Ginny sat at the counter in Grimmauld Place’s kitchen perusing a stack of owl order forms. She’d yet to finish her Christmas shopping, despite the fact she had more pocket money this year than she’d ever had in the past, earned during all the hours she worked in George’s shop over the summer. Ron and Harry had picked up Hermione and her from the Hogwarts Express earlier that day, and though Ginny was planning on returning to The Burrow after dinner, she’d stopped at Grimmauld Place first. It was the first time she’d seen all the changes the decorator had made.
It was like being in a new house, and she really had to look for traces of the way it used to be. Walls had been moved, windows added and the colour scheme was so much brighter. It was truly lovely, and her jaw had literally dropped when she’d entered the elegant entrance hall.
As she’d specified, her own room had been painted a soft green. It was unfurnished despite the fact Harry had told her she could order what she liked. The green Ginny had selected was lighter than the Holyhead Harpies green, but she thought it would blend well once she added all those accents. Somehow, she felt she’d be tempting fate if she went all out before she’d officially made the team.
Ron and Hermione had disappeared some time ago, and Ginny wasn’t allowing her mind to ponder what they might be doing. As promised, Harry was cooking dinner for her, and the smell of roasting chicken was making her mouth water. It was difficult to concentrate on ordering her gifts when all she wanted to do was nick something to sample.
“D’you think Dad would appreciate a bottle of Irish Firewhisky? Dean told me Seamus is working for Ogden’s branch in Ireland, and he can get samples,” Ginny asked, staring at the order forms in consternation. Every year there was always one person who stumped her, and this year it was her dad. It was the first year she was old enough to purchase the stuff, and she knew her dad was fond of it, but someone always gave him some.
“There’s a Muggle shop right on the corner. Why don’t you just go in and get him something that runs on batteries? He’ll be fascinated,” Harry said, his head inside the oven.
“Harry, that’s brilliant,” she said blankly. “Why have I never thought of that?”
“Because you’re not a Muggle,” Harry said, grinning as he pulled his head out. His glasses were slighted tilted, and Ginny thought he looked adorable.
“What did you get him, then?” she asked.
“A small television. With. A. Plug,” he said smugly. “I know it won’t work at The Burrow, but I can’t wait to see what he does with it.”
Ginny laughed. “You’d better have bought something equally good for Mum, so she’ll be able to get over her annoyance.”
Harry suddenly looked worried.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Harry. She can’t stay put-out with you for long,” she said gently, touched that he needed the reassurance.
“So… you said Dean told you about Seamus. How’s Dean doing?” Harry asked, his back to her as he sliced some vegetables. She wasn’t fooled by the casual tone of his voice. Harry wasn’t the overly jealous type like Ron, but he did have a streak of his own. Ginny thought she quite liked it.
“I don’t know. I think he’s struggling, actually,” she said, choosing her words carefully.
Harry turned back around, his brow knitted. “Why?” he asked, and she could see his compassionate nature warring with his jealousy.
She shrugged. “He was always very clingy. It’s one of the things that drove me mad, but this year… I dunno, it’s ramped up a notch. Hermione said it must’ve been hard to be all on his own for a whole year, and now, none of you came back, and he has to try and fit in with a new lot.”
“Are they not getting on with him?” Harry asked.
“I think they are, actually. I certainly haven’t seen them exclude him, but… I don’t know. Something is off,” Ginny said, feeling that same frustration she felt at Hogwarts.
“He’s coming over here during break to paint Teddy’s room,” Harry told her, looking pensive.
“I know. He told me. I’m certain it’ll be brilliant.”
“What will be brilliant?” Ron asked as he and Hermione came down the stairs into the kitchen holding hands. Ron took a seat at the counter opposite her, causing Ginny to quickly collect her catalogues and put her order forms away. Ron was known to peek at Christmas gifts.
“Teddy’s room,” Harry said distractedly, pointing his wand at the chopping vegetables.
“Harry, what can I do to help?” Hermione asked, frowning at Ron.
“I’ve already asked,” Ginny said, feeling the need to defend herself. “He says he has it covered.”
“I told you that I’d make dinner for you. It’s not making it for you if you’re helping,” Harry said patiently.
“Yes, but Ron and I are going to eat too, so we can help. Right, Ron?” Hermione asked pointedly.
“I’ll set the table, but I’m rubbish at cooking,” Ron replied, standing up to pull plates from the cupboard. They’d decided to eat at the kitchen table — something the boys had yet to do — in celebration of the girls’ return from Hogwarts.
“I’d like to help,” Hermione said firmly.
“Here,” Harry said absently, pointing her toward the stove. “I’m making a cheese sauce for the cauliflower and leeks. The flour and butter are almost done. Just stir it while it cooks for another minute, then add the milk slowly once you remove it,” he said, pointing to a cup of milk he’d left on the counter.
Ginny thought Hermione looked slightly panicked, but she moved toward the stove while Harry returned to his runner beans. Hermione always appeared so confident and in control at school, Ginny had to admit that she felt a small hint of pleasure at seeing the other girl out of her element.
“If you’re not helping with the cooking, I think you should be in charge of clean-up,” Hermione said, glancing over at Ron, who was placing utensils on the table.
“I help,” Ron said, sounding wounded. “‘Sides, I think Kreacher tidies up at night even after I’ve done it.”
“What?” Hermione asked, spinning around. “Harry, I thought you said Kreacher was with Andromeda?”
“He is,” Harry replied. “I don’t make him clean up, Hermione. He just does it on his own. I’ve never seen him here, but I know it’s always neater than we leave it.”
“He probably likes to feel as if he’s still caring for the House of Black. He was really devoted,” Ginny said.
“If he looks like he’s wearing himself out, I’ll intervene,” Harry said calmly.
