Percy watched his sister disappear and the emerald-green flames die down, then turned back to his spotless kitchen. Ginny had been waiting in his flat when he arrived home from work and stayed for dinner, sharing Percy's chow mein and egg rolls as well as the bowl of parsnips she had brought as a peace offering. It was the first time he'd eaten parsnips since that Christmas two years ago, when his siblings had thrown them in his face. She had argued he shouldn't have expected to be welcomed with Scrimgeour in tow, and Percy explained it hadn't been his choice.
He wasn't sure Ginny believed him, but she'd forgiven him; she'd stayed to help wash up and chatted all the while, giving him more news about his parents, Ron, and Charlie than he'd had from the sources themselves and making him promise to come to dinner on Friday. He and Ginny had always got along, especially when it was just the two of them. Too young to be anything but a nuisance to Bill and Charlie, and often left out by the twins and even Ron when he wanted Fred and George's approval, Ginny would seek out Percy in whatever quiet corner he'd found and ask him to read to her. She would listen to anything, whether it was articles from the Daily Prophet, his Transfiguration or Arithmancy texts, Beedle the Bard, or the latest novel for Muggle Studies. Now it was Percy's turn to listen as she went on about N.E.W.T. lessons, Quidditch, and—yes, Harry.
Percy twisted the top off a butterbeer as he walked into his sitting room. He still remembered a nightdress-clad sprite scurrying up the stairs the first time Harry was at the Burrow, gasping her dismay as she locked herself in the bathroom. Oh, well, he thought as he dropped into Auntie Muriel's chair. That memory will come in handy some day.
Ron crept forward in line as Mr. and Mrs. Granger pulled their luggage another six inches and Hermione gave her wheeled case a kick to keep up with them. They were waiting to check in at the Qantas airline desk for their flights to London. Hermione had prepped him on the process and security screening, but Ron was much more worried about how the plane would stay in the air than he was about someone having a knife on board. Hermione had insisted they needed luggage to "check" to avoid suspicion on an international flight, so in addition to the many boxes the Grangers had shipped back to England, Ron had a duffle bag with the last of the sheets and towels, Mr. Granger's CD collection, and Ron's own clothes and personal items. His old rucksack from their trip contained three comics, his toothbrush, a change of pants and a clean t-shirt, and his brand new virtual pet, or as Ron liked to call it, POAK (short for "pet on a keychain").
The airport was big, loud, and crowded; even more than King's Cross Station, it reminded Ron just how many more Muggles there were in the world compared to wizards. Over the last two months he'd become comfortable moving around Wahroonga; working the electricity and telly in the hotel, learning the bus system, ordering in restaurants, finding and paying for sundries in Muggle shops. Hermione had even taken him to the public library several times, which other than the lack of self-shelving books, worked just like the one at Hogwarts (it had taken him a few seconds to recognize the problem the first time he'd held up a book he didn't want, waiting for it to float back into place).
This was different. Ron watched closely as people went up to the counter in groups with their traveling companions, handing over their tickets and identification. He could see the uniformed employees asking questions but wasn't close enough yet to hear what they were. He hoped none of their questions would be directed towards him.
"Hmm?" She turned from the sign she was reading. SYDNEY PASSENGERS ARE ADVISED ALL ITEMS ARE SUBJECT TO SECURITY SCREENING. KEEP YOUR POSSESSIONS WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES. DO NOT LEAVE UNATTENDED ITEMS IN TERMINAL.
"Not everyone has one of these little books." He held up the ticket and ID in his left hand.
"Passports," she reminded him. "That's because you don't need one if you're flying within the country, only internationally."
"Oh. What are they using then?"
"Probably a driving license," she said. "You've seen Mum's and Dad's."
He had. They had been in the folder of papers Hermione brought with her. Mr. and Mrs. Granger had shredded, then burned, all the documents associated with Wendell and Monica Wilkins and were traveling under their real names and original passports.
