Disclaimer:This chapter is rated R for nudity in a decidedly sexual context.
Comforting and Consolation
Ron awoke to the sound of whistling birds and the feeling of the sun warming his face. He yawned and stretched his long limbs, his arms brushing the empty space next to him. He checked the little clock on the bedside table. It was a few minutes to seven, which was when Hermione's night shift would end.
He thought about extending the first truly good night's sleep he'd had in three months, but realised that he was going to have plenty to do today. It was Harry's birthday, after all, and though they weren't really going to celebrate it due to the fact that they were in mourning for George and Holly, Hermione had still decided to give the day a positive charge. Given the fact that she'd be asleep until at least two in the afternoon after she got home, that meant that he'd have to work through the list of preparations.
He threw on his dressing gown and stumbled down two flights of stairs until he reached the kitchen where the cats—yes, that was plural, for Heidi's cat had more or less permanently moved into their home—were looking at him expectantly, waiting to be served breakfast. He began to rinse out the bowls.
"Sorry old chap, you'll have to do with less luxury today," he said, pouring dry food pellets into the bowl, before he filled the other two bowls with fresh water and milk.
Crookshanks looked at the still-open Perfect Preservation Cupboard, eyeing the plate with some leftover salmon that sat on one of the shelves.
"Not a chance. That's my breakfast."
Ron spent the next few minutes trying to ignore Annabelle and Crookshanks' mutinous meowing, until a boisterous drumbeat shook the kitchen door, which was also the back door to their home. The blinds were open just a bit, allowing Ron to discern Matt Kelly's face.
Ron strolled over to the door to open it. It was a bit of a nuisance not to be able to open the door with magic, but it was a sensible safety precaution. "Morning, Kelly. I didn't expect you to be back 'till tomorrow."
"The mission went better than we thought. Not that my part was that hard anyway."
Ron nodded. He'd wondered why Matt had gone on a diplomatic mission like that. Ironheart had spent the past months filling Pensieve after Pensieve with other people's thoughts and memories. Yamato's memories had been among them. Very important had been the memories of Yamato's lairs, but they'd also stumbled across some rather incriminating evidence regarding Goro Hishida, chief counsellor to Emperor Sayuki. That had blown the conspiracy to take over from the Sayuki wide open.
"What did you do, anyway?"
"Nothing much. Mainly I just had to stand alongside Commander Ironheart and be my devastatingly handsome self. The commander thought it would be a good idea for me to be there personally, since Matsu, Yuriko and Shinji had been living on my estate and that made me something akin to their feudal lord, in the eyes of the Japanese. He said that, if nothing else, the presence of a wizard richer than their emperor would unsettle them into breaking their rigidity. In the end I was sort of useful," Matt chuckled heartily. "I had to confirm Nicolai's engagement to Mary."
Ron, who had been pouring tea into his mug, accidentally spilled hot tea over his hand as Matt's words registered. Hissing, he quickly put the teapot and the mug down, hopped over to the sink and allowed cold water to pour over the mildly burnt skin. He pulled his hand out of the jet of water and examined it. It only looked slightly reddened and tingled a little. It would be a bit tender, but it didn't look like it was going to blister. Then he turned back towards Matt, who was helping himself to some tea. "I beg your pardon?"
Matt stopped pouring tea into his conjured mug. "I'm sorry, I should have asked."
"No, you're welcome to some tea. I was talking about Mary and Nicolai. They're engaged?"
Matt grinned. "No, but that's what we wanted the Japanese to think."
"All right, we arrived in Japan, did all the formal mumbo jumbo with the one-sip-every-ten-minutes tea ceremony before we got down to business. Exposing Hishida was easy enough—the look on his face was priceless, by the way—but convincing the Japanese to break with their tradition was tougher."
Ron raised his hand to stop Matt. "Quick question, why did Ironheart bring Nicolai along to such a high stakes negotiation?"
"I was coming to that," Matt said. "At the meeting, it was Nicolai who did the talking. Yuriko, Shinji and Matsu taught him the high language of the court as well as everything about their customs and philosophy, and the kid soaked it up like a sponge. He used everything he'd learned to blow the emperor and the ruling council away."
