Chapter 60: Old Truths, New Beginnings

Hermione's breath sobbed in her chest as she scrambled blindly across the floor of the Den's music room. Her thoughts, already fragmented from her belated identification of the scent which had haunted seven months' nightmares, refused to coalesce, instead shattering and warping more with every passing second.

Him, it was him, he's come back, I always knew he would…

Charlie, I saw him fall before the lights went out, is he all right…

Why can't I remember what I ought to do next…

Hands snatched at her shoulders, and she screamed again, twisting against the frantic grip.

"Be quiet!" a deep voice ordered, and one hand released her shoulder to cover her mouth. "I must know, you vill tell me—"

Hermione whipped her head to one side and forward, sinking her teeth into the fingers thus exposed. The vicious, guttural curse which resulted made her hiss in satisfaction, and she lashed forward with a foot as a follow-up.

"Enough!" Her attacker yanked his hand free of her and shoved her to the floor, pinning her down and covering her mouth with the sleeve of his robes. "For vot did you vant these books? Tell me and I vill let you go, but you must promise to stop fighting me—"

"Never," Hermione gasped out as he moved his arm to let her answer. "You—lie—"

"Not to you! Neffer to you!" In his agitation, her attacker lifted some of his weight from her. "I neffer meant to hurt you, Hermy-own-ninny, but it is my life at stake, I must know vot you plan to do vith—"

Hermione snarled and jerked one hand free, clawing upwards towards the source of the voice. It broke off in a bellow of pain as warm wetness blossomed on her fingertips, and the copper-iron tang of blood filled the air.

Blood. Yes. Her lips peeled back from her teeth, and her breath came in short pants. Blood is good. His blood is good. For what he did, for what he wanted to do, he should bleed and bleed and bleed…

Her hand slid down her side, found what it sought, grasped it tightly, prepared to pull it free—

"No!" shouted a new voice, and the pressure on her chest and legs vanished. Her attacker's panicked yell blended with a loud crash at the other end of the room and her frustrated growl as her upward stab swished through empty air.

"Easy now, Neenie." It was the new voice again, and a new scent to go with it, the scent of one who chased nightmares away and stood between her and fear. "I'm here. He won't hurt you anymore—though it looks like you did more hurting this time!" A thump sounded on the floor beside her, and a rough-skinned hand touched her forehead lightly, then slid down her arm. "Put this away for me? I'll make sure you don't need it."

"Mmm-hmm." Hermione allowed the hand to guide hers, still clutched around her dagger, back towards its sheath. "My head… feels funny. Can't think right."

"Let me try something." The hand withdrew, and Hermione whimpered and reached out for it. "Oh, sorry—" It, or its mate, closed around hers once more, and she relaxed with a sigh. "I'm not leaving, I just needed my wand. Hold still a second, let me see if this works—Ennervate—"

Hermione sucked air between her teeth, her mind clearing in a rush. "You keep saving me, Ron," she said, trying for a light tone to counteract the shakiness she could still feel in her voice. "A couple more times and I'll start thinking you like me or something."

Ron laughed. "Or something. You're not hurt? He didn't touch you?"

"Just tripped me up and landed on me." Hermione rolled her shoulders, wincing. "I'll have bruises tomorrow. Is Charlie all right? I saw him fall—"

"Knocked out is all. What'd you do, touch the antidote patch on your potion piece?"

"Yes, exactly, but it must not be the same mix we use, so it didn't give me total protection. But that's still more than I had last time—Ron, I know now, I know who it was in January." She started to sit up, and his arm slid into place at just the right height behind her to support her efforts. "It was Viktor, that's why I've been so frightened of contacting him, why I kept putting it off and coming up with excuses why I shouldn't do it yet, because I knew that when I did he would try again…"

Ron's arms tightened around her. "He did try, and you gave his arse a professional kicking. And that's after half a dose of whatever knockout potion he used on Charlie, and—is it dark in here too? Did he do something to the lights? I can't tell."

Hermione felt a hysterical giggle mounting to her lips and throttled it back. "Yes, it's dark. He couldn't have known he was leveling the playing field for you, could he?"

"Well, I wouldn't say leveling, exactly." One of Ron's arms pulled away from her, and she felt the slight breeze of a waved wand. "Tell me if it's better."

"No… wait, yes." The darkness began to lighten as Ron continued whatever he was doing, until she could dimly see the outlines of the Den's familiar furniture, Charlie's slumped figure near the French door, the slope of Ron's shoulder and back beneath her chin. "How did you know—"

"Just a hunch," Ron said without stopping his wand's three-sided pattern. "It's Fred and George's Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. They taught me the backdoor charm they built into it in case any of it got to the Death Eaters. Let me know when it's all gone, will you?"

