The wind blows steadily across the pitch, and Ginny takes a moment to enjoy the feeling of it, the way it brings the smell of autumn with it, dampness and leaves and earth and, somewhere, carried from far away, wood smoke. She wants to feel it in her hair, be comforted by the way it lifts and blows it around, making it stream behind her when she flies hard, or making it float around her face when she hovers this high up, something she's learned to see through, but obscures her face for others. But instead of flowing freely, the way she lets it when she flies on her own, it's tied back in a tight plait, the Department of Magical Games and Sports advised style for those whose hair goes past their shoulders.
The lack of movement and freedom feels odd, from her hairstyle down to the weight of the safety equipment underneath her robes, much more intense than the uniform she wore at school, even with the charms to make it feel lighter. But she's had three months now to get used to it, and she knows from experience that less than three minutes after the match begins, she'll be flying around with ease, as if wearing nothing more restrictive than her everyday robes.
Looking down at the pitch, Ginny spots the referee on the ground with the case of Quidditch balls, still not ready to take his place and begin the game. That's perfectly fine. It gives her time to fly in a slow, lazy circle, testing the direction and force of the wind and adjusting to the golden afternoon light. Her nerves will hold, and every second spent on her broom reassures her of that.
Just get a feel for everything, if you can. Take some time to appreciate the way it feels, and notice the way light and shadows fall.
Harry's voice, of course, earnest and helpful. He said it months ago, as they sat together late one night in his living room, when he caught her fretting about the next morning's tryouts. She laughed a little, teasing him that he still had a Seeker's mentality towards the game, thinking about light and shadows and other tricks that would help him spot the Snitch before his opponent, and he'd given a sheepish little grin. But before she went home for the night, he'd taken her hand and given it a firm squeeze.
Don't worry about it. You'll make it. I know you will.
Simple words, but they made her feel a little better, playing through her head that night until she fell asleep. And he was right, after all. Smiling at the memory, she flies a little higher, up where the wind is stronger and the angle of the sun keeps her free of the shadows down on the pitch. Not far below, she can see a few of the Kestrels' players weaving in and out of each other, in an easy, well-practised warm-up manoeuvre. They all fly easily, but there is one girl, built more like a Seeker than the Chaser Ginny knows her to be, who adds a little flourish every time she turns left.
Before the match starts, keep your eye on the other team's players. See if you notice any patterns in the way they move, or if you can peg who's quickest. It'll help you anticipate their important moves later.
Ron has been the most vocal about giving her tips on the game from the moment she announced her intention to try out, as if she'd never played before. Some of his advice is good, some of it is stuff she's known since she was eight, and all of it is very, very firm. Like Harry, his advice belies his own position on the Hogwarts team. A Keeper would find anticipation of a Chaser's speed and manoeuvring abilities to be of the upmost importance. When she pointed out to Ron that she wouldn't be up there, waiting for people to come to her and trying to get past her, he threw his hands up in the air and muttered something about just trying to help his little sister, but there was a bit of good-naturedness underneath the complaint.
Fine, then. If it's Beaters you're worried about watching for, go and talk to George. I reckon he'd be the person to ask.
She wasn't worried about Beaters, necessarily, but Ron's words sort of drove it home that this wasn't an impromptu game with friends, nor even a battle between the houses at Hogwarts. This is a professional league, a career, no matter how much enjoyment the game brings her, and injuries aren't exactly rare. And, in the heat of the moment, things sometimes have a way of getting rough. A foul can always be called afterwards, but that doesn't mean the crack in your skull or Bludger to your back hasn't happened.
So, my baby sister wants advice on dealing with Beaters?
I'm your only sister! ...And, I mean... If you have any.
Well... I guess my advice is to just be too quick for them. Don't give your moves away. Seem spontaneous. Or, you know, toss out a Bat-Bogey Hex if you get into trouble.
Even now, Ginny snorts at the memory. Leave it to George to suggest something completely against the rules, and to shrug it off when she pointed that out.
