She missed him. This was the time of year to spend with the people you love, she reflected as she crouched in her makeshift hiding place, and what was she doing instead? Chasing down the scum of the earth. Making the world safe for wizard kind. What a load of…
"Fire!" Lea shrieked through the transmitter charm.
Ginny shoved the snowy debris aside and jumped to her feet, thinking her quarry must be right on top of her. All was quiet. She turned slowly in a circle, wand at the ready. A fine, barely audible thread of sound hummed through the trees. From the corner of her eye, she spotted a slight movement. She turned, cool as could be, took careful aim, and fired.
She raised her transmitter charm to her mouth. "Dispatch, I hit him."
"I saw," Lea said.
She waded through the snow to the fallen Death Eater. He was sprawled, unconscious, on the ground, and Ginny turned him face up with her booted foot. "He's wearing a camouflage cloak. It's why we couldn't find him."
"You found him," Lea pointed out.
"I saw motion; I didn't see him," Ginny explained into her charm.
"Even so. You hit him square in the shoulder."
"I took my time, that's all. Too many Aurors charge in, firing wildly. A single calm shot is as effective as twenty overexcited ones."
Lea's voice took on a confidential tone. "I've kept an eye on your record, Ginny. You've never once lost your head in a combat situation. They say you have ice in your veins instead of blood."
"If you don't get someone out here soon, they'll be right," Ginny said, a smile in her voice. "I'm freezing to death and I want to go home."
"Justin is on his way. He'll collect the prisoner. Have any plans for tonight?"
"Don't be coy, Gin. Are you and the Quidditch player going to do a little 'find the Snitch?' " Lea teased.
Ginny groaned. "The Quidditch player has a name, you know, and we plan to have a quiet evening at home. I'd be there now, if someone hadn't scheduled me to work on Christmas Eve."
"Don't blame me," Lea protested. "I just do what I'm told."
A pop echoed through the forest, shaking some snow off the branches. Ginny turned, and waved at Justin Finch-Fletchley. He spotted her and waved back with a grin. "You really got him, didn't you," he observed, looking down at the unconscious prisoner.
"He's your problem now," Ginny said. "Happy Christmas."
"Happy Christmas," Justin returned, but she'd already vanished.
Ginny Apparated to a copse of trees just beyond the start of Harry's land. He had airtight wards placed all around his home and grounds; when he'd signed his first professional Quidditch contract, the reporters had harassed him to death. He'd quickly realized that the only way to keep them out was to barricade the property. He lived here like a hermit, far from anything resembling civilization. His door was always open to his friends, but he zealously guarded his privacy.
The woods were lovely, dark, and deep. Ginny lingered a moment, enjoying the velvety quiet. There had been a storm the day before, and each bough and twig was coated with ice. To Ginny, it seemed the entire forest was encased in glass, glittering with the cold blue light of the winter moon and stars, frozen forever in a diamond shell. She took a deep breath and, with her exhale, felt her tension float away and dissolve on the cloud of white, steamy breath. On the other side of the trees, she could see the golden twinkle of warm, cheerful lights. Harry's house beckoned.
She always rang the doorbell. She knew he wished she'd just let herself in, as he did when visiting her flat. He'd given her a key, and he always reminded her that it was meant to be used, but she could never bring herself to enter unless he first opened the door. He wrote it off as a personality quirk. He had plenty, after all; he could allow her a few in exchange.
Tonight, he had a dishtowel in one hand and his wand in the other. The house was full of enticing smells: the faint spice of gingerbread, the tang of lemon, the rich, full-bodied scent of salmon. A blast of warm air hit her face, thawing her cheeks enough to smile.
He grinned back and stepped aside to let her in. "How did it go?"
"Got him in one. You?"
"Your track record is better than mine tonight. I've already had to throw out two batches of cookies. They were disasters. Your mum sent me her recipe, but I can't get it right."
"No one can," Ginny confided. "She has it rigged so she's the only one who can make them. It's her sneaky way of keeping us dependent on her. But those cookies smell delicious; you must have done something right."
"I cheated," Harry confessed, his cheeks tinged with red. "There's a shop in town that sells pre-made cookie dough. You bake it yourself and get the added benefit of a nice smell."
Her eyes gleamed. "Don't tell mum. Tomorrow, I'll announce to everyone how wonderful your cooking was and she'll think you've cracked her recipe secret. It'll drive her mad."
"That sounds like fun," he said, slipping one arm around her waist. He leaned down to nuzzle her hair near her ear and murmured, "I haven't finished decorating the tree. Would you give me a hand while the food finishes cooking?"
"Thank you so much for all this," she murmured back, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. She flicked her tongue out and traced the seam in his lips. He tasted sweet; he'd sampled the cookies. "Fixing dinner, and being so understanding about work, I mean."
