Disclaimer: I own nothing. All rights and other such legal matters over ownership go to and are controled by J. K. Rowling. Lucky fizz that she is.

Brief note before reading: As this looks to be rather long and drawn out, I much expect it to become AU once the sixth book is released. If this bothers you, I suggest you not read because DAM most likely won't be finished come July.

Difference Always Matters

by: s. stewart

a.k.a.

carpetfibers

ONE

there always comes a middle

I

"I REALLY THINK the original color was blue," Hermione remarked thoughtfully, her head poised to the side as she considered the peeling walls.

"Perhaps, but Mum hardly cares. She just wants it all cleaned up for Professor Lupin when he comes back. Blue, green, grey- doesn't really matter." Ginny ended her brief break from scrubbing the edging where the walls met the floor tiles and knelt back to retrieve her brush and bucket.

"I suppose..." Hermione sighed inaudibly; she never liked to leave details alone for the sake of the general picture. Yes, the point was to clean the room, but she preferred to take care of everything now, rather than later. She returned to the various trunks and boxes that filled her responsibility.

Molly Weasley had woken both girls earlier that morning with two pails, a couple scrubbing brushes, and a bottle of Ms. Abluo's Kwik-Kleen Solution in tow. Before either girl had a chance to rub the sleep from her eyes, Mrs. Weasley had foisted her supplies into their hands, mentioned a quickly cooling breakfast on the table, and that they "could start cleaning Remus's new rooms immediately."

The thought of Lupin's imminent return made Hermione's efforts pick up pace. It had been nearly a fortnight since the prematurely aged wizard had stood up from one of Molly's hearty meals and announced that he was taking Harry to see Godric's Hollow. His voice had brokered no contest, and yet, as usual, it was only Molly Weasley who seemed to have missed the intonation.

She had immediately started arguing, bringing up a good many points Hermione had worried up internally as well. Lupin hadn't said a thing in reply. He merely looked at the robust witch, his brown eyes oddly resigned and handed her an envelope, the hand writing immediately recognizable.

"Oh...Albus knows then?" the motherly woman had said weakly, and then she reseated herself, a slight wetness now coating her eyes. One of the newer members- a something Hedgefallow, Hermione believed- had patted her shoulder awkwardly before returning to his much cooled potatoes.

"Say 'hullo' to Harry for me, will you Remus?" Tonks had asked, her voice far too loud for the deafening silence that had filled the room.

Lupin nodded, and a slight smile vanished the worn lines from his eyes and cheeks momentarily. He left shortly after; Molly Weasley immediately burst into tears to the distress of the other Order members, and Hermione found herself inexplicably taking charge of washing all the dishes, refusing Tonks's offer of her wand to magick the dishes clean. It was only after two hours had passed that she realized that the sink had long been empty and the towel she had used to dry hadn't originally been so tattered.

Hermione yanked the lid up from one of the trunks, a cloud of dust and aged soot floating up before it resettled over her hair and shoulders. Muffling her sneeze, she reached for the books that filled it, the first moment of interest during the whole long morning finally coming to rise. She held the dusty tome up, her eyes widening at the lack of title. She was desperately curious to open it, but a few choice experiences with some of Grimmauld Place's other artifacts had taught her the careful lesson that curiosity was a dangerous thing around things both old and magic.

She gingerly placed the book alongside a growing stack of other objects she had deemed salvageable. To her right were the things that would soon find home in the rubbage bin: torn curtains, moldy robes, two boxes of crumbling parchment that were once upon a time charmed to smell like roses- although with time, the charm's strength had worn off and the soiled papers now carried a putrid moss odor that caused her nose to immediately crinkle in distaste.

"I don't think her idea's going to help much," Ginny began without preamble from her crouch at the floor. "You know, trying to make things look differently. Harry's still going to be reminded of S-" the girl's words faltered. "-of him every time he comes here."

Hermione paused, Ginny's sudden conversation choice surprising her from her normal composure. She shook her head though and continued struggling with the massive texts that filled the seemingly endless chest. "I'm worried about that, too," she admitted.

Ginny's head sprung up at Hermione's words. "Worried? Why are you worried? I mean, obviously, Harry's going to be angry and moody again- jumping off at everyone, but that's to be expected."

"Actually, it's that I think Harry might see your mum's rearranging of everything as an attempt at wiping Sirius's memory away. I'm worried he might misunderstand."

