Written for Lady (Lady Phoenix Fire Rose) as part of the 2013 Gift Giving Extravaganza. I know this is more than three months later, darling, and I'm so sorry for that, but the prompts you gave me are not the sort that my muse spins out on a daily basis — I had to truly contemplate in order to make this a respectable fic and not just something I was spinning out of nowhere. I really, really hope you like it, because I went way outside my comfort zone for this one.
Also for Camp Potter (thank God for this challenge, because it's the only reason I'm catching up on GGE). Event: Archery, week 4 — write about loyalty.
He wakes up to a note on his pillow.
If you ever want to see Ginevra Weasley again, touch this parchment. The portkey code is Knight in Shining Armour.
Harry feels a shudder of ice run through his veins. He'd thought that since Voldemort was gone, he could live a normal life.
Without hesitation, he grabs his want from the drawer of the bedside table and throws on clothing. He grabs the parchment and murmurs the code, disappearing with a jerk.
He materialises in darkness.
As his wand lights up, the area in front of him flares into brightness. He blinks away the spots, and words come into existence in front of him.
˜If you love her, you must save her. If you turn back now, she will not be harmed, but you will never see her again.
Without hesitation, Harry moves for the now visible door and turns the handle.
The first thing that hits him is an overwhelming wave of heat. He squints into the bright light and steps forward slowly, glancing down to see that the floor below him is no longer concrete, but sand. He looks around, noting that the door that should have been behind him is no longer present — he is surrounded by an ocean of sand.
Not knowing where Ginny is or how much time he might have to find her, he tugs the sweatshirt off his shoulders, ties it around his waist, and starts moving.
In moments, he is sweating. The sun is absolutely relentless and it reflects off the bright sand. He's squinting so badly his eyes are nearly closed and it's still overwhelmingly bright.
He trudges on.
He understands now what they mean about mirages of water in the desert. It takes little time for him to become thirsty, but the shimmering image that could be water gets no closer, and the logical portion of his mind knows that it is nothing but a refraction of light.
After what feels like days but is more likely only hours, he sees something in the distance that looks actually solid. Altering his trajectory slightly, he aims straight for it.
The top of a tree is visible first. When he finally gets near enough to see detail, he finds a lone palm tree next to a door that appears to go nowhere. He tries the doorknob. Locked.
Engraved on the frame of the door is what appears to be a riddle.
What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?
Harry is immediately relieved — he's heard this one before, though he can't quite catch the where from his memory.
"A man," he says aloud — a man crawls as a child, stands upright after, and then leans on a cane near the end of his life — though his words are almost a question, because he isn't sure saying the words aloud will fix this.
The doorknob glows fold and then turns on its own. Without hesitation, Harry steps through it.
Instead of the blinding sunlight, this time he faces absolute darkness. His brain throws up sparks on the backs of his eyelids as he attempts to adjust. He feels behind him, trying to find the doorframe in order to orient himself, but there is nothing there. The only surface within his range is the floor.
Entirely off balance, he hesitates.
In the space of what feels like an eternity but must only be a few minutes, nothing happens, so Harry begins to edge cautiously forward, a little at at time.
Abruptly, flames roar up in front of him and Harry freezes, instinctively snatching his foot back. The flames die. He edges the foot forward again, and the flames roar up again. Proximity trigger?
Whatever it is, when he slides a bit to the right and edges forward, nothing happens, so he proceeds. The flames have proximity triggers everywhere, some brushing so close to him that he can feel the heat on the side of his face. He thanks his Seeker reflexes over and over again as he ducks and weaves and creeps carefully forward, navigating absolutely blind through a potentially fatal obstacle course. Not exactly how he wanted to spend today.
A blast of fire jets right at his face and he ducks under it, letting the momentum of the duck carry him forward until—
He runs straight into a wall. "Ouch," he mutters, more for the vent of frustration than out of actual pain. His hands trace along the outline of the wall until he hits the trim of a doorframe. His hand must act as some sort of trigger, because the room gradually lightens, revealing a door.
