Death Eaters, Ron decided, knew how to party.
You wouldn’t have thought it, given their reputation, but Ron had decided quite early on that if one of the tedious royal balls they seemed to throw every other week was anything like a death eater party then he’d be first in line when the doors opened.
As the sun started setting, they finished their talk with Riddle. Ron, much to his surprise, had found it all very interesting. As sixth in line to the throne he had seen no reason to get involved with any of the royal councils or audiences. He would never have to sit in judgement, head a council or do anything even remotely related to being in charge of anything. What was the point of putting in so much effort for something he’d never have to use?
Not to mention it was utterly boring.
But that was the surprising thing; talking to Riddle wasn’t boring. He didn’t know what had changed; maybe it was the still present threat of being captured. Ron, however, suspected it had more to do with the woman sitting quietly next to him, watching Riddle with an intent expression on her face.
Since he’d met her he’d had his world turned upside down, everything he thought he knew challenged and he found he was looking at the world in a completely different light. Not only was he doing things he never thought he would be – like, for example, sitting down and having a civilised chat with the leader of a terrorist group – but he was enjoying doing them, more than he would ever have guessed.
Ron had never really looked past the next meal or the next game of Quidditch. He certainly hadn’t ever considered what life was like for anyone else. Riddle’s tales, and those of his followers, were certainly a revelation and he instantly felt ashamed. At least he wasn’t the only one; judging from Ginny’s face she too was feeling thoroughly guilty.
Now, he had decided, as he listened to Riddle speak, he was going to do something to make up for all that. The only problem was what?
When he asked Riddle had said, “You need to change perception of magic, make it seen as a gift among the lower classes.”
Lily, however, had shaken her head. “It’s all very well to say that, but how to do it? And the opinions of the lower classes will never change as long as being a wizard or witch is too expensive.”
“Could you make wands cheaper?” Ron asked.
Ginny shook her head that time. “That’s someone’s trade,” she pointed out. “We’d just be alienating the wandmakers and there are few enough of them as it is.”
They all paused. Ron was surprised Riddle hadn’t thought about anything practical implementations for his cause but, as he looked back across at them, Ron realised he had; he was just waiting to see what ideas they would come up with. ‘Oh, bloody hell: I suck at stuff like this.’
Luckily it appeared that Gryffindor didn’t. “You need to open a school,” he said quietly.
“A magic school?” Ginny questioned looking at the servant curiously. “We already have two of those.”
Gryffindor rolled his eyes. “Oh, yes, I can just imagine the utter joy on Professor Karkaroff’s face when he learns he must open his beloved school to commoners,” he drawled, eliciting a snort from Lily and a surprised one from Ginny. “Durmstrang and Beauxbatons are too steeped in their rich aristocratic history to work, too elitist. You need to open a new school completely from scratch, funded by the state, where both commoners and nobles can work together as equals.”
Ron had been doubtful at first, as was Ginny. After all, state funded implied a lot of money being drained from the treasury. But, as both Lily and Gryffindor pointed out, how much money was spent on pursuing criminals, especially death eaters, a large majority of whom were abandoned witches and wizards? And, Gryffindor had pointed out, in the long run it meant more witches and wizards who were qualified and able to take part in more specialised trades, such as wandmaking. That meant the price of wands would begin to decrease, making magical study ever more affordable and would result in the Kingdom becoming more prosperous.
Ron hadn’t thought all that was possible just from opening a school but Lily and Gryffindor had assured him it was completely possible.
As the talking had gone on Ron had found he was becoming more and more interested. On a day to day basis he never had any reason to really stretch his brain and much to his surprise he found he was enjoying the ‘exercise’. He was quite sure if his professors at Durmstrang could see him now they would all pass out with shock.
By the end of the talks between himself, Riddle, Lily, Ginny and, most unexpectedly, Gryffindor they’d managed to hash out some kind of basic idea of plans to set into motion and a temporary truce agreed. As Riddle had called out the news to the surrounding men and women the looks of happiness and relief on their faces had made Ron feel surprisingly happy himself.
The Death Eaters, it seemed, liked a good excuse to party. As soon as Riddle had shaken hands with the five of them a great cheer had gone up. Three big bonfires around the clearing had been lit, immediately throwing the forest into a magical haze. The mystical effect was further amplified by Lily who laughed and twirled her wand. Immediately twinkling multi-coloured orbs flew out her wand and began dancing around the trees.
“Very nice, Countess,” Riddle complimented, smiling. Lily blushed.
