First Impressions, or Miss Elizabeth Was a Redhead?
By Jedi Tess of Gryffindor
Summary: My annual Christmas fic, based on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (I take quite a few liberties). This is a post-OOTP A/U fic, though it has a number of parallels to books six and seven. Finally, another Draco/Ginny Christmas fic!
A/N: Yeah, this has been living since mid-November and I'm only just finishing it Christmas morning. It's way hard to squeeze HP into P&P! You'll notice I've taken some liberties. Certain characters like Pansy Parkinson and Gwen Zabini take on two roles, other characters are the wrong gender. However, I've read P&P over a hundred times and was rereading it as I wrote this, so hopefully those of you who are avid Austen buffs will enjoy the sometimes-subtle parallels. Obviously, I had to cut certain things, which pained me, but most of it's there in one form or other.
YAY for D/G, at last!
Hope you all enjoy and Merry Christmas!!
J.T. of Gryffindor
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and original canon characters and situations are the property of J.K. Rowling. I am not profiting in any way from this fic, except insofar as I've learned a good deal about writing from practicing in Jo's arena. Ditto Jane Austen, who situations I use and masterful word-smithing I occasionally quote.
"My dear, have you heard the news?" Mrs. Weasley bustled into the study. "Barthorne Park has been taken at last."
Mr. Weasley, buried in a Muggle automobile manual, grunted in reply.
"Did you hear me?" his wife demanded. "Barthorne Park has been taken."
Mr. Weasley shook his head. "I hadn't heard," he mumbled, squinting down at a blueprint of an engine. He really couldn't make it out – he'd have to ask Hermione.
"But it is!" she cried, delighted. She waited a moment, but when he continued not to reply, she said impatiently, "Don't you want to know who's taken it?"
"You want to tell me," he said, resignedly dropping the manual onto his cluttered desk. "I don't object."
This was invitation enough. "Would you believe it? Blaise Zabini has just taken it. He recently returned from the Grand Tour and is setting up house as we speak!"
"Zabini?" Mr. Weasley was always more alert when he heard Death Eater names.
"The young heir," Mrs. Weasley assured him. "You know, Blaise was a classmate of Ron's. He was one of the double agents who worked with Severus Snape to end the war."
Mr. Weasley relaxed. Oh, that Zabini. "Yes, I remember. War hero."
"Yes. Isn't it lovely? And the best part is that he's just inherited his family's fortune," Mrs. Weasley said. "He and his sister both inherited, but I hear the inheritance is substantial on both sides. His sister is going to live with him at Barthorne and help keep house." She sighed. "What a fine thing for our children."
Mr. Weasley stared at her blankly. "How so? How does it affect them?"
"You can be so tiresome, Arthur. You must know what I'm thinking of."
Mr. Weasley had an idea, but hoped he was wrong. "Haven't arranged marriages rather gone out?" he said carefully.
"Don't be silly, dear, I'm not thinking of an arranged marriage," his wife assured him, softening as he appeared to catch her meaning. "But, you know, Ginny and Percy and Ron are young and quite attractive. If they saw enough of the Zabinis ... anyway, you must go visit Blaise and his sister at once."
"Why?" Mr. Weasley said, alarmed. Among other considerations, he had recently jailed their parents. He doubted he'd be welcome in their home.
"How can our family see them if you don't?" she demanded. "They're an ancient Pure-blood family. There are customs, Arthur."
"Really, Molly," he said, shaking his head. "Why not send Ginny, Percy, and Ron over? Send Hermione and Neville along as well." He smiled. "I don't want you going. It wouldn't do to have Zabini sweep you off your feet, and as you're as pretty as Ginny, I'd worry."
"Arthur, really!" But his wife smiled and blushed. "I had my day, but I'm nothing next to Ginny or Hermione." She frowned, suddenly remembering her purpose. "But seriously, the head of the family must make the first gesture."
"Better call Aunty Muriel, then," Mr. Weasley murmured. He quailed under the look she gave him.
"You are hopeless!" Mrs. Weasley cried, throwing up her hands and stalking out of the room.
"Molly!" Mr. Weasley didn't like to see her upset.
"Never mind, of course you wouldn't worry about the prospect of your own children!" Mrs. Weasley ranted, disappearing into the sitting room. "They're not Muggle gadgets, after all."
Mr. Weasley followed, discovering to his dismay that all the children of whom they had been speaking were sitting there already. Not children anymore, he realized for the millionth time with a pang. Wasn't his baby girl already twenty-one?
"It's more than I should expect, of course," Mrs. Weasley went on, ignoring the surprised looks of the five children.
"What's up, Dad?" Ginny asked. She was helping Ron untangle some knitting in his lap.
"How's your knitting coming?" Mr. Weasley cut in hastily.
"About how you'd expect," Ron muttered, indicating the mess of yarn in his lap.
"It's an important life skill, Ron," his mother said, pausing in her tirade to shake a stern finger at her youngest son. "Just like cooking and laundering. You can't expect your wife to do everything for you."
Mr. Weasley knew she was desperate to make some sort of remark involving Hermione – it was a subject of constant disappointment to Mrs. Weasley that Ron's childhood friend was never to be a Weasley in name. Instead she said, glaring at her husband, "Well, never mind life skills, since you'll never need them if you're never to get married."
"Mum, I'm twenty-three," Ron said with the heavy sigh of someone who'd had this conversation before, again and again. "I'm not exactly passed my expiration date."
Neville Longbottom, sitting at Hermione's feet with his back against the sofa and reading Quidditch Quarterly, covered a laugh with a cough.
"But you might as well be, since your father would refuse to visit if twenty eligible heiresses came into the country," she snapped.
Ron looked predictably alarmed at the idea of heiresses, but Mr. Weasley, suddenly tired of the whole subject, said, "My love, when there are twenty, I'll visit them all."
"I think country life is perfect," Blaise said, taking a deep breath and smiling out at the wild landscape of Barthone Park. He couldn't wait for a good snow storm to drape the quiet landscape with white.
"Savages," Draco grumbled into his tea.
"You're such an old man, Draco," Gwendolyn said. She was seated on the railing, leaning back against one of the white pillars that supported the balconies of the first floor. Her dark skin glowed against the white column. Though rather cold for an outdoor tea, Blaise had set up a warming spell around the porch because he liked the fresh country air.
"I am not." Draco glared at Gwen.
"Anyway, it's peaceful." Blaise eyed him over a biscuit. "Apart from a merry band of Weasleys five miles off, there isn't another wizard for leagues. We can still commute to London when we need to and not have to worry about people hiding in our wardrobes when we come home. And I hear there's a Muggle village nearby."
"Oh, how quaint." But Draco winced, remembering one of the many horrible incidents that had led to him and Blaise fleeing the country five years before. Then he frowned. "You didn't tell me Barthorne was near Weasleys."
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Obviously we didn't want you to panic. We almost didn't get the estate. Horace Slughorn was about to take it when Blaise slid your name in."
"You're such a user, Zabini," Draco said, pointing an accusing finger at his friend.
"Hey, my name's worth as much as yours now," Blaise said comfortably. "We used yours because we knew that with your father recently in jail and your mum pouring all her money into Potter's little philanthropy project, your name was coming up in the media more than mine. Knew it would draw an eye." He gave his sister a teasing look. "And if you'd just marry Gwen, you'd have our names combined. You could be king of the world."
"Why is it you're always trying to marry me off, Bee?" Gwen asked, pouting at him.
"I only ever try to marry you off to Draco," Blaise corrected. "Because I know there's no one else in the world who comes close to being good enough for you."
Gwen shook her head, the icy winter sun brightening her face. "That's thoughtful of you and you're the best and sweetest brother a girl could have. But I'll take care of myself."
"What's wrong with me?" Draco demanded.
"Oh, the lists I could make," Gwen returned, smiling. "Anyway, you're not rich enough."
Draco spluttered while his friends laughed at him. Eventually, he subsided to read the morning's post.
"We've all been invited to the Ministry's annual Christmas ball," Draco said, reading off a red and gold-embossed card.
"What, they directed it to me as well?" Gwen said blankly. "I'm not the war hero."
"It's directed to Blaise and I, and our dates," Draco explained, smirking at his friend as he added, "And since lover boy here hasn't had a proper date in years, I'm assuming he's taking you, Gwenny."
"I'd be honored, Miss Zabini," Blaise said with a surprisingly gallant bow, given that he was sitting down.
"I'm graciously pleased to accept your offer, Mr. Zabini," Gwen said, nodding her dark head imperiously. "And who is Mr. Malfoy going to take, one might ask?"
Draco thought for a moment. "Anyone seen Pansy around since we got back?"
"Not since her last owl found us in Iceland," Blaise said. "That was a few weeks ago. You're probably too late to ask her, anyway. She's busy."
"Just hope she doesn't get in over her head – I don't trust her to take proper care of herself," Draco mumbled. Since both Pansy's parents had been killed in the war, she had been living with Narcissa Malfoy, who was her godmother. Pansy had done it out of kindness to Narcissa, who was terribly lonely without her former social contacts and Draco's company. However, a recent reconciliation with her sister Andromeda had offered Narcissa the unexpected happiness of a permanent companion. Andromeda's daughter was expecting her first child, and though Narcissa very muchobjected to Remus Lupin as a nephew-in-law, she was too happy with Andromeda's return to refuse her niece's company. This arrangement left Pansy free, after four years of servitude, to do as she wanted, as she told them exaltedly in their frequent correspondence via owl.
"I hope she doesn't do anything mad," Blaise said apprehensively. "Knowing Pansy, though ..."
By the time the Ministry Christmas ball rolled around, Ginny, her siblings, and their friends knew the Barthorne Park story backward and forward and were as sick of it as Mr. Weasley.
Apparently, Zabini and his sister were moved in and settled. Zabini, as a war hero and a surprising one at that, has left England not two weeks after the war was officially over to take the Grand Tour with his friend Malfoy and his younger sister, Gwendolyn. The three of them had done a world-class job of avoiding the media and little had been heard of them. Ginny appreciated, in theory, all the risks Zabini and Malfoy had taken for their side and all the work Gwendolyn had done for the D.A. at Hogwarts. Apart from that, she didn't think much about the Dream Team (an ironic name adopted by Ron). She had known and liked Gwen when they were at Hogwarts together, and other than thinking that it might be nice to know her again, she tried to avoid the topic as much as possible.
Ginny did enjoy watching her parents argue about it (which meant her mum shouting and her dad saying, "Yes, dear," over and over). She'd been living in London with various friends for several years now, and didn't ever spend as much time at the Burrow as she might have liked. However, when a chance encounter with her bosses (Fred and George) had resulted in a full month's vacation during December, Ginny snapped it up. She soon afterward discovered that Neville and Hermione, both training for positions on the Hogwarts staff, were also looking at empty Decembers. They all knew how lonely Mrs. Weasley got with an empty nest, especially over the holidays, and so the three had agreed to offer to fill up the house. Bullying Ron and Percy into joining them had been the work of a few hours and some fire whiskey.
Harry was expected by the time of the ball, but it was hard to tell how long he would be able to stay. He was finishing up his Unspeakable training and got called away from home at odd hours. Though Ginny was happy at the thought of seeing him again, she was also nervous. She knew that like her mother's expectation for Hermione, Mrs. Weasley hadn't entirely despaired of making Harry a Weasley as well. Ginny hated to disappoint her mum, but a childhood fantasy was a childhood fantasy. She wasn't a child anymore. She also hadn't seen him in over a year.
Another constant source of speculation about the Ministry ball was who else the Zabini siblings would bring. The social mags of the wizarding world were suggesting an entourage of guests, while Ministry gossip Percy passed on suggested only a few others.
Ginny didn't much care.
"A single man with a fortune can't want anything more than a wife, naturally," Ginny grumbled to Hermione as they sat curled up by the fire the night before the ball.
"Hey, I wouldn't mind a mansion," Hermione said. She wrinkled her nose. "A giant Slytherin mansion, though ..."
"Money's money," Ginny said, shrugging. "But I don't know what I'd do with a fortune."
"I'm sure you could think of something," Neville said, nudging Ginny playfully.
"Have you heard from Dean and Luna?" she said deliberately.
"Luna says she looks like a beluga," Neville said, grinning knowingly at her. "Of course, Dean says she's never looked so beautiful ." He snickered. "Seamus also says she looks like a beluga, but never when Dean can hear him. He's desperately excited to be a godfather."
"That child is probably going to be the death of Ireland," Ginny said.
The others laughed.
"Would you really marry a Zabini, Gin? Mione?" Neville asked, toasting his be-slippered feet by the fire.
"Not likely," Ginny said. "I couldn't muscle passed the Slytherin-y side."
"Even though they're war heroes?" Neville pressed.
"You marry them, then," Ginny retorted, and Neville went very red. Hermione gave Ginny a resentful look and patted Neville's knee. She and Ginny were the only two people on Earth besides Dean, Luna, Harry, and Ron who knew Neville's secret: that he was as likely to be attracted to the heir and not the heiress as Ginny and Hermione.
"I'm going to make cocoa," Hermione said, squeezing Neville's shoulder.
"I already did." Ron appeared, floating a neat line of mugs behind him.
"Quite the little housewife you're becoming, Ron," Ginny said, smirking. She shrieked as Ron feigned upsetting her cocoa on her head.
"That was sweet, Ronald," Hermione said.
"I'm going to make a great wife someday," Ron said darkly, throwing himself down on Neville's other side and plucking his cocoa out of the air.
"There's nothing at all wrong with being good at housework," Hermione assured him. She smiled. "Some woman is going to be very lucky to have you someday."
Ron went scarlet. "You and my mum," he said, looking hunted.
They stayed up until the odd hours of the morning, moving closer and close to the dwindling fire and enjoying the fairy lights on the Christmas tree. They woke up late the next morning, and spent the day being fed and scolded by Mrs. Weasley.
Ministry of Magic Winter Ball
"I feel worse than I did before the Yule Ball," Ron complained. At least, Ginny thought, he had proper dress robes this time.
"You look dashing," Hermione assured him, and couldn't understand why he scowled.
"Padma Patil said that to him," Ginny hissed in her ear, passing with Neville on one arm and Percy on the other.
"Just fancy, Ginny, it's Mr. Sprogspleen!" and Percy was off, darting through the room in pursuit of the creator of the first piece of cauldron thickness legislation.
"Groan," Ginny whispered to Neville, who shook his head with a half-smile.
"Come on, I see the Irish contingent," he said, pulling her toward the bar.
"You don't look like a beluga!" Ginny said at once, hugging Luna and pressing a fascinated hand to her very-pregnant belly.
"Does," Seamus said in Ginny's ear as she hugged him. She pinched him in retaliation.
"So, I hear the big news tonight is Zabini," Dean said, leaning back beside his wife.
"We hear that, too," Ginny told him, nodding at Neville, Ron, and Hermione. "Every minute of every day from my mother."
"I'd think your parents wouldn't be keen on the Zabinis," Seamus said.
"Oh, it's okay because they're rich heroes, you know," Ron said, rolling his eyes. "And they live close to the Burrow."
"So, they're living near you lot?" Dean asked, clearly surprised.
"About five miles off," Ginny said. "We're all staying with my mum over the hols because she's lonely without people to bother."
"That's kind of you," Luna said. Ginny noticed she was wearing broccoli earrings this evening, which were a festive touch over her red dress robes.
"We invited my parents and Luna's dad over for Christmas," Dean told them. Behind Luna's back, he made a world-weary face. The others covered their mouths.
"Mum," Ginny groaned, turning to her agitated parent.
"They're here, dears," Mrs. Weasley puffed as she seized Ron and Ginny by the arms and pulled them off. Ginny and Ron grabbed hold of Hermione and Neville, called "Laters!" to their friends at the bar, and stumbled off to an attractive corner Mrs. Weasley had found for them. Ginny's lip curled. Great – a setup.
"Sit down, won't you?" she said, throwing Ginny and Ron into armchairs. Ginny and Ron made martyred faces. Their father, also recruited for the occasion, made one as well.
"Where is Percy?" Mrs. Weasley demanded, as though Ginny kept a collar on him.
"Off discussing cauldron bottoms, his one true love," Ron told her.
