A thick silence filled the kitchen of the Burrow. Ginny sat uneasily at the table, rapidly tapping her fingers against her cold cocoa mug while her mother clattered at the sink. Molly threw a strained look at the family clock, hands all stubbornly stuck to 'mortal peril', and then at her own watch. 'They should have reached Surrey by now,' she said lightly.
Ginny was not sure if she was expected to respond, but nodded anyway. 'Approaching Guildford at the very least.' Her mother did not seem particularly reassured, but at least attempted to smile before turning back to her washing up.
'Are you sure you don't want-?' Ginny started to ask, but Molly simply waved a soapy hand behind herself, only vaguely in Ginny's direction.
'No, no, don't be silly. It's quite therapeutic doing it the Muggle way… Why don't you tell me about your N.E.W.T choices? You must have decided by now.'
Ginny rather wished that they could return to the anxious silence. 'Erm… yeah, I guess I have some ideas but it just depends on my results…'
'I hope you focused, Ginny,' Molly said sternly, turning to look at her with a suspicious gaze. 'Rather than running around with Harry all over the place. You may not have mentioned anything in your letters, but Ronald certainly did.'
'It's not-' Ginny interjected furiously. 'He shouldn't have- it doesn't matter now anyway!'
Molly raised a hand to silence her. 'I know that, do you think I hadn't noticed you sulking all over the place? I've had the full story already.'
'You mean you've heard Ron's side of the story. Not mine. So not the full story.'
Her mother's face became more sympathetic. 'Well, I'm only bringing it up now, aren't I? While it's just us.' She walked over and sat across from Ginny, who promptly looked straight down at the battered table. Fred and George had at one point carved their initials into it, and she ran a finger over the rough, slanted lines. 'I need to know, Ginny. I need to know that when Harry gets here, that you'll be all right.'
'Of course.' A horrible thought came to her, and she looked at her mother with accusing eyes. 'You're not going to tell him off, are you?'
Molly tutted and gave a shake of her head. 'Oh really, Ginny, I do know the boy quite well, I can't imagine he was happy about ending it either… but we all know it's for the best.'
Feeling an odd sense of embarrassment, Ginny pressed her lips tightly together to prevent them from quivering. She would not cry about this, not even to her mother. She took a deep breath, and then, in a measured voice, 'yes, it makes sense. Hermione and I did try to spread some rumours that it was nastier too, to make it more convincing, you know…'
'You know,' said her mum cheerfully. 'Ron and Hermione really could only give me an observer's point of view. I would like to hear about my daughter's first venture into love from my daughter herself.'
Ginny blushed. 'I've had boyfriends before, Mum.'
'Yes, but all the same, we have a bit of a wait ahead of us so you may as well fill me in on everything from start to finish. I'll bear it in mind when I'm telling Harry off.'
Ginny snorted, a fantastic vision of Harry cowering at her mother's furious shouting sweeping through her mind. 'Oh, don't!' she cackled. 'He'll head straight back to Surrey.'
The tension and anxiety of just a few minutes ago seemed to lift as they laughed, Ginny telling a carefully innocent account of her achingly brief relationship. She doubted Molly believed her, but the details did not seem to matter; they simply relished in their chance to speak as women, uninterrupted and at ease. It was wonderful to speak of those days, and Ginny was even beginning to feel nostalgic, despite how recent they were. Her mother knew all the right things to say, knew when to smile warmly, knew when to agree that something was terribly romantic and knew exactly which questions to ask so that Ginny could recount her stories without feeling uncomfortable.
'Why didn't you tell me any of this before?' asked Molly. 'I don't see why you had to keep it secret from your own mum.'
Ginny shrugged. 'I don't know… it wasn't a deliberate choice or anything, I would have told you when I saw you, but then Dumbledore… Well, then it was over, wasn't it? I don't know why I didn't put it in letters. Maybe I knew it couldn't last.'
'Hmmph. Well when this nonsense is all over I'm sure the pair of you can pick up where you left off. He's practically family anyway and I should quite like it to become official one day.'
Ginny rolled her eyes. 'Mum, seriously…'
'Well, why not? He's a nice boy and you've been after him since you were tiny.'
Memories of terrible poetry, singing dwarves and buttery elbows pushed themselves, quite uninvited, to the front of Ginny's mind, and she could feel her cheeks growing hot with embarrassment. 'Yes, well, that was more me being a bit star struck, wasn't it? Anyway, who knows how long he'll be away.'
Molly's demeanor changed quite rapidly. 'Oh, don't listen to Ron,' she snapped. 'These silly boys, they get it into their heads that they can go off on a grand adventure without really thinking it through.'
'Hermione is leaving too…' said Ginny slyly.
'Which I'm very surprised at, but-' her voice faltered. She had glanced at her watch and had suddenly turned grey. 'Goodness, I… I didn't realize how long we'd been talking…' She turned around and looked at the back door. 'They should be back any moment.'
Together, they walked to the kitchen sink and peered out at the yard below. Ginny's heart seemed to plummet. A rusty oil can lay innocently on the rough flagstone.
The silence had returned like an unwelcome visitor, and a cold, tight feeling in her chest reminded Ginny how afraid she really was. 'It'll be fine, Mum,' she said quietly. 'It's a brilliant plan.'