Down below, the referee is approaching the centre of the pitch, both team captains walking out to meet him in the middle. Ginny flies lazily towards the rest of her team, catching a glimpse of her own private cheering section--a sea of red hair, save Hermione's easily-identifiable frizzy brown head, since Harry can't come--and giving them all a little wave as she flies by, careful not to pay too much attention to where they are, so she won't be tempted to keep looking over later in the match. Hermione hasn't given her any advice on the game like the boys have, admitting this morning what Ginny already knew: she doesn't know anything about the sport, really. Still, she wished Ginny good luck in the kitchen of the Burrow after they'd cleared the breakfast dishes away, giving her a tight hug. In a way, it was better than all the advice, because she won't be looking to see if Ginny has followed it.
It hits her, a little before the referee opens the case and let the balls go, that the nerves she thought she doesn't have have just been waiting for this moment to announce their presence. Her palms start to sweat and her arms and knees feel shaky.
My best piece of advice, little sister, is this: Don't throw up. After that, it's all easy.
Ginny's breath catches in her throat, and she nearly flubs her landing. Of all the advice running through her head this morning, helpful and pointless both, she doesn't expect this one to come back to her. Not after this many years.
His only words directly to her the morning before her first match as part of the Gyrffindor team, whispered out of the side of his mouth as they waited around for Harry to lead them onto the pitch. She giggled and gave him a smile, grateful he hadn't teased her instead, because she did feel a little queasy after breakfast. She hadn't said thanks, though she felt it, but Fred seemed to know that anyway. He just tugged at the sleeve of her robes and smirked, moving over to stand again at George's side, where she thought he'd always be.
The memory stings, raw and tender in a place she thought was healed-over, and though she sort of wants to tear up, she instead swallows hard and takes her place with her team, determined nothing will distract her from the game.
Ginny waited for the twins to land again, laughing and shoving each other, before she walked out into the yard where they were, fixing them with her most persuasive look. It worked most of the time on her mother, on her father nearly as often, on Charlie and Bill some of the time, and, every now and then, on George and Fred. "When can I play?"
They'd looked at each other instinctively, holding an entire conversation with their eyes that Ginny could see, but not comprehend the complexity of.
"See, the thing is--" George said, starting to raise his shoulders in a shrug that, somehow, Fred finished.
It'd been Fred to utter the words, but as Ginny'd known for years, even at the age of six, he was speaking just as much for George as he was for himself, and so she'd dropped the sweet act and just glared at them both, little hands making fists and resting on her hips. "Why not?" If she weren't so angry, she might have made an attempt at tearful to try to change their answer through guilt, but the way they'd brushed her off so quickly had sparked her anger, which, even back then, had been quick to ignite.
"Mum'd have kittens if she saw you on a broom with us," Fred said, glancing back to the house. "And trust us, baby sister--"
"--we don't exactly like the thought of having our ears boxed if you fall off a broom," George said, wincing. "Besides, we don't have any brooms small enough for you. You're too titchy. Not to mention the fact that if you did manage to get up in the air..."
"...we'd have to be gentle with you. You couldn't handle playing for real."
Ginny saw red. "You wouldn't have to be gentle! I'm tough enough!"
Both twins laughed, slinging their brooms over their shoulders and heading for the shed in order to store them until the next time they wanted to play. "Right. Of course you are."
Watching them retreat, leaving her in the middle of the back yard, Ginny glared in their direction. They were never that careful with locking the door to the shed, and as they walked into the kitchen, arguing over who would be the better Beater once they got to Hogwarts next year, Ginny crept over to the shed door and gave it a little try. Completely unlocked.
Scampering inside before her mother or anyone else could see her and ask what she was doing out there by herself, Ginny made up her mind: if her brothers wouldn't let her play with them, then she would simply play without them later on. With the twins and Ron keeping her mother so busy these days, she'd certainly have the opportunity to sneak out here and take one of their brooms out. And after she'd had a bit of time to practise, she could finally show them how good she could be, and then they'd be sorry they hadn't agreed to let her in on their fun.
The second the match begins, the whistle ringing in her ears, and Ginny feels something very much like how she felt the first time she managed to mount a broom and kick up into the air. It's exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, although now the terror's for a completely different reason. She's not worried one of her brothers or her parents will come outside and see her up this high, where she definitely shouldn't be, or even that she'll fall and hurt herself. It's simply that flood of nerves that accompanies the knowledge that this time, it's real, and there are thousands of eyes on her in a way she never really felt back at Hogwarts. This is the real thing.
