A/N: We are shocked that one of our "seasonal" chapters is actually seasonally appropriate. We are used to writing Halloween in February.
Moey, Elanor Gamgee and Caroline.
The smell of cinnamon and cloves and baking greeted Hermione as she stepped out of the fireplace in the Burrow. Quickly, she turned and dragged her old Hogwarts trunk out of the way, just in time to avoid Ron, who came barreling through with his own trunk, Pig's cage, and several other packages in his arms.
Before Hermione could dust the soot from her robes, Mrs. Weasley had enveloped her in a tight hug, which did much to lighten the heaviness that still lingered from her morning visit to St. Mungo's. Delia had warned Hermione that in the beginning she might feel frustrated and uninspired around her parents, but to be patient and try to let the answers appear. Part of the key to Thinking was not to think, and so Hermione laughed and returned Mrs. Weasley's warm embrace.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," said Mrs. Weasley, stepping back to look admiringly at her. "And so healthy and brown-looking! A bit thin though, didn't they feed you out there? Well, never mind, come in, come in, and have a pumpkin pasty - I've just made them."
"What about me?" asked Ron, feigning a wounded look. He held out his arms to his mother. She swatted her dishtowel at him.
"You can get these trunks out of the kitchen. There's barely enough room in here and - "
"Ron!" A small boy of about twelve, with sandy hair and a wide mouth, had interrupted Mrs. Weasley. He started to run towards Ron, and then, as if suddenly remembering his age, slowed, and said much more casually, "Did you bring me anything?"
"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't," said Ron, winking at Hermione. "If you help me move these trunks into the other room, you might find out. But first, Max, this is Hermione."
Max turned to Hermione and looked at her with narrowed eyes. He turned back to Ron. "Your girlfriend?" he asked. "She's all right. Not as pretty as my friend Ella."
"Well that's quite a compliment," said Hermione, holding out her hand and resisting a desire to laugh. "Thank you."
Max looked astounded that she had taken the information without offense. He reached out and shook her offered hand. "You're okay," he admitted, and then grabbed onto the handle of one of the trunks and started heaving it towards the other room. Ron quickly muttered a Levitation Charm and the trunk lifted off the ground, although Max continued to exert effort, as if struggling under the weight.
"Do you need any help?" Hermione asked Mrs. Weasley.
"Oh, no, dear, I'm almost done," she answered. "Besides, Ginny has been in here all morning and we've made quite good progress. Why don't you go in the other room and see everyone? I'm sure you want to see the baby - just take this tray in for me, will you?" Mrs. Weasley shoved a tray of mince pies into Hermione's hands, and ushered her into the other room.
Hermione had spent many Christmases at Hogwarts and, although the decorations there had been splendid, they had not been concentrated into one small room as they were at the Burrow. An enormous tree stood in a corner of the room. The ceiling had been magically lifted to accommodate it and sloped at a very strange angle. Bill and Charlie stood around the tree helping Ron and Max empty the trunks of gifts, and Mr. Weasley sat in a very big chair in the corner opposite the tree, swirling a short glass of firewhiskey in his hand and talking animatedly to Sirius and Remus. It took Hermione's eyes a moment to adjust to the brilliant, warm glow of the room and, when she turned to her right, she saw Penelope sitting in a rocking chair, cradling a small, redheaded bundle. To Hermione's surprise, Cho Chang, with hair much shorter than Hermione remembered, was crouched on the floor next to them, tickling the baby's tiny toes. Cho looked up and waved Hermione over, and Hermione remembered Harry telling her that Cho was one of the dragon riders at Azkaban.
"Hello!" said Hermione, putting down the tray of pies. She gave Penelope a warm hug, nodded to Cho, and knelt on the other side of the rocking chair to get a real look at Leo. "Oh, Penny," she breathed, amazed. "He's beautiful."
Penelope blushed in appreciation and muttered, "Thanks. Would you like to hold him?"
"Can I? I mean, are you sure? I don't know, he looks very comfortable with you - " But a moment later, Penelope had changed places with Hermione, and placed Leo in her arms. Hermione bent her face and softly kissed the baby. He was warm and sweet. "Oh, he smells lovely," she cooed, making a face at him. Leo responded with a short, toothless laugh and Hermione looked up, delighted, to find that Ron stood motionless by the tree, a small gift dangling in his hand, watching her. He looked away at once, and her heart thudded.
"He likes you," said Penelope, gently tickling Leo's tummy. "He's bored with us. We've been reminiscing about Ravenclaw and wondering if my genes are strong enough to influence which house he'll be in. I can't imagine a Weasley not in Gryffindor, but only time will tell."
Hermione smiled. "You know, I always thought I would have made a good Ravenclaw - but I was happy when the Sorting Hat chose me for Gryffindor. I think it was the best place for me."
"I expect you would've done well in Ravenclaw as well," said Cho. "Penelope was telling me all about your apprenticeship and it sounds so exciting."
"Yes," agreed Penelope, "and I'm hoping to utilize your skills after Christmas. I can't seem to manage this Imprisonment Charm and there's pressure from everyone to hurry up. I'll ask Arthur to let me hire an assistant if you need a job straight away."
"Oh! I do actually, yes. I hope I can help," Hermione said, and bit her tongue before she could say anything self-deprecating about her Thinking skills. Or lack thereof. "How are the dragons?" Hermione asked Cho, for a change of subject. Cho didn't look nearly as tired or worn as Harry did, but there were lines around her eyes. "How are you holding up? That schedule is dreadful - I was telling Harry the other day that you need more riders, and he said you might have a few people interested?"
"A few?" Cho laughed. "Once people realized that Viktor Krum and Harry Potter are up at Azkaban, they started applying in droves. Trouble is, none of them have been able to pass Charlie's tests."
"Tests?" Hermione repeated, as a vision of the first task in the Triwizard Tournament flashed in her brain. She hugged Leo a bit closer.
"Flight tests first, on broomsticks." She rolled her eyes. "Quidditch drills. Not that he's wrong to do it, it's a safe way to weed people out, but he's so manic about Quidditch that the applicants tend to get confused. They keep asking me if these are the Wanderers' workouts and they've accidentally come to the wrong place."
Penelope laughed. "I think Percy was the only Weasley boy who escaped that obsession." She tickled Leo again. "Though if his uncles have anything to say about it, Leo won't go much longer without a proper broomstick."
"He's four months old!" Hermione exclaimed.
"Try telling that to Fred. He took Leo up on his broom a few weeks ago, while I was in the shower. I nearly killed him."
"Oh yes. But go on Cho, I'm sorry. The other tests?"
"Right, well - about twenty-five percent of the applicants pass the flying tests."
"That few?" Hermione asked anxiously. Harry was never going to get a break if they were so exclusive. She couldn't believe that he was up there right now, in the cold, while the rest of them enjoyed Christmas. It made her feel terribly guilty; things never seemed to end for him.
"Well, keep in mind that most of the people who show up don't really want to do the work." Cho snorted. "Autograph hounds, Quidditch fans -" She lowered her voice. "Even a couple of girls who claim to be in love with Harry. They swear he'd marry them if he'd only meet them for a second."
"Pardon?" Ginny demanded. She was standing beside them, holding a plate of cookies and looking more exhausted than Cho did. Hermione had spent the last two days brushing up on what she knew about Healers, and she wondered what Ginny was feeling, to make her look so gray. Something must be draining her; she'd been fine at Lupin Lodge last night.
"Don't worry, Ginny," Cho said soothingly. "We sent them away and threatened to fine them for false misrepresentation if they applied again."
Ginny smirked, set the cookies on the living room table, and disappeared into the kitchen. Five seconds later, the cookies had disappeared as well, and every Weasley male, plus Max, had crumbs on his jumper.
"The ones who pass," Cho continued, glancing dubiously at Charlie, "are given a fundamentals exam on dragons. It's pathetic how little people know sometimes, honestly." She gave a disgusted sigh. "How hard is it to at least guess at six of the twelve uses of dragon's blood?"
Hermione nodded sympathetically and let Leo clutch her index finger with all his tiny digits. That felt so… nice. She kissed his face. "You're adorable," she murmured, and it struck her how horrible it was that his father would never know it. She put the thought away. No point in being morbid anymore today.
"Out of two hundred and some applicants, only seven were taken to the dragon enclosure. Only three didn't have near heart attacks when we led them into the camp and they saw how close they were really going to be to the dragons. Those three are in training now, and we'll see how they hold up, but even that'll take awhile…" Cho looked weary. She rubbed her eyes and launched into the sort of speech Hermione knew Harry would give, if he were the sort of person to admit how he was feeling. "I wish there were more of us. I hope we get some relief, we can't ride the dragons forever, it's just too draining. Half the time I feel like I'm messing up somehow - and it's not that it's difficult, they're at the point now where they behave and glide most of the time – and it's safer than a broomstick - but still, ten hours on dragonback every day is a lot. It's going to be a treat today to have supper at a table."
"You're doing a wonderful job." Charlie stood behind Cho and looked approvingly down at her. "Best rider we have," he said to Hermione and Penny. Hermione thought he looked a bit red in the face as he bumped Cho's shoulder with the old tattered suitcase he was holding. "I found my old dragons – do you want to see them?" Hermione and Penelope exchanged puzzled looks, and Charlie turned the suitcase around so that they could see the front. In fading paint it read: Magical Model Dragon Set – They Really Fly!
