Harry knew he’d made a mistake in arranging to Portkey to The Burrow the day before Bill and Fleur’s wedding. He should have come for the ceremony and left as soon as it was over. The source of his frustration wasn’t all the nerves and irritated outbursts brought on by last-minute bustling. It wasn’t the ever-rising tension between Fleur and Mrs Weasley caused by the bride’s demands that everything be just so. It wasn’t even the extra security made necessary by the war in the world at large.
No, the reason this had all been a mistake was Ginny. She was everywhere, and it was all Harry could do to keep a safe distance.
Her breath had hitched when she’d opened the door in response to his knock, a single sharp hiss of in-taken air. She stared at him a moment too long, her lips slightly parted until she regained enough composure to usher him inside. He followed, his trunk floating along in his wake. He knew it was safe for him to risk a little under-age magic here, and besides, he was going to turn seventeen soon enough.
“Welcome to the chaos,” she said, a wry half-smile playing around her mouth.
A quick glance around the kitchen showed that Ginny was being kind. What must have been Mrs Weasley’s entire collection of pots and pans was scattered about, bits of food sticking to every piece. The normally clean table where the family gathered to eat was covered in a gooey substance that looked like cake batter. Tiny triangular scraps of shiny paper foundered sadly in the goo.
“What’s happened in here?” Harry asked.
“Phlegm, that’s what!” Ginny hissed.
After Fleur had stood up to Mrs Weasley in the hospital wing, declaring she was going to marry Bill, scars or no, Ginny had said she was going to make an effort in accepting Fleur into the family. Harry wondered what had caused the change in her attitude.
Before he could say anything else, a buzzing sound filled the room. Mrs Weasley bustled into the room wearing a badly stained apron, her hair all askew. She was followed by a tall, slender woman, whose slivery blond hair was caught up in an elegant twist. Her robes were simply cut but they screamed their expensive price tag even to Harry’s untrained eye. As frazzled as Mrs Weasley looked, this second woman, whom, Harry realised now, he’d seen once before the day of the third task of the Tri-wizard Tournament, was completely composed. Next to Harry, Ginny stiffened and her expression became stony.
“Quickly now!” Fleur’s mother commanded. “Zis one cannot be ruined.”
Mrs Weasley said nothing, but gingerly opened the oven door, releasing an aroma of butter, sugar and eggs, and withdrew a large, delicately browned cake.
Fleur’s mother pursed her lips. “It is too brown,” she declared.
“Nonsense,” replied Mrs Weasley, her voice going much harder than Harry was used to hearing. She pulled a toothpick out of the centre of the cake. The few crumbs that clung to the wood were perfectly white. “It’s neither overcooked nor undercooked. Once we’ve wrapped it in marzipan and iced it, no one is going to know what colour it is underneath.”
Fleur’s mother did not look convinced. “Everysing must be perfect...” she began.
Harry heard Ginny release a breath. “As late as it is, there isn’t any time to bake another one,” she pointed out.
Mrs Weasley’s head snapped around, as if she was surprised to find her daughter in the room, and when she spotted Harry, she put a hand over her heart. “Harry, dear! When did you get here?”
“Just now,” he said, grinning.
“I’m sorry, I’ve completely lost track of time with this cake business. I’ll... I’m not quite sure... Ginny, could you make Harry a sandwich or something for me, dear?”
“That’s okay,” Harry put in quickly. “I’ve already eaten.”
He didn’t think he’d ever seen Molly Weasley look relieved at the prospect of not having to feed him, but her expression clearly stated that she was.
Fleur’s mother cleared her throat and held out a hand. “I don’t believe I have had ze honour. I am Philomène Delacour, Fleur’s mozzer. And you are, of course, ‘Arry Potter.”
Harry nodded and shook her hand rather stiffly.
“It is a nightmare, zis wedding,” Mrs Delacour went on. “Eef we had held it in France as I weeshed, well....” She gave a sweeping gesture with her hand as if to say that she wouldn’t have had to deal with such trifles as messy kitchens and uncooperative wedding cakes. Then she turned to Ginny. “You be a good leetle girl and help your mozzer clean the kitchen.”