Ron knew that much. He'd asked Matsu about the specifics of the curse, which basically amounted to the fact that no man from the Japanese Imperial Wizarding Realm would be able to breed male offspring for the imperial bloodline. The way out—though the Japanese had never dared to even consider it—was quite simple. Mayumi's husband had to be a foreigner, or gaijin, as the Japanese referred to them. Of course, that was an enormous taboo. While exceptions could be made for foreigners of great renown to marry into lesser families, the imperial family was off limits.
"I know that was the plan. But why Nicolai? He's just a little boy," Ron said, remembering how McGonagall had not taken Harry seriously when he'd warned her that the Philosopher's Stone was in danger.
"Wrong, mate! He's not just a little boy. He's a genius. Did you know that he had a plan to draw out Anastasiou, before Wolfe killed him and his lot and made it unnecessary?"
Ron nodded. The plan had been to put some sort of recently developed, sophisticated and undetectable magical tracer on Charlie Jr and Jasmine, and send them away from Caer Sidi, dangling them like bait for Anastasiou. The reasoning behind that plan was that Anastasiou's ego—along with vanity, something that old vampires were prone to—and his desire to have all the world's Mind Readers under his control would entice him into taking the bait.
"Then you know what I'm talking about. All right, Nicolai spoke to the council, and the part where he told them that 'tradition served to enrich, and not to enslave a people' was simply brilliant. I think the idea that they'd been manipulated and, in a way, enslaved, was what swayed them into taking a vote. They wisely decided that it wouldn't be too bad to bend their rules if it served the greater good. It's odd, really. The moment we stepped into the council's chamber, Nicolai began to behave a bit like a wise old man. It was almost as if he were someone else. But it was still Nicolai. That's what impressed the council members so much. A little boy speaking with a legendary sage's wisdom, quoting their own philosophers to them. Wizards from the Orient believe that people like Nicolai are touched by the divine. Commander Ironheart knew this, which is why he brought Nicolai along."
"And where does the engagement with Mary come in?"
"Sayuki was so impressed with Nicolai, that he asked Nicolai if he'd be willing to be the one to save the empire from the curse."
"He wanted Nicolai to marry Mayumi?"
"After coming of age," Matt nodded. "Anyway, that's when Nicolai told him that he was already promised to someone else. When the emperor asked whom, Nicolai said Mary. I felt that Nicolai knew what he was doing, so I played along and confirmed it. Commander Ironheart later told me that if Nicolai hadn't given Sayuki a name, or if the girl he'd been promised to were anything less than equal to what the imperial bloodline had to offer, the emperor would have been offended. Since all of this happened before the council voted on the matter, it was a good move."
Ron sipped his tea while he allowed the story to sink in. "So who is going to be the imperial consort now?"
"Who d'you think? The lucky little nerd with the lazy eye."
"Gavin doesn't have a lazy eye. Ptosis isn't the same as a lazy—" Ron began, when he stopped himself. "Bloody hell, I'm beginning to sound like Hermione."
"And is that a bad thing?" Hermione's voice came. Ron turned around and saw his girlfriend standing in at the open front door, looking windswept.
"No, dear, just an observation," Ron said meekly. "What happened to you? You look like you've been strolling in a storm."
"Since it was such a glorious morning, Lilia and I decided to fly home on her new carpet," Hermione said. Then she turned to Matt. "Shouldn't you be at home with your wife?"
"The moment I came home, she sent me out to buy her chocolate ice cream and pickles. Never mind that aside from some bakeries, the shops aren't open yet."
"How about that Pakistani bloke's twenty-four hour shop?" Ron asked
Matt pulled a small jar filled with pickles out of a pocket in his robes. "Been there, but he doesn't sell ice cream. I know better than to return home without it, so I thought I'd come over here and invite you two for breakfast in the Ruby Dragon Lodge."
"Are you buying, or is it a Dutch treat?"
"You know me better than that, Weasley."
Hermione yawned. "Tempting, but I'm too sleepy and not hungry enough. I'm sure Ron would like to go. He needs a nice solid foundation to do his chores today."
