Drizzle drifted down in the cool dusk, settling in tiny shining beads upon the smooth brown grain of the garden bench. The muted singing of birds came across the fields like a soft breeze over the muffled grunts of the gnomes beyond the hillock.
‘What are you doing out there in the dark, Harry?’ Ginny’s voice drifted down through the drizzle.
He started, ice jolting through his veins. ‘Brooding.’
‘It’s getting to be more of a habit than a hobby at this point.’ Ginny stuck her head out of her bedroom window above him. ‘Are you feeling like you want to brood by yourself, or would you like some company? We could brood together? A co-brood. Dual-brooding?’
‘You’re really ruining the brooding vibe, Gin.’
She swung one pyjama clad leg over the window sill and ducked her head out. ‘Well, if it’s ruined, I might as well come down.’
‘Using the stairs?’ Harry watched her swing her other leg out and clamber down the drainpipe. ‘That was smooth.’
‘Not the first time I’ve done it.’ Gin grinned and tossed her red hair over her shoulder. ‘Mum always seemed to think my bedtime should be about an hour before everyone else’s, so I’d sneak back out after.’
‘When is your bedtime?’
‘Who cares.’ She waved a hand at the light pouring from the kitchen windows around the corner of the house. ‘Mum’s in there anyway.’
‘It’s only eleven.’ Harry glanced at his watch. ‘And only just eleven at that, you should be okay. You’re not a kid.’
‘Yeah, mum’s logic was always weird. It was fine to send me back to school under the Carrows to be tortured, but apparently not for me to stay up past ten aged fifteen?’ Gin snorted. ‘I’ve been sneaking down that drainpipe since the end of my first year.’
‘You’re good at it.’ He drew a line through the specks of drizzle on the bench, smearing the gleaming drops into one long blur and watching it trickle over the edge of the table.
She flicked the droplet away into the grass with one finger and grinned. ‘So, what were you brooding about?’
‘I hadn’t actually got as far as a specific brooding topic,’ Harry murmured. ‘I was just watching the drizzle.’
‘Amateur level brooding.’ Gin pulled her wand out of her pyjama sleeve and conjured a faint bubble of magic. ‘There, that’s better, I’m not really dressed for rain.’
He eyed the swirling golden snitches on her white top. ‘You’re going to get cold.’
‘Not yet, I’m not.’ She twirled her wand in her fingers, spinning it round and round in a dark blur. ‘Let me guess… What could Harry be brooding about…?’
‘I’ll give you three guesses,’ Harry said.
Gin’s grin widened. ‘Malfoy. You’re heartbroken he’s dating someone?’
He chuckled. ‘Got it in one. I can’t believe he’d hurt Hermione like that, they had so much chemistry together. Everyone loves enemies to lovers.’
‘Explosive chemistry.’ She leant her head back and laughed a soft, high laugh, her white teeth flashing in the dusk. ‘How about… you’re really upset because Rita Skeeter only wrote about you on page three?’
‘Actually, page three is the best page.’ Harry smothered a laugh. ‘Sorry, that was a muggle newspaper joke.’
‘The Sun.’ Gin grinned. ‘I know.’
‘Do I want to know how?’ He frowned. ‘Or why? Page three isn’t infamous for having hot guys on it.’
‘Nothing for you to worry about.’ She patted him on the arm. ‘Okay, I’ve cheered you up a bit, so now for the serious guess. You’ve got no idea what to do with yourself now, do you?’
The humour drained away, the anxiety gnawing at his gut. ‘I would’ve preferred another funny one.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ Gin slid a little closer on the bench, brushing her elbow against his. ‘You know, you can do whatever you want to, now, right? There’s nothing you have to do.’
‘I know.’ Harry sighed. ‘But I don’t actually know what I want to do.’
‘Have some fun?’ She bumped him in the ribs with her elbow. ‘All the things you couldn’t do before?’
‘I’m not sure I know what that would be,’ he muttered.
‘Well, there’s no rush, you know,’ Gin replied. ‘You don’t have to decide right this second, or today, or tomorrow, or even this week. Just take a bit of time to breathe and do it when you’re ready to do it.’
‘I mean, I have to do something.’
‘Take Kingsley up on his offer?’ She cocked her head, a curious gleam in her brown eyes. ‘There are still a few Death Eaters lurking out there. He’d love to have you as some kind of auror.’
‘I could…’ Harry weighed it up. ‘But I’m not really sure I want to. I only beat Voldemort by luck, I’d probably get killed on the first day.’
‘How about doing what Ron and Hermione are doing? Or my brothers?’ Gin glanced back at the yellow light shining across the grass. ‘There’s plenty of things you can do, you just have to apply to one and go for it. Hermione’s doing her NEWTs and then a professional qualification so she can go into working at the Ministry and keep changing things.’
‘And Ron?’ He flashed her a smile. ‘I can’t imagine Ron’s keen on doing that.’
She laughed. ‘No. But he wants to have his own thing too, so he’s signed himself up to a bunch of chess tournaments.’
‘Yeah, there’s a sporting championship. Little competitions. He did it when he was younger, but then dropped it when he went to Hogwarts.’ Gin spun her wand in her fingers. ‘You should talk to them about it. Mostly Hermione, I always go talk to her when I’m not sure about things.’
‘School stuff. Boys. Whatever.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, Harry. Boys.’
‘Huh.’ He frowned. ‘Did she tell you to date Dean and Michael?’
‘Not quite.’ Gin grinned. ‘She told me to do my own thing and be me, and if you were going to notice, you’d notice.’
‘Well I did.’
‘Yeah, and then you broke up with me to run off around the country.’
‘It wasn’t safe,’ Harry murmured. ‘You know it wasn’t.’
‘It’s done now. I know.’ She offered him a small smile. ‘And it’s for the best, you know. I was trying to be someone I’m not, dating Dean, and Michael, and then I felt like I had to be that girl when I was dating you, because she was the one that got your attention, not me.’
Gin shrugged. ‘Don’t be. It’s done now.’
‘Yeah…’ He ran a hand through his cold damp hair and patted it dry on his t-shirt, staring out over the hillock at a distant moon and the scatter of stars hanging on the velvet veil of night beyond. ‘I guess I’ll think of something.’
She laughed her soft high laugh. ‘You can always fix up Grimmauld, that will keep you busy forever.’
Ron scraped butter over his toast with a short, flat knife, sipping tea from a chipped mug. A faded unicorn wearing a striped hat on its horn smiled at Harry from beside the handle.
‘Cute mug, mate.’ He flopped into the seat opposite him. ‘Yours?’
‘Yup.’ Ron grinned. ‘Bill got it for me a couple years back. The hat changes colours depending what’s in the mug.’ He tugged a stack of papers across the table. ‘Got to do these this morning!’
‘What are those?’ Harry squinted at the forms. ‘And why are you so keen to do them? You would have sawed off your own leg to avoid writing three lines at school.’
‘Chess stuff.’ Ron tapped the stack with the handle of the butter knife. ‘I have to sign a bunch of things to be able to play and then fill in all my personal details.’
‘Huh,’ Harry murmured. ‘You’re really doing this, then.’
‘Yup.’ Ron set down his knife and took a huge bite of toast, spilling crumbs down his front. ‘Promised Hermione I wouldn’t just sit about. And if I need to do something, might as well be something I enjoy, right?’
‘Yeah. Might as well.’
‘Plus I kind of want to do something. Charlie, Bill, Percy, the twins, they’re all off doing their own thing. I’d like that, too.’ Ron took a gulp of tea and winced. ‘Ow. Shit. That was hot.’
Ron gave him a thumbs up. ‘All good.’ He swiped crumbs off his stack of forms. ‘What about you? No more Voldemort now, mate. You can go play quidditch, you’re a bloody great seeker. You should sign yourself up to some trials or something. They’d definitely give you a shot.’
‘Yeah… I could.’ Harry pictured himself floating in the quidditch stands like Krum at the world cup. ‘I don’t know. Not sure I know what I want, to be honest, mate.’
‘Be you.’ Ron scratched the back of his head. ‘Just between us, I was always trying to be like Charlie, or Bill, or Dad before the war, and it doesn’t work. You have to be you. I figured that out after I was a prick in the Forest of Dean.’
But who am I? Harry Potter? He stifled a sigh. I wish I had some kind of ambition like Hermione. Even Ron wants his own thing.
A quiet step creaked at the door.
Ron glanced up. ‘Oh, hey Ginny.’ He shot her a grin and waved the butter at her. ‘You come to stick your elbow in something?’
‘Oh shut up, Ronniekins,’ she retorted, dropping into the seat next to Harry and smoothing her dark skirt over her legs. ‘You think Lavender didn’t talk to all her friends about her boyfriend?’
Ron grimaced and raised his hands. ‘Truce.’
‘Smart man.’ Gin swept her red hair over her shoulder. ‘Hermione’s looking for you by the way. Before she leaves to go find her parents.’
‘Ah. Right.’ Ron crammed his toast into his mouth with both hands and snatched up his forms and mug. ‘Catch you later,’ he mumbled.
Gin watched him out the door, picking bits of fluff of her white blouse and flicking them away onto the floor.
‘Ron didn’t leave much breakfast,’ Harry said.
‘It’s fine, I’m not all that hungry yet.’ She leant back in her chair. ‘I was going to go gnome hunting in a bit if you’re game.’
‘Why not. I don’t have much else on.’
‘I can do that while we gnome hunt, don’t worry.’ Harry frowned. ‘What does gnome hunting entail?’
‘Hunting down all their tunnel entrances and closing them off,’ Gin said. ‘It doesn’t take too long now we can use magic and I’ve got nothing to do all summer anyway.’
‘I can teach you how to brood?’
She laughed. ‘I’ll pass. You seemed to object to me ruining your brooding time yesterday.’
‘I didn’t,’ he murmured. ‘I appreciate you coming to talk to me. It’d probably be easier for you to keep your distance, really.’
Gin cocked her head, a small smile on her lips. ‘Why would I want to keep my distance? You’re my friend.’
A soft, warm glow settled in Harry’s chest. ‘Thanks, Gin. I’m probably just being stupid about this, it’s not like I actually have any real problems.’
‘If it’s a problem for you, then it’s a real problem.’ She pushed back her chair and stood. ‘Want to talk about it while we hunt for gnomes?’
‘If you don’t mind…?’
‘I don’t.’ Gin pulled her wand out and strode into the garden barefoot through the damp grass.
Harry stuffed his feet into his trainers and hurried after her. ‘Aren’t you cold?’
‘I like being able to feel what I’m walking on,’ she said, curling her slim toes into the grass. ‘Most of the time.’
‘Fair enough.’ Harry tugged his wand out of his back pocket. ‘Where do we start?’
‘Over the rise.’ Gin wandered up the slope, twirling her wand in her fingers. ‘There’s always one there.’ She paused at the summit. ‘So, I guess I’m going to have to drag it out of you, like always…’
Harry gave her a rueful smile. ‘Sorry.’
‘Same as what was bothering you before?’ Gin asked, waving her wand at a pile of dirt.
The mud swept back into the hole and plugged it shut.
‘Kind of…’ Harry sighed. ‘I agree with what everyone says about finding something I want to do, but I have no idea what that is.’
‘But that’s fine,’ she said, leading him along the top of the hillock through the long glistening grass. ‘You’re not meant to just magically know, you have to find out.’
He followed her, frowning as the cold dew soaked through his shoes. ‘What about you?’
Gin turned on her heel and smiled. ‘I’m still looking, but… I’m getting an idea, I think. I had to do some growing up and getting to know myself.’
‘I’m not sure I’ve really done that,’ he said.
‘Growing up?’ She laughed. ‘You’re not a giant, but you’re tall enough.’
Harry chuckled. ‘No, getting to know myself. I was just stopping Voldemort all this time, really. There was always something more important than me going on.’
Gin pursed her lips, filling in a few more holes with a flick of her wand. ‘But that is part of who you are. You’re the sort of person who wants to stop bad people doing bad things. You always have been.’
‘I’m sure you enjoy beating them a bit, too. I would,’ she said. ‘Maybe being an auror isn’t such a bad idea?’
‘Maybe…’ Harry frowned. ‘But Hermione, Ron, everyone is finding something for themselves.’ He stared down at his damp feet and the stray fronds of grass stuck to his jeans. ‘I think I’d like that, or I’m going to get left behind.’
Gin motioned down the hill with her head, drifting toward the orchard and the cluster of small fruit trees growing amongst the long grass. ‘But that’s fine, you need to have your own thing, or you’ll have nothing for when everyone else is doing theirs.’
‘That’s kind of what I was thinking. I just… I don’t know what it would be.’ Harry watched her fingers brush through the leaves of the small fruit trees, her red hair bright as flames beneath their slim branches. ‘Every time I think about it, I just end up stuck on what Harry Potter would do. People seem to think I should go around saving everyone and be like Dumbledore, but I’m not brilliant like he was. Nowhere near. Harry Potter feels about as much me as Dumbledore does.’
Gin sat down on a stack of logs beneath a gnarled pear tree and patted the spot beside her. ‘You know, I always hated my name. Ginevra—’ she wrinkled her nose ‘— it sounds like a chocolate frog card.’
Harry snorted. ‘You’re definitely a Gin or a Ginny in my head.’
She smiled. ‘I don’t feel all that much like a Ginny either anymore. Ginny was that silly little girl from my first year. She died in the Chamber of Secrets.’
‘Not really, though.’
‘Not no heartbeat dead, but Ginny died and was reborn into me. Like a phoenix. I’m not the scared naive child who stuck her elbow in that butter dish and nearly fed her childhood crush to a basilisk. Even if I have the same name, who I am is different.’
‘I guess…’ Harry frowned down at the knotted bark between his knees. ‘But you’re not completely different either.’
‘No, but neither is a phoenix,’ Gin replied. ‘I lost my shyness, my naivety, all sorts of things. Really, it would make more sense if I changed my name, but that’s pretty impractical and everyone would get confused.’
Harry turned that over. ‘I still don’t think it’s the same as being reborn like a phoenix, you’re not dying and reappearing as a baby you, you’re changing. It feels different to me.’
The corner of her mouth crooked. ‘Maybe not a phoenix rising from the ashes, then, but a snake shedding its skin.’ Gin shifted on the logs, brushing her knee against his. ‘You said you get stuck on what Harry Potter would do, but maybe you just need to shed what other people think you should be and be who you want to be.’
‘Maybe…’ Harry stared up through the gnarled branches and little green leaves at the clouds, trying to ignore the warmth of her leg against his. ‘I’d still have to figure out who I want to be really is, though.’
‘There’s no rush.’ Gin rested a hand on his shoulder with a gentle smile. ‘If what everyone thinks of Harry Potter doesn’t feel quite who you are and who you want to be, then you can become someone else. Someone you want to be. And it takes however long it takes.’
And I’d get there eventually. Like Hermione and Ron and everyone else has.
A flood of relief swept through him and he breathed out the stress into the cool orchard air. ‘Thanks, Gin.’
‘That’s okay.’ She grinned. ‘It’s nice to be able to talk about this stuff for me, too. I think my family still think of me as little Ginny, so it’s nice for you to really see me.’
‘Do you mind me calling you, Gin?’ Harry asked. ‘Would you prefer something else?’
‘Gin’s fine. We can make jokes about drinking.’ Ginny laughed her high, soft laugh. ‘And it’s just a way of explaining how I feel, that Ginny was the little girl who died in the Chamber and another girl was born instead. I don’t even know what her name is, it doesn’t really matter, she’s me, so I could pick any name I wanted—’ she paused, twirling her wand in her fingers ‘—even something random like… like… Emily.’
The kettle whistled, spouting steam over the sink as Mrs Weasley bustled back and forth across the kitchen floor humming under her breath.
‘Here you go, Harry.’ She pressed a mug of warm tea into his hands with a smile.
‘Er, thanks.’ He took a sip. ‘Can I help?’
‘Oh that’s very kind of you, but no,’ Mrs Weasley said. ‘You’ve done so much for us, you don’t have to lift a finger here, Harry.’
‘I don’t mind…’
‘You go have a seat in the other room, dear,’ she said. ‘This small kitchen will fill up soon as I get started on dinner. I quite like just messing around in here with everything. It’s a bit of peace and quiet away from my boys, you know.’
‘If you’re sure.’ He drifted out, sipping his tea.
‘Oh you were in the kitchen.’ Hermione kicked off her shoes. ‘I went outside looking for you.’
Harry glanced at the light rain pattering on the window. ‘Sorry.’
‘It’s okay.’ She brushed damp grass off her socks. ‘I’ve found you now. Ron said you were brooding.’
‘Not you, too.’ He sighed. ‘I was just trying to figure out what to do with myself now Voldemort’s gone.’
‘Well—’ Hermione rested her hands on her hips ‘—do something productive, so you don’t get all listless and broody all the time. You could come back and finish your NEWTs like I am, but you’ll probably have to go next year now…’
‘I’m not sure I fancy working in the Ministry,’ he said.
‘There are other places to work, Harry.’ Her eyebrows drew down into a shallow vee. ‘Not that you need to work. Didn’t Gringotts give you a commission on all the goblin artefacts they got back from Death Eater vaults.’
‘They did.’ He snorted. ‘I’m an official goblin friend. They did deduct a fee for the escaped dragon, though it wasn’t as much as you’d expect for something like a dragon.’
‘You know they’re just trying to avoid getting a bad reputation for nearly killing us and not resisting Voldemort, right?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘They’re not going to give you anything for Macnair or anyone else still lurking out there, they’ve made their political gesture now.’
‘I’m not an idiot, Hermione.’ Harry shrugged. ‘But between that commission and my parents, I can probably live modestly without working.’
Gin drifted down the stairs, yawning behind her arm and leaving a lingering scent of apples.
‘You need to buy a house,’ Hermione said. ‘Houses in the wizarding world aren’t cheap, I’ve been looking for in a few years’ time. They’re all old manors or in small wizarding communities, and wizards and witches live a long time. Demand is much higher than supply. You won’t be able to afford one if you’re not working.’
‘Out of the kitchen, Ginny darling,’ Mrs Weasley said. ‘I’m cooking, sweetheart.’
Harry caught Gin’s eye as she retreated and gave her a smile. ‘I’ve got Grimmauld Place.’
Hermione laughed. ‘That place would take a lot of fixing, and you have to find a way to get Walburga off the wall.’
‘I might do that anyway. Sirius always wanted her gone.’
Gin pointed at the mug in his hands. ‘Do you want that? Mum’s barred me from the kitchen but I am dying for a cup of tea.’
Harry surrendered his drink with a smile. ‘All yours, Gin.’
‘It’s still worth having something to do,’ Hermione said, glancing between the two of them with a faint frown. ‘You need to be productive.’
‘Well, I suppose I can take Rita Skeeter up on her offer of an autobiography.’ He laughed. ‘I’d probably make some money from that. I could become the new Lockhart, Hermione. Only I don’t like aubergine colour, I’m more into reds.’
Hermione hid a smile behind her hand. ‘His favourite colour was lilac not aubergine.’
‘You know Kingsley wants to talk with you,’ she said. ‘I bumped into him at Hogwarts.’
‘The Death Eater who tried to behead Buckbeak?’ Gin perked up, shaking her red hair out and sweeping it over her shoulders. Tiny gold snitches circled her earlobes, fluttering their white wings. ‘With an axe?’
Hermione nodded. ‘Yes. That’s him.’
‘Why?’ Harry asked.
‘He said he wants to hear your thoughts to see if you can help track him down and catch him,’ Hermione replied. ‘But I think he’s trying to lure you into the fold and borrow your prestige for good press since the aurors still haven’t caught any of the Death Eaters who escaped.’
‘Probably is.’ Harry groaned. ‘I’d rather not, really. Not just for some song and dance in the Daily Prophet.’
She smiled. ‘I didn’t make any promises for you, don’t worry.’
‘Good. I don’t even know anything that might help. Kingsley should focus on catching him and not on whatever headline he hopes for.’
A small smile flitted across Gin’s face. ‘Sure you don’t want to be an auror?’
Hernione pursed her lips. ‘I think if Harry chooses to become an auror, he won’t end up doing much real auror work. They’ll show him off for good press and then promote him somewhere he can do a lot of that sort of stuff because he’s Harry Potter... It might not be what you’re hoping for, Harry. Sorry.’
‘Probably,’ he muttered. ‘I guess I can cross auror off the list.’
Hermione patted him on the shoulder. ‘There are other ways to help people, Harry. You’ll find one that suits you.’
Gin glanced at the clock. ‘You’re going to be late, Hermione. Didn’t you say your flight thing leaves in a few hours.’
‘It does.’ Hermione bit her lip. ‘I’d better get ready and dash off. I hope it goes well, I don’t want my parents to hate me for what I did.’
‘They’ll forgive you,’ Harry said. ‘You did what you thought you had to. Good luck, though.’
‘Thanks, Harry.’ She took a deep breath and let it out. ‘Okay. Here I go.’ Hermione vanished upstairs with a loud crack.
Gin sipped her tea. ‘Her parents are going to be really angry with her. I would be if someone I trusted messed with me like that.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘But she did it for the right reasons and it worked out in the end, so hopefully they can get past it.’
‘Sometimes you have to do a little bad to stop worse,’ she said. ‘Ron told me about the Imperius Curse at Gringotts, you know.’
‘We were out of options.’ Harry swallowed his shame, heat rising on his face. ‘It was all I could think of.’
‘I’m not judging,’ Gin murmured. ‘I would have done the same. It’s not like you used it on someone who didn’t deserve it.’ She cocked her head. ‘What was it like, casting an Unforgivable?’
‘The worst thing in the world,’ he whispered. ‘It’s so ugly.‘
‘It feels that bad?’