Ginny bristled, but before she could retort, Mrs Weasley broke in. “She certainly will not. She’s underage, and there’s no way anybody is going to clean all this up before tomorrow without magic. I’ll take the help but from someone who can legally do magic.”
Fleur’s mother either missed the hint altogether or pretended she had. “I’ll go find zat boy, zen. Rod. And his friend, ‘Air-mee-uhn.”
Before anyone could correct her, she swept from the room. He heard Ginny mumble something under her breath that seemed to contain the word “phlegm” amidst a lot of cursing.
“Ginny, dear, take Harry up to Ron’s room,” Mrs Weasley said, as she readied her wand for a good round of housekeeping spells. “The house is full,” she added apologetically to Harry, “so I can’t promise you a room to yourself this time.”
“That’s quite all right, Mrs Weasley.”
Ginny pushed past him through the kitchen door, making for the stairs, and their shoulders brushed. The familiar swooping sensation passed through Harry’s stomach, and he had to remind himself he couldn’t simply reach out and catch her hand. He had to be content with a friendly “So that’s the new and improved phlegm, is it?”
When Ginny looked back at him over her shoulder, her smile was decidedly forced.
Harry followed Ginny through The Burrow’s winding staircases, trunk still floating behind him, to the top of the house where Ron had slept during his entire childhood. The sign on the door still read “Ronald’s Room”, but Harry knew it wouldn’t be for much longer. Once the wedding was over, Ron and Hermione were going to accompany Harry on the most dangerous road any of them had ever taken.
Harry hesitated on the landing. Ginny had a vague idea of what Harry was about to embark on, but she didn’t know just what it entailed. He’d heeded Dumbledore’s advice and not told her, but now he wondered if he’d done the right thing. Though technically he owed her nothing in the way of an explanation since he’d broken off their relationship, part of him still wanted to tell her. He remembered the time in the library when she’d brought him his Easter egg, and she’d listened to him as he’d told her about wanting to talk to Sirius. Just her quiet attentiveness had helped him feel better. Now the words she’d used that day came back to him.
“You sort of start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but she’d already turned aside, her long hair sweeping in an arc behind her. He’d missed his chance.
Sounds from the kitchen echoed up through the house, reaching the top floors until well into the night. Harry lay listening until long after they had died away and the house became silent, as sleep eluded him. Ron’s snoring certainly didn’t help matters; nor did the idea of the quest he was about to embark on with his two best friends. But on top of all that, he’d run across Ginny on the landing earlier, and the image of her was still vivid in his mind.
She’d just taken a shower if the cloud of steam that accompanied her was any indication. It looked as if she was ready for bed: she had on an old T-shirt that must have belonged to one of her brothers. It fell to the middle of her thighs, somehow long enough and yet not. Her hair was tucked under a towel, but he noticed the water droplets clinging to the fine hairs at the nape of her neck. The clean scent of her soap was enticing him to kiss the droplets away....
He groaned to himself, gave his pillow a frustrated punch and rolled over in the narrow camp bed. The direction of his thoughts was causing him nothing but torment. Last year, she’d come to him in dreams, but it was far worse now that he knew how she could make him feel. The pictures his traitorous mind conjured were far too real, and part of him wanted to dwell on them, to imagine where things might lead if he’d followed her back into her bedroom, if by chance Hermione wasn’t sharing it.
And if, by chance, Ginny let him slide his hands over her thighs, seeing if the freckled skin felt as soft as it looked, smoothing higher and higher until he’d got that shirt off her...
At some point he must have dropped off, for he awakened to the sounds of Ron moving about. Raising his tousled head and reaching for his glasses, he gazed blearily at his best friend who was standing in front of the mirror that was tacked to the inside of his wardrobe, trying to adjust his dress robes. “Bloody things,” he murmured under his breath, “why can’t they make them comfortable?”
“Wha’ time izzit?” Harry muttered.
