For the first time in a long time they had the flat to themselves but it was hard to believe they were alone. Boxes were strewn about the sitting room, creating a state of chaos worse than when Harry and Ginny had first moved in. James was having a ball, crawling between the boxes, stopping and falling silent as though he was playing hide and seek. He had also developed a fascination with the tinsel and enjoyed pulling it of the lower branches of the Christmas Tree.
“James, come on now,” Ginny said exasperatedly. For the fourth or fifth time she had to use a summoning charm to collect the tinsel and replace it on the tree before reaching into another box. She was checking to see if there were any other non-magical decorations that she’d missed. Rummaging at the bottom of the box she found a spray can – one of Fred and George’s bottles of real, non-melting snow.
Ginny dropped the can back into the box and had turned her attention to the box beside when she saw something shiny out of the corner of her eye. Turning to see what it was she felt her jaw drop. James was sitting several feet away from the tree with his arm stretched out and a piece of tinsel was zooming directly toward him. He caught it, and stared at it in amazement before laughing excitedly and looking up at his mum.
Her mother had told her that none of the Weasley children had displayed any signs of magic until they were over a year, and Ginny had witnessed the same in Bill and Fleur’s twins, but here was James, not yet ten months and already summoning things to him like it was old news.
“Everyone is going to go mad when I tell them you can do that, you know,” she said, picking James up and hugging him to her.
James was indifferent to Ginny’s shock. He tugged at the tinsel for several seconds before it snapped. She braced for his cry, but none came; something else had caught his attention. He laughed happily and pointed out the window. Feeling her muscles tauten, Ginny turned. What she saw made her laugh, too. James had just noticed the fat flakes of snow that had started falling since they last looked out the window.
Ginny moved closer to the window on the pretext of letting James see the snow better, but she was just as happy to see it. Most of the time she was glad that London got a fraction of the snow that Hogsmeade did, Christmas Eve being the exception. Peering down into the courtyard she saw more than just a fine dusting of snow on the ground, and it was glittering invitingly in the light from the street lamps. She gave the sitting room a guilty glance – it was a disaster area – before making up her mind.
“Let’s go have some fun,” she said, already heading for the closet.
Several minutes later, after a tiny battle to make James keep his mittens on, they were tiptoeing down the stairs as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the Cavils. James was cooperating until Hugh came round the corner.
“Oh, hello,” he said happily, brushing snow out of his hair and stopping several stairs below them so that their eyes were level. “Off to dinner with the family?”
“That’s tomorrow. No, he was fascinated by the snow so I thought I’d take him out to see it up close,” Ginny explained. Hugh frowned.
“it might be a bit cold for that sort of thing, Ginny.”
“We won’t stay out long,” she said, as she passed him and continued on her way down the stairs.
He wasn’t exaggerating. A blast of icy wind whipped Ginny’s hood off the second she stepped outside, and she could see the snow drifting across the courtyard. She almost turned around and went back right back in, but what stopped her was James’s reaction. When the first drop of snow touched his cheek he swiped at his face knocking his mitten off. The second flake landed in his hand. melting almost instantly, but he continued to stare at his palm in wonder. Soon he was trying to catch the snow, making it more difficult for Ginny to get his mitten back on. Once she had done though, the snow collected and James waved his hand happily.
“You’re mad, Jay,” Ginny said, laughing along with him as they walked through the courtyard, trying to stay close to the walls and out of the worst of the wind. They were at the furthest corner from the door when Hugh came out, pulling a hat on. He stopped on the stoop to turn his collar up against the wind, and then started to cross to where she and James were standing. Ginny watched him approach, unsure if she was amused or annoyed.
“He seems to be enjoying himself,” Hugh said from the middle of the courtyard. The words were barely out of his mouth when he slipped on a patch of ice and fell into a kneeling position.
Ginny had taken only a few hurried steps before Hugh waved her away.
“I’m fine,” he said, sounding embarrassed. He bowed his head and Ginny thought he was examining himself for injuries. She turned her head, hoping to prevent him further embarrassment, a mistake. After a moment Hugh stood up, wearing a devilish grin and he held up his hand, in which he was holding a snowball.
“Don’t you dare -” she started to say, but too late. He threw it, not hard, and from a very short distance so there was little risk of anyone getting hurt.
“I can’t believe you just did that,” she said in tones of mock outrage. “What if it had hit James? He’s just a baby and you could have done him a serious injury.” She walked past Hugh as though she was going to return to the building, but surreptitiously grabbed a handful of snow as she did. When she had formed it into a ball she turned back, continuing to feign anger. “D’you know what I think?”
