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Harry Potter and the Heirs of Slytherin by fawkes_07
Chapter 7 : Chapter 7: For Better
Rating: 12+Chapter Reviews: 16

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Harry, Ron, and Hermione had seen enough of Godric's Hollow. Between the knowledge that Voldemort had sent spies in anticipation of Harry's visit, and the fact that they had just come into the possession of an incredibly valuable ancient relic, they all felt the need to move on. Fortunately, the Burrow was close enough to Apparate there safely. Together they clutched their brooms tightly and willed themselves through the sensation of being pulled through a Chinese finger-cuff. The only complication was that Harry ended up perched on the roof of the Weasley's garden shed; a butterfly had drifted past his nose just as he was beginning the spell, causing his concentration to waver ever so slightly.

Despite the fact that the house and garden were teeming with people, no one noticed this faux pas, or indeed, that the three of them had even arrived. All three of their jaws went slack as they beheld the frantic bustling in every direction. A table of girls around Ginny's age were wrapping up rose petals in circles of ivory tulle and tying them with ribbons. A delivery witch was unloading small, exquisite boxes of sweets from the saddlebags of a winged horse onto floating silver trays, stopping frequently to rearrange the boxes until more would fit while still looking uncluttered. Steps away, a filthy chimney sweep was watching the process hungrily, but the pegasus clearly had his number and was not about to permit any soot near the burden it had borne so carefully. People were trotting in and out of the house and garden with gifts, papers, clothes hanging in fancy bags, flowers, and foodstuffs of all sorts.

Ron and Harry stared in disbelief at the whole process, even as Hermione's face lit up with excitement. She squeezed both of them on the arms with a delighted squeal and tried to pull them into the fray, but they hung back stubbornly. "Come on, you lumps, they need all the help they can get!" she chided, and set off at once to find an assignment for herself.

"Harry?" said Ron, slackjawed, "I'm never getting married."

A joyous shriek from inside the Burrow indicated that Hermione had found Mrs. Weasley. Harry punched Ron's shoulder to break him from his bewildered trance, and the two of them resigned themselves to two days of indentured servitude.

Harry left the Burrow near midnight, stepping through emerald flames into the blissful peace and quiet of Grimmauld Place. The Burrow was too full for company; Charlie, Fred, and George had all been called home to help prepare for the wedding feast. After seeing the kind of detail and bother the Weasleys were sorting through, Harry shuddered to imagine Fleur's home, where the wedding itself would take place.

The house was dark and quiet, but Harry could see light coming from the drawing room as he headed up the stairs. Though tired, he knocked anyway out of curiosity. "Come!" said the voice of Mad-Eye Moody. He was hunched over the rolltop desk from which Mrs. Weasley had once, with considerable difficulty, banished a boggart.

"Evening, Harry," he said, without lifting his head from his papers; his magical eye had spotted Harry through the back of his head.

"Good evening," said Harry. "I won't interrupt, I was just on my way to bed."

Moody turned in his chair, tearing off a section of the parchment he was studying and crumpling up the remainder. "No bother. Sit a minute." Harry did as he was asked, wondering what the old man had in mind. Apparently Moody wasn't quite sure himself, as he shifted in his seat several times, fiddling with the parchment distractedly.

"That was good field work, Potter," he finally said.

Harry, who had grown more and more convinced that he was about to be chastised for something, sighed audibly with relief and said, "Thanks."

Moody leaned forward. "I mean it. All three of you. You've got good instincts, think fast on your feet. I'd like to see you all in MLE."

"Emily?" said Harry, puzzled.

"M-L-E. Magical Law Enforcement. Aurors, in other words." Patches of pink were appearing between the reticulated scars on Moody's face. Harry couldn't believe it; the old man was actually blushing.

"You know, Crouch told me the same thing in my fourth year--when he was disguised as you." Harry began to blush a bit himself.

Moody folded his arms. "He did, eh? Must'a got some of my good sense with the looks, then, the prat." Moody smirked and turned back to the desk. "Get on to bed, lad."

"Professor?" Harry said on a nervous impulse.

"Moody'll do," he said, though he didn't turn back around.

Harry's voice was a strained whisper. "Do you think I can beat him?"

Moody took a deep breath, resting his elbows on the desk and rubbing his neck. "He's a mean one, Potter. I think it'll take everything you have. Maybe even your life." He turned to face Harry again. "But he's also a bitter old man, scratchin' and clawin' to stay alive though he don't know a thing about living.

"You sussed out little Calliope just right, helping her do that spell. And that banshee in the library; I don't know what you were up to, but it was a fine diversion, even if I had to watch it through the lass's midriff. Half of every battle's won in the mind, Potter--by understanding your opponent. You've got a grasp of hatred and despair, but he's got no concept of courage nor love. He won't know what hit him when you play those cards."

Nodding, Harry just said, "Good night."

Harry's first thought as he was awakened the next morning was that a huge bumblebee was mistaking his face for a flower. Half asleep, he swatted at it irritably, which resulted in a series of indignant screeches; this un-beelike behavior woke him with a snap. It was Pigwidgeon, flapping around in his typical frenzy. Harry bemusedly pulled the tiny scroll from the owl's leg; it bore only the words, "GET BACK HERE!" in Ron's handwriting.

For the next six hours, Harry became an errand boy for the entire Weasley clan. He made two separate trips to the Ministry of Magic, one to retrieve the permit for a Portkey from Ottery St. Catchpole to Dijon, France (which Arthur had forgotten to pick up), and another to file some sort of registration for Fleur Delacour to become a citizen of the UK after the wedding (which had slipped out of a stack of parchments that Bill had taken in). This was truly a measure of his love for the Weasley family, as he would prefer to step into a pile of dragon dung than the Ministry building. The second time, a photographer from the Daily Prophet had nearly managed to run him down, but he escaped through the Floo Network before she had time to get a snapshot of him in front of the bank of fireplaces. He suspected she might have caught him in the flames just before he whirled away, but he deliberately made a gesture that would make the photo unfit to print.

Hermione had been up nearly all night kneading dough. "They say it's bad luck to cook with magic for a wedding feast," she told Harry, handing him a large sack of potatoes and a peeler. "Sounds like a load of patriarchal rubbish to me, but what can you do, it's tradition. Everything's got to be prepared by hand--and Harry, you're the only one who has any idea how to use one of these. They were just going to mash them up with the skins on, but I couldn't bear to have lumpy potatoes at a big party like this!" She ran off to help decorate the long picnic tables in the yard, leaving Harry to mutter about how lumps weren't so bad as he wistfully recalled the labor-saving devices in his Aunt Petunia's kitchen.

