It was raining. Hard.
He could see an intersection from his seat next to the window; it looked like a lake. Cars driving through caused waves that sloshed over the curbs, and left a roiling, churning mess in their wake that greatly resembled the sea. The buildings had an indistinct look to them, their edges and lines blurred by the sheets of water pouring from the sky. Everything in sight was grey and hazy-looking.
"A refill, love?"
He looked up. The waitress stood over him, a coffee pot tipped vacillatingly towards his cup. "Please." Her heavy arm moved, and a stream of coffee poured into the mug. "Thanks."
"Certainly, biscuit." She looked out the window as he began to spoon sugar into his coffee. "It's really chucking it down out there, eh?"
He turned to the window, took in the depressing sight once more, and then looked back up the waitress. Her ill-fitting yellow uniform and bright, dyed-orange hair seemed almost obscene in contrast to the bleakness out the window. "Yeah."
She smiled down at him. "You call me if you need anything."
He added some milk to his coffee, stirred, and brought it to his mouth as he stared yet again out the window. It was hot, but nearly flavourless. That was fine, though; the anodyne taste matched the weather. And the weather was a very accurate reflection of his mood.
For nearly a month, he'd dreaded this day. For the past week, he'd been in a temper so foul that, by Tuesday, Ron had all but stopped talking to him. He snapped at everyone in sight, even customers. Verity and Ron had taken over the sales floor, leaving him to sulk in the store room or over paperwork in the office. When he'd woken up that morning to hear rain pounding against the roof, he'd taken small comfort in the fact that he wouldn't be facing the day amidst blue skies and spring breezes.
Across the street, a lone pedestrian came into view, nearly hidden by a large black umbrella, save for the bottom of a dark cagoule and a pair of bright pink wellies. He watched, taking a grim sort of pleasure watching the person come to a full stop at the edge of the water that filled the intersection, as though waiting for a bridge to magically appear. He snickered to himself as the person backed up and then started towards the flooded street at a run, crossing the anomalous pond in four or five large leaps. Spurts of water erupted from beneath the pink boots, which sent waves over the curb once more.
The chuckle died in his throat as the puddle-jumper hurried into the vestibule of the café and began shedding her rain gear. It was Paige.
She entered the café and, with each step she took towards the table, the pink boots squelched wetly. His stomach clenched tightly, like a fist, and then released. Uninvited, she sat down across from him, offered him a small smile. "Hello, George."
"Sorry I'm late. It's raining."
The waitress appeared again at the table. "Get you something, precious?"
"Do you have Earl Grey?" she asked hopefully.
"Oh, good. Let me get a cup of that, and some toast." She waited until the waitress had walked back to the kitchen to turn back to him. "I can't believe she called me precious. It makes me feel like Gollum."
"Yeah." He had no idea what she was talking about. "You've had your hair cut."
"Oh, yeah. You haven't."
He ran his hand through his hair, which was indeed becoming very long. "No."
They lapsed into a long, awkward silence. The waitress returned with a cup of steaming tea and a plate of toast, set it in front of Paige, and faded into the background once again. Still, they did not speak. He watched as she added sugar and milk to her cup and stirred until it became the prescribed colour of grey. She sniffed it, sipped it, then set it back down and looked up at him.
Biting her lip, she finally folded her hands onto the tabletop and spoke. "I appreciate you coming and meeting me here today."
"I didn't expect all of this to happen."
"Neither did I." he replied, in a tone harsher than he'd anticipated.
She bristled. "I'm not exactly overjoyed about this. And neither is my boyfriend." she added, after a pause.
"You have a boyfriend?" This was news to him, but perhaps it was the way out he'd been hoping for.
Her tone was resentful. "Not anymore."
"Not as though it's any of your business, but we weren't together when I came here in December. We'd been doing the long-distance thing too long, and we took a break after Thanksgiving. We got back together in January."
"All right. Take it easy. I just meant, if you have a boyfriend, how do you know…?" He couldn't even bring himself to say the words.
She finished the sentence for him in clipped tones. "How do I know it's yours?"
Paige laughed, but it was a harsh, joyless sound. "Because Eric lives in California, which is 3000 miles away from where I live. I haven't seen him in six months. And, believe it or not, I haven't slept with anyone else besides you in that short time. So congratulations, George, you're gonna be a dad." Her voice had risen steadily until she was practically yelling.
