Chapter 3 : Count The Ways
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Harry had collapsed again, this time against a tree just to the right of the road. There still were no houses, Muggle or Magical, anywhere in sight. But, he could make out the lights of what he thought was Hogsmeade off in the distance. I’ll rest, just for a bit. I’m close.
REST IS WHAT YOU NEED, HARRY. The voice was back after what had seemed like hours, but in fact had only been agonizing minutes. YOU’VE CARRIED THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD FOR LONG ENOUGH. TWELVE YEARS IS A LONG TIME. WHY NOT LEAVE IT TO OTHERS? JUST SO SIMPLE TO SIT HERE AND LET IT GO.
Harry was about to respond when he was struck with another fit of coughing. This time, he managed not to choke. “Let it go? How…”
“…can I let it go?” Hermione asked, grumpily as she looked up from Yaxley’s Manifesto. She’d been huddled over it for the past twelve hours, scrutinizing every inch.
Ron sighed. “Love, I’m not saying to give up on it. I’m just saying you need to give your eyes and that brilliant mind of yours a rest.” He knew she hadn’t been sleeping. Despite the fact that he’d had his brother Bill strengthen the wards around their flat and took to sleeping with his wand under his pillow and his arms wrapped tightly around her, he just couldn’t quite set her mind at ease while Greyback was on the loose.
She was about to give her boyfriend an earful when a pleading glance from Ron prompted Harry to intervene. “He’s right Hermione. You won’t do us any good if you wear yourself out. Or us with you.” Harry was tempted to agree with Hermione that they should keep working, but he knew better. They were stuck. Waiting for the Death Eaters to make the next move was their only option, even though it was taxing his nerves and his patience. But he’d come a long way since the Battle of Hogwarts, or so Gin kept telling him. He forced himself to realize they’d just have to wait.
The trio had resumed the investigation bright and early the day after the breakout. But after a week of working around the clock, interrupted only for a few hours by Percy’s birthday party the night before, they were no closer to success than they’d been in the first two days.
Seamus’ perimeter search of the coasts nearest to Azkaban had revealed frustratingly little. Nonetheless, Harry had assigned the Irishman and his team of Aurors, comprised of Dean Thomas, Dennis Creevey and Ernie MacMillan, the task of continuing the hunt. This was Harry and Ron’s old team, before Dennis joined the Auror Corps and Kingsley had turned over the day-to-day responsibilities to Harry. Harry then co-opted Ron as his second-in-command, leaving Seamus in charge of the foursome.
Despite the fact that Harry’s old team, now lead by Seamus, were the best trackers in the Corps, there had been no signs and no trails. What was worse, there hadn’t been even a hint of Death Eater activity since the escape. The silence was deafening; it served only to make everyone more aware of the fact that they were probably in the midst of the calm before the storm.
The Prophet wasn’t helping; every day that passed without an attack, it simply trumpeted as another day the escapees remained at large, which in turn was blamed on Kingsley’s incompetence and his foolhardy plan to reconstitute the Auror Corps from Dumbledore’s Army. Adding insult to injury, the editorial page kept up a steady drumbeat demanding the return of the Dementors to Azkaban.
Hermione leaned back in her chair; they had once again taken up residence in the Auror Office’s anteroom. Hermione’s office was simply too small to accommodate them all. Her new position gave her a great deal of power; but apparently her influence didn’t extend to whoever handed out office-space assignments in the Ministry. “Let’s run through it once more.”
Ron shot a look of desperation at his best mate. Harry just shook his head as he recited the names of the escapees for what felt like the thousandth time:
“Of the core Death Eaters, Yaxley, Greyback, Rowle and Dolohov, are the most dangerous. The rest, Knightshade, D’Arque, Vandeleur, Smythe, Edmondsen and Dickinson are just foot soldiers.”
Lucius Malfoy was an outcast among Death Eaters; he’d been kept in isolation for his own safety. Harry had testified at his trial, which had spared him the death penalty, and his families’ imprisonment. Just the same, Harry was glad he wasn’t among the escapees.
Ron sighed. “Compared to the lightweights we’ve been fighting for the past year, they’re still a challenge, mate.”