"Well, there isn't time to fetch him now," Mrs. Weasley said, fluttering around. She adjusted the strap of Ginny's dress robes, the collar of Ron's, and Neville's hair. She paused, looking Hermione up and down. "You're quite perfect, dear."
Hermione blushed with obvious pleasure and surprise at the compliment.
"Mum, why – "
"Fleur promised us an introduction, of course," her mum told her, clinging to Mr. Weasley's arm. "She knows the Malfoy family."
"The Malfoys?" Ginny and Ron demanded, sharing a glare.
"Mr. Zabini has brought Draco Malfoy with him this evening," Mr. Weasley explained, his expression closed and unreadable.
"Oh, great," Ginny said scowling.
"Just you behave yourself, miss," Mrs. Weasley said, with a glower of intimidating proportions. "He's a hero, too."
"I'll tell you what he is – " Ron began, but was cut off as Hermione kicked him in the shins.
Mrs. Weasley gave them one of her despairing looks ("Oh, if only," her expression said). She hadn't time for more, however, and said through her teeth, "Stand up. Smile, everyone, smile!"
Ginny didn't even try. Nor, she saw, did Ron. Hermione looked guarded and Neville sat rather closer to Ginny than he might normally have done.
"Molly!" Fleur Weasley beamed around at them all. Even eight months pregnant she looked like a shining sun goddess. "Ron, Ginny!"
"Fleur," they said, in sullen unison. Ron was so depressed he didn't even go flustered and daft like he usually did around their sister-in-law, Ginny noticed.
Fleur kissed everyone, including Hermione and Neville. "I 'ave missed you, Ginny, and so 'as Gabrielle," Fleur went on. She turned a gracious eye on her companions. "Please allow me to introduce Draco Malfoy, Blaise Zabini, and Gwendolyn Zabini to you, Molly. Arthur."
"Nice to meet you," both Zabinis said. Malfoy just nodded. He was taller than Ginny remember, his hair longer; long enough to tie back, away from his face. The face, though. Ginny had no difficulty remembering it, nor her instant distaste for it.
"Ginny," Gwen said, coming forward and kissing her cheek. Ginny couldn't help a surprised smile. "You look lovely tonight! Doesn't she look lovely, Bee?" Gwen added over her shoulder, holding Ginny at arm's length and admiring her robes.
Ginny glanced at him, but he only gave her a pleasant half-smile before turning his eyes back to Mrs. Weasley. Ginny winced. Her mum looked ready to squeal like a giddy school girl. "I understand Barthorne is only a few miles from your home, Mrs. Weasley."
"Yes," Mrs. Weasley said a little breathlessly. "We were so pleased to hear we're to have wizarding neighbors at last. It's been ages, you know. Ottery St. Catchpole is a Muggle village."
"A pleasant one, though," Zabini went on.
"Never mind him," Gwen murmured to Ginny. "Introduce me to your friends before they sink through the floor with awkwardness."
Ginny giggled quietly and pulled Gwen around her mum. Gwen shook hands and smiled at Neville, Hermione, and Ron. She knew all of them distantly from past DA goings-on.
"It'll be so nice to have you all as neighbors," Gwen murmured. "I haven't seen a wizard my age since I got back from the Tour. Except Bee and Draco, but of course they don't count."
"You should come round to the Burrow, anytime," Ginny said. The others nodded in agreement. "We're keeping my mum company over the hols." She hesitated, but good manners forced her to add, "You're free to bring your brother and – and any other friends you have."
Gwen gave her a knowing look. "I think I'd rather keep you all to myself, if it's all the same," she said.
"That's hardly fair, Gwenny."
They all looked mightily guilty as Zabini slid into their little group.
"You've got Draco," Gwen said, smiling up at him. "Who have I got?" She gave Ginny a pat on the head. "I want special friends of my own."
"You can keep the lot," Blaise assured her, though his eyes paused on Hermione and stayed there. "With one exception," he added slowly.
"Zabini," Hermione said cautiously.
"Granger," he said in a tone that made Ginny want to blush. Hermione did blush, but held his gaze. Ginny glanced at Gwen, who rolled her eyes.
"Come on," she said in a half-whisper. "Let's get your introduction to Draco out of the way so I can steal you. It's been ages since we talked."
She pulled Ginny toward Malfoy, who stood a little detached from the others.
"Draco, you remember Ginny, don't you?" Gwen said innocently.
"How could I forget?" he said, not quite sneering.
"Say hello then," Gwen pushed, her mischievous little smile making Ginny want to kick her in the ankle.
"Hello," he said, his lip curling.
"Gwen, you were about to steal me away," Ginny said, turning away before she punched him in the nose. "Start now."
Gwen actually laughed. "All right, all right. Come on, let's go."
"Why was that necessary?" she demanded when they were out of earshot. She could feel Malfoy's glare at her back.
"Common courtesy," Gwen said.
"Torture, more like," Ginny grumbled. She conjured up a smile. "Tell me all about the Grand Tour. I'm so jealous!"
They had a pleasant chat about Gwen's travels. Ginny remembered why she had liked Gwen at Hogwarts – the Hufflepuff was cheerful and could make anything sound interesting.
"You really should come to Barthorne, as much as possible," Gwen told her.
Ginny bit her lip. "You know I'd love to see you, but ..."
"Go on, are you afraid of Draco?"
"Of course not!" Ginny continued chewing. "It's just – unpleasant, being anywhere near him."
"How do you know?" Gwen demanded. "How much time have you ever spent with him? Voluntarily?"
Ginny was saved a reply by the advent of Hermione, who looked like she were floating and lost at the same time.
"Where's your dance partner?" Ginny asked, now biting her lip to fight back a smile.
"He had said he had to go find Malfoy," Hermione said faintly, her voice a bit higher than usual. "To keep him from skulking."
"Skulking?" Gwen's lip twitched.
"Blaise doesn't like him to be unhappy," Hermione explained dazedly.
"Blaise?" Ginny said, her eyebrows shooting up.
Hermione blushed and blinked. "Er – have you two been having a nice time?"
Ginny decided not to torment Hermione in front of Gwen. She decided to wait until they got home that night.
"I was just asking Ginny to come visit me at Barthorne," Gwen said. "I hope you'll come as well."
"I – thank you," Hermione said. Suddenly her eyes lit up. "Harry!"
Ginny turned to look. Harry Potter was coming toward them. At the sight of Hermione, his eyes went soft. Ginny often envied their relationship. It was so simple, so straightforward.
"When did you get back?" Hermione demanded, launching herself into his arms.
"Half-day Friday," he said. "I was dead gone or I would have come to the Burrow straight away." He caught sight of Ginny and Gwen and he went a bit pale. Ginny wondered if her marriage-crazed mum had got to him; he was giving Ginny a wary look.
"I'm not going to bite, Harry," she said, crossing her arms and glaring at him.
"I know," he said quickly. "Hi, Ginny," he added, giving her the smallest possible hug.
"I'm glad to see you, too," she muttered. "Oh, Harry," she said, trying not to be surly – after all, they were supposed to be friends! "This is Gwendolyn Zabini. She's an old friend of mine from Hogwarts."
"Nice to meet you," Gwen said brightly, offering her hand. Harry looked confused, but took her hand.
"You, too," he said.
"Harry, have you seen Ron?" Hermione asked, linking her arm through his and pulling him mercifully away.
"No, where is he?"
"Rude," Ginny muttered.
"Maybe he was tired," Gwen suggested.
"Maybe he's a socially awkward git and that's why he's been avoiding me for the last year," Ginny grumbled.
"Tell me about it," Gwen invited, and Ginny, who'd been longing to complain to someone about Harry's bizarre behavior, gladly did.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," a polite voice said, "but you promised me a dance, Gwen."
Blaise Zabini appeared beside them, still unexpectedly pleasant and not at all like the haughty Slytherin Ginny thought she remembered. Though, come to think of it, she couldn't really remember him much.
"Mind if I leave you for a few minutes, Gin?" Gwen asked, leaning into her brother.
"Go, have fun!" Ginny enthused. "I'll watch from here."
She did watch, enjoying herself as she leaned against a column and clutched a Champaign flute a passing waiter had offered. Gwen returned soon after, rosy-cheeked and grinning.
"Blaise is such a divine dancer," his sister said, taking the second glass Ginny offered. "Come on," she added. "I need air."
They crossed the dance floor and stepped out onto a balcony that overlooked most of London. They were chatting and sipping Champaign when they heard the sound of voices just inside the ballroom.
"Don't lie to me, Malfoy, you love to dance," Blaise Zabini's voice drifted onto the balcony. Gwen stopped talking, giving Ginny a sly look.
"Are you asking me, Blaise?" Malfoy said sardonically.
"Don't be daft, you've been skulking by the wall all evening. I haven't seen you dance once."
"Leave it out, I don't feel like dancing."
"There's not a single woman in there who interests me. Except your sister who hasn't left Ginny Weasley's side."
"What's wrong with the others? There're some lovely women here tonight."
"Like your partner, you mean?"
There was a pause. "You can't dance with Hermione," Zabini said.
"Oh, Hermione is it?"
"Shut up. I'll find you a partner." Another pause. "What about Ginny Weasley?"
"What about her?"
"You saw her tonight when we met her family, Draco. She's gorgeous."
Ginny smiled at the compliment.
"Gorgeous?" Malfoy's drawl pulled Ginny's smile right off her face. "She's a Weasley. Tolerable, but not even remotely in my class. You know how I feel about redheads."
"You're hopeless, Draco."
Their voices drifted away.
"Charming man," Ginny murmured.
"He didn't know you were listening," Gwen murmured.
"He'd have enjoyed it more he had," Ginny retorted. To shake off her irritation, she stuck her nose in the air, tossed her head, and said, "But I'm a Weeeeeasley. Tolerable, but not even remotely in the great Draco Malfoy's class. And you know," she added, with a conspiratorial heft of her eyebrows, "how he feels about redheads."
Gwen snorted with laughter, drawing Ginny back into the ballroom. "Come on," she said. "Let's find you a dance partner and make Draco regret being such a snob."
Gwen found her brother, who had apparently torn himself away from Hermione to talk to some old friends from school.
"I'd be delighted," he surprised Ginny by saying when Gwen mentioned that she wanted to see Ginny dance.
"You're quite good," he complimented as they circled the floor.
"Thanks," she said, smiling again and wondering when she cared about his compliments. Maybe because they sounded so sincere and artless. She couldn't help adding, "Even though I'm a Weasley? Am I," she said rather wickedly, "tolerable?"
Zabini winced. "Sorry you heard that."
"You didn't say it," she pointed out. She grinned. "You called me gorgeous."
"In an objective way," he countered, though he didn't take it back.
"Is that how you feel about redheads?" Ginny pushed, and Zabini laughed.
"I don't remember you being such a laugh at school," he said.
"I don't remember you being such a gentleman at school," she countered.
"I'm a man of the world now, Miss Weasley," he said, tossing his head. Ginny giggled.
Ginny enjoyed her dance and the several that followed with Dean, Seamus, and even Ron (who, among his housekeeping skills, had learned basic dancing the previous summer). She kept as far away from Malfoy as she could, taking care not to even look at him when they passed close by. She did make a point of telling what she'd overheard to all her friends and a few of her brothers.
"Can I hit him?" Ron asked eagerly.
"No, you're dancing with me," Ginny said. "Anyway, it's just Malfoy and his usual bile. I don't care what he thinks of me."
Her shoulder jostled someone else's as they passed down the dance and glancing up, Ginny caught Malfoy's eye as he twirled away. Ginny gritted her teeth.
"I could still hit him," Ron wheedled.
Ginny shook her head.
Ginny was relieved after the ball at Blaise Zabini's taking an immediate liking to the Burrow and Mrs. Weasley's taking an immediate liking to him. Ginny's excuse not to visit Gwen at Barthorne (and thus have to see Malfoy) was simply that Zabini was always dragging Gwen over to the Burrow. As he wasn't currently working, intending to take the holiday season to relax and settle into his new home, he was happy to accept Mrs. Weasley's constant stream of invitations to the Burrow. Not even Ron minded after the fourth or fifth visit. For one thing, Zabini seemed like a genuinely decent bloke, once who no one could manage to dislike.
For another, none of them had ever seen Hermione so happy.
A bothersome addition to post-ball Burrow was Harry, who was suddenly free from work until Christmas. Though Ginny had rarely seen Ron so happy, it didn't exactly warm the cockles of her heart to have Harry there. She still hadn't forgiven him for his awkwardness at the ball and he didn't seem to mind having an excuse to avoid her. The Burrow wasn't big enough for that kind of behavior, Ginny thought irritably. She was always bumping into him on the stairs, in the kitchen before everyone else was up, even in the loo (or rather, and most fortunately, outside it).
Gwen made things less irritating by coming over almost as often as her brother.
"I love it here," she confided. "Blaise and I haven't had a family home in years and it was never like …" She trailed off, gesturing around the sitting room. It was small – smaller with the massive tinsel-ridden pine tree in the corner. But there were holly and pine dressings on the mantel and around the wainscoting. At night, fairy lights twinkled and the stockings on the hearth bounced cheerfully.
"Wait till Christmas – it's a tight squeeze," Ginny said, smiling anyway. "My brothers and their families come over and you can't breathe for bodies."
Gwen sighed, a sweet smile on her lips. Ginny saw the look, had seen it again and again on Harry's face when he came to visit. "You'd be welcome to join us on the day," she said, biting back her distaste for Malfoy, whom she knew must be included in the invitation.
"That's very generous," Gwen said, smile widening as she gazed around. "I don't think Draco's nerves are up to it." She paused. "We're having a Christmas party at Barthorne in a week," she said. "It would be lovely if you could all join us."
Harry stumbled into the room, cutting off Ginny's response.
"Er …" he said, looking back and forth between them. "Have – have you seen Ron or Hermione?"
"Blaise took Hermione on a walk," Gwen said, sharing a grin with Ginny.
"I expect Ron is with Nev playing Quidditch," Ginny said. "No, wait a minute. They're out back de-gnoming for Mum before it snows."
"Right," Harry muttered. He looked as if he wanted to say more. After a moment, however, he left without another word.
"Git," Ginny muttered.
"What?" Gwen's eyes were still on the doorway.
"Something's wrong with Harry," Ginny said. "I expect it's my mum. She's probably started in on him about asking me out again."
"Really? Well, you could do worse," Gwen said, shrugging.
"I got over Harry ages ago," Ginny told her firmly. "And I expect Harry never got into me at all, but my mum wants him to be a Weasley and I'm the only daughter."
"I see," Gwen murmured. "Well," she said. "It's not like arranged marriages are common anymore. You're probably safe."
"Safety is not the issue," Ginny retorted, but let it go. "So, party at Barthorne?"
Ginny's mother was in near-hysterics by the time the party rolled around. She fussed over Ginny, her brothers, Harry, Neville and Hermione. Hermione, as the only one with any kind of romantic potential, was fussed over the most. Harry and Ron told her she looked beautiful, and even as Mrs. Weasley gave Ron and Hermione another despairing look, she asked Harry pointedly how he thought Ginny looked.
"Mother, for god's sake!" Ginny cried, throwing up her hands and stalking away into the front room.
"You do look lovely, darling," her father said in her ear, giving her a squeeze. He looked tense to Ginny, and little wonder. He'd kept clear of the Burrow on the days when Gwen and Zabini were visiting, though he worked so much that it wasn't noticeable to any but his family. Now Ginny's mum was insisting he come to Barthorne with them.
"You'll be fine, Dad," Ginny told him as everyone else followed them into the room. "Gwen is wonderful and Zabini's not half-bad. I'm sure they understand about the whole parental arrest thing." She grinned, nudging him. "Anyway, they got their inheritance much earlier as a result. Surely, they don't resent you much."
"Don't worry about me," he said, though he did smile a bit in return.
Barthorne Park was big – Ginny hadn't remembered how big until they were standing in front of it.
"Impressive," Hermione said a little breathlessly.
There were certainly an impressive number of people moving up the front steps.
"Oh, my god," Ron breathed, leaning on Ginny for support. "That's – that's Puddlemere!"
"What, the entire team?" Harry demanded. Neville scurried up beside them.
"The entire team," Ron whispered reverently. "Jesus god, it's Patrick Park!"
