Harry stared at Ron, incredulous. "Wow," was all he could say at first. "That explains a lot."
Ron stared at him. "Like what?"
"Like why you avoid each other now. When I just bring up your name, Hermione won't even look at me. I think she was thinking of you, too, because she was talking like you."
"Yeah, well—" Ron grimaced before saying, "I wasn't too keen on facing Neville, either. I didn't know whether she'd told him. He didn't seem very happy with me when I saw him, but I couldn't very well ask whether she'd said anything, so—avoidance."
Harry nodded. "That's what you meant when you said both yes and no to whether you'd cheated. You were naked with Hermione—"
"Not naked! Underwear!" Ron reminded him.
"—in her office," Harry finished, brushing aside Ron's protest. "By the way, remind me never to go there again, yeah? The last thing I need is to picture the two of you—"
Ron snorted. "It's not as though I'm going back soon, either. But no, that's not what I meant. I meant—that time was the 'no.' There was another time."
"What?" Harry cried, his eyes round.
"Okay, that time could be considered a partial 'yes' and a partial 'no.' And so could the other time, in a way, because even though we really did shag we weren't married yet, though she was seeing Neville and I was seeing Luna."
Harry cleared his throat. "The last time I checked, if you were seeing other people, even though you weren't married, you cheated. Where was I? When was this?"
Ron sighed. "Do you remember the day we found Hagrid?"
Harry drew his mouth into a line. "Vividly. I'm not likely to forget..."
They found him at the edge of the forest, shot through with arrows that had found their mark again and again. Ron remembered the night of their Astronomy OWL, seeing Hagrid running through the castle gates carrying Fang, the Aurors' curses bouncing off him in a way that the arrows had not. They didn't know yet that they were meant to make the mistake of thinking that the centaurs had done it. Harry didn't want to leave him. Ron could tell that he needed a good cry without being seen by his best friend. Ron needed the same thing, so he volunteered to find Dumbledore and tell Hermione.
Dumbledore was talking to Phineas Nigellus's portrait very calmly. After Ron explained why he'd come Dumbledore leapt to his feet, telling Ron to find McGonagall. He found them together, Hermione in the armchair by the fire while McGonagall sat behind her desk. They were having tea and biscuits. He explained what had happened and McGonagall practically flew from the room. Hermione had stood to attention when he'd told them, then sank into the chair again, her face a mask of shock. He knelt before her, taking her hands, worried that this could send her into catatonia. He wasn't prepared for her eyes to suddenly wake up as she slid to the floor and threw her arms around him, sobbing into his chest. He felt his own tears start and he clutched at her for dear life.
After they cried for a while he became aware that they had their hands in 'inappropriate' places. They weren't supposed to touch that way anymore. And even though, most of his life, Ron was convinced that the last thing any girl wanted was to kiss him, at that moment he was certain that Hermione wanted this very much, so he pressed his lips to hers. He wasn't wrong. Hermione immediately responded, pulling him closer, her hand moving to an even more inappropriate place and Ron later wondered whether they'd have shagged on the floor of McGonagall's office if there hadn't been a knock at the door at that moment. Ron didn't know how he extricated himself, stood and answered the door. Flitwick was surprised to see them, his bushy eyebrows flying up into his hair. He was looking for McGonagall. Ron explained what had happened and the three of them ran down to Hagrid's hut together. Ron and Hermione did not meet each other's eyes.
The three professors levitated Hagrid together. Before they left, Fang walking morosely by Dumbledore's side, McGonagall said to Harry, Ron and Hermione, with a catch in her voice, "Can you three look after his house? Make sure there isn't still a fire burning, that sort of thing. Loose, erm, creatures."
They agreed wordlessly. Ron had been able to tell, when he, Hermione and Flitwick had first arrived at the hut, that Harry had been crying, though he'd dried his eyes. Ron could feel his tears fighting to get out again as he took in the familiar, homely one-room hut, which suddenly seemed large and yawning and desolate. Pheasants and joints of mutton hung from the ceiling, the old stone sink held soiled bowls and plates, and the large wooden table was covered by an intricately-woven animal trap Hagrid had been working on. A fire still burned but they couldn't bring themselves to put it out yet. Hermione knelt on the hearth, sobs wracking her body as she stared at the flames. Ron went to her, holding her shaking body as she wept. It was so strange to be in the little house without Hagrid's massive presence overwhelming it. Ron couldn't stop his own tears. He ceased caring whether Harry saw. Harry stared at the dead birds hanging from the ceiling, his jaw clenched. Ron knew who Harry wanted to cry on, and it wasn't him or Hermione.
