillow underneath the side of her face.
Lying in your own bed, willing yourself to sleep, you think about Hermione's need. Confused and in pain, she wanted only one thing. And you ask yourself, if you had been the one suddenly coming awake, feeling aches all over your body, in a strange place with no one you could see, whose name would you call?
It isn't really a question; you already know. And you know a lot more than that.
The real question is: what are you going to do about it?
The front door opens and a rush of warm air greets your frigid face and hands; Ron and Hermione crowd behind you to force you in, Hermione limping slightly.
You enter the bright light of the Burrow and she is standing in the kitchen. She looks up and sees you; she freezes. You freeze. The Christmas decorations, the people, the food, everything is locked in place. There are at least eight Weasleys (counting Fleur) and one Granger in the room and none of them is moving. Everyone else in the room is looking from you to her, from her to you.
You expected awkwardness; you expected discomfort. You didn't anticipate – though you should have, git! – a public viewing of this moment.
There aren't very many choices. Only a few steps take you to where she stands, but it seems to take an hour (faces slowly turning to follow you) and you say, "Hullo, Ginny." Your throat is dry.
She says, "Hi, Harry." Her voice cracks a little.
There is a pause while you try (as she is clearly also trying) to figure out what to do in front of everyone. Her eyes dart a little to each side and then she looks back into yours. She has flour on her forehead and her hands are covered with it. Four strands of copper hair are almost falling in her face. She has exactly the same number of freckles on her nose as she had before, but they're a shade lighter. She is breathing silently, but you can see the merest rise of her collarbone as she does so. Her breath and yours seem to be on completely different rhythms. Her throat moves as she swallows.
And honestly you don't know how it happened but the next thing you know she is in your arms, and the two of you are saying quiet, incoherent things into each other's shoulders. You have no idea what you're saying, and you can't tell what she's saying either, but the feel of her warm breath on your collar, spreading slowly over your shoulder, and the reassuring weight of her back against your hands inspires a pressure behind your eyes that will probably embarrass you in a minute or two. And Mrs. Weasley is chuckling ever so softly behind you, and Fred, whom you can just see out of the corner of your eye, appears to be collecting a wager from George, who looks like the happiest loser you ever saw, and you could swear that smiles have a sound, and you can hear eight of them right now.
Not counting yours; not counting hers.
Now – while everyone else is busily making purchases from Fred and George's shop – now's the time to do it.
"Mr. Weasley, I need to do a bit of shopping on my own, if that's all right."
The older man looks up from the Muggle trick playing cards and frowns. "I don't think that's a very good idea, Harry. Why don't you let me go with you?"
"Well, it's sort of private, sir."
His face is an icon of jovial innocence. "Oh, you needn't mind me, Harry. I've been doing Christmas shopping with a tribe around me for a few decades, now; I know how to look the other way and not see what I'm not supposed to see."
You know this should be sufficient, would be sufficient for any purpose other than the one you have in mind, but you don't know how to put this. Arthur Weasley is looking at your face intently, and the wheels in that efficient strategic mind are clearly turning at full speed. This is a man who has navigated Ministry politics for years, the only man who regularly beats Ron at chess, the man (as he reminded you once) who raised Fred and George, and he knows how to think seven or eight moves in the future without even trying hard. You watch as he considers one, two, three possibilities; at the fourth one, his eyebrows raise slightly.
"Harry," he says more quietly, "I promise that whatever the nature of your private business, you may rely on my discretion. Further, if this will help, you needn't fear any, um, harsh judgments from me." You look up sharply, but his face does not betray what he suspects. "I know you pretty well by now, Harry," he explains. "I don't think I have to worry about your doing anything improper or hurtful."
And there's nothing for it, so you let him accompany you down the street to the shop whose position you noted a few months ago (though you can't have intended this back then, can you?). As you turn to him, about to leave him outside while you enter, he looks up at the sign.