“Oh, no!” Hermione gasped. “Harry, I’m sorry.”
Ginny turned, frowning. Hermione was emphatic about elf-rights, but she hadn’t said anything she needed to apologize for. It was then Ginny noticed the smoke above the saucepan Hermione was stirring.
Harry hurried over and pulled the saucepan from the stove.
“Oh, I’ve ruined it,” Hermione moaned.
“It’s all right,” Harry said patiently. He used his wand to clean out the pan, and quickly started over with butter and flour. “We can redo this. You forgot to take it off the burner before adding the milk.”
Hermione came over to the counter and slumped down in a chair, looking forlorn. “I don’t know why I have such trouble cooking. I’m terrible,” she said, putting her head down.
Ginny laughed, patting her on the shoulder. “Hermione, I’ll concede that you’re not a very good cook, yet Ron — my brother, Ron — chose you. That has to tell you how much he likes you, anyway.”
“She’s right,” Ron said, smiling tenderly. “We’ll starve together.”
“It’s not funny,” Hermione said, lifting her head. “What are we going to do if Harry is the only one who can cook anything decent? We won’t all be together forever. I feel like such a failure.”
“Hermione, you brewed Polyjuice Potion when you were twelve. You’re far from a failure,” Harry said, rolling his eyes as he expertly added ingredients to the saucepan.
“I was thirteen,” Hermione said, sniffling.
Harry silently stared at her over the roof of his glasses until Hermione grinned, abashed.
“Besides, you lot kept me from starving when I was at the Dursleys, I can return the favour now,” Harry said, turning back to the stove.
“Don’t joke about that,” Ginny said, scowling.
“What was longest amount of time you spent in that cupboard?” Hermione asked, turning to face him, her distress over failing to make the cheese sauce apparently forgotten.
Harry spun around, gaping at her. It was his turn to forget what he was doing. “What?” he asked, spluttering.
“What’s the longest time you went without food?” Hermione asked bluntly.
“I don’t want to talk about the Dursleys,” Harry said, turning his back on them again. He removed the sauce from the stove and began paying over-exaggerated attention to adding the milk.
“You brought them up,” Hermione said. “I’m curious.”
“I dunno,” Harry said, his voice low. “A few days. When I got older, I learned to pick the lock, so I could nick food at night. If I didn’t take too much, they didn’t notice.”
“A few days?” Ron asked, outraged. “With nothing to eat?”
Ginny knew that to Ron, even spiders wouldn’t have been as terrible. She watched Harry closely. Her dad had told them not to push him when it came to the Dursleys, but although he was obviously uncomfortable, he wasn’t shutting them out completely. She wondered if perhaps he needed to talk about it.
“What about water? They couldn’t have withheld water that long. You’d have died,” Hermione said, her expression somewhere between horrified and outraged, though her tone was very clinical.
Harry began lining the food up on the counter to be brought over to the table. Ginny and Ron, both so used to this at The Burrow, automatically got up and began putting items at the table.
“Good thing the Dursleys didn’t know that then. It would’ve made it so much easier on them,” Harry said dryly. “Can we talk about something else now?”
“After you tell me what they gave you for water,” Hermione said, clearing spots on the table for Ron and Ginny to place the food.
“I got bathroom breaks twice a day. There was water in the tap, so it wasn’t a big deal,” Harry replied, bringing over the roasted chicken on a huge platter. “Look, chicken!”
From the slight colouring of his cheeks, Ginny suspected that when he was younger, two bathroom breaks probably weren’t enough. She viciously stuck the serving fork into the chicken. They all took chairs around the table, Ginny sitting to Harry’s left. Ron began piling food on his plate at once.
“Harry…” Hermione said, but he interrupted her before she could finish her thought.
“Enough about the Dursleys. It’s Christmas,” he said firmly. His attitude made it clear he was done talking about it.
“This looks amazing, Harry,” Ginny said, allowing the change of subject and admiring his work. She couldn’t have done this if you’d paid her.
“Harry,” Hermione said, looking stunned. Her eyes roamed the vast feast laid out before them, “why weren’t you in charge of cooking when we were on the run last year?”
Harry snorted. “Because you need food to cook.”
“Can we eat now?” Ron asked, leaning in toward the delicious aromas.
“Did you learn how to do all this while living with the Dursleys?” Hermione asked, picking up a serving spoon.
Harry, however, had been pushed as far as he was going to be. “See, Hermione, this is how the cheese sauce looks when it’s done properly,” he said, handing her the bowl of cauliflower. Hermione scowled, but took the plate.
Ginny tasted a bite of the chicken and savoured the flavour as it nearly melted in her mouth. “Mmm, Harry. You can cook for me anytime,” she said, sighing.
Ron grunted what sounded like it could have been a ‘me, too,’ but Ginny couldn’t be certain because his mouth was so full.One thing about Weasleys — they all enjoyed eating.
After they’d eaten their fill, Hermione insisted Harry and Ginny clear out of the kitchen, and she and Ron would do the clean-up. Harry took Ginny’s hand in his, and began leading her up the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Ron asked.
“Never mind where they’re going,” Hermione said, using her wand so that the pots and pans started scrubbing themselves in the sink. “Finish clearing the table, Ron.”
“I just thought… Mum is expecting to see Ginny after dinner,” he said, looking over at the fireplace.
“And she will,” Ginny said firmly. “After I’ve thanked Harry for preparing such a wonderful dinner.”
“You’ve already thanked him,” Ron said, grumbling.
Ginny could see this sharing living quarters with Ron was going to be a problem. Before she could round on him, however, Harry spoke up.
“Ron. We’ve discussed this,” he said firmly.
Ginny didn’t know what they’d discussed, but she could piece it together by the reddening of Ron’s ears. Harry tugged on her hand and led her up the stairs and out of the kitchen. She followed him into the sitting room where he used his wand to light a fire in the fireplace. Ginny sat down on the new red leather sofa.
