A/N: Can you believe it? I haven't updated this story in over three years! Yikes with a side of oops and extra egad sauce! Still, I'm actually glad it waited patiently for so long. I'm not sure I could have managed this ending so well without a few intervening years of writing practice. Also, I was able to incorporate a lot of Deathly Hallows plot and stuff.
So, in that vein, SPOILER ALERT! Although I think some of the plot isn't exactly in line with the Deathly Hallows plotline, I followed it as closely as I could, from another character's perspective. Also, there is one major change I made very deliberately to the Deathly Hallows plotline. You will all know it when you reach it and I know you'll forgive me
A big thanks to all of you who, despite the hiatus, have continued to add this fic to your favorites lists, author alerts, etc., and have continued to review. This would probably have gotten the bin back in '04 without your encouragement, support, and generous offers of beta-ing! You're all lovely and I write for you!
P.S. Another apology – I am giving in to selfish desire and posting this fic before it has been edited as thoroughly as it should be. I've checked for plot holes, obvious errors, etc, but there are probably some lurking lurkers in here as well. This is my apology to you all!
Cheers, enjoy the FINAL CHAPTER!
Disclaimer: Huh - you wouldn't recognize a good disclaimer if it were dancing naked in front of you, wearing Dobby's tea cozy! Er - it's not mine - none of it, I swear!!
Eloise's arrival home was rather depressing. Her parents were thrilled to see her, of course (she was their only child), and bought Mr. Weasley's story of their family being needed abroad on personal business without a murmur. Her mum even offered him tea, but he politely declined, shook hands heartily with Eloise, and disappeared up the chimney.
"Well, Ellie," her mum said, putting an arm round her shoulders and leading her away into the kitchen. "Feeling peckish at all? It's only just passed supper. How about cucumber sandwiches and some tea?"
Seeing that her mother was determined to feed her and feeling too glum to care or point out that she had already eaten loads at the Burrow, she consented.
"And how was your visit?" asked her father, taking a seat across from her.
"Oh – you know – it was fine," she returned in a would-be casual way, trying a half-hearted smile. The last thing she wanted was to upset her mum and dad by crying or sulking. Fred, the Order, and Azkaban would keep till they hit the Daily Prophet tomorrow. Well, everything but Fred – Eloise certainly hoped there would be no reason for him to appear in the newspaper. She only just suppressed a shiver at the thought. Where was he now?
"What did you do? Did you have any Quidditch?" her mother asked, magicking a plate of sandwiches onto the table next to a pot of Earl Grey and taking a seat across from Eloise. Eloise couldn't help smiling at her mother's enthusiasm for the rough sport.
"We had a bit this morning," she told them. "It was rough, but I got to play with Harry Potter."
"Did you really?" Her mum leaned forward. "What was it like? Is he very good? I've heard he's the youngest Hogwarts Seeker in a century!"
With a mum like this, how did I wind up in Hufflepuff? Eloise wondered rather bitterly. Keeping her face neutral, she shook away her thoughts.
"He's incredible!" She told them a bit about the game, the other players, and her minor injury. She mentioned it so casually that her father actually gaped at her. She couldn't help the pride that welled up in her chest. After all, her father was used to a little girl who cried at bee stings and scraped knees. Amazing how three days could change a person.
"Well, let's have a look," he said after a moment's surprised pause and a glance at his wife. Eloise silently pushed up her sleeve to show him the welt, which really was a 'shiner', as Bill had called it. Now that it was black and blue and beginning scabbed over, Eloise was actually inclined to be proud of it.
"Good heavens!" cried her mother, apparently forgetting her Quidditch hysteria for a moment. "Whatever happened? Who were you playing with?"
"Ginny's brothers and Harry," Eloise said casually. "So that would have been – Bill (he's getting married soon), Charlie (he trains dragons in Romania), Ron, and the twins, Gred 'n Forge."
"Did you say Gred and Forge?" her father asked faintly.
"Oops!" Eloise had been so keen not to bring Fred into the conversation or, in fact, think about him at all (she was afraid she might start crying) that she had been forcing his name into the back of her mind, trying to hide it behind those of his brothers.
"Gred's rather an odd name, isn't it?" her mum asked, her head to one side as she studied Eloise.
"No, no, it's Fred and George," Eloise explained. "They call themselves Gred and Forge because – well, I don't really know why, actually." Much to her surprise, she felt a smile as she let the twins into her mind for a moment.
"Fred and George Weasley . . . aren't they the ones with that new joke shop in Diagon Alley?" her father asked, looking thoughtful. "The youngest entrepreneurs Diagon Alley's ever seen – or so the Prophet says."
"Yeah, that's them." The smile slipped and Eloise felt a lump in her throat. "Look, I've got loads to tell you, but I'm awfully tired and – "
"Oh, of course!" her mother said quickly, jumping up and beginning to clear away the untouched sandwiches. "You go right up and your father will bring your trunk."
"I'm sorry I didn't eat – "
"Never mind, Ellie, never mind. You've had a long day, I expect."
Eloise smiled gratefully at her parents and headed through the parlor to the stairs. It was disheartening, she thought, not to hear the clatter of eleven or so other people shouting, laughing, and clomping round the house. Even in those three days, she had grown used to the noise and bustle. It had become a comfortable part of daily life.
She stepped off onto the landing and wandered dispiritedly into her tidy yellow bedroom. Flopping onto the bed, she stared up at the ceiling, which was now beginning to glow with a pattern of the night sky her father had magicked onto it when she was little. Despite her resolve not to cry, she felt tears sting her eyes. She had been glowing like one of those stars just a few hours ago – she couldn't ever remember having been so happy and contented. And now suddenly, like a beautiful dream, it was all gone.
She rolled onto her stomach and buried her head in her arms, letting her mind wander back to those precious hours she had spent with Fred . . . she didn't notice the memories slipping into dreams.
For all his bold talk of joining the Order, Fred would rather have been anywhere than sitting in this particular meeting. Well, actually, he would rather have been in bed. It was well passed midnight and the impromptu Order gathering was still in full swing. Not an exciting swing, either. The topics of discussion were beginning to blur together, until Fred was sure he heard Snape tell Charlie that it was legal to crossbreed dragons and Kneazles in certain parts of Albania if Voldemort was six leagues east of Surrey.
"Wake up, little bro," Bill muttered, nudging him covertly with his foot. "It's almost over – if Snape and Charlie stop arguing about Voldemort's dragon attach on Surrey sometime this century."
Fred snorted, resting his head on his hand and staring at his second oldest brother, who, with much flailing of the arms, was trying to clarify his opinion on something.
"Do you have something to add, Mr. Weasley?"
For a moment, Fred didn't realize Snape was talking to him. After all, there were five Mr. Weasleys sitting round the table. Another nudge from Bill brought Fred's attention to the hook-nosed, greasy professor.
"Only that I think you made an outstanding point a moment ago about whatever the hell you're going on about," Fred said. It gave him great pleasure to give Snape a bad time and know that the git could do nothing whatever about it.
Snape's lip curled. Obviously, he got the jibe and didn't care for it at all.
"If we're not going to come to a decision about this tonight, I believe we can conclude our meeting," Dumbledore said, with a twinkle of the eye that Fred was sure was directed at him. "Thank you all for coming, and I will be in touch with you over the course of the week."
"Thanks for that," Harry muttered to Fred as they stood up. "I thought Snape'd never shut his gob."
Harry had begun being aloud into the Order's meetings on the grounds that he was ultimately critical in the fight against Voldemort and had a right to know what was going on. Fred assumed it was also because Harry had survived confrontations with Voldemort five times now and knew more about his aims and style than most wizards. His allowance into the meetings did not mean that Fred's furious mum would allow Ron, Ginny, or Hermione to sit in, but everyone (including Fred's mum, no doubt) knew that Harry repeated everything he heard in the meeting to Ron and Hermione. What they didn't allow Ginny to hear, Fred and/or George told her, feeling it was unfair to leave her out as she was just as capable as Ron or Hermione.
"Come on." George was at his elbow. "Let's get out before mum gives you a talking to about disrespecting members of the Order."
"If I hadn't said it – "
" – Bill would have, yeah, yeah." George pulled him out of the room to the tuneful sound of Mrs. Weasley's voice calling dangerously after Fred.
"La la la, not lisssstening," Fred muttered, pretending to be speaking to George and Harry as the three of them beat a hasty retreat.
"Run for it!" Harry advised, and they bolted up the rickety stairs.
"What are you lot making a racket for?" Ron's head was poking through a doorway on the second landing.
"Do they need a reason?" Ginny said, eyeing Fred, George, and Harry. "Go on, then. What happened down there?"
"George and Harry'll tell you," Fred said. "I'm just popping into the toilets for a few years."