Cho followed Charlie to the other side of the room, and Hermione snickered. "His ears were red," she whispered to Penny.
"Dead giveaway," Penny replied with a straight face. "I tried to explain to Cho about the ears earlier, but she said I was talking nonsense. She seems to think they're just friends."
"She's in for a shock." Hermione smiled. She started to tickle Leo again, but his little chest hitched and he began to fuss. She gave him back to Penelope. "Someone needs his mummy."
Leaving Penny to feed Leo, Hermione moved over to the couch, sat down, and happily hugged her knees, watching silvery snow drift up against the frosted windows until it obscured her view of the blue and white fairy lights that dotted the ramshackle fence beyond the garden. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Weasley disappear into the kitchen and drag his wife out of it, apron and all, to trap her beneath the mistletoe. Mrs. Weasley squealed and swatted him, but didn't seem to mind at all. Hermione giggled and her eyes wandered over to Ron - who was already staring at her again in a way that made her hot all over. Just like those letters. He had to stop looking at her like that in front of other people - it was almost obscene! It was also fantastic. She'd slept next to him again, last night, and the way he looked at her now reminded of her of exactly how he had kissed her and touched her, and of just how difficult it had been to hold back. Saying no was harder now than it had ever been; she had come back to find a man where there had been an overgrown boy. She had to wonder why she was still saying no. She didn't want to say no. It was more out of habit now, than anything… perhaps it was time for some serious reevaluation...
"So." A tall, solid redhead settled next to her on the couch, but Hermione hardly noticed him. He wasn’t Ron. Ron had turned away again and was showing Max how to use the Levitating Charm to dress the tree.
"He’s going to get a warning for Improper Use of Magic!" Hermione warned.
Ron grinned over his shoulder. "Oh, sure. Dad’s the Minister, Hogwarts is out of session, and Max is going to get an angry owl any second now. Aren’t you, Max?"
Max swished, flicked, and sent the star to the top of the Christmas tree. "Doubt it," he replied coolly, and Hermione laughed in spite of herself.
"He’s rather a hand with kids, isn’t he?" observed Bill lightly, from her right.
Hermione felt suddenly and inexplicably nervous. Normally, when people asked her about her love life, she guiltlessly treated them to a proper indignant silence. She didn’t know, however, if she could ignore Ron’s brother.
"Erm," she answered intelligently. "Max seems to like him."
"Oh, I’d say Max is just about taken with him," Charlie agreed, from her left. "Not really surprising, is it? He’s a decent enough fellow."
There was a silence, in which it became clear to Hermione that she was expected to answer. "Oh – yes," she finally said. "Yes, he’s… very decent." She wondered if the things that Ron had done to her just before she’d left for the Thinker qualified as decent.
"Now there’s praise," Bill laughed. "I get the idea he has a pretty high opinion of you, too."
Hermione blushed, and couldn’t think of what to say; her eyes drifted across the room to where Cho had returned to Penelope and Leo, floating several toy dragons through the air behind her. She tried to concentrate on that.
"You’ve been together how long?" Charlie asked.
"We… if you count… I… guess it’s… it depends." Hermione wanted to kick herself.
Bill leaned forward. "Depends on what? Who we ask?"
Charlie grinned. "Well, where’s Harry, then? He’ll know –"
"They’ve been dating for two and a half years," Ginny said dully, walking by with another enormous plate of cookies, which she set on the table. "They’ve been together for seven and a half. And you can’t ask Harry anything, Charlie, you horrible idiot, because he’s at Azkaban on a dragon, where you put him." She turned on her heel and stalked back to the kitchen. The door slammed shut behind her.
"More like Mum every time I see her," Charlie muttered, scratching his head. "She used to be so cute, Hermione, you wouldn’t believe it. Sweetest little kid in the world." He grabbed several cookies at once and popped one into his mouth. "Oy, Mum –" he yelled out, his voice thick through the crumbs. "These are great."
"I think ‘everybody else’ is code for ‘Harry’," Bill observed.
Hermione wanted to hush them, but she didn't want to draw attention back to herself. She hoped they had finished questioning her, and that they would now get busy eating and move on to some activity other than giving her the third degree.
"Well, then, where were we?" Charlie turned back to her. "So you’ve been snogging our baby brother for awhile now."
Hermione went scarlet.
"Now, Charlie…" Bill warned, but he was grinning.
"Two and a half years," mused Charlie. "That’s a long time – I’ve never had a girlfriend that long. Ronald’s got ahead of us, William."
"Well then Percy and Fred got ahead of you too," shot Hermione. "Seems you're behind." She crossed her arms. They could both just stuff it. Bill and Charlie stared at each other in mock surprise, while Hermione concentrated on the back of Ron’s head. She wasn’t sure, but she assumed he could hear the whole conversation from where he stood - why didn't he make them stop it? She wasn't used to being teased, and he knew that, and he was only a few feet away. But if Ron could hear them, he made no sign of it. He handed an ornament to Max, and picked two more out of the box at his feet.
"You must know him well, then?" Bill prodded. "Better than most girls do, I expect?"
They weren't going to give up. It was on the tip of Hermione’s tongue to tell Bill that she knew Ron better than his own family did, not to mention any girl anywhere, but she held it in. "Oh, I don’t know," she answered airily. "You’d have to check around with other girls and find out what they know, before we could do any sort of honest comparison. I imagine I know… enough."
Ron's ears went pink, and though he continued to hang his ornaments, Hermione knew he was listening.
Charlie snickered. "Well, he warned us you were smart."
"Yeah, he did – speaking of which, it must’ve been fascinating to work with the Thinker," Bill said, turning to her and pulling one leg up on the couch, folding it so that his ankle crossed his knee. "What was it like?" he asked earnestly. All the teasing had gone out of his voice. "Greece is one place I’ve never been, and I’ve only ever read about the Thinking process - really cool stuff. Did you find it difficult?"
Hermione blinked at him. He was a little bit like Percy. "Cortona was beautiful," she answered slowly, "but Thinking… actually, it is difficult." She glanced at Bill, who was listening intently. "There's so much I want to try, but to be honest, nothing's ever come so hard, before, and I’m not sure I’m capable –"
"Oh, go on." Ron turned around, an ornament in each hand, and huffed at her. "Of course you’re capable – you’ve been out there studying for four months, and when have you ever studied anything you couldn’t learn?"
On either side of Hermione, Bill and Charlie settled back on the couch and watched. Ron flushed a bit, but didn’t back down.
"But you’re not going to stay a Thinker?" Bill pressed.
"I’m not a Thinker as it is," Hermione laughed. "I’m just an apprentice. I should have stayed longer, and learned more. But I… couldn’t stay." Fleetingly, she met Ron’s eyes. There was something in his gaze that stole her breath, and she looked away, trying to inhale properly. She could still feel his eyes on her, hot and steady; she wanted to get out of the room and go somewhere private, where Ron could hold her and look at her like that for as long as he wanted, without an audience.
"Cider, dears?" Mrs. Weasley was in the room.
There was a shattering sound. Ron had dropped one of his ornaments to the wooden floor. He stared at it, swallowing hard, his ears quite red. Hermione felt her own cheeks burn, and wondered if Mrs. Weasley had noticed the way they’d been looking at each other. She hoped not.
"Oh, Ron, that was Ginny’s ornament – she made it when she was a tiny thing," Mrs. Weasley exclaimed. "Fix it before any of the pieces get lost, please."
"It’s okay," Ginny shouted from the kitchen. "If it’s the yellow thing with the paint all over it, I hated it anyway."
"Wait," Hermione interrupted, seeing her way out of the conversation with Bill and Charlie.
"Hold on, let’s teach Max to do it, since he’s apparently allowed to use magic." She darted away from the couch and knelt near Max, pulling her wand. "It’s going to be that same motion you just did for the Levitation Charm – which was perfect, by the way."
Max tossed his sandy hair arrogantly, but he couldn’t help smiling just a little.
Max nodded and lifted his wand. The room was very still. "Reparo!" Max swished and flicked. Ron caught the newly mended ornament in his hand. "Nice!" he commended.
"Very well done," Hermione admitted, observing Max. He showed signs of being a rather powerful boy. Even she hadn’t got the Repairing Charm right on her first go. Of course, she’d done it at home, without a teacher.
Max reached out for the ornament, which Ron handed him. "Cool," he mumbled, behaving almost like a normal child, as he hung his masterpiece on the tree.
"Cool," Ron repeated softly, and extended his hand across the table to Hermione. "Walk?" he asked casually.
Hermione took his hand, stood up, and gratefully hurried away from Bill and Charlie. "Yes, outside," she whispered.
Ron steered her out the door, to the tune of Bill's and Charlie's sniggers. He guided her around the side of the Burrow, and into a small spot between two snow-covered bushes, where there were no windows looking out on them.
Hermione shivered – she’d left her cloak inside – but she forgot about being cold when Ron gripped her waist and brought her to him, kissing the side of her neck.