When he'd scraped the last spud, Harry picked up the sack and hauled it into the house. It was worse in there than outside, since there were roughly the same number of people but only a fraction of the space. As is always the case in sculleries, there was a stream of sounds, smells, and activity that could hardly be called "steady," due to the chaotic starts and spurts that characterize the cooking process. One pot might be bubbling over as another was set on the burner for the first time, each cook grousing at the other for being in the way during "the one time" they needed the stove. Racks of rolls resembled a beehive, in that some were clearly in the larval state, having just been set out in a pinched spiral, while others were in varied levels of raising, still others emerging from the cocoon of the oven in their mature, edible form. Harry pocketed one of the latter, earning a light slap from an unknown witch, but this was nothing compared to his punishment for taking out his wand to conjure up a cauldron in which to boil his potatoes. Shrieks of "NO MAGIC!" came from every part of the room; he feared someone would snap his wand in half.

"Here, Harry, sweetheart, just give those to me," said an angel, which turned out to be Mrs. Weasley. She scooped up the bag of denuded potatoes and bustled them to the sink; a hapless witch drying her hands suddenly found her next chore thrust upon her. Mrs. Weasley returned to give him a quick hug, dodging a hot pie and grabbing a paper bag of pecans on her way. Harry took them obediently and made a hasty departure. When he realized he would have to go back in for a nutcracker, he sneaked behind the garden shed and conjured one, tradition or no.

Harry stretched that task out as long as he could, producing a fine collection of unbroken pecan halves, but finally had to face the reality of returning to the kitchen. The feasting hour was approaching, however, so the ovens were full but the kitchen nearly empty. He was able to make his way inside without danger of being minced and cooked into something. Mrs. Weasley was actually sitting down at the table, dashing off some last-minute orders to her sous-chefs before changing into her party dress. She looked up to see what Harry could possibly be doing in her kitchen, noticed the pecans, and waved him over.

"Oh, lovely, let's get these roasted and out on the tables, thank you, Harry--"

The ocean roiled below the white cliffs as Molly stood beside Arthur Weasley. They had just eloped. She was sure her parents would be upset; they had always wanted a fancy wedding for their little girl. Oh, they liked Arthur all right, even though he was actually a distant relation. All the pureblood families had that problem, but you couldn't hold it against people--you just had to go back through the family tree and make sure there were enough branches in there to hold up your descendants. But they wouldn't be pleased about the quick, secret wedding, nor the fact that Molly was married at barely eighteen years of age.

Well, that was just too bad. She loved Arthur. Mother kept saying she should wait, a better one might come along, but he was the one she wanted. And if a "better one" came along, well, there would be room in both their lives for new and treasured friends.

Bill was the first one. She thought she knew what love was all about, but nothing had prepared her for the fire this tiny bundle would light in her heart, not just a feeling, but a biologic imperative. She could spend all day nuzzling his fuzzy head, watching him stretch out his busy fingers and toes, laughing at the unselfconscious way he yawned or sneezed with his toothless little mouth.

She would rip out Fenrir Greyback's throat with her teeth if she ever caught sight of him.

Tonight would be Bill's wedding feast. Molly finally understood what Mother had meant about waiting, but even if Bill had waited forever, there would never be a woman "good enough" for her beloved baby. Fleur, at least, had proven herself to be a decent sort, but this was her Bill! Fleur couldn't possibly understand that he was so perfect, so wonderful...until, perhaps, she bore Bill's children and discovered what love really meant herself.

Feeling almost as though he were fighting for breath, Harry pulled himself from the deluge of emotion and found his way back to his own eyes, his own mind. He knew he could not touch a flame like that in her heart and remain unchanged; it would burn in him forever.

Mrs. Weasley didn't look too happy, though. As that peculiar calm descended upon Harry, he wondered if she would strike him, but he wouldn't really mind if she whapped him with a frying pan. It would all heal, and it was a price worth paying for the privilege of finding her mind. "I'm sorry, Molly," he said. "I can't stop myself from doing that."

She nodded, avoiding his eyes. "Well," she said in a courageously and artificially lighthearted voice, "I think I'd better head upstairs, get changed..."

Harry caught her in his arms as she stood up. "Thank you," he said earnestly.

"For what, dear?" she asked.

"I went to Godric's Hollow to find out why my parents died. But you showed me instead."

Thus were the floodgates finally opened on a tearful (but joyous) weekend.

Harry spent the first few hours of the feast in Ron's room, waiting for his disinterested calm to lift. By the time he finally trusted himself not to blurt out something spooky, most of the potatoes he'd peeled so diligently were gone, but there was still plenty of everything else. Harry was in the process of dispatching a plate of roasted pork when he spotted Ginny over by the hedge, chatting with other girls and eating the pretty sweets the pegasus had brought.

He nearly fumbled his plate right into his lap. He'd enjoyed going two whole days without suddenly plunging into a strange head, and if the past was any indication, he was likely to have a cluster of them before they'd go away. Harry wasn't so sure he wanted to be privy to Ginny's heart of hearts at the moment. She sure looked pretty, though, he mused, hunching over his supper in hopes that she wouldn't see him.

Around that same time, Harry began to notice a certain unexpected quiet on the other side of the house. It crept into his awareness in a slow, nefarious way, such that when he finally realized what was bothering him, he leapt up in terror. There weren't many things that could quiet down a raucous party such as this, but dementors leapt to his mind as an obvious possibility. Harry nearly tipped the bench over in his haste to get to the front yard, wand in hand and ready to summon a whopper of a Patronus.

As he skidded around the house, though, Harry felt none of the cold dread that accompanied a dementor attack. He felt a little disoriented, because he couldn't see anything obviously amiss; there were no screams, no one was running. In fact, a number of people appeared to be making a point of focusing on their supper. For a brief moment, Harry wondered if he'd lost his hearing, but suddenly everything made sense: Percy Weasley was standing on the front walk.

Harry's sprint through the yard had led several others to follow in concern, which of course produced a multiplying effect. Within minutes, the entire wedding party had accreted into a wide semicircle around Percy. To his credit, although he had surely hoped for a less conspicuous entrance, Percy stood his ground, biting his lip nervously with his head inclined.

Arthur began to approach his son, but Bill put a hand on his father's shoulder. Bill crossed the gap between Percy and everyone else, stopping directly in front of him. Percy looked up, seeing for the first time how fearsomely his brother had been mauled by the werewolf Fenrir. "Morgana, Mordred, and Merlin!" he said faintly, raising a faltering hand to Bill's jaw.