Harry shuddered. ‘No. No, it feels good. That’s why it’s so ugly. All that power over someone feels so horribly good.’
Gin shuffled her feet and stared into her tea. ‘You know I half expected you to say it was just awful.’
‘That’s what Harry Potter would say, I’m not really any kind of saint.’ He sighed. ‘I’m sure Hermione told you that when you asked for help with boys.’
A faint smile crossed her face. ‘She mentioned you had a temper and a bit of a competitive streak.’
‘That Imperius isn’t the first Unforgivable I tried,’ Harry muttered, glancing around. ‘When Bellatrix killed Sirius I chased after her and tried to hurt her like she hurt me.’
‘Yes.’ He shivered. ‘I didn’t do a good job of it and then Voldemort turned up.’
Gin took a long sip of tea. ‘What if he hadn’t?’
Harry stared down at his toes. ‘I think I would have learnt how to do it right.‘ The hairs prickled on the nape of his neck. ‘I was so angry.’
‘I guess it’s good you didn’t get the chance.’
‘Although,’ she murmured. ‘If you had stopped her then, she wouldn’t have been able to hurt Hermione or Tonks or anyone.’
He flinched. Guilt twisted beneath his ribs, sharp and raw enough to catch the breath in his throat.
Gin twitched. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. You shouldn’t feel bad.’
‘It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it that way.’
She took a slow drink, swirling the tea in her mug. ‘You know, Hermione is probably right about being productive.’
‘Hard to be productive when you don’t know what to do,’ he said.
Gin smiled. ‘You could fix up Grimmauld over the summer a bit like she suggested? It’s something to do while you take time to figure things out.’
‘Not sure I want to be there with just me and Kreacher. He’s not exactly going to have missed me.’
She cocked her head. ‘I’ll come. I can help. I’m really not doing anything here. Mum and dad won’t mind. It’s you.’
‘Maybe Ron and Hermione will come and help, too.’
‘Ask them,’ Gin replied. ‘I’m not sure they’ll be able to, but it’s worth asking even if Hermione might want to spend some time fixing things with her parents and Ron’s busy with his chess.’
‘Oh…’ He frowned. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t ask. I don’t want her to feel bad saying no.’
She flashed him a smile. ‘Up to you. I’m in either way. And, you know, maybe this Grimmauld thing can be part of you having your own thing now Hermione and Ron have theirs.’
Harry mulled it over. ‘Maybe you’re right.’
Gin grinned. ‘It can be your chrysalis period. You can figure everything out while in Grimmauld and then come out the other side as a beautiful butterfly.’
He shot her a dry look and waved his arms. ‘Flap. Flap.’
She laughed. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘I do.’ Harry swallowed and reached out, cupping her warm hands around the mug.
Gin’s brown eyes flicked up. ‘Harry?’
‘Sorry, that was weird of me.’ He dropped his arms. ‘I just wanted to say I really appreciate you talking to me about this stuff. Everyone kind of just expects Harry Potter to know what to do. Not Ron and Hermione, of course, but they’re busy with their own things now.’
She beamed. ‘That’s okay, Harry. It’s what friends do. And we are friends.’
Right. Friends. He smothered a sigh. Which is my fault. Even if it was the right thing to do. Realisation hit him like a hammer and a lead weight settled on his heart. Oh. That’s what she means about Hermione’s parents. It’s what I did to her, isn’t it.
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured.
‘What for?’ Gin asked, swiping a strand of red hair away from her face.
‘For when I left you behind.’ Harry grimaced. ‘I didn’t want to, Gin, but you couldn’t come with us. And it was safer we weren’t together…’
She nodded. ‘I know why you did it, Harry. It’s fine. It’s done.’ Gin’s fingers tightened around the mug of tea. ‘It’s just – we could have lied, you know. It would have been the same to everyone else, but to me…’
‘I thought it would be safer if you believed it,’ he whispered. ‘I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me.’
‘You’re already forgiven,’ she replied. ‘If you weren’t, I wouldn’t come and help you fix that wreck of a house.’
The weight lifted from his breast. ‘Thank you.’
‘Why are you even apologising for this now?’ Gin demanded.
‘Hermione’s parents,’ he muttered. ‘She hurt them without asking because she thought it was best. And no, I didn’t Memory Charm you or send you to Australia, but it’s still the same.’
‘You were more honest,’ she said. ‘You told me why, even if you didn’t tell me you really didn’t want to.’ Gin stared into her tea. ‘You didn’t say that at all until now…’
Harry winced. ‘I figured you knew.’
‘I hoped. I didn’t know.’ She puffed her cheeks. ‘It’s done now. Let’s just leave it behind us. We’re friends. We’ve got a house to fix. You’ve got enough to brood over as it is.’
‘I can always manage more brooding.’ He snorted. ‘I can’t believe Ron told Hermione like he was tattling to his mum. What a git.’
Ginny laughed. ‘Of course he did. Ron couldn’t keep a secret from Hermione to save his life.’ She finished her tea and bounced the mug in her hands. ‘Let me ditch this and tell mum about my new summer plans. We can head there whenever you’re ready after?’
A faint smile tugged at the corners of Harry’s mouth. ‘Yeah. Alright.’
Dust and cobwebs coated the windows, bits of broken table and chairs scattered the stone floor and the cupboards gaped open, doors hanging off their hinges.
‘Wow, charming place.’ Gin laughed. ‘It’s got even nicer since the last time we were here.’
‘We botched the Fidelius when we were on the run,’ Harry said. ‘It probably got ransacked.’
She picked her way through the mess and twisted the tap. A low groan echoed through the house and brown water sputtered into the sink.
‘Well, that’s not very nice.’ Gin turned it off. ‘We should probably sort out this room and a bathroom and a couple of bedrooms first, so we’ve got somewhere to live.’
Harry took a deep breath. ‘Kreacher!’
Silence hung in the house.
‘Begone from my home!’ Walburga shrieked from the hall.
‘Damn, I forgot about her,’ he muttered, closing the door to muffle the shouting. ‘I guess Kreacher’s dead, otherwise he’d have appeared.’
‘I saw him at the battle at Hogwarts, but not in the aftermath,’ Gin said.
‘He was a bit old for fighting,’ Harry murmured. ‘I should have noticed. He was a horrible elf but still…’
‘You can’t be there for everyone, Harry,’ she said. ‘You already did plenty of that.’
‘I know.’ He pulled his wand out of his back pocket. ‘I agreed to meet Kingsley here in private, but after that, I’m out. Going to do what everyone keeps saying I should and take a bit of time to figure things out for myself.’
Gin smiled, sweeping her hair back over her ear. ‘Good. I think that’s the right thing to do.’ She pulled out her wand. ‘Where shall we start? We could tidy this mess up and get started on the plumbing? Or start with a bedroom? Or the bathroom? The bathroom will probably lead us back to plumbing though.’
‘I have no idea…’
Gin grinned. ‘Your house, your call. Pick one, any one.’
‘Might as well start here.’ He glanced around. ‘Any good spells?’
‘Mum knows a whole bunch of cleaning spells, taught all of us.’ She twirled her wand in her fingers. ‘Always used to joke the incantation was dustus bustus but it’s restituo.’
‘Restituo?’ Harry jabbed his wand at the dust.
‘More of an upward flick with the wand at the end,’ Gin said. ‘It’s not really cleaning, it’s like a minor restoring spell. Works pretty well on most things.’
‘Restituo,’ he murmured, trying once more.
A swathe of dust vanished.
‘That’s better.’ She went along the cupboards, fixing them one after the other with a tap of her wand. ‘It’s the plumbing that worries me.’
‘You seem pretty good at this,’ Harry said, stripping the dust away from the surfaces.
Gin laughed her high, soft laugh. ‘I didn’t want mum going through my room, so I had to be able to clean it myself.’
‘Fair.’ He swept the floor clean. ‘Any chance you can put these chairs and the table back together?’
‘Not the first chair I’ll have fixed.’ She grinned. ‘Reparo.’
The pieces rose from the floor, flowing back together into a neat set of oak pieces.
Gin banged her fist on the top and against the table legs. ‘Seems good.’
‘I guess we’ll find out about the chairs when we sit on them,’ he said. ‘After you…’
Her high laughter echoed through the empty house. ‘Know anything about plumbing?’
‘Water goes through pipes?’ Harry gave her a helpless look. ‘Not really my area of expertise.’
She twisted the tap on and watched the brown water spatter into the sink. ‘We might need to find something else to drink…’
Harry watched the water clear with a grimace. ‘It’s better now. Maybe there was just some stuff in the pipes.’
‘Could be.’ Gin cupped her hand under it and drank a little. ‘It’s alright. Tastes a bit like pipe, though.’
‘Bathroom, I reckon. We’re going to want to get clean after tidying this place up.’ She grabbed her bag from beside the battered door frame and pulled out a tub. ‘Let me stick this in a cupboard, first.’
‘What is it?’ Harry asked.
‘Lunch.’ Gin tucked it into the nearest cupboard. ‘I figured we might not have anything to eat otherwise. It’s mum’s beef stew.’
He pulled open the drawers and frowned down into empty slots. ‘We might be a little light on cutlery…’
She shrugged. ‘Can probably manage something.’
‘Alright.’ Harry poked his head out into the hall. ‘Coast is clear, let’s head upstairs.’
They tiptoed up the marble stairs.
Gin trailed her fingers up the worn marble bannister, running them over the carved vine leaves and the roses. ‘It’s kind of nice under all the mess.’
‘Shame about who owned it.’
‘They probably weren’t all awful, you know. Tonks and Sirius weren’t.’ She admired the faded colours of the paintings beneath the damp stains, brushing her fingertips across the cheek of a woman with a faint smile. ‘If we can change all the ruined parts, it’ll be really beautiful.’
‘Need to get rid of Walburga too.’
Gin flashed him a smile. ‘I’m sure there’s a way.’
‘I hope so. I’ve had enough of blood purist wankers for one life,’ he said.
She poked her head in through the doors one by one. ‘This one,’ she called from a couple down on the right. ‘This is the one we used before.’
Harry took one step forward into a cool breeze and wrinkled his nose at the mould-speckled grout and chipped tiles. ‘Lovely.’
Gin backed into him, warm even through the front of his jeans and tee-shirt. ‘Careful,’ she murmured, tilting her head back against his chest and looking up at him with a little spark of mischief in her brown eyes. ‘The window’s smashed and there’s glass everywhere.’
Harry’s eyes slipped down past her small smile to the dark blue lace peeking through the vee of her blouse. ‘We should probably start with that, then.’ He tugged his eyes up to the gentle rain falling through the shattered, full-length window and tried to ignore the heat creeping into his cheeks. ‘Although, the rainwater might be cleaner than what comes out of that bath.’
Gin shifted against him, flourishing her wand with a little smile. ‘Reparo.’ A husky note coloured her voice, sending little jolts of heat rippling south through Harry.
Glass shards melted back into the window and the cold breeze faded.
She stepped away. ‘There we go. All sorted.’
He slipped a hand into his pocket and adjusted himself. ‘Want to try the tap?’
‘Hopefully it cleans up.’ Gin reached over and twisted the ornate silver tap open.
A low hum choed through the walls and dirty water sputtered into the smooth porcelain tub; it choked and ran clear, washing the grains of silt and dust away down the gleaming silver plughole.
‘Is that the hot tap or the cold one? Harry asked, squinting at the worn fancy lettering.
‘Hot.’ Gin grinned. ‘Supposedly.’
‘Cold baths…’ he groaned. ‘Great.’
‘Give it a few more moments,’ she replied. ‘The enchantments can take a while if they’re not used regularly. Aunt Muriel’s spare bathroom used to take an age to get hot when we visited before she died. I remember spending a lot of time sitting naked on the edge of the bath and shivering while the water warmed up.’
Harry stared into the plughole, smothering an image of Gin wearing nothing but her long red hair.
‘Something interesting down there, Harry?’ she asked.
‘I hope not. Probably just some very surprised and soggy spiders.’
‘Or some wet angry doxies.’
Harry snorted. ‘Knowing my luck, it’ll be another basilisk in the plumbing.’
Gin’s lips twisted. ‘Can I ask you a question, Harry?’
He gulped, heat flooding his face. ‘If it’s about me looking down your top a couple moments ago, it was an accident, I swear.’
She shot him an arch look. ‘Sure it was, Harry.’
Gin’s soft high laugh burst through the quiet dilapidated bathroom, echoing back off the battered sapphire tiles. ‘I’m not upset. It’s only natural for you to take a look. It’s not like I don’t know you’re attracted to me, Harry. We did go out briefly.’
‘Still…’ He grimaced. ‘I’m not meant to, am I?’
‘Aren’t you?’ Gin cocked her head. ‘As long as you’re not weird about it, I don’t mind. I certainly would’ve looked if I had the chance to see something I wanted to. It’s just human nature. Even Harry Potter is human.’
‘Well, I still feel bad.’
The corner of her mouth crooked. ‘Only because you got caught, you’d not feel bad if you’d gotten away with it.’ Gin grinned. ‘Although, you caught yourself, because I actually wasn’t going to call you on it. I wanted to ask about Tom…’
Harry frowned. ‘What about Tom?’
The tap spluttered and faint wisps of steam rose up past the ornate silver handle.
‘Success!’ Gin beamed.
‘Thank god for that,’ he muttered. ‘I hate cold baths. Had too many as a kid.’
She twisted the tap shut. ‘Was Tom so terrible?’
‘Tom?’ Harry thought back to the memories he’d glimpsed and the small, withered thing he’d left behind in that other place. ‘No. No he wasn’t. Not really.’
‘Would you tell me a little about him?’ Gin swept the dust away and studied the tiles. ‘After my first year, nobody ever told me anything about Tom. They tiptoed around it. Voldemort wasn’t the same. He was just a scary name, not the real person.’
Harry sat on the edge of the bath. ‘I can tell you what I saw. Dumbledore collected a lot of memories about Tom. It was important to understand him to find his horcruxes.’
‘I think it’s important to understand anyone.’ Gin squeezed in between him and the taps, warm against his leg from knee to thigh. ‘But thank you. And I’m sorry if it’s not great for you to talk about, but, well, he left his mark on me. I can’t not know about him.’
‘No, no it’s fine.’ He sighed. ‘I can be honest with you.’
‘Always,’ she murmured. ‘I won’t ever lie to you. Lying is for people too scared to be themselves.’
Harry snorted. ‘Tom didn’t like liars either. Me neither. We… we aren’t dissimilar, you know. It’s almost eerie.’
‘He was so fascinated by you,’ Gin whispered. ‘It’s what first made me realise maybe he wasn’t what he seemed.’
‘I remember.’ Harry grimaced. ‘Voldemort was too. Tom… Tom grew up alone in an orphanage. Nobody loved him. Or he didn’t think they did. And when he went looking for his family, he found a bunch of really horrible people. It was all blood purist hatred, love potions, and abandonment. I don’t think Tom ever believed love was real because of it. He built his life on it not being real. He chased power and knowledge rather than any kind of affection. In the end, his death was pretty fitting, I think. He understood so much about magic, but not love. And it was what killed him, because he couldn’t figure out magic caused by it, and he refused to value what he didn’t understand.’
‘I think Tom would have been pleased with his death.’
A wry chuckle escaped Harry. ‘I don’t think he wanted to die, Gin. He went to great lengths to avoid it.’
‘But if he had to, I think he would have wanted to die like that. So grandiose. Seen by everyone. Defeated in a dramatic duel decided by magic beyond the reach of even the greatest wizards.’ Gin smiled. ‘Not such a bad way to go when that’s all you believed in.’
‘I guess so.’ A faint smile crept onto Harry’s lips. ‘You’re probably right, actually. He’d be pleased to die pushing the boundaries of magic. Being destroyed by just another person or spell wouldn’t have been right.’ He inspected the mould-speckled mortar between the tiles. ‘You know, I’m kind of glad at the idea that Tom would’ve liked to die as he did.’
She stared up at the damp stains on the ceiling. ‘I’d want to die a fitting death too. Something that’s me, you know. So everyone would know who I am. And understand.’ Gin patted him on the knee. ‘I think he would have liked being defeated by someone who understood him, too. Empathy is such a beautiful thing. A little window into someone else’s soul. Tom had it. I wrote a few words and he saw me, even though I was just silly Ginny.’
‘I feel so horribly sorry for him,’ Harry murmured. ‘I can’t imagine how awful it would have been if I’d come to Hogwarts and learnt my mum had love potioned my dad, got ditched by him and then died after giving birth to me. That my dad was still alive and wanted nothing to do with me, or my uncle thought I was less than human because I wasn’t pure of blood. It’s no wonder he clung to the one thing he could depend on. His own power.’
‘We’re probably the only two people left who really understand Tom,’ she said.
‘Tom, not Voldemort.’ Harry wrinkled his nose. ‘They’re not the same.’
‘Voldemort was a performance,’ Gin murmured. ‘Like kind, handsome prefect Tom Riddle.’
‘Or smart, generous Tom Riddle the shop assistant,’ he said. ‘You know, when I died, he was with me. Or… part of him was. It was so twisted and malformed, but so weak and afraid. I was worried about other things, but now I think about it, that was his soul, who he actually was underneath all his power and knowledge. It’s… sad, really.’
‘I wonder if he could’ve changed.’
‘Maybe, if someone had kept hurling themselves against his refusal to believe until he finally accepted they loved him.’ Harry mustered a smile. ‘I think everyone can change if they have to. Look at Malfoy.’
‘Change is good,’ Gin murmured. ‘Change is pushing boundaries, getting better, improving, like shedding your skin over and over until you’re the best version of yourself you can be.’
Harry snorted and flapped his right arm. ‘Like a beautiful butterfly.’
Her high soft laugh tugged at his heart. ‘In a way, I think it is beautiful. To adapt, to change, to become something more than you were. It’s like an artist chipping away at the marble to gradually reveal the unique masterpiece underneath.’ Gin flashed him a soft smile. ‘And it is unique, because we’re all slightly different, and embracing that is important. Trust me, I’ve got almost as many brothers as I have fingers, it’s important to be a bit different from everyone else you know.’
‘I know. It’s like Hermione, Ron, and I all having our own thing now.’ He waved a hand at the tiles. ‘We should probably try and sort those now. Any ideas?’
‘Mostly the same charms over and over until it’s as good as we can get it,’ she said, pushing herself up off his thigh. ‘You can always get new ones later, it just has to work for now.’
Harry shrugged. ‘On with the show, then.’
Harry stirred milk into his tea, watching it swirl lighter as he rattled the teaspoon around the inside of the mug. ‘Kingsley will be here soon. You don’t have to stick about if you’d rather not. I can’t imagine it’ll be fun.’
Gin leant across the table on her elbows and stole the spoon from his drink. ‘I’ll stay. Just in case you need someone to help you escape.’
He offered her a smile. ‘Thanks, Gin.’
She beamed. ‘What are friends for, right?’
Her high, soft laugh filled the kitchen. ‘Just don’t show Kingsley anything outside of the kitchen, that bathroom and the three rooms we cleared upstairs to use.’
‘We should do the downstairs next.’ Harry glanced through the hall. ‘Walburga’s been pretty quiet so far.’
‘I think that’s because we were upstairs.’
‘You might be right.’
A low chime echoed through the hall. Muffled shrieking followed.
‘Case and point,’ Gin said.
‘I’ll go.’ Harry left his tea and padded out through the hall, tugging one of the curtains across. ‘Shut up, Walburga.’
Sirius’s mother bared her yellowed teeth. ‘This house belongs to the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black.’
‘I know. I’m the last living one who’s not disgraced or wasn’t kicked out.’ He pointed his wand at the painting. ‘And if you don’t behave, I’m going to go to Hogwarts and convince the headmistress to lend me the most annoying paintings she can find to keep you company here.’
Walburga drew herself up. ‘Narcissa—’
‘Disgraced.’ Harry reached for the other curtain. ‘Now be good, or you’re going to spend the foreseeable future listening to a twelfth century knight contemplate poetry.’ He wrenched it across and continued to the door, pulling it open.
Kingsley stood on the step, two aurors at his shoulders. ‘Harry.’
‘Kingsley.’ He glanced at his escort. ‘The house isn’t really up to hosting the Minister for Magic, I’m afraid.’
‘Not a problem.’ Kingsley waved a hand at the pair and they wandered back to the pavement. ‘This is a serious conversation, not some photo opportunity.’
Harry held the door open. ‘You’d best come in. Don’t mind the mess.’ He led Kingsley back to the kitchen. ‘You remember Gin, I’m sure.’
‘Nice to meet you again.’ Kingsley took a seat and collapsed to the floor with a loud snap.
‘Well, that one’s probably going to need more fixing,’ Gin said.
Harry held out his hand. ‘Sorry, best not to risk the other chair, it’s also untested.’
Kingsley dusted himself off, placing his hat on the table. ‘I was hoping you could tell me what you remember of Macnair, Harry. We’re trying to trace his steps, but he wasn’t seen at the final battle of Hogwarts after your… reappearance.’
‘Is he public enemy number one?’ Harry asked.
‘He is.’ Kingsley rubbed his palms together. ‘Macnair, unlike many other Death Eaters, is perhaps more dangerous now than when Voldemort was in power because he’s not being directed at targets we can predict and protect. He enjoys… hunting people. There are accounts of him accompanying Fenrir Greyback on his atrocious raids and we doubt he is hiding so much as biding his time to kill again. More animal than man according to the eyewitness accounts of those raids.’
‘What about the others?’