“Time to get a move on. Mum’s in a right mood. Better not show your face downstairs until you’re dressed and ready to go.”
Harry heaved himself out of the camp bed and stomped off to the bathroom for a shower. When he came back, Ron was gone, so he rummaged in his trunk for his dress robes. Pulling them on, he did his best to flatten his hair. After several minutes of fussing with the stubborn tufts that liked to stand up in the back, he gave it up for a lost cause and descended the stairs again, hoping there’d be at least some toast waiting. As late as Mrs Weasley had been up the night before, he didn’t expect she’d want to cook a large breakfast.
As he approached the third landing, he made a pact with himself that he was not going to slow down or look to see if Ginny had emerged yet. Upon reaching the landing, however, he saw that her door was ajar, and he couldn’t help notice the voices coming from the room beyond.
“Honestly, Mum, it’s not that bad!” Ginny sounded rather irritated.
“Yes, it is that bad,” Mrs Weasley insisted. “You’re not going out like that. It’s simply not decent.”
“Come on, I’m covered up. Nothing’s showing that shouldn’t be!” Harry could imagine her rolling her eyes as she said this.
“I just don’t understand,” Mrs Weasley muttered in a lower voice, having apparently given up the argument. “I don’t know how many times I’ve charmed this and it keeps going back to the way it was. Are you sure you haven’t touched it?”
“Yes, Mum. What do you take me for?”
“I suppose I’ll just have to take some drastic measures then. Don’t you dare move!”
Harry had no time to make it look as if he was just happening by the landing, rather than standing there listening in. Mrs Weasley didn’t seem to notice, however. “Oh, Harry! You look nice dear, all ready to go. Listen, could you do me a favour and make sure Ginny stays put until I come back?”
Harry could hardly refuse without it looking odd. “Yeah, of course.”
As soon as Mrs Weasley’s footsteps died away down the stairs, Ginny came out of her room looking put out.
Harry felt his mouth go dry and his brain seemed to have forgotten how to formulate a coherent thought. She was wearing a dress of some pale gold fabric that had a shimmer to it, making it appear as if her skin was glowing faintly. Her hair was loose about her shoulders, the front caught back in a ribbon, and she’d curled the ends. She looked like a figure out of one of the older tapestries at Hogwarts, some fine medieval lady dressed for a tournament, waiting to grant her favour to the knight she fancied.
Too late, he realised she’d been saying something to him and was expecting a response. “Er, sorry,” he mumbled. “What was that?”
“I asked if you’d get out of the way.”
“But your mum said...”
“I don’t care what she said. I’m tired of fighting with her over this dress!”
“What’s wrong with it?” Harry blurted. From where he was standing, it was damned near perfect.
Ginny gave an exasperated sigh. “She thinks it’s cut a bit low in the front.”
Harry would have given anything for her not to have pointed that out to him. His eyes went straight to her neckline, and he felt another painful stab of longing. A funny tingling began in his hands, and he was overcome with the desire to touch....
With an effort, he snapped his gaze back to her face. Ginny was smirking at him, and he felt himself redden. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“Harry...” she began, and before his eyes, her entire expression changed from one of amusement to something else. Something distinctly more ardent. Somehow his hand was on the soft skin in the angle where her shoulder met her neck. Her eyes were inviting, and he leaned in, his resolve crumbling. He was about to fall....
Sudden footsteps on the stairs startled Harry into action, and he leapt away from Ginny as if she’d burned him. Mrs Weasley was back with a needle, thread, a pair of scissors and a length of lace in her hand.
“Thank you, Harry,” she said brightly.
“Oh Mum, you’re not,” Ginny protested.
“Oh yes, I am,” her mother replied, sounding formidable. “Charms aren’t working, and this is the only thing I could think of...”
“Did you ever stop to think,” Ginny said between clenched teeth, “that there might be some sort of magic at work on this dress that won’t let you alter it?”
Harry heard Mrs Weasley begin to argue against the idea, but he decided it was best not to stick around and listen. He might be left alone with Ginny once more, and he had no idea what he might do if that happened again.
