Adrenaline sustained Ginny all the way into her flat where she paused in the act of removing her coat to stare bemusedly at her stinging and bleeding hand. It took several seconds for her to realize that she must have scraped her palm when she braced her fall. She carelessly shoved her coat into the closet where it fell to the floor with a loud bang owing to the bag in her pocket containing her Quidditch things. The noise didn’t go completely unnoticed. As she stood in the bathroom, rinsing her wound before applying Essence of Dittany Ron poked his head around the door frame, followed quickly by Hermione who was holding James, and then the blonde head of Ginny’s upstairs neighbour, Hugh Scott.
It was this last that Ginny was most surprised and least pleased to see, not because his presence was that unusual or unpleasant. The problem was that Hugh was a Muggle, and would hardly fail to notice that a deep gash in her hand magically disappeared. She looked desperately at Hermione, who had already realized the dilemma.
“Next time maybe just call out, rather than setting off a bomb, OK,’ she said before adjusting James on her hip and chivvying Ron and Hugh away.
“Thanks,” Ginny said when the others were out of earshot.
‘You’re welcome. D’you need a hand?”
“I’m all right.”
Hermione looked skeptical, but nodded and followed the others, allowing Ginny to close the door and quickly apply a drop of Dittany. Within a moment there wasn’t the slightest mark on her hand but she still applied a plaster to avoid awkward questions.
Mere moments later, only after entering the sitting room and relieving Hermione of James, did Ginny notice that she’d walked into a room thick with an uncomfortable silence. Hugh looked the most uneasy, Ron a little angry. Hermione was most composed of the three, but even she sat a little more rigidly than she’d done before.
“Is something the matter?” Ginny asked, smiling as James grabbed hold of her hair.
“No,” they all said in unison. Their tone was completely unconvincing, especially after Hugh looked at his watch and jumped up like he’d just remembered an extremely important date.
“I didn’t realize it had got so late,” he said, pausing in his exit to smile apologetically at Ginny and to ruffle James’s hair. The usual playful light in his eyes was missing today. “Sorry, Jim, but I’ve got to get back to work.” Ignoring Ginny’s grimace – she hated it when he called James ‘Jim’ – he hurried to the door and disappeared beyond it.
“What was that about?” Ginny asked, watching the door until she heard Ron and Hermione shifting in their seats. The guilty expressions on their faces were unmistakable. “What did you two do?”
“Hey,” Ron said angrily. “He starts nosing around in matters that don’t concern him and you think we did something wrong?”
“You were a bit harsh,” Hermione said, sounding just as angry. “He does have a right to ask questions, doesn’t he?”
“No, he doesn’t,” Ron said fiercely, prompting Hermione to scowl at him.
“What are you two on about?” Ginny asked, sitting down beside Hermione, feeling uneasy. “What sort of questions is he asking?”
“He’s been asking about Harry, Gin,” Ron replied before Hermione could. “About ‘what really happened.’”
“You make it sound like he’s involved in some grand conspiracy,” Hermione replied disdainfully. “I think that he was just curious, because of how it all happened.”
“Enough,” Ginny said, holding up her hand when Ron started to retort. “Can’t you stop bickering for two seconds?”
She thought that Hermione was probably right. Hugh had moved into the building only a month after Ginny and Harry had, but she could only recall having seem him once before Harry disappeared. Tougas and Kingsley had questioned him while the were conducting their investigation, but they hadn’t told him much due both to the Statute of Secrecy and their wish to not jeopardize their investigation. She’d long been expecting his questions, especially since he hadn’t asked them when they’d struck up their friendship not too long after James was born.
“He was just curious. People are allowed to be curious,” Hermione said after staring Ron down.
“You don’t think it odd that he, a Muggle, seemed excessively interested in what happened?” Ron shot back.
“Stop looking for conspiracies where there aren’t any!” Hermione stomped her foot in frustration.
“I’m not. I just think its really weird.” Ron’s ears were starting to turn red.