"Sorry about my brothers," he mumbled, curling a hand into her hair.
Hermione softly rubbed her nose against his neck and kissed near his collar. "You smell nice," she murmured, lacing her arms around his solid neck. "And I do like these robes."
"Better than Muggle stuff?" Ron mumbled in her ear, nipping the lobe and returning to her neck.
"Oh – yes – you look – taller and more – I don’t know –" Hermione caught a breath and sighed out a sound of pleasure as one of Ron’s hands moved around to hold her lower back, and the other began to travel up her side.
"More what?" Ron kissed her bottom lip. "More impressive?" he offered, grinning. "More dignified?" He sealed his mouth over hers and kissed her deeply, making her groan. "More handsome?" he whispered, mock-sensually, pulling away and pecking her lips quickly, laughing.
Harry lifted the Omnioculars that hung around his neck and used them to scan the skyline while Norbert glided around Azkaban's foreboding perimeter. Cold wind whipped at his cheeks, which were about the only part of him not covered with special gear. Off in the distance he could see Mick atop Viking, covering lower ground, and the unmistakable pale-blond head of Draco Malfoy, who swooped along on the back of Mordor.
Harry checked his watch. Only one more hour to go before his shift ended. He'd make it to the Weasleys in time for Christmas dinner. Harry knew that Mrs. Weasley would have held dinner for him no matter what time he had to arrive, and that knowledge made him feel both awkward and comfortable at the same time. He was staying at the Burrow tonight, most likely doubled up in Ron's old room. This would be the first time that he'd slept under the same roof with Ginny since he and Ron had moved into the Notch in September - a thrill of anticipation shot through Harry, and he sat back on Norbert, allowing his eyes to close for a moment. He wanted to be there. He wanted to see Sirius's face when Mr. Weasley brought out his Christmas present. And the prospect of being near Ginny and kissing her again, like they had the other night, was enough to keep his Patronus good and strong. It would have been difficult today, without that thought to cling to.
Today, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about last Christmas. A year ago today, Ron had been in the hands of Death Eaters and Hagrid… they had lost Hagrid. Harry never allowed himself to remember those incidents, during his off hours, but up here he was forced to relive them every day, and today was worse than usual. A part of him was frightened that he might arrive at the Burrow to find someone dead, or missing, or something he couldn't even have predicted - after all, the world had gone peaceful like this many times before, only to explode suddenly with some horrible new twist. Why not now?
He couldn't think like this. Using the same mental trick that he used to conjure a Patronus, Harry pushed the morbid thoughts to the back of his mind and searched for a happy memory. It was no surprise when an image of Ginny appeared in his head.
He wondered how Ginny would react to the gift that he had chosen for her and his stomach squirmed. Would she be happy about it? The shopkeeper had assured him that it was an essential tool for anyone involved in the Healing Arts, but when Harry pictured giving Ginny the simple-looking, white Healing cloth, it somehow didn't seem special enough. She'd put together a whole book for him on his birthday; he should have found her something better. He thought that the tasseled fringe and the embroidered "G" were a nice touch, but really, what did he know about it?
A sense of dizziness overtook Harry and he suddenly felt extremely light-headed. He sat forward, thinking that Norbert had taken a steep dive, but he soon realized that they were just very close to a small group of Dementors, who were trying to glide off the island. He pulled on Norbert's reins to urge the dragon downwards, and Norbert dove, apparently not affected by the Dementors' powers. It always amazed Harry how impervious the dragons were to the depression that filled the air. He always left each shift feeling hopeless and black, as though there were no point to any of it. But at least the Dementors didn't affect him as badly as they'd used to; he still heard the horrors of the past, but he could bear up under them now. Most of the time, he just felt numb.
Harry watched with grim satisfaction as a brilliant silver stag drove the Dementors back into the prison. Norbert shot flames at their retreating backs and Harry smiled a little - Norbert had no regard for rules. The dragons weren't supposed to breathe fire at the Dementors. Fire had little effect on them, and often the flames flew backwards towards the rider, but Harry didn't mind. He put up a shield to deflect the rush of burning air, then urged Norbert upward to their assigned altitude. Norbert balked a bit. It seemed he wanted to play in the sea - perhaps find another giant sea monster to roar at, like the Nesstor he'd befriended the other day. Sometimes Harry could swear that Hagrid somehow inhabited the body of his old dragon friend.
The familiar warning bell sounded, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief. His shift was nearly over. Using his Omnioculars again, he saw the reserve riders mounting for their shift and lining up in preparation for flight. Mick began to circle the prison boundaries a final time, and Harry followed, glancing over his shoulder and expecting to see Malfoy directing Mordor in a similar fashion.
But the sky to his east was empty. No one was patrolling Malfoy's third of the island. Annoyance pricked at Harry. He didn’t want to miss any of the Weasley Christmas dinner; Malfoy had been whinging that morning about having a day off once in a while - if he’d landed early without waiting for his replacement… Harry looked in towards the shore and frowned. Where was that idiot? There was no sign of Mordor’s familiar brilliant red anywhere along the shoreline, and Harry returned his eyes to the prison. Perhaps Malfoy had just flown temporarily behind a turret, or was flying low behind the walls, but as Harry rounded the east side of the island, he still saw nothing but vacant sky. A bad feeling overcame Harry and he tapped his wand to his ear – he hated talking to Malfoy, but he could see no other choice.
"Malfoy?" he said aloud, feeling idiotic, as always, at talking out loud when no one was in front of him to hear. "Malfoy?" There was no answer. He’d try one more time before he tried to contact Mick. "Malfoy, seeing as it’s Christmas, I’d appreciate – "
But he never finished his sentence. A loud noise overhead caused him to dive on instinct, and he barely got out of the way in time. Mordor was plummeting, giving a miserable, ear-splitting whine that Harry had never heard from a dragon before. Smoke trailed from Mordor's nostrils, thick and black, and though he opened his massive jaw he seemed incapable of producing fire. He gave another whine and spiraled lower towards the sea. Atop him, Draco Malfoy waved his wand to no effect, looking terrified and confused as he and his dragon dropped past Harry, lurching to the surface of the water.
Harry watched for a moment, amused, and wished that Ron could be there to witness Malfoy lose his cool, when he remembered that it was his job to try to help his fellow dragon-riders, even if they happened to be old school enemies. And Malfoy had helped to save his life a few weeks earlier… Harry grudgingly pushed Norbert into a dive and tapped his wand to his ear again. "Mick, give me a hand, Malfoy's having trouble."
No reply came, and soon Harry understood why. Just beyond Mordor, Viking's wings had suddenly begun to pound with such force that Harry sharply veered Norbert toward Azkaban, certain that they must be under attack by a swarm of Dementors - but he saw nothing. Still, Viking roared and bucked, rearing back so that Mick was forced to cling to his harness with both hands. But the harness wouldn't help for long - it looked as though Mick's entire saddle was about to fall off, and no amount of Binding charms would be able to keep him in the air if that happened.
Norbert gave an ugly snort and pounded his wings once - too hard. Harry tapped his ear again in panic - if all the dragons went mad at once, there would be no holding back the Dementors. "EVERYONE OUT HERE NOW!" he shouted.
In seconds, a team of dragon keepers on broomsticks sped out to the island, with the reserve Greens right behind them. As the dragons riders took up their patrol stations, the keepers surrounded Mick, whose saddle was hanging at an odd angle off of Viking's side. Mick began to fumble with his harness buckles but he couldn't get out of them fast enough - he tried to grab his broom -
The sun, which was in the final stages of setting, chose that moment to shine its brightest and a shaft of light forced Harry's eyes shut. When he reopened them, the bright white dots cleared to a vision of Mick and his entire saddle falling from Viking, who was thrashing and turning somersaults in the air. As Mick fell, several of the keepers pointed their wands at him and released him from his bindings. Mick’s gear fell with a loud thud into the water, and from above, Viking raised his head and let out a piercing shriek. Harry dove steeply, and attempted a Levitation Charm to prevent Mick from hitting the water, but a large jet of fire from Viking intercepted the spell, and he could see nothing but smoke.
"We’ve got him!" One of the dragon-keepers sent the announcement to Harry. "I’m taking him in. He's breathing but he's knocked out." Harry only had a moment to be relieved that Mick had survived the fall before another keeper's voice sounded in his ear. "Where the hell is the Fireball?"
"This side!" came Lisa's voice. Harry saw green sparks shoot up beyond the east wall of Azkaban and he urged Norbert towards them. Norbert resisted and gave his wings another fierce flap, but Harry pulled hard on his reins and finally the Ridgeback gave in and rounded the wall.
Mordor was falling like a stone towards the water and Malfoy, who had already removed his bindings, made a lunge for his broomstick. As Harry watched in only part-horror, Malfoy's hand missed. He tumbled from the side of his dragon and plunged into the sea. Mordor seemed to be about to fall in with him, but just as Harry thought he was going to hit the water, he lifted his long scarlet neck and pulled himself out of his dive. His wings and feet skimmed the surface and he blew a jet of beautiful fire, lighting the sky around him.