The handful of other patrons in the coffee shop, as well as the waitress, were all staring at her. A sweaty, round-faced man in a stained white apron peered out of the window that opened into the kitchen. Paige's face turned scarlet, and George felt his own growing hot.
Without warning, she jumped to her feet. "It was stupid of me to come here." she said, voice wavering, though whether it was due to fury or tears he could not tell. Everyone in the small café was still watching with great interest. He half-rose out of his seat and grabbed for her wrist as she started for the door. One the second try, he caught it.
She did not turn to him, but at least stopped forward locomotion. At the counter, a narrow-faced young woman in a business suit was watching with immense curiosity, her mouth hanging slightly open so that she resembled a fish.
"Don't you people have current events to discuss?" he snapped to the room at large. The eyes fell from their tableside drama, but he knew the ears were still listening. He turned back to Paige. "Please, would you sit back down?" he asked, a shade of urgency in his voice.
She glared at him for a moment, the dropped her purse back into the booth and sat back down. "What is it?"
"I'm sorry." He sighed, withdrawing his hand from her wrist. "Really, I didn't mean to imply anything."
"Oh, is that right?"
"I'm being honest. It's just… I'm having a hard time trying to wrap my head around this one."
"Me too." she said with a groan, slumping forward onto the table and bracing her head with her hand. She looked as miserable as he felt.
"So, uh, how much time do we have?"
"You know. A baby."
"Oh. Right. Well, uh, I'm due the third week September. The twentieth, actually"
"Oh. This year?" She looked up, raised an eyebrow at him. "That was a stupid question, sorry."
"It's all right." After a pause, she took a long, noisy sip of her tea, then another. "Oh, I moved here, by the way." she added with forced casualness, setting the cup down and looking intently at it's surface.
He blinked, confused. "What do you mean?"
"I live in London now. When I got here a few days ago, I brought as much stuff as I could. I live in a little apartment near Katie."
"Katie?" He automatically pictured Katie Bell, who seemed to figure into a lot of equations these days.
"My friend Katie. Why I came here in December, to go to her wedding."
"Oh. Really?" He was surprised-- this was the last thing he had expected to hear, and whether it simplified or complicated things even further, he wasn't entirely sure. "Any particular reason?"
"She found me the place, it's not much, but it's--"
"No, I mean, any particular reason why you moved here?"
She shrugged, a quick, defeated gesture. "I didn't know what else to do. And I've always liked it here. You want this?" she asked, pushing her toast across the table to him. He shook his head, but started slathering it with jam nevertheless. "I know some people here. And I guess I didn't want to raise a kid in New Jersey, and this seemed about as far away as I could get without having to learn a different language." A long sigh escaped her lips. "But it seems ridiculous, really, now that I've been here for three days."
"Why? Because I know about six people in London, and you're one of them. Because I'm working at that same place, the place I was at in December, and I'll have to stop as soon as I start to show. Because, as usual, I didn't really think more than a few months into the future, just bought a ticket and came out here on a whim." Her voice hitched. "I didn't decide until the night before I got on the plane."
"But what about your family?"
Her face was hidden behind her hand, her hair hanging over it and obscuring it further. "My mother and I have a nodding relationship. I doubt she'll notice I'm gone, but, on the off-chance she does, I left her a note." This astounded George. He had to go out of his way to avoid his mother; having one that didn't notice the comings and goings of their offspring, even their grown offspring, boggled the mind.
"I haven't seen him since I was seven."
"Brothers? Sisters?" He was clutching at straws.
She shook her head, straightened up to face him again. "Neither."
"Couldn't you have gone to stay with your boyfriend or something?"
"George, do you honestly know any guys who would raise a baby that isn't theirs?"
He did, in fact, and he was going to tell her about Percy, but changed his mind. The last thing he wanted her to do was make an even bigger scene. "No. What about some friends?"
"All my friends have their own lives. Most everyone's married. When I told Katie I was pregnant, she told me that I should make the trip out here to talk to you face to face. And, if I seriously wanted to move to London, she'd help me get set up. But I'm not so sure she really expected me to come here so quickly."
He hesitated, not quite sure how to proceed. "I'll help you out."
"I'm not telling you all this so you'll feel sorry for me, or because I want you to do anything for me."
"No, you don't. You don't know anything about me, other than what I've just told you."