“Let’s have a toast,” Riddle called, motioning at a Death Eater nearby who brought over some rough cups filled with something that didn’t much look like pumpkin juice. “To new friends,” Riddle called out, “and new beginnings.”
“New beginnings,” Ron repeated and took a swallow of his drink. ‘Definitely not pumpkin juice!’ Ron thought as he started coughing. He heard laughter.
“Firewhiskey?” he managed to gasp out before devolving into coughing once more. More laughter followed.
After that the evening seemed to blur into one. He remembered dancing quite badly with a few people – and remembered at one point arguing with Ginny for dancing with too many people – and also a vague recollection of a bawdy singing match with several large Death Eaters.
And there was firewhiskey.
Lots and lots of firewhiskey.
At some point in the evening, when things were beginning to die down a little, Ron found himself sat by the bonfire next to Lily. Luna was still dancing, although she was dancing by herself surrounded by cheering Death Eaters. Ginny was sitting a bit further away, chatting with Gryffindor. Some small part of him thought he should be acting the overprotective brother but he ignored that.
Instead, he focused on the very pretty witch sat by his side.
“I can’t remember the last time I felt so free,” Lily said happily.
Ron looked at her and felt his face inadvertently break into a matching smile. She was flushed from dancing and her carefully styled hair had broken free of its pins and nets to become a frizzy mess. If it had been any other woman Ron would have sniggered to see a lady so messily dressed but on Lily it only served to make her seem fiercer, bolder and more… well, ‘free’, just like she’d said.
“Same here,” Ron told her, realising it was true. There were no responsibilities out here, not right now; he was free to do what he wanted and be who he wanted, not who was expected.
Lily looked across at him. “You have to be careful, Your Highness,” she told him, grinning.
“Why’s that, Countess?” Ron asked, feeling slightly alarmed for a second.
“Because, Your Highness, you are in very real danger of becoming a decent human being,” she told him, laughing.
“Oh,” Ron said, feeling his ears go red.
“You know, you were really brilliant today,” she said, flicking a few loose leaves into the bonfire. “I didn’t think you’d listen to them at all.”
“Well a week ago I wouldn’t have,” Ron admitted honestly. “But you make me see everything different, Countess. I’m a better person when I’m around you.”
“Oh.” Now it was Lily’s turn to turn red.
They both sat there in silence for a while, thinking about what the other had said. Around them the party continued, shouts and songs coming from every corner of the clearing. Ron’s thoughts were spinning around in his head and it wasn’t just from the alcohol. The proximity of Lily was just as intoxicating. He couldn’t even think back to what he was like before her; that was a different time and a different Ron. He had wanted to court her, to woo her, almost as soon as he had set eyes on her but now he realised he wanted more: he wanted to be with her.
He wanted to marry her.
But he couldn’t tell her that now, when they were both more than slightly inebriated and surrounded by loud, drunken men and women. It needed to be somewhere else, somewhere special, somewhere private…
“Countess,” he said.
“Yes, Sire?” she replied, turning towards him.
“Ron,” she corrected, smiling nervously.
“Lily,” he began again. “Do you know the town of Ottery St Catchpole?”
She blinked at him, surprised. “Erm, yes, sire? It’s about an hour’s ride from G – my cousin’s.”
“I used to live there when I was younger,” he told her. “Before my mum was called to the capital and crowned we all lived in this rundown mansion called the Burrow. I used to go back there every now and again, to remind myself of how far I’ve come… now I’d like to go back again, but this time I’m going to remind myself of how far I’ve yet to go.” Nervous, but alcohol giving him an unexpected surge of courage, he reached out and took her hand. “I’d really like it if you could meet me there tomorrow.”
Lily stared at him wide eyed. “Oh, Your –Ron,” she said eventually. “I’ll… I’ll try.”
Ron felt so light and happy he felt he was in danger of floating. “Then I’ll wait all day for you.”
She smiled at him shyly and Ron realised with a start he was still holding her hand. He looked down at their entwined hands, tingling starting on his fingers from the contact. As he looked back up he saw she was still looking at him, hadn’t moved backwards. In fact, she was moving closer and so was he, his free hand going up to cup her face and then…
Ron had never wanted to murder anyone more in his life than the Death Eater that interrupted them. As he broke away from her to glare at him he simply burst into laughter and applause, quickly followed by the rest of the Death Eaters with a few wolf whistles thrown in. Much to his mortification he realised Ginny was the one wolf-whistling, laughing with Gryffindor as he just smirked at his mistress.
As he looked over to apologise to Lily he realised she was laughing too, face pink, embarrassed but happy. He squeezed her hand as he started laughing, too.
Everything was going to work out alright.