'But that's meant to be Ron's!' squealed Molly, bursting into tears. 'Why has he missed it? Tonks was with him, they should be here…'
But time continued to pass, and the garden of the Burrow continued to be devastatingly peaceful. A brief flash of blue, and an old plimsoll fell to the ground from nowhere. Molly gave a shuddering gasp, and clutched Ginny's arm. 'Arthur… Fred…' She pulled a wrinkled piece of parchment out of her apron, unfolding it in trembling hands. 'Yes, see? See? They're meant to be here!'
Ginny couldn't stand it. 'Come on, Mum,' she said gently, trying to push her own fear out of her voice. 'Let's sit back at the table. Portkeys are easy to miss. Come on…' Molly breathed heavily through sobs, trying to calm herself and impatiently wiping away tears. Ginny felt dizzy. In her mind she imagined the yard outside, with dozens of falling portkeys, dropping silently to earth.
'The polyjuice potion will have run out by now as well,' said Molly. 'I hope that-' A great crash from outside made them jump, and Molly screamed. Ginny felt as though she could scream too, she could feel the dread and despair at the back of her throat and she wanted rid of it. They ran to the door, Molly wrenching it open with the strength of a large animal, and hurried down the steps.
There stood Harry, looking disorientated and stressed, swaying slightly, and Hagrid, who was picking himself up from the floor. Ginny had never experienced both joy and terror before, but she could barely begin to describe her feelings as Harry looked up at her.
'Harry? You are the real Harry? What happened? Where are the others?' cried her mother.
Harry looked horrified, and Ginny felt the desire to scream rise once again. She listened to Harry explain, his voice pleading and distressed, watched her mother pull him into a hug. Her mother darted into the house to fetch brandy for Hagrid, and Ginny seized the opportunity to explain their fear to Harry, willing herself to stay calm.
'Mum!' she shouted, pointing to a bright blue light. Hagrid stopped downing his brandy, Harry spun to look where she was pointing and Molly hurried forward. Lupin and George appeared, and her moment of delight stopped abruptly as she saw Harry bolt forwards towards them and seize George's legs. Ginny was vaguely aware of blood, and she helped them into the house without really understanding what she was doing, but as light fell onto her brother she gasped at the sight before her.
No longer would Fred and George be identical, and it was though their very identity had been stolen from them. George's missing ear branded him as an individual, marked him for life, and the vicious crimson colour of the blood clashed terrifyingly with his ginger hair. She wanted to cry but couldn't think; she could hear Lupin and Hagrid shouting in the background and Harry arguing, but she couldn't tear her eyes from this calamity, this dark injury. Something awoke inside her and a sudden calmness spurred her into action. She could hear scuffling from outside, but her focus was on assisting her mother, stemming the bleeding and cleaning the wound. George was pale, every freckle standing out more than ever, but as they tended to him she felt more and more relieved at his existence and his steady pulse that she could feel under her fingers as she wiped the blood off his neck.
'How is he?' she looked up and saw Harry, frowning down at George with devastated concern.
'I can't make it grow back,' said her mother, 'not when it's been removed by Dark Magic. But it could have been so much worse… he's alive.'
He was alive, thought Ginny firmly, and she could hear Harry agreeing, and as awful as it was she knew now that he was safe. 'Did I hear someone else in the yard?' she asked Harry, and she felt another wave of relief as he gave a short nod and told her that Hermione and Kingsley had made it back. 'Thank goodness,' she whispered, and it struck her that he was here, within reach. He made a movement towards her, but panicked shouting jolted their attention to the kitchen, as her dad and Fred stumbled, gloriously uninjured, into the room. She watched their reunion, and breathed more easily as George awoke, but a creeping anxiety still played on her mind. Harry caught her eye, and gave a jerk of his head to the door.
She followed him, saying, 'Ron and Tonks should be back by now. They didn't have a long journey; Auntie Muriel's not that far from here.' She hoped, rather selfishly, that he shared her fear, that he was as troubled and afraid as she was. Without thinking, she took his hand, and he was like an anchor to her they stepped into the yard and she looked up at the sky.
She knew that others were there watching and waiting too, but in their fear and faced with the vastness of the starry sky above, she felt as though it were just her and Harry, alone in their desperation. When Ron and Tonks finally arrived, she finally began to feel more normal again, even began to feel happiness at the edges of her mind, because surely the worst had happened, the others would be here soon, just as safe as Ron. She hurried back inside, bursting into the living room where her parents and Fred were still huddled round George.
'Ron's back! And Tonks! They're fine, both fine!'
By the time Bill and Fleur arrived, Ginny was feeling almost cheerful. That George had lost an ear hardly seemed to matter now that he was busy thinking up new comedy material about it, and as she watched Bill's Thestral come down to land she thought happily of the success of the plan, that Harry was here and everyone was-
It could not be true, it had to be a mistake. Surely it had been confusing, she imagined chaos, spells flying, how could he be sure? Mad-Eye was the most experienced, most skilled, most prepared for this situation.
The reality of chance and death seemed to hit her in that moment, and though she could hear Bill talking, all she could think about was how ridiculous, how random it was. She glanced at Harry and wished she could embrace him; the anguish and guilt on his face was crushing.
When she looked back on that night, in the years to come, she rarely recalled the frightened argument in the living room. She sometimes thought of, and understood, Harry's desire to leave, and her family's frustration. She often repeated George's terrible ear jokes. But more than anything else she remembered her first taste of Firewhiskey, forever associated with the fierceness and devastation of Alastor Moody.