"Star Chaser," Neville added, his eyes glazing over.
Ginny liked Quidditch as much as the next person, but she didn't idolize professional athletes. Hermione's brief association with Viktor Krum Ginny's third year had cured both of them of that.
"Come on," Hermione said, pulling Ginny with her.
"You okay?" Ginny asked.
"Oh, yes, I'm fine," Hermione said, her voice half an octave higher than usual. "Do I look all right?"
"You," Ginny said, with emphasis, "are a bloody knock-out, Granger. Quit fussing." She leaned close. "He's going to fall over backward when he sees you."
"I hope not," Hermione said faintly. "Those floors are probably made of marble. He could do himself an injury."
Mr. and Mrs. Weasley caught up with them at that point, Mrs. Weasley sheparding Ron, Percy, Harry, and Neville in front of her. They advanced slowly, owing to the crowds of people, but at last Ginny could see inside the entrance hall. Gwen, her brother, and Malfoy stood in a line, welcoming the guests as they passed through. Ginny couldn't see any sign of a house-elf, but did see several men in stiff robes taking people's coats and leading guests into the house.
"Blaise has human servants," Hermione said under her breath. "He only has one house-elf, who's been with his family since Gwen was born. The elf refuses to be freed, but Blaise has compromised with him and now he gets sick leave and pension."
Ginny wondered if Zabini had told Hermione all this and then put it in motion or if he'd had it well in hand before he started spending time with her. She looked so thoroughly pleased, however, that Ginny kept her mouth shut.
"Ginny! Hermione!" Gwen beamed at them, kissing each. "You look lovely!"
"So do you, Gwen, those robes are beautiful!" Ginny exclaimed, admiring her friend. "Where on earth did you get them?"
"Oh, I had Madam Maulkin in last week," Gwen said. "She makes house calls." The sweetness and total lack of snobbery with which she said it made Ginny relax and not mind her old green robes so much.
"Welcome, Miss Weasley, Hermione," Zabini said, shaking Ginny's hand and kissing Hermione's rosy cheek. He offered each of them an arm, smiling. "Shall we go in?"
Ginny grinned, as this arrangement meant she didn't have to say a word to Malfoy.
"Thanks," she muttered to him. He had her on his left, shielding her from Malfoy's gaze.
"Not at all," he said with a playful nudge. "You owe me one, though."
"That I do," she agreed.
"Blaise, did you really invite the entire Puddlemere team?" Hermione asked. The team members stood out – they were wearing dress robes embroidered with the Puddlemere crest and they were all strongly built.
"They're staying in the area, actually, training," Zabini explained. "They're using a corner of the Barthorne Estate, which they've warded, as a kind of training area. They want to be in top shape after the holiday."
"Don't tell Ron," Ginny and Hermione said. They both laughed.
"Ron said he saw Patrick Park," Ginny said. "I've heard his name around recently."
Zabini pursed his lips, an unreadable look in his eye. "He's their new star Chaser," he explained. "A few months ago, he exploded out of absolutely nowhere and took the team undefeated to the semi-finals."
"Hey, is that Millicent Bulstrode?" Ginny said, squinting.
"You'll find several Slytherins here tonight, though mercifully Draco's mum decided to stay home," Zabini said with a smirk.
"Professor Lupin!" Ginny said. She said goodbye to Zabini and Hermione and made her way across the room.
"Ginny," he said with his familiar tired smile, shaking her hand.
"Tonks," Ginny said, laughing as Tonks gave her the traditional duck nose and a hug. "How are you?"
"Lovely!" Tonks said. "How's work?"
"Oh, you know," Ginny said, smiling faintly. She was her brothers' business manager at Weasley Wizard Wheezes and though the profit was good, she wasn't exactly looking for a career there.
"Little bird told me you were thinking of joining the Aurors," Tonks said, casually examining her fingernails.
"Bill's been blabbing again," Ginny accused. Tonks and Bill had become good friends during the war and gossiped like old women.
"If you're serious, Gin," Tonks said, laughing. "I'll sponsor you."
"Really?" Ginny squealed, throwing her arms around Tonks. She hadn't had any idea who to approach about sponsoring her. She knew none of her brothers who worked with the Ministry would voluntarily help her into the Aurors, even Bill (her favorite and the only one in the family who knew her ambition).
"Really," Tonks said. "And now, if you want to kill your brother, he's just coming in."
"No, thanks," Ginny growled. "I still haven't forgiven Phlegm for introducing us all to bloody Malfoy. I'm not going near either of them."
Tonks snorted. "You haven't called her that in years."
"She hasn't hacked me off like that in years," Ginny countered. "I might be willing to forgive her," she added, her eyes softening, "if she gives me a niece next month."
Tonks's eyes went all soft and Professor Lupin frowned. Ginny (and everyone who knew them) knew what that was about and was just deciding to tactfully change the subject when Tonks said, "Wotcher, Draco!"
Ginny bit her lip and turned, very slowly. Draco Malfoy stood behind her, tall and disdainful as usual.
"Cousin, Professor," Malfoy said, nodding at each of them.
"How did the tests go?" Tonks asked. "Did you pass? Did St. Mungos accept you?"
"Won't know till next week," he said. His eyes fixed on Ginny. "Weasley – " He paused. "Miss Weasley," he started again. Ginny caught herself just before turning around to see who he was talking to. "Blaise is starting up the orchestra. Would you like to dance?"
Ginny's mouth fell open and her eyebrows came together. She stared at him, trying to somehow read his mind. "I – I hadn't," she began. Her brain had dropped out. "Yeah, sure. Thank you."
He held out a hand – she noticed how long and smooth his fingers were when she took it. She glanced at Lupin and Tonks. Lupin smiled at her. Tonks snickered into her hand. Ginny wanted to shake her fist, but Malfoy was pulling her onto the dance floor and Tonks mouthed, "Auror," at her.
As per current wizarding fashion, the dances and music were varied. Ginny was grateful she'd taken an interest in dance the year she graduated from Hogwarts. She had spent three years going to dance classes with Percy in London. She was particularly glad that this waltz had her changing partners so often.
What was the matter with her? she wondered, still in a bit of a daze. Why hadn't she just said no? What the hell was she doing out here with Malfoy? Ginny risked a look at him the next time they came together in the dance. He was silent but watching her with an unreadable expression. Ginny didn't want to break the silence, doubting if she wanted to hear anything Malfoy had to say. After a few more minutes, however, she decided she couldn't stand the it a moment longer.
"We should probably at least pretend to talk to each other," she said, watching him warily. "It would look weird if we didn't say a word for twenty minutes."
"What do you want to talk about?" he asked. Ginny was surprised – his voice was reserved, but not unpleasant. Well, she thought. That was a plus.
"Nothing life-altering," she promised. "We can keep it simple." She paused, but couldn't resist. "Have I been tolerable so far?"
He looked startled, so she clarified with a little smirk. "I know how you feel about redheads."
His eyes widened in remembrance, but a moment later he surprised her with a small smile. "You've sharp ears."
"And a healthy ego, no thanks to you," she retorted.
"I was having a bad evening," he told her. "I had a row with a friend of mine and I was … annoyed."
"And then Zabini forced you to spend the evening surrounded by Weeeeasley's," she said, doing her best to imitate his drawl.
"Yeah, he did." Malfoy's smile widened a fraction. He spun her and pulled her back. "You do quite an impression," he complimented.
"Years of practice," she countered. "Not just you," she added quickly. She paused. "You rowed with your friend?"
He nodded, his frown returning.
"Anyone I know?" she asked.
"In a manner of speaking," he said cautiously. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. He was wrong, that's all."
Ginny didn't really want to see the frown deepen, so she kept her mouth shut.
"I hadn't realized you lived so far from the wizarding world," he said when they came together in the dance again. "Did you grow up in the country?"
"Yeah," Ginny said, smiling as she thought of all the adventures she'd had with her brothers. "I was born there, actually."
"I was speedy," she said, suddenly recognizing the surreality of talking to Malfoy about her birth. "They didn't have time to Floo to St. Mungo's."
Malfoy's lip twitched. "I see."
Ginny shut up after that, finishing the dance in silence. However, the music for the next cued so suddenly that she didn't have time to make an escape.
"This friend," she said, wondering if jumping him on the subject would illicit some kind of response. "The one you fought with. It wasn't Zabini, was it?"
"Blaise doesn't fight," Malfoy said, glancing at his friend, who was also on the dance floor, unsurprisingly partnered with Hermione. "He's too cheerful. It's dead annoying."
"You enjoy a good row, don't you? I remember," Ginny said.
"I don't enjoy rowing," he countered, clearly annoyed. "People are just morons sometimes."
Ginny tried to keep her mouth shut until they switched partners, but the laugh threatening to escape came out in a kind of hiccup.
"What?" Malfoy demanded, spinning and her and pulling her back again with a touch more force than necessary.
"People are just morons?" she repeated. "Has it ever occurred to you that some people probably think you're the moron?"
"Like you do, you mean?" he said coolly.
"I never said that."
"I'm not a fool, Weasley, you've got it written all over that snarky face of yours," he retorted.
"Don't you mean freckled?" she demanded. She hated to be teased about her appearance. She didn't mind it if no one brought it up. "And redheaded?"
"I might," he said, and the smirk he gave her made her think immediately of second and third year at Hogwarts, when he'd gone to so much trouble to harass her just because she was Ron's sister.
At that propitious moment, the song ended. Ginny stepped quickly away, nodded coldly, and stalked away to the next room where drinks were being served. She threw herself onto a bar stool and ordered a shot of fire whiskey.
"Someone grab your bum?"
"Excuse me?" Ginny said, turning to glare at the person to her right. Her eyebrows shot up.
"You had a look," the young man explained. "Hacks me right off when someone grabs my bum."
Ginny smiled a little, unaccountably soothed. "No, I just had a bomb of a dance partner."
"Wasn't Malfoy, by any chance?"
Ginny chuckled again. "How did you know?"
"A lot of women give him that look," the man explained.
"How do you know?" Ginny asked, reaching for the fire whiskey the bar tender placed in front of her.
"Known the git most of my life," the man explained. "I'm Patrick," he added with an enchanting smile, holding out his hand.
"I know," she said, with a conscious look. "I just figured I'd let you say it first. I expect the hero-worship gets old."
"And you are?"
"Ginny," she said simply, taking the offered hand. "Less likely to attract hero-worship."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that." Patrick Park, star Chaser for Puddlemere, dazzled her with another smile and kissed her hand. "It has its perks, but you're right. It's not really me they're worshiping anyway – it's my image."
Ginny thought that sounded awfully perceptive for a celebrity and was about to say so when something else occurred to her. "You said you've known Malfoy most of your life?"
"That's right," Park said, with a long-suffering sigh. "We grew up together. He got the spotlight of course. And he got Hogwarts. I had to go abroad for school."
That explained why she didn't recognize him from school. She didn't know much about Patrick Park the celebrity.
"Were you," she said suddenly, something else occurring to her, "the one Malfoy had a row with at the Ministry ball? He mentioned it."
"That was me," Park said, rolling his lovely brown eyes skyward. He glanced around. Apart from some very obvious fans standing off to the side, looking as though they were preparing to rush him for an autograph, they had the area to themselves. Most people were dancing by now. "Ginny, you knew Malfoy went on the Grand Tour right after he left Hogwarts?"
"I heard something about it, yeah."
"He left his mum here, in mourning for her husband who's (quite rightly) locked away in Azkaban for life." Park sighed. "She's not a bad woman. She's always been good to me and always doted on Draco. When Draco got turned into a poncing little starlet for his work with the Hogwarts war effort and then wanted to take the Tour, she pleaded with him to stay. She had been terrified he would die working as a double agent and barely ever got to see him. When he did have time – well, he went and spent it for pleasure."
"Doesn't really surprise me," Ginny muttered, thinking of the Malfoy she had known who had always been most interested in his own comfort and convenience.
"The worst of it, for me, anyway," Park went on, dropping his voice, "is that when Draco and the Zabinis left, Aunt Narcissa had no one. No other family – her sister Bellatrix was killed during the war, thank Merlin for small favors – and she was utterly alone." He paused. "Except for me."
"What happened?" Ginny leaned forward on the bar, her Fire Whiskey glass still full.
"What would you have done?" Park asked, with a rueful smile. "I was at Durmstrang, set to follow in Viktor Krum's footsteps. I had offers from a few European Quidditch teams to come on as a reserve. But Narcissa ... she was so lonely." Park took a deep breath. "So I offered to move in with her, live as her companion, I guess you could say."
"Four years," Park said. "I was lucky. Narcissa was so grateful to me that she made sure scouts and recruiters knew what I had done and that I was still dying to play professional Quidditch. She had a pitch built on the grounds so that I could keep in shape. I practiced as much as I could, but Narcissa had a hard time of it after the war. The Ministry of Magic was always dropping in, inquisitions and searches of the house. Eventually, she had a reconciliation with her sister Andromeda, who moved in and brought her daughter and son-in-law as well."
Ginny felt a stab of guilt in her gut. Her father was part of those raids that continued even now, five years after Voldemort's defeat. She did smile at the thought of Tonks and Lupin dropping in on Mrs. Malfoy.
"But you're a Quidditch star now," Ginny pointed out, her thoughts returning to Park.
"But won't be much longer," Park said. "Injuries pile up, there's only so much magic can do. I'll be done professionally in a few years. It'll be coaching or scouting."
"You did the right thing, though," Ginny said, trying to sound encouraging.
"Oh, sure," Park said. "Sometimes the right thing isn't easy, though, is it?"
Ginny opened her mouth but was interrupted. "Gin," Harry said. He stood a little farther back than was comfortable for casual conversation. Like she was a dangerous snake, Ginny thought irritably.
"What is it, Harry?" she said.
Harry glanced over his shoulder, sighed, and said, "I'd be honored if you'd dance with me."
Ginny was very definitely on the point of refusal – she was still annoyed with him – when she saw her mum lurking by the doorway, nodding and winking at her.
"Fine," she muttered ungraciously, taking what she felt was unfair pity on him. She glanced regretfully at Park.
"I'll wait for you here, shall I?" he said, throwing an amused look at Harry. "And maybe, if your dance card isn't full up, we can see about a waltz. It's about the only one I'm up to."
Ginny beamed; she couldn't help it.
"Love to," she said, hopping off the stool.
"Harry," she said a few minutes later as they circled the dance floor. "Why did you ask me to dance when it's obvious you're – well, out of practice?"
"Sorry," he grumbled. He rolled his eyes. "It would help me relax if bloody Malfoy wasn't staring at us."
"Git," Ginny agreed, carefully keep her eyes on Harry.
"War hero, though," said Harry, who had weird reactions to people who were involved in the war.
"You can be a git and war hero at the same time," Ginny countered.
"Is that a subtle hint?" Harry asked.
"I didn't mean you," Ginny said, though without as much conviction as was probably appropriate.
"Course not," Harry retorted. "Look," he said. "I know it's been weird since I've been home."
"You can say that again," Ginny muttered.
"I'm sorry," he said defensively. "It's not my fault; I don't know what to do to make things okay."
"You could stop acting like I'm going to hex you," Ginny told him, glaring. "You could relax. Harry, we used to be friends."
"We did used to be friend," he agreed. "And – " He broke off, going a bit red.
"And?" Ginny repeated impatiently. "Spit it out, Harry."
"And maybe I want something more," Harry snapped. Getting the words out looked quite painful.
"I – what?" Ginny demanded. She tripped over his foot and nearly went sprawling.
"I – come over here," he said, pulling her off the dance floor. He glanced back over her shoulder. Ginny did the same and to her inexpressible irritation, saw her mother and Malfoy watching them.
"What is wrong with her?" Ginny snarled, continuing to ignore Malfoy.
"So – what do you say?" Harry said, ignoring the question and pressing her hand between his. He still looked like he was in pain.
"I say get a life," Ginny said, suddenly angry. Nothing about the declaration sounded sincere or genuine and Ginny felt as though Harry were giving a presentation of some kind. "Harry, since you've been home we haven't talked or spent time together or gone out or anything. Asking me if I want to be more than friends when we're barely acquaintances anymore is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." She threw a scathing look at her mother, who was still watching them. "And you can tell my mum to get off your back about it because nothing is ever going to happen between us." She swallowed. "Apparently not even friendship."