"Just give me a couple of minutes to wash up," Ron said, before he raced up the stairs, took a quick shower and threw on some decent robes. He thought about shaving, since they'd be having breakfast at a relatively fancy place, but decided that it didn't matter, since Matt had some stubble too.
Matt gulped down the last of his tea as Ron arrived downstairs.
"All right, let's—" Ron's sentence faltered as he sniffed the air. "What's that smell?"
"Oh, that'll be the salmon I gave the cats. They kept scratching at your Perfect Preservation Cupboard like they were trying to tell me something, so I opened it and got it for them."
"Hey, they weren't allowed to eat that!"
Matt frowned. "Were you going to eat it? Trust me, it must've been in there for too long, because it wasn't fit for human consumption anymore. The 'Perfect' before Preservation Cupboard is a marketing ploy. You can't leave things in there forever."
"I know that. But I'm pretty sure the salmon was still good."
"Nah, it wasn't. Trust me, it wasn't spoiled, but it wasn't fresh either. I can smell the difference."
Ron shrugged and grabbed his summer cloak. Since he was going out to breakfast, there was no real reason why the cats—which were now hissing and yowling over the salmon like two miniature lions squabbling over a fresh kill—couldn't have it.
Minutes later, on their way to the Ruby Dragon Lodge, which was also located on the city's third tier, they passed their former homes. When the Order of Illumination returned to Nomad Island, some of the homes the Rangers had put up for sale before their hasty departure were no longer available. The more expensive homes, like the townhouse where Ginny lived, Captain Faust and Lieutenant Cliff's place and Commander Ironheart's home had stood vacant, so their inhabitants had been able to move right back in. But the more affordable homes, namely the ones on the third tier, had been sold.
Under pressure from the Lord Mayor, his political rivals—who had been responsible for the Order's expulsion from Nomad Island in the first place—had to search for new housing for the Rangers if those Rangers affected so desired, either in the same price range or better. In case of a more expensive home, they'd been forced to make up the difference out of their own funds. This had left Ron and Hermione, Charlie and Jasmine, and Matt and Gudrun with larger houses than they'd owned before.
Ron and Hermione had gained a basement, while Charlie's new house was slightly bigger than the previous one. In a sense nothing had changed. Charlie and Jasmine lived across the street from them again, and Matt and Gudrun again were Jasmine and Charlie's neighbours once more. Wolfe and Galatea had also joined them there. Their house was next to Gudrun and Matt's, separated by an empty square.
"You know, I wanted to insist on getting my old house back," Matt began. "I mean, to me it had some sentimental value, you know? But I suppose Gudrun was right. If we're going to have more children, a bit of extra space won't hurt. The kids will all want their own rooms when they grow up. I'm also thinking about buying up the empty parcel next to my house, to extend it."
"Can you do that?"
"If it doesn't serve any other purpose, can't see why not. It's just an empty square facing the wall that separates the third and second tier."
Ron grinned. "Why the sudden craving for space? How many kids do you want?"
"That's up to Gudrun," Matt smiled. "Personally I wouldn't mind having a dozen, even if pregnancy does turn Gudrun into a she-devil every single time. Actually, we decided to have at least two boys if possible, but no more than six kids. The child that's in her womb right now is a girl, baby Rachel, so I have four more tries before I'm out of luck."
"Another Ranger baby whose name starts with an r," Ron pointed out. Max and Galatea's baby had been named Robert. The chubby, rosy-cheeked little chap had Wolfe's dark brown hair, but Galatea's eye-colour and mouth.
"Yeah, baby Robert. Cute little guy, isn't he? Wolfe told me that Heidi's over there every minute of her spare time, annoying the hell out of him. Say's she'll turn his son into a sissy with those pale pink baby clothes she's bought."
Ron laughed. "I know. He's complained about it to me too. Well, at least they're miniature Quidditch robes from the Quiberion Quafflepunchers."
"Would you wear pink, even if it were a Quidditch uniform?"
"Not a chance."
Matt shrugged. "I would. I know pink clothes don't make me less of a man."
"That's not why I won't wear pink," Ron countered.