Curious, Harry turns around, expecting there to be no visible signs of the flaming obstacle course he just walked. Instead, there are shimmering silver lines floating in the air — a visible representation of the safe path. Dotted among it are red circles which match up with Harry's mental map of the origin of the flames.
Curiosity as satisfied as can be without verbal explanation, he turns back to the door. This one is labelled in the same script as the first.
This is the point of no return. Things will only get worse from here. If you would save her, proceed.
Without hesitation, he twists the doorknob and steps through.
For the first time since this mad adventure to save his girlfriend began, the lighting on the other side of the door is actually normal. At first.
Then the normal lighting dims and Harry sighs, almost pushed to exasperation. If he weren't worried about Ginny, if he weren't so busy pushing aside all his emotions and forcing himself through this insane obstacle course as quickly as possible, he would be amused by the over-dramatics. Torches flare up along the wall, illuminating a stone tunnel, a semi-circular half-cylinder.
His feet echo on the stone as he moves forward with care. He can't see the end of the tunnel at first, and just as he begins to wonder if it will ever end, he sees it open up into an expansive cavern. The stone arches up so high he can't pick out the individual blocks at the top. The cavern is a massive half-sphere with four tunnels striking out at compass points. Barred gates block the other three tunnels; only the one he comes from contains a clear path.
Standing, dead center in the middle of the sphere, is a man. Cloaked in black, hood up, he faces away from Harry. His head is bowed serenely.
"Who are you?" Harry asks. The figure doesn't move, doesn't turn, but he speaks. His voice is deep, low, somber.
"Does it matter? I am who I am, and I am who I was, and I am who I will always be."
"That isn't an answer." Harry can hear the tenseness in his own voice, but he can't quite seem to strip it away. He isn't in the mood to put up with ambiguity right now. He's tired, and his girlfriend has been kidnapped by God-only-knows who and put God-only-knows where, and whoever is behind this really has a flare for the melodramatic.
"That's the only answer worth giving," the man says. Harry just barely resists the urge to punch him in the face.
"Why are you here?"
"I am here for you. I am here because you are here."
Harry actually manages to spare a moment to wonder if this man has had lessons in ambiguous non-answers, sighing internally.
"Where is Ginny? Is she all right? Have you harmed her?"
"Ginevra is in good health. As for where, that you will learn when you have proved that you wish to know it."
"Yes, because trudging across a desert and dodging streams of flame weren't proof enough," Harry mutters under his breath. The man doesn't seem impressed.
"You, Harry Potter, would trudge across a desert and dodge streams of flame for anyone you believed to be in danger, even an enemy."
Harry goes to protest before realising that he can't; that's actually quite true.
"What do I have to do to prove to you that Ginny is different?"
For the first time, the hooded man turns around. The tipped-down angle of his head leaves his face shrouded in shadow.
His hands rise until they are out at his side, elbows bent. As his hands rise, so do two platforms behind him, coming out of the floor. Even from this distance, the figures on the platforms are immediately recognisable. Ginny lies crumpled on one, Ron on the other. God, not that his weaknesses are particularly hard to figure out, but these people seem to be having far too much fun exploiting them.
"You said she was unharmed." His tone is only slightly sullen, which Harry figures is an accomplishment.
"She is merely sleeping."
"She'd better be." But the threat doesn't bear the weight it should, because his eyes are fixed on them. His best friend and his girlfriend. The two people that mean the most to him in this world.
"What am I supposed to do?" Harry asks finally.
A beat of silence sounds, and then the man says, "Choose."
And as that registers, Harry tears his grip away from the platforms to gape at the man. "Ch- Choose?" he stammers. He's hoping desperately that that doesn't mean what he thinks it means. Because he can stare down a sociopathic mass murderer and tell him to try for some remorse, but he cannot do this. He cannot choose between his best friend and his girlfriend. He cannot save one and leave the other.
"Choose one to rescue."
Harry has to close his eyes, sucking in a deep breath and holding it for a moment, trying to regain his composure. Trying to be logical about this when a very large part of his mind is throwing a hysterical hissy fit.
