She had six brothers, so it was not surprising that this was far from the first Christmas which had nearly ended in fratricide. It was, however, by far the most unintentional, and the closest to being literal.
Although Ginny had only been training with the DA for a little under three months, she had not exactly been a delicate shrinking violet to begin with, and they'd rather been a...special three months. For all the hype about getting her period and losing her virginity, she personally believed that a girl's first midnight raid, underground militia, near-death experience, werewolf chasing, and half dozen or so Cruciatus curses were a bit more life changing. They had certainly done a number on her reflexes.
It had just been the slightest flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye through the crack in the darkened bedroom door as she went down the little hallway looking for the bathroom. Three months ago she wouldn't have seen it at all. Two months ago she'd have thought it was a mouse. One month ago she would have dropped and not considered that would have put her right on level with it.
Now there wasn't a nanosecond's hesitation as she took one quick, springing leap through the door that flooded the room with sudden, eye-dazzling light as she vaulted her momentum off the nightstand in a flying flip to the bed that would be almost impossible for someone unsuspecting to hit. She stuck the landing perfectly even on the soft duvet, her feet having been on the floor only once between hallway and now; on top of the bed with her wand in both hands pointing straight down at the mattress. "GET OUT! NOW OR SWEET MORGANA'S CUNT I FUCKING SWEAR I WILL START DRILLING NEW MOTHERFUCKING ARSEHOLES IN THIS SHIT UNTIL I FUCKING HIT SOMETHING!"
"Ok, ok! Don't shoot!" The hands emerged first, palms down and wisely wandless, then the top of the head, and the first stutter of confusion came with the realization that it was a very familiar shade of ginger. By the time the face had emerged, it was hard to tell which sibling staring in which direction was more shocked.
"Ron?" Now, now her hands were shaking as she tucked her wand back into the holster at her belt, and it was only the abject terror on her brother's face that prevented her throwing herself down onto him to slap the living crap out of him for having scared her like that as he crawled the rest of the way out from under the bed. "What the fuck are you doing here? You're supposed to be with Harry!"
"And you're – oof!" He cut off briefly, the attempt to turn over having been ill-timed with the emergence of ever-more-gangly limbs from beneath low clearance furniture and resulting in a brief logjam of knees before he could sort it out. "-you're supposed to be at the Burrow. What in Merlin's name are you doing here at Bill's, and where did you learn to do that stuff?"
"If by 'that' stuff you mean nearly killing you, school's been busy." Ginny kicked her legs out, letting herself fall into a perfect, one-bounce seat drop that put her to the edge of the bed. "Why I'm here would be bringing my oldest brother and new sister-in-law their Christmas presents because Mum and Dad think they're being subtle about getting me out of the house while we're vulnerable from all the comings and goings around the new guests. Which I'm not going to tell you about so don't ask and if you think you can distract me from why you are under my guest-bed-in-law instead of keeping my stupid boyfriend from killing himself, you've surpassed even my lofty guesses of your maximum level of idiocy." She paused, tilting her head for a moment and making a face. "And you should ditch the beard. It's not really there yet, it's too orange, and it's weird on you."
Ron joined her on the bed, his cheeks flushed with the tattling scarlet of emotion she knew all too well. "Shaving hasn't really been a priority."
There was a long pause, and Ron looked at his hands, twisting his fingers together. At first, Ginny thought he was going to try and blow her off again, change the subject again, but then there was a sigh so deep that it hurt to hear, and when he looked up again, she had never seen him look so devastated. "Ginny, we've failed."
The words hit her like a physical punch. All at once, she couldn't breathe, and she grabbed the duvet tight in both fists as she felt the color flood out of her face so quickly that her head spun with the awful disbelief. "He's dead?" she rasped. "Captured? Hermione too? How did -"
"No, not like that." Another long sigh that made her think of the whisper of an unwelcome draft through the musty unwanted corners of an attic. "He's changed, Ginny. Maybe it's the things we're doing – there are, um, some magical artefacts we're dealing with that are pretty ugly – or just the stress. I don't know. I know the stress was really messing with my head, but it's gotta be more for him because he's kind of in charge, but I don't think he knows what he's doing, he just won't say so, and neither will Hermione, and it was like we were just going in circles trying to get killed or captured because no one would say any of it."