She turned and hurried away, aiming for the parlor off the entrance hall where the Floo was set up. It suddenly occurred to her that she hadn't seen Gwen except the one time that evening, nor had she thanked the host. The host, mercifully, was sitting down with Hermione in a corner, chatting about Arithmancy or something equally Hermione-appropriate. He was a quick study.
"Gin, you're leaving?" Hermione demanded, hurrying to her and pressing a hand to her cheek. "Are you sick?"
"Should you have a lie-down before you Floo?" Zabini suggested, studying Ginny with evident and surprising concern.
"No," Ginny said. "Just head-achy and tired, for some reason."
Hermione's sharp eyes roved round the room, fixed on and categorized several things before returning to Ginny. "I'll come home with you and make you some tea," she offered.
"Absolutely not!" Ginny said quickly. "You're obviously having a lovely time," she added, with a sly glance at Zabini. He returned the sly look with one of his own, which made Ginny smile a bit. "Anyway, I'm just going to bed. I won't need tea. You stay and tell me all the embarrassing things my mum does."
"Looks like she's been circulating," Hermione said, though her tone was affectionate rather than critical.
"She's been doing that, yes," Ginny said darkly. Her eyes caught Harry's and she glared. "Anyway, Zabini, is Gwen around? I don't want to leave without saying goodbye."
"You're saying goodbye?" Gwen appeared magically behind her. "I'll see you out, but I think you should stay."
"No, really, I'm not feeling very well," Ginny said, trying to smile again. "I'll only bring people down if I stay." She looked at Zabini, whose hand just brushed Hermione's arm. He was even turned, probably unconsciously, toward Hermione. "Thanks for this evening, Zabini," she said, holding out a hand and taking care to do it so he wouldn't have to release Hermione.
"I'm sorry you can't enjoy it longer, but get some rest and come round whenever you fancy," he said. Ginny tried to remember him at Hogwarts and found she couldn't remember him much at all, except as a member of the Slug Club who had looked just as dour about being there as everyone else.
"She will, I'll see to it," Gwen said, taking Ginny's arm. "Come on, let's get you out of here."
They were halfway to the door when someone else accosted them. "Vanishing without saying goodbye, Ginny?" Park demanded, though with a twinkle in his eye.
"I didn't like to interrupt you – were you signing autographs?" Ginny asked innocently. "You had quite a mob of people around you just a moment ago."
"My teammates," Park corrected. "And I don't need a mob of fans," he added, taking her hand as though to shake it and raising it to his lips instead. "Just a few." He winked and vanished back into the crowd.
Gwen shook her head, but before she could speak a far less welcome intruder blocked Ginny's escape.
"And where do you think you're going?" Mrs. Weasley said, eying Ginny in a way that Ginny remembered from childhood.
"Mrs. Weasley, how are you enjoying our little party?" Gwen asked, gracefully saving Ginny having a row.
"Oh, it's quite splendid, my dear!" Mrs. Weasley said, momentarily distracted. "Absolutely elegant – I like it much more than the Ministry party."
"That's kind of you," Gwen said. "And have you had a proper dance this evening?"
Mrs. Weasley looked flustered, but pleased. "Why no. My husband rarely dances and – well, I'm much too old – "
"Nonsense!" Gwen said. "Let me just set Ginny in the Floo and I'll take you in to my brother. He loves to dance, particularly with women who know the dances well."
Ginny thought she might actually get away, but Mrs. Weasley's eyes zeroed in on her. "And why is Miss Ginny Flooing out so early?"
"She's going to pieces this evening," Gwen said tragically, pulling a little more of Ginny's weight onto her arm. "She had several dances but has been shaking and cold and has a headache. I can't possibly ask her to stay a moment longer, though she begged me not to send her home."
"Oh, well." Mrs. Weasley had obviously expected Ginny to be doing exactly what she was doing, which was slipping out early. Gwen's little fairy tale had thrown her.
"I'm going straight to bed, Mum," she promised. "And Zab – and Blaise invited me back whenever I want."
"And so did Gwen," Gwen added.
"All right, then," Mrs. Weasley said. "Oh, Ginny, dear. What did Harry have to say to you?"
"Oh, my head, my head!" Ginny said in fainting tones.
"We'll discuss it later," Mrs. Weasley decided. "Have a cup of tea with a few drops of that lovely brandy Harry brought us from Berlin before you go to bed."
"Sure." Ginny waited until her mum melted back into the crowd. "She'll be the death of me," Ginny muttered, not removing her head from Gwen's shoulder as they started forward.
"She just loves you," Gwen pointed out. "Effusively," she amended when Ginny snorted. "But it's love."
"Do you – do you miss your parents?" Ginny asked hesitantly. After all, it was her father who had put the Zabinis away.
"Not much," Gwen said. "Blaise and I weren't ever what they wanted. They tried to mold us, but we're too constant for that. So we were shipped off to school and ignored most of the time."
Ginny didn't know what to say to that, so she gave her friend a squeeze. They were just at the entrance to the Floo room when Malfoy appeared.
"You're leaving," he said, his expression unreadable.
"I'm leaving," she agreed.
"I hope you feel better," he said rather stiffly. Ginny suspected Zabini had put him up to it.
"Good night," she said coldly, leaning a bit more on Gwen.
"Use the first chimney," Gwen told her, leading her in and offering a small, ornate jar to her.
The last look Ginny of had of Barthorne before she was swept up the chimney was Malfoy watching her go.
Several days later, the news came. It started when they awoke to a Harry-free Burrow, which would have thrilled Ginny if the eventual discovery of his whereabouts hadn't shocked her so much.
"Where'd Harry go?" Ginny asked Hermione. They sat together at the breakfast table, the first up.
Hermione pursed her lips.
"You know where he is," Ginny accused.
Hermione bit her lip. "I figured it out at the party and promised not to say," she admitted. "Anyway, he'll be back in a bit and explain it all himself."
"Does it have anything to do with how weird he's been since he got to the Burrow?" Ginny guessed.
Hermione raised her eyebrows, returning to her porridge and her book. Sure signs, Ginny thought, that all was not well in Weasley-land were Hermione going tight-lipped and Mrs. Weasley leaving them all to gruel.
It was Ron, with the help of Neville, who told them. They burst into the kitchen twenty minutes later, just as Ginny and Hermione were debating the merits of tunneling through the fresh snowfall to Ottery St. Catchpole. Rumors that Puddlemere was staying there when they weren't training on the Barthorne Estate made both curious to see how the team was coping with the Muggle village. Though she wouldn't admit it, Ginny was also eager to find Patrick Park again.
"You're not going to believe this," Neville began. He stood aside to let Percy into the kitchen.
Ron opened his mouth, took one look at Hermione, and scowled. "She already knows!" he howled, pointing an accusing finger at her. Hermione went a bit red.
"Hermione knows everything," Ginny pointed out.
"And she hasn't told you?" Ron demanded.
"No, she said Harry was going to tell us himself," Ginny began, suddenly wondering if she did, in fact, want to know.
Ron took a deep breath. He was alarmingly red himself, though from excitement or anger Ginny didn't know.
"Harry," Neville jumped in, but Ron got him in a headlock and covered his mouth.
"Harry's engaged!" Ron gasped out as Neville struggled to get free.
Ginny's brain dropped out for a moment. Engaged?
"Has been for months," Neville panted, throwing Ron off and taking a seat beside Hermione. "He met her when he was apprenticing with Unspeakables on the Continent."
"What?" Ginny demanded. She was already running through her interactions with Harry over the holiday. "He's been engaged since he came home?"
"Yeah!" Ron sat down hard, shaking his head.
"Probably happened in France," Percy said with a sniff. "Dreadfully fickle place."
"You should have let Harry tell us himself," Hermione chided, offering Ron her tea.
Ron swallowed it in two gulps. "He snuck in this morning and told me and asked me to tell everyone else because he couldn't handle telling Mum after what he went through trying to explain it to Zabini and Malfoy."
"Why would he explain it to Zabini and Malfoy?" Ginny began. Hermione's sympathetic look set her immediately on edge.
"He's engaged to Gwendolyn Zabini!" Neville said, his eyes wide.
"Engaged to Gwen?" Ginny leaned her elbows on the table, staring at the opposite wall and trying to make sense of what she was hearing.
"Didn't she drop any hints, Ginny?" Hermione asked gently.
"Not a word," Ginny breathed. "Even at the Barthorne party when Harry was saying – " But she broke off. None of it made any sense to her. Engaged ...
At this propitious moment, there came a knock on the door. The five at the table froze, staring at each other with mutual feelings of awkwardness and horror. What, they were all thinking, was Mrs. Weasley going to say?
"Your mum doesn't know yet?" Hermione hissed at Ron, voicing their collective dread aloud.
"Just came to tell you lot, haven't had a moment!" Ron retorted.
"Oh, crap." Ginny glanced at Hermione. "Reckon we could sneak out the back?"
"Too late now," Hermione mumbled as Mrs. Weasley could be heard welcoming Harry in the hall. Ginny was glad she hadn't left a moment later when Gwen's voice could be heard as well.
"Ginny's just in the kitchen," Mrs. Weasley said, obviously addressing Harry.
"For the love of Merlin," Ginny groaned under her breath. Her siblings, Neville, and Hermione all gave her looks of deep and abiding pity.
"Look who's just come back." Mrs. Weasley beamed as she entered the kitchen.
"Hi," the occupants of the table mumbled.
"Hi," Harry mumbled back. Ginny, who refused to look up from the table, could tell he was staring at the floor.
"Ginny, could I speak to you a moment?" Gwen said quickly.
"Oh, absolutely!" Ginny was across the room and dragging her friend out of it before either of them had taken another breath. She pulled Gwen out onto the porch and into the swing before they spoke. Then there was long pause.
"Oh, my god!" Ginny murmured at last.
"I'm so sorry I didn't tell you," Gwen said. When Ginny threw her a look, she was staring out across the newly snowy yard. "Harry begged me not to say a word. He didn't know how to tell any of you. And then he came home and was planning to tell you and your mum sort of thought she might try to – "
"To fix Harry and I up," Ginny growled. "Oh, I could kill her!"
"And I wanted him to announce it at the party," Gwen went on, and though her face was calm she was talking very fast. "But he didn't think my brother or Malfoy would like it at all, so he asked me to wait. He said he'd handle it today because he's finally run out of excuses."
"How big a fuss did your brother and Malfoy make?" Ginny asked, with a strong sense of sympathy. Zabini seemed like a really friendly, decent bloke, but when it came to his little sister ...
"Imagine bad – to the twenty-fifth power," Gwen said, with a shaky laugh. She looked at Ginny then, her eyes over-bright. "Gin, I'm sorry. I hope you know how much I value our friendship."
"You think I'm angry?" Ginny said blankly. Shocked, certainly.
"You have every right to be," Gwen said. "Harry's treated you dreadfully and I haven't been honest with you."
"Gwen." Ginny still felt overwhelmed and confused, but she wasn't confused about her friend. "Harry's responsible for his actions, not you. He's been an absolute prat, but I haven't cared if he was for years. I don't blame you for that – you've been nothing but lovely since I met you again at the Ministry party." She smiled. "I hope we stay friends."
Gwen didn't burst into tears – she was mercifully self-possessed. She did take Ginny's hand. "Thank you."
"Just – explain how all this happened," Ginny said. "I feel like someone should have noticed."
"Harry was in Germany when Blaise, Draco, and I passed through a few months ago," Gwen explained. "We were touring and he was working. He and I met when I got lost in Muggle Berlin. I wanted to see how Muggles lived and he was happening through the Muggle part of the city. I asked for directions and we were both so surprised to meet someone else from England that we got to talking. We spent the whole afternoon together." She sighed, smiled. "I stayed in Berlin two months, while my brother and Draco took off to explore the rest of Europe. They had no idea why I wanted to stay in Berlin, but I'm clever and I made up some good excuses. Harry and I were rarely apart and when it was time for me to come back to England, he asked me to marry him."
"Sounds like a whirlwind," Ginny murmured.
"I know, but it wasn't," Gwen said. "It's hard to explain. Seeing him was like – it was like coming home. Or finding a home I never knew I had."
They were quiet a few moments before Gwen said softly, "I know this isn't the time to ask you for favors."
"Ask me – I can always say no," Ginny teased, pulling a quilt over their laps and pushing the swing into a gentle back-and-forth rock.
Gwen smiled at her. "I'd understand if you did say no. Harry and I want to get away for a few days. It's going to be absolute bedlam here for a while – "
A sudden explosion of shouting from inside the Burrow confirmed this.
"And Harry's got to go to London to see to his charity project," she went on. "I was just wondering if you wanted to come along. To keep me company." She paused. "It wouldn't be fair of me to ask you without also telling you that we'd be staying at the Malfoy townhouse."
Ginny bit her lip. "Why the Malfoys?"
"Harry's benefactress – or rather, partner – is Narcissa Malfoy," Gwen explained. "He's creating this incredible home for war orphans, using Sirius Black's old house at Grimmauld Place. Narcissa Malfoy was Narcissa Black, you know, and she's been looking to bring both family names back to light since her husband was arrested. Harry proposed the project and she knew a good opportunity when she saw it. Harry's quite good at managing Narcissa but he needs moral support." Gwen fixed pleading eyes on Ginny. "I could really use the company, and I can't imagine anyone I'd rather have with me than you."
"That's dirty and underhanded, making me feel all special," Ginny grumbled, staring down at her lap. She heard more shouting from the Burrow, and her name. She winced, but there was no avoiding the backlash and the best thing would be to escape it for a while. Ginny knew her mum couldn't stay angry at Harry for more than a week. "When do we leave?"
Gwen hugged her and didn't answer.
The day it took Ginny to prepare for departure was torture. Her mother spent most of her time in a flood of tears, alternating between sympathy for poor Ginny, whose heart was surely broken, fury at Ron and Hermione for not breathing a word to her, fury at Harry for deceiving them all, and shock that Ginny was planning to spend a week in town with the man who had been so cruel to her. Ginny had tried to explain that Harry's behavior was an irritant, at best. He shouldn't have let Mrs. Weasley pressure him into pretending to want Ginny. It had probably hurt Gwen and if Ginny had felt anything for him, it would have been a messy business. But it wasn't, Gwen hadn't been hurt much, and Harry had done what he misguidedly thought was his duty to Mrs. Weasley.
Mrs. Weasley didn't see any of it that way, or wouldn't do, so Ginny gave up and went quietly on with her preparations. She was reluctant to pack for more than a week's stay in town, especially as she planned to be home by Christmas Eve at the latest, but Gwen insisted she be prepared. They were going to have to spend a lot of time at the townhouse and Narcissa was a very traditional Pure-blood witch, so Ginny would need all her best robes.
Another complication that arose with her departure had to do with Hermione. Around noon, a few hours after Harry made his escape with Gwen (though where they escaped to, since they were literally barred from their holiday homes by angry relatives, was anyone's guess) Hermione came trudging into Ginny's room, sat down on the bed, and began to cry. Several minutes of coaxing revealed that Zabini had been called immediately away on estate business. He hadn't even come to the Burrow, but instead had sent Hermione a very formal Owl, explaining that he'd be away through the new year.
"I don't understand," Hermione said, hiccuping into Ginny's pillow. The pillowcase was speckled with tears. "We're not five miles off, and he didn't even come to say goodbye."
"Could it have been an emergency of some kind?" Ginny wondered. "Something private that he couldn't couldn't tell you about?"
"The Owl, though," Hermione said, sniffling. "It's – it's like a business letter, nothing about all the time we've spent together or missing me." She sucked in a deep breath and sat up. "I thought," she began. She paused, staring down at her hands. "I thought he really liked me."
"He did!" Ginny insisted. "I mean, he does, I know it. Everyone who's seen you together knows it." She frowned, trying to remember the last time she'd seen Hermione and Zabini together. It had been the party, several days ago. She'd seen them together the entire time. Even when Zabini had made his rounds amongst the other guests, he'd taken Hermione with him. "Malfoy," she said suddenly, her eyes narrowing.
