Many, many thanks to my wonderful betas, Christina Teresa, Seakays, and sunshyndaisies. This little story would have never been launched without their time, encouragement, diligence, and ever-brilliant suggestions. Ladies, you are goddesses one and all. ...And so begins a little post-canon diversion to keep the author in practice while planning the (epic-length, I fear) 'Points' sequel... The first scene may feel just a bit familiar somehow...
...And so begins a little post-canon diversion to keep the author in practice while planning the (epic-length, I fear) 'Points' sequel...
The first scene may feel just a bit familiar somehow...
~ Chapter One ~
Causes and Effects
The six of them watched Harry walk away determinedly toward the station entrance, his aunt, uncle and bloated cousin scurrying behind to keep up with his purposeful stride.
"I suppose that ought to do it," Moody said with a satisfied tone, obviously considering the conversation they had just had with the Dursleys. His expression showed that it had gone much as Harry's friends and protectors had wanted.
"Let's hope so," Tonks said, failing to break her gaze as she craned her neck to follow Harry's departure across the now burgeoning crowd in King's Cross Station. Her bubble-gum-pink hair fit in amazingly well with that of several young people dressed punk-rock style who passed behind her. "Poor Harry. But maybe he won't feel so isolated this summer since he knows he has a failsafe. From the looks of it, I'd say he qualified for Gryffindor House just by putting up with those ruddy lumps for relatives."
"You don't know the half of it," Remus Lupin added, becoming the first to turn away from The Boy Who Lived and his entourage. "The things he used to tell Sirius-"
Any mention of Sirius' name still left gaping holes in any conversation it dropped into and this was no exception. The weighty silence was immediately followed by uncomfortable squirming among all of them, along with a pressing need to force themselves to move on.
Lupin seemed to feel a moment of surprise that it was he who had allowed Sirius' memory to enter the conversation. He appeared to feel decidedly and sadly awkward and turned to Arthur Weasley. "I suppose I'd best be off. "
Arthur peered into his friend's face and spoke quietly. "Is it going all right with you there alone, Remus? Because I'm sure we could arrange for some of the boys to come early and help-"
Remus seemed to summon some of his own Gryffindor bravery to put on a very faded, weak and weary smile. "I'm all right, Arthur- but thanks for the offer. There are still a lot of people in and out as you know-I may take you up on the offer of some more permanent company down the road. But right now there are so many things to do around that musty old house... Besides, with Kreacher gone now, number twelve, Grimmauld Place seems positively cheerful in comparison to what it was when he was there."
Arthur worked to return the weak smile, obviously aware that there was someone else gone from number twelve, Grimmauld Place whose mention Lupin was now working hard to avoid. "When you're ready, you just give the word. We've spent so much time away from the Burrow that the place is beginning to look a bit shabby, so we really need to catch up a bit. And since we spent most of the summer in London last year, we thought we ought let Ron and Ginny have a few weeks at home -you know, let them work off some steam. But we'll likely have everything cleaned up and locked down there again in no time, so expect us in five or six weeks-earlier if you need us."
"Thank you, Arthur," Lupin said solemnly. "I appreciate it."
With that, Lupin swung to quickly say his goodbyes to the two Aurors standing behind him and then almost immediately disappeared into the crowd.
Ron had been absently listening to the conversation between his father and Lupin as he watched after Harry. One of the few in the group tall enough to still see the very top of Harry's ruffled black hair in the distance, he stared over Hermione's shoulder as he thought about his best mate. He'd always missed Harry loads during the summers, at least until the two could manage to get together again at the Burrow, or as they did last year at Grimmauld Place. And for some reason Harry had seemed more resigned to going with the Dursleys this year than he ever had before, as if he knew something more... But he'd said nothing to Ron about it directly-in fact, Harry had been understandably very withdrawn since that fateful night at the Department of Mysteries.