"Go find Ginny," Ron said croakily, still holding Hermione tightly. Harry turned away, nodding, leaving the hut without another word. Ron checked Hermione's face; she seemed even more distraught than she was in the office.
"Oh, Ron!" she said, her voice shaking. "I'm such a terrible, horrid person."
He shook his head, tenderly brushing her hair out of her eyes. "Sssh. Of course you're not. What are you talking about?"
"In Arithmancy, my homework. The numbers, the signs—they all pointed to my losing someone close to me. The numbers didn't point to Harry. I thought it meant that—that—" She hiccoughed. "When you came into McGonagall's office and said it was Hagrid—I'm so dreadful! The first thing I thought was, 'Thank goodness it wasn't you!'" Her lip shook as she gazed at him; this time she was the one brushing hair out of his eyes. "I know we haven't been as close since we broke up, but the thought that I was going to lose you…really lose you…"
Ron clutched at her more tightly. "You could never lose me, Hermione. That doesn't make you a horrid person, being relieved. I know you loved Hagrid."
"I do!" she said vehemently. "I do love Hagrid!" She continued to gaze into his eyes. Their faces were very close and the unspoken statement hung between them, as tangible as the bodies they held so tightly. The next thing Ron knew, they were kissing again.
Later, Ron remembered saying repeatedly, "You could never lose me, never…"
Hermione seemed to be repeating, "I thought it was you, I thought it was you..."
He could tell that she'd done this before. When they'd been together she'd wanted to do this when he didn't and he'd wanted to when she didn't; they always had crossed signals. Now she seemed to have all sorts of knowledge, preferences and specific tasks she wanted carried out. He ended up feeling a bit cross and ordered about. And then he realised what they'd done.
They had cheated. Ron felt ill in the pit of his stomach. This was not good. Nothing good ever came of sneaking around. They dressed without looking at each other and returned to the castle, not touching as they walked. Ron's tears were far behind him and Hermione was also dry-eyed. The next day they spoke very little to each other and avoided being alone together. She kissed Neville affectionately before they went to bed in their separate dormitories. Ron joked and laughed with Luna at the Ravenclaw table in the Great Hall, though she had an expression about her eyes that made him wonder whether she somehow simply knew.
They never spoke of what had occurred in the hut and Ron never told Luna that the reason he was afraid to marry her was that he worried that he would cheat on her again and hurt her unspeakably.
Harry looked uncertainly at Ron. "You—you were grieving. You weren't married—"
Ron shook his head. "So? You just said—it's still cheating. It was wrong."
Harry sighed. "You were both grief-stricken. She thought you were going to die. Hagrid had just died, and you both cared about him..."
Ron glared. "Don't make excuses for us. You want me to make excuses for you?"
Harry froze and the silence seemed to stretch forever. At last Ron stood, running his hand through his hair. "I know you think I'm an opportunist who'll shag anything that moves—"
"I do not think that, Ron!" Harry gasped.
Ron was sceptical. "I'm not proud of myself. I'm not happy with what I nearly did and what I actually did the day we found Hagrid, but just because those things happened doesn't mean I give you a pass if you cheat on my sister! That's not why I told you."
Harry shook his head. "Of course it's not. But Ron, this is different. I don't want to cheat on Ginny. But, well, have you had any problems recently with—your body?"
"What are you getting at?" Ron looked like he thought Harry should be sharing Lockhart's ward at St Mungo's. Harry wasn't so sure that he shouldn't be there as well.
"Here's yer dinner, Jugson. Happy Easter," Fergusson snarled at the former Death Eater, shoving a plate under the bottom of the bars keeping the old man in his cell.