And lighting the water. Malfoy was in the water - Harry narrowed his eyes. Malfoy's head seemed to be disappearing under the waves. Couldn't he…
Harry didn't wait to work it out. He was unwilling to leave Norbert flying freely, but there was little choice. He unbuckled his straps and grabbed his Firebolt. It was just in time, too, because Norbert chose that precise moment to let out his own wrathful roar, and made such a sharp turn that had Harry not had the Firebolt in his hand, he would have fallen as well.
"Oi! Potter, you idiot! Over -" Malfoy glubbed. "Here! Over here!" His voice was faint over the rush of water and waves, but his hair made such a stark contrast to the dark water that Harry was able to pinpoint his location at once. Feeling only slightly relieved that Malfoy was alive, Harry sped towards him, and helped heave him onto the back of the Firebolt. Malfoy's enormous ring dug into the palm of Harry's hand as he pulled - "Have a care, Potter -" he spat, and shook Harry's grip from his hand. He slid far back on the broom, panting. "Took you long enough," he snapped.
Harry had a not-unfamiliar desire to throw Malfoy back into the water, but, knowing he couldn't do that, he took a deep breath. "Hold on!" he shouted, hoping that Malfoy would grab onto the broom and not to him. He sped off towards the camp, noting with relief that a few of the dragon keepers seemed to have calmed Norbert, and that the others were guiding Viking inland without too much trouble.
When they hit the ground outside the dragon-hangers, several assistants rushed towards them, dragging Malfoy off of the back of the Firebolt and attempting to assess if he was in one piece. Malfoy stood with his nose in the air, dripping wet and sniping about whiplash and incapable species specialists, but Harry tuned him out, choosing instead to make sure that the other dragons were accounted for. He watched as Norbert and Viking were returned to their enclosures, and as Mordor, who was usually nasty to everyone except Malfoy, had allowed Lisa to fly him in. She dismounted, grabbed a broom, and headed back out to her own Welsh Green, for her reserve shift.
Everything seemed to be well taken care of. Harry sagged as exhaustion hit him like a tidal wave. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, wanting nothing more than to Disapparate to where it was warm and people were waiting for him - but first he headed to the hospital tent.
He was relieved to see Mick's eyes open.
"I don’t know what happened," Mick exclaimed, wincing. "He’s never thrown me before, and I’ve raised him from a baby." He wore the expression of a father whose son had just betrayed him. "There were Dementors down there, weren’t there?" he asked hopefully.
Harry shook his head. "I didn’t see any," he admitted, feeling terrible as Mick’s face fell.
"There were no Dementors," said a cold voice. Malfoy stood in the tent flap; he was wearing an enormous fur coat and he had a bandage wrapped around his head. Harry fought the urge to roll his eyes - the only problem with Malfoy's head was his brain. "Dragons are simply dangerous creatures, and when improperly cared for, they will act like murderous beasts."
"You know they’re checked on every day," said Harry, not in the mood to let Malfoy bully anyone, let alone Mick.
But Mick didn't seem to notice either of them. "Rose is going to kill me," he muttered, wincing again. "Shortest marriage on record…and our parents don't even know yet… I'm going to be late for Christmas dinner…bloody dragon…"
"I see," said Draco, his voice haughty. "Well. Perhaps if the Secretary Privy had spent more time concentrating on her job, and less time getting into your trousers, we would have healthy dragons."
Mick's head snapped toward the tent flap; he looked horrified, as if he'd only just noticed Malfoy standing there. He swore and tried to get out of bed, but the mediwizard attending him held him down.
"Go home, Malfoy," Harry said wearily, and then, mechanically - "Happy Christmas."
"Oh, I'm sure it will be," hissed Malfoy, his eyes glinting, "as it’s our first Christmas without my father."
Harry couldn't bring himself to feel sorry. He remembered too clearly how Lucius Malfoy had tried to hurt Ginny. How he had hurt Ginny, and the Grangers, and how he and his pawns had systematically destroyed so many decent people.
"Tell that murdering Weasley who thinks he's the Minister that I’ll bring a written complaint in with me tomorrow."
It was on the tip of Harry's tongue to say that it wasn't murder to get rid of monsters, but Mick cut him off.
"Look, why not just quit?" he shouted. "We've got three new riders in training, Malfoy, were you aware of that, or are you too busy being a spoiled little prig to see anything else? You're not as invaluable as you'd like to think. So if you're just going to be miserable - quit."
A pink tinge rose in Malfoy's pale cheeks and he did not answer. He pulled his wand with such intent that Harry pulled his own in defense, thinking that curses were coming - but Malfoy only Disapparated.
Harry and Mick stared in silence at the empty tent flap. "D’you want me to go get Charlie?" Harry asked, after a minute. "I’m going to the Burrow right now. I can have him here in a minute."
"Well," said Mick, pushing the mediwizard away and getting out of bed, "if you're going over there anyway, then you might as well fill him in on what's just happened. I'm going to go talk to Viking. And then I'm going to go and look like a royal arse." He limped out of the tent.
Harry prepared to Disapparate but it took him some moments to gather sufficient concentration. He felt terrible. He probably looked terrible. There had been bags under his eyes this morning; they had probably doubled, and he knew his hair wasn't anything to be proud of on the best of occasions. Still, no one was going to care. Mrs. Weasley would only fuss over him more than ever, and Ginny… well, if she was in it for looks, then she'd already seen all his worst ones. He had them to look forward to. And Ron, and Hermione - Sirius and Remus, the twins, Mr. Weasley… everyone.
For a brief, brief moment, and very accidentally, Harry felt sorry for Draco Malfoy.
At the Burrow, he found the Weasleys just sitting down to dinner, and they looked so happy to see him, and so pleased to be together, that he hoped that Charlie would eat something before asking him what was the matter.
He had no such luck. Charlie noted at once that Harry looked worse than usual and demanded to know if anything had gone wrong. At the mention of Draco being thrown, Ron sniggered in delight, but when Harry mentioned that Mick O'Malley had also been tossed into the sea and knocked out, the outcry was deafening. Charlie looked absolutely panicked. He and Cho wasted no time gathering their things and departing to investigate the mess, and Harry felt, looking at their empty chairs, as though he'd ruined something just by showing up.
He showered upstairs, changed quickly, and returned to the kitchen much cleaner but just as exhausted, hardly noticing the cheerful holly-decked banister or the fairy lights that twinkled merrily in the front room. He still felt cold and detached from the hard day's ride, but the kitchen was warm and bright, and the smell of roast dinner made it difficult to dwell on dragon accidents. Mrs. Weasley bustled him straight into Charlie's empty chair, heaped Christmas dinner in front of him, and returned to the worktop, where the gravy was sieving itself. The long table was crowded even without Charlie and Cho, but it was far too quiet. Harry glanced at Mr. Weasley, who was frowning at the turkey.
"I'm sorry," Harry said, and his voice sounded very loud in the quiet room. "I really didn't want to shake everyone up, or make Charlie miss dinner or anything."
Someone's foot touched Harry's under the table. "It's all right, Harry. Happy Christmas."
Harry looked up to see that Mrs. Weasley had seated him right across from Ginny. He wondered if that meant she didn't mind about the article in Charmed Life, and winced at the memory of that picture. He hoped that no one else remembered, and made a mental note to himself not to look at Mr. Weasley again unless it was absolutely necessary. Ginny gave him a bracing smile, though she looked strangely pale, and nudged his knee with hers.
"Tuck in, go on."
Harry peered at her. Her smile didn't fool him; her voice was scratchy and she sounded sad and tired. He opened his mouth to ask her what the problem was, but was cut off.
"That's right, Harry dear," Mrs. Weasley said, as she returned to the table with a giant gravy boat and floated it down the table to Fred, who already had his hands out. "Eat up. What on earth is everyone waiting for? It's going to get cold!"
"I'm not waiting, Mum!" said George cheerfully. He nicked the gravy boat from Fred and drowned his plate. Within a few minutes, the table was alive with chatter. Fred and George launched into a detailed description of their latest line of candies, Singing Sweets - "Each one's enchanted with a different song, and if you eat one, you'll sing a few bars whether you like it or not - here, Bill, you pop this one in your mouth, and Sirius, you take this one…" Angelina grinned at Mrs. Weasley's almost timid suggestion of a belated wedding reception. "You're sure you wouldn't mind the trouble, Molly? Because that would be wonderful…" Hermione and Ron seemed lost in a world of their own at the other end of the table; Harry couldn't hear their conversation, but he could hardly miss the look Ron was giving Hermione, or the fact that Ron, in an unprecedented display of lovesickness, had not even touched his dinner. Even Penelope seemed to be enjoying herself - she must have put Leo to bed already, and was now smiling as she helped Mrs. Weasley and Angelina with their plans.
Ginny, on the other hand, was silent. She lifted the same bite of food to her mouth several times, but never managed to take it.
"What's wrong?" Harry whispered, tapping her shoe with his.
Ginny started. She shook her head quickly, and glanced at her mother. "Don't," she said shortly, but her reaction only doubled Harry's concern.
"Ginny, is it -"
She gave him a warning look, and he knew she didn't want to be questioned. But he could tell that something was troubling her, and he knew that it was probably his presence. His day at Azkaban had been particularly bad, and yet he felt almost fine again, which meant that she had probably absorbed his troubles and made herself ill. She was very white, and there were bags under her eyes.