"What about him?" Hermione asked, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
"I bet he has something to do with Zabini leaving so suddenly," Ginny said, more to herself. "I reckon he was furious about Gwen being engaged to Harry – you know how he hates Harry – and he couldn't stand the thought of Zabini getting attached to you on top of that."
"Whether I like Malfoy of not," Hermione said, shaking her head, "from all I've heard he's been a wonderful friend to Blaise, even since they left school. If Blaise appeared to like me, why would Malfoy try to stop him?"
"He's a purist, remember?" Ginny said, scowling. "And you're Muggleborn."
"But why would Blaise let Malfoy influence him like that?" Hermione wondered, looking lost and unsure of herself in a most un-Hermione way.
"Would you trust a friend if they staged an intervention? Anyway, Malfoy probably thinks he's doing Zabini a favor," Ginny growled. She suddenly realized how unhappy she was making her friend. "Sorry," she murmured. "Look, cheer up. Zabini obviously thinks the world of you and Malfoy isn't going to change his mind. I reckon," she added, nudging her friend, "that he'll be back at Barthorne before Christmas. Whatever family business he apparently has – and that's probably a legitimate excuse, even if Malfoy influenced him – won't take more than two weeks."
Hermione looked a little cheered by this, but added, "I'm selfish, I know, but I wish you weren't going away."
"To have a grand old time in London with Harry, King of All Things Awkward?" Ginny countered. "You won't be alone. Ron and Neville can entertain you and if you get starved for intellectual company, talk to Percy about his Arithmancy final in seventh year."
"You won't be away for too long, will you?" Hermione pleaded.
"Don't worry – I think a week at the Malfoy townhouse will be about all I can stand, even for Gwen's sake," Ginny assured her. She gave Hermione a sly smile. "Anyway, I reckon you can find something to amuse you in Ottery St. Catchpole. All those rumors about Puddlemere staying there?"
"Ginny!" a voice that sounded like Percy's but might have been Ron's called up the stairs.
The girls went curiously down and were surprised to see Ron and Neville gaping at the front door.
"Patrick!" Ginny said in surprise. Patrick Park, bundled up against the cold, stood in the doorway.
"Ginny." He grinned his charming grin at her. "You're not an easy person to track down."
"Come in, you must be freezing." Ginny gave her brother and Neville very pointed looks and they both went red. Ron backed out of the room, totally speechless, pulling Neville with him. Percy rolled his eyes and disappeared upstairs.
"Patrick, this is my friend Hermione," Ginny said. He nodded at her, though his expression was rather reserved.
"Nice to meet you," Hermione said, looking back and forth between the two of them. "Gin, I'll just go do some packing for you, if you'd like."
"You don't have to – "
"You'll never finish at the rate you're going," Hermione said, smiling and retreating up the stairs after Percy.
"That was – subtle," Ginny muttered, returning her eyes to Park. "Come in, you look half-frozen."
"It's bloody freezing out there," he agreed, pulling off his winter cloak and scarf. "But the country's so beautiful I can't stand Apparating."
Ginny smiled, leading the way into the sitting room where a cheerful fire burned all day during the winter. "You like the country?"
"Sure." Park shrugged. "Not much of a city boy – I was raised in the country." He gave her a significant look. "I did grow up with Malfoy."
"Lucky you," Ginny said, trying to keep a straight face.
"Cheeky." Park took the armchair and Ginny, her favorite rocker. Park stretched out, sighing contentedly. Ginny avoided staring by gazing into the fire.
"What're you packing for?" Park asked.
"I'm off the London tomorrow," Ginny said, wondering how much she should say. Well, if Park was friends with Malfoy, perhaps he'd have heard of Gwen's engagement.
"London?" Park wrinkled his nose. "I didn't have you pegged for a city girl."
"I'm not," Ginny admitted. "I'm doing a friend a favor." She blinked. "I'm staying with your godmother."
"Are you really?" Park sat up a little straighter. "What for?"
"My friends are staying there and I'm staying with them," she said simply.
"Is this a top-secret trip?" Park asked, his lip twitching as he watched her.
"Hardly," she said, laughing. "What's your godmother like?"
Park bit his lip. "I'm not sure how to answer that," he said at last. "I owe her a lot, but – " He glanced at her with a small smile. "She's the most beloved daughter of a Pure-blood family and she married another Pure-blood. She believes devoutly in the superiority of the best blood. She thinks very well of herself, as she's been taught to do." He chuckled. "You're Pure-blooded, but ..."
"Oh, I'm a blood traitor," Ginny said airily, though he had confirmed her worst fear. And hadn't her father put Lucius in prison? She doubted Narcissa would take kindly to Arthur Weasley's daughter.
"Don't worry," Park advised, patting her arm. "She'll be curious about you, in spite of herself." He gave her a long look. "You're a very intriguing person."
Ginny blushed. "Not really. I'm a smart-arse."
"That, too," he agreed with a chuckle. His hand slid down her arm and rested over hers. "But a fascinating one." He gave her hand a squeeze and let go. "So – how about a walk to the village?"
Ginny wanted very much to accept, but ... "I should finish packing," she said reluctantly.
"Your friend's doing it for you," he pointed out.
"It's not fair to leave it to her," Ginny said. She paused, considering. "If you can wait a few minutes, I can finish and go with you."
"I can wait," he agreed. "But ... could you do me a favor?"
"What is it?"
"Don't tell your brother or his friend I'm still in here."
Ginny laughed. "They're probably listening at the door. Look, I can get them to leave you alone if you let them walk to the village with us. And Hermione – I already said I'd go with her."
He considered. "Well, why not?"
"You're sweet. Thanks." Feeling a bit audacious, she knelt and kissed his cheek. She could feel his eyes on her as she left the room.
She did find Neville and Ron lurking on the stairs and after making them swear not to harass her guest, she hurried upstairs. Hermione was happy to go – she needed something to take her mind off Zabini. They finished Ginny's packing in ten minutes and hurried back downstairs to save Park from his fan boys.
They bundled up and followed the path Park had made to the Burrow back to Ottery St. Catchpole. Park had good-naturedly agreed to introduce them to the rest of his team, who were staying in the village, pretending to be a minor league football team on holiday. The cover had apparently been working well, as no media or fans had managed to find them yet. Park did convince Ron and Neville to keep their mouths shut in exchange for an afternoon with the team.
"You've made their days, probably their years," Ginny said quietly to Park. They sat in a Muggle cafe packed with the rest of the team.
"It's nothing," Park assured her, sipping his hot chocolate and getting a dob of whip cream on his nose. Ginny reached out to brush it off. He grinned at her.
"I think this is a nice distraction for Hermione, too," Ginny murmured, glancing at her friend. The team seemed very impressed with Hermione, who was best friends with Harry Potter, who was rumored to be the best Seeker Hogwarts had ever seen. Hermione seemed relieved by the diversion. Ginny didn't blame her – some of the players were very attractive.
"Zabini wouldn't be happy if he knew she'd been chatted up by half of Puddlemere," Park said.
Ginny looked sharply at him.
"It's obvious he fancies her," Park said, shrugging. "Isn't it?"
"Oh, yeah." Ginny shrugged. "But he just left, and suddenly." She looked at him. "You don't know why he packed off, do you?"
"Not sure," Park said. "Might be something to do with Malfoy."
Ginny scowled. She didn't doubt it.
"I might see you at my godmother's," he told her after a moment's comfortable silence.
"Really?" Ginny tried to keep her eagerness to herself. "You planning to be in London?"
"I might be," he said. He caught her hand and drew it to his lips. "Depends on you."
"How?" Ginny said, a little breathless.
He didn't answer, just kept hold of her hand across the table. They were there another couple of hours before Hermione began to talk of heading home. Ginny reluctantly agreed. She did have to leave early in the morning.
Park walked them to the Burrow and offset Mrs. Weasley's attempts to be furious with them all for being out all afternoon by being completely charming.
"I remember before I married your father," she said as they all went inside. "I loved a well-muscled Quidditch player."
Ginny threw a look over her shoulder at Park's retreating figure. He looked back at that moment and winked at her. She grinned, shaking her head.
London – Malfoy Townhouse
Ginny discussed it with her father and, with his help, slipped away the next morning without her mother seeing either Gwen or Harry. They met her at the end of the walk. Ginny hadn't seen Harry since his engagement with Gwen was announced. She was civil, but reserved. He hadn't hurt her, but he had been dishonest. It would be some time before she trusted him again.
Harry, on the contrary, was quite relaxed. It was clear he was very happy with Gwen and now that Ginny was in on his secret, he thought things were okay between them again. For Gwen's sake, Ginny did what she could to support this idea.
The trip to the townhouse was quick. They Apparated to a Ministry checkpoint in town and took a Floo connection to the Malfoys'. Ginny wished the trip had lasted a bit longer – she was nervous enough about meeting Narcissa Malfoy to want some time to prepare.
"Don't worry, Gin," Gwen murmured as they stood waiting for the Floo at the Ministry.
"Someone told me told me Andromeda Tonks is living as Mrs. Malfoy's companion now?" Ginny said, in an attempt to oblige her friend.
"She is, but she's off to see Remus and Tonks at Cub Close for a week or so. First grandchild on the way and all that. Andromeda's beside herself," Harry said. People stared openly at him as they waited. "And that's why I chose to be an Unspeakable instead of Auror," he muttered, looking irritated. Gwen squeezed his arm and Ginny squeezed her lips shut against several rude comments about people who thought the whole world cared about them. She realized a moment too late that the words on the tip of her tongue were Draco Malfoy-esque and felt disgusted with herself.
"Narcissa won't bother you," Harry told Ginny. "You and Gwen won't need to have much to do with her. Her business is with me."
Ginny didn't say that she thought Narcissa would take plenty of interest in a girl from a family she held in contempt, but for Gwen's sake, she kept her mouth shut. Instead, she said, "Gwen, you spend a lot of time with Malfoy and your brother's his best friend. How well do you know Mrs. Malfoy?"
Gwen shook her head. "I've spent time with Draco since we left school. I didn't have much to do with him growing up. I've met his mum maybe twice."
"And ...?" Ginny said slowly.
"She's – intimidating." Gwen bit her lip. "She's hard to read and it's hard to tell what her angle is. She's clever, too."
Ginny thought back to the Mrs. Malfoy Park had described. She kept her cards close to her chest because her husband and sister had been misfiring braincells. They were what she knew and to keep her head up, she needed to be a step ahead of them. No wonder she was sponsoring Harry's project – she needed something solid to invest in.
Malfoy could really have taken care of her if he hadn't gone off gallivanting with his friends, she thought sourly.
They reached the front of the cue just then. Ginny saw Harry straighten his robes.
"Clarity Court," Harry said as he stepped into the emerald fire.
"Did you catch that?" Gwen asked as she stepped up to the grate. Ginny nodded and watched her friend vanish. She stepped up to the grate, taking a pinch of Floo powder from the dish set into the wall beside the grate.
"Clarity Court," Ginny said, trying not to smirk. Her nerves fled. These were Malfoys. She could handle Malfoys. And it wasn't a plurality – one Malfoy, and the least dangerous one, was all she had to worry about.
She stepped neatly out of a massive fireplace and onto a rug. Gwen took her arm on one side and Harry's on the other. Ginny glanced at her. In the last twenty-four hours Gwen had dealt with explanations and ridicule. She was clearly expecting more of the same. Harry, to Ginny's surprise, looked calm, even cool as he glanced around the large room. A door at the far left wall opened.
"Mrs. Malfoy will see you in the sitting room," a well-dressed butler said, bowing slightly.
"Thank you." Harry led the girls after him, head held high. Ginny knew the look – she'd seen it so many times at Hogwarts. He was dealing with someone he knew how to manage. He was in control.
The Floo room connected to an ornate entrance hall. Everything seemed to glisten, from the white marble floor and staircase to the frames of the pictures. A clear dome overhead reflected an overcast sky. Ginny wouldn't have wanted to be in this room on a sunny day – not without sunglasses, anyway.
The butler led them to a door at the back of the entrance hall and two servants on either side pulled the doors open for them. Narcissa Malfoy looked up from a leather-bound book in her lap, as though they were a curiosity, something unexpected.
"Mr. Potter," she said, standing and crossing to him.
"Mrs. Malfoy," he said coolly, releasing Gwen's arm and taking Narcissa's hand. He bowed his head over it and let it go.
"Do come in." Narcissa returned to her armchair. Harry led the girls in and they sat beside him on a long sofa. This room, like the entrance hall, was done in white marble with a few islands of sitting room furniture and large oriental rugs. Each sitting area had its own fireplace. Ginny bit her lips, wanting to ask if this was where the family came to tan.
"I wasn't aware you were bringing guests," Narcissa went on.
Gwen gave Harry a dark look, but he shook his head at her and said, "Forgive me, I didn't think they'd be an imposition."
Narcissa's eyebrows shot up. "Two young women are hardly an imposition."
"Thank you." Harry nodded at Ginny. "You know Ginevra Weasley, I believe."
"Oh, yes. The youngest, aren't you?"
"Yes." Ginny smiled. "There are so many of us; I'm delighted you remember."
"And this," Harry hurried on, "is my fiancée, Gwendolyn Zabini."
Narcissa blinked several times. "Your fiancée?"
"Weren't you living with my son and your brother, Miss Zabini?"
"Yes, Mrs. Malfoy." Gwen's expression was absolutely calm. Ginny didn't know how she was hiding either her weariness or nerves. "I still am. Harry and I won't be married until next year."
"I see." Narcissa paused. "This engagement seems rather sudden."
"Not at all. We've been engaged two months," Harry said, twining his fingers through Gwen's. Ginny suddenly noticed the small white gold diamond ring on her friend's finger.
"Two months?" Narcissa repeated. "And you failed to mention it to anyone, because ... ?"
"We weren't ready to," Harry said simply. "As you might imagine, now that we've begun telling our friends and family, I don't want to be separated from Gwen any longer than I already have been. I hope you don't mind her staying with me while we do business."
"Not at all. I knew your mother, Gwendolyn." Narcissa's lips turned ever so slightly upward. She glanced at Ginny, obviously questioning and unquestionably disdainful.
"Ginny came as a favor to us," Harry explained. "You and I will be very busy and I didn't want Gwen to be lonely."
"And you're – quite good friends?" Narcissa asked, directing the question at Gwen.
"We went to Hogwarts together," Gwen explained. "And we're neighbors at the moment."
"Hmm." Narcissa eyed Ginny for a moment. "Of course, you're all welcome." She picked up a small gold bell from the table and gave it a shake. No sound came from the bell but a moment later, the butler from the entrance hall appeared. "See my guests to their rooms, Albert. We'll dine in the parlor this evening. I'm only expecting one other guest. In the meantime, Mr. Potter and I have some business to see to." She glanced at him. "With your permission, I had Grimmauld Place cleaned and prepared."
"Kreacher did it for you?" Harry guessed, raising an unimpressed eyebrow.
"As you requested," Narcissa said through suddenly white lips, "he was assisted by several additional elves from the Hogwarts staff, who were dually compensated."
"You hired Dobby?" Ginny said, unable to stop herself. She saw Narcissa's lips turn down.
"It's quiet this time of year – lots of kids go home for the holidays and he gets restless," Harry explained. "He and Winky were thrilled to bring a contingent over." He frowned. "I suppose Kreacher didn't like it?"
"He's a well-bred elf," Narcissa said stiffly. "He knew his duty was being jeopardized." She looked deliberately away. "Albert, please take them up and then show Mr. Potter to the Floo gallery."
"Floo gallery?" Ginny mouthed at Gwen as the followed Albert out. Gwen made a terrible face at her, obviously trying not to laugh.
"Floo gallery?" Ginny said, snorting with laughter the moment their bedroom door was closed on them. Narcissa was obviously playing propriety under her roof, not letting Gwen share Harry's room. Ginny was grateful – she didn't want to sleep in the giant white-dappled room by herself.
"Yes, dear," Gwen said, simpering her lips primly. "That's what those of us with mansions call them."
Ginny giggled, falling backward onto the white bedspread. "And I really put my foot it mentioning Dobby, didn't I?"
"He's a sore point with the whole family," Gwen agreed. "You should hear Draco go on about him." She sobered.
"How bad were he and your brother about the engagement?"