Harry had never attended a wedding in either the Muggle or the wizarding worlds before. Whenever the Dursleys had been invited to an event of this nature, they’d left him with Mrs Figg. He knew that Muggle weddings were most often held in a church; he knew nothing of the wizarding traditions surrounding matrimony.
He certainly didn’t think that such an event would normally take place behind the groom’s house, but that was a concession to security in these uncertain times. As he sat with Ron and Hermione waiting for the ceremony to begin, he noticed that some attempt had been made at corralling the usual chaos of the Weasley garden. The clutter of Wellington boots that normally blocked the back door was gone, and the chickens had been confined to the hen house. Extra care had been taken in the flowerbeds so that Mrs Weasley’s blooms were shown off to their best advantage. Live fairies flitted among colourful garlands, and Harry even thought he saw a garden gnome in a top hat peeking out from the bushes. Remembering the angel that had topped the Weasley Christmas tree the previous December, he wondered if the twins had been at work again.
Harry imagined that Fleur’s mother must hate it. Just as the thought crossed his mind, a sweep of silk robes brushed past him. Charlie was ushering Philomène Delacour to her place in the front row, and her expression put him in mind of Narcissa Malfoy at the Quidditch World Cup.
An expectant rustle passed through the assembled guests as everyone sat up a little straighter. Fanfare-like music blared from somewhere, and the ceremony began. Ginny walked sedately at the end of the procession, her hand on the arm of a blond boy Harry had never seen before, carrying a bouquet of cream-coloured roses.
He didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the wedding ceremony after she took her place next to Gabrielle in the front. He was too busy watching the way the sun glinted off her hair and caught in the gold ribbon that bound it.
A loud bang followed by several smaller pops made Harry jump in his seat. Bill and Fleur were kissing while a display of brightly coloured fireworks went off behind the Ministry official who had performed the ceremony. Harry was sure that Fred and George had had a hand in this detail.
The newlyweds broke apart and led the way back between the seats, followed by the rest of the gathering. As the guests began to line up to offer their congratulations to the happy couple, someone conjured tables and the chairs everyone had sat on for the wedding zoomed into place around them. A wide area was left clear for dancing, and soft music began to play. There was a lot of milling about and chit-chat while trays laden with drinks and fussy little canapés floated through the crowd.
Harry beat a hasty retreat into a quieter area with Ron and Hermione. The curious stares he was getting from many of the guests were making him uncomfortable; he didn’t relish the idea of hearing the words “Chosen One” bandied about all evening. Ginny had disappeared along with the rest of the wedding party.
“They’ll be taking pictures,” Hermione stated, taking a sip from her wine glass. Harry had tried some of the deep red liquid in his own goblet but found he preferred mead to this sour stuff. Hermione’s eyes went round. “This is quite nice,” she commented, taking a larger sip. Harry imagined it was an acquired taste.
By the time the feast was announced, Hermione had worked her way through two more glasses. Harry wasn’t convinced this was wise, but Ron seemed to be encouraging her. Harry decided it was best not to get involved.
The meal was made up of more of the same sort of fussy food as the hors d’oeuvres. There were loads of odd ingredients cut into impossibly small pieces and artfully arranged on the plates amidst squiggles of lurid sauces. If Aunt Petunia had seen it, she would have exclaimed for ages over how posh it all was. To Harry it was all rather strange and not terribly appetising.
“Look, Harry, you’ve got a friend.”
A flushed and giggly Hermione was nodding towards the head table. Harry’s eyes went immediately to Ginny, but that wasn’t whom Hermione had been indicating. Gabrielle Delacour was smiling in Harry’s direction. She gave him a small wave as he looked over.
“Looks like you’ve got a sure-fire way of getting girls,” said Ron with a snort. “You rescue ‘em and they fall at your feet. Just try and wait ‘til they’re older before you go after them, eh, mate?”