Harry looked over at her, then took a seat in a large chair by the fire. Ginny frowned, wondering if she’d upset him.
“Er… that’s where Ron and Hermione were when I accidentally walked in on them,” Harry said sheepishly.
Ginny jumped from the sofa, swiping at her bum futilely. Harry grinned. “I’ve used Scourgify, but I can’t wipe my memory clean.”
“D’you want me to erase it?” she asked, removing her wand.
Harry pulled back slightly. “Er… d’you know how to do a Memory Charm?” he asked, looking alarmed.
“No,” Ginny replied simply. She kept her face stoic for as long as she could, looking at his horrified expression before she burst into laughter.
“Prat,” Harry said, grinning ruefully.
“I think the best we can do is make a memory of our own on the sofa,” she replied, sitting back down. “Are you up for that?”
The grin melted from Harry’s face into an expression of shocked intrigue. He scrambled off the chair to join her on the sofa. She laughed as she began to kiss him.
Once she stopped spinning, Ginny stepped from the fireplace into The Burrow’s silent kitchen. She blinked several times, discombobulated. She knew none of her siblings were living at home anymore, but she hadn’t expected the complete silence. It was unnatural, and she didn’t like it. Glancing around the empty room, the next thing she noticed was the lack of Christmas decorations. Mum had always left the bulk of the decorating for when her children returned from Hogwarts, but there was always something festive to welcome them home. Now, even the door lacked its traditional wreath. Although the kitchen smelled faintly of the remains of dinner, the traditional scents of baking was conspicuously absent.
Ginny knew this Christmas would be a hard one. The empty spot at the dinner table cast a pall over the rest of the kitchen. She hadn’t known what she expected, but this certainly wasn’t it. The joy and contentment that she’d achieved during her snog session with Harry evaporated like a punctured balloon.
She and Harry had spent an enjoyable hour wrapped around one another. Although they’d yet to take that final step, she was certain it’s where they were headed. She’d have to think of a way to circumvent Ron’s attention when they did. She wanted more than a stolen hour once they decided on that particular course of action.
Her belly fluttered at the thought, and she knew her skin had coloured just remembering his caresses during their stolen hour. Yes, she definitely wanted more of that. A muffled cough from the sitting room alerted her that she wasn’t completely alone. Checking that her clothes were readjusted and her ponytail back in place, Ginny poked her head around the entrance of the sitting room.
Her mum sat in her rocking chair by the fire, knitting needles clicking madly while another set clicked magically beside her. Her dad sat on the other chair, sipping a glass of Firewhisky and reading the newspaper.
“I’m home,” she called, somewhat glumly. It wasn’t the greeting she’d expected.
“Ginny!” Dad said, putting down the paper to stand and hug her. He kissed the top of her head, making her feel a little better. “We knew you’d returned safely when your trunk arrived. I’ve put it up in your room.”
“Hello, dear. How was dinner? Did Harry make you something special?” Mum asked, holding out a hand.
Ginny complied by taking it, leaning down to hug her mother. “Yeah, he prepared a roast chicken with all the fixings.”
Mum’s eyebrows rose appreciatively. Ginny knew she was disappointed that none of her own children had really taken to cooking.
“That must’ve taken a lot of work. I hope you all helped him,” Mum said.
“Hermione tried, but… well, I think we’ve finally found the solution to Ron’s obesity once his metabolism slows down,” Ginny replied, grinning.
Her dad chuckled, and her mum tut-tutted. “Did you like all the renovations?” Dad asked.
“I can hardly believe it’s the same house,” Ginny said. “Teddy’s room is being painted next week, and that should be the last of it, I think.”
“Teddy and Andromeda are joining us for Christmas dinner,” Mum said, her voice a little wobbly.
Ginny knew Christmas would be hard for Andromeda, too, but hopefully Teddy’s presence would help them all. “That’s a brilliant idea. I know Harry will be pleased. When is Charlie arriving?”
“That would be now,” a voice boomed from the kitchen. A moment later, Charlie’s massive frame filled the doorway, a light snow covering his hair that had collected as he’d walked from the Apparition point.
“Charlie!” Dad said, again rising to greet his second son.
“I thought you were arriving tomorrow night,” Mum said blankly. She looked rather stunned.
Charlie shrugged. “Things were slow, so I left a bit early. There wasn’t a delay at the checkpoint in Germany, and I was able to come right through,” he said, his gaze wandering around the room. Ginny wondered if he, too, was noticing the lack of Christmas decorations.
Ginny leapt up and flung herself at her brother, squeezing him for all she was worth. “It’s good to see you. How are the dragons?”
“Are you hungry?” Mum asked. “I had a big dinner planned for tomorrow, but I can put something together now.”
“Nah,” Charlie said. “I ate at my favourite pub in Germany.”
“The one with the waitress with the nice… hands?” Ginny asked, grinning. She remembered Charlie’s near slip when he was telling her and Hermione about his pub.
Charlie’s ears reddened, but he grinned good-naturedly. “Right in one, little sis. Where is everyone? It’s bloody quiet here,” he asked, his booming voice doing much to dispel the unnatural silence at the Burrow.
“Well, we weren’t expecting you, so everyone will be here tomorrow to welcome you,” her dad reminded him.
“Looks like I can surprise them all by already being here, then. At least you’re home,” he said, hugging Ginny again.
“I just arrived, too. I stopped at Grimmauld Place to have dinner with Harry, Ron and Hermione. They would’ve come back with me if they knew you were here,” Ginny said. Everyone always enjoyed listening to Charlie’s rambunctious tales about the dragons.