This is true, he thought as he looked at her, really looked at her. She didn't look like a stripper right now, with her make-up free face and short, shaggy haircut. She looked like a girl he'd known from school, or one that would come into his shop. Just some girl. Correction, said the voice that sounded like Fred's. The girl that's carrying your exceedingly attractive, genetically superior spawn.
"What are you laughing at?" she asked sharply.
He quickly became sombre-faced once more. "Just the absurdity of the situation."
It was her turn now to look at him closely. To his amazement, she shook her head and smiled. "You're right. It's like an after-school special. A really, really lame after-school special." She chuckled. "You know something, though?"
"This is going to be one damn good-looking kid, what with us as parents."
Well, there was one thing they had in common-- a sarcastic inner monologue. Hey, Fred's voice protested, I am not your inner monologue. Oh, Godric, he was cracking up.
"George? Are you all right?"
He shook his head, blinked at the scuffed surface of the table. "Yeah, sorry. I, uh, haven't been sleeping well." It wasn't a lie, ever since Valentine's Day he'd barely been able to sleep more than four or five hours at a time.
"I hear that."
Once again, the conversation had petered out into a heavy silence. Outside, a Volkswagen of indeterminate colour was trying to traverse the submerged intersection. Its progress was very slow. Inside, the other patrons seemed more interested in their dining partners or their pie once again, though some of them still stole occasional glances at their table.
"Can I tell you something?"
He nodded. "Sure. It seems unlikely you could shock me any more than you already have."
"I feel really bad about calling that girl's phone. But I was afraid that, if I didn't, you wouldn't have known. And I figured, ya know, you should have the opportunity to know your own kid."
Your own kid. It sounded like a foreign language. "It's all right. I understand why you did it."
"I mean, it was Valentine's Day and all… I hope I didn't get you in trouble?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know, if you were out on a date, or something."
"Me? Nope. I'm not really a relationship type of guy." Unless you counted avoiding relationships-- he'd been playing dumb at Alicia Spinnet's advances for weeks, and was getting rather good at it.
She seemed to have misinterpreted this statement. "I don't want to be your girlfriend, George."
Where had she come up with that? "Okay? That's not what I meant."
"Sorry." Sheepishly, she smiled at him. "What I meant was, I had to tell my boyfriend after I talked to you, and… well, it didn't exactly go well, and I hope you avoided the same thing."
"Oh, yeah, it was okay. Hermione came and found me, told me what was going on, let me use her phone to call you." He did not add that Ron had been furious about his plans for proposing being ruined, or the fact that, after he'd talked to her on the phone, he'd went back into the pub and gotten appallingly smashed. The waitress that Oliver hadn't been able keep his mitts off of had offered up a generous discount, and he had taken full advantage, and then some. But there was no reason to mention these minor details. "What did your boyfriend say?"
"Nothing I feel like repeating." Her eyes drifted from his face and focused on some point out the window. "Does it always rain this much here?"
"Not all at once." He checked his watch. Ron and Verity were at the shop, he wasn't concerned about that, but it did worry him that he still didn't have very much information about this entire situation. "Look, Paige, I have to ask. What do you want to… do? How are we going to make this work?"
She turned from the window and fixed back on him. Her eyes were a very dark brown, and after a moment, he shifted uncomfortably under their unwavering gaze. "Well," she said slowly, "I'm not really sure. Like I said, I don't really know anyone around here, and I'm still getting settled. I don't even have a phone yet, or a doctor, or anything. Do you… are you interested in coming to the doctor with me? Sometimes?" she added hurriedly.
It took him a moment to realize that she was talking about a Healer, or a mid-witch, or whatever it was the Muggles went to when they found themselves in the family way. He could just remember the ancient old crone that had delivered Ginny; she had come to the Burrow one day in the early part of summer-- he couldn't remember the time frame exactly, but it made sense-- while he and Fred had been helping their mother hang out the wash, laid her hands on their mother's stomach, and told them they'd be having a sister. Mum claimed to have used her for each one of her pregnancies, which was more than plausible-- the mid-witch looked older than Ravenclaw. "Yeah, sure. I mean, if you want me to."
"That'd be fine."
"Other than that, how involved you want to be is up to you. I just… well, once the baby gets here, I hope that… well, I mean…." She stumbled over her words, blushed a deep plum. "Well, I'd like to avoid a Montel Williams moment, ya know, I'm in no hurry to haul you off to family court for child support."