“True, but the Corps isn’t Dumbledore’s Army anymore, either. Despite what the bloody Prophet says, it’s not like we’ve just been playing Exploding Snap since the Battle of Hogwarts,” Harry replied.
Ron laughed, “Definitely not.” Then he paused before continuing. “The two guards, Youngblood and Cower are dead ends. Looks like Cower had some debts with the Goblins. A large bribe was all it took. Seems the debts were off the books for activities that were less than legal. Still, background checks really should’ve caught that, Harry.” He shook his head in disgust. “Anyway, Yaxley’s the key. One way or another, he managed to sway the others into his orbit while they were in Azkaban.”
Hermione nodded. “This Manifesto of his makes that pretty clear. Hitler, Lenin, Hanlon, imprisonment can tend to turn the bad into the utterly evil and, unfortunately, make them more cunning and dangerous.”
Ron cocked an eyebrow. “Hitler and Lenin I’ve read about, but who’s Hanlon?”
Hermione smiled. “Well, I put enough Muggle military history on your reading list, I’d be forced to have Ginny teach me the Bat Bogey hex if you didn’t know the first two.”
Ron was happy to see that smile back, even if just for a brief moment; so was Harry.
Hermione continued, somberly. “Hanlon is a Muggle mass-murderer. He’d been in and out of prisons his entire life. But, he only became more sophisticated and deadly while he was locked away. In the end, he’d graduated to manipulating others to do his dirty work for him, all courtesy of his education while he was imprisoned.”
Harry piped in. “And that’s what’s happened to Yaxley?”
“Yes. The Manifesto is only part of it though. The curse he placed on it…” Hermione trailed off. “It’s a good thing you realized what it was, Harry.” Color rose in her cheeks as she finished.
Harry waved her off. “The Crematius curse was a staple in the first war. King only mentioned it in passing over butterbeers in my first few months of training with him. But, the Death Eaters never perfected it. When I saw the glow that your Revelio triggered, I remembered what King had said about it.”
Ron cocked his head at his partner. “Good thing you did, mate.”
Harry shook his head. “Still, the fact that Yaxley was able to make it so effective and to do it with a barrowed wand from one of those two guards worries me.”
Hermione said, “It’ll make our investigations all the more challenging, but the point is he was deliberately targeting you. It’s some very impressive magic. It’ll take me awhile to find a counter curse, but I think I’ll be able to. Taking that with the vile swill contained within the Manifesto itself can mean only one thing.”
“He wants to destabilize the Ministry,” Ron deadpanned, “any way he can. But he’d prefer to get Harry out of the way early.”
Hermione nodded. “Exactly. That would be the nastiest blow he could strike.” She was about to continue when she got a far away look in her eyes. Then she began to rifle through the many books piled around her, furiously flipping through the pages. She stared back at the Manifesto, reading quietly between it and the large tome she’d ultimately settled on.
Harry and Ron exchanged glances, but knew better than to interrupt Hermione when she was on to something. Slowly the minutes dragged out, interrupted only by a tall, blonde and tanned wizard who placed a tea service on a side table and quietly left the room. They were the last ones in the Auror Office and were a bit surprised to see anyone else there so late; the night watch was out patrolling.
After what seemed like a short eternity, Hermione slammed the large book shut and settled back in her chair.
“‘Mione?” Ron asked.
She rested her chin on her hand as a frustrated frown covered her face. “I don’t know how I could’ve missed it.”
“Missed what?” Harry asked.
“From his phrasing and some of the Runes he used, I think it may be even more sinister than we thought.”
“How?” Harry asked.
Hermione let out a breath. “‘War without end.’ I’d mistranslated that phrase earlier.” Her face fell. “He doesn’t care about losing. He just wants to make sure we don’t win.” She turned worried eyes to the raven-haired wizard. “You were right. This is a whole new war, now.”
Harry asked his best mate, “If you wanted to destabilize the Ministry and make the war drag on as long as possible, what would you do differently than the renegade Death Eaters have done so far?”