Ginny's hands shook slightly at Hermione's mention of- even her thoughts seemed to stumble over his name. Sirius! she intoned internally. His name is, was, Sirius Black. It's just a name. "I didn't think of that, but you're probably right. It's going to be hard, though, knowing how to act around Harry now. He was just so angry last summer- I can't imagine what he's going to be like now."

"Act like you always do, Ginny. He's always appreciated how candid you are about things. Be his friend, let him scream, but don't let him walk all over you. Despite Sirius's death, Harry's still Harry." Hermione winced internally at how coolly her speech managed to pronounce Sirius's death as fact. She knew even with her back turned that Ginny's eyes would hold more than a touch of disapproval at her seeming coldness.

"You say that rather easily," Ginny said, a controlled lightness to her voice that made Hermione wince again.

"Yes, well, I suppose being matter of fact is my way to cope," Hermione countered, rather lamely in her own ears.

"Lucky you."

The comfortable atmosphere was now heavily ridden with the youngest Weasley's anger. The mood all but suffocated Hermione as she pulled the last of the books from the trunk and shoved it over with the rest of the emptied boxes and chests. She stepped into the hallway briefly, only meaning to take a few deep breaths before returning to the room and attempting to some how smooth things over with Ginny. There was still over a month left until school started, and as she was encamped in Grimmauld Place for all of those five weeks with Ginny as her roommate, she thought it best to try to keep their relationship on even ground.

Especially with Harry's promised return to the enchanted house in only a few days' time. The last thing he would need is having to play referee between Ginny's volatile temper and her own stubborn ways.

And the last thing I would need is having the whole of Ginny's circle of protection fall on me with their wrath, she added mentally.

As Hermione readied herself to re-enter the room, a few choice complacatory phrases flitting about in her mind, she felt more than saw the sudden presence of another body to her left. Her body reacted without consideration: she whipped out her wand with one hand while the other jutted its elbow painfully into the person's stomach; one of her feet pivoted through the offender's legs and the other spun her round, her wand readied at throat level.

It was only as her eyes began to recognize the striped polo of George Weasley that she regained control of her body. With an annoyed frown, she stepped back, her hand to her chest to still her racing heartbeat.

"George Weasley," she stated almost accusingly, the annoyance she felt also present in her voice.

With a disarming grin- a smile, Hermione noted, that showed absolutely nothing of the Weasley boy's thoughts- George rubbed the spot in his stomach where Hermione's elbow had made contact with.

"Exactly right, and you're Hermione Granger," he returned, his finger pointing obligingly in her direction. "And while we're on the subject of stating the obvious, you have an exceptionally pointed elbow."

Hermione scowled. She never felt the calm assurance she felt with her other contemporaries when with one of the Weasley twins. She could never quite tell whether the subtleties she often saw in their jokes were in fact ever really there. It was, she admitted with more than a touch of irony, always difficult to tell if everything really was just a joke.

"You shouldn't sneak up on people," she said, stepping back to put more space between them.

"And you need to not be so tense. I have it on excellent authority that too much tension can lead to rather debilitating stomach trouble. Quite nasty, really."

"It's called 'alertness,'" she informed him absently. She had the feeling that something was missing...and then it came to her. "Your brother- Fred- where is he?"

She glanced back down the hall suspiciously, sure that any second now the other half of the twindom would come barreling out to tackle her with some new concoction or equally annoying creation.

"At the Burrow with Mum."

Hermione refocused on the current twin in front of her. Something in his tone sounded unnatural, but as she studied his freckled cheeks and steady grin, she shook it off. She had more important things to do than analyze the complicated relationships of any of the Weasley children.

"Do you know if she's planning on returning tonight, or do I need to take care of dinner?" she asked, her frown still in place.

"She left a note for Tonks to take care of dinner," George leaned back against the narrow hall's wall, mindful not to knock one of the many covered paintings that lined it.

Hermione's shoulders slumped. Tonks cooking equaled Hermione cooking; the clumsy Auror simply couldn't move in the kitchen without breaking half the dishes and then burning whatever was cooking in the other half. So the job inordinately went to her. Which wasn't too bad as she didn't mind cooking, not really at least. But it was an entirely different affair to cook for two or three as compared to the near dozen that cooking entailed at the Order's headquarters, especially when one didn't have magical means at her disposal.

George eyed the distracted girl in front of him thoughtfully, thankful that her eyes were elsewhere for the moment. Despite having been in Hermione's company for nearly six years, and having two years over her near sixteen, he couldn't help but feel inferior whenever he spoke with her. Almost unconsciously, he'd hear himself using words that never passed his lips before and almost struggling to not make a wisecrack of some sort.

