Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all affiliated ideas, notions, bananas, whatever--they're not mine. They're JKR's. And she's a genius.
A/N: So I tinkered with this story for quite awhile before I even thought about taking it somewhere. And then I realised that I enjoyed writing it. So here it is, my very own gift to you. I hope you like it as much as I do.
Chapter One: Gem in the Wine
The red sparkled like a garnet or…Harry Potter's most recent train of thought derailed in frustration as it realised that it did not have enough memory to continue on. One square hand held the wineglass aloft as one green eye scrutinised it in the light of a chandelier, searching the separate glitters and sparkles for some form of an answer.
"No one's poisoned your wine, Harry," Fred, or maybe it was George, said from Harry's left. Startled, Harry lowered the glass and looked at his friend (mentally affirming that it was George, not Fred) rather guiltily. In truth, he had been looking for exactly that—before the colour of the wine had trapped his interest, at least. George, however, just laughed affably. "What? You can't possibly be afraid that I've slipped one of our 'products' into your wine yet. Everybody's much too sober to enjoy it—and besides, I don't drop to such crass levels at parties. That's Fred, and don't you forget it!" With a wink and a pat on the shoulder of Harry's nice suit jacket, he minced off to mingle with potential sponsors.
Harry had had very little idea that in sponsoring the twins' joke shop, he would be dragged to all sorts of "white collar" dress parties. At first, he had tried to plead out of such formal affairs, but the twins insisted. Having Harry Potter to show for their efforts was extremely good publicity, and the twins liked to play this card whenever possible. "It can't fail!" Fred had laughed to Harry once. "Whether you like it or not, people will always swoon at the feet of the Boy-Who-Lived!"
Which was why Harry was currently in the ballroom of a very wealthy Emma D. Barnaby, a leading model in wizard fashions, clutching a glass of red wine and trying not to appear utterly bored.
The invitation had ordered Muggle attire, which certainly came as no problem to the Muggle-raised young man. Knowing the nature of such guests, Harry had chosen a white jacket with neutrally black pants, his undershirt and tie black as well. The expensive Muggle clothing had hardly caused a smudge of dust wiped away from the fortune he had been building, either. Over the past few years, Harry had dabbled in investing in several growing businesses in the wizard world (especially those that promoted Muggle-wizard relations, in honour of his best friend). His income from the twins' joke shop alone was enough for a family of four to live more than comfortably. With his Quidditch career on the rise, he certainly had everything, it seemed. So maybe the columns talking about his active dating life were few and far between, but he was not wont to complain.
The ballroom all around him was decorated rather expansively, with different tropical flowers covering many of the flat surfaces. Couches and other comfortable seating arrangements had been set up at random about the room, and there was a large dance floor. Couples were already converging on that, Harry noticed as he took a sip of wine. Tonight, he was fortunate enough to be dateless, for the twins had stopped conniving and setting him up on blind dates a long time before.
A portable bar had been set up in one corner, and several businessmen were mingled about that area, holding glasses of expensive liquors and wines at rest while they talked in enticing terms. For all his business ties, Harry would never quite understand the talk of businessmen; he was content to leave that sort of haggling up to Fred or George. The twins had a penchant for gleaning the very last Knut from a business deal. Indeed, Harry spotted a flash of fire-orange in the group of businessmen—Fred was probably closing on yet another potential deal.
"Not too bored, Mr. Potter?" asked a heavily-accented voice, interrupting Harry's search of the bar-area. Dieter Reiss, first-string Beater for Germany's national Quidditch team, moved into Harry's line of vision, smiling broadly.
"At a grand occasion as this, Herr Reiss? Certainly not!" Harry replied, smiling openly as he shook the other man's hand. Although the two were bitter enemies on the Quidditch pitch, fighting for the European Cup the year before, a sort of friendly camaraderie existed. Dieter Reiss was certainly not bitter in the least that England had advanced into the semi-finals; as a matter of fact, it had been none other who invited Harry out for a consoling drink when England had been smashed by Switzerland.
"None of that 'Herr Reiss,'" Dieter admonished, clucking at the Seeker. Although he was a burly man, he was a good four centimetres shorter than the younger man. "Tonight, we are but equals, Mr. Potter!"
"Call me Harry, then," Harry replied in kind. Inwardly, he was grateful to see a fellow Quidditch player. Dieter was somebody he would never have to wile away with petty conversation. "How's Germany getting on this year? Fourth in the league?"
"Fifth, but that won't last long." A sparkle arose in Dieter's brown eye, causing Harry to crack a grin of his own. The stocky German could lift anybody's spirits with his own infectious smiles. "Bulgaria still has Krum for an advantage. Flattened us. Most unfortunate." He shook his head and took a long sip from his drink. "However, we have a match against Spain coming up, and their first-string Keeper is on—what do you say? Maternity?—leave. Delayne. Remember her? Their second-string is good, but no match for our Chasers."
"Really?" Harry's eyebrow arched up, his smile teasing. Before he could offend Dieter, however, he shook his head. "I'll have to remember to send flowers to Delayne, then." His grin widened when he noticed a rather slim young woman waving at the pair of them. "Isn't that your wife there, Dieter?"