Ron pondered the question. Harry knew his partner had an answer the minute the red head went pale. “I’d increase the body count.” Ron’s voice broke as he continued, clearly disturbed by where this train of thought forced him to go. “Instead of houses burned in the night, I’d look for targets with lots of potential for civilian casualties. I’d start slow and acclimate my wizards to the strategy, but Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley would be my first targets, anywhere I could kill the most people with the least exposure to my wizards. And I’d make sure to focus it, if at all possible, on Halfbloods and Muggleborns. Create enough chaos and eventually it’ll overwhelm the system, like it nearly did to Scrimgeour before the coup.”
When Ron finished, no one spoke. Hermione sat in awe and trepidation of her boyfriend and what he had said.
Harry broke the tension. “Thank Merlin you’re on our side, mate.”
Ron and Hermione both laughed and Harry couldn’t help but chortle. It worked to ease the stress they’d been under the past week.
When they’d collected themselves, Ron leaned back and stretched. “Don’t know about you, but I need some food,” he groaned hungrily, eyeing the tea and biscuits sitting on the table by the wall. He stood and ambled across the room to help himself. “By the way, who was it brought this in?”
Hermione dropped her eyes to her work, shuffling parchment about. “Oh, that was just Glen.”
Ron stopped and turned toward his friends as his eyebrows rose at the answer. “Just Glen? Just Glen-who? Does this beach-dweller have a last name?”
Harry looked from one to the other. Oh, bugger. The green-eyed Weasley monster has entered the building.
“Glen Bateman,” Hermione responded off-handedly and tried to look as if she’d gone back to reading one of her books.
Ron lost interest in the tea and biscuits; he turned to face her with his arms crossed over his muscular chest. “And, love of my life, how do you know him?”
“I hired him,” Hermione said, again not lifting her eyes from her book.
Harry could see that this game of twenty questions was only making Ron angrier.
The tall redhead’s voice rose an octave. “Hired him to do what, exactly?”
Hermione finally made eye contact with her boyfriend and, in a huff, she drew her chin up defiantly. “To be my secretary. Is that a problem?” Her look dared him to challenge her.
“Secretary? Him? Couldn’t find a suitable witch in the clerical pool?”
Harry tried to defuse the situation. “Guys, let’s not…”
Hermione cut across him. “Not with his qualifications, you chauvinistic ponce!” She all but flew out of her chair like a Banshee on the attack.
Ron closed the distance to her as he growled menacingly, “Since when is blonde with a tan a top qualification for being a secretary?!”
When Hermione advanced around the table, her cinnamon eyes blazing up at Ron, Harry knew the Third Wizarding War was about to begin right in the middle of the Auror Office.
Hermione’s voice was hardly more than a deadly whisper. “Ever since handsy pigs like you made the rules as to which hot bints would get secretarial jobs!”
Harry cringed as she finished the sentence. Back in their Hogwarts days, he’d thought keeping out of his friends’ rows was always the best strategy. But since the Forest of Dean, he’d realized that their strong personalities, and ever-growing magical abilities, had made that approach unworkable, even dangerous at times. He filled his hand with his wand, ready to cast his strongest Protego between them the second this row escalated to the next stage: open warfare.
The air around them was literally singing with magical energy. Time dragged out as Ron and Hermione stared each other down.
Harry had just decided to act preemptively when…You’ve got to be kidding me!
He wasn’t sure who made the first move, but faster than he could say “Gilderoy Lockhart,” his two best friends began to snog each other senseless. Hermione grabbed a fistful of Ron’s hair as he pulled her to him, her legs wrapping around his waist as their lips locked in a raging kiss. Ron stumbled forward, crashing them both into the table as parchment and books went flying everywhere.
Harry cleared his throat. “Uh, guys?”
“Well, then.” Harry ran his hand through his always-messy hair. “I’ll just be heading home.” He turned to leave, hesitated and turned back. “Should I…”
Ron silenced him with a wave of his hand, never bothering to look up from the brown-haired beauty that had garnered all of his attention.
“Right. I’ll just lock the door and cast Muffliato on my way out.” Gods know those two never bother to do that on their own. With a smile and a shake of his head, Harry headed to the Floo Network in the Atrium.
