"Good evening, everyone. My name is Ron Weasley, and I'm the Speech Master tonight. The Maiden and Guardian have slaved to make this wedding a reality, and they felt that they weren't the appropriate people to make speeches. Hence this ungrateful task was given to me."
The assembled crowd chuckled. They had waited for everyone to arrive, and the waiters had passed around champagne or any other beverage of choice for those unwilling or unable to drink alcohol.
"I've been one of Harry's closest friends for about thirteen years. In that time, I've been his partner in crime on many occasions, and in quieter moments, a confidant to whom he can tell anything—which has provided me with ample material for my speech. Now then, Harry—you know what's expected of me, so don't be too upset if, by the time I've sat down, everyone in this room thinks you're a total moron. And if that does happen, I can only take part of the credit because your friends and family already think that."
An even greater part of the crowd laughed, and everyone turned to Ron to pay more attention to the speech.
"I would like to comment on how trim Harry is looking in his uniform, which is actually the result of a fitness regime—apart from his regular exercises—that's seen him do at least fifty push-ups a day for the last two months. But I should mention that none of them have actually been intentional—he's just been collapsing a lot through nerves and stress."
More laughter from the crowd encouraged Ron.
"Harry Potter was born in July 1980, in London, where he fortunately didn't spend any of his formative years. It is interesting to note that shortly after he was born, the hospital was closed for fear that an infection causing male babies to have exceptionally small genitalia was spreading."
Harry winced. Ron clearly hadn't forgotten the embarrassment Harry had put him through the previous year, and he was going all out.
"If I recall my courses of Healing History properly, the outbreak started with a baby boy on March the first of that same year," Ginny shot back, making the crowd truly erupt in laughter.
Ron touched his heart. "My own baby sister, turning against me like that. She's quite a spitfire, isn't she? Good thing Potter's a hero!" Then he gestured towards Matt and Wolfe. "Now I'm going to take the opportunity to congratulate the organisers of Harry's stag do. I, for one, had a blast. The Guardian was courageous enough to put on a sexy dress, wig, make-up, and high heels. But he did flatly refuse the handbag, because he said it didn't go with his shoes. Yes, Wolfe, you looked very desirable. So desirable, in fact, that we had to restrain Harry, before he took advantage of Wolfe."
Lee was doubled over in laughter, holding to the back of a chair to keep from falling.
"If I was to follow tradition, I'd have to quit the embarrassing comments at this point and sing the groom's praises and tell you all about his good points. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I can't sing and I won't lie. And we can't overlook the true star of today, my baby sister, Ginny. Yes, even though I'm her brother, and therefore a bit biased, many of you will agree with me that she's a woman of many attributes. Beauty, brains, wit, wisdom and, fortunately for Harry, a disarming love for dumb animals."
"An acquired trait, having grown up with a brother who meets that description," Ginny proclaimed loudly.
The crowd cheered, and some people put down their goblets to applaud.
Ron waited for the laughter to die down before continuing. "Despite all the less than complimentary things I said about Harry, he's a super bloke—sometimes he likes to rub it in by flying over the city every chance he gets. But most of all, he is a terrific friend who never ceases to amaze me with his kindness and generosity. I'm afraid that all those less than complimentary things still stand, though.
"Seriously, I have the highest hopes for Harry and Ginny's future happiness together. Ginny, may you have a long and happy marriage, and may all your dreams come true. And Harry, for your sake, I sincerely hope that all of Ginny's dreams do come true.
"On a parting note, a bit of advice to the groom. Remember who is boss, and never challenge her authority." He raised his goblet. "So here's to marriage, that happy state when two people become like a pair of scissors—so joined that they can't be separated, whilst often moving in different directions, but punishing anyone who comes between them. Ladies and gentlemen, a toast to the happy couple. To Harry and Ginny!"
Harry smiled. That had been Ron's speech. All things considered, it hadn't been that vicious. The guests had raised their goblets and toasted to Harry and Ginny. Then everyone had gone to their respective tables.
His gaze swept over the assembled guests. Several large tents had been pitched up close together on the grounds in front of the manor house, allowing the guests to sit in the shade, and shielding them from any bad weather. Waiters skilfully negotiated the round tables, some refilling goblets, others bringing dessert.
Heidi had generously separated the wedding ceremony and the reception to allow the guests of the wedding ceremony an hour's worth of quality time with the married couple. Then Harry and Ginny, along with Molly, Heidi, and Wolfe, had formed a receiving line.