“Well, who would have thought it,” Ginevra said with a sigh,
“my brother actually managed to get the girl.”
Harry looked at her sideways, eyebrow raised. She pulled a face at him. “Don’t look at me like that; Ron is bloody
useless at nearly everything.”
“This isn’t sounding any better, Your Highness,” Harry told her, laughing.
Ginevra screwed up her face. “No, it isn’t, is it?” she agreed. “But I am his little sister; it’s my job to mock him mercilessly. Next time he does something to annoy me this little indiscretion is coming back to haunt him.”
“And here I thought the job of siblings was to be nice to and love each other.”
“Well it’s pretty obvious from that that you don’t have any siblings,” Ginevra said before immediately clamming up. “Bugger. Sorry, James, I forgot about your parents,” she apologised, but Harry waved it off.
“Doesn’t matter, Princess.”
Truth be told his parents died so long ago and he had endured so many insults about them at the hand of the Dursleys that he doubted anyone could hurt him about them anymore. And Ginevra was wrong; he did have a sister.
As Harry watched Hermione and Ronald talk he felt nothing but happiness for her. He knew she had liked the Prince for a while, but until this afternoon he wasn’t sure that the Prince was worthy of her. He had been nice enough but, as Hermione herself had observed, quite self-involved. But the conversation they had all had with Riddle had shown Harry he was capable of thinking of others. Not only that, but once he had grasped the concept behind Harry’s idea, had been surprisingly enthusiastic and brought up some good points.
“Your mistress has been a good influence on him,” Ginevra said suddenly, almost as if she was reading his thoughts. “Me, too,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
“She’s something special, isn’t she?” Harry agreed, smiling proudly. If only Ginevra had seen how she had started off, that scared almost feral girl. He had been worried when he’d brought up her past under the rather pathetic pseudonym of ‘Heather’ but she’d hardly blinked. However much mentioning his parents didn’t hurt him, bringing up Hermione’s parents was still painful for her. “Although I wouldn’t count yourself out either, Princess.”
Ginevra raised an eyebrow at him. “What on earth do you mean?”
“Well, whatever I thought about Princesses or court ladies in general, I certainly didn’t imagine one that skates on water, plays quidditch, exchanges verbal spars with terrorists, dance with commoners and drinks copious amounts of firewhiskey.”
By the end of his little speech Ginevra was completely red and Harry was well on his way to joining her. What an idiotic thing to say. Seemed liked Ginevra wasn’t the only who had had a bit too much firewhiskey. Although if he was honest he couldn’t completely blame the alcohol; every part of him was hyper aware of the Princess sitting close besides him. The side that was next to her was tingling so badly that every time she shifted even a fraction he could feel it in every inch of his skin. He would’ve thought it would get easier to bear the longer the night went on but it hadn’t; it had got worse. Now, it seemed, it was teaming up with the alcohol to make the most ridiculous things come out of his mouth.
Before he could apologise for what was undoubtedly an inappropriate comment – she was royalty, after all – Ginevra retorted.
“Well, you’re one to talk! You beat Princesses at Quidditch, rescue damsels in distress, talk politics with royalty and terrorists, drink said terrorists under the table and are a lightning bearer, whatever that is.”
That penultimate referred to Dean, currently unconscious somewhere by Harry’s feet. Harry hadn’t been at all sorry to see the witty Death Eater pass out; he had danced with – and flirted with – Ginevra far too many times for Harry’s liking. No matter their temporary truce, she was still a Princess.
And he just didn’t like seeing him flirt with Ginny.
“A servant does what he can, Your Highness.”
They sat in companionable silence for a while, Harry reflecting further on the Princess. Before all this had started he had had very little cause to think of the Princess. Whenever he wasn’t thinking about how to get out from under the Dursleys any thoughts he had tended to focus on Ronald and the other younger Princes, the ones that were closest to him in age. The only reason he had ever thought of Ginevra at all was whenever Petunia had started making ridiculous references to marrying Dudley off to her. The Princess he had envisioned in his head had looked a little like Ginevra – long red hair, small figure and pretty face – but she had been a meek, courteous and proper little noble.
He realised as soon as he met her that she was not the meek little courtier he had imagined. The mental image he had of her immediately was painted over with the fire and boldness she had displayed that day at the lake. He’d been slowly adding new tones and brushstrokes to that picture, but only today felt like he was getting in those subtle touches and hues that made Ginevra Ginevra.
“You know, you’re wasted as a servant.”
Harry turned to the Princess in shock. “What makes you say that?”
