Harry tossed another stone into the nearly-black waters of the pond. It dropped with a deep kerplunk, and he watched as the ripples spread across the water, leaving the surface as smooth as glass behind them. He wondered how far the stone had to fall before it reached the bottom.
He was tempted to dive in after it to find out. If it was deep enough, maybe he wouldn't make it back to the surface before his lungs collapsed from lack of air. He'd always heard drowning was a peaceful way to die.
"I wouldn't recommend it," a voice said from behind him.
Harry looked up, shielding his eyes from the mid-afternoon sun, which was only just now grazing the tops of the trees at the edge of the clearing. The only thing he could make out was a halo of blazing red hair, with several fly-away strands that were glinting golden around a face that was silhouetted against the bright background.
"Recommend what?" he asked. He didn't bother asking her to sit down; he knew she would anyway. It had become their routine as the summer days stretched on and the afternoon heat became oppressive.
Ginny sat next to him. "Jumping in. It's not that deep, the bottom is slimy, and the Grindylow would probably eat your toes for lunch."
Harry shuddered, recalling the horrid little creatures from the lake at Hogwarts. "I wasn't going to…."
"Maybe not, but you were thinking about it," Ginny said.
"I thought Ron said you would swim here in the summer?" Harry asked, perplexed.
"Not here," Ginny said, laughing. "It's gross. But I can show you where we do go."
Ginny hopped up and began to circle the pond, then darted into the trees. Harry ran to keep up with her, afraid that if he blinked she would disappear from sight. The trees formed a canopy over their heads, providing some relief from the muggy haze that had threatened to suffocate him at the pond. The only sounds around were the soft whisper of last year's leaves under their feet, the occasional call of a bird, and the sound of blood rushing through Harry's ears as he followed Ginny upon a well-worn, but neglected, path.
Before long, he could hear the faint sound of water trickling softly, and the trees, which had grown quite thick, began to thin out. Moments later, they stepped out into another clearing. Before Harry was a creek that tumbled over a shelf of rock and pooled into a wide basin fifteen feet below them before meandering on through the forest once more. Harry stepped up to the edge of the shelf and leaned over, savoring the cool breeze that wafted up to caress his sweat-dampened skin.
"How do we get down there?" he asked.
"You could climb down," Ginny replied matter-of-factly, pointing to a rickety ladder leading to a small dock that Harry reckoned must be a century old if it was a day. "But that's the hard way," she continued as Harry gazed skeptically at the aged wood.
"And the easy way?" Harry asked.
"Into that?" Harry thought she must be pulling his leg. Did she want him to break his neck?
"Sure. It's deeper than it looks," Ginny said, giggling.
As Harry watched, she began to remove her shoes, then shucked off her top and her shorts to reveal a set of matching bra and knickers, lightly dotted with some kind of purple flower Harry didn't recognize. His breath caught in his throat as it occurred to him that Ginny was freckled everywhere, from the tops of her shoulders, which were almost golden, to the flat planes of her stomach, which were dusted lightly with copper sprinkles. Even the gently swelling curves above the satiny cups of her bra were speckled. He wondered if...
"Harry? Is something wrong?" Ginny asked. She was watching him, her brow wrinkled in puzzlement.
"No," he croaked, hoping his voice didn't sound as broken to her as it did to him. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Um, why?"
"You just look so...odd." Ginny's head tilted to one side as she considered him. "Are you certain you feel alright?"
Harry nodded, and mentally gave himself a shake. This is Ron's little sister, you wanker, he thought to himself. He prayed she hadn't noticed the direction of his gaze, and busied himself stripping out of his own shirt. To his mortification, other parts of him had taken notice of the same swells of creamy flesh, not to mention the slope of her backside as she turned away from him to fold her clothing into a neat pile. He resigned himself to swimming in his cutoffs and fervently hoped the water would be cold.
"Ready?" Ginny asked.
"Whenever you are," Harry replied. He indicated with a gesture that she should precede him.
Ginny hesitated. "Don't you want to take your shorts off, Harry? Walking back in wet denim is sure to chafe…." Ginny trailed off, a faint blush staining her cheeks.
"Um, I can't," Harry mumbled. Please don't ask why, he thought desperately.