Dieter nodded. "She must be back from—how do you say it? Oh, yes, powdering her nose." The men shared a conspirator's grin before shaking hands once again. "It was nice seeing you, Harry. Until next time?"
"If I don't see you before, I'll see you on the pitch, Dieter." Once Dieter had returned to his wife, Harry took a sip of his wine and wandered off to find his way into another conversation. He was, after all, present at this rather dressy occasion to promote Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, as made obvious by the golden "WWW" stitched into the lapel of his jacket. He headed to where a group of rather subdued individuals was talking in quiet voices, smiling and introducing himself easily. Being such high-class people, very few gaped at him. However, that did not mean that he was not grateful when Fred came and pulled him away, freeing him from the mindless small talk.
"Having a good time?" the Weasley asked through a smirk.
"Time of my life, let me tell you." Harry shook his head, trying to keep his expression polite. "Have you amassed any more for the till of the shop?" he asked in a quiet voice, thinking that Fred had probably drawn him away to talk business. When they weren't inventing, the twins were plotting.
"Harry, Harry, Harry," Fred chided loudly. Several nearby people turned with questioning expressions, prompting Fred to drop his voice. "Let's leave business to be discussed back at the shop. C'mon, there's somebody I want to introduce you to!" It was all Harry could do to suppress his groan.
The one person Fred wanted to introduce Harry to turned into two more people, and then three more, and then a great number more. It seemed that everybody wanted a piece of Harry Potter's time nowadays. Eventually, Harry's head started to spin, forcing him to withdraw politely from a conversation about Galleon bonds. He immediately headed to the bar area and washed down the wine with one of the glasses of water sitting out on a tray.
Seeing that Harry was alone, George broke away from the group of businessmen he was entertaining and moved over to where Harry was lounging, trying to assail the pain in his head with a glass of water. "Getting to be too much?" George asked sympathetically, one eyebrow raised above the other.
"Just a long day, that's all," Harry lied, grateful that he had been around aristocrats long enough to learn how to lie like one. "I should be fine in a few minutes."
"Why don't you take a spin on the dance floor instead of brooding, then? Some female company might be of help," George suggested, and Harry barely had time to register the twinkle in his eye before the shorter man turned away.
Before George could go too far, however, Harry secured his arm. "I don't want you and Fred meddling in that area of my life!" he hissed under his breath. "How many times have we gone over this?"
George's look was hurt, but Harry knew it wasn't sincere. "What do you take me for, Potter? I'm just after finding you a dance partner, that's all!" His wide-eyed looked was the picture of innocence, if innocence sported orange hair and freckles. "It's all entirely innocent, I swear!"
Harry personally thought that flying purple camels would overtake the skies of Peru before George Weasley was 'entirely innocent,' but he released his friend's arm. People were starting to eavesdrop, forcing Harry to sigh gustily. He had never been fond of aristocrats. "Do your worst," he allowed begrudgingly, and turned back to his glass of water for any solace.
There was no doubt in Harry's mind that the twins were in this together. Indeed, George tossed Fred a nod and returned to his conversation while Fred sneaked away, obviously up to something. Harry watched his friend until the red-haired man was out of sight, his green gaze suspicious. One of the reserve Chasers for Puddlemere United flagged his attention down, forcing him to withdraw his glare from the twins and make irritating small talk about the upcoming semi-finals. He had played two years with the Chudley Cannons, at Ron's bequest, and so was familiar enough with the set-up to use the same jargon that the Chaser was using. When Fred caught his eye again, Harry gratefully excused himself, and wandered over the co-owner of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.
"Was Perks all that interesting?" Fred asked, handing Harry a new glass of red wine.
"Perks? Was that his name?" Harry wondered aloud, downing half of the wineglass. "I was wondering."
He scowled inwardly as Fred chuckled at his words. The twins had a memory for names, it seemed—names and ways of revenge. "Yeah. Gregory Perks. Had a sister—Susie-Anne? Sally-Jo?—in your year, I believe."
"Sally-Anne. A Ravenclaw, I think." Glancing over at the enthusiastic Chaser, Harry realised that the two must have narrowly missed playing each other on the Quidditch pitch at Hogwarts. He scrutinised the other man under the guise of taking a drink from his glass. Really, he could see very few similarities between Gregory and Sally-Anne Perks. "Pretty young, isn't he?"
Fred's answer was a shrug as he turned away from Gregory Perks and surveyed the room. "If my sources are correct, he was recruited straight out of Hogwarts. Main reason why Ravenclaw smashed Gryffindor in the cup after you left. Never mind about that, however. Have you met the hostess of the party?"
Harry answered that he had, at the very beginning of the evening's event. Emma D. Barnaby was a very nobly bred witch, born into the wealth like the Malfoys were. Unlike the Malfoys, however, the Barnaby family believed in wizard-Muggle relations. In fact, Madame Barnaby's brother-in-law was a Muggle who often associated with the Creevey brothers, if Harry wasn't mistaken. Harry mentioned this to Fred, who threw his head back and laughed in disbelief. "The very same Creevey brothers from Hogwarts?" he asked. "Wasn't one a mere second-year in my last year?"