Seeing Harry in such pain was made even more insufferable by the fact that Ron couldn't clearly recall anything about that night past theThestrals. Beyond their landing in London, there were a few vague pictures in his mind, still images instead of moving pictures, much like some of the Muggle photographs that Hermione had shown him once. A vandalized telephone box, a round room, a door that he wanted desperately to see behind-images that would come into sharp focus momentarily, then become blurry and fade away as if someone was carrying off the light that illuminated them.
Ron felt something bump into his chest and looked down; Hermione had turned, but while still watching after Harry, had taken a step and run directly into the front of Ron.
"Sorry," she said, obviously lost in thought about their best friend and what the summer would hold for him. She sighed.
"He'll be all right, Hermione," Ron said encouragingly, though he wasn't feeling too secure with that himself. "I'm quite sure his aunt and uncle knew that everyone here meant business, too. They looked rather, erm...concerned...didn't you think?"
"I suppose," she said listlessly. "I'd best finish loading the trolley, then."
Ron turned to his father, who was just leaving to return to the Grangers. "We'll be there in a bit, Dad-we're going to load her things."
Ron and Hermione walked slowly away to the luggage pickup area where the handlers had left her trunk and numerous boxes. Neither of them seemed too anxious to get on with the task at hand, because completing it only meant they would have to say goodbye. And with Harry gone, they were already saddened.
"Gets worse every year, doesn't it?" Ron asked, distractedly pushing Hermione's boxes around with his foot rather than loading them onto the empty cart.
"You mean Harry?" she asked. "Or the whole thing?"
"The whole bloody thing," Ron said. "It's just-now I spend half the time that I'm away from everyone wanting to know if they're all right. So what's the point of even trying to be away from them?"
"I don't know," Hermione answered, reluctantly picking up a small box and placing it on her trolley. "Our families need us, too, I suppose...for awhile, anyway. My parents are taking me to Bermuda next week so that we can spend some time together...and that's all fine. But it's a working vacation for them, too-a dental convention-which means I'll have to spend loads of time just lolling about the beach alone."
"The beach?" Ron questioned, grunting as he picked up a box that apparently held many of her precious books. He dropped it rather unceremoniously onto the cart when it got too heavy to hold any longer. "How bad can it be if it has a beach?"
"Well, it's not completely horrible," she admitted. "It's just such a-frivolous place. There's never any weather except for these balmy breezes and sunshine. The big excitement is an occasional thunderstorm. All you can do is just sit on the beach-and the library there is just so...limited-it's a tropical island after all. There's only so much sunshine and boredom one can take." Hermione reached to the floor for a large cloth bag and laid it carefully over her biggest trunk.
Ron shook his head and strained a bit to pick up another box. "Geez, how many books are you taking home? Never mind- sorry I asked. But I'll never understand you, Hermione. You love the library and hate the beach. Who does that?"
She reached over and pushed the heavier boxes together on the trolley as Ron set the next one down. "I don't hate the beach-I just get enough of it rather quickly is all."
"Can I go then?" Ron asked, taking a short breather. "There'll be no sunshine and boredom at my house. Just terrible heat and lots of work. Mum will have us busy putting the Burrow back together so that we can get back to headquarters the month after that. You know my parents-they always need slave labor-and this year Ginny and I are the only slaves left. Hey-I know-maybe Ginny and I can be your new cause-what do you think?"
Ron looked at her with such an impishly hopeful look that she couldn't help but smile at him.
"But I won't be wearing any of those knobbly hats," Ron said quite seriously, then promptly leaned down for another box. He sneaked a glance to see the sneer that he knew would be on her face, then smiled at how right he was. "There's probably not much need to worry anyway, you know," Ron said. "Mum'll get bored with just me and Ginny at home in two weeks or less, I'll wager. I'm sure she'd be delighted to have you come and stay. You know Mum."
As she was collecting the last of her things and placing them on the trolley to leave, Hermione stopped loading abruptly to watch a man passing with his own trolley.
"Isn't he beautiful?" she asked Ron. "Looks a bit like Fang, doesn't he?"
Ron looked up from loading the last book box. "Where?" He looked into her face and forced his gaze to follow the direction she nodded in. Then he sniggered as he found them. "The man or the dog?"