“He just wants to know as much as he can because . . . well . . .” Hermione fell silent and gave Ginny a significant look.
“Don’t say it.” Ginny suppressed a groan with a great deal of effort. SHe didn’t want to be reminded of the sticky fact that Hugh obviously wanted more than just a friendly relationship, something she couldn’t even consider.
If there was one good thing to be said though it was that it eased the tension between Ron and Hermione and they both laughed, their angry reactions fading, most especially when James imitated them and let out one of his contagious giggles. He seemed to have some magical ability to defuse any tense situation with his laugh.
“How was your practice?” Hermione asked after a few minutes. “Was it as draining as you thought it would be?”
“Not in the way you might think,” Ginny replied. She explained what had happened, feeling an unpleasant shiver up her spine as she recalled the extraordinary replica of Keddle’s head amidst the Devil’s Snare, and the man with the scarred face that was almost certainly the one responsible for that chilling display. She hesitated in telling them about her run-in with said man because Hermione was already looking pale, and Ron had turned a delicate shade of green, and she didn’t want them to look more dreadful than they already did. Her own desire to discuss her theory, won out in the end and she did confess.
“This isn’t good.” Ron was on his feet and pacing before Ginny had finished her story. “I mean – Let’s just say you’re right. If he is the one responsible, and he just disappeared like that . . . Who’s to say he didn’t follow you home.”
She hadn’t considered that, but the idea made Ginny’s muscles tauten.
“Sounds to me like he was scared away,” Hermione said. “OK, let’s say you’re right, Ron, he still shouldn’t be able to come anywhere near here because of the protective enchantments.”
“Maybe,” Ginny said. The enchantments were meant to keep out unwanted witches and wizards, but there were ways that they could be avoided. If he was able to vanish so quickly, it was entirely possible that the scarred man could get around these wards, too. Ron frowned but didn’t say anything. Ginny was sure that he was thinking along the same line as she was, but she took his silence as a sign that he, too, was sick of the constant bickering.
“Maybe they’ll be able to track him anyway,” Hermione said, sounding as though she was trying to convince herself of this fact.
“Not if Tougas has anything to do with it. Did I tell you how he completely ignored – What?” Ginny stopped in the middle of her frustrated rant because Ron and Hermione were wearing identical smirks. “Mum told you her ridiculous theory that Tougas fancies me, didn’t she?”
Their continued amusement was as good as a confession.
“She’s mad! Everyone knows that he fancies Briony. As for me . . . I think he deserves a good crack over the head with a broomstick.”
She hadn’t meant it as a joke, Tougas really did frustrate her to the point of contemplating physical violence, but Ron and Hermione laughed nonetheless. James imitated them, and after a few seconds even Ginny was grinning. At least she was until Ron flicked his wand at the wireless and a jingle for Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans filled the sitting room.
“What?” he asked when Hermione shot him a scathing look. “I just want to hear what’s going on with the Cannons.”
“And you think you’re going to hear that on this show?” Ginny asked disgustedly as she heard the opening notes of a popular talk show. She never listened to this programme if she could help it because the host existed only to sensationalize and create scandal where none existed.
“Welcome back,” Gabriel Mercer said, more exuberant than any other time Ginny had listened to his programme. “We’ve been talking with Declan Fohn, founder of Wizards Against Nobility Debasement (W.A.N.D), a group advocating a return to pureblood supremacy- ”
“Not supremacy, merely a celebration of our heritage,” interjected a second voice that Ginny guessed was Fohn. He spoke smoothly but with a certainty that made her understand at once why he had been gaining popularity over the last year, although he was expounding complete rubbish.
“Excellent,” said Gabriel, sounding amused. “What would your response be to those critics who say there isn’t a difference and that you are trying to drum up support that waned after the death of You Know Who?”