"Am I hurting you?" he asked, as quietly as he could.
Ginny gave him a pained sort of glare, and Harry realized that Bill Weasley, who was sitting right beside him, was suddenly giving him a curious and distrustful look. He must have been louder than he'd realized.
Bill opened his mouth. "What does that -" he began slowly.
"I know!" Ginny said loudly, causing everyone at the table to hush up and look at her. "Let's have a game. We're never together like this - let's play…" She floundered.
"I Spy!" Fred finished for her.
"Oh, good'n," George chimed in, through a mouthful of potatoes. "I fpy a col'r and the col'r is…'Ellow."
"The curtains!" shouted a young boy who Harry realized must be Max.
"Mum's sleeves!" put in Bill.
And Ginny's diversion succeeded. By the time Mrs. Weasley had brought out the pudding, I Spy had led into a game of Cities, Countries and Constellations, in which Hermione and Bill were competing so fiercely that the rest of the family had given up playing and taken sides to cheer them on. The Burrow kitchen shook with happy noise, and when Ginny murmured that she wanted to boil water for tea, Harry barely heard her. But he didn't miss the way her hands shook when she pushed in her chair, and when she went straight past the kettle and into the living room, Harry felt a stab of anxiety. She looked terrible, and he knew that he was probably the worst person in the world to go near her and help her, but he couldn't bring himself to sit still. And he didn't want to worry anyone else - even Remus was laughing and engrossed in the game, and had not seen Ginny's exit.
Bill growled. "We've used all the other A's!" he said in despair. "Why do they all have to end in A?"
"Afghanistan doesn't," Max said smugly.
"Afghanistan!" Bill cried.
"Cheating!" Hermione shouted. "But I don't care - Nigeria! Ha! Another A!"
No one noticed Harry leave the table. He slipped out of the kitchen and into the twinkling front room, where Ginny was huddled in one corner of the sofa with her eyes squeezed shut, hugging her legs close to her body. She winced each time more laughter erupted from the kitchen, and her breath hitched. It looked to Harry as if she were about to cry, or be sick.
"Oh, Harry," she choked.
"I know you're there," she went on without opening her eyes. "You can go back and play. I'll be f-fine."
Harry took a step closer to her, but hesitated. "Is it me?" he asked. "Just tell me, and I'll go home. I'd rather go home than sit here and make you ill, honestly."
"It's not y-you." Ginny gave a great sob and buried her face in her knees.
Harry looked over his shoulder. No other Weasleys were in sight. He hurried to Ginny and sat close enough to touch her, but held back. "Would you like… water, or something?" he offered, not sure of what to do.
She opened her eyes and tears flooded down her cheeks, shining in the fairy lights. "P-Percy's not h-here," she blurted on a sob. "He's really d-dead."
Harry stared. That was the last thing he had expected her to say.
The laughter in the kitchen stopped so abruptly that it seemed to have been switched off, and Harry knew that they had all heard her. The Burrow went eerily silent, except for the ticking of the clock and the choking sound of Ginny's voice as she tried to speak again.
"I n-never c-cried about it because I never r-realized he was really g-gone until this m-morning when it was C-Christmas and he wasn't here, and n-now I know he's not coming b-back…"
She dissolved. Harry watched her sink into herself, crying and rocking, and he didn't know what to do. He moved closer to her and put his arms around her; Ginny shifted at once and buried herself in him, continuing to sob into his jumper. Harry held her tightly, but could not think of a word to say. He had never seen her like this.
Harry glanced over his shoulder to see Mrs. Weasley standing in the kitchen doorway, wearing a look on her face that he remembered from Percy's memorial service. She met Harry's eyes, and he had to look down.
"Is she all right?" Remus appeared over Mrs. Weasley's shoulder. He and Sirius came into the room, looking very anxious.
Harry wasn't sure. He shrugged and tightened his arms around Ginny, who was crying so hard that her tears had seeped through to his T-shirt. He felt a damp patch on his shoulder and, despite how strange it was to have Mrs. Weasley watching, he kissed Ginny softly on the top of her head. "Shh," he said quietly, hoping that only Ginny could hear him. "I've got you, okay?"
Ginny sobbed and nodded against him, and Harry softly moved a hand up and down her back, following instincts that were entirely new, but quite strong. Still, it was really weird, doing this in the Burrow, and he was glad that Mr. Weasley wasn't in the room. Or Bill.
"She'll be all right." It was Penelope's voice. Harry didn't dare look back at her - it had been hard enough to look at Mrs. Weasley's face, but Penelope… She'd lost something that Harry couldn't even begin to think about. It would have been like losing Ginny. He clutched at her reflexively. Soft footsteps padded away up the stairs and Harry didn't blame Penelope for getting out of the room. A moment later, however, the footsteps returned, and to Harry's surprise, Penelope stood over the two of them, dry-eyed, holding Leo in her arms.
"Here Ginny," she said softly. "Take him."
Ginny picked up her head and blinked up at her sister in law. Her face was a mess; Harry pushed her hair out of it for her but realized he couldn't reach his trouser pocket to get at the Healing Cloth. It didn't matter - Mrs. Weasley was ahead of him. She came to the sofa with tissues and water; Ginny took the tissues and blew her nose before reaching out for the soft little bundle Penelope offered. Leo nestled against her without a murmur and went right back to sleep. Ginny sniffled and stared glassily down at her little nephew.
"Thanks," she mumbled.
Harry kept his arm around them both and watched Ginny's face. It was strange, but he thought he could actually see the bags under her eyes receding, and the color creeping back into her cheeks. He remembered her once saying that Leo was a relief to her. Perhaps holding babies was something Ginny ought to do more often. And she did look sweet like this. Natural. This whole thing sort of… felt natural, in a bizarre and foreign way, like getting to another country and finding out that he could already speak the language. His mum and dad had been young when they'd had him - he wondered how his dad had felt about it.
Harry went red as it struck him what he was considering. What in the hell was he thinking about?
"All right, Ginny?" It was Ron. He and Hermione came in and hovered at the end of the sofa. Ginny nodded, and Ron's eyes moved from her, to the baby, to Harry, then back to Ginny, and deliberately back to Harry again. Ron quirked an eyebrow and Harry's face grew hotter as he realized that Ron was probably having thoughts similar to his own. But he kept his arm around Ginny and the baby, even when Mr. Weasley and Bill came in a moment later, towing Max. Bill gave Harry a rather ominous look, and Harry swallowed.
"What's wrong with her?" Max complained as the family settled into the myriad mismatched chairs and onto the carpet in front of the fireplace. "Both my parents died," he went on impressively, swaggering up to the sofa, "and I never cried." He raked his eyes over Harry's forehead, and tossed his sandy hair. "Bet you didn't either."
Harry stared at him, openmouthed.
"If you want something to cry about," Ron muttered, "I'll give you -"
"Didn't you really?" Ginny interrupted quietly. She gave Max a long, studious look and the room stayed quiet; Harry had a feeling that the rest of them were as shocked as he was by Max's offensive behavior.
But Ginny seemed to have other ideas. She turned and offered Leo to Harry.
"Take him, would you?" she asked. "And scoot down. I want Max to sit here with me for a minute."
Harry obeyed, cradling the baby in awkward arms and clearing the center cushion for Max, who looked disdainfully at the empty spot.
"What for?" Max demanded.
"Because… I want to tell everyone something, and I want you to be my assistant." Ginny looked at Remus. "I can do this," she said firmly. "So just let me."
Harry realized at once what Ginny was about to tell her family - he exchanged excited, worried looks with Ron and Hermione, and with Sirius, while the rest of the room looked at Ginny in confusion.
Remus glanced at her parents. "Are you sure, Ginny?"
"Positive," Ginny answered. "I won't hurt myself, or him."
Max stepped back. "What's going on?" he asked edgily. "What're you talking about? Who's getting hurt?"
No one else asked questions, but they all looked as curious as Max sounded. Mr. Weasley and Bill leaned forward in their chairs by the fire; Fred and George had turned around on the carpet to look up at Ginny; Penelope and Angelina perched in the window nook and fixed their eyes on Max; and Mrs. Weasley stood in the kitchen doorway again, looking from Remus to Sirius with anxious eyes.
"It's a secret," Ginny told Max. "But I'm going to tell it, and you're going to help me." She patted the empty cushion. "Sit down."
Max did, very gingerly. "Don't hurt me."
Ginny laughed softly. "Then be very still," she instructed, "and very, very quiet."
"Crazy house," Max muttered, but he shut his mouth when Ginny raised her hands in front of him, and his eyes went wide with terror.
Ginny's eyes, on the other hand, fell shut. Harry watched her face and Max's, rapt. This was so incredible - she was so incredible. He could hear everyone breathing in the silence; Hermione's breath in particular was quick and labored, and Harry knew she must be beside herself with excitement to know about Ginny. She'd probably read ten books about Healers in the past three days. She could probably tell them both where to find new ones.