"Good place for necklaces, bracelets and pins," he says approvingly. "I've bought one or two things here myself, but mostly I just look." Then he looks you right in the eye. "Not the best place for rings, though."
It is impossible to mislead or evade. You swallow hard, wondering whether he can hear the gulp. You're not going to waste his time by asking him why he would mention rings just now.
There is a pause of perhaps ten seconds; then you speak.
"Do you, erm, know a better place for rings, Mr. Weasley?"
He smiles warmly. "Why yes, Harry, it so happens that I do."
So now you are walking side-by-side with a man who apparently has logically deduced himself to be your presumptive father-in-law, and who now seems to be your accomplice in finding a suitable ring for his daughter – whom you have not (a small detail) yet asked to do anything requiring a ring. If things can get any weirder than this you hope you won't find out.
It's such a luxury to spend an hour in the early evening sitting on the sofa next to Ginny, trading silly conversation about nothing at all, that you haven't been able to make a coherent plan for telling her – that is, asking her – what you want to ask. Not that the thought of actually putting this question doesn't fill you with a terror that would delight Voldemort himself. There is a lull in the conversation and you listen to her breathing, which matches yours once every thirty seconds or so, then moves out of synch again.
You are interrupted in these thoughts by the arrival of a pair of matched meddlers.
"Harry James," says Fred.
"Ginevra Molly," says George.
Ginny looks up. "That would be us," she confirms.
"Ottery St. Catchpole," says Fred.
"We've heard of it," you answer.
"Muggle artifacts," says George.
"Not the abused kind," says Fred.
"This is a serious mission," says George.
"The security of the nation may depend on it," says Fred.
You snort. "Do you call this persuasive advertising?" you demand incredulously. "How do you ever stay in business?"
"Some respect for your elders is called for," says Fred indignantly.
Ginny snorts, a squeakier version of yours. "If we see any, we'll be sure to remember that," she says.
"We were hoping –" says Fred.
"Wishing desperately –" says George.
"That you would do the Christmas Present Two-Step," says Fred.
Ginny stares at them for about three seconds, then bounces to her feet and marches in place for exactly two beats, double-timing her words to match her steps: "Get-it-your-self." Then she bounces back down again, smiling happily.
George gazes balefully at Fred. "I see we must come clean," he says.
"Sadly so," says Fred.
"The truth is – " says George
"We had a perfect plan for a present for Dad – " explains Fred.
"And it fell through – " laments George.
"Through no fault of our own – " insists Fred.
"Owing rather to an error – " complains George.
"In owl-post allocation for the Holiday Season – " specifies Fred.
"By certain small-minded, bureaucratic sales wizards in Leipzig!" concludes George in outrage.
You look from one to the other, wondering whether to help the good fellows along in this conversation or to string them out for a while as payback for thirty or forty things they've done over the years. Ginny must have three times as many memories of such events; but then, she's had more opportunity for reprisal as well.
"What do you want from us, then?" asks Ginny.
"The Muggle office shop in the village – " says Fred enthusiastically.
"Has an excellent supply of caltulators," continues George.
"That's 'calculators,'" you put in dryly.
"Just so," confirms Fred.
"Some of these are said to run on sunlight – " gushes George.
"Which would delight Dad no end – " adds Fred.
"So we were hoping that the two of you – " wheedles George.
"Would obtain such an object while we create a distraction," says Fred.
"Harry is the real expert on Muggle artifacts – " flatters George.
"And so would be able to select a good model – " reasons Fred.
"While Ginny actually knows how to get there – " points out George.
"So having the two of you do it together – " continues Fred.
"Would be a match made in heaven!" concludes George.
" – As it were – " corrects Fred. This last earns them a glare from Ginny, and you're none to happy about it yourself.
Ginny probes, "And you can't ask Hermione, the Muggle-born, and Ron, the Devon native, to do this because…?"
"Our Hermione is still limping a bit – " explains George.