"Oh, like I said," Gwen grunted, joining Ginny on the bedspread and staring up at the frilly canopy. "Draco asked if he could hex Harry and Blaise told him he'd do it himself because he's my brother. Then," she added, covering her face with her hands, "they started grilling Harry about my virtue."
Ginny's eyes widened in horror. She could only imagine what her own brothers would do. "That's horrible," she breathed.
"I sincerely hope it never happens to you," Gwen said. She gave a weak laugh. "Harry's face was priceless."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, he got shirty," Gwen said, rolling her eyes. "He said to mind their own damn business, and he and I were just there to tell them. What we got up to was our own business."
"Harry was always known for flourishing sense of diplomacy," Ginny muttered.
Gwen choked out another laugh. "I've never been so glad to go on holiday."
"We can even go to Muggle London if you want," Ginny offered. "I work at my brothers' shop in Diagon Alley and they go into the Muggle part of the city all the time. They might even take us on the Underground."
"Really?" Gwen's eyes sparkled. "I've always wanted to ride the Underground but Blaise never let me."
"Let's go this afternoon," Ginny said brashly. "Come on, get your coat."
They found Fred and George hard at work in their workshop above Weasley Wizard Wheezes. It took no time at all to convince them to take a break for an adventure. Gwen was fascinated by the ticket collectors, the turn-styles, and the pleasant voice asking them to "mind the gap." Ginny had spent a lot more time in Muggle London since she began working for Fred and George, but it was still thrilling. Fred's favorite part of London was Camden-town, which was filled with a bohemian punk mix and a loaded outdoor market, even in winter. Gwen was taken with the idea of a tattoo and Ginny only just got her away. Fred and George thought it was a great idea.
"Could be a surprise for Harry on your wedding night," George said with a cheeky wink. Ginny slugged his arm and Gwen said slyly, "He'd find it before then, I think."
The boys hooted, Ginny rolled her eyes, and they returned reluctantly to Clarity Court.
Harry and Narcissa were in the study when they got back.
"Did you have a nice time?" he asked, smiling at them.
"We'll tell you about it later, you're obviously busy," Gwen said quickly when Narcissa looked curiously at them.
"We'll be dining in a half-hour," she said. "Perhaps you'd like to freshen up first," she added delicately.
"Yeah, I could do with some freshening," Ginny said loudly as she led the way out. She could sense Narcissa silently agreeing with her, but doubting it was possible for a Weasley to be completely freshened.
"What's wrong with what we're wearing?" Ginny wondered as they headed up the steps.
"The Malfoys are very traditional," Gwen explained. "You dress for dinner and tea, always. Watch, Harry'll do it, too."
"My brothers were always fussed about being poor," Ginny grumbled, going to her trunk and discovering with further irritation that it had been unpacked and its contents neatly arranged in a large wardrobe. "I'm happy to be, if this is the alternative."
"Blaise and Draco and I certainly never go on like this," Gwen assured her. "Part of the reason we're living so far from civilized society. It'd be expected and we can't be arsed." She grinned. "Come on, let's check out the bathroom. Bet it rivals the prefect's loo at Hogwarts."
It did, done all in white like the rest of the place with a giant bathtub. Sadly, no diving board, Ginny saw. She and Gwen grinned and went for a swim. They were loathed to leave at ten to six but decided they didn't like to risk the wrath of Narcissa. They dressed in their best robes and went to fetch Harry.
"Love, what have you done to your hair?" Gwen sighed. Ginny did a bad job of biting down a laugh.
"Shut up, Weasley." Harry scowled at her.
"You shouldn't ever comb your hair, and you know it," Ginny said, smirking. "Just makes it fluffy."
"Quickly," Gwen said, wrestling him back into his room. "How did you cope with these visits by yourself before you met me?"
"It's a mystery," he said sulkily, allowing her to run a wet comb over his head.
"Come on, wouldn't dare be late," Ginny said from the door. "Hey, Harry," she added. "Mrs. Malfoy said there'd be someone else joining us for dinner."
"No idea who," he said, shrugging as he took Gwen's arm. "Could be someone about the orphanage – we've had other smaller benefactors in to look at the project. It's going to need long-term support. We're planning to start an initial fund and support the orphanage long-term through the interest. It's going to take a load of an initial fund, though, and even if we put every last Knut of our own fortunes into it, it would need more." He grinned. "Fortunately, there are a lot idiots looking to make their names in the charity world who are willing to drop a thousand Galleons for the chance to eat with Harry Potter."
"Big head, much?" Ginny said.
"It's true," he said. "I'm not especially proud of it, but it works and this project is important. We're looking at opening with at least fifty orphans. I'll use whatever celebrity I have to make sure we're ready for that."
Ginny decided not to argue, though she was still irritated. Maybe he was just more confident than when she'd last seen him, but whatever it was, it was dead annoying.
They could hear voices as Harry led them to what must have been the small parlor. Ginny didn't recognize one of them.
Two servants opened the doors for them. "I've got arms," she muttered. "I'd run ahead of you two and open things for you."
Gwen giggled into her hand. "That'd be a laugh."
"Later tonight, you and me, every room in the house," Ginny began but paused on the threshold. Oh, joy, she thought, fighting back a groan.
"Good evening," Narcissa said. "You all know my son, Draco?"
"Hi, Draco." Gwen didn't quite glare at him.
"Malfoy," Ginny and Harry mumbled.
"Ah, look," Malfoy said, sneering at Harry. "It's the home wrecker."
An awkward pause followed, because Harry apparently wouldn't be drawn into a fight in front of Narcissa, Gwen was obviously still furious at Draco for making a scene about her engagement, and Ginny had nothing whatever to say to him.
"Really, Draco." Narcissa sat down, gesturing for the others to do the same. Unfortunately, this landed Ginny to the right of Malfoy. Well, she'd ignored him before, she could surely do so now.
"I understand you young ladies had a little outing this afternoon," Narcissa said as dishes of soup were set in front of them. "May I ask where you went?"
Gwen and Ginny glanced at each other and by mutual agreement, didn't lie. "We went to visit my brothers in Diagon Alley," Ginny said slowly. "They own quite a successful business there."
"And I said I was interested in seeing a bit of Muggle London," Gwen said, taking a small sip of soup.
"Oh, I bet Blaise will love that," Malfoy murmured, smirking into his own dish.
"I'm sure Blaise won't give a damn what I do," Gwen began, her voice tight. "As I am an adult and capable of making my own decisions."
"Speaking of adults," Ginny said. "I'm surprised Zabini isn't with you, Malfoy."
He looked at her. "Why would he be?"
"His totally unexplained exodus from Barthorne seemed awfully ... sudden," Ginny said. "I assumed," she added, looking him in the eye, "it would have something to do with you."
"He's not my lapdog, Wea – Miss Weasley," Malfoy said, his lip curling.
Ginny turned dispassionately back to her soup.
"Funny thing – Blasie didn't tell me why he was leaving, either," Gwen piped up from across the table.
"You were so busy being engaged and all," Malfoy started.
"Really, children." Narcissa's voice fairly dripped with contempt. "You're not Hogwarts first years anymore."
Ginny took a long swallow soup and made a silent vow that Malfoy was going to tell her what he'd done to get Zabini away from Hermione.
"Gwendolyn," Narcissa said into the heavy silence. "I was just tell Mr. Potter that I think we will have the donors we need to open the orphanage on schedule. We're planning for May. I hope that won't interfere with any wedding plans."
"We've not made many yet," Gwen said slowly. She glanced at Ginny. "Although I was hoping Ginny would be in my wedding party."
"What?" Ginny almost dropped her spoon. "I mean," she said, recovering. "That's so sweet but – well, don't you have other friends? I mean, no, just." She paused and thought she could hear Malfoy smirking beside her. She thought about elbowing him, but decided she didn't want to mess things up for Harry. "We just – it's been ages since we saw each other. Don't you have friends from – I don't know, friends or cousins you grew up with who are more important than me?"
"I might," Gwen said, smiling slightly. "But I'd still like you to be there. You're like Harry's sister anyway, right?"
Ginny heard a cough from beside her and glanced at Malfoy. He was watching her with strange intensity. Ginny raised her eyebrows and he turned quickly back to his soup. "I guess so," she said. She narrowed her eyes at him. "He's certainly as much a prat as my brothers."
This time, it was Narcissa who cleared her throat. Ginny didn't particularly care if Narcissa Malfoy thought her common or not, so she went on, "What do you say, Harry? Shall I be your honorary sister for the wedding?"
"I don't know," he said, though his tone was teasing. "I saw what you were like at Bill's and Fleur's do. You're quite a fright at weddings."
"What?" Ginny threw up her hands. "It was one piece of cake."
"You got the entire thing in your mouth!"
"On a dare; Ron wouldn't stop going on about it," Ginny countered.
"You got an entire piece of wedding cake in your mouth without choking?" Malfoy surprised her by cutting in.
"Okay, a bit of frosting wouldn't fit, but basically yeah." Ginny grinned. "It was really excellent cake, actually, but after the reception I went off sweets for about a week."
"Which was a shame because then the rest of us has to clean up the leftovers and we were all ill for about a month," Harry added, shaking his head.
"Nothing that interesting happens at my family's weddings," Malfoy muttered.
"Interesting?" Narcissa said pointedly, eyebrows raised at her son.
"People are quite well-behaved," Malfoy clarified. "No one drinks too much. Except Severus that one time."
"Snape?" Ginny demanded. "What happened?"
"I'm sworn to secrecy," Malfoy said, almost smiling at her. He caught up a napkin and dabbed the corners of his mouth. "Let's just say he's never had jelly since my uncle Braceus's wedding."
Ginny shook her head. "I suppose you're a model wedding guest."
"Never thought about letting your hair down?" Malfoy's hair was, ironically, tied back from his face.
"I do, on occasion," he admitted.
"Of course you do." Ginny finished the last of her soup while trying to control a traitorous tremor at her lip.
"You don't believe me?" He sounded as though he might be offended.
"I didn't say that." She took her napkin and carefully dabbed the corners of her mouth.
Across the table, Ginny heard a cough and suspected Harry have his mouth covered with his own napkin. Then there was a soft thump from under the table, followed by a gasp.
"Something wrong with your foot, there, Potter?" Malfoy said, the sneer back in force.
"Never been better," Harry assured him, throwing a sharp look at Gwen. Ginny, meanwhile, was also smirking at Harry, her head carefully tilted at the same angle as Malfoy's. When he rested his elbow on the table, so did she. She was in Malfoy's peripheral vision but Gwen and Harry could see her.
"Mrs. Malfoy, have you thought of a name for the orphanage yet?" Gwen said in an oddly breathless voice.
"No, we hadn't discussed it yet," Narcissa said. When Malfoy turned to look at his mother, leaning back in his chair, Ginny copied the movement, carefully crossing her right leg over her left. "Mr. Potter, have you anything suitable in mind?"
Harry's eyes were on Ginny, and filled with restrained laughter. "I'm sorry?" he said, taking a deep breath. Malfoy glanced at Ginny, but she was leaning on the table, legs uncrossed, innocently watching Narcissa.
"Excuse me a moment," Gwen said, pushing back her chair. "I can feel several hairpins coming loose." She fled with grace through the far doors. Ginny swallowed a smile. "Harry, Mrs. Malfoy was just asking what you thought the orphanage should be called." As soon as Malfoy turned back toward his mother, Ginny tucked herself identically up.
"I – I hadn't thought about it," Harry said. He sounded like he had something caught in his throat. When Malfoy tilted his head with the condescending air of a curious man studying an animal in a zoo, Ginny copied the face and even tapped her chin when he did.
"I'm just going to check on Gwen," Harry managed, hurrying hastily out.
"What's up their knickers?" Malfoy wondered, watching him go.
"Draco!" Narcissa looked politely appalled.
"Perhaps some ever-itch powder," Ginny said, placidly returning to her soup.
"Do you have any thoughts about the name of the orphanage?" Narcissa asked Ginny, though probably not out of actual interest in her opinion.
"Dunno." Ginny thought for a moment. "My impulse would be to name it after someone who helped protect children during the war."
"Albus Dumbledore, you mean?" Malfoy's voice dripped with contempt.
"I was actually thinking of Professor Snape," Ginny said coolly, giving him an unimpressed look. "As your mother says, we're not at Hogwarts anymore."
He gave her a withering look.
"That's an intriguing idea," Narcissa murmured.
The door of the dining parlor opened. Gwen and Harry, studiously serious, appeared again.
"Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley just made an interesting proposal," Narcissa began as he sat down. "She thought of perhaps naming the orphanage after someone who assisted in the protection of children during the war. She suggested Severus Snape."
The corners of Harry's mouth turned down.
"He did his part," he said slowly. "But Remus Lupin did as much, maybe more."
Given how much Harry disliked Snape, Ginny thought he showed remarkable restraint.
"So put the names together," Gwen suggested.
"What, like call it the Snoopin Orphanage?" Ginny said.
Gwen slapped a hand over her mouth, Harry choked on his soup, and Malfoy actually laughed. "Snoopin," he said, shaking his head. He considered a moment. "Or Lape."
"I like Snoopin," Harry said. He grinned. "Think Snape or Lupin would appreciate it?"
Narcissa didn't look at all pleased with any of this, and Ginny was grateful to Harry for starting a new topic. Unfortunately, she couldn't get Snoopin out of her head and brief looks in Malfoy's direction suggested he was having difficulty as well. His behavior changed after that as well – he seemed less concerned with Harry or Gwen and only spoke when he had something meaningful to contribute. It made for a nice change and Ginny decided to make a mockery of him for the rest of the evening.
The next few days passed pleasantly, all things considered. Ginny kept out of the house as much as possible, usually with Gwen, who was just as happy to be scarce. An interior decorator came with a shop's worth of Christmas decorations and laid waste to every public room in the townhouse. Ginny, tense enough with Malfoy constantly under the same roof, made frequent trips with Gwen into different parts of London. They both enjoyed walking and visited several of the famous Muggle parks. They also discovered that parks almost always had sandwich shops.
"I reckon you'd never see a sandwich under Mrs. Malfoy's roof," Ginny said, halfway through one.
"Never," Gwen agreed. "Draco actually really fancies what he calls 'common food.' In other words, anything you can get that's not made by a four-star chef or can be bought at a shop." She grinned. "He loves crisps, for instance, but don't let on you know or he'll go at me worse than he does already."
Malfoy had been quite unpleasant to Gwen, though not so much the bullying Ginny remembered from school – more a irritated harassment. He clearly resented the fact that she hadn't let on about her engagement, either because of who she was engaged to or that he and Zabini hadn't been immediately informed.
One problem Ginny frequently had if she was forced to spend any length of time at the townhouse was that she ran into Malfoy. Harry was out quite a lot and finding reasons to take Gwen with him. Gwen felt terrible about it at first, as she had begged Ginny to come specifically to keep her company. Ginny assured her that she didn't mind. She had a lovely room to herself and the townhouse was basically empty most of the day.
Malfoy was the exception. Either he had missed the townhouse and was enjoying being home, or he was hanging around out of perversity. Whatever the reason, any time Ginny was in the main part of the house, he was sure to turn up. It wasn't a small building, either, and Ginny thought he'd be as keen to avoid her as she was to avoid him.
After the third day, in which he not only stumbled on her in the library but actually stayed and made conversation with her, she became suspicious.
"Malfoy," she said, interrupting a series of questions he'd been putting to her about her plans to join the Aurors, "what's all this about?"
"What's all what about?" he asked, pulling a tall volume from a nearby shelf and flicking carelessly through it.
"This sudden interest in me," she explained, though he thought he probably knew exactly what she was talking about.
"I'm being polite, Weasley," he said in a decidedly impolite tone.
"Are you?" she challenged. "You've never bothered to before."
"You're staying at my family's home," he said irritably. "I'm doing my duty as a member of that family."
"Really?" she said, opening an old volume of wizarding fairy tales and going to her favorite armchair by the window. "Gwen and Harry are guests, too, you know. Your mum actually invited Harry here. You treat Gwen like she's done something to you personally and you treat Harry like you're constantly playing Quidditch on opposite teams."
"Gwen's really upset Blaise," Malfoy countered. "I'd have thought as a sister you'd understand how he'd be feeling. She was engaged for months before she told him, Weasley. And when she did tell him, Potter was there rubbing it in his face."
