Harry stared apprehensively at the pile Ginny placed before him. She sat down next to him patiently, watching him stare at the stack as if it were his newest foe.
"It's okay, Harry. You don't have to do anything you don't want to, or don't feel ready to. Start with just a sock, or put the shirt on but don't button it, or ignore the clothes completely. No pressure," she said and smiled.
Her smile was strained, something not many would notice, but he had studied her face extensively, perhaps more than anyone. Her face was always so expressive; almost every time he looked at her, it looked different. He still was having trouble recognizing all the emotions she was capable of expressing. But this was the face he had seen since yesterday. The discovery of Polyjuice Potion shook her hard. It seemed to add a layer of stress on her face and every other emotion was expressed on the canvas of that stress. It colored her every emotion, dulling the happiness, and increasing the worry and fear.
"You are upset," he said quietly to her, thankful that for once they were left alone.
"Yes," Ginny said softly. She made a point to never lie or conceal things from Harry. It was step one of her earn-and-keep-his-trust plan.
"It's the Polyjuice Potion..." she sighed. "There's this chance, likely even, that Lucius was not the man that took me, not the man that hurt us... making every part of my testimony practically useless, leaving my attacker faceless..." She shuddered. "Somehow that makes him scarier."
"I do not understand. I serve..." he swallowed hard, focusing. "… served the Malfoys. They took you."
For a second Ginny let his conviction sweep her away. "Well... they found Polyjuice Potion... potion that can make one person look like another at the house of your aunt and uncle."
"The Dursleys? And... I used to live there?"
"That's what Dumbledore said. That's why they are taking the potion so seriously. Dumbledore delivered you to the Dursleys. He placed protective wards on the house—magic to keep you alive... safe. He didn't think that anyone would be able to penetrate such strong magic. So the idea that maybe it was the Dursleys that hurt you... well, it may explain a few things. But there's a problem with that theory too: all of the Dursleys were believed to be Muggles. Apparently they are looking into this right now. If the one of the Dursleys is somehow magical... well that would make the idea that they were the ones keeping us captive even more plausible."
"But it does not seem... coherent. Why would someone impersonate someone else for sixteen years?"
"I have not a clue, Harry."
"So we need more information..." he said slowly.
She smiled at him. Was it strange how much he liked that? "Yes, we really do."
"Thus the... clothes."
"Well yes—but Harry, if we are right the clothes may help you do more than just tell us about who held you and I. It would bring you closer to being independent of... your past."
He picked up the white shirt as if it might attack him. Ginny had picked out the lightest shirt she could find, anything to make this easier. Already his hand was shaking where it held the shirt away from his body.
"It is not that I have not touched clothes before..." Harry said, watching his own hand shake. "It's just that I have never had the intent of putting them on before." He dropped the shirt in his lap. He breathed in and out deeply as he kept a watchful eye on the shirt. Ginny watched cautiously, not sure of what to do.
"Maybe this isn't a good idea..." she said, worried at the haggard expression on Harry's face.
"No. I iwant/i to do this. I am ready to fight." She felt pride unfurl within her. She could feel it pressing out against her sternum. "Will you help me?" he asked, his voice even softer than usual.
He handed her the shirt. She looked at him questioningly, suddenly feeling like she was holding an explosive.
"Just... let's go slowly," he said. He looked into her eyes then, and his trust was as clear as day. Suddenly Ginny felt the heavy weight of responsibility. This was a person who trusted no one—had been taught over and over how trust led only to pain—and he was placing his trust in her.
She turned to him on the couch, reaching out slowly to place her hand on his. She moved her thumb soothingly on the skin there before slowly lifting his arm. She brought a sleeve to his hand and slowly slid it around his wrist. He began shaking, almost vibrating with restraint. She paused as soon as she got the sleeve past his hand. Immediately she resumed her soft caress of his hand. He closed his eyes breathing deeply. When he finally opened his eyes his shaking had become less intermittent.
He gave Ginny a nod, which she took to mean to continue. Slowly she slid the sleeve up his arm adding circular massages as she went, trying to mix in some sense of pleasurable sensation to counteract his obviously painful struggle. When the shirt made it all the way up to his shoulder she paused again.
She heard his teeth slam shut and then grind together. He began panting, shaking enough to almost throw himself right off the couch. His hands clenched, digging his nails into his thighs. Ginny's heart rate jumped exponentially as she considered yelling for help in her panic, but he had made her promise that no one else would be here for this. He hated feeling vulnerable in a crowd. If others came traipsing in, it would only panic him more.
"Harry! Are you okay?"
"All I can think of are all the ways I could punish myself..." The obvious strain in his voice scared her. "It is taking everything in me to not run over to that broken picture frame I've spotted on the far wall and scrape the jagged edge down my arm... and then over my leg... and then finally smash it and walk all over it until my feet are slick with blood..."