"Really? So why won't you wear pink, then?" Matt challenged.
"Because it clashes with my hair."
"Yeah, and your face too," Matt said, before he erupted in laughter, drawing curious glances from early morning strollers. They strolled on in companionable silence, until a couple of teenaged wizards began to shout and point at the sky.
"Hey, will you look at that!" Matt said. "Looks like Harry's doing his Superman thing again."
"Who is Superman?" Ron asked absently, while his gaze followed Harry.
"A Muggle comic book hero. Really, Weasley, you ought to brush up on your knowledge of Muggles."
Ron shrugged. "You should've seen some of the things Wolfe can do. He's got lots of Animagus forms, some of them magical animals. And he's also got this nifty power that allows him to multiply himself up to five times."
"No, the doubles disappear after a while, depending on how many he makes. A single one can last up to six hours."
"I wish I could do that," Matt smiled ruefully. "I could leave the double at home to take care of the wife, while I'd go off to play Quidditch with my mates."
"Yeah. Wolfe's new powers may not be as flashy as Harry's, but they're certainly useful."
"I heard that Harry can shoot curses out of his eyes."
"He can," Ron confirmed, remembering how bizarre it had been to see a pair of stunners shooting out of Harry's eyes and dropping a full-grown Hebridean Black dragon in a test to see exactly how powerful the spells were. "Hermione says there are probably many more powers waiting to manifest themselves. Did you know that Harry can possess people too?"
"Isn't that dark magic?" Matt frowned.
"I suppose many people have come to see possession as dark magic because the majority of wizards who've attempted or mastered it were dark wizards. But the pendant was created by a good being. So it depends how you look at it. This ability might be a help to everyone who still has a parasitic personality inside them. Harry could get inside them and help them gang up on the intruder. Wolfe says that's how they got rid of the one inside him."
"Point taken. So he could cure Vesta Gaal?"
"Hermione says they'll attempt it when they're sure that Harry has the power well under control." Ron pushed open the door to the Ruby Dragon Lodge and gestured for Matt to go first. "Flying comes to him naturally, but it seems he needs a little practice when it comes to possession."
It even beat flying with a broomstick. Soaring through the air, darting through clouds as free as a bird.
In the distance, Harry saw a pair of griffins circling above a valley in between a pair of hills, looking for prey.
With an exuberant whoop he shot across their flight path, eliciting a few angry shrieks. He didn't bother looking around to see if they had turned to give chase, because he knew he was simply too fast to catch. He felt alive, and he knew he owed it to Holly. There was still a tinge of sadness whenever he thought about her, but his talks with everyone whom she had saved had helped him put things into a more positive perspective.
He looped around and headed back towards the city. Ginny would finally be released from her mandatory bed rest today. She'd recovered quickly, and had been itching to get out for nearly a month. Hermione, however, had taken Holly's final words very seriously and had confined Ginny to her room, leaving it up to Lilia, Clara, Heidi and the Esklove sisters to make sure that Ginny didn't exert herself too much, except for the mandatory bouts of exercise to keep her muscles from atrophying. Whatever poison had coated Wormtail's darts had been very potent. Tests had shown that it could be neutralised with phoenix tears, but the speed with which it contaminated the body was even faster than basilisk venom.
At roughly half past seven, most Concordians were awake, and Harry got many surprised stares as he soared among the early morning traffic over the city, though fewer than when he'd first begun flying around. He touched down on Ginny's balcony. The door was open, telling him that she'd probably been expecting him. He knocked just to be sure.
"Come in, Harry," Ginny's voice echoed from the bathroom.
"Are you decent?"
"I'm covered by foam. And it's not like you haven't seen me before," her exasperated reply was.
Harry dumped his cloak onto her bed and strolled into the steamy bathroom. He looked at Ginny, her head the only thing poking out of a dense and aromatic bath foam filling the spacious bathtub. "I thought baths were best taken in the evenings, after a long, hard day. And did you nick Heidi's foam again?"
"I've had a long, hard three months, and I didn't nick Heidi's foam. She gave me a flask as a present," Ginny said. "I can't wait to get back to work. It'll help me get my mind off things. And I'm sure they could use me again, since Gudrun's too pregnant to do some maintenance chores."