"Of course." Hermione settled herself into the crook of Ron's arm, sitting on one hip and watching his wand move so that she would know the countercharm for the next time. Not that I want there to be a next time, but the world doesn't work on what I want.

She frowned. Was she imagining it, or were Ron's eyes focused on his wand more intently than Meghan's cosmetic repairs could account for?

He just said he can't tell if it's dark or light, she scolded herself silently. And you just said that the world doesn't do what you want it to. Be thankful for what you have and don't go expecting miracles!

But I'd love to know how he got here so fast…

"It's gone now," she said when Ron's and Charlie's hair had regained the usual shade of Weasley red and the rest of the Den's colors had settled into their proper places. "Ron, you didn't come by yourself, did you? I mean, did anyone bring you, or…"

"Mrs. Letha's coming on behind me." Ron grinned for a second. "Professor Black, I suppose I should say now. She'll probably have roused Mum and whoever else was home—I know the twins were there, Percy may've been as well—but I came ahead because—"

A groan from the other end of the room interrupted him and sent a chill down Hermione's spine. Deliberately, she flicked her right wrist and tightened her grip on the wand that appeared in her hand. You won't catch me off guard again, Viktor. It's my turn to have the power now, and I want some answers from you…

"We'll go together," Ron said quietly beside her. "I won't let him hurt you." He paused, and Hermione watched his eyes travel over her. "Or the other way around, either."

Then you can see—but how—

She swallowed her questions. They would keep. The young man with bloody streaks across his face, now feebly stirring in the wreckage of one of Danger's bookcases, would not.

Ron got to his feet and held his hand down for her. She accepted it, and he pulled her to her feet, then released her, leaving her wand hand free to cast. Side by side, they advanced on Viktor, whose eyes were starting to flutter open.

"Expelliarmus," Hermione said coldly, thrusting her wand forward. Viktor jerked, and his wand soared free from its place in his robes. Ron snagged it out of the air and pocketed it, pulling his hand away quickly as if the wand were covered with slime or dung. "Thanks." She swallowed again, trying to keep her gorge from rising as Viktor's scent hit her, but that only made her more aware of the terror-fueled animal rage beating at the back of her mind. Kill—kill—predator, enemy, kill it before it strikes again—

"Want me to start?" Ron murmured.

"Please." Hermione shivered. "I don't know what's wrong with me—"

"If you don't, I do." She had seldom heard Ron's voice so cold. "Here, up you get. You'll feel better that way." He patted the back of his neck. "Less temptation to use any other spell on him, too, and if I start to, you can stop me."

"You wouldn't." She slid her wand away and set her hands on his shoulder. "Not even for this."

"Doesn't mean I don't want to," he muttered, the words changing shape in her ears as she changed her own shape and leapt to her usual perch. "There, that's better." A hand reached up, stroked her ears, and pulled out the pendant chain for her head. Just for talking, he told her before she could open her eyes to him. I'll tell you about it later…

Neenie nodded, her ear brushing against his, and settled her weight more firmly into its place as Ron seated himself on the floor.

"I used to look up to you, you know," he said conversationally to Viktor, keeping his wand at the ready but not quite pointed at the older wizard. "International Quidditch star and all that. But anyone who would do what you did to Hermione—"

"I vos trying to help her," Viktor said sullenly, pushing himself into a semi-seated position. "If it is this past vinter you mean, ven she and the other girls vere taken. Vot happened today comes out of that day—if it had gone differently, this day vould never haff happened—"

"No, because she would've been a bloody werewolf!" Ron snapped. "And you stood by and let them do whatever they damn well pleased—"

"I tell you I vos trying to help!" Viktor blotted at his face with his sleeve, scowling when it came away bloody. "My actions—perhaps vere not the best—"

"Perhaps?" Ron gripped his wand a little tighter. "You hurt her. You made her afraid of people she should have been able to trust. Mind telling me how the hell that was supposed to help anything?"

"Because it vould haff giffen me a claim!" Viktor's hands were curled shut tightly enough that Neenie wouldn't have been surprised to see blood seeping from his palms. "You do not understand how the Death Eaters vork—anyvon not of their ranks is property, nothing more—the only vay I could help Hermy-own-ninny vos to haff a prior claim, von vich came before she had been made a verevolf—"

"Shut up." Ron's cold voice cut across Viktor's rising hysteria like a slap in the face. "The only way you could help her, was it? Never thought of letting us know? Sneaking away and setting off the wards, giving us a clue what was happening outside? But no, that wouldn't have got you what you wanted, and that's what you cared about, isn't it? Getting what you wanted, never mind the rest of it. Never mind my sister, or her sister, or our friend, who were all going to be turned along with her. Never mind our other friend who died that night. As long as you got your claim in early enough, you were fine with the rest of it, weren't you?"

