Not long after the end of the school year, Beth met Richard in the public garden near the entrance to his home.
She didn't see him at first, which was entirely expected; he wore an Invisibility Cloak that he had scrounged from one of the members. Concealed together, they passed through the hidden gate, across the vast gardens, in through a secret entrance and up to the third floor, where Richard's quarters had been.
The door to his bedroom was sealed tight with locking spells. Richard spent a full two minutes undoing them one by one before they could slip inside and finally remove the stifling cloak.
The rooms had changed very little since Beth had seen them ten months ago; in fact, some of the things on Richard's desk and shelves hadn't moved an inch. The place was dustless, presumably thanks to the house-elves, but the air still hung stale: it had clearly not been opened since his "death."
Richard shucked off his knapsack and began going through his drawers for clean clothes, without speaking. He had told Beth he wanted to return for some of his things, which she only partially believed; she expected that he wanted to see what the place had become in his absence, and perhaps catch a last glimpse of his parents. While he was occupied, she took a look around at the decorations. Most of it had been tastefully arranged regardless of the personality of the occupant, but here and there something struck her - a badly-fabricated wooden boat, a photograph of a very young brown-haired boy - and she understood why the Shaws had chosen to close these rooms forever.
Something moved near the door.
Wobbly the house-elf tottered in from the bathroom, carrying a bucket of soapy water that was much too big for him. He spotted them, let out a frightened "Eep!" and dropped the bucket with a clang.
Richard's eyes lit up. "Wobbly!"
The house-elf, who looked as if he was preparing to bolt, paused at the sound of his name. "You must not be in the forbidden rooms!" he squeaked.
Richard laughed. "Yes, but they're my rooms."
Wobbly shook his head violently. "No no, these rooms have always been empty, sir, always must be clean but no people allowed!"
Richard cast a bewildered glance at Beth and turned back to Wobbly. Suddenly, a look of astonishment dawned across his face and he put a hand to his mouth. Richard took three long steps forward and scooped up Wobbly under the armpits like a toy.
"Did you drink a potion?"
Wobbly nodded vigorously. He still looked terrified.
"All of it?"
"Every drop, sir." His eyes were wide. "Very important. Because..." His eyes swam out of focus. "Very important," he repeated, without conviction. "Wobbly isn't sure why..."
Richard let go of the house-elf, who instantly vanished. He turned around, pale-faced, and stared at Beth.
"If Wobbly drank the Lethe Elixir," he began, slowly, "then..."
Footsteps clattered in the hallway.
Richard's mother burst into view, her dressing-gown swirling around her, wand outstretched, her thin face pale. For a moment she stopped in the doorway. As still as a statue, she locked eyes with her son, her wand pointed at his chest. The air was unbreathable.
Mrs. Shaw let her wand fall to the floor. "My son."
There was no question in her eyes. There was no doubt of who she saw before her. This was no illusion, no trick. She raised her trembling hands, stepped forward, and cupped her son's face. She stared up into the brown eyes so like her own, looking back at her with terror and hope. Then she put her hands over her own face and fell into his chest, burying her face from sight, while he wrapped his arms around her and let his cheek rest on the top of her head, unbidden tears leaking into her hair.
Mrs. Shaw drew back with a deep, ragged breath. "I'm so sorry," she whispered, throat husky, "I almost ... I tried to..."
"I know," said Richard, his own voice hoarse. "It's okay."
Heavy footsteps pounded down the hallway and Richard's father tore into the bedroom, with Wobbly panting at his heels. He stopped as suddenly as if he had hit an invisible wall.
Richard's shoulders tightened; he stood straighter. "Father," he began, like a doomed man before the judge, "I know that I have always been less than you wanted..."
"No, no, no," said Mr. Shaw, all strength and aloofness sliding away. "My greatest pride."
And he strode to his son and embraced him like a child.
Wobbly peeked from behind Mr. Shaw's ankle, an open disbelief on his batlike features. "All are happy, miss," he squeaked at Beth, bewildered, "but Wobbly does not understand..."
Tearing away from his father's grasp, Richard grabbed the house-elf and swung him around like a teddy bear. He set him down and Wobbly instantly tottered and fell. "Wobbly, you wonderful thing, you'll never know why but you did something amazing!"
"Very good, sir," said Wobbly dizzily, trying to get to his feet and failing badly.
They would have helped him up, but the four of them were all crushed in each others' arms.
They did not elaborate on Richard's ruse to his parents - as it turned out, they didn't have to. The Shaws were content with the knowledge that he had gone undercover to fight the Dark Lord. More surprisingly, they accepted that the fight was not over.
"I will do what I can to help you," said Mr. Shaw sternly. "You must have funds, of course-"
"I have all the funds I need for now," said Richard quietly.
For a moment Mr. Shaw looked as if he were gearing up to be greatly offended; then he looked again at his regained son and deflated. "Keep me appraised," he ordered. "I will not see my son in need."
"You must take Wobbly with you," Mrs. Shaw insisted.
Richard glanced down at Wobbly, teetering nearby under a vast silver tea tray. "Of course! That would be wonderful-" He hesitated. The suspicion of unrecognition still hovered on the house elf's face.
"I mean," he said, taking the tea tray from the elf's hands and setting it on the table, "would you mind coming with me, Wobbly?"
Wobbly looked stunned to be suddenly unburdened and addressed. He cast a wide-eyed look at Richard's mother. "Wobbly must ... only serve the family," he said uncertainly.
"You will be serving the family, dear," said Mrs. Shaw encouragingly.
"I know you don't remember, Wobbly," said Richard quietly, "but I've really missed you this year. What do you say?"
When Richard left to return to Knockturn Alley, he had a knapsack full of clothing on his back, Beth at his side, and a house-elf following, somewhat unsteadily, at his heels.