"Still better looking than you, you know," said Bill.

Percy regarded him a moment longer, his eyes growing wider and wider until, without any transition, they overflowed with tears. Bill immediately scooped his brother up into a stalwart hug. If the Weasleys had ever hoped for a lawn sprinkler in their yard, the weeping engendered by this simple act was closest they'd ever get.

Harry felt like he'd just closed his eyes when the pounding started on his door. It was Tonks, as usual; no one took more joy from thrashing a door than she did, especially, it seemed, if someone was desperately trying to snooze behind it. When he saw how high the sun had already climbed, however, he was glad she'd come by; he'd nearly overslept.

His new clothes had been pressed and hung up by the bed. He shook his head; it seemed sometimes that there must be another house-elf hidden in Grimmauld Place. The linen shirt was clean and crisp, and the silk robes felt even lighter and cooler than the first time he wore them. As he appraised himself in the mirror, he nodded at his reflection and murmured, "Sharp!" He didn't care what Phineas Nigellus might have to say about it.

He headed for the kitchen for a quick hop through the fireplace back to the Burrow; after going to the Ministry to get that bloody Portkey, he was darn well going to take it to France. Remus was coming upstairs, and gave Harry a winning smile with a thumbs-up, but with a jerk of his head toward Lady Black's portrait--apparently she was in a particularly foul mood--indicated that he'd better tiptoe the rest of the way.

Harry had just buttered a quick slice of bread for the road when the portrait went off, followed seconds later by the appearance of Tonks, who bellowed, "Oh, go get retouched!" back up the stairs. As she spotted Harry, her frown became a wide smile and she looked him over in such a thorough and deliberate manner, he started to blush. "You look good, baby," she said, her voice deep and sincere.

Harry was suddenly reminded of that dream of Lupin's, in which Tonks was calling for him in her despair. "Stop it," said Harry, much harsher and colder than he intended. She stopped short and leaned away from him, taken quite off guard by his reaction. She opened her mouth to speak but apparently couldn't come up with an adequate response. As she stood there staring and blinking at him, Harry felt like a complete git. She didn't know anything about the dream, after all...

...she felt like a mouse that had blundered into a trap; coming forward to admire a lovely piece of cheese, she found herself under attack, struck painfully and unexpectedly. She might as well be at work, where she had to keep her guard up all the time. Number twelve was the one place in the world that she could feel safe and free; she'd held Remus and wept for joy when he told her Harry had given it to them...

..."OUT!" she said, and they were both back in the kitchen.

Harry knew he'd barely touched her mind, and the strange calm barely flickered at his awareness. He sighed heavily; he was getting tired of mumbling the same tired apology over and over. He shook his head pleadingly at Tonks.

She threw him a penetrating glare, folding her arms, then sniffed reprovingly. "Moody warned me you were quick," she said with a hint of controlled anger. "What's your problem?"

He bowed his head. "Heck if I know," he said plaintively. "I'm...sorry. I've said that so many times this week, it's starting to feel like a lie." He looked up at her. "I am sorry I snapped at you, though, I mean that. It's just..."


Harry sighed again. "You know Remus. He's so're going to find some young stud that'll, you know, edge him right out of the picture."

To Harry's immense relief, her eyes widened and lit up mirthfully. "That's why you barked at me?" He nodded. Her grin returned, as impish as ever. "And are you afraid I'll be sneaking into your room one of these nights, bay-bee?" She emphasized the last word with a snide drawl.

Harry snorted, but averted his eyes sheepishly. "Terrified. No, seriously," he paused, "it just hit me the wrong way. I don't ever want him to feel like...I'm a threat."

The tension finally dissipated. "Harry," she said gently, "I can't stop him from fretting. Believe me, I've tried; he might even be more mule-headed than me on that score. But I'll tell you what," mischief creeping into her voice again, "I'm in love, not dead. I have to have a flirt with a tasty little dish now and then, it's one of those laws of nature." She winked.

Harry nodded with exaggerated solemnity. "Far be it from me to oppose the law."

Harry stepped out of the fireplace in the Burrow with a bit of a spring in his step, which was promptly quashed by Fred and George, who, despite their exquisitely tailored formal robes, pounced on him with the energy of a pair of rabid Irish setters. "Heavens above, mate, you've got everyone in a panic, where've you been?" roared one of them, but before Harry could even answer, he felt himself being pulled through a dark tunnel, to land somewhat painfully on Stoatshead Hill. The twins were in such a hurry they had Disapparated two feet above the ground. Harry didn't even have time to gain his footing before an old boot was thrust into his hands and the three of them were whisked off by a sharp tug in the stomach, arriving in what seemed to be a dark, empty hayloft.

"Welcome to France, Mr. Potter," said Fred. "Now move it!"

"Good morning, gentlemen," said Harry grumpily, though he scurried down the ladder out of the loft.

There were still a few people milling about in the barn, adjusting their ties or hats, dusting off bits of straw, or simply sneezing and dabbing their runny eyes and noses with a kerchief. Harry wondered briefly about the wisdom of assigning the Portkey to a dusty old barn on such an occasion, but he had no time to mull it over; Fred and George were already hauling him out the door.

"What's the rush? I'm just on time--" Harry began, but both twins hissed at him.

"Harry, you're the Sealer. You should've been here an hour ago!" said Fred.

"At least an hour! We've been stuck out here with two families' worth of uptight lunatics since sunrise," said George.

Fred looked as though he had another comment to make, but Harry had to cut him off. "Hold on, what do you mean? I'm the what?"

Fred actually stopped in mid stride. "The Sealer! Didn't you read your invitation?"

Harry just stared at him, dumbstruck. Fred might as well have been speaking Greek. The twins regarded one another, and both slapped their foreheads with a groan.

"Mother of Merlin, now what?" said George.

"We can't let Mum see him like this, it'll be pandemonium," said Fred.

"Will one of you please make SENSE!" demanded Harry, as they immediately steered him behind someone's garden wall.

"Listen, mate, I can't believe you didn't know this," began George. "You're part of the ceremony. Mum will spontaneously combust if she finds out you're not prepared, so..."

"Prepare to get prepared," finished Fred.

Harry groaned. "You've got to be kidding," he said weakly.

"It's not so bad," said George. "All you do is...what exactly does the Sealer do, Fred?"