“On the contrary, there is all the difference in the world. We do not believe, as did the Death Eaters, that Muggle-born witched and wizards are any less worthy of their magic. We only mean to celebrate our history, and to enhance its value. As I’m sure you will agree, Gabriel, the Death Eaters and their ludicrous ideas rather debased the nobility of our ancestors.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Fohn,” Gabriel said indulgently, still sounding amused rather than truly doubtful.
“An example, then?” Fohn asked over the rustling of paper.
“If you please.”
“The Evening Prophet shall provide.” They heard a muffled thump, as though Fohn pounded the table.
“What?” Gabriel asked before letting out an exclamation of understanding, and laughing. “For our listeners at home, Mr. Fohn is referring to the article in this evening’s Prophet that talks about the return of one of our favorite Quidditch players, Ginny Weasley, and her tragic story.”
“Tragic is exactly the word I was going to use,” Fohn said. “A member of one of our most respected families, and as you say, an excellent Quidditch player, she didn’t deserve the treatment she received from Harry Potter, ‘our great hero.’”
She had been liking Fohn less and less the longer she listened, but the sarcastic tone of his voice as he uttered those last three words made Ginny’s blood boil. She jumped to her feet, prepared to rush at the wireless and smash it into a thousand pieces, but was stopped because she was still holding James. He had nearly fallen asleep and gave a startled cry at the sudden movement. She contented herself instead with leaving the room.
Pacing James’s room as she tried to get him back to sleep, Ginny had hoped she would be able to drown out the rest of that ridiculous programme, but she could still make out enough to get the gist. Fohn was now expounding upon the theory that Harry hadn’t disappeared, but that he’d just become too overwhelmed with everything, and had decided to leave, using his connections in the Ministry to set up an elaborate scheme. Her pace quickened with each statement she heard, to the point where she was almost jogging. It was having the opposite effect on James than she wanted. Rather than getting more sleepy, he was as alert as when she’d first arrived home.
“Sorry, Jay,” she said, slowing her pace and bouncing him lightly. “But that idiot in there is talking rubbish about your dad. I can’t believe that Ron and Hermione are still listening to it.”
“It’s just Hermione now.”
Ron was standing in the doorway, a dark expression on his face. Ginny stopped pacing, noticing almost at once that his ears were slightly redder than they’d been earlier. “You know how she is about these sorts of things.”
“Know thy enemy,” Ginny replied, nodding. “She might do better just to apply a few good hexes to him though.”
The corners of Ron’s mouth turned up in a credible imitation of a smile, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds. He watched Ginny pace with James for a minute, before entering the room, taking James from her, and lifting him high into the air. James laughed, but with a little less energy than he would ordinarily have done.
“I might deserve to be hexed for admitting this,” Ron said slowly, as though he was truly reluctant to say anything, “I’ve considered it, too . . . that he might have just scarpered and they haven’t really found anything. It seems too neat, doesn’t it?” He recoiled slightly from the glare that Ginny was shooting at him. “I just mean . . . He does have a history of leaving because he thinks that it would keep you safe, and if something with Lestrange . . . “
“He wouldn’t have done,” Ginny said furiously. “I don’t understand how you, his best friend -”
“Relax, I don’t really think that’s what happened, OK. I just said I’ve considered it.”
“Why’d you even bring it up then?”
James’s eyes were drooping, so Ron placed him in the crib and tucked him in with an ease that would have been unheard of six months earlier. Both he and Hermione had improved in their child care skills as quickly as Ginny had, an unsurprising fact given that they had spent almost as much time with James as she had. In the beginning she thought it was merely because they were taking their role as godparents to the extreme, and that they would be around less as time went on. The opposite had happened though, and now she wondered if they were around as much as they were because they, like she, missed Harry.
“I guess I was just trying to find some sense in it. For it to happen when everything was going so well for you two. . . ” Ron said, a slight crease between his brows. Ginny recognized that look. It had been an almost permanent fixture on Ron’s face for at least a month after the hard to forget night when she’d told the rest of the family she was pregnant.