Slowly, Ginny dragged her fingers through the air, stopping above Max's head, then above his shoulders, and finally over his heart. She moved her hands gently, seeming to work with some great knot of energy, which was the way the books had described it. Harry wondered what she was feeling, or if it was hurting her - he thought it might be. Her color was fading again and her freckles looked darker against her skin by the second. She pulled back her hands and took a shaking breath, then went on working.
Max's face had gone slack and his eyes were very wet. He began to take heaving breaths, as if working up to an enormous sob.
"It's all right," Ginny murmured, opening her eyes to look at him. "Tell me."
Max stared at Ginny as if mesmerized. "It was just the once," he whispered. "I only cried once. Just the first night I found out." His chin trembled, and Harry's did too; he looked down at Leo and tried to focus his own blurry vision. The poor kid. It had probably been worse for him - after all, he'd had eleven years to get used to having parents. "Could you stop now?" Max whispered.
Ginny dropped her hands, and Max gasped as if he'd been struck. The glazed look went out of his face and was replaced with one of anguished fury.
"I'm so sorry, Max." Ginny gazed at him. "We all are."
Max stared at her for another moment, his chest heaving. Then he leapt to his feet and bolted out the door into the snow. The door slammed.
"I'll get him," said Ron, and darted after Max. The door slammed again.
Everyone else stared at Ginny. She leaned back on the cushions, still pale and breathing irregularly, and looked at her hands.
"You're joking," Bill breathed. He gripped the arms of his chair. "There's no way. There is no way."
"What?" said Fred and George at once.
"She's a…" Bill shook his head. "Ginny, did you just…"
"She's a Healer." Mr. Weasley gave a dry laugh, and several people sucked in their breath. "Well, I'll be damned."
"A Heal - no! Not - but Arthur!" Mrs. Weasley whirled on Remus. "Did you know?"
"Are you really?" demanded Bill, before Remus could open his mouth. Bill was out of his chair, looking like his might come out of his skin as well. "Ginny, can you actually - with plants, and animals and -"
"You'd be the first one in over fifty years," Penelope said, looking awed. "If you are one. Are you?"
"A Healer?" Fred looked nonplussed. "What, like a mediwizard? She can't be, can she? She's not even out of school."
"She'd have to apprentice," added George. "Not to mention get N.E.W.T.s in just about everything."
Bill shook his head impatiently. "Not like a mediwizard," he scoffed. "It's completely different, it's difficult to explain - honestly, didn’t you two ever pay attention in History of Magic?"
"It's Empathic Magic," Hermione said softly, and a dozen heads swiveled towards her. "Possessed only by very rare individuals. You can't train for it, you have to be born with it. It's a gift."
"Right," said Bill.
"Oh shut up, Bighead number one," said Fred, sitting back on his heels and crossing his arms to address Hermione. "So how does it work?"
"Well… Healers are sensitive to energy of all kinds - plants, beasts and creatures."
"Creatures?" Mrs. Weasley repeated.
"Well, humans," said Hermione. "But everyone else, too. Merpeople, giants -"
"House-elves?" George suggested, waggling his eyebrows.
Hermione gave him a withering look. "Anyway, Healers can work with energy, and correct it through a completely intuitive, nearly psychic process. Mostly what they feel is…" she glanced at Ginny and Harry. "Pain. Physical and emotional."
"Pain?" Mrs. Weasley said anxiously. "Ginny, are you all right?"
"Other people's pain," Hermione cut in gently. "Second hand. It doesn't cause physical pain in the Healer - that is, not generally." She glanced at Harry again. "It's just the signpost the Healer uses to know where to begin working. The books say that it's like untying knots in the air around the afflicted subject, and that some are more difficult to undo than others." She paused. "Is that true, Ginny?"
For the first time since Max had left the room, Ginny looked up. "Yes," she said. She looked at Harry. "Could I have Leo back, please?"
Harry returned to the middle cushion and gave her the baby at once. Ginny shifted closer against him and, after a wary look at Bill and Mr. Weasley, Harry carefully put his arm around her shoulders. No one seemed to notice or care this time, though, and Ginny's grateful smile sent such a warm feeling through Harry that he didn't care who minded. It seemed that he no longer had a terrible effect on Ginny, and he hoped that it would last. He didn't want her to have to explain any of that to her family.
"Then you are." Bill rubbed the bridge of his nose and stared at Ginny as if he'd never seen her before. Which, Harry thought proudly, he probably hadn't. "You really are. A Healer."
"I really am."
"How long have you known?" asked Mr. Weasley quietly. His eyes, behind his glasses, were tired and troubled, but Harry could see the pride in them.
"Four months. Remus worked it out first, and he's been helping me study - no, Mum, leave him alone. I'm seventeen and it's my business and I wanted to tell you on my own."
Mrs. Weasley gave Remus a resentful look, but nodded. She still looked as if she hadn't fully accepted the new information. "A Healer," she said blankly. "Well. I suppose I should have expected it. You're the most… shocking children I…" She rubbed her head. "And just what will you do?" she demanded. "How will you use it? What…" She waved her hands helplessly in the air.
"Well… if Dad'll hire me, then I have one idea -" Ginny began, but the front door slammed open and cut her off. Ron came through it, carrying Max around the waist. Max was blue and shivering, but kicking as if his life depended on it.
"Bloody BRAT," Ron roared. "You'd've frozen -"
Max kicked Ron's shin and Ron dropped him. "HA!" Max shouted, and made for the door again.
Ron lunged after him. Mrs. Weasley raised her wand. "Petrificus Totalus," she said casually, and stuck her wand back in her pocket.
Max clunked to the floor, blinking rapidly. His face had frozen in a contorted expression of fury.
"Take him to his room, would you, Ron, dear?"
"I'll take him back to Diagon Alley if you like," Ron began.
But Mrs. Weasley only laughed. "He's staying here," she said stoutly, and gave Max a hard look. "That hex will wear off in about an hour," she told him. "But your door and window will be locked until we've had a talk. I'll be up in a bit. And if you tear the room apart before I get there, I warn you - you'll regret it."
Max grunted something that Harry suspected would have been a curse word if he could have moved his mouth.
"Good night to you too, dear," said Mrs. Weasley pleasantly, and Ron floated Max's stiff body up the stairs. "What were you saying, Ginny?"
"Mum's in her element again," Fred whispered to George, and the two of them snickered. Mrs. Weasley put her hand to her wand and arched her eyebrows at them. They went quiet.
"I was just saying," Ginny said, looking at Mr. Weasley with pleading eyes, "that I think I could be a lot of use to the Ministry right now."
Mr. Weasley nodded. "I'm sure you could," he said. "And of course I'll want to bring you on as soon as you've taken your N.E.W.T.s - if I'm still acting Minister, that is."
Mrs. Weasley made an exasperated noise. "You will be."
"No, Dad. I could be useful now." Ginny gave Harry a fleeting look and he squeezed her shoulders encouragingly. She straightened up a bit, and took a deep breath. "I want you to let me come to Azkaban and sort out what's wrong with the dragons."
"NO." Mr. Weasley, Sirius, Remus, Bill and Harry had all spoken at once.
"No?" Ginny turned on Harry, holding Leo close and keeping her voice down. "Did you just say no?"
Harry took his arm away from her shoulders - she clearly didn't want it there now. "Yes," he said. "You can't go to Azkaban."
"You… I… can't?" She looked furious. "You're up there every day. You're falling off of dragons. Mick O'Malley and Draco Malfoy fell into the ocean today and you're telling me I can't come and do something about it?"
Leo stirred in his blankets. His eyes scrunched up. He gave a little hiccough, and began to cry.
"Damn it," Ginny muttered. "Look what you did."
Harry opened his mouth to protest that he hadn't been shouting, but Penelope came and plucked Leo out of the fray.
"Good luck, Ginny," she said wryly, and carried her son upstairs.
"Give me one good reason why I can't," Ginny said, turning back to her father. "Go on."
"Because you don't need to," said Mr. Weasley. He still hadn't taken his eyes off her. "We'll work out something else."
"Something else," said Bill flatly, but he hadn't stopped staring at Ginny either. "A Healer," he repeated.
"Yes, a Healer, Bill," Ginny said angrily. "Not that it matters, apparently."
"Are you really the only one in fifty years?" George asked suddenly. "Wow."
Ginny ignored him. "Mum," she pleaded. "Tell them to let me help. I can. I'm really good. Remus, tell them."
But Remus said nothing, and Mr. Weasley looked at George. "There haven't been any Healers since the forties," he said quietly. "When there were two. But they were tortured and killed by Grindelwald and…" He returned his eyes to Ginny. "This is an enormous responsibility."
"I know. So say I can Heal the dragons."
"I can't let you do that," Mr. Weasley said.
Ginny gave a little growl of anger. "Of course you can!" she shouted. "You're the Minister of bloody Magic!"
"Ginny," Mrs. Weasley admonished. "Please don't swear."
"And if you won't let me," Ginny went on without acknowledging her mother, "then I'll just write a letter to the Secretary Privy!"
"So will I," Remus said calmly. "To inform her that you are a novice."
Mr. and Mrs. Weasley looked relieved. Ginny looked murderous.
"So this is how you managed the Wolfsbane Potion," Bill said slowly. "All right. I get it…"
"Funny you're just finding out about this now, Ginny," George said thoughtfully. "I mean, no offense, but it would've been helpful to have you Healing people a year or two ago, wouldn't it?"