There's the familiar drop in her stomach as she stops climbing and instead begins a slow dive, heading for the Quaffle. It's the same set of moves it's always been, only for different stakes. Out in the stands, there are no students shouting their housemates on, wanting nothing more than bragging rights until the next match, or professors watching her perform in a way that's so different than her school work. Now there are families watching with their children and elderly life-long fans of each team comparing the start of this new season to dozens of ones in the past. There are men and women drunk on the excitement of the sport and on pints of lager consumed before the game. And of course, there is most of her family (and Hermione, who will be part of it before too much longer, everyone knows, even if nothing official's been discussed yet) cheering in the stands, brothers and her parents, both, the former wanting her to beat the pants off the other team, and the latter just wanting to see her do her best.
And that's exactly what she plans on doing. There's a reason she was awarded a spot as Chaser for the Harpies, and she is damn well going to show everyone--her manager, the fans, and especially the other team--exactly what that reason is.
The Chaser for the Kestrels is so busy trying to dodge the advances of the Harpies' toughest Beater that Ginny can see he isn't holding the Quaffle very securely. Ginny makes a bee-line for him, nodding to Alsam, another of the Chasers, who flies underneath the bloke and reappears on the other side of him, catching his attention. Ginny's able to pop up along his side easily, snatching the Quaffle from his hands as he shouts in frustration. Then she's off as fast as she can manage, weaving in and out of the other Kestrels' players and heading for the goal hoops. This is about as good as she's felt since the end of the war, really, only a few other instances standing out against this one as competition. And when she gets close enough to see the determined look on the Keeper's face, Ginny tosses the Quaffle in an arc, the girl's gloved fingertips just failing to deflect the ball.
"Ten points for Holyhead!" Ginny hears the announcer exclaim, aided by a strong Sonorus. "First points of the game, and scored by new acquisition, Ginny Weasley. Looks like the Kestrels had better watch out for this young firebrand!"
Some part of Ginny wants to gloat at the accomplishment, or at least turn and wave at her family, but there's no time for that, not in the professional leagues. While she's managed that early goal, it unfortunately means the other team is paying her more attention, aware already that she's someone to keep an eye on. Both Beaters and the Keeper will be watching her closely, using what they've already seen to anticipate her future moves. It's only the first game of her career, so it's not as if they have any idea which techniques she relies on, or how predictable she might be, but they'll be looking, analysing, just as her brothers told her she should be doing.
Unfortunately, the other team scores a goal not two minutes later, and that seems to be the indication the crowd was waiting for, signalling that this match will be in no way one-sided. By the time the sun is low enough on the horizon to be perched just at the top of the stadium's walls, catching Ginny with a sudden, blinding burst of light, the other team is ahead by two goals, eighty to sixty, and they're all playing that game of trying to judge how much energy they should hold back for the rest of the game, and how hard they can play now. Each Seeker has had at least one instance of almost catching the Snitch, but the last time was nearly an hour ago, and Ginny's definitely feeling it. Her left wrist and forearm burn with the force she's using to hold on to her broom handle, steering with one hand as she cradles the Quaffle with the other. This time, the Keeper dives and makes the save easily, and Ginny can only swear under her breath, vaguely grateful her mother can't hear her use language like that while she's up here.
The missed goal only makes her more determined to get the Quaffle for another shot, more willing to be a bit rougher and more aggressive. On a team full of girls, there isn't one of them who could be called weak or timid, but Ginny's had a lifetime of advantage on this front. Being the youngest of seven, last in line behind six boys who were only too willing to wrestle over toys and deal in punches and kicks when fighting for the last bit of dinner, Ginny's learned to not only be quick, but to be sneaky.
And in a game like this, that's a lesson she might need.
She'd had to wait for the right time, the moment her mother was too preoccupied with the laundry that five boys had brought home in their school trunks to pay her any mind, but now that her mother was tied up, Ginny was free to duck out the back door, trailing her brothers.
She kept out of their line of sight as well, knowing they'd tell her to go back inside, and there was no way she was doing that. This was the first time since the Christmas holidays that everyone had been home, and Ginny had missed the distractions necessary to escape her mother's watchful gaze.
Of course, she had missed her brothers, too. Ron was still home, of course, but everyone else was off at Hogwarts and, even at their loudest, she and Ron couldn't match the natural volume and energy of a house full of Weasleys. Besides, with so few children to watch over, it was far easier for their mother to figure out who'd done what, and dole out punishments accordingly.