"Did she come to visit you this week?"
Ginny nodded. "She and Mary came on Sunday, just after you left. It was sort of busy on Sunday. Farouk, Montalban and Malkova all dropped by."
Harry swallowed nervously. Those three, aside from himself and Wolfe, were the Rangers whom Holly had saved at Laketown. He could easily guess the purpose of their visit. He knew he could open himself up to her thoughts and find out what she was thinking and feeling, but once he'd learned to control his power, he'd vowed never to casually activate it again. He looked at the blue tiles that made up the floor "And what did you talk about?"
"You know what, Harry," she chided gently. "It's okay for you to talk about it. Everyone's been walking on eggshells around me, but three months in bed gives one quite some time to contemplate certain things."
"Aren't you reading my mind?"
Harry shook his head. "Not now. I've found that answering people's thoughts tends to creep them out."
Ginny smiled. He'd almost forgotten how beautiful she was when she smiled. "I imagine it does. Well, I've been thinking about Fred and George…and Holly. When Ron and Hermione visited me for the first time after things settled down, I noticed that Ron was doing loads better with moving on than I was. At first I thought it was because he hadn't been the one who had killed George, and that he had his work to distract him. I resented him for moving on so easily, but in the last couple of weeks I've realised that there's another reason why he's in less pain. He can share it with Hermione, and I'm sure that Mum and Angelina can count on Bill and Percy to share their grief. I know Charlie was a big help while he was there, too. They're sharing their grief with family and friends… but I haven't really shared it with anyone."
"You weren't ready to share it," he said gently. " It sounds like you're ready to share it now, though."
"So, what else have you been thinking about?"
"About what Holly told me. How I mustn't let my love be frightened and conquered by evil. Fred and George didn't let it happen. They lived their lives to the fullest, and they tried to get everyone around them to do the same. Angelina married both of them, and I know she's taken their message to heart. Neville told me she's handling her grief better he thought she would."
"You've heard from Neville?"
"He's sent me a few letters…" her mouth twisted in a sardonic grin, "…and some pictures of Malfoy's head in Diagon Alley."
Harry knew that after Faust had cut off Malfoy's head with an axe, it had been dipped into a preservative solution and shipped off to England for the British Ministry to do with as they pleased. Apparently they'd decided to put it on display. "I heard about that, but I haven't seen it. Where d'you keep them?"
Ginny pointed to the laundry hamper. "I knew you'd ask about it."
With a gesture, Harry summoned the yellow envelope that lay atop the hamper.
"I heard about the cursing out of the eyes. D'you even need that new wand you got?"
"Of course. I need it to do more complicated spells." Harry answered.
"Phoenix tail feather and Hazel, right?"
"Fawkes' feather, to be exact." Harry had been surprised to hear that Fawkes had donated another pair of feathers. "The new wand's also a bit longer than the old one, eleven and three quarters of an inch. Wolfe's wand is made out of wood from the same tree, and he's got the other feather. The only difference is that his wand's longer."
"Wands made out of feather from the same Phoenix, and wood from the same tree," Ginny muttered.
"Well, we have been one person for a while. It took me a week to filter out all his thoughts and memories out of my head and put them in a Pensieve. Still, that's nothing compared to poor Commander Ironheart. He's filled over a hundred Pensieves, and there are still some foreign memories popping up in his head every now and then."
"Do you remember everything?"
"I'm not sure if there was a complete transfer, but I certainly know the most momentous events in Wolfe's life."
Ginny blushed. "Did you remember when he and Galatea…you know…"
"The back of Galatea's neck is incredibly sensitive," Harry said, a sly grin on his face. "And Wolfe knows that you like to have your ears nipped."
"I wonder if that's why he couldn't meet my eyes the first time he and Tea visited."
Harry grinned. "I have a hunch that it might be the reason, yeah. He's bashful that way."