The queue moved steadily, and finally Ron followed Hermione and her mother as Mr. Granger approached the young woman down the counter who had given him a wave. As she had them place their luggage one at a time on a low metal shelf beside her, then wrapped a tag around one of the handles, Ron realized it was a scale. It didn't matter for Apparition or Portkeys, but he supposed in the Muggle world, too much weight must make it difficult to fly. He ignored his unease at this idea and watched as she inspected each of their passports and tickets, returning the passports with what she called a "boarding pass" and claim ticket for their luggage, and told them which gate they would be departing from.
Ron waited until they'd collected their smaller bags—hand luggage, that's what Hermione called them—and stepped away from the counter before asking, "Is a gate like a train platform?"
"Sort of," Hermione said, stepping onto a moving stairway quite like the one that lead to Dumbledore's office, but this one just went up at an angle instead of moving in circles. "They'll use a tunnel called a jetway to connect a door in the wall of the airport to the door of the plane, and that's how we'll board."
Ron nodded, stepping off the moving stairway with a lurch (unlike Dumbledore's, it did not stop when you reached the top), and followed the Grangers into an even larger hall, with people bustling about in all directions. Off to one side was a semi-circle with multiple restaurants and an open area filled with tables and chairs.
Mrs. Granger glanced at her watch. "We have plenty of time," she said. "Who wants something to eat?"
"Ron does," Hermione said without looking at him.
Mrs. Granger smiled. "It's all right, Ron, I could use a snack too. Maybe a scone and a cuppa?"
"I'll get it," he volunteered.
It might be the last thing he knew how to do all day.
More than an hour later found Ron lifting Hermione's bag into the overhead cupboard and taking his seat beside her. The plane was huge, much bigger than he had expected, with three seats on each side and a larger section in the middle, where he, Hermione, and her parents were seated. Ron pushed his bum all the way back in the seat, but it was no use—even bent at the knee, his legs filled the space between his seat and the back of the seat in front of him. Hermione took notice of his predicament and winced.
"I'm sorry, I forgot how tall you are," she said, giving his leg a pat. "Once everyone boards, you can stretch out in the aisle a bit. You'll just have to watch for the serving cart."
Ron eyed the narrow aisle, barely wider than the bags being dragged down it, and doubted it would help much.
"How much longer?"
"A few more minutes," Hermione said, picking up the book she'd taken out of her bag before giving it to Ron to store overhead. "They have to give everyone time to board and get seated, and then get clearance from the tower."
"What tower?" Ron asked. Anything to keep from thinking about being suspended in the air in a metal tube without magic. A very large, very heavy metal tube over a very large, very deep ocean. For a very long time.
"Air traffic control," Hermione said absently, already turning pages. "They tell the pilots who can land and take off and from which runway and stuff so none of the planes run into each other."
Great. He hadn't even considered that—without roads and stoplights, how did the planes avoid accidents?
Ron continued to watch his fellow passengers, and it wasn't long until everyone was seated and the plane began to move. Two women—
"What are they called again?" Ron said, nodding at the pretty young women standing in each aisle as a voice from overhead asked all the passengers to please direct their attention to the front of the cabin for important safety information.
"Stewardesses," Hermione said without looking up. "Or flight attendants, to use the gender-neutral term."
Ron checked his seat belt for the umpteenth time and did as instructed. It was a couple minutes before he realized Hermione—and her parents—were still reading, rather than paying attention to the life preserver demonstration in front of them. He elbowed her, hard.
"Ow! What—I already know what they're saying, Ron," she said. "I've flown several times before."
Considering she had never accepted any of Ron's excuses for not paying attention to their Hogwarts professors, and this was a matter much more serious than revising, he gave Hermione his best "I'm the prefect, that's why" look and waited until she marked her place with one finger and faced forward.
Less reassured than ever as the pilot announced, "Flight attendants, please prepare for departure" (Ron had never considered a loss of cabin pressure, much less what its consequences would be), Ron reached over and took Hermione's hand. She smiled at him and squeezed back. The engines revved, he was pressed back into his seat, and a moment later he felt the familiar fluttering in his stomach of kicking off on a broomstick. He looked to his left, past the woman with two small children, and saw the ground falling away out the tiny window.