On his way to the lift, his friends’ public display of affection only made him think of his Ginny. He couldn’t help but smile as he thought about the pleasures of pulling a brush through her long fiery locks and then…
Through the link, Harry had just felt a tidal wave of desire from his girlfriend. I guess she’s still awake. Harry’s smile only got wider. Between her practices in Holyhead and his late hours at the Ministry, they’d been kept apart more often than he’d liked. They thought that once they moved into Grimmauld Place together, they’d have more time for each other, without prying eyes and inquisitive parents. But, ever since Ginny completed her last year at Hogwarts the previous year and the beginning of her Quidditch career, it seemed they had less time together, even though the guerilla war that followed the Battle of Hogwarts had, until now, been winding down. Not worrying about it tonight! Harry thought. With that, Ginny sent him an image of how she wanted to occupy their time once he finally got home. Easy there, Gin. I’m coming as fast as I can.
By the time Harry reached the Atrium, he had to stop himself from running. “Grimmauld Place!” Harry shouted as he slid into a fireplace.
Ginny was waiting for him in the newly decorated sitting room when he emerged in a whoosh of green flame. She only agreed to move into Sirius’ old home if Harry promised to let her make it more livable and less like a “Dementor’s summer shanty,” as she so aptly put it.
She was in his arms in an instant, planting a gentle, but passionate kiss on his lips. “Hello, love,” she breathed against his cheek.
“Hello back. What are you still doing up?”
“Waiting for you,” she responded with an impish smile. “I’ve got something special planned.” She snatched up the picnic basket that sat next to her on the loveseat and quickly pulled Harry to the front stoop. With a wave of her wand, they Disapparated with a loud crack.
They appeared in the woods behind the pitch at the Burrow and with another flourish of her wand, their clothing vanished.
“Gin!” Harry scolded, his head still spinning.
“Not so loud, you’ll wake the baby,” she giggled.
“Baby?” Harry asked in a panic.
“Potter, you are dense,” she laughed. “I’m not in a family way. Just a figure of speech. And, don’t worry; my parents are in France with Bill and Fleur. They left this morning. First time in 28 years the Burrow’s empty.”
Harry took in their surroundings. He knew this place only too well. During the time when Harry lived at the Burrow after the Battle of Hogwarts, this had been their favorite spot, the place they’d first made love, but the couple hadn’t seen it bathed in moonlight in more than a year.
She peered up into his green eyes. “We haven’t had any time to ourselves in so long, I thought it might be nice to…revisit our roots.”
Harry was about to respond, but decided talking just wasn’t something he wanted to do at the moment. He buried his head in her neck, gently biting her. She moaned as she leaned into him, pressing her naked form against his. Slowly, he eased her to the ground, his lips never leaving hers. With a deft movement, she straddled him, frantically positioning herself over him. They locked eyes just as they joined, Ginny breathlessly calling out his name. For the next hour the muggy August night was filled with the sounds of their fervent lovemaking, which threatened to drown out the chirp of the crickets and the occasional splash of a frog jumping in the pond.
Completely spent, Harry lay on his back, looking up at the stars, desperately trying to catch his breath. Both their bodies were covered in sweat. Ginny, a very content smirk on her face, collapsed in to the crook of Harry’s shoulder. “That…was awfully nice,” she panted.
“Terribly good,” Harry added.
“Horrifically satisfying,” Gin responded.
Harry laughed. “Till, I catch my breath, I can’t think of any more.” He sucked air as he smiled. “But it was badly needed.”
“Sorely,” Gin corrected with a wicked grin that set Harry to laughing again.
Bathing in the afterglow, their heart rates and breathing slowly returned to normal.
“So what’s in the basket?” Harry asked.
“Ron’s been a bad influence on you. There was a time when we’d go at it for another hour before you’d ask about food.”
Harry chortled. “Well, I’m not eighteen anymore. Gotta keep up my strength.”
It was a running joke among the Quartet that they’d grown up, and to a degree, grown old in a very short span of years. “Old man Potter. That’s you.”