Horror filled Ginny as she saw Harry's legs tense as he tried to resist the urge to stand. He was losing the battle. He was getting up...
"No!" she cried, doing the first thing that came to mind. She flipped where she was sitting, tossing one leg over so that she was now straddling on his lap. Her sudden weight forced Harry back into the couch fully. The move also brought her face a dragon heartstring's width from his. She rested her forehead against his; they were both breathing hard now.
"No," she said softly. "Don't hurt yourself. Now you'll have to throw me to the floor if you try."
"I don't want to hurt you," he whispered, clenching his eyes closed and letting her head support his. He felt the tips of her hair brush the one shoulder that was still bare. It was so so soft. He breathed in all that was her, the smell, the feel. Whether it was knowing his actions would hurt her, or the sudden welcome assault to his senses that she had unwittingly fired, it did not matter. All that mattered was that his attention was diverted. The loss of self he experienced whenever he was driven to punish himself was overwhelming. She managed to break him out of that reverie and pull him back to reality.
"Okay," he whispered after a long moment.
She looked at him, judging how sure he was that he was ready to continue. She eased his shoulders forward, toward her, and moved the shirt around his back until the second sleeve reached the opposite shoulder. "How do you feel?"
"Just keep going... please."
She lifted his elbow, placing his hand near the sleeve's opening and then slowly led his arm through the sleeve. Gently she pulled the front of the shirt over. She reached up and flipped the color so it lay comfortably against his skin. He was tense beneath her, holding himself in a grip that would rival a grindylow's. Even his arms were rigid where they rested on the couch beside the two of them.
Ginny moved her hand over the cloth, circling her palm right over his heart. One of his hands reached up to cover hers. It was the first time he had initiated contact. He held his hand on hers marveling at the delicate uninterrupted skin on the back of her hand before moving her hand across his chest and placing it over a button.
"Harry... you've already managed so much..."
"I can do it."
"I have no doubt that you can. You are the strongest person I have ever met." She watched carefully, schooling her surprise as a faint red blush diffused over his cheeks.
"Please? I can't do it... not without help."
She immediately complied, wanting him to know that when he asked for help, help would be given. The first button closed, and then the second. She felt his stomach twitch briefly when she reached the lower buttons. Finally, she was done. The shirt was on.
Harry focused on breathing in and out... slowly, trying hard to remind himself that the shirt was not tight enough to be physically restricting, especially considering how light and loose the shirt fit. Harry felt contained, but as he breathed, reassured that his lungs had all the room they needed, he began to relax. He felt the tension finally ease out of him like the last viscous drop of maple syrup.
He swallowed, surprised at the sudden rush of his own emotions. Despite the strange prickling in his eyes, he looked up to stare unabashedly into Ginny's eyes. In her gaze he saw something he had never seen before, never directed at him at least. He barely understood it...pride, he decided. She was proud of him? A warm feeling diffused through his torso that had nothing to do with the cover the shirt—ihis/i shirt provided.
Ginny tossed her arms around him. "You did it!"
He could practically hear her smile in his ear. Instinctively his hands went to her waist, pulling her slightly closer where she could rest against his chest. He felt her all around him, a feeling that somehow went beyond the physical sensations of her proximity. He let his head fall to her shoulder mirroring her.
"You are an amazing person, Harry Potter." The warm feeling expanded, threatening to break his ribs with its intensity. He felt his lips move without any conscious effort, the corners tilting up slightly. So this was what happy felt like.
She pulled back to look at him, to reassure herself that he was okay. His smile greeted her and she smiled back.
"Do you feel any different?" Ginny asked after a moment.
Harry shrugged in confusion. "I… don't know. I mean, I do—feel different. But I don't know what exactly the difference is. I still feel the link to my masters... but it seems…" He paused searching for the words. "… easier… easier to fight the influence."
Ginny looked at him thoughtfully before remembering their current state. "Oh," she said, sliding off his lap guiltily. "I'm sorry... I—"
"Don't be," was his only response. Their gazes then slid, almost shyly, from each other and fell to the remaining clothes. Ginny suddenly felt an increase in her heart rate. Now what? She looked back at Harry, now wearing a clean white button-down shirt and an old pillow case. The juxtaposition made her laugh impossible to suppress. He looked at her questioningly, and at her vague gesture to his appearance he looked down to examine himself.
He joined her in the laugh. "I'm sorry, Harry. It's the stress..." Ginny said, trying to control her mirth.
"What? You don't like my outfit?"
Ginny stopped, suddenly worried that he would think she was laughing at him, but then she saw a new glint in his eyes. Slowly, a small barely detectable smirk slid across his face. "You picked it out," he said.