‘Most have fled the country. We’ll find them abroad, moving carefully and quietly, and then get them back here to stand trial.’ Kingsley frowned. ‘This may not please the media or the public, but it risks the fewest lives. Politics is rarely about doing the right or wrong thing so much as it’s about weighing the consequences of actions. Most of those who ran will live small lives in hiding so long as we don’t pressure them into desperation.’
‘But not Macnair,’ Harry murmured.
‘We doubt he’s hiding, so if we don’t act to stop him, there’ll be serious consequences. Did you see him when you went into the Forbidden Forest?’
‘No, but I wasn’t really tallying names and faces.’
Kingsley’s frown softened. ‘Completely understandable.’ He slipped his hands into his pockets. ‘We will continue our pursuit, then. We have a few leads still to try. Thank you for your time, Harry. I wanted to come personally to avoid any kind of media leak and furor.’
‘Should you wish to find yourself a position in the Ministry or even on the Wizengamot, please do feel free to come speak to me. I can’t do anything as minister, but I would be more than happy to advise a friend.’
Harry grimaced. ‘It’s—’
‘Harry’s taking a bit of time for himself,’ Gin said, leaning forward onto the back of a chair. ‘I’m sure you agree he’s done more than enough for everyone else.’
Kingsley’s eyes flicked between them. ‘Of course. There’s no time limit on the offer. We owe Harry a great debt.’ He picked his hat back up and set it on his head, adjusting it with a glance in the window. ‘Thank you again for your time.’
Harry walked him out, closing the door with a soft thud.
‘Thank you, Walburga,’ he said as he drifted past.
A loud huff came from the closed curtains. ‘A lady of good stead does not heckle the Minister for Magic, you half-blooded child.’
Harry rolled his eyes and returned to the kitchen.
‘Sorry.’ Gin held up her hands. ‘I thought he was about to try and wrangle you, and you’d feel like you had to go because you’re Harry Potter.’
‘It’s fine.’ He gave her a rueful grin. ‘I might’ve done a short while back, but this time I was going to say no.’
‘Good.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘The last thing you need to be doing while figuring out who you are and who you want to be and what you want to do, is trying to play media darling for Kingsley.’
‘Don’t worry, even I’ve figured that much out.’
‘Although…’ Gin’s lips twisted into a grimace. ‘Macnair sounds like Greyback, more wolf than man.’
‘A wolf-cloaked in the skin of a man?’ Harry asked.
‘Not like Umbridge’s stupid anti-werewolf nonsense, no.’ She pushed herself off the chair and swept her hair over her shoulders. ‘But, well, Bill says it’s not all wrong, either. He gets… urges.’
Harry’s eyebrows rose.
‘Only at the full moon,’ Gin said. ‘He gets fighty and competitive. Don’t play exploding snap with him near the full moon.’
‘Sounds normal. Nobody likes losing at exploding snap.’
She grinned. ‘Everyone likes winning, yeah, but I meant fighty literally. He gets a kick out of getting into fights that time of the month. Fleur just banishes him from the house for a week to get it out of his system now. I think he wound her up last time and she set fire to their bed and nearly clawed his ear off.’
‘Weird.’ Harry shrugged. ‘But if they’re happy?’
‘They are.’ Gin cocked her head. ‘I can’t imagine you’ve forgotten Fleur’s not really human, either. She’s got a pretty memorable face.’
He laughed. ‘She does have a memorable face. I guess it’s fair, then. They’re well matched.’
‘Yeah… I wonder if Macnair is like that a bit, maybe he gets a thrill out of it.’
‘It sounds like he gets more than a bit fighty…’
Gin rolled her eyes. ‘I meant like Fenrir Greyback would be, not like Bill. He’s barely affected by the curse. Can you imagine…? Macnair thinking of himself as a wolf and letting his true self out to hunt when he finds prey, like letting go of the leash on the beast.’
‘I guess.’ He shrugged. ‘Not our problem, though. Kingsley’s got aurors to do that.’
‘Unless he fancies picking a fight with the person who killed Voldemort, that’d be a thrill,’ she murmured.
‘He couldn’t possibly do any more damage to this house.’ Harry grinned. ‘I doubt it, though.’
The corner of Gin’s mouth crooked. ‘Well if he bursts in here and wrecks the remaining three chairs, don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
Harry snorted. ‘I’ll probably have my hands full.’
But it is possible. Ice trickled down his spine and his heartbeat quickened. A shadow with a wolfish-grin hovered in the corner of his mind’s eye, poised to spring. Let him come. He’s not scarier than Voldemort was.
‘I can ask him for design tips if he does.’ Harry pulled his wand out and restored the chair, tucking it under the table. ‘I need to think what I want to do with most of these rooms and what to put in them.’
‘Well, it’s going to have to match what you keep of the interior.’ Gin opened the door to the hall. ‘Which is the floor and the stairs really, everything else is kind of beyond hope.’
Harry peered up at the blackened ceiling. ‘Could be more paintings under that dirt.’
‘Probably.’ She drifted up the stairs, cleaning dust off the carved marble rose vine bannisters and smooth steps. ‘We’ll need help to rescue those paintings on the wall. They look really nice under the damp and dirt, but it’s a job for someone who’s a professional, I’m not sure my cleaning charms are delicate enough and the enchantments probably need restoring too.’
‘What goes with fancy paintings and marble stairs and all that?’ Harry studied the thorns curving from the stone rose vines. ‘Something expensive, probably.’
‘Something grand.’ Gin spun on her bare heel, sending her red hair swirling. ‘Not loads, though. Just a couple of things in the hall to fill the space and give it some colour. Maybe something also made of marble, something that suits you. And the wallpaper needs to be a deep rich colour because of the dark stone and dark wood upstairs.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Would you just like to choose?’
‘It’s your house, Harry.’ Gin’s high laughter rose up the stairs, sending his heart flip-flopping in his chest. ‘But if you want a girl’s touch or suggestions, I can offer many years of experience listening to mum criticise the houses she sees in her magazines.’
‘It’s a deal.’ He climbed the steps to stand beside her. ‘Because I really have no idea what I’m doing.’
The corner of her mouth crooked. ‘How about a basilisk painting in the bathroom?’
‘Nobody else would get that joke,’ Harry said. ‘Well, Ron and Hermione would.’
‘That’s why it’s funny.’ Gin grinned, twirling her wand in her hand. ‘Everyone would wonder why or compliment you on it and we’d just smile to ourselves.’
Harry chuckled. ‘With the sounds the pipes make, I’d probably just terrify all the guests into thinking I had one as a pet.’
‘Can you still speak to snakes?’
‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘That was Tom, or the part of Tom that was me. I lost it.’
‘That’s a shame. It seemed quite fun.’
‘I didn’t use it much.’ Harry peered over the bannister. ‘Want to start on the downstairs? I think you’re right about leaving the paintings for someone more qualified.’
Gin nodded, tying her red hair up into a loose knot. ‘I’ll ask dad if there’s anyone who can help. If there’s not, I guess we can ask Bill to lend a hand. He won’t mind.’
‘You were right about the paintings.’ Harry stared up at the painted fae dancing upon the hall ceiling. ‘They came out really well once Mr Apworth cleaned them up and fixed the enchantments.’
‘You can choose new wallpaper now.’
The moth-eaten purple curtains flew open and Walburga glowered at them. ‘This home is not yours to change.‘
‘It’s Harry’s to do what he wants with it.’ Gin raised her wand. ‘You don’t get a say, you’re just a painting.’
‘Those curtains need to go as well,’ Harry said. ‘They look as old as Ron’s dress robes at the Yule Ball, only with less lace.’
Walburga hissed at him, narrowing her jaundiced eyes. ‘A pox on you, half-blood child. May your tainted blood find no peace in this house of my forebears.’
Gin jabbed her wand at the portrait. ‘You’re going too, you old hag. Just as soon as we can prise you off the wall.’
Walburga cackled as Harry tugged the curtains closed. ‘I was fixed on this wall with greater magicks than you can wield, blood traitor.’
‘Sirius tried a lot of things, I’m sure,’ he muttered. ‘If there was a way to get her off through normal means, he would’ve.’
‘Try some abnormal ones?’ Gin stuck her wand away. ‘Maybe not Fiendfyre, but I’m sure there’s something in that rather macabre library.’
‘Something safe.’ Harry stared at his holly wand, tracing where the break had run through the wood.
Hermione said this couldn’t be fixed by normal means, but the Elder Wand fixed it. He crushed the faint urge. It’s not worth getting that dangerous thing back just for a painting.
‘You brooding again?’ Gin waved a hand in front of his face. ‘Or just staring at the half-naked fairy women?’
‘They are quite attractive.’ He glanced up at the fae twirling through the trees in their loose, white silk, pale flowers fluttering in their hair. ‘I’m pretty sure Hermione said they were trouble, though. Tricky. And they steal your kids.’
‘Yeah, it’s their nature. They’re beautiful and sneaky and powerful and dangerous.’ The corner of her mouth curved up. ‘It’s how they’re meant to be and what they’re meant to do.’
‘You don’t get upset with a snake for eating a mouse. You just don’t give your mouse to the snake in the first place.’
‘Don’t give your baby to the fae?’
‘It does seem like a bad idea.’ Gin admired the painting. ‘If those stories I read when I was little are anything to go by, people that mess about with the fae tend to get what they deserve rather than unfairly tormented.’
‘Yeah. The fae are tricky, but they keep their side of the deal. If you don’t…’
‘I guess they get mad.’
‘Eye for an eye sort of mad.’ She smiled. ‘There’s a certain fairness to it, though. Everyone reaps what they sow. The consequences always fit the action. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people.’
‘How it should be, really.’
Her lips twitched. ‘Yeah, do something bad and you end up getting yourself a fitting death.’ Gin pointed at the stairs with her wand. ‘Those ones up there are all about that. Classical stuff. From back before the Statute.’
‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,’ Harry said.
‘Well, if you upset the gods, you get some fitting divine punishment. Wreck their temple or mistreat children and you come to a sticky end.’ She twirled her wand in her fingers. ‘A fitting death’s like one final change, a metamorphosis that reveals everything that person really is, good or bad or both. I like it. It’s… honest.’
‘Honest?’ Harry turned the word over on his tongue. ‘Yeah, I kind of get that. Like letting everyone in to see who you really are.’
‘It’s intimate,’ Gin murmured, leaning on his shoulder. ‘You know who you are.’ Her breath tickled his cheek. ‘And everyone sees you.’
He swallowed hard, studying the wild beasts tearing each other apart amidst the green border where the stairs turned the corner. ‘The Black family picked cheerful decorations.’
‘What did you expect from them? Happy smiling unicorns?’ Gin’s high soft laugh echoed back of the dancing fae and his heart squirmed. ‘They’re nice paintings. You’ve got the goddess of magic, the goddess of the wild, the goddess of love…’
A little flush crept onto his face and he glanced left. She smiled back up from where she leant on his shoulder, a warm glint in her brown eyes and his heart leapt into his mouth.
‘Why’re they all half-naked though?’ he muttered, trying to ignore his hammering heart and heated cheeks.
‘Aesthetics? Maybe because they only do what’s in their nature, we don’t feel they would have anything to hide. I’m not sure, really.’ Gin pushed herself off his shoulder. ‘Come on, what bit do you fancy fixing up next?’
‘Probably should have a stab at the big room,’ Harry said. ‘We’ve done all the others down here.’
‘The dining hall?’ Gin drifted through the large mahogany door, repairing the peeling paint with a flick of her wand. ‘There’s a lot of dust on that chandelier, but not much else.’
He poked his head in.
Thousands of dust-coated pieces of chandelier lay across the floor and the long table. Thick cobwebs hung on the lopsided, dangling frame.
‘It’s more that the dust is on the chandelier that’s on the floor.’
‘We can probably fix that,’ Gin said. ‘This room has been stripped bare, I’m sure there was a bunch of other stuff.’
‘Dung.’ Harry clenched his jaw. ‘He stole everything while we were fighting Voldemort and sold it on Knockturn until Umbridge caught him.’
‘Urgh. Umbridge.’ A little fire rose in Gin’s eyes. ‘You know she’s still working for the Ministry?’
‘What?’ Harry whirled around. ‘She’s what?’
‘Yeah, dad mentioned it. They couldn’t oust her because she claimed she was just following orders like everyone else.’ She flourished her wand. ‘Reparo.’
The pieces of the chandelier soared up to the ceiling, leaving the dust floating in its wake.
‘Neat, right?’ Gin grinned. ‘We’re going to change this whole house together. It’s going to shed its Black skin and all this dust.’
‘I don’t want a flying butterfly house, Gin.’
She tilted her head back and laughed, cupping his cheeks in her hands. ‘But it’s going to become something so much better, Harry. And we’ll make something that’s you. You’re going to love it. It’s going to be a real home that’s all yours.’
A hot lump welled up in his throat as he stared into her brown eyes. ‘Thanks Gin,’ he whispered, blinking back tears and turning away.
‘You okay?’ Gin murmured.
‘Yeah. I’m okay.’ Harry squeezed his eyes shut. ‘All good.’
‘It’s alright, you know.’ She wrapped an arm around his shoulders. ‘I understand how much it means. No need to worry about what I think. I told you, didn’t I? You can always be honest with me and I’ll never lie to you.’
‘I’ve never really had anything for me,’ he whispered. ‘And now you’re helping me create a home.’
‘Well, we still have to get rid of old Walburga. And do all the upstairs.’ Gin leant her head on his shoulder, her red hair tickling his cheek. ‘But of course I am. It’s really important you get to know yourself, who you are, what you want, and if I can help, I will.’
‘Thank you.’ He held his breath and slipped an arm around her waist. ‘It means a lot, Gin. Really.’
‘I know.’ She patted his hand resting on her hip. ‘Come on, broody. Let’s get this room clean.’
‘Sorry.’ He pulled his arm back.
Gin caught his hand. ‘I didn’t mean take it away,’ she murmured. ‘Not if you don’t want to.’
Harry drew her close with a small smile. ‘It’s going to be trickier like this.’
‘I can still use my wand.’
She stripped the dust and dirt from the floor as he did the walls one patch at a time, working their way along the hardwood floor a few steps at a time until they reached the soot-choked fireplace.
‘That looks like it’s seen better days.’
‘Yeah, you’re going to need a lot of new furnishings, too.’ Gin glanced over her shoulder. ‘This is a big room and all it has is the table, the chairs, and the chandelier.’
‘Restituo.’ Harry swept the soot away.
Something creaked in the chimney,
‘Uh oh,’ he muttered, pulling Gin back. ‘I think we just woke up the doxies.’
A huge tangle of sticks, feathers and moss thudded into the grate.
‘Just a bird’s nest.’ She slipped free of his arm and crouched, peering up the chimney. ‘Lumos.’
‘Anything else up there?’ Harry asked.
‘All clear.’ Gin stepped back and bounced to her feet. ‘Incendio.’
Yellow flames flickered in the moss and the nest blackened, curling in on itself and crumbling to ash.
Harry inhaled the soft smoke and sank down to sit on the floor in front of the dying flames. ‘You know, I think this is the longest I’ve been happy for away from Hogwarts, Gin. Thank you for coming here with me.’
She dropped down next to him, leaning her shoulder against his. ‘Well, I couldn’t leave you to do this alone. You’d just brood. I know what you’re like.’
You really do know, don’t you. A small smile crept onto his lips. You see me.
‘I haven’t done any real brooding since we got here,’ he said. ‘Barely a single second of it.’
‘I know.’ Gin flashed him a smile, a bright gleam in her brown eyes. ‘You’re free here. This is your place, or it will be once we’ve changed it. Nothing to stress about. Nobody expecting you to be anyone but yourself. You can relax and just be you.’
‘Just be me,’ Harry murmured. ‘That sounds nice.’
The flames in the fireplace guttered out into a thin wisp of smoke.
‘There’s a celebration happening at the Burrow this weekend,’ Gin said, drifting back along the landing toward her bedroom with a cup of tea in her hand. Snitches on her white pyjamas zipped across the swell of her chest, jumping the gap between the top two open buttons. ‘And we really need to fix the cutlery situation.’
Harry nodded. ‘Yeah, I keep forgetting.’ He frowned at the teaspoon in her mug. ‘Where did you find that? Dung stole all the silverware.’
‘I made it.’ She pulled her wand and conjured a shining metal spoon from the air. ‘It’s not really a spoon of course, just my magic pretending to be one. If you upset me, it won’t stir your tea.’
‘The horror.’ Harry accepted the spoon. ‘Thanks, Gin.’
She twirled her wand in her fingers and grinned. ‘No problem.’
‘What were you saying about a thing at the Burrow?’ he asked.
‘Everyone’s about for the first time in a while, so mum’s hosting.’ Gin cocked her head, swiping a stray bit of red away from her eyes. ‘Shame we’re missing cutlery and plates and stuff or we could host here. The Burrow’s going to be cosy with all of us there.’
‘The Dining Hall still needs some furnishings,’ Harry replied. ‘Mr Apworth has found some nice paintings that fit your really long list of criteria and the other bits and pieces will turn up in a few days, but maybe not before the weekend.’
‘The paintings need to match the rest. A home shows off who you are,’ Gin murmured. ‘That’s why I asked you all those questions.’
‘And yet we still ended up with what you thought I would.’ Harry laughed.
‘It was important to make sure I really understood, those paintings might be here a lot longer than I am,’ she said. ‘But we settled on some good magical myths. Morgana makes for good paintings, lots of mysterious forests and haunting nights. A soft, dark sort of beauty.’
‘And we can continue the theme of half-naked women,’ he said. ‘Which seems to have been very important to the Black Family.’
Gin’s high soft laugh filled the hall, lifting his heart like a warm breeze. ‘They are quite aesthetic. It’s the mystery of magic and divinity and being more than just human, I think. It’s larger than life, more vivid than the everyday stuff we see and feel.’
‘Yeah…’ Harry smiled. ‘They look amazing, those ancient ones you chose are great as well. The stories they tell are pretty good.’
‘The Ovid ones?’ The corner of her mouth curved up. ‘His Metamorphoses? I thought you’d like them. They’re all about change, in a way, and there are a fair few fitting endings in there too.’
‘Beautiful things aren’t cheap.’ Gin shrugged, sending snitches zooming down her front and bouncing back up off where the hem hung over her bare thighs. ‘And you’re the one who chose to get the really fancy moving ones.’
‘The ones on the stairs and the Entrance Hall are, so I thought they should match.’ Harry frowned. ‘Speaking of which, there is one last item of furnishing to sort out in the Entrance Hall.’
‘Walburga?’ She beamed. ‘I have something to put where Walburga is, but it’s a surprise.’
‘Oh?’ Harry caught the glimmer of mischief in Gin’s brown eyes.
‘You’ll see.’ The corner of her mouth twitched. ‘I thought it was the perfect thing to replace her with.’
‘I guess I’ll go talk with her and see if she’ll let us move her and behave enough to keep, or if we have to pry her off and get rid of her.’
‘You go talk to Walburga, I need to get dressed, I’m not wearing very much under this pyjama top.’ She slipped around him and into her bedroom, humming under her breath.
Harry smothered the little flare of heat that coursed south and the flash of Gin’s white pyjama hem hovering around her thighs.
Don’t think about that. He clenched his fist around the spoon until it dug into his palm. Even if Gin said she doesn’t mind and it’s only natural, it’s not right.
Harry took a deep breath and strode downstairs past the smiling goddesses painted over the stairs and the winged marble fae singing just beyond the last step.
He pulled the tattered purple drapes back. ‘Walburga.’
She narrowed her yellowed eyes at him. ‘Halfblood–child. What do you want?’
Harry snorted. ‘I thought an upstanding lady wasn’t rude?’ He flapped his hand. ‘Whatever. I wanted to talk, I guess.’
‘About what?’ She peered past him and glowered. ‘You’ve changed these halls, but they will never belong to you. It’s ours. The House of Black.’
‘I added some statues and a few things, too. Gin helped me choose them. Apparently they go well with the paintings. New wallpaper. Purple to go with the dark wood. I don’t know much about this stuff, but it looks nice.’
Walburga ground her teeth. ‘You think changing it all will make it yours, half-blood?’ she hissed. ‘It won’t.’
‘It will.’ Harry glanced over his shoulder at the winged fae statue opposite Walburga’s portrait. ‘It’s going to be my home and reflect me, so of course it will.’ He pulled out his wand. ‘If you behave, you can stay and be a part of it somewhere else. Sirius left it to me in the end. I’m all the family you have left that’s not disgraced or entirely uninterested in returning.’
‘You are not my blood. My family ended with Regulus.’
‘I killed the man who killed him, you know.’
Walburga recoiled. ‘Who?!’
‘Who?’ Harry frowned. ‘Did Kreacher not tell you? Regulus was killed by Voldemort.’
She sucked in her cheeks. ‘Then I’m glad he’s dead. But you’re still no family of mine. You have the filthy taint of your muggleborn mother running in your veins. Her blood is no better than the blood of a cow. Ours is pure and noble, going back centuries. We are part of this land. Part of history.’
Harry’s temper flashed hot. ‘I take it you’re not going to behave,’ he snapped.
‘I will treat you and yours as they deserve.’ Walburga smirked. ‘And you are beneath us.’
‘You lost all that prestige and any honour and nobility as a consequence of acting so arrogant and bigoted,’ he said, forcing his fury down. ‘I’m the only blood relation you have left that has any kind of positive reputation.’ Harry took a deep breath. ‘You know, you deserve what happened to you. You brought it on yourselves.’
‘Your kind did this! Dragging us all into the mud with you!’ she screeched.
My kind. He pulled the curtains shut and turned on his heel, taking a deep breath. You don’t even know anything about me.
