Harry's hope bloomed stronger with a night's sleep, but Hermione was still worried in the morning.
"There were so many things we didn't ask him," she said. "Maybe only his magic works. We haven't been able to cast the smallest spell."
Mrs. Weasley bustled about, getting ready to leave. "I spoke at length with Mrs. Flamel while you were questioning him, and she thinks the presence of the dragons probably hinders our magic. She hasn't worked out the equations—she leaves that to Professor Flamel—but there seems to be a limit as to how much magic can express in one place, and all those dragons, being magical themselves and doing magical things, absorbed all the magical potential. We must make sure they drop us off a ways from our return portal and that they do not linger near by. Do gather up your things. I want to get back as soon as we can, and we must stop at the covert for the rest of our clothes."
"But they bought our dress outfits," objected Ron. "Won't we leave them here?"
Mrs. Weasley looked flustered. "I particularly want that suit you wore last night, Ron. It would look nice on your father. And mine suits me very well. I hope we can arrange to buy them from Florenzia."
While Ron rolled his eyes, Hermione asked, "But can we take things back?"
Mrs. Weasley nodded. "Mrs. Flamel said yes, that inanimate objects seem to have no problem crossing time streams. We did bring our clothes and half of our vase, you know. She thinks it's an explanation for why odd things turn up in strange places."
"A theory of missing socks," murmured Harry, happy that his gift for Ginny would make the trip.
Florenzia, between yawns, seemed genuinely sad when they told her they wanted to leave as soon as possible. Harry tried not to think of his losing Hedwig or Ron's distress over losing Scabbers, before he knew who Scabbers was. He particularly tried not to recall Hagrid's maxim that people can be a bit daft about their pets.
The dragon was enjoying a vat of her favorite throat-healing ginger tea, made by a drooping crew. She took a long drink and lifted her head up and back to enjoy the tea's warm progress down her throat. "Nothing could be easier, as Iskierka, Temeraire, and I must go on patrol this morning. I do see that others have been doing double duty in our absence, but I could wish for a few more hours of sleep. And I do see that you wish to rejoin your friends, but I must assure you that you and your friends will always be welcome in my household."
Harry hesitated before asking, "I wrote a few letters for you—"
"A few!" exclaimed Ron.
"I counted at least twenty," added Hermione.
"I hope they might be enough for at least one piece of the jewelry," he said, cheeks flaming.
"You must certainly take the entire set," said Florenzia. "You all have been most willing to work wherever you were asked. You made everyone's workload much lighter, and your beadwork was very fine. And just last Sunday we heard a fine sermon about welcoming strangers, which I am sure applies here. Oh, and I know what I must do: I must write a reference for you, to show your future employers. Perhaps you will take dictation once more?"
She also graciously granted Mrs. Weasley's request for some of the clothing as Harry searched for pen and paper.
"Think a dragon's recommendation will help you get a job?" whispered Ron.
"I bet it will get me any job I want," retorted Harry. "Except in Muggle world."
Word of their departure spread, and Captain Lawrence, Lt. Roland, and Captain Granby, along with the rest of Florenzia's crew, came to say good-bye. It was hard to leave people who had taken them in so willingly. Harry saw his sadness mirrored in his friends' faces. Of course he didn't want to stay, but it was hard to leave knowing that he'd never see these people or dragons again.
They were in the air sooner than Harry expected. He would have been hard pressed to identify the exact location where they had arrived, but Florenzia had no trouble in locating it. She touched down a bit of a distance away, and pointed to where she said was the exact spot that she had found them. She had barely touched down when she looked up and exclaimed, "Why, look at those French dragons! In broad daylight, no less! I must go join the others." She held her forehand out imperatively.
The wizards broke off their good-byes and thanks to step into her hand, Hermione now as confident as any of them. Florenzia set them down with care and asked if everyone were safe before launching into the air with trilling shrieks.
Hermione covered her ears and shuddered. "If Temeraire's Divine Wind is worse than that, I don't ever want to hear it."
As they walked toward their target, they craned their necks watch dozens of small brown dragons and a few bright middleweights swarming around Temeraire and Iskierka, high in the air over the water. The smaller ones crowded in close, as though to keep the larger dragons from doing anything. Temeraire, indeed, tried to avoid hurting them. Iskierka just drew a deep breath and let out blast of flame, frying the closest ones, who fell shrieking into the Channel. They did not rise.
Florenzia flipped on her back to fasten herself onto a middleweight's belly. He squalled and struggled until he ripped free and fled, black blood streaming through the air. Florenzia resumed her chortling as she twisted like a corkscrew and aimed herself at one of the other middleweights, who turned tail and joined the other in flight back to France.