He's supposed to choose Ginny, he thinks. This whole thing has been about Ginny, the notes about her. He hadn't even known Ron was missing, hadn't had occasion to find out.
But it's Ron. Ron, who has been the best friend he ever could have asked for for the past eight year. Ron, who stuck by him through seven years of trouble and pain and danger.
But she's Ginny. Smart, funny, enchanting Ginny. Ginny, who captured his heart and refuses to give it back.
If he saves Ron and leaves Ginny, Ron will kill him. If he saves Ginny and leaves Ron, Ginny will kill him. Either way, his own guilt will kill him.
As a general rule, Harry doesn't believe in no-win scenarios. He believes that there is always a way out, if he just looks hard enough.
"No," he finally says, breaking the oppressive silence. His voice brooks no argument.
Surprise shows in the figure's posture. "No?"
"No," Harry repeats firmly. "I will not."
"…Then they will both remain."
The man doesn't appear to have expected this.
"That is not an option," he finally says.
"I'm making it one." Harry's voice carries a note of absolute authority.
"Mr. Potter, I don't think you understand how this works. I have your friends. You have nothing to bargain with."
"Sir, I don't think you understand who you've chosen to mess with."
And the stoic figure actually flinches at the acid in Harry's voice. Still, despite his obvious awareness of Harry's fury, the figure doesn't seem to be expecting it when Harry pulls out his wand and Stuns the man. He Levitates both Ginny and Ron off the platforms, stringing them along behind him as he blasts the bars off the tunnel in front of him with precision, careful not to collapse the stone.
All he wants to do is check if they are all right, but Harry has a brain well-trained for crisis situations, and he knows that right now, the most important thing is to get the three of them out. He has no idea if that man was acting alone or not; there could be enemies anywhere.
The torches along the tunnel flare up as he passes them, lighting the way. This tunnel is much shorter than the first, ending in a door.
Harry fumbles with the knob, adrenaline high messing with his fine motor coordination as usual. He gets it open, peeks his head through carefully at first, then he bursts through abruptly as he sees who's sitting on the other side.
"Bill! Charlie, George, Percy… what the…?"
"Have a seat, Harry," Percy says seriously. Harry raises his eyebrows.
"Guys, we've got to get out of here!"
"There's no danger." It's weird to see such a serious expression on Charlie's face — Charlie is usually so carelessly laid back.
"I don't know how you guys got here, but I went through a desert and a flame-stacle course to meet some creepy dude who wanted me to choose between my best mate and my girlfriend. I'd say that counts as danger, and I'm getting the heck out."
He begins to move toward the door, but Bill catches his wrist before he can leave. "Harry."
Harry freezes at the tone, looks at Bill intently. Something like guilt flickers in his eyes, and Bill looks away.
Then, suddenly, a pair of slim arms are encircling his back, a warm body pressed against him. He twists in her arms and returns the embrace, pressing his face in her hair.
"For the record," she mumbles into his shoulder, "my brothers are idiots, and I had no part in this."
Ron is standing awkwardly behind her. Harry looks at him for explanation. Ron sort of grimaces a bit.
Harry glances around the room, meeting each Weasley's eyes for a moment, waiting for an explanation. His expression is hard.
"What was that? Truthfully?"
Ginny winds up speaking, a small smirk splayed across her face. "That was a curse breaker, a dragon tamer, a professional pranksters, a master strategist, and a Ministry official all teaming up." She pats his cheek somewhat condescendingly. "Don't worry. None of it could have actually hurt you."
At Harry's look of alarm, Ginny laughs. "They just take protective older brothers to a bit of an extreme. You got a pass for a while because, you know, there was sort of a war going on."
Harry tries to figure out if he's supposed to be absolutely furious right now.
George takes a step forward, reaches out and ruffles Ginny's hair. "Because she's our baby sister and we don't give our blessing lightly."
Harry frowns, but decides to put aside how messed up that is in favor of the more important issue.
"Did I pass?"
Laughter. "With flying colors, my friend," Charlie says, patting his shoulder, his eyes alight with humour.