"Oh thanks," Ginny shot back.
"Actually, Ginny's very young to develop evident powers," Hermione said, and Harry turned in surprise at the obvious anger in her voice. She was on Ginny's side, obviously, and would probably have a lot to say about it. He sighed to himself, and Hermione continued. "Healers often don't find out what they are until they're halfway through their lives - sometimes they don't find out at all. But if a person with latent Empathic Magic goes through a traumatic experience at a very young age, then by the late teens or early twenties, it's possible for that person's powers to rise to the surface. Ginny is unusual and remarkable."
Ginny put her chin in the air. "Thanks, Hermione."
"So the war traumatized her and now she's got powers?" Fred grinned. "Cool."
"She had the powers all along, and it probably wasn't the war that did it," Hermione replied. "It was probably much earlier, because it takes years for Healing powers to rise to maturation once they're woken."
Fred frowned and looked at Ginny. "So it must've been…"
George's eyebrows shot up. "It was that di-"
"Never mind." Ginny stood up. "You're all horrible - except for Hermione - and I'm going to write my letter."
"Hey, I didn't say anything!" Ron exclaimed, appearing on the stairs. "I'm not horrible." He hurried back to Hermione. "Am I? Did I say anything? What happened?"
Hermione shook her head and tucked her arm through his. "I'll tell you later," she whispered.
Ginny swept over to the stairs.
"Now, Ginny -" Mr. Weasley stood up and blocked her way. "It's Christmas."
"Excuse me, Dad."
He shook his head. "No, we're going to give Sirius his er - Christmas gift - " he glanced at Remus, who nodded, "- and you won't want to miss it. Just… just give us a day to take this all in, would you?" He smiled a little. "Your news is incredible, but…"
"It's a bit difficult to process," Bill finished.
Mr. Weasley nodded. "Hermione's quite right - remarkable. Rare. Should have said that straight away - shock, I suppose." He looked apologetic.
"Yes," Mrs. Weasley added faintly, gazing at Ginny. "Shock. Very… very proud, dear."
Ginny's angry expression softened, just barely. "But you don't trust me," she said.
"I don't even know what you're capable of," said Mr. Weasley. "I wouldn't hire anyone for such a big job without first seeing some demonstration of ability - should I treat you differently?"
Ginny opened her mouth, and shut it. She shook her head slowly. "But… once I show you I'm capable, you'll let me try it?"
"We'll see." He put his arms out. "Come on, Ginny - hug your old Dad, all right?"
"All right." Ginny stepped into her father's arms for a hug and shut her eyes. "Thanks, Dad." Her voice was muffled.
"Happy Christmas," Mr. Weasley said, and kissed the top of her head. He sounded slightly choked, and when he let her go, he pushed up his glasses with fingers that shook slightly. "Well then." He looked around. "I'll, er - I'll just ask everyone to pop into the garage for a minute, if that's all right? But Sirius, you stay here, and Remus, you bring him in."
Sirius narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Just do what you're told," said Remus, smiling. Everyone filed past them and walked out into the garage. Harry tried to get close to Ginny, but Bill had slung an arm around her and was quietly asking her question after question. She looked much less annoyed now, and gave her mother a long hug when Mrs. Weasley edged Bill out of the way to fuss over her. But when Harry finally caught Ginny's eye she only gave him a hurt look, and glanced away. Hermione shot him a pointed glare, as if to say that he deserved it, and Harry gave up. Apparently he was in trouble, and there was no getting out of it right now. Instead, he focused his attention on the bulky, sheet-draped thing that stood alone in the middle of the cluttered garage. It was wide, waist height, and strangely shaped, with things jutting beneath the sheet at odd angles. A space had been cleared around it.
It was absolutely going to slay Sirius.
"Does Sirius know?" Fred whispered to Harry.
Harry shook his head. "Not a clue."
"Excellent," said George.
The family stood in a circle around the strange object. Mr. Weasley grinned at his wife, rubbed his hands together, and stuck his head out the door. "REMUS?" he shouted towards the house. "YOU CAN BRING HIM IN!"
Everyone watched Sirius as he came through the door, suspicion in his expression. "Is this a prank, Moony?"
"It's Christmas," Remus said patiently, coming in behind him and leaning against the doorframe with folded arms. "Would I trick you on Christmas?"
Sirius snorted and looked back at him. "All right, now I know it's a prank."
Remus shrugged. "Suit yourself." He gestured to the object in the center of the room. "Open it."
With guarded eyes, Sirius approached the bulky sheet. He frowned at it, looked around at everyone, and tentatively touched it. "This had better not explode," he muttered. In one swift motion, he gripped the sheet and pulled it from the object.
Harry thought his godfather's knees were going to buckle.
"Oh my God." Sirius reached out a shaking hand and touched the shining black motorcycle that stood in front of him. "Oh my God," he repeated, his voice a sheer whisper. He ran light fingers along the handlebar, then withdrew his hand as if he'd burnt it. "Impossible." He laughed, and the sound was strangled. "Seventeen… years… where did you… Remus… how…" He stopped and looked at Mr. Weasley. "She's the same one?" he asked in a trembling voice.
"The very same." Mr. Weasley was pink with pleasure. "She's been in storage at the Misuse office for years - couldn't bring myself to throw her away, always was rather fascinated - I was dead glad to have an opportunity to read up on these machines and do a little restoration - my pleasure, honestly. Remus's idea. Everyone did a little of the work, it's taken us a few months to sort everything out but I'm fairly certain she's ready to fly."
Sirius laughed again and seized Mr. Weasley, who looked almost terrified, in a fierce hug. "My bike," he nearly shouted, and let go. He grabbed Remus next. "My bike." He released Remus and went back to touching the motorcycle with reverent hands as if to memorize it all over again. He looked eighteen. His smile was dazzling and the darkness that always hung in his eyes had vanished. Harry was stunned by the difference it made. He looked like the Sirius from his parents' wedding album. "Want to have a go, Harry?" Sirius blinded him with a smile.
"No!" said Mrs. Weasley. "Not until you've tested Arthur's, er - restorations."
Mr. Weasley looked a bit dejected, and so was Harry - flying that thing was going to be a blast.
"Later then, Harry, all right?" Sirius asked, still grinning like a madman. "She's a dream, I'm telling you - no Firebolt 5 can compare. I don't know how to thank you all."
"You could give me tomorrow off," Ron suggested. Harry noticed that Ron's hand rested dangerously low on Hermione's back and that she wasn't complaining; rather, she was looking up at Ron in a way Harry had never seen her do in front of other people. He'd caught her at it once or twice, but never with all the Weasleys watching. He wondered if she'd had something to drink.
"Done," said Sirius. "Tomorrow's yours, Ron." He went back to poring over the motorcycle while the twins asked questions about it.
"Thanks." Ron slid his hand slightly lower and Hermione's eyes fluttered shut and open again. Harry looked away. They needed to get a room. Ron cleared his throat. "I think I'd like a walk," he announced unnecessarily. His voice sounded strange.
"Me too," said Hermione, sounding just as odd. "Happy Christmas Sirius - and everyone." Most of the Weasleys went on talking excitedly with Sirius as Hermione pulled away from Ron and went for the garage door. She stopped to give Harry a quick hug. "I'm sorry about what happened with the dragons - I'm glad you weren't hurt." She lowered her voice so that no one could hear her but Harry. "Don't be stupid about Ginny, all right?" She patted his back. "Apologize to her. Trust me. Happy Christmas." She nearly ran from the garage, and Ron followed her. Ron's goodbye was much less intelligible; he mumbled something, clipped Harry on the shoulder, and practically ran after Hermione. Harry heard the front door shut.
Ginny stood a few feet back from the motorcycle, and was not engaged in the rest of her family's conversation. She looked pensive. Harry approached her, not sure what to say.
"Sorry," he offered. That had, after all, been Hermione's advice.
Ginny looked at him. "For what?"
"For…" Harry searched himself. "I don't know." He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I just don't want you angry with me."
She rolled her eyes. "Hermione told you to apologize, didn't she? I swear." She sighed, and put out a hand to stop Harry from speaking again. "I'm not having this conversation in front of my whole family," she whispered, and went past him into the house. Harry followed, feeling rather desperate, and a little bit annoyed. He had no idea what to say, and apparently that wasn't going to be good enough. And Ginny didn't seem interested in talking; she didn't stop in the front room, but went directly for the stairs. "Good night," she said.
"Well don't just go to bed!" Harry said, exasperated.
Ginny paused on the steps and looked over the railing at him. "Why not?"
"Because I'm trying to talk to you!" He felt very stupid, and a little bit embarrassed. "I'm not you, you know, I can't just put my hands out and work out what the problem is."
She crossed her arms. "You know what the problem is, Harry. You know I just want to help you, and you should have helped me. You know they listen to you. They don't listen to me - I'm a Healer, for goodness' sake, and if that doesn't convince them to stop treating me like a baby then I -"
"No one's treating you like a baby." Harry crossed his arms in retort. "We're worried about you. That's different. I don't want you getting hurt."
"I wouldn't get hurt."