He opened the envelope and took out three pictures. The first picture was a shot taken at some distance. Harry could still discern Malfoy's head. The mouth hung half-open, giving the head an appearance of startled surprise. The second shot was a close-up of a large sign that read: May this be a warning to future generations that some things come at too high a price. In the final shot, Neville's photographic self glanced to the left and to the right, before looking into the head's lifeless eyes and waving mockingly.
Harry slid the pictures back in the envelope and tossed it back on the hamper. "At least that git is out of our lives."
"What happened to Wormtail?" Ginny asked.
Deciding that small fish could be useful without being dangerous, Commander Ironheart had decided to tag Pettigrew with an authorised parasitic personality and release him into the 'underworld sea.' He'd hoped that it would help them hunt down Yamato, who had still managed to elude capture despite the fact that Ironheart knew about all his hideouts. Harry guessed that Yamato must have found a few new ones within days of the Laketown disaster, before the Rangers had regrouped enough for a concentrated effort to hunt him down. Harry would have preferred to see Wormtail's head right beside Malfoy's, but he realised that Ironheart's decision served the greater good. "I can't talk about that here."
"I understand," Ginny said.
A long silence followed, in which Harry simply watched Ginny as she scooped up handfuls of foam and applied it to her arms and legs, which she alternately raised out of the water. Finally he couldn't take it anymore. "Ginny?"
"I—I want you to know that I'll be here for you, no matter what."
Ginny smiled. "I know you will, Harry. I want you to know that I decided to follow Holly's advice and take a leaf out of Fred and George's book. Life is too short to spend in hiding. And even if something were to happen to me, I know my loved ones are resilient. They'd cope with it. It will take a while to completely come to terms with our loss, but… I'm ready to let people back in." She looked him deeply in the eyes. "I'm really sorry for all the pain I've caused you."
He shook his head. "I know you never meant to hurt me. And I'd suffer all of it all over again, if that would ensure your happiness," Harry said earnestly.
Tears welled up in Ginny's eyes. "I wish… I wish I hadn't thrown the ring away."
"That's all right," Harry said. He untied the knot of the cord around his neck, and pulled it out from under his shirt, showing Ginny the ring. "I picked it up before I went to confront Malfoy. I couldn't bear to leave it behind. I…I had hoped that you'd want it back, someday." He rose from the toilet and kneeled by the bathtub.
Ginny's hand broke through the foamy surface of the water and accepted the ring. The moment it touched the palm of her hand, an amethyst light enveloped it. The silver turned into gold and the green zircon became a flawless oval ruby. Twelve tiny white diamonds seemed to sprout from the ruby, surrounding it completely.
"Harry, what did you do?"
Harry's eyes were wide with surprise. "That wasn't me, Ginny. That was you."
"But…I didn't do anything."
"Maybe it was subconscious," Harry suggested. "Some weird things have been happening to me too, lately."
Ginny shook her head. "That's because you've absorbed some of the pendant's powers."
"Perhaps…It might be possible that Holly's energy changed you a little," Harry said slowly. He couldn't be sure, but it seemed to be a good theory.
"So why haven't Hermione, Wolfe or Valentina Malkova changed?"
Ginny had neatly summed up the flaw in his theory, but he was already formulating an answer to that in his mind. "Maybe it's like a glass of orange juice. Holly was running out of energy when she went all out to save you, and thus you got the juice and the pulp at the bottom of the glass, whereas the others just got the juice."
He gently lifted the ring off her palm and slid it around her soapy finger. The tiny diamonds around the ruby glowed with a purplish light and the gold band shrunk to fit her ring finger snugly.
"It almost feels like part of me," Ginny said softly, looking at the ring in great wonder. The sparkle of the diamonds reflected in her eyes. "It's so beautiful. This is what the joy of the future could look like."
Harry couldn't quite follow her anymore. "What do you mean?"
"Remember when Holly told me that not getting together with you would deprive me of future joy, while past pain would remain with me?"
Harry couldn't really remember much of what had been said, because of his panicked state at the time. It did sound familiar, so he nodded.
"The ring that you gave me, the ring that Malfoy stole… It's come back to me. To us. And now it's changed, just as we've changed." Ginny smiled. "It is a sign. You were right about that."
"What does it mean?"