Harry gave Ron a kick under the table. He’d had quite a bit to drink as well. “I wonder why Mrs Weasley went to all that trouble baking a cake last night,” Harry mused aloud to make sure the subject changed as much as anything. He couldn’t be sure Ron wouldn’t bring up his sister in his condition.
Both Ron and Hermione looked lost. “Well,” Harry explained, “she certainly didn’t make all this food. It isn’t really her style. So why’d she have to bake the cake?”
“Oh,” said Ron, “that’s just how it’s done. The bride’s parents provide the supper and the groom’s parents provide the pudding.”
“I heard Fleur saying her mother hired some chef who runs a three-star restaurant in Paris,” Hermione commented.
“You think he’d get another star if he actually made it so you’d know what you were eating?” Ron asked. Hermione simply giggled.
The cake, in Harry’s opinion, was easily the best thing about the meal. He didn’t think Mrs Delacour’s French chef would approve, but Harry made sure he went back for thirds.
When the dancing began Harry watched from his corner, as the evening deepened around The Burrow. He was happy he wasn’t obliged to lead things off. Ginny danced with her brothers in succession — even a very stiff Percy — and he couldn’t help noticing that whatever Mrs Weasley had tried to apply to the bodice of Ginny’s dress to make it more modest hadn’t stayed on. Mrs Weasley didn’t look as if this bothered her very much at the moment. She was dancing with Mr Weasley, a girlish smile on her face and a flush in her cheeks. This might be the only happy occasion for the family for a long while, and Harry wouldn’t begrudge their happiness to anyone, much less the Weasleys.
The music slowed; partners changed. Harry spotted Ron and Hermione tottering about in a tight circle. Then he spotted Ginny. She was dancing with the blond bloke upon whose arm she’d walked up the aisle. He seemed to be having a great deal of difficulty keeping his eyes on Ginny’s face, and suddenly Harry was quite in agreement with Mrs Weasley. That dress was far too revealing. Harry was allowed to see her like that, but no one else was. His fists clenched and he wondered what he could do about the situation without causing a scene. What would Ginny say if he cut in?
“Allô?” Gabrielle was standing in front of Harry, a broad smile on her face.
“Er, hi,” he said rather weakly, trying to see around her.
She jabbered something incomprehensible at him.
“Sorry, I don’t speak French,” Harry informed her.
Gabrielle looked stricken. It was clear she hadn’t counted on there being a language barrier between them.
“I... learn... English...” she tried.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Harry said, wishing she’d go find someone else to practise with. But then another idea occurred to him. Pointing as subtly as he could, he added slowly, “See that bloke? That boy dancing with Ginny?”
At least she seemed to understand. “Yes.”
“Who is he?”
“Is Timothée. Cousin of me.”
“Gabrielle!” Harry was relieved when Fleur turned up, and, to all appearances, began telling her sister off in French. Gabrielle looked contrite. But then Fleur rounded on Harry. “And why are you not dancing? Come, you must dance!”
Harry could hardly refuse the bride a dance, and so he followed her out onto the dance floor, feeling more conspicuous than he ever had at the Yule Ball. He allowed Fleur to steer, while he kept an eye out for Ginny. He couldn’t see her anywhere.
“Are you ‘aving a good time?” Fleur asked him.
“Oh, yeah, great! Good food,” he said distractedly. He was still looking around for a glimmer of golden robes, but the only set he could see were on Gabrielle, who was now contemplating her older sister with a decidedly jealous expression.
The music couldn’t end soon enough as far as Harry was concerned. As soon as it was polite, he got away from Fleur and tried to see where Ginny had gone, but he couldn’t find her anywhere. He wondered if he even ought to try. Something was making him hold back. He knew she was more than capable of taking care of herself if Gabrielle’s cousin decided to try anything.
“Besides,” added an unwelcome voice inside his head, “you split up with her. You haven’t got any claim on her if she wants to move on.”
The posh French food did an uncomfortable somersault in his stomach. What if she did want to move on? She’d done it once before to try and get over him. What if this time she succeeded? There wouldn’t be anything he could do about it, other than sit on the sidelines and watch it happen.