And pop he did into the top floor lavatory, which was fortunately empty. Turning on the water and locking the door, Fred decided that while he was in there, he might as well have a bath. It would feel nice to soak and even nicer to know that it would take his mum ages to find him, especially if she ran into George first – he would surely throw her off the scent for the sake of his twin.
Sinking into the hot water several minutes later, Fred allowed his mind to drift from his twin to the distracting young woman who had threatened more than once to monopolize his thoughts during the meeting – and, indeed, every day since he had last seen her.
She must have been at home now, and Fred couldn't help wondering if she was daydreaming about him as well. It would be nice to know that he wasn't the only one completely infatuated.
When wouldhe see her again, he wondered suddenly. It was all well and good to talk about sneaking up from Hogsmeade, but in his work for the Order, he might have to leave Weasley's Wizard Wheezes to Lee and other hired help. He and George might get assignments elsewhere. Or it might come to the point where Fred couldn't see Elle because anyone he showed any interest in might appear on a Death Eater hit list.
All this worrying was making his head hurt. He wasn't used to worrying. It wasn't something he did very often and it unnerved him. But, he supposed, this was a far darker time than any other in his life. That, and he had fallen hard for a girl with whom he had little chance of forming a real relationship. What with there being a war on and all.
Fred groaned. Life was unfair!
"I know you're in there, young man!"
Why worry about You-Know-Who when one had a mum with the caliber of twelve dark lords?
The rest of the summer passed in an uneventful series of long, long days. Though the mass breakout from Azkaban was a terrible shock at first, it didn´t directly affect Eloise in any other way than frightening her for a couple of days. After that, no new reports about Azkaban appeared in the Daily Prophet and Eloise went back to missing her friends, Fred, and the noisy Burrow, with only the occasional turning on of her bedroom light at midnight to check for Death Eaters.
She was alone for most of the day while her parents were at work and she couldn't work up the enthusiasm to do much of anything. She couldn't play Quidditch alone, nor did she want to play without her friends. She didn't know any of the neighbors her age because she had always been painfully shy. She didn't want to be out of doors most of the time because, although Azkaban was a long way off, she felt a chill at the thought of a Death Eater leaping out from behind a hedge and catching her off guard.
Three things that did help her pass the time were extra credit homework (most of it mind-numbingly dull, unfortunately), the arrival of her O.W.L. results (she was amazed that she had received nine O.W.L.s and one Outstanding in Ancient Runes), and the Ministry's guide to defense against You-Know-Who and the Dark Arts. It arrived about a week after she had come home from the Weasleys' and at first, feeling her nerves jangle at the very thought of You-Know-Who, she had set it hastily down on the kitchen counter for her parents to see when they got home. She took Defense Against the Dark Arts in school. She didn't really need to read another book about it, did she?
She did her best to ignore it for the next couple of weeks, but she couldn't stop thinking about it. She saw both her parents going carefully over it one evening and, later that night, overheard them discussing it in the kitchen when they thought she was asleep.
She had come down for a glass of milk and the kitchen door had been ajar.
"I don't know, Alyssa." Her father's voice floated through the gap and Eloise paused, her hand halfway to the door. "I'm not sure it's worth the risk."
"Not worth the risk?" her mother's voice repeated. She sounded upset. "John, you did read the article about the mass breakout from Azkaban? We're targets, as well. If we don't do something –"
"I didn't mean the risk to us," her father cut her off, his own voice worried. "I mean to Eloise. She still has school to finish and if she can possibly graduate, so much the better. The more she can learn in Defense Against the Dark Arts and Charms, the safer she'll be."
Eloise's chest tighten. Those phantom Death Eaters suddenly seemed a lot more real.
"And if they close Hogwarts down – what then?" her mum demanded. Eloise was reminded forcibly of just how Gryffindor her mother really was.
"Dumbledore knows that those children need a good education if they're to survive and rebuild after this war," her father retorted with a bluntness that made Eloise want to cry. He had been the Ravenclaw – the thinker, after all.
But this was more than just an education he wanted for her. He wanted her to finish school for the sake of her very life.
"He'll keep the school open as long as he possibly can," John went on, his voice steady and reasonable. Eloise shook her head – again, so unlike her. "Anyway, it's the safest place for Eloise. It's one of the most protected buildings in Britain."
"And what happens if it gets turned into a headquarters for the Order?" his wife persisted.
"Dumbledore would never do that!" John said firmly. "Never! It's a haven for those kids, and he would never turn it into a war zone."
"You-Know-Who might," Alyssa said softly, the vehemence draining from her voice and being replaced by quiet sorrow.
"Not likely," John assured her. "No one knows You-Know-Who like Dumbledore – he knows how to protect Hogwarts."
Except for all those times that You-Know-Who has founds ways in, Eloise thought. Without Harry, he might have succeeded.
"Eloise will be safe there," he went on. "She needs to be there, Alyssa."
"I know," her mum whispered, her voice barely audible. There was a pause, then – "And what about us, John?"
"I don't know," he sighed. "With Eloise safe at Hogwarts . . ."
"Elise and Arnold were there last time, John," Alyssa said. "They gave their lives – they did what was right. Why shouldn't we?"
"I don't want Ellie made a target, Alyssa!" John said sharply.
"Like you said, she'll be safe at Hogwarts," his wife pointed out.
"And after Hogwarts?"
"Then it will be her turn to decide," Alyssa said, fire back in her voice. "Between what's easy, and what's right."
Another pause followed, this one longer.
"How about this, then?" John said at length. "I want us to be here, where Eloise can find us and rely on us."
"This is only her sixth year," Alyssa said, her voice almost bitter. "Should we do nothing while You-Know-Who declares war? And what if we join and we can help end You-Know-Who before Eloise graduates? Think of our girl in a world without him."
Eloise leaned over and peeked cautiously around the edge of the door. Her parents were seated across the table from each other. Alyssa was glaring at John, her eyes flashing. John met her gaze steadily, but he looked tired.
He sighed, taking his wife's hand across the table. "We owe Eloise another safe year, if we can give it to her," he said, his tone decided. "If, at the end of this year, we are in a full-out war, then yes, I think we should join."
Eloise gasped, yanking her head away from the crack in the door. She leaned against the wall for support.
They were talking about joining the Order of the Phoenix.
"Do we take her with us?" Alyssa asked.
"Whatever is safest for her," John said. "Always whatever is safest for her. If Hogwarts is still intact, I think she should be there. But – but if she were with us, we could always know she was safe."
"But what if something happens to us, John, and she is still in school?" Alyssa pressed. "No, if we join, she needs to be with us."
"If something happens to us, they'll keep her safe at the school," John said slowly, and Eloise could almost see his furrowed brow. "No, Alyssa, listen. She is going to be exposed to plenty of violence and horror in time. I want her protected from that as long as possible."
"But she needs to know what's going on," Alyssa said quietly, her tone suddenly gentle. "The more time she has to adjust and make her own decisions, the better."
"You're suggesting we ask her?" her father asked, and Eloise could hear the sadness in his voice.
"Oh, that the world were a fairer place for our little girl," Alyssa murmured. Her voice was thick, and Eloise was stunned to think her mum might be about to cry.
"I think we've discussed this enough for tonight," John said abruptly. "Let's get to bed."
Eloise pushed shakily away from the wall and beat a hasty retreat to her bedroom.
She didn't sleep at all that night.
As usual in late August, Alyssa Midgeon took her daughter to Diagon Alley to shop for schoolbooks and supplies. Eloise was looking forward to the trip, having not been out much that summer.
She had spent most her time since overhearing her parents' discussion studying every piece of Defense Against the Dark Arts literature she could get her hands on. Having completed all of her homework, she had been able to devote most of her time to reading. She had expected it to be a difficult, terrifying experience. After all, she was reading accounts of wizards who had suffered under Unforgivable Curses, terrible torture, and the aftermath of war. People like Neville Longbottom´s parents, who, according to one book, were the more common casualties of the Cruciatus Curse.
To Eloise´s amazement, however, the more she learned about the Dark Arts, the safer she felt. It was a slow process, but she knew the knowledge gave her an edge that her former ignorance had sorely lacked – ignorance was not, in this case, bliss. It became almost an addiction. She devoured all of the books in her father's library about the Dark Arts and defensive magic, eagerly making note of useful spells or pieces of history. She felt a bit like Hermione, who never seemed to stop reading, and she liked having something in common with the smartest witch her year.
So when her mum tapped the fourth brick on the left and the usual doorway opened into Diagon Alley, Eloise nearly ran to Flourish and Blots.
"What's this?" Alyssa asked with a surprised laugh when she caught up with Eloise in front of the bookstore.
"I'm just eager," Eloise returned defensively, pushing open the door and making straight for the Dark Arts and Defense section.
"Eager about defensive magic?" Alyssa asked skeptically.
Eloise bit her lip as she studied the titles before her – pages and pages of useful information. She could feel her mum's eyes on her as she removed Remonstrance and Ridicule: A Guide to Insult-Based Magic from the shelf and leafed through it. She didn't know what to say to Alyssa. She could tell her that she simply needed additional Defense Against the Dark Arts reading and she was eager to get them before they sold out. Or she could tell the truth.