Mrs Weasley had initially been hesitant to be in the line, since it would accentuate the absence of the three other parents. But Heidi had convinced her that she couldn't deprive herself like that, and that the missing parents wouldn't have wanted her to be absent.
In the end, Percy had been added to the receiving line, too. Though he hadn't had any role in the ceremony, the fact that he'd known—or at least known of— many of the self-invited strangers, had been a great boon. By placing him at the beginning of the line and having him loudly greet these people, Heidi had provided Harry, Ginny, and Mrs Weasley with a valuable source of warning, thus preventing awkwardness when facing a strange person.
Mary had taken upon herself the task of getting the guest book signed, and she'd deputised Susie and Millie to intercept anyone trying to sneak past them. Those who tried had generally been too embarrassed to shrug off the twins for fear of seeming rude in front of the other high profile guests. Unbeknownst to anyone save Harry, Wolfe, and Doc, who had made the book, it doubled as an early warning system to identify anyone with bad intentions regarding the ceremony, be it disrupting it in some way, or any worse transgression. In light of the other security measures it was hardly necessary, but redundancy in such matters never hurt.
Those responsible for the food had certainly outdone themselves. Harry had never seen such an enormous variety on any menu, and as they finished their meals, the many approving faces among the guests suggested that the quality was at least as impressive as the quantity.
Heidi had also done well in arranging the seating. The better the guests knew Harry and Ginny, the closer they sat to the head table. And now she was taking a well-deserved break to enjoy the fruits of her labour. She was animatedly chatting to Hermione, who also had a place at their table.
"And there were so many people who don't know anything about Harry and Ginny, save some of Harry's deeds. Do you know how many people told me that I looked just as pretty as my sister?"
Hermione laughed. "I see your point, though many of the people who do know Harry and Ginny also thought that you were related to the Weasleys."
Mrs Weasley reached across Hermione's place to pat Heidi's hand kindly. "You've certainly earned those compliments, dear. You do look lovely. I've seen many young men here look at you. Isn't there anyone you fancy?"
Though Harry hadn't been keeping his mind open to other people's thoughts, Mrs Weasley's innocent question had been very upsetting for Heidi, causing her to mind to scream the reason for her hurt like a dragon's roar. A few tables away, Jasmine's hand froze halfway to Rosie's mouth as she was feeding her daughter, and a startled Charlie Jr knocked over his goblet. Ironheart, who stood over seventy yards away, abruptly ceased his conversation with the Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards. Even Galatea, who could only pick up the emotion, and not the thought behind it, sensed how upset Heidi was.
In an instant, Harry knew that the present circumstances had contributed to the intensity of Heidi's reaction. Being at the wedding and seeing all the happy couples around her had served as a painful reminder that many of her friends and acquaintances had found happiness, yet she had not. Matt and Gudrun were happy in their eccentricity, and Lilia and Ramos, whom—even though they had married, divorced, and remarried four times during the past two years, sparking a running joke that they were making a stab at Doc's parents' record—had a comfortable love-hate relationship. Then there were the more conventional couples like Ron and Hermione, Faust and Janice, and Lieutenant Montoya's year-long 'not-as-secret-as-either-of-them-believed' relationship with Heidi's colleague in the Diplomatic Division, Claire Cruz. To make matters even worse, several of Heidi's roommates at the townhouse had also found boyfriends outside the Order of Illumination.
But poor Heidi was hopelessly in love with a man she could never have. It was far worse than her situation had been with Harry. First of all, she hadn't met Ginny at the time, and Harry and Ginny hadn't been together. Next—even though there was no way he could be certain, because he hadn't been a Mind Reader at the time—he had a hunch that she hadn't been quite that attached to him. After all, she'd given up when it became clear that there wasn't a future for that kind of relationship, and even more so, her subsequent rivalry with Ginny had also resolved itself quickly enough, once they'd finally managed to talk through their issues with each other. While Ginny had been recovering after her near-brush with death, Heidi herself had recounted their discussion on Caer Sidi. She confessed to him that it had been her jealousy and especially her loyalty to Harry as a friend, along with the accompanying impulse to protect him from being hurt again, that had prompted her verbal attack on Ginny at Harry's memorial service and later started their vicious rivalry, despite Ginny's initial attempt to make peace for Harry's sake when she had first joined the Rangers. Looking back, he still didn't know what shocked him more, Heidi's admission, or his own guilt at the fact that he'd been wrong, yet again, about his assumptions regarding Ginny's feelings and motivations. He'd been able to forgive Heidi immediately, and her genuine relief at being able to make amends to them both had made forgiving himself easier, though it had still taken a while longer. Afterward, relations between the three had rapidly settled into a steadfast friendship, with none of them troubled by thoughts of the past.