"And Ron doesn't take his worried eyes off her – " notes Fred.
"So that he may fall into the River Otter through inattention – " predicts George.
"Requiring Hermione to fish him out – " deduces Fred.
"Thereby exacerbating her limp – " diagnoses George.
"And starting the process all over again!" concludes Fred.
Ginny throws up her hands. "All right, all right!" she cries theatrically. "You two will owe us, or at least me, a favor or two in the future. Come along, Harry; let's save these delinquents from their own folly."
So you walk into the village in the new darkness and the cold, and Ginny is happy to wrap her arm around your waist occasionally and accept yours around her shoulders ("so you won't get lost", she insists). And it crosses your mind that perhaps this might be the time and the place to make use of the small, gray velvet box in your pocket and the expensive object within it.
But this doesn't occur to you until you're already entering the village, and by then it's too late. The office shop is crowded with late shoppers, and there's obviously no place to talk intimately there. And, as luck would have it, when you leave the shop the sky has opened with freezing rain. On the way home, consequently, the two of you need to hang onto each other just to keep from slipping and falling, and there's certainly no opportunity to say anything romantic or intimate, apart from, "Sorry, did I step on your foot?"
It isn't the right moment. Is it?
Slam. Your hip hits the hard, smooth surface like a hammer. You know you're bruised; you wonder whether you're permanently injured. You slowly begin to rise back to your feet.
Slam. This time your elbow collides with the diamond-like surface. Pain shoots through your arm. You have to try again. You have to get up.
Slam. The side of your head actually collides with the cold wall below you and you see stars. This may be the end.
You look across from you and Ginny isn't faring much better. Red with cold, she's collapsed for the fourth or fifth time and now seems to be helpless. Then her agonized voice rings in your ears like the piteous weeping of a sacrificial victim.
"Ice skates! Ice skates?! What were the twins thinking? Is this any way to spend Christmas Day? We'll be in St. Mungo's by nightfall if we keep this up!"
"I think," you say weakly, your voice making no echo at all across the frozen lake, "they wanted us to have some fun, and spend some time alone together."
"Harry," she answers, recovering her voice, which is now ringing with indignation. "I love spending time alone with you. But I'd like it a lot better if we were, say, inside the house, with mugs of hot chocolate in our hands and a roaring fire in front of us. Come to think of it, maybe we could make the roaring fire out of some of the twins' presents. And falling on my arse twenty or thirty times in an hour, while watching you do the same thing, isn't my idea of fun!"
"Nor mine," you admit, feeling all the different places you hurt.
"Let's go inside," she says decisively, "and tell Fred and George we had a marvelous time, and that if they ever do this again we'll kill them."
"Sounds good to me," you reply.
"A sleigh ride? On New Year's Eve? Drawn by reindeer?" It is nearly impossible to keep the surprise and, indeed, the disdain out of your voice as you stare at the tickets Fred has shoved into your hand.
"Just so. Finnish reindeer, brought over from Lapland, no less. Just the thing for a moonlit winter's night," Fred finishes, beaming at Ginny. You sneak a look at her out of the corner of your eye; she's clearly just as skeptical.
"It's only a crescent moon tonight," she points out. "No moonlight at all by the time the ride starts."
"Probably even better," Fred leers.
"Are you mental?" you demand. "It's colder than Lucius Malfoy's conscience out there!"
"Buck up, young man; a cold night's the best time to spend with a lady."
Ginny's eyes bug out and she begins to look at Fred with genuine concern. "Fred, dearest, are you sure you're feeling all right?"
"And why shouldn't I be?" he asks sunnily.
"Well, you keep saying things like – well – whatever happened to protecting my honor and all that?"
"Is your honor in jeopardy on a sleigh ride?" Fred queries, amused. "Anyway, I don't seem to recall ever being especially worried about you that way, Gin. Always seemed to me that you'd hurt anyone who tried to make you do anything you didn't want to do, and as to what you do want to do –" he shrugs. "It's hardly my business, is it? I mean, I don't think I'd want you interfering with my love life."