‘What are you going to do to her?’ Gin cocked her head, lingering on the bottom step of the stairs, one bare foot dangling over the marble floor of the hall.
‘I’ll think of something.’
‘Can you get her off the wall?’ she asked, sweeping her red hair off the front of her white blouse and back over her shoulders.
‘Yes.’ Harry tucked his holly wand away. ‘I just need to get something, Gin. I’ll be back soon.’
A small frown creased Gin’s face. ‘What are you getting? I heard what she said about your mum, Harry. Don’t let her ruin this place for you.’
‘That’s why I’m getting rid of her.’
‘She deserves it,’ Gin murmured. ‘I’ll wait here, I can start cleaning upstairs while you’re away.’
‘Don’t go into the library alone, Gin. It’s probably got some nasty books in there.’
‘I’ll be careful.’
Harry took a deep breath and closed his eyes, picturing the marble tomb in the Forbidden Forest’s shadow and wrenching on his magic.
A cold darkness clamped around him and he staggered out over a carpet of pine needles before the peaceful marble edifice of Dumbledore.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I know you wanted to take this with you and remove it from the world. It is dangerous. But just this once, I’d like to do something for myself.’ Harry shoved the tomb open and plucked the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s chest. ‘I deserve that much.’
And Walburga deserves what’s coming. He stuffed the Elder Wand into his back pocket. I’ll stick her somewhere fitting. I know just the place.
Harry apparated back, stumbling to one knee in the hall. A loud crack echoed off the painted ceiling and rich purple walls.
The moth-eaten curtains flew open.
Walburga sneered at him. ‘You and your blood will never belong here, half-blood child.’
Harry pulled the Elder Wand from his pocket and pointed it at the painting. The wand drew on his magic with greedy abandon.
‘I can’t be—’
The portrait trembled and thudded to the floor.
‘Oh yes you can be,’ he said. ‘Wingardium leviosa.’
Walburga’s pale face glared at him as she rose to float before him. ‘The legacy of my family will always shadow this place. No matter what you change.’
Harry rolled his eyes. ‘We’ll see.’ He tucked her under his arm and apparated to the bushes in Little Whinging with a loud pop. ‘I’ve got just the place for you.’
He leant her against the fence with a small smile and let the Elder Wand drink more of his magic, picturing what he wanted.
Walburga’s mouth opened and closed as she shrieked, but no sound reached his ears. Painted, grass fields sprouted from the bottom of the painting, rising up to cover her face. A handful of cows appeared, grazing before a skyline of clouds.
‘I know you can still hear and see me, Walburga, so you better listen, because I’m only going to say this once.’ Harry tucked the Elder Wand into his back pocket. ‘A few seconds down the road from here is a charity shop. I’m going to leave you there. Nobody will ever hear you or see you again, but you’ll be able to watch and hear everything. Some muggle family will buy you for next to nothing, hang you on a wall somewhere, and you’ll spend the rest of your existence being passed back and forth between muggles until they eventually toss you away.’ He tucked her back under his arm and strolled down the pavement. ‘I think it’s the perfect ending for you, don’t you? The last memory of your bigoted family just a less-loved painting in an unseen corner of a normal muggle home.’
The faint sound of traffic and birdsong filled in the silence as he crossed the road and leant the painting against the charity shop door.
‘This is what you deserve for being so unpleasant.’ Harry glanced up and down the street, peering through the shop window. ‘Farewell, Walburga,’ he murmured, apparating back into the hall.
Gin sat barefoot on the bottom step, folding the tattered purple curtains up. ‘You got her off the wall.’
‘Where is she? What did you do with her?’
Harry smiled, striding forward past the fae statue. ‘I took her to a muggle charity shop and left her there. She’s charmed so they’ll never notice her, but she can see and hear them.’
A high soft laugh burst from Gin’s lips and she leapt to her feet, throwing her arms around him. ‘That’s perfect. She’ll hate every second of it.’
He grinned down into her bright, brown eyes. ‘I know right. I thought it was a pretty fitting end for her.’
Gin’s lips crashed into his and her fingers curled into his tee-shirt. The faint taste of tea hovered on his tongue as she drew back.
Harry held his breath, butterflies swirled in his stomach, whirling into a tight, anxious ball of fluttering wings. ‘Er…’
‘I missed that,’ she murmured. ‘Didn’t you?’
The corner of her mouth crooked. ‘Good.’ She stepped back and grabbed the curtains. ‘Come on, Harry. Let’s burn these horrible curtains. I’ve got the replacement for Walburga in the other Dining Hall.’
Gin took his hand and led him through, tossing the tattered purple wool onto the fireplace and lighting it with a jab of her wand. ‘I hope you like this.’ She heaved a wide, brown-papered covered square up off the long dining room table. ‘I thought there was nobody more fitting to hang where Walburga was than her.’ Gin severed the string with a flick of her wand and a murmur, pulling the paper away.
Harry’s mother smiled back, proud and strong as Morganna as she conjured a floating stream of tiny green lights beneath the towering dark pine trunks and the high, full moon. The tangled shadow of the forest stretched away into inky black beyond her light.
His breath caught.
‘I’m sorry it’s not really her,’ Gin murmured. ‘It’s just a likeness. But, well, I thought Walburga ought to be replaced by your mother.’
‘Walburga would have hated that.’ He grinned. ‘I wish I’d been able to tell her about this. It would have really stung her.’
‘You like it?’ She cocked her head.
‘It’s wonderful.’ Harry shot her a warm smile. ‘It really is. I don’t mind if it’s not as alive as other portraits. I still love it. She looks so… amazing.’
‘I wanted her to look like the powerful witch she was, not just the school girl or the mother you’ve already got photos of.’ The corner of Gin’s lips curved up. ‘I hoped you’d like it. It seemed like the sort of thing you would like.’
‘You know what I like pretty well,’ he said. ‘Let’s hang it up. Once she’s hanging out there, we’ll have finished the entire downstairs.’
‘We’ve made a good start over the last week,’ Gin said. ‘Now we just have to keep changing things until it’s all you.’
‘Harry!’ Hermione swept him into a warm hug three steps from the fireplace. ‘You look good. You’re less skinny.’
He rolled his eyes and patted her on the back. ‘I eat more than I used to. I’ll even have some fancy plates and cutlery to eat it all with soon too.’
‘How is fixing up Grimmauld Place going?’ She stepped back. ‘Well?’
‘Really well.’ Harry grinned and glanced back at the green flames. ‘Gin’s helped me change so much.’
‘That’s wonderful.’ Hermione gave him a broad smile. ‘I’ve missed you at Hogwarts, it’s not the same without you and Ron there.’
‘We all have our own things to do now. Change is part of life.’ Harry stepped aside as Gin appeared from the Floo. ‘How are your NEWTs going?’
‘Pretty well, I think.’ Hermione waved at Gin as she smiled on her way past. ‘It’s early days though, lots of the course still to go.’
‘I’m sure you’ll be fine.’ He chuckled. ‘I don’t think it’s possible for you to fail a test.’
‘Come on, let’s find Ron.’
Harry drifted through and out into the garden. Dark clouds hung on the horizon, a thick curtain of rain trailing them over the hills.
‘Might be a bit brave, sticking about outside for long.’ Ron tossed him a butterbeer. ‘Best make the most of it.’
Hermione grabbed him in a tight hug, holding him close.
Harry pulled his wand out and opened his drink, watching the rain creep closer. ‘So are the two of you…?’
Hermione turned a little pink. ‘That obvious?’
‘You didn’t cling to me for quite so long or as tightly when I got my welcome hug.’ He grinned. ‘Congrats.’
Gin wandered over with a scowl. ‘Mum’s not letting me drink, says there’ll be wine with the food and that’s enough. Like I’m still fifteen and can’t think for myself.’
Harry glanced back into the kitchen and slipped her his. ‘I’ll grab another for me.’
She beamed. ‘Thank you.’
‘Aren’t you basically living with Harry?’ Hermione asked as Harry wriggled an arm through the window to get another beer out of the box of ice.
‘It’s Harry,’ Ron replied.
‘Still…’ A faint frown creased Hermione’s forehead. ‘It’s a bit… unconventional. You could get yourselves into trouble.’
‘Yeah, it’s not the doxies, or Walburga, or the nasty surprises in the library that we need to be careful of Gin, it’s all those sneaky kisses.’ Harry snorted and opened his butterbeer. ‘Someone could get hurt.’
Gin’s soft high laugh rose up to the sky. ‘If you’re put off by the idea of me staying with Harry for a few weeks to fix up a house you’re going to need a couple drinks before talking with Bill and Fleur when they arrive.’
Hermione blinked. ‘Why? And Fleur’s inside. Not sure about Bill, but I’d assume he’s here somewhere too.’
‘Well, they’re not exactly living within societal norms, you know.’ Gin took a long drink and wrinkled her nose. ‘This is really warm.’
‘Sorry,’ Ron said. ‘I had it in my pocket.’
‘Trade?’ Harry offered his cold one.
‘Thanks.’ She swapped them.
Harry took a drink and shrugged at the luke-warm beer. ‘Had worse.’
‘What’s wrong with Bill and Fleur?’ Hermione whispered.
‘Wrong?’ The corner of Gin’s mouth crooked. ‘Nothing. She’s not fully human, is she? And he’s got a bit of wolf in him. They’re different by nature, so they play by slightly different rules. It works for them.’
Hermione shuffled her feet. ‘I guess. It doesn’t sound healthy though.’
Harry frowned. ‘Probably shouldn’t judge before you really understand, Hermione.’
Gin nodded. ‘What Harry said. They’re happy together and nobody’s getting hurt just because they’re a bit different. You’ve got to be who you are.’
Ron grunted. ‘I thought you didn’t like Fleur, Ginny?’
‘I got over that.’
Harry caught her eye.
‘She’s very pretty and fancy and unafraid of who she is,’ Gin murmured in his ear. ‘I was jealous.’
He chuckled. ‘Not anymore.’
Ron squinted at them. ‘So are you two…?’
‘No.’ Gin’s lips twitched and a little glimmer of mischief sparkled in her brown eyes. ‘We just have wild unprotected sex in the dark library. It’s strictly no kissing and no romance.’
Hermione choked on her drink.
Ron screwed his face up. ‘Urgh. Thanks Ginny. What an image.’
Harry hid a smile behind his beer. ‘We probably should have been more careful, Gin. The library was way too risky a place. We haven’t even checked for more doxies.’
Hermione sighed. ‘Et tu, Harry?’
He grinned. ‘Et moi, Hermione. Et moi.’
‘Well, at least you’re having fun rebuilding,’ she said. ‘Harry says it was going well.’
‘Almost finished the entire downstairs.’ Gin bumped her bottle against his. ‘Harry’s going to have a really beautiful home that’s just perfect for him.’
And maybe when I’ve got somewhere I can just be me, I’ll be able to figure out who that is.
‘It’s very fancy,’ Harry said. ‘But I do quite like it.’
‘You turning into Malfoy?’ Ron asked. ‘Big fancy house. Got any peacocks?’
‘No peacocks yet.’
Gin smiled. ‘No, the Malfoys are all gaudy. Harry’s house is tasteful. It suits him.’
Ron grunted. ‘No idea what that means, but I’m happy as long as there are no peacocks, those things are really loud.’
‘You can come and see when we’re done,’ Harry said.
‘You should host a gathering,’ Gin replied. ‘Make the most of the Dining Hall.’
‘Still got Sirius’s mum there, though,’ Ron said. ‘She’s not a plus.’
Harry shared a little smile with Gin. ‘No, she’s gone. I got rid of her.’
‘Really?’ Hermione perked up. ‘Oh thank goodness. She was awful. I hope you stick her in the attic where nobody can hear her.’
The corner of Gin’s mouth crooked. ‘Harry’s found a perfect new home for her.’
He took a drink to hide his grin. ‘I have.’
Hermione craned her neck to see over Ron. ‘Oh there’s Bill and Charlie and your dad, Ron.’
‘Yeah.’ Ron chewed the inside of his cheek. ‘They don’t look too happy.’
‘Probably because of the rain.’ Hermione glanced at the sky. ‘It’s going to be here soon. I might head inside.’
‘It is not the rain. Someone has been poking around the wards in the last few days.’ Fleur floated into their midst with a smile. ‘Bonjour.’
‘Hey Fleur,’ Gin said. ‘Are the wards okay?’
‘That is what Bill was making sure of.’ Fleur’s eyes dipped to butterbeer in her hand. ‘How nice of you to hold Harry’s second drink for him, Molly would be delighted to see you being so helpful.’
Gin laughed and took a long swig of beer. ‘I’m looking after it for him, like a good girl.’
Fleur smirked. ‘But of course.’
The first cool drops of rain burst on Harry’s hand.
‘Time to go in,’ Gin said, drifting through inside.
Hermione and Ron followed her as the rain began to pick up.
Fleur smiled up at the sky. ‘Don’t wait for me, Harry. I love the rain.’ A little heat washed off her and a soft glow rose from her skin. ‘And I will not get wet.’
Harry pulled the Elder Wand from his pocket and jabbed it at the sky. Raindrops bent aside to patter on the patio.
‘Neither will I,’ he said.
She leant her head to one side, a sharp little gleam in her blue eyes. ‘You are not bothered by my magic.’
‘That is good. It unsettles a lot of wizards and witches. But my nature is my nature, and I will be what I will be.’
Harry shrugged. ‘You’re not fully human.’
‘I am not.’ Fleur’s pupils shivered thin as needles. ‘Bill does not mind.’
‘Neither do I,’ he said. ‘I think it’s important to be yourself, isn’t much fun trying to always be someone you’re not..’
Has she been hiding herself from me in case I did mind?
‘You can always be honest with me,’ Harry murmured. ‘I don’t judge. I’ll just try and understand as best I can.’
She slipped closer to him, her fingers grazing his cheek. ‘Perhaps I can. But you are Ginny’s, no? There would be consequences if I steal you for myself and I do not want to cause trouble with Bill’s family.’
Fleur laughed. ‘I am teasing, Harry. I love my Bill. The stories wizards like to tell about the promiscuity of veela are just fairytales. We are just passionate creatures.’
‘Oh that’s good, for a moment I was worried.’ Harry let out a long breath. ‘Thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew.’
Her smile spread from ear to ear. ‘I know.’
‘Harry.’ Bill shot Fleur a long look.
She returned a coy little glance and a broad smirk.
‘I could smell someone strange at the edge of the wards,’ Bill said. ‘Same wizard. He’s been back a few times over the last couple of weeks. Be careful about wandering too far from the house.’
Fleur wrapped an arm around him and they all headed inside as the rain turned heavy, thundering down on the roof.
Harry made his way around to where Ron and Hermione squeezed into a chair in the corner. ‘What happened to Gin?’
‘Spilt butterbeer on her jeans and went upstairs to change before mum saw,’ Ron said.
‘I think she wanted to escape third wheeling,’ Hermione replied. ‘That butterbeer spill was pretty deliberate.’
‘And now here I am, stuck third wheeling by myself.’
‘Sucks to be you, mate.’ Ron kissed Hermione on the cheek. ‘You can try and squeeze into the middle if you like?’
‘I think I’d rather third wheel Bill and Fleur over there,’ Harry replied. ‘Fleur’s prettier than you. And Bill’s sexier than Hermione. Also my beer’s running out and they’re by the drinks.’
Hermione spluttered on her drink. ‘Really?’
‘I’m pretty sure about the drinks, the box is right there. And I’m confident on Fleur being prettier than Ron, too,’ he said. ‘Bill and you is a bit of a closer call, but Fleur’s beaten Ron by such a big margin it doesn’t really matter.’
Hermione rolled her eyes. ‘Well, at least you’re in a good mood and not brooding out there in the rain.’
‘It’s not really the right sort of rain for brooding,’ Harry replied. ‘It’s too heavy. You need a good drizzle to brood in, a light shower at most. Otherwise you look too bedraggled to pull off the full broody look.’
Ron laughed. ‘Grab me another one too, mate?’
‘Yeah, but I’m going to put it in my pocket for a bit to warm it up for you first.’ Harry squeezed around Percy and Charlie. ‘Sorry, Fleur, could I get to the alcohol? I need something to endure Ron and Hermione kissing.’
‘Would you like to take two?’ Fleur asked, passing a couple across. ‘One for now and one for Gin to hold for you?’
‘I will take two.’ He grinned. ‘But the second one is for Ron.’
‘But of course, Harry.’ She smirked. ‘Of course.’
Bill chuckled, rubbing the scars on his face. ‘Do not let my flower tease you too much without reply, Harry. She’s as wicked as she’s pretty.’
Fleur’s smirk broadened. ‘I am much more fun wicked, no?’
‘Absolutely,’ Bill whispered in her ear.
He glanced between the two of them. ‘Yeah, yeah. I know what you two are doing, but I’m pretty sure I can convince Gin to find some dirt on you, Bill, so…’
Bill threw his head back and roared with laughter. ‘Fair enough, Harry. We’ll go back to tormenting Percy.’
‘Percy has been telling us all about cauldron bottoms.’ Fleur lowered her voice to a murmur. ‘But my English is still not quite perfect and sometimes I say things that might be a double entendre…’
‘Percy very kindly explains, even though it embarrasses him a great deal,’ Bill said, a shit-eating grin on his face. ‘For some reason, Fleur only seems to make that mistake when our mum is in close earshot.’
Harry snorted. ‘Well, now I want to stay and watch.’
‘Only if you can keep a straight face,’ Fleur said. ‘He might realise otherwise.’
‘Ah, maybe not,’ he said. ‘I’d probably die laughing.’
‘There are worse ways to die,’ Bill said.
Harry’s lips twitched and his hand slipped to the Elder Wand in his back pocket. ‘I know.’
Gin ducked around Bill’s shoulder.
‘I thought you were upstairs?’ Harry asked.
‘I was, but then I nipped outside.’
‘Why?’ Bill asked. ‘It’s not exactly sunny.’
‘That’s why I came back in,’ she said. ‘Oh, you got me a drink to hold. Thank you, Harry.’
Fleur laughed as Gin plucked the second bottle from Harry’s hand. ‘He is a good boy.’
‘And I’m a good girl.’ Gin battered her eyelashes. ‘The most goodest.’
Bill snorted. ‘As long as you’re a sensible girl while you and Harry are all shacked up together, I don’t mind. I’m not mum, you’re a big girl now, but don’t take any silly risks. It might not seem like there’s much chance in the moment but I promise you there are consequences if you’re not careful.’
Gin beamed. ‘This is why you’re my favourite brother.’
‘Just don’t let mum catch you drinking that beer,’ he replied. ‘She still thinks you’re her baby girl.’
‘I’ll blame Harry, mum won’t ever believe he’s done something bad.’
‘Pretty sure Harry can’t do anything bad,’ Bill said.
‘I’m as wicked as I’m pretty, I’ll have you know,’ Harry said.
The corner of Gin’s mouth curved up. ‘Yes you are.’
Fleur’s eyes sparkled with humour. ‘What wicked things has Harry done?
‘I made her tea without adding milk once,’ he said. ‘I got a long look of disapproval for that. That conjured teaspoon jabbed me in the hand. And Gin’s not let me make tea again since.’
‘All the paintings in his house are of half-naked women.’ Gin grinned. ‘And he was definitely peeking down my top the other day.’
Harry coughed into his beer. ‘That was an accident. The top thing. The paintings were deliberately chosen by me, but mostly suggested by you.’
‘But of course.’ Fleur smiled. ‘I am sure the two of you have been nothing but good all alone in that house together.’
Gin bit her lip. ‘I almost feel like we wasted an opportunity now.’
Bill’s smile softened and he patted Gin on the shoulder. ‘No need for rushing, Gin-Gin.’
‘Sometimes it is better to go slow, no?’ Fleur said, all innocence and smiles.
Harry snorted. ‘So I’m told.’
A smirk flashed across her lips. ‘Ah, Harry is not so flustered, Bill. Perhaps there is a little wickedness in there after all.’
‘Only natural for us boys to be a little wicked when there are pretty girls involved,’ Bill said. ‘And the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen is far more wicked than I am.’
Fleur pressed a light kiss to his scarred cheek.
Gin leant against Harry’s side, a small smile on her lips. ‘Perhaps we should have some fun of our own?’ she murmured. ‘How many little innuendos do you think we can slip in before Hermione turns red as a tomato? Or before she realises we’re doing it deliberately?’
‘Two? At most.’
Her soft, high laugh tugged at his heartstrings. ‘It will still be funny.’
‘I’m game if you are,’ Harry muttered. ‘Just don’t blame me if you give me ideas.’
A little heat smouldered in Gin’s brown eyes as she glanced up at him. ‘Who said that’s not exactly what I want?’
‘What sneaky thing to do,’ he whispered.
Her lips twitched. ‘I’m a sneaky girl.’
Heavy rain battered the windows as Harry sipped tea at the kitchen table, watching the water cascade down the glass.
‘Good thing we fixed that bathroom window,’ he muttered. ‘Although there are probably a few other holes somewhere.’ Harry frowned. ‘Maybe I should check the roof?’
He pushed himself out of the chair, leaving his tea beside the sink and drifted up the marble stairs past the bright paintings.
‘Ah, the dusty bit.’ Harry jogged back down and grabbed his shoes, bounding back up and stuffing his feet in on the lowest, dust-coated step. ‘Right. Let’s hope there are no big holes in the roof.’
Faded paintings lurked beneath the dust. Ancient Blacks frowned after him as he wandered up the stairs to the fourth floor, glowering down or turning their backs with haughty sneers.
A small pool of water lay beneath the trapdoor to the attic. Damp footprints led away into the furthest room.
‘Gin?’ Harry called, stepping over the puddle.
