The Heart of the Challenge
Part One – Ron's Gauntlet
Looking around at the lush grass of the clearing he stood in, not even the still bright sunlight filtering through the trees is enough to brighten the mood of one Harry James Potter. Of course, not even the fact that the clearing he currently stood in is property of the Weasleys, his favorite people ever, and that the Burrow, their home, was only thirty meters away, was brightening much for him. He wasn't unhappy, per se, to be there, but in some ways these Sunday dinners (which were nearly all day affairs) were too much a reminder of what he did not and could not have for him to truly enjoy them.
Dragging his toe through the dirt, he let out a disgusted sigh. These days he wasn't sure where his disgust is mainly directed: himself, Voldemort, and even Dumbledore all seem to get their fair share of the blame. Probably most of it was reserved for himself, which was about as disturbing as he could possibly imagine. But such was his life, this disgusting cesspool of a hole that he dug for himself. And now he was stuck living without the only person he has ever loved.
The fact that she was there, at the Burrow, or would be soon, was both wonderful and awful, a dichotomy he is admittedly unequipped to deal with. The positives of seeing Ginny usually outweighed the negatives easily enough, particularly when he got to touch her or smell her perfume and - oh, bloody hell! He rolled his eyes, wondering if he was becoming a borderline stalker.
He had tried what must easily be a thousand times to work up the nerve to ask her out again, but after skipping town post-defeat of Voldemort, that hadn't worked out particularly well for him. His cowardice was quickly becoming something of a legend, at least in his own mind. If he was to be re-sorted today, Gryffindor would likely not be a possibility. It didn't seem fair to him, but things are what he had made them. Now that they are friends and nothing more, there was no one to blame but himself.
With that unpleasant thought, he began to make his way up to the house, not for the first time wondering how different he would feel about these Sundays if Ginny was beside him. With him. Shaking his head, he mentally scolded himself for those foolish thoughts. Gin was not his, and there didn't seem to be much chance that that would reverse any time soon. The one, last source of comfort he had to cling to was that she was not attached to another man, and that she hasn't been since him. That would surely be the bitterest pill of all to swallow.
Pasting on a smile as he stepped out of the clearing, he faltered at the sight that greeted him: a soaking wet and very, very angry Ginevra Molly Weasley. Oh, bloody hell, a wet and angry and thoroughly arousing Ginevra Molly Weasley. Damn it, damn it, damn it all! His miserable, perverted mind did not need added fuel to the fire today. A dry, soft, and not angry Ginny was generally torture enough on his libido; this was worse than Voldemort. Well, in a vastly different way, but still!
Trying (probably too hard) to look friendly as opposed to gaping and lecherous and perverted, he helped her out by casting a quick drying spell on her as soon as he registered (how, he does not know) that she is wandless. "Looked like you could use that," he said softly, his voice embarrassingly husky. "Which one of the 'gits' is torturing you this time, then?"
"Thank you, Harry!" Ginny exclaims in relief, easily throwing her arms around him in a tight hug. As he awkwardly pats her back, he gritted his teeth with the effort to keep his hands in appropriate places. He shouldn't let himself be this irritated with how over him she was that this kind of contact is easy for her, but he couldn't seem to help himself.
"Hey Gin," he greeted, almost moaning out loud with loss when she dropped her arms and stepped back. "How are you?"
Taking his arm, she pulled him towards the house, flashing him a brilliant smile. "Aside from your best friend being a git, I'm just fine," she told him. "And how are you?"
Relaxing a little, Harry smiled back at her. "I thought Hermione was still on 'holiday' in America," he retorted cheekily, earning a finger to the ribs. "Ow! Ginevra Molly Weasley, that hurt!"
"You asked for it," she shrugged unapologetically. "Besides, if you people keep humoring her and calling it a 'holiday', I just might scream!"
He wrinkled his nose at that, laughing a little. At her raised eyebrow, he just shrugged. "I've heard you scream, Gin. It's not…erm, pleasant."
"Harry Potter, are you teasing me? Of all the things," she giggled, shaking her head as they approach the house. "Well, cover your ears if you want to avoid the unpleasantness. Ron is about to hear it from me."
"Not quite right, sis," George smirked as they walk up the steps of the rickety porch. "Ronnie Pooh is hiding rather adeptly behind Mum's skirt right now. And she's holding le bebe."