Now, however, Heidi had to deal with the guilty knowledge that the man in question was not only married, but married to her best friend and stepsister, Galatea. And unlike the situation between her, Harry and Ginny, there was no easy explanation or solution to be found. Moreover, her experiences in creating and then resolving that situation had made her even more sensitive to the current predicament, and fuelled her determination to not be the cause of any similar trouble between Galatea and Wolfe. It had driven her to the brink of insanity, and she had contemplated ending her own life to be rid of the agony. Galatea, of all people, had picked up on her pain and talked her out of it, adding to the guilt Heidi was feeling over desiring her husband.
And Wolfe knew! Heidi's distress had loosened a profound anxiety in him, telling Harry all he needed to know. Wolfe knew how Heidi felt about him—with his gift, how could he not—and he was disturbed by the notion that he was causing Heidi so much pain, even though it was beyond his control. But what disturbed him even more was that deep down, he was attracted to Heidi, too. Of course, he was far too disciplined to act on the knowledge that would have spurred his grandfather to cheat on his wife in half a heartbeat. Yet knowing that he could ease Heidi's suffering, but that in doing so, he would indulge himself in the very behaviour that he detested in his own grandfather and betray Galatea, gnawed away at him.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you," Molly said. She had read Heidi's expression correctly, though she had no idea why Heidi was so upset. If only she knew…
Wolfe slid back his chair and leapt to his feet, before hastily striding towards the manor house.
The abruptness of his departure loosed another wave of terror in Heidi. It had made her realise that he'd more than likely picked up on her thoughts.
"Excuse me," Harry said, as he made to follow Wolfe.
"What's wrong?" Ginny asked worriedly.
"Nothing," Harry replied, putting on the best indifferent face he could muster. He knew Ginny wouldn't fall for it, but that she'd also realise that it was more for her mum and Heidi's benefit. "Something just occurred to Wolfe, regarding his Guardian's duties."
He left the grounds and strode into the courtyard, where Celestina's crew was setting the stage. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated on Wolfe's magical signature. He could find Wolfe by concentrating on his aura, a side effect of their fusion. To his surprise, he could sense someone other than Wolfe. Ginny was there as well, and he sensed her more clearly than Wolfe. But he shunted that to the back of his mind, knowing that he'd have to solve that particular riddle later. Wolfe had taken refuge in the abandoned brew house, and Harry started on his way there.
He pushed opened the door to the brew house and was met by the faint odour of yeast. He found Wolfe sitting on an overturned fermentation barrel, with his face buried in his hands.
"There's no hiding from you, is there?" Wolfe muttered.
"Are you all right?"
Wolfe didn't answer right away. He just sat on the barrel for a while, and Harry allowed him to sort out his thoughts. After a few tense seconds, Wolfe finally spoke in an anguished tone. "You don't know how lucky you are to have that bond you share with Ginny—that you're Twin Flames. You'll never have to struggle against any attraction to another woman, because any woman who isn't Ginny will just feel wrong."
Harry certainly hoped that what Wolfe was saying were true, for it would eliminate many possible complications in his relationship with Ginny. But he didn't know much about the Twin Flame bond, so he couldn't be certain. Clearly, Wolfe was having the sort of complications that Harry hoped he'd never have to face.
"I suppose you'd like to know why Heidi feels the way she does about me?"
Harry nodded. "The thought did cross my mind."
"The spark," Wolfe paused, contemplating the word, making sure that it was the right one to use. "The first spark between us came after I rescued her from the tribe of cannibal goblins."
Harry was surprised to hear that. It had been a relatively short expedition, lasting only six weeks. Heidi had also taken part in the expedition, to document the practices and customs of the many intelligent beings that lived there. But that had been nearly two whole years ago. "And she's been in love with you ever since?"
Wolfe shook his head. "That was the spark. The flame kept growing since then, and both of us tried to put it out, but it was no use. And Heidi keeps having this recurrent dream about me—about us—in which she gives birth to my child. She didn't tell me about that. I saw it in her mind when I tried to find out why she was so hopelessly infatuated with me. She'd been taking as much Dreamless Sleep Potion as is medically responsible to try and stop the dreams. She never tried to seduce me, because she loves Galatea too much."