Her heart was still pounding, fluttering, panicking, but she kept her voice even. "And then what happened?"
"I..." His voice dropped to a whisper of pure shame, so low that it she couldn't make out what he said at all, but when she put a questioning hand on his knee, it was repeated in a veritable explosion that shot him to his feet and set him pacing like a caged animal. "I LEFT! OKAY! I FUCKING ABANDONED THEM! WALKED OUT! DID A BUNK! FUCKED OFF!"
She couldn't have been more stunned if he'd confessed to turning both of his best friends into marmalade and spreading them on toast. "You did not!"
"I didn't know what to do!" The confession was a hollow, elongated moan of misery. "I shouldn't have. I tried to go back, but it was too late, we'd put up too many protections. I just...left."
He stopped awkwardly in the middle of the room, his long arms flopping defeated at his side, head hanging. Ginny stood, feeling oddly reminded of what seemed like an age ago in Ron's old dormitory when she had confronted Neville about his own demons as she again looked up at someone much taller, not that much older, and wracking with a little boy's tears that belied the young man's face. "Oh, Ron..."
"I didn't know what to do," he repeated, making no effort to hide the tears that tumbled heavily down his freckled cheeks. "I thought – we both thought – he knew what he was doing. All that time with Dumbledore, y'know? But either he forgot or he didn't or it wasn't like that or he's given up or snapped in his head or I don't know because he's just kind of floundering and we were going in circles, just blind guessing, and every so often there'd be a hint of something that things were going to shit around us while we just...I don't even know. I just felt like I had to do something. Anything. Doing better than not doing just try to...but oh, Merlin, Ginny, I fucked up. And now I can't get back, and it's just him and Hermione out there with what feels like the whole world out to get them and I can't get back!"
"Well, I'm glad."
It was, she thought, the last thing Ron had expected her to say, and his head jerked up with shock as he wiped his nose with one sleeve. "You -"
"If you did get back, Ron, what would you do? Look me in the eyes and tell me exactly what you'd actually do after Hermione finished kicking your arse and you'd given your whole big miserable apology?"
"I..." He started confidently, almost aggressive in his offense, but it quickly faded into a deflated slump and shrug of his shoulders. "I don't know."
"Exactly. Which is why it's best you've not been able to get back, I reckon." Deciding she was sick of looking up at her brother, Ginny took a handful of shirtfront and planted him in the nearest chair so that she could take a step back and regard him from a more comfortable angle, arms crossed over her chest in tight disapproval. "You and Neville. Merlin's wank sock, I'm sick of this shit."
A quizzical frown interrupted the entrenched dismay. "What's Neville got to do with any of this?"
"His head was about as far up his arse as yours with the whole self-fulfilling prophecy of not being good enough," she informed him bluntly, "except he actually had a half decent reason for it. You're just scared."
"I am not!" For the first time since she'd hauled him from his hiding place, a spark of real defiance appeared in his eyes. "I've been through plenty of stuff myself, you know! It's not all been Harry! Don't you go calling me a coward after I've done giant spiders and werewolves and -"
"I didn't call you a coward. You're not. Killing, maiming, that sort of thing...oh, shit, Ron, you're a Weasley. We're all kind of stupid awesome that way, even Percy." She punched him almost lightly in the center of the chest. "It's you, jackass. You're scared of yourself."
Ron rubbed where she had hit him, frowning in deep suspicion. "Don't mean to argue, but that's not why I've been skivving off the shaving mirror."
"You're scared," Ginny pressed, "that you'll fail. Because that would be the worst thing to you, wouldn't it? Not being as good as the rest of us. I mean, you aren't anyway, but that's because you haven't tried, and because everyone knows it, they just think how amazing you'd be if you just got off your arse and stepped out of Harry's shadow until now you think even if you didn't cock up, you'd never live up to it. Isn't that right?"
"You're my sister," he countered, "not my shrink."
It wasn't an argument, and she knew it. "You've been Harry's number two so long you've grown roots there, and now that you say he's not up to it, you know, you know somewhere deep down there that you've got to step in, and that's freaking you the fuck out until you up and ran."