He normally made a point of not speaking to her at all when alone. It was better for him if he simply tried deflecting her attentions onto one of his brothers or Ginny. He'd end up looking and sounding much like the fool he was sure she thought he was otherwise.

"Did you need something then?" Hermione asked pointedly, and George fought back the reactionary jerk her voice jolted through his knees.

"My sister," he said at last, albeit awkwardly as his first impulse had been to do as he would at any other time and mention his need of a test subject for one of the Weasley Wizard Wheezes newest creations: the Mustache- Mint, guaranteed to grant facial hair that lasts an hour, or at least he hoped. There were still a few more quirks to work out in the charm-

"George?" Hermione called out impatiently. He immediately blinked his eyes and returned to the present.

"I never knew you had such a fondness for my name, Granger," he teased and inwardly beat himself upside the head when he saw her scowl deepen even further. Right then.

"She's inside; we've been cleaning up Remus's rooms," she said, turning her back to him and re-entering the room.

George followed behind her, making note to never again let his mother rope him into making solo trips to the headquarters. His eyes widened when he finally noticed the room's much changed decor. Of course he hadn't been in the room since winter holiday, but he doubted Sirius was much for self motivated bouts of cleaning. He distinctly remembered the room as having a constant grey sheen to it, as if dust and age had combined into a new entity that had made its home over each and every object.

"George Weasley! How did I know that you'd show up once all the work was done? How very typical." Ginny stood up and deftly tossed her brush into the bucket.

"It's a talent, dear sister, an innate ability for a select few. I know how envy must burn in your heart to not be as blessed as your brother-"

Ginny neatly cut him off. "It's true; Charlie really is a fortunate one."

"Teeth are looking savage today, little Ginevra. Missing your usual chew toys?" George teased back.

"A bit." Ginny glanced in Hermione's direction briefly as if to say more, but then shook her head, her thoughts changing to a new direction. "Where's Mum?"

"As I've already enthralled Granger here with the details, Mum's at the Burrow as Dad's finally got a night off and will be home early."

Ginny let out a squeal of joy. "So it's dinner with just the family- finally!" Her eyes widened at Hermione's brief shuffling of feet, and she continued on hastily. "Not that I don't mind having others with us. It's great having you to spend the summer with, Hermione."

Hermione struggled up a wan smile, mindful that tensions were already strained enough as it was between herself and the younger girl. "It's alright, Ginny. I'm not the easiest person to live with- Lavender and Parvati have made that clear on more than one occasion." She meant the last bit to come off as a joke, but she obviously failed as both George's and Ginny's mouths curved downward into frowns.

"You should come, too," Ginny offered lamely, knowing that her voice more than showed what she really thought.

"No, really, this should be a family night for you all. " Hermione increased her smile as she added, "Besides, if I'm not here, Tonks'll cook and then the Order'll be both out of dishes and food." The obligatory laughter followed, albeit weakly. Thoroughly tired of having to watch her words and having spent a morning dancing around different topics with Ginny, Hermione gave up any pretenses of social ability and gestured toward the trunks.

"I think I'm done with digging through dust for today. I'll go catch up on some of my reading." She nodded briefly in farewell and didn't wait for either to return it before racing for the stairs, taking two at a time. She closed the library door solidly behind her and let out a breath of relief.

There were few times she wished she was someone else, but at that exact moment, Hermione wouldn't have minded to be a bit more like Ron; so lovingly oblivious that such a thing as social awkwardness would never be considered. Things like nuances and subtleties rolled off of Ron's shoulders like rain on the street. It would take the forming of a knee deep puddle before Ron would notice, and by then, he'd be too confused for it to matter.

She crossed the room and as habit often did in rooms filled with books, she quickly ran her finger down the many different spines, titles calling out to her and soon one would find itself in her grip. She would sit then, comfortable in one of the plushly filled chairs spelled with comfort charms, and pretend that the world outside of the room did not yet exist.

Cooking dinner wouldn't seem like so much of a chore by then.

II

"THIS IS FANTASTIC, Hermione," Tonks repeated for the third time during the short meal.

"It's not really hard to make. Just followed the recipe and put it in the oven..." Hermione mumbled, her cheeks flushed again from the unwanted praise.

"Take the compliment, young lady. You should never turn down the praises of a friend," Kingsley Shaklebolt admonished, his tone lightened by the warm smile that curved his mouth. "More often than not, it's criticism you'll receive as you get older, so take the flattery, especially when it's due."