The twins headed straight for the far end of the yard with their brooms, just as Ginny had guessed they would. Somewhere inside, Percy was sitting near their mother, recounting his accomplishments and the twins' shortcomings, both academic and behavioural. Charlie and Bill were in Charlie's room, looking through that picture book Ginny hated, the one of dragons that showed the men in the pictures meeting with gruesome ends. Ron was somewhere with their dad, which left the twins out here, and Ginny hidden in her spot, watching them.
Neither of them made the Gryffindor Quidditch team in their first year, just like Percy'd told them they wouldn't, but it hadn't seemed to dampen the twins' enthusiasm for the game. Tucked up against the trunk of the oldest tree in their yard, Ginny watched them fly through the air, swatting light bats at the toy Bludgers they'd been given for their birthdays last year. Fred was more forceful about lobbing the things than George was but, by the end of the night, they'd both be hiding the bruises from their mother.
After a while, even they seemed to tire of hitting each other with the toys, and, as they reminisced about things that they'd done at school--things Ginny was positive they were never going to admit to their parents--George took up a spot in front of the hole high up in the fence they used in place of a real goal, and Fred found the old, flat, orange rubber ball some Muggle child had left behind during a picnic not far from here a few years ago. "Ready, Fred?"
"Give it your best, Georgie," Fred smirked. "You've yet to get that thing past me."
"Yeah, right," George scoffed. "Except the hundreds of times you're purposefully forgetting." He hurled the ball at the hole, and even Ginny could see that they were both much more comfortable hitting Bludgers at people than they were at playing other positions. She wasn't sure she'd like that very much--she'd be too afraid she'd accidentally hurt someone, and besides, she was better at throwing things than she was at hitting them with a bat. She was even okay at diving and pulling back up, but she still thought she'd rather be a Chaser when she got older, all things considered.
When their game devolved into little other than antagonising each other, Ginny could only watch, enthralled, as they flew closer and closer, trying to get each other to crash into the ground or the fence. And when they got so close she could see them lying on the ground, bruised and bloody, before they even touched, she couldn't help it--she shrieked.
"What the bloody hell?" one of them--Ginny couldn't tell which, with her hands covering her eyes to avoid seeing the inevitable tragedy--shouted, and then there was a distinct thud as they collided, and a second, different one a moment later as they hit the ground.
"Ginny!" Fred wheezed a moment later, and the tone of his voice made her peek through her fingers to see how he'd managed to sound so angry if he was dead. "How long've you been there?"
"The whole time?" she squeaked, now at least sure the twins were alive, if a little stunned.
"Why were you hiding? Trying to scare us?" George asked, disentangling himself from his broomstick and limping towards her. "I've half a mind to tell mum--"
Ginny panicked. "No! She thinks I'm in my room. Besides, if you tell, I'll tell her that you got detention for setting off that explosion in Potions on purpose!"
Both twins stared at her. "You little sneak," Fred said disbelievingly, shaking his head at her. He looked up at his brother. "Well, how do you like that, Georgie? Our baby sister's already versed in blackmail." George snorted and rubbed at his knee, and Fred walked over to stand in front of her. "All right, then. You obviously heard some things you shouldn't. What do you want from us? That isn't flying," he added firmly.
Ginny looked up at him, already a little upset he'd taken away the very thing she would have asked for. She hadn't meant to startle them, or to find a way to get something out of watching them. She'd really just missed them, was all. With both of them gone, there wasn't anyone home to hassle Ron and keep him from being too insufferable, or to distract their mother so she could sneak biscuits for the three of them to share. She missed their jokes, too, since she wasn't usually on the bad end of them, and she missed the way they sometimes let her hang out with them, mostly to irritate Ron, whom they didn't let join them, and the funny things they'd say about Percy when he and their parents weren't around. But growing up with all these boys taught better than to talk about things like that. "Show me what you were doing. When you were headed for each other and then both went separate directions."
George laughed like she'd asked for one of them to deliver her the moon, but Fred just looked at her before giving her a wide smile. "Well, we can't do it properly without a third person as Chaser--and you're not going to try, mind you. We do like having all our limbs in the right places--but George and I can show you what's supposed to happen. We call it double-rushing. It's something good Beaters can do to a Chaser, to fool them. Works pretty much every time. Come on, George. Up on the broom." He winked down at her. "This little move right here's gonna make us rich and famous. Just you watch. People are going to see this move in the European League and think 'Weasley'."