Azkaban wasn't exactly festive on this Easter day, but the prisoners did get a nicer meal than usual, including pudding, which was only to be had on Christmas, Easter and Hallowe'en. The delivery method did not vary from the other days of the year: teams of two Aurors were assigned to each corridor, one pushing a trolley heaped with plates of food while the other checked names off a parchment. No one was employed at the prison who was not an Auror, for maximum security, so even cleaning, cooking and tedious jobs such as food delivery were the responsibility of Aurors trained for the most extreme magical battles.
The trolleys had been charmed to keep the food warm until it was delivered, but near the end the charm always faded a bit. Sometimes prisoners with lukewarm food complained, but their complaints were usually met by, "Be grateful you're not still in here with Dementors." Or, if the prisoner had been arrested after Voldemort had lured the Dementors away from the prison, they might hear, "Be glad you never had to live with the Dementors, like the old prisoners." Sometimes inmates were complaining to the very Aurors who had arrested them. Sympathy for the prisoners was thus always in scant supply.
"Jugson," Neville Longbottom mumbled, his heart beating a little quicker as he remembered the battle at the Ministry in his fifth year. He closed his eyes for a second and collected himself before opening them and checking the name off on a curling piece of parchment. That was a long time ago, in what felt like a different life. In a way, Neville almost felt grateful to those Death Eaters, as he'd discovered what he could do in battle, even under pressure. On the other hand, "Thanks for attacking me and torturing me and trying to kill me. I learned loads," was something he couldn't imagine saying to them.
As young as he'd been during the war, he'd confronted far too many Death Eaters to be unmoved by memories of battle when walking the corridors of Azkaban. He'd avoided prison duty for years with good reason. Each night he slept in the quarters for the guards he relived those dreadful battles in his dreams. Up here, practically at the top of the world, there was no Hermione to take him in her arms, no Frances to cuddle up to his neck, with her intoxicating baby smell. Without the two people he loved best to comfort him upon waking, falling asleep again meant falling into more horrid battle nightmares. As a result, he was more than a little sleep-deprived only two days in. After a fortnight I'll be a zombie. Neville rubbed his eyes so hard that they squeaked in their sockets.
I'm not supposed to be here, he thought crossly, following Fergusson to the next cell. He was supposed to be at the Weasleys', having a lovely home-cooked Easter dinner, rather than whatever had been provided for the Aurors unlucky enough to be doing prison duty during the holiday. But he'd asked his fellow Aurors for favours once too often, especially since Frances had been born, and had managed to avoid working at the prison for nearly four years. All good things must come to an end. Leo DuPlessy, an older Auror who'd gone to school with Neville's parents and who had substituted for him repeatedly, had called in a favour at the last minute. His daughter had had her baby earlier than expected, so he wanted to cut short his Azkaban rotation and visit her in Capetown. Neville had left for Azkaban on Friday night and wouldn't see Hermione and Frances again for a fortnight while he finished what remained of DuPlessy's month-long stint.
Rubbing his eyes again, he wondered whether he dared use a charm to try to sleep that night as Fergusson slid a plate into the next cell. "Happy Easter, Malfoy," Fergusson grunted. Neville lifted his head in surprise. He hadn't realised that Draco Malfoy was on this corridor. He hadn't seen him in years. But when the blond man who'd been curled on the pallet stood and started shuffling toward his meal, Neville gasped. How has no one noticed this? Neville had delivered meals in a different corridor the day before and had, mercifully, encountered no familiar names or faces.
"Wait!" he said as Fergusson started to push the trolley toward the next cell. He frowned at the parchment in his hand, looking to see whether Fergusson was confused, but according to the list this was Draco Malfoy's cell.
"Come here! Please!" Neville said quickly when the man started to walk back to his bed with the food, which would not be hot for long. The blond man did not move toward the door but lifted his head and stared hopelessly at Neville. "Who are you? What is your name?" Neville demanded, his voice shaking.
The man's mouth worked soundlessly for a half-minute before he finally said, "I heisse Draco Malfoy," in a mechanical voice.
"What?" Neville said, frowning. He turned to Fergusson. "Is he even speaking English?" he demanded.
Fergusson shrugged. "Dunno. He said his name, though. What's the matter with you? We're not even half done. Come on."
"No," Neville said, thrusting the parchment at Fergusson. "You'll have to finish by yourself."
"We're not supposed to do this alone! Where the hell do you think you're going?" he shouted as Neville sprinted down the corridor away from him.
"To get help!"