"Mick is a Species Specialist and he got thrown today."
"And people are going to keep getting thrown if something isn't done about it." Ginny rubbed her eyes. "Look, I'm tired. Max really took it out of me, I need to lie down."
"Okay." Harry shrugged helplessly. "Fine. I'm just going to back to the Notch and go to sleep - but before work tomorrow can we -"
"You can't go back to the Notch tonight, you have to stay here." Ginny's face flushed a little. "You can have Ron's room," she added hastily.
Harry frowned at her. "Why?"
"Erm, because…" Ginny bit her lip and flushed more deeply, and Harry had no idea what was going on. Why was she trying to keep him here all night if she was angry with him? His face warmed up. "Hermione and Ron… you know."
"Hermione made me promise to keep you here tonight." Ginny shifted her weight on the steps. "Just don't go home, all right? You'd rather not, I promise."
"But…" Harry stopped. The light switched on in his brain. "Oh." An unwelcome image came into his mind and he pulled a face. "Oh really."
"Yes, so." Ginny was still pink, but a giggle escaped her. "Don't go home."
"No no. I won't." Harry shook his head to get the persistent mental image out of his head. "Ever again."
Ginny laughed outright. "Oh go on, you'll get used to it. There are soundproofing charms to block out the sound of -"
She snickered. "What? You want me to help you look some up? Ron used to snore when he was little, he's a really loud sleeper, so I imagine he's an even louder -"
"Stop!" Harry cried, and put his hands over his ears. "No more, seriously!"
Ginny leaned over the banister, still laughing, and pulled his hands away from his head. She held onto them and gave Harry a look full of affection. "You're such an idiot," she sighed, and pushed her fingers through his. She tugged his hands, leading him to walk around the banister and up the stairs towards her. When they were eye to eye on the step, Ginny leaned back against the wall and there was no more room in Harry's brain for Ron or Hermione. There was just Ginny, and the two inches of electric space between them, and his heart pounding in his chest, and his blood thumping in his body. She'd forgiven him. That was what this was. Wasn't it? He watched her mouth and waited for her to say something.
"I'm still angry."
Harry nodded. "Okay," he said, because it seemed important to say something. He remembered he still hadn't given Ginny her gift. He released one of his hands from Ginny's and reached around to pull the wrinkled parcel out of the pocket on the side of his trousers. "Here," he said, handing it to her, "They said you're supposed to have it. I thought it could be useful, or something. I don't really know how it works, but you probably -"
Ginny took the package, which he'd wrapped badly in tissue paper with a bright green bow, and she opened it. "Oh!" she looked genuinely happy. "Harry, you shouldn't have got something so big!"
Harry looked at the little white thing in her hands. That was big?
"I've wanted one of these – a Healing Cloth, isn't it?"
Harry nodded. "Yeah, I'm glad you could tell that, because I didn't want you to think I'd gotten you a handkerchief. The Dursleys sent me a tissue once for Christmas, and…"
"No, stop." Ginny laughed. "It's perfect. I do need this." She looked down at it and traced the embroidered G with her finger. "It's really lovely… and it was really thoughtful." She glanced at him. Her tongue came out briefly and wet her lips, and Harry forgot about Christmas presents. "You're, erm, staying here tonight?" She bent one leg and touched her knee to his.
Harry nodded again. "Yeah. In, you know. But in Ron's room. Because your parents - well. And you can't…" He stopped as the first fully formed thought he'd had in several minutes came into his brain. He looked down at their touching knees. "Ginny, I'm really not hurting you?"
She grinned. "No."
"I don't know, but I… I'm playing a sort of trick on myself. I've been working really hard on just separating my personal emotions from the Empathic ones, and I think I can do it now - mostly. It takes a lot of concentration, but if it means that we…" She spoke in a rush, as if she were embarrassed. "I think I can be with you and nearly turn off the Healing, although it'll be really great when I don't have to do that. Twice as great, because that's such a big part of how I feel… everything. But it won't be long, and then I won't have to separate anything, and I'll just be able to be with you in every…" She sounded very nervous. "Erm, in every sense without any sort of…" She blushed. "Barriers. Do you know what I'm saying?"
Harry thought he might. "Yes," he managed.
There were voices in the kitchen. Apparently everyone had finished in the garage; Harry turned to go back down the stairs, but Ginny grabbed his hand. "No, come with me."
"What, upstairs?" Harry felt a rush of fear. Not in Mr. Weasley's house, he wouldn't.
"Just come with me, hurry." Ginny dragged him to the top of the steps just in time. The voices were in the front room now: Remus and Sirius, Fred and George, Bill and Mr. Weasley.
"I can't," said Harry frantically, though he really wanted to. "They'll kill me."
"No one will know. You can Disapparate out of my room and into Ron's, if anyone knocks."
Harry stared at her. "That's true," he said, and something hot raced through his body, touching every nerve. Was she really inviting him into her bedroom? In her house? Was this because he'd got her the right present, or something? Harry felt a thrill of wicked excitement, and for the first time he understood what Ron was always saying about Hermione being mental. Ginny was actually insane - but it was great. She was brilliant. Harry took a step closer to her. "I can always Disapparate," he repeated, still looking at her mouth.
Ginny nodded. "And it's not as if we're really breaking house rules. I mean, we're obviously not going to, em – do anything tonight - not completely, you know - because it really would be awkward with everyone here and well, you know, I do want to wait until I'm better at being around you and we've - well." She swallowed and looked over his shoulder at the wall.
Harry had never been so flustered. She wanted to wait. So then, she wanted to… at some point… she'd just said… An incredible sort of movie began to play in Harry's head, and his brain shorted out. "Obviously," he said absently, and tried to focus over Ginny's shoulder.
He immediately wished he hadn't looked behind her. His eyes flew open and he nearly had a heart attack.
Penelope was standing in the corridor, just beyond Ginny. "Full house tonight," she said evenly.
Ginny jumped, dropped Harry's hand, and her mouth fell open in horror. Harry wanted to sink through the wall at his back and disappear.
Penelope didn't seem to notice their wild embarrassment. "Leo's asleep, so if you both wouldn't mind tiptoeing when you go past his room?"
"I'm not going that way," Harry said, too quickly. "I'm going to the attic, to sleep in Ron's room."
"All right." Penelope smiled at him. "You do that." She tapped Ginny's shoulder and spoke quietly. "I'll just let your mother know, if she asks, that the two of you are fighting it out up here and that I heard you, and I think you'd better be left to sort it out. Shall I?" Her eyes twinkled. "Yes, I think so. Amazing news, Ginny, by the way - I don't know if congratulations is really the right word but, well - congratulations. Goodnight, you both." She waltzed by them and down the stairs.
"Where's Ginny?" Bill's voice floated up towards them, and Harry flattened against the wall. "I wanted to talk to her a bit more."
"She and Harry are having a row," Penelope said calmly.
"Upstairs?" Mrs. Weasley asked archly.
"Yes, I had to ask them to hush for Leo's sake - but it's nothing too horrible. They're better left to work it out, I think." Her answer seemed to satisfy the Weasleys, but it couldn't be too long before one of them came up to check and see if it was true.
"I'd better go up to the attic," Harry whispered. He wasn't sure that his heart had started beating again, and there was a funny sort of buzzing in his ears. Penelope had heard what Ginny had said - she must have heard. People were going to know.
"You'd better not," Ginny said. "Come on." She was still pink, but she took his hand again.
"They'll kill me," Harry repeated, but he went with her to the door of her room. Ginny pushed it open and Harry got a glimpse of darkness, a messy bookshelf, moonlight on a pillow and fairy lights that had been magicked around a tiny dressing table mirror. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen Ginny's room before; somehow, though, it looked familiar. "I should, you know, stomp up the stairs really loudly," Harry said, not really sure of what he meant. "So they'll think I've gone to Ron's room."
"If it'd make you feel better," said Ginny seriously. "Go on, I'll wait." She looked soberly into his face for another second, then cracked up laughing and tugged him into her doorway. "Hurry, get in here before they find you and kill you!" She giggled. "Oh Harry, stop looking like that, I'm joking. Anyway, if we're caught we can always tell on Ron - that'd distract Mum from anything."
Harry cracked a grin. "Okay."
Ginny smiled back at him, but her smile faded quickly into another sort of look, and Harry felt his grin disappear as his eyes fixed once again on her mouth. Ginny let go of his hand and grabbed him gently by the front of his jumper. She slowly pulled him so close to her that Harry's eyes blurred and he could feel her breath on his skin. "Want to go and stomp up the stairs?" she asked quietly.
Ginny brushed her mouth against his for a brief second and Harry took a deep breath. "Come on, Harry," she murmured, and began to walk backward into her room. Harry put his hands on her hips to guide her and bent his head to kiss her again - now that he could kiss her for as long as he wanted, he had a feeling he wasn't going to stop. Without another protest, he disappeared into her room and shut the door with his foot. "Happy Christmas," she whispered.
A/N II: We originally wrote a long sexy scene here, but B Bennett said it was crap, so we won't be posting it. Love, A&Z
A/N III: Shouldn’t we be having a celebration of some kind that we made it through half a year? Only six more story months to go! Woohoo! That's 87 in people months.