Well, he wasn’t about to simply stay and watch. He had no right to ask Ginny to wait for him; he had no right to expect that she would. He knew what he needed to do — what he should have done from the beginning. He needed to leave, and it had to be now.
Working his way around the edge of the crowd, he eased himself away from the celebrants and sneaked back through the kitchen door. He would pack his trunk, fix it to his broom and leave for Godric’s Hollow tonight. Ron and Hermione would be sure to make excuses for him and follow.
He didn’t get further than the Weasleys’ living room.
“Who’s there?” demanded an angry female voice.
“It’s just me,” Harry said, averting his eyes, not wanting to see if he’d interrupted anything.
“Oh.” Ginny sounded calmer now. “I thought it was that prat!”
Harry advanced into the darkened room, knowing it was safe now. Ginny was sitting on the sofa. “Who d’you mean?” he asked, hope beginning to blossom once more.
“That French idiot. Teem-o-tay, I think he said his name was. He couldn’t keep his eyes or his hands where they should be, and he thought I should fall at his feet just because he has an outrageous accent.” She exaggerated these last two words into a parody of the way Fleur and her relatives spoke English.
Harry wanted to laugh, but he was also irritated for her sake. “What did he do?” Harry demanded.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Harry sat down on the edge of the armchair facing her. “Did you hex him?”
“I couldn’t. There’s no room for my wand in this dress. I socked him in the eye instead. He won’t be so attractive tomorrow.... So what’s brought you inside this soon?” she added after a pause.
“I guess dancing isn’t my thing,” he hedged, unsure if she’d appreciate him admitting the real reason.
“Too bad.” She looked straight into his eyes, and he wished he’d sat on the sofa next to her. “We could’ve danced.”
“Do you really think that would have been a good idea, in front of everyone?”
“It wouldn’t have been any fun,” she admitted, “having to dance with you like you were another brother.”
“Do... Do you mean that?”
She didn’t reply to him directly. “We could have our dance here, and then we wouldn’t have to pretend.”
Harry’s heart was pounding. She was making it so difficult to resist. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea. Someone could come in.”
“My family isn’t going to say anything.”
“It’s not your family I’m worried about. I can’t take a chance of someone outside the family knowing I care. They can use you against me. He already has in a way, and this time would be so much worse.”
Even as he spoke, his eyes strayed to the Weasley family clock, which was back in its place in the living room. As had been the case the previous summer, all its hands pointed to “Mortal Peril”.
As if Ginny could read his mind, she replied, “We’re all in danger no matter what. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, but... Listen, you’ll be at Hogwarts in September. You’ll be safe there.”
“If they keep it open, you mean.”
“No matter where you are, you’re going to be safer away from me.”
“Is anywhere safe these days?”
“No, I don’t suppose it is,” he admitted. “Listen, I didn’t tell you this in June, but you have to know that, even if Hogwarts stays open, I won’t be coming back.”
In the darkness, it was difficult to tell, but Harry thought she was biting her lip. “I figured as much,” she said at length. “If there’s anything I can do — a way I can help — you’ll tell me, won’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” Harry said, knowing that he was going to be in some pretty dire straits before he’d call on her aid. There was no way he’d put her in harm’s way unless it was absolutely necessary.
“Do you mean that?”
Harry swallowed. He hadn’t expected her to see through him so easily. When he didn’t reply right away, she added in a harder tone, “Do you know what it would do to me if anything happened to you, and I could have done something to help? Would you really put me in that position?”
“No,” said Harry, contrite now. “No, I wouldn’t. If there’s anything you can do, I’ll let you know. I promise.”
Slowly, she reached behind her head and untied the length of gold ribbon that bound her hair. She pulled it out and crumpled it in her hand.
“I want you to know,” she went on, her voice heavy with some undefined emotion, “that I’ll be here when you get back.”
His heart gave a funny leap to hear her. “But....”
“You’re not asking me to, I know. I’m telling you, and I won’t give up hope, ever.”