"No!" It was almost a sob. "I neffer vanted to be of the Death Eaters, but they giff me no choice, they threaten my family, my teammates, they say Karkaroff's training of me must not be vasted—I do not belieff as they do, I neffer did, but they say to me, they say, if I do not practice my English and charm Hermy-own-ninny vonce again, if I do not find out vy she vants these books from me, they vill break my hands, break them beyond Healing, and I vill neffer Seek again…" He turned his head away, his shoulders heaving.

Boo-hoo-hoo, regular sob story, Ron grumbled mentally. I'm still not sorry for him. Not after what he did to you.

Maybe not, Neenie said slowly, breathing in short pants with her mouth open, tasting the changes in Viktor's scent. But I think this is what I needed, Ron. I needed to see that my monster was human, and that he could be defeated. That I could defeat him myself.

Yes, speaking of which…

"You want to talk about never Seeking again, it's lucky I came in when I did," Ron said aloud, making Viktor look up at him quizzically. "You do realize what would've happened if I'd been five seconds later?"

Viktor shook his head. Ron gave him a pitying look. "And you were there in January, too. You saw what she did to Greyback. Do you think it was just a coincidence she had a silver dagger on her that night? That it came out of nowhere when she needed it, and disappeared again when she was done?"

"I…" Understanding was beginning to dawn in Viktor's eyes, followed by a healthy dose of fear as he glanced from Ron to Neenie, who busied herself washing a paw to hide her agitation. "I had thought she conjured it from her need, that it vos a veapon of desperation…"

"Oh, it's that all right." Ron held up a finger and thumb, six inches apart. "About that much desperation, in goblin-wrought silver. And she had it in her hand when I came through that door. If I hadn't Banished you off her when I did, she'd've had it in your throat or between your ribs, and nobody'd have doubted for a second she was defending herself, because she was. So isn't there something you ought to be saying about now?"

"My life is yours," Viktor said indistinctly, staring at the floor. "Vot there vill be left of it ven they find out I haff failed."

"Would you stop that." Ron scooped up one of the fallen books from the bookcase and flung it at Viktor, hitting him in the chest. Viktor grunted indignantly and looked up. "You're not Marked, are you? They can't trace you by that?"

"The Mark is only for the inner circle, the most villing and trusted. I vos neither." Viktor blinked at Ron. "Vy do you ask?"

"Because the world isn't made up of England and Bulgaria," said Ron, Neenie giving him a short burst of purring as she caught his drift mentally. "There's plenty of other places you could go, places you could hide out until the war's over. We'll help you get a message back to your family, warn them to go into hiding themselves or tell them where you're going so they can join you, and let your teammates know they'll need extra security for a while…"

"You vould giff me that sort of chance?" Viktor rubbed his bitten fingers. "After vot I did to Hermy—to Hermione?"

Let me take this one, Neenie said, slipping down from Ron's shoulders.

If you're sure…

I am.

Ron reclaimed his pendant chain, and Hermione retransformed, raising her head to look Viktor in the eye without—

Not without fear, not quite, but without that awful, gut-wrenching stuff I was having earlier.

Maybe because now I understand better.

"I don't know what I would do if someone threatened the people I love," she said, seating herself beside Ron. "I don't like to think about it even. It's been too close recently. What I suppose I'm trying to say is, Viktor, we were friends once, and you didn't do any of this because you wanted to hurt me, so I don't want to hurt you either. I just want you to go away. Please." Her voice cracked, and she clamped down on it angrily. "Go far, far away from here. Find a safe place, if there are any left. Play Quidditch, found a training academy, do whatever you want to do. Just go away, and don't come back." She let a bit of her remaining fear, and the anger it fueled, seep into her voice for her final word. "Ever."

"I vill not. And…" Viktor hesitated, watching her from the corner of his eye. "For vot it is vorth, Hermione. I am sorry."

"Not worth much," Ron murmured loud enough to be heard, and drew his wand as Viktor started to get up. "Hold it. I didn't say we were done."


"I've got a little present of my own for you." Ron got to his feet smoothly, drawing Hermione up with him. "Now I'll just point out I'm being kind to you, doing this myself. She's got brothers, and they're a lot meaner than I am. She's also got fathers, and they taught the brothers everything they know about mean. And let's not even bring up the mothers, or her little sister, and mine, and their friend, who were there that night and saw what you did to her…"

The sheer panic on Viktor's face laid the last lingering ghost of Hermione's fear. It simply wasn't possible to be afraid of someone who looked so terrified himself.