By the time the sun is down enough for everything to be turning from pink and orange to blue and purple, Ginny's fairly certain the landscape isn't the only thing wearing those colours. This game has been brutal, and there's no way she won't be paying for it in the morning. It's been almost three hours of constant play, certainly not the longest game the League's recorded in the last ten years--not even close, but it's definitely longer than any practice Ginny's had since joining the team, and much tougher.
The Kestrels are still ahead, now two hundred and ten to one-fifty, but it's still anyone's game, with both Seekers starting to strain to see the Snitch in the fading light. Ginny hopes Marston can find the stupid thing soon, because she really wants to hit the shower and stand under the water until the muscles in her thighs and arms stop trembling.
But exhausted or not, she's not giving up. The crowd below her doesn't seem to be tired of the action yet, either, if their volume is anything to go by. If anything, they seem louder than they were an hour ago, and that's including the shouting that stemmed from the last foul called. She hasn't exactly caught a second wind, but she hasn't proven herself as much as she'd hoped, either, and that knowledge drives her to push harder. In some way, she feels like she's doing this for her family, to show them that there's still fun and excitement and a reason to celebrate like they used to before the war, and everything that happened during it.
And on some level, she even feels like she's playing for Fred, or, more accurately, for George, who's probably thinking of his twin, and who seems more affected by her up here than any of the rest of her family does. The look on his face the last time she managed to glance at them all, while one of the other Holyhead Chasers took the penalty shot, showed him with that same sad look she was so used to seeing these days, the one that said no matter what he was doing, or how things were going, he felt like there was something about it that was missing.
She's been trying not to think of Fred too much during the game, and for most of it, she's succeeded. Nothing's hit her quite as hard as that moment of hearing his voice in her head, an almost-forgotten memory from so long ago, but she still can't help wondering how things would be if he were down there with everyone else who'd managed to come. She's sure that even this far away from their spot in the stands, she'd be able to hear them yelling in unison, berating the other team and probably even the referee.
She's still thinking about Fred as she heads for the scoring area, feeling some of her hair come loose from the plait she did nearly five hours ago now, and that might very well be the only reason she doesn't go into blind panic when she realises that the two Beaters from the Kestrels are coming for her, hard and fast, flanking her and on a direct course that will not only lose her possession of the Quaffle, but likely her grip on her broom. She has two choices: keep going for the goal, with a slim chance of making it close enough to get the Quaffle near any of the hoops and virtually guaranteeing she'll need a hefty dose of pain potion, or something else dispensed by the team Mediwizard, or try the only thing that might get her out of the double-rushing.
"Here goes nothing," she mutters, hoping that her brothers weren't just messing around with her more than ten years ago.
She felt vindicated, really, when Harry announced her place on the team, a smile on his face as he looked in her direction. She'd been flying for years on her own and, by the age of nine, had figured out how to charm the toy Bludgers to track her as she raced for the hole in the fence that was always the goal hoops. She knew no one really expected her to be much good, let alone as good as tryouts proved her to be. In fact, even better than the look of surprise and relief on Harry's face was the look of utter shock on Fred's and George's faces as she scored her first goal.
They'd offered her warm congratulations at the time, of course, and then had promptly gone all big-brother on whomever had muttered she'd made it because Harry fancied her--McLaggen was Ginny's guess, given the silhouette she could see backing away from the twins--though she'd pretended not to see that bit. She didn't need them to fight her battles, but sometimes she let them anyway, because she knew they liked to.
The common room had had a festive air about it that evening and, after a butterbeer, Ginny felt she couldn't really feel any better about her accomplishment. Even that, though, couldn't keep her from feeling ready to find Dean, celebrate a little with him, and then turn in for the night, ready to sleep like the dead.
"A word if you don't mind, dear sister," Fred said, sidling up behind her and startling her so badly she nearly dropped her almost-empty butterbeer. He gestured for her to follow and she did, certain this wasn't one of those times he was luring her away to pull a prank of some sort. Years of exposure had given her a good sense for those moments. She followed him over to the window, where George was leaning, staring out at the night sky.