Hermione's flush increased under the older wizard's gentle lecturing. She was unsure of yet on where she stood in Shaklebolt's and the other Order members' appraisal. A large part of her wanted to ask why there had been no remonstration over the raid in the Department of Mysteries, but that other part, the smaller self-protective part, was thankful that she had yet to be confronted with her failure in judgment.

"Hush now, Kingsley. It's my fault for gushing over chicken." Tonks swivelled in her seat to face Hermione. "You have understand though, I find it amazing when anyone can manage that oven and not come out with a giant burnt pile of bones and dry skin."

"True, I have seen your skills when it comes to cooking. I've never witnessed something quite as painful as your attempt at boiling pasta," added a deep voice good naturedly.

Tonks stared for a moment at the unabashed grin of the newly returned Sturgis Podmore before breaking out in her usual loud laughter.

"I never was very good at those householdy spells," she admitted cheerfully.

Hermione kept her eyes downward, but as the others' attention returned to their meal, she snuck a glimpse at the strong jawed face of Sturgis Podmore. Nearly eight months ago, the wizard had been framed with trying to break into Ministry secrets and then sentenced to a six month term in Azkaban. Naturally, after his release, Podmore found himself jobless, homeless, and penniless as the Ministry had seized his private accounts and held them under one of the treasury office's many technicalities.

She wasn't sure of the specifics, but Dumbledore had managed to get Podmore hired at a local muggle accounting firm, just a few blocks from the hidden Headquarters. Hermione remembered her first glimpse of the wizard nearly a month after his release; he was thin as a rail, mostly bones and skin, and his eyes had the same haunted look that Sirius used to have. Thankfully, the past few months had added the much needed weight gain and his voice no longer shook when speaking. He lived in the Headquarters now and took his dinner in the kitchen with the rest of the members currently in transit.

"-received your results yet, then?"

Hermione returned to the present and blinked uncomprehendingly at the seven faces that were now turned in her direction.

"Sorry, I was wool gathering," she said, embarrassment once again lighting her cheeks with a red flush.

"Your O.W.L.s; have you received your marks yet?" Hestia Jones repeated kindly.

"No, not yet."

"I 'member my O.W.L.s; nasty things, those 'ere," announced Mundungus Fletcher from his sweltering heap of rags at the end of the table. Those closest to him were naturally seated at least three feet from his remarkable odor.

Tonks giggled and nodded to her wand pointedly. "I wouldn't think you'd have much use for your wand, 'Dung."

From what could be seen of his face, Mundungus's beady eyes rolled thoughtfully. "'Idn't 'ave much use for 'figuration or 'stronomy, but those charms and potions- now, they're mighty 'andy."

"How 'bout you, Kingsley? How'd you fare back in the old days?" Tonks asked teasingly, having pushed her plate aside.

The tall black wizard's eyes twinkled in amusement. "Far too long ago for me to remember, Nymphadora."

The surprise of hearing her first name sent Tonks into a crash as her chair skipped up from underneath her.

"It's 'Tonks,' Kingsley," she mumbled as she picked herself up from the floor. Once reseated, she refixed her attentions on Hermione. "You want to be an Auror, right Hermione?"

Hermione glanced nervously in the others' direction. Hestia Jones had returned to her conversation with a slight, pointy chinned witch, Abatha Lee over hybrid stunning charms that were currently being developed in an independent study at Oxford. Hedgefallow- Elliot! she now remembered- was using his spoon to model a quidditch move to Mundungus who grunted a few times in encouragement. The rest though- Shaklebolt, Tonks, and Podmore- were focused intently on her answer.

"I'm not too sure, actually," she finally admitted, staring at her empty plate and wishing she had accepted Ginny's invitation from earlier.

Tonks frowned, obviously confused. "But I thought that's what you and Harry and Ron were all on about last summer. Being Aurors and all."

"Well, yes, Harry wants to be one, and I'm fairly sure Ron wants to as well, but I'm undecided of yet," Hermione explained.

"Very wise," Podmore nodded approvingly. "You're only in sixth year, after all. If you keep up with Defense, Charms, and Potions, your course of study needn't change if you do decide on becoming an Auror in your seventh."