"Oh for pity's sake, brother, you ought to pay attention now and again. Here's the thing: it's the custom for the most powerful wizard at the wedding to seal the bond. Guess what, chum? That's you." Harry screwed up his face in disbelief and protest, but Fred was unmoved. "No arguing, Chosen Boy, you're it. All you have to do is go to the front after the handfasting and make a little speech. Sort of giving your blessing to the couple. It's not so bad."

Disbelief gave way to outright scorn. "Not so bad?! After the what? What am I supposed to say?" Harry was beyond butterflies in his stomach; it felt more like a flock of hummingbirds on a rampage.

George piped up, thoughtfully, "Something along the lines of 'may your house be prosperous and your children quiet and obedient,' that sort of thing."

Harry scoffed impatiently. "Come on, you two, I've never been to a wedding, you've got to be more help than that!"

"No time!" said Fred, with a sincerely anxious look. "Harry, it's starting in ten minutes, we're already in trouble, we've got to get down there and hand out flowers or something."

"Usher," mused George.

"Just get in there and sit with Hermione, she'll come up with something in ten minutes. Whatever she says, cut it in about half and there's your speech." With that, both of them dashed off, leaving Harry muttering at the roses, which probably would have wilted had they spoken English.

He straightened his shirt and scampered after them. Fortunately, it was quite obvious where to go; the cobbled lane led to a paved street, upon which a crowd of well-dressed people were all heading in one direction. Harry dashed up the lane quickly, then slipped through the crowd as quickly as he could without shoving. They were heading toward a grassy open square with a fountain in the center. Chairs had been set out in three large groups separated by aisles; many of them still remained empty, and several red heads were bobbing amongst them, escorting guests to their seats. Harry spotted Ron in the left-hand section with a pair of stunning women, one on each arm; undoubtedly they were some of Fleur's half-veela aunts, as all the men's heads followed them like compass needles.

"Harry!" Arthur Weasley's hand was suddenly on his arm, steering him off to the side. "You're here! We were beginning to wonder if there was trouble." His voice was calm, but there was a hint of edginess; he looked as though he'd be glad to get this whole thing over with.

Harry smiled with all the warmth he could muster. "No trouble, I just got the time wrong, so sorry I worried you." Ugh. Well, he'd made up one speech, and it seemed to comfort Mr. Weasley; he only had one more to go.

Mr. Weasley steered him to a chair in the center section, in the front row. "You're sitting with the Guests of Both, Harry, since you're the Sealer. We'll talk to you after the ceremony." He rushed off before the blood drained from Harry's face; Hermione was sitting primly in the section to his right, already sniffling happily into her hanky. Harry sunk into his chair and wished the ground would just reach up and pull him under.

He did, at least, have a few minutes to think. Harry pondered over books he'd read, things he'd seen on the Dursleys' television, trying to come up with something either elegant or romantic (preferably both). Nothing was leaping out at him. He shook his head--all he could think of was that idiot George and his remark about "may you have obedient children." May your sons be nothing like their uncles Fred and George, he mused. Well, maybe the ceremony itself would give him some ideas; his speech might be a bit repetitive, but he could hardly go wrong by lifting phrases that someone else had already approved.

The square was getting full. Harry decided that the section to the left must be the Guests of the Bride; there were, among others, many stunning women with long, silver-blond hair, a number of ladies he recognized from the Beauxbatons contingent of the Triwizard Tournament (as well as Viktor Krum), and a few familiar faces from Hogwarts. To his right were several members of the Order, a number of men and women around Bill's age, and, to Harry's delight, in the far back corner sat Hagrid. Harry gave him an enthusiastic wave, which Hagrid returned, smiling broadly.

As the last arrivals were being seated, and Harry was trying to dry the nervous sweat from his palms without marring his new robes, there were some "oohs" and "ahhs" among the guests. Harry saw people looking up at the sky and pointing, so naturally he did as well. To his amazement, a small fireball was burning itself out just over the square, and Fawkes was soaring down from it. Without so much as a flutter of his wings, he glided to the chair beside Harry and landed on the seat. He turned around in the chair and poked his tail feathers beneath the backrest; Harry nearly laughed despite himself, the phoenix looked so prim and proper sitting up straight in his seat. The guests were buzzing with excitement, and Harry figured this had to be some traditional omen of good luck. He whispered playfully to Fawkes, "I didn't even know you were invited!"

As a string quartet of witches behind the fountain began to play a hauntingly beautiful tune, the wedding guests stood as one and turned to the rear right. Bill Weasley, dressed all in black with an enormous pointed hat, began to walk up the aisle. Harry began to wish he'd brought his own kerchief, and not just for his damp palms; there was something deeply moving about the joyous smile on Bill's disfigured face. Harry hastily wiped a tear with the back of his hand.

Fawkes uttered a soft trill and tugged at Harry's robe with his beak. Without giving it a thought, Harry held out his arm to let Fawkes scramble up on his shoulder, but a moment later, he glanced over at the phoenix uncertainly, wondering how he'd known that Fawkes wanted him to do precisely that.

Bill, however, apparently knew the traditional routine. Instead of proceeding to the fountain as Harry had expected, he came up to Harry, doffed his hat, and made a deep bow. Harry had no idea if he should return it or not, but Bill must have guessed as much--he peeked up at Harry with a tiny shake of his head. Bill slowly stood upright again, and to Harry's surprise, Fawkes pulled his wings in tight and leaped over to Bill's shoulder. Everyone in the crowd gasped, and handkerchiefs dabbed at ladies' eyes across the board, as though a rabble of butterflies had launched from their laps. Good omen, indeed!

Now the crowd turned to the left, where Fleur was waiting at the end of her aisle. She, too, was dressed in black, with a red veil draped from the gold tiara that was a family treasure of the Weasleys. Harry had expected a white gown--he knew that much about Muggle weddings--but judging by the warm expressions on the guests' faces as the lovely bride passed each row, he guessed this must be another point where the customs varied.

Fleur, too, stopped before Harry and curtseyed. Harry bowed in return and offered his hand to help raise her back up, then placed her hand in Bill's. Again, he had no earthly idea what had possessed him to do such a thing, but it seemed to be the proper response; Bill looked as though he was getting teary-eyed, and Fleur was positively aglow. Harry was glad she was wearing the veil; that smile could reduce him to a pulp.