"We discussed it a lot, my mates and I." Ron twirled his wand between his fingers. "What would be right for the bloke who would do what you did to our Neenie. Some of the suggestions were nastier than others, but this is the one I always liked the best. Sort of poetic, but practical too." He grinned. "Retexo calui!"

A burst of white light shot from the tip of his wand and englobed Viktor, then vanished. Viktor blinked several times and shook himself, grimacing as he shifted his hips. "Vot does—"

"Ah-ah." Ron waggled a finger. "You'll have to find out for yourself. Now, out." The finger indicated the French door, by which, Hermione saw with some surprise, Charlie was no longer lying. "You'll get your wand back once you're past the wards."

Viktor rose with as much dignity as was left to him, straightened his robes, and crossed the room, Ron and Hermione turning as a pair to keep him in sight. At the French door, he paused as though he wanted to say something, but Ron's wand was unwavering, and Hermione's last sight of Viktor Krum was of his upright back as he stepped through the door and walked away.

Ron stepped up to the door, watching for a few moments, then pulled Viktor's wand from his pocket with his left hand and Banished it after its owner. "And… there he goes. Good riddance."

"You can see again, can't you?" Hermione burst out, no longer able to contain herself. "Letha did something, she found a way to lift the curse, or work around it—"

"Work around, not lift." Ron turned back to her and looked at her, long and hard, his eyes moving up and down her figure appreciatively. "It's complicated, you'll probably understand it better than I do, but the upshot of it is, yeah, basically I can see again." He tossed his wand into the air and caught it. "Be back playing Quidditch in the fall, even."

"You'll need to be sure you're fit, then," Hermione said, fighting to keep her tone even so as not to give away what she was about to do.

"Suppose so." Ron's expression turned wary. "Why?"

"I think we should test your fitness." Hermione's smile would no longer be denied. "Your reaction time, and hand-eye coordination."

Ron tucked his wand away. "Sounds good." He set his feet shoulder-width apart and braced. "Say when."

"When," Hermione squeaked on a bubble of laughter, and sprinted across the room to throw herself at him. "Ron, oh, Ron, I'm so glad!"

"That's funny, me, too." Ron scooped her off her feet and spun her in a circle, laughing with her. "You weren't expecting to have to be my eyes forever, were you?"

"I would've if I'd had to, but I'm just as happy I don't." Hermione kissed him lightly on the lips as he set her back on her feet. "So how did she do it? And why did you say you couldn't tell if the room was dark? I'd think if you could see even a little bit, you'd have been able to see the room was dark—Viktor must have had a personal light spell to see through it—"

"Can we forget Viktor for a little while?" Ron dropped onto the couch where Hermione had been sitting earlier. "And I said I couldn't tell if the room was dark because I couldn't. Still can't. It's to do with what I'm seeing now, and what I'm not, and that goes straight into how Professor Black fixed me up."

Hermione sat down beside him. "I'm all ears."

"The point of it all is what Dolohov intended his spell to do when he threw it at me," Ron began, running his wand through his fingers. "He intended me to never see light anymore, and he's one bloody talented wizard, so I don't see light anymore. That's why I didn't know the room was dark. But—here's the part you'll probably understand better than I did—Professor Black says light has… cousins, sort of, things that aren't quite light but act a lot like it. One's up high, it's what makes you get a sunburn, and the other one's down low and either related to heat or it is heat. I didn't quite catch that part."

"Ultraviolet and infrared." Hermione started to grin. "And because they're not exactly light the way Dolohov would think about it, Letha could make you able to see them, couldn't she?"

"Just the low-down one, the one that's heat." Ron held out his hand and regarded it. "Still can't see colors, but like you said, that just means I'll never have to bother about Mum getting me maroon everything. And I can see in the dark now, because it's not dark to me. I spotted Charlie through the window as soon as I'd landed, he was still good and bright so I knew he was alive, and then I saw you with Krum on top of you, going after that dagger—"

"Yes, thank you for that." Hermione shuddered briefly. "I don't need any more nightmares than I already have."

"I've got your back. You know that." Ron slid an arm around her. "Really we've got each other's at this point, with all the saving back and forth we've been doing. What's it stand at now?"

"Let's not keep score," Hermione murmured, laying her head on Ron's shoulder. "Except to say we both win."

"Works for me." Ron bent down towards her, the scent of him finally at peace with himself eddying around her and relaxing her more fully than she had dreamed possible an hour ago.

"You could probably learn to see if people are telling the truth," she murmured when her lips were free again. "Harry and Draco and I can smell it on people, when they're nervous and trying to trick us, but we aren't always close enough to get the scent. You could learn what the heat-patterns for nervousness and lying look like and do it from across a room, couldn't you?"

"We'll have to try it and see." He ran a hand through her hair. "Later."