He closed his mouth over hers for a long, sugary kiss. His skin was warm after the cold outdoors. He said, "Not everyone has a job with an off season. An Auror's work is never done."
"It is tonight," she insisted, stepping out of his embrace. "Where's the tree?"
"In the living room," he answered, lacing his fingers through hers. "Come on."
The ceiling of his living room was three stories up, and the tree nearly brushed the top. "Hagrid grew it for me," he explained, grinning at the look on her face. "He's good with large things."
"From you? High praise. I'll make sure to let him know."
Ginny flashed him a sheepish look. "Sorry," she said, even though she didn't know what she was apologizing for.
He tossed her a box of ornaments, and with his wand, flicked on the wireless. The WWN was playing a Christmas carol marathon. Ginny enjoyed the soft strains of familiar music. The melodies took her back to her childhood, days before the world had become so complicated, back when there was no problem her father couldn't solve and the scariest thing she had to deal with was the imaginary monster under the bed. She hummed along under her breath, although she never would've admitted it.
They used levitating charms to lift ornaments to high places on the tree, but for branches low enough to reach, Ginny decorated with her hands. The needles stung her fingers and she snapped one off. The cold, outdoor smell of pine wafted through the air. "Why are you doing it the hard way?" Harry asked.
"I like it. Using wands seems like cheating, if we can do it without."
Harry tossed his own wand onto an armchair. "If you say so."
Ginny leaned back and looked up at the immense tree. "We're not even halfway done. You still need magic to reach the top."
He turned and jogged out of the room. A minute later he returned, a broom in each hand. She laughed, and his eyes sparkled with pleasure. "That's the sound I was waiting to hear."
"Seriously? We can fly them inside?"
He looked up at the carnivorous living room. "There's plenty of room. Why not?"
"Dad never let us."
"Good thing I'm not your dad."
Ginny wound her arms around his neck and closed her lips over his earlobe. "Good thing," she murmured.
Goosebumps skittered up his arms. "Up," he whispered, and his broom snapped into his hand. He pressed a quick kiss to her neck, grabbed a couple ornaments, and was in the air.
She looked up from the ground. "You'd better hurry, Gin," he called down, "or I'll finish without you."
"Not likely," she shouted back. She put a crystal sphere in each hand and took off, steering the broom with her legs.
The fire had burned down to coals. Harry lounged on the sofa, and Ginny leaned back against his chest. He coiled a lock of her hair around his finger and she sighed happily. Her limbs were heavy, infused with satisfied warmth. She soaked in the gentle glow of the dim red firelight and the golden fairy lights on the tree. They each sipped from a flute of champagne. Ginny wrinkled her nose in pleasure. The bubbles tickled.
"Knut for your thoughts," he said softly. "You've seemed out of sorts tonight."
"No," Ginny said. She was silent, and then corrected, "All right, yes. Harry, do you…do you think I…"
"Do I think you're beautiful?" he teased. "Of course."
"That's not it." After a moment of quiet, she asked, "Do you think I have ice in my veins?"
Harry sat up, taken aback. "I'm sorry. Do I what? Why would you ask that?"
Ginny was embarrassed. "Never mind."
He wouldn't let it drop. "No, really. Tell me why."
"It's just something someone at work said. Forget I mentioned it."
She leaned back, and Harry wound his arms around her waist. They were quiet for a moment, and then he said, "No, I won't forget it. Ginny, you don't actually believe this, do you?"
She didn't answer.
He sighed. "You don't panic under pressure, but that doesn't mean you're –"
"Do we have to talk about this?"
"It's obviously bothering you, so yes. Ginny, you have a cool head. That's not a bad thing; in fact, considering your work, I'm glad of it. But you also have a warm heart. You don't usually show your feelings, so some people might assume you don't have any. But the people you let close, the people who are lucky enough to really know you, know that you're kind, compassionate, funny," he brushed a kiss across the nape of her neck., "loving…"
She turned to look at him, and in her eyes he saw the insecurity she couldn't acknowledge. "Really?"
She smiled then, and her face glowed in the firelight.
"Finish your champagne," he said, a suggestive glint in his eye.
She tipped her head back and drained her glass. Something hard knocked against her teeth. With a perplexed frown, she tipped the flute upside down. A diamond ring fell into her hand. She gasped.
He flashed a hopeful smile.
"Are you serious?" she asked in a hushed whisper.
He nodded slowly.
She looked at the ring again, and then back up at him, mouth still open in shock.
"Generally, protocol requires a yes or no answer." He bit his lip, nervous.
She grinned. "I love you."
He tightened his arms around her, pulling her close against his chest. "I love you too, Ginny Weasley." He closed his big hand, calloused from Quidditch, over her small one and slid the ring onto her fourth finger. "It looks good on you."
"Then I'll keep it," she whispered. Tears of happiness glistened in her eyes. "This is the best Christmas present I've ever had."
Harry gave her a deep, lingering kiss. "Me too."