The wedding party presently approached the fountain, Charlie Weasley and Gabrielle Delacour on the left aisle and (again, another tug at many heartstrings) Percy and Ginny Weasley on the right. The girls were scattering rose petals as they walked, which Harry thought were enchanted to enhance their smell (he found out much later that he was wrong, the beautiful scent that filled the square was produced solely by flowers, not magic). They came to a stop on either side of the bride and groom and offered them their hands. Bill and Fleur took hold, and their attendants lowered them slowly to their knees, facing each other. That was the cue for the Sealer to sit down and the audience to follow, but nothing tipped Harry off this time, until the white-bearded man beside him (undoubtedly one of Fleur's grandfathers, of the same vintage as Moody) cleared his throat and pointed discretely at the chairs. Harry sat, thankful that his back was to the audience; his cheeks turned as bright red as Fawkes.

A plump little witch that reminded Harry of Professor Sprout bustled merrily around the fountain and stood before Bill and Fleur. She smiled at each of them, then beamed cheerily at the guests, and began to speak.

In Latin.

Harry's heart plummeted. He knew Fred and George were sitting somewhere behind him, and though it wasn't necessarily their fault that he was in this predicament, he still wanted to wring their necks. He could think of nothing else but "may your children in no way resemble their uncles Fred and George" at this point. The quartet began to play again, and three young men came up from among the guests to sing, but Harry didn't bother getting his hopes up. They had come from the section on the left; sure enough, they sang something in French.

When they retreated to their seats (amidst frank weeping throughout the Bride's section--apparently whatever they'd sung had hit a tender spot), the stout witch faced Fleur and said, in English, "Do you come willingly, Fleur Delacour, to bind your life to this man?"

"I do." She held her right hand out before her, palm up.

The witch turned to Bill and asked, "Do you come willingly, Bill Weasley, to bind your life to this woman?"

"I do." Bill placed his right hand tenderly on her forearm, and both wrapped their fingers around the other's wrist.

"Come forth the Bonder to these supplicants, that they may make their vows," said the witch, and the old man beside Harry stood up and approached them solemnly. He, too, faced Fleur first, his ancient voice steady and dignified.

"Fleur Delacour, a child of mah blood, what vow do you ask of zees man?"

Fleur gazed lovingly at Bill and said, "Bill," she gulped with a tiny, charming giggle that melted every heart in the square, "will you share your life openly wiz me, and stand wiz me in all my challenges and successes, through all ze changes of our lives?"

Bill tightened his grip on her arm. "I will."

The Bonder raised his wand above their hands and wove it in a graceful figure of eight. A white rope appeared in the air, following the track of his wand. When he suddenly flicked up the tip, the rope fell partly onto their hands, partly through them, one loop remaining on Fleur's wrist, the other appearing under Bill's. A number of guests murmured in appreciation, and even Bill raised his brows in admiration; apparently, thought Harry, this was a top-notch marriage bond spell.

"Beel Weaslaiy, a man of great courage, what vow do you ask of zees woman?"

Bill pursed his lips for an instant and said, "Fleur, will you speak the truth to me with love always, and walk this world as my companion for all my days?"

"I will," she said, her voice quivering with tears.

Once again, the Bonder wove his wand in the air, circling in the opposite direction, and dropped this rope on and between their hands, this time landing on top of Bill's wrist and looping under Fleur's. He took a step backward and opened his arms toward both of them.

"Beel and Fleur, weel you vow to one anuzzair to live through zees life as 'usband an' wife, to be faiz-ful, to build an 'ome zat ees a place of love, joy, shareeng an' groweeng?"

"I will," they said in unison. He tapped the rope lightly with his wand, making it glow brilliantly. It appeared to constrict, but Harry soon realized that it wasn't tightening on their skin, it was sinking into their flesh, though without any sign of violence or pain. When the last of the rope disappeared, Bill and Fleur flung their hands in the air, releasing a white dove that spiralled up over them.

Bill leapt to his feet and scooped up his bride with a brilliant smile, spinning her around once before setting her back down. The Bonder spread his arms wide and embraced the two of them warmly, and Fleur kissed both his cheeks despite her veil. The guests clapped, cheered, and sniffled until the dove climbed out of sight in the bright sky.

Harry suddenly realized that his moment had come--that had to be the "handfasting" that Fred had mentioned. He was so caught up in watching it, he'd forgotten all about his speech. Sure enough, the matronly witch called out, "Come forth now the Sealer and set this Bond, that only death may rend it."

Harry couldn't even slouch, knowing that all eyes were upon him. He paced slowly across the ten feet of lawn that separated him from Bill and Fleur, eyeing the stout witch entreatingly, hoping against hope that she might have worked with previous Sealers that had stage fright or became tongue tied, and could bail him out of the worst of it. Her eye twinkled knowingly, and she ever-so-subtly guided him with a twirl of her finger to come around and stand next to her. She stepped back and smiled at him encouragingly. Harry turned miserably to face the entire congregation, deciding that even if he mucked it up horribly, at least the rest of the wedding was lovely; maybe they'd learn to laugh about it in a few years. Harry took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and caught Fawkes's eye...

...and words began to pour from his mouth in a language he'd never heard, yet, as with Parseltongue, he somehow knew exactly what they meant.

"And thus in anguish Beren paid
for that great doom upon him laid
the deathless love of Luthien,
to fair for love of mortal Men;
and in his doom was Luthien snared,
the deathless in his dying shared;
and Fate them forged a binding chain
of living love and mortal pain.

Too swift for thought his onset came,
too swift for any spell to tame;
and Beren desperate then aside
thrust Luthien and forth did stride
unarmed, defenceless to defend
Tinuviel until the end.
As gleam of swords in fire, there flashed
the fangs of Carcharoth that gashed.

That mattered not, for bonds there are
stronger than stone, or iron bar,
more strong that proudly spoken oath.
Have I not plighted thee my troth?
Hath love no pride or honour, then?
Or dost thou deem this Luthien
so frail of purpose, light of love?
By stars of Elbereth above!
Thou wilt not here my hand forsake
and leave me lonely paths to take."

Harry stepped back, reeling. The words had come from Fawkes, he was sure of it, though he knew there was not even an inkling of language in Fawkes's mind. As he'd spoken them, they'd evoked the concepts of a forbidden love, a futile quest, a murderous wolf, and an ultimate sacrifice, not as images or memories, but as pure, overwhelming, sorrowful beauty. Apparently, they had done the same to everyone who heard them; everyone was misty eyed, and Harry could hear Hagrid's sobbing from clear at the other end of the park.

Tears even trickled out of Fawkes's burning eyes, and he tossed his scarlet head. The droplets arced off his feathers, landing on Bill's face...