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, Harry. It's no big deal. We go swimming in our underwear all the time. Mum gave up on trying to make us wear suits years ago."
Harry shut his eyes, gritting his teeth in frustration. Images of a wet, nearly naked Ginny were doing nothing to help him out of his predicament. Think, Potter, think! "Um, I'm, er, I'm not wearing any."
"Oh!" Ginny exclaimed. Her cheeks colored deeply this time. "Well, alright then. But first…." she trailed off as she reached up to remove Harry's glasses from his face. Harry felt his face redden in embarrassment at having forgotten to remove them, but she simply laid them gently on the stack of clothing and turned back towards him. "Let's go," she said.
"After you," Harry replied.
Ginny grinned. "Scared, Harry?"
"'Course not!" he replied, though he still wasn't certain she wasn't trying to pull some kind of practical joke on him. She was, after all, Fred and George's sister, too. "It's just, ladies first, that's all. So, after you, Miss Weasley."
"Fine, Mr. Potter." Ginny stepped up onto a large, flat rock that jutted out over the basin below. She peered down at the churning water, then tensed, as if to spring. Suddenly, she turned back to Harry, her bottom lip caught in her teeth.
"Harry?" she began sheepishly. "Um, I know this sounds silly, but, well, Charlie always used to jump with me. Would you mind?" Ginny pleaded, her deep brown eyes fixed on Harry's green ones.
A faint warmth coursed through Harry. Something about the way Ginny looked at him sometimes made him feel ten feet tall, capable of tilting at dragons. He grinned shyly and stepped up onto the rock beside her. "Ready now?" he asked.
To his surprise, Ginny slipped her small hand into his and squeezed slightly. "Now I'm ready," she said.
"On three?" Harry asked.
Ginny nodded. In unison, they counted out loud, "One, two, three!"
Harry took a deep breath and hurtled himself forward, tugging Ginny along with him. Her hand clenched his tightly as they descended, and Harry felt his stomach flip-flop oddly before they plunged into the water with a loud smack! To his relief and great shock, the water was icy cold, instantly dispelling the heat that had been pulsing inside him since the moment Ginny had removed her T-shirt. He kicked hard for the surface, pulling Ginny up as well, and together they emerged, laughing.
Ginny slicked her hair back from her face with her free hand. "Better, now?" she asked.
Harry nodded. "Much." With reluctance he was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to explain, he released her hand.
Ginny immediately darted away from him, swimming backwards. When she was more than an arm's length away, she reached down into the water and withdrew her wand, brandishing it before her with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Harry refused to let his brain ponder the possibilities of precisely where on her person she had hidden the wand, focusing instead on trying to anticipate her next move. "What are you doing?" he asked, as he furtively reached for his own wand, which was still safely tucked into his back pocket.
"Just watch," Ginny replied.
As Harry looked on, she swirled the wand over the water in small circles. One by one, small, perfectly formed bubbles rose up and out of the water, dancing in a circle several feet above their heads, glistening in the rays of sunlight that streamed through the trees.
"Cool," Harry whispered, so as not to break her concentration. He glanced over at Ginny, but she was so focused on the water bubbles that she didn't seem to notice. She was chewing on her lower lip once more, something Harry had noticed she did frequently when she was concentrating. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly, and as he looked up again he realized why. The water bubbles were now collected entirely over his head.
"Ginny…." he began warningly, but he was too late. All at once the bubbles burst and rained down on his head in one freezing torrent.
Ginny burst into peals of laughter. "Gotcha!" she called merrily.
Harry lunged after her, but Ginny merely stuck her tongue out at him before diving underneath the water. He swam to the spot where she had disappeared, but the water was too dark to see through. Determined to be prepared when she surfaced again, he scanned the surface of the basin, seconds ticking by in his head until so many had passed that he began to be worried for her.
"Ginny?" he called, turning circles as he treaded water in the middle of the pool in hopes of spotting her. There was still no sign of her, not a ripple or a bubble. "Ginny, this isn't funny anymore!" he yelled.