Amidst all the congratulations and celebration two of the family didn’t seem at all happy. One of them was Percy, and his furious reaction was entirely predictable because he’d never been happy about Ginny’s relationship with Harry. Ron had looked equally displeased, a surprise to all except Harry, and it wasn’t until later that night when both men had disappeared that the truth came out. Ron had been questioning Harry’s late night appearance at his and Hermone’s house a few evenings earlier. He thought at first that it had something to do with the pregnancy, but Harry had confessed the truth about what happened with Dudley. Ginny and Hermione had exited the house seconds before Ron threw a well aimed punch.
It had taken a very long time for Ron’s anger to dissipate, even after Ginny telling him that she didn’t blame Harry for what happened. For a time, she and Hermione worried that Ron might not get over it at all. He eventually came around, though keeping a close eye on Harry for a month after he and Ginny had moved in together, finally back to normal again just around the time Harry disappeared.
“No,” Ron said in a thoughtful voice, watching James sleeping. “No, I don’t really think that he left on his own . . . I guess I might have believed it before you moved in here, but not after. He was looking forward to everything too much.”
It was reassuring to hear someone else echo her own beliefs, but it always brought them back to the knotty problem of what had happened. If Harry hadn’t left on his own, and if he would have done his best to return home if he’d been taken, then where was he? Why had there been no trace of him other than those ludicrous tabloid reports of sightings?
To try and keep her thoughts from straying down that dark path again, Ginny devoted her time to staring at her sleeping son, as though she hadn’t already memorized everything about his face. She didn’t look up when Ron put his arm around her shoulder and gently squeezed, though she patted his hand in thanks.
“I think that stupid programme is over now,” he said after a few minutes. “Time for us to leave. Unless you wanted us to stay?”
While Ron went to fetch his wife, Ginny’s thoughts turned back to a similar scene where she stood before a crib with a sleeping baby in it: Teddy Lupin. It had been Harry standing with her then as it should be now, not Ron.
Hermione’s entered and started to speak as she was pulling her coat on, but Ron silenced her with a look, and Ginny guessed that it had something to do with the programme, because Hermione looked livid.
“Right,” she said in a bemused sort of way. “We’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“You don’t have to come, you know,” Ginny said, noting how drawn they both looked. “James and I can manage by ourselves. Really, we can.”
“Of course you can,” Hermione said dismissively. “We’ll stop by just to see how he’s doing though.”
It was pointless to argue with them. Ginny knew from experience that she could talk to them until she was blue in the face and they would still show up the next day. She didn’t mind the company, but she rather thought that they could do with some rest and relaxation. Acting as her constant companions was clearly having its effect on their sleep, and making them more short-tempered than usual.
The flat seemed too quiet, and even more empty than usual once Ginny closed the door on Ron and Hermione’s retreating backs. She returned to staring at her sleeping son until her own eyelids started to droop and she was too tired to think, before dragging herself off to bed.
* * *
Gabriel Mercer’s WWN programme was heard all across Britain. Thousands of witches and wizards tuned into it every day, but Ginny hadn’t considered what that meant until the following morning. The Daily Prophet and the WWN were abuzz with Declan Fohn’s accusations and beliefs, and the WWN was flooded with owls from people wishing to register their opinion. Most, Ginny was happy to hear, thought that Fohn was an idiot, and was pandering to those of Voldemort’s sympathizers, that were still free. Several letters happened to be Howlers that went off on-air, shouting about how the management at the WWN could let such a weak, despicable little man say anything against Harry Potter! On the other side of the line, were those who agreed with Fohn and took issue with classification of the Weasleys as one of the most respected families in the Wizarding community.
Ginny found the whole thing frankly ridiculous. She turned off the wireless within minutes. The Daily Prophet received the same treatment. The second she saw the front page taken up completely by a picture of Declan Fohn holding the Evening Prophet and gesturing to her own picture – obviously snapped upon her arrival at the Quidditch stadium the previous morning – her blood pressure had risen.