Continuing to run, Neville shouted over his shoulder, "Because that is not Draco Malfoy!"
Draco Malfoy was in hell. Boiling oil, burning lava, being flayed alive or eternally pushing a stone uphill would have been quite welcome compared to—
"Uncle Percy, Uncle Percy, do it again!"
Draco knew he would be incredibly sore in the morning from the many small children hanging off him, riding him, and otherwise stepping on his feet, pulling his hair and ears, forcibly ripping his spectacles off his face (he wished Percy had normal vision!), and, the ultimate indignity, urinating on him. (Can't Potter's wife and that Mudblood, Granger, work out how to put a nappy on a baby so that it contains the waste?)
He tried not to groan as he resumed crawling about the lawn of The Burrow carrying Diana and Hal (ages three and five). He'd already given a ride to Cedric (age six), Frances (otherwise known as Leaky Nappy Number One) and Charlotte (Leaky Nappy Number Two). He was now also re-christening Diana (Female Thinks I'm a Loo) and Hal (Male Thinks I'm a Loo) inasmuch as they had decided to christen his clothing—again. Bloody hell. Shouldn't your child be trained not to relieve himself away from the loo before you let him ride someone around like a sodding camel?
He'd thought they had a fool-proof plan: he'd helped Molly Weasley prepare for the children to visit on Easter by setting the Easter eggs she'd made around the garden and house, and the children had all enjoyed searching for eggs while the mothers and grandmothers sat in wicker chairs, chatting, and the fathers—Potter and Weasley—disappeared into the house or Arthur Weasley's garage workshop, where Arthur and Bill were examining enchanted Muggle contraptions that Draco was certain were illegal. Longbottom wasn't present, fortunately, since he was called into service at the last minute as a substitute Azkaban guard. His gran was liberally sharing her opinions on everything with Molly Weasley and Granger.
Potter's son was hanging about with Percy Weasley's and Snape's sons. Potter's twin daughters followed Bill Weasley's veela-like daughter everywhere. Percy II watched his sister, brothers and cousins ride on his uncle but did not ask for a ride himself, being nine years old. Fortunately, Snape and his Muggle wife were off on holiday—the Isle of Wight—so there were two fewer people to get out of the way.
Now if only they'd all eat enough chocolate to get knocked out at the same time! Children were supposed to gobble up chocolate far faster than this lot had. He hadn't counted on Granger giving out sugar-free chewing gum from her parents, telling them to brush their teeth after eating sweets. The children were like human dairy cows, chewing compulsively, when they should have been eating Draco's drugged Easter eggs!
That sounds like a good product name, he thought ruefully, trying to keep himself amused and distract himself from the pain in his knees and lower back, not to mention the stench of baby urine. Draco's Drugged Easter Eggs. Now with even more knock-out potion, to keep your annoying ankle-biters unconscious.
He resisted the temptation to glare at Granger as she sat with Longbottom's grandmother, Molly Weasley, the French bitch, The Loon and Potter's wife. Through overhearing more than a few conversations he'd learnt about how long the Longbottoms had tried for a child before Frances was born. It gave him even more satisfaction to think of robbing their little brat of her magic. Then he saw something out of the corner of his eye: The Loon offering an egg to Granger, Potter's wife and the French bitch. Molly Weasley was already eating one. He grunted, returning to entertaining the children and getting them to trust 'Uncle Percy'.
It won't be long now.
"Yes, your body," Harry said to Ron. "I said that I told Ginny about this, remember? I had to tell her because when I got back from Parvati's and had decided that I wasn't going to cheat on her, I suddenly became a ghost, Mad Eye was alive again, and the girls all suddenly turned into ghosts too. They started falling through the bed because they didn't have bodies anymore!" Ron stared at him, open-mouthed, as Harry went on. "I had to tell myself that I would find a way to go back in time and it all fixed itself, though we had to get someone to come from the Ministry to help poor Charlotte."
"That's what all that was about?" Ron shouted.
"Did you turn into a ghost, too?" Harry asked anxiously.
"Not me. But Lew sent me out on loads of leads, stories about other wizards who said they'd turned into ghosts and back again. I thought it was just the usual barmy stuff he asks me to write. What are you saying, Harry?"
