As people wandered into the mess tent for dinner, Bill called them over. "Oy, Dan! Come meet my sister. You too, Jacki."
As Bill had told Harry earlier, they got visitors a lot, so nobody was surprised to see a new face at the long dinner table. A few were surprised by whose face it was, though.
"What? No kidding!" Dan protested. "You never told me you knew him!"
Ginny giggled. "It would surprise you, who Bill knows," she said.
Bill made a face at her. His history in the Order wasn't something he talked about--not because he was ashamed of it, God knew, but because it was over.
"God, you're young," Dan said, squinting at Harry.
"Sorry," Harry said mildly. "Been trying to do something about that my entire life."
Dan laughed and said, "Bill, staple my lips shut, would you?"
"Sorry about him," Bill told Harry. "He's American. Can't help it."
"Casting aspersions on my countrymen again?" said a voice from behind him.
Bill felt the smile spread all over his face, and didn't do a thing to check it. "Hallo, Ellie," he said, turning.
"Hey there." She grinned back at him. "Do I get introduced now?"
"Yes, you do." He took her hand. "Ginny, Harry, this is Ellie Jones, out of the States. Ellie, my little sister Ginny and her--er--boyfriend. Harry Potter."
Ellie's brows rose almost to her hairline. "I didn't realize when I saw you earlier--" she said, holding out a hand. "So you're the famous one, huh?"
Harry shrugged. "Not by choice," he said, and shook her hand.
"And Ginny! You're famous too, you know."
"Am I?" Ginny raised her eyebrows at Bill.
"Your entire family is, around here." Ellie laughed when Ginny groaned. "Wait a sec," she said. "Bill, is this the sister that--?"
"This is the only sister I've got, so it must be."
Ginny was looking between them. "What?"
Ellie laughed again, pushing her hair back. "Bill told me the story about you and Nicolette."
Ginny groaned again, putting her face in her hands. "Oh, no, not that one--"
"Who's Nicolette?" Harry wanted to know.
"Biiiiiiiiill," Ginny half-moaned, half-warned from behind her hands.
"Oh, come on, Wee One, the story's just priceless."
"Let's hear!" someone down the table shouted.
"Yeah, we've heard everyone else's stories!"
"I'd love to hear one I haven't before," Harry said, grinning.
Ginny shook her head, but it was more resigned than anything else.
"Well?" Bill asked her.
"Go ahead," she sighed. "It would have come out anyway."
Bill leaned forward. "Right, so--Ginny was twenty months old, you have to understand." He grinned at his sister. "She was a cute baby, really she was."
"Really? What happened?" Harry asked a little too innocently, and Ginny leaned across the table to poke his shoulder. He gave her an injured look. "All I meant is that you're gorgeous now . . . what did you think?"
Gorgeous? She was just Ginny. Bill shook his head, trying to get his train of thought back on track. "So--yeah. Nicolette was this girl from school."
"Pretty?" Dan asked hopefully.
"A knockout. Tall, blonde, great big--"
Ellie quirked her brow at him.
"Blue eyes," he finished up, grinning. "I was mad for her. Thought she was the greatest thing since the invention of the wand. So I
to my house for a little bit during the summer holidays. And of course, she wanted to hold Ginny--"
"Because she was so cute," Dan grinned.
"What nobody realized was that Ginny was just catching a nasty stomach flu."
"Oooooo," went around the table, with accompanying winces.
"And Nicolette had no more idea of how to hold a baby than she did of how to ride an elephant," Ginny put in.
"True, true," Bill admitted. "So Nicolette jiggled her about for fifteen minutes. Now, Ginny's always been rather sweet-tempered--"
"Ha!" Harry said, and Ginny held up her fork threateningly.
"But she finally decided she'd had enough, and she threw up strained peas all over Nicolette."
"Oh, ouch!" Dan said.
"Right, exactly," Bill said. "Now, we were sort of embarrassed, but you know how many brothers and cousins I have Baby puke was really nothing any one of us hadn't seen before, or couldn't handle. But Nicolette--she screamed the house down."