Ginny blinked rapidly in shock before laughing outright again. "Are you teasing me, Mr. Potter?"
He looked confused a moment. "I think I am..." He nodded to himself. "Another first," he said quietly. He had made her laugh—on purpose. He had brought that look to her face, gone was the stress he had seen all morning.
"What was that?" Ginny asked.
"Another first for me," Harry said.
"Are you ready for another?" she asked.
He looked at her in wary curiosity.
"It's a beautiful day outside. I thought we'd go to the pond, or perhaps try your hand at flying," she said nonchalantly.
"Really?" he asked. Unlike most people, for Harry this was not an expression of excitement, but an honest question, one to which he did not expect to receive an affirmative answer.
"Yes," Ginny said. "Really. But... I'm afraid you'll need trousers if you plan to get on a broom," she said pointedly, looking at the remaining clothes on the table.
Harry nodded so Ginny reached and once again placed the pile in his lap. Harry lifted to the two items by the tips of his fingers as if checking them for stink sap.
"These," Ginny said, indicating the item in his left hand. "… go under those." She pointed to a pair of dark blue loose shorts. She had tried to pick out what would be comfortable for someone who was not used to clothing. It was still July. Ron had handed her the shorts with two words, 'They're breezy'.
"I think… I think I can do it," he said. "But... don't leave."
Ginny smiled at him before turning slightly so that her back was to him. Harry found himself suddenly overwhelming thankful that she had turned her back. Strange… he had never been all that modest before.
"Thank you," he said softly.
Ginny heard a rustle of clothing which she took to mean he was trying.
Harry took a deep breath, untying the rope belt around his waist. His hands started to shake so he decided that he still needed a bit of a distraction. "So, uh…" he began, "… you said there is a pond?"
"Yes," Ginny responded. "It's nice, small enough to be warm on nice summer days but big enough to swim in. It's pretty; I like to go out there sometimes to think. Everything alright?" she asked without turning to him.
He had stopped moving. The pants were halfway there. "Yes," he said standing up on weak legs. "Just keep talking." And as she continued to talk of her home and her favorite parts he managed to slide on both the pants and the shorts.
"Okay," he said. "You can turn around."
She turned and there stood Harry pulling at the shorts awkwardly before experimentally sticking his hands in his pockets. He looked up at her shyly, and his shoulders rose to his ears.
Ginny let the feeling she had been holding back overwhelm her for a second. Now that he was finally free of the uniform that symbolized his slavery Ginny was able to admit her attraction to him.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Strange... but not bad."
She looked at him critically for a second. "You know there is one more thing..." she said warily, albeit with a certain hint of mischief.
"What's that?" he said, matching her wariness but not her excitement.
"Your hair... Don't you think you'd be a tad bit more comfortable without your hair in your eyes?"
Harry held a piece of his almost shoulder length hair questioningly. In truth, his hair had always bothered him. Even with its length it never seemed to lay flat, causing it to endlessly be in his eyes. The Malfoys had always sneered at his unkemptness, a physical way to emphasize his inferiority, With the new found clarity he had been afforded, Harry could see this. It made him eager to chop it off.
"I-I would like to do that."
"Great! My mum's practically an expert; she's cut all of my brothers' hair while growing up—well, that is, until Bill started to refuse."
Without conscious thought, Ginny grabbed Harry's hand and began leading him toward where she was certain to find her mother, the kitchen. Harry almost tripped over his feet in his attempt to keep up with Ginny. He smiled at her enthusiasm. Mrs. Weasley heard the commotion of Ginny powering through the living room toward her and turned to see what was happening. She promptly dropped the dish in her hand.
"Wow...Harry..." Harry's sudden fixation with the floor and flushed cheeks made her drop the compliment that was already formed on her lips. "Um, how do you feel?" she asked instead.
"Um, pretty good. Now, that is..." he responded. Mrs. Weasley shared a glance with Ginny, but otherwise let Harry's comment slide.
"We were thinking perhaps you could cut Harry's hair? We're planning on going out and maybe flying a bit?" Ginny asked hopefully.
Mrs. Weasley automatically smiled at her daughter. She had not seen her this lighthearted since Christmas. This only served to assuage her concerns that Ginny was more focused on Harry than her own recovery. Her daughter had always been quite the caregiver. Mrs. Weasley thought fondly of a time when Ginny was young and naive, and wanted nothing more than to help her mother care for her brothers. She could not prevent the nostalgic sigh that escaped her. But, it looked like Harry and Ginny were good for each other. Maybe together they could work their way past this. She wondered if she should be more concerned about her teenage daughter's strong emotional connection to her hero...