A loving daughter never lies.
"I heard you and Daddy talking about the Order of the Phoenix a couple weeks ago," she said in a small voice, pulling a second book, Argh, Mi Maties! Formal Dueling Amongst Pirates, onto the first and balancing both on her leg.
Alyssa let out a heavy sigh.
"You weren't meant to," she said quietly, turning her own eyes from Eloise and studying the bookshelf. "We didn't want to scare you."
"But you didn't!" Eloise said. "Well, I mean. At first I was terrified. The breakout from Azkaban just wasn't real until I heard you both talking about it. But hearing you and Dad – well, I just knew, once I got over the shock of it, that I had to do something! I mean," she added, looked earnestly into her mother's face. "Mum, all my friends are. Ginny and Luna, they've already helped capture tons of Death Eaters in the Ministry last June. And all the Weasleys are in the Order – except Ron and Ginny, but they soon will be, I know it. And Harry and Hermione, they're always studying defensive magic and practicing and stuff. And George and Fred –" she broke off, her brain freezing as it had a tendency to do whenever she thought of the younger Weasley twin. It unstuck a moment later. "Anyway," she rushed on, "if I'm to do my part and be ready to fight beside my friends, I need to know loads more, don't I?"
She was surprised and pleased when Alyssa took the two books she was holding, tucked them under her own arm, and looked at her with a mixture of pride and regret in her eyes.
"I told your father you weren't a little girl any longer," Alyssa said, stroking Eloise's hair with her free hand. "I wish I'd been wrong." She dropped her hand and Eloise saw that her eyes were over-bright. "You're my brave little woman now. You grew up so much during those few days with the Weasleys. You never did tell about it."
She was quite right, of course. Eloise had been afraid of talking about Fred because she had thought that perhaps if she forgot him, she wouldn't lay awake for hours every night worrying if he was alive and safe with the Order. If she forgot him, she wouldn't have to think about how much she missed being with him and how wonderful and strong he made her feel.
"If you don't want to talk," Alyssa began, eyeing Eloise's expression worriedly.
"I didn't before," Eloise said. "I think …" She paused and, hoping to lighten her mother's anxious expression, she added, "I think ice cream would make me more talkative."
Alyssa's face split into a smile and she laughed.
"Come along, then, you little snitch," she said. "Let's get these first – yes, a few extra books for Defense Against the Dark Arts wouldn't go amiss. Then I think we can pay old Florean Fortescue a visit."
Alyssa helped her pick out several more books on defensive magic, in addition to the ones on her booklist. Then, arms full of heavy parcels, they made their way across the Alley to the famous ice cream parlor. It wasn't until they were seated outside under an umbrella with heaping bowls of sundae that Eloise felt the unmistakable nag of déjà vu.
"Ellie, are you all right?" her mother asked, apparently taking the pinched expression on Eloise's face for one of upset.
"I – I'm fine," Eloise murmured, shaking her head. She remembered the last time she had sat here, with loads of ice cream and a concerned face across from her. She swallowed and opened her mouth to begin her story.
She was just to the part where she had met Fred on the porch when saw something across the square that made her drop her ice cream spoon. A tall redhead was standing in the shadows of a building marked Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. Eloise's heart began a complicated series of acrobatic tricks and her face went red.
¨What is it?¨ Alyssa asked, leaning forward. Eloise hardly heard her. She was already rising to her feet and moving toward the redhead, as though in a trance.
¨Going somewhere, Midgeon?¨
Eloise blinked and realized the redhead was being obscured by three girls.
Pansy Parkinson sneered at her. ¨Looky here, girls. I think she's going to cry.¨ Daphne Greengrass and Melanie Xavier sniggered.
Eloise stared at them for a moment. She felt the old flush in her cheeks, the old tightness in her chest. She felt her palms begin to sweat and her back hunch. Then she remembered who was standing across the street. She remembered his orders: ¨Think of one thing you like about Elle every day.¨ She remembered how Ginny and Luna and even intelligent, pretty Hermione didn't care how she looked. She remembered how George thought she all right. She remembered Fred kissed her and –
¨Actually, no,¨ Eloise said aloud.
The girls stopped laughing and stared down at her in obvious confusion.
¨No, I'm not going to cry,¨ Eloise clarified. The fear was still there, but it was as though the weight of her friends and Fred were sitting on it, squashing it down. ¨I'm going to see my boyfriend.¨
¨Boyfriend?¨ Parkinson gave a snort. ¨Yeah, and I'm a Mudblood!¨
¨I don't like my girlfriend hearing foul language,¨ a voice said behind Eloise, making her jump and turn bright red.
Fred smiled down at her as she swung round. ¨Hey, Elle. Miss me?¨
¨I – oh, my god, you're alive!¨ she shrieked, throwing herself into his arms and bursting into tears.
¨Run along, Parkinson, and take your little playmates with you,¨ Fred said, taking one hand off Eloise's back to wave them off.
Eloise didn't care what became of them, actually. The three Slytherins had once terrified her – their every move was her concern, so she could avoid them. Now, she only cared that Fred was here, really here, and she was in his arms. When tears slowed a bit, she pulled back.
¨Hi,¨ she said breathlessly. She thought her smile might be splitting her face.
¨Hi,¨ he said softy, stroking her cheek. Then he glanced quickly around. ¨Bollocks, I shouldn't have done that.¨
¨What, scared Parkinson and her goons off?¨ Eloise said in surprise.
¨The whole point of sending you away from the Burrow was to keep you safe,¨ Fred explained. Eloise felt his reluctance as he dropped his arms and stepped away from her. ¨I just showed three girls whose parents might be Death Eaters how important you are to me.¨ He shook his head. ¨Oh, god, I am such an idiot!¨
¨No, Fred.¨ She stepped close to him, took his hands. ¨You're wrong. I'm in danger no matter what. I might as well be happy while I'm at it.¨
Fred's slow, lopsided grin did the usual business on Eloise's legs and she was happy to slump back into his arms and lift her face up for the longed-for, breathtaking, heart-stopping kiss.
With some difficulty, Eloise pulled herself away from Fred and turned a delightful puce when she saw her mum standing beside them, arms folded, eyebrows into her fringe.
¨Oh, god,¨ Eloise echoed Fred, burying her face in his shoulder.
¨You know, the heat from your face is going to burn right through my jumper,¨ he said teasingly. ¨Hi, Mrs. Midgeon. I'm Fred.¨
¨Fred Weasley,¨ Alyssa clarified, and Eloise peered out to see her accept Fred's hand. ¨Alyssa Midgeon. I'd be delighted if you never called me Mrs. again.¨
Fred actually laughed and Eloise lifted her head. Her mum gave her a look and said, ¨I expect this is what you were going to tell me about over ice cream, Ellie?¨
¨Um, yeah,¨ Eloise said, biting her lip.
Alyssa looked Fred up and down. Then she looked back at Eloise, who imagined she looked like a startled pigeon, and rolled her eyes. ¨Ellie, good lord, stop looking at me like I've turned into a Blast-Ended Screwt. He seems nice, I like him, Fred, won't you come have ice cream with us?¨
¨That's good of you, Alyssa, but I expect my mum's going to take my head off in about thirty seconds,¨ Fred said, indicating Mrs. Weasley, who stood someway off and did look rather like a thunder cloud. Eloise grinned at her, and waved. Mrs. Weasley's frown turned instantly into a smile as she hurried over.
¨Hello, dear,¨ she said, giving Eloise a hug and her son an admonishing look. She turned to Eloise's mum. ¨I'm Molly Weasley. You must be Eloise's mother?¨
¨I am,¨ Alyssa said, ¨I'm Alyssa and thank you so much for having Eloise to stay this summer.¨ She gave Eloise and Fred knowing looks. ¨She clearly had a very good time.¨
¨Mum!¨ Eloise groaned, hiding her face in Fred's shoulder again as he shook with laughter.
¨I like your mother, Elle,¨ he said in her ear.
¨Much more than you like your own, apparently,¨ Mrs. Weasley said darkly. ¨When I tell your father you went and blew the cover – ¨
¨The one about you all going abroad?¨ Alyssa asked, though with curiosity rather than irritation.
¨I am sorry, Alyssa!¨ Mrs. Weasley said, wringing her hands. ¨We didn't want Eloise to be at all seen as connected with us – for her own safety, you know,
given that our family is high on most Death Eater hit lists and – ¨
¨And please know that my husband and I are very grateful,¨ Alyssa said warmly. ¨Actually, I did have something I wanted to discuss, if you have a moment and a quiet place.¨
Mrs. Weasley seemed pleased with the thanks and eager to speak more to Alyssa. ¨Certainly, of course! Shall we step into Fred and George's shop there? They were just closing for lunch, so no one but the family will be in there at the moment …¨
¨Don't wander too far, Ellie,¨ Alyssa said over her shoulder.