"The details of which…" Ginny inquires with raised eyebrows.
"…remain confidential, to be released on a need-to-know basis only," Fred replies with laughter in his voice.
"What happened," she asks with just a touch of acid in her own voice, "to my having too many boyfriends, which was, as I recall, your complaint last year?"
Fred's face abruptly changes; he is silent. Then he takes Ginny's hand in his and takes yours in his other hand, looking at the two of you with a seriousness that seems completely out of character and is distinctly embarrassing. "Ginny, you don't have too many boyfriends now. You have the right boyfriend. I've been waiting for this for a long time."
"Um," she says, stunned.
He continues with atypical intensity. "I want – we want, George and I – for you two to be happy – happy together, I mean. The two of you are so sodding lonely when you're apart, it comes off you in waves like a bad smell and sours the milk before it comes to the breakfast table."
"Now there's a pretty picture," Ginny comments wryly.
Suddenly he pleads, "Ginny, stop it!" And his hand seems to tighten its grip spasmodically on yours, and probably on Ginny's too. This is urgency is so utterly unlike Fred that your mouth hangs open.
He goes on, "There's a war on, everyone's scared and miserable. What am I doing for a living? Making bigger and bigger jokes so that people can laugh for a bit before they have to remember how awful the world is this morning. Do you think that George and I continue in this racket at a time like this just because it's funny?" Fred looks at the two of you as if he's just revealed his darkest secret. "And here, in front of me, is the chance to create a little more love, a little more giddy pleasure, and it's right under my nose, and it's two of the people I care about most in the world!"
He squeezes your hand – probably both your hands – again, and says, more quietly, "Just take the ruddy tickets." Then he turns and strides out of the room.
You watch him leave, stunned. The rhythm of Ginny's breath beside you matches yours about half the time; the rest of the time it has a tempo all its own. You turn to Ginny. "Do you want to go on a sleigh ride?"
"No," she says decisively, "but I don't want to disappoint Fred and George either, especially not after that. Feels funny, doesn't it?"
You nod. "Almost like he's a matchmaker or something. Look, Ginny – " And you almost say it. The word "matchmaker" was like a springboard, and you almost dive into the water; but just at the last minute you catch yourself and bounce stupidly at the end of the board.
"Yes?" she asks. It doesn't look like she has any idea what you were going to say.
"How do we avoid the sleigh ride and still save face with the twins?" It's a reasonable question to ask, probably the question she was expecting; who cares if it isn't the question you really wanted to ask?
She blinks rapidly for a few seconds then answers crisply, "We walk into the village for the Winter Carnival they're having for New Year's Eve. I hear that there are street jugglers, singers, hot-food vendors, all sorts of things. Then we come back, looking happy and pretending that we had a wonderful ride."
Pleasant thought. "That sounds nice. But really, it's still as cold as Lucius – "
"No it isn't, Harry; not by half."
The Winter Carnival is a treat. The air is just as cold as you expected, and there's been a snowfall since Christmas, but the sky is clear and it looks like it's covered with glowing powder, so many fine, bright grains that the eye cannot focus on any one of them. A mime is pretending to be a gargoyle and moving only when money is put into his palm; he's really very funny. A group of thirty is singing Christmas carols in a lovely four-part harmony, beautifully executed. There are hot cider, hot chestnuts, and other delectables to eat and drink. There are rides for the children (and quite a lot of children here) and fireworks are planned for later.
You could easily imagine that there is no such thing as Voldemort and never was. You are struck with the sudden urge to leave the hunt, to escape from that miserable, claustrophobic destiny and those damned prophesies, to take Ginny somewhere far away – Asia, Australia, Africa, somewhere to which Voldemort's reach may never extend, somewhere where they never heard the name "Harry Potter" – and just live. To be normal. With her.