The man pushing the trolley was either quite fat or quite muscular; either way, he was indeed quite large. Ron thought the man was probably close in age to his father, perhaps a bit younger. He wore a black trench coat that covered him from his shoulders to his ankles, appearing almost as if he was wearing a robe, and he moved with the lumbering determination of someone with an appointment to keep. A black bowler hat finished off the ensemble, assuring that the man couldn't be identified by simply a passing glance.
The man's trolley carried only a few items, most of which were unremarkable: a valise, a leather bag, a small box. But the majority of the space on the trolley was taken up by an enormous traveling cage, filled with one very large, apparently well-behaved black and brown dog.
Oddly enough, as the two friends were still trying to inconspicuously peer into the cage to see the dog better, the man's trolley hit a crack in the pavement, wobbling the cart just enough to topple the valise to the floor. He stopped the trolley and leaned down to collect his valise, unknowingly halting directly adjacent to one of the trolleys the Weasleys had commandeered earlier. All might have gone well had he not stopped next to that particular Weasley trolley.
For tucked on the end for safekeeping was a carrier holding a very large, ginger tabby cat, though he was not part of the Weasley baggage. Perched atop the mountain of luggage on the same cart was the cage of one small tawny owl that hooted and chittered nervously at the noise all around him.
All at once chaos erupted on the spot. Horrible screeching noises and small tawny feathers filled the air. Menacing howls, spitting, and hissing startled the passersby. Loud, booming barks followed by vicious-sounding snaps and snarls echoed through the highest rafters of the station. People hurried to get away at the same time they pressed into one another to avoid the trolley where the tiny little owl fluttered frantically against his cage and a long ginger cat leg reached through the carrier rungs to slash at the air with dangerous claws. The huge dog charged the side of his own cage again and again, jolting it each time until it seemed as if it would topple from the man's trolley as well.
Ron and Hermione dropped what they were holding and rushed to their pets' defense.
"Bloody little pipsqueak! Nasty bugger!" The man complained in a thick, raspy accent at Pig and Crookshanks as the two friends arrived. "And you-" The man picked up something else that Ron and Hermione had not seen stashed on his trolley: a staff-long and stout with a bluntly pointed metal headpiece, "-you-shut up! Bruno! Shut up, I say!" The man leaned over to look into the dog's cage, then roughly jabbed the staff through the rungs, jamming the headpiece forcefully into the dog's ribs.
A resounding yelp came from the dog and he backed away against the other side of the cage. Bruno barked once or twice more, causing the man to jab the staff at him again and again, stabbing at the dog's body with the blunted point. The barking came no more; only the piteous whining and yelping from the enormous dog could be heard now.
Instead of rushing to move away, the few people who passed now stared in horrified shock at the man as he finished beating the dog. Several people glared, but no one said a word. It was obvious from Bruno's response that the dog was used to being treated this way-he now cowered in the corner of the cage in an ever-growing puddle of urine.
"Stop it!" Ron heard next to him.
The man looked up, surprised, at the young bushy-haired girl who'd had the nerve to speak up.
"Stop it! Can't you see you're hurting him? He's terrified!" Hermione said loudly.
Several people in the busy crowd slowed to see what would happen next. The man narrowed his eyes at Hermione, then apparently decided against getting involved any further. He quickly leaned down to pick up his valise and shoved it onto the trolley, throwing the staff aboard alongside the large cage. Leaning his weight against the handle, he began to walk quickly away.
As they left, the enormous dog leaned his huge round head against the bars at the back of the cage, his doleful eyes full of pain-and now focused on Hermione. Ron couldn't help but see his friend taking it all in.
Ron let out the breath that he found he had been holding-he wasn't certain for how long. "Well, that was bloody awful. That bastard shouldn't even be allowed to own a dog when he's that kind of a-" the string of descriptive words Ron released would have usually set off one of Hermione's scoldings, but if she was aware this time, she must have been in complete agreement.