Ginny growled her displeasure, glaring at George and Harry as though it is their faults that Ron is childish enough to use their tiny nephew as a guard. "Well, go figure," she muttered, her hands on her hips drawing Harry's eyes to portions of her anatomy that they have no business being. "Well, I'll get him back. He had better count on that."
George winked at Harry before looking back at his sister. "If I can be of service, do let me know, darling sister. I do so enjoy when ickle Ronnikins gets his, as you well know."
"Hadn't noticed," Harry grinned in return, a warm feeling spreading through him when Ginny giggled and bumped shoulders with him. "C'mon then. Where's your far better half, George? I'd have thought someone would be around, keeping you in line."
"Good luck with that," Ginny snorted. "Now, in all fairness, Katie is far more successful at it than anyone, but honestly, George? In line? Good one, Har!"
'Har'? She did not just refer to him as…'Har'! God, they really were friends now, weren't they? They were friends, and there wasn't any easy way out of that, not so far as he could see. Great, terrific. Friends. They were in the damn friends zone.
"You okay?" Ginny asked, peering at him with concern. "Harry? Are you okay? You sort of zoned out there for a minute."
He nodded wanly, feeling like a pathetic little boy. "Erm, yeah, just fine, thanks." Sighing, he gave her a weak smile. "So, how's work?" he asked as George hurried into the house as Katie called for him. "That bloody boss of yours isn't giving you too much trouble, is he? And you haven't run into Malfoy again, right?"
Glancing around, Ginny motioned him closer. "If I tell you something, will you promise me you won't say a word to anyone? Especially to any of my brothers, Ron in particular?"
Frowning, Harry worked out that this is not a promise he should be making, but before he could decline, her close proximity got to him, tantalizing his senses. Next thing he knew, he was nodding – he could not refuse her anything. "Of course, Gin. Anything you need." Ugh, he even sounded like such a moronic sap; apparently it was not enough to just be one.
Her eyes darted around shiftily again, and to his surprise, she very effectively cast a Muffliato on them after checking around for extendable ears. His apprehension of what he's about to hear increases with her diligent insistence on privacy. "He asked me out on a date, Harry." Forgetting what they'd just been talking about, the only part that sunk in is the part where someone – anyone! – asked her out like they have that right!
"What?" he snapped as she stared up at him expectantly.
Hurt filled her eyes, and he instantly felt guilt seep in. "Sorry for telling you then," she muttered quietly, holding herself stiffly as she moved away from him to sit on the porch railing. "I guess you are more over your school feud with Malfoy than I'd have figured."
"Mal – Malfoy?" Harry sputtered in confusion. "What the bloody hell does Malfoy have to do with anything?" Understanding dawned slowly but surely for the intrepid (sometimes that worked out a bit better for him than others) hero, and Harry felt himself fill with rage. "Draco Malfoy asked you out on a date? Who the bloody hell does he think he is?"
"Well, that's who we were talking about," she shrugged, looking so forlorn that Harry almost pulled her to him. If he were to do that, it would end in disaster when she went to move away and he wouldn't let her go.
He settled for putting a hand on her shoulder, probably squeezing a little more forcefully than necessary. "I thought you meant your boss," he admitted lamely. "Did he hurt you? Is he pressuring you or threatening you? I swear to Godric, Gin, if that rat bastard hurts you in any way, I'll make the final battle look like Quidditch match!"
She stared at him for a moment, a familiar hard, blazing look in her eyes. For one moment, one all too brief, glorious moment, he thought that she just might kiss him. Of course, no such thing happened; his luck had never been that good. "He asked me out; he didn't put me under the Cruciatus, Harry." Sighing, she shook her head. "Of course, a date with him might feel similarly torturous."
They shared a grin at that, and Harry moved to hop up so he was sitting next to her on the railing. "I never knew Malfoy fancied you."
"Neither did I," Ginny giggled, leaning against his arm. "He acted as though I should be flattered that he'd deign to ask me out. He is even more of a pompous arse than Percy, and you know how he is."
"Too true," Harry agreed with a smile he knew he'd only ever bestowed on her. "I take it you turned him down then?"
"Oh, no," she contradicted him quickly. "I accepted, of course. We're going out tomorrow night. I figured if I could survive the Cruciatus curse from that bitch aunt of his, then surely I could suffer through one date with him. He's the least scary in that family, anyway."
Choking on his tongue (and horror and outrage), Harry hopped off the railing. "Are you insane? I cannot believe you, Ginevra Weasley! After all that Malfoy and his family have done to you and yours, you would go out with him? My word, it's like – like you're suddenly unrecognizable."