"It means that it's very important to look forward and share your grief. Remember how we talked about it after Nathan died?"
"But when I was the one in pain, I wasn't able to listen to my own wise counsel. I suppose that why it's so important to have your loved ones around. They remind you of what's important. Thanks for reminding me."
Harry blushed. "I didn't really do a good job. I should have paid more attention to what you were feeling, but I didn't until it was nearly too late."
"But when you did, you kept trying and never gave up on me, just like I didn't give up on you when you were hurting. That's just as important." She reached out to him and cupped his cheek, gently coaxing him closer as she partly rose out of the tub to meet him.
Harry slid his arms around her waist and nearly pulled her out of the bathtub as he drew her wet body to his own, feeling soapy water seeping through his uniform and dampening his skin. When he felt the tip of his nose touch her scalp, he pursed his lips and kissed her crown, inhaling a deep breath of air that was saturated with the exquisite scent of her hair, wondering how he'd ever mistaken her for another woman despite the bath foam's perfume. The way her skin interacted with the foam to form a sweet scent that intoxicated him with every breath he took was simply beyond the description of words.
Running his hands over her slick lower back, he lowered his head but a few inches and touched the rim of her ear with his lips in a brushing motion. Then he released a tiny breath in the shell of her ear, giving her goosebumps and causing her to shudder in his embrace. "I love you," he whispered, drawing a reply that was no more than a moan, yet conveying that her feelings matched his.
His lips slid from her ear to the nape of her neck, nipping the skin there, before he brought them back up along the curve of her jaw, close to her ear. She trembled even more in his arms as he nibbled on her earlobe, eliciting groans of approval. Then he returned to the sensitive skin along her jaw, tracing a path made of butterfly kisses until he reached the corner of her lips.
Harry lifted his lips away slightly, centred his lips above hers, and looked down into her needy eyes while he traced his hands along her spine. Then he silenced her impatient moan by planting his lips on her slightly parted, inviting ones.
And he kissed her. He kissed her as though, at that moment, nothing else existed in the universe. He kissed her as though his entire present life, past lives and future lives were wrapped up and concentrated into that kiss. He kissed her as though there was nothing else that he would rather be doing. Their hearts pounded in unison and the flames within their souls flared up to unprecedented proportions burning all the negative feelings to ashes.
Then Ginny returned his kiss, taking the earth from under his feet, and plunging him into a sea of passion. His soul was no longer in his body, he touched heaven and knew perfect happiness and bliss. What little that remained of Harry's rational mind marvelled at the intensity of the kiss.
When his thoughts began to regain a semblance of cohesion again, he realised that he was soaking wet, and he felt Ginny wriggling under him as she tried to rise to the surface.
He quickly rolled onto his side, allowing her to squeeze past his bulk. After a bit of sputtering and coughing, she began to laugh at the top of her lungs. He simply stared at her flushed face as she roared in laughter, clutching her sides under the water's surface. Tears rolled down her face, mingling with the soapy bath water. Between that captivating sight and the incredible arousal forced upon him by the kiss and the proximity to her naked body in the cosy confines of the bathtub, everything seemed to be conspiring to make him forget to feel ridiculous. He merely continued to stare at her, enraptured by the hypnotic sight of her.
"Well, I hope you needed a bath," she said, after she'd settled down a little. "The foam's scent is a bit girlie, though, so I'm not sure if it'll agree with you."
Harry regained his composure and grinned. "Good thing my boots are designed to handle humid conditions." He hoisted his legs out of the tub and pointed a finger at each boot. Ginny looked on in awe as the laces undid themselves and the soaked boots slid off Harry's feet, seemingly of their own volition and settled on the bathroom floor. The socks followed suit, as did the long sleeved shirt. A bit of levitation made the removal of his trousers a whole lot easier, and it settled on top of the wet shirt and socks on the bathroom floor.
"Does your wand-less magic repertoire entail a Drying Charm?" Ginny asked, looking at the expanding pool of bath water on the floor.