"Colin was a year younger than me," Harry pointed out. "Dennis was a few years younger—never seen such a tiny first-year in my life." The thought of Hogwarts always made him smile fondly, despite the darkness of the last few months.
"Well, he's taller than you now," a new voice, decidedly female, joined their conversation, and Harry turned slightly to see a red-haired woman walk up. Had her hair not been so bright, her simply-cut black cocktail dress would have allowed her to pass of for any other young woman at the party. Harry blinked up at her hair, and then down at his wine in quick succession, quite startled. When he looked back up at the woman's face, his brow lowered slightly—he had seen those eyes before…
"Harry, may I reintroduce my baby sister, Ginny Weasley, back from her tour of the world? Ginny, I'm sure you remember Harry—world famous Quidditch player and whatnot," Fred said, beaming proudly as he laid a hand on Ginny's shoulder.
Harry's aloof expression decomposed. "You're joking," he said without thinking. When Fred and Ginny looked at him with the same expression Ron used for questioning, he actually floundered for words. "Ginny? Wow…just, just wow! The last time I saw you, you were—well, shorter! And all elbows!"
Even as Harry uncharacteristically slapped a hand over his mouth, Ginny's look turned perverse. Her features had definitely changed from the bony, undernourished-looking girl she had always been to the soft angles of a young woman. It was really no wonder that Harry had not recognised her. "Trust you to bring that up." Her voice alone caused Harry to blink; somewhere, Ginny had lost her accent to what appeared to be a mix of Australian and American accents. The effect was a very strange one. Rolling her eyes at him, Ginny turned to Fred. "Is he always this eloquent, or is this a recent acquisition?"
Fred, meanwhile, was frowning thoughtfully at Harry. "He's usually quite the smooth-talker, actually," he remarked to Ginny, causing Harry to mimic Ginny's action and roll his own eyes. "You really must have thrown him off. Must be the yank accent." He clapped Harry genially on the shoulder. "Watch your step—grown-up or not, she's my little sister. In fact, why don't you ask her to dance?"
And like a wisp of smoke, he vanished.
Making a mental note to murder the twins the next time he had a machete and a good alibi handy, Harry turned to Ginny. "Well," he said, clearing his throat, "now that I've stuffed my foot into my mouth and made a huge fool of myself, I should apologise. I'm sorry."
There was an untrusting element in Ginny's look that nearly threw him off of his course. Finally, the youngest Weasley sighed and said, "Well, it's not like I haven't had that reaction before. Apology accepted." For a moment, Harry thought he saw a flicker of nervousness in the brown eyes. It must have been his imagination, for Ginny was the very picture of confidence in one blink. "Well, are you going to ask me to dance?"
The question jolted Harry enough so that he physically jumped. Recovering quickly, he said, "Only if you tell me what you've been up to all these years."
Windfalls after Harry's seventh year at Hogwarts had allowed Mr. and Mrs. Weasley to live comfortably, but the notion of giving up the Burrow had never crossed anybody's minds. The old, dilapidating house still stood as a beacon of childlike innocence to Harry. Visiting was almost like going back in time to when Ron wasn't in the M.L.E.S. and the twins weren't rolling in Galleons. Harry was almost like a seventh Weasley son; with the family expanding like it was, he definitely wasn't intruding on anything. Still, circumstances had worked out to where he had not laid eyes on Ginny Weasley for five years.
"I fear it'll be rather boring to a hotshot Quidditch player like yourself." Ginny's voice was dry, but Harry could detect the slightest bit of the Ginny he remembered from Hogwarts creeping into the cutting tone.
Harry held up a finger, intrigued despite himself. Ginny was becoming an enigma into her own right, and curiosity was drawing him in. "I highly doubt that you are. Boring or not, I want to hear, so would you like to dance?"
It was probably a fluke that he even knew how to dance. In the days when the twins had not yet sparked the chain that ignited Weasley's Wizard Wheezes into a world-encompassing enterprise, and the off-season when Harry was playing with the league, the three of them (and Ron) had been hard-pressed to find things to do. One such afternoon, when business was extremely slow ("Only two Screaming Sickles sold!" Fred moaned. "Not even a Canary Cream!"), the boys had closed up the shop early and headed uptown to find some sort of entertainment in the drowsy summer heat. Dance lessons had initially been George's idea ("For when we start going to those fancy-shmancy type parties all the big business names attend!"), and the four had slogged through a few weeks of lessons with varying degrees of success. Harry usually drew the line at Salsa-dancing, but he did know how to tango. He confidently led Ginny to the cherry-wood dance floor, where couples were beginning to collect.
The song was a simple waltz, rather slow to allow the partygoers to converse easily. It did not take much for Harry to take the lead; Ginny was a mediocre dancer at best. "So where have you been?" Harry asked, once they had got the beat of the music down.
Ginny's expression was torn between annoyance and amusement at her poor dancing. "Oh, all over the place," she said airily. "I did a fashion internship in Prague, which landed me a job in the middle of—would you believe it?—Alabama."