Hermione stood frozen in horror until Mrs. Weasley tapped her shoulder. "Come, dear. We must begin."
"But we should help them…how can we help them?" Hermione pleaded.
"We can't, dear. We can't do magic near them, and they're doing what they've been trained for. They're all experienced soldiers," Mrs. Weasley said in her soft, comforting voice.
"Aviators, they are," corrected Ron, putting an arm around Hermione's shaking shoulders. "We could be in trouble if they weren't here to defend us. So the sooner we leave, the sooner they can stop fighting."
Hermione nodded and leaned down to pick up a stone. They collected as many as they could carry and then laid the stones in a grid, with the plan that each person should travel down a different side. Above them, the battle raged on, with Iskierka's fire blasting, dragons screaming, and sad splashes in the water that made Hermione gasp back a sob each time. Harry tried not to listen as he marched down his set of stones with his hands wide, searching for the ripple that Professor Flamel had shown them. But a rumbling thunder gathered into a full roar that drove him to his knees—Temeraire had lost patience and released his Divine Wind.
The others were on the ground also. Hermione clutched her middle as she curled into a ball. Ron had both hands over his mouth. Mrs. Weasley clutched her stomach and felt the area around her with her other hand. Harry looked up to see the three dragons swooping as graceful as the dragon dancers from the night before. Florenzia and Iskierka had dived behind Temeraire to avoid the worst of his roar. His victims had scarcely splashed into the Channel when Iskierka snaked in front to flame as many French dragons as she could while Florenzia twisted her way through the outliers, avoiding the fire and never holding still long enough to be shot or scratched. It was a lovely ballet, with only the cries and splashes of the casualties to indicate its deadliness.
Mrs. Weasley gave a weak gasp as she found a large lump near the ground. The others crawled closer and agreed that it was the same kind of ripple that Professor Flamel had shown them.
Ron staggered to his feet and pulled out the vase fragment from his jacket. He extended a hand to Hermione to help her up. Harry would have done the same for Mrs. Weasley, but she had already struggled up. Hermione winced at Florenzia's trilling battle cry, and at that moment, Temeraire let forth the Divine Wind again, more terrible this time because it caught the last of Florenzia's high-pitched howl and magnified it. The wizards pitched forward again, but they were close enough to hold each other up. Hermione had just uncovered ears when the splashing started, made worse by dull thuds as the dragon corpses hit the shallow water and the water's edge.
"Don't look," said Ron, pulling her closer to him. "Everybody grab the vase. Hermione, say the spell and let's go."
But when they held the vase fragment between them, Hermione hesitated, her face twisted with fear. "It can't possibly work. Who knows where we'll end up this time?"
Ron still had one arm around Hermione's shoulders. He squeezed her as he said, "It's you doing it, so it'll work."
"This is right," said Harry. "I can feel it. It's like when I was walking with Dumbledore through King's Cross Station. He said—I don't know how to explain it." He still didn't know what to call that feeling.
Hermione looked at him doubtfully.
"Just because it's in my head doesn't mean it isn't real," Harry said. This time, he was as sure as Dumbledore had been.
Mrs. Weasley said in a deep calm voice that sounded like the wise witch she was, "We're all with you, dear. Go ahead. It has to be you, because you started the spell. You have all the pieces now, and you have your friends with you."
Hermione clutched the broken vase so tightly that it was a wonder it didn't break again. Harry saw blood welling up between her fingers as the sharp edges of the vase cut into her skin, but he said nothing. Adding blood could only strengthen the spell.
She drew a shaky breath and breathed out, "Nihil domo iucundius. Nihil domo—"
They fell through space and time again, not the smooth transfer of a portkey, but the bumpiness that Harry remembered from the first trip.
Again they staggered in the sand.
Harry knew he was back in his own time, with shrieks of over-funned, over-sugared children, and the nauseating odor of too many stale sweets and industrial smells that squashed the salty beach scent. As he tried to regain his footing, a beach ball whacked him off balance. The troop of hooligans chasing it knocked him back into the sand, full of twentieth century trash.
Hermione and Ron pulled him to his feet.
A frown creased her forehead as she said, "I remember this being more fun when I was younger."
Mrs. Weasley clutched her baggage to her chest. Eyes darting everywhere, she said, "I'm sure it will be fun when we find Arthur, George, and Ginny and get settled.