“Not too old, Miss Weasley. But definitely in need of food.” Harry opened the picnic basket with his free hand, pulling out a piece of roast chicken. He fed the redhead cuddled up to him first, placing the drumstick next to her lips.
“Always the gentleman,” she sighed sarcastically as grease ran down Harry’s hand on to her chin; she took a bite.
“That’s me,” he replied, taking a bite for himself. “Gods, that’s good. Haven’t eaten all day.”
Finding her wand, Ginny levitated the wine bottle and glasses out of the basket and began to pour out. “Sit up, or we’ll end up wearing the wine, too,” she laughed.
They shifted positions as Harry continued to dig in the basket. “Hey! There’s pillows and a blanket in here.”
“And he calls himself an Auror.” Ginny shook her head. “Of course there is, you dolt. I packed it, didn’t I? If you hadn’t been so over eager, we’d be laying on them right now.”
“I was distracted,” Harry said around another bite of chicken as he smiled. He enlarged the shrunken blanket and pillows, then spread the blanket on the ground, propping the pillows under his head. They settled in, Ginny gently caressing Harry’s leg with her own as she rested her head on his well-defined chest. It had been so long since they’d been together; she didn’t want a single second to pass that wasn’t devoted to intimate touch. As for Harry, even the food didn’t work as a major distraction. He continued to eat with one hand; the other was wrapped firmly around the gorgeous redhead that was lying contentedly on his shoulder.
Harry knew she was curious about their investigation of the breakout at Azkaban, but he wasn’t ready to delve back into it; he was enjoying this break from reality too much. “How was practice?”
“Brutal,” she said as she levitated a roll out of the basket and began to eat, brushing the crumbs from Harry’s shoulder. “Gwen had us doing drills all morning and two scrimmages this afternoon. If we beat the Arrows, we’re in the playoffs; she wants that win more than anything.” Gwenog Jones, the captain of the Holyhead Harpies, was Ginny’s mentor.
Harry shook his head. “Oliver Wood’s gonna be a hard Keeper to get past. But I think my Super Chaser can take him.” Ginny was fourth in the league in scoring, a monumental feat so early in her career. “Still, it’s too bad Puddlemere traded him to Appleby.”
“That’s what Gwen said. But, after today’s practice, he’s in for a bitter surprise.” She stretched out her throwing arm, with a wince. “I was sore all over until I saw you coming out of our fireplace.”
Harry laughed. “Don’t know if I was much help in that department.”
“Better than the alternative,” Ginny said, fixing her eyes on her boyfriend.
Harry smiled down at her, his food forgotten. “I know, love. Things will get easier at work soon. I just haven’t figured out how yet.”
Ginny sighed. “You will. You’ve come a long way from that shy boy who used to live under the stairs. We’ve all seen that, even if you haven’t.”
Harry smiled as he changed the subject. “Look who’s talking. Literally.” He chuckled. “Used to be you couldn’t say three words to me.”
She smacked his chest, playfully. “And here you are, taking advantage of that docile country girl.”
“Docile? Love, you’re many things, but I’d never accuse you of being docile. Especially since you kidnapped me and vanished our clothes.”
She smiled impishly. “I thought it might get your attention. Like I said, you can be awfully dense.”
“Some things never change.” Harry gave Ginny a quick kiss as he grabbed another piece of chicken out of the basket.
“Speaking of which, you felt exceptionally randy just before you got home. What got you so riled up?”
Harry grimaced. “I figured you’d sense that through the link. But, you really don’t wanna know.”
Harry sighed. “Your brother and Hermione kind of…attacked each other just before I left the office.”
“Fighting again? That’s not new. Why would that…” Realization dawned on her face. “Attacked each other… Ewww!”
“I warned you.”
“That got you randy? Potter, that’s disgusting.”
“Not them! Merlin, Hermione’s like a sister to me. No, it just got me thinking of you. They get to see each other all day…” Harry trailed off.
“I suppose they’re lucky that way. If they don’t kill each other first, they might just make a nice couple.”
That got Harry laughing again. “Actually, their snogging session started as a fight.”
“Again, no surprise. What started it this time?”