"Where?" Geography had never been Harry's strong point.
"In the states, down south. The mosquitoes are so thick there that not even charms can keep them off." Ginny shook her head, obviously reminiscing. The look on her face was a far cry from the adolescent blush Harry remembered so well. Of course, Ginny had stopped blushing at him before her third year, but Harry would always remember the girl who had placed her elbow in the butter dish. He also remembered the summer after his fourth year, when she had finally started talking in his presence, and the resulting spunky persona that had been a fixture in his life at Hogwarts. "Made a lot of good friends there over the two years I was there. The designing company I worked for relocated me to the Australian branch, which put me in an entirely new job altogether. I've been running around the world as of late, planning receptions, galas, shows. I even finished up a wedding about six months back."
"Oh? Anyone I know?"
"Only if you're related to anybody in the grand state of California. I swear, half the state was there—I was panicking more than she was!" Ginny rolled her eyes at the memory, drawing a chuckle from Harry. She entertained him with a few anecdotes from the wedding, barely pausing to breathe. When the songs changed, they easily moved into another dance. "So that's basically where I've been. Nowhere near as impressive as what you've been doing, obviously. Are you still Witch Weekly's Most Eligible Bachelor?"
Harry groaned audibly. "Don't tell me you read that rag, too!"
Now, amusement danced in the brown eyes. "Hardly. Mum still does—she's sent me clippings of everything, especially Percy's wedding. It bothers me that I wasn't able to make it." The amusement died in a storm of annoyance. Harry was fascinated; he had never known eyes to be so vividly emotive before. "So how long is it again before Ron and Hermione tie the knot?"
They already have, Harry wanted to say, but bit his tongue. "I'm not really sure," he answered instead, and hated himself for lying. "They're not in very much of a hurry."
"To use Ron's words: 'Stark raving mad, the lot of them.'"
I couldn't agree with you more. Not really interested in discussing the complicated love lives of his best friends, he hastily changed the topic to Fred's upcoming marriage to his Hogwarts sweetheart, Angelina Johnson. "Yeah—that's actually why I'm in town," Ginny informed him. "Besides Miss Barnaby's party, I mean. Angelina found out I was staying down in London and called me with a frantic request to help her plan the wedding. Seems the planner had backed out at the size of the wedding party alone. I didn't want to at first—too much Weasley influence—but Angelina was insistent."
"Too much Weasley influence? Nah, that never happens," Harry said dryly, using the same tone she had earlier. He received yet another perverse look and grinned incorrigibly. "I'm surprised that there aren't nearly twenty Weasleys well on their way to Hogwarts!"
"Just because Mum and Dad were rabbits…Need I tell you that Dad was only one of three, and that Mum was an only child? Weasleys haven't always come in litters, you know." Ginny shook her head, sending ringlets into her eyes again. "Speaking of Weasleys, is Angelina even here?"
"Aren't you supposed to know? She's your client," Harry teased.
"What with preparations for this fund raising party, I've been so busy that I haven't had time to see her yet. I've only just been in to see Mum today—nearly blew a casket, that woman. Nothing changes around there."
Harry smiled at the thought of tiny Mrs. Weasley 'blowing a casket,' remembering the time Ron and the twins had rescued him in the Weasley's family car. His smile widened as Ginny launched into a description, to which he could only say, "Were you always this talkative?"
Now Ginny's look was a step beyond perverse. "Do you ever talk?" she asked in reply. "Honestly, you're the most closed-mouth man I've ever met. You've not strung more than two sentences together the whole time we've been talking." Her eyes narrowed dangerously when he teasingly gave a shrug. "And now you're just doing it to annoy me."
"You're intriguing. What more is there to say?" Harry smiled and was going to let it go at that, but something warned him that he should probably keep talking. "No, really, you don't understand. My life's boring right now—and you're a very refreshing person. With Quidditch practices, and white-tie parties all the time, one just falls into a pattern. I've even found myself conking out at around nine o'clock every night. That's a sin—I'm only twenty-three!"
"How will the rags ever react when they found out?" Ginny mocked. "'Boy-Who-Lived' is really an old man—details inside!'"
Normally people just skirted around teasing him about the media. Most people seemed to misconceive that the stories truly bothered him. Honestly, though, the only times they bothered him was when they ran out of material on him and started targeting his friends. To hear somebody joke about it was so refreshing that he almost didn't laugh out of surprise. Ginny raised an eyebrow as his steps faltered.
When he finally managed to check his laughter, he asked, "How long will you be in a town?"
"Until the wedding, so around six months or so. Why?" Ginny's expression was now making Harry wonder what exactly had happened to her to make her so cautious.
"Well, if you're going to be here awhile to plan Fred and Angelina's wedding, I should probably take the opportunity—so here goes: are you busy next Friday?" He had no idea what on earth had possessed him to ask the question, but there it was, out in the open.
It took Ginny a long time to answer; she was avoiding his gaze, watching her feet (still moving in the simple waltz step). "Would it be a date?"