"Oh, some fresh air sounds like a good idea. Sure Harry, just sit here," she said gesturing to the nearest chair. Harry sat and pushed his hair back from his face. He was distracted for a second by the feel of the shirt on his back against the chair. Mrs. Weasley pulled her wand out and brought it towards Harry's long hair.
Out of the corner of his eyes Harry saw the offensive object draw near, and in an instant he was out of the chair, sending it crashing back, and immediately clambered under the table.
Mrs. Weasley was hit by a rush of regret. He was acting so normal that for a moment she forgot the precautions she should be taking around him. And as a result the boy who had seconds ago been happy and shy—maladjusted perhaps, but happy—was literally cowering beneath the table in fear.
"Harry," Ginny said softly as she slowly lowered herself to peer under the table.
He was still shaking when he lifted his head from his knees. "I'm s-s-sorry," he said. "I-I..."
"It's okay," Ginny said, simply holding out her hand with a small smile. After a moment's hesitation he reached out to grabbed it and let her help him up.
"Harry, dear, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you," Mrs. Weasley said from a much greater distance away from him.
"I-It's not that I thought you were going to hurt me..." he said, still not able to look in her eyes. "It... It was just..."
"… instinct," Ginny finished for him, to which he nodded, thankful she understood.
"It's my fault, Harry. I shouldn't have startled you."
Harry reached up and pushed back his unruly hair again with deep seated frustration. He was growing to hate his weaknesses. Mrs. Weasley watched with concern. "Ginny, why don't you do it?" she said, turning to her daughter. "Goodness knows you've seen me cut the boys' hair enough times."
Harry turned to her hopefully. Ginny gestured to the chair that had been re-righted. Once Harry was once again seated, Ginny turned to face him.
"Is it alright if I use my wand?" she asked. He nodded, so she pulled it out where he could clearly see it.
She approached him slowly and then gently began combing her fingers through his hair. Harry's eyes floated closed as the tension ebbed out of his body. Slowly she drew the wand up and little by little trimmed his hair, still leaving it a bit long, but at a much more manageable length. Ginny performed a quick refreshing charm. Harry shook his head experimentally, feeling the ease in which the shorter, albeit still a bit unruly, hair moved.
Ginny turned around to look at her handy work. Harry returned her smile and then experimentally ran his hand through his hair. Mrs. Weasley was warmed by the exchange.
As soon as Harry and Ginny had eaten the lunch Mrs. Weasley had forced on them, after grumbling about how thin they were, the pair headed outside.
Harry blinked as the bright mid-day sun assaulted his pupils. Ginny stopped and turned back to him where he was standing with his eyes closed.
"It is so bright," he said in amazement.
"I know," Ginny said laughing. "Doesn't it feel nice?"
Harry paused a moment, feeling the warmth on his skin before experimentally opening his eyes. "Yes... it does."
She laughed again before leading him off toward the pond. They sat on the edge of the dock dipping their feet in the cool water. Harry was more relaxed than Ginny had ever seen him. He leaned back angling his face so that the gentle warmth would cover it.
"I like it here," he said quietly, the only interruption to the tranquil silence surrounding them.
"Yeah, this is one of my favorite spots," Ginny replied allowing the tension that had become her constant companion over the last month to slowly lessen.
"I don't just mean this spot—well, yes I like it here, especially because it's so calm... and quiet. But your home..." He lost his words for a moment. Ginny pivoted slightly to read his expression, which was often much more telling than his somewhat limited verbal communication skills.
"I just... You are very lucky," Harry struggled to finish.
"Oh, I know. Trust me," Ginny replied softly.
"I... It's hard for me to accept that life can be this way," he said, gesturing vaguely.
"It can... It will be from now on."
Harry turned to her with unmitigated hope in his eyes. "I think the clothes helped, but I-I still feel... pressure, outside control. As if it would win if I stopped fighting it." Harry struggled to explain the odd feeling, like a dam holding the powerful flow of waters at bay.
"Good," Ginny replied, thankful for this moment, the calm in the middle of the storm.
"Ginny," a voice called from far off. Ginny cringed inwardly fearing her reprieve was at its end.
She and Harry turned to see Ron and Hermione stop a ways off. Harry stood and then surprisingly turned to offer her a hand to stand up. She took it eagerly and they headed toward Ron and Hermione.
"Let me guess, they want us inside?" Ginny asked pessimistically.
"Nah, we bought you a bit more time," Ron responded. Ginny didn't bother questioning how. "I thought you guys might be up for a little flying?" he asked hopefully.
Ron managed to rush Ginny off to the broom shed leaving Harry to follow Hermione to the makeshift Quidditich pitch. She watched as Harry stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"The clothes look nice," Hermione commented softly.
