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Faded laughter against her ear

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Ginny doesn't feel almost-fifteen.

The summer is dragging, and she can remember reading accounts of soldiers, memories of war saying over and over war is short bursts of terror and long hours of boredom. She never expected to be verifying the statement personally.

Considering that her future has the options of being either nasty, brutish and short or alternately including the looming promise of OWLs at the end of the coming school year, it's not really surprising that she chooses to spend most of her days buried in the past. Number 12, Grimmauld Place has a fascinating library, books that smell like forgotten cigarettes and expensive dust. Ginny pores over the facts and stories from younger, bloodier times, some half-forgotten memories buried in her mind stirring at the words.

They're not her memories, not really. Perhaps Tom read these very books, years and years before her. Perhaps he stayed here over holidays, visiting school friends and asking Kreacher (but her Tom would never ask, his commands were clear and forceful always) for an extra candle at night, just as Ginny does now so she can stay up reading. Tom might have even slept in the bed that she stays in now, wondered at the arch of the ceiling above the pillows.

One rainy Tuesday she doesn't feel like reading, though. Ginny decides instead to wander about in the attic, where occasional half-hearted attempts at tidying have been made but the weight of history still presses in from all sides.

She finds old objects that are obviously designed for some strange specific purpose, but has no idea what to do with them. Old dresses and robes and hats, so dusty that she sneezes three times without stopping. Candles with wicks at both ends, and sea shells that sound like faded laughter against her ear.

Against one wall, under a grimy skylight, there are several old oil paintings propped against the wall. The topmost one is of a girl who, despite fifty odd years in between, is obviously Mrs Black from the covered picture downstairs. The girl looks about Ginny's age, and is laughing under a blossoming apple tree in some sunny garden of long ago. Shyly, Ginny waves, and the girl eagerly waves back.

The next two are old, anaemic looking men with prominent noses who pay no attention to the somewhat dusty teenager disturbing their dozing. And then Ginny is face to face with Sirius Black, aged fifteen.

"Hullo," Sirius says.

Ginny blinks several times, and then remembers her voice. "Hullo. It must be very boring, being a shut-away painting."

Sirius shakes his head. He is, Ginny can't help noticing, extremely good-looking. Aristocratic, somewhat haughty, and dark-haired. She has a fondness for the type.

"Not really. It's a bit Zen, you see. If there's nobody looking at a picture, does the picture exist? I'm not really awake unless there's somebody looking at me, or at least somebody nearby. Irritating, really. My mother put me up here the year after I - well, the other Sirius, anyway - moved out. Might have been ten years ago, for all I know."

"Actually," Ginny says, feeling awkward. "It's a bit more than that, I think."

"Really?" Sirius looks surprised but not particularly concerned. "You'll have to bring me up to date, then. What's your name?"

"Ginny Weasley."

"Weasley? Really? We're related then. I forget exactly how, but one way or another." Sirius waves one elegant hand about carelessly, then pushes his hair out of his eyes. "Is your dad named Arthur, by any chance? If it's been as long as you say, I expect he's started having spawn. You must be the eldest, though, you look like you're almost my age."

Ginny giggles. "Well, I don't have any older sisters."

Sirius smiles in satisfaction, not noticing Ginny's ironic tone. "Thought as much. Well, that's quite a thought for me to swallow, Arthur wasn't all that much older than me. Anybody else I might know have kids yet?"

Ginny is using all her might not to fall into infatuation with the charming grin now directed at her. First an evil diary, now a picture of somebody her friends are still mourning. And her mother always wanted her to find a nice boy.

"Well, there's Harry. Harry Potter. You and his dad w... are friends, aren't you?"

Now Sirius looks well and truly astounded. "Prongs is a father?" The surprise turns into amusement and elation. "Does the baby... Harry, did you say?" Ginny nods. "Does Harry go to Hogwarts yet, or is he still too small?"

"Yeah, he's at Hogwarts, he's friends with my brother Ron."

Sirius is beaming with pride now. "You keep an eye on him, you hear me? Don't let him and your little brother get pushed around... though I'm sure any son of James Potter is fending well enough for himself. Who's his mum?"

Ginny tries to remember what little she knows about Harry's parents. "Her name's Lily. I don't know what her last name was before she got married."

"Lily? James got married to Evans?!" Sirius's laugh is just the same as Ginny remembers it, like a bark of joy. "What about me? Does Remus still... do you know me when I'm older? That's such an odd thing to say. Do you know a man called Remus Lupin?"

Ginny can't help smiling. Sirius's mood is infectious. "Oh, yes. Professor Lupin's just downstairs, talking to my mum."

"Professor?" It's a good thing, Ginny thinks to herself, that this Sirius is a creature of paint and canvas, because otherwise he'd rupture something. "You're joking, aren't you?"

"No, I swear I'm not." Ginny's laughing too, now. "But he's not Professor anymore, I just still think of him by that in my head. There were rumours, y'see, about what he was. He had to leave."

Sirius scowls. "Really? Poor Moony. That's terrible." His expression brightens again. "But everyone needs a bit of drama in their life to make it interesting, I suppose. The rest of it sounds pretty good. So Remus is here, you say? Does he... er... is he here a lot?"

Ginny has become so caught up in laughing and chatting with this charming boy her own age that she had let herself forget, for a moment, the world outside this dusty and still attic. But she blinks back the sting in her eyes, and smiles again.

"Yeah. He lives here, actually. With you. And Harry visited over Christmas, you're his godfather."

Sirius looks like he may burst with pride and happiness.

"Haven't done too badly for myself then, have I? And Moony... I worry sometimes, Ginny Weasley. That he'll stop loving me. He's so much better than I am, and..." Sirius shakes the melancholy from his voice and grins again. "But I've got nothing to worry about, do I, if he's still putting up with me. He didn't stop after all."

Ginny will not cry. She has stared down worse without tears before.

"No." Her voice does not catch, or if it does Sirius has no reason to notice. "Never. You're very happy."

"Ginny!" her mother calls from downstairs. "Come have a bite to eat, you've skipped breakfast again."

"I..." Ginny can barely look at Sirius now, she's too afraid he will catch the lie in her eyes. She could not bear for him to know the truth of the matter. "I should go. I'll come back and see you again soon, though."

Sirius grins. "Ta. Let me know how things are going. You don't have to worry about making it very soon, if you don't have the chance. I won't know the difference anyway."

Ginny's heart threatens to break, for her beautiful boys locked outside time. If only she could learn a way to save them, like the prince who wakes the sleeping beauty. But her Tom's gone, bled out of a book like so much cheap ink, and Sirius is on the other side of a one-way sea. There's nothing she can do but remember.

She puts the other pictures back atop the one of Sirius, waving goodbye to the merry girl with so much future ahead. Then she wipes her eyes on her sleeve, and turns to go downstairs. She doesn't look back, but the attic key is a comforting weight in her pocket.