He hadn't really asked for a romantic date; Ginny just happened to be the only Weasley he didn't know very well. Somehow, he figured that they were both so busy that scheduling an appointment was probably the wisest way to allot them both some time to get to know each other. Still, he asked, "Would you want it to be?"
"No, I don't think I would." The mistrustful look was back, surprising Harry. There really was quite a lot he didn't know about the youngest Weasley.
"Then of course it wouldn't be," Harry said smoothly, slipping back into what the twins often referred to as "Eloquent Harry" or "Harry on the Pipe." Harry wasn't entirely sure about the last term, as it didn't sound very complimentary, but that was the twins' strange sense of humour kicking in. "It just strikes me that I never got to know you at Hogwarts, and since you're in town, now seems to be as good as ever to make up for lost time."
"Terribly frightened of me back then, weren't you? You never really talked to me much." The sardonic smirk that twisted half of Ginny's mouth was so similar to the smirk Ron usually gave that Harry caught himself staring. "Anyway, I'm staying with a friend, so you're going to have to use a telephone to arrange plans, heaven forbid. The twins have my number."
Harry actually owned a telephone, but he did not mention that. He didn't really want to explain why he owned a Muggle contraption, as he had sworn off of most Muggle things after leaving Hogwarts. "Very well. I'll get it from them later, then."
At least the smile she gave him then was sincere, and not the smile of a party-planner. "Great!" The waltz was ending, and it looked as though Madame Barnaby was approaching the small stage. "It looks as though her end-of-the-evening speech is about to begin—I'd best be off to warn the cooks and waiters to start collecting the leftover food." Before she let go of Harry's hand, she squeezed it once. "It was great seeing you again, Harry. Enjoy the rest of your evening, and I'll see you on Friday."
And like smoke to the wind, she disappeared through the crowd. Even the telltale titian hair didn't help Harry locate her, so, smiling, he went to find the twins at their table. "Great party, wasn't it?" George asked as Harry approached. "What are you grinning for, you happy git?"
"Was your sister always that interesting?" Harry asked as he sat down between the twins. He nodded to the rather petite Quidditch player sitting next to Fred, resplendent in a wine-coloured dress. "'Lo, Angelina, didn't see where you got off to."
"Charity Longbottom grabbed me before I could promote the shop too much." Angelina shrugged apologetically. Harry decided that he did not like the sudden predatory gleam that came into her eyes, as though she had something that she could hold over his head. "Although I see you've caused quite a stir already. Charity said she saw you dancing with Ginny. I imagine the reporters will be going berserk."
Fred captured her hand, playing idly with the long fingers. "I'm sure Harry was dancing with her as a platonic would-be brother, right, Harry?" Coming from Ron, this question would have been a threat, but Harry knew that Fred was just curious. Indeed, George turned sky-coloured eyes on Harry as well, equally curious.
"Sure, Fred," Harry agreed easily, not mentioning that he had set up a date, romantic or otherwise, with Ginny for the following Friday. "It's what friends and brothers do, after all."
"Harry—call me when you get back." Ron's voice flooded the tiny kitchen of what most of Harry's personal friends called The Hutch, broadcast by the old-fashioned answering machine that Harry refused to scrap in favour of newer, better technology.
The Hutch was yet another joke invented by the twins. After Hogwarts, Harry and Ron had both gone to live at the Burrow long enough to recuperate from the traumatic battle. When they had moved out, it had been to a small flat near the wizarding sector of London, where Ron would be close to his workplace, and Harry would have animosity. The twins had slept on the couches for a few months, and even Percy had stayed there when he was in the dog house. The amount of Weasleys passing through had been substantial enough to dub the place "The Hutch" in honour of The Burrow.
Years later, Ron had moved out (he still lived there once in awhile for appearance's sake) to his wife's flat, and Harry was mostly off on the road for Quidditch. He kept a spare room for travelling Quidditch acquaintances, should any of them need a place to stay for awhile. If any of them should ask where Harry's flatmate always was, Harry would unequivocally answer, "With a girlfriend as pretty as his, where would you expect him to be?"
He and Ron were very good at keeping up appearances.
Harry frowned now as he deleted Ron's message. The light was still blinking, meaning that he had yet another message on the tape. There was only a small mark of red on the magical call log he had set up beside the telephone stand, which meant that Harry could trust the caller. However, the fact that the log didn't list a name was odd, indeed. Curious, he pushed the "Play" button and sat back, vowing to call Ron once he had listened to his mysterious caller.
"Harry?" Ginny Weasley's melodic voice tumbled into the kitchen. Harry visibly jumped at this; he had not expected to hear from Ginny for at least three days. In fact, he'd expected to put up with a possible fight when he did call her. "Oh, I'm sorry, you must not be back from Madame Barnaby's party. I just got in myself—I was hoping that you would be there so that we could talk about a couple of things. I can't say everything over the phone, but there's a third reason I'm in town. It involves you. I know we've got a date on Friday, but can you possibly meet me at the Leaky Cauldron tomorrow? Around noon? If you can't, just call me and let me know. I'm staying with my friend right now. My number is…" The call log recorded the number she rattled off, thankfully, for Harry did not have time to hunt down a quill. "Give me a call. I'm a night owl."