"Oh," Ellie said sympathetically.
"She was more concerned with her blouse than with whether Ginny was all right or not. And that was like a wake-up call. I was really into this girl, you know, but that--wow. I just suddenly realized that what I thought she was and what she really was, were two different things." He gave his sister's hair an affectionate tug. "So Ginny saved my life on that one."
Ginny was blushing madly, but she managed to say, "You're welcome, Bill."
The laughter gave way to good-natured griping as the food appeared. Yves said, "Eef you don' like eet, don' put me on rotation," and sat down.
"We shouldn't, you know," Rania said from across the table. "This stuff's just awful."
"Just means you'll have to cook more often," Bill said cheerfully.
Rania shrugged and applied herself to her food, chewing with grimaces. "You're not eating," she said to Ginny.
"We ate just before we left Johannesburg." Ginny wrinkled her nose, her eyes dancing. "Couldn't force down another bite. Really."
Rania laughed. "Lucky you."
"'Ey!" Yves yelled, and then everyone laughed.
"I've been listening to your accent. Are you from the Middle East?" Ginny asked her.
Rania nodded. "Jordan. Were you ever there?"
"Not yet," Harry said. "Maybe we will someday."
"So this is an international project," Ginny said musingly. "Americans, Frenchmen, Jordanian . . ."
"And a buffet of others," Bill said. "The Magical Artifacts Department gave Jacki--" he nodded at the expedition leader, "leave to pick the best for this, and surprise surprise, they're not all in the UK."
Dan threw a biscuit at him, and he ducked. "Hey! We've already had one concussion today, thanks!"
"Loimey buggah," Dan said in an exaggerated, and terrible, upper-crust accent.
"Upstarrrrrrt Yaink," Bill drawled, as close to the American twang as he could manage.
"Hang on," Ginny said suddenly. "Concussion?"
"A stupid accident," Rania said. "It's not even really a concussion, just a bump. Some rocks came loose when I was looking at the carvings in that new chamber."
"It was my fault, honest," Ellie said. "My hand slipped."
"Oh, I know that!" Rania waved the apology away. "It's nothing."
"What did you find from the carvings, Ran?" Jacki asked with interest.
"Something about old magics," Rania reported. "Vengeance spells, power spells . . . Fascinating stuff, really different from what I've seen before." Belatedly, she added, "A little dangerous too, possibly, so maybe we shouldnít do unnecessary spell-casting in that area."
"Got that, everyone?" Jacki called out.
Rania waited for the various noises of assent to die down before she continued, "I've copied them down and I'm going to work on the translations to see exactly what they are." She shook her head. "It's in some dialect, I don't know--"
Bill said to Ginny and Harry, "Rania's our expert on language. She knows about five."
"Wow," Ginny said. "Five!"
Sitting next to Dan, Harry glanced up and across the table at Ginny. The younger man's eyes glinted behind his glasses, and the corners of Ginny's mouth twitched. She looked down at her plate and bit her lip. Harry laughed low in his throat.
Bill looked away, feeling his face heat. He felt like a voyeur, witnessing this obviously private joke.
"So you weren't expecting anything like this?" Harry asked.
"Not at all," Jacki said. "You can bet they never would have put me in charge if they were."
Shouts to leave off the false modesty echoed around the table. Jacki was well-liked.
"It's so exciting," Ellie told Harry and Ginny, her eyes sparkling. "We thought this was just another dusty old tomb--"
"Not that we don't like dusty old tombs," Rania said.
"Revel in them," Dan said, leaning over.
"Well, of course," Ellie said. "But you have to admit this one's special. Makes me wonder what else we're going to find in there."
* * *
After dinner, Bill accompanied Ginny to the clothesline behind the mess tent. He frowned at the line. "He washed the sheets too?"
Ginny looked and laughed. "Sorry! Nothing on your housekeeping, I'm sure, it's just we've been in so many places where the sheets haven't seen so much as a damp paper towel in eons. I guess we've both just fallen in the habit of stripping the beds when we wash clothes." She pulled one down, and Bill took the other end to help her fold it. In Egypt's dry heat, it hadn't taken long for the sun to do its work, and the cloth was almost crisp.