They trudged through the crowds, aiming for the hotel. When they reached the pool patio, familiar voices hailed them. Mrs. Weasley, Ron, and Hermione rushed to embrace their long-sought companions, but Harry stood rooted, mouth wide open.
Decades later, when he was an old man, he still bored his children and grandchildren with the story of seeing Ginny in her lime green bikini, when he'd been terrified of never living in the same world with her. Even the girls, at first delighted with the romance, reached the point of rolling their eyes and saying, "Ew, he's gonna tell us about Grammy again."
Harry thought his gasp was as loud as a wind tunnel until he realized that Mrs. Weasley and Ron participated too.
"Ginevra Molly Weasley! Whatever are you doing in that…that…"
"Swimsuit, Mum. Everybody wears one on the beach." Ginny's smile was blinding.
Mrs. Weasley turned on her husband. "Arthur, how could you let her?"
Mr. Weasley, clad in a fearsome Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts, nodded his head. "Well, she is correct, Molly. I looked about, and all the young women do seem to be wearing something similar. Our goal was to blend in, you know. We mustn't upset the Muggles."
"So you admit it! Ogling young women as soon as I'm away for a few minutes!"
"Has it been just a few minutes?" Ron asked George, whose outfit was just as bizarre as their father's, his mournful demeanor in sharp contrast with the fuchsia hibiscus on his shirt.
"Maybe an hour or so," George mumbled.
"Thank goodness!" said Hermione. "But how did you work everything out?"
Ginny sighed and pulled on the beach coverup that she'd been carrying over her arm. It didn't slow down Mrs. Weasley's harangue at all. "I knew Mum would act like this. Well, Hermione, you weren't real subtle in your questions about our favorite vacations and so on. When you didn't show up, I figured something with the portkey went wrong. So I asked at the hotel if they knew of you. They showed us to the rooms you reserved and explained how to charge food and clothes. We figured you'd show up soon."
Mrs. Weasley switched topics. "So you weren't worried at all! And we've been lost for a week in a very strange version of the nineteenth century."
The whole story came out in pieces as they walked to the hotel. Everybody except Harry talked at once. He smiled as the familiar Weasley chaos, comfortable and warm as a blanket, cradled him. Over a room service feast, they stitched more stories together, made plans to bring the rest of the Weasley tribe (currently at Bill's house), and admired purchases and souvenirs. Everyone admired Harry's dragon reference, but he kept the bag of jewelry in his pocket. Of course, it wasn't something he wanted to give to Ginny in front of her family.
"It's almost like magic, this business of signing your room number to get things," marveled Mr. Weasley.
"But it isn't, is it?" Ron asked Hermione later as they, Harry, and Ginny made their way to the beach for a nighttime stroll. "At some point, you have to give them real money, don't you?"
"Yes, when we leave, but it's nothing to worry about," said Hermione, trying for a light tone as she exchanged a look with Harry, who made a thumbs up gesture to let her know that he was still her partner in Project Vacation.
"I may be the dumbest Weasley, but I know better than that," said Ron, still pursuing. "And you sent your parents off to Australia. So you don't have their support any more. Where are you getting this money?"
"Yes," said Ginny with a bright smile. "Where?"
Hermione lifted her chin. "It isn't polite to ask about a gift."
"We all thank you very much," said Ginny with a smirk. "But we still want to know."
"Well, Harry's helping. That is, if Bill knows how to convert wizard gold to Muggle money," hedged Hermione.
"We all know Harry could buy the moon," said Ron. "Where's your money coming from?"
"Really, Ron, that's a personal question." Hermione quickened her step.
"Too personal for your husband-to-be?" He lengthened his stride to catch up to her.
Ginny squealed with surprise and slapped a hand over her mouth.
"If you must know—" Hermione stopped and turned to face him. "I altered my parents' memories so they'd forget they had a daughter—and that they'd saved all their lives to give her a nestegg for her education and getting established. It came to me on my eighteenth birthday, exactly as they intended."
"Your education?" Ron's voice squeaked higher than Ginny's. "You took your education money and spent it on sweets on the beach for me? My family? My whole, entire, enormous family?"
Hermione, embarrassed, traced in the sand with one foot. "I'm sure it was way more than I need. It's not like I couldn't get a scholarship or a job, if I have too. Plenty of people start their adult lives with nothing at all…Yes. I did. I am. Because I love you. All of you. And nobody should have to endure what you did. All of you. I'd give anything to bring Fred back, to heal Bill and George, and everyone's heart, and all I can do is..." Brushing a hand across her eyes, she turned away.