“What do Ron and Harry think of Auror training? I can’t believe my baby brother is an Auror,” Charlie said, and Ginny grinned, imagining the expression on Ron’s face if he’d heard Charlie calling him his ‘baby brother.’
“Both appear to have taken to it like fish to water,” Dad replied. “Although, at the moment, they’re working on an attempt to contain the Dementors, and it’s definitely taking a toll on the entire ranks.”
“I thought both Harry and Ron looked a bit washed-out at dinner. By the time I left, they could barely keep their eyes open,” Ginny said.
“The Ministry is working on a better solution,” Dad said tiredly, and Ginny suspected this discussion came up a lot.
“Will they both be here tomorrow?” Mum asked, her mouth puckered in disapproval.
“I don’t know about Ron, but Harry’s working,” Ginny replied. “I think Ron took a few days off while Hermione is home. Harry took Christmas off so he could spend Teddy’s first one with him.”
“I wish the Grangers would’ve come home instead so we could all be together for the holidays,” Mum said fretfully.
“I don’t think they wanted to leave their practice for that long. It takes Muggles much longer to travel,” Ginny explained.
“But they’d get to ride in an aeroplane,” Dad said excitedly.
Mum frowned. “Honestly, Arthur. I cannot understand your fascination with those Muggle contraptions. It sounds quite dodgy if you ask me.”
“These Muggles are so clever, though,” Dad answered, his enthusiasm not dimmed in the slightest by Mum’s disapproval.
“Hermione says all you have to do is take him on an aeroplane once, and he’d know how much better Apparition is,” Ginny replied.
“Oh, Molly! Could we?” Dad asked, holding his breath he was so excited.
Mum looked at him incredulously. “Where would we go?” she asked. “I don’t trust that thing wouldn’t fall out of the sky with us in it.”
“I think I’m just going to nip upstairs and drop off my things,” Charlie said, leaning close to Ginny’s ear. He held a large duffle bag in one hand, the muscles in his arm rippling with the weight of it. Ginny briefly wondered what he’d brought home that made his bag so heavy before she remembered that he’d have everyone’s Christmas gifts in there.
“I’ll help,” she said, hurrying up the stairs with him to escape her parents escalating row.
Ginny’s room was on the first landing, and she peeked inside. Her trunk sat on the floor at the foot of her bed. She flipped the lid open and grabbed two unopened bottles of Butterbeer that she’d bought on the train. Bringing them up two more flights of stairs, she stopped short to find Charlie still on the landing, staring at the closed door of the room that had once belonged to the twins. It was the only closed door she’d passed.
Charlie sighed deeply before crossing the hall into what had been Percy’s room. Tossing his duffle bag on one of the beds, he sank down wearily.
“How have they been?” he asked in a low voice.
Ginny handed him one of the Butterbeers, and he popped the lid easily. She handed him the other bottle for him to do the same to hers. “Dunno. I’ve been at school, haven’t I? You noticed the lack of decorations.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said, handing her back an opened bottle. “We can fix that tomorrow. What about George? He’s sent me packages of products, but he never says much.”
“George is okay — some days are harder than others. I think their birthday will be harder on him than Christmas,” Ginny said slowly, thinking about it. Once the words were out, she knew they were true. Mum and Dad would have a harder time with Christmas. For George, it would be the first time he celebrated a birthday alone.
Charlie took a long swig of the Butterbeer, nearly finishing it in one swallow. “You’re probably right.”
“He spends a lot of time at Ron and Harry’s. Eats with them, too, from what I hear, and I think that’s good for him. Oh, Fleur’s pregnant, so pretend to be surprised when they make their announcement,” Ginny said.
“No shit!” Charlie exclaimed, his eyes widening. “I’m going to be an uncle. Bill must be over the moon.”
“Dunno. I haven’t seen him yet,” Ginny said, looking forward to seeing her eldest brother — and even Fleur. It would be wonderful to no longer be the youngest Weasley.
“How’s school been?” Charlie asked, taking another swallow of his Butterbeer.
Ginny shrugged. “All right. Classes are more normal, but there’s this weird tension amongst the students all the time.”
Charlie frowned, watching her closely. “It must be hard to be back with some of the same students who were on the other side, yeah?”
“Very,” Ginny agreed, nodding. “There’s been a lot of shoving in the halls, but nothing too drastic. The teachers have all been really vigilant, particularly around Slytherin House. Still, I’m surprised there haven’t been any all-out duels.”
“Maybe there were some deals made between Hogwarts and families of those involved with the Carrows,” Charlie said, still frowning. “I can’t imagine they’d just let them back without any restrictions.”
“Dunno,” Ginny said. “If there are, it’s not general knowledge, and you know how hard it is to keep secrets at Hogwarts.”
“Now, there’s an understatement,” Charlie said, grinning.
“So, tell me about this waitress in Germany. Honestly, Charlie, I think this is about the longest-term relationship you’ve ever had,” Ginny said, smirking.
Charlie choked on the last of his Butterbeer. “We don’t have a relationship,” he said as if it were a dirty word.
“Just sex then?” she asked impishly.
Charlie’s colouring deepened. “I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“Why not? I’m not a child, I’m seventeen, Charlie. I want you to think back to when you were seventeen and what you were doing.”
Charlie scowled. “It’s not the same.”
“Of course it’s the same,” Ginny said indignantly. “You’d answer if it was Bill who was asking.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t remember ever seeing Bill in nappies,” Charlie replied.
Ginny snorted. “You’d answer Percy or George, as well.”
Now it was Charlie’s turn to snort. “I can’t see Percy ever coming right out and asking that question. What’s going on with you and Harry, anyway?”
“Nice try changing the subject,” Ginny said, eyebrows raised.
“I’m serious. I saw a Daily Prophet article that made it seem like he was playing the field,” Charlie said, kicking the dresser and not quite meeting her eyes.