Harry's heart began pounding in his chest and his thoughts drifted back to the Second Task of the Triwizard Tournament his fourth year. The thought of Ginny at the bottom of the pool, still and unmoving as Ron and Hermione had been, chilled him to the core. He dove head-first into the water and kicked with all his might for the bottom. It was no good, the light didn't penetrate deep enough into the water for him to see where she might be. What he wouldn't give for some gillyweed right now. And why hadn't he ever bothered to learn the bubblehead charm?
Frantic now, he kicked for the surface and took another deep breath, preparing to dive again. Then he remembered his wand. Yanking it out of his back pocket, he cried, "Lumos!" At least maybe he would be able to see this way. He dove once again into the depths and was pleased to see that the wand remained lit under the water. Now he could see a couple of feet in front of himself rather than merely inches.
Running out of time, Potter. Merlin, it's been too long. Way too long. Ginny, where are you? he thought desperately as he struggled towards the bottom again.
As if in answer, Harry felt a hand grab hold of his leg. He grasped for it, relieved at first, then horrified to discover it was a Grindylow. The creature's fingers curled around his ankle like bands of steel, and Harry couldn't dislodge it, no matter how hard he kicked.
Let go, dammit! I've got to get to Ginny! He was panicked now, certain that he would find Ginny's corpse floating on the surface of the water, if he ever made it that far himself. He was running out of air now. Surely Ginny had drowned already. When another hand grasped at his arm, he gave up in despair and sucked in a lung full of water. I'm sorry, Ginny, he thought. As the blackness closed in, he noticed the hand grasping his arm was pale white, not green.
The next thing Harry knew, he was lying on his back on the dock, a tingling sensation running through him, beginning at his lips and running all the way down to his toes. His chest heaved, and he rolled over to one side and vomited up the lung full of water he had swallowed, then lay there gasping, unsure of how he had come to be on the dock rather than in the water.
Ginny's worried face appeared in front of him. He wondered why her face was so blurry, then remembered he wasn't wearing his glasses.
"Are you alright?" she asked, kneeling in front of him.
Harry tried to answer, but he could only choke up more water. He reached a hand up towards Ginny, who helped him to sit up. She stiffened in surprise when he grabbed her in a fierce hug, but he was so overwhelmed by relief that she hadn't drowned that he didn't care if he was making a scene. He held on tight until she wrapped her arms around him as well. The faint tingling continued to course through his veins. Must be from whatever spell she used to revive me, he thought.
"Harry?" Ginny said timidly.
She's alive. Thank Merlin, she's alive. But how...?
Anger suddenly swept through Harry, and he held Ginny away from him, gripping both of her arms firmly and pinning them at her sides. "Where…were…you?" he demanded furiously, barely able to keep himself from shaking her to pieces.
"Ow, Harry, you're hurting me!"
Ginny was looking up at him in indignation, but Harry could also see a touch of fear deep in her eyes. He released her abruptly and rose to his feet, stalking to the opposite end of the dock in an effort to rein in his temper. Unfortunately, she followed. He could feel her step up close behind him, and he was torn between simultaneous impulses to rage at her and to grab her tight in his arms again and never let go.
"Harry, I didn't mean…." she began, touching him gently on the shoulder. He whirled around to face her, and she backed up a step warily.
"Dammit, Ginny, do you know how worried I was when you didn't come back up? I thought you had drowned. I thought you were dead. I was so…I was so…." I was so afraid, he thought, but he couldn't bring himself to finish the thought out loud.
Ginny stepped close again and wrapped her arms around his waist. Harry sighed and rested his cheek against her damp hair, the anger leaving him finally, replaced by a resurgence of bone-numbing fear. He began trembling uncontrollably. In response, Ginny tightened her arms around him further, as if trying to instill him with some of her own strength.
"I'm sorry," he heard her mumble against his chest. "I'm really sorry. I wasn't going to stay down that long, but the Grindylow grabbed me, too. By the time I got loose, you had vanished. And when I found you…." She pushed back to look up at him. "Harry, you just went limp. Why? Why did you do that?"
He looked away and muttered something unintelligible.
"I thought you were another Grindylow. And I gave up."
Ginny's eyes blazed with anger. "Why?" When he shrugged, she balled up her hand and pounded his chest with her fist. "No, Harry, tell me why!" she yelled.