"They get five more minutes in there," Molly said, her severe tone at odds with the fond smile on her face. "Just five more minutes, and then I want them out."

"You just want to fuss over Ron, don't you, Mum?" Fred asked.

"Of course not, don't be silly." Molly went to one knee, gazing anxiously at Charlie, who was sipping from a cup of potion Aletha had provided. "Are you feeling better, dear?"

"Headache's almost gone," Charlie reported. "Still not happy I missed what Krum was up to, but I won't be caught that way again."

"Here's hoping he kept the grenade idea, and the Peruvian Darkness Powder, to himself." George was looking in the direction of the village, his hand hovering near the grip of his wand. "And didn't decide to go play any tricks on his way out."

"Play tricks?" Fred scoffed. "He'll be too busy trying to figure out what Ronniekins did to his precious man-parts. One of the neater spells I've seen, if I do say so myself."

Charlie looked up from his potion. "Did you help him find it, then?"

"We did." George chuckled. "And assisted also in the tweaking to make the punishment fit the crime."

"What's it do?" Charlie swigged the last of the potion and handed the cup back to Aletha, who Vanished it neatly.

"Reverses the physical signs of interest." Fred was about to make a demonstrative gesture, realized his mother was standing three feet from him, and contented himself with a simple swirl of the hand. "If the lady is lovely, he will be, shall we say, stricken with performance anxiety."

"But should he see someone whose charms are a bit lacking," George took over, "his anxiety will be of a different sort entirely."

"That of a man who has a wand in his pocket, perchance?" Aletha asked dryly, as Molly turned away to hide what was definitely a blush and might also have been a stifled laugh.

"You have guessed it." George bowed to her. "And the more extreme the attraction, or un-attraction—if that's even a word—"

"The more extreme the reversal of the reaction," Fred finished.

"Fascinating." Aletha regarded the spot where Viktor Krum had vanished. "I'd like a copy of your work, if you don't mind. It might have some bearing on a problem I'm investigating on my own."

"As soon as we get back to the shop, it's yours," George promised.

Peter sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the broad band of gold on his finger.

Why did I agree to this again?

To make Evanie happy, yes, of course I want to do that, when she's happy she makes everything cheerful around here… to make sure I can keep her safe, of course I wanted to do that too, and everyone knows it's bad luck to wear a wedding ring if you haven't taken the vows… not to mention that no magic contained in one will work unless you've said the words together…

But still. A month ago, I didn't know she existed, and now I've married her. Am I mad, or is she?

Or are we both just making the best of a bad situation?

He sighed. Whatever it is, it's a marriage in words only. That's all it can be. No matter what she says about… caring for me, I won't force anything on her she doesn't want. A snort of half-rueful laughter escaped him. As if I even knew how, except in theory!

The bathroom door creaked, and Peter quickly climbed over the barrier in the center of the bed so as to leave Evanie's side free for her. "Ready for lights-out?" he asked, surprised by how easily a smile came to him. She really is quite pretty—not for all tastes, maybe, but just to mine…

"Not quite." Evanie sat down where Peter had been sitting himself a few moments before. "There's one thing I want you to do first."

"What's that?"

Evanie drew a deep breath and set her hand on the barrier. "Take this down," she said softly. "It's time for us both to stop being afraid."

Peter started to object, to point out all the problems, to ask if she was sure.

Then he looked into her eyes.

"All right," he said a bit hoarsely, and drew his wand down the length of the barrier.

Much later, with Evanie's head resting against his shoulder, Peter slipped into sleep and awakened, or dreamed he awakened, to see three women dressed in blue sitting beside his bed. All three smiled at him and pressed a finger to their lips, cautioning silence.

"All sins are forgivable when they are truly repented," the first one said, brushing back her blonde hair.

"Gold is worth more than silver as long as it is true," said the second, her brown hair falling over her shoulders.

"No child is truly a mistake, even when one is an accident." The third winked at him, the embers of the fire highlighting the ruddy glow of her hair.

"Bear these truths in mind," they said together, and vanished as Peter startled awake.

"Mmm," Evanie said sleepily beside him. "All right, love?"

"I… yes." Peter laid his hand against her skin, marveling again at the impossible gifts this night had brought him. "Yes. I'm just fine." Her heart beat under his palm, slow and soft but picking up speed to his touch. "Love."

What a very strange dream…

I really should say no to this. Aletha studied the small, nervous faces in front of her, Dobby putting on a brave front, Winky openly twisting her apron, and Echo and Cissus standing in front of their parents, holding hands. What with my private project for Remus and Danger that the spell Ron cast on Krum may help me with, my last week of preparing for teaching Potions to seven years of Hogwarts students, and helping everyone except the Pack and the Pritchards move out of Headquarters, I have enough on my plate already…

But then again, how can I say no to this?