...and though the existing scars did not change, the unhealed gashes that remained were closed into perfect, unmarred skin.

Fawkes threw Harry an almost guilty look, as though he were embarrassed to show off in front of so many people. He sang a single operatic note and took flight, snatching the red veil neatly from Fleur's head with his claws so it trailed behind him in the air. Harry watched Fawkes climb until he disappeared like the dove, which took considerably longer since he was so much larger and more colorful. But Harry couldn't bear to look down at Fleur, who was weeping and laughing at the same time at the sight of her Bill whole again.

"Excellent work. We never had a doubt, did we, Fred?"

Harry glared over his glasses at the two of them, stretched out in rattan chairs on the lawn of Beauxbatons with tall flutes of champagne and smug faces. They had been among the first to arrive at the reception and had parked in a prime location to observe the rest of the guests arrive, scouting out prospective partners for the evening's dancing. Harry supposed they'd be picking and choosing in no time, but every matronly aunt and grandmother thus far had come over to tell him what a lovely Sealer he'd been.

"Your confidence is underwhelming," Harry said sarcastically. "See if you can find a pretty one for me, while you're at it; I've got to lay low. If another dear old bird pinches my cheeks today, I may do something unspeakable."

"There's a nice little redhead in the Bride's party that might suit you," said Fred with a calculating look.

Harry's smile faded. "Yeah. You've got to be careful what you wish for, eh?"

George snatched another flute from a tray floating past, and handed it to Harry. "Don't worry, mate. She's all right. But I think even if You-Know-Who was watching, he'd scarcely notice one little dance..." Harry raised both his brows and his glass, clinked the latter to George's, and beat a hasty retreat into the stone walls and elaborate tiled roofs of Beauxbatons.

Two hours later, Harry was sitting up on one of those roofs, hiding under his Invisibility cloak and watching the proceedings disinterestedly. More than half the people chatting on the lawn below spoke a different language, and even though a translation spell was being circulated freely among the crowds, Harry didn't feel like making friendly chit-chat. He might as well hand people a flashing target to wear on their heads afterward, if Florean Fortescue were any example.

From the rooftop, he could spy Hagrid (although that could be said from virtually any place on the campus) speaking animatedly to Madame Maxime, undoubtedly about his trip overseas. Harry spotted several red Weasley heads bobbing among the crowds. He looked for a matched set and finally discovered Fred and George, each bearing a stunning Veela on both arms. He hoped Ron didn't have to go back to work at Wheezes; his brothers were bound to be insufferably smug after this. He found Hermione and Viktor Krum under a shady archway, standing far closer together than Ron would appreciate.

Harry wondered what Ron was up to, so he scanned for those distinctive red heads and identified each one he found. Fred and George were flirting ostentatiously; Bill was proudly attending his lovely bride; Percy, Charlie, and Ginny sat flanking them at the head table and looking politely bored as yet another guest came up to offer best wishes; Arthur and Molly were chatting with Fleur's parents, Molly also appeared politely bored, while Arthur twiddled his hat nervously and avoided looking directly at Madame Delacour.

Harry sat bolt upright with a rush of adrenaline--where was Ron? Now searching in earnest, he leapt to his feet on the steep roof, skidding down along a tile or two. There was no sign of him anywhere. He'd been thinking it was too quiet lately for a long time, that Voldemort was surely biding his time for a particular strike. What better day than this to undermine both Harry and the entire Weasley family? Harry clambered unsteadily back to the dormer window he'd used to gain access to the rooftop, not caring if his cloak flapped away to expose his legs.

He bolted through the sweltering classroom and down the stairs, only remembering to yank off his Invisibility cloak as he reached the bottom. He immediately started searching for any familiar faces. Spotting some friends of Bill's that he had met at the feast the night before, he charged over to them. "Have you seen Ron?" he asked urgently.

The fellows exchanged a knowing glance, and one said, "Hello, Potter! Yes, he's around, he's, ah..." He looked so awkward that Harry's terror quickly switched into concern. "Why don't I just take you to him, then?" the man finally said, and led him around to the edge of the campus.

Ron was sitting on the bare ground behind a stone shed amidst a number of empty champagne flutes (and a few green glass bottles as well). Neville Longbottom sat beside him, looking utterly out of his element, but Harry was incredibly glad to find him there. Harry nodded with silent gratitude at the man who had led him; the fellow clapped him on the back with a knowing grin and left to rejoin his friends.

"Harry!" said Neville, jumping to his feet with a broad smile, then casting his eyes sadly back at Ron.

"Hey, Neville," said Harry grimly, following his gaze. "Not the happiest of circumstances, eh?"

"Oh, Harry, you and that Bonder were the best I've ever seen, my gran's still crying. This wedding is going to be the talk of two countries for years. But," his voice dropped somberly, "yeah, Ron here..."

"What's gotten into him?" Harry couldn't help but refer to him in the third person; Ron was staring off into space, oblivious to the conversation.

Neville shrugged with a pleading look. "Bugger if I know. He was in a foul mood by the time we got to the wedding. I sat with him, even though I should have been in the Groom's section with Gran; he just looked like he needed company. Never said anything though." Ron raised the green bottle in his lap to drink, and Harry reached over to take it away, but Neville patted his arm. "It's okay, it's just water," he whispered. "Otherwise he'll just Summon a new bottle."

"Brilliant! Thanks, Neville. I'll keep an eye on him for a bit, okay?"

Neville looked as though he'd prefer to lurk behind the shed than return to the crowds, but he nodded gamely. "Sure thing. I'll stop by again in a while."

When Neville disappeared around the shed, Harry knelt down, cleared a space next to Ron, and sat beside him. For a long time, neither said anything. Ron took a pull at the bottle and grimaced. "Typical!" he said in a drunken bluster. "They put out good stuff, then soon as everyone's had a nip or two, it's cheap swill from then on. Hey, Harry!" Ron appeared genuinely surprised to see him. "Where'd Neville go?"

"Hey, Ron. Looks like you started without me."

Run giggled. "Hey, why not, you got more important things to do."

Harry frowned. "What?"

"Whaddya mean, 'what?' You know what. Your stuff that you do."

"You are really way too drunk."

Ron found that comment utterly hilarious. When he finally stopped laughing and removed his arms from Harry's shoulders, where they hung like dead weights, (particularly the one with the bottle of water), he sat back and sighed. "Yeah, yeah, I s'pose so, Harry. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Still does!" He took another long pull of water and offered Harry the bottle. Harry declined it with a wave.