Staring calmly at him from her perch on the porch rail, she noted, "And you. After all he's done, especially to you, I wouldn't go out with him if he were the only man left on earth. I'd sooner go to Azkaban for his murder than suffer through half a date with that moronic arse!"
Visibly relaxing, Harry felt nearly boneless in his relief. Of course, the relief warred with the embarrassment of having fallen for Gin's little joke, but the relief was the predominant feeling of the moment. "Sorry," he apologized sheepishly. "I should've known better."
"Yes," she agreed blithely, arching a brow at him, "You should have known me better by now. I actually rather thought you did."
With that, she slid off the railing, removing the privacy spells she had cast on them and the porch. Before he could do or say anything to fix his blunder, she was in the house and he was left alone trying to figure out what just happened. Apparently, not only did he blow his chance at having her as a girlfriend, or better yet wife, now it seems he was on the verge of losing her as his friend. Terrific.
Shaking his head, he muttered, "Damn it. Such an idiot, Potter!"
And with that self-indictment and summation of the last couple of years of his life, he turned and followed her into the house, again on his own.
"Arthur! Oh, honestly, put that thing away!" Molly Weasley huffed in exasperation, glaring at the Muggle CD player her husband is currently enamored of. "I swear, would it be possible to have just one meal in peace?"
"Aw, Mum, don't be so fussed about it," Bill grinned, winking at his wife of several years now. "You know better than to expect peace of any sort from this lot." At that, he threw significant looks at George, Ginny, and Ron. "Don't set your hopes too high, right?"
Ron looked over at Harry, rolling his eyes as Ginny reached out, tugging on a lock of the hair Bill still kept stubbornly long. "Like you're so perfect," she teased her oldest brother, causing Harry's stomach to clench at the sight of her face coming alive with amusement.
Before Bill could retort or anyone else can jump into the fray, Arthur jumped in. "I think it is fairly safe to say that none of us are perfect, excluding your mother."
Harry watched as every one of them at the table softened at the love and affection between their parents and in-laws. To Harry, it was something he still wasn't entirely used to, this kind of love always shared and felt at Weasley gatherings. Yes, he knew that some of it was directed his way, but…it wasn't enough. He couldn't help but want more. That the person he wanted more from was sitting across the table from him now did nothing to help.
"Harry, son," Arthur said over the noisy din of the table, snapping Harry out of his reverie, "How is work? Kingsley has mentioned how close you are to tracking down one of the cases deemed unsolvable. He says you are making great progress."
Swallowing hastily, Harry nodded his confirmation. "Yup. We've actually got a fairly confirmed lead on the Nott family. In fact, we might be sending a raid team to their supposed location early this week."
Percy cut in at that. "Well, good to hear. Always a relief to the Ministry to get these dangerous criminals off our streets! Well, then, are you going to be heading the raid team this time?"
"Probably," Harry nodded, failing to notice how Ginny's fingers tighten on her fork turning her knuckles white. "This is definitely my case, and it wouldn't be right to let someone else lead a team in there."
"My team would be fine going in," Ron interrupted. "In fact, I daresay you ought to let us take this one. Your guys aren't all that rested from that botched raid last month."
Rolling his eyes at his best friend, Harry shook his head as he gave him an indulgent smile. "Sorry, mate; my boys have got this one. Besides, Hermione threatened, erm, things I'd rather not part with if I let you out on another mission like that."
Huffing a loud breath out in irritation, Ron glared at his best friend. "It's just not fair," he griped, banging a fist on the table for emphasis which earned him a sharp glare from his mother. "I get penalized just because I have a fiancé! What kind of rubbish is that?"
"Yeah, life is so hard," Harry shot back. "You have a fiancé; poor, ickle Ronnikins."
That earned Harry several pairs of raised eyebrows, including Ginny's. Ron, of course, was oblivious to his best friend's sarcastic and slightly (well, perhaps more than slightly) bitter undertone.
"See, there's a simple solution to all our problems, though," Ron continued on, blithely unaware of the tension certain others at the dinner table were now feeling. "You could find yourself a girl. Honestly mate, I think that would solve a lot of your problems."
"Could you at least swallow before doling out your advice next time?" Ginny snit testily at her brother. "It's a wonder you have a woman who puts up with you, the way you act."
"Children," Arthur interrupted mildly before his wife could cut in more sharply.