Ron caught her and threw his arms around her. Harry guided Ginny closer to the water. Ginny snickered when they caught each other peeping over their shoulders at the other couple.
It was late enough that most of the revelers were gone to bed. Harry was sorry, in a way: they would have been a distraction at least, giving him something to talk about. As it was, he felt like he had a sock in his mouth, choking back his words.
After a long while, Ron and Hermione let go and walked down the beach, heads together, close enough that they looked like one person. Their laughter drifted back as their wands came out, first drawing lights in the sky, then shooting out Patronuses. First a Jack Russell Terrier scampered across the waves, followed by an undulating otter. More terriers and otters followed, the dog sleeker, more graceful. The otter grew wiry fur and a chunky body, until there was no telling them apart.
Harry longed to get his wand out too. So many days without magic was like those painful summers between Hogwarts years. But now he wanted a different magic.
Just being by water with a brought back all the long walks by the Hogwarts Lake, even though this water was different—waves rumbling rather than lapping, salty breeze, and sand that gave under their feet, the memory was still sharp enough to keep him silent. He fingered each piece of jewelry in its bag one last time before pulling the it from his pocket and shoving into Ginny's hands. He bit his lip when she looked confused. He couldn't think of what to say, except what he'd told her mother. So he said that, his voice creaking and squeaking. She looked down, her red hair falling in a curtain over her face. She could have been examining the necklace in her hand.
She hates green, thought Harry. Or pearls. Or both. He said, "Really. I just wanted to give you a gift because I never had the chance to—and I always wanted to. Don't think that—I mean, I know you don't know what you want to do next. I don't know what I want to do next. I'm not trying to…"
The red hair waved from side to side. Her voice choked on the words. "Harry, I understand. You don't have to say anything. I don't know why you ever liked me. I am so, so ordinary!"
"Ginny! No! You're the most special girl ever. The bravest, kindest, sweetest, prettiest—everything good. You want to to see ordinary? That's me, nothing special about me but my mother loved me, just like most mothers, just like yours loves you. Only your mum didn't have to defend you from the world's evilest wizard, and you weren't tangled up in a prophecy that could have applied to any other witch born around the same time as you were."
Ginny looked up, now the fierce warrior of only a few weeks ago. "I think prophecy and all that divination stuff is a crock. I wouldn't believe anything Sybill Trelawney said, no matter what."
The ends of Harry's lips trembled upwards. "Me either, from now on!"
Now he was dizzy with words, words that couldn't come out fast enough. "Special—you always were and always will be. Maybe it's stupid to buy you something to show you that, but I didn't know what else to do, and when I thought I'd never see you again, I so wanted to go back and make sure you knew."
Ginny looked away as she held up the necklace. In the dark, the black pearls a!l but disappeared, leaving the peridots seeming to sparkle by themselves in mid air. "Mum will say this is too expensive for a gift."
"She won't, because she was with me when I bought it. She even helped pay for it, with all the beading."
"That's why you became a dragon's secretary? To buy me a present?" Ginny's brown eyes widened. She held the necklace on her chest to see how it would look.
"Yes. Let me fasten it for you." His fingers tingled as he touched her shoulders.
After Ginny pulled her hair to one side, Harry fumbled with the clasp, never having done the task in his life. He was better with the bracelets, and Ginny set the comb in her hair with no trouble. They decided not to try the earrings in the dark, when it would be too easy to lose them in the sand. Harry hesitated before putting the ring on her finger. That gesture seemed too full of meaning. But after all, he'd gladly embrace all the meanings. But he reminded himself of his promise to Mrs. Weasley.
Ginny had to curl her fingers to keep the ring on. He'd never noticed how slender they were, how they seemed too delicate for hurling herself about on a broom or any of the feats of strength he'd seen her do.
"I'll get it adjusted," he said. "It is pretty big; I wore it on my pinky at the opera."
Ginny smiled and pulled the ring off her finger. She took his hand and slipped it on his little finger. "You keep it for now. I like both of us having some of the set."
Harry smiled at her and held her hand. He wanted to remember this moment forever, with the waves lapping behind him, a lone gull cawing, the moon heavy and yellow in the sky, and Ginny, her unruly red hair twirling in the wind as she continued the first deep smile he'd seen since he'd returned to Hogwarts. Sadness still lurked in her eyes, but he knew happiness was possible someday for both of them.
"Good idea," he said. "I'll keep the ring for now, until we can make the set complete again." He put his arm around her shoulders, and she laid her head on his. He savored how easy it was to walk with her as they approached Ron and Hermione, and decided that he'd believe it as an omen, just this once.