Ginny shook her head. "Of all the people to lecture me about empathy," she said scathingly. She set her book down and stalked out of the room, too angry to remain a moment longer or even form that anger into an argument.
Ginny managed to keep away from for the rest of the day, even avoiding dinner and tea by pleading a headache and fatigue. Gwen made sure no one bothered her or tried to potion the illnesses away.
"Wish I'd thought of that. I want to throttle Draco," she muttered as she dressed, once again, in her nicest robes for tea without Ginny. She had a lot of nicest robes, Ginny had been quick to notice.
The next day, Ginny did go down to breakfast, taking care to sit as far from Malfoy as possible. She was polite and attentive to Narcissa and Harry, who were always discussing their brainchild. The project was interesting – Ginny was impressed with Harry for returning to Grimmauld Place and making use of it. She was dually impressed with Narcissa for ignoring the fact that Harry was using her family's former property without her leave for his own purposes. Not that they were objectionable, but Ginny heard that Narcissa had grown up visiting Mrs. Black and had been a favorite of hers.
After breakfast, Ginny went out with the others, hoping to return by lunch and find Malfoy out. He appeared to be, so she settled in the study to write a hopefully uplifting and amusing Owl to Hermione, who had Owled her already to find out if she knew anything about Zabini. She didn't, nor was she likely to get anything out of Malfoy about it. He wasn't even speaking to Gwen on the subject.
Ginny settled in the study with ink and parchment, and wrote an amusing account of an incident in Muggle London with Gwen and a duck pond. She was halfway through the letter when someone cleared their throat at the door. Ginny jumped.
"Am I interrupting?" Malfoy asked, surprising Ginny by indicating that he cared whether he was interrupting.
"I'm Owling Hermione," Ginny said. "She's lonely."
"You've got about a hundred people staying at your place," he objected.
"Yeah," Ginny said pointedly, "but none of them is Blaise Zabini." She grinned a little. "Nev does quite a lifelike impression, though."
Malfoy wandered in. "Granger's only known Blaise a couple weeks."
"They've spent every moment together," Ginny countered. "She missed him. And she's known him more than three weeks."
"Hogwarts doesn't count," Malfoy said. "We've established that, remember?"
Ginny wanted to point out that she still hadn't forgiven him for being an absolute prat at Hogwarts, but remembering the times she'd reminded him they weren't there anymore, she bit her lips.
She shook her head, saw no reason to acknowledge him further, and went back to her letter.
"Weasley, what is it about me you resent so much?" he said, suddenly impatient. "Seems like you're going out of your way to avoid me."
Oh, the lists. "I don't resent you," she said, shrugging. "I just – I guess I don't care that much for you, that's all."
There was a pause. "Why not?"
She frowned. "We've never go on, Malfoy. I'm sure this isn't news to you."
"At Hogwarts, maybe," he said pointedly. "Obviously that's not a problem for Granger or Blaise."
"Or maybe it is, since he's up and left with no explanation at all," Ginny retorted, looking up from her letter.
"I'm not sure they're suited anyway," Malfoy said indifferently.
"It's not your right to decide that for them!" Ginny snapped. She took a deep breath. "Hermione notwithstanding, you're not the kind of person I have any desire to know."
His unreadable expression trembled for a moment on the edge of something else. "Why not?" he asked again.
"The way you treat people," Ginny exploded. "Like they're either useful or not useful to you. Your friend Patrick, for example. He told me about how you left your mum in England to go off rampaging with the Zabinis and how Patrick felt obligated to step in so your mum wouldn't be lonely and miserable all by herself. How he gave up his best Quidditch years for that!"
"What the hell do you know about Patrick Park?" Malfoy snarled, so angry suddenly that Ginny wanted to lean away. He opened his mouth to say something else, but after a moment, closed it with a click. "Exactly how long have you known Park?" He spoke as though they'd been having a pleasant conversation.
"Long enough." Ginny stuck her chin out. "I hear you've known him all your life."
"Unfortunately," Malfoy muttered. He caught her eye, his own sharp. "So I can see why you're so set against me, Weasley," he said carelessly. "By all accounts, I'm absolute rubbish as a person."
Ginny didn't feel quite right agreeing to this so she kept quiet. He wasn't finished. "Maybe if I was like Potter or Park, just pretended it didn't matter about blood or money or family. Your precious father put mine in Azkaban, do you remember?"
"And your precious father nearly killed me my first year at Hogwarts!" Ginny shouted, shaking all over. She saw him start. "Yeah, bet he failed to mention that when he was going on about the virtues of being a Malfoy." She stalked right up to him and jabbed him in the chest. "You are the last person in the world I would ever want to be friends with, let alone anything else."
He was silent a moment. "I had no idea you felt that strongly about it," he managed at last. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
He turned and left the study. Ginny watched him and continued to stare at the door long after he'd left.
Ginny went to her room soon after. Whether by luck or because he was staying out of her way, Ginny made it there without seeing Malfoy. She collapsed on her bed, feeling as though she'd been awake for days instead of hours. She must have slept for hours, dreamlessly, because the next thing she knew, Gwen was shaking her awake.
"Gin, are you okay?" she demanded, sitting on the edge of Ginny bed. "No one's seen you all day. Are you sick again?"
"No," Ginny said blearily, rubbing her eyes. "I just – I was sleepy. I guess more than I thought."
"Draco's been in a state this afternoon," Gwen said, watching her closely.
"Has he?" Ginny said absently, swinging her legs over the side of the bed.
"Left for Barthorne this afternoon," she said. Her tone asked if Ginny had anything to do with his departure, though she was nice enough not to ask outright.
"Don't suppose he took your brother with him?" Ginny asked.
"Dunno," Gwen said. "We'll be out of London by week's end, though, Harry promised. He'd love to be at the Burrow for Christmas."
"I'm sure Mum's forgiven him," Ginny murmured. "Or will do, when she sees how perfectly happy I am without him."
"Are you still annoyed with him?" Gwen said sympathetically. "I'd be."
"That's very understanding of you," Ginny said, smiling. "I'll get over it. Git."
Gwen smiled. "The house is almost Malfoy free and there may be an advent of Lupins and Tonkses this evening."
"Bet Mrs. Malfoy's thrilled about that," Ginny said, crawling off the bed and making her way to her closet for some decent evening wear.
By the time they arrived in the dining parlor, the others were waiting for them. Harry stood with Remus Lupin, discussing the orphanage. Andromeda Tonks sat beside Narcissa, head bent close in some private conversation. Tonks came toward the two girls, smiling.
"Ginny, I've wonderful news," Tonks said with a tight hug.
"You're coming to the Burrow for Christmas?" Ginny said eagerly.
"No, we'll be with Andromeda and Narcissa," Tonks said, with a regretful look at her aunt and mother. "You know I'd rather be with you lot, but Mum gets really lonely this time of year. So does Aunt Cissy."
"Of course you should be with your family," Ginny said quickly. "What's the news, then?"
"Well …" She glanced hesitantly at Gwen.
"Tell me," Ginny said. "I'd tell Gwen anyway."
Tonks nodded, smiling at Gwen. "I spoke to Kingsley Shacklebolt last week," she began. "I've been making arrangements for … well." She smiled, patting her still flat stomach.
"You're a Metamorph," Gwen said thoughtfully, tilting her head on one side. "Could you hide your pregnancy if you wanted to do? You know, change the shape of your body?"
Tonks considered. "I don't know," she said thoughtfully. "I'll have to experiment. I expect I'd have to make myself look really fat to account for the extra mass."
Gwen snorted with laughter.
"Good news, Tonk?" Ginny prompted impatiently.
"I mentioned to Kingsley that you want try for the Aurors," she said. "And he nearly went through the roof. He wants you in the Ministry for testing before Christmas."
"What?" Ginny gasped.
"What's wrong, Ginny?" Harry and Lupin came to join them.
"Do you want to try for it?" Tonks asked, ignoring Harry. "You don't need to study or anything. It's mostly naturally aptitude testing."
"Will you be with me?" Ginny asked faintly.
"Absolutely," Tonks said. "As your sponsor, I'm supposed to be with you from start to finish."
Ginny wanted to cry. "Oh, thank you!" she said, throwing her arms around Tonks. "When do we go?"
"I thought we'd take you away when your week here is up," Tonks said. "We can make a little party of it, bring you back to the Burrow a few days before Christmas."
"What's going on?" Harry said, as Gwen offered her congratulations and hugs.
"Ginny's trying for the Aurors over the holidays!" Gwen said. "Isn't it wonderful?"
Harry bit his lip. "What's your family going to say?"
"They'll probably hate it," Ginny said frankly. "But I'm an adult and I've wanted this a long time." She gave him a look. "Come on, you didn't expect me to be my brothers' business manager forever?"
He chuckled. "No one expected that," he said. He kissed her cheek. "You'll be a great Auror, Gin."
"I haven't got it yet," Ginny muttered, embarrassed.
They sat down to supper and though Ginny tried to keep up with the conversation around the table, she was totally distracted by nerves, excitement, and a sense of tainted happiness. Malfoy's absence was only a sorrow to his mother, but Ginny felt it, and it made her uneasy.
They were into the dessert course when the butler brought an Owl through to Ginny. Ginny studied the neat writing on the outside of the envelope. It was unfamiliar.
"Who's it from?" Harry asked.
"I think it's from Hermione," Ginny lied. She tucked the parchment into her pocket and went back to her meringue.
Once she got away from the table, she slipped into the study to read it.
To Ginny Weasley,
As you probably know, I'm off to Barthorne tonight. I think it's safer for me if I stay out of your way and since you're staying with my mother as a favor to Gwen, I thought I'd take myself off and leave you in peace. I couldn't leave without answering your accusations. Think what you want about me, but you should know the facts before you pass judgment. I want to answer to both charges – the first, that I convinced Blaise to leave your friend Granger and the second, that I treated my mother's godson badly.
Where Blaise is concerned, I want you to understand that I will do whatever I think necessary to protect him. Blaise has fancied Granger since he became a double agent during the war. He's not aware of his own appeal nor often aware when someone fancies him. I couldn't tell if Granger did or if she was still with Weasley. I couldn't stand the thought of Blaise being hurt, so when he asked my advice about it, I thought it would be better for him if I told him I thought she was with Weasley. Apparently I was wrong – what I did, I did to protect my friend. I think you can appreciate that.
Where Patrick Park is concerned, you only know half the story and you might get the whole thing before you judge me about him. A word of advice – don't get too attached.
I have one apology to offer – quite frankly, I don't give a damn about your family's blood or money. You made me angry earlier, so I was just saying whatever came into my head. I left most of my prejudices at Hogwarts during the war.
I won't bother you again. Happy Christmas.
"Gin, what are you doing sitting in the dark?" Gwen demanded. "Come sit in by one of the trillion fireplaces and play snap with Tonks and I. We're a player short."
Ginny wanted very badly have a good long think about her letter. She was infuriatingly curious now – what could he possibly mean about Park? She sighed. She owed it to Narcissa to at least appear to be enjoying herself. She carefully tucked the letter into her pocket, anger at what she had read so far simmering in the back of her mind. She put a smile on her face for Gwen's benefit and followed her into the sitting room.
"Letter from Mione?" Harry asked as he dealt the first hand.
"Right," Ginny murmured. "She's excited for us to be home again. She's lonely."
Ministry of Magic
Ginny left Clarity Court that Saturday, with a week to spare until Christmas. Tonks and Professor Lupin took her straight to the Ministry for her testing. She had packed her letter from Malfoy away in her trunk. She couldn't afford to be distracted right now and she really wanted to have Hermione there to talk it out sentence by sentence – the part about Park, anyway.
Ginny had been to the Ministry quite a lot as a kid and for logistical elements of Fred and George's business, but she'd never been up to Auror Headquarters.
"Don't be nervous," Tonks said quietly as they got in the lift. "It's aptitude testing and you're a natural. You did really well in DADA and you helped found a resistance movement, all before the age of eighteen. You're a shoe-in."
"The last time I was in this particular lift," Ginny murmured, "I was helping Harry break into the Department of Mysteries."
Lupin put a hand on her shoulder and Tonks said, "Bring that up with Kingsley. He was thrilled at how hacked off the Unspeakables were. That's brownie points for you."
"Harry's an Unspeakable," Ginny said slowly. "Is there a rivalry between the departments?"
"Oh, yeah." Tonks laughed. "Although Harry's not really a part of it. Those Unspeakables who had to clean up the Hall of Prophecy still won't have anything to do with Harry, for all he's a war hero."
Ginny giggled. "The great Harry Potter, shunned and outcast."
Lupin shook his head. "Girls."
They stepped out into the reception room of Auror HQ. Ginny swallowed.
Tonks swallowed. "Hi, Arthur."
Arthur Weasley stood, arms crossed imposingly over his chest. "Were you planning on telling us you wanted to try for the Aurors, Ginevra, or just mention it at the induction ceremony?" he asked.
"I didn't want it to be a big deal," Ginny began. "What are you doing working on the weekend, Dad?"
"Who says I was working?" he demanded. "Don't change the subject, young lady."
"Who told?" Ginny retorted. She slapped a hand to her forehead. "Harry, you rat."
"He didn't like to think you'd keep something this important from your family," Mr. Weasley began. "He Owled me last night. Your mother, thank heaven, has no idea."
"I'm an adult, it's my choice!" Ginny exploded. She'd had about as much as she could stand of Harry bloody Potter. "Anyway, he probably just did it to get back on your good side."
"Ginny, really." Lupin shook his head. "Arthur, she's just doing the testing today. Nothing will be decided for several months."
Mr. Weasley blew out a breath.
"Dad, I've wanted this for ages," Ginny pleaded. "Please, let me do it my way. I promise I'll tell you everything in my own time."
"Hard to argue with that," he said. "But you're my little girl, Gin."
She smiled, her eyes stinging. "I know, Dad. But I lived through a war – I think I can handle a few miscreants."
"That's Auror talk I like to hear."
They turned to Kingsley Shacklebolt, who stood in the doorway. He nodded to Mr. Weasley, but spoke to Ginny. "Are you ready, Miss Weasley?"
Ginny squared her shoulders. "Dad? I'll see you at home tomorrow?"
He nodded, hugged her fiercely, and said, "What shall I tell your mother?"
"To bury Harry Potter in a snow bank until after Christmas?" she suggested. She held up defensive hands. "Kidding. Tell her I love her and I'll tell her everything tomorrow. She hasn't a prayer of talking me out of this, especially now Tonks is my sponsor."
"Tonks?" Mr. Weasley nodded slowly. "Well, that's a relief. I was worried you'd wind up with Higgs or Cuthbert."
"I'll look out for her, Arthur."
Mr. Weasley kissed Ginny's forehead and left rather quickly.
"Poor Dad," Ginny murmured.
"Are you ready?" Kingsley asked again.
Tonks put a warm hand on Ginny's shoulder and led her into the office.
The Leaky Cauldron
The testing had been interesting, rather than nerve-racking. Ginny had no idea how well she'd done on any of it, but she got through and Tonks said she thought Ginny'd done excellently. Lupin insisted they all go out to celebrate.
The Leaky Cauldron was all done up in holly and pine boughs, the smell of cinnamon thick in the air.
"To Ginny Weasley," Tonks said, holding up her eggnog mug and slopping a bit on her sleeve. "May she live to be the greatest Auror of her time."
"And supplant you?" Ginny rejoined, clinking their mugs together.
"Ha!" Tonks took a swallow. "You know what I'm like, Gin. I've been very lucky, that's all."
"You're a prodigy, darling," Lupin commented, his arm draped over Tonks' chair. He glanced around, grinning. "Merlin, it's packed in here."
"What?" she called over the noise.
Ginny looked up. "Zabini!" she said in amazement. "What're you doing here?"
"Having supper," he told her. He hesitated. "Would you join me for a few minutes, Miss Weasley?"
Ginny had been giving Malfoy's letter a lot of thought since she finished her Auror exams and though she wanted to blame Zabini for his reliance on Malfoy's opinion, she hadn't really much of a case against him. The best she could do was think Zabini needed to rely a lot more on his own perceptions and take a few risks occasionally. She couldn't fault him for thinking Ron and Hermione might still be together. They often still fought as though they were.