"Let me make sure I have this straight," she said, sitting down on the floor to bring herself more on a level with the house-elves. "House-elflets mature at the rate of one month to a human year because of long-standing magic on the race. Without it, you two would grow up much more slowly—still faster than humans, since we're larger than you are, but only about half again as fast, approximately three years to our two. Does that sound right?"

All four house-elves nodded, the elflets more fervently than the adults.

"It certainly makes sense, and if you'll let me check it for myself?" Aletha extended a hand towards the twins, but looked at Dobby and Winky.

"We is…" Winky clutched her apron tight and went on at Dobby's approving nod. "We is giving our permission, Miss Letha. You is allowed."

"Good work, Winky!" Dobby congratulated his wife as Aletha blinked her eyes into her Healing-Sight. "Echo and Cissus will be learning the right way for free elves to speak from their mother soon along with their father!"

Aletha lost most of Winky's somewhat scornful answer in her exploration of the intricacies of the magic she could see glowing around and inside the elflets. They were right—it is a spell. But what a spell! Whoever set it was a master, and—yes, there—apparently not an evil-minded master, since he appears to have left a fairly simple mechanism for what Cissus is asking me. Now to make sure there are no subtle booby traps involved…

It took her a few minutes, but eventually Aletha satisfied herself and returned to full awareness of the world around her. She coughed, breaking up the nearly ultrasonic argument between Dobby and Winky, to which both elflets were listening wide-eyed. "Good news, not bad," she said, leaning back on her hands. "What Cissus would like to do shouldn't hurt him at all, and I can do it easily. But I do have to ask." She turned to the little male house-elf. "Why?"

Cissus blushed dark green. "For Bernie," he said indistinctly, staring at the floor.

"I'm sorry, what was that?"

"It's for Bernie." Cissus looked up, his eyes wider than usual and his hands closed around the hem of his shirt. "She's all by herself except for us, and we're already growing up past her. If I stop growing so fast and just grow a little bit fast, I can stay her friend for a longer time, until it's safe for her to go home and have human friends again."

"And I wants to—want to," Echo corrected herself, hiding a smile behind her hand, "stay growing up fast so I'll be ready for Miss Ginny when she and Master Harry will get married. They will need a very good house-elf, because Miss Ginny will still be in school when she has her first baby, and Daddy and Mummy both say that human babies need a lot of taking care of."

"That they certainly do." Aletha arched her shoulders, stretching. "Well, I can't say you're rushing into this, any of you. You've obviously given it a great deal of thought. I do just want to point out, I'm not at all sure I could replicate this spell, and it might be harmful to you, Cissus, if I were to try. Once it comes off you, it's off for good."

"I know, Miss Letha." Cissus glanced back at his parents. "Mummy and Daddy say it's okay if I stay little for longer."

Want to keep your baby a baby for as long as you can, don't you? Aletha exchanged a look of purest sympathy with Winky. Human mothers know that one too—and that's one set of emotions that have joined up a bit better than I might have wanted them to, thank you very much…

"All right, then," she said aloud. "If you're ready, we should be able to do this right now, and then if you two would like to see a real human baby up close, we can go out to the Den. One of my cubs' friends brought her little boy to visit there…"

"He's so tiny," said Ginny in wonder, studying the bundle in Hermione's arms. "And I'm so unoriginal, aren't I? Everyone must say that."

Selena chuckled. "Yes, they do, but given how he arrived, I'm just as glad he wasn't bigger."

Ginny winced in sympathy, as did the other Pride-girls gathered around Hermione. "Yes. How was that?"

"Awful," Selena said bluntly. "While it was happening, I was ready to swear up, down, and sideways I'd never let Roger come near me again. But when it was over…" She reached out to stroke her son's face. "I wondered why we hadn't done it sooner."

"Oh, don't cry," Hermione said, swaying back and forth in her seat as little Zachary Cedric Davies wrinkled his face in preparation for a fuss. "What's the matter, hmm? Are you hungry, or tired, or—"

"His tummy hurts," said Meghan in a tone of certainty. "May I?"

"Please." Selena looked down the room at the Pride-boys, who had withdrawn in a group at the advent of this small and unsettling being. "If he starts crying, we'll never get them over here."

Meghan reached over and touched Zach's forehead, and the wrinkles in the small red face smoothed themselves out. Hermione sighed in contentment and cuddled the baby closer. "Your turn next," she assured Ginny, who was watching her jealously. "I know you need the practice."

"He will be the cause of many changes," Luna murmured, her eyes unfocused in Zach's direction as the boys began to drift down the room, Harry in a tentative lead. "Some intentional, some painful. Some both, and some neither. Be prepared for all, and fear nothing."