Bill and George exchanged knowing looks as their significant others tried to hide their smiles. "I'm just saying!" Ron continued on, glaring at Ginny. "If you'd find yourself a fiancé, Harry, then we'd be back on even ground again! Well, as even as ground gets when your best friend is the Boy Who Lived, yeah?"
Everyone else grew quiet, with most of the eyes around the table darting between the two best friends. Two pairs of eyes, however, remained riveted on Ginny, gauging her reactions to the conversation. Her mother, she was to be expected. In some ways, ways that frightened Ginny each and every day, her mother knew her extraordinarily well. Oddly enough, the other was Fleur.
"Ronald, just leave it," Ginny sighed in exasperation, Fleur studying the white knuckles of Ginny's hand clenching her goblet too tightly.
"And you, Gin!" Ron laughed, not heeding the warning looks being shot his way from the rest of his family. "You're just as bloody bad as Harry is! Honestly, you two should have one of those…oh, bloody hell – sorry, Mum – you should have one of those pact things!" He frowned, thinking for a minute before breaking out into a huge grin. "Yeah, I saw it on Hermione's telly! A Muggle pact."
All eyes on him are wide and slightly confused, and it is George who broke the silence. "What in the name of Dumbledore's crazy blabbering are you on about?"
Ron grinned, as pleased with himself as everyone else is uncomfortable. "A marriage pact! I think Harry and Ginny should have a pact that they're both still single when Gin turns twenty-five, they marry each other!"
It was a thoroughly horrified silence that greets that suggestion. Arthur's eyes squeezed tightly closed, and his head shook as though he cannot believe what he has just heard. Molly's face turned mottled shades of red and purple, and her mouth opened and closed furiously although no words come out. George and Bill glanced at each other, neither knowing what to do or say. Katie watched in fascination, and Fleur rather calmly waited the scene out.
"I can't believe you'd say that," Harry said quietly, his fists clenched tightly at his sides. He couldn't even bring himself to look at Ginny now, not even able to muster a reassuring smile for her.
"Right," Ginny agreed, pushing away from the table. All the blood had drained out of her face, leaving her alarmingly pale, although Fleur was the only who really notices. "I can find my own boyfriend, fiancé, husband, and even friends, Ronald. Someone who would want me, alright?"
Ron rolled his eyes, taking another bite of his mum's treacle tart. "If that were true, why haven't you dated anyone since…well, it's been a right long time, Gin! If it's so easy, why don't you ever date anyone?" he challenged her.
"Ron, that's enough," Bill interrupted tersely. "Leave her alone. Leave them both alone. And do yourself a favor; shut up before Hermione comes home to find you the subject of spell damage that leaves your manhood under question."
"Well, I don't see what the problem is!" Ron exclaimed, pressing on and ignoring the resulting groans from the other people at the table. "Someone needs to say it! It's not like Ginny has dated anyone since Harry, after all. What's the big deal?"
"Ronald Weasley!" Molly exclaimed, her chair knocked backwards by force as she jumps to her feet. "Apologize this instant! And go to your room!"
Ron's mouth fell open and he gaped at his mum incredulously. "But Mum, I don't even live here! You can't send me up to my room!"
If anything, Molly's face just turns redder with the purple splotches darkening noticeably. "I will not have you behaving like this in my house!" she yelled, banishing her youngest son's dessert. "Of all the disrespectful, outrageous, rude…"
"No, Mum," Ginny interrupted, her face a calm mask hiding any real feelings she might have on the goings-on of this dinner, "He's right. I haven't dated in awhile." She stood up, dropping her napkin on her plate. "He's right in that that needs to change. But before he goes and forces unwilling and/or disinterested wizards on me, I will find my own…own fiancé."
Harry's fists clenched angrily under the table; his ire was directed at himself for giving Ginny the impression that he was neither interested nor willing, but mainly at Ron in this moment, for pushing Ginny to stand up and proclaim her intention of finding a fiancé. A fiancé that wasn't him. Besides, what happened to the Ronald Weasley who couldn't stand the idea of his little sister with any bloke? Now he's pushing her to this? Harry would kill him. Absolutely, positively murder the prat the first chance he got.
Ginny's hands were shaking as she stares at Ron. "Well, thanks, Ron. Would you like to set a time limit? Should I have met this phantom man by some certain date?"
"Really, Ginevra, there's no need – " Molly began crossly, still glaring at Ron, who had the gall to interrupt her.
"George's wedding," Ron grinned smugly. "That'll give you enough time, right? Don't you think so, Harry?"