She shrugged although she was a little pink. “You’re funny, clearly intelligent, strong, have a good grasp of politics – that’s more than most of the nobles at court. I doubt you would be fool enough to prance about in a hat with a feather a metre high,” she added gloomily.
Harry started at what was so clearly a mention of Dudley. For a moment he wondered how she would know. ‘Of course, idiot; she and Ronald went round the market place with Dudley and Petunia the following day. They had to have met them that first day.’
Any kind of joke at his cousin’s expense usually cheered Harry up but not tonight. Tonight it brought reality crashing back in like a cold shower.
Ginevra must have noticed something in his face. “Is it something I said?” she asked, worried.
“No,” Harry lied. “It’s something else.” He struggled to his feet and offered a hand down to her. “Come, my Lady – we’d best head back, else your royal father will send out guards after us.”
“Oh bloody hell!” Ginevra swore, grabbing hold of Harry’s arm hurriedly. “He’d probably have sent the aurors out already if Ron wasn’t with me.” At Harry’s enquiring gaze she shifted uncomfortably. “I have a teensy habit of running away every now and then.”
Harry laughed, although inwardly wondered what on earth could be so bad at the palace that she felt she had to run away to escape from it. ‘She should try living with the Dursleys,’ he thought gloomily, before batting the thought away. He’d never wish the Dursleys on anyone!
He ignored the fresh surge of tingles holding her hand sent through his arm.
“I’ll try and pry the two lovebirds apart,” Ginevra was saying with a smirk. “Please find Lady Luna and persuade her to stop dancing.”
“I’ll find Riddle, too,” Harry said. “He – well, Dean – promised us horses.”
“Great, see you in a bit.”
As Ginevra strode off to butt into Ron and Hermione’s conversation, Harry wandered off to where he could see several flashes of multi-coloured lights. It seemed Lady Luna had persuaded several of Hermione’s glowing orbs to join in the dancing and now she, and several cheering and laughing Death Eaters, were engaged in a complicated looking dance that involved much twisting, leaping and weird batting motions in the air.
As Harry tried to persuade the exuberant Luna that she needed to stop dancing, he couldn’t help his mind drifting back to what Ginevra had said about Dudley. It was just a throw away comment but something about the way she had said it bothered him. A lot.
‘I have a bad feeling about this,’ he thought as chased after the Lady Luna.
Ginevra was feeling much more subdued by the time the party
of horses reached the whomping willow.
The long ride and cool night had banished away most of the fuzzy warmth
the firewhiskey had given her as well as the worry that she would meet an auror
search party on her way back. That was
the last thing she needed right now;
to be in even more trouble with her
‘Although,’ Ginny thought, defiantly, ‘Ron and I have managed to do what they’ve failed to do for years and that’s strike an agreement of sorts with the Death Eaters. They can’t fault us for that.’
She decided to ignore what their reactions might be to the life-threatening danger it had also involved.
She was, however, going to mention the parts both Lily and James had played. James deserved so much more than to be a servant, even one so highly respected as he was by the Countess. She would recommend he join the aurors, once she gave him that new wand. That would suit him perfectly and she would see him quite often.
It was a perfect solution. Although the alcohol made her say it, she had meant every word. James was funny, talented, intelligent and utterly loyal to his mistress. Those were rare qualities in all men, not just commoners. There was something so magnetic about him as well, something she couldn’t put her finger on. Once she’d properly begun to look at him she realised that he was a natural leader; it was there when he’d faced down the Death Eaters in the clearing; when he’d treated with Riddle so respectfully but knowledgably. Maybe that was why she felt oddly drawn to him? Or maybe it was just because she didn’t often find someone who could give her a run for her money in Quidditch.
Whatever the reason she was sure that he would make an amazing auror. Getting him a position was the least she could do in return for saving her life. It was, as she had said earlier, perfect.
So why did she feel unhappy at the thought of him being an auror?
Jerked out of her thoughts, Ginevra reigned in her horse as James and Lily slowed their own horses. “You’re getting off here?” she asked, surprised. She’d assumed they would escort them back to their own residence.
“My cousin’s house is quite close, Princess,” Lily explained as James held out a hand for her. “I don’t want to wake anyone up, we’ll be fine from here.”
“What about thieves?” Ron asked.
Lily gave him a look. “We just ‘defeated’ a whole band of terrorists, Your Highness,” she said merrily. “I doubt there is anything more dangerous about.”
They all laughed at that.
“So I’ll see you tomorrow, Countess?” Ron asked.
“You shall,” Lily agreed with a shy smile.
“Until tomorrow then, my Lady,” he cried gallantly and was on the verge of kicking his horse into action when Ginny realised she’d forgotten something horribly important.