The sultry sounds of Celestina Warbeck's latest hit, Go Goblins, Goodbye, filtered from the radio in the Parsons' sitting room. She finished the final smooth strains and began to speak, her rich voice soothing and full.
"This is Celestina Warbeck for the Witching Hour. Thanks so much for joining me this evening. The Ministry for Magic announced last week the return of a certain Dark Wizard whom we're not allowed to name on this radio station. Brochures have been sent to all wizarding homes in Britain listing precautions; if your kids used it for drawing or your Kneazle used it for a chew toy, you can request another copy by sending an owl to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. This is Celestina Warbeck reminding you that the Wizarding Wireless Network fully supports the Ministry in its fight against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Let's get back to the music. I have Herman Wintringham accompanying me on the lute; this one's called Shady Days in Shangri-La. Cue me in, Herm..."
"Russia?" said Mrs. Ollivander.
"Russia," said Melissa firmly.
Her father, seated across the table from her, let out a short, bemused laugh. "Melissa ... you do know that Yakov Gregorovich has owned ninety-nine percent of the Eastern European wand market since..."
"Two hundred A.D.," said Melissa. "I know."
"It would be so difficult," her mother said hesitantly. "To arrange the importation will be a political nightmare. Passing such additional volume through your uncle's workshop will be a challenge ... breaking into the market will be nearly impossible. And the language barrier..."
"Mother, I learned to read the Cyrillic alphabet in Ancient Runes," Melissa said. "And Bruce is teaching me Russian. And I have local contacts from Durmstrang that I met last year." She tossed her hair over her shoulder. "If anyone is qualified to open a branch office of Ollivander's in Gregorovich territory, it's me."
Her parents exchanged an uncertain glance.
"I'll Portkey home on weekends," said Melissa.
"Well, darling," said her father at last, "if you're certain you want to try it..."
Melissa beamed. She was certain. And more than that - she thought she was ready.
Daedalus Dellinger approached his editor at the Daily Prophet and slapped a parchment onto his desk.
The gray-haired wizard raised his eyes crankily from the article he was perusing with a magnifying glass. "What is this?"
"My resignation, sir," said Daedalus firmly. "I'll be returning to Transfiguration Today at the start of August. That is my two-week notice."
"But today is only the third of July!"
"I know," said Dell, and broke into a smile. "I need the extra week for my honeymoon."
The pair of third-years gazed around at the Chamber of Secrets.
"Welcome to the Society for Slytherin Advancement," said Blaise Zabini. She stood in front of the skeleton of the basilisk, flanked by Herne and Evan on one side and Morag, Audra, and Oren on the other. "We spent fifty-five years helping to bring the Dark Lord to power. Now, we're working to take it away."
She motioned across the room.
"This is the Guild of the Eagle." Some of the Ravenclaws nodded or waved. "They're our friends."
She glanced around, decisively.
"Let's get started with the meeting, then. We have a lot of work to do."
The autumn sun sank warm and heavy behind a hillock in the countryside of Dorset.
"I wonder what's going to happen," said Beth. Her head lay on Rich's shoulder; their fingers intertwined as they sat together, watching the sun creep down under the curtain of scarlet.
Richard glanced down at her fondly. "How do you mean?"
"Everything." Beth's eyes were fixed into the distance; the soft sunlight bathed her cheeks. "I wonder if Evan is going to get rid of his Dark Mark. I wonder if Melissa is going to end up with Galen or Andrei, or neither. I wonder what's going to happen to Lycaeon, and my mother. I wonder how long before the Dark Lord finds one of us. I wonder how it's all going to turn out."
"Audra might know," said Richard, looking into the pink and orange sky. "Even if she did, though, I'm not sure I'd ask her."
"Why not?" said Beth.
"That's why it all keeps going on, isn't it? Because we don't know what's going to happen. Things keep moving. If we knew how it was going to end, would it be worth waiting to see?"
Beth sat up slowly and turned to look at him. Set sharply against the darkening sky, there was a strength and maturity about his features that hadn't been there a year ago; but she had seen hints of them when they first met. There was also a certain sadness.
"I don't know."
"Nor I." His smile was quieter now. "I think I like it that way."
She let her eyes rest on his hands, stronger and rougher than before, once more bearing the Society ring on his third finger. She remembered something suddenly.
"Oh - I keep forgetting -" Beth reached up and undid her necklace. She took the black opal ring from the chain and held it out shyly toward him. "Your mother gave me this. I ... keep meaning to give it back."
Richard looked at the ring in her hand for long moments. "You know," he said at last, with soft gravity, "why don't you keep it?"
Beth's heart seemed to freeze. It lurched back to life, fluttering like a rabbit's. If the ring really meant what she thought it did...
"I mean-" he said, his face suddenly as frightened as hers, "if you want it - just as a sort of promise..."
"I do," she breathed, flushing pink. "I mean - are you sure?"
"Well ... you know." He shrugged shyly. "It looks silly on me anyway."
Beth couldn't stifle her laugh. Smiling too, Richard took the ring from her and slid it onto her hand, just as Vivian had done with the Society ring many years ago. Beth held up her hand to examine the effect. She thought she saw the spark of his eye in the glint of the stone.
She put her hands back in her lap. "We'd better get back to the house. Dad's waiting."
"Dad," said Richard, smiling thoughtfully. "I like the way that sounds."
"So do I."
He helped her to her feet. The setting sun framed their silhouettes as they started down the hill, side by side. When Richard took her hand, Beth let her fingers lace among his: just an ordinary pair, nothing unusual, but the most amazing thing in the world.
There were many more challenges and many more delights before them. It wasn't exactly happily ever after; but, she thought, gazing down at their joined hands, it would certainly do for now.