Wolfe had answered most of Harry's questions, though he still had a few. "Does Galatea know?"
"She knows. She's picked up on my feelings and Heidi's, and she did the math. Hermione suspects too. The way I spoke of Heidi sometimes—gave me away. She's too clever for her own good."
"That's Hermione for you," Harry said. "But Galatea, is she upset?"
Wolfe shook his head. "The strange thing is that she isn't angry."
"You didn't give her any reason to be. After all, you didn't act on your feelings."
"I know, but that's not why she isn't mad. I tried to see what she might be thinking, but I couldn't make sense of her thoughts. I asked my grandfather why, and he told me that when people are in a certain state of mind—like when they're practising Occlumency, but different—their thoughts couldn't be read."
Harry frowned. He'd read something similar when Hermione had forced the notes of past Mind Readers on him. "But you did get an impression, didn't you?"
"Resignation," Wolfe said. "She's resigned herself to something."
"Well, resignation is in many ways the same as emptying one's mind. You let everything go. I guess that's why you couldn't read her mind," Harry said.
"But I can't believe she's given up on me. I know she still loves me, and I love her too. And I've told her time and again that I'll always love her, and that nothing will come between us. Yet every time I told her, she gave me that look as if she knew something I didn't, and I caught that feeling of resignation again," Wolfe said anxiously. He slid off the barrel and began pacing around. "I can't believe I could betray Galatea like that!"
"When did you betray her?"
Wolfe gave Harry an incredulous look. "Haven't you been listening?"
"Yeah, and I don't have a clue as to how you've reached the conclusion that you've betrayed Galatea."
"Because I have feelings for Heidi."
"You have feelings for Heidi? It isn't just a physical attraction?"
Wolfe sighed. "I wish it were only that."
Harry walked over to the fermenting barrel Wolfe had vacated, and sat down. "Where did these feelings for Heidi come from? They couldn't have come out of thin air. There must have been more than that spark."
"I must have been too preoccupied to notice the change, but when did you become an expert in self-analysis?" Wolfe asked, eyeing Harry curiously.
"The knowledge has been there for a while," Harry said, tapping his forehead with his index finger. "I learned a lot about self-analysis and reflection from the caretakers in the Mirror Realm. It's just resurfacing now that I need it—and don't change the subject."
Wolfe smiled weakly. "All right. As you know, I've seen quite a bit of Heidi for the past year. She and Galatea were like sisters, before their parents found each other and made them stepsisters."
Harry nodded. During Galatea's pregnancy with Robert, Heidi had grown very close to Galatea. And later, when Galatea had been pregnant with Henry, Heidi had been the most frequent visitor to the Wolfe household. She and Galatea had indeed become as close as sisters during that time. "Go on."
"It started shortly before Galatea's second pregnancy. Remember that gang of muggers who briefly operated from the first through the fourth city tier?"
It had been one of the very few smudges on Concordia's relatively pristine history regarding crime. The group had gained enough muscle to intimidate the local Thieves' Fellowship, and their modus operandi had been far more ruthless and violent. The Lord Major had asked the Order of Illumination for help, fearing that the City Watch risked becoming too bloodied in an all out confrontation. In Harry's opinion it had been the right move. They'd taken care of the criminals easily enough, but he'd had to dodge several Killing Curses in the process. The City Watch wouldn't have fared so well. "Yeah, I remember."
"Galatea told me to walk Heidi home, to make sure that she wouldn't be in any danger." A small smile appeared on Wolfe's face as he talked. "We ran into the old Squib lady who collects empty cans for the dwarves' recycling forges. Did you know that she used to have a wizard husband? Muggle-born. Voldemort's supporters in the Balkans killed him, along with all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, during Voldemort's first ascent to power. That's why she's insane—it broke her. But she's a very nice person, you know. She splits most of the Sickles she earns among the people who are even less fortunate than she is."
Though he'd never bothered to read her mind, Harry knew the lady well. She pushed her cart all over the city, going from house to house to collects cans and small, old cauldrons. Ginny dutifully saved all their cans and the neighbours' as well, to give to the lady.
"I didn't find out through Mind Reading," Wolfe said, correcting Harry's assumption. "Heidi always talks to her and invites her in for a cup of tea, when she comes by the townhouse. Anyway, when we got to the townhouse, we found her on the doorstep. Some teenaged bullies had stolen her cart and destroyed it, and the City Watch hadn't done anything about it because they'd been too preoccupied with the mugger gang. So she'd gone to Heidi for help. I tracked them down and fixed their attitudes, and they helped her with her cart for the rest of the summer."