Hermione scratched soothingly at Crookshanks' neck for a few moments to calm him and Ron made a sad little "coo" at Pig; he smoothed his feathers as the tiny owl, terrified, huddled closer to the side of the cage in front of him. Hermione abruptly looked up into Ron's face a split second before he realized she hadn't heard a word he had said.
But the dangerous flash that Ron saw in her eyes in that split second panicked him immediately.
And rightly so. Hermione turned on her heel and set off after the man, stomping her way across the train station and through the throngs of people as if she were a hot knife through butter.
"Hermione!" Ron said loudly, then realized she was already too far away to hear. "Hermione!" he called louder.
His first instinct was to follow her-it probably always would be whenever he was worried that she'd bitten off more than she could chew. But the fact that her parents were just several dozen meters away complicated things. It felt odd to consider going along to keep her out of trouble when maybe that was their job right now. He just wasn't sure.
But he looked at where her parents were, struggling to pick their way through the heavy crowd toward Pig's and Crookshanks' trolley; Moody and Tonks were long gone as well. Ron saw how far away Hermione had managed to get in those few minutes, and at once knew what he had to do.
"Pardon me," he blurted out to the first of the fifty or so people now between him and Hermione. He hurriedly pushed past them, trying to dodge his way through the crowds of people, trolleys, and trunks, stopping every few seconds to reorient himself to her whereabouts, struggling to track her through the masses. Sometimes it was easier to see the man, who was much taller and wider than the bushy-haired zealot who Ron assumed was still hot on his trail.
"Hermione!" Ron shouted, though he couldn't see her anywhere and realized it was probably to no avail. Hoping, but not expecting that she had given up at some point and headed back toward their parents, Ron was just about to turn back himself when he saw that the man had stopped in an alcove next to the main stairway. I don't see her, but with Hermione, I'd better make certain she went back, he thought.
Approaching the area with the utmost caution, Ron was hoping to see just the man and not Hermione; with the expression the man had left with, Ron didn't intend to disturb the bloke and his dog any more than they had already been disturbed. The man stood facing a circle of rather menacing-looking men, and Ron was relieved to see that the group was greeting the new arrival in a business-like fashion. At least they're not being interrupted by some opinionated, bushy-haired creatures' rights activist-thank Merlin, he thought.
But Ron's expression of relief quickly turned to a grimace of concern as he saw the opinionated, bushy-haired creatures' rights activist push her way free from the crowd and defiantly step up behind the man with the dog.
"Excuse me, sir, but considering our location, I can fully appreciate the fact that you may not be a British citizen," Hermione's voice shrilly rang out through the hollowness of the stairwell as Ron cringed. "However, in our country, we do not allow such treatment of animals, no matter what they've done-and that poor dog of yours only did what was purely instinctive. I happen to know that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a kiosk here in the station for inspections-I'm sure they would be very interested to know that you mistreat your dog, even in public. Heaven knows what you do to him in private."
Ron winced at the sharpness of her words, half wishing that he could turn around and pretend that he didn't know her and that none of this had happened. But he willed himself to keep stepping forward until he stood right behind Hermione. He was not in the least bit pleased that he too now shared the focus of the menacing-looking men.
He vaguely heard Hermione's voice as she continued to chide the man with the dog, reminding him of laws and regulations that pertained to animal rights. But as males are wont to do in a confrontational situation, he took a brief moment to check out the opposition.
There were five men in a line facing them, aside from the man with the dog. Most were tall, rather burly-looking sorts, but even the shortest looked as if he could break a normal man in two should he so desire. They were dressed in very similar fashion to the man with the dog-apparently they didn't want their appearance to call attention to them in any way-their dark overcoats and bowler hats hid their identities well.
A small group of on-lookers had gathered and were now milling around behind him and Hermione. Ron saw the men becoming increasingly uneasy with the attention they were attracting. Looking nervously at one another, several of the men felt their coat fronts for something.
Their look of solemnity caused Ron to reflexively feel for his wand hidden in the back pocket of his jeans. His fingers felt the comfort of its smooth hardness under the fabric, but he just as quickly realized he wouldn't dare use magic in the middle of King's Cross station. "Hermione-let's go," he said in a deeply serious, throaty voice.