"That's it," Hermione confirmed, still smiling. "We're flying."
"Tell me again," Hermione demanded.
Swaying with fatigue, Ron glared down at her. He'd lost count of the number of times she'd made him repeat the directions since they landed in London an hour before. He knew it had been eight o'clock in the morning Sydney time when they landed at their stopover in Dubai; he'd slept most of the first flight and felt normal (at least physically—palm trees in the concourse and signs in Arabic had been disorientating) until he'd watched a little white airplane inch its way northwest across the Middle East and Europe on the blue display board of their second flight. Somewhere between Turkey and Hungary Ron's brain had turned to mush from sheer boredom, and despite his burning eyes and puzzling lack of appetite, he hadn't been able to sleep. Now the London clocks informed him it was morning again—on the same day—and the only things Ron was sure of were his name, he was going to Devon, and he was never, ever traveling so far the Muggle way again.
"Here to Paddington Station and then Devon."
Hermione returned his glare—nearly thirty hours in airports hadn't done anything for her mood, either. "Specifics, Ron."
He closed his eyes—Godric, they burned, like they had the time he'd been caught in a sandstorm in Egypt with Bill—and tried to think.
"I take the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then switch trains and buy a ticket for Exeter. Harry is going to meet me at arrivals, and I'm not to leave the station until he gets there."
"And what do you do if you get lost?"
"Ask anyone in a uniform for help. I have ridden trains before, Hermione, and we are back in England."
She bit her lip and looked around anxiously. "I know, it's just—I would feel better if I could go with you to Paddington. Be sure you get on the right train."
Ron took a deep breath and reminded himself she was trying to help. "You've made sure I get on the right one out of here," he said, indicating the sign over the platform. "You'd better get back to your parents."
The Grangers were taking the Underground to King's Cross to catch their own train home and were waiting in the concourse above.
Hermione's eyes filled with tears.
"Hey," Ron said, setting his rucksack down to pull her into his arms. "It will be okay, I promise. I'll write when I get home."
Hermione buried her face in his chest and sniffed. "Get Harry to help you call from the pay phone at the station. In Exeter."
"Okay. I'll call when I get to Exeter, so you know I took the right train, and we'll see each other at Harry's birthday party. It's only—"
"It can't be longer than this plane trip," Ron said, and Hermione gave him a small smile. "Kiss me goodbye."
"Don't say that word," she mumbled, mouth already pressed to his.
Ron framed her face in both hands, forcing his sluggish brain to remember this—to remember every detail of kissing Hermione, the fresh mint taste of her since she'd brushed her teeth in the washroom, the slightly musty smell of her hair from the airplane seats, the smooth warmth of her skin beneath his palms. She was leaning her weight against him—Ron really didn't know who was holding up who—and broke the kiss as he heard the train pull in behind him. Ron reached down for one more … and again.
"Go," he said, hitching his rucksack onto his shoulder, now his only luggage after transferring his stuff and leaving the duffle with Mr. Granger. "I love you."
Hermione fisted her hand in his shirt and pulled him down for a final kiss, a quick swipe of her tongue across his lower lip, and stepped back. "Hogwarts Express to Paddington to Exeter, and wait for Harry," she said one last time. "Don't forget to call me. I love you!"
Ron stepped onto the train somewhat mollified that even the brilliant Hermione Granger experienced the effects of crossing multiple time zones.
Hogwarts Express, indeed.
a/n: All right, peeps, we are now officially on hiatus for an indeterminate period of time. I'm writing a fic for Sherlock (not as long as this one!) and starting a new job in January that's going to completely change my schedule, so I really have no idea when I'll get this finished and start posting. You can check my profile for news. Fun fact: I had Hermione describe the flight attendants as stewardesses simplly because it's the longest English word you can type with one hand :) Merry Christmas, everyone!