"If you're suggesting that I go back and take over, you're mental," Ron protested. "I'm not a leader, and even if I was, I wouldn't have any more of a plan."
"You'd be shocked who is and isn't a leader," Ginny replied dryly. "But that takes trying. You've got to try, Ron. If no one's got a plan, that sucks, but better you willing to try without a plan than Harry without a plan if he's falling apart like you said." Her voice almost caught at that, but she pressed on, keeping her focus tight on the problem at hand and refusing, absolutely refusing to let her head or heart wander to wherever Harry was right now. "You've got to try, Ron."
"But I can't get back!"
"Maybe you don't want it enough!"
That brought him to his feet, and for a fleeting moment there was something in his eyes so intense that it actually frightened her. "You have no idea how much I want to be back with her!"
It hung there between them like a tangible thing, the unsaid obvious of years now all but impossible to ignore. Finally, Ginny took a deep breath, letting it hiss out softly between her teeth, and she could feel the abrupt tightness along his spine that said that Ron hadn't at all expected her to hug him now. "I know," she said quietly. "Harry's out there too."
Slowly, awkwardly, his hand went to her head, combing through her hair in a way she was amazed to find was still so welcome and comforting against things she hadn't even admitted might need comfort. "I don't mind so much any more, really. And I think he's a prat for not taking you. You'd be better at this than I would, I think."
"Nah, he trusts you more and he won't get distracted by your tits." She made herself smile a little, pulling back again. "But I mean it. You have to want to be back for them, not just with them. Strong magic has to want to do something, not just get the status quo back."
"I want –" He started, then stopped, a surprisingly thoughtful, quiet look settling slowly over his face that she didn't think she'd ever quite seen before. "I think I need to think about it some. It feels like it would be betraying Harry more than I did even leaving."
"This is bigger than Harry, Ron. People are dying. Whatever it is Dumbledore sent you to do, you've got to finish it."
"But Harry's a hero, and if he can't..."
"Maybe he can. Maybe he can't. But someone's got to try. Sometimes being a good friend means knowing when a friend can't hack it and standing up to them. You've got to go back, see where things stand, and do what needs to be done; whatever that is."
"I know you are." Ginny hugged him again, tighter this time. "But you've got to find it in there somewhere. And I've got to piss. I'll be back?" She made it a question on purpose, and she wasn't all that surprised when he shook his head.
"Nah, I need to think. But thank you. I've missed you, you know." He ruffled her hair, and as much as she usually hated it, she grinned. She'd missed him too. More than she'd realized until this moment. "Pain in the arse little sister."
She stuck out her tongue at him, trying to ignore the sudden surge of fear at the something in his tone that said he was actually going to do this and that maybe he hadn't told her the half of what the three of them were actually out there up against. "Ridiculous big brother."
It was another three months before her words came back to haunt her. She knew by then that he had gone back, somehow, though Bill hadn't known how. He'd left on Christmas day, and they hadn't heard from him since, which worried her even if she supposed in its way it was a good thing.
They came back to haunt her one night in early March, almost at midnight, when she had stayed up in the common room pouring over diagrams of the castle that she had long ago committed to memory, searching for some missed detail that could help them on the inevitable day that the world would go to hell.
They came back to haunt her when Neville climbed slowly, gingerly through the portrait hole, moving like an old man and dripping with sweat, his eyes haunted and distant and shadowed, his cheeks sunken and stubbled, shaking so hard he could barely stand as he started to rattle off new orders that were even more paranoid, even more suicidal than had become the terrible norm in the last week since Kevin had been taken. Sometimes being a good friend means knowing when a friend can't hack it and standing up to them.
Sometimes, she hated her own advice, but hating it changed nothing. Ginny knew what she had to do. This had gone too far. Her heart hurt, ached for her friend and Commander by the time he finished giving his orders and started making his slow, painful way up the stairs to his dormitory, but her hand was steady as she reached into her pocket for the Galleon and called the rest of the Senior Staff to a private meeting in the Divination classroom. Ron had been right. This was hard.
But it was war, and war wasn't supposed to be easy.