Harry had no clue if she was talking about her hope that he’d come back alive or her hope for their future relationship. Perhaps it was some of both.
“Here,” she said, holding out the crumpled ribbon in her hand, “take this. I know I can’t come with you — although I would if you asked me to — so take this with you. For luck.”
Their hands met — hers was so warm and alive — and Harry felt her press the ribbon into his palm. At the same time, she leaned across the gap, and he felt her lips brush against his cheek. In spite of his resolve, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her into his lap.
He relaxed back into the armchair, bringing her down with him, as their lips met at last. Her hair fell about them in a curtain, blocking out everything else. There’d been no chance for this at Dumbledore’s funeral, no final kiss goodbye, so this one would have to make up for the weeks they’d missed, as well as all the months ahead.
But one kiss led to two, and two led to more after that. Exploration of lips led to exploration of necks and earlobes, and that led to touches and sighs and breathlessness. Soon it was all going to lead into uncharted territory, which, as much as Harry wanted to cross that line, was still forbidden. It wouldn’t be fair or right to become too intimate now when he didn’t know when — or if — he’d be coming back.
And so, even though his mind was alive with thoughts of moving things somewhere more private, he steeled himself to stop... eventually, at least. It was Ginny who pulled away first.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered. Even in the dark, he could tell her eyes had gone round.
“There it is again.”
This time Harry had heard something — shuffling footsteps. It sounded as if someone was trying to sneak through the kitchen, but the darkness and perhaps something else was hindering their progress. A clatter that sounded like a kitchen chair being overturned echoed through the empty house. Ginny made a move as if to stand, but Harry tightened his hold on her, loath to let her go just yet.
“Ssh! Ron, do you want everyone to know we’ve slipped off?” Hermione’s voice drifted through the dark in an overly loud whisper.
“Bet no one heard that. Party’s still going strong.” Ron’s voice was slightly slurred.
Ginny buried her face against Harry’s neck, and he could feel her shaking with suppressed laughter. “They’re completely pissed, aren’t they?” she murmured.
“Yeah, I think so,” replied Harry, trying not to laugh.
In the kitchen, all had gone suspiciously quiet. “Urgh,” said Ginny, “do you think they’re snogging?”
“Just what I need. More mental images of my brother I’d rather not have. As if last year with Lavender wasn’t bad enough.”
“You never know,” said Harry. “It’s taken them three years and a couple of gallons of wine to get on with things. They might not even remember anything tomorrow morning, and they wouldn’t believe us if we told them.”
More shuffling sounds were heard, and Ron and Hermione’s collective silhouette lurched into the living room. They were most definitely not paying any attention to their surroundings, for they shambled right past Harry and Ginny’s armchair and made for the stairs. Ginny gaped at Harry as they stumbled noisily up the staircase.
“They’re not!” Ginny exclaimed.
“I think they are,” muttered Harry, astounded at the effect Fleur’s French wine had had on his two best friends.
“They’re not going to do it in my room,” Ginny declared, pushing herself out of Harry’s lap.
“And if they make it as far as Ron’s room without killing themselves, where am I going to sleep? I don’t think your mum would be too pleased if she caught me in your room,” Harry said.
“What makes you think I’d let you?” Ginny replied, but Harry noticed an impish grin taking over her features.
“I reckon we’d better do something before we walk in on anything really embarrassing then.”
They ascended the stairs to the third landing, stopping in front of Ginny’s door. There were no sounds at all coming from the room beyond, and both Ginny and Harry hesitated. Harry was afraid of what he might find, and so, apparently, was Ginny.
“Oh, this is silly!” she said after a moment. “They can’t be doing anything really bad yet. You open it!”
Harry raised his eyebrows at her. “You want me to just barge in on them without knocking?”
“Well, knock then!”
Harry did so, but there was no response.
“You know the longer we wait, the worse it’s going to be,” Ginny said pointedly.
“All right, all right!”