"Uh... thanks," he said. The silence dragged on, but Harry watched as Hermione just stood there staring up at the sky, a pleasant calm expression on her face. "How did you think of it?" he asked after a while.
"Think of what? The clothes? Has it made a difference?"
"Yeah. It was a good idea. The compulsion is still there, but... somehow it's easier to fight." He shrugged.
"Hmm," she said, trying to compile this fact with all the others floating in her head. "I wonder..."
"You wonder...?" Harry asked, his curiosity apparent.
"Well, I've done a lot of research on house-elf history," Hermione started, carefully gauging Harry's reaction.
"Why?" Harry asked, slightly wary. No one cared about house-elves.
"Well, I'm Muggle-born, and while the idea of having house-elves seems normal to others, to me... well, it's slave labor. I think it's horrible the way wizards treat them."
Harry turned to her with new eyes.
"What?" she asked self-consciously.
"I can't decide if you all are... normal, and just seem strange to me because of—well, obvious reasons." Hermione's laugh cut him off.
"Or if we really are abnormal—just in a different way?" she asked, still laughing.
Harry only nodded in response.
"Trust me, Harry, this family is about as abnormal as they come, but perhaps kindness is not as abnormal as you think."
"Ron, what's gotten into you lately?" Ginny asked, with admiration and not accusation in her tone.
"What?" Ron asked, turning back to look at her as they entered the broom shed.
"You... you're acting differently. More... mature." The word felt funny on her tongue. "Is it Hermione?" she asked, waggling her eyebrows.
"Ginny…" He meant it to come out warningly, but knew it just sounded whiny.
"What? You've been great with Harry..."
"Yes, well," he said, getting flustered. "He saved you Ginny!" he said suddenly as he turned to face her, his voice rising. "He saved you, he brought you back after... after I failed."
"What? Ron?" Ginny asked, surprised by his outburst.
"That's twice now that I've failed to keep you safe."
"Ron, that's not your—"
"Don't try to tell me it's not my job. You're my baby sister it is imy/i job," he finished, looking away from her.
She sighed. "I was going to say it's not your ifault/i." He turned to glare at her, but Ginny was already there next to him enveloping in a tight hug. "Ron, please, no more blame... I'm back, we're safe."
"Look, Harry," Hermione said, pointing back toward the broom shed. Harry turned to watch a streak of red hair zoom out and over their heads. Ginny was laughing; the sound permeated to him as clearly as if she were standing next to him, striking more than just his ear drums. He watched her fly complicated routes, looping, diving, speeding, slowing… She seemed so... free.
Ron lumbered toward them, carting three more brooms.
"Show-off!" he shouted, although he was smiling. Ginny just smirked at him before gracefully returning to the ground.
"Ready to give it a try, Harry?" she asked. She started with the basics. Harry mastered the 'up' command as soon as Ginny encouraged him to be more forceful.
She reached out to adjust his grip while she explained the process. He seemed eager to get in the air. After a few successful attempts at hovering he was zooming through the air. Ginny watched in awe; to say he was a natural was a bit of an understatement. She then quickly took off after him.
"Wow." Hermione turned to see Professor Lupin approaching them from the house. Ron came back down to join them.
"I guess there are some things you are just born with," Lupin said wistfully. To Hermione's questioning expression he replied, "His father was an amazing flier, played Seeker."
Harry and Ginny had commenced in a game of cat and mouse, laughing and chasing. The three below watched the pair, and more poignant than ever was the feeling that the two in flight possessed a world unto themselves. They could not, nor would they dare attempt to force their way into the bubble that seemed to surround the pair. Somehow, when Harry and Ginny were flying above, the invisible barrier that engulfed them only seemed more distinct.
"It seems that part of you remembers flying... you know from before," Ginny said as the two pulled closer together to hover while they caught their breath.
He grinned, a less and less rare of an occurrence. "You fly a lot, don't you?"
"Well, yes," Ginny replied. And thus the Quidditch talk commenced. Harry watched, enraptured at her description of the game she loved. She gave animated descriptions of her teammates and past games punctuating it all with demonstrations and reenactments. Harry trailed after her toward the property's edge as she demonstrated a particularly difficult maneuver she had performed in order to dodge a Bludger, two Beaters and a Chaser in order to catch the Snitch.
Harry and Ginny both gave an abrupt stop as the alarm wards began going off. The alarm was jarring and heard clearly even throughout the yard. But what was more alarming was the crowd of people rushing forward toward the edge where the protective ward began. There was pushing in the crowd as the group reached the physical barrier that invisibly held them back.
Comprehension dawned on Ginny when half the crowd began snapping pictures. Ginny froze... reporters. They were taking pictures… did the ward block photos? They must know about Harry, and if they knew about Harry they probably knew about her as well.