"Have you seen Hermy?" Ron said, but did not wait for an answer. "She's off with Viktor. Creep. Walks in and sweeps her up, who knows if he'll be around tomorrow but hey, seize the day, huh?" He punched Harry's arm.

"Ron, what do you expect her to do?" Ron frowned, uncomprehending, and Harry rolled his eyes. "You're her friend. You've never led her to believe anything otherwise. Anything. How's she supposed to know how you feel? You get so mad at her, but you're expecting her to read your mind!"

Ron appeared to start processing that comment, but got distracted. He looked up suddenly and said, "That reminds me. About the mind reading. I'm reminded..." He burst into giggles and had to get them out of his system before continuing. "You read minds now. Tha's so cool. I wanna see."

"Maybe sometime, Ron." Harry didn't think a formal explanation would really sink in under the circumstances.

"No, come on! Mum said you did her! She started boo-hooing all over the place, my dad was jealous. Do me, Harry! I wanna see the, you know, that thing."

"It doesn't work like that, Ron," began Harry irritably, but before he finished the sentence, he gave Ron a hard glare and "that thing" did itself once again.

Harry kept a strong sense of himself as blurred images rolled over him; this was different from the times he'd been inside others' thoughts completely, as though immersed in a Pensieve. Ron's drunken thoughts were dilute, thin; Harry could see through them to the stone wall and the rest of the world.

A glimpse of Hermione running up to greet Viktor Krum, which seared through his insides as though he'd been impaled. Fred and George with their beautiful girls, offering to find him one or two if he wished. Harry watched himself beaming at Fawkes after he'd healed Bill's wounds. All of these led back the anchor in Ron's mind: the conflict of joy and inadequacy. It infused everything, reaching out and entwining memories with delicate tendrils, or traversing gaps between unrelated subjects like a high-tension cable.

Not as smart as Bill or Charlie, not as outrageous as Fred or George, not as ambitious as Percy, not as popular as Ginny. Not a good Quidditch player, not a good student, not as confident, as daring, as brave. Such opinions were the core of his self-image for the first decade of his life, and then the whole cycle repeated when he left home to go to Hogwarts. The only difference was that, at home, he had six siblings to whom he compared himself, but at school, two people sufficed to make him feel just as mediocre.

Ron had worked all summer to earn his tuition to Hogwarts, and most of Ginny's, too. His parents wanted to throw a lavish feast for Bill's wedding; sparing them this expense was Ron's gift. Fat lot of good it was, chipping in so they could have pretty sweets at the feast, when Harry just came along with his overgrown budgie and gave Bill back his face...

Harry broke away effortlessly; he'd barely felt a real connection to Ron's addled psyche anyway. For once he was looking forward to that calm disinterest, but it didn't come. Ron wasn't cringing fearfully either; in fact, he was looking at Harry expectantly.

"Didja do it?" Ron asked.

Harry shook his head, swallowing his resentment. "Nah. You're too drunk, like I said."

Ron slouched against the stone wall, disappointed. "Bugger."

"Yeah," Harry said, sitting back against the wall to stare off in the distance. As much as he would have liked to sulk angrily at Ron, he couldn't. All he could think about was the unconditional love in Molly Weasley's heart, wondering how something so immense, so palpable could go all these years unobserved by her sixth son.

Neville returned as the shadows began to stretch on the lawn. "They're starting supper, everyone's wondering where you two are..." They both looked at Ron, who was sound asleep, still clutching the water bottle.

"I'd better get out there, I guess," said Harry. He was sure his disappearance had already led to all sorts of conversations, but more importantly, he was starving. "Do you mind?" he asked politely, waving at Ron.

Neville looked relieved. "No problem! If we don't make it to the cake, will you bring me a piece?"

The first guest Harry encountered after he wended his way back to the party was Hermione. "Harry! Where've you been?! People were starting to really worry!"

"Erm, well, after that bit with Fawkes, my brain needed a little rest." She nodded sagely, apparently accepting that explanation.

"Oh, that was just wonderful, Harry, did you plan that?"

"No! That was entirely Fawkes's idea, every bit of it. I was crossing my fingers the whole time in hopes that it was okay."

Hermione laughed merrily. "Oh, it was more than 'okay,' believe me. Phlegm...that is, Fleur has been bursting into tears every time she looks at Bill. Well, actually, everyone has. What an incredible gift--"

Harry spoke over her, bitterly recalling Ron's comment. "I said it was Fawkes's idea, not mine."

"I know," she said with affront. "I was going to say, what a gift for Fawkes to give." She frowned at him. "Why are you so snappish?"

"I, uh, I'm sorry. I'm just really hungry and a little tired; it's been a busy week, you know?"

She smiled warmly at him. "In that case, I know just the thing."

From there, the evening became a whirlwind of rich food, champagne, little old ladies gushing their approval of the Sealing, and young ones eyeing him in much the same way as Tonks had in the kitchen earlier that day. Unfortunately, Harry was afraid to look any of them in the eye, for fear of inadvertently trespassing into their thoughts. He made doubly certain to steer clear of Ginny.

After nightfall, a bonfire was lit and there was dancing, then the newlyweds were required to leap over
a gauntlet of brooms. Between Hermione and the twins, Harry was forced to dance whether he wanted to or not, but he could hardly complain about having dozens of pretty girls spun and swung into his arms all evening. Eventually he saw that Ron and Neville were among the revellers, though Ron appeared a bit wilted.

Just before midnight, Fred cornered him and pleaded that he make a Patronus, which Harry wanted no part of, but after a drunken lecture about the nature of manhood, Harry finally agreed to it, just to shut Fred up. He slipped into the shadows behind a group of people who were singing loudly, and cast the spell. The stag leapt over the singers and pranced in mid-air with head held high around the bonfire. It finally settled down to the ground before Bill and Fleur, splaying its front hooves to bring itself down into a deep bow before dissolving into silver wisps.

George howled with glee and pummelled Harry's shoulders, but when Fred finished cheering, he yanked Harry off his feet and kissed him right on the lips. Harry still had his wand in hand, however; within seconds, Fred was Transfigured into a sunflower. George was even more delighted by this turn of events, and Harry took advantage of the fact that both were indisposed to chasing him down by slipping off to find the cobbled lane and the hayloft at its end.

The cool mist on the hill at Ottery St. Catchpole was a welcome relief after the bonfire, almost as lovely as the silence after all the crowds. Harry pondered whether he should try to Apparate all the way to London, but it felt so pleasant, he decided to just walk back to the Burrow and use the fireplace.