Hermione didn't pay him one bit of attention. "How would you like it if it was you inside that cage and..." she carried on, chattering at the man.
One of the men seemed to find that mental image quite amusing and he began to laugh nervously. The others laughed at his laughter and all but the man with the dog were soon chuckling and guffawing heartily at Hermione's ranting. Yet Ron could sense that underlying the laughter was an uneasy tension that he didn't want any part of-or want Hermione to be any part of, either. He was going to have to get her out of there on his own, without magic, no matter what it took to do it.
The man with the dog was the only one who was not a bit amused by any of this. His grim, tight-lipped expression grew more sinister by the moment as he stared a hole through Hermione, especially once the laughter had begun.
Ron purposely bumped his knee against Hermione's leg and grabbed her by the elbow. In a voice that he hoped would sound more like he was joking rather than bely his true feelings of urgent concern, Ron spoke to the men as if Hermione was just the slightest bit daft. "Excuse us-she loves animals. Hermione, you don't need to save the world today-anyway, that's Harry's job..."
Hermione yanked her arm free of his grasp immediately, the men's laughter apparently irritating her more deeply and egging her on.
But soon the laughter stopped. The look of cold irritation and impatience with the girl in front of them had returned to their faces-it wasn't funny any more.
Ron leaned closer to Hermione's ear. "Let's go!" he whispered urgently and forcefully. "It's not that you're wrong, but-look at them!"
Hermione continued to talk on, regaling the men with stories of how animal owners had been prosecuted to the full extent of the law for much lesser crimes than animal beating.
"Little girl-" The man with the dog finally spoke slowly with a thick accent in his deep, gravelly, and very threatening voice; suddenly everyone around them went silent and still to listen, "-this dog is no concern of yours."
His tone finally stopped Hermione. In fact, she and Ron both stood staring in pale silence with wide eyes and dropped jaws at the vicious expression on the man's face. Ron later remembered thinking he'd rather face the enormous dog with a full-blown case of rabies than face this man even one moment longer.
Distracted by the five other men prodding one another in the arm and exchanging meaningful looks as they began to reach inside their coat fronts this time, Ron decided he could wait no longer. He wrapped one arm tightly around Hermione's shoulder, pressing her against his side to keep her and her arms from getting loose; he pulled back firmly, forcing her to step away with him as he reached behind him with the other arm to break through the crowd.
"'Evening, gents," Ron said shakily to the men, though his attempt at politeness was probably overshadowed by the tension in his voice.
"Ron! Stop it!" Hermione hissed, trying in vain to wriggle free. "Let go of me!"
But this time Ron ignored her. He kept them moving away through the crowd.
"First you criticize me about the house-elves and S.P.E.W.-" she continued, "now you won't even let me save that poor dog!"
Ron still said nothing. He was beginning to learn that one of the best ways to defuse one of Hermione's rants was to just let her go and let it burn itself out. Still keeping a tight hold on her, he swung around so that at least the two of them could face forward as he hurried her along, bumping and pushing his way through the throngs.
"Let go of me!" Hermione said loudly, yanking her arm free enough that she pulled back and elbowed him hard in the ribs.
"Owww!" Ron cried out, holding his side and trying to catch his breath. Luckily, they were far enough away from the men that she didn't seem to be entertaining thoughts of returning to them. "Damn, Hermione! That bloke was downright hacked off at you-they all were-I was trying to do you a favor-"
Hermione narrowed her eyes at him and clenched her fists. She tossed her head and stomped away toward her trolley, leaving Ron standing in the crowd alone.
"Yeah, well-" Ron called after her in pain, "I was trying to save a lot more than a dog! -And you're welcome!" he shouted in irritation.
By the time Ron was finally able to straighten up enough to retrieve his own trolley and wheel it to where their parents were standing, Hermione was describing all that had taken place on the far side of the station. ...Leaving out a few choice tidbits, Ron thought sullenly.