It is so easy being here with Ginny, drinking in her pleasure while she watches the mime, giggling with her over some of the more outrageous clothing, comparing the cider to her mother's preparation. You wonder how you're going to stand it when you have to leave and do without her for – how long? You don't know. You've been without her for so many months before this, but now it seems harder, less like leaving and more like amputating a limb. This whole experience, this whole little vacation, is beginning to wear down your resolve to do what you have to do. The will to revenge can take you only so far.
The fireworks are gorgeous, and you stand with your arm around Ginny while she squeals and jumps and says, "Ooh, Harry, look at that one!" Some of them explode so loudly that you have to catch yourself, because they remind you of the explosion when Hufflepuff's cup tore up Hermione. But for the most part you're able to enjoy this with perfect innocence and delight.
When the fireworks end – a massive, extravagant, loud, bright, flashing, pounding, roaring avalanche of color and light – the crowd begins to disperse and head home. Ginny announces that she has to use the loo, and there's a shop that's stayed open late that will probably let her in. While she's gone, you step into a darkened patch and look at those stars again.
The increasing silence seems to make the stars still brighter. You look up and try to identify the constellations you learned in Astronomy class. Due south you can see Sirius, below and to the left of Orion; it makes you smile. One of the lovely things about winter is that you get to see your godfather's star and the great hunter it follows, a pleasure you never have, say, in June. And above and to the right of Orion, the Sisters, fleeing him across the sky as they always have – he'll never catch them. It occurs to you to try to see whether Mars is "unusually bright" tonight, a thought that makes you laugh. But you can't see Mars at all; it must have set already; Saturn is very low in the west, about to set too. You can't make out any other planets now.
The red light of a stunner comes out of nowhere behind you and just misses your neck. You drop to the ground, rolling and making your injured shoulder howl in pain. As you come up again, you see that the stunning spell came from a huge Death Eater you're pretty sure you've seen before. You dodge out of the way as another stunner comes at you. Your own stunner hits the man between the eyes and he falls, as an all-too-familiar voice behind you says, "Petrificus Totalus!"
You freeze and fall to the ground. Footsteps crunch in the snow around you and a pair of well-polished shoes come into view.
"Well, well, Potter," says Draco Malfoy, whose face you cannot see but can easily imagine. "Caught twice by the same curse. Clumsy of you. The Dark Lord has been waiting to see you. I think this will certainly raise my credit with him, possibly even rehabilitate my reputation altogether."
There is a pause while the feet turn slightly to your left. Then Malfoy continues, "Hm, it looks like my companion will need a moment or two still to recover. Let's see what fun we can have with you first."
Malfoy's leg swings back and you feel an explosion of pain in your stomach. This is depressingly, desperately familiar. The leg swings back again and you try to brace yourself –
"Diffindo!" shrieks another familiar, but far more welcome voice. Malfoy's feet stumble, and when he hits the ground you can see that a large, nastily bleeding gash has been sliced into his shoulder. Malfoy raises his wand to counterattack, but before he can cast a spell his hand is hit by a rock, either thrown or else impelled by the slickest Locomotor charm you can imagine. He howls in pain and drops his wand, then grabs it with his other hand, scrambles to his feet and runs, Disapparating after several yards.
The large Death Eater rises and casts another stunner, but apparently misses yet again, as a veritable hail of small stones flies at his face. Grunting with panic and confusion, he too Disapparates.
The sound of light footsteps in the snow moves around your back. They stop, briefly, and you hear a not-quite-identifiable scraping sound behind you. Then Ginny's feet come into view and she says softly, "Finite Incantatem."
Your body immediately relaxes and you look up into her worried, grim face. You start to roll over but she places a hand on your side and says, "Hush, stay still for a moment. Where are you hurt?"