Hermione smiled weakly, inwardly praying that they would all return to their adult conversations and pretend that she wasn't there like usual. Perhaps it was because none of the Weasley children were at dinner that they were paying her so much attention. Normally, it was only Tonks who greeted her during the meal, asking about the cleaning and adding encouragement on her studies. Shaklebolt had spoken to her a token handful of times, each time relating to whatever book she had propped up during the meal.

The rest of the time, the adults kept conversation amongst themselves, and the 'children,' as she, Ginny, Ron, and even the twins were dubbed, were left to their own devices. Hermione preferred it that way, because although she was considered the 'adult' one in her group, her age never felt like more of a handicap than when one of the Order members decided to remember her existence.

"It's not only Aurors who fight, though. Simply because they're not up in the front lines doesn't mean that the medizardry, potion makers, curse breakers, charm crafters, and others are any less important. It'd be to no end if we all were brandishing our wands, ducking spells, and shouting hexes. There must also be those to do the thinking that the actions require." The table grew quiet once Shaklebolt finished his small speech.

Oddly enough, the existence of the War was rarely admitted to directly. The subject was usually skipped over and hedged around. It was like the analogy of the elephant in the room, only Voldemort's particular brand of elephant could no longer be ignored, even by those willfully ignorant. At the end of the school term, the Ministry and Fudge publically admitted to Voldemort's return; no one could deny the truth now and not look the fool.

Wanting to ease the tension and gloom that now hung like an unwanted sheath over the table's occupants, Hermione rose and made to start clearing the table. As she expected, Tonks immediately followed her example and dropped four plates in the process.

"Er, sorry 'bout that," Tonks stammered after the fourth plate crashed into the stone floor.

Hermione grinned widely, happy that some things would never change. "If you'd do a scourgify for me, I can take care of the rest," she offered.

Wisely, those still at the table stood quickly and said their 'good evenings' and 'until tomorrows.' Only Mundungus stayed behind, the absence of his putrid scented pipe signaling his deep slumber.

"Scourgify!" Tonks called, and the plates, utensils, table top, and even Mundungus himself were coated in a twinkling sheen as the cleaning charm magicked all the dirt away. Mundungus blinked awake and let out a small cry as he took in his starched and now completely refuse free clothes. For the first time, Hermione was able to make out his face and was pleasantly surprised to see pudgy, good natured cheeks and a squat nose rounded out by a thick beard.

"My clothes! What 'ave you done to 'em?" he asked, a woeful tone to his voice that caused Hermione to bite down on her cheek to stifle her laughter.

"Sorry, 'Dung. Said I wasn't too handy at those cleaning charms," Tonks explained with a shrug of her shoulders. She obligingly roped an arm over the short wizard's now odor free shoulders and guided him toward the one of the sitting rooms. She sent a brief wave in Hermione's direction as she rounded the corner.

Hermione turned to finish stacking the plates, her smile mellowing in the now emptied room. There were times, such as now, that she thought the age restriction on magic use a bit ridiculous. It'd make far more sense to limit the magic use to certain spells. After all, what was there about the age of eighteen that suddenly gave the wizard or witch the right amount of maturity to wield their wands properly?

She closed the cupboard with a sigh and leaned back against the counter, relishing the sight of the empty room with satisfaction. The kitchen in 12 Grimmauld Place was of a very unique sort, especially in comparison to the archaic dungeon it was last summer. At some point before her arrival, someone had- very wisely in her opinion- made the addition of a muggle oven and stove top. While the ice box was still of an odd decade or two old, it had at least been charmed to keep its contents cool. She had her suspicions on which wizard it was to spell the icebox, though. Arthur Weasley had been looking quite proud when he showed her the icebox's charmed frost-free interior.

"Miss Granger?" a polite voice interrupted her musings from the doorway.

Hermione shook her head free from its musing and greeted the much freckled face of Elliot Hedgefallow. "It's Hermione, Elliot."

"Well, yes, Hermione, then. Ah, there's a letter for you. From your parents, I believe," the young wizard added helpfully.

Hermione's mood went up by the bounds. A letter from her parents! She hadn't even realized she missed them until now. "Thanks Elliot. It's in the foyer, I take it?"

"By the fireplace; Professor Snape dropped it through the floo," Hedgefallow explained, a small wrinkle of embarrassment forming across his nose at his titled reference to Severus Snape, his once professor.

Hermione nodded again and hurried past him, through the now portrait free hallway and into the comfortably arranged foyer. Molly Weasley had tackled it over a year ago with her well stocked arsenal of sprays and solutions. The only unwanted guest that remained of the previously infested room was the faint shade of a former house guest who had the unfortunate experience of having splinched himself while in a hurry to get to his office. While not fully a ghost, the wizard's shade could at times offer up a decent sort of conversation, although he tended to prattle on about import tariffs and the unfair sanctions placed by Turkey on international rug specs.