The wet print stretched an inch longer than his foot and his blood ran cold.
Those aren’t Gin’s footprints.
Harry snatched his wand from his pocket and tiptoed forward to the door, holding his breath. His heart began to pound in his chest, hammering at ribs, thundering in his ears.
Okay. He let out a long breath. Stun first. Ask questions later.
The door flew open and a large hand grabbed the front of his robes, hurling him across the room. He smacked into the side of the bed and his wand bounced away beneath the mattress.
Harry rolled to his feet.
A tall, bearded man loomed in the door, his tangled, matted beard obscuring everything but piercing blue eyes. ‘Harry Potter.’
‘I’m fairly sure I didn’t send you an invite.’ He reached for his back pocket and the Elder Wand. ‘Whoever the hell you are.’
‘Right. Of course.’ Harry’s fingers met smooth denim and his heart seized. ‘And you’re here to kill me, I assume.’
‘Not just kill.’ Macnair shut the door without taking his eyes off Harry. ‘We’re going to live together first, more than you’ve lived in any moment before.’
The Elder Wand rolled across the dusty floorboards behind Macnair’s dirt-crusted, bare feet and the mud-stained, soaked hem of his dark robes.
‘I hunt anyone worth hunting. And when I kill them, I keep a little piece, to honour that last bright moment of life we shared together.’ He grinned, displaying yellow, chipped teeth. ‘Unless they’re not worth honouring.’
‘You’re not killing anyone.’
Macnair took one step forward. ‘Someone’s going to die, Harry Potter. Can you taste the thrill through the fear? That’s the feel of being alive. Really alive. The hunt.’
He sucked in a deep breath and thought of Gin sleeping downstairs. ‘Nobody’s dying.’
Macnair laughed and lunged. Harry leapt back, rolling over the bed and bouncing to his feet. He scanned the floor for his wand, but found only dust-carpeted wood.
‘It’s right under there against the wall.’ Macnair stepped up onto the bed and the mattress let out a long creak. ‘But it’s fine. I lost mine, too.’
Harry balled his fists. ‘What kind of pureblood doesn’t fight with magic?’
‘An honest one.’ Macnair took another step forward, smiling as Harry stepped back. ‘I’m not into all that pureblood nonsense. I don’t care for it. There’s a beast in me. Its muscles coil. Its blood sings. I can feel the tang of the meat on its tongue, the flesh clinging to its fangs. I can feel the crunch of bone beneath my hands and that little shudder of a last breath under my fingers.’
He swallowed hard. ‘I beat Voldemort. You’re not Voldemort.’
‘I saw. You fought with something he didn’t have. Heart.’ Macnair bared his teeth. ‘We’ll share it together, Potter. And I’ll take it once I kill you, to honour its strength.’
‘And what? Carry it around?’
‘I’ll eat it.’
Harry wrinkled his nose. ‘What for? Just to be creepy?’
‘Because that strength was beautiful. You were so alive, so strong. I want to see it again. I want to share it with you. Feel it. Honour it.’ Macnair licked his lips. ‘Taste it.’
Harry sidestepped to put the bedpost between them, glancing at the Elder Wand out of the corner of his eye.
Macnair laughed and kicked the bedpost with his heel, sending it spinning past Harry into the wall. ‘I was told you were too much of a challenge for me. That I shouldn’t even try.’ His sharp blue eyes focused on Harry’s sternum. ‘You’re letting me down.’
Macnair sprang from the bed and smashed Harry against the wall. They bounced back, sprawling across the floor.
Harry lashed out with his foot, kicking Macnair in the face. His nose crunched beneath his heel and blood spurted across Macnair’s face.
‘That’s more like it,’ Macnair rasped, grinning as the blood dripped into his tangled beard. ‘Fight for your life, Harry Potter. Fight with every bit of heart you have. Feel the thrill of these fleeting seconds. Share it with me.’
Harry scrambled to his feet and jumped back. His foot crunched through the floorboards, the splintered ends tearing lines of fire up his leg. Adrenaline surged and a bright thrill swallowed the pain.
Macnair eyed his foot as Harry pulled it back out of the floor. ‘That’s it. You’ve got fight in you. I saw it at Hogwarts. You’re not just prey.’ He took a step forward. ‘You’re more like me.’
‘I’m not a beast.’
‘You’ve got it in you, beast or not. The Dark Lord spoke of how you burnt his servant alive when you were a child. How you tortured Bellatrix Lestrange in the Ministry. You’ve always had it in you and now it’s time to let it out!’ Macnair lunged with a growl.
Harry grunted as Macnair’s fist struck his arm, ducking a second blow and punching back, catching Macnair on the shoulder. A fist hammered into the side of his head, sending the room spinning. He kicked out, hitting something solid.
A loud grunt and a snap echoed through the room. Macnair hissed.
Harry shook his head.
Macnair dragged his foot out of the floor, clutching his ankle. His foot stuck out at an odd angle as he hopped back on one leg.
A flare of triumph rose in Harry’s chest and he side-stepped to the door, snatching the Elder Wand up.
‘Ah, fuck,’ Macnair growled. ‘Don’t be a coward, Potter. Don’t hide behind magic. This ankle’s broken. Your prey’s crippled. Get close. With teeth and claws. If you’re going to kill someone, you ought to do it yourself. Really feel it. Share that last desperate bright moment of life with them as you snuff it out with your bare hands.’
Harry bounced the Elder Wand in his hand, eyeing the bloodstains and scrapes on his knuckles. A faint temptation arose, a hot whisper coursing through his veins, driven by his pounding heart like fire on the wind.
‘That’s right.’ Macnair grinned. ‘You beat me fair so far. You want to finish the fight, come do it with your hands. Don’t hide behind a wand. It doesn’t feel the same.’
‘Stupefy.’ Harry’s spell hurled Macnair into the wall. ‘Incarcerous.’
Black robes bound him from head to toe as he lay still on the floor.
‘Well now what,’ Harry muttered. ‘I guess I should call Kingsley.’ He frowned through the window into the gloom. ‘Only he won’t be around for a few hours yet.’
Well, let’s stick you somewhere out of harm’s way.
He levitated Macnair up and strode out into the hall, stretching onto his tiptoes to push aside the trapdoor and pulled down the ladder. Macnair thrashed in the ropes, kicking and swearing.
‘Shut up.’ Harry clambered up into the attic, levitating Macnair after him. ‘You brought it on yourself. And being tied up is the least you deserve after what you’ve done.’
He dropped Macnair against the chimney and conjured another thick rope, wrapping it around and tying it to the ropes binding Macnair. ‘There, now you’re not going anywhere.’
Macnair growled. ‘Fucking coward. What, you hide behind your wand and now you hide from killing me yourself?’
‘Would you like a gag?’ Harry asked.
‘If you don’t have the stomach to kill, you’re just prey,’ Macnair rasped, baring his yellow teeth. ‘I’ll get free. Eventually. And next time we’ll do this properly. I’ll take your wands then break them, and hunt you nice and slow before I kill you. The fear will show me who you really are. I’ll find the heart beneath that yellow belly.’
Harry snorted. ‘You’re just a beast. Why would I fight you? Mad dogs are put down.’
Macnair snarled. ‘You want a reason? Here’s a reason. When I get free, I’ll get that pretty little redhead. Tear up her nice soft skin. Share one last bright moment of life with her. Maybe she’ll taste good. She looks like she will.’
His fury flared, white-hot. ‘You’ll die like a beast. I should behead you with your own axe and stick your head up on the wall with the house elves.’ Harry’s eyes roved across the beams and cobwebs for anything sharp. ‘That’s what you purebloods like to do to people you consider subhuman, right?’
Macnair gave him a bloody grin. ‘Do it then. I’m all trussed up like chicken. Find something sharp and do it. Or are you just hiding behind words?’
Harry squashed the whisper of temptation, balling his fists and turning his back on Macnair. ‘Fuck you.’
‘Coward.’ Macnair called after him as Harry climbed back down the ladder. ‘I’ll get free, Potter. And I’ll come hunting. I want to see the heart that killed the Dark Lord!’
Harry slammed the attic closed, his heart pounding.
Gin stood at the top of the stairs, her wand drawn. ‘What the hell is going on?’
‘Unwanted visitor,’ he replied. ‘Bloody Macnair.’
‘He’s in the attic?’
‘Tied up.’ Harry took a deep breath and flicked the Elder Wand. ‘Accio.’ His holly wand zipped back into his palm and he stuck them both into his back pocket.
‘What are you going to do with him?’
‘I don’t know.’ Harry shoved his darker thoughts down. ‘Contact the aurors.’
Gin nodded. ‘Best to wait for Kingsley if that’s what you want. Otherwise we’ll get a whole media circus.’
He grimaced. ‘Fuck. The last thing I want is them swarming over my home here.’ His anger flared up. ‘I was finally happy here.’
She took a step forward. ‘Are you okay? I’ve never heard you swear like that.’
Harry nodded and held up his trembling fingers, sucking in a deep breath to steady his pounding heart. ‘Just really shaky. I’ve never fought anyone so close up like that.’
‘Adrenaline, probably.’ Gin’s lips crooked into a smile. ‘But you beat him.’
A soft little satisfaction settled in his chest, tugging at the corner of his mouth. ‘He’s as bad as Greyback. Wants to cut out my heart and eat it. Like eating it is somehow honouring its strength.’
‘At least he has some honour. Greyback was more wolf than man.’
‘He’s still a beast.’ Harry balled his shaking hands into fists, dark thoughts rose from the quiet satisfaction like wisps of smoke from glowing embers. ‘I’m sorely tempted to hunt down something sharp from somewhere in this house and cut his fucking head off like one.’
Gin smiled and cupped his right fist between her hands, pressing light kisses to his grazed, bloodstained knuckles. ‘It’d only be fair. A fitting end for him. One final change to show everyone what he is, like your lovely new paintings.’
A quiet murmur of temptation coiled in his breast, soft promise of the thrill of power fluttering through his veins as his fingers slipped to the Elder Wand.
‘He deserves to be seen for what he is,’ Harry muttered. ‘He’s not a man at all. He just looks like one.’
‘What is he?’ Gin murmured. ‘How do you see him?’
‘A beast.’ Yellowed claws and fangs tangled before Harry’s mind’s eye. The matted, blood-streaked beard spread into tangled hide and the piercing blue eyes burnt with hunger of a wolfish grin. ‘A wolf wearing the cloak of a man.’
‘A wolf that honours its prey?’
‘A wolf that eats other wolves, and honours its own reflection in its prey,’ Harry replied, letting out one long breath and taking another until his heartbeat eased. ‘And I think honouring and eating are one and the same to him. If he kills it, he eats it. If you fought well and shared the thrill with him, he’ll do it with more relish. Like he can taste his victory in eating it’
She squeezed his hands and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Well, I can see why you wanted to put him down. It’s exactly what he deserves.’
Harry’s mind wandered to the hunting beasts painted on the stairs as they ripped into one another. ‘It was just an angry thought.’
‘Like with Bellatrix?’ Gin murmured. ‘You wanted to, didn’t you? Because you know it feels good.’
‘It’s okay,’ she whispered. ‘You can always be honest with me, Harry. Doing bad things to bad people feels good. It gives us that feeling of power we all secretly crave. And they deserve it. If you’d killed Bellatrix, Tonks would still be alive. If you kill Macnair, he’ll never kill anyone again.’
‘That doesn’t make it right.’
‘What does?’ Gin said. ‘We do what’s in our nature. And you’ve always beaten bad people.’
‘Because they were going to hurt other people. Not – not just because it would feel good.’
‘Those are just two intertwined consequences of the same action,’ she replied. ‘He would’ve hurt other people if he’d not come here and you’d beaten him. If he escapes, he still could. And he probably came here from the Burrow. Bill said he smelt a strange wizard and when I was outside in the rain, I thought I saw someone. Someone with dark hair and clothes, and blue eyes.’
Faint unease fluttered in Harry’s stomach. ‘You never said anything.’
‘I wasn’t sure if I really saw it.’ She cupped his cheek and met his gaze with soft, brown eyes. ‘I don’t want you to feel bad for just being who you are, Harry. Don’t be scared of yourself.’
‘I don’t feel bad, Gin,’ he whispered. ‘That’s what scares me.’
‘Why should you feel bad?’ she murmured. ‘Because people think Harry Potter should be a saint? Or that you’re meant to be someone like Dumbledore? Forget them. They don’t know you.’ A gleam of hunger hovered in her brown eyes. ‘I know you.’
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. ‘You do know me.’ Harry took a step back and pulled the Elder Wand from his pocket. ‘But I don’t think I know you.’
‘Harry?’ Gin twirled her wand in her fingers and held it up by the tip. ‘It’s okay. You can take my wand if you’re feeling jumpy. I won’t ever hurt you.’
He snatched her wand and stuck it into his other pocket. ‘Go downstairs. To your bedroom.’
‘Are you sending me to my room, Harry?’ Her high soft laugh echoed off the walls as she drifted down the steps. ‘Did I do something wrong?’
‘You’re not who I thought you were.’ He took a long trembling breath. ‘I’m not sure who you are at all. You saw someone near the burrow and said nothing to your family. You knew about Macnair. You heard what Bill said about someone lurking.’
‘I’ve never seen Macnair, Harry,’ Gin said. ‘How would I know it was him?’
‘You knew enough to suspect.’ Harry pushed her into her room and onto the bed, stepping back out of her reach. ‘You even said he might come after me, and what better way to find me than stalking my closest friends until I visited?’
‘If I’d realised that, why wouldn’t I have said something?’
He frowned. ‘I don’t know.’ A horrible suspicion rose from among his darkest thoughts. ‘Or maybe… maybe I do. You said you thought he was coming after me. Maybe that was what you wanted. To push me like Macnair wanted to push me, to see who I am.’
The corner of Gin’s mouth curved up. ‘To make you shed your skin?’
Harry’s blood ran cold. ‘Yes. To see me change. Because you think it’s beautiful. You love it when people follow their nature to its fullest. And you love when it leads them to what they deserve.’
She lay back on the bed and rested her head on her arms. ‘What are you going to do with me, Harry?’
He shivered. ‘I don’t know.’
A small smile flitted across Gin’s face. ‘What would you like to do to me?’
Harry’s eyes dropped to her lips. ‘I don’t know.’ He backed out and closed the door. ‘I don’t know,’ he whispered, letting the Elder Wand drink in his magic and sealing it shut with a slash of his arm. ‘But you’re not Ginny.’
The kettle puffed clouds of steam across the window, misting the panes. Rain thundered against the glass as he stirred a dash of milk into the mug with the shining steel teaspoon.
There. Just the colour you like it.
Harry rested the spoon in the sink and drifted into the hall. His mother’s figure stood beneath the trees, illuminated by the glow of her power and the full moon, and the winged fae statue hummed, slipping stone flowers into her hair.
He trudged up the stairs, pausing at the corner with a long sigh, staring into the marble eyes of the wyvern rising from its coils. Power rippled through the dark grey scales as it stirred, hanging like smoke from the sharp curve of its stone claws and fangs, trailing from the jagged spines upon the wyvern’s back, and gleaming in its pale eyes like the flash of lightning in storm clouds. It emanated from the stone in a silent whisper Harry heard only in his head; the soft echoing scrape of the sculptor’s tools as he changed rough rock into beauty in slow patient strokes.
Harry let out another long sigh and plodded up the stairs. ‘Gin?’ He knocked on the door with his knuckles. ‘You awake?’
‘I’m awake, Harry,’ she replied. ‘Do you want to come in?’
Harry pulled the Elder Wand from his pocket and unsealed the door. ‘Stay on the bed, Gin. Don’t move.’ He twisted the handle and pushed it open, levelling his wand at the bed.
Gin sat on the edge, swinging her bare feet. ‘Hey Harry.’ She gave him a soft smile. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Not great.’ He set the mug down on her bedside table. ‘I made you tea.’
‘Thank you.’ She picked it up and took a sip. ‘You remembered milk this time, well done.’
He snorted. ‘I didn’t want to get jabbed by that bloody teaspoon again.’
‘What are you going to do with me, Harry?’ Gin murmured. ‘Keep me in here?’
Harry winced. ‘I don’t know. I’m… confused.’
‘Would you like to talk about it?’
‘Will you be honest?’ he asked. ‘No lies.’
‘I told you I’d never lie to you,’ she said. ‘I’m not scared to be myself.’
Why? The question stuck in his throat as she waited with soft brown eyes, sipping tea with a small smile.
Harry took a deep breath.
‘Why, Gin?’ he whispered. ‘Why didn’t you tell anyone about seeing someone who might’ve been Macnair? The Ginny I knew would never have risked her family or friends just to push them into changing.’
The corner of Gin’s mouth twitched. ‘I told you, didn’t I? Ginny died in the Chamber of Secrets. I’m not that girl. I shed my skin. I changed. What was the random name I picked… Emilia?’
‘It doesn’t matter. You know what I meant.’
‘Why help me then? If you don’t care about them, why care about me?’
‘I do care about them, they’re my family, but I want to see you be yourself. And you were lost. Caught in the performance of Harry Potter.’ She took a long sip of tea. ‘So I came here to help you find yourself.’
‘By doing what?’
‘Listening. Being honest.’ Gin set the mug down. ‘What have I done to break your trust, Harry? All I’ve done is help.’
‘You were pushing me to kill Macnair!’
She smiled. ‘Was I? I was only pushing you to do what you want.’
Harry shivered. ‘What you think I want.’
‘You said you wanted to. Not me.’
‘Because – because…’
‘Because it feels good.’ Gin cocked her head, sweeping her hair back over shoulders. ‘You said it did before with Bellatrix, years ago. Did it feel good when you killed Quirrell?’
‘I didn’t kill him.’ Harry smothered the memory of grabbing Quirrell with both hands. ‘I was scared and eleven. It was self-defence.’
‘You can kill in self-defence. And while scared. Did it feel good?’
‘I don’t remember,’ he muttered. ‘I just remember grabbing him because touching me hurt him and I wanted to stop him. I woke up and Dumbledore told me he was dead.’
‘What about that sneaky little peek down my top?’ Gin asked. ‘You did that because you wanted to. It felt good, right? Getting a glimpse of something you wanted.’ She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. ‘Like kissing me.’
‘Not that different.’ She held his gaze with calm brown eyes. ‘It’s in boys’ nature to be a bit wicked when pretty girls are involved. Bill’s not wrong.’
‘Glancing down your top isn’t the same as murder.’
‘It’s a bit more extreme,’ Gin said. ‘It probably feels even better. Understanding everything someone is. And just… taking it away. Stopping it. Changing them for the final time and showing everyone who they are. Especially when they’re bad people and it’s what they deserve.’
She picked her mug of tea up and cupped it in both hands. ‘It doesn’t feel wrong though, does it?’
Harry swallowed. ‘That’s not the point.’
‘Isn’t it?’ Gin took a sip. ‘You never said what you’re going to do with me. Do you think I’m a bad person, Harry? Are you thinking about what I deserve?’
‘I’m not sure.’ He took a step back. ‘You’re not Macnair, but…’
‘He’s still upstairs, isn’t he?’ The corner of her mouth curved up. ‘You’ve not called the aurors yet.’
‘Because I’m confused by you! And I want to know what will happen when I do call them.’ A horrible thought occurred. ‘Are they just going to take Macnair off to Azkaban or…’
‘Or are they going to take you too, Gin? Macnair said someone told him I’d be too much of a challenge, someone baited him into coming after me.’
She smiled. ‘Well, I’m not going anywhere just yet, it seems. You can ask me anything. I won’t lie. I don’t. But can you tell me why you think being yourself is so wrong?’
‘It’s not that that’s wrong. It’s the murdering part,’ Harry said.
‘Is it the word you’re shying away from?’ she murmured. ‘Or is it because he’s all tied up? If he was free, if you’d killed him while fighting him like Tom, would that have been okay?’
‘That would’ve been self-defence,’ he snapped. ‘That’s me killing him to stop him killing me or anyone else.’
‘If he dies now, he’s been stopped from killing anyone else just as much as if he’d died then. Your action and its consequences are the same.’
‘But he didn’t. And now handing him over to Kingsley will stop him without me murdering him.’
‘True. And they’ll put him on trial and stuff him in Azakaban to be tortured by dementors until he dies. A cage for a beast.’ Gin took a long drink of her tea. ‘Doesn’t quite seem right, you know. A wild beast shouldn’t die in a cage. He wanted to share. Not rot all alone. He deserves to die sharing.’
‘Does that matter?’
‘Wouldn’t you rather it was someone who understood you that judged you, not a bunch of people like Umbridge.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘Actually, I think Umbridge is still on the Wizengamot.’
‘Same reason she still works at the Ministry, probably.’ Gin’s lips twitched. ‘And when all’s said and done, the important thing for everyone else is that he’s stopped, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter who stops him or how. Why not stop him in a way that means something to him and to you?’
‘It’s not for me to judge what he deserves.’
‘It’s in his nature to do bad things to good people and in yours to do bad things to bad people. You’ve always judged who was bad before. And you were right.’ She pointed through the wall. ‘It’s like that painting on the stairs of the goddess of the wild and all her beasts. It’s a circle that keeps itself in check. And each one’s just following their nature.’
Harry sighed. ‘It’s just not right.’
‘Is that you talking? Or Harry Potter?’
‘I know who I am, Gin. And I might not be a saint, but I’m not a monster either.’ He ignored the soft pity in her eyes and the little flash of anger it prompted. ‘I’m going to lock the door… Just bang if you need something. I’m sorry. It just seems… best.’
‘It’s okay.’ Gin gave him a smile. ‘I understand.’
‘Is there anything you want?’