Harry was expecting the door to be locked, but the knob turned and the hinges creaked as the door swung wide. Harry kept his eyes fixed on the floor, but when there was no immediate protest, he looked up. Hermione was lying on Ginny’s bed with Ron on top of her. Their clothes were in disarray, their hair dishevelled — and they were both sleeping soundly if the snoring was any indication.
Harry and Ginny exchanged a look. They couldn’t just leave Ron and Hermione this way. Mrs Weasley wouldn’t be any happier at finding out that Ron and Hermione had spent the night in the same bedroom as she would if it were Harry and Ginny. Harry pulled out his wand and pointed it at Ron.
Ron raised his head, blinked a few times, and then sprang to his feet as if he’d just received an electrical shock. “What the....”
“Out, Ron!” Ginny ordered.
“Come on, Ron,” said Harry, putting an arm around Ron’s shoulders. “Let’s get up to bed.”
“It’ll all make sense once you’ve slept on it,” Harry reassured him.
And with that he steered Ron out of Ginny’s room and on up to the top of the staircase. Music, laughter and chatter from the reception below were filtering in through the open window, but Ron paid them no heed. Within seconds, he’d flopped onto his bed, still in his dress robes, and was snoring.
Harry sighed to himself, wondering if he was about to spend another sleepless night. He began to undress, but a knock on the door made him pause. “It’s me,” said Ginny’s voice through the closed door. “I just wanted to say good night,” she added once he’d opened to her.
“You need your wand for that?” Harry asked.
“Oh, that’s for Ron.” Pointing her wand at the snoring lump on the bed, she muttered a spell that Harry didn’t recognise.
“What was that?” he asked.
“You’ll see in the morning,” Ginny said. “Good night, Harry,” she added, leaning in and kissing him softly. He knew it would be the last one for a long, long time. All too soon, she pulled away, and was gone down the stairs. Harry thought he knew why she’d cut things short. He understood all about wavering resolve.
Later that night, Harry lay awake on the camp bed listening to the sounds of party as it died down. He twisted the length of ribbon Ginny had pulled from her hair about his fingers as he thought about what the future would bring. “For luck,” she’d said, and it stuck him that the ribbon was the same colour as the Felix Felicis potion. He hoped his luck would hold. He knew that if there was a hand on the Weasley family clock that bore his name it, too, would be pointing straight upwards to the words “Mortal Peril.” He and Ginny had an understanding now. She would be waiting for him in the end — if only he came back. He had to make sure that happened.
A warm sun crept slowly towards the zenith over a crooked farmhouse in Devon. Its inhabitants slept soundly, aided no doubt by the large quantity of excellent wine that had accompanied the previous night’s celebrations.
Out of nowhere an other-worldly shriek, worse than any Banshee, pierced the mid-morning calm.
Heart pounding, Harry bolted upright in bed, grabbing his wand. If Death Eaters were attacking the house, he was ready for action. However, the scene that met his eyes was not one of battle and mayhem, although it was equally as frightening.
There in front of him was his best friend, dressed in a lacy periwinkle blue bra complete with matching knickers, looking as confused as Harry had ever seen him.
“Looks like she got you,” said Harry, breaking into a grin.
“Who?” Ron sat back down on the bed, massaging his temples. “Don’t talk so loud. I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“Ginny.” A wave of glee was welling up inside him.
“What’d she go and do this to me for?” demanded an outraged Ron.
“You... Hermione... Ginny’s bed,” Harry attempted.
Ron flushed a deep red. “What the hell are you on about?”
But Harry couldn’t answer him. He had fallen back onto the camp bed, rolling with laughter.
Much later, when explanations had been given, Ron’s temper assuaged, and the family reassured they were not under attack, Harry realised that he had no idea where his next good laugh would come from. This was truly the end of what passed as normal life. As he said goodbye to Ginny, as he fought to keep his voice and expression as neutral as possible, he caught her eye. Mentally he thanked her for that last moment of joy before he set out. Her eyes flashed at him before she looked away, and he knew she had understood.
A/N: Thanks to Jen Adamson and Kyizi for beta reading this for me.