Their voices trailed away and Eloise was left staring after them.
¨Right, now your mum is in my top ten,¨ Fred murmured from beside her, his arms still around her waist.
¨Because she distracted my mum from telling me off as though I were three,¨ Fred returned. He grinned mischievously. ¨Now, where were we?¨
¨Wait,¨ Eloise said, covering his mouth with her hand and pushing him back just a bit.
Fred groaned, but leaned back far enough so Eloise could see his face clearly.
¨I mean,¨ she said hastily. ¨I'm as keen as you, but – well, I don't know when I'll be seeing you again after this.¨
Fred sobered. ¨You're right,¨ he said, ¨and we've loads of catching up to do.¨ His expression was grim.
¨What is it, Fred?¨ she asked, catching his hand as they started up the cobblestone street together.
He interlaced their fingers, biting his lip. ¨Things in the Order, Elle,¨ he began. He paused, clearing his throat. ¨They're bad right now. I mean.¨ He stopped again, turning to face her and catching her other hand in his. ¨Elle, I'm scared, and I don't scare easy, right?¨
She nodded, her throat tightening.
¨When you left the Burrow, I was sure it would be easy to see you, but now …¨
¨Do you – I mean, do you want to?¨ Eloise asked tremulously, a horrible sinking weight in her chest all of a sudden.
¨Of course I do!¨ Fred took her face in his hands, kissed her, kissed her again. ¨How can you ask that?¨
She knew he was right – he had been nothing but interested since the moment they had seen each other again. ¨Sorry,¨ she said. When he opened his mouth to protest her apology, she held up a hand. ¨No, I mean I really am, Fred. I shouldn't have doubted you.¨ She leaned into his arms, pressing her cheek to his chest and hearing the comforting thud of his heart. ¨You've given me so much, without even knowing it.¨ She grinned up at him. ¨I have to tell you about my project.¨
He took her back to Florean Fortescue´s and bought them both ice cream cones, which they ate sitting at a table where Eloise's mum could see them when she returned. She told him in a low voice about overhearing her parents' discussion about the Order. Then she told him how she had begun doing all sorts of intensive research about the defensive magic and how she had just bought loads of new books on the subject.
¨And if nothing else, I'll come top in Defense Against the Dark Arts,¨ she finished, biting into her ice cream cone. She was unnerved when Fred didn't respond, but sat with his head in his hand, staring at her.
¨What?¨ she asked, turning a bit red and automatically reaching for a napkin. ¨Have I got chocolate on me?¨
Fred shook his head. ¨No, no. Not at all. It's just that …¨ he trailed off, the lopsided grin appearing just in the corner of his mouth. He shook his head again. ¨Elle, you are really something.¨
Now she was bright red. ¨It's nothing, really,¨ she insisted. ¨It's only that when I started thinking about defending myself, I also started thinking about all of my friends and how important it would be to be able to protect them.¨ She swallowed. ¨My parents plan to shut me up in Hogwarts, even if they do join the Order, but I'm not stupid. I know the war could come to Hogwarts and probably will.¨ She set her chin. ¨I want to be ready.¨
Fred's smile had grown as she spoke. ¨Do you realize,¨ he said slowly, ¨that you just said or implied three nice things about yourself in less than six sentences?¨
Eloise grinned back. ¨I did, didn't I?¨ She sobered, leaning across the table. She caught his hand and squeezed it. ¨It's all thanks to you, you know.¨ She was still red but chose to ignore it.
¨I don't think so,¨ Fred said. ¨Maybe being with me helped let it out of you. But, Elle, do you really think that three days with me was enough to create all this bravery and drive and confidence?¨ He shook his head. ¨There's no way! Maybe I just … helped let all this stuff out of you, but you already had it all in you. I mean, people like Ginny and Loony and even Hermione – they helped you, too.¨
¨But …¨ Eloise trailed off in amazement, as she realized the truth of his words. She had wondered how so much new Eloise could be born in three days. Not born, she now realized. Awakened.
¨Thank you, all the same,¨ she whispered, blinking hard.
Fred used the hand holding hers to pull her across the table for a long kiss. It was slow and gentle, not like the playful, fiery, hungry kisses they usually shared. Eloise felt a tear slide down her cheek and Fred's thumb brush it away, his mouth never leaving hers.
At last, Eloise pulled away. ¨We don't have much time and I want to hear as much as you can tell me about your summer.¨
Fred smiled. ¨Not much.¨
But he did tell her what he could. It had been busy, with Order meetings and missions and so on. Fred and George still enjoyed Apparating all over the house, scaring the daylights out of their mother.
Business was going quite well, too. ¨We're not actually in the shop anymore, except occasionally,¨ Fred admitted, glancing over his shoulder. ¨We got lucky today. The kiddies are here buying their books so we were able spend the day working the till and doing inventory. Mum wanted us in Diagon Alley to help keep an eye out. I mean, the Ministry already sent Hagrid, but …¨
¨Right – more eyes and all that,¨ Eloise agreed. ¨And I just read somewhere that giants have dreadful eyesight.¨
Fred looked impressed. ¨That's exactly right, actually, although Hagrid's only half-giant. ¨
¨Anyway,¨ she said quickly, trying not to smile too broadly at the praise. ¨How's business, even without being in the shop?¨
¨Oh, it's brilliant,¨ he said. ¨Lee Jordan, our good friend from Hogwarts, is sort of our business manager. He wanted to join the Order as well, but it's unusual for kids our age to get to join up. Anyway, his mum and dad would be in a right state if he did. So he works for us and we kind of keep him up on what's going on. He's managing Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley – doing a brilliant job of it, too. Got some great shopkeepers – some are students from Hogwarts, some are just people Lee knows.¨ Fred paused for breath and Eloise took a moment to admire his passion for what he did. ¨And our stuff is in really high demand right now, because everyone's so upset about You-Know-Who and wants a good laugh.¨ He looked at her earnestly. ¨We're not trying to profit off all the fear, mind!¨
¨Fred!¨ Eloise was shocked. ¨I wouldn't think that of you. What you're doing is great! You're helping people find some fun in a really dark world. Profiting off fear is what all of those people selling products that 'help protect people' are doing. They're selling useless junk that doesn't really help people and then people are hurt by it. That's wrong.¨
Fred relaxed, smiling at her. ¨Sorry, we've just had a couple of angry parents in. It's to be expected. People are scared.¨
¨And they should be,¨ Eloise pointed out. ¨You know, because there's a maniac on the loose and some people actually follow him and you know they're in the Ministry of Magic, too, because that's the perfect strategic position and …¨
¨Hey.¨ They had both finished their ice cream cones by this time and Fred caught both her sticky hands in his. ¨Yeah, it's bad, but look how many people are going to do whatever it takes to stop You-Know-Who and his crazy legion of idiots. I mean, look at Harry Potter. That bloke has some serious gut.¨
¨I know,¨ Eloise said, the thought of Harry rebuilding the fire within her that had almost gone out a moment ago. ¨I'm glad I got to meet him. I mean, I just know that however bad things are … well, I think Harry can take it.¨
They sat in silence for a long moment, looking at each other and gripping each other's hands.
¨Ellie!¨ Eloise turned and saw her mum coming out of Weasley´s Wizard Wheezes across the street. She looked grim but determined, and Eloise's heart leapt.
¨Ellie, we need to get the rest of your things for school and head home.¨ Alyssa had fire in her eyes and Eloise knew what that meant. Her dad was in for a talking to.
¨Right, I'm just coming.¨ Eloise turned back to Fred. She was both pleased and saddened by the look of longing in his eyes. She was also pleased that her mum had wandered off up the street to look in the window of Quality Quidditch Supplies.
¨So,¨ Fred said, swallowing.
¨Hey.¨ Eloise stood and moved around the table. He pulled her into his lap and she rested her forehead against his. ¨Write to me?¨
¨When I possibly can.¨
¨Visit me in Hogsmeade?¨
¨Every weekend the Order can spare me.¨
¨Miss me, Fred?¨
¨Miss you, Elle.¨
He kissed her then. Hard and desperate and filled with that absolute something that was Fred. Eloise ran her hands through his hair and pulled herself closer. She knew after several minutes that she had to be the one to pull away. She did – slowly, reluctantly – dropping a final kiss on his temple.
She stood and walked away without looking back.
Sixth year seemed to come and go in a rush of classes, exams, Quidditch (which she watched with intense interest while Ginny temporarily took over as Seeker for Gryffindor), and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Eloise didn't remember much else, because her mania for defensive magic seemed to occupy her thoughts in every class. She was so grateful to have somehow made it into Snipe's N.E.W.T.-level Defense Against the Dark Arts class that she poured every ounce of intelligence she possessed into the learning the spells, counter-curses, nonverbal casting, and theory. As she had told Fred, Snape had never particularly worried or upset her the way he did Ginny and many of the Gryffindors, so Eloise kept her focus and her obsession.