The shade was absent tonight, much to Hermione's preference, as she retrieved her letter. Plopping herself down into one of the armchairs, she opened it eagerly, a slight frown marring her features as she read the first lines.

Dearest Hermione,

Now, don't worry, but last night we had to take Jamie to the hospital. While shopping down in Knottsbury, she knocked over a book stand and inhaled too much of the dust. She's fine now, a bit pale, but safe. The doctor said that it was only an asthma attack, nothing unusual about it. They took some x-rays; we'll get the results in two days, but again, the doctor assured us that there's nothing to be worried about.

Sweetie, your father and I don't want you to hurry home; we aren't there at the moment, actually. We're staying at the Falstaff Inn on Cromston and Third. Jamie did say though that she wanted to see you, so if you could arrange to meet with us tomorrow in Trafalgar square?

We weren't sure if you had a phone available, so if you decide to 'owl' us as you call it, do try to keep it discreet. The proprietor was most curious of the large black owl this morning. Your father told him that he was a bird keeper and he'd just set it free after mending its wing.

Well, dear, we hope that you're enjoying yourself. Do pass on our 'hellos' to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and tell them how much we liked their nutcake they sent last week. Jamie's still clamoring for another piece.

We love you and look forward to seeing you tomorrow,

Mum and Dad

P.S.

Hullo Hermione!

Mum said I could leave a note at the end. The hospital's great fun; the nurses all sneak me sweets when Mum's not looking. Uh-oh...forgot that she might be reading this. Oh well...perhaps you could drop me a few of those chocolate frogs?

See you tomorrow!

Jamie

Hermione reread the letter, this time searching between the careful words her mother wrote. Jamie hadn't had an asthma attack since she was at least four- and her sister was nearing eleven. Her frown deepened. Suddenly, she wished to be back with her parents, able to question the doctor herself and see Jamie's small, pixie shaped face. Words were little assurance.

"Good news, I hope?" Elliot Hedgefallow popped into the door frame, much like how he entered the kitchen, with a half hesitant bob. Wordlessly, Hermione gestured for his entrance.

"My little sister had an asthma attack yesterday. My parents are going to meet me in Trafalgar square tomorrow," she explained tonelessly, her mind far more occupied with her sister. She hoped that Hedgefallow was familiar enough with muggle ailments that a definition of asthma wouldn't be needed.

Fortune was in her favor, for the freckled wizard nodded knowingly. "You'll be needing an escort then, I take it?"

She shook her head, again a bit distracted. "No, no- I know my way about London. I'll just need someone to apparate with me outside and retrieve me later tomorrow night."

Hedgefallow's thin lips narrowed into a frown. "I don't think Dumbledore will want you to go about unescorted."

"Really, Elliot, unless there's some danger that I'm not already aware of lurking about, I'm certain the Order needn't waste a member to play babysitter with me tomorrow," Hermione said, a bit more snappish than she intended.

Hedgefallow's cheeks reddened predictably. "Listen, Miss Granger-"

"It's Hermione, Elliot," she interrupted irritably. The formality was ridiculous- the wizard was only five years older than her, hardly ranking seniority.

"-you can't be allowed to wander about London unprotected. You're not allowed to do magic until you're of age, and whatever muggle means you may have will hardly give you proper protection from a Death Eater." His last words came out suitably serious and instantly, Hermione felt ashamed.

How dare she act so childishly when it was such lofty independence that led to the Department of Mysteries debacle. Hurtfully, her mind inflicted, And Sirius's death- don't forget that bit.

"You're right. I'm sorry, Elliot. I'm being foolish," Hermione apologized, her brown eyes reading over the letter yet again. "I won't stay long then, so I won't use up too much of whoever comes with me's time."

Instantly, the newest Order member's indignant flush eased. "It's alright; I can imagine it gets a bit tiresome. But it is all for the best, so we must make do."

"Yes, I suppose we must," she agreed.

The conversation was clearly ended and Hedgefallow quickly made his departure mumbling a 'good night' as he removed himself from the frame. Hermione stared into the fireplace, half hoping that Snape's familiar visage would pop through, another letter in hand, this one saying that Jamie was home, tucked into bed, and the unsaid two night stay in the hospital completely put to rest.