He was glad he'd gotten his sister alone, without Harry around. Not that he didn't like Harry. Of course not. Even after that strange discussion in the tent. But it was just nice to have his baby sister to himself for a moment.
"This place is wonderful, Bill," Ginny said, pausing to examine a rent in a robe. "Everyone is so nice." With a flick of her wand, she repaired the tear and folded the robe in three.
"They're wonderful people." He took a breath, shyness and excitement warring within him. "Listen--ah--"
"What do you think of Ellie?"
Her hand paused in the act of reaching up for a sock. "Of--Ellie?"
"Yeah, of Ellie," Bill said, plucking a robe off the line. She was the first member of his family he would tell about Ellie.
"I--I don't know--I've just met her, Bill."
He frowned. It wasn't like Ginny to dance around something like this. "Well, what's your first impression, then?"
"She's--nice. Why do you ask?"
Bill relaxed. When Ginny knew, she'd understand. "Ginny, she's the one."
Ginny's face went curiously still and blank. "The . . . one."
"The one," he repeated. "The one, Ginny. Like Penny. Like Morgan. Like Angelina. My one."
"I know what you meant," she said almost sharply. "I was just--surprised, that's all."
He frowned. "Don't you like her?" He'd been so certain they would adore each other.
"Goodness," Ginny said with forced gaiety, "I hardly know her. I'm just surprised. I'm sure I'll love her when I get to know her."
All right. That was it, then. She was right. She'd just barely met Ellie, and here he was pushing her to make a judgement on the strength of a few hours. Naturally, they would love each other. "Sheís just . . . wonderful, Wee One," he said. "Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Youíll love her. I promise. Sheís smart, and sheís got a great sense of humor, and she wants just piles of kids, you know how important that is to the likes of us, and we agree on everything important, and I donít honestly think sheíd mind moving to England if I asked--"
"Isnít there anything wrong with her?" Ginny sounded amused, but there was an edge to it that he didnít quite understand.
He had to think about that. "No."
"Hmm," Ginny said. "She does sound perfect."
"She is," he said, relieved that his sister understood so well. "Sheís--well, youíll get to know her, and youíll see what I mean."
"Iím sure I will."
"You will! And--" He collected himself. "Sorry to be babbling on."
"Oh, no, go ahead. Babble."
"No, Iíll let up." He turned to the the other subject on his mind. "So," he said. "How are--things?"
"All right," she said.
"Not tired of the wandering yet?"
She made a rueful face at a sock that looked more like a fishing net. "I won't deny that parts of it have gotten a bit old."
"So you're ready to go back to England."
"I never said that."
Bill raised his brows. Had that reply been a shade too quick?
She shrugged. "You can get used to anything, you know. And I'm with Harry. That's what matters right now."
"Hmmm." He passed her a pair of socks he'd just matched. "Are you sure you're doing all right?"
She seemed to concentrating awfully hard on folding one of Harry's robes. "Why do you ask?"
"You just seem--different."
"It's been awhile since youíve seen me," she said. "Of course I'm different."
"Unhappy," he said. "Something's making you . . . unhappy."
She paused and looked at him for a moment. The desert breeze kicked up and stirred her hair around her face. Finally, she said, "No."
"I'm tired. We had a time of it in Johannesburg."
"I'll be fine after I get some sleep."
Frustration bubbled in the pit of his stomach. "You know you can tell me anything, Wee One," he said.
She didn't answer.
Theyíd almost completely cleared the line when she said, "We were in France recently, you know."
"Were you?" he asked, puzzled.
"Mhm. The south. We stayed with Fleur."
An old wound, one heíd thought was scarred over and forgotten, gave an unexpected twinge. "On holiday, was she?"
"No, she lives there now." Ginny gave him a sidelong glance. "Erm--with her new husband."
It was a moment before he could say even, "Oh."
"Well," Bill said. "Whatís his name?"