Ginny rolled them dramatically so he couldn’t miss it. “Yeah, but what it didn’t say is that one of his ‘attractive Potions tutors’ was George. You know better than to believe everything you read in that rag. They’re always having a go at him. He can take it from outsiders, but don’t you dare give him any grief over it,” she said, firing up on Harry’s behalf.
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I was just asking,” Charlie said, holding up his hands defensively.
“Sorry,” Ginny mumbled, though she really wasn’t. “I just thought they’d give him a bit of break before they turned on him again.”
“It’s only Skeeter though, yeah?” he asked.
“I suppose, but the editor is still printing it. Harry’s been through a lot, and I just wish they’d give him some peace.”
Charlie didn’t reply, but when Ginny looked up, he was staring at her intently. “What?” she asked.
“Ginny and Harry, caught by the Ministry, K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” he sang impishly.
“Oh, real mature. Shut it, Charlie,” Ginny said, fighting a laugh.
Charlie grinned, batting his eyes dramatically. “I saw the way he looked at you last summer — like the sun rose and set just for you.”
Ginny felt her colour rising, and cursed that Weasley tell-tale red. “I said, shut it. Back to you and your German waitress, what did you say her name was?”
“I didn’t,” he replied, still smirking.
“So you’re shagging her, and you don’t even know her name?” Ginny asked, mock-scandalized.
“Ginny! I said I’m not discussing this with you,” he said firmly.
“What’s her name, then?” she repeated, unrelenting.
“Inga,” he said, sighing. Apparently, he knew she wouldn’t give up.
“Ing-Ga,” Ginny said, exaggerating each syllable.
“All right, enough of you,” Charlie said, reaching over and plucking Ginny up as if she weighed nothing at all. He tossed her on the extra twin bed and began tickling her like he did when she was small, something Ginny was never able to combat.
“Cut it out, Charlie, I mean it,” she gasped between laughter.
“Oh, you mean it, do you? What are you going to do about it?” he asked, laughing.
“I’ll tell Inga you’re in love with her!” Ginny shrieked.
“Ha. Nice try,” he replied, unimpressed.
Ginny fought to breathe through her laughter. “Okay, I’ll tell Mum you’re in love with Inga.”
Charlie stopped, pulling back and looking at her with a horrified expression. “That’s low, Ginny.”
Ginny raised up on her elbows, smirking. “I’m glad you’re home, Charlie,” she said, and she meant it.
“I’m glad to be home, Ginny. We’ll get through Christmas — together.”
T’was the day before Christmas, and Harry sat atop his broom, keeping a wary eye out for any stray Dementors. He’d done an early morning shift already, but he was working a double shift today, so he could have the whole day off on Christmas. Usually double shifts were discouraged, but there were so many Aurors taking time off, there simply weren’t any other options. He’d managed a short break before the second shift started, and he’d gobbled up several bars of Honeydukes’ best chocolate.
Owen was in charge of this shift, and Harry knew his partner wasn’t pleased that he’d done a double. It couldn’t be helped, however. He wanted the whole day off to spend with Teddy. Cormac McLaggen had also worked the previous shift — he’d said something about his family traveling. If Harry had to do a double, he would’ve preferred to do it with anyone other than Cormac.
Harry futilely tried to work the kinks out of his neck. When he’d originally agreed to the trade, he thought it had been a great idea. He’d be off in time to join the Weasleys at The Burrow for Christmas Eve dinner, and have Christmas Day entirely free. The rundown feeling he was experiencing after one shift left him worried that he’d be too tired to celebrate that evening.
Everyone planned to gather at The Burrow. It had been like this for the past several nights since Charlie and Ginny’s return. They’d all decorated The Burrow, and Harry had to admit it looked very festive. Even Mrs. Weasley seemed to get into the holiday spirit. Harry enjoyed the homemade decorations at The Burrow. He and Ginny had put up a few new decorations at Grimmauld Place, and he’d put a tree in the sitting room. It wasn’t quite the same without all the stories behind the decorations, however.
He knew Ginny was expecting him this evening, and he couldn’t disappoint her, so he had to be certain to have enough energy to at least make an appearance. She was spending the day doing some last-minute shopping with Ron and Hermione.
“Level off, Potter,” Owen barked, and Harry realized he’d been steadily gaining altitude while his mind drifted. He straightened his broom and descended back on course.
“Ooh, what crawled up his arse?” Violet, who was riding alongside him, asked.
“Dunno. I think he’s hacked off I’m riding a double shift,” Harry said, keeping his voice low so Owen wouldn’t overhear and start berating him again.
“Honestly, Harry. Why would you do something like that? One of these shifts is hard enough,” Violet scolded, sounding uncharacteristically like Hermione.
“Oi. If I knew you were going to go off on me, too, I would’ve kept my mouth shut,” Harry replied, disgruntled.
“Perhaps you ought to be working on keeping your mouth shut when they ask for volunteers to do a double shift,” Violet said, unperturbed.
“I wanted tomorrow off,” Harry mumbled, now wishing he hadn’t even engaged in conversation.
“Why? I thought it was only those with kids doing extra shifts. Personally, I’m working. The less time I spend with my dad and his pretty young wife, the better,” Violet said, grimacing.
“I have a godson, and it’s his first Christmas,” Harry said, shrugging. Remus and Tonks couldn’t be there, and Harry was bound and determined to stand in for them, no matter what he had to do.
Some of his emotions must’ve shown on his face, for Violet didn’t press the issue. They flew in silence for some time, and the Dementors were unusually quiet. Oddly, it made for a rather dull shift. Harry’s mind wandered as he circled the area, voices echoing in his head if he flew too close to any of them. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a Patronus that he didn’t recognize stopping in front of Owen. Apparently, something was going on, because if he wasn’t mistaken, it was carrying a message.