When a few in the crowd pulled out wands, began firing spells, and screaming at the two of them, there was a visible ripple, as if the dome surrounding them was made of a transparent sheet that had just been ruffled, only visible in motion.
"Ginny," Harry said urgently.
"Ginevra! Miss Weasley!" came from the crowd, drowning out Harry's voice before it could reach Ginny's ears.
"Is it true that you named Lucius Malfoy responsible for your disappearance?"
"Do you maintain that you were captured and tortured by the prominent and trusted Malfoy family?"
The protective ward gave another great shudder which seemed to catalyze Harry's self-preservation instincts. He reached out and grabbed Ginny by the waist before snapping his fingers and disappearing with a 'pop.'
Ron, Hermione and Lupin had just gotten close enough to see the two pop out of existence over their heads, leaving only Ginny's broom behind, still hovering mid air.
"I thought we stopped him from doing that," Ron exclaimed exasperatedly.
"Stopped him from leaving..." Lupin said under his breath, keeping his eyes trained on the unwanted intruders. "But he can still Apparate within the boundaries." He waved his wand, and with a bored flourish, he strengthened the ward easily. He gave the crowd a sardonic look and then turned to lead Hermione and Ron back to the main house.
Mrs. Weasley gasped at the sudden appearance of her daughter in the foyer, cradled in a young man's arms. He put her down gently.
"Harry!" Ginny exclaimed in surprise.
"What? I-I… you...you were scared. We were not safe," Harry responded, confused by her reaction.
"So you brought us here? I didn't think you felt safe here yet," Ginny blurted out, still feeling disoriented.
As it was, Harry was glancing surreptitiously around. In their current location they were not protected from a single angle. Harry found himself desperately desiring a location without twenty different possible entrances. "I-I don't..." he said honestly. "But you do."
The moment hung in the air buoyantly before both the front and back doors opened and a slew of people rushed in. Ron, Hermione and Lupin came in through the back, and Mr. Weasley and Dumbledore through the front. Mrs. Weasley gasped in surprise, and Harry pulled Ginny protectively to him reaching his hand out in front of them in defense.
"I strengthened the ward," Lupin said, slightly out of breath.
"What!?" Mrs. Wesley demanded, confused by the sudden change of events.
"The press," Mr. Weasley said wearily. "They somehow got wind of it."
"I'd say," Ron replied with a touch of anger. "They're at the edge of the property."
Mrs. Weasley rushed to the window to see the flock of people still craning to get a glimpse into the house.
"The house is protected, but we haven't made it Unplottable yet," Dumbledore replied. "We were hoping to keep this quiet." He turned to Ginny and Harry. "We are going to have to move forward quite a bit faster than we had anticipated... But it looks as if a great deal of progress has been made in my absence," Dumbledore said after taking in Harry's dress. He then winked at Ginny, but Ginny was still a bit dazed by the sudden wrench thrown into her peaceful day.
Harry ducked his head a bit to peer quizzically into Ginny's unfocused eyes. Ginny blinked, refocusing her gaze onto Harry. She offered him a tight smile of reassurance, needing no words to understand the confused concern in his eyes.
"They got wind of it," she said quietly. "How much does iit/i entail?"
"Your claim that the Malfoys took you," Dumbledore supplied. "And that you didn't return alone..."
"My claim?" There was an eerie note in the calm overtone of her question. "Is that all they know? They don't know why I was taken or who it was I returned with?"
"I don't think they'd believe a rumor that you returned with ithe/i Harry Potter, Ginny," her father said carefully.
"As to why... do you know why exactly?" Dumbledore asked.
"Yes, because of that damned diary again, and because they thought I made good leverage against all of you. They wanted some sort of information about Voldemort's past and thought if I didn't have it, then maybe one of you did."
"Let's not stand by so many windows," Mr. Weasley said, noting the Omnioculars the press now seemed to be conjuring. He gestured for them all to head into the living room, the most central room in the house.
"People from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement are on the way," Dumbledore said. "They will get the press off the property and arrest anyone attempting to break the wards."
Harry felt relieved at this. Ginny obviously had a strong dislike for the loud people at the gate. But the relief only went so deep as he shifted uncomfortably on the sofa next to Ginny, trying to get more of the room's occupants in his sights. There was too much going on, and his senses couldn't keep up; he did not like surprises. Ginny reached out and placed a soothing arm on his forearm, and then leaned back against the sofa just enough so that he could get a clear view of the other part of room as well as the quickest escape route.
Ginny watched as Harry visibly relaxed, and she wondered what was more helpful, her reassurance or his feeling that he was in a more defensible position. Her musing was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a head in the fireplace.