“Wait!” she yelled and slid off her horse, cursing herself for an idiot. All that time, practically the entire day, and she completely forgot to ask the other girl the one question she’d come out to ask. Fuzzy feelings had completely vanished and all the worries and fears that she’d been suppressing all day came rushing back. ‘How could I forget?!’
“Ginny,” Ron groaned, “not now.”
“Yes, Ron, now,” she snapped back at him angrily, “or would you rather I came along with the two of you tomorrow?”
He shut up.
“What is it, Your Highness?” Lily asked, perplexed. Besides her James was looking equally confused. She tried to ignore his intense green stare to focus on the lady.
“I need your advice, Countess,” Ginny said, trying not to sound as desperate as she felt, “and please, call me Ginny.”
“Can’t it wait, Your – er, Ginny?” the older girl asked. “It is quite late.”
But Ginny shook her head. “I know it’s late, Lily, and I’m sorry but I’m running out of time. I meant to ask you today, but with the library and the Death Eaters… well, let’s just say I hadn’t really wanted to think about it.”
“What on earth’s the matter?”
“I’m betrothed,” Ginny blurted out and then it was as if a switch had been hit in her head. She had meant to explain the situation calmly and dispassionately but the long day, firewhiskey or sheer desperation she was feeling had made that impossible. “To an absolutely awful pig of an earl. My parents have given me an ultimatum – if I can find love by tomorrow they will dissolve my marriage contract. I thought it was perfect at first but I can’t do it! I can’t make myself marry someone I don’t love but equally I just can’t can’t marry that despicable whale Potter! I need some help, Countess, I just don’t know what to do!”
Both Lily and James were staring at her in horror which may have been due to the fact that she had started crying. Again.
“What’s the name of your betrothed?” James asked, voice hard.
“Earl Harry James Potter,” Ginny spat, tears positively streaming down her face, “and you don’t know what he’s like – he’s just awful, him and his bitch of an aunt both. Tell me what I should do!”
Neither of them said anything at all, they just continued to stare at her in total shock. Then:
“I don’t believe this,” James murmured, green eyes flashing with such fury that Ginny took an astonished step backwards. He shook his head in disbelief, fists clenched. “I don’t bloody believe this!”
And then he was gone, racing over the hills at full speed, not even glancing back once.
“Ha – JAMES!” Lily yelled after him, frantic. He just ignored her and carried on running. With the dark of night still upon them it wasn’t long until he’d completely disappeared in the gloom. Lily turned around, wild eyed, to stare back at Ginny. “I’m sorry, Ginny, I have to go.” Just as she was turning away Lily suddenly twisted back round to envelop a mystified Ginny in a quick hug. Just before she broke away to chase after her servant, Ginny could have sworn she heard the Countess whisper, “I’m so sorry.”
And then she was gone.
Ginny wasn’t going to lie: she was extremely hurt. She’d just poured out her deepest worry out to someone she thought would help her – two someones – and they’d both turned and run away as though something was chasing them.
“What the bloody hell?!”
Ginny looked up at her older brother. Ron looked down at her and for once didn’t say anything insensitive or rude about her crying like a girl. Instead he reached down a hand and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“Every time I think I’ve got that woman figured out she disappears on me again,” he quipped although it was forced. “You alright, Gin?”
“You haven’t called me that in years,” Ginny hiccupped, ignoring the question. Inside her stomach was roiling and her emotions were a tornado of hurt, anxiety and bewilderment. It wasn’t a nice combination. Then she had to know, “Was it me?”
“No, Gin, it wasn’t,” Ron said firmly. “I don’t know what it was, but it definitely wasn’t you. And I know Lily – if she can help you she will. Maybe that’s what they raced off to do,” he added, although even he sounded highly sceptical.
Ginny didn’t know why the two had run off but she knew Lily enough to know that if the girl had any practical advice to offer she would have given it. What hurt more was the fact that she thought she had known James enough that he wouldn’t have run away from her like that, especially after the evening they had just shared.
That hurt most of all.
Belatedly Ginny realised that Ron was still waiting for her to go – and that the aurors were likely still heading their way. Although the worry about being berated by parents again felt small and insignificant against the mess of swirling emotions inside it was enough to get her moving. She didn’t think she could take a yelling match – she’d be like to do something she regretted.
Ron didn’t say anything as Ginny wandered desolately back over to her horse but as she grabbed the reigns he said, “Everything will work out, Gin, it will. Don’t worry.”
‘No, Ron,’ Ginny thought in her head as she’d climbed back up on the saddle, ‘it really won’t.’