What the hell is she talking about? Fred's voice asked gleefully, echoing his thoughts as they frequently did. Was it possible that, somewhere out of sight, his twin was lounging on a cloud in white pyjamas, enjoying this? Or was it just his imagination? His Galleons were on the latter.
"Uh, yeah, I know what you mean." He didn't, not at all, but this is what he assumed he should say. "Don't worry about that."
The effect was what he'd hoped it would be. "Oh, that's great. Thank you, that really makes me feel better."
"Don't mention it." Instead of amusing him that this was turning into a regular business transaction, it actually made him feel rather ill at ease.
After a long minute of silence, during which she drummed her fingers nervously on the tabletop, Paige met his eyes again, then quickly looked away. "Well, um… like I said, I don't have a phone yet, so you can't call me. Do you want me to tell you where I live, just in case you need to get in touch with me?"
She pulled a pen out of her bag and drew a complicated map on the back of a napkin, printed "Paige's Address" across the top in large letters. "Here." she said, sliding it across the tabletop quickly, as though she was afraid he was going to run out of the café without it.
"Thanks." A thought occurred to him, and it caused a queasy feeling to spread across his belly. "Do you want my address?" How was he going to accomplish this? He wasn't even sure she could see The Leaky Cauldron.
"Oh, no, that's all right, I don't think I could find my way."
"But what if you need to speak with me? Will you call Hermione again?"
She looked somewhat relieved. "I can do that. I've gotten rid of my cell phone service, but I… I still have the number."
It was his turn to feel mildly reassured that, in case of baby emergency, she could get in touch with him. "Good."
"Look, I'm going to get going in a few minutes, but… well, this is kind of embarrassing… I'm kind of in a weird place, and I know we don't have much in common… but I'd really appreciate it if you'd be my friend right now."
This request startled him, and, at the same time, made him feel rather sorry for her. "Sure. Yeah, I can do that."
"Thanks. I appreciate you being so cool." She got to her feet and pulled a battered wallet from her bag, bright green and patterned with cherries. "Here. she said, withdrawing a few bills and placing them on the table. "Is this right? I'm having some trouble with the dollars-pounds thing."
George, who still had to consult Bill about the Galleons-to-pounds formula, pushed it back in her direction. "You don't have to give this to me."
"I can't buy you coffee?"
"I can't buy you tea and toast?"
"Touché." she said lightly, smirking down at him with dozy eyes, and he was reminded of why he'd slept with her in the first place. "Still, I suggest you take it now, while people'll still pay to see my boobs."
He had no response, which wasn't something that happened frequently. She just laughed and leaned down to kiss his cheek. Some bizarre reflex made his turn his head, so that she caught him full on the mouth.
"Sorry, sorry, I'm sorry." he said as she pulled away, looking exasperated. "Force of habit, I guess, the last time we saw each other…." He trailed off, mortified. Fred's voice laughed uproariously in the back of his head.
"It's okay." she said, brushing a piece of hair behind her ear. "Say, you want to meet here again in a few weeks? That'll save the trouble of me having to call your friend, and I can tell you what's been going on?"
"Okay. April first?"
"Oh, uh, that's my birthday--"
"Well, happy birthday, then. How about the following week? The eighth?"
"Yeah, that'd be all right. Well, stay dry. I'll see you later."
Her boots still squeaked against the floor as she went back out into the foyer. In a detached sort of way he watched as she pulled on her raincoat, mulling over the fact that somewhere in there, beneath layers of skin and blood and tissue and vulcanised rubber, there was a tiny little entity that would grow into something that resembled him. He wondered if it'd have red hair. Freckles. If she'd agree to name it Fred, if it was a boy.
Oi, are we feeling sentimental? taunted Fred's voice. Half an hour ago, you were hoping she didn't show. Now there's maudlin gasping over family names for the thing. Georgie's getting so mature.
"Shut up." he muttered.
Startled, he looked up. The waitress was once again hovering over him, smiling keenly. No doubt she'd set off on an intrusive line of questioning now that he was alone. "Sorry."
"No need to be, dear. Can I get you anything else?"
"Oh, uh, no. I'll just take the bill, please."
She pulled a slip of paper from the pocket of her stunningly yellow dress and placed it gently in front of him, clucking sympathetically all the while. "Poor duck, going to be father at your age-- forgive me, but I couldn't help but overhear-- if you don't mind me asking, love, how old might you be?"