"Sorry for the intrusion, Molly," Kingsley's head was saying. "Would it be alright if a Floo'ed in? I have news."
It said a great deal about Harry's improvement that he remained seated, though he was shaking so hard that Ginny turned to him in concern.
"You are not afraid?" His voice barely reached her ears.
Ginny shook her head. "It's alright. That man is now going to join us. Brace yourself."
Harry dug his nails into the couch as the man came directly out of the flames and into the room. Ginny traced her arms over the now taut muscles of his forearms, urging him to relax.
"Harry?" she asked, too quietly to catch the rest of the room's attention.
"I am trying not to react to my fear," he said without inflection.
"It's okay, in your life new things weren't usually good."
He relaxed his hand, leaving a burnt handprint in the sofa. "Exactly," he replied. "Until you," he muttered, as if he hadn't meant to say it out loud.
Suddenly, Ginny noticed that the rest of the room had become silent. She looked up to see them all staring at her.
"Ginny," her dad started. "Harry, we have some stuff to talk about." Ginny wished for a split second that she was an average teenager who could just roll her eyes at her dad's evasiveness. "We have to ask, how certain are you that you were taken to the Malfoys' residence?"
"Is this about the Polyjuice?" Ginny asked.
"Yes, amongst other things," he said.
"Kingsley here…" Dumbledore said, gesturing to the man that looked powerful, even though he had bits of soot still on his face. "Well, he came here to tell me that he just found out that Bellatrix Lestrange managed to slip past the Healers who took custody of her when Lucius Malfoy's request that she be removed from Azkaban, in order for her to receive treatment for mental illness, was granted."
"I thought we already knew this," Ginny said.
"Yes, but it turns out that she escaped the Healers' custody less than two weeks ago. In your account of what happened to you. You encountered Bellatrix long before that."
"What? Maybe I got that dates confused. It wasn't exactly easy to keep track of the passing of time."
"But you met her not long after you were abducted, correct?" Dumbledore said gently.
Ginny nodded. "So you are saying that when I think I met Bellatrix, she was supposed to be in custody?" Her head was spinning. What if nothing she remembered was true?
Dumbledore nodded. "Which makes the possibility that it was not the Malfoys who had the both of you, but actually Vernon Dursley, seem more likely."
"Wait, I thought the Polyjuice Potion that was found was for Lucius Malfoy," Ginny said, trying to make sense of what he was saying.
"So this theory would require that Vernon Dursely and several accomplices all played different Polyjuiced roles? Doesn't that seem far-fetched?"
"About as far-fetched as someone breaking the wards I had protecting Harry in order to kidnap him. I could not fathom how that could happen, not until the notion that one of Harry's very own family could be responsible, because, of course, that is how the wards work. They protect one unit from outside harm. For example, with the ward on the Burrow the one unit is the house, and it is protected from outside intrusion like the press. Now, if Lupin were to suddenly attack Kingsley there would be no way to stop it, and the wards would not even detect the struggle. With the wards on baby Harry, he was protected by being with his mother's relatives, protected from outsiders not from insiders. No one outside his family unit could harm him." Dumbledore suddenly looked his age. "I thought that the Dursleys' decision to take you in meant that they were willing to protect you—maybe not treat you as well as their own son, but willing to keep you safe from the enemies that stalked you."
Even Harry could feel Dumbledore's remorse. But he was more struck by Dumbledore's... involvement.
"I'm sorry, I'm confused..." Harry said quietly. But his sudden voluntary interjection into the conversation immediately caught the room's attention. "Who are you to me?" he asked, addressing Dumbledore.
They looked at him confused. "Harry what do you mean?" Ginny finally asked.
"Well... I... after my parents died, that man is the one who was put in charge of me. I had no other family? Was he a friend of my parents? I…" Harry's gaze remained with Ginny. Talking to her was so much easier, but finally he turned back to Dumbledore. "Why was it you were trying to protect me?"
"I thought Ginny had explained to you, about Voldemort and his followers," Dumbledore said gently.
"She did. The man my masters called the Dark Lord—this Voldemort—he killed my parents and tried to kill me, but then what happened?"
"A man named Hagrid brought you to me."
"Okay, but why you? Are we... who are you to me?"
"Harry," Lupin interjected, "Professor Dumbledore has led the fight against Voldemort from the start. Your parents were involved in a group he led in the fight against Voldemort and his followers."
"Was Voldemort after my parents? Is that why he killed them? Or was he after me?"
"He was after you, Harry," Dumbledore said quietly.
"But, I was a child...why?"
"Harry..." Dumbledore said placatingly.