“Hermione’s new secretary.”
Ginny burst out laughing. “Glen? He’s dreamy.”
“You knew about this? And, wait a minute. Dreamy? Careful there, Super Chaser. You can be replaced.”
“Not as easily as you can,” Ginny retorted with a lopsided grin. “Yeah. She told me. He was a year behind me at Hogwarts. Ravenclaw; top of his class. She says he’s an excellent assistant. But I think part of her just wants to keep my brother on his toes.”
“Well, it worked. At least the change of subject finally got her to quit focusing on the breakout.”
Ginny frowned. “She’s worried about Greyback.”
“We all are. But that bloody cur always had it in for her.” Harry shook his head. “If he touches one hair on her head, no one’s gonna be able to hold Ron back.”
“That’s a bad thing?” Ginny asked, viciously. After what Greyback did to Bill, the extended Weasley clan had no patience for Fenrir’s continued existence.
“No. Hell, I’d like to put that mangy mutt six feet under too. But, I can’t afford having Ron lose focus.”
Ginny nodded, knowingly. “Still, I’d like a shot at that bastard myself…Have you had any breakthroughs?”
“Not really. I was pretty sure things would escalate since the escape; lucky me, Hermione was able to confirm my fears once she straightened out the translation of Yaxley’s Manifesto,” Harry said with a shake of his head. “Ron’s given me a pretty good idea of what they’ll do next.” Harry struggled to contain a shudder as he described his best mate’s predictions as to Yaxley’s new strategy. “Unfortunately, he’s usually right about those kinds of things. Other than that, we don’t know much and it’s really frustrating. Waiting around for the Death Eaters to make the next move…Maybe the Prophet’s right,” Harry said in disgust. “Kingsley should’ve found an old retired Auror to lead the Corps instead of letting me run the show while he keeps the title.”
Ginny lifted herself off of Harry’s chest and fixed him with a blazing stare. “Harry James, don’t you ever, ever say that.”
“Gin, I’m only stating the obvious.”
“Obvious to who?” she spat. “Now, you listen to me.” She was nearly channeling Molly, which got Harry’s full attention. “You’re not the boy in hand-me-down clothes anymore; you’re not Dumbledore’s Apprentice, either. You’ve grown beyond that. We all have. You’re a leader, a powerful wizard, respected and listened to. Those days when you were pushed around like a chess piece are over. Don’t you ever forget that.” Then she softened. “You’re the wizard I love.” She placed her hand on his cheek. “You always will be and I’ll always believe in you.” Ever so gently, she pressed her lips to his and sent him a wave of love through their bond.
As they broke apart, the smile returned to his face. “We’ve all grown, eh? So, does that include Ron, too? He’s not a git anymore?” he asked, mischievously.
Ginny frowned. “If you ever repeat that to him, you’ll finally find out how nasty that Bat Bogey hex really is.”
“Lips are sealed,” Harry said through his smile. Then he sobered. “It’s amazing how far he’s come. All of us. But, I’m worried, Gin. If he’s right, the next attack could be…”
Harry was interrupted by the sound of Apparation and a splash too large to be one of the frogs that lived in the pond. They were up with their wands out in a flash. Without thought, he wandlessly summoned his glasses and then cast a quick glance at Ginny, which she instantly read as: Stay behind me! She nodded as they advanced, slowly, out of the tall grass.
They could hear very soft voices. As Harry moved closer, he thought he recognized one of them. With a panicked look, he turned to Ginny, whose wand slowly descended to her side after she saw who was in the pond. Then the patented Weasley grin crossed her face.
“Oh, this is just too good,” she whispered as she moved toward the water.
“Ginevra!” Harry hissed. “Don’t! Let’s just go.”
“Not a chance,” she whispered back.
“Gin! We’re both starkers!” he hissed again. “Or did you forget you didn’t summon our clothes?”
“Not a bad point.” She eyed her boyfriend hungrily at first, then pondered their predicament. “But, so are they. And that thicket,” she pointed toward a copse of bushes near the water’s edge, “should be big enough for us both to stand behind and keep them from seeing anything…untoward.” Her smile only got wider as she stealthily approached the pond. “Besides, I just have to know who she is.” Then she raised her voice before Harry could stop her. “PERCY IGNATIUS WEASLEY!!”