‘Maybe some books to pass the time?’ She bit her lip. ‘A kiss? You wanted to before. I saw it in your eyes.’
He tore his eyes away from her lips. ‘I’ll find you some books.’
‘Thank you, Harry.’
Harry retreated and eased the door shut, sealing it shut. ‘Bloody hell,’ he muttered. ‘Bloody fucking hell.’
I should make sure Macnair isn’t getting loose. He took a deep breath. He mustn’t escape. Gin doesn’t even have a wand to defend herself.
Harry strode upstairs, wand in hand, tugging open the attic trapdoor and climbing the ladder.
Macnair’s blue eyes glared back as he blinked in the light. ‘You just going to keep me up here until I starve, coward?’ He growled. ‘Kill me properly or set me loose so I can kill you and that redhead.’
Harry clambered back down and shoved the ladder up, slamming the trapdoor. I should just call Kingsley. He balled his fist. But if Gin was the one that led him here, Macnair will tell the aurors and everyone will know.
Or I kill him. The thought welled up from the darker corner of his mind in Gin’s murmur. And it all goes away for everyone.
Harry scooped steaming beef stew out onto the porcelain and balanced the plate on his arm, swiping the mug of the tea off the side with three fingers.
Up I go.
He climbed the stairs, watching the stew creep past the fork toward the edge of the plate. ‘Gin?’ Harry knocked on the door. ‘You’re not going to try and ambush me, are you?’
Her soft high laugh came through the door. ‘No, Harry. I’m a good girl.’
‘Not sure about that,’ he muttered, putting the mug down to unseal the door with the Elder Wand. ‘I’m coming in.’
‘Is it lunchtime for the prisoner?’
Harry opened the door and set the plate down on the bedside table. ‘It’s lunchtime, yes. Stew, again. Your mum’s a much better cook than I am.’ He stepped back out and grabbed the tea. ‘And tea. Of course.’
‘Of course.’ She stuck a pillow on her lap and rested the plate on it, stabbing a piece of carrot. ‘So, are you going to interrogate your prisoner, Harry?’
‘You said you didn’t mind if I asked you questions.’
‘Then yes, I’ve got some things I’d like to ask.’
‘Ask away.’ She stuck the carrot in her mouth, chewed, swallowed, and raised her hands. ‘I won’t lie.’
‘You said Ginny died. And you changed.’ Harry studied her expression. ‘When did that actually happen?’
‘Over time.’ She ate a piece of beef. ‘I wasn’t the same when I woke up, but I was still quite a lot like Ginny. I was a bit of a mess and so scared that part of it had really been me after all. Over the summer, I don’t know, I stopped being scared, because nobody turned up to take me to Azkaban and everyone moved on to Sirius Black, and you were fine.’
‘And then you just… changed?’
‘No,’ Gin murmured. ‘When I wasn’t worrying, I just wasn’t thinking like silly Ginny used to. I had such dark thoughts. And they always came in Tom’s voice. Like he was whispering in my ear. That terrified me even more, I thought Tom was still here somehow. I had nightmares for months, but in the end I realised Tom was really gone and it was just me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Harry whispered.
‘I deserved it.’ The corner of her mouth curved up. ‘Do bad things and bad things happen to you.’
‘It’s okay. I got over it. Nothing happened. No memory gaps. No out of body moments. It was just me. When I realised that, I stopped hearing those thoughts as Tom’s voice in my head.’ Gin ate a few more pieces of stew and held out her hand. ‘Could I have my tea, please, Harry?’
‘Oh. Of course.’ He passed it over. ‘Sorry.’
‘I knew I’d changed.’ She chewed a piece of potato and swallowed. ‘It was a pretty traumatic experience for Ginny. And I thought about it a lot until eventually I understood that despite how bad it had been, I’d changed for the better. I felt more like… me. More than Ginny ever had.’
‘Yeah.’ She grinned. ‘No more butter dish accidents. It was probably early Fourth Year for you by then; it took me a while to process it. I had to sneak into the school library to read all the stories about change, but eventually I understood that people need to change and how beautiful that change really is. And then you came to watch the World Cup with us…’ The little gleam of hunger rose in her brown eyes. ‘You were down there in the Chamber of Secrets with Ginny. You saved me. I changed because of you. And—’ a little colour rose on her cheeks ‘—not everything Ginny felt disappeared, I just thought differently. I couldn’t not know you.’
‘You asked Hermione about boys…’
‘Just the one boy. She told me to be myself and wait and see. I tried…’ Gin frowned. ‘But I couldn’t ever share the dark thoughts. My friends would never understand those. Or my family. But you…? Tom said you were like him. And Tom… Tom understood. He used me, but he did understand. And I couldn’t imagine you using me, so I waited and hoped you’d notice me.’
‘But I didn’t.’ Harry grimaced.
‘I dated some other boys who asked, but they just didn’t work. I wanted you.’ She caught his eye, a small smile hovering on her lips. ‘And then some time just before when Ron won us that quidditch cup, you bumped into me and Dean in the tunnel. We were already over really, but I saw it when you looked at us together. There was such a dark look in your eye and I knew.’
Harry studied the floor. ‘I don’t remember that, I think I was on felix felicis.’
‘Then you’re lucky I saw it,’ Gin murmured. ‘I ditched Dean. And after we won that cup, you kissed me.’
‘I was definitely on felix felicis for that.’
‘And that luck, the best luck you could ever hope for, led you here, to listening to the little urges that make you who you are…’ She took a long sip of tea. ‘I – I never knew how to ask, or tell you, and I was afraid that the girl you saw was the one you wanted, so I never did say anything about my darker thoughts. And you left me.’
He winced. ‘I’m sorry about that. Again.’
Gin reached out and patted his hand. ‘It’s okay. Like I said, it’s for the best. I came to help you like this instead. And now I know you. Just how I wanted to. And you’re getting to know me.’
Harry watched her eat with a small frown, studying the patterns carved into the Elder Wand. ‘You really don’t see it as just doing the right thing?’
‘What’s the right thing?’ She finished her stew and set down her fork. ‘What everyone tells you that you ought to do? What you want to do? What’s in your nature? It’s just this vague concept people throw around, usually to try and get people to do what they want. Kingsley said it was just a balance of actions and consequences and I think I agree.’
‘Well, if everyone went around murdering people, we’d have lots of consequences, so it must be wrong,’ he replied.
‘Tom did,’ Gin murmured. ‘Why do you think he did it?’
‘Because all he cared about was power. He was obsessed with it. Powerful, valuable things. Tangible things. Because they weren’t love. And because he could understand them. And control them. And keep them.’
‘It was in his nature,’ she said.
‘But he caused a lot of trouble,’ Harry said. ‘And he was definitely in the wrong.’
‘And you killed him.’
‘You did. Piece by piece. And then once and for all so everyone who was looking could see who he really was.’
‘Well yeah, but I had to.’
‘You broke the law doing it,’ Gin said. ‘Several times. You used Unforgivables.’
‘Because it was the only option.’ Harry stifled a flash of anger. ‘It wasn’t right.’
‘Was it wrong either? You liked it. You liked the power.’ She slid the plate back onto the bedside table and tossed the pillow back onto the bed. ‘And if you’d done it for that, you still would’ve killed him. And you still would’ve stopped him. The actions and consequences are the same.’
‘It’s not some natural balance.’
‘It seems like one to me.’
‘Well I – I don’t like it.’
‘That doesn’t mean it can’t be real,’ Gin murmured. ‘I don’t like being stuck in this room. But I am. And I’ll stay here. For you.’
Harry’s anger guttered out. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep you in here. I just don’t know what to do. And I don’t know what you’ll do if I let you out.’
‘Do what’s in your nature.’ She tugged open the second button of her pyjamas and shot him an arch look. ‘Whether it’s looking down my top or doing bad things to bad people. It feels good to you for a reason.’
Harry averted his eyes to the sound of her high, soft laughter. ‘Plenty of bad things feel good to do. That doesn’t mean you should do them.’
‘But you don’t want to do them to good people,’ Gin whispered. ‘That’s the difference between Tom and you.’ She flashed him a grin. ‘Unless we’re talking about you taking a peek at my cleavage, then you might have a case.’
He snorted. ‘As tempting as that is—’ Harry resisted the urge to let his eyes slip with every fibre of his being ‘—I know I’m not doing a good thing.’
‘I said I didn’t mind, so how bad can it be?’
Harry scowled. ‘You’d mind if I was going to murder you.’
‘Better than being fed to dementors. At least you see me. You’d do it right.’
‘Gin…’ he whispered.
‘I think you might be insane.’
‘If I’m insane, then we both must be,’ she said. ‘Because you understand what I mean. You just don’t want to believe it.’
‘It’s not right, Gin.’ He sat beside her on the bed. ‘You’re all twisted. You can’t just do whatever you want to and justify it as some kind of natural balance. You don’t actually know it adds up like that, do you?’
She leant her head on his shoulder with a soft sigh. ‘I missed you.’
‘I’ve been here.’
‘But not… here. Not close enough for me to touch.’ Gin brushed her fingertips over the back of his hand. ‘It’s different. Touch is so intimate, especially with someone who really sees me. Seeing and hearing are so far away, but having you here, where I can touch you, smell you, even taste you if you kiss me. It feels so nice. So close.’
‘You didn’t answer my question.’
‘You distracted me,’ she said. ‘I don’t have to have some kind of big equation, Harry. We do bad things to bad people. The only problem we could have is if there are too many bad people for us to stop.’
‘What if we get it wrong?’
‘You make sure they’re bad.’ Gin swung her bare feet onto the bed and wrapped her arms around his waist, burying her face in his lap. ‘Then you don’t get it wrong.’
Harry stared down at her, tucking her red hair back behind her ear.
Ginny sighed. ‘That’s nice, Harry.’
‘Would you like some more books?’
She turned her head and stared up at him with soft brown eyes. ‘I want you to kiss me.’
‘Don’t you want to?’ The corner of her mouth twitched. ‘I know you. You don’t have to lie to me.’
‘We shouldn’t always do what we want.’
‘Do you think not kissing me when you want to will help you not do other things you want to?’ Gin pulled herself up in his lap and took his face in her hands. ‘That’s not going to help, Harry. You are who you are.’
She kissed him, soft and sweet. ‘You’re…?’
Harry closed his eyes. ‘I don’t know what to do. Part of me just wants to do it. To go up there and kill him and put an end to all of this.’
Gin’s nose brushed the tip of his. ‘To just kill him.’
Dark thoughts rose, murmuring in her voice.
‘No.’ He squeezed his eyes shut. ‘No if I’m going to do it, I should do it the right way. For him. Otherwise… it’s just me doing it for myself to feel powerful. It’s just murder. But I know killing him is still wrong.’
‘Do you?’ Her breath tickled his cheek, her lips grazing his. ‘Do you know it? Do you feel it?’
‘No,’ Harry whispered. ‘No I don’t.’
‘It’s what you’ve always done, Harry,’ Gin murmured. ‘Only now you get to do it for yourself and everyone. Little Ginny thought it was heroes that killed monsters. But we’re all the monster. And we’re all the hero. It’s in our nature to be both.’
‘What about everyone else, Gin?’ Harry asked. ‘What about Ron and Hermione?’
‘This is your own thing, they have theirs.’ She kissed him again, curling her fingers tight in his hair. ‘And they don’t see you. Or me.’
Harry slipped his hands under her thighs and lifted her off his lap.
Gin cocked her head, swiping her red hair out of her face. ‘Are you going to let me out, Harry?’
‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t know. What will you do if I do?’
The corner of her mouth curved up.
You’ll free Macnair. You’ll push me.
‘Do you want to let me out?’ Gin murmured.
Harry swallowed hard. ‘Yes.’
It feels wrong keeping you shut in your room. But I can’t let you out.
A small smile flitted across Gin’s lips. ‘Kiss me goodbye?’
He bent to kiss her cheek, but she turned her face and caught his lips with hers, seizing the front of his shirt and slipping her tongue into his mouth. A little heat trickled through his veins as she pressed herself against him.
‘There.’ Gin drew back, her chest rising and falling. ‘You know me. You know what that means.’
‘You love me.’ A smile crept onto his lips and a warm little glow settled on his heart. ‘But you want me to do something wrong, Gin. Love’s not an excuse for that.’
‘I want you to be yourself. Not to torment yourself over who you are.’ She lay back on her bed, wiggling her bare toes on the covers. ‘Because I love you.’
Harry collected her plate and stepped out, closing the door behind him and sealing it. Fuck. What do I do? The dark thoughts rose, whispering in Gin’s voice. Is that what I want? If the consequences are good, is the action right?
He drifted down to the kitchen, wiping the plate clean in cold water as the rain poured outside the window and stacking it back in the cupboard.
‘How did it all change so fast?’ he muttered. ‘I’ve always done what I felt was right.’
Is she right? Bellatrix cackled and shrieked beneath his wand as the thrill fluttered through his veins. She did deserve it. Am I meant to feel bad? I don’t even know.
Harry’s feet led him back up, past the second floor and the third, to the trapdoor. ‘I guess talking to Macnair might help somehow.’ He pulled the door open and tugged down the ladder, climbing up into the attic. ‘Lumos.’
Macnair snarled, blinking into the light of the wand. ‘Get that the fuck out of my face, Potter, you coward.’
‘You keep calling me a coward. Why?’
‘Why?’ He grinned, baring his chipped, yellow teeth. ‘Because you’re keeping me up here like a rat in a cage so you can feed me to the dementors. You don’t have the spine to do what you really want to do yourself, so you’ll let the fucking lethifolds do it for you and pretend it makes you a better person.’
‘Not murdering you makes me a better person than murdering you would.’
‘Not murdering me?’ Macnair howled with laughter. ‘You talk like you’re saving me. I’d rather die out here, in the wild, in the fight together with someone worthy. Sharing that last bright moment of life. Alive. Kicking. Bleeding. Screaming. Not withering away in madness and misery. You’re not saving me. You’re just letting someone else do the dirty work you’re too craven to do yourself.’
‘And I’m supposed to presume I know better what you deserve than the decision of a trial?’
Macnair spat into the dust. ‘What’s the difference? You’re all just people. At least if you beat me you’d’ve earned the right to kill me, Potter. What did any of them do to earn the right to judge me?’
Nothing. Umbridge certainly didn’t.
Harry scowled at the floor. ‘If I let you go, what would you do?’
‘Come back in the dark and kill that sweet little redhead who told me you were so much more than I could manage.’ Macnair grinned through his matted beard. ‘And I bet you’d try to kill me then, wouldn’t you, Potter? I’d see that heart of yours, wouldn’t I?’
She did tell him. Harry’s heart sank. Of course she did. She thinks it will push me into changing. Into embracing who I am. He clenched his fist around the Elder Wand. She might even be right.
‘It would’ve been smarter to lie,’ he said. ‘I might’ve let you go.’
Macnair’s sharp blue eyes met his. ‘I don’t lie. There’s a beast in me, Potter, not a scared little boy. I say what I think. What I mean. And I fight tooth and claw with those worthy of sharing that last bright moment until I can taste it on my tongue.’
‘I can’t let you go.’
‘Kill me,’ Macnair said. ‘Kill me or free me.’
‘I should give you to Kingsley.’
Macnair grinned. ‘You can’t. I’m not going to die in Azkaban like a rat in a cage, Potter.’
‘You can’t stop me.’
He bared his teeth. ‘Fine. I won’t die in Azkaban like a rat in a cage alone. I’ll take my pretty little redheaded accomplice with me. She told me where to find you. She suggested I should come after you. That’s attempted murder. Against you. Harry Potter. We both know where she’ll end up at the end of her trial.’
Harry’s blood ran cold. ‘Then I guess you’re going to be up here for a while.’
A dull banging echoed through the house.
‘Gin,’ he murmured, bounding up the stairs to her door. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Your prisoner would like to use the bathroom,’ she said.
Harry pulled the Elder Wand from his pocket and unsealed the door. ‘Come on then.’ He twisted the handle and pushed it open.
Gin cocked her head and hopped off her bed. ‘Letting the bird out of its cage, Harry?’
‘I’ve taken you to the bathroom plenty of times already,’ he said.
She padded out into the corridor, the hem of her pyjama top fluttering around her bare thighs. ‘Do I get a kiss for being good?’
Harry bent and kissed her. ‘Happier?’
Gin’s arms slipped around his neck and pulled him back down, crushing her lips into his until she pulled back breathing hard. ‘Is it so terrible to do what you want, Harry?’
‘You know it’s not,’ he muttered.
‘You don’t have to wait for me to ask, there’s nothing to be scared of. If you want to kiss me, kiss me.’ She drifted down the hall on bare feet and into the bathroom. ‘Can I have a bath?’
‘Are you going to be good?’ Harry frowned. ‘Or am I going to find you climbed out that big window, shimmied up the drainpipe and untied Macnair?’
Gin’s lips twitched. ‘I think deep down you’d like that. He’d come to fight you. You’d have to kill him to stop him. You’d get what you want, choice free.’
Harry crushed the little whisper of temptation down with the dark thoughts. ‘I don’t think I should leave you in that bathroom for very long.’
‘Come in then.’ A little glimmer of mischief rose in her brown eyes. ‘Give me a minute to pee and run the water. Once I’m in, you can come and make sure I’m not doing anything bad.’
Harry swallowed hard as a little heat whispered through his veins, trickling south. ‘You really want that bath?’
Gin’s high soft laugh filled the hall, tugging at his heart. ‘Would you rather come see me in the bath or not, Harry?’
‘I know what you’re doing,’ he murmured. ‘Trying to get me to do what I want again.’
‘Of course I am. I want you to feel good. I love you.’
Harry sighed. ‘Fine. Just… shout when you’re in and I’ll come.’
‘Just give me a minute or two.’ She slipped in and closed the door.
The bath tap squeaked and water splashed, gushing away.
He rested his forehead against the wall and let out a long sigh. No point fighting her when it doesn’t matter so much. Gin’s lips hovered among his thoughts, the taste of her kiss lingering on his lips. If she wants me to see her, why not? A touch of heat fluttered through his veins. I want to. And she wants me to.
The toilet flushed.
Harry counted the seconds trickling by, tossing the Elder Wand back and forth between his hands and forcing thoughts of Gin’s nude body beneath the bath water from his head.
‘You can come in,’ she called.
He inched the door open, holding his breath. Gin’s dark blue underwear sat atop the small pile of her pyjamas. Heat coursed through his veins, stirred by the quickening beat of his heart.
Gin lounged beneath a swathe of bubbles, a bright little spark of mischief in her eye. ‘We can talk, if you want.’ She patted her bubbles. ‘These will last a while, so unless you talk a lot, I should be okay.’
A little whisper of temptation coiled in his breast.
She knows you. He stamped the murmur out. She knows.
‘What would you like to talk about?’ Harry asked, closing the door and taking a seat on the end of the bath by the window.
‘Is Macnair still tied up in the attic?’ Gin asked. ‘It’s been nearly a week now…’
‘I can’t let him go, Gin,’ he murmured. ‘He’ll come back and kill you just to make me try and kill him.’
‘You’ve not given him to the aurors, either.’
‘You talked to him at the Burrow,’ Harry whispered. ‘If I give him to Kingsley, he’ll frame you as his accomplice.’
Gin cupped a palmful of bubbles with a faint smile. ‘Well, I’d prefer you didn’t give him to the aurors, then.’
Was it planned? To trap me like this? The dark little thought rose up from the back of his mind in Gin’s murmur. Did she know me that well?
‘Did you do it deliberately, Gin?’ he whispered. ‘Did you talk to him so I couldn’t hand him over to the aurors without serious consequences for us?’
Her lips twitched. ‘I’d have to know you very well to have predicted this.’
‘You do know me very well.’ Harry fixed her with a long look. ‘And it’s not like the idea of me stunning him would have been a stretch… And if I stunned him, of course I’d then need to decide what to do with him.’
‘How would I know you’d find out about me talking to him?’
He snorted. ‘Macnair’s talkative. Even when he’s fighting. You spoke to him, you’d know that.’
She smiled. ‘But what if he hadn’t talked about that before you won. You could have stunned him and handed him over before you ever knew.’
‘He’d want to see if I was worth sharing with, he’d very likely talk about why he came for me.’
Gin trailed her hand through the bubbles. ‘You’ve thought that through.’
‘Not really.’ Harry popped a bubble with the tip of the Elder Wand. ‘It just occurred to me now.’
‘Are you bursting my bubbles, Harry.’ She smiled. ‘Want to get a glimpse of something?’
Heat crept to his cheeks. ‘I wasn’t thinking about that at all, actually.’
‘But you are now.’
‘That’s entirely your fault.’
Her lips twitched. ‘I guess I did bring it on myself.’
‘Oh.’ Harry tucked his hands behind his back to keep from messing with the bubbles. ‘Very clever, Gin.’
‘I’m a sneaky girl, remember.’
‘I’m finding it very hard to forget.’ He sighed. ‘If I ask you something, will you give me an honest answer without trying to trip me up like that?’
‘Of course.’ She leant forward in the bath. ‘I’m not trying to trip you up, Harry. It’s just how I see it.’
‘Persuade me, then. However you want to say it.’
‘You can always ask me anything.’
‘Do you think there’s a way I can solve this without doing something I don’t want to?’
A little smile crept onto her lips. ‘Yes.’
‘Not by murdering him.’
Gin’s high soft laugh echoed back off the tiles. ‘Then, no. I don’t think you can avoid making a choice. If you try to avoid choosing, the consequences are you let other people choose what happens to me, too. And if you choose, you have to either let him go free to keep killing or kill him.’
‘I should give him to the aurors.’