“Honestly! They have no idea where Lestrange is hiding, there’s been a rash of magical break-ins at Muggle homes, the Cannons have stupidly signed Dragomir Gorgovitch again and they have to report on this?” she ranted to her mother as she crumpled up the paper and threw it away.
The true extent of the programme didn’t hit Ginny until she and Tougas arrived at the Quidditch stadium later that morning.
It was quite usual for a crowd to be milling about the building, hoping to catch sight of one of their favorite players. It wasn’t a crowd of a few dozen though, that met them, but rather a supercharged mob of at least a hundred. Upon seeing Ginny they rushed forwards, and would have trampled their targets had not Ginny and Tougas had the sense to cast Shield Charms.
“This is all because of that stupid programme, isn’t it?” Ginny yelled to Tougas as they forced their way through the crowd.
“Probably,” he said, using an Impediment Jinx on a man with a thick arm who was blocking their path.
It was enough of a challenge to make it through the mob that they didn’t have much effort left for listening to the many things that were being shouted, however one question rose above the rest as they reached the doors.
“How does it feel to know you sullied your own family tree by giving it up to a half-blood who treated you like a common whore?”
Ginny was on the verge of turning back when Tougas grabbed her arm.
“It’ll only encourage them,” he said in an undertone. “If you don’t say anything, it’ll go away faster.”
Ginny decided to heed his advice, which turned out to be wrong. Though she didn’t so much as roll an eye at some of the ludicrous accusations that were everywhere over the next few weeks, the story seemed to grow bigger and bigger, making it harder to get to work and for the Harpies to practice owing to the number of attempted fly-bys. It made Rossi and Tougas’s investigation into Keddle’s stalker all the more difficult as well. It was only a matter of time before their continued presence at stadium caught people’s attention, and within days the news was out about Keddle’s stalker. Hermione seemed to be right about him being scared away, because over the next weeks he didn’t try to contact Keddle at all, not that he would have been able to with the growing number of people who were congregating about the stadium each day.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Jordana thundered, a few days before Christmas, when Rhea Jordan came to tell her that they had thwarted another person trying to ride over their enchantments on a Comet Two-Ninety. “We’re never going to get any work done unless we deal with this.”
So it was that Ginny was sitting at a long table with her six teammates, their reserve players, Jordana and Adrasteia Gerard the day before Christmas Eve. She had tried to convince Jordana that a press conference was a bad idea, that the reporters were bound to make it about Fohn and Keddle’s stalker, but she couldn’t prevent it from happening.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Jordana said, standing up and addressing the two-dozen reporters in the room. “As you are no doubt aware there have been some sensational reports regarding several members of this team.” There was a general murmur of agreement. Jordana raised herself up to full height and stared down at the reporters in her best intimidating manner. “I want it known that we will not be answering any of those questions today. This panel is here to discuss Quidditch, and only Quidditch.”
Ginny thought she was asking for a lot, and knowing how these sorts of conferences usually went, she thought Jordana was expecting the impossible. She could already see a great deal of disappointed expressions.
“Ginny, stop,” Gwenog said quietly, grabbing Ginny’s wrist and pulling her hand off the table. Ginny hadn’t realized she’d been twisting her ring nervously, catching the eye of a reporter in the third row who was scribbling madly.
“Sorry,” she said, and resumed twisting her ring in her lap where none but her teammates could see.
“Our first question comes from Jetta Jettison, Which Broomstick?” Jordana said. A tall, willowy woman dressed all in black stood up.
“Thank you. This first question is for Ginny Weasley.” Ginny grimaced inwardly though she knew Jetta to be a great reporter who wasn’t at all prone to tabloid journalism. “How does it feel to be back?”
“You have no idea,” Ginny said truthfully and emphatically. “I didn’t realize how much I missed the game until I came back and started playing again.”
“She also didn’t realize how out of practice she would be,” Gwenog said, making the entire room, including every member of the team, laugh. “She’ll be ready for that first game against the Cannons, don’t worry.”