He called Ron first, knowing that the youngest Weasley male was waiting up for his phone call. Hermione answered, and laughed when she heard Harry's voice. "Oh, good. About time you called. He's been pacing like an overprotective mother. Ron, your boyfriend's on the phone!"
"I have not been pacing! And he's not my ruddy boyfriend!" Ron's voice was heard in the background only instants before there was the sound of a phone switching hands. Always the blunt Gryffindor, Ron burst out his news immediately. "Harry, bad news. You have to keep away from Ginny."
Harry hadn't been sure what to expect, but it hadn't been this. "What?" he asked a bit haplessly. "Stay away from Ginny? Ron, I know you're trying to protect your baby sister and all, but—"
"She's no more my baby sister than I'm Fred's baby brother. The thing is, Ginny's not here to only plan parties. She's an agent for the Tunnel. She's tracking somebody."
Harry sat down. Hard. The Tunnel was an organisation formed heavily on Weasley influence, although Percy and Charlie were not openly involved. Even Harry was a member, although he did little more than keep up appearances and fund the project at the moment. Very few people knew about the Tunnel; they operated strictly on stealth and secrecy. Nobody knew the full roster, for everybody's protection. They were the underground vigilantes, who fought "the bad guys" and monitored dark activity all over the world. Or, at least, Harry assumed that they now worked all over the world, seeing as Ginny had obviously been running surveillance in America and Australia.
"So I'm not to distract her from tracking this person?" Harry asked, feeling a bit confused.
"Ginny grew up with six boys. She knows how to juggle." Ron's voice was annoyed now; Harry figured it had something to do with his unending clueless ability to ask dumb questions. "We want to keep her low-profile, however. And, well, the thing is: you're a celebrity."
That about cinched it, then, Harry thought to himself rather dejectedly. "Oh," was all he said. "Well, to put it as the Muggles do, that bites."
Ron's voice sounded alarmed. "Harry, you didn't actually like her, did you? You two barely talked when we were growing up! Besides, that ridiculous crush on you is long-gone."
Knowing that Ron couldn't see him, Harry shook his head at the wall, quite frustrated that he couldn't figure out why this upset him so much. "It's complicated, Ron. And before you ask, no, I haven't done anything to your sister. I just wanted to get to know her." He stripped out of his "WWW" jacket, tossing that on the back of a chair at the small kitchen table (in everything but appearance, he lived alone, so everything was bound to be small). With one hand he loosened his tie. "How long has she been in the Tunnel?"
"Classified. Sorry, mate." Ron's voice was apologetic. "Either keep away from her, or cover your back extremely well. We can't even have her in any of the rags that are always hounding you. We'll buy off the ones that saw you tonight, but…"
"All right." He would cover his back, Harry knew. If there was one thing that he was better at than Quidditch, it was hiding his identity and covering his tracks. Years of being a Tunnel agent, combined with the Quidditch career every first-year dreamed of, had honed every sense down to perfection, making it very difficult to sneak up on the Boy Who Lived. "I'm meeting her for lunch tomorrow. Perhaps we could arrange something."
"I've got a meeting at ten, but Ginny and I can meet for lunch, and happen to have you meet up with us…" Ron trailed off rather hesitantly. "No, even that's obvious."
"Maybe you're just paranoid," Harry heard Hermione tease in the background.
"She's right, Ron. I'll just cover my tracks on my own." Harry frowned thoughtfully at nothing, his eyes watching the call log, which was putting his and Ron's conversation into code. "She called me a few minutes ago—I'll just give her a call back and work out some details." Ron grudgingly agreed and they hung up without salutation, as they were known to do. Harry frowned thoughtfully before picking up the receiver once again and dialling in the number Ginny had listed off.
He got an answering machine, surprisingly. "We're either not home, which is likely, or one of us is in the shower and the other is gone. You can, however, leave a message at your own convenience. If you don't want to, that's all right. Thank you for calling Tara Riley and Ginny Weasley's answering machine, and leave a message after the beep, so should you prefer."
The beep nearly deafened him, but he still managed, "Ginny, it's Harry. I was just returning your call. Is it possible that we could meet someplace less conspicuous? I know a good place—got a friend who owns it, if you catch my drift. We could meet at the Leaky Cauldron, still, I just don't want to eat there. Same time, and all. Anyway, sorry I missed you, and I hope to see you tomorrow." He hung up and looked at the phone for a long minute. It only sank in after several moments that he had offered to take Ginny to Tony's, of all places.
The Tunnel had never had more of an ambiguous agent as it did in Tony Kandinsky. For that matter, Harry had never seen anybody who resembled a Muggle refrigerator more, either. Tony Kandinsky had to be the biggest man he had ever seen (apart from Hagrid, who Harry considered to be more than a man), and he only seemed to get bigger with time. With arms and legs that resembled tree-trunks in their thickness, Tony had never had a problem parting the crowds of downtown London, where he kept up a nice under-the-table gambling club in his hole-in-the-wall restaurant. While Tony fed the Tunnel information, they were willing to overlook minor illegal activities on his part. Tony was one of Harry's personal friends; they'd met before Tony's business started. The big man had actually been a bouncer at a pub that Harry, Ron, and the twins had frequented in their more reckless days. Now his pub was a bit notorious for the fights that constantly broke out there.