"See and be awed," Harry boasted. He stood up and extended his arm, splaying the fingers of his right hand and locking his gaze on the wet floor. Scrambling for a better vantage point, Ginny's leg kicked Harry's legs together, causing him to lose his balance again. In a desperate attempt to prevent his fall, Ginny grabbed his hips, trying to steady him. She lost her own balance and ended up pushing him out of the tub.
Half a heartbeat before what would have been a very unpleasant impact, he gathered his wits and halted his fall, hovering facedown, staring at his own reflection in the puddle on the floor. He flipped himself over and rose high enough to get his feet under his body.
"Harry, are you okay?" Ginny exclaimed anxiously.
"Fine," Harry reassured her. "You might want to put something for grip on the tub's floor, though." Then he realised that he was longer wearing his underwear.
"Looking for these?" Ginny held his boxers between her thumb and forefinger. "I tried to save you by grabbing the boxers. I'm afraid they tore around your legs when you fell."
"That's all right. Nothing a bit of magic won't fix." Harry held his hand out for the boxers, but instead of giving them to him, Ginny dropped them back into the tub and gave him an intense look one didn't have to be a Mind Reader for to understand.
"Why don't you come and get them?"
Harry's capacity for rational though again retreated into the darkest recesses of his mind, only to return in a diminished state when he and Ginny were in her bed three hours later, basking in the afterglow of their passion.
"Hmm?" Harry replied groggily.
"Harry, I'm a Weasley."
Harry looked at her quizzically. "Ginny, you make me lose my mind, but not up to the point where I forget who everybody is. At least, not permanently."
Ginny shook against him in silent laughter. "I mean, I'm a Weasley, and I'm not on any kind of birth control."
Harry's heart skipped a few beats, only to make up for it moments later by hammering loose the ribs in his chest. "Oh."
She squeezed his arm affectionately. "I can't be completely certain, but I think you might get away with today's indiscretion, Mr Potter. The window of opportunity has passed already."
Harry relaxed a little. He very much wanted kids with Ginny eventually, perhaps in three or four years, but the more immediate future was a little less desirable.
"We forgot to put up a Silencing Charm."
"Yeah, discretion isn't your forte, is it?" Lilia's voice came sounded through the wall, accompanied by a chorus of giggles.
Author's Note: I'd like to thank the Academy, my mother, my father, my manager, my make up crew…wait, wrong speech.
Still, thank yous are in order. I'd like to thank everyone who has reviewed, be it to offer constructive criticism or just to encourage me along. I really appreciated it. I'd also like to thank those who have put me on their favourites' list, even though some didn't review. It still informed me that people were reading and liking my interpretation of J.K. Rowling's excellent creation. A special thanks to her for allowing us to write fanfiction based on her works.
Last but not least, I bow to my talented and supportive betas, who helped me to write something of reasonable quality.
And now I'd like to burden you with one last request. If you have time on your hands, leave a review telling me about the things you liked best and did not like about this fic. I'm not talking about my rather SciFi-like interpretation of canon, (which is now A/U anyway) or the characterisation. (which is always subjective)
An example of a flaw I'm talking about would be like the repetitiveness of Wolfe's supposed death in chapter 7, or maybe any loose ends you think you've spotted. (I especially need you to look for loose ends. I think I have them all covered for the sequel, but in case I missed one…) Another valid complaint would be if you think there are too much characters in the story, in your opinion. That's also something people have warned me about, and (in case any of you haven't noticed) I've ended up toggling back screen-time of characters like Galatea and Padma, in favour of characters who were much closer to the action. I'm asking for reviews this time, so fire away. E-mails are also welcome, and I'll do my best to answer any questions you might have. (Except for; 'What will happen in the sequel.)
Also, was Mind War an overall improvement over Existence after Life? What do you think?
On a final note, the next story within this A/U will be titled Union. (It is NOT the real sequel to Mind War, though it will build upon MW and EaL.) It will be a short fic about Harry and Ginny's wedding, and the first chapter will be posted in seven days. I'm also toying with the idea for another short ficlet from Wolfe's point of view, which will tie in to events of the third story in the trilogy. It would make the third story much easier to write, since I'd have to do far less explaining in the narrative. I want to know if there's any animo for a story that isn't written from a canon character's point of view. Let me know, please?