He was going to state his age as thirty-seven, but decided that it would be a waste of good sarcasm. "Twenty-one."
"And your friend?"
That was an excellent question. "The same." It was a guess, completely and totally. He had the feeling that she might have mentioned her age in passing, and it might have been older than he, but he couldn't be sure.
"Well, flower, I imagine that there's scads of couples even younger than you, all in the same boat. Things'll turn out all right, I imagine."
"Well, I hope so." he replied, standing up and laying the money on top of the bill and placing it in her hand. "But I'm afraid what our parents will say. See, she's my cousin."
With that, he walked out of the café into the rain, cackling to himself as Fred's voice congratulated him for leaving the dumbfounded waitress staring after him, pound notes drifting to the floor like dead leaves.
The door opened, and Hermione's joyous expression fell by a few degrees. "Oh, hi, George. I thought you might be Ron. Come on in." she said, moving back to let him in.
"Good to see you too, Granger. I was invited, might I remind you." He stepped over the threshold and breezed past her into the hallway, then stopped short. "Wow," he said, whistling long and low. "I thought you said Harry was going to clean the place up?"
She rolled her eyes. He bit back a smile. "Come on, we're in the sitting room." she said, motioning for him to follow her.
"Hold your water, I'm taking in the sights."
The hall was still as high-ceilinged and narrow as it had been before, but, other than that, bore no resemblance to the Grimmauld Place that he remembered. The walls had been stripped of the tattered, peeling wall covering, the plaster repaired and painted a dark red reminiscent of the Gryffindor common room, the gas lamps polished and free of cobwebs. There were no disembodied house-elf heads to be seen, and the dusty, moth-eaten carpet was also missing.
"Where's Mrs. Black?" he asked in amazement, scrutinizing every inch of the expanse of wall where her portrait had hung, as if they'd just Spellotaped her mouth shut and painted over it.
"Hanging upstairs in Kreacher's room."
"How in the hell did you manage that? My mum spent an entire Saturday trying to prise the old bag off the wall."
"Well, I've done some research," Hermione said, sounding an awful lot like her eleven-year-old self, "and, whilst the references are rather vague, it seems as though, when the Fidelius Charm was broken and the Death Eaters came in, it broke most of the spells on the house as well."
"Kreacher." she said simply, as if this explained everything.
"Apparently, just before Regulus Black was killed by the Inferi, he forbade Kreacher to tell anyone what had happened at the underground, to protect the family."
"Right." This was not new information.
"To shield them further, he used many protective spells on this house, including the Fidelius Charm. Kreacher was the Secret Keeper. And we all know house-elf magic is different than regular magic."
"Uh huh." This had the makings of being greatly complex.
"Well, to make a long story short--"
"And thank Godric for that."
"-- when Kreacher told us what had happened, we became Secret Keepers. Then, that Death Eater grabbed on to me as we Disapparated to Grimmauld Place, the charm broke, and so did the rest of the protective enchantments on the house. Including the Permanent Sticking Charm. Do you follow?"
"Not exactly, but it works for me." The he realized what she'd just said. "Wait, you mean to tell me that that portrait was supposed to help protect the house?"
"It certainly seems that way." Hermione nodded knowingly, her hands clasped behind her back as though she was she was giving a museum tour.
"What was she going to do if they got in, insultthem to death?"
"That we're not sure of. But Kreacher says she fought them hard, when they did come in. They didn't pay her any attention, though-- they were too focused on what else they could find in here." A bitter note had crept into her voice.
George looked back at the blank wall with something like affection, then finally let Hermione play hostess and lead him into the sitting room.
With the exception of two velvet wingchairs, a pile of cardboard boxes, and a large potted Flitterbloom, the room was devoid of furnishings. Harry was standing on an antediluvian-looking ladder, hanging curtains over the floor-to-ceiling windows.
He looked down when they entered. "Hi George. Thought you were Ron."
"Sorry to disappoint." he said, nodding approvingly at the robin-egg blue walls and bright white wainscoting, a far cry from the former rotting wood panelling and decomposing Persian carpet. "I got away from my, er, appointment earlier than expected, and--"
"That was today?" Hermione asked sharply, looking up from the floor where she was rummaging through a box that seemed to be full of cooking utensils.
"Yes, Mum, that was today." he replied, blowing the fringe out of his face in annoyance.