"What is it?"
"You know," George said, turning around to look at her, eyebrows raised in imitation of the way Percy looked at all of them before he was about to begin a long lecture. "Hermione told us."
"Told you what?" A dozen things flashed through her mind, including all those things she'd told her about liking Harry over the summer, and she fervently hoped Hermione hadn't taken to confiding in the twins about their little sister's love life.
"About the fact that you've been taking our brooms out of the shed and practising on your own since you were six," Fred said, trying for the same face George made, but failing utterly when he laughed instead. "Eight years, and you never got caught. We taught her well, didn't we, Georgie?"
"Very well," George agreed, nudging her with his elbow. "I have to say, we're quite proud of you. For making the team, too, of course. Not just for sneaking around for so long, undetected."
Fred put an arm around her shoulders. "You know, there was one time I thought ickle Ronniekins had broken some twigs on my broom. Gave him quite a hard time about it. And to think, that was you." He mussed her hair, beaming when she smacked him hard on the arm. "Aw, Georgie. Our baby sister's growing up. So advanced. Next, you'll be giving Filch a hard time." He pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. "I just hope you're willing to take our advice as you mature."
She swatted at him again, making both of the twins laugh. "Yeah, well, let's see what you can teach me that's actually helpful. Then we'll see."
Fred's voice speaks quietly, somehow easy to hear, even over the blood pounding in her head and the wind in her ears. You have to wait. Half of the trick to double-rushing is making the Chaser panic. More often than not, they'll drop the Quaffle and your job's done. But those who don't fly away as quickly as they can, and it's easy enough for one of us to get a Bludger aimed their way then. If a Chaser wants out of the double-rushing trap, he has to wait. And just when we're practically on top of him, he has to fall. I'm not talking about a dive, like the Wronski Feint, little sister. I'm talking, like a stone. Just let yourself go. Get far enough under them that they can't see you, and then go for it, you hear me?
She's got one shot at this, and she really wishes she'd practised the move at any other time in her life before this. She remembers the sight of Harry plummetting to earth during a match back at Hogwarts, and even watching that had been terrifying, let alone being the one to fall through the sky.
She holds her breath until the Beaters are close enough that the one she's looking directly at is raising his bat, and then she lets herself go. There's a feeling of weightlessness, a sickening drop in her stomach as it tries to figure out where it belongs in relation to the rest of her body, and her robes billow just a little as they catch the new direction of the air. Time seems to slow down, and though it can't have been any more than a second, maybe two, it feels like forever until she's far enough below both Beaters that she can only see the undersides of them. With a death-grip on her broomhandle with her left hand and her arm squeezing the Quaffle so hard it hurts, she shoots out in front of them from below, giving a quick jerk to her broom and rising swiftly, nearly parallel to the hoop as she hurls the Quaffle at it, praying she'll at least get close.
The crowd goes from silent to explosively loud as she slows her ascent, and Ginny looks back over her shoulder to see the Keeper just barely regain hold of her broom, and the shouts from her teammates tell her she's made it. And then, during the height of the chaos, the crowd at the other end of the pitch roars, and everyone else turns to see Marston holding something shining and golden in her hand, its wings fluttering madly.
"And that does it for the match! Fabulous distraction technique by Ginny Weasley, who managed to score a goal while diverting attention towards the south end of the pitch, while Revena Marston plucks the Snitch out of the air at the north end! Harpies win, three hundred and ten points to the Kestrels' two hundred and ten!"
Everything's a blur as Marston streaks towards her, nearly knocking Ginny off her broom as she throws her arm around her, Golden Snitch still clutched in her hand. "That was bloody brilliant!" she shouts over all the noise. "I've never seen anything like that! Talk about courage, Weasley!"
This feeling is probably shock, because while Ginny's not numb, she's...well, she's something that's not normal, and then a glance over at the stands where her family is on their feet, shouting and waving, sort of makes it all hit home, and suddenly she's hot and can feel how fast her heart is pounding. "Thanks," she says, finally able to come up with words. "That was great timing with your catch."
There are hugs and fists pounded on backs all around, and Ginny doesn't even care that half of her teammates are hitting the spot where she got smacked by a Bludger less than an hour ago. Bergman and some of the others invite her out for drinks but, as much fun as it sounds, she has to decline. "I would, but my family's all here, and my brother offered to take us all out to dinner."