“What?” Hugh asked, looking taken aback and slightly ashamed.
Wearing her own devilish grin, Ginny lobbed her hastily formed snowball at him. She hadn’t taken any time at all to aim, lest she blow her surprise, but her own reflexes were sharpened since returning to the Quidditch pitch, and she hit him right on the hat. Hugh reached up and brushed the snow off, his surprised expression giving way to a grin.
“That was low, Ginny, using little James like that!”
“Didn’t I tell you I need to win at almost any cost?” she asked, preparing for a second attack. Hugh was too quick. He’d already thrown another snowball and by the time Ginny noticed it was too late to move away. She scrunched up her face, waiting for an impact that didn’t come. Opening her eyes she saw the snowball hanging unsupported in mid-air right in front of her. Without thinking she reached up and knocked it down, noting Hugh’s shocked expression, and James’s amazed expression.
“You have to stop doing that,” she said in an undertone, adjusting her hold and hugging him close partly to hide his obvious delight from Hugh.
“Is he all right?” Hugh asked, coming over.
“Just cold,” Ginny replied, using her teeth to pull off her glove so she could feel James’s cheek. It was cool. “Yes, he’s had enough with the snow. I’m going to take him back in.”
“Did you see what happened with that snowball. D’you think it got caught in a crosswind or something?” Hugh asked, falling into step beside her. He didn’t sound like he really believed what he said.
“That must be it,” Ginny replied. She adjusted the hood on James’s coat.
“Yes, it is starting to get colder out,” Hugh said, adjusting his coat as well. “I could do with a cup of tea. How about you?”
Ginny was on the verge of agreeing when her foot slipped on the same patch of ice that had caused Hugh trouble earlier. She did a strange sort of dance, trying to remain on her feet and to protect James in case she fell. Just when it seemed like she was going to lose her battle, Hugh put his arms around her, preventing Ginny falling. He didn’t immediately let go when she regained her footing. Instead he brushed several snowflakes from her cheek. His fingers lingered as he started to lower his head.
Ginny didn’t realize that she was holding her breath until James let out a cranky cry. He had been quiet since the incident with the snowball but now he started fussing. Breathing deeply, Ginny backed out of Hugh’s embrace.
“I’ve really got to get him inside,” she said, feeling winded. “I think James needs a nap, and I’ve got a thousand things to do before tomorrow. We’ll have tea another time, OK?”
She hurried away so fast that she barely heard Hugh’s disappointed reply. Once back in the building Ginny practically ran up the stairs, not stopping until she had closed the door of her flat. Then she leaned against it and tried to calm her racing heart. She didn’t know what it had been about that moment, but there was no doubt in her mind that had James not interrupted that Hugh was about to kiss her, and that she had been about to let him.
* * *
The memory of what had almost happened with Hugh weighed very heavily on Ginny for the rest of the night and she spent the evening locked in a furious debate. Most of the time she felt as though she was carrying around a very heavy ball of guilt. It was too soon for her to be thinking of kissing someone other than Harry, wasn’t it? She couldn’t even bring herself to take off his ring yet. When she was in this state of mind, she was ready to race up the stairs and slap Hugh for his presumption. She never did so, though, because as she was ready to leave the flat her reason would kick in and she would remind herself that she had let it happen. And why shouldn’t she? It had been over a year and there hadn’t been any solid leads on what might have happened to Harry. She couldn’t wait around forever, could she? And that thought would bring back the big bubble of guilt and start the whole cycle over. As a consequence Ginny slept very badly that night.
“You look awful, Ginny. Are you coming down with a cold?” Molly asked the minute they arrived at the Burrow the following afternoon.
“Happy Christmas to you, too, mum,” she replied, allowing her mother to peck her on the cheek. She was saved answering the question thanks to the timely arrival of her father, Fred, George, Ron and Hermione. In the exchange of Christmas greetings the question was forgotten.
James’s sleep had been untroubled and he was as alert and happy as ever. Upon seeing Fred and George he laughed delightedly and leaned so far over in his attempt to reach them that it was all Ginny could do to hold onto him. George reached over and took him.
“I guess that ends the debate over who the favorite uncles are,” he said, but with something less than his usual jocular manner. He was wearing an expression of concern similar to the one their mother had been.
“I should be worried about that, shouldn’t I?” she asked, making everyone smile.
James wasn’t the only child who gravitated towards Fred and George, though. Both Riley and Simon, Bill and Fleur’s children, and Teddy Lupin preferred to be in Fred and George’s company than any of the other men in the family. They, in turn, were surprisingly good with the kids, and did very few things that were actually dangerous.