She took advantage of this slight. "Well, speaking of your mother, I assume that you haven't told her yet?"
"Are you daft? Of course I haven't told her; I happen to value my limbs and remaining ear."
"Maybe she'll be happy."
"Maybe monkeys will fly right out of my arse."
She rocked back on her heels and crossed her arms over her chest. "George, you're going to have to tell her."
"And I mean soon, I'm sure--"
"Hermione, that's enough." Harry said lightly, climbing down off the ladder and lugging it over to the next window.
"Let George alone for now, I'm sure he's already had a rough day."
George looked at Harry gratefully as a long ringing sound came from the hallway. "What the bloody hell's that?" he asked as Hermione jumped to her feet and ran out of the room.
"A doorbell." he replied, picking up another drapery rod and ascending the ladder once more.
"Just like a Muggle. How quaint."
"I try." He gave up trying to juggle the hammer and the hardware, and pulled his wand out of his pocket instead. "So, uh, how did everything go?"
He shrugged. "Who the hell knows. I still can't believe that I'm actually having--"
They were interrupted by a loud exclamation of delight, and a second later, Molly Weasley appeared in the doorway of the sitting room, followed by Hermione. George's stomach rolled over as he realized he'd been very, very close to telling his mother about her impending grandchild.
"Harry! George!" she called, rushing over to George and pulling him into a forceful hug. "How are you, my love? I haven't seen you in so long!" she said, kissing both his cheeks and squeezing him tightly again.
"Fine, Mum, how are you?" he answered, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. Over Molly's shoulder, Hermione was nodding firmly and mouthing the words "tell her." He made a rude gesture behind his mother's back, forcing a smile as she stepped back to look at him at arm's length.
"You're getting terribly skinny, Georgie, what have you been eating?"
"Food, Mum. Just not as good as yours."
"Oh, you do flatter me." she said, but beamed up at him. "You need to come to dinner soon, love, it's been ages."
"I will, Mum." he agreed, if only to get her off his back. "Didn't Harry do a real corking job with the old place?" he asked, turning to face Harry with a large, winning grin, with Mrs. Weasley doing the same thing right next to him.
"Oh, it's simply splendid!" she sighed, clapping her hands together. "Really, Harry, what a marvellous job you've done. It's like a palace."
Harry, who had climbed down off the ladder, gave her a hug. "Thank you, Mrs. Weasley. But I've had a lot of help. And I still have much more to do."
She smiled at him. George was not surprised to see that her eyes had become abnormally shiny, which obviously meant she was welling up with tears. As if she did anything else these days.
"Sirius would be so proud." she said in a watery voice, squeezing Harry's hand.
"Do you think so?"
"I know so." she replied gently. George tried not to roll his eyes. Thankfully, the treacly moment was interrupted by the squeaking hinges of the front door, heavy footsteps, and Ron's voice.
"Oi, it's a party."
He slouched in the doorway of the sitting room, wearing his shop robes and a smile. George watched, almost impressed, as his mother and Hermione flocked to him, taking turns hugging and kissing him and inquiring about his day. He and Harry exchanged smirks, then returned to watching the witches fawning over Ron.
"How do you think an ugly git like Ronnie manages to do it?" George teased, as Hermione all but batted her eyelashes at Ron.
"Twelve Fail-Safe Ways To Charm Witches?"
"I think we may have figured it out."
Finally, Ron was able to shake off his mother by asking pointed questions about George's absence from the shop, which in turn provoked inquiries from Molly.
"Why, dear, you weren't at work today?" she asked, face clouded with concern as she turned to George.
"This morning I was, Mum." he replied, fighting back the urge to challenge his brother to a wizard duel in the hallway. "I had to leave for a business meeting around noon."
"Oh, I see. Is something exciting going on?"
He could practically feel Hermione's eyes boring holes into the side of his head. "Nothing I can comment on at the moment."
She nodded, smiled, and patted his hand. He returned the smile weakly-- nothing like a mother's blind affection to make him feel like the world's biggest sod. "Of course, love. Don't schedule any business meetings for Thursday evening, though. I'll expect you lot at home by five o'clock sharp."
"Thursday? What's Thursday?"
"Oh, didn't Ron tell you?" Molly asked, turning to face her other son, who hastily removed his hand from Hermione's back pocket.
"Sorry." he said guiltily. "Must've slipped my mind."