Out in the water, the third oldest Weasley sibling let out a high pitched yelp that made the owls screech and the crickets go silent. The witch he was with, a stunningly attractive blonde, her long hair piled up on her head, hurriedly hid behind him; they were both in the middle of the pond, with water up to their waists.
“Wh-who’s there!?” Percy shouted.
“Who do you think?”
“Ginevra!! Harry? What are you two doing here?” he demanded. “And…you’re naked!”
“So are you, dear brother, and I could ask the same question, but I’d rather not be rude.” Then she turned a sweet smile on her brother’s companion. “Sorry to interrupt, but we did get here first. We haven’t had the pleasure. I’m Percy’s sister, Ginny. This is my boyfriend, Harry Potter.”
Harry waved sheepishly as he shot an apologetic look at Percy, but he just couldn’t contain his sloppy grin. Gin’s really outdone herself this time.
The witch in the pond didn’t miss a beat. “I’m Audrey Pince,” she replied from behind Percy. “I was several years ahead of you at Hogwarts, but of course I know of you and your boyfriend. Very nice to meet you.” Then she shot a stern look at a severely blushing Percy. “I’ve been trying to get him to introduce me to his family for weeks. I suppose this is good a time as any,” she said with a smirk.
Ginny turned to her brother. “Perce, I really like her. Shame on you for not bringing her to your party last night!” Then as she looked back to Audrey, Ginny’s face contorted with mock concern. “He didn’t Confund you, did he? I ask because you seem really nice and I know my brother can be a complete prat at times,” she finished with a frown directed at Percy.
Audrey laughed. “No. No he didn’t. But thank you for being so concerned. As to Percy,” she eyed the furiously blushing Weasley, “I think I can smooth out his rough edges, given enough time. But, other than hiding me from his family, he’s been really sweet.”
Harry and Percy were watching this exchange with very different reactions. Harry found it particularly funny that the two witches were chatting so casually; Percy was so mortified he’d turned a shade of red Harry hadn’t seen before, even on a Weasley.
Ginny continued, “Well, in that case, the family’s coming to my match against Appleby on the first Saturday in September. You should come. Good way to meet the whole Weasley clan.”
“It wouldn’t be too much trouble?” Audrey asked.
“Of course not. Harry’s gotten the family box seats; always room for one more.”
Percy finally loosed his tongue. “Ginny, can we carry this on at a more…appropriate time?”
Harry figured Percy had been through enough. Before Ginny could respond, he beat her to it. “No problem. We were just leaving. C’mon, Gin.”
As Harry dragged his girlfriend back into the tall grass, Ginny waved. “Nice meeting you!”
Once they were out of earshot, Harry couldn’t control his laughter. “You’re worse than George!”
“Oh, c’mon, Harry,” she laughed. “That was Percy! I simply couldn’t let him get away with that. But I like his new girlfriend; she’s got some flair. I can’t believe he didn’t bring her to his party last night. Hopefully, she’ll straighten him out.”
Harry shook his head, still trying to get his mind around what they’d seen. “Percy? With a girl…in the pond?”
“Scarred for life, now, aren’t you,” Ginny laughed.
“Never in a million years would I guess it’d be him. But, then again…What is it with you Weasleys? Do you all go into heat at the same time?”
“What d’you mean?” Ginny asked with a mile-wide grin.
“First Ron, then you and now, even Percy, all in the same night?”
“Oh, well, you had to realize by now that all of us, even Percy bless him, have very large appetites, in just about every department. Why do you think there’re so many of us?” she finished with a truly devilish smile.
Harry wrapped his arms around his girlfriend as she summoned their things back into the picnic basket. He turned on the spot and they were back at Grimmauld Place in a flash, continuing their conversation.
“Well, no question about appetites,” Harry said. “By the way, the chicken was delicious.”
“Mum’s recipe. It was tasty, wasn’t it? Ron’s made a special request for Mum to put it on her list of ‘culinary tutorials’ for ‘Mione.”