‘Do you really think their judgement is better than yours? They once tried to break your wand for defending yourself from the dementors someone at the Ministry sent to kill you.’
‘That was before—’
‘They’re all still there, most of them.’
Harry scowled. ‘It shouldn’t be me deciding. I’m not better than anyone else. Judging people like that is what Walburga and Bellatrix did. Treating people like cattle.’
‘It’s not the same,’ Gin murmured. ‘You actually know the people you’re judging. You understand them. What better person could judge them?’
‘Because I’m not everyone.’
‘If you let everyone tell you what to do and who to be, you’ll have to be Harry Potter.’ She popped bubbles with her little finger, smiling as his eyes slipped to the curve of her breasts beneath the bathwater. ‘You’ll spend your life pretending to be someone you’re not. I don’t want that for you, Harry.’
Frustration flared and he clenched his jaw. ‘I hate this even more!’
‘Then choose something.’ Gin wrapped one arm over her chest and sat up, bubbles slid down her skin into the water. ‘But I’ll still love you. Even if you send me to Azkaban.’
Harry’s gaze wandered down her gleaming, damp skin to where her arm covered her nipples, wrestling with the heat whispering through his veins.
‘Aren’t you going to kiss me?’
He bent and kissed her hard on the mouth, cupping her face between his hands.
‘I won’t let him out, you know,’ Gin murmured, her arms sliding around his neck and pressing herself against him. ‘It’s your choice to make. I don’t want to take that away from you.’
Harry stared in her brown eyes, searching for truth.
‘I don’t lie.’ She leant back, water droplets trickling from her red hair down over her bare breasts, catching and hanging on her small pink nipples. ‘You see me.’
He swallowed hard. ‘I do.’
The corner of Gin’s mouth crooked. ‘You can touch me,’ she whispered. ‘I love it when you touch me. I feel so close to you.’
His fingers crept down her neck, tracing soft lines past her collarbone and over her breast, brushing the nipple.
Her breath hitched.
Harry drew gentle circles around it with the side of his thumb, buoyed by a soft, bright thrill as Gin stole quiet, shaky breaths. Heat pooled in the base of his stomach and he felt himself grow stiff against his jeans.
‘Come here,’ she whispered, tugging him down. ‘I want to be closer to you.’
Harry slipped into the warm bath, sending bubbles pouring over the side onto the bathroom tiles.
Gin let out a gentle sigh as his weight rested on her. ‘Don’t stop touching me. It’s so nice and—’
‘Intimate,’ he murmured, kissing her upturned lips.
‘Yes.’ A little shiver rippled through her as he cupped her breast, brushing his thumb over her nipple. ‘I feel so close to you. So seen. So loved.’
‘I do love you,’ Harry murmured, pressing gentle kisses to every bit of soft, wet skin he could reach. ‘You know that. I just…’
‘I know.’ Gin rested her head into the crook of his neck and wrapped her slim fingers around his wrist, drawing it down beneath the warm water to the heat between her legs. ‘Don’t stop—’ a soft gasp tore from her lips as his fingers traced over her ‘—never stop.’
He slipped one finger inside her and smiled as she arched her back, pressing her cheek against his with a soft whimper.
‘Just a little bit more,’ she whispered. ‘Just a little.’
Harry slid a second finger in, brushing his thumb across the top of her sex. Gin shuddered and moaned, clinging to him as she came undone with a quiet gasp.
‘More?’ he asked.
She eased his fingers out of her and wrapped his arms ‘round her. ‘Hold me. I love it when you touch me, when I can smell you—’ her lips caught his ‘—taste you. I feel so close to you.’
He drew her against him. ‘What am I going to do with you?’
‘Will you let me out?’ Gin rested her head on his shoulder.
‘Of the bath?’ Harry tucked her wet, red hair behind her ear. ‘Of course, it’s starting to get cold.’
Her soft high laughter tickled his neck. ‘Out of my little cage.’
She said she wouldn’t. Temptation coiled in his breast, hot and tight enough to catch the air in his lungs. And she’s not lied yet.
‘Yes,’ he whispered. ‘Yes. I will.’
‘I missed this,’ Gin murmured, sweeping dust off the floor and window sills with a huge grin. ‘Did you do much more when I was in my cage?’
‘It wasn’t a cage.’
She laughed. ‘Did you?’
‘Not loads. Halls and floors and ceilings, but not any of the rooms.’ Harry restored the mattress and bed covers with a flick of the Elder Wand. ‘I discovered that this is truly amazing at fixing things, even when they shouldn’t be restorable.’
‘Saved it all to do together, did you?’ Gin murmured, testing the bed with one hand. ‘That’s as good as new.’ She cocked her head. ‘Harry…?’
‘That’s not your wand…’
She scooped a lock of red away from her face. ‘It looks an awful lot like Dumbledore’s wand.’
‘It’s not really his wand, either.’ He grinned. ‘If it has an owner, he’s not someone you’d want to meet. Although I guess in the end we all have to.’
‘The Duststick right now. But yes.’
‘You didn’t tell me you had that,’ Gin murmured. ‘Hermione said you got rid of it.’
‘I got it back for Walburga,’ he replied. ‘It can do things other wands can’t and then I was going to put it back, but…’
Gin’s lips twitched. ‘Is it powerful?’
‘Tom died because of it.’ Harry frowned. ‘Partly.’
‘He’d’ve liked that. Even the Elder Wand wasn’t enough by itself.’
‘Yeah, he would’ve.’ He pointed the Deathstick at the faded, stained, peeling burgundy wallpaper and let it drink deep from his magic. The Elder Wand thrummed with power in his hand, sending soft jolts of warmth up his arm. ‘Restituo.’
It shivered, sloughing off dust and damp and stains, brightening in the dim light, and the peeling patches curled back into place.
‘Impressive.’ Gin vaulted across the bed and pulled his lips down to hers. ‘Does it feel good, being able to do things you shouldn’t be able to, Harry?’
His hands dropped to her waist, slipping under her tee-shirt. ‘Not nearly as good as I know you think this feels.’
Her breath hitched.
‘All that time pushing me,’ Harry whispered, gliding his fingertips along the waist of her jeans to the small button. ‘All those little word games. Do what you want, Harry. Be who you are. Listen to your urges. Follow your nature.’
‘For you,’ Gin murmured, her stomach trembling as he tugged the button open. ‘Because I love you.’
He kissed her, tasting the faint tang of tea ‘I know. And I love you, Gin.’ His fingers pulled the zip down one click at a time. ‘But now what I want to do…’
A little shiver swept through her as his thumb brushed the hem of her underwear. ‘Is?’ she whispered. ‘Harry?’
Harry eased her back onto the bed, drawing little circles on her stomach as she took quick, shallow breaths. A soft thrill fluttered through his veins as she balled her fists in the bedspread and he widened his circles, slipping his fingertips beneath the hem of her underwear.
‘Touch me more.’ Gin squirmed, curling her bare toes either side of his feet. ‘Harry…’
He traced his fingers a little lower over her smooth skin. ‘Hard to touch you with everything in the way, Gin…’
She slid her clothes down, wriggling until she’d kicked them off her right leg. ‘Not anymore.’
Harry bent and kissed her.
‘I want you to touch me.’ Gin grabbed his face between her hands and pulled his mouth to hers, crushing her lips into his. ‘All the time.’
‘I am touching you, Gin.’ He cupped the heat between her thighs, dipping one fingertip into wetness there. ‘See?’
Her breath caught. ‘I love this.’ She arched her back with a soft gasp as he eased his middle finger deeper. ‘I love you touching me. Just the two of us. Together. Sharing everything.’
Harry curled his fingers, brushing this thumb in slow circles through her sex. Gin let out a small whimper, her legs shaking and a bright little thrill rushed through him.
Her brown eyes met his, full of fire. He kissed her hard as she shuddered and gasped, clinging to his shirt and dropping her head back with a quiet sigh.
‘Was that what you wanted me to do?’ Harry asked.
Gin’s soft high laugh filled the room. ‘Oh yes. That and more.’ She sat up, her gaze sliding down to where he strained against his jeans. ‘But I want to do something else now.’
A wry humour tugged at the corner of his mouth. ‘Well, you should do what you want to do, right?’
She pulled the button of his jeans loose and slid the zip down, breathing quick and shallow as she pulled his clothes away and wrapped her fingers around him. ‘You’re really warm.’
Heat pooled in his belly, a little spike of pleasure as she brushed her thumb over his head. Gin gave him a gentle squeeze and the heat flared into flames, tearing a low gasp from his lips. She gave him long slow strokes, growing faster as the fire tightened his belly and his breathing turned ragged.
‘Gin…’ Harry hissed. ‘I’m going to—’
He burst, closing his eyes as the pleasure rippled through him.
‘Warm,’ Gin murmured.
He opened his eyes.
She spread her fingers, watching the thick white hang between her fingers with a faint smile. Gin glanced up and he caught the bright little thrill in her brown eyes.
The corner of Harry’s mouth curved up into a small smile.
She smiled back. ‘I’m kind of hungry now.’
‘You don’t want to wash your hands?’ Harry fixed his clothes. ‘It’s pretty sticky…’
‘You know, I sort of like touching it,’ Gin murmured. ‘But yes.’ She pulled her underwear and jeans back up with her other hand and held her tee-shirt out the way. ‘Would you?’
He buttoned her jeans and tugged the zip back up. ‘All sorted.’
‘Thank you, Harry.’ Gin drifted into the bathroom. ‘I’ll only be a few moments.’
She wouldn’t, would she? Harry glanced up toward the attic, faint unease coiling in the pit of his stomach. No. She said she wouldn’t. Gin never lies.
He wandered down the stairs and into the kitchen.
A huge, orange-eyed eagle owl tapped its beak upon the window, a letter grasped in its talons. The Ministry’s stamp marked the top right in black ink.
Harry’s heart seized.
They can’t know.
He slid the window open and tugged the letter from its beak, ripping it open and skimming the words.
They’ve lost track of Macnair. Harry breathed out a long sigh of relief and tossed the letter onto the table. Kingsley doesn’t understand Macnair very well if he thinks he’s fled the country to lie low with the others. A dark little thought rose from the back of his mind. And if they don’t understand him, how can they judge him?
‘From the Ministry?’ Gin pulled the letter around. ‘Oh, Macnair’s vanished. Presumed fled to Europe. I guess Kingsley doesn’t know him very well, but now the aurors aren’t looking for him, at least…’
All the easier to kill him, if I kill him. Or when I kill him. Right, Gin?
She leant over the table and gave him a small grin.
A little smile crept onto his lips. ‘What do you fancy for lunch, Gin?’
‘What do we have?’ The little thrill hovered in her brown eyes, bright and hot as bursting fireworks.
Heat crept south, whispering through his veins.
‘I think lunch might have to wait for a few moments,’ Harry said, stepping around the chairs and kissing her. ‘There’s something I quite want to do first.’
‘Oh?’ Anticipation gleamed in her eyes, smouldering into desire as his hands slipped to the button of her jeans again. ‘I’d only just got those back on, Harry.’
‘I know.’ He twisted the button free and slid them down her legs, pulling them off her feet and dropping them on the chair. ‘Maybe you just shouldn’t wear jeans anymore.’
Gin grinned. ‘You’d like that?’
‘A lot.’ Harry slipped his thumbs under the hem of her underwear, easing them down her thighs until they crumpled around her ankles.
She stepped one foot out and lifted them onto the chair with her other. ‘Are you going to touch me again.’
‘Yes.’ Harry lifted her onto the table, pressing a gentle kiss to her upturned mouth and trailing his lips down to her trembling stomach. ‘But not like before.’
Gin spread her thighs with a shaky breath. ‘Taste me?’
He kissed her between them, dipping the tip of his tongue into her. A gasp tore from her throat.
‘Do that again,’ she whispered.
Harry traced his tongue up through her wetness until she whimpered and her fingers clenched in his hair. ‘More?’
‘More,’ Gin breathed. ‘Don’t stop… tasting me.’
He drew small circles over her, brushing the tip of his tongue back and forth over her until her little whimpers turned into moans and her back arched. She wrapped her legs around his shoulders, digging her heels into his back tighter and tighter as Harry slowed down.
‘Slower… is… sometimes… better,’ Gin gasped, throwing her head back. ‘So… good.’
Harry slipped two fingers into her, feeling her clench around him as she came undone on the table in a shuddering breath and with a soft moan.
‘Hold me,’ she murmured. ‘Come hold me tight.’
He straightened up and swept her to the edge of the table, wrapping her up in his arms. ‘I’m holding you.’
Gin bundled his shirt up and buried her face in his chest, running her hands up down his back beneath his top. ‘Keep holding me. I want to feel your skin touching mine.’
Harry smiled, breathing in the smell of her hair. ‘It’s really nice, isn’t it, just having you close.’
‘Will you come sleep with me tonight?’ she whispered into his skin. ‘So we can be like this all night.’
He stroked her red hair away from her face. ‘Of course, Gin. If that’s what you want.’
‘Thank you.’ Gin closed her eyes, breathing out a long sigh into his chest. ‘I wanted this so much.’
‘Me too,’ Harry murmured. ‘I wish I’d seen you sooner.’
A three-bodied goddess of dark stone stood between the two full length windows, each of her heads crowned with gnarled cypress branches. The slim form of a serpent coiled around the wrists of her rightmost pair of hands, raising its head raised to taste the air, fangs agape.
‘Hekat,’ Gin murmured, admiring the flickering green flames of the torch in the hand of the leftmost figure. ‘Goddess of magic.’
‘She’s a good fit here.’ Harry watched the centre figure of the goddess rest a dagger-wielding hand on the head of the snarling dog sitting before her. ‘Suits all these dark wooden shelves and the floor in the library too.’
‘Hekat’s a dark and mysterious goddess. She’s the goddess of magic, after all.’ Gin reached out and touched the tip of her finger to the curved, dark blade in Hekat’s hand. ‘She’s also the goddess of being in between so she was really important to a lot of magical people in ancient times when they were considered part divine and part mortal.’
Lightning flashed in the dark clouds beyond the glass and thunder crashed overhead. Hekat watched over the library with a faint, enigmatic smile on all three of her faces as the rain descended to hammer on the roof above.
‘Have you fixed the hole in the roof?’ Gin asked.
‘Not yet.’ He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. ‘But we’re almost done with the fourth floor and the Library was the last thing left over from below.’
‘You’ll have to decide what you want to do with the attic.’ A little spark of mischief shone in her brown eyes. ‘You know, whether you want to fix the hole yourself or get someone else to do it for you.’
The thunder rumbled overhead.
‘Nice try, Gin,’ Harry murmured, turning away from Hekat and pointing at the heap of books on the floor. ‘We need to decide what we do with those dangerous books first.’
But I can’t keep Macnair up there forever. The dark thoughts rose like smoke from the back of his mind. And I can’t let him go. And I can’t give him to Kingsley.
‘Well, we could either keep them here and put them in one safe spot or destroy them or give them to Kingsley.’ She poked a translucent one with her bare toe and watched it flicker and reappear on the far side of the stack. ‘Although this one is just annoying, I don’t know how you could even read it.’
‘I assumed that one was some kind of practical joke. Every time you touch it, it does its little teleporting trick.’
‘It’s titled The Ultimate Secret to Wizarding Success, How to Keep Secrets.’ Gin grinned. ‘I’m pretty sure it’s a joke.’
‘I can’t imagine destroying these is really a good idea,’ Harry said. ‘If we’d destroyed all the books in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts, Dumbledore might never have figured out what Tom did.’
‘Keep them then. Or give them to Kingsley.’ She cocked her head and swept her red hair over her shoulders. ‘Although I suspect if you do that, they’ll just destroy them or give them to someone who pays for them. Like Malfoy.’
‘Well, the last thing Malfoy needs is more dark artefacts.’ He pulled the Elder Wand from his pocket and let it draw on his magic, enjoying the soft hum of the warm wand in his hand. ‘I might as well keep them.’ Harry flicked the Deathstick.
The shelves trembled, the full ones slid into a circle on their right and the empty ones into a circle on their left. The heap of books on the flaw rose and flew onto the shelves, stacking themselves in neat rows.
Gin smiled. ‘I like it. We could put some decorations on the walls? Or have them painted?’
Harry nodded as the thunder crashed overhead and the rain eased. ‘I was thinking about putting something at the centre of the circles as well. Some kind of nice light.’
‘How about those stone trees that didn’t end up fitting in the Dining Hall?’
‘They’re not lights,’ he said. ‘And it’s going to be pretty dark inside those circles of shelves without some lights.’
‘We could make them lights,’ Gin said. ‘Get those little floating ones that you wanted to put in the bathroom. The ones that change colour depending on what time it is.’
‘Yes!’ Harry chuckled. ‘I’m still upset that I couldn’t stick those on all the little tiles because the steam interferes with the tethering spell.’
‘You could stick them on the branches and they’d float all through the tree,’ she murmured. ‘Kind of like that painting of your mum downstairs.’
He imagined them floating amongst the dark branches like little fireflies drifting in the night, hovering like the little green ghostlights his cast in her painting.
Always changing. A faint smile crept onto Harry’s lips. And beautiful.
‘It’ll take a while,’ he said.
‘But it’ll look really nice,’ Gin said. ‘And it means you don’t have to buy anything more.’
‘That’s true.’ He tucked the Elder Wand back into his pocket. ‘Those new bathroom tiles for the wall over the bath were really expensive.’
Her high soft laugh filled the library. ‘They had to be made especially for you so you could have that basilisk chasing the little ships and swallowing them. I told you it was going to be really expensive.’
‘I know, but it was worth it.’ A small smile crept onto his face. ‘It’s going to be my home, right? It’s worth making it just how I want it.’
‘You’re going to have let Rita Skeeter write your autobiography now, or you’re not going to be able to pay your bills.’
‘I’d be back to cold baths.’ Harry laughed. ‘But I’d still have the basilisk on the wall, so…’
‘A worthwhile sacrifice.’
‘What’s left upstairs now?’ He ran through his tally. ‘Just the room Macnair and I wrecked, I think. I’ve only got that last painting you picked out up there at the moment.’
‘Want to get started?’ Gin asked. ‘We’ve got time, it’s still a few hours until it gets dark.’
And the moment I run out of house, you know I have to deal with Macnair.
Harry gave her a faint smile. ‘Why not?’
‘Why not indeed.’ The corner of Gin’s mouth crooked and she bounced out of the library, her bare soles flashing in the lightning.
He trailed her up the stairs and under the trapdoor to the far end of the fourth floor corridor where the crystalline bone clock hands hovered over the exposed bronze cogs.
‘Oh that’s where you put the clock,’ she said. ‘I was wondering.’
‘It’s a little macabre,’ Harry said. ‘But according to the less rude portraits that are in the stack for that attic and not the fire, it’s made of genuine sphinx bone and therefore very fancy and rare.’
‘It does look very fancy.’ Gin’s eyes swept down from the turning bronze cogs to the folded wings carved from dark wood encasing the rest from the clock face to the lion’s feet it stood on. ‘I like that you can see the cogs all turning as they float next to each other. Apparently, the hands are meant to stop if the greatest secret of the owner of the clock is told and when the Black that commissioned this was accused of murdering his parents they stopped and never started again.’
Harry snorted ‘I’m not sure I believe that.’
‘It’s a nice story.’ She admired the spinning cogs with a small smile. ‘Worth keeping this for. And the hands aren’t moving.’
He craned his neck around her to glance into the last bedroom. ‘We’re going to need to fix that bed.’
‘And the wall,’ she said, lingering in the door. ‘Also those floorboards.’
‘I think they might need replacing,’ Harry said, slipping an arm around her and peering over her head. ‘We went right through them very easily.’
Gin leant back into him with a contented little hum. ‘The boards do look really thin and worn.’
‘Maybe just get rid of those.’ Harry pulled the Elder Wand out of his jeans. ‘Reparo.’
The broken floorboards flowed back together and the splintered bedpost rose from the floor. Little spikes of wood crept across the floor, rejoining the broken end as it melded back into the bed frame, and the dents in the wall melted away.
‘That’ll do it for now.’
‘That wand is really impressive,’ Gin murmured.
‘Dumbledore fixed an entire house with it once,’ he said, sticking it back in his pocket. ‘When we went to get Slughorn, he’d wrecked the entire inside to pretend he’d been kidnapped. I’m not entirely sure why, actually, or even how he knew anyone was coming, but Dumbledore just waved his wand once and restored the entire inside in one go.’
She bent and lifted the painting from the floor. ‘Actaeon.’
‘A hunter.’ Gin turned the painting around, brushing her fingers over the stag fleeing through the trees. ‘A hunter who offended a goddess. She changed him into a beast and he was ripped apart and devoured by his own hounds.’
Harry snorted. ‘That painting is a lot darker than it looks.’
‘He was no better than a beast, so it was only fitting he was hunted and eaten like one.’ A small smile flitted across her lips. ‘I thought it would suit this room.’
Wry amusement tugged at the corner of his mouth. ‘Macnair.’
‘We’d be the only ones who know,’ she murmured, a delighted little smile hovering on her lips. ‘But everyone would see.’
Harry laughed. ‘Let’s put it up in here then.’
Gin glanced around the room. ‘That’s everything apart from the attic, Harry.’ Her lips twitched. ‘We’ve changed everything else, give or take a few last touches we can do.’
‘Does it feel like you. Like your home?’
Harry breathed in the quiet of the house, closing his eyes and drinking in the paintings, the winged fae, the dark forests, the plain marble statues and the basilisk on the bathroom wall. A soft sense of satisfaction swelled in his breast.
‘Yes. It does.’
‘What does it feel like?’ Gin murmured, leaning her head back against his collarbone.