But just as Professor Snape was wont to do, her hopes were not met. There was only the flicker of flame, unmarred by a green shadow that would promise another addition to 12 Grimmauld Place. She sighed and then resolutely pocketed the letter, tucked her unkempt hair behind her ears, and left, deciding that she'd save her worries for the morning.

Night was better spent sleeping. It wouldn't do to yawn all day tomorrow.

III

THERE WAS ONLY one member missing from the Weasley table that night. Only one empty chair to cause a slight dip in Molly Weasley's nearly glowing smile as she served her family her lovingly fixed meal. There was the usual amount of bickering; snorted laughter and shouts of 'Poor Ickle Ronnikins' and 'Mum! Fred switched my wand again!' But Molly took in all in stride. There was little enough of her family meeting as one that she could put up with a bit of normal banter and teasing.

Her husband smiled warmly as he tucked into the roast beef and potatoes that filled his plate. The past month had been filled with late nights at the Ministry, frequent meetings at the Headquarters, and far too much traveling to wizards' homes to check on reports of possible dark magic use. He rarely made it to meal times, and even though Molly always had a warm dinner waiting him, there was nothing that could make up for having his children and wife around the table, talking and laughing.

Arthur Weasley shoveled in another fork full and turned to his two oldest sons and quickly joined in their discussion.

"She claims her parents don't approve of her getting serious while so young," Bill stated glumly. "She says they want her to experience life before buckling down and starting a family."

"I didn't know it was that serious, son," Arthur remarked, eyebrows raised.

Bill shifted and quickly checked that his mother's attention was elsewhere before explaining his quickly deteriorating relationship with Fleur Delacour. "It's not; at least, I didn't think it was. We rarely see each other as it is, but since I've transferred here to London, Fleur keeps on bringing up her parents."

"It sounds like she's trying to let you down easy, Bill," Charlie suggested gently, his fork traded for his brother's shoulder momentarily.

"I know, I know...I like her and all, and she certainly is attractive-"

"I'll say! She is part veela afterall!" Charlie interjected, a knowing grin on his face.

"Yes, yes she is," Bill continued after dropping his fork, annoyed. "There's more to her though-"

"Oh yes, I nearly forgot. There's her dazzling intellect and warm, unpretentious manner. She practically a madonna."

"Sarcasm, Charles Andrew Weasley, has never been your strong suit," Bill tried to scold, but his full toothed grin gave way to his good natured acceptance. After all, Charlie's insinuation wasn't false. Fleur, at best, was described as aristocratic. At worst, she was called a heinous b-

"What's this about you coming to Hogwarts, Charlie?" a voice called out from the other end of the table.

"Yeah, are you going to teach?" asked another.

Charlie finished chewing and swallowed, using the time to figure out which twin was which. Really, he would have thought that having graduated- well...that wasn't quite right- but regardless, surely at their age they'd have learned to dress differently.

"The one with sauce on his chin is Fred," Ginny provided helpfully, a knowing grin stretched across her cheeks.

"You're a gem, Gin." Now having the full table's attention, Charlie decided the time was right for his announcement. They'd all know the full of it in another week or two anyway. "Dumbledore's asked me to come and assist Hagrid with the Care of Magical Creatures class." He continued his explanation before the avalanche of questions- and teasing; mustn't forget the twins!- descended. "The details aren't decided yet. I don't know what my full duties will be, but yes, Ron, Ginny, you'll be seeing alot more of me."

"That's bloody brilliant!" Ron exclaimed and the logical reaction followed.

"Ronald Weasley! Your language!" His mother cried. Immediately, the freckled teen winced. "Just because you're away from home for nine months out of the year gives you no leave to speak as though you were raised in the gutter. Do you speak like this in public? Imagine the impression you must leave..." Ron's wincing deepened as he tried to ward off his mother's ire.

"Are you going to live at Hogwarts, then?" Ginny asked quickly in between her mother's lecturing and promised punishments for Ron's momentary lapse in meal etiquette. Charlie tried answering his sister's questions, and Fred suddenly caught wind of the resurged 'Fleur' discussion at the table's other end. Words flew as was usual during a full membered Weasley meal. The noise and its various volumes was very familiar.

With everyone caught up in their exchanges, it was no wonder that George was able to slide from his seat without being noticed. It wouldn't be until close to eleven that Molly Weasley would suddenly exclaim that one of her children was missing.