He kept a surreptitious eye on Owen as he cast his own Patronus toward a lone Dementor that had moved too close. It had been behind him for some time, and Harry had the eerie feeling it had been following him. It retreated under the blaze of Prongs, and Harry let out a sigh of relief.
“Potter,” Owen said, flying up alongside him. “I’ve got a job for you.”
Harry quirked his eyebrow. “I thought I was doing a job.”
“Save your effin’ sass for someone else. I’ve got a report that three more Dementors were spotted. I need you to take McLaggen and drive them back here,” Owen said gruffly.
Harry groaned inwardly. “Isn’t there anyone else?” he asked, feeling too exhausted already to deal with Cormac one-on-one.
Owen shook his head. “This is Duncan’s first time back, and I need to keep an eye on him. You and Cormac could use the break whilst you’re searching. The two of you should easily be able to handle three ruddy Dementors without much trouble.”
Harry glanced over at Duncan Tate. His ankle had fully healed, but he still looked a bit wary being surrounded by the Dementors again. It was only down to Christmas staffing issues that he’d been sent back out here without more training.
“All right,” he said morosely. “Where are they?” He supposed a flight without the drain of the Dementors wouldn’t be a bad idea. He thought it would be just the ticket to get his adrenaline pumping again. Perhaps he wouldn’t be too tired for the Christmas festivities after all.
“Little Whinging,” Owen said, and Harry’s spirits, which had begun to rise at the thought of flying, deflated.
“Pardon?” he asked, not certain he’d heard correctly. He felt as if he’d been punched in the gut.
“They were spotted entering Little Whinging. It’s in the county of Surrey in the south—”
“I know where it is. I grew up there,” Harry said, a vague feeling of unease creeping over him. He shifted on his broom, running a hand along the back of his neck.
“Good,” Owen continued, unaware of Harry’s distress. “I don’t have an exact location for them, but the Ministry is sending a Portkey post-haste. It will bring you to the location they were last spotted, then you can do a fly over the village. I’m certain you’ll be able to sense them. You’re like a ruddy Dementor Detector, you are.”
“Great,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “If I have to spend the afternoon with him, then you get to tell McLaggen he’s going.”
Owen grinned evilly. “I’d rather tell him than spend the afternoon with him,” he said quietly before flying over to Cormac’s position.
“You and me both,” Harry muttered.
The Portkey arrived soon after, and the unlikely pair each put a hand on the crushed fizzy drink can. Cormac wore a sullen expression, and he stared at Harry resentfully as the pull of the Portkey tugged them toward Little Whinging. Harry wasn’t certain if it was the effect of the Portkey or his nerves about returning that was causing the discomfort in his belly. Most likely a combination of both.
The Portkey delivered them in the village centre behind a department store that Harry recognized. He was often made to tag along behind Aunt Petunia and Dudley while they searched for new clothes for Dudley, who kept outgrowing his. Harry could hear the ring of Christmas bells, and he could imagine loads of Muggle shoppers rushing about on the busy sidewalk.
He hated it here.
Vaguely, he wondered if Dementors were somehow drawn to places other Dementors had been. The playpark where he and his cousin had been attacked wasn’t far from here, and he thought that would be where he’d check next.
“Listen,” Harry said. “I know this village, and this is about as busy a spot as you’ll find in all of Surrey. If there are Dementors around, this is where they’ll congregate. I suggest we reverse the Concealment Charms on our clothing, and walk about rather than fly. It’ll be easier to see in the alleys between shops that way.”
Cormac scowled but complied. “They should’ve given us an exact location. This could take hours,” he complained.
“We’ll give it an hour on foot. If we don’t spot them, we can fly over the neighbourhoods. It gets sparse the further out you go from the shops,” Harry said. He didn’t want to be here, either, but they had a job to do. Best to get it over with as quickly as possible.
He quickly transfigured their Auror clothing into jeans and heavy outerwear, and making certain they were both visible, shrunk his Firebolt to be stored in his pocket for easy reach. They set out through the slim alley and emerged onto the high street. As Harry expected, there were loads of Muggles hurrying about with bags and parcels. The trees that lined the street were decorated, and lights flashed in every shop window.
“You take this side of the street, I’ll go across,” Cormac said, casting disgusted looks at all the Muggles. “Shout out if you see anything.”
Harry nodded and, shoving his hands deep into his pockets, began trudging up the street. He glanced carefully down each dark alley between shops, but he knew before looking that there weren’t any Dementors in each one. The cold he felt was natural, and the only sounds in his head was the ringing of bells and excited chatter from the many shoppers.
He was so engrossed in looking down the alleys that he didn’t notice anyone in front of him until he’d already ploughed into him.
“Pardon,” he said quickly, the word dying on his lips when he realized who was staring at him with the same stunned expression that he expected was on his own face. “Dudley.”
“Harry,” Dudley said, sounding both shocked and pleased. “What are doing here? How are you?”
“I’m good. I’m working, actually. You?” he asked, feeling wrong-footed. He hadn’t expected to run into any of the Dursleys, despite the fact they’d been on his mind since learning he was returning to Surrey, and the fact Dudley was acting cordial really threw him.
“Mum and I had a few last-minute things to pick up. Are you coming ‘round for dinner?” Dudley asked.
“Er… no. I’m… I have plans with my wiz… with friends,” Harry said, catching himself before saying his wizarding family. It had been so long since he’d been in the company of any of the Dursleys, he was out of practice.
“Oh… right,” Dudley replied, shifting from foot to foot. “Where do you live?”
“Where d’you live? We got back after… you know… when they said it was safe, but we never saw you. They told me you were all right,” Dudley said, and Harry couldn’t remember a time when Dudley had ever strung so many words together.