At one point, after she had written two rolls of parchment more than she ought about Occlemancy , Snape called her into his office.
¨What, precisely, are you trying to prove, Miss Midgeon?¨ he demanded, dangling the sheaf of parchment in front of her.
¨Is it no good?¨ Eloise cried, fearful of having made some critical error and already starting to review her notes in her head. ¨I thought I'd sorted out the part about people with Attention Deficit Disorder – ¨
¨There's nothing at all wrong with it,¨ Snape snapped. He took a breath through his nose. ¨But I have seen some of your past work and to be quite honest, I'm not sure I follow the leap you seem to have made between fifth and sixth year.¨
Eloise took a deep breath. She knew Harry and his friends, as well as Ginny, didn't really trust Snape, but she felt that to be honest was best. ¨It started this summer, sir,¨ she said carefully. ¨I heard my parents worrying about how much danger I was in and how they could protect me.¨ She looked at the ground, feeling her ears go red. ¨I realized they still thought of me as a child who couldn't cope with anything and I realized they were right, sir. So, I set out to learn as much as I could last summer. I read loads of extra books and as soon as I got back to Hogwarts … well, I started practicing.¨
Eloise wasn't sure how to explain the room that had mysteriously appeared, equipped with books, a sparring mat, and a dummy that actually fired spells at her. ¨It's this old room I stumbled on, sir. Somewhere on the sixth or seventh floor. I just … it had everything I needed and looked as if it were made for someone to practice in. So … I did.¨
Snape steepled his fingers under his chin. He watched her for a long moment and she held his gaze. Something about it, she liked. It was harsh and calculating, but also fascinatingly intelligent and complex.
¨Very well,¨ Snape said at last, leaning back in his chair. ¨You're excused, Miss Midgeon. And keep up the good work.¨
Eloise did, to the best of her abilities. Certain subjects, like Divination, took major hits, but Eloise didn't especially care. Her dad had said she needed Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts, so those were where she poured her energy and focus.
¨Well done!¨ Hermione whispered in passing. They had just got their first Charms exams back and Eloise had, as much to her amazement as anyone else's, come second.
¨I'm so proud of you, Lisa!¨ Ginny said as they walked around the lake with Luna and Dean Thomas, Ginny's latest boyfriend, one day in December.
¨It's as good as coming tops,¨ Dean agreed, his arm around Ginny. ¨No one ever beats Hermione.¨
¨I think Draco Malfoy beat her in Potions a couple of times, actually,¨ Luna said. ¨She once mentioned it in passing, but I didn't like to ask about it. She looked a bit scary.¨
¨Yeah, don't remind her,¨ Dean agreed. ¨She's already furious that Harry's suddenly doing so well with Potions now that Snape's not master. Bring up Malfoy beating her and she's likely to hex you.¨
Eloise smiled, but kept her face forward. Anytime she saw anyone hugging or kissing or even just holding hands, it made her think of and ache for Fred somewhere deep in her chest.
¨He's fine – just business as usual,¨ Ginny would assure her at least once a week. This was code for, Order stuff.
Eloise never did see Fred in Hogsmeade, either in his shop or out and about. She only got two letters, and while both were long, he always warned that he hadn't any idea when he could write again. When it would be safe to owl something to her.
The second letter had arrived in March, by which time the ache for him was a constant dull one deep in her chest. She read the letter at least a dozen times and slept with it under her pillow.
¨Hang in there, Elle,¨ Ginny said bracingly, now holding Harry firmly by the hand and looking absolutely beautiful. ¨I'm sure you'll see him this summer. I bet Mum would even let you come to Bill's wedding so you could spend some time together. I'll write home and ask.¨
Eloise thanked her and then went to spend time with Luna, who was not attached to a boy (unless one counted Neville Longbottom, with whom Luna spent a good deal of time). Luna was excited when she found out just how extensive Eloise's interest in defensive magic was and they often spent long afternoons with Neville and Ginny (when the redhead could escape homework, Quidditch, and Harry) looking through books that were not restricted and begging Snape for notes giving them access to books that were. Eloise had the best luck at getting these and would make careful note of interesting passages and new ideas to share with her friends.
The end of the year brought shock and tragedy back to Hogwarts and for a time, drowned out even Hermione's enthusiasm for study. When the Death Eaters got into the castle, Luna had sent her Patronus to let Eloise know and the two of them met Neville and Ginny in a deserted corridor.
¨I expect they got in through the Room of Requirement,¨ Luna said in a startling calm voice.
¨The what?¨ Eloise asked, gripping her wand and feeling fear and anger trickle down her spine.
¨It's this room that gives you whatever you need,¨ Neville explained as they crept cautiously toward the sounds of fighting.
¨Like Harry said it once gave Dumbledore a room full of chamber pots in the middle of the night,¨ Ginny whispered, giggling with nerves.
¨And it gave us a room to practice in during fifth year,¨ Neville said. ¨I wish you'd been there, Eloise. We practiced all kinds of defensive magic that Harry taught us. You know, stuff he used against You-Know-Who. You'd have loved the DA!¨
¨Not back then I wouldn't, but I think I actually found it myself this year – the Room of Requirement, I mean,¨ Eloise said.
Shouts and an explosion came from around a corner up ahead.
¨They are near the Room of Requirement,¨ Ginny whispered. She glanced around. ¨Everyone ready?¨ Without waiting, she charged into the fray, Neville and Luna on her heels. Eloise stood stalk-still a moment, staring at the flashing lights, listening to the screams and shouts of curses. Then she thought about the battle. Ginny had told them the Order would be coming.
Eloise charged. She knew the drill of dueling very well, even if she had only ever practiced against a dummy. She took aim and shouted her curse.
The battle seemed to fly by and soon she felt her mind slide into a black and white place where all she saw were friends and enemies. She wasn't thinking or feeling – she was only stretching herself as far as she could to protect herself and her friends.
Long after the battle was over and the Death Eaters had been marched away, Eloise stood huddled against Neville, Luna, and Ginny. They all shook with adrenaline and the slam of post-fight terror. Eloise watched as the Order led a snarling Fenrir Greyback down to the entrance hall. She saw blood on his claws and felt her stomach spasm.
¨I – I have to go,¨ Ginny said at last. ¨I saw Bill get attacked by Greyback during the battle and – I saw someone taking the injured to the hospital wing.¨ Eloise saw the tearstains on her cheeks and gave her friend the biggest hug she could manage through the shaking.
¨Want me to come, Ginny?¨ Neville asked.
¨No, no,¨ Ginny said hastily. ¨You should stay here with Luna and Lisa.¨
Eloise looked up at Neville. He looked so strong and brave to her all of a sudden. Luna took one hand and Eloise took the other.
¨I'm fine, Neville, go on with the others,¨ Ginny insisted. ¨My whole family's probably in the hospital wing by now.¨
Eloise's stomach lurched again, though this time with nerves. ¨Your whole family – ¨ she began.
Ginny looked at her sympathetically. ¨I know, Lisa. If he can possibly get away from everyone, I'll make sure he knows to come find you.¨
¨Thanks, Gin.¨ Eloise felt like curling into a ball and crying, but she gave the best brave smile she could and let Neville and Luna lead her away.
She and the few other Hufflepuffs who had left their common room to join the fight were questioned and fussed over and praised the moment the entered their common room. And then came the dreadful news. It was one of the prefects who told them.
¨Dumbledore is dead.¨
Eloise's felt as though those words transported her into a world of smudged colors and dreams from which she didn't awaken until she was sitting at the funeral and listening to a man drone on about how powerful and noble and skilled Dumbledore had been. Eloise could see Ginny sitting toward the front, clutching Harry's hand, and Hermione sobbing into Ron's shoulder while he stroked her hair.
Luna, who was sitting directly behind Eloise through sheer luck, squeezed her shoulder. Eloise put her hand over her friend's and felt the first crash of sorrow.
Sometime after the funeral, Eloise found Ginny and Luna. Ginny's lip trembled and Luna was holding her hand.
¨I shouldn't be upset about this – it doesn't matter right now and I know he has to go and I knew he'd do this,¨ she was saying as she swiped angrily at her eyes.
¨Harry ended it,¨ Eloise guessed.
¨Right, because he has to do something for the Order and doesn't want Ginny to get hurt,¨ Luna said, since Ginny was too busy trying not to cry to answer.
¨I knew this would happen,¨ Ginny said, leaning her head on Eloise's shoulder. She looked up suddenly and met Eloise's eyes. ¨And I shouldn't have opened my big, stupid mouth because how long have you been without Fred?¨
Eloise shook her head, the sorrow of Dumbledore making a bit of room for the constant sorrow of missing Fred.