Be prepared for all, and fear nothing.

Great advice. Wish I could follow it.

Harry Potter couldn't sleep.

It wasn't the knowledge that his dream career of Auror, with the substitution of Letha for Professor Snape in the Potions position at Hogwarts, was suddenly back within reach, though the accompanying and disquieting thoughts regarding Snape's new position at Hogwarts weren't helping.

Given that I know he'll be there this year since Professor Dumbledore told me I'm back on Occlumency lessons with him, and given that there's only one slot consistently open and Snape's always wanted it more than he does Potions…

But Harry thought he'd have been able to get to sleep even with the specter of Snape as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor hovering over his head. Likewise, Ron's restoration to full functioning was a cause for celebration rather than loss of sleep. And the naming of this year's Gryffindor Quidditch captain…

I would've liked it, but McGonagall's right. The DA will keep me busy enough, and I'm the only one who can run that. And since they don't want to give any one student too much to do, they tend to name someone who isn't a prefect as Quidditch captain, so since Ginny was named a prefect for her year, that really does leave only one candidate.

The look on Draco's face when McGonagall presented him with the golden C had been marvelous, and Harry had worked for nearly an hour in front of the mirror until he was sure he had it down for the first Quidditch victory party of the year. It would, he thought, be only appropriate.

But none of that should be stopping me sleeping. So what is?

Eventually he surrendered to the inevitable and got up, putting on his glasses to survey the dimly lit bedroom. Ron was sprawled on his stomach, arms lolling over either side of the bed, drooling onto his pillow. Draco slept in his usual neat curl, eyes darting back and forth behind closed lids. Neville rolled over as Harry watched, mumbling something in which only the word "shrivelfig" was audible.

It's them. Or not them exactly, but something related to them.

Restless and anxious to find his answer, Harry wandered out the door and down the silent corridors, ascending and descending stairs as his legs saw fit, until he found himself at the half-open door of the Pride-girls' bedroom.

If they didn't want anyone looking in on them, they'd close it.

He poked his head inside.

Meghan had her cuddly lion tucked neatly under one arm, but that was the only neat thing about her; the rest of her surroundings looked like they had been hit by a small Bed-Linens Bomb. Luna lay quietly on her side, one arm flung over her eyes, as though even in sleep she saw things she didn't want to see. Hermione, much to Harry's silent amusement, had her thumb in her mouth. Ginny, like her brother, slept on her stomach, but unlike Ron, there was no sign of drool.

Though maybe it's not the best idea for me to be peeking at Ginny while she's sleeping. I know Mrs. Weasley wouldn't like it, and neither would Letha or Danger…

Feeling virtuous, Harry pulled his head back out of the girls' room.

Danger stood in the corridor beside him, wearing a dressing gown and an inquisitive look.

Harry got his mouth shut over his yell of surprise just in time.

"Couldn't sleep, Greeneyes?" Danger asked, and at Harry's headshake chuckled under her breath. "Neither can I. Why don't we go sit together in the drawing room."

"All right." Harry padded after Danger, letting his experiences and thoughts add themselves together in his head. "It still feels weird to have to look down at you," he said as they turned into the room where the restored Black Family Tree hung in state.

"No weirder than it is for me to look up at you." Danger sat down in one of the armchairs and sighed. "Growing pains, love?"

Harry started to deny it, then stopped to think. "Maybe," he said after a moment. "I held Selena's baby when she brought him to the Den the other day. He's so little, but he's already changed so many people's lives. I was a baby like that once. And in another two years, I'm going to have a baby like that."

"Frightening, isn't it?" Danger's arms rose, as though she were cradling an infant at this very moment. "No one's ever ready, from what I understand. No matter how much you want a child or how long you've waited, it's still a surprise when that little bundle lands in your arms and you look down and think: 'Wait, I made that? I don't know how to make things like that. Are you sure it's mine?'"

The half-panicked look on Danger's face drew a quiet laugh from Harry, and in its wake his thoughts coalesced. "I think that about the Pride sometimes," he said, watching Danger tuck her feet up under her. "'Are you sure it's mine? Can't somebody else lead it?' And about the DA. 'Shouldn't a grown-up be doing this? Why are they letting me take the lead? Don't they know how often I b—er, mess things up?'"

"You do have something of a talent for buggering up," Danger agreed calmly, grinning as Harry choked. "I have heard the word, you know, Harry. I've even used it a time or two, when it's called for. But the thing about your talent is, it's quite time-specific, and so far it's always gone offline when things start getting—thank heaven your godfather isn't here, and don't you dare start making puns—but when things start getting serious."