"I thought you were dead!" Harry yelled back. "Just like–" his breath hitched in his chest, "just like Sirius." Tears welled up in Ginny's eyes as he continued. "I tried to save you, and I failed. Just like Sirius."
"Oh, Harry." She took his face in between her hands. "I didn't need you to save me."
Harry knocked her hands away. "Well, how the hell was I supposed to know that?" he demanded, angry again and feeling very foolish.
"I wasn't finished," Ginny said patiently.
Harry snapped his mouth shut and looked away from her, folding his arms in front of his chest. Ginny pulled his face back towards hers so that he was forced to look at her again. "As I was saying, I didn't need you to save me," she started, and when Harry began to interrupt again she laid a finger against his lips and continued, "but thank you for trying. It means more to me than you can imagine."
Harry flushed, both from embarrassment and from pleasure. "Some hero, eh?" he said sheepishly.
"What do you mean?" Ginny asked.
"I mean, I panicked," Harry explained. "I was so afraid for you, I didn't even think to use my wand. I dove under to rescue you, and you wound up rescuing me instead. How did you get away from the little bugger, anyway?"
"The Grindylow? I broke his fingers," Ginny answered. Harry's eyebrows shot up in admiration, but Ginny protested, "It's not hard. Their bones are very brittle. Bill showed me how when I was younger. I thought he had driven them all out of this pond, but it's been a while since anyone went swimming down here. I'm really sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Harry said. "I'm just glad you're alright."
"Me too," Ginny replied softly. "I mean, I'm glad you're alright. You scared me pretty badly too, you know. You were so still...not even breathing."
Ginny's eyes were shadowed, as if remembering something she didn't care to ever see again. Harry had an idea that it must have been very similar to finding her lying still and cold in the Chamber of Secrets. He still had nightmares about it. A wave of cold and fatigue washed over him at the memory, and he lowered himself to a seated position on the dock. Ginny followed suit, sighing heavily as she did. They sat quietly for a few minutes, dangling their legs in the water.
Finally Harry broke the silence. "How did you bring me around?" he asked, curious about the tingling sensation he had experienced as he had regained consciousness. To his surprise, Ginny's face colored pink beneath her freckles.
"Um, just a standard resuscitation charm. Mum made sure we all learned them years ago. Said she figured if we were going to do our best to drown ourselves, we could just learn to un-drown ourselves, too."
"I haven't studied any of those yet. What's it called? Can you teach me?" Harry asked.
"Well, there's more than one. Some of them work better if someone has been knocked unconscious by a blow to the head, or if they've lost a great deal of blood," Ginny hedged.
"Which one did you use?" Harry persisted.
Ginny glanced at him, then looked away swiftly, concentrating instead on the ripples they made in the water. "Um, it's called the 'breath of life'. And I don't think I should be the one to teach you. Maybe you could ask Mum or Dad later. But please don't tell them why you want to know. Mum would never let me hear the end of it if she thinks I almost let you drown."
Harry nodded. "She probably wouldn't look too kindly on me nearly letting her only daughter drown, either. Breath of life, huh?" he mused, touching his lips with his fingers as he remembered that the tingling had started there. "I think I'm sorry I wasn't awake for that," he said slyly.
Harry caught Ginny's eyes and was delighted to see her blush deepen further. He felt his body stirring in response and nearly groaned in frustration. He didn't think he was ready to go into the water again just yet, so a change of topic was in order. "Maybe you could just teach me that bubble charm you used instead? That could be dead useful sometime," he said, grinning at the thought of pulling that little prank on Malfoy.
Ginny nodded. "Fred showed me that one. It's easier if you're in the water, though." She scooted over to the ladder at the end of the dock, next to Harry and began to climb down. When her face was level with his, he leaned over and spoke.
"Yes?" Ginny looked up to find Harry's face inches from hers. Harry swiftly closed the distance between them and pressed his lips gently against hers. Her mouth was soft and warm and moist under his, like dewy rose petals that had been touched by the sun. He broke the kiss after a moment, pleased to see a slightly dazed look in her eyes.
"Don't go out too deep," Harry said.
Ginny nodded, smiling. "Promise."