“You look peaky,” Arthur said, giving Ginny a hug. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Ginny said, a little too abruptly. “I just . . . was up a lot with James.”
It wasn’t entirely a lie. Her debate extended into dreams filled with Harry’s betrayed expression. She woke up several times during the night, and had increasing trouble getting back to sleep so Ginny did fall back on her usual habit of watching her son sleep. She suspected, from the doubtful look on her father’s face, that he saw right through her pitiful cover-up, but he didn’t question it. He kissed her on the forehead, grabbed a plate of treacle tart and followed Fred and George into the sitting room.
Ginny shrugged her coat off and joined her mother at the counter, shouting down the protests that she needed her rest. Soon she was supervising the chopping of seven different vegetables, and the baking of a pumpkin pie. Hermione was twirling her wand and squeezing oranges into a large punch bowl. Close to, Ginny saw that Hermione looked like her sleep hadn’t been the most restful either.
“Is something the matter?” she asked when Molly disappeared into the sitting room with yet another plate of sweets.
“The matter? No, nothing’s the matter,” Hermione said in a strained voice. She averted her eyes.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s fine. All fine. Just a busy time at work, is all.” Hermione pasted a smile onto her face, but it flickered for a moment when they heard Molly admonishing Fred and George for something they’d allowed Riley and Simon to do. “We’re drafting a new proposal on house elf regulations that is going up in front of the committee first thing in the new year, and all Molly can ask is if I’m tired because I might be pregnant. Sometimes she is the limit.”
“You’re not, are you?” Ginny asked, before she could help herself.
“No, of course I’m not. I would know if I was,” Hermione snapped, snatching the bowl of juice and heading for the sitting room, leaving Ginny alone, smiling. It was nice that her mother had decided to turn her attention to someone else for a change, however irksome it was,
Molly returned a moment later; Hermione was not with her, but her dramatic exit was felt. Molly repeatedly glanced back at the door to the sitting room, her frown increasing each time she did so. Ginny remained silent for several minutes, wondering if it was really her place to say anything. From her own experience, she knew that her mother’s well wishes could feel more like meddling, especially when you were already under stress. She decided to say something.
“Mum, did you mention grandkids to Ron and Hermione today?” Ginny asked delicately, carrying a plate of vegetables to the table.
“I might have done. Why?”
“Hermione seemed a bit upset about it and I’m sorry to say, mum, but you can get a bit carried away. I know you mean well,” she added hastily. “But she’s under a lot of stress with her deadlines at work. If I were you I wouldn’t press it right now.”
“You think so?” Molly asked, her wand paused in the act of setting the dishes to wash. Hermione helpfully chose that moment to walk through the kitchen and out the back door, keeping her eyes averted. Ron, looking more apologetic though saying nothing either, quickly followed. Both Molly and Ginny watched as they walked towards the gate at the end of the lane. Only when they were there did Hermione turn to face Ron. They were too far away to clearly see their expressions, but the forcefulness of Hermione’s gesticulations made her anger easy to read.
“I really do,” Ginny said.
Molly’s constant badgering about when she and Harry were going to get married had for a long time been a source of irritation to Ginny. In light of everything that had happened in the last thirteen months she had begun to wonder if she hadn’t blown things out of proportion. It was easy to think that after the fact, but Hermione’s angry reaction served as a good reminder of how aggravating her mother could get, however well-meaning her intentions.
Molly had gone to supervise the preparation of the sitting room for Christmas dinner when Ron and Hermione finally came back into the house. They were both red in the face, whether from cold or anger it was hard to tell, though the look on Hermione’s face made Ginny suspect the latter.
“Is everything OK?” she asked, noting the furious snarl Hermione gave to Ron as he headed for the sitting room again.
“Never been better,” Hermione said sarcastically.
“There’s no need to take my head off about it. I only wanted to make sure everything was OK,” Ginny replied, a little snappishly before reminding herself that Hermione was speaking out of frustration. Taking a deep breath, she said, “I’ve told mum to lay off about the two of you having kids -”
“Have you?” Hermione interrupted, sounding defensive. “Who asked you to do that?”
“I was just trying to help. I won’t bother in future if it upsets you that much.”
“No, no. I’m sorry.” She looked it, too.
“Maybe you should take a holiday if you’re that overworked,” Ginny replied, before removing the pie from the oven.
Hermione hesitated in speaking and when she finally did, it was to turn the tables on Ginny. “You never answered your mum about why you look so peaky. What’s going on with you?”