Sputtering incoherently, Harry shook his head. "No, no! This – it is not a good idea. And – and this isn't like you, either!" he proclaimed, looking wildly at the other members of the table, hoping for back-up. "What are you up to, pushing Ginny towards just any old bloke?"
"Stop," Ginny cut in, looking sharply at Harry. "Just stop. I can defend myself. And Ron, George's wedding. I can do that."
With that, she turned and left the room. A door slammed loudly a moment later, letting everyone know she had left the house. It was Fleur who stopped the stare-off between the remainder of the diners. "Perhaps I shall go check on her," she said softly, in her still accented English. "And point out that taking the advice of zee brother who only has a fiancée of his own by default would be silly."
Ron's mouth worked furiously (more so than his brain) as he tried to process that insult, and Molly looked to protest for a moment and insisted on going herself, but Fleur's words sunk in and she smiles. "Yes, dear, you should go. That would be a very sweet thing of you to do. I am sure we'd all appreciate it."
Fleur squeezed Bill's hand, giving him a small smile to let him know that things would be alright. The look she turned on Ron (very scary Veela) had him squirming uncomfortably in his seat. When she got to the kitchen door, she turned and leveled one more scathing look on Ron before flouncing out after Ginny.
"Ginny," she called, heading through the trees toward the pond where she expected her young sister-in-law to have gone, "I know you are there!"
"Yes, I am," Ginny responded quietly, startling Fleur as she stepped out from behind a tree. "Drawn the short wand, have you?"
"Non," Fleur denied, standing next to her young sister-in-law, "I asked if I could be zee one to come. Your muzzer only agreed because I promised I would remind you that Ronald ees not zee best person to draw advice from. Not even zee best of your bruzzers."
Ginny gave her a small smile. "That would be Bill, then, I suppose?"
Fleur grinned widely, disagreeing again. "Non, I should say Charlie would be zee best. Unfortunately, he ees not here. But I am, and I would like to help you if I can."
"I don't know if you can," Ginny sighed, giving Fleur a rueful smile. "I don't know if anyone can." She shook her head, her long, red hair whipping around her. "I'm such a fool! Honestly, letting Ronald goad me like that. I normally hex him rather than agreeing to something so ridiculous."
"You do not 'ave to do anything, Ginny," Fleur pointed out rightly. "Especially nothing that your bruzzer has goaded you into. That ees not right."
Nodding, Ginny stared absently out at the pond. "He – he just had to do it in front of Harry, didn't he?" she asked, a slight waver in her voice. "Of all the people he'd have to have around to call out my non-existent dating life, it had to be Harry. Did you see the look on his face? He looked so horrified at the suggestion, and – and I just can't take it. I cannot take Harry looking at me like that."
Feeling a little choked up, Fleur grabbed the younger girl's hands. "I do not know what happened with you and 'Arry, but he ees a fool. However, Ginny, I do not think he ees as…'orrified as you seem to think."
Ginny shrugged, giving her a wry smile. "It doesn't matter, though, does it? Harry has made it more than clear that he doesn't want me, and let's face it. There isn't much I can do with that. He left. I – I got that, Fleur, I really did. If I'd had to do the things he did, I'd have wanted to get the hell out of here, too. But when he came back, he didn't – it wasn't – it was all over. Everything was over."
"Not everything," Fleur countered softly. "Eet ees not over for you and 'Arry, Ginny. Zee way he looks at you…non, eet ees not over."
"No, it is," Ginny stated firmly, nodding her head for emphasis. "He chose…I don't know what he chose, but it was not me. He didn't choose me. I have to admit that and face it, and move on from it. Ron, well, he's a right prat, but he wasn't wrong. I have to move on."
"And finding an 'usband in two months is a good way to do thees?" Fleur asked skeptically, arching a delicate brow. "You should talk to 'Arry. He might just surprise you."
Ginny shook her head, a sad, wistful smile playing about her lips. "That's not an option anymore," she admitted softly. "I – I won't be humiliated like that again. Half my life has been spent in unrequited love with Harry Potter. No more. I just can't do it anymore." Taking a deep breath, she let it out shakily. "George's wedding is in a month. I have to do this, if only to prove to myself that I can. I can always dump the bloke the day after the wedding, right?"
Fleur didn't know what to say to that, so she settled for squeezing Ginny's hand and saying a quick prayer that this didn't end in heartbreak again for the young girl next to her. She didn't think any of them could bear that.