"Oh-Ron-here you are, dear," Molly Weasley said as he walked up.
"Yeah-what took you so long?" Fred demanded.
"And what happened toyou?" George asked, eyeing Ron as he still leaned a bit to one side. "Break a rib pushing a trolley, did you?"
Ron just glowered at his brothers. "Ask her," he grumbled, nodding toward Hermione.
Fred and George looked at one another with eyebrows raised, apparently deciding it was unwise to pursue the matter. The two of them then turned away, straightening their new green dragonhide jackets to attract the attention of a group of teenaged girls walking by with the crowd.
Trying to catch Hermione's eye for the entire few minutes that everyone remained in the station, Ron waited quietly when he realized she simply wasn't going to look at him. Just as the Grangers were preparing to leave, Mrs. Granger leaned over to say goodbye to Ron, then nudged Hermione in the arm.
"Aren't you going to say goodbye to Ron, dear?" Mrs. Granger asked.
"Yeah-I reckon I've made it easier to say goodbye to me this time, haven't I?" Ron asked quietly.
Hermione looked up at Ron grudgingly. "Goodbye," she snapped. She reached toward the end of Ron's trolley to retrieve the carrier with Crookshanks inside, placing it carefully on the end of her own cart. And with that, she stepped up to help her father push away her heavy book- and cat-laden trolley without once glancing behind her.
Ron sighed, knowing that he had done what he could. But it certainly wasn't a good omen for what the rest of the summer held, if one believed in such things. And why wouldn't I believe in them, when a lot of it's been such a lousy year already?Dejectedly pushing his trolley toward the front of the station, Ron had little energy or will left to fight his way through the crowds; he quickly fell behind the rest of his family. As long as he could still see them up ahead, he trudged along, heading for what he felt was destined to be a terrible summer, especially if he couldn't spend much of it with Harry and with Hermione spending a lot of it being angry.
Ron had just managed to shove his trolley through the outside door to the street when he felt someone grab his arm. His eyes darted down in alarm.
Looking up at him with her sincere cinnamon eyes and her cheeks flushed pink -was Hermione.
"What-forget to remind me of something else awful I've done to you lately?" Ron asked irritably.
Hermione looked down at her feet a moment before returning her focus to his eyes. Maybe she isn't quite so angry any more-she doesn't look it.
"Sorry-I didn't want to leave like-maybe you were-well-thank you," she stammered.
Ron sighed in frustration. "Hermione-deep breath-it'll take five seconds more to tell me what in the world you're really trying to say."
She breathed. "I couldn't leave with us like that. That horrible man was so wrong-but you weren't wrong in trying to help me. I couldn't do anything against those men-not that way. Sorry-and thank you."
Ron looked deeply into her eyes momentarily. She meant it. Oh, what the hell...He hadn't had much luck staying angry with her this year anyway. He shrugged. "That's okay."
"And I forgot to give you-well-" Hermione looked away from him into the distance then, as if she were nervous about something.
Ron visually checked both her hands, neither of which held anything at all; he was confused. "Give me what?"Hermione swiftly tilted her face to his, pushed up on her toes, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
Ron's fingers went to his face immediately, touching the spot where her warm, soft lips had been. He remembered that feeling vaguely from a pre-Quidditch daze before his first game some months ago-but this time, he intended to remember the feeling quite clearly for some time.
Hermione's eyes lingered on his for a few brief seconds, her cheeks blushing vivid pink now. She smiled shyly, then quickly turned and ran into the crowd, disappearing through an open car door at the curb some thirty meters away.
Ron stood rooted to the spot, thinking about how he had never realized before how sensitive his cheek could be.
"There you are," a familiar voice said from behind him. "Mum thought you were lost."
"Come on, Ronniekins," an almost-identical voice said in a mock-childish tone, "do we need to strap you to the rest of the family so you can keep up?"
Ron ignored the twin redheads tugging at his trolley handle, still staring after the spot where her car had pulled away and disappeared.
"See you soon, Hermione," he whispered.