“Do you think your chances for the Quidditch Cup are better this year than they’ve been for the last few years?” Jetta asked, before sitting down. The rule was a maximum of two questions.
“Definitely,” Gwenog said, and everyone up and down the table agreed. “Practices have already shown a marked improvement over last year, and we’re devising a whole new training regime to ensure we get that cup this year. And before you ask: no we’re not giving details. We want to win, not give our opponents the upper hand.”
Next up was Zale Zephyros, a tall, dark skinned man from Quidditch Quarterly.
“As Jordana mentioned, there are quite a few things off the pitch that could affect your performance, as has happened over the past two seasons. What steps have you taken to prevent personal affairs affecting your performance?”
A hush fell over the room. This was a Quidditch question, but one that trod very close to the line of the personal, and obviously directed at Ginny and Keddle. Ginny cast a glance at Jordana and saw that she was frowning, apparently debating whether to object to it. The decision was taken out of her hands.
“Try to keep your focus on the task at hand rather than worrying what’s going on off the pitch,” Keddle said, with a quick glance at Ginny, who nodded. She couldn’t have said it better herself.
Zephyros pulled a skeptical face, as did many of the other reporters in the room.
“Onwards and upwards.” Gwenog replied. “We’re not going to let past issues prevent us from getting the cup this year.”
“It would make for interesting games, that is true,” Zephyros said. “But, forgive me for saying this: It seems more likely then ever that performance would suffer. The mad man hasn’t been caught yet, has he? As any parent knows, sleepless nights don’t give way to your best performance.”
“I don’t recall asking for commentary,” Jordana said. “Please take your seat.”
Zephyros sat down and immediately began writing furiously fast. He seemed to be imitating the woman from the third row who’d been watching Ginny twist her ring, and was the next called by Jordana.
“Hazel Pryer, Witch Weekly.”
“Thank you,” she said, leaping to her feet. She was wearing an unnaturally large smile that showed her dazzlingly bright teeth. Ginny felt her stomach knot. She didn’t like that look, especially in a reporter from Witch Weekly. Since when did that magazine have any interest in Quidditch?
“My first question is for the entire team: Practice and training obviously take up much of your time. How do you balance your commitments to the team with the rest of your life?”
“During the season there isn’t much of a balance at all,” Dylan responded, getting the nod from the rest of the team. “We’re dead on our feet when we get home. Thankfully we all have understanding family and friends.”
“It is wonderful to have the support and understanding. What of those who might be too young to understand though, like your son, Ginny?”
The entire room held it’s collective breath for several very long seconds while Ginny and the reporter tried to stare each other down. Like with Zephyros, the question still fit within Jordana’s guidelines because it was asked in the context of the game, but it was quite obvious that the true meaning of the question lay very far outside the bounds of the pitch.
Ginny wasn’t sure she had an answer to the question, even if she had been inclined to answer it. What was more, the reporters in the room seemed to take her non-response as some sort of cue. Many more of them started making notes, and the general air of ordered excitement began to crumble. The room was getting noisier every second.
“We’ll take another question,” Jordana said loudly. “Please remember to confine your questions to our sport.”
She might as well have saved her breath, because next moment half a dozen of the many reporters in the room jumped to their feet and started shouting questions, their words tumbling over each other.
“Is it true that your stalker -”
” – Cropping of Devil’s Snare -”
” – Was in your house?”
” – Is this true?”
” – Feel about the Auror office’s handling of the Harry Potter -”
” – True that he looks like Harry Potter?”
” – Chances for the Quidditch cup are worse because of all that’s going on?”
“Miss, Weasley, your comments on Declan Fohn’s insistence on using you and the disappearance of Harry Potter to further his political agenda?”
Ginny almost said something at this last question, but Gwenog stopped her again. They had foreseen that this sort of thing might happen and had come up with a contingency plan for just such an occurrence. When it became clear that they were not going to get the reporters back on track, the entire team stood up as one and left the room.