“Oh, yeah. I have a house in London. I checked on Privet Drive before you returned. It all looked all right,” Harry said awkwardly. He was trying not to imagine the look on Aunt Petunia’s face if she found out her Diddy-ums had invited Harry to Christmas Eve dinner.
“Right. Your godfather gave you a house. I remember Dad ranting about it,” Dudley said.
“Right,” Harry said, wincing. He rapidly searched his brain for any other topic to discuss. “How did you all cope being in hiding?”
“About how you’d expect,” Dudley said, snorting. “I liked Hestia, though. She helped me with my homework and even charted out an exercise plan.”
Dudley was thinner and more fit than Harry had remembered him, so it seemed Hestia, at least, had done him some good.
“She told me when you’d won, that you killed Lord Voldymort,” Dudley said, not lowering his voice at all.
Harry glanced around wildly, not wanting any of his old neighbours, who already thought he was a delinquent, to overhear that he’d killed someone. “Shh, not in front of other Muggles,” he whispered, noting the irony of telling someone else not to use the name.
“Dudley,” Aunt Petunia called as she exited the nearest shop. “I think I have every— What are you doing here?” she asked, her eyes narrowing in dislike as she realized to whom Dudley was speaking.
“Hello, Aunt Petunia,” Harry said pleasantly.
Dudley glanced between his mother and Harry, perplexed. Harry didn’t know why he’d be confused by the open hostility. It had always been that way. Harry had been so caught up in bumping into Dudley, he’d completely forgotten he was supposed to be doing a job. Glancing over at the other side of the street, he realized he could no longer see McLaggen.
“I have to go. Good to see you, Dudley,” he said, moving to walk past them.
Aunt Petunia scowled and didn’t say anything at all, but Dudley called out, “Happy Christmas, Harry.”
Harry stopped and turned around, “Happy Christmas,” he said quietly, his eyes briefly meeting his aunt’s stone-cold blue. They looked like chips of ice, and Harry somehow felt a bit of that coldness seeping into his very soul.
He turned again and hurried along the sidewalk. It only took a short distance before he saw Cormac’s tall frame. He was a few shops ahead, still peering into alleys. Harry jogged to catch up but stopped suddenly as an unnatural chill ran down his spine. Glancing to his right, he realized he was standing directly in front of long, dark alleyway. Any pleasure over the positive greeting from Dudley melted from him, leaving him with nothing but the image of Aunt Petunia’s cold eyes.
He whistled sharply and saw Cormac turn his head. He waved him over as he took a few tentative steps down the alley. His lungs began to ache as the cold seeped into them, and it only took a moment before he heard a deep rattling sound that sometimes filled his nightmares. Pulling his wand from its holster, he inched along the dirty stone until the darkness became unmanageable.
“Lumos,” he whispered, and was surprised to find a lone Dementor nearly on top of him when light burst from his wand tip. The sightless Dementor hovered, reaching out a scabby, decayed-looking hand.
The breath left Harry’s lungs as his mother’s screams pierced the fogginess in his brain.
“You have allowed your friends to die for you,” Voldemort’s ghostly echo filled his mind.
“Expecto Patronum,” he bellowed, wondering what was taking Cormac so long. Prongs burst from his wand and charged at the approaching Dementor, chasing it down the alley.
Cormac finally appeared behind him, speeding up at the sound of Harry’s shout. He looked surprised that Harry had found them, as if he’d thought the entire exercise had been nothing but a waste of his time. The fact there were actual Dementors appeared to startle him.
“Took you long enough,” Harry snarled. “I have them pinned at the end of this alley. Get your broom ready.”
Both resized their brooms and quickly transfigured their clothing back into the special Auror uniform. The three Dementors had retreated as far as they could to escape Prongs, and the Patronus held them there. It faded once Harry and Cormac were close enough, and they attempted to take flight.
The Aurors followed quickly into the air, their uniforms shielding them from any Muggles below. Casting Patronuses in tandem, they began herding the creatures toward the Forest of Dean. Harry had participated in several round-ups. Some of them went without incident, and the Dementors moved along as they tried to keep ahead of the Patronuses. Other journeys were more difficult with unruly Dementors attempting to make an escape at every turn. Naturally, this journey fell into the second category.
While the Dementors complied at first, it didn’t take long for them to make their first escape attempt. Harry and Cormac flanked them on either side, urging them forward. Each of the three made attempts at escape every few kilometres, or they tried to slow their progress, unwilling to be herded further from the crowds.
After a couple hours of consistently casting his Patronus, Harry was weary. He knew from the flickering of Cormac’s buffalo Patronus that he was feeling it, as well. They weren’t far from the rendezvous point, they just had to remain seated until they got there.
Vaguely, Harry wondered what it was Cormac was being forced to see, but he couldn’t dwell on it for too long as his own demons were clamouring for attention. Scattered voices rang in his ears.
“Not Harry. Please, not Harry. Have mercy.”
“A fragment of Voldemort’s soul was blasted apart from the whole, and latched itself on the only living thing left in that collapsing building.”
“You have allowed your friends to die for you.”
And, as if the voices telling the woeful story of Harry’s past weren’t enough, there were images too, playing fast and furious like a moving picture show in his mind: Ginny on the Chamber floor; a rush of green light hurtling towards him; Sirius falling through the Veil; the blood-soaked Hogwarts grounds; Remus and Tonks reaching for one another’s hands even in death.
Harry’s hand shook as he raised his wand, “Expecto Patronum!”
Cormac’s Patronus flickered and went out. Harry could see him attempting another, but all that was emitting from his wand was a faint mist. Cormac no longer had the energy to cast a corporeal Patronus. Harry dredged up all the strength he could muster and cast a second Patronus to herd the Dementors from the other side. His sweaty hand slipped on his broom as he kept himself upright by sheer force of will. He could see the outskirts of the forest now. He was almost there.