He took a breath and seemed to be trying not to shake. "I think that when I considered not doing it I changed time a little. Enough that some people who'd been dead were alive again, like Moody, and some people who were alive were dead. Or not even born, like my girls. Ginny was okay. And you. And most other people I know. But not all of them. Ginny thinks that the girls weren't actually ghosts, exactly, but more like echoes of life-force, or life-potential, something like that."
Ron stared at Harry, incredulous. "Harry, are you telling me that to preserve this timeline you have to find a way to time-travel and cheat on my sister?"
"Oh, no! Time!" Harry cried suddenly, glancing at the clock hanging over the cooker. "Isn't your mum serving Easter dinner about now?"
Ron glanced at his watch. "Bloody hell." He frowned as he stood. "And somehow I have to forget about all of this while I eat with my sister and try to seem normal?"
Harry's mouth twisted as they walked to the door of the house. He patted Ron on the back and said, "That's okay, Ron. No one ever expects you to seem normal."
Ron put his elbow in Harry's side but Harry only laughed. He seemed more cheerful than he had when he'd started telling Ron about his problems. As they walked away from the house Ron said, "It's a good thing Tilda and Snape are on holiday. I wouldn't want to be you and face the mother of your son after finding out about this."
Harry stared at Ron. "Don't you mean you wouldn't want to be Tilda and face me?"
Ron peered at him. "Does that mean you've confronted her about this?"
Harry turned away. "Well—no. I mean, now I know why she never said anything. She'd have been telling me about the future, after all. That's not supposed to be a good idea."
Ron shook his head. "Yeah, but you know now. The damage is done."
Harry shrugged. "Still, I'm probably not supposed to know about this."
"We should stop talking about it, since we're going back. My old room again, you reckon?" Harry nodded and they each raised their wands. Very quickly, the sheet-draped furniture and crates of Ron's old room appeared before them. Ron steeled himself for the inevitable questions from his mother about where he'd been as he walked down the stairs behind Harry. The house was strangely quiet.
No one was in the large dining room that had been added to the house, nor in the old kitchen. Several pots on the cooker had very bad smells coming from them and Ron ran to salvage the food. Harry went to the sitting room. "No one here, either," he told Ron. "Maybe we're supposed to be eating later?"
Ron shook his head. "No, the food's burnt. And Mum told me—" He glanced out the kitchen door and gasped, running into the garden. Harry ran after him. Ron sank down beside Luna, who sat in a wicker chair beside his mother, her head rolling on her chest, eyes closed. She seemed to be napping but when Ron tried to rouse her he couldn't. His mother also appeared to be asleep, as well as Hermione, Mrs Longbottom, Ginny and Fleur. Each of them had partially-eaten Easter eggs in their laps.
Harry glanced around frantically after checking to make certain that Ginny, Hermione and Fleur were breathing. "Where's your dad? And Bill and Percy? And the kids?"
Ron cast about for a place that all twelve children could be with his father and brother. "The garage?" Harry was already sprinting toward the ramshackle old barn-like building.
"Your dad and Bill and Percy are here, but the kids aren't!" Harry called from the garage. He ran back to Ron and the two of them searched the garden. Harry looked as lost as Ron felt. Then Ron had a brainstorm: "Wait a minute, Harry! You know how you told me about that prank the twins sometimes pull? Making it look like they're gone, when they're just hiding? What if they did something like that, and roped the other kids into it too?"
"I reckon it's possible. They must have done something to knock out the adults, but I can't work out what it is. They're not stunned. I tried using the standard revival spell. They're breathing and all, but—"
Ron turned toward the house, another thought slowly forming. "Wait a minute, Harry. The clock!"
"The Weasley clock! Dad added new hands for the grandchildren! C'mon!"
Harry ran after Ron, asking, "What good will that do? Does it have a setting that says, 'Playing a prank,' or 'Being a bloody pain in the ar—"
Ron ignored him, dashing into the sitting room and staring at the clock. He was still staring at it when Harry arrived beside him, also staring at the hands for Ron's children, Harry's children, Bill's daughter and Percy's son. There were no hands for Frances or Julian, but Ron suspected that if there were, they would be pointing to the same place as the hands for his parents' grandchildren.
Every single hand for the children pointed at Mortal Peril.
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