¨He never came to find you after the battle and the hospital wing?¨ Luna asked, linking arms with Eloise on one side while Ginny took the other.
¨No.¨ Eloise cleared her throat. ¨He didn't. I expect he had to get back to the Order and that he was worried about Bill.¨
¨He wanted to see you, though,¨ Ginny said. She frowned. ¨I bet Mum kept him away. She's already unhappy about Bill and Fleur getting married during the war. I'm sure she'd be really unhappy about you and Fred being together as well. Saying you're in danger and so on.¨
¨You think she kept him away from me?¨ Eloise asked hopefully. When her friends looked surprised, she said hastily, ¨I mean, I'm not happy about that. But if he was kept away, it means he wanted to see me.¨ She felt a small smile on her lips as she said it. ¨I can wait. I just don't want to be forgotten.¨
Ginny's arm went round her shoulders. ¨No way, mate. Not in a hundred years.¨
Eloise was not allowed to come to Bill and Fleur's wedding (though she received a kind note of apology and explanation from Mrs. Weasley), but the summer passed in a whirl of news, disappearances, and her father reporting home from the Ministry one day and announcing that Rufus Scrimgeor, Minister of Magic, had been killed.
¨It's official – You-Know-Who is inside the Ministry and probably inside Hogwarts,¨ Eloise heard him saying late one August night to her mum.
¨Then that's it, John,¨ Alyssa said shortly. ¨I know how to contact Molly Weasley. We're fighting. For the memory of Elise and Arnold, and for our daughter. It's the right thing. We should have been there last year.¨
To Eloise's amazement, her father didn't argue. ¨For my brother and sister,¨ he said quietly. ¨And for Ellie.¨ Eloise peeked through the crack in the door and saw her father take her mother's hand. ¨And you were right. We should have been there last year.¨
There was a long moment of silence before John Midgeon spoke again.
¨Eloise will have to be sent away. With the Ministry in hand and Dumbledore gone it won't be long before You-Know-Who gets Hogwarts as well. What do you think – send her abroad, perhaps?¨
Eloise burst through the door, almost stumbling over the edge of the rug in her haste.
¨I thought it was bed for you, young lady,¨ Alyssa said calmly.
¨You can't send me away!¨ Eloise said, half demanding and half pleading. ¨Please! My friends are here, my life is here. My studies are so important! I can't learn to protect myself without the books and classes and my friends. Please don't send me away!¨
She wanted very badly to pull the age card, but she wouldn't be seventeen until the later in the month. Her parents were looking at each other as though they were having one of their silent conversations. Alyssa's eyebrows went up, John's mouth puckered. Eloise had watched them do this for years and it mystified her how they always seemed to come to an understanding.
¨All right,¨ Alyssa said at last, turning to look at Eloise. ¨That battle you were in at Hogwarts last year tells us you can protect yourself. It's your choice.¨
Eloise threw her arms around both of them.
¨I love you,¨ she whispered, feeling tears of relief and gratitude sting her eyes.
When she returned to Hogwarts shortly after her seventeenth birthday, it was to find a world changed. Last year, having Snape as Headmaster wouldn't have bothered her, but knowing that he had been the one to kill Dumbledore – and despite all the hints and innuendo and rumors circulated by the Daily Profit, Eloise trusted her friends' versions of the former Headmaster's death – hurt and scared her more than anything. It felt, after his encouraging her to expand herself in defensive magic, like a betrayal.
She also suspected she wasn't the only student who felt the empty ache of Harry, Ron, and Hermione's absences. The three trailblazers were gone, and though Ginny assured Eloise that they were doing something secret and for the good of everyone, Eloise couldn't think what it might be, and so spent more time worrying for them than trusting them.
She was also rightfully petrified of the Carrow siblings who were suddenly teaching at Hogwarts. She never spoke in their classes; though she watched her friends speak and return from detention with black eyes, scars, and blood on their clothes. Though she might have felt a coward during those terrible times, she kept up her study of defensive magic and joined the practice sessions that had cropped up in the Room of Requirement. Neville led them now and a better leader could not have been found amongst those left of the castle. With Luna's help, Neville had organized practices of three or four students at a time so as not to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to the Room. Eloise got to practice with Luna, Neville, and Ginny, which sessions comprised some of her happiest times at Hogwarts.
As the year wore on, practice decreased, to the point where the four of them were lucky to find time once a week.
¨Harry's bound to find what he's looking for soon,¨ Ginny said shortly after the Christmas holidays. They had all been forced to stay that year, because there was no way any of the physical abuse being inflicted on the students would go unnoticed by parents.
¨Never mind,¨ Neville said. ¨It's time to do something important.¨ Eloise winced as the deep gash on his cheek stretched and the bruises around both eyes darkened.
¨Nev, do you think we should give you a few days first?¨ she asked tentatively. ¨Or at least sneak up to the hospital – ¨
¨No, it's got to be now,¨ Neville said firmly. ¨Anyway,¨ he added, looking pointedly at her, ¨I'm not the only one suffering here.¨
It was true that being forced to practice Unforgivable Curses on each other was showing damage on most students. Neither Neville nor Eloise could come close to casting Cruciatus, though Neville had once tried a Patronus charm as a defense and been heavily punished for it. Eloise reached up and felt the bruising on her collarbone and cheek where she had hit the floor when Pansy Parkinson had managed to hit her with the curse.
¨I just fell, is all,¨ Eloise said, feeling a tiny little flash of the-girl-who-cried-at-scraped-knees rising up her throat. She swallowed it with difficulty and said, ¨What's you plan, Neville?¨
That night, they snuck into the Headmaster's office. Neville and Ginny had both seen the sword of Godric Gryffindor and felt sure that it would allow itself to be found by them. Most unfortunately, they were caught by Snape.
¨Why am I not surprised?¨ he said with a sneer. They stood before his desk (Dumbledore's desk, Eloise thought stubbornly), and he was leaning back in his chair, watching them. ¨Longbottom – I suspect much of the trouble in this school is owing to your scheming.¨
Neville kept a straight face. ¨No, sir.¨
¨Do you know how accomplished a Legilimens I am, Longbottom?¨ Snape asked silkily. Eloise swallowed hard. She had studied loads about Occlumancy and Legilimancy the year before and knew how powerful one had to be to master either. She suspected that Snape had to be especially good to have hidden his loyalty to You-Know-Who from Dumbledore for so long.
¨Yes, sir.¨ Neville grinned a shark-toothed grin. ¨Harry told me all about it.¨
¨Oh, yes, Harry had quite a lot to say about your talents, sir,¨ Ginny piped up, narrowed eyes on him.
It was then, quite unexpectedly, that Eloise caught sight of the four of them in a long mirror behind the desk. Why it was there, she had no idea, but in it she saw them – beaten, battered, and totally helpless if Snape did decide to invade their minds – and she suddenly realized how ridiculous they all looked.
She couldn't help it – she laughed.
Snape was on his feet in an instant, glaring furiously at her. ¨What did Potter tell you?¨ he snarled.
Eloise, who hadn't been that frightened of him to begin with, couldn't stop laughing. She actually sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk, shaking. ¨Harry – didn't – he didn't tell me anything,¨ she gasped. ¨It's just – I mean, the four of us – we look so stupid right now!¨ She nodded to the others. ¨Go on, look. We're like prize fights or Knockturn Alley thugs – and me, a Hufflepuff!¨ And she was off again. She heard Luna give a startled laugh and Ginny begin to giggle. Soon Neville actually snorted.
¨Sir,¨ Eloise panted. ¨Sir, don't we just look completely foolish? Here we are, trying to be these noble little sidekicks, and – and we're all beat up, but – ¨
¨It's not that funny, Lisa!¨ Ginny hiccupped. She was all the way on the floor by this time, rocking back and forth. Neville sank down beside her, his purple bruise more pronounced than ever.
¨While it is true that you do all look spectacularly foolish at the moment,¨ Snape snapped over all the noise. ¨I hope you will collect yourselves in time to serve your detention with Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest tonight.¨
Eloise felt the strangely defiant humor of the situation drain away at once, but to her surprise, Ginny was still hiccupping, Luna was still grinning, and Neville looked suspicious.
¨But the Forest isn't – ¨ he began, before both Ginny and Luna elbowed him in the ribs.
¨How horrible,¨ Eloise murmured, choosing to play along with whatever Luna and Ginny were up to.
¨I expect you will find it so, yes,¨ Snape said, reseating himself behind his desk. ¨The centaurs have run completely wild since the war with the Dark Lord began and there isn't a dark creature who isn't out hunting every night.¨ He smiled thinly. ¨But then, I expect with your senses of humor, you'll find the whole thing a tremendous laugh. Now get out of my sight.¨
They scrambled to obey, Eloise still wondering what the joke was.
Neville explained as they made their way down to supper in the Great Hall.