The Dementors must’ve sensed the presence of others, too, for they appeared to become more alert. Instead of stalling, they moved forward quickly toward the mass. Just as Harry became lulled into believing they would cooperate, they scattered, moving in three opposite directions. Harry followed the two nearest him, and hoped Cormac could contain the other.
He directed Prongs to get behind them, and he forced them forward, moving quickly. The cold wind whipped his hair around his head, but it helped keep him alert. Panting, he could see that Cormac was struggling and still couldn’t produce a Patronus to contain his Dementor. Harry used his wand to send a stream of sparks into the air.
His vision tunnelled and elongated as bright spots appeared in front of his eyes. One Prongs was still visible, but it was flickering, although still herding the Dementors forward. A cacophony of sound filled his head, confusing him. Without him understanding how, Owen Savage was suddenly level with him.
“Keep going, Potter, you’re almost there. I need to get the other one,” Owen barked.
He sped toward the Dementor that was fleeing from Cormac, who sat weakly atop his broom, watching his superior give chase. Once he realized Owen was there, Cormac aimed his broom and sped forward. Harry thought he was coming to his aid, but Cormac lowered his broom, instead aiming for the ground and the rendezvous point. He’d left Harry on his own to get these two in containment.
Swearing under his breath, Harry grit his teeth and cast a final Patronus, aiming the Dementors toward his target. His shaking hand slipped from his broom, and he lurched forward, banging his forehead on the tip of the broom sharply. He forced himself back up, blinking hard in an attempt to clear his spotted vision.
Violet noticed him, and used her own Patronus to finally corral the two Dementors. She took one look at Harry and shouted, “Get to the ground and eat some chocolate. Our shift is just about over, and you can get a Portkey back to the Ministry.”
The Ministry had put new procedures in place to send the detail back to the Ministry after a shift to have some chocolate and recover before attempting to go home.
Harry didn’t have the strength to argue with her. He turned to see Owen leading the one lone Dementor toward the circle, and he aimed his broom for the ground. His legs didn’t want to support him, and he nearly collapsed before deciding to sit right down where he was and shoving a chocolate bar in his mouth. It didn’t appear any time had passed at all, but it must’ve done as the next thing he became aware of was Owen kneeling on the ground in front of him, shouting at him.
“What the…” Harry said groggily. His head was spinning, and he felt incredibly weak and confused. Owen’s shouting wasn’t helping.
“What in the name of Merlin’s bloody libido were you thinking? We have procedures, Potter,” Owen bellowed, looking angrier than Harry had ever seen him.
Blinking, he noticed that a new shift was already in the air, and the rest of his patrol were scattered on the ground, shouldering their brooms and eating chocolate. He had no recollection of making the switch. Perhaps the double shift, the unruly Dementors, and his unexpected run-in with his past had taken more out of him than he’d realized — not to mention having to spend the day with Cormac McLaggen. Speak of the devil…
“Where’s McLaggen?” he asked, feeling annoyed. His voice didn’t sound nearly as forceful as he would’ve liked.
“I’ve already sent him back to the Ministry; he was damn near incoherent, the tosser. Don’t think I didn’t see him bail on you up there,” Owen said, scowling. “We have effin’ procedures in place to ensure no one works themselves to bloody exhaustion, Potter. If it becomes too much, you’re supposed to contact the Ministry and merely act as watchers rather than trying to herd them until reinforcements arrive. Exactly what part of the ruddy plan did you feel didn’t apply to you?”
Harry felt his own ire rising, and he jumped to his feet, swaying precariously. “I couldn’t just let them go. It’s Christmas,” he said, his words slurred. “Besides, I was using all my strength to contain two, never mind managing to send a message ahead.”
“All the more reason to stop before you’d used all your strength! Did you think working yourself to the point of exhaustion was a better alternative? How do you think your ginger family would’ve handled you taking a fall off your broom over a pit of them?” Owen asked, irate.
“I didn’t fall,” Harry replied resentfully, feeling Owen was being unreasonable. Even if he’d needed back-up, there weren’t enough Aurors available to cover regular shifts, never mind late in the afternoon on the day before Christmas. It had been a rough journey, but they’d managed without injury.
“Barely!” Owen snapped.
“They’re here, aren’t they?” Harry demanded, feeling both sick and harassed.
“That’s not the point. If it becomes too much, we have procedures to fall back on, and those procedures apply to you. Do you understand, Potter?” Owen demanded furiously.
“Yes, sir,” Harry spat. Harry usually got on so well with Owen that he frequently forgot he was also his superior. Still, it felt uncomfortable to have his friend looking at him that way.
They stared at one another for several moments, both seething and uncomfortable. Apparently giving up on having anything else to say, Owen turned on his heel and stalked over to the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures worker.
Harry was angry and frustrated, and he wanted nothing more than to get out of there. He needed to see Ginny at The Burrow, but he wanted to go home and shower first. His legs were shaking with both irritation and exhaustion, and his head was ringing. As he turned on the spot to Disapparate, anger still pulsing in his veins, the thought that he should’ve gone to the Ministry crossed his mind.
He knew there was a problem the moment he appeared on the front steps of Grimmauld Place. A shooting pain erupted in his knee, and he toppled over in excruciating agony. It was pain like he’d never experienced before — and that was saying a lot. He was wet, and he didn’t know why. He reached a trembling hand toward his pulsing knee, but it instead landed in a puddle of warm wetness. He pulled his hand back, noting dispassionately that it was covered in glistening red, dripping from his fingers. Confusion overtook him as various faces swam in front of him — Owen, Cormac, and Aunt Petunia. The world blurred, and his eyes drifted shut looking at his own front door.