Thinly veiled as Hermione’s attempt to change topics was, Ginny didn’t call her on it. She hesitated for just a moment before she explained all about the events from the previous evening. She had a feeling that pressing Hermione about her issues right now would result in a huge argument, and in any case it would be good to get someone else’s opinion about what she should do and how she was feeling.
“You know why you had that dream, right?” she asked when Ginny had finished speaking. “You feel guilty because you really wanted to kiss him, but you think that if you did that you would be betraying Harry.”
“Yes, really,” Hermione replied, ignoring the sarcasm. “I understand why you feel that way, but you really shouldn’t. Not after all this time. It’s OK that you’re starting to move on.”
“I’m not ready to do that yet,” Ginny said, fingering her ring again.
“Then what almost happened last night?”
Ginny and Hermione were unable to continue their conversation because Molly entered the kitchen, issuing instructions to Ginny, Hermione, Ron, Arthur and Charlie for the transport of the remaining food into the sitting room. Moments later seventeen people were crammed around a long table, and the room was filled with happy chatter and the delighted laughs of Riley, Simon, Teddy and James. In the festive atmosphere, Hermione seemed to relax, and Ginny was able to forget about everything that had happened the night before and just enjoy a happy dinner with her family.
Ginny was having some difficulty feeding James in his high chair. He seemed more interested in throwing the food at Teddy who was right next to him. Teddy was responding in kind.
“Stop doing that,” Ginny said sternly, as Tonks echoed her from Teddy’s right. Both boys lowered their arms, looked at their mothers with stunned expressions, and then James started to cry. Ginny took him out of the high chair and attempted to calm him by bouncing him on her knee. It didn’t work as it usually did.
“He’s a little overdue for a nap,” she said apologetically, standing up and leaving the room as James began to cry louder. He cried all the way up the stairs and into Ginny’s old room, where her mother had added an old bassinet for the times they stayed over. She worried that it would take him a long time to fall asleep, given how overtired her was, but his eyes started drooping the moment they walked into the bedroom, and within ten minutes he was fast asleep.
The change that had come over the Burrow in the time that Ginny was gone made it feel like several hours had passed. She saw that all of the dinner dishes were cleared away and were washing up in the sink. Lupin and Tonks were standing at the door with Molly, pulling on their cloaks at the door, Lupin holding Teddy.
“Leaving so soon?” Ginny interrupted her mother’s well wishes. It was still very early and she was surprised that they were leaving..
“Teddy’s starting to get just as fussy as James,” Tonks said. “And I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Upon her return to work after having Teddy, Tonks was asked to join the task force assembled to track Bellatrix Lestrange. Though it was never expressly stated, everyone knew that she was there because Harry wasn’t. As such, out of respect for Ginny, she didn’t talk about it much.
“Why don’t you see them to the gate, Ginny?” Molly said with a nervous glance at the door to the sitting room.
“OK,” Ginny said suspiciously. She grabbed her coat and walked with Lupin and Tonks. “Any idea what’s going on in there?”
They exchanged a glance and Tonks looked looked away. It was as good as a detailed confession.
“They were talking about Harry, weren’t they?”
“Discussing whether he scarpered or not,” Lupin said, explaining the reason for their sudden departure. Understandably, given the nature of his relationship with Harry and his father, Lupin was intolerant of ridiculous ideas about what had happened to Harry.
“What do you think?” she asked, needing to hear the words again.
They had reached the gate before Lupin responded. He let Tonks walk through and then he stopped, placing his free hand on the post.
“We’ve discussed this before. My views have not changed.” Seeing that this was not going to be enough for Ginny, Lupin continued. “Regardless of what was happening, he wouldn’t have left without a word to anyone, not when he was happier than I could ever recall.”
“I know.” Ginny nodded, and forced herself to ask one last question that had occurred to her with Lupin’s use of the past tense. “D’you think he’s still out there somewhere? Or do you think . . . ”
“D’you really want to get into this on Christmas?” Tonks asked. “We can talk about it another time, no?”
“I agree,” Lupin replied, with such finality that Ginny knew they wouldn’t discuss the matter anymore this evening.
“You’ll have to come by soon,” she said, admitting defeat. She gave each of the three Lupin’s a kiss, smoothing back Teddy’s blue hair as she did so, and feeling remiss because of how little time she spent with him. He was Harry’s godson after all.
“We well,” Tonks said. She squeezed Ginny’s hand before Disapparating. Lupin quickly followed her.
Ginny stayed outside for several minutes after the echos of their Disapparition had faded. She knew that they were right and it was slightly morbid to keep rehashing it over and over, but her own uncertainty was like a compulsion that made her do it.