Bill had never heard of the man, which surprised him. Heíd always thought Fleur would marry a millionaire, or a celebrity. "Whatís he like?"
"Quite nice. He--er--owns a vineyard."
"I see. One of those monstrous huge ones that sells wine all over the world, I take it?" His voice was about as light and airy as a concrete bowling ball.
"No, actually. Local. Maybe regional."
"Well . . . maybe a little. We all know Fleur. But . . ." she bit her lip, staring at the socks. "She loved him enough to compromise."
"She wasnít the only one."
He breathed out through his nose. "Iím not totally dumb. I know what youíre getting at."
"Iím not getting at anything. What happened--it was both of you, all right? She knows that now. She asked to be remembered to you."
"Good of her."
He picked up the basket and turned. In the mess tent, Ellie looked up from the washing-up and smiled at him. He smiled back and felt the sting ease. "All right, Wee One," he said. "Iíll leave off being an arse."
"I just didnít want you to hear from someone else."
"I know," he said. "And--" He stopped, swallowed, and forced the words out. "If you happen to write her sometimes, just tell her I say congratulations, all right."
She didnít answer for so long that he turned his head to look at her. She smiled at him then, but it was a sad smile. She knew exactly what that conventional politeness had cost him. "Iíll do that."
* * *
Bill pulled on a cloak before he ducked out of the tent. Out here in the true desert, where there was no concrete or steel to release stored heat after sundown, the cool of the evening felt like a bitter autumn morning back in England.
Ellie leaned against a support pole and watched Harry and Ginny walk out under the shadow of the pyramids, bundled in their own cloaks. She was shivering, just slightly. Bill padded up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist. "Hi."
"Hi yourself," she said, leaning back against him and sighing. "You're warm. Thanks."
For half a second, he considered telling her what Ginny had told him, about Fleur. Then he pushed the thought away. He didnít want to dwell on it, not with Ellie. Instead, he said, "What do you think?" and gestured out toward the couple on the sand.
"Well, him too--my sister, I mean."
"She's very sweet." Ellie threw him a teasing look over her shoulder. "I can really tell she's a Weasley."
"Yeah, we're distinctive."
He couldn't see her face now, because she'd turned back around. "How long have you known Harry Potter?"
"Harry? Oh, years. My little brother Ron's been his best mate since their first year at Hogwarts, and I met him just before his fourth year."
"He's not anything like I expected," she said slowly.
"No, he isn't, is he?" Bill rested his cheek on Ellie's hair. "It shocked me, the first time I met him. Mum had told me a million things about him, and so had Ron, and Ginny . . . and I thought it was all exaggerated. Then I met him, and he looked so small and young, but there was just this look in his eyes that was a million years old . . . and I remember thinking, well, I believe all that stuff now . . ." He shook himself. "Anyway. He's a good kid."
"Must have been interesting when your little sister fell in love with him."
"Sort of. She's always had a crush. Hero-worship."
Out on the sand, Ginny rose up on her toes and whispered something in Harry's ear. He glanced down at her, then reached out to take her hand.
"I can see it. You think it'll last much longer?"
And wasn't that just like Ellie, to voice the precise thing he was thinking. "Don't know. She's not happy. She says she is, but I know her. She's not happy."
Ginny had started to swing their linked hands back and forth, grinning up at Harry. He used the momentum of the upswing to twirl Ginny, as if they were on a dance floor. Her hair and the hem of her cloak flared out, and her laugh drifted across the sand as she came out of the spin into his arms. They danced together, two steps, three, to some inaudible music.
It stirred some old, old memory in Bill's mind--Mum and Dad, dancing together in the kitchen, laughing when their sons shrieked in horror . . .
Then Harry spun Ginny a second time, and this time when she came out of it, they continued walking. Bill frowned at them.
"Hmmm," Ellie said, and left it at that.
Right this moment, they didn't look like an unhappy couple. But . . .
Something was bothering Ginny. He knew it, just the way he'd always known before she started to howl that she was hungry or dirty or the twins had slipped itching powder in her nappies again. It had to be about Harry.
What else could it be?