“Yet another attempt to fill the bottomless pit,” Harry chortled, referring to his best mate’s eating habits.
Ginny smirked as they both started up the stairs. “She really does love the ponce. She’s good for him.”
They turned toward the master bedroom as Harry added, “He’s good for her too, believe it or not.”
Ginny replied, “He’s definitely made her take life a little less seriously. Gods know that in itself’s a miracle.” As Ginny made her way to the bed, she realized Harry stopped following her. He was still standing in the doorway. She noticed a twitch of concern on his face and felt a wave of anxiety through their bond.
“Harry? What is it?” she asked.
He bit his lip. “We almost lost her, Gin. If I’d been a second slower or Ron hadn’t gotten to her in time…”
She knew in an instant what had set him off: her comment about Hermione taking life less seriously. Dammit! She cursed herself for being so careless.
Ever since his dreadful year on the run, Harry struggled emotionally, more so than the rest of the Quartet. The nightmares were the worst, but they had finally faded with time, thanks to Ginny and their bond, which had also helped quell her own night terrors. Even so, occasionally, Harry would still slip into a towering brood, almost without warning. They were all still suffering the scars, but none so much as her lover.
She closed the distance to him in a flash. “Don’t, love. Don’t brood on it.” She took his hands, leading him to the bed; they both sat. “You did act fast enough and so did Ron. The Crematius curse missed her.” She began rubbing his shoulders, trying to soothe him. She focused all of her love through their bond, but it didn’t seem to be working as quickly as it usually did when one of his moods struck.
“I know, Gin. I know. But, Merlin, when is this ever gonna end?” He turned to her, pulling her close. “If anything ever happened to you or her, I’d be devastated. I’ve finally got a family now. I don’t want to lose it.”
“Listen to me, love.” She took his face gently in her hands. “You’re not gonna lose any of us. We’re quicker, stronger, smarter and braver than they are. Always have been, always will be.”
“Gin, that curse is a game-changer. Damn thing’s triggered by Revelio. One false move…”
“…and you either die instantly, or slowly bleed out,” Harry said to the chilly Scottish night.
WEREN’T QUICKER, STRONGER, SMARTER OR BRAVER TONIGHT, HARRY, WERE YOU? The voice was back. Its soothing tone was gone, replaced by a mocking hiss.
Harry gasped as a sharp pain spread through his midsection. He’d been propped up against the tree for what felt like hours, unable to drag himself any further.
SO CARELESS, CASTING SUCH A STRONG REVELIO BACK IN THAT CLEARING. YOU’VE TAUGHT YOUR AURORS BETTER THAN TO DO THAT, EVEN NOW, TWO YEARS AFTER YOU PUT YAXLEY BACK IN AZKABAN. ‘CONSTANT VIGILLANCE,’ ISN’T THAT WHAT YOU ALWAYS TELL NEW AURORS?
“Moody’s lesson, not mine,” Harry spat. “But, yes.”
AND NEVER TO GO ON A MISSION, EVEN A ROUTINE RETRIEVAL OF A DARK OBJECT, WITHOUT A PARTNER? AND TO DO IT BASED ON AN ANONYMOUS NOTE SENT BY OWL, WITH A PICTURE OF THE CLEARING TO APPARATE TOO…WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
“I could do without the lecture,” Harry coughed.
SUCH A SHAME YAXLEY’S HAD THE LAST LAUGH. AND ALL BECAUSE YOU LET YOURSELF BELIEVE THAT THE WAR WAS ACTUALLY OVER.
“It is over. Been over since the Battle of Diagon Alley, two years ago.”
IT NEVER OCURRED TO YOU THAT MAYBE THERE WERE MORE OBJECTS OUT THERE LADEN WITH THE CREMATIUS CURSE? OBJECTS MASQUERADING AS BEING RELATIVELY HARMLESS, JUST WAITING FOR THE DAY WHEN YOU’D FIND THEM?
Harry didn’t respond. Instead, he struggled to his feet, shaking with the effort. Ever so slowly, he once again forced himself down the road, toward the lights in the distance.
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