Harry wasn't sure if this was such a good idea anymore, even if Tony was his friend…
The sound of bacon sizzling woke Harry from a light sleep. At first, the Seeker lay there without moving, a trick he had picked up in the year of field work he had spent with Ron, trying to discern his surroundings without letting on that he was actually awake. Once he had confirmed that yes, indeed, he really was in his bedroom in The Hutch, and that he was alone, he rolled quietly out of bed and took his wand from its secured holster on his leg. The trip down the hallway was a short one, so he didn't bother to remain in shadow. Carefully, he edged around the doorway that led to the kitchen, and immediately wanted to hit himself on the forehead.
The prodigal flatmate had returned. "Not cooking for your wife anymore, is that it, Weasley? Decided to poison me instead?" Harry demanded, forcing Ron to swear vociferously and jump about half a metre. The tall redhead had been standing in front of the stove, preparing what looked like a full breakfast. "Geez, Weasley, you kiss Hermione with that mouth?"
"Oh, he does more than that," said a third voice, and it was Harry's turn to jump. His best friend's wife was sitting at the small table, The Daily Prophet folded neatly in front of her. Just as Harry was about to protest, Hermione smiled and continued, "But I'm sure you don't want to know about that…I didn't know you were Scottish, Harry."
Harry promptly reddened as he glanced down to discover that he was standing only in his boxer shorts, which were, of course, plaid. Well, he had socks on, to his credit. "I think I'll go change," he told his friends quickly, and disappeared from the room.
"Don't know what the big idea is, mate, prancing around my wife in boxers and trying to scare your oldest pal!" Ron called grumpily as Harry retreated. "I swear, if those great big old paycheques that keep the Hutch up and running didn't contain your name, I'd have ousted you long ago!"
He certainly sounded grouchy, Harry reflected to himself as he selected a pair of khaki pants from his wardrobe and pulled those on. Khakis were inconspicuous—they could go nicely with most robes, and fit in perfectly with the Muggle world. As visiting Tony's took a long trip through London, Harry would need both uses today. Thoughtfully, he chose a hunter green pullover that wouldn't make him stand out horribly. He patted his hair into some semblance of order before joining his friends in the kitchen. "Much as I enjoy the sight of your lovely face first thing after I wake up, Hermione—"
"You'd better not!" Ron growled, half-turning to threaten Harry with a wooden spoon.
"—What brings you to the Hutch?" Harry finished, pretending to duck behind his chair. "Watch out, Weasley!" he teased, grinning widely. "You so much as lay a finger on me, I'll tell your sister!"
Harry imagined that the following grumble from Ron was probably not nice to his ancestors or sexual activities.
Hermione was clearly torn between laughing at their antics and admonishing Harry for his early morning jollity. Needling Ron early in the morning was not a task to be taken lightly, after all. In the end, she just smiled and shook her head. "There's been some news in the Tunnel, thought you might want to know."
Fishing three mugs from the cabinet, Harry asked, "News that will actually interest me, or news that will interest the gold in my pockets?" He poured coffee for the three of them as he waited for Hermione's answer.
"Only you could put it so tactlessly, Harry Potter," Hermione scolded, rolling her eyes like Harry was just another errant schoolboy. "Without your circulating the Quidditch and popularity circuits, the Tunnel would be nowhere near what it is now, and you know that. Just because your position is too dangerous for fieldwork doesn't mean that you're useless." Despite her admonishing words, she nodded her thanks when Harry passed her the coffee.
"What she means is buck up and quit whinging, mate," Ron told him less than charitably, spurring Harry to pour one of the mugs back into the coffee-pot. "Oi, what was that for?"
Ducking out of range, Harry ordered, "Get your own coffee, then, mate." He sat down and reached for The Daily Prophet, rolling his eyes good-naturedly as Ron grumbled at him once again. Hermione rolled her eyes, but let "bygones be bygones," as the term went. Good-spirited banter between Ron and Harry had become more common as of late. Sometimes, Harry felt like Hermione and the Weasleys were the only people he could speak candidly to, after all. "Anything good in the paper?" he asked Hermione now.
"More on that deal Draco Malfoy is threatening to pull through with the Ministry. Can't believe we actually believed the brat when he said that he had changed sides," Hermione said darkly, taking a long drink of coffee. "At least our agents in his ranks have not managed to detect any signs of Dark Arts, he's just scum."
Harry made an agreeing noise in the back of his throat. "It's a lot less than the damage his father caused," he remarked, scanning the article in question. "Much as I don't agree with demolishing that building, he's not openly bribing anybody."
"Bribery, the lesser of two evils," Ron commented in much the same tone as his wife. He started to dish up the hearty breakfast onto three plates and passed those around. "Don't understand why you didn't let me Stun him that time, Harry. Then maybe the Aurors could have caught him with real evidence."