Harry’s eyes dipped to the front of her top. ‘It feels like me.’
She caught his eye with a glimmer of amusement in her brown eyes. ‘It feels like you to me as well. Quiet and strong and just a little dark.’
‘Broody,’ he joked. ‘I have made the perfect house to brood in.’
‘You’ve not been doing much brooding.’ Her high laugh sent his heart flip-flopping in his chest. ‘It definitely feels like you. A great dark serpent, waiting in the shadows as the rats slink past.’
Harry bent to kiss her with a chuckle. ‘I know what you’re doing,’ he murmured. ‘Sneaky girl.’
Gin twisted around and slid her arms around his neck, pulling his lips down to hers. A bright spark of amusement shone in her brown eyes as she kissed him hard. ‘I know you know,’ she whispered. ‘You know me.’
‘I do now,’ he said, slipping his fingers under tee-shirt to caress her back.
She gave a contented murmur, arching herself into him as her kisses lingered and turned heated. Harry’s hands crept up until his knuckles brushed her breasts.
‘No,’ Gin murmured, pulling her shirt over her head and tossing it aside. ‘This time it’s my turn.’ Her breasts bounced as she tugged her jeans off, hopping from one foot to the other.
Harry’s stomach fluttered and he stiffened against his jeans. ‘Your turn for what, Gin?’
Her fingers tugged open his trousers. ‘To taste you, like you tasted me.’ A little glint of mischief hovered in her brown eyes. ‘You know, good things happening to those who do good things.’
Harry grinned as the flutter in his stomach grew hot. ‘Sneaky girl.’
Gin drew him out in her hand, giving him long slow strokes as she eased him back onto the bed and knelt over his knees. ‘I’ve never done this before.’ A little thrill shone on her eyes. ‘Tell me what feels good.’
You like having this power over me too.
She bent and pressed a little kiss to his tip, sweeping her red hair over her shoulder and dipping her head to wrap her lips around the first few inches of him. The warmth of her mouth and tongue sent little ripples of pleasure through him to pool in his belly. Gin sucked lightly, wrapping her fingers around the rest of him and bobbing her head over his tip. A soft hiss tore from Harry as she took him a little deeper and the little thrill smouldering in Gin’s eyes burst into flames.
She drew back, giving him long slow strokes with her hand. ‘Tell me when you can’t hold back any more.’
He twitched in her hand. ‘I don’t think it’s going to be all that long.’
‘I don’t mind.’ Gin’s lips twitched as she took him back onto her mouth, bobbing her head faster and faster as Harry’s breathing hitched and grew ragged.
The heat in his belly grew tight and he sucked in a short gasp. ‘Gin…’ He burst with a low groan, dropping his head back and closing his eyes.
Harry opened his eyes as the adrenaline faded and his heart slowed.
Gin smiled and licked her lips. ‘I liked that. Having you in my mouth. Tasting you. Us being so intimate.’ She crawled up the bed and snuggled into his side. ‘Hold me.’
He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. ‘I’m holding you.’ Harry rested his head on hers. ‘For a moment I thought you were suggesting we do something more.’
Gin raised her head. ‘Mmm, not yet.’
‘Yet?’ he asked.
The corner of her mouth crooked. ‘Not yet.’
Not until I’ve embraced who I am.
Wry amusement tugged at his lips. ‘Not yet, then.’
Gin caught his eye, the bright little thrill still burning in her brown eyes. ‘I love you,’ she murmured. ‘You see me.’
‘I love you too, Gin,’ Harry whispered, heat fluttering through his veins. ‘I love you too.’
Macnair stared back with piercing blue eyes, a rough grin spreading beneath his tangled matted beard. ‘Come to let me go, Potter.’
‘In a manner of speaking,’ Harry said, casting his wand light over the ropes.
‘I’m still stuck. But you’re as much my prisoner as I am yours, Potter.’
Macnair growled. ‘Do it then. Let me go. But don’t think I’m not coming to hunt that heart down. You’ll end the same as the others. I’ll be cutting out just the right part of you with my little knife.’
The flash of red smacked Macnair’s head back against the chimney.
Now’s the last moment to choose. An excited little flutter flitted through Harry’s stomach and the dark thoughts rose from the well of his mind. This is the only choice. And bad things are meant to happen to bad people.
He vanished the ropes, studying the swollen purple ankle as he took a firm grip on Macnair’s stained, crumpled robes. ‘Here I go, Gin. Time to be me.’ Harry closed his eyes, picturing the dark pines of the Forbidden Forest and wrenched at his magic.
A cold dark clamped around him and then he stumbled over tree roots, dropping Macnair into the dirt.
Harry took a deep breath of the cool air, drinking in the soft dusk and the faint scent of loam and pine-sap. ‘Renervate.’
Macnair’s blue eyes snapped open and darted around. A sneer twisted his face. ‘Letting me go in the middle of nowhere won’t change anything, Potter. I’ll still hunt you down.’
‘I’m not letting you go.’ Harry conjured two shining steel knives with the Elder Wand and stuck it into his back pocket. ‘But I’m going to do this the right way.’
The sneer spread into a broad grin beneath the tangled beard and a hoarse chuckle escaped Macnair. ‘I knew it was in you!’
Harry tossed one of the knives at Macnair’s feet, weighing the other on his palm. ‘You want to share a moment with me? Here you are. But it will be your last.’
Macnair plucked the blade from the dirt and dragged himself up on the trunk of a pine. ‘If I’m going to die, it ought to be because the beast bit off more than it could chew.’
‘It already has.’ Harry shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet, a soft thrill fluttering in the pit of his stomach. ‘You can run, if you want. I’ll hunt you down.’
‘I’m not scared. And I’m not running anywhere.’ Macnair dangled his broken foot out. ‘I’d ask you to heal it, but I got this fairly.’
‘You did.’ Harry’s heart began to pound in his chest, cold adrenaline trickling through his veins. He cocked his head. ‘Are you going to fight or flee?’
Macnair bared his chipped yellow teeth and charged with a grimace, slashing the knife at Harry’s face. Harry leant back and lunged. The blade sliced a thin line across Macnair’s ribs as he twisted onto his broken ankle and crumpled.
Harry stared at the red clinging to the edge of his silver knife as the soft dusk breeze stirred his hair. ‘Get up,’ he murmured, drying his sweaty palms on his jeans. ‘Get up, Macnair.’
Macnair staggered to his feet, lurching toward Harry; he whirled, striking out.
The knife tore a burning line across Harry’s cheek and he jumped back, a torrent of cold pouring through his veins and his heart hammering in his ears.
‘Do you feel it?’ Macnair licked the blood off the tip of his knife. ‘The thrill? Have you ever been as alive as this, Potter? There’s no magic, no wands to hide behind, just us.’
The corner of Harry’s mouth crooked as he took another deep breath of cool dusk air and circled forward. ‘I can feel it. We’ll share it. And then I’ll kill you.’
The bright, sharpness of the thrill seized hold of him and the shadow of the pines faded into the distance beyond the gleam of the silver knife in Macnair’s dirt-encrusted fingers and his piercing blue eyes.
Macnair’s hoarse laugh echoed through the pines. ‘Will you honour me, Potter? If I kill you, I’ll honour you.’
‘You honour yourself,’ Harry said, taking a step closer. ‘You’re honouring what you see of yourself in those you kill.’
‘What we share. The beast in us all.’ Macnair raised his knife and limped toward him, licking his lips.
‘All we share is this moment.’ Harry stepped forward, darting inside Macnair’s slash and driving his knife into his stomach.
A grunt tore from Macnair and hot blood poured over Harry’s fingers. A fierce triumph gripped him in its frenzied heat and he grabbed the hilt with both hands, ripping it up until it stuck in the centre of Macnair’s chest.
The knife slipped from Macnair’s fingers and thudded into the dirt. Hot red gushed from his stomach, soaking Harry’s tee-shirt and jeans as he stood beneath the dark pines, gasping breaths of cool dusk air.
‘Gutted like a beast.’ Macnair crumpled onto his back, shuddering as the blood spurted from his belly.
‘It is rather fitting, isn’t it?’ Harry took a long deep breath and held it, letting the hammering of his heart ease to a steady beat. Actaeon’s hounds rose from the depths of his mind, tearing apart the beast their master had always really been. ‘That’s what death’s meant to be, a final change to show everyone what you are.’
Macnair laughed and closed his eyes. ‘Nobody to see us here, Potter.’ He slumped his head back into the pine needles. ‘This moment only belongs to us. We earnt it.’ His breathing grew shallow and light. ‘Just a shame I couldn’t get more than a glimpse of that heart of yours.’ Macnair’s weak wheezing chuckles rose from the dirt as the blood pooled beneath him. ‘I wonder if the Dark Lord felt as little regret as this.’
‘All Tom had was regret and hate in the end.’ Harry stepped to his side, kicking aside the knife and staring down at the fading light in Macnair’s eyes. ‘But he was a man. What does a beast regret?’
Macnair’s chest stilled and a faint sigh escaped his chapped, cracked lips. The red crept through the pine needles swallowing them up one by one as it spread toward Harry’s feet through the dirt.
He bent and wrenched the knife free, weighing it on his blood-stained palm. ‘I did it.’ A quiet, strong sense of satisfaction filled him, tugging the corner of his mouth up into a small smile. ‘And I don’t feel bad at all.’
The clouds drifted apart above the trees and the cold, bright full moon shone down, turning the blood to a shining black pool.
‘You see me… becoming myself…’ Harry murmured, staring up into its light. ‘And so did you—’ he glanced down at Macnair ‘—sort of.’ A little whisper of temptation coiled in his breast as he eyed the gaping wound stretching across Macnair’s stomach. ‘I owe you, for helping me to embrace myself, so I’ll do this for both of us.’
He knelt down and pushed his hand into the warm wound, grimacing as he forced his fingers up through slick, hot organs until his hand closed around Macnair’s heart. ‘Found you.’ Harry braced himself against the ground and wrenched hard, ripping the heart free and pulling it out.
Warm blood trickled down his wrist from the dark-red organ in his fingers. ‘There…’ Harry smiled. ‘The part of you that reflects me.’ He studied Macnair’s sprawled corpse. ‘Leaving behind a heartless, butchered beast. Very fitting.’
A faint touch of unease crept into his gut and thrill guttered, leaving him hollow and thin with trembling fingers and a strange lightness swirling around his head. And now I have to go back. Harry took a deep breath of the dusk and apparated into the hall.
His mother smiled at him from beneath the dark forest of her canvas, surrounded by floating green lights. He glanced at his blood-drenched clothes and red-dyed arms, the silver knife gleaming in one hand and Macnair’s heart dripping from the other.
Of course she’s smiling. She loved me. She’d want me to be me. Like Gin does.
‘What did you do with him?’ Gin’s voice carried from the stairs; she sat barefoot beneath the goddess of the wild.
Harry drifted down the marble floor past the winged fae, staring at his crimson-drenched fingers. ‘He was a beast, so I butchered him.’ His voice echoed as if from the far end of some long tunnel.
Gin’s lips twitched. ‘Is that his heart?’
‘Yes.’ He stared down at the red lump of meat in his hand. ‘He wanted to honour what he saw of himself in others. The beast that devours other beasts. This is what he saw in me to honour.’
‘So you took it away,’ she murmured, standing up and descending to meet him. ‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘I’m not sure.’ He stared into the wet, blood-smeared surface of the heart. ‘Macnair wanted to eat it. To taste it.’
He was a beast. Like Actaeon. He deserves to be treated like one.
‘You’ll think of something. There’s no rush.’ Gin eased the knife from his fingers and led him upstairs to the bathroom, twisting the bath tap open and holding his fingers under the warm water. ‘Don’t hide inside,’ she whispered, washing the blood away down the plughole in thin crimson threads. ‘Don’t brood or torment yourself for embracing who you are. He was a beast. And he deserved to have you change him.’
Harry took a deep breath and put the wet, gleaming heart down on the white porcelain. ‘I’m not tormenting myself.’ He released a long sigh. ‘Everything was so bright and clear and then it was gone and I just felt really far away.’
‘That’s just the adrenaline and the shock,’ Gin breathed, patting his hands dry with a warm, soft towel. ‘Don’t disappear into your thoughts. Stay out here. With me.’
She wrapped her arms around him. ‘Would you share a bath with me?’
‘I could probably use one.’ A faint stinging sensation rose on his cheek as he dropped the plug into the tub. ‘You might not want to share. I’m still covered in blood and sweat.’
‘I don’t mind.’ Gin’s hand slipped up and traced the line of the cut on his face. ‘I want you to touch me.’
‘Touch you…?’ Harry caught her eye in the reflection of the tiles.
‘Touch me and maybe a little bit more.’ The corner of her mouth curved up and a bright little spark welled up in her brown eyes. ‘I see you. Changed. Transformed. Metamorphosed. And it’s beautiful.’
‘You want to touch it,’ Harry murmured.
‘I want to touch you.’ She buried her face in the back of his neck. ‘I love you like this. Free to embrace everything that’s beautiful about you.’
He turned and bent to catch her lips with his in a soft, long kiss. The faint taste of tea lingered on his tongue as he drew back to smile at her.
‘You’re so happy,’ Gin whispered. ‘This is everything I wanted for you. For us.’
Harry tilted her chin up on his finger, brushing his thumb across the corner of her mouth as it curved into a smile. ‘You want to celebrate it. Share it. Taste it.’
‘I do,’ she breathed, leaning into his chest. ‘I do.’
‘I see you.’ He kissed her, pulling her tight against him until her fingers curled into his blood-soaked shirt and she gave a contented little hum. ‘I see you, Emily.’
Her breath caught. ‘You do.’ Gin’s kisses grew hot and hungry, her fingers slipping under his shirt and tracing over his skin. ‘All these… need to… come off,’ she murmured, tugging his shirt over his head and the button open on his jeans. ‘I want… to feel… your skin.’
Harry kicked the rest of his clothes away and stepped into the bath. Gin tugged the buttons open on her dark blouse and let it fall off her shoulders, baring her breasts. A hot little look burnt in her brown eyes as she shimmied out of her jeans and underwear.
‘If you come here.’ Harry held out his hand.
She slipped her fingers through his and closed them, hopping into the bath. ‘Hold me,’ she murmured.
He kissed her, pulling her in close and untangling his fingers from hers to lift her up against the wall.
Gin spread her thighs, wrapping her legs around his waist and pulling him against her until he could feel the warmth and wet of her against him. ‘Like this.’ Her hand slipped down to find him and she arched her back, angling her hips to rest his tip against her. ‘Go slow,’ Gin whispered, burying her face in the crook of his neck. ‘Slower is better.’
Harry eased himself into her tight heat little by little as she shuddered, clinging to him and stifling her soft gasps into his neck. ‘I’ve got you,’ he murmured, kissing the top of her head as the little jolts of pleasure in his belly grew tighter. ‘And you’ve got me.’
‘All of you?’ Gin’s breath hitched as he moved deeper and she let out a long shaky breath. ‘I want to feel all of you in me.’
‘You’ve got all of me.’ He pulled back until just the tip of him was in her and inched forward again, a hot little thrill fluttering in his veins as she shivered and shook, her chest heaving. ‘See?’
‘I see—’ she rolled her hips and gasped as he twitched inside her ‘—I see.’
‘What do you want?’ Harry whispered in her ear. ‘What feels good?’
‘All of it. Don’t stop.’ Gin lifted her head and crushed her lips into his. ‘I want to feel you finish in me.’
He moved in and out of her in a steady rhythm, stealing kisses from Gin’s parted lips between her soft gasps and moans as the little sparks of pleasure tightened and swelled. The basilisk writhed upon the tiles behind her, coiling over her shoulders and disappearing into the wall.
‘Keep going.’ Gin rolled her hips and he burst, pressing his forehead into the cool tiles as he spurted into her with a few ragged thrusts. ‘Yes,’ she moaned. ‘That’s right. Share it all with me.’
Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he softened and slipped out of her, feeling the gentle burn in his arms. ‘I’m going to have to put you down, Gin.’
‘Hold me in the bath,’ she murmured, dropping her feet into the water with a quiet splash. White trickled down her thigh and dripped into the water. ‘I want to stay touching you.’
He dragged his eyes up from where his cum escaped the pink of her sex and placed a gentle kiss on her upturned, swollen lips. ‘I’ve got you.’ Harry sat down in the bath. ‘Come here, Gin.’
She snuggled into his side. ‘It still feels like you’re in me.’
‘You’ll have to wait a little bit for that again.’ He wrapped his arms around her, brushing her red hair back behind her ear. ‘I’ll need a bit to recover.’
Gin’s soft high laugh filled the bathroom. ‘I’ll be too sore. You were gentle, but the first time’s a little rough for a repeat.’
‘I didn’t hurt you, did I?’
‘No more than I wanted you to,’ she murmured. ‘It’s such a good sort of sore, Harry. I don’t regret it at all.’
‘That’s good.’ Harry ran his hand through her hair, massaging his fingertips into her scalp. ‘It wasn’t meant to hurt you.’
Gin settled her head on his chest, watching the basilisk slither across the tiles, swallowing the little sailing ships one by one. ‘I feel so close to you. So seen. So loved.’ A soft smile spread across her lips. ‘I can hear your heart.’
The chatter filled the Dining Hall, rising up from the long mahogany table piled with dishes and vibrant red dahlia flowers past the gentle glowing light of the chandelier to the bright paintings dancing on the ceiling.
‘This is really good, Harry,’ Hermione called from halfway down the table. ‘Did you help Ginny?’
He laughed. ‘I did more than just help.’
‘We did it together,’ Gin said, flashing him a grin. ‘Although this is the first time we’ve cooked for others, we wanted to start small and work our way up to something like this.’
Harry hid a smile behind a forkful of carrots. ‘I hope you like it. We’ve been learning to cook together in the last year. Might as well make the most of having this huge fancy Dining Hall and cooking is beautiful, in its way. Taste is such an intimate savouring of who we are and what we want.’
Gin grinned. ‘Harry’s been learning to cook, Mum taught me years ago. But we’ve been exploring taste together, trying new things and seeing where they take us.’
‘It’s bloody good, mate.’ Ron gave him a thumbs up. ‘Way better than my attempt. I burnt basically everything and Hermione flat out refused to touch it.’
Harry snorted. ‘Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.’
Percy spluttered water onto his plate.
‘Are you okay, Percy?’ Fleur set her wine glass down with an innocent smile. ‘Was it something I said?’
Bill smothered his chuckles into his hand on Fleur’s left, shaking with laughter as Percy’s face turned brighter and brighter red.
Harry concealed a grin behind his glass of red wine and watched the girl in the painting above him shimmer into a beautiful red-leafed rowan tree.
‘You alright, Perce?’ Fred craned his neck from the far end of the table. ‘Did someone tell you about Umbridge, or have you just forgotten how to chew?’
Ron grunted. ‘What happened to that horrible hag?’
Hermione toyed with her fork. ‘Someone killed her. It was all over the front page of the Daily Prophet today.’
‘Good,’ Ron muttered. ‘That bitch was as good as a Death Eater.’
‘Ronald,’ Mrs Weasley chided.
‘It’s no laughing matter,’ Percy said. ‘She wasn’t just killed. They found her hanging upside down from the ceiling of her own bedroom with her eyes, brain, heart and tongue cut out.’
‘They filled the cavities with poisonous flowers,’ Hermione murmured. ‘I saw the photos…’
‘What flowers?’ Gin asked.
‘She had a mouthful of mountain laurel,’ Hermione said. ‘They’re really pretty white and pink flowers, but they burn your skin. And the top of her head was full of foxgloves, oleander, azaleas and mistletoe which are all pretty poisonous too.’
‘What do they look like?’ Fred asked. ‘George and I never paid much attention in Herbology.’
‘Foxgloves, oleander and azaleas are all more pink flowers,’ Hermione said. ‘Umbridge did like pink, so maybe they got them from her garden or something.’
Percy shook his head. ‘They were brought especially. Her garden was a mess.’
‘Blind, brainless, heartless and with her tongue cut out,’ Fleur said. ‘It sounds like they knew her.’
‘Or read her policies for part-humans,’ Bill muttered, touching his fingers to the scars on his face. ‘She was an abhorrent woman.’
Hermione pointed a finger at the clusters of red flowers on the table. ‘Those are dahlias, although they’re not quite the same as the ones found on her, these ones are a darker red. She had a cluster of them where they cut out her heart.’
‘Good riddance,’ Bill said. ‘Right, my pretty flower?’
Fleur smiled. ‘I certainly think so.’
‘It’s horrible,’ Hermione said. ‘Even if it was Umbridge.’
‘Probably Death Eaters,’ Charlie said. ‘I always thought it was odd she got away with everything. She probably gave up a bunch of them and they got revenge after lying low for a year.’
‘I’m sure she brought it on herself,’ Gin said.
‘Yeah.’ Ron grimaced. ‘We saw what she was like. If they’d proved it, she’d’ve been in Azkaban anyway.’
Mrs Weasley drew herself up. ‘This isn’t very nice conversation, boys.’ She turned to Harry with a warm smile. ‘Harry, sweetheart, what have you got in this pie? It’s very good and I’d love to borrow the recipe.’
‘Not loads,’ he said. ‘A few herbs, a bit of stock, we slow cooked it for a long time so all the flavour came out of the meat. Gin made the pastry, because I still can’t make it very pretty; it just comes out as a huge puff pastry mushroom and this is meant to be a celebration, so it ought to have beautiful food for us to share.’
She admired the neat pastry. ‘And the meat? Is it beef?’
‘The meat?’ Harry caught Gin’s eye with a small wry smile and took a sip from his wine glass, savouring the full taste. ‘A very unfortunate cow.’
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