"So that's why they were helping her. Why didn't you ever tell me about this?"
"Because that day, I learned that Heidi wasn't the snooty aristocrat that I believed her to be. Sure, she wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty if the Order would require it, and we knew that she had a catty side to her. But she helps the less fortunate on her own time. She arranges clothes for the people who live in the first tier, so they look smarter in a job interview, and she teaches them how to speak and act to improve their chances of being hired. She's even saved a few marriages through mediation. And did you hear about that choir of poor children who beautifully sang all those Christmas carols in the Artists' Square last winter?"
"Yeah, Ginny and I went to listen to them, after Heidi suggested that we ought to. It was very nice."
"She trained them!" Wolfe said. "That's where Heidi disappears off to, to spend half of her free hours. She doesn't do it to get recognition, like so many of her aristocratic peers do when they're doing charitable work. She didn't tell anyone about it. I didn't tell you, Harry, because I knew that if I did, you'd find out how I feel about her. And it's tearing me up. If it hadn't been for Galatea, I wouldn't even be able to feel this way about anyone at all. And I repay her by…"
Wolfe couldn't finish the sentence, though it was clear what he meant. Harry sympathised with his friend's plight. He had real feelings for Heidi, and many other men would have acted on those feelings, especially if they knew, like Wolfe did, that the woman felt the same way.
Now he had to find out the reason why Heidi felt the way she did about Wolfe, and where those dreams were coming from. He could assume that those dreams were a subconscious manifestation of Heidi's desires. The best way to find out would be to ask Heidi, but since Wolfe might have read the reasons in her mind at some point, it couldn't hurt to ask him. "Did you ever read some of her conscious thoughts about you? The dreams have to come from somewhere too, right?"
"My looks didn't hurt. But for the most part it's the new me—the way I've become after Galatea fixed my mind. She likes the way I treat Galatea, and the way I play and interact with Robert when I have time. And that's what's so rotten, because she wouldn't feel that way about me…"
"If Galatea hadn't healed you, emotionally," Harry finished.
"So your feelings for Heidi stem from the fact that you've found out that she's a very nice person—almost like Galatea, right?"
"I never looked at it that way, but now that you mention it, I suppose you're right."
Harry smiled. "I brought it up because I had a hunch that you'd never looked at it quite like that. It's nice to have some perspective, isn't it?"
"It helps," Wolfe admitted. "But I see what you're getting at. You're saying that the only reason I'm attracted to Heidi is because I see Galatea in her. Unfortunately the problem runs a little deeper than that. That spark I told you about…"
"What about it?"
"I never felt that with Galatea."
Harry hadn't expected this. It made matters more difficult. "Then why did you get together with Galatea?"
"I was comfortable with her. She helped me in a way that no one else could. And I do love her." Wolfe struggled to find a way to explain it in words. It was a difficult concept, and Harry queried his mind to see what he was trying to say.
He found it hanging around elusively in Wolfe's thoughts—the difference between Heidi and Galatea, as Wolfe perceived it. A comparison would be the best way to explain it. "You love Galatea like I love Hermione. Well, maybe a bit differently, since you've been intimate with Galatea, and she was instrumental in healing your mind. But that's about right, isn't it?"
"Close enough," Wolfe nodded.
"To put it poetically, Galatea lacks that spark to light your passion," Harry said, and decided to take things one step further. "If you hadn't had such a traumatised youth and so many tough experiences in your early years as a Ranger, Galatea wouldn't have had to heal you. You wouldn't have developed that level of intimacy with her if you'd been mentally—" he hesitated, hoping that Wolfe wouldn't be offended, but there was no other way to say it. "—sound."
"Heidi wouldn't have been able to heal you like Galatea has, but would have been a better match for you under different circumstances, having a more fiery spirit, right? And then, after Robert and Henry, the circumstances were different. You're happy now, and your mind has healed to a great extent. That's why you feel an attraction to Heidi, and it's also part of the reason why Heidi's attracted to you, if you read Heidi's mind correctly."
"You've pretty much summed up the problem," Wolfe said morosely.
"But leaving Galatea for Heidi is out of the question, because she healed you—not to mention the fact that you have two small children with her."
Harry shook his head. "You do have a problem."
"And you don't have a solution for me."
"I'm afraid not. You'll have to work one out with Galatea."