"I will if you stop calling me Miss," Ginny told him with a smile. "I'll be right back," she said to Lupin and Tonks, whose curious eyes followed them across the pub to Zabini's private room.
"I hate the noise," he confessed as he led Ginny through. He was alone – Ginny thought the room looked sort of empty. She even saw an open book by his plate. "Part of the reason I loved living in the country."
Ginny kept her mouth shut as he pulled out a chair for her. She wasn't sure what to say and as it was clear he had something on his mind, she didn't want to stop him saying it.
"Is that Dickens?" Ginny couldn't help asking, eyeing the book.
"Austen," he admitted. "Herm – I mean, a friend recommended it to me." He held up the book.
"Persuasion?" Ginny said. She frowned. "Not the best book to start with."
"Yeah, everyone says 'Pride and Prejudice,'" Zabini said. "I tried it, couldn't stand it, and put it away on a shelf somewhere at Barthorne."
"How're you liking Persuasion?" Ginny asked.
He smiled. "A lot, actually. Nice holiday reading." He sat down, stared at his plate a moment, then looked up at Ginny. "Had a visit from Dracotoday."
Ginny looked down at her hands. "He mentioned he was headed back to Barthorne," she said at last.
"That's what I hear," Zabini said. "I also hear," he added, and when Ginny looked across the table his lip was twitching, "that you took him to task."
Ginny blushed, eyes returning to her lap. "How much did he tell you?" she asked slowly.
"He's my best mate," was all Zabini said.
Ginny groaned. "I don't think you're a heartless git anymore," she said quickly.
"That's a relief," he said. "I'd hate for you to light into me as well. Draco says," he added, the twitch suddenly a grin, "that you've got a sharp little tongue."
She glared at him, going even redder. "Did you ask me in here to mock me, Zabini?"
He chuckled. "No, I definitely didn't." He frowned suddenly. "Draco told me you had something to say about Herm – about Granger."
"Like you've broken her heart up and leaving at Christmas and claiming you won't be back until New Year, at which time she'll have left the Burrow for Scotland?" Ginny suggested.
"Sharp tongue," Zabini said, wincing.
"You really hadn't any idea how Mione felt about you?" Ginny said, taking pity on him. "Zabini, you're such an idiot."
"Apparently," he muttered. His eyes narrowed. "I have a plan. Will you help me?"
"Gladly," Ginny said. "As long as it means making Hermione happy again."
He smiled. "Absolutely. Before that, though," Zabini said slowly. "Malfoy also said you took him to task about Patrick Park."
"He's sworn not to say a word of what I'm about to tell you," Zabini began slowly. "You've spent some time with Park, I understand."
"A bit," Ginny admitted, going red.
"Okay, I want you to think back to the last time you saw him," Zabini began, but was interrupted by Tom, the barkeep, who came in with a toothless smile and an Owl for Ginny.
"I'm popular this week," she muttered. She grinned. "It's from Mione," she said, glancing at Zabini. "Do you mind? She's already written me once this week – this probably isn't a social call."
She slit the parchment, read the contents, gave a start of horror, and a gasp.
"What?" Zabini demanded, diving across the table.
"Oh," was all Ginny could say. She was short of breath.
"May I?" When Ginny didn't respond, Zabini plucked the parchment out of her hands. He read it once, gasped himself, and said, "Oh, hell, now she's done it!"
Ginny was pulled from her horrified stupor. "I'm sorry? Who's 'she'?"
At that moment, the fireplace in the corner of the room flared to life and Malfoy stepped out onto the hearth rug.
"She's gone, Blaise, and – Weasley?"
"Who's gone?" Ginny demanded. "Zabini, who're you talking about?"
The two men exchanged looks.
"Weasley, can you keep your mouth shut?"
"Of course!" she said indignantly.
Malfoy paused. "It's like this," he said. "Hear my out before you interrupt. Your brother Ron has run off with Patrick Park."
"We know" Ginny and Zabini said, waving the letter between them. "What the hell?" Ginny added for good measure.
"Shut up, I'll explain," he said. "Weasley, Park's a girl."
Ginny slumped against her chair. "Excuse me?"
Malfoy gave her a look that had, to Ginny's amazement, something like sympathy behind it. "Patrick Park is a fake name. In order to play for Puddlemere, who're known for choosing male players, our friend had to disguise herself as a boy."
"Which friend?" Ginny demanded. When Zabini offered her his water glass, she shook her head and pointed at his wine goblet.
"Oh, naturally." Ginny swallowed the contents of the wine glass in three gulps. "Wait, I don't believe you. How can that possibly be Parkinson?" She remembered Park's ruggedly handsome face, his broad flat chest, his deep laugh.
"Oh, easy," Zabini said, shrugging. "Mostly it's makeup, in case a ref checks to see if she has any funny charm on before a game. She does have an amulet she wears to deepen her voice and little hair pieces so she can pretend she has a goatee when she fancies. She also has a glamour across her chest."
"You mustn't breathe a word, even to Granger," Malfoy went on. "Pansy took this project up because it was the only possible way she could play professional Quidditch on the team she wanted. Only a few of us know. If Pansy's exposed, at least before the World Cup, which Puddlemere might actually make this year, she'll be expelled and she'll never be able to play pro-Quidditch again."
Ginny blinked rapidly, a little calmer as the alcohol hit her system. "So all that rubbish of living with your mum, training, only having a few years left to play professionally..."
"If she makes it to World Cup without her disguise going belly-up, she'll be able to play anywhere she wants, even when she exposes herself." Malfoy rolled his eyes. "And that's rubbish about not being able to play long. Most pro-Quidditch stars play a good ten years before retiring."
"What," Ginny said after a moment's heavy silence, "the hell was she doing pretending to fancy me?"
"What, indeed," Zabini muttered. "Sporting with poor, unsuspecting ..." He paused, grinning and Ginny knew exactly what he hadn't said.
She glared. "Bite me, Zabini, you still need my help."
"Sorry," he said quickly, holding up his hands.
"Help with what?" Malfoy demanded.
"Don't change the subject!" Ginny snapped. "No, shut up, let me think." She couldn't, though. "Why has she run off with Ron?"
"All we know is that she did and your entire bloody household is in uproar," Malfoy said, smirking. "Because obviously, they think he's gay all of a sudden."
"How do you know all this?" Ginny wondered.
"Your poor mum came over to Barthorne, wondering if her little boy had wandered off to come bother me," he said. At least he wasn't insulting her mother. Ginny would take abuse about Ron right now. "Of course he didn't come near the estate – why would he? I mentioned Puddlemere had just packed out as well and Mrs. Weasley went tearing home and discovered an Owl had arrived from him. He'd gone off with Park for a mini-break."
"Poor Mum," Ginny murmured. "I hope he has the decency to come back for Christmas." She frowned. "He does know Park's actually Parkinson?"
"Unless he's come over homosexual," Zabini murmured. "Which isn't likely, is it?"
Not Ron, Ginny thought. Percy, maybe.
"It's shaken Longbottom right up," Malfoy said. "He kept saying he would have noticed."
Ginny looked sharply at him. "What do you know about Nev?"
Malfoy snorted. "So obvious. I've known for years. I've got no problem; his bloody choice, isn't it? Long as he doesn't choose to fancy me, I'm easy."
Ginny shook her head again, slowly. "I don't believe it. Mum's probably beside herself. I've got to get home tonight." She stood quickly. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't blow Parkinson's cover," she added, suddenly angry. Bloody Parkinson had kissed her hand, flirted with her!
"She really did spend four years with my mum because I was gone," Malfoy said. "I had to get out of the country. Blaise and I were being mobbed and it was sheer misery for us and our families. Pans understood and she wasn't good enough to play professionally yet. She had so much potential and with no work and loads of free time when my mum didn't need her, she had almost four uninterrupted years to train. I had a pitch built at Malfoy Manor and kept a private instructor on with her for those four years. She prepared Pansy and put out feelers into the Quidditch world. They realized wasn't going to get anything good as a girl, so the instructor helped her become a man. Teams were slavering for her when she became Patrick Park."
"Who trained her?"
"Madam Hooch." Draco grinned. "She caught me to handle a broom and never wanted glory – just loves bloody Quidditch. She gave Pans what she needed and then agreed to absolute silence and a fat paycheck, most of which will be used to refurbish Hogwarts' Quidditch supplies and grounds."
Ginny stared at him. "You did all that for Parkinson? I mean – Malfoy, that's an awful lot, just to convince her to live with your mum."
He shrugged. "It made her happy and she had already decided to live with my mum." He glanced at Zabini. "Speaking of which, we should get back to Barthorne." He winced. "Gwen's moving Potter right in – she came to plead with me earlier tonight."
"She hasn't!" Zabini fired up. "That bastard can march right out and – "
"She cried, Zabini, what was I supposed to do?" Malfoy retorted.
"Do you two have any idea how happy Gwen is?" Ginny cut in. "Who gives a damn if it's Harry Potter or the ghost of Christmas Past, let her have it, won't you?"
They glared at her. "Go get your escort, we have to get back," Malfoy said.
Ginny explained to Tonks and Lupin about Ron and "Park" as best she could. They decided to stay in London, but walked Ginny to the Floo.
"We'll be in touch about your tests, Gin," Tonks said as she waved goodbye.
Ginny had a moment's wish she were staying at the table with Tonks and Lupin. Then Malfoy offered her the Floo powder. She caught sight of his long fingers and the half-smile he offered when their eyes met.
Or not, she decided.
"You're heading to Barthorne?" she guessed.
"Until Christmas Eve," Zabini said. "Our plan – you'll see to everything for me?"
"You owe me one," Ginny told him.
"Don't worry," Zabini said, with a look at Malfoy's back that Ginny didn't miss. "I always pay up."
With less than a week until Christmas, the Burrow was a madhouse.
Mrs. Weasley was beside herself. "I just can't believe Ronnie's gay!" she kept wailing. "Why didn't he tell me? I'm his mother!"
"Poor, poor Ginny!" Hermione and Neville kept intoning. They had all seen Ginny with Park, after all. Ginny tried to assure them that she was quite pleased to be rid of stupid Park, telling as best she could, of his fibs about his stay with Mrs. Malfoy and what Malfoy had done for him without giving away that he was actually a she. She exhausted every resource against Hermione, who was sharp as a tack and probably had some idea that all was not as it appeared.
"I expect it's drugs," she said darkly to Ginny. "Park lures him away with promises of Quidditch and then drugs him right up."
Ginny, meanwhile, was busy helping her overwrought mother prepare the Burrow for her sons and their families. Some of those families were staying in magical tents in the back garden. The single brothers got the house, as did pregnant wives (current count: Fleur).
Ginny was also busy thinking about Malfoy, who was a constant fixture in her mind these days. She kept thinking of Barthorne and running over there. However, as far as everyone at the Burrow knew, only Malfoy, Gwen, and Harry were there. Zabini wanted to keep it that way. Ginny didn't like to depress Hermione any more than she already was, but she thought it was probably worth it for what Zabini had planned for her.
Christmas Eve crept up and leapt out at Ginny. She spent it looking after nieces and nephews with Neville, trying to perk Hermione up, and trying to get her mum to settle about Ron, who surely wouldn't miss Christmas at the Burrow after all the trouble he'd been to to arrange the time off at his office.
By seven, Ginny was glad to get away from her big, bustling family and Apparate to Barthorne. She was disappointed that she didn't see Malfoy when she let herself in.
"You ready?" Zabini asked when he met her in the entrance hall.
"Are you?" Ginny countered. Zabini smiled in a nervous, twitchy way and let her peep at the ballroom. It was candlelit and by the single fireplace was a little dining table set for two with a box across one plate.
"Is that ...?" Ginny asked.
"It goes back about five generations," Zabini said. "I've got the ring that goes with, but I think let's take it one step at a time? Start with the bracelet."
"You are going to ask her to marry you eventually, right?" Ginny demanded.
"Of course!" He looked offended. "I finally recognize the best thing that's ever happened to me. I just don't want to frighten her. It would a little sudden."
"You're still worried she doesn't fancy you," Ginny accused. "Zabini, you're hopeless."
"Who's hopeless?" he retorted. "Taken a look at Malfoy lately?"
Ginny paused. "Don't say mean things about your friends," she said at last.
"Cheeky," he said, smirking. "Go away now, Weasley, and fetch my true love."
"What am I, your bloody fairy godmother?" But Ginny smiled with a grudging, "Happy Christmas. Though we'll probably see you tomorrow."
"I reckon so," he said. He fished in his robes and pulled out a sealed envelope. "It's an after-dinner invite for your entire family to come to Barthorne tomorrow. Might be more comfortable for that number of people."
Ginny Apparated back to the Burrow in time for another commotion.
"Ron!" she said in amazement, while her mother shrieked at him and cried hysterically.
"Did Malfoy tell you everything?" Ron asked Ginny in her ear as he hugged her.
"Yes, and how are you going to get out of this one?" she demanded back.
"Lie through my teeth, obviously," he said, putting an arm around her and steering her into a corner hidden by the tree.
"Why did she pretend to fancy me?" Ginny hissed as they hunkered down beside the piles of presents.
"She's a bit of a Slytherin, in case you hadn't noticed," Ron said, though with a terribly sappy grin. "She thought it was funny as hell."
"Hate her!" Ginny grumbled without much rancor.
"You'll not breathe a word?" he begged. "Ginny, she's the girl of my dreams."
"That sentiment appears to be catching," Ginny retorted. "Excuse me, I have to go take Hermione to the man who thinks she's the girl of his dreams."
"You little matchmaker," Ron said, nudging her. "Who's it to be for you?" He sobered. "If it's Malfoy, I don't want to know."
"Everyone is full of crazy ideas tonight," Ginny said, fleeing.
"Mione," she said, as she found her friend sitting alone at the kitchen table, tracing patterns with her fingers. "Come walk with me – you look a mess."
Hermione looked up, her eyes red. "I didn't really think he'd stay away through Christmas," she admitted.
"We'll have plenty of good fun without him and take loads of pictures and paste them all over those stupid pillars at Barthorne," Ginny said. "Come on, get your cloak."
She led Hermione into the new snow, glittering under a cloudless, starry night. The moon was almost full. Fortunately, Hermione was distracted by it long enough for Ginny to take her arm and tandem Apparate.
"Ginny!" Hermione gasped, stumbling on the top step of Barthorne. "I don't understand – "
"Thank me later, happy Christmas, go through into the ballroom," Ginny said, pushing her through the open door and shutting it behind her. She waited, but Hermione didn't come tearing out after several minutes. When Ginny peeked through the door, she saw Zabini meeting Hermione at the ballroom doors. She heard Hermione burst into tears before she quickly closed the door again.
"Little bit of the voyeur in you, there, Weasley?"
"Bit of warning next time," she said, pressing a hand to her heart. "It's a dark night."
"I've never made things easy for you," he said. She could see his smirk in the moonlight. It made his sharp features stand out. She saw that his hair was down, just brushing his collar. His grey eyes glittered with starlight. He offered her a long-fingered hand. "You wouldn't like easy, though, right?"
She took the hand, lacing their fingers together. "Not really. What fun is that?"
He pulled her closer, his other hand coming up to her cheek. His finger brushed her lips. "Sharp little tongue in there."
"Stay here a few more minutes, it could do with sharpening." She grinned.
"That an invitation?"
"Need another one?" Ginny stood on tiptoe, wrapping her arms around his neck. She smirked. "Coming to my parents' house for Christmas tomorrow?"
"One thing at a time," he said. "How about: Happy Christmas, Gin."
"I'd like one of those," and Ginny fitted her lips over his. He deepened the kiss, lifting her right off her feet. She could feel the warmth of his chest even through their cloaks.
She laughed, pulling back a bit. He gave her a questioning look and she kissed his nose.
"I was just thinking," she said. "What will Mother say?"
Sorry about lack of editing. As usual, this sat around for over a month, waiting to be finished,and then had to be rushed at 3am Christmas morning. It actually got completely restarted at the start of December and has been carefully compiled since then. Fortunately, unlike my last five or so years of fics, this one is being written in one of the first timezones, so I'll have posted it in time for most of you to read Christmas Day.
Happy Christmas from South Korea, folks! And may the Austen be with you!