Hermione turned her steely gaze to Ron, before looking back at George with a much gentler expression. "Thursday is Teddy Lupin's first birthday." she explained. "Your mother's having a party for him at The Burrow."
"Andromeda shouldn't have to worry about putting a party together so soon." Mrs. Weasley said busily. "So Harry and I came up with a little something, didn't we, dear?" She smiled once again at Harry, who flushed.
"A little something." he repeated.
"Oh, you're turning into quite the homemaker these days." George ribbed him.
"Don't tease Harry, Georgie. Ginny told me that you put on quite a show at Christmas yourself."
It was the first time in memory that his mother had been able to show him up, and George didn't exactly relish the feeling, especially when he saw how the other three grinned at him. "Great." he grumbled.
"So you'll come, then?" Molly prompted, looking expectantly at him. "Perhaps even let Fleur cut your hair?
"No one's coming near my hair. But I'll come." he agreed grudgingly, and couldn't help but be pleased by the way her face lit up.
"Now all you're waiting on is a response from the harpy, eh?" Ron asked his mother.
"Don't call your sister a harpy." she said automatically. "And I got an owl from her today, Professor McGonagall has given her permission to return home for the party."
"Is Charlie coming?"
"No, he won't be able to make it on a weeknight, but they'll be visiting in a few weeks. Wedding plans, you know. But Bill and Fleur will be there, and Percy, and Ginny, and a few other people."
"Like who?" Ron prompted.
"Oh, just a few Order members, some of Andromeda's friends, you know." Molly replied breezily. "It'll be a small party-- just dinner and cake. We don't want to overload Teddy, poor thing's just a year old."
"Knowing you, Mum, there's going to be forty people and ice sculptures." Ron said, and George couldn't help but agree.
She just laughed, then checked her watch. "Well, loves, forgive me, but I have to go. I'm meeting your father for dinner." This was followed by a very girlish titter, and a round of hugs and kisses for all of them. "I'll see you on Thursday." She patted George's hand once again, then Harry, the picture of a gracious host, walked her out.
"Well," he said, coming back into the room, which was growing dim as the sun sank low behind a heavy mantle of clouds. "I don't imagine that it's going to be a very small anything-- she just told me she's planning on three separate main courses for dinner."
"No surprises there." Ron said, sinking theatrically into one of the wing chairs in the middle of the sitting room floor and pulling Hermione onto his lap. "If there's less a hundred pounds of food on the table, I'll eat a Flobberworm."
"What kind of an ante is that? No one wants to see you honk up all over the floor." George said derisively.
"Actually, I might." Harry offered. "Depends on the circumstances."
"I always knew you were odd." George checked his watch. "All right, well, enough family togetherness for one day. Lee's expecting me at The Hog's Head in an hour. Maybe he'll know what to buy for a one-year-old."
"I'm sure your mother would know all about children." Hermione said pointedly.
"Subtle. Very subtle." he replied, tipping an imaginary hat at each of them in turn and heading for the door. "See you tossbags later." And, with a light-heartedness he didn't actually feel, he started whistling off-key as he let himself out onto the dark street.
Author's Note: What, you guys don't like cliffhanger endings? Haha. Anyway, wow, what a response. I certainly did not expect to get so many reviews, and did not anticipate causing such a ruckus with my cliffie ending.
I'm not going to defend my decision to end "Winter" where I did, I feel as the author it's my prerogative, but I'm pretty sure that I will be doing that again any time soon. Then I have all these sticky problems with "well, should I have just made it all one long story in four parts?" and so on and so forth and lots of wangst. But, assuming that there's people still reading, let's just keep on keeping on, shall we?
A few notes about "Spring". We'll spend some more time looking at how the wizarding world as a whole is recovering, Ron and George both have to make some tough choices, Percy still gets jerked around. Ultimately, this is a story about relationships of all kinds, and there will be plenty of that. More Ron/Hermione fluff, I'm sure, because I like writing that.
How did the explanation of Mrs. Black's portrait work for you? I knew what I was going for, and my husband said that it came together all right, but it's a sensitive point for me. Right along with cliffhanger endings, LOL.
Anyway, thank you all for your reviews of Winter, especially the last chapter. I appreciate the kind words and the constructive criticism, and even the person that called me a dude and wanted to know what the hell I was thinking. Keep 'em coming-- we've still got nine months to go!