"Ah," Marsden says, sounding sympathetic, like no one could possibly enjoy time out with their family. "Your first professional match, with the family local enough to attend, to boot. No worries, love. We'll celebrate plenty of wins this season. You can join us for the next one. But expect to explain that little stunt of yours during practice next week. That was mad!"
It isn't until she's halfway through her shower, fingers exploring the new bruises on her body that are like dark, tender badges of honour, that the adrenaline high seems to burn itself up and leave her crashing much faster than expected. All the nerves she's put aside, and, more unexpected and harder-hitting, the intense memories of her brothers together, intertwined with her earlier experiences with Quidditch seem to swell up from somewhere within her. She can feel them rising in her throat, making it hard to swallow, restricting her breathing.
The other girls are all eager to get out of here and celebrate, and the last one leaves the changing room just a few minutes later, leaving Ginny standing alone under a strong blast of hot water that hits the tile floor and echoes in the now-empty room. As soon as she's sure she's the only one left, she gives into the exhaustion and everything else, the memories of Fred, which still sting, even more than a year later, the grief she still hasn't completely found an outlet for, and lets herself sob as the water hits her body. It seems to wash away the sharpest of the grief as it washes away the sweat of a long, hard game. It's a release unlike any she's had in a long time, now that she's alone with no one to judge her, or even hold her in mutual misery.
She dresses slowly, aching and spent, but she feels better than she would have expected. When she steps out of the changing room and into the cool night air, there's a crowd waiting for her, all freckled faces and red hair just like she sees in the mirror every day. It isn't everyone who's dear to her, but everyone's tried to be here, and that's what's important.
Her mother rushes at her, throwing her arms around her and nearly knocking Ginny over, squeezing her tight until Ginny's wincing from the abuse to her bruised shoulder and left arm. "Let the girl breathe, Molly," her father says good-naturedly. "She took a couple of good hits, you know."
"Oh! Oh! You're right, I'm sorry, I forgot. You're not really injured, are you, dear?"
"I'm fine, mum. A bit banged up, but nothing that won't be fine in a couple of days. I'd better get used to it, I suppose."
Her dad gives her a much more self-aware hug, patting her softly on the back and congratulating her on what he knows will be the first of many wins, and she wonders if she'd tear up, if she wasn't cried out. "Thanks, dad. I'm glad you all could be here. It means a lot to me."
It does, too. Bill and Fleur are standing off to the side, Fleur gently bouncing Victoire, who's fussing slightly. "She just needs to eat," Fleur says apologetically. "She really was very good during the match, even with all the shouting." She glares over at Ron, who blushes and ducks behind Hermione, as if she can hide him from his sister-in-law's wrath. Percy gives her an awkward hug, and even Audrey leans in and congratulates her.
Hermione gives her a large smile, pulling Ron away with an admonition when he forgets she's taken a few Bludgers and elbows. "Sorry," he says, though he's smiling widely. "I'm just excited for her, okay?" He looks down at Ginny. "Head swelling with all that fame and glory yet?"
Ginny laughs. "Right. You're one to talk, Mr 'I'm on the front page of the Prophet for another impressive arrest'. My head's probably got a way to go before it reaches comparable size."
Everyone laughs, and Ron mutters something about just doing his job, but he's still smiling. They're much closer than they used to be, especially during that period in school when he was dating that cow, Lavender. But then, grief has a way of pulling the family together, changing the way they all interact. It's probably most noticeable in Percy, though, who still doesn't seem to have got over his guilt over the brief estrangement while he was working for the crumbling Ministry. He's the one who's offered to take every last one of them out for dinner, now that he's got his latest promotion--a real one, based on competency and his knack for fussy little details.
"Did you hear from your brother, dear?" her mum asks, suddenly rummaging through her bag. "He owled to make sure...I have the note somewhere."
"I did," Ginny nodded. There had been an exhausted-looking owl waiting at her window late last night, a tiny little package strapped to its leg. She'd let it in and given it food, water, and a rest as she'd got ready for bed, reading the short letter of well-wishes as she fingered the dragon's tooth pendant Charlie had sent for good luck. "I sent his owl back this morning. It's probably just still on its way. Poor thing looked shattered."