"But I can't tell her how I feel about Heidi!"
"If she indeed already knows, like you suspect she does, she'll appreciate your honesty. The best case scenario is that she'll let you be with Heidi, if that's what will make you happy."
"But I'm not unhappy with Galatea. I'd have been perfectly content with the status quo if … if—"
"If you hadn't known how Heidi felt about you? If you hadn't known how much it hurts her, thinking that she could never have you? It's the curse of our ability, Wolfe. You should talk to Galatea about this. She might be a bit hurt, but she'd gladly let you go if it would stop the torture you and Heidi are in. You know she would."
"But what about Galatea?" Wolfe argued. "She wouldn't have anyone."
"She'd still have your children. And if you set each other free, she'd have the chance to find someone else to share her life with."
As Harry said that, he felt Wolfe's resistance to that idea.
"Why do you feel uncomfortable about that?" Harry narrowed his eyes. "You want Heidi and Galatea, don't you?"
"I don't want just any man to take part in raising my children."
"Galatea has better judgement than that, and you know it," Harry admonished. "Your ego is getting in the way. You don't want her with another man. It's a natural reaction. You don't want any other bloke to have her, even if she isn't the perfect woman for you. And deep down, you wouldn't mind having both of them."
"That's not true!"
"Isn't it? I can read you, Wolfe. If you thought you could get away with it—"
Wolfe threw up his hands. "All right, guilty as charged. We're not all special, like Harry Potter."
"There's no need to get hacked off at me. I'm just saying that if you want to end Heidi's misery, and your own, you'll have to make some allowances and get used to the idea of Galatea being with another man."
"There has to be another way … a way that I can forget my feelings for Heidi. Maybe a Hate Potion," Wolfe said stubbornly.
"How would Heidi feel if all of a sudden the man she loves started to hate her guts?"
Wolfe blinked. "I have some thinking to do."
Harry nodded. "I understand. I still expect to see you around later. You'll have to dance with the bride."
"I'll be around later," Wolfe said.
Celestina Warbeck announced the cutting of the cake, and after Harry and Ginny had cut out the first slice and fed each other during a blinding moment of photo flashes, the seven tiers of the bride's cake had been separated from one another to facilitate their serving. For the next half hour, the six Mrs Weasleys were busy serving the slices of cake to the three-hundred or so guests, since Molly had insisted on them doing so. They had barely put down their knives when the Bridal Dance was announced.
Hermione excused herself a path through the amassed crowd until she reached Harry, Ginny, and the rest of the bridal party. Max was tense, and Hermione noticed that he was trying to avoid looking at Heidi. That convinced her even more that there was something going on between them. Heidi, and by extension Max's reaction, to what Molly had said earlier about anyone catching Heidi's eye, had left certain question marks in her mind.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Celestina began, as the band behind her struck up a merry tune. "It's an honour and delight to perform for these two very special people. Ginny and Harry, come on up to the dance-floor."
The guests applauded while Ginny dragged a suddenly very reluctant Harry to the centre of the dance floor. Hermione smiled. Despite everything, Harry was still a bit reluctant to be the centre of attention.
Celestina opened up with a song, singing it at a slow pace. Harry had soon forgotten about being the centre of attention, having eyes for Ginny only. They danced for a few minutes, until Celestina called the bridal party to the dance floor and instructed the band to continue the song in a more upbeat tune. Since the bridal party had consisted of five women and only two men, Percy and Bill stepped onto the dance floor with their wives, while Charlie took Angelina's arm. Molly, the mother of the bride, had been a bit unsure about what to do until Aberforth grabbed her and pulled her onto the dance floor.
The couples twirled around like that for a few more minutes, changing dance partners several times. Surprisingly, Aberforth easily kept up with the rest of them, briefly groping Hermione's bum in a playful manner to drive home the point that he was young at heart. Finally, she twirled back into Ron's arms as Celestina invited the rest of the guests onto the dance floor. From the corner of her eye, she saw Heidi and Max immediately break up and move off the dance floor.
"Hermione, Heidi came up with a great idea. There was enough food here to feed fifteen hundred people. Eighty percent of the food will be left over. Would you mind helping us wrap it up and going down to the first tier of the city when the party's over? Harry and Ginny said that they'd join us there for about an hour before they go off on their honeymoon," Ron whispered.