"That had been planted on him. I don't like the guy any more than either of you, but we can't deny that he was innocent," Harry said in the tone of one who had nearly given up on an age-old argument.
"This time," Ron muttered stormily, pouring himself a cup of coffee and taking a seat at the tiny dining table. "However, that's not the reason we're here, exactly. Why didn't you tell us that your contract was up for negotiation?"
"It's not," Harry said as calmly as he could. Surely, his agent would have been in touch if somebody had so much glanced at his contract. Nonetheless, he flipped to the sports section, idly noting that the Montrose Magpies had once again beaten the Chudley Cannons. "At least, to my knowledge it's not. I've been in the IQL for seven years—I should know when somebody's trying to sell me by now."
"But Harry, it's Teddy Gingham!" Hermione snatched the paper away from Harry and pointed at the picture of a dark, smiling wizard. "King of Quidditch, they call him at work. What he says goes, and he says that your contract's being negotiated."
Although Harry was surprised that Hermione knew something about Quidditch (Ron really must rubbing off on her, he thought ruefully), he felt his throat dry up. "Surely you're joking," he said, shifting nervously. He felt a bit dazed, and knew that he was probably pale. "Why would Teddy Gingham be interested in me? England's doing so well!" He grabbed the paper back and scanned the article, his throat closing up further with each word.
"Grim News Ahead for the Boy-Who-Lived?
"Article by Daily Prophet Correspondent Simon Halloway
"Hogsmeade, Scotland—At a conference called yesterday evening, International Quidditch League spokesman Theodore "Teddy" Gingham had bad news in store of England's top Seeker, Harry Potter.
Many know Potter for the defeat of You-Know-Who first as an infant, and then in his seventh year at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, but even more know him for his exceptional Seeking that led him from the unfortunate Chudley Cannons to playing on England's national team. Potter has been playing Quidditch since his first year at Hogwarts, where he was the youngest Seeker in a century to play for the Gryffindor house team.
"Potter's talent has always been exceptional, yes," comments Teddy Gingham about Mr. Potter's abilities. "However, I feel that his prowess is needed elsewhere for now. He's been with England for nearly five years now, and I think that having fresh blood with the team would do the record some good.""
"Fresh blood?" Harry yapped indignantly. "I'm twenty-three, not forty!" He read on, incensed. By the time that he had read the last word, his face had reddened and his fists were clenched. "Why is he doing this to me? I'm the best Seeker we have!"
"Cocky, isn't he?" Ron asked Hermione rather adroitly, his mouth full of egg. Harry's glare told him that he was not helping. Sighing, he hunkered down to business. "We think Teddy Gingham may be working against the Tunnel. Suspected Death Eater, and all."
"Teddy Gingham was a suspected Death Eater?" Harry asked, looking up from the newspaper. "Dark Mark and everything?"
"Hardly." Hermione took a long drink of coffee. "Remember that big Quidditch scandal that they didn't find out about until after our sixth year?" Taking the paper, she tapped the picture of Teddy Gingham once again. The wizard in the picture looked at her, mildly annoyed. "Teddy Gingham, Ulysses Davenport, and who else was it, Ron?"
The leader of the Tunnel was shovelling eggs into his mouth while watching his wife avidly. Harry was not sure that Ron's attention was entirely due to the topic; sometimes the tall redhead would stagger, out of nowhere, and look as though he had just been slammed in the gut by a lorry. It usually took Harry and a couple of close friends to convince him that yes, indeed, Hermione had chosen him, and that no, it really wasn't a dream. For all their bickering, it would take Ron several lifetimes not to be starstruck by his wife.
"Sam Werner," Ron filled in, swallowing the mass of egg in his mouth. "Oh, yes, and let's not forget dear old Lucius Malfoy." The sarcasm in his tone could bite through ice. "Had the rest of them eating out of the palm of his hand, I bet. Of course, that ended when he was arrested." He snorted heavily and returned to eating like there was no tomorrow on the horizon.
Harry nodded. "What were the charges?"
"Embezzlement of funds, naturally. We think that the funds were ending up in the hands of Voldemort himself." Hermione carefully refolded the paper and placed that beside her place-mat, forcing Harry to roll his eyes. He was a relatively neat person, having grown up in tiny spaces with no place to really call his own, but his neatness held no candle to Hermione's organisational tendencies. "Not a Death Eater, but definitely a sympathiser."
Years of living in the wizarding world had taught Harry not to judge character by appearance, so he took the news about Teddy Gingham surprisingly well. He had, after all, only held two conversations with the guy, but they had been after long matches, and mostly focused on exploits he had pulled off during the games. He took the folded paper from Hermione now and looked at the picture, squinting. Teddy Gingham was clearly the focus of the picture, but there were several other wizards in formal robes present within the frame.
Harry frowned. "Hey, guys, check this out." He leaned over and pushed the picture to the centre of the table, where they could all get a good view of it. "The rat's out of the bag."
Ron's expression quickly darkened into anger. "Don't you mean ferret?"
Lurking in the background, strutting, was none other than the face of Draco Malfoy, their old Hogwarts rival.
A/N the Second: And now, if you'll hit that review story option, you can tell me what I did wrong!