With the utmost reluctance Ginny returned to the house. She lingered in the kitchen as long as she dared, not wanting to overhear any part of the discussion about Harry. It sounded to her like they had moved onto other topics though, and she cautiously entered the sitting room to see Percy brandishing a copy of the previous day’s Prophet. The front page was again filled with a photo of one of her least favorite people: Declan Fohn.
“Must you flash that about?” she asked from the doorway. “We just ate.”
“It is not a laughing matter, Ginny,” Percy said, speaking loud so that he could be heard over everyone’s chuckles. “Ever since his appearance on Gabriel Mercer’s programme, support for Fohn has been on the rise. And not just in Britain. If we’re not careful we could have another You-Know-Who on our hands.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit of a stretch?” Hermione asked, making heads turn. She, a Muggle-born, would have been the last they’d expect to support any of Fohn’s views. Seeing their reactions, she clarified her point. “I just mean that he’s not in Voldemort’s league when it comes to magic. And didn’t he say that he just wanted to encourage people to take pride in their heritage?”
“That’s how it started with You-Know-Who,” Arthur said. “It isn’t as big a leap as you think to go from preaching pride to ordering extermination. And I might remind you that there are more than a few people who think that Declan Fohn and his group are nothing more than a front for Lestrange. With all the Death Eaters the Aurors have been catching over these last few months she’s starting to run short of supporters. A gathering of Fohn’s supporters would be the perfect recruitment camp for her.”
“If nothing more, all this attention he’s getting is a smoke screen,” Ginny said. “It’s buried the stories about all those break-ins. Tougas was telling me that they think Lestrange is behind those, too. They think she’s trying to find Harry.”
“Or you,” Bill said, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “If she really believes that Harry is alive but can’t find him, you would be the next logical target.”
“I still think you’re wrong,” Ginny said, trying to ignore the fact that everyone was now watching her with worried expressions. “For one thing, she’s had over a year to get to me and nothing’s happened. Second, even if she does happen to find out where I’m staying there are all those security spells. If she shows up at my flat she’ more likely to get caught than anywhere else.”
“But she won’t go down without a fight,” Ron said. “Remember what happened to Mad-Eye the last time we got involved in a duel with her and her Death Eaters?”
Ginny opened her mouth, but couldn’t think of anything to say. She hadn’t been there but knew all about that night when Lestrange had tried to get Hermione.
“I think we should open the presents,” Molly said to break the tense silence,
They tried hard to bring back the festive atmosphere as they ripped open their presents, but with little success. Even Fred and George remained subdued, their jokes falling flat.
An hour after the presents were opened Bill and Fleur left with Riley and Simon. Charlie went with them, promising Molly that he wouldn’t be gone for long.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay here, Ginny?” her mother asked when Ginny said she was going to leave as well. She was sure part of the invitation stemmed from the talk of Lestrange. It was a tempting offer, but Ginny declined. She wanted to sleep in her own bed. Somehow the Burrow didn’t seem as much like home as it used to.
Percy, Ron and Hermione left while Ginny went upstairs to get James and when she returned Fred and George were at the door.
“Mum’s ordered us to take you home,” Fred said.
“I can find my own way, mum.”
It was a half-hearted attempt to get her mother to change her mind, but it didn’t work. Ginny and her brothers arrived back at her flat moments later. The most exciting thing that happened was James waking up and letting out a cry of shock at the different surroundings. He stopped as soon as they stepped into the courtyard.
“You don’t have to come all the way up,” Ginny said. “I’m sure I can manage the last dozen feet by myself.”
“Our orders were to see you inside,” George said, standing straight backed like a soldier. All that was missing was the salute. Ginny laughed and shook her head.
“See? Nothing to worry about,” she stated when they had entered the empty flat. Ginny took James from Fred and headed for his room and his crib. He’d already fallen asleep again.
“What a wasted trip,” Fred said in mock frustration. “This side-track will cost you, Gin.”
“There’s Firewhisky in the cupboard above the stove,” she called from James’s bedroom.
Fred and George headed for the kitchen while Ginny busied herself pulling off James’s jacket. She was just laying him down in the crib when the silence was shattered by a loud rapping on the door. James woke with a start and began to cry again.
“Stay there,” Fred said, sliding into the room while George went to answer the door. Both of them had their wands out. Ginny pulled her own wand out and held it tightly while she tried to soothe James. Her thoughts turned immediately to Lestrange. Had she been completely wrong in thinking she wasn’t a target?
“It’s your upstairs neighbor,” George called, sounding relieved. “And . . . . blimey!”
“What?” Ginny asked, poking her head around the door frame as George undid the lock and opened the door.
Hugh was standing there with Evangeline Keddle.