"But how do I know that'll last?" Harry objected, poking at the upholstery of his own armchair. "How do I know it won't come back online at the wrong moment and make everything worse?"

"You don't. Know, that is. It's a matter of trust." Danger came across the room to sit on the arm of Harry's chair. "We all trust you, Harry. Pack, Pride, Order, DA, we trust you. Do you think you can trust yourself?"

"I can try." Harry twisted at a bit of the upholstery. "What happens if I fail?"

"You try again. And again. And again, until you get it right." Danger stroked his hair. "That may sound familiar."

"Just a little." Harry abandoned the upholstery and laid his head against Danger's side. "I'm scared, Danger," he said indistinctly into her dressing gown. "I don't think I can do this."

"I know you don't, but consider where you are while you're saying this." Danger pulled back enough to look Harry in the eye. "You're at the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, a building we know has already been somewhat compromised, about to head off to Hogwarts, which is even more so. You didn't ask to go to one of the new secondary bases, and unless that was someone else I saw with Ron, Hermione, Draco, and Neville looking over five sets of O.W.L. results this afternoon, you haven't decided to skip your sixth year of school. You're scared, but you're still going forward. Do you know what that makes you?"

"Stupid?" Harry suggested.

"In some senses." Danger smacked him lightly on the back of the head. "But I was thinking brave. Harry, you know us. You know we don't lie to you. Would you like to hear what I see when I look at you?"

Harry nodded, his vocal cords having temporarily tied themselves in a knot.

"I see a young man I am incredibly proud to have helped raise." Danger's voice wavered, but her smile never did. "A young man who will take on a burden too big for anyone to carry alone, simply because if he doesn't, people will be hurt. I see a young man I love with all my heart, and whom I will help to the utmost of my ability, as will a great many other people. And…" She brushed her fingers across her cheek and laid them on his. "A young man who will, in the end, surpass us all in what he can and what he will do."

"I don't see that," Harry whispered.

"I know." Danger lowered her hand to clasp his. "Will you believe that I do, and let that be enough for tonight?"

Harry regarded the handclasp for a long moment, his own longer, sun-browned fingers wrapped around Danger's slenderer, paler ones. "All right," he said finally. "For tonight, it's enough."

"Then I'll tell you the last secret of growing up." Danger squeezed his hand. "When you have enough for tonight, you have all you'll ever need."

"Can I get that in writing?" Harry muttered, and Danger laughed.

Hand in hand, mother and son climbed the stairs towards their bedrooms. At the door of Harry's, they stopped, and Danger went to her tiptoes to kiss Harry on the forehead, over the line of his scar, as she had done when he was a baby. "Sleep well, Harrykins," she said, giving him a brief, hard hug. "Tomorrow we start all over again."

Tomorrow we start all over again. At least it isn't from scratch.

Harry watched his Pack-mother out of sight, then headed for his own bed and burrowed under the sheets.

Tonight, I'll sleep, and that's enough. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

A hand emerged from the tangle of linens, holding a pair of round-framed glasses, which it set carefully on the nightstand.

It always does.


(for now)

(A/N: Yes, I know. I said Facing Danger would be the last one. I could end it here if you really want me to, but somehow I think you wouldn't like that much… there's an awful lot of story yet to come…

So now I will take a couple weeks off to do other things, and then I will launch into Surpassing Danger, which will absolutely and positively be the last main Dangerverse story (unless circumstances change again).

Speaking of changing circumstances, the semi-secret project shall be a secret no longer. I'm young, I'm in good health, I have fans (as far as I can tell), and if I don't do it now, when will I? Starting August 1, I am a full-time writer.

I know that I'll have to take some temp jobs, part-time work, freelance stuff, what have you, along the way to make ends meet. Unless, of course, I go big-time with my first book… stranger things have happened! Still, with all my time at my disposal instead of a big chunk at my employer's, you can expect fairly frequent DV chapters, since in my world, writing begets writing.

In case you're wondering, all my original ideas at this point are for fantasy fiction, and most of them trace their origins in one way or another to the DV. So if you've ever wished that the DV would never end… now it won't! Until we meet again, take care, check me out on Facebook if you haven't already, and stay tuned for further exciting developments in both the Pack's story and mine!

Update as of June 2012: It happened! I am now a published author! Go to Amazon or Smashwords dot com to check out my first original novel, A Widow in Waiting, an exciting historical fantasy about a noblewoman who has to keep the truth about her husband's death a secret if she ever wants to marry the man she really loves...

Second update as of February 2013: If you enjoy the Dangerverse, as promised above, now it will not end! Please check out the first original Dangerverse-based fantasy novel, Homecoming, a Cinderella story with a twist... what would you choose? A life of luxury filled only with loneliness, or one of hard work where there nonetheless is love?)