IV

IT WAS AN exceptionally odd place to be on a Tuesday, regardless of the late hour. It was made even more bizarre as a choice for locale considering the person. Not to say that the British Wizarding Archive was above the interests and considerations of this particular wizard; no...no one would be so hasty as to say that. Rather, one might have found the whole situation peculiar simply because the purpose of the visit had absolutely nothing to do with the fabrication of a future WWW product.

No, the purpose of George Weasley's visit was of an entirely different nature.

He couldn't quite pinpoint the exact moment that he developed the obsession- because that's what it was now. An obsession. He couldn't put the idea away. It bothered him at meals, at work, playing quidditch, while avoiding his mother's chores- nearly every minute of the day.

Fred hadn't understood his preocupation in the least when he had mentioned it nearly a month earlier. His brother had said something along the lines of:

"He's dead. We all liked him a lot; but he's dead, George. There's no way around it."

So Fred hadn't understood. Of course though, he hardly understood, himself. He hardly understood how he could possibly be so absolutely, positively, one hundred percent certain that Sirius Black was not dead.

Sirius might not be alive, but George was convinced he was also not dead.

The idea caught root from such a simple thing, too. Hardly monumental enough to have created such certainty in his mind, really. But, it was there all the same: Sirius Black was still on the Ministry's wanted list. They were still searching for him. And that meant that they didn't know Sirius Black was dead! Which was impossible.

Wizarding ways, in comparison to the muggle world, can appear fairly archaic. George remembered enough from muggle studies and his father's indulgences to understand that the muggles often compensated for their lack of magic with science. They used their 'science' to recreate much of what could be instantly manifested through magic. In many ways, their recreations were rather ingenious.

However, there was one area that muggles would never get a handle on without magic. For wizards could tell instantly when another of their kind had died. It was how properties and legacies were handled in the absence of written wills. It was how, despite distance and lack of communication, a person's death was made public in the post. It was how the Ministry could remove a witch or wizard from their most wanted list without having found a body.

It was, very simply, because no wizard or witch could die without it being made into the Book of Records.

The Book of Records kept account of every person born with magical ability. The Book of Records added to family lines each continued birth within that blood line. With muggleborn births, a new tree was created. And when any of those recorded died, their name was inscribed neatly into a finished branch. The Ministry, when necessary, had only have a name marked, and when said name ceased to exist, they would know.

So, George reasoned, if Sirius Black was dead, the Ministry would know. Right?

Right. And that's what had him, at nearing midnight on this Tuesday night, pouring through the thousands of pages that filled the Book of Records. He only had another hour left before the polyjuice wore off, so he was trying his best not to cross his eyes as the names and webs of lines connecting families with other families swarmed up into one giant congealed black splotch.

The polyjuice was, unfortunately, necessary. Not just anyone could stroll into the Archives, cart out the massive text, and peruse its pages. While his forging skills were above par, his natural appearance hardly warranted credibility, and so it was that on this particular night, George Weasley had morphed into his taciturn neighbor, Borgin Hatcher. He knew little personally of Hatcher, other than that the man never changed his socks and had several nasty hexes placed on his windows- oh, and the very handy fact that Hatcher was a contributing writer for the Daily Prophet's orbituary and birth pages.

Hatcher's convenient profession was perhaps his best attribute in George's opinion.

And so this was his fourth trip to the Archives in the past two weeks. The first night had grown from a whim of an idea. The second was birthed from the hastily drawn conclusion that as he had already started, he might as well finish... But the third gave way to acceptance.

He would not be content until he had proven, one way or another, that Sirius Black was indeed dead.

All the many possible ramifications that could come from the possibility of Sirius being, well, not dead were being ignored for the moment. There were only so many headaches George could take, after all.

He sighed and itched his borrowed nose, wincing at the dry, papery feel of the skin. There was still an hour left. And maybe, tonight, he'd finally find that damned tree. After all, wasn't the Black line supposed to be grand and illustrious or some other such rot?

Damned book, he thought irritably, you'd think someone would have charmed you to be alphabetical, not chronological.

Still though, he poured on, driven by a need he hardly understood and seen by no one. There were only the silent stacks of ancient records and forgotten laws, all dimly illuminated by the flicker of jarred bluebell flames. Perhaps this hour might bring revelation.

Chances were, though, that it'd only bring more of a headache. Thankfully, this knowledge hardly bothered George. One didn't become the maker of pranks and trick candies without a great deal of patience.

there always comes a middle

ONE

by: s. stewart

a.k.a.

carpetfibers

Difference Always Matters

07SEPT04

0259