¨I've been with Hagrid in the forest, and it's a snap,¨ he murmured as they approached the entrance hall. ¨You're safe in there as long as you're with him and he'd never take students too far in.¨ Neville frowned. ¨For what we did, we deserved much worse punishment.¨
Eloise felt the knot in her stomach ease. ¨Maybe he really does think it's dangerous.¨
Ginny snorted. ¨He can't do. Snape's spent most of his life at Hogwarts.¨
¨Why would he let us off, though?¨
They didn't find out until the end of the year.
It was the end of June when Fred followed his brother through the portrait of little Ariana Dumbledore and into the Room of Requirement. His blood was pounding and he was ready to fight.
He was also looking around for someone who he prayed he wouldn't see amongst the vast crowd of students, parents, and members of the Order –
She was talking with Loony Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, Hermione (newly returned with Harry), and Ginny (how she had snuck back from the Easter Hols without their mum catching her was anyone's guess).
Fred felt his heart sink right into his boots at the sight of her. He had imagined this moment for over a year. He had spent sleepless nights staring up at the ceilings of whatever buildings he and his family happened to be hiding in and wondering where she was.
The sight of her was gut-wrenching. She was as bruised and scarred as Neville and Luna, and looked the image of a prize fighter.
Fred's grief turned to amazement as she suddenly burst out laughing. The scars stretched and the bruise darkened as blood rushed to her face, but she continued to sway with laughter as Hermione related some adventure to the small group around her.
Moments later, the brunette was called away by Harry and Ron, and the three of them made their exit, after explaining that they had one final piece of their mission to complete at Hogwarts. About the time they left, Mrs. Weasley noticed Ginny and went barreling over to tell her off. Luna and Neville backed off, but –
Fred was suddenly moving. In several strides, he was beside her.
¨Wha – Fred?¨ Her shriek of delight was probably audible to the Death Eaters descending upon the castle. ¨What're you doing here?¨
¨I could ask you the same thing,¨ he said, pulling back just enough to look at her battered face. ¨What the hell happened, Elle?¨
¨Well, we've been waging war all year against the Carrows, haven't we?¨ Eloise said, sweeping her hand around. ¨They're not especially friendly.¨
¨That's an understatement!¨ Fred traced his finger gently across her face, in equal measure horrified at the pain she had been caused and inexpressibly proud of her loyalty to the cause and her bravery.
¨Don't worry,¨ she said. ¨I've built up a tolerance. For pain, I mean.¨ She grinned, clearly proud of herself. ¨You remember when a garden gnome biting me made me blubber. Now look at me!¨
Fred felt a sort of bone-deep sadness that her innocence had been forced from her, but he couldn't deny that this whole experience seemed to have brought out the very best in her. He took her face carefully in his hands. ¨Will it hurt if I – ¨ he began, but was cut off as she pressed her lips to his. A moment later she pulled back sharply. She lip was bleeding.
¨Blast,¨ she muttered, dabbing at Fred's face. ¨I've gone and bled on you. I'm sorry, Fred!¨
¨Never mind that,¨ he said impatiently, drawing his wand. He couldn't do much about her face – that was injury control that would have to wait for St. Mungos, he expected. But he could manage a split lip.
¨How did this happen?¨ he demanded.
¨Lots of falling over,¨ she said, licking her healed lip appreciatively. She saw his skeptical look. ¨No, really! We've been forced to practice Unforgivables on each other. I mean, none of us can really maintain them, so it's not too terrible, but the falling during Cruciatus is where most of my injuries are coming from.¨
For the first time in years, Fred felt like crying. Elle saw his expression and, with her usually perception, caught his face in her hands. ¨None of that,¨ she chided. ¨Look, I'll heal, won't I? These are just surface scratches, nothing that can't be fixed. But what's in here …¨ She patted her chest with an unmistakable look of pride. ¨Fred, I found out what I've got in here and it's not something the Carrows or anyone will ever break.¨
Fred clung to her, burying his face in her shoulder and letting tears fall. It was a definite role-reversal. He had spent all their time together helping Elle, trying to encourage her to get passed her self-doubt and self-dislike. Now, the young woman who was holding him tightly against her was giving back everything she could. More, he thought, since she was the one who was injured, yet trying to comfort him.
When he pulled back, she kissed him again – this time without bleeding – and the fire in his blood seemed to rekindle and spark.
¨Ahem.¨ Eloise didn't even go red, like usual. She just smiled against his mouth and pulled away. Turning, she leaned back against Fred's chest and said, ¨Hello, Mrs. Weasley.¨
¨Gracious, you're almost as bad as Ginny!¨ Mrs. Weasley cried, waving her hands helplessly.
¨Never mind that – we've got a school to protect,¨ Elle interrupted firmly. ¨I'm fine, Mrs. Weasley. Really!¨ She paused, looking hopeful. ¨Are my parents here?¨
¨Yes, I think so,¨ Mrs. Weasley said, pulling her away from Fred. ¨Oh, I wish I could clean you up first, dear! I hate to give them a shock!¨
Elle threw a smile over her shoulder at Fred as she was dragged off. The smile wrapped around him like a blanket and he grinned his goofy Elle grin as he watched her vanish into the crowd.
Fred glanced at his brother. George clapped a hand on his shoulder. ¨Ready, old boy?¨
¨Been ready for ages,¨ Fred said grimly, raising his eyebrows. ¨You?¨
¨Ditto,¨ George said. ¨Let's end some Dark Lord.¨
They were on their way out of the classroom when Percy came crashing through the portrait, asking if he was too late to fight. Fred had secretly forgiven him the moment his brother said he had dumped the Ministry in favor of finally thinking and talking sense, but it felt good to remind him of how much he owed the family just the same.
Finally, they were all set. Everyone knew where they were supposed to be. Fred looked around for Elle. He saw her moving with Luna and Neville toward the door of the Room of Requirement. She caught sight of him and flashed one last smile. With a supreme effort, Fred returned it, capturing in his mind a picture of her that would last no matter what happened that night.
George nudged him and nodded toward the door.
It was time.
Hours later, Eloise sat on the Slytherin table in the Great Hall, snuggled close between her parents. Somehow, she was still here – still alive – still part of a whole family. She looked around the Great Hall, where so many parents and children were grouped. Some huddled together like Eloise, Alyssa, and John, savoring the unspeakable relief of being alive.
Others, like the Weasleys, mourned.
The whole flock of them stood together, holding each other tightly. Mrs. Weasley was sobbing uncontrollably and being held by Charlie and Ginny. Mr. Weasley seemed to have lost his spectacles, which was just as well because his eyes were streaming tears. Bill, his wife, and Ron stood with him, their arms around him and each other. Bill was also gripping Mrs. Weasley´s hand behind his back.
Standing amidst the group, yet only gripping each other's shoulders, were Fred and George.
Eloise could see George's over-bright eyes as she watched them. Fred leaned his head against his twin's and seemed to be talking quietly to him. He glanced up, feeling her gaze, and lifted a hand in acknowledgement.
Eloise was satisfied. The moment everyone had returned to the Great Hall after You-Know-Who's final defeat, Eloise had looked around for Fred. She didn't need to speak to him yet – just to know he was alive.
He had been the last Weasley to come in and had looked so haggard and miserable that Eloise had wanted to run to him, to throw herself into his arms and let him cry. She knew something awful had happened, but had already seen George there so knew that the unthinkable separation of the twins had not happened. It had taken her a moment to figure out which Weasley was missing and realized it was because she had never seen Percy Weasley with his family before.
She didn't see him there now and knew, after his sudden appearance in the Room of Requirement, what must have happened to him during the battle.
¨Ellie.¨ Her mum's voice was gentle.
¨Mummy.¨ Eloise turned her head to look up into her mother's face. It was dirty and blood-stained, like almost everyone else's, but through that mirage, Eloise saw the woman who had raised her and shown her how to be strong.
¨How are you?¨ Alyssa met her eyes and gave her a squeeze.
Eloise turned her eyes on the rest of the Hall. She watched Ron break away from his family and follow Hermione out into the entrance hall. She assumed Harry was with them. She watched Ginny lift her tear-stained face from her mum's shoulder and smile at George, who in turn nudged Fred. They all shared a chuckle about something. Eloise's eyes moved on, over the other families clustered at House tables, at the teachers who were moving among them, talking to and hugging parents and students. She watched the Malfoys, who sat at the opposite end of the Slytherin table. Draco leaned into his mother, who held him in one arm and stroked his father's hair with her free hand.
The blonde politician made her think suddenly of Professor Snape. He had died, she heard, but according to Harry, was a true hero. She thought about all the notes he had given her, allowing her to use the Restricted Section of the library her sixth year. She thought about how he had sent her, Ginny, Luna, and Neville into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid; how he must have known it was the safest punishment he could give them. She smiled, sending silent thanks to the man who had given her so much. She probably owed her survival of this battle, at least in part, to his encouragement and help.
¨Well, I don't know about you two, but I am famished,¨ John said.