"Why try to kill me? Why did the Malfoys, or whoever it was, go so far to make my life... painful?" Harry did not realize he had raised his voice. He did not have the skills needed to deal with the surprising amount of anger and frustration that had suddenly grown within him.
"Harry," Lupin said, stepping in to answer, "I'm so sorry you had to live like you did for so long."
The silence grew and then blanketed the room in a way that would be cozy on a cold day but was suffocating on a day as warm as this.
"I know this is hard, but we need whatever you two can remember," Kingsley said, filling the void. It appeared that Harry's questions were going to go unanswered for the moment.
"Like what?" Harry asked apprehensively.
"Well, did you ever encounter Bellatrix Lestrange?"
Harry's involuntary shudder was answer enough. "S-she… she's... well, I was really worried when Lucius invited Bellatrix over to see Ginny."
"Do you remember the first time you met her?" Lupin asked.
Harry's eyes glazed over for a moment before they clenched closed in pain. He was breathing harder than normal, and he pulled uncomfortably at the collar that was already loose against his neck.
He opened his eyes immediately at Ginny's gentle prodding. "Yes, I remember."
"How old were you?"
"It was several years ago, at least five winters ago." The adults in the room all seemed to sit back at this; Bellatrix was in Azkaban, or supposedly in Azkaban then. "I remember it because... Lucius…" Calling him by name felt awkward in his throat, as if the word struggled against his will to utter it. "… well, he had become more than a little... unhappy, more so than usual. It was a hard time for all of us..." Harry said, closing his eyes as the memories of how his friends had tortured themselves. "Then one day it all changed... A new woman walked in, just walked in past all the wards and traps. Lucius acted like he was seeing a ghost."
"What do mean?" Lupin asked.
"Well, he was shocked. And the woman just sauntered in and walked right up to him and... well, she kissed him."
"What?" Ron asked. "I thought they were related."
"Bellatrix is Lucius' wife's sister. They're not related," Lupin said, but his tone held a bit of disgust. "Then what happened?" he asked trying to direct the conversation back to the matter at hand.
"After a moment, he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her back. He laughed, and then he just started asking her a lot of questions like, how, when... why... " Harry trailed off, their staring made him uncomfortable.
"How is it you remember this all so clearly?" Kingsley asked.
Harry was quiet for a long while. "Well...I just do..." he answered evasively.
"Harry," Lupin pressed, "we need to try to discern if your memories are accurate. Not knowing why you remember such details could be a sign that the memory was planted."
"It's not like that," Harry said after a minute. He sighed, looking away from the group. "Eventually Bellatrix and Lucius noticed me. I had gotten very good at blending in, being there without being seen, as the other elves had taught me. They…" He sighed. "They were brutal. It was a... game to them, testing my pain tolerance, seeing how far they could push me..." He closed his eyes and turned his head away as if trying to shield himself from whatever picture his memory had dragged up. "That whole day... it became a reoccurring nightmare." The silence was suffocating. "That is why I remember." His green eyes were stormy, betraying the deep seated conflict he always had to hide. Anger and sadness mixed inseparably in him, tinged with the persistent nagging notion that he deserved the treatment he had received.
Ginny wordlessly reached out and ran her thumb over the sensitive skin on the inside of his wrist directly over his pulse point. The sensation hit him hard as heat pulsated from the point of contact. There was something about the juxtaposition of the simplicity of the touch and the degree to which it calmed him. She had unwittingly found one of the few places with which he had no painful memory associated.
"None of this makes sense," Ron whined in exasperation.
"Well, I'm sure it all makes sense, but we simply cannot see how," Dumbledore interjected. "So Harry, have you also met Narcissa, Lucius' wife?"
"Yes," Harry replied.
"And what have you witnessed of Narcissa and Bellatrix's interactions?"
Harry's brow furrowed a moment as he thought back, sifting through memories that he had hoped ignoring would make disappear.
"It wasn't until very recently that I saw the two of them together. They seemed to get on well enough... There was another woman, one Narcissa really disliked, but it's been a long time since I've seen her at all."
There was a commotion when Ministry workers arrived to deal with the press, succeeding in occupying the adults in the room.
Harry leaned back, resting his head on the coach and breathing deeply. He may have been able to overcome the restrictive force that was his constant companion, but it was not without effort.
"It's been a long day," Ginny said with an understanding smile. Without thinking she reached up and brushed his hair out of his face. His closed eyes popped open, and she froze, her hand still buried in place.
"I like having it short," he said.
"Good," Ginny responded. Harry's eyelids fluttered as he tried in vain to fight the exhaustion.
"Stop fighting it," she said with a barely suppressed laugh. "Just close your eyes and rest a bit. Don't worry, you are safe here, I promise."
"You know, I'm starting to believe that..." Harry said before sleep claimed him.