"Stomach," you manage to say. But truthfully your stomach isn't hurting nearly as badly as it was a moment ago; Malfoy probably didn't do any real damage. Nonetheless Ginny points her want at it and mutters a spell you can't quite hear. A soft pink light emanates from the wand and the pain immediately leaves you.
"Nice trick, that," you comment as you roll up onto your knees.
"Love to teach it to you," she replies, helping you to your feet.
"That business with the rocks was pretty good, too."
"I can teach you that as well."
Then she kisses you, and for a moment the very idea of pain seems completely absurd.
She steps back and looks at you. "You're a mess," she comments. "Let's get you back to the Burrow and clean you up."
After you clean up, Ginny knocks on the door of the room you seem to have to yourself at the moment (no idea where Ron has got to), sticks her head in the doorway, and asks you to come down to her room.
You follow her down; the whole house seems to have gone to bed right after the turn of the new year; it's dark and there's no sound coming from anywhere. After you enter Ginny's room she closes the door behind you. There's nobody else in here either (where is Hermione at this hour?).
She turns around and faces you, leaning her back on the door. Looking you in the eye, she puts her hand into her pocket and pulls out – a small gray box. No (you take another look), she holds the small gray box. You tap your own pocket with your hand; it's empty.
"This fell out of your pocket during the fight with Malfoy," she explains.
You swallow. "Did you open it?"
She nods silently. Then: "It's beautiful. And inside it says, HJP to GMW, 12-1997." She fidgets with her hands, turning the box round and round, but doesn't take her eyes off yours. "That means you're late; you'll have to change the inscription." She looks like she wants to grin at the joke, but she's only able to smile weakly. She is still looking you in the eyes.
You ask, "Did you try it on?"
She shakes her head: No. Then: "Harry, is there something you wanted to say to me?"
"Yes." You gesture at the box. "But I think you already know."
"No. Or not entirely." She's not smiling now. She's beginning to look unhappy. "There's something you haven't said yet."
"What? What haven't I said?"
She exhales shakily, then inhales again. "You haven't said you love me." Tears begin to form in her eyes.
"Oh, Ginny, I'm so sorry." And once again she's in your arms without your knowing how it happened, but this time you know exactly what you're saying. "I do love you, I've loved you for a long time, I'm so sorry I never said it. I think I was scared."
She shakes against you for a minute, tears seeping into your shoulder. Then she speaks in a muffled voice.
"Me too," she says into your neck. "Both. All three."
You stand that way, holding each other, and rocking slowly back and forth. Then you pull away from her just a little and say, "Give me the box, will you?"
The box is still in her hand, the one that's behind your right shoulder; you can feel the corner. She steps away from you and hands it to you. You open it, pulling out the gold ring with its diamonds and rubies. You put the box down on the table beside you and take Ginny's hand with your free one. "Ginny, I can't live without you. Will you marry me?"
She starts to cry again, but is grinning ear-to-ear. "Yes, that I will." You slide the ring on her finger.
There is another long embrace, just standing with your arms around each other, her head on your shoulder. After a while, the two of you are quiet. You can hear her breathing; it's a sound you want to listen to forever. Most of your breaths are simultaneous with hers; some aren't.
Then she disengages, walks a step or two away, and turns back towards you. There is an entirely different look on her face. All at once she looks older, stronger, maybe even taller. She also looks deadly serious.
"This means," she says steadily, looking you in the eye, "that I'm going with you."
You knew this was coming. You take a deep breath, wondering whether this will destroy everything.
"No, it doesn't," you answer her.
She looks at you for a long time; the ring is on her finger. She is frowning slightly, but she's not angry. She's thinking it out.
Eventually she says, "It's not because you want to protect me." It's not spoken as a question.
"Right." She knows that you know there's nowhere she can hide.
"And it's not because I'm no good in a fight; I saved you back there."
"Right," you say again.
