24. New Year
The visiting schools only stayed a day longer to allow their students to get some rest. They parted the next day, in time to let the students celebrate the new year with their families. The Hogwarts students went home shortly after, all eager to tell about the weird tournament.
Liz waited with the Granger adults on the other side of the barrier, not too close. She hugged both children tightly, and they got even tighter hugs from Jean Granger. They refrained from talking about the tournament until they reached home. Hermione went with her parents first and after spending about an hour with them, crossed the street to the Potter residence.
Harry welcomed her with a tight hug, as if he'd not seen her for weeks. They chatted a bit with Harry's younger siblings before joining James in his study and closing the door.
James looked at the two with an appreciative smile. "I don't think there ever was a bigger prank played at Hogwarts than the one you two performed so brilliantly. You more than deserve to be considered Marauders."
Both teens blushed at the compliment, although they felt really proud. James turned serious a moment later. "Now, I think you should tell me everything that happened. Try not to skip any detail, as it may prove important."
It was quite late when they finished their story, recounting every minute detail that could possibly be meaningful. James's appreciation only grew as he better understood how these two planned and executed two grand pranks with not a single fault. He also became acutely aware of the dark forces targeting his son again. He was adamant not to give them any chance to succeed.
The next morning, James assembled a "War Cabinet," otherwise known as The Marauders. He had no doubt that with Moony's mind and Sirius's connections they would be able to do quite a bit. Although Sirius maintained a public image of a carefree playboy, as Lord Black he was also well connected, especially due to the Balls he was throwing at every plausible (or even implausible) occasion. Sirius also kept working as undercover Auror, when requested, which meant that he had very good working relationships at the top levels of the DMLE.
Remus didn't have the money or the social standing that Sirius enjoyed, but he had a very sharp analytical mind and had some different connections, mainly due to his affliction. Because of them, he could usually dig information that nobody else could, and James hoped that this ability would help them make a difference.
"Due to the public interest in the tournament, Dumbledore couldn't keep the events under cover," Sirius reported. "The DMLE was informed of what happened during the choosing of the champions. It couldn't identify the ones who tricked the goblet, but it was just trivial to do that. Even a second year, if he just put his mind to it, could enter his name in the goblet, and anyone of age could put any name in. The age line was no more than a joke, actually. Madam Bones was very unhappy with that and with all the security aspects of the tournament. Luckily, that prank made them mostly irrelevant."
"What about Moody?" James asked.
Sirius smirked. "That was also a very well played prank." He turned serious at once. "Dumbledore tried to play it down, as expected, but the DMLE interrogated the impostor under Veritaserum, gaining much more information about what one was required to do in order to gain the Dark Mark, and then a list of all marked Death Eaters that man knew. I'm not at liberty to recite that list, but I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised by most names. There was also information about what the impostor, in the service of the Dark Lord and in cooperation with our dearest Wormtail, intended to use Harry for."
"I thought we captured Voldemort at the end of Harry's first year," James noted. "How can he be free again?"
Sirius sighed. "It looks like Quirrel died due to the possession. The DOM failed to capture Voldemort's fleeing soul. They didn't advertise it, of course, and I only found about it now. Anyway, Voldemort's original plan was foiled, of course. Madam Bones is now trying to find some more information about what alternative plan they could have, and turn it against them."
"What can we do to make sure Harry stays safe?" James insisted.
"I'll check my sources for any suspicious activity or any signs of dark magic. While not necessarily connected to what we need, they may still give us some directions," Moony offered.
Sirius looked at James much more seriously than usual. "Prongs, I think it's time to let Amelia know about you being alive. You trusted her enough to make her a possible guardian for Harry. I believe you can trust her to keep your secret just as well."
James gave it a thought. "We are invited to Longbottom Manor for the new year feast. I may ask Lady Augusta to invite the Bones along. Amelia's niece, whom she's been raising since the war, is a classmate with Harry."
Sirius smiled and patted his shoulder. "Renewing old alliances may prove good for you and for Harry."
The Potters had already visited Longbottom Manor a few times and Augusta was happy to see them again. She wasn't surprised to see Hermione with them either. She had probably been informed of the closeness between Hermione and Harry. Neville also enjoyed seeing both, despite being apart only a few days. When Susan saw Harry, she blushed a bit, but soon enough she let go of her shyness and joined the others in conversation. It was interrupted a short time later, when Amelia arrived, after tackling some work-related issues. As soon as she saw Mr. Jacques DePoitier, she had no doubts. "James! I wept so many tears for your demise, and now you're here alive and well! You need to pay back for those tears! How did you survive? What about Lily?"
James hugged her in a friendly manner. "I tried to use a doppelgänger to confuse Voldemort. He killed that and proceeded to the nursery before I managed to grab my wand. Lily was not as lucky."
"And why are you hiding?" Amelia insisted.
"Not really hiding. I have some widespread businesses and quite a few friends, but I stay away from the magical world. I suspect some people there are less trustworthy than they seem."
"You mean Dumbledore, don't you?"