Harry first heard the footsteps about halfway along the road. He kept his wand firmly in his hand, concealed in his robes, and forced himself to continue the relaxed stride. He was pretty sure there was only one pursuer. It was very hard to just keep walking; his back seemed to have an independent understanding that it could be hexed or cursed at any moment, and it was vigorously attempting to communicate that message to his front. As soon as Harry was beyond the hedgerow at the Burrow's entrance, he dove silently to his left, positioning himself low to the ground with his wand at the ready.

A minute later, Ginny Weasley bolted through the hedge, scanning the garden anxiously. Harry leapt to his feet in a fury. He had never used so many four-letter-words in succession before.

"What is the MATTER with you?!" he demanded. "Out by yourself in the middle of the night--"

"I'm not by myself, I was right behind you," she said defiantly.

"Yes, following me around like some kind of bloody Death Eater assassin or something! I nearly cursed you--"

Once again she cut him off in mid-sentence. "Oh, piffle. I'm not afraid to get Stunned."

Harry seized her arms angrily. "I wasn't planning on a Stun, Ginny, I was going straight to..." He stopped himself; he was making far too much eye contact. He let go of her, pushing himself backward rather than shoving her away.

"Straight to what?" she said, somewhat haltingly.

Harry couldn't tell her he'd had the Cruciatus Curse on the tip of his tongue before he saw her.

She eyed him apprehensively. "Fine. Whatever it was, you didn't do it. So that's all over and done. Now we can talk. That's why I came after you."

Harry's head was beginning to ache. "Ginny...does it have to be now? I'd really--"

"YES it has to be NOW!" she said emphatically. "Because whenever I get within five meters of you, you run off! You've been about for three days and haven't even said hello to me, you tosser!"

"Ginny, listen," he said with a deep sigh, but then wasn't sure what to say. How was he to explain that he was only trying not to barge into her thoughts? "I'm not avoiding you, I swear. I'm not trying to be cold. It's just right now. I have this...thing going on--"

"I know," she interrupted angrily, then her voice softened. "Everybody knows. That's why I came after you. Harry...I want you to. Look at me. Look in my mind."

He raised a hand to her cheek, gazing deliberately at her lips, recalling her soft, yielding kisses. "Ginny...after I do it...I say things that are, uh, too blunt. I can't help it, I just kinda go...flat, like I forget other people's feelings or something."

She pursed her lips, frowning. "What, like cruel things?"

"No, not mean, just...really, really true." He met her eye unintentionally, and hastily looked back down. "Not-to-be-said-out-loud kind of true," he sighed.

"Well, in that case, I insist! I gotta hear this," she said half playfully, half completely serious.

He closed his eyes; his head was swimming with conflict. She was so strong, so much fun, she made him so happy. He had to lock her in the darkest corner of her mind and never open it again, at least not while Voldemort lived. But right now, she was here, safe, inviting...

He was a little girl waiting on Platform 9 3/4, the instant he opened his eyes.

All her life, she'd heard about Harry Potter, the boy who lived. It was impossible that Ron was friends with him. Even though Mummy said it was true--said he'd been right there at the train station the last time--Ron had to be fibbing, had to be teasing her. It was impossible that someone so famous could be sitting on that train with Ron.

And then Harry Potter was standing right there, talking to Mummy like it was the most normal thing in the world; she could have reached out and touched him, he was so close. She couldn't even remember what she'd said when she saw him, but she was sure it was something totally stupid, she wished she could crawl into a hole, she wished this moment would never end.

She heard the twins talking about using that Muggle car to go get Harry. She daydreamed about stowing away on the adventure, but knew she'd never make it past the twins. Mum was screaming so loud at them when they returned, she didn't dare even peek out her window. Then the house was so quiet, she knew they'd blown it, they'd came home empty handed. She might as well go get some toast before they hogged all the good bread. There was Harry Potter at the kitchen table, meekly eating breakfast like he was scared Mum would rain all over him too...and she hadn't even brushed her hair or anything!

I'm so stupid and clumsy! She had spilled her drink for the millionth time that summer. But Harry didn't seem to notice she'd done it, which made her feel even worse; she was so ugly and dull, he deliberately looked at anything but her.

She found the book, she could finally talk about him, then things started to go horribly wrong. And even though Harry saved her in the end, it was not romantic at all; she didn't get to thank him with a prim kiss before he charged off to greater things, they just all ended up in Dumbledore's office, dripping with disgusting slime while Mum went ballistic.

That was the turning point, seeing him in his filthy robes with that beautiful bird sitting on his shoulder; he was just another big dork like Ron, and although his exploits were pretty cool, ultimately they boiled down to stupid 'guy things' that he was very lucky to pull off. As for herself: how often had she squirmed over some meaningless peccadillo, thinking that everybody would notice and hate her for it...she who had spent the last year serving Lord Voldemort! Wearing the 'wrong kind' of shoes or 'last year's hairband' were absurdly trivial in comparison, and from that day on, she had no use for anyone who cared about such tripe.

She hated Voldemort deeply, personally, for using her, for seducing her with carefully wrought words. Harry was amazed by the hatred; it was an arrow in her mind, sharp and straight, focused, targeted. He knew it wasn't enough. Many had hated Voldemort as much or more, and fallen.

Ginny looked a bit pale, but she wasn't cringing in terror. Harry tried to tell himself that was nice, but gave up the effort; at the moment, he simply didn't care either way. Even though the link was broken, there was still some tendrils spanning between them. He knew she didn't like the way he was looking at her with his head cocked. She thought he was regarding her like a specimen on a slide, as though all her mystery and allure had been used up and she was nothing but a scientific curiosity.

"So much judgment, Ginny."

Her head quivered, as though shaking off sleep. "Huh? Of you?"

"Of you. You despised yourself, until Riddle took you. He taught you the true meaning of despicable. He destroyed the illusions that superficial things mattered. You only carry a few fading shards of it now. Voldemort set you free, Ginny."

There was no connection left to her mind, but her body language was more than sufficient. She looked at him as though he had just sprouted another head. He reflected that in another time, he might have laughed at her expression.

"Your hatred for him is so pure. How ironic, that it was by his hand that you stopped hating yourself." He leaned forward and kissed her cheek softly. "Good night, sweet one."

She watched him cross the lawn and step onto the porch. When the front door closed behind him, she began to run, without a thought for her new dress and shoes, her heart pounding hard and fast all the way back to the hill with the Portkey, and beyond.

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