"Then I'm missing something," Ginny says – but again, she's not angry, not grieving, not even upset. It's as if – and suddenly you realize – it's as if you and she are partners and are considering, considering mutually, what the best course of action is. This is almost a different Ginny; where did this halo of calm and solidity come from? Does a girl turn into a woman so quickly? Or did you just fail to notice it? Maybe you're the one who's changed.
You're hers now, and you're going to have to persuade her, because the decision isn't just yours anymore, if it ever was.
Here goes. "Ginny, if we were fighting for our lives against Voldemort," – and she doesn't shudder, doesn't shrink, doesn't even blink at the name – "and you had a choice between saving my life and killing him, and no way to avoid the choice, so that either both he and I lived or both of us died, would you be able to let me die to end the war?"
She's very still, imagining it; her eyes widen slightly and they shine a bit more than they did before; she sniffs quietly and shakes her head: No.
You continue, "If it was the other way 'round, and I was the one who had to make the decision, I wouldn't be able to do it either. I'd let him go. I'd let him go, Ginny."
She's quiet again, for a long time, but she doesn't stop looking at you. There's recognition in her eyes, as the full import of your words seeps into her mind.
Quietly, almost in a monotone, she says, "The war is more important than we are." She understands completely. You nod.
You notice that the two of you are breathing precisely in unison.
Then she speaks again. "But what about Ron and Hermione?" How quick she is!
"I think it's the same for them. An animal will die to protect its mate. I'm going to have to leave one of them behind."
"Which one?" she asks.
"Ron, I think. Hermione knows more, she's more powerful and she thinks more quickly on her feet."
Ginny nods. "He's not going to like it." It doesn't even seem to cross her mind that she's sending you to travel alone with another woman. It will cross Ron's mind, though.
"I know. Will you help me with him?" But you know you don't have to ask.
After a few more moments of silence, something changes in Ginny's face; she sets her jaw as if she's made another decision, looks at you appraisingly, and turns around. She points her wand at the latch of the closed door; you can't quite hear what she's muttering but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's a sealing spell, and probably a silencing charm too. Still facing away from you, she points her wand at her own belly, singing a lilting, lengthy incantation, the longest and most melodious you've ever heard: "Ut dilectum sine timore complectar, ne hac nocte concipiam." A ring of warmly golden light, accented with red and white sparks, emanates from her wand and coalesces around her hips before vanishing. She turns back around slowly and steps closer to you. She's looking at you gravely, but her eyes are bright and the color is rising in two spots on her cheeks.
"Ginny," you croak. "You're only sixteen."
"None of that," she says quietly but firmly. "I'm an engaged woman sending my intended off to war." Then her voice softens; she's so close you can smell her breath; it smells wonderful and you have no idea what its rhythm is. "You said an animal will die to save its mate. So I'm your mate, am I?"
You nod; resistance is futile.
"No, I'm not." Her voice is almost a whisper. "But we're going to change that right now."
This story originally appeared on SIYE as "While You Tell Yourself the Truth," where it was an entry for the Christmas Engagement Challenge.
As always, I express delighted gratitude to Frelling and Ilovecats, my betas, whose contributions to the text are many and rich. I should point out that recognizing Arthur Weasley's strategic mind is something Frelling herself first suggested, in a draft chapter of her wonderful story, "Harry Potter and the Curse's Legacy" (which I recommend to all).
Moonette helped me with the accuracy of the emergency treatment given to Hermione. The "Christmas Present Two Step" is a corruption of the "Spaghetti Sauce Two Step", a little conversation that actually occurred between my cousins Howard and Gayle. "Caltulator" is the way my daughter pronounced the word at the age of twenty months, astonishing her proud aunties. The astronomy here is impeccable, if I do say so myself, although I did cheat by about a half-hour with Saturn. "Love to teach it to you" is a little tribute to "The Corbomite Maneuver." "Resistance is futile," of course, is the motto of the Borg.
Ginny's incantation was obtained from thelatintranslator.com, and translates roughly as follows: "That I may embrace my beloved without fear, let me not conceive tonight."