James nodded. "My first suspicion came when he let Sirius be sent to prison without trial. I haven't yet found any proof of his intentions, as the man is extremely secretive, yet I found quite a few reasons to raise my suspicion even further. Now, don't you like to meet my wife and my children?"
Amelia mellowed just a bit. "Alright, but I want the complete story before we leave this place."
As James continued with the introductions, Susan turned to Harry. "So, Mr. DePoitiers is not merely your guardian, is he? He's actually your father, Lord Potter."
Harry smiled at the redhead. "True, but this should still be kept a secret. Dumbledore and his lackeys shouldn't know of this."
Susan looked solemn. "Nobody will hear this from me, I promise."
It was soon evident that Susan was a good friend with Neville, whom she'd known since they had both been toddlers. As much as Harry enjoyed the company, he felt that he liked to be with Hermione much better. That reminded him. "I thought you said you'd also invite Hermione's parents. Did you change your mind?"
Neville shook his head. "No, but they couldn't come. Her parents take part in the Dentists' Association New-Year Ball. They seem to have some role in organizing it. Actually, I thought you two would go to that ball."
Harry shrugged. "We were too young to take part in it until now, and Dad told me of this invitation as soon as I came home, so I had no chance to make other plans."
"My parents thought I would stay at school this holiday, as was the original plan. That's why they accepted the roles at the Ball. They couldn't just change plans on the last moment, you know," Hermione added.
"Don't you spend each summer vacation together?" Susan asked.
"Sure. We usually go to France in the summer. I still have some childhood friends there. The beaches are also much warmer than in Britain."
"I've heard most women go topless on the beaches. Is that true?" Susan blushed while asking.
"Yes, they consider it natural. On some beaches, one doesn't need to wear anything." Harry wasn't sure how the two purebloods would react to this information. Hermione also seemed a bit apprehensive at hearing this.
Neville turned completely red. Susan's face matched her hair, but she kept asking, "You've visited such beaches, didn't you?"
"Yes. Most people there are much older than us and don't look their best, and yet they all seem very relaxed."
"Were you also naked?" Susan's face was now redder than her hair. Neville just hid his face with his hands.
"Sure! It would have felt weird to be the only one dressed. I would have attracted much more attention that way."
"And Hermione, were you there as well?" Susan turned her attention to the other girl.
"Of course. We spend the whole summer together," Hermione responded as a matter-of-fact.
Harry could see some mischief in Susan's eyes, despite her red face, as she turned her attention back to him. "So, that's how she keeps you interested, isn't it?"
"No, really," he said with conviction. "We started spending time like that when we were both quite small, and it was just natural to keep doing that."
She turned serious and her face reddened some more. "Do you think I can join you this summer? Maybe Neville as well."
Neville lifted his head in alarm, hearing this, but she only grabbed his hand.
"Are you sure? What will your aunt say?" Harry asked.
"Auntie has already told me that she used to go there when she was younger. She stopped after... the war. I'm sure she wouldn't oppose. She may like to join as well." She turned to Neville. "Will you come with us?"
The poor boy was changing colours rapidly. It looked like he was unable to utter a word. Susan smiled at him and caressed his face lightly. Neville gulped twice, and finally said, "I'm not sure my Gran would agree."
"Don't you think that your Gran will be happy for you to spend the vacation with your friends? You don't need to tell her about those beaches, although I'm sure she already knows."
Neville seemed to gain some courage back. "Will you really go naked on those beaches?"
Susan shrugged, although her face got red again. "Sure. No need to attract undue attention by being different."
Neville took a few deep breathes before replying. "I'll ask my Gran. You need someone to keep you safe, and Harry is already taken."
Susan moved closer and kissed his cheek. "You're really sweet!" she said, making him even redder.
The adults had a much more serious discussion. They interrupted it for the festive dinner, but then spent some more time in a closed room. Harry didn't mind. He didn't feel like he could help much and he knew that he would willingly play whatever part they needed him to. Besides, the way Susan kept teasing Neville, he was becoming quite sure that she was contemplating becoming much closer to him, probably the way Harry and Hermione were becoming. He wondered if Hermione would mind exposing her body in front of Neville or if Susan's nakedness would disturb her. He felt quite sure that she wouldn't mind either. He would surely like to see Susan naked, although nobody could come even close to the perfection Hermione was for him.
As midnight was approaching, it was becoming perfectly clear who would be kissing whom for the new year. Harry held Hermione as tightly as she was holding him. As the year changed, they engaged in a long, tender and passionate kiss that held a definite promise of things to come. When they finally disengaged, they found Neville and Susan looking in each other's eyes as if hypnotized. Both had red faces and bewildered expressions.
"It looks like we're going to have company for the summer vacation, yet I'm not sure if any of them will have time for us," Harry whispered.
"They'll only have time for each other," Hermione agreed.
Harry laughed. This sound seemed to bring the other two out of their trance. Susan blushed harder and looked at the floor. Neville, although redder than normal, only asked, "Please don't tell my Gran or her aunt. We're not yet sure what this means."