"Harry's really sorry he couldn't be here," Hermione started, looking sad for her. "But he--"
"I know." It would have been nice to have him here with the others, waiting with a hug and words of congratulations, but she knew she would see him tomorrow night, after he got back from his assignment with the Aurors. One of the downfalls to Harry's steadfast insistence that he be treated the same as any other Auror on the squad was that he hadn't been able to get the night off, having drawn surveillance duty on some case. But he'd sent her flowers this morning, before breakfast, along with a note saying he hoped she'd be free the following night for dinner out in London, and he wanted to hear all about the Harpies' win, because he knew they would. "It's okay. I'm glad you and Ron came, too. I know you're not terribly familiar with Quidditch."
"I'm not," Hermione admitted. "But that manoeuvre you did earlier was so exciting! I almost couldn't watch, I was so certain you were going to be hurt."
Ginny laughed. "Well, I won't say it didn't shoot my heart-rate up." She looked out at everyone, taking in their smiles and enthusiasm, and smiled. "And not to be rude, but... I'm famished. Percy said something about dinner, right?"
"Yes, absolutely," he said, puffing up a little, like a self-important owl. "Everyone, follow me. We have a port-key, you know."
"Hey," a voice said quietly in her ear as everyone else began to jabber about wherever it was Percy was taking them. George put his hand on her elbow. "Hang back a bit?"
She nodded. "I'll be right there," Ginny told her parents, who were badgering Percy about spending frivolously. "I just forgot something in the changing room. George'll wait for me, and we'll meet you at the port-key."
"Oh, all right, dear," her mum said. "Do hurry, though. You look like you need a good meal. You're a bit peaked."
"Mum," Ginny said, shaking her head and sighing as they all rounded the corner, voices suddenly much quieter. "Still thinks I'm a little girl."
"Yeah," George says, and, though he's smiling, there's that look in his eyes that makes her hurt for him, wondering if he'll ever be free from it. It used to be worse, of course. She remembers with a pang the look on his face in the first few weeks after the final battle, when she'd catch him looking in the mirror, searching for something he knew he wouldn't find. Worse were the times she'd knock on his door, ready to get him to come to dinner and eat something for the day, and find him just lying there, looking faded and hollow, as if he'd buried more of himself than was left to walk the earth, all the vital bits suddenly gone.
"You were thinking of him today, too," she finally says, because if she waits for him, he might never say it.
"I'm never not," George replies simply. "But yeah. I recognised that move, you know. The one that you pulled when those two Beaters double-rushed you. It's the one we taught you when we came back home after our first year at Hogwarts."
"Yeah, I know," she says, unsure how to put everything into words. How can she tell him she couldn't shake thoughts of Fred during the game, the way her memories of the two of them were tied up so tightly with her memories of Quidditch, a game she learned from watching them in secret, and then trying to copy the things she'd seen them do when no one was looking? She learned almost everything from them, either from just watching, or later, from the tips they gave her when they were pretending they were just giving her advice that would help Gryffindor beat Slytherin, instead of helping her out because they were concerned about her safety in a way they'd never admit to.
Finally, she gives up on the attempt to put all of that into words and just turns to face him, taking one of his hands in hers. He still looks a bit odd, seen from one side, with the hole where his ear used to be, but he still looks so much like Fred that sometimes, it hurts. "I miss him. A lot."
"Me too." It's the most obvious statement in the world, something that doesn't even need to be said, and his voice is a little thick. It still hurts to think about Fred, and she can't imagine what it's like for George, who's always had him at his side, someone to finish his thoughts and complete his plans. George was always the quieter of the two, the gentler one, but Fred was the one who seemed to feel she should be taken under their collective wing, who gave her special attention and was the first to let her join in.
"I love all of you guys," she says after a moment, "but you two've always been my favourites."
George blinks at her, like this is news to him, though really, it shouldn't be. Or maybe it's the fact that she didn't say "were" when she admitted that. He swallows hard after a moment, pulling her in for a strong, tight hug, and really, she doesn't even care how hard he hits her bruised arm and shoulder. He breaks it off after a moment, but leaves his arm slung around her shoulder, just like they both used to do. "Well, what can I say?" he says, clearing his throat and beginning to lead her down the passageway to join everyone else. "You've always had good taste, now, haven't you, little sister?"