Hermione raised her eyebrows. She'd agonised over the elitist nature of the reception many times over. This would be an excellent way to let the less fortunate of Concordia take part in Harry and Ginny's big day. It wasn't as if anyone went hungry in Concordia, but she was sure that a feast of that magnitude would be the evening of a lifetime. "Why hadn't I thought of that?"
"Yeah, it took me by surprise too when Heidi told me about it. If nothing else, it will be a major publicity stunt. It's great for the Order's image."
"It's a lot of food. We'll need help transporting it."
"We've got the family, except for Angelina and Jasmine. All the kids will be sleeping at our house until we return. Jasmine and Angelina will look after them. Wolfe can multiply himself, so he'll be loads of help. Heidi and Wolfe are off recruiting more people from the Order. I'll ask our friends from Hogwarts to help too."
"I'll talk to Harry about saving the garter and the bouquet for that party. It'll add an extra touch to the gesture. You talk to Ginny!"
"Right," Ron nodded, and they edged their way closer to Harry and Ginny.
That was how they found themselves on the Merlin Memorial Square in Red One, the poorest part of Concordia. Most of the guests who had attended the wedding ceremony had gone with them.
The charioteers had been a bit reluctant to fly into the city again. Matt had been about to offer them hefty 'compensation,' when Padma stepped in and subtly hinted that co-operation would get them lofty reviews in the next edition of the Concordian Chronicle.
Many sleepy faces poking out of windows had gaped with awe as a dozen carriages and several large flying carpets laden with food, descended into the neighbourhood, surrounded by swarms of fairies. Heidi didn't have to knock on too many doors to spread the word. The news jumped from home to home, and minutes later people from all over the neighbourhood congregated in the square, setting up tables, chairs, and a high-backed, flower-covered wicker loveseat for Harry and Ginny, who appeared soon after the initial landing. Harry was still wearing his dress uniform, while Ginny had changed into a white, open-backed gown.
Hermione failed to hide her surprise as dozens of people came up to Heidi to greet her. All of them knew her by name, and acted as if they knew her well. The can-collecting lady came up to Heidi and hugged her, crying on her shoulder and speaking to her in German.
"You'd better close your mouth before a fairy wanders in by accident," Wolfe said, appearing beside as unexpectedly as only he and Harry could appear. "You thought Heidi was doing this to improve the Order's image, didn't you?"
"She knows these people!"
"Yeah. Amazing, isn't she?"
Hermione quickly shot Wolfe a sidelong glance and saw the way he looked at Heidi. It wasn't obvious, but it was there.
"What about Galatea?"
"I love Galatea, and I won't leave her."
"Heidi feels the same way about you, doesn't she?"
"Are you sure about your decision?"
"My feelings for Heidi aren't just a crush. They're very real, and that's what makes this so difficult. But I've made my choice, and I'll stick with it," Wolfe said. Then he held out his hand to her. "Doc and some of the people from the neighbourhood have formed a band and they're about to start playing. Do you want to dance?"
Hermione nodded, and they strolled to the centre of the square together. There were a few local people getting ready to dance, but for the most part, they were digging into the food.
Doc started playing a merry tune of his violin, and the people on the square formed a circle and began to dance. Hermione laughed as Ron, dancing opposite her between two local women, kept tripping over his own feet. Wolfe was doing pretty well, much to Hermione's surprise.
"It's the same as the footwork in a kata routine," he shouted in explanation. "It's not that hard."
They danced, the circle growing as more people joined in. Then people formed another circle around them, and yet another circle was formed around them. The second circle always moved in the opposite direction of the first circle, and the outer circle kept mimicking the first circle. Flashes of light alerted Hermione to the arrival of the media.
Ginny and Harry tossed the bouquet and threw the garter respectively. The bouquet landed in the arms of the can-collecting lady while the garter fell around the tip of Aberforth's hat.
The explosion of fireworks—Aberforth had decided to save the bulk of them for the poor people to enjoy—heralded the ending of the short, yet energetic celebration.
People swarmed around Harry and Ginny, thanking them for remembering their neighbourhood. Heidi hadn't even taken credit for it, though it had been her idea. They didn't bother correcting the people, probably on Heidi's own request. Then Ginny's angelic wings sprouted from her back, and she and Harry took off into the starry sky.
The exit had left Hermione breathless. This had been a wedding that people wouldn't forget any time soon.
Author's Note: Thanks to all who've read and reviewed chapter by chapter. For those of you who have read but didn't review (I know you're out there, since I can see that you have me on author alert) I'd really appreciate some feedback on your overall thoughts on this fic.