Alyssa glanced at him, grinning wearily. ¨Shall we slip down to the kitchens?¨
Eloise gaped, sitting up. ¨You still remember how to get down to the kitchens?¨
¨The number of times I slipped down there with Lily Evans!¨ Alyssa returned. ¨She and I had the place wired. We even snuck down there during classes. Such scoldings as we got from the House Elves!¨
Eloise laughed, imagining her mum and Harry's, thick as thieves, stuffing pumpkin pasties down their jumpers to take to class.
¨You know, Mum,¨ she said, as each of her parents took one of her hands. ¨I think I'm okay.¨
Fred didn't see Eloise until late that summer. Like most Hogwarts students who had been in fifth or seventh year, Elle had spent the summer at the castle, helping to clean up and rebuild, and studying for major exams. The O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. exams were given on 1 September, after which the N.E.W.T. students were returned to their parents to work on university applications. Fred had written a letter to Elle and sent it so that she would receive it when she returned home and not when it would distract her from exams. He might not have cared about his own, but he knew that Elle would and that she would want to focus on helping fix up the school as well.
Dear Elle (he had written):
I know you will have just finished your N.E.W.T.S., but please tell me you have time to come to the Burrow for a bit. Ginny won't be here – she went back to Hogwarts yesterday. But Hermione and Harry are both coming straight taway and the rest of the family's been sticking pretty close to home as well. Also, I'm sorry I'm only just writing now. Didn't want you to get distracted from your academic pursuits, did I? Come whenever you can. Mum's set up Ginny's room for you and Mione.
For the second, third and fourth of September, he waited for her to owl back.
On the fifth, she walked through the gate.
He was sitting on the porch steps, watching the chickens poke around the yard, and listening to Ron and Hermione's voices through the kitchen window, arguing about something inconsequential.
Elle came right through, sat down beside him, and said breathlessly, ¨Hi.¨
He grinned, thought about kissing her straight away, and decided against it. They hadn't really been together for quite a while now. He needed to let her decide what happened next.
As he watched her, he noticed something different about her. He couldn't put his finger on it, but she looked … she looked …
¨What is it?¨ she asked, tucking her hair behind her ear.
¨Nothing,¨ he said honestly. Whatever it was, it didn't matter. She was here and she was Elle. ¨How are you holding up after exams?¨
She blew out a breath. ¨What a nightmare!¨
He laughed, shaking his head. ¨I have no idea – didn't sit them.¨
¨Almost makes me wish I'd jumped on a broom and flown away,¨ she mumbled, shaking her head.
¨Almost?¨ Fred asked.
She looked up at him, that lovely, inspired light in her eyes. She looked so achingly perfect to him at that moment that before he knew what he was doing, he leaned forward and kissed her.
She didn't give him a moment's pause for doubt; she didn't freeze or pull away. She immediately pressed closer, returning the kiss eagerly and lacing their fingers as she leaned into him. She did pull back first, but not until she had convinced Fred that her feelings for him had not changed since they had last seen each other in June.
¨Almost,¨ she resumed, her cheeks pink and her eyes wide and soft.
Fred took a moment to catch the thread of the conversation. ¨Why almost?¨ he said, when he remembered.
¨Fred, it's amazing.¨ She was gripping his fingers tightly and had that new something about her that he couldn't quite figure out. ¨They had the exams and then they had Aurors there as well.¨ She paused, her lips trembling in a barely controlled smile. ¨Fred, they had Auror entrance exams right after our Defense Against the Dark Arts N.E.W.T. and – and I just got my letter yesterday, inviting me to start Auror training in the winter!¨
Fred's mouth fell open. He stared at her – just stared. He couldn't quite connect what he had just heard with the plump, rosy girl sitting in front of him.
¨Aurors?¨ he said blankly.
¨That's right – Aurors,¨ Ron said suddenly from behind them. Ron, Harry, and Hermione had all come out onto the porch and seated themselves beside the others. Harry and Ron grinned at Elle.
¨You should have seen her, Fred,¨ Harry said. ¨She knew more spells than anyone – it was incredible!¨
¨We did this thing where we had to block two opponents at once,¨ Ron added, ¨and I tell you what, Eloise didn't use a single curse twice.¨
Elle turned red. ¨I didn't last as long as either of you did.¨
¨But you were creative,¨ Harry insisted. ¨I mean – wow, I wish you'd been in the D.A.!¨
¨Couldn't have done,¨ she said, though Fred saw how pleased she was. ¨I'm amazed I could hold a wand in fifth year.¨
They all protested, but Fred, finally finding his voice, was by far the loudest. ¨None of that! You just told me you got into Auror training – I never want to hear a word against you again, and that includes coming from you!¨
They all laughed at that, but Fred couldn't take his eyes off Elle.
¨Actually, after sitting the Transfiguration exam, it was a huge relief to do something active,¨ she went on.
¨Amen to that!¨ Ron said, running a hand through his hair. ¨McGonagall was hard, but that was nothing compared to that Professor Zaing.¨
¨It wasn't that bad, Ronald,¨ Hermione cut in, nudging him.
¨It wasn't that bad, Ronald,¨ he mimicked, then yelped as Hermione slugged him in the arm.
¨Violence! Indignity!¨ Ron shouted, clambering away to sit on Harry's other side.
¨Ooh, big words, icky Ronny,¨ Fred teased, enjoying the glare his brother shot him over Harry's head.
¨Yes, our little boy's all grown up,¨ Hermione agreed with a wicked grin. She pushed off the porch, stretched in a languid way that was not at all like the busy, studious Hermione Fred knew, and gave a lazy wave. ¨I'm off to Ottery St. Catchpole for a new book. Anyone coming with me?¨
¨Ron will,¨ Harry and Fred said, just as Ron said, ¨I will!¨
¨Hey!¨ Ron added.
¨Sorry, mate. Just that I can read you like - well, a book,¨ Harry said, shrugging.
¨Hermione,¨ Fred said suddenly. ¨Didn't you do Auror exams?¨
Hermione gave him a look that said quite plainly, Are you insane? ¨Certainly not!¨ she said. ¨Fred, were you paying attention to Harry and Ron and I when we talked about living all year in a tent and getting abducted, shot at, stabbed, tortured, etc.? Never, ever again!¨
Harry and Ron both roared with laughter as Hermione set her chin in a just-so expression that Fred did recognize.
¨When you put it like that … ¨ Eloise put in, giggling.
¨Come on, mate,¨ Ron said to Harry when he could talk again. ¨Don't make me go into that ruddy bookstore alone.¨
¨Alone?¨ Hermione demanded. ¨What I am, an owl?¨
It took a few minutes for everyone to settle down again.
¨Go on, get out of here, the lot of you,¨ Fred said, putting his arm around Elle. She leaned into him, beaming out at the trio as they waved goodbye and wandered off down the lane.
¨I´ve never seen any of them that relaxed or happy before,¨ Fred said thoughtfully.
¨They've been fighting You-Know-Who since first year,¨ Elle pointed out, leaning against him and keeping hold of his hand.
¨And what about you?¨ Fred asked. ¨An Auror, Elle?¨
She looked quickly up at him, all anxiety. ¨Do you think it's a bad idea? Only, I did it just because it was offered and I was there and I had a wand. Really, that's it!¨
¨Are you happy you went for it?¨ Fred asked, not wanting to fall into the old trap of telling Elle how marvelous she was. He realized that this was the first time in a long time when he had to fight the impulse and he felt a familiar flood of pride in his chest at how far she had come.
Her expression relaxed. ¨It felt amazing – just really exhilarating! And defending myself against two Aurors!¨ She waved her free hand as though words failed to express her sense of accomplishment. ¨I mean, I didn't last as long as Harry and Ron, but five minutes is still – ¨
¨You last five minutes against two fully trained Ministry Aurors?¨ Fred demanded in absolute amazement.
Elle grinned. ¨I did. I even got a little plaque with my acceptance letter. Apparently, I was third after Harry and Ron.¨ She shook her head. ¨I would have been fourth if Neville had gone for it, but he told me that after the last battle, he wants to go and be bored at uni for about eight years.¨
Fred shook his head, feeling the pride swell and sink under a feeling of guilt. ¨I´ve missed so much with you!¨ he said, looking away from her. ¨You've done such incredible things, and I wasn't there to watch you grow and learn and – ¨
¨Fred!¨ she cut him off. She reached out and touched his face. He turned to find her watching him with a look so gentle and kind that he felt that warm blanket of comfort settle over him, ebbing the guilt even before she spoke. ¨What were you doing for the last two years? You were risking your life to make the world a better and safer place for people, myself included. You were also running a highly successful new business that also made the world a better and possibly even safer place by creating laughter and happiness.¨ She shook her head, smiling at him. ¨Anyway, why worry? We've got all the time in the world now.¨
Fred felt his lip twitch and returned her smile with interest. ¨All the time in the world starts right now.¨