Special Thank Yous are again warranted for my betas, Anne (pen name: Ashwinder) and Christine, who have sacrificed their own precious time to beta-read this story. And now on to the review comments.
Angel of the Flames: I consulted quite a few sources on Pagan handfastings, and I came across one that would be suitable for attendance by the uninitiated. Then I adapted it to fit my purposes. But no, I didn't conjure it up all by myself.
Gogirl: The story's almost over? Noooo! Anyway, I wasn't saying that cliffies are a bad thing, but they are when they're obviously cliffyish, catch my drift?
AmethystStar's: Glad you liked it.
Chloe Black: May was an optimistic prediction. It all depends on my inspiration.
nycgal: Same way I did last time. My beta, Christine.
The Bronze Snidget: Thanks. :-)
mentosadidasgirl17: Pop ups, yeah, very annoying.
Lord Dreadnault: I try.
Cosmos Rose: The ceremony was based on one in real life. And yes, no doubt the implications of long life will catch up to Ginny at some point.
Lion of Gryffindor: Ginny's engagement ring shattered because it was charmed to reflect her love for Harry. Ginny's bond to Harry is so strong that, when her heart broke, the diamond shattered. The ring at the end was a different ring, one given to her earlier. With some power left by Holly, she changed the ring subconsciously.
The Keymaker: So what did you think about the twist?
LadySiri: Prettiful? Is that new slang?
Foxfur: Your insight served you well, again. Let's see if you've anticipated the events in the teaser. *evil cackle* BTW, though Christine deserves a lot of credit, it was Anne who made me rewrite the first kiss.
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
It felt like he had no blood left in his body. Though broken, his heart still pumped. But it pumped cold hatred instead of warm blood.
There had been blood everywhere. It had poured out of three bodies onto the white stone floor, mingling to form one large pool. That's how he'd found her, with her beautiful lapis lazuli eyes wide open, staring unseeingly into space, devoid of all life. Her long white hair had been spread out over the floor like a blood-soaked silver and red halo. Her belly had been cut open in a crude caesarean section, and her child had been ripped out. Inside the wound there had been a purple-flowered herb. The perpetrator's calling card, Aconite … also known as Wolf's Bane.
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
He'd never laugh again. If there was a benevolent deity, it had to have a sick sense of humour. Sunshine streamed through the crematorium's skylight. It was April Fool's, and the weather was mild and sunny. The emergence of new life went completely against his feelings, mocking his pain … mocking her death.
The elder boy was crying, upsetting the younger by doing so. He kept asking his aunt what had happened to his mother. He didn't understand that she'd never be coming back. He didn't understand that he'd been deprived of his last remaining grandparent, as well as his mother.
It shouldn't have happened, but it had happened anyway, because he had strayed from the path destiny had shown him. Master Lei had always told him that the battle had chosen him, and that allowing others into his life would be to endanger them. In spite of that warning, he'd settled down with the woman who had shown him the meaning of love, and had taught him that it wasn't always easy to understand. A benevolent deity would have considered that to be a good thing, but instead he'd taken her away.
He glanced at the redhead holding his sons' hands. She too was suffering because he'd allowed himself to be caught off guard. Her mother had simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time, but she'd been killed along with her husband and stepdaughter anyway.
Wolfe had waved their killer's threats and curses away with contempt, disregarding the caution Master Lei had instilled in him over the years. That was probably why Master Lei's lessons had been haunting his dreams for the past week, particularly those concerning Machiavelli's wisdom. Machiavelli considered it a mark of great prudence in a man to abstain from threats or any contemptuous expressions, for neither of those weakened the enemy. Instead, threats made the enemy more cautious, and contempt excited the enemy's hatred, and a desire to exact revenge. He'd done it to himself. He hadn't taken his foe seriously, and he'd dismissed her as a threat to him.
If you poison us, do we not die?
Medea Aconit must have had outside help with breaking out of Azkaban unnoticed, and there was only one wizard alive who had the means of accomplishing such a task. Leaving Yamato as a loose end had been a mistake.
Wolfe balled his fists. He knew why they had targeted Galatea, aside from the fact that she'd been vulnerable, away from Concordia. They had tried to break him—and they had succeeded. They had broken Max, the father and husband. But in doing so they had revived Wolfe, avenger of their innocent victims. They too should have minded Machiavelli's wisdom. If an injury had to